(again, rambling…you’ve been warned)
So, the subject of ‘kenosis’ came up in the first paper I heard today. When I looked it up (because I’m toggling in this conference between Catholic and Orthodox perspectives and also, I’d heard of it solely in the context of a goal of devotional practice), initially I saw it defined as Christ’s rejection of his divine nature during the Incarnation. It’s more complex than that, but that initial definition did get me thinking. Why would this ‘putting aside’ of divine nature have to be ‘rejection?’ So, thinking of our theologies, I’m immediately reminded of Euripides’ play “The Bacchae,” in which the poet has Dionysos declare that (to educate Thebes) He will “put aside His divinity” taking human form. While this is a play, Dionysos is the God of theatre and it does reflect the practices and language and ideas and mysteries related to this particular God. Could one say that what is happening when Dionysos does this is a type of kenosis? (which the theologian just described as ‘self-emptying, taking the form of the servant’).
I wouldn’t describe any of this as a rejection of divine nature. Rejection would imply a permanent disavowal, wouldn’t it? ‘Putting aside’ implies that one can then put it back on (the root of the word ‘rejection’ implies a throwing back of something). Even within the Incarnation, was it a rejection? Was not God the father ever with the son even through the intense humanity and human suffering of the Incarnation? For our purposes did not Dionysos remain divine even when He was wearing human flesh?
Kenosis is more readily Christ’s emptying out of Himself to be open to God’s will. It’s…complicated. I do think ideally, we as devout people should seek to empty ourselves out (the meaning of κενοω) so that we can be filled with our Gods, so that we can be completely receptive to Them and Their will. The lecturer now speaking keeps talking about “self-emptying obedience” and I take issue with the way in which she’s using the latter term…devotion is more active, an active annihilation of all those things that would keep us from being fully open to the Gods. There’s nothing passive in it, save for the receptivity that allows us to eventually experience our Gods. And even within that level of receptivity, whatever obedience there is becomes full alignment, a partnership not an abrogation of personal will but a uniting of that will with our Gods…do Christians mean the same when they use this term?
Back to my initial point, I can totally see kenosis as a means and goal of devotional living (regardless of one’s tradition. I think ultimately we should empty ourselves of ourselves, of all our bullshit so that we can be the most useful tools and servants possible of our Gods. THAT is exactly what devotion entails), but I struggle to see it applied to the incarnated Christ. Returning to Dionysos, which is far more relevant to our praxis than Christ (with all respect to my Christian friends), when He put aside His divinity, was He emptying Himself out so that He could better align with HIS true will?
I want to parse that out…what does it mean that a polytheist could accurately say Dionysos is putting aside His divinity…here’s the Greek:
ὧν οὕνεκ᾽ εἶδος θνητὸν ἀλλάξας ἔχω
μορφήν τ᾽ ἐμὴν μετέβαλον εἰς ἀνδρὸς φύσιν.(Bacchae, line 54)
for which purpose, having set aside my form (lit: that which is seen)
I bear a mortal shape and I have changed mine into the nature (φύσιν) of a man. (my translation)
If we look at ‘nature’ in the Aristotelian sense, it is the motivating essence, the material cause for a thing. It is the essential substance of a thing. In the Heraclitan sense, it is a thing’s natural development. Is Dionysos here lowering Himself down to the human level and allowing things to thus play out according to human rules and decisions? Its opposite is νομός, or law and custom so is this a means of giving more freedom and loopholes for events to play out? Is there a freedom in incarnation not found in the immortal sphere (a horrifying thought)? I was discussing this with Edward Butler (wanted to be sure that I was correct, that this was as intriguing a passage as it always had seemed to me, because surprisingly little’s been made of it in classics) and he noted that, “eidos often means just the visual appearance of something; but what does a mortal look like, qua mortal? Then in the next line we have andros physin, which has the same ambiguity. Physis can mean just the outward appearance of something, but it can also mean something deeper, the “nature” of something. Euripides seems to be playing a bit with the idea that Dionysos is taking on more than just the look of a human.” So, I think something is going on here and I can’t help but wonder if it’s something more than just a poet taking theological and poetic liberties.
Perhaps it makes no sense to make this comparison – Christians do what they do with their theology and kenosis is a particularly Christian theological term—but the entire conversion reminded me so strongly of that passage about Dionysos I could not help but doing playing with it here.
