Symbolism Refutes Perennialism

What is the place of symbolism in Orthodoxy? How do we make good use of this “traditional science”, as thinkers like Guénon describe it? In this brief article, I mean to touch on some of the key distinctions between a Christian and a perennialist understanding of symbolism.

Joseph P. Farrell, in his magnum opus God, History and Dialectic, demonstrates the theological divergence between the Christian East and West which gave rise to the “God-in-general” of perennialism. He writes:

[The West] argues from the divine ubiquity and generalized philosophical conceptions about God’s Essence to their generalized characteristics, or Attributes, and only at the end of its thought comes to “historical” manifestation and application, the Persons. This is its classic ordo theologiae or “order of doing theology: Essence, Attributes, Persons. But the [East] argues from their historical manifestation to their generalized conception; God is, so to speak, ubiquitous because The Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are understood to have done certain things, “Operations” (ενεργειαι), and on that basis, concludes certain things about the essence underlying the operations which the Persons do. This is its classical ordo theologiae: Persons, Operations, Essence. Thus, the religious mentalities of the Two Europes not only start in exactly the opposite places, but proceed in opposite directions, and at the crucial second stage, refer to a fundamental category of metaphysical thought by different terms, the one indicating something static, and the other something dynamic.1

We will take, in the first instance, the symbolism of the Cross to explore the perennialist misreading of symbolism which stems from these presuppositions and particular order of doing theology.

The Symbolism of the Cross

Mircea Eliade, in his book Images and Symbols, writes extensively about the perennial symbolism of the “Centre of the world” and its place in ancient cosmology. Each appointed sacred site in traditional cultures, is ‘considered and even called the “Centre of the world”.’ This ‘sacred, mythic geography, [is] the only kind effectually real, as opposed to profane geography, the latter being “objective” and, as it were, abstract and non-essential’.2

Such a centre is the site of ‘the hiero-cosmic symbols (the Pillar of the World, the Cosmic Tree, etc.). In cultures that have the conception of three cosmic regions – those of Heaven, Earth and Hell – the “centre” constitutes the point of intersection in those regions.’3 They exist on the same “World Axis”, allowing access to and communication between the different levels of reality. Eliade points out that, in the Biblical tradition:

The summit of the Cosmic Mountain is not only the highest point on the Earth, it is the navel of the Earth, the point at which creation began… According to the Syrian book, The Cavern of the Treasures, Adam was created at the centre of the earth, on the very same spot where, later on, the Cross of Jesus was to be erected.4

The notion of the Cross forming this World Axis – linking “above” and “below” in the cosmological scheme, finds a perennial application in the work of René Guénon, who stands as a good example of this world view, and a clear exponent of the Neoplatonic triad which gives rise to what Farrell calls the “dialectic of oppositions.” Guénon sees in the Symbolism of the Cross, the emanation from a single, ‘principial point’, of the six cardinal directions – conceived of as a three-dimensional cross at the centre of the cosmos. This principial point is itself unmanifested – it is the “unmoved mover” of Aristotle (and the “monad” of Plotinus), understood only in opposition to what it manifests in the world. Thus Guénon talks of a ‘reciprocal relationship’ at work here: ‘the point, at first unique, then duplicating itself by a polarization which is also a reflection, and finally the relation of distance (an essentially reciprocal one) establishing itself between the two points by the very fact of their confrontation.’5 We see in this work a perfect example of the reversal or inversion of the ordo theologiae that Farrell speaks of with regards to the West. For Guénon, the historical claims of Christianity, and cross itself as a symbol, do not lead us back to the person of Christ, but towards an impersonal abstraction – the “God-in-general” of perennialism.

