Neoplatonism at Cherry Hill
March 15, 2011 9 Comments
A friend sent me this link today, knowing that it would pique my interest. It piques my interest because 1) my sub-specialty in the field of Islamic History is the history of Islamic Neoplatonism, and 2) I’ve written before on the problematic relationship between Neopaganism and Neoplatonism.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Cherry Hill Seminary recently, for a variety of reasons. I almost applied there, for one thing! But more to the point at the moment is a conversation I had a few months ago at a meeting of the Hyde Park Pagan Potluck*: We were discussing the possibility (or rather, the impossibility) of pagan education, and whether or not such a thing is possible when pagan theology and practice is so nebulously (and often contradictorily) defined. Eventually we came to the topic of pagan seminaries, of which the best example is Cherry Hill. Without clear boundaries as to what constitutes contemporary paganism, its theology, history, and practice, how is it possible to create meaningful syllabi for study? (At the moment I won’t go into my problems with “Pagan Studies” as a field. Regardless, if no one is clear on what exactly makes up paganism, how can one study “Pagan Ministry”?)
The last thing that has been on my mind recently about Cherry Hill was Dr. Catherine Hoff Kraemer’s remarks during the New Media panel at this year’s Pantheacon, which was made available to me and to you through the courtesy of T. Thorn Coyle, here.
What’s got my mental gears a-grindin’ today is this: By its very nature as an academic institution, Cherry Hill has had to find a working answer to the question of “What is Paganism?” In so doing, the seminary is also a normativizing force, suggesting bit-by-bit what exactly defines pagan theology.
And that’s fine. What I find frustrating (distasteful?) is that, by virtue of their endorsement of Sam Webster’s Neoplatonic theurgy intensive, their answer to this question seems to be, at least in part: “Neoplatonism.”
And this answer brings with it all the baggage that Neoplatonism entails. This is baggage that, if presented in other contexts, entails beliefs that seem anathema to many pagans’ ideas of what pagan theology is all about. For example, Neoplatonism is monotheistic, and the implication that pagan theology is monotheistic would certainly send shivers down many pagans’ spines. (Not to mention that Neoplatonism was in largest part developed by Abrahamic monotheists, to the horror of anti-Christian pagans.)
But that’s not what gets at me, really. The thing I find more intriguing is that Neoplatonism as a philosophical stance is nothing less than anti-Earth. I say so because of the Neoplatonic tradition’s assertion that the Earth, the “material,” is that which is furthest away from God (the source of existence), and that it is thus the basest, lowest thing, and that it is the Earth itself which is to be relinquished in favor of the “more spiritual,” “higher” realms.
I’ve heard some pagan Neoplatonists suggest that Neoplatonism really reveres the Earth, that, being furthest in the cosmic “chain of existence” from God-the-Source, the Earth constitutes something along the lines of the “culmination” of the glory of God. In my opinion, this is an inaccurate reading of the tradition. Don’t believe me? Go read a few of the classic Neoplatonic treatises – Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, Al-Kindi’s (?) The Theology of Aristotle, or Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia. There you’ll hear a constant refrain: ‘Leave the material Earth, seek the transcendent Spiritual. The Spiritual and the Earth are incompatible; they are the opposites of each other…’
And so I find it hard to swallow that Cherry Hill, which lists honoring “the sacredness of the Earth” among its values is offering an intensive on “Practical Neoplatonism.” Which is it? Is the Earth sacred, or not? Or are there other ways of synthesizing Neoplatonism’s archi-theology of transcendental monotheism with contemporary paganism’s general (and Cherry Hill’s explicit) stated goals of Earth-centrism?**
Since Cherry Hill is in the business of defining what makes up pagan theology, what do you think about them implying that Neoplatonism is compatible with pagan theology? What do you think of Wicca’s relationship to Neoplatonism (see: this)? Does Wicca’s Neoplatonic foundation say something about the direction that the relationship between Wicca and non-Wiccan forms of paganism might take? should take? What about Thelema? What about Chaos Magick?
*HPPP organized by Ruby Sara and yours truly, every month on Chicago’s South Side! Come on out if you’re local! Email me for the deets. – cartweel at gmail.com
**And no, pointing out that according to some Neoplatonic cosmologies the planet Earth is literally at the center of the universe does not do the trick.