And…I went back to the Greek to the word εἶδος. It is the word from which we get our word ‘icon’ and I believe also ‘idol.’ It is something that can be seen, a form which can be seen. So, Dionysos is transforming His appearance. The presence of the word φύσιν complicates things for me. It has certain specific meanings philosophically, Is it all simply a change in appearance not reality here (unlike the licit view of the incarnation in which the humanity assumed by Christ is reality … unless one is a Docetist lol). I could go round and round with this for hours but I need to stop myself. Argh.
EDIT: So, thus am I served for writing this, while taking notes during a lecture, and discussing it all withe a friend via email. I had my etymology wrong above. “icon” comes from “eikon” and ‘idol’ from εἴδωλον. We get our word “idea” from εἶδος. What i wrote above still stands though: Dionysos is transforming into the idea of a mortal man…close enough to appearance to still ask: what does that mean? what is a God’s idea of mortal man and how would that translate to other mortals?
(This rambles…a lot lol. You have been warned).
So, I’ve been in New York City the last couple of days attending a theology conference. The title of the conference is “Faith, Reason, Theosis” and so far, it’s been pretty amazing. The scholastic currents being discussed (at least in day one) are well outside of my wheelhouse so I won’t discuss them here save to say that the entire idea of theosis makes me deeply uncomfortable. I did have an interesting talk with a Jesuit professor of philosophy (I took his course on Augustine a few years ago and it blew my mind) who agreed that, at least in part, ideas of theosis for Christians were influenced by pre-Christian concepts of deification. Still, it makes me deeply uncomfortable when it’s applied as a goal of faith, especially when post-modernists remove the sacramental scaffolding and even at times “God” from the equation. Thank you, no. If I want that, I can listen to a ceremonialist drone on and on. Lol. (Granted, this isn’t my area, so I may be grossly minimalizing the issues here and I’m drawing the questions and comments below largely from only a single day of speakers – there’s still two more to go. At any rate, the focus of the conference is discussion of Orthodox and Catholic responses to the idea of theosis). I was tired when I arrived at the conference, and at first, despite excellent presentations, I was a little bored (Thomas Aquinas—not my thing) but then the Q&A started and that was absolutely fascinating. It was almost enough, almost, to make me want to hold another polytheist conference. Hah. Don’t hold your breath.
Anyway, during the opening talks, I was scribbling notes and several questions arose from the speakers. Ignoring the pages of my journal where I kept noting that “Modernity=Nihilism”, (I also made crazy little sketches of presenters – idle hands after all and all that) the relevant things I want to discuss here are as follows (I will reframe from the singularity of the Divine articulated by the speakers to a more natural and appropriate plurality in my responses):
• How can a conscious spirit be anything other than a desire for God?
• God owes His creatures grace within the terms of creation (the grace to achieve theosis) but it’s a debt owed only to His own goodness.
• How can there be “excess” in loving one’s God? Many modern philosophers/theologians seem to speak of the “excessive qualities of the cross” in ways that seem to imply that they want to erase their God from the process and goal of theosis and replace the sacramental scaffolding with the human ego.
The first question, I believe, comes from Neo-Platonic influences on religious (in the case of the conference, Christian) thought. I don’t argue that our souls and the fullness of our being should be comprised, materia prima, of longing and love for the Gods. I think it is the only part of us that truly matters. When we peel away the dross and pollution of modern living (hell, just of living because let’s face it, the ancients wrestled with these issues too), at our core I firmly believe that (when we are rightly ordered), our spirits are expressed longing for the Gods. I also think that every single thing in our current world teaches us to obscure, deny, and annihilate that longing.
I will admit, listening to this particular speaker, I did think “well, aren’t you a bit of an optimist about the human condition” lol but it’s important to remind ourselves not to mistake external ephemera for the true, essential nature of our beings. I also suspect that this statement: that at the core of a soul is longing for the Gods may make some readers angry. If so, consider why. Why would you not long for the Gods with every fibre of your being? I think the real challenge of our various spiritualities is not only the discovery of that longing, recognizing it as our essential state of being, but also cultivating it, tending that fire, stripping away the dross, feeding it, and allowing it to burn away everything else.