The doctrine of the Logos and the logoi, expounded by Saint Maximus the Confessor, resolves this apparent opposition between the One and the Many – the universal and the particular – by explaining that the one Logos is the source of the many logoi. The “forms” of all creation, are to be found in the person of Christ, and we find this idea already in the Gospel of Saint John: ‘All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that is made’. The proper ordo theologiae begins with revelation and works outwards towards a more apologetic, we might say “philosophical”, articulation of the Orthodox faith. In just the same way, if we use the analogy of the circle or the web from this standpoint, we can say that we begin at the centre, with Christ, and proceed centrifugally towards the logoi, only to return centripetally towards the centre, as we recognise that all creation testifies to the person of Christ.

Thus there is no necessary opposition here, but a genuine cyclical motion of the theological process. Yet such a process is still bound by “profane” time, and is not the perfect participation in the Logos that is the telos of our being. It is, moreover, only a limited kind of theology – limited by our dianoia, our discursive reasoning – and not a noetic participation in the divine energies. We can never conflate this kind of intellectual, rational theology with the prayer of the heart (i.e. noetic prayer) for, in a sense, this was the way in which the West cut itself off from the latter, truly spiritual life of the Church. Lacking an awareness of the nous and its central place in the spiritual life, contemplative prayer for the West has become far more psychological than spiritual. Likewise, with the adoption of the “dialectic of oppositions” in Latin theology, Western “mysticism” becomes almost antithetical to reason. There is certainly a truth in this idea, but it cannot be expressed in terms of a mere contradiction or antithesis.

As Vladimir Lossky expresses it, in his excellent introduction to Orthodox Theology:

[T]heological teaching locates itself with difficulty between gnosis – charisma and silence, contemplative and existential knowledge – and episteme – science and reasoning.

…Diadochus of Photice… reminds us that the intellect, until it has achieved pure prayer, finds itself confined, ill at ease, and as it were, contracted by prayer: then it prefers theological thought which allows it to “dilate” itself. But one must not forget that there is a prayer which surpasses this “dilation” – the state of those who, in all intimacy, are filled with divine grace.6

Hence, one must be wary of ‘abandoning oneself to the feverish illusion of concepts’ since a ‘theology that constitutes itself into a system is always dangerous. It imprisons in the enclosed sphere of thought the reality to which it must open thought.’7

Jonathan Pageau, a great exponent of symbolism whose work I whole-heartedly endorse, understands the relationship between “faith” and “theology” (to use Lossky’s terms) not as a dialectic of oppositions, but rather as a hierarchy. The power of symbolism properly used avoids enclosing thought in such systems as Lossky warns against. By thinking in terms of hierarchies (arranged like fractals which are capable of infinite expansion), one can avoid the conceptual pitfalls of dialectical thought – a hang-up of Hellenic Philosophy. Since the nature of symbolism is fluid (though not arbitrary), it does not lend itself to rigid codification, and this is precisely its advantage. It rather expresses the intangible nature of reality through tangible experience, and reveals to us ‘the likeness of unlike things.’

Language and Symbol

As Owen Barfield suggests in his book Poetic Diction, modern, highly developed language purports to treat with reality more abstractly, and thereby to approach some more essential (because logically delineated) truth – yet in conceptualising these abstract ideas we are always forced to return to more concrete expressions. All language thus takes part in this cyclical exchange with the world that is all we mean by the term “symbolism.”

As portrayed through that book in a broadly historiographical sense, language begins concrete and specific, and accrues wider meaning through symbolic associations, until the ever-present need for specificity forces man to narrow down his words to more specific (thus utilitarian) definitions. Of course, such a process – if it gives rise to more abstract usages – implies a parallel process in thought that would make man strive beyond the merely concrete dimensions of his bodily experience. There has to be some metaphysical sense of the abstract towards which he is striving with his language – an encounter with the One and the Many as a concept unto itself, not taken for granted as a mere “fact” of experience.

