The Christianity That Might Have Been

Prior to the Christian era, Athens reigned supreme over Alexandria as a centre for the study of philosophy and higher learning. However, Athens was ‘too intimately associated with the faded glories of polytheism to dispute with [Alexandria] the supremacy’ writes the Rev William Fairweather in his book Origen and Greek Patristic Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1901, p 3). By the middle of the Second Century CE, Alexandria had become one of the intellectual capitals of the Roman Empire, in large part as a result of the hard work of the Ptolemies.

When an Alexandrian school of philosophy finally developed, the school that eventuated reflected the mysticism found throughout the Middle East and tended to interpret Sacred Scripture allegorically rather than literally. Interestingly, the very early Christian church, especially the Church of Antioch, the most ancient church after that of Jerusalem, having been founded by Peter and Paul themselves, was highly mystical in its spirituality, and this was certainly true of the Alexandrian Church Fathers as well. Fairweather has written of some of the more important factors that led to Alexandria becoming the important place that it did become for early Christianity:

‘Everything combined to mark out Alexandria as the place most likely to take the lead in any great intellectual movement. Many currents of thought met and mingled in this cosmopolitan city, which witnessed not only the first attempts at a scientific theology, but also the simultaneous rise of the last great system of ancient philosophy. As a result of the syncretism of the period, a remarkable spirit of toleration prevailed in the community; the adherents of different cults and creeds lived side by side in mutual goodwill.’ (Fairweather, p 2.)

It was not a Christian but the Hellenized (and more particularly, Alexandrian) Jew, Jewish philosopher Philo, also known as Philo Judaeus as well as Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE - 50 CE), a contemporary of Jesus, who is generally credited with having developed the teachings about the Logos in the first century CE. Philo, a Middle Platonist, who greatly admired both the Essenes as well as the Pythagoreans (but especially the latter), is sometimes referred to as having been a Gnostic, but although some of the raw material of Gnosticism can be found in Philo, he was not himself a Gnostic. There is certainly room for confusion and disputation, for Philo did indeed combine and synthesize Jewish religious ideas with Greek (both Stoic and Platonic) philosophy in a highly idiosyncratic fashion. Philo translated the Jewish Scriptures in light of the language and thought forms of a number of different stands of Greek thought (in particular, Stoic, Platonic and Neopythagorean).

Philo had an enormous impact on the thinking and theology of the Christian Greek Fathers who were shortly to make their own mark in Alexandria. Fairweather writes:

‘Philo and his predecessors had to a great extent paved the way for a systematized expression, in terms of Greek philosophy, of the contents of Jewish-Christian tradition. Under the influence of philosophical and Oriental ideas the jagged edges of Judaism had been toned down, and elements of a metaphysical and mystical nature assumed. In the doctrine of the Logos a meeting-point had been found between Jewish monotheism and Gentile philosophy.’ (Fairweather, p 3.)

The preponderance of historical records supports the view that it was in the 2nd century (c 190 CE) that the Christian Church decided to establish what might be called a ‘Christian School’ in the City of Alexandria. At first it was a school for children only, but out of this school emerged the famous Catechitical School of Alexandria, also known as the Alexandrian School of Theology or simply the Alexandrian School. The Church’s aim, both in setting up this School and otherwise, was to demonstrate that true philosophy led the way to Christianity and not to Paganism. Fairweather writes that the ‘moulding of Christian theology according to the Greek type is specially identified with the Catechetical School of Alexandria’ and that the School arose ‘out of the necessities of the Alexandrian Church’ itself (Fairweather, p 8).

The Catechetical School was a ‘Christian school ... honourably distinguished from the pagan schools of the period by making a virtue a subject for practice, and not merely for definition and discourse’ (Fairweather, pp 11-12). Furthermore, the theology that emerged from this Alexandrian School of Theology was a ‘constructive’ one as opposed to the ‘defensive theology substituted for the living teaching of Christ’ (J J van der Leeuw, The Dramatic History of the Christian Church from the Beginnings to the Death of St Augustine, Adyar, Madras [Chennai]: Theosophical Publishing House, 1927 (Kessinger Publishing reprint, 2005, pp 66 and 70) that was elsewhere developing in Christianity around about the same time. (As an aside, the Alexandrian School of Theology also laid the foundations for the development of Christian humanism.)

