.

Immanence, Transcendence, and a Gnostic View of the Fall of Man in Eden

By Edward J. Parkinson

The three great religions of Semitic origin—Judaism, traditional Christianity, and Islam—have emphasized the transcendence and otherness of God, while faiths of Indic origin, including Gnostic Christianity , have emphasized the divine immanence. Neither view is incorrect, of course, since God is both immanent and transcendent (a protestant theologian whose name I cannot remember defined God as "the sum of all there is plus infinitely more") , and all faiths have to some degree recognized both realities. The Hindus, for example, speak of Nirguna Brahman, Who is utterly inconceivable and beyond all manifestation, and the Holy Q'uran—despite its overall opposite emphasis—proclaims Allah to be closer to each man "than the veins in his neck." Aristotle's Metaphysics posited God as the Unmoved Mover—Pure Actuality, the opposite of which is primal matter—pure potentiality without form—and taught that, attracted by the Unmoved Mover, pure potentiality is "striving to realize form," eternally approaching God by becoming more actual and less potential, without, however, ever reaching the goal—because God, Pure Actuality, is infinitely removed from all finity: thus, all creatures can forever be closer and more like God, but they can never reach the perfection which is God's alone. The traditional Hebrew and Christian teaching that God made the world and man "out of nothing" is qualified by the Genesis creation account whereby "God formed man…and breathed into his face the breath of life and man became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7). Thus, even if man has been created "out of nothing," his life is the life of God, which God has "breathed" into him.

Nevertheless, even though all great faiths—including the Semitic ones—have recognized both of these great truths, the Semitic emphasis on the otherness and transcendence of God and concurrent Semitic traditions concerning blood sacrifices have led to certain traditional Christian ideas of atonement which most Liberal Catholics consider to be distorted apprehensions of great truths.

The view of God as Other has led to the postulation of a debt which one party owes and which the party is determined to collect. In this view man is not an emanation of God, a conditioned and relative manifestation of God's own life, but rather something and someone different from God—moreover, someone with whom God is angry and someone from whom God is demanding something. Recall these words from a hymn often sung in Roman Catholic churches:

"Crown Him with many crowns,

The Lamb upon His throne!

Man's debt to God that had no bounds

The Lamb has made His own!"

According to this traditional doctrine, man, by offending God in the person of Adam and Eve, effected an infinite debt. Man could not make up to God for his injustice against God all of man's resources would be unequal to the task. A very imperfect but apt analogy would be my destroying a possession of yours worth a billion dollars and your sense of justice preventing your being on good terms with me unless I restore the value of what I have destroyed; since I do not have a billion dollars and have no way of obtaining a billion dollars, reconciliation would be impossible. God the Son became man, this theory holds, and suffered on the cross to pay this debt. This Jesus Christ was one Person with two natures. This one Person suffered in his human nature (in His Divine Nature He could not suffer), but, because these sufferings were undergone by a human being Who was also God, they had infinite value, and Jesus offered them to God in payment of man's debt. His sense of justice satisfied, God restored man to His friendship.

This theory, of course, has spawned variations. A very early variation held that Adam's fall led to man's appropriation by the devil and Jesus's sufferings were God's ransom payment to redeem—i.e., buy back—His creatures. Of all atonement theories, this is perhaps the most implausible. The devil—if such a being exists—is a creature to whom God would be under no obligation. A more respectable variation was formulated by the Anglican theologian Dr. R. C. Moberly in Atonement and Personality at the beginning of the twentieth century. This theory holds that the restoration of God's friendship would depend on man's repentance and unconditional submission to his Creator. Forgiveness, according to this view, is not possible unless the offender has departed from his unjust mindset: "…it becometh us to fulfill all justice" (Matthew: 3: 15). Jesus several times indicates that repentance is a precondition of mercy: "Be at agreement with thy adversary betimes, whilst thou art in the way with him: lest…the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Amen I say to thee, thou shalt not go out from thence till thou repay the last farthing" (Matthew: 5: 25—26). "Take heed to yourselves. If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent ; thou shalt forgive him" (italics mine) (Luke: 17: 3—4). Postlapsarian man, according to Moberly, could not effect such repentance because his intellect, will, and emotional life were disordered. C.S. Lewis says that, after the Fall, "a new creature had sinned itself into existence" (Chapter Five). Since man was no longer subject to God, Lewis maintains, man's vehicles were no longer subject to man: a pervasive disorder ensued, leading to physical illness and death, as well as, even more tragically, an inabililty to adhere to God's laws. "For we know," says St. Paul, "that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I work, I understand not. For I do not that good which I will; but the evil which I hate, that I do" (Romans: 7: 14—15). And, furthermore, because of man's total dependence on his Creator and because of the infinite holiness of God, only perfect obedience would suffice—an imperfect striving for obedience would not be enough. "Cursed be any man who fails the whole Law in all its parts to keep it" (Deuteronomy 27:26).

