All religious traditions are built off of four core modes of conduct: dogma, doxa, praxis, and pathos. These principles cannot be divorced from one another, and each of them is necessary as the foundations of a proper religion and the achievement of spiritual fulfillment.
“Doctrines that make men god-fearing. . . first that they [the Gods] exist, secondly that they concern themselves with the things of this world, and further that they do no injury at all either to mankind or to one another, out of jealousy or envy or enmity”
–Flavius Claudius Iulianus (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, II 325-327)
Dogma (meaning “doctrine”) surrounds sincere acknowledgement of the undeniable truths. These are not something that we can “grant or not grant, nor admit to it as ambiguous (for it remains always uniformly in actuality), nor should we examine the question as though we were in a position either to assent to it or to reject it” (Iamblichus De Mysteriis, I.3). These dogmas are part of our natural ability/disposition [physis], being innate within all people.
First of these absolute truths is the reality and agency of the Gods (Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, II 327). Quite simply, the Gods exist. The reality Gods’ existence is not up to any kind of debate or negotiation. Knowledge of the divine is not attainable in mere belief [doxa], but rather, it is a natural tendency in all people (Iamblichus De Mysteriis, I.2-3), because whether in private or public, whether as individuals or as peoples, there exists a universal striving towards divinity, for we all believe, even without being taught, in the existence of something divine (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, I 321), for there is no one who does not raise their hands to heaven in prayer when they worship or swear by the divine; if they have any notion at all of the divine, they will turn heavenward, and it is very natural that people feel thus (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, I 323). This doctrine also connects with the necessity of ritual sacrifice because the Gods are real Beings who, as Gods, are worthy of ritual observance and devotion. Understanding the reality and agency of the Gods is also understanding that the worship of the divine is meaningful. The point of ritual practice (praxis) is so we can engage in do ut des, the establishment of a personal relationship with a God based on a reciprocal relationship of gift exchanging. If do ut des is divorced from the act of sacrifice, then sacrifice becomes a pointless action. If one was convinced that the Gods had no agency or outright did not exist, then why engaging in ritual practice when your acts would be accomplishing nothing? Quite simply, the existence of the Gods and the effectiveness of rituals is not up to debate. You do not choose to simply “believe” in Zeus. He just exists. You don’t merely “believe” in these things, they’re simply just how things are and facts of life. We provide offerings to the Gods because of dogma. We know They exist, and understand that we engage with them through do ut des (Windintheworldtree 2018).
Second of these undeniable truths is the understanding that the Gods concern themselves with the things of this world (Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, II 327). This is closely tied to the previous doctrine, because if one was likewise convinced that the Gods were indifferent or uncaring, then why bother engaging in ritual practice when your acts would also not be accomplishing anything? As a dogma, this absolute truth is, again, non-negotiable. It is a truth beyond belief, as it is simply how things are. This is seen in Plato, who writes that it is obvious that the Gods care immensely for all things in creation, whether these things big or small, including ourselves. After all, if the Gods are capable of taking care of the entire order of the Kosmos, then there is no reason that They cannot take care of creation’s smaller pieces (Plato Laws, X 902e-903b, tr. T.J. Saunders):
“We must not suppose that God, who is supremely wise, and willing and able to superintend the world, looks to major matters but – like a faint-hearted lazybones who throws up his hands at hard work – neglects the minor, which we established were in fact easier to look after. The supervisor of the universe has arranged everything with an eye to its preservation and excellence, and its individual parts play appropriate active or passive roles according to their various capacities. These parts, down to the smallest details of their active and passive functions, have each been put under the control of ruling powers that have perfected the minutest constituents of the universe.”
This tells us that the divine care supervise the entirety of the Kosmos, even the smallest of things, including individual creatures such as ourselves. Even those who fail to recognize this divine care, who are addressed by Plato in the following way (Plato Laws, X 903c, tr. T.J. Saunders):
“Now then, you . . . , one such part – a mere speck that nevertheless constantly contributes to the whole – [it] is you, you who have forgotten that nothing is created except to provide the entire universe with a life of prosperity. You forget that creation is not for your benefit: you exist for the sake of the universe.”