Clement of Alexandria was highly knowledgeable in both Greek and Egyptian philosophy which led him to conclude that truth could be found even in the heathen systems. For Clement, philosophy was ‘no work of darkness, but in each of its forms a ray of light from the Logos, and therefore belonging of right to the Christian’ (Fairweather, p 14). Clement ‘combined in himself the nobility of Greek culture with the depth of Christian faith’ (van der Leeuw, pp 67-68), and was largely responsible for developing what can only be described as an eclectic form of Christian Platonism. Although ‘no systematic theologian in the modern sense, Clement may be said to have laid the foundation of a true scientific dogmatic’ (Fairweather, p 24). Van der Leeuw writes:

‘He considered Greek philosophy and Jewish law to be the paedagogus meant to lead man to Christ, and believed that the Logos directed and inspired the philosophy of Greece until He could be fully manifested in Christ. Thus Christianity was shown as the natural and necessary consummation of Greek and Jewish culture ...’ (van der Leeuw, p 68.)

Fairweather, in a similar vein, has spoken of how Clement was able to successfully combine the best of Greek philosophy with the revealed wisdom from the Hebrew Bible and the prophets culminating in Jesus’ incarnation:

‘The true goal of the Greek philosophy, as well as of the revealed wisdom proclaimed by the prophets, was the incarnation of Jesus, which focussed [sic] all previous self-communications of the Eternal Reason. A knowledge essentially devoid of error is thus guaranteed to us. ... Clement held that a man’s life is likely to be virtuous in proportion to his knowledge of the truth. ... By the union of the divine and human natures in His own person, Christ has become the source of the new life of humanity.’ (Fairweather, pp 86-87.)

Clement’s writings, which display his great indebtedness to Middle Platonism. He is famous for having written, ‘There is one river of truth, but many streams fall into it from this side and that.’ (Stromata, I:5). Clement was a Christian who also called himself a Gnostic. He spoke, quite unashamedly, of the Christian being a Gnostic, whilst making it clear that he was referring not to any of the various schools and sects which were active in the 2nd century and which called themselves ‘gnostic’ but rather to that true gnosis which the Apostle Paul referred to as ‘my knowledge in the mystery of Christ’ (Ephesians 3:4). R F Horton, in his book The Mystical Quest of Christ (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1923), writes that, insofar as Clement was concerned, ‘What was revealed in Christ was the utmost that we could know; and the additions made by the Gnostic systems were fictitious’ (Horton, p 9).

Clement affirmed that ‘the true wisdom or gnosis was that inner illumination to which the true Christian could attain if he lived the life of purity and love which our Lord had taught’ (van der Leeuw 1927a:69). Clement’s aim was ‘to bring his students to a state of spiritual vision, not as a single experience so much as a dynamic, growing movement, of which this life on earth formed only a part’ (T Churton, Gnostic Philosophy: From Ancient Persia to Modern Times, Rochester VT: Inner Traditions, 2005, p 117). Faith was only the first step toward gnosis, for, according to Clement, the Christian ‘must advance from faith to knowledge by the path of simple obedience and rectitude’ (Fairweather, p 31).

Not only did Clement take from Greek philosophy the concept of the Logos, he ‘divinised’ it such that both the Son and the Holy Spirit were also ‘first-born powers and first created’. In that regard, Clement distinguished the so-called Son-Logos from the Logos itself. For him the Christian gospel was ‘the highest revelation of the Logos, who has given indication of his presence wherever men rise above the level of the beasts and of the uncivilised savage’ and (Fairweather, p 24). ‘The eternal Word has appeared as man in order to become our Teacher and Saviour’ (Fairweather, p 29).

