Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Transtheism it is

I have continued to ponder this terminology, and I have fallen in love with it. What it will allow me to do in terms of analysis is truly astonishing. I wish I had thought about this earlier in my career. To name the type of theism that these ancient thinkers were involved in allows me to cross boundaries and open up discussions of their ideology. I am not going to be restrained by previous research and definitions! The limits are gone.

So who is our first transtheist? Plato may be the one, although I need to do some more reading in early Greek philosophy. It might go back to Pythagorus, but I need to study him more. Anyone out there who knows, chime in. Now Plato was not worshiping the God-Beyond, but he postulated that such a god existed. It was not a personal god, but the abstract Good. Nonetheless, this Good was outside the kosmos. And it was the goal of the pious life to encounter him.

Our first worshipers of the God-Beyond appear to be the Hermetics. And then this combines with Judaism and then with Christianity, and we get quite diverse systems of transtheism, with different combinations on how the God-Beyond forms the God-World-Beyond, and then how a creator god comes into being, who he is identified with (Abrasax? IAO? Samael?), what his characteristics are, how he creates the kosmos (heavens, earth, human being), and how he rules. The systems develop very interesting figures who descend from the God-World-Beyond to aid humans trapped under his rule. And they develop practices (magic/ritual) to aid the person's return to the God-World-Beyond.

So what I am working on now is seeing chunks of the systems. What I have noticed over the years is that these chunks are clusters of traditions that roam about together from system to system. Moreover, they are made of single traditions that change out. So the language I'm pondering to identify and talk about this comes from the word "modular". A single tradition that can be interchanged with another like-tradition I am calling a "modeme". I am not using "meme" because I do not want to bring into my discussion the evolutionary theory that meme scholarship brings with it. I have my own ideas about how and why these modular units develop in the way that they do.

So a modeme is a modular unit of tradition, the simpliest form a tradition can have. Modemes don't usually circulate on their own. They are clustered into a complex. So these I will call modeplexes. A bunch of modeplexes form a religious system.

I am hoping that this type of language will aid my analysis of the transtheistic systems by breaking them down into smaller tradition complexes and then identifing the modular units themselves. A modeplex might be "astral architecture". The modemes in astral architecture might be "astral ruler"; "subordinate rulers"; "heavens"; "planets"; "fixed stars"; etc. The modeplex will usually contain all of these elements, although the particular modeme might switch out. For instance, in one system, the astral ruler is Abrasax, in another he is IAO, in another he is Samael. When this modeme switches out, what does it do to the rest of modeplex? And then the rest of the system?

At any rate, this is where my thinking is going, the direction I am heading. There is so much to do - even more than before!


Jared said...

I would throw in the Neoplatonists and all of their branches--Plotinus and Porphyry, Iamblichus, etc.

April DeConick said...

Absolutely, although they will be later than the Middle Platonists and the Hermetics.

It will be fun!

sparkwidget said...

Dr DeConick -

May I ask why you consider Heremetists to be the first transtheists? Their archaeological evidence, the Corpus Hermeticum, isn't usually dated earlier than the 3rd or 4th Century. I'm unaware of any clues to an earlier origin.


Pastor Bob said...

Not to complicate things too much but have you considered Hindu influence coming in along trade routes and Alexander's invasion? Or through the Persians?

Just wondering if the tradition is older than the Greek philosophers.

pearl said...

Just for interest, I found this little Wikipedia article summarizing (limited) past usage of the term “transtheistic”. I reckon this article might need some updating in the not-so-distant future.

Dan Harper said...

A couple of comments:

(1) I'm wondering if you have looked into folklore scholarship. What you're doing in terms of breaking things down into smaller "chunks" sounds something like the folklore scholarship I have read over the years. Admittedly, I am no folklorist, but maybe some of their work might be applicable?

(2) I'm more in the world of philosophy and theology, and I'm not yet convinced by your definition of transtheism. I think you lose me when you drag Plato into things. There is lots and lots of Plato scholarship out there, and I don't know anyone who's calling him a "transtheist." In addition, Plato wrote very subtle and nuanced dialogues, and from my perspective he was more about a certain thought process than a firm philosophical or theological tradition. You'd get a lot further with convincing me if you talked about Plato's followers, some of whom probably will fit your definition of transtheism (sorry, can't be more specific, Platonists are not something I have ever studied, or ever care to study).

(3) I think it's very problematic to try to determine who the first worshippers of the "God-Beyond" might be. How can we determine that? I would think we'd have to go beyond the written record, and somehow do historical anthropological/ theological research, and I just can't imagine a methodology that would allow one to do that with the level of accuracy I would want to see in order to back up a claim of "first." So why bother with claims of "first"? Why not trace back to earliest surviving written records, while making explicit the assumption that the earliest written records have come from earlier pre-literate thought systems? (Or perhaps here again the folklorists might have some useful methodologies.)

Anyway, I'm not in your field, so I really don't the rules of the game in your world. But I really like the way you're moving this into an interdisciplinary realm -- I have to think it would be very fruitful to engage multiple disciplines on this topic, and try to get some cross-discipline conversations going on.

My $.02 worth.

Jordan Stratford+ said...

It seems to me that the term panentheism already covers this without the need for a neologism.