Neoplatonism at Cherry Hill

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

**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.


About John Harness
John Harness is an artist and educator in Chicago. He is a member of Socialist Alternative and the Klingon Language Institute. He writes about political activism and roleplaying games.

9 Responses to Neoplatonism at Cherry Hill

  1. Just a mini-response on behalf of CHS, if I may: CHS is very much in the business of co-creating (and co-defining, if you will) what Paganism[s] is and who Pagans are,with other Pagans, including Sam Webster. We are not about telling anyone how they should be a Pagan or what kind of thinking one must do in order to be accepted into our wider communities. Our religions are not static. Rather, they are living, breathing, changing. They, like us, are alive.

    So, to me the topic of Neoplatonism is one to explore, not necessarily to adopt.

    Personally, I subscribe to the words of the chant: “We are one with the soul of the Earth, Mother Earth.”

  2. This is, sadly, a strawman argument. Early Neoplatonists were still polytheistic, and only a few of the later ones (including some who converted to Christianity) could be said to be monotheistic. The rest are monistic polytheists. Pagans of Classical and Late Antiquity were not especially noted for their devotion to Terra Mater, either, but then they had not lived through the Industrial Revolution.

    It is also not fair to impute the extreme position of the Manicheans to all Neoplatonists, or even all Gnostics.

    • cartweel says:

      I’ll concede that it’s something of a strawman argument. I am making claims about Neoplatonism as a whole based on my knowledge of only a few of the varieties of Neoplatonism, granted. However, I would then argue that the varieties of Neoplatonism on which I am basing my assessment are precisely those varieties that have played the bigger role in shaping the Neoplatonism of contemporary paganism, and so my point — if my interpretations are valid — should still hold. The Neoplatonism of the Golden Dawn, Crowley, and Gardner is very much in debt to the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic, monotheistic interpretations of Neoplatonic thought, and more directly so than to the potentially polytheistic interpretations of the classical Neoplatonists.

      But on that point, here’s more: You interpret the emanational Platonic cosmology of the classical Neoplatonists as “monistic polytheism.” I would prefer to suggest that the very notion of monism overrides any meaningful polytheism, and so call the same emanational cosmology “monotheistic.” BUT, I recognize that this is a matter of perspective.

      That is, I am not too uncomfortable describing the classical Neoplatonism to which you refer as polytheistic. However, I think that any Neoplatonism that is in debt to the Abrahamic traditions (and I would definitely categorize Neopagan approaches to Neoplatonism in this group) should be categorized as monotheistic.

      Now, I don’t mean to take away the agency of contemporary pagans and say that they can’t “re-polytheize” their Neoplatonism! But I don’t think that this is really happening or, if it is happening, it is only occurring on superficial levels and that the Neoplatonic interpretations I have seen coming from Pagans are still architectonically monotheist. (See the “light through a crystal” metaphor that shows up everywhere in Wiccan texts, say.)

      Having said that, I suppose, then, I should try to support my assessment of (Renaissance and later, Abrahamically-indebted) Neoplatonism as “anti-Earth.” Because this is the reference that I pulled up most quickly, I’ll quote Suzanne Stern-Gillet, who wrote an article called “Neoplatonist Aesthetics” in the journal “A companion to art theory.” She summarizes Plotinus’s theology, and writes:

      “While the World-Soul, as a discarnate entity, remains in the Intelligible realm, the souls of heavenly bodies, *the soul called nature because it gives and sustains life*, as well as the individual souls of sentient beings, are stages in the descent of Soul into body and its corresponding estrangement from its ontological source. At each level Soul projects onto lower instantiations of itself, image and reflections of the Forms that it succeeds in apprehending. Such simulacra inevitably get more insubstantial as Soul gets more engrossed in body. At the ultimate point of its *fall*, Soul produces matter, indefinite and lifeless, which Plotinus equates with *nonbeing, evil and ugliness*.”

      So actually the idea that the earth (and all matter) is “evil and ugliness” can be seen in the early Neoplatonists, not just the later ones. And while I agree that I cannot “impute the extreme position of the Manichaeans to all Neoplatonists” (but did I invoke the Manichaeans?), I can suggest that, even in less radical forms, Neoplatonic theology that makes the earth out to be the most degraded level of reality are at least problematical in relationship to earth-affirming theologies like those held by Cherry Hill.

      And lastly, perhaps *I* am the one being radical by suggesting that theological systems in which the earth is considered a “degredation,” even if that consideration is downplayed, should be called anti-Earth. And I’m okay with that.

      … I think I like you, Freeman.

