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Clement of Alexandria
Studies on Spirituality and Clement
When we look at studies which more fully discuss spirituality from the standpoint of later history we find that Clement's place is either wholly ignored or given a poor representation. The amount of general studies offered on spirituality are numerous, therefore we will look at only a few.
1. Two studies from the turn of the 20th century
Two general studies on mysticism which came out around the turn of the 20th century actually give Clement more credit than later studies we will note. Inge's assessment leans heavily upon Clement's use of terms which come from the Mystery religions; this is not an accurate method for reading Clement. He does adopt the imagery of the hierophant in the Eleusinian Mysteries leading the initiate into the brilliant light, but uses it to present the Christian faith. Nonetheless, Inge places Clement where he ought to be in the discussion of mysticism, between Philo and Origen (pp.86-89). I think Inge reads far too much into Clement's use of mystery language. As we will see in our study, there is much more to Clement's spirituality than this borrowed language conveys, or than Inge admits.
Underhill follows Bigg and Inge in her assessment of Clement, but also gives him plenty of credit for his role in the development of Christian mysticism. From these two scholars she takes up the discussion of the Mystery religions; she follows Bigg by saying of Clement that "his witness to the mystical life-process is rather that of a looker-on than of one who has indeed participated..." Underhill does, however, credit Clement with being the first to isolate a threefold pathway of ascent. She also gives him credit for his affirmations of contemplation, though she (overly affected by Bigg, I think) misreads him on one crucial point,
Though for him the true gnosis is still...something into which man must grow...he holds out to the neophyte the promise of a more abundant knowledge rather than a more abundant life, [this] shows him to be already affected by the oncoming tide of Neoplatonic thought. (p.283)
As we will see later, this assessment completely misses one of the most important driving forces in Clement's system: the gnostic experiences theoria in space and time, and must be engaged in this life with his fellow man.
Andrew Louth's study, referred to as "probably the best and most reliable book in English on the appropriation and transformation by Christians of the Platonic world of reference," deserves this praise. Louth's opening chapter is "Plato," followed by "Philo," "Plotinus," and "Origen." He then covers larger segments of history and movements until he devotes chapter VII to "Augustine." The concept of contemplation is effectively traced through various ancient writers.
My criticism is with the absence of Clement. Origen is the starting point for Louth's Christian mysticism. Clement is only mentioned in passing; he is not even credited with having been an influence in Origen's system of thought. Louth has moved from Philo to Origen without even acknowledging Clement's critical place in the history of Alexandrian Christianity!
Interestingly, Louth does bring Clement into the picture in his conclusion. He cites Strom. V.11.71 as an example of reduction and the abstraction from the senses. No doubt due to limited space, Louth has chosen to skip over Clement to the admittedly more influential Origen.
3. Jones, Wainwright & Yarnold
This voluminous work traces the history of Christian spirituality. Clement of Alexandria is featured in a chapter which we will discuss presently, but what I want to note here is that Clement is given only four pages. Origen gets about the same, while Augustine receives just over 10 pages. It is true, as Louth says in his opening comment on Augustine, "We probably know more about Saint Augustine than anyone else in late antiquity," but more could have been said about both Clement and Origen. The Cappadocians are lumped together so that Gregory of Nyssa receives very little coverage, but the amount of space given to the Eastern tradition is generous. It is understandable that in a survey work of this nature some fathers/movements will not receive the coverage of others; this could also depend on the individual authors rather than an editorial decision meant to deny space to any particular Father. Let us now look specifically at the chapter on Clement.
Meredith's treatment of Clement reflects the trend in scholarship which we observed at the beginning of this chapter. The sources listed reflect this philosophical/theological tendency; the only work on spirituality listed is Louth's study, which we have seen falls short with regard to Clement. Meredith confirms our observation when he says of Clement's works, "Paedagogus (the Tutor) and Stromateis (Miscellanies), offer a wide variety of instruction on ethical and theological subjects."
Meredith almost completely misses the contemplative aspect of Clement's work. In his second paragraph, commenting on Clement's sources, Meredith mentions Plato, "whose contemplative ideal is perceptible in Str. vii" (p.112), but when he finally discusses Stromateis VII (the most spiritual part of Clement's corpus!), he completely neglects the contribution which theoria makes to Clement's system. More, his analysis of Clement's prayer scheme is disputable:
Clement seems to dispense with the need both for vocal and religious prayer....Above all there is an absence of any invitation to petitionary prayer or to the sacraments....there is little in Clement's conception of perfect prayer to distinguish it from the private intellectual contemplation outlined by Plato in the Republic...
This current study will attempt to give a more complete picture of the prayer and spirituality in the life of Clement's gnostic.
4. Rowan Williams
The approach to Clement in The Wound of Knowledge is very similar to that of Louth except that it focuses more on the inner struggles which might have directed the Fathers in their quest after God. The focus is on how they "attempted to articulate their vision of the Christian calling" (p.2) rather than specifically on their theology or philosophy (although Williams certainly addresses these concerns).
The treatment of Clement is far more balanced than in other studies we have mentioned. For example,
Clement's is by no means a static model. And, although the 'gnostic' enjoys a spiritual vision superior to that of other believers, this does not exempt him from sharing the worship and life of the community. (p.37)
The section on Clement is preceded by a short discussion of Philo and the importance of theoria. (p.34) Williams rightly points out that Clement has a positive view of creation, "paradoxically, material goods can be enjoyed precisely because they are insignificant."(p.38) This relates to the role of discipline in Clement's spirituality and Williams could have done more to show its frugal, somewhat austere nature (best illustrated in Paidagogus). He accurately makes the point that what drives Clement is the illusory nature of this world, a Platonic concept. Overall, Williams rightly anchors the spirituality of Clement's gnostic in space and time. The shortcoming of this study, like the others, is the lack of discussion of Clement's idea of theoria and its place in his thought.
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