Clement had a high vision of humankind, and its innate divinity and potential. His philosophy and theological system recognised the reality of sin, but there was no place for any Calvinistic-type sin-sodden view of our innate total depravity or the like. Thus, Clement rejected denied the doctrine of ‘original sin’ - something the Jews have always repudiated as well - but he was still nevertheless of the view that ‘fallen man [was] powerless to restore himself to good’ (Fairweather, p 29). Any ‘punishments’ meted out by God were, according to Clement, ‘saving and disciplinary, leading to conversion’ (see Stromata, VII, 2; Pedagogue, I, 8). God was thus not an angry, vengeful god that needed to be appeased. It was simply a case of our impurity which needed ‘to be overcome, so that unity with the Divine may be attained’ (van der Leeuw 1927a:70). We ‘wander from the path which leads to righteousness’ (Confiteor, The Liturgy of the Liberal Catholic Church, 204; 224) out of ignorance of who and what we really are. All of this was, for Clement, part and parcel of the Christian doctrines of creation and redemption. He saw Jesus, not so much as Saviour, but as Way-Shower and Exemplar, with the way being one of self-sacrifice and selfless self-giving. Only by such means could one be initiated into the ‘Mysteries of the Kingdom of God’. J J van der Leeuw writes that Clement understood Christ’s self-giving as being a living allegory of the need for our own crucifixion of our egos: ‘The message which Christ brought to man was not that life meant a crucifixion, but that through the crucifixion of our earthly self the spirit within could attain to the new birth’ (van der Leeuw, p 70). In Clement’s system of theology, salvation did not depend upon any notions of vicarious atonement or propitiation or expiation. As Clement saw it, the Christian life is one of imitating God, especially Christ Jesus. For Clement, that is the basis of Christian morality and ethics.

Clement’s system of thought and teaching was one of the earliest formulations of a type of Neoplatonism. Regrettably, but not surprisingly, his eclecticism met with some opposition, and in 203 CE he was deposed as head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria and replaced by his pupil Origen.

Origen, ‘the great teacher of the Greek Church’ (Fairweather, p viii), indeed the greatest early Christian theologian and church father, succeeded Clement as head of the Alexandrian School of Theology. He was a prolific writer on Christian teachings who ‘valued dogma [but] abjured dogmatism’ (Fairweather, p ix). Among his various writings, De Principiis, Origen’s treatise of systematic theology, was ‘the first constructive theology the [Christian] Church had yet produced’ (van der Leeuw, p 77). F W Farrar, in his Brompton Lectures compiled and published with the title History of Interpretation (History of Interpretation: Eight Lectures Preached Before the University of Oxford in the Year MDCCCLXXXV on the Foundation of the Late Rev John Bampton, London: Macmillan, 1886 (Kessinger Publishing reprint, 2004)) also paid high tribute to the significance of Origen as a Christian theologian and philosopher: ‘Like the influence of Socrates in Greek philosophy, so the influence of Origen in Church history is the watershed of multitudes of different steams of thought’ (p 188).

Origin, like Clement and others of the early Christian era in the Platonic and Neoplatonic tradition, believed in the essential oneness of all life and, in particular, ‘the indestructible unity of God and all spiritual essence’ (Fairweather, p 96). Origen never doubted that the word of God was ‘the sole source of absolute certitude, and the sole repository of essential truth’ (Fairweather, pp ix-x), and that the Gospel was ‘the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth’ (Rom 1:16), but he ‘attache[d] the greatest value to a scientific conception of Christianity ... [h]ence the union in him of the Platonic philosopher with the orthodox traditionalist’ (Fairweather, p 89). According to Origen, all Christian doctrine had to be subjected to the light of reason and not simply accepted on faith at face value. Fairweather writes (p 89): ‘As the revelation of the highest reason, Christianity must lend itself to elucidation by the science of reasoning, and, in fact, it admits of being stated in clear dogmatic propositions.’ Origin affirmed and expounded both the transcendence of God as the one eternal Essence and the immanence of God in the whole of creation, with the latter being revealed in Christ. Fairweather sums up Origen’s position on the matter with these words:

‘We live and move and have our being in God because by His power and reason He fills and holds together all the diversity of the world. The task to which Origen addresses himself resembles in certain respects that attempted by the Neoplatonists; for him as for them the problem is how to establish the organic unity of God and the world, and counteract the dualism of Oriental theosophies.’ (Fairweather, p 96.)