  3. Yes, this did turn into interesting fun!

    I part company with all of them where they start in with the “dead matter” nonsense anyway. “The Earth” in the sense that we mean it, the Earth with which we can interact, is a very complex system. I agree with what they “really mean” at the same time I decry their naive characterization of matter as dead. It’s all mind-stuff … but we didn’t re-discover that until the 1920’s. Yes, there is a need to experience the spirit realm in a more direct way, and yes, the experience of being embodied seems like a major obstacle to that, but it does not follow that matter itself, or the Earth, is “the enemy.”

    That turned out to be more a part of the project of “re-Paganizing Neoplatonism” than a direct response to your points. I don’t think there’s a neat wrap-up available because there are so many shades of opinion that have been bundled into Neoplatonism, and it isn’t inherently a dogmatic philosophy, so it is perfectly legitimate to pick a point on that spectrum.

    Perhaps I was being hyperbolic, dragging in the Manicheans. They’re just the most extreme example of anti-life Gnosticism.

    This topic is on my radar right now because I am actively studying Hermeticism from a polytheist starting point, and I am going to have to stop twitching so damned hard at every mention of the Ineffable One.

    • cartweel says:

      I would very much like to know what it is in your interpretation that they “really mean.” I ask because to me they seem to be suggesting — exactly — that the Earth is “the enemy.” To be overcome, to be left behind, to be forgotten. Yet you don’t think that’s what they “really mean”? And where exactly is the territory *before* you “part company,” since it seems that all the ‘”dead matter” nonsense’ is pretty clear from the start of the whole endeavor.

      And I don’t think that there are quite so many “shades” of Neoplatonism that any one of them really strays from the premise of earth-as-matter-as-nonbeing, or a lot of the other ‘nonsense.’

      I’ve got to tell you that I have my doubts about your project of wedding pagan polytheism with Hermeticism (and I’m not trying to pick on you, I have my doubts about many folks’ similar projects). That’s because the things you seem to be trying to edit out of Hermeticism and Neoplatonism — the dead matter nonsense, the “Ineffable One” — are exactly what I would call the defining features of Neoplatonism. It seems to me kind of like trying to take the Federation out of Star Trek, or Jedis out of Star Wars — it doesn’t really compute.

      If Neoplatonism can be summed up as the attempted reconciliation of the two “Great Sages” Plato and Aristotle (and one professor of mine pointed out that we could just as easily call all of this Neoaristotelianism, especially in reference to some authors like al-Farabi), then that all STARTS with the synthesis of Plato’s metaphysics of forms (imply forms, imply forms, imply forms) and Aristotle’s Prime Mover as the originator of those forms (i.e., the last implied form). That Prime Mover, the integral core of the Neoplatonic worldview, is the exact same thing as the “Ineffable One” you find so distasteful. Soooo…. how does that work?

      I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m interested in how you try to manage your polytheistic Neoplatonism… I’m just not so convinced that it’s possible without morphing Neoplatonism into something no longer recognizable as such.

  4. Hold on to your hat …

    I’m not really equipped to go to the level of detail needed to pick apart the centuries of academic misinterpretation of the Platonists and Plato himself. I see a lot of indications that the insistence on such constructs as “Late Antique Pagan Monotheism” and “Christian Neoplatonism” (which was a heresy during the time it would have been relevant) have been overstated[1].

    Descartes be damned (and I mean that) The fact that I, or any Platonist, can conceive of the Ain Soph Aur, or of the Primal Light pervading the Cosmos and illuminating my mind as well as those of my Gods, isn’t the same as monotheism. Monotheism consists only in personifying that One Vastness, pretending that It interacts with people in the same way as the more tangible Gods, and that it has ordained that other beliefs are wrong. Anything less than that need be of no concern to a modern Pagan.

    I don’t find the Ain Soph (or the Dharmakaya, or God, or Allah) distasteful, I find it as remote as the edge of the observable universe. There are a range of Gods and Daimones who are not so remote, and who are, to me, the proper objects of theurgy.

    So I don’t actually have a project of re-Paganizing *Platonism* per se; I have just been diving into the Hermetic background that is all through the modern Occult/Pagan scene, with an open mind but no intent of giving up my core polytheism (which sits comfortably atop a layer of utterly non-dogmatic and pre-rational animism).

    1. I am not so equipped, but my friend Apuleius is much better read:

  5. Pingback: Just a few updates… «

  6. Amy Lewis says:

    I am curious, looking at your original post, what you think of the “incarnational” approach of the Eastern Christian solution. Granted, it’s got the one god (who turns out to be 3?) but the material world isn’t “dead matter,” but it gets inhabited by the Divine, and all the god’s creation has the possibility of being divinized.
    Christianity thus claimed not to be dualist while retaining much neo-Platonism. Is there a way to bring these ideas into Paganism without assimilating other Christian tenets?

  7. Pingback: I’m an anarchist now. Anarchism is cool. | The House of Vines

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