Jesus, according to Moberly—and, also, according to Nestorius, if certain interpretations of this ancient theologian's thought are to be accepted—was able, although only with an heroic struggle, to bring his human will into complete submission to God's will this Person, being divine, could not fail in anything He undertook, whether as God or as man. His perfect obedience, so this theory goes, canceled the injustice of Adam's disobedience and restored to God's friendship all who align themselves with Jesus. Thus, the obedience of Jesus in accepting suffering, rather than the suffering itself, effects our redemption . This is what Thomas Merton probably means when he assets that "Only the sufferings of Christ are valuable in the of God…and to Him they are valuable chiefly as a sign" (78—79).

These traditional theories of the atonement, while much valuable truth can be found in them, present in their unqualified forms serious intellectual difficulties.

In the first place, the traditional idea of original sin rests on at best a very shaky proposition: the idea that all human beings are genetic descendants of two common ancestors whose self-damage through sin could be passed on to their descendents. Most contemporary anthropologists reject the postulate of such a common ancestor, and those who accept it can offer nothing even remotely approaching empirical proof.

Secondly, if God allowed "a new creature" to "[sin] itself into existence," as C.S. Lewis put it, and this sin to inflict incalculable suffering on innumerable subsequent generations, such an arrangement seems difficult to reconcile with a Divine Providence infinitely just and loving—the theodicies of even the world's greatest intellects—St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Martin Luther, etc.—always appear at best to very far from fully satisfactory. Surely an omnipotent and omniscient God could, it seems, have come up with some better arrangement than one whereby so many creatures through no fault of their own have been rendered vulnerable to the rebellion of two persons. Other difficult unanswered questions arise. What if only one of them had sinned? What if one or more of their descendants sinned and then had children? The difficulties are endless.

Thirdly, it seems unjust to punish a finite offense for an infinite duration. "Cain said to the Lord: 'My iniquity is greater than that I may deserve pardon'" (Genesis: 4:13), but many murder victims and their loved ones have disagreed with Cain and been ready to extend pardon. Surely God is not less merciful than his sinful creatures.

The injustice of an infinite punishment seems greater, furthermore, when we reflect on the role played by ignorance. Almost all traditional theologians have held that Adam and Eve were completely in control of themselves in their prelapsarian state and thus totally responsible for their sin, but the Genesis account them as victims of deception. The biblical narrator prefaces the account of the Fall with the following words: "Now the serpent was more subtle than any of the beasts of earth…"(Genesis: 3:1). "The serpent deceived me," says Eve, "and I did eat" (Genesis 3:13). The serpent's argument, moreover, seems to be persuasive, at least to some extent. Knowledge is a good thing, and, finite and conditioned as we are, we cannot know good without knowing evil. A fish, it has many times been said, cannot know water because it has nothing with which to compare its environment. "…your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods…" (Genesis: 3:5). This seems to promise spiritual evolution—certainly a worthwhile goal—ultimately, the only worthwhile goal. We may grant that Adam and Eve, according to the story, appropriated something good in a disordered way, but enlightenment of these erring souls and their descendants would seem to be a more just remedy for such an offense than the infliction of tortures upon them, other human beings, and Jesus.

Indeed, it is difficult to see the rationale for such vengeance, to see how suffering per se would rectify the disorder occasioned by sin. Traditional atonement theories seem to reflect the anthropomorphic tendencies of a Semitic people who greatly valued vengeance and blood sacrifices (vengeance is highly valued in many Arab cultures even today, and, at the time of the composition of Genesis, Arab and Hebrew cultures were very similar—the Hebrews were genetically indistinct from the Canaanites whom they dislodged, and early Hebrew was but a dialect of ancient Canaanite, according to the prevailing opinion of linguistic scholars specializing in this area).

Even Dr. Moberly's theory about the obedience of Jesus canceling the disobedience of Adam seems anthropomorphic: it seems to posit a God whose thinking is reflective of a tribal culture in which the group is everything and a sense of personal, individual responsibility is lacking—so that everyone is punished by one man's sin and everyone is forgiven because of one man's obedience.

The Gnostic view of the atonement expounded by Theosophists and by the Two Modern Co-founders of The Liberal Catholic Church—Bishops Leadbeater and Wedgwood—and espoused by most Catholics of a Gnostic persuasion appears much more plausible than these traditional theories of the atonement.

According to the Gnostic view, creation is an emanation of the Divine Life. The Holy Ghost, in what is called the "First Outpouring," vivifies virgin matter—the Great Mother Who is Herself a manifestation God. Virgin matter, pure potentiality, may be a "relational necessity" within the Godhead, if I may be permitted to appropriate and modify Thomistic language concerning the Holy Trinity. Pure actuality cannot exist except in relation to the polarity of Pure Potentiality, just as Love cannot exist except in relation to the polarity of the Beloved and Divine knower cannot exist except in relation to its polarity, the Known—God the Son. These two Divine Persons must love one another, and Love between them must be infinite—i.e., God the Holy Ghost.