Not surprisingly, Origen, like Clement, was also a firm believer in Christian Universalism, the pre-existence of the human soul (with the latter, the human soul, being seen to be a ‘mirror’ of the Deity), and the final salvation of all human beings, but this should come as no surprise to students of the history of the early Church. John Wesley Hanson, the scholarly author of Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five-Hundred Years (Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1899 [online]), has written this about the Early Christian Church’s almost universal belief in ‘universal salvation’:

‘Universal Restitution was the faith of the early Christians for at least the First Five Hundred Years of the Christian Era. ...

‘The surviving writings of the Christian Fathers, of the first four or five centuries of the Christian Era, abound in evidences of the prevalence of the doctrine of universal salvation during those years.’ (Online source.)

The Alexandrian theologians were also eminent philosophers, believing that philosophy was of divine origin. In particular, the Alexandrian School of Theology had a special focus on both Christian and pagan (Greek) writings, and Alexandria itself (which was in its heyday one of the intellectual capitals of the Roman Empire) also had more than a passing acquaintance with Buddhism, which itself had an influence upon Greek thought.

According to Origen, every religion has a body, a soul, and a spirit. Van der Leeuw describes it this way:

‘Origen’s conception of the Scriptures was that they could be interpreted in three different ways, the first according to the letter or the body of the Scriptures, the second according to the soul, giving the allegorical meaning of the different passages, and the third according to the spirit, giving the esoteric interpretation.’ (van der Leeuw, pp 82-83.)

Origen found the scriptural basis for his tripartite method of interpretation in the Hebrew Bible, relevantly, in Proverbs 22:20-21: ‘Have not I written to thee excellent things in counsels and knowledge, That I might make thee know the certainty of the words of truth; that thou mightest answer the words of truth to them that send unto thee?’

When one applies this key to the sacred scriptures of the world’s great religions one finds that, when they are interpreted literally, they are for the most part at odds with each other, and largely, if not entirely, irreconcilable. Thus, a passage of scripture such as ‘Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me’ leads Christian fundamentalists to say things such as, ‘God has spoken his final word in Jesus Christ’, and ‘If Christianity is right, all other religions are wrong’. The result – a truly horrible state of affairs which has resulted in thousands of years of acrimony, needless division, wars, inquisitions, heresy trials, witch hunts, martyrdoms, executions, and so forth.

Now, when one starts to interpret scriptures allegorically, that produces a vast improvement, and we start to see enormous similarities between the world’s various sacred scriptures. However, the allegorical method of interpretation has its limitations and involves a lot more subjectivity and intuitive guesswork than its proponents care to admit, and suffers from an unavoidable ex post facto and somewhat mechanical superimposition of an already adopted system of metaphysical or esoteric belief system

The third method of interpretation---the ‘spiritual’ one---leads one to conclude that, despite the many obvious differences in the contents of the world’s religions, there is, if one is honest enough to admit it, some underlying common message, namely that all life is one, that the One becomes the many so that the many may know themselves to be one, that we all come from God (whether we care to use that word or not to describe the Sacred or the Holy and the Ineffable One), belong to God, live, move and have our being in God, are godlike in nature, and are each on our way back to God, that as we sow, so shall we reap, that what belongs to us by right of consciousness can never be lost, and so forth.

