As I periodically do, I am re-reading Gregory Shaw’s gorgeous book “Theurgy and the Soul”: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus”. I first read it years ago, doing the undergrad work for my second BA, this one in Religious Studies rather than Anthropology as was the first. I remember the sense of astounding revelation of that first foray into the waters of late antiquity and into the debates and discursive battles raging in that world, of which we have but fragments – but which yet open our own horizons the wider for their prescience. Of all the works I read, it was this one, in particular, that blew my mind. And, when I get too distressed by the world, I read it again to reacquaint myself with the optimism and cosmic surety about which it speaks. It is the only “theology” I have ever read in which I could believe, for it knitted together into a coherent whole human spirit. Incarnational experience, and a cosmos of infinite dimension and intelligent Life. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that the theology I found within this book has provided the predicates for my Paganism and has filled the theological void in modern Paganism from which, to my mind, it has suffered.
Yet, within that theology, despite its sense of completeness, lies a problem. One that appeared in nascent form in that time and place but which in our own time has become a problem of staggering proportions, proportions which are expected to become even more overwhelming. Let me try to explain.
Much like Indigenous thought now, Iamblichus was convinced that every people, in their native setting, had been given by Creator, ceremonial methods through which to participate in the maintenance of the sacredness of the World – it was the loss of these methods, one might say the ceremonial “medicine”, which had precipitated the decline of the World, discord among humans, and the rupture between the human world and the natural world. For, ceremony, rite, properly performed, in full possession of its authenticity, not only attuned humans to the cosmos, upward and out, and inward, but also, into the surround – that is to say, to the sacred in nature upon which human society depended, Labinius’ Lament for the Temples is of a piece with this conviction.
But, like all empires, and more than many, Rome busted up the local, displacing populations, despoiling landscapes – sacred landscapes – even while appropriating ideas about divinity, appropriating ceremonial, and transferrring the loot to its colonized dominions. The phrase “out of context” only hints at the violence done to the spiritual connections which were severed by imperial reach,
As heirs of Rome, and of each succeeding empire, and as heirs of populations explosions, and as heirs of extractive consequences, the world’s peoples are now on the move, in crisis flight from the political, economic and ecological disasters that make their home locales close to uninhabitable. In addition, in the centuries which have intervenened since those last Pagan laments, new religions have arisen which have dealt with displacement through a universalization from which the sacredness of the World was expunged, and has only very recently – and tentatively – been restored. Our landscapes are no longer sacred, or we are no longer where we perceive sacred landscape to be – I have written elsewhere about “zionizing” – “holy lands” of our imagination, anywhere but where we are. And then, the awkwardness of trying to sacralize lands upon which we are “settlers”, importing fractured ceremonial to a surface upon which we squat without historical depth – and therefore without ancestral legacy bequeathed in ceremony, the authenticity of which is vouchsafed by its efficacy in maintaining our endowment in sacred essence. A truly “dislocated” condition.
In sum, in a world of crisis migration, what of sacred landscape? What ceremony, rite or ritual can keep us connected, by way of a Life Line, linking us, Self to Self, to Nature in our surround, to Community and World, and to Cosmos? As I re-read Iamblichus, I shall be pondering these urgent questions, for the theology that once seemed to answer my spiritual questions adequately is now found wanting in a world where sacred landscape is literally shifting beneath our feet, where as refugees we must make provisional anchor, and where authentic and efficacious rite to set that anchor deep has long been absent. We would need to walk on water to get this one.