After virgin matter has been vivified by this involutional First Outpouring, the Second Person descends to the depths of the vivified matter in the Second Outpouring. At this point discrete finite beings appear as the Second Person manifests in a plurality of centers of consciousness, thus limiting His glory and sacrificing the unity of His consciousness. Thus He is "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world," crucified on a cross of matter, stretching out His arms in self-giving, and, like a crucified man, bridging heaven and earth. Hindu philosophers have used the Sanskrit term atma-yana , often translated as self-sacrifice, to describe this process. An actor might become so engrossed in a role that he would forget his broader identity and actually seem to be the character he is playing for two hours on the stage. Similarly, I might be executing two tasks at once be engrossed in both of them, rapidly shifting my attention one to the other and alternately, like the actor, "losing myself" momentarily in each role. Something like this occurs, I believe, on a cosmic level, and it keeps us all in existence. Mr. Jones is God acting as Mr. Jones and 'forgetting" in the process everything outside of that center of consciousness, while innumerable other such roles are being assumed with their consequent "forgettings." Each of us is God "forgetting" and thus laying aside the fullness of His glory—thus a holy Divine Self-deception is at the root of all creation. But these discrete centers of consciousness are destined, in the course of evolution, to recognize their unity with one another and with their Source and to unite in perfect love—this is atonement, a true coming to be "at one." And here is found the perfect happiness to which God has destined all His creatures. Each consciousness becomes more and more expansive and complex as it reverses the process of involution and, without losing its individuality, ascends back toward its source. When it has passed through the material, astral, and lower mental planes, the ascending Second Outpouring is met by the Third Outpouring, the emanation of God the Father, and then the Prodigal Son, united with his Father, develops the requisite causal body and undergoes the sufferings necessary to be able to rise as a perfect companion of his Father to union with the Latter on the buddhic, nirvanic, monadic, and, finally, divine planes. This is the resurrection after the crucifixion. This atonement was not effected for us once by someone else, but is effected by each of us in due season, the Incarnate Logos—i.e., the Cosmic Christ acting in and through us. Thus the story of Good Friday and Easter Sunday is an allegory revealing the destiny of every soul. But these stories, in addition to the foregoing general meaning, point also to a very specific series of events in each soul's history. When each soul is ready to advance beyond the human level, its remaining negative karma must be expiated. This is a very painful process, and it corresponds to a real death, the end of the soul's existence in strictly human form, and to a real resurrection and ascension. Reflection on this point leads inexorably to the role of suffering and punishment in the process of atonement.

As Liberal Catholics we believe that "perfect justice rules the world" (Creed recited at Liberal Catholic and many other Gnostic Eucharists) and that, accordingly, all sin must be punished. We hold this belief in common with all major religions, whether of Semitic, Indic, or Asian origin. This belief does not, however, require us to God as anthropomorphically angry and thereby delighting in seeing the sufferings of Jesus or anyone else. Recall in this connection a biblical parable usually interpreted by traditional theologians to refer to everlasting punishment in hell: the passage in Matthew in which a wedding guest is dismissed from the festivities because he is not properly attired. Incongruously, if we take the traditional view, he is addressed by the appellation "Friend." "And the king went in to see the guests: and he saw there a man who had not on a wedding garment. And he saith to him: 'Friend , how camest thou in hither not having on a wedding garment?' But he was silent" (Matthew: 22:11—12). The sufferings God imposes on us are meant to effect a change of consciousness without which we cannot enjoy the kingdom. We cannot achieve union with God and enjoy the love of God without the requisite consciousness. Therefore, effecting such changes of consciousness before welcoming a soul into the kingdom is, perhaps, tantamount to curing quadriplegia before teaching someone karate: the second thing cannot be done until thing has been accomplished. Thus the aforementioned appellative incongruity can be explained if we postulate the converse of a dictum in the writings of St Therese of Avila. This saint maintained that God is merciful precisely because He is just. A merciless holding accountable of weak, deluded creatures would be unjust. The converse statement is that God is just precisely because He is merciful. God cannot truly forgive us—make us His intimate companions—unless our consciousnesses have been purified. And this purification can often be effected only through great suffering. The expulsion of the man improperly attired is not, cannot, be the All-Merciful incongruously and vindictively avenging Himself on an enemy. We must take to heart St. ThomasAquinas's teaching that God is identical with each of His attributes. If God is infinitely just and infinitely merciful, He is Divine Justice and He is Divine Mercy. If God's justice or mercy lacked anything God has, it would not be infinite. There can therefore be no contradiction between the two, and no atonement theory which posits such a contradiction can stand philosophical scrutiny. Indeed, Divine Justice and Divine Mercy must ultimately be the same Reality—it is only our finite perspective which posits a distinction between them.

Gnostic theories of the atonement are superior to traditional theories because the former, in addition to being free of anthropological claims doubtful on empirical grounds, attribute no human weaknesses to god and place on limits on either Divine Mercy or Divine Justice.

Works Cited

Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain . New York: Macmillan, 1941.

Merton, Thomas. No Man Is An Island. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc., 1955.

Moberly, Robert Campbell. Atonement and Personality. London: John Murray, 1901.