For Origin, the Scriptures were ‘a mine of speculative truths’ even though he ‘never depart[ed] from the position that the Bible is the sole guide to those higher truths which, however they may vary as regards the form of their presentation, remain always the same in substance’ (Fairweather, p 71). Nevertheless, there was indeed a divine purpose as respects ‘the concealment of spiritual truths under cover of some narrative of visible things or human deeds, or of the written legislation’ (Fairweather, p 71), for although ‘the letter of Scripture is capable of edifying ‘the multitude,’ who cannot investigate the mysteries … [t]he great instrument for discovering and interpreting the deeper mysteries underlying the letter of Scripture is the allegorical method’ (Fairweather, pp 71, 73).

Fairweather has written of the importance of these early Church Fathers:

‘The special task, then, to which the Christian theologians of Alexandria addressed themselves, was that of harmonising the apostolic tradition concerning Christ with the theological conclusions of the Jewish-Alexandrian philosophers – a task which necessarily involved considerable modification of absolute statement on the one side or the other.’ (Fairweather, p 4.)

In summary, the early Greek Fathers of the Church saw Christianity as embodying all that was good and noble in Greek philosophy and pagan religion. Indeed, they went further than that, stating that whatever ‘elements of truth’ were contained in the former reached their completion or had their culmination in Christian doctrine. Over time, the religious and mystical philosophy later known as Neoplatonism evolved. Neoplatonism also had an influence upon Islamic and Jewish thinkers, but the term is problematic and controversial in that several of those most intimately associated with this school of philosophy, especially the Egyptian-born Plotinus (204-270 CE) and Porphyrey (c234-c305 CE), would have seen themselves as being Platonists, and can still be seen to this day to have been Platonists. Neoplatonism would later become the foundation and backbone of Christian mysticism, and otherwise had a profound influence upon early Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius.

Neoplatonism built upon many of the foundations already laid down by Platonism itself. For the Neoplatonist, the human mind was a noble thing - indeed the very throne of the Godhead Itself. The emphasis was not on our ‘total depravity’ but on our high calling and innate potential as the image and very likeness of God.

Neoplatonism, as a religious philosophy, is a special form of idealistic monism, asserting that all reality is ultimately mental, that the physical world is produced by the mind, and that we experience the physical world through the medium of ideas … and not directly. Neoplatonism has been described as being ‘the basic philosophy of Plato with special emphasis upon its mystical content’ (Manly P Hall, Journey in Truth, 2nd ed, Los Angeles: Philosophical Research Society, 1945, p 27) -- in other words, Platonic mysticism. As such, Neoplatonism postulates one, infinite and primeval Source of Being, which is the source of all life as well as absolute causality and the only real existence in which all things subsist and have their being. Unity is reality, not just the underlying reality behind all appearances of diversity. Indeed, according to Neoplatonists, diversity is an illusion in any event. The ‘key’ to all Neoplatonic thinking is, firstly, that all life is one, and secondly, that good is co-eternal with unity (Hall 1945:40). This understanding of life needs to be experienced, not just intellectually, but at the deepest levels of one’s being.

Neoplatonists placed a special emphasis on ‘the attainment of the state of enlightenment’, meaning ‘the individual attainment of the philosophic state’ (Hall, pp 37 and 38) such that the ‘eternal prisoner’, our spirit long buried in the tomb or sepulchre of matter or substance - the very essence of Life Incarnate - can rise to perfected glory by means of an ongoing process of purification, knowledge and service to others. The Neoplatonists were also Universalists, and they embraced the view that whilst the One ever seeks perfect Self-conscious expression by becoming and taking the form of the many, the many (indeed, all) will eventually find their way back to the One Source of Being.

Such optimism, especially as regards the idealistic manner in which God is described, together with the notions of the perfectibility of all human beings, and the idea that perfect justice rules the word, are very Platonic, and that Platonism carried through to the Neoplatonism of the 3rd century and, many centuries later, in the revival of Neoplatonism that occurred, first during the Renaissance, and later in the 19th century, re-manifesting itself in Transcendentalism, New Thought, Christian Science, Theosophy and other metaphysical movements, but not in mainstream conventional Christianity.