A day or so before I came into the city for the conference, I was watching a movie with my husband and a friend and the lead female reminded me strongly in appearance of a student – call her H.– I had over twenty years ago. This student was three or four days away from her initiation and bailed. She became pissy about it too, justifying her decision by trashing the idea of the experiential devotion inherent in the initiatory process (as being only relevant to specialists. “Not everyone needs to be a mystic” blah blah blah. No, not everyone does, but baseline devotion does not a mystic make). A friend of mine who was hanging out with us asked me why this woman would do such a thing. I said “at the eleventh hour she realized initiation would change everything.” My friend agreed but didn’t see the problem (unlike H. my friend is not a spiritual coward). I explained that “H. didn’t want to make the Gods a priority in her life. She was afraid it might interfere with her secular, job-related priorities of climbing the corporate ladder and making money. She didn’t want to become the kind of person she thought could live a devoted life and she didn’t want to have to reprioritize her life.” My friend asked the most salient question of the night, “Didn’t she realize that putting the Gods first makes everything better? On the basest most crass level, They help us in our work in the world. They fill our lives with bounty and blessings.” And that is the question. My only response was a poem by the Islamic poet Rabi’a:
O my Lord,
if I worship you
from fear of hell, burn me in hell.
If I worship you
from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates.
But if I worship you
for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.
(Rabi’a, “[O my Lord]” translated by Jane Hirshfield, from Women in Praise of the Sacred (New York: Harper Collins, 1994).)
I will let this stand for now and move on to the second question or comment really, since I wrote it down because I have very strong feelings that the Gods owe us nothing. They may give us everything but They don’t owe us. We ought not give sacrifices and offerings just to get things, but because it is the right thing to do, because it honors Them, because those relationships are the most essential we will ever have and it is right and proper to make windows into the world through which the Gods may walk. It isn’t and shouldn’t be about us. Yes, at times offerings and devotion may follow a do ut des model – if I need something from a Deity, I won’t approach with empty hands. It’s rude. But that is not the only nor the most essential model of veneration. To imply that it is cheapens our traditions and frankly spits in the faces of our ancestors. It shouldn’t be “I give in order to receive” but “I give because I have received” or maybe better still, “I give because I love.”
Returning to the bullet points I noted, I was struck by the idea articulated in bullet point #2 that God owes humanity His grace by virtue of the contract of creation but the debt is NOT one owed to humanity itself but rather to His own goodness. In other words, God owes Himself. It’s a nice reframing and re-articulation of an issue that plagues the Heathen community: the entitlement we all too often feel before our Gods. We are not owed a god damned thing for the paltry devotion we deign to show. We have been given everything and it is a debt we cannot hope to replay. The devotional relationships that we ought to cultivate with our Gods aren’t for the purpose of getting things, or even with any hope of repayment of a contract. It is our natural, good, and rightly ordered state of being. It is our purpose, the highest and most natural expression of our souls.
Finally, one of the issues that kept coming up in post-modernist pushback against scholastic and pre-scholastic ideas of theosis was this language of “excess” in devotion. One source talked about the “excess of the crucifixion” rather the excess of devotional response to it. I see this in some modern Catholics. Case in point: I recently gave a Catholic relative L. Montfort’s classic devotional text on Mary and while she is very devout she really struggled with it, because it wasn’t Jesus focused in the way that many Protestant “devotionals” might be. The idea of giving reverence and specifically heart-felt devotion to the Mother of God—in the way that was traditional, licit, and universal within her tradition for generations– was uncomfortable (and I blame Vatican II and its bullshit for a lot of this but, not my circus, not my monkeys. I do find it complicated though. Gods know that the weakening of the organizational Catholic Church is not a bad thing for growing polytheisms, but then on the other side of that, I think that any weakening of devotional fervor is a win for evil and doesn’t serve us in our devotions either so …my response to that all is rather complicated). It seemed “excessive” to her. Post-moderns would, I believe, cast any devotion as excessive. This is problematic.
Personally, I do not believe it is possible to be too excessive in one’s fervor and love for one’s Gods. That is exactly what ought to fuel our soul’s longing, feed it, nourish it, encourage it. Whenever I hear Pagans or Polytheists (and especially Heathens) talk about how one is too excessive in one’s devotions (and it happens, less now than a decade ago but it still happens) I really just want to laugh in their faces and tell them they are theologically unschooled. Not today, Heathen child, not today. This is a bullshit free zone. Still, I think it’s important to think about what it is in our culture (that has seeped into our traditions) that would teach us that devotion, any devotion particularly the messy, emotional, embodied kind is ‘excessive.’ What does that mean? When loving the Gods is our souls’ reason for being, how can there be any excess?
This last question I’m going to explore more fully and hopefully will have time to do so over the next couple of days. Right now, I’m going to bring this to a close since it’s running rather long and I actually need to get my butt up and get out the door for day two of this amazing conference. Enjoy your day, folks.