Thus even the most minor of things, including individual creatures, thus contributes to the order of the world, whether or not it is aware of its role. This idea is then further developed by reference to a checkers-player whose task it is to promote or demote our souls according to its we make (or fail to make) (Plato Laws, X 904 b-c, tr. T.J. Saunders):
“With this grand purpose in view he has worked out what sort of position, in what regions, should be assigned to a soul to match its changes of character; but he left it to the individual’s act of will to determine the direction of these changes. You see, the way we react to particular circumstances is almost invariably determined by our desires and our psychological state.”
And so we know that the Gods concern themselves with the things of this world, and because of that know that all action is meaningful, whether ritual or otherwise, on the health of the soul.
The third of these truths is that the Gods do no injury at all, neither to mankind nor to one-another, out of any sort of jealousy, envy or enmity (Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, II 327). The Gods are not jealous, for to be jealous would be to passion. The Gods do not rejoice- for what rejoices also grieves. Nor are They appeased by gifts – for if They were, They would also be conquered by pleasure. The Gods are always good, always do good and never do injustice, instead always being in the same state and like Themselves (Sallustius, XIV).
Anything further than these essential doctrines is mere opinion, or doxa (meaning “opinion” or “belief”). It is one’s mathesis, their personal study. It is important to note that there does not exist a single correct belief which can act as the sole bridge to the truth. Instead, there exists many paths to salvation, as is evident by the wide variety of religions, spiritual paths and divine experiences found throughout the world across all cultures.
Plato writes that doxa can be understood as a faculty which allows one to produce opinions (Plato Republic, 476a-480a). However, it is important to not blindly follow the doxa of the many, lest we fall to ignorance. The divine Julian warns against putting blind faith in the mere opinions of others, writing that “so long as you are a slave to the opinions [doxa] of the many you have not yet approached freedom or tasted its nectar” (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, II 47). Instead we must look to the logos, or reason principles, to find true knowledge (epistími), rather than mere doxa. This can be complimentary to Aristotle, who writes of a specific doxa called endoxa, which is doxa that has withstood the test of debate. As such, endoxa can serve as a stepping stone on the path to discovering true knowledge, and thus it can lead to the development of many different schools of philosophy which may hold their own doxai about a God or ontologies while, simultaneously, still participating within the same religious tradition. For Hellenic Faith, we follow a particular doxa called Julian Hellenism, a sub-tradition within the Hellenic religion which ascribes to the philosophy of Iamblichean Platonism and the theology of Emperor Julian.
However, it is not enough to merely declare your belief in something without engaging with it on a deeper level. Aristotle’s ethical works inform us that three elements are necessary to successfully engage with philosophy (Nicomachean Ethics 10.9.1179b20ff) (Eudemian Ethics 1.1.1214al6ff):
- Physis: one’s disposition or natural ability,
- Mathesis: one’s study, and lastly,
- Askesis: one’s actual practice of what they have learned.
Whilst physis and mathesis are both important, it is askesis whose importance is often overlooked. This is because of the specific way it was understood in the context of ancient philosophy. Askesis can “equally well refer to going over one’s irregular verbs, if one is learning a language, or doing one’s training, if one is learning how to throw the javelin; but in the context of ancient philosophy, which was, after all, a bios, or “way of life,” as well as a body of doctrines, askesis could fairly be seen to refer to practices that might be regarded as “ascetic”” (Wimbush & Valantis 1998, 86).
In short, one must apprise and express their doxa through praxis. This is because our actions can have a positive or negative impact on the health of our souls. We can be sinful, or we can be virtuous. If I go out and murder someone in cold blood without good reason, this vice will negatively impact my soul. Conversely, if I go out of my way to do virtue and thus spread the Good such as by donating to charities, volunteering to aid the homeless, helping the elderly cross the street, etc., this attempt to bring the Good would bring me closer to the divine. As such, actions which imitate the divine, such as religious rituals, also cultivate virtue and thus have a good effect on one’s relationship with the Gods– especially because when those who engage in praxis are going out of their way to actually engage with the Gods and their tradition beyond “thoughts and prayers.”