Manly P Hall writes that Neoplatonism was ‘too broad and profound a system of philosophy to gain general acceptance’ (Hall, p 18). This is not at all surprising, for, as Fairweather points out (Fairweather, p 23), the Neoplatonists ‘borrowed whatever appeared to them good from every possible source’. Fairweather goes on to say:

‘They contemplated nothing less than the introduction of a universal religion, constructed on principles so broad that the wise of all the earth could adhere to it. It was their aim to set matters right between philosophy and theology, between doctrine and life, and to satisfy the needs of the soul on a scale to which Christianity could make no pretension.’ (Fairweather, p 23.)

All of the notable persons referred to above who were associated in one way or another with the Alexandrian School of Theology were not content simply to believe. They wanted to know. Despite censure, hostility and charges of heresy and so forth, much of the mysticism of the Alexandrian School was absorbed into Christian thinking, along with other associated ideas and concepts such as theosis (or ‘divinisation’), finding the ‘Hidden God’ in our very own lives, and ‘waking up to mystery’, can be found to this day in Christian churches such as the Maronite Catholic Church, the Antiochian Orthodox Church and the Liberal Catholic Church. All these churches lay special emphasis on the idea that the Son of God became man so that we might become God. This is a very Eastern perspective. Regrettably, mainstream traditional Christianity has, for the most part, moved in an altogether different direction. As the American Liberal Catholic Bishop John M Tettemer writes:

‘It is interesting to speculate on what would have been the development of Christianity if the Arabs had not brought Aristotle to the Western World in the ninth century, and if the Platonism of Augustine, or even the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, had become the prevailing philosophy in Europe, during that period in which the Church’s doctrines were to receive their final form.’ (John M Tettemer (ed J Mabie) I Was a Monk: The Autobiography of John Tettemer. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1951); Wheaton IL: Theosophical Publishing House/Pyramid Publications [Re-Quest Books] (1974), p 211.)

Sadly, a gentler, nobler and more enlightened form of Christianity was not to be. As Manly Palmer Hall pointed out:

‘Neoplatonism could not compete successfully with the rising tides of Christian Aristotelianism, therefore it never became a popular school of thought. For some reason, the negative emotions and attitudes come easier to men than do the more constructive impulses. It is easier to dislike than to like, and we are far more likely to distrust than to trust. We hope for the best, but we prepare always for the worst. We talk of the brotherhood of man, but develop elaborate systems to prove the inequality of nations and the perfidy of individuals. We talk of the fatherhood of God, and then preach of the gentile and the constant menace of heathenism. In business there is much mouthing of such words as ethics, cooperation, and fair-play, but ceaseless practice of ruthless competition.’ (Hall, p 172.)

The literalist Christians ultimately won out. The regrettable history of the Christian Church, at least in its so-called more traditional and conventional forms, is one of increasing dogma, control and dependency. Creativity, autonomy and freedom of belief on the part of the individual were progressively discouraged. Dissent was not tolerated. Even the use of violence was justifiable if it assisted in maintaining orthodoxy. Theology was systematized along Aristotelian lines, which was the ‘best’ way to achieve the desired result – uniformity, consistency, fidelity to the ‘one true faith’ ... and obedience … especially the latter. All of this is the very antithesis of Platonism and Neoplatonism. Max Freedom Long, in What Jesus Taught in Secret (Camarillo CA: DeVorss & Company, 1983, p 113), expressed it well when he wrote:

‘Christianity, once its basic patterns had been rather completely set, by about 400 [CE], became fixed, and, in a static condition, droned on and on through the Dark Ages.’

Note. This article is based on material contained in a 2009 thesis written by the author and submitted in fulfilment of the requirements of The Liberal Catholic Institute of Studies (Australian Campus) for a Diploma in Religious Studies. The diploma was awarded with distinction.