Barfield, as an Anthroposophist, undoubtedly saw this as a decisive alteration in man’s condition – an evolution of his soul.8 The problem with this evolutionary model is that it is rootless, and ends up in Hegelian terms as an infinite progression through dialectical oppositions – with no necessary point of arrival. The Christian view of history is thus, in Barfield’s philosophy, superimposed onto a view with which it is incompatible. It also begs the question by asserting that the mythical first conceptualisation of the One and the Many can be traced to a historical moment, which we cannot confirm one way or the other in empirical terms. In fact, Barfield assumes the same paradigm he is hesitant to accept – that of Hellenic Philosophy – in suggesting that it forms a mere stage in the ‘evolution of consciousness.’ The main issue here is that such a process cannot truly account for itself – the very consciousness of the process.

If, as we have seen, the doctrine of the Logos and logoi makes sense of the relationship of the One and the Many through the Person of Christ, then we find that Christianity has a perfect answer for these questions about symbolism. The historical process of salvation – a process into which God Himself entered through the Incarnation – gives us a firm foundation for faith and theology. We recognise that it is not man’s telos to flee the created order and to strive toward immaterial abstractions, as if creation were antithetical to God, but that all things find their meaning in Christ.

As a final word, I would like to quote just a few portions of the last chapter of Saint Nikolai Velimirovich’s excellent book on this very subject, The Universe as Signs and Symbols. I would recommend reading the whole book (it is very short) or at least this chapter, since I don’t think I can legally or ethically reproduce the whole thing here.

Chapter 19: The Recognition of the Truth

1. The philosophers ask: What is the essence of things? What is the material substance, or primary element, out of which all things are made?

2. The most ancient thinkers have raised this question which still is not solved in our days. Will this question ever be solved? Never.

3. The European materialist thinks that matter is the essence of things. If you ask him, what is matter, he will open the history of philosophy, from which the noise of a hundred materialistic philosophers will strike your ears. Not two of them agree between themselves. One of them would answer that the primary substance of all things is water; another air; another fire; another earth; another protoplasm, or ether, or electric waves, and so forth. Is it not clear from this that those who pretend to have absolutely solved that problem, have not solved it at all?

7. What does that Book of God say of the substance of which this world is made and moulded? Nothing. Absolutely nothing whatever. That means that the Creator of the world did not think it to be necessary to lift the curtain of this mystery of His. Nor did He as the incarnated Saviour of the world reveal that mystery to men.

8. If the Bible does not reveal anything of the essential substrata of the things of this world, it reveals very much, almost on every page, the significance of those things. The knowledge and wisdom that God revealed to man relate not to what the things are but to what they mean. According to the Book as understood by the Christian saints, we could even say, that the essence of things is their meaning.

12. The symbolism of things is ever before our eyes and minds, always as new and clear as the newest edition of a book. Our guide through the forest of symbols and signals is God the Holy Spirit. Different coloured lights on the crossways serve as signals to a traveller: which way is right and which way wrong, where is danger and where is free passage. Even so God through innumerable signs and symbols, as through a mirroring of nature, reveals the way we ought to travel in safety and security.

13. Who knows whether searching for the substance of things has ever made a man better? It is doubtful indeed. But it is well known that a knowledge of the significance of things and events has made innumerable souls more enlightened, better and happier.

1 God, History and Dialectic, Vol. I, p.9

2 Images and Symbols, pp.39-40

3 Ibid, p.40

4 Ibid, p.43

5 The Symbolism of the Cross, p.82

6 Orthodox Theology: An Introduction, pp.14-14

7 Ibid.

8 In Rudolf Steiner’s view, there were distinct stages in the development of man throughout history, which would eventually lead to a perfect recapitulation of his primordial, unfallen state – albeit at a higher level of development, since he would have integrated all that he had “overcome” along the way. Such a view of the historical process has its roots in Neoplatonism, and the scope of this article prevents us from looking at its development. Suffice it to say that it represents a tendency in Western thought to try and fuse the Neoplatonic scheme of return to primordial unity with a Biblical, narrative sense of progression towards a definite final state which is both related to and higher than the first. In symbolic terms – man’s movement from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem, which is a City-Garden.


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