How God is both transcendent and immanent
Book XI of the Corpus Hermeticum is a profound and important hermetic text. The main theme is that God is both transcendent and immanent.
Book XI, which has the title “Mind (Nous) to Hermes“, delves into theological and cosmological themes. The book primarily focuses on the concept of god and the process of “generation,” which represents the physical birth and coming into existence of beings. The text explores the hierarchical order and interrelationships among god, eternity, the world, time, and generation.
This hermetic treatise offers profound insights into theological concepts and cosmological views. The hierarchical order of god, eternity, the world, time, and generation, along with the unity of creation under a single creator, underscores the interconnectedness and significance of these elements. It emphasizes the path to knowing god and the inherent beauty and goodness that lie within this transcendent understanding.
God and the Whole
In Book XI, the Nous (the divine intellect) communicates with Hermes, who seeks understanding amidst the multitude of opinions regarding god and the universe. The revelation from Nous encompasses the fundamental elements of “god, eternity, the world, time, and generation.” These elements, arranged hierarchically, elucidate the immovable nature of god and eternity, while the world, time, and generation are subject to movement and change.
The Role of God and Eternity
Within this hierarchical framework, god operates through his power, referred to as δύναμις, which corresponds to eternity (αιών) – the world being a creation of this union. God’s wisdom (σοφία), comprises the virtues of good, beauty, and happiness (τό αγαθόν και τό καλόν xai ευδαιμονία), along with the addition of virtue and eternity.
Eternity, endowed with the task of bringing order and immortality to the world, governs matter, generation, and time, both in heaven and on earth, each with its distinct characteristics.
The Creator and Unity
The diversity and multiplicity of bodies, despite their dissimilarities, inevitably point to a single creator. The concept of matter, unique yet present in every being, combined with the animation of all creation, reinforces the notion of a singular creator. Creation itself becomes inseparable from god, defining his nature and characterizing his perpetual activity.
Understanding God and the World
The beauty and organization of the world manifested through the arrangement of the seven heavens or spheres, the placement of the earth, and the existence of both mortal and immortal beings, allude to the presence of a single governing principle. The creator of such a diverse world cannot be similar to it, possessing all forms. Instead, god’s form is incorporeal (άσώματος ιδέα), while being the source of all visible forms.
Flow chart to visualize the concepts in Book XI by ProtagonistThomas
Transcendent and Immanent
The main theme of Book XI is how God is both transcendent and immanent. To be able to balance these two seemingly contradictory viewpoints Mind (Nous) explains at length to Hermes both the concept of eternity as well as the concept of soul, as these two are the bridge that connects the two “opposed” viewpoints.
As wars have been fought over the question if God is transcendent or immanent, Nous (or the author of the book) shows his spiritual brilliance by integrating both ideas into one. Below we explore the important theme of God in relation to Eternity (Aiōn) and the Cosmos by using relevant quotes from Book XI.
The complete transcendence of God is illustrated by this line, said by Nous:
“Thus, Hermes, you should never believe that anything above or below is similar to God, since then you will stray from the truth. For nothing is like that which has no like, and is alone and one. Do not believe that any of God’s power is given to anyone else.“
But then we also read this which might seem that God is also fully immanent:
“The Creator is in everything. He does not dwell just in one thing, nor does He just create in one; He begets them all. His power being active is not separate from what He has begotten, for all that is begotten exists by reason of Him.“
Is this one of these famous contradictions within the Hermetica? No, as we can see in what Nous tells Hermes. Yes, God is completely transcendent, but through eternity He is infused/immanent in creation:
“The source of all is God, the essence of all is eternity, the substance of all is the cosmos; the potentiality of God is eternity, the work of eternity is the cosmos, which is never born but is always coming into existence through eternity.“
And Nous says:
“Eternity maintains all this, whether by necessity, providence, nature or whatever anyone may suppose; and this whole is God in activity, an unsurpassable power…“
So, through eternity God is “within” creation and we can “see” Him. How can we do this?
“And all beings are full of soul..“,
“But consider, since there is only one matter and one soul..“,
“Likewise soul, by itself, present with the Creator, is the cause of life..“,
“Clearly there is a Creator of these things, and it is very evident that there is only one. For soul is one, life is one, and matter is one. Who is He? Who else but the one God?“
Although it does not say it explicitly it seems Nous hints at the existence of a First or Universal Soul and a second soul within an individual human. Both are eternal:
“All then is made by God and life is the union of Nous and soul.“
With our soul, we can “see” the invisible, the unbegotten, the divine, the eternal. That is when section 18 leads into 19 and 20. And Nous ends with:
“Now do you say that God is invisible? Be careful. Who is more manifest than He?“
God is completely transcendent, but through His eternity He is completely immanent. With soul, we can witness this and bridge the transcendent with the immanent.
The Path to Knowledge of God
Book XI shows the significance of transcending the limitations of the body in order to conceive god. By freeing ourselves from temporal constraints and immersing in the eternal, we can contemplate our own immortality and conceive of the beauty and goodness embodied by god.
Ignorance of the divine is considered the worst evil, while the pursuit of knowledge and alignment with goodness form the direct and accessible path toward understanding and experiencing god.