“Prayers without sacrifice are only words, and prayers with sacrifice are animated words.”
–Sallustius (On the Gods and the World, XVI)
Praxis (meaning “doing” or “activity”) surrounds work/deeds and entails the correct conduct with regards to actions of tradition and the continuance or integrity thereof, of ritual, and other enactments of religious practice. It not only implies the correct observance of rituals, but can even extend to an entire lifestyle. Ritual animates belief, and it is through praxis that the teachings and methods of one’s beliefs (doxa) are brought into their everyday life, where they are not simply memorized, but integrated and lived in accordance to.
It is important to emphasize that the notion of finding salvation through mere belief is ultimately silly, because the divine is totally beyond the capabilities of mind, and thus true knowledge of the divine, gnosis, is not attainable through mere doxa. Instead, true knowledge is a natural tendency which is innate in all people, already within the soul itself, because whether in private or public, whether as individuals or as peoples, there exists a universal striving towards divinity, for we all believe, even without being taught, in the existence of something divine (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, I 321), for there is no one who does not raise their hands to heaven in prayer when they swear by the Gods; if they have any notion at all of the divine, they will turn heavenward, and it was very natural that people should feel thus (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, I 323). It in this innate understanding that we can find true knowledge of the divine, which is not easily comprehended, nor is it able to be easily communicated, for no one in the world can adequately describe the true greatness of the divine without failing to a certain extent in their attempt (Flavius Claudius Iulianis, III 357).
We are reminded of and brought closer to gnosis, the knowledge that our truest selves have forgotten, by worshiping the Gods, which we do by engaging in theourgia, which is the praxis necessary for embodied souls to transition from experiencing corporeality as an isolated prison, to a divine revelation that’s participate in the World Soul (Shaw 2014, xxii) (Shaw 2014, 62). This is brought about by engaging in a God’s cultus. A God’s cultus indicates every aspect of a God’s worship, from sacred texts, to rites, to their temples, to private devotion, to sacred images and names, and so on. Cultus comes from a Latin word that means “to cultivate,” which implies active maintenance beyond mere passive adoration, and is typically in the form of traditions with correctly performed rites and ceremonies that worshipers engage in to “cultivate” the benevolence of the Gods as a means of bringing us closer to their divine light (Adkins 2005, 309) (Sallustius, XIV). This is because a God’s cultus has divine origins, being actively advocated and established by that God through divine inspiration (Lankila 2016, 150-151).
Its divine origins means that through the imitation of the divine via the correct observance of rituals, real changes are made to oneself which allows us to become more like the divine above. This cleanses ourselves of sins and ritual impurities which pollutes and distracts us from gnosis. The true spiritual wisdom attained through praxis manifests as pathos.
Pathos (meaning “suffering” or “experience”) surrounds direct experiences we have with the Gods. It is important to note that “the contact we have with the divinity is not to be taken as knowledge [gnosis]” (Iamblichus De Mysteriis, I.3) alone, because gnosis is separated from its object by “some degree of otherness” (Iamblichus De Mysteriis, I.3). However, the contact that we have with the divine can be the stepping stone towards attaining gnosis.
It’s important to note that the soul doesn’t attain any pathos from its embodiment. Instead, we gain spiritual gnosis from the soul itself, through an awareness of the essential self and our place within the cosmos (Shaw 2014, 113). It is with this understanding of our true nature that we vertically align with the One and attain henosis, or liberation, where one has found salvation and is fully participate in the World Soul.
It’s important to note that gnosis isn’t a single experience, but is rather a continuum which stretches from the natural cosmos to the One itself. It’s both acquired and given, in that while through praxis one makes real changes to themselves to become more like the divine, it is simultaneous that the divine is an active participant in the receiving of gnosis (Theourgia.org Catechism, 82). One can attain gnosis of multiple different things, beings and of the various realms. A purified Theurgic Sage will intuitively know proper moral activity through gnosis (Theourgia.org Catechism, 93).
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