Posted on: April 12th, 2007 Theurgy

Theurgy, a “[neoplatonist] system of ritualized interaction with the gods” (Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West, 97), is first introduced into the stream of philosophical thought by Porphyry, although it is really his disciple Iamblichus who establishes it in the tradition.

In contradistinction to certain gnostic streams of thought, Iamblichus stresses that it is not “thinking” or intellectual activity which unites man to the divine. He writes that union is attained

“by the efficacy of the unspeakable acts performed in the appropriate manner, acts which are beyond all comprehension, and by the potency of unutterable symbols which are comprehended only by the gods…. Without intellectual effort on our part these tokens accomplish their proper work by their own virtue.” (Robert Wilkin, The Chrsitians as the Romans Saw Them, 167)

What interests me about theurgy:

First, its participatory nature. I am just now cutting my teeth on this ancient practice, but it seems that here the neoplatonic emphasis on participating (methexis) in the divine here takes on a physical or embodied nature. It is becuase of the “overflow of the good,” in such forms as energeia and ecstasis that man has access to the divine via a shared realm of activity.

Second, it seems to me that theurgy is important for understanding Radical Orthodoxy (though I have yet to read Milbank’s article on theurgy: stay tuned). Radical Orthodoxy, which extols the virtues of neoplatonism, constantly emphasizes the participatory nature of the Christian life. My experience is that when you interrogate an RO proponent on the precise meaning of this participation, they are at a loss to really explain it. It seems that here is where to begin: with the neoplatonic understanding of theurgy.

Third, as will be apparent from the above, this is a rare area of overlap between the diverse fields of theology (including moral, political, and sacramental theology) and social history. That John Milbank and Robert Louis Wilkin both write about theurgy makes it unique and important indeed. This is one area (it seems to me that Dionysius is another) is a potential area of interdisciplinary fruitfulness.

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