Academic journal article Magistra

The Paradox of Unlikeness in Achard of St. Victor and Marguerite Porete

Academic journal article Magistra

The Paradox of Unlikeness in Achard of St. Victor and Marguerite Porete

Article excerpt

A succinct statement from the Fourth Lateran Council appears to sum up one central tenet of Christian theological anthropology: "Between Creator and creature one can never affirm as much likeness as there is unlikeness."(1)

This doctrine, which is the foundation for much medieval theology and preaching, has traditionally found expression in several time-worn and pastorally sound spatial and geographical metaphors: humanity is exiled in an inhospitable world, is on a continual pilgrimage, is displaced from its homeland, is living a difficult life in servitude from which it can never fully escape, and is imprisoned as a captive in chains. These generic themes and metaphors rest on one dominant strain of thought, that the soul, created in the image and likeness of its creator, retains its identity as the image of God while losing its likeness to God. The retained image of God in the soul leads the soul to desire to become more "like" the creator and thus, little by little, to come to know and be known by the creator.(2) This "ethic of holiness" is based on the idea that unlikeness causes distance, anxiety and a need for constant, virtuous struggle. Unlikeness is an obstacle that the soul must strive to overcome.

The notion of exile from the divine through unlikeness and return by means of increasing likeness was an essential element in the thought of Plato, whose ideas were transformed by Christian Neoplatonic thinkers in light of biblical texts. This exile motif is best captured in the term "region of unlikeness," which signifies that humanity has passed from a paradisiacal regio similitudinis to an earthly regio dissimilitudinis or from a region of likeness to a region of unlikeness to God.(3) The radicality of human sin insures that at no point can the fallen soul be certain of its status before God and, as a result, the pilgrim is always in tension with the created world. Restoration of fellowship with God is attained through ascetic practices (often in the form of imitatio Christi) and obedience to church teachings, all with the necessary aid of divine grace.

This system of thought, rooted in antiquity and infused with scriptural and patristic motifs in the Middle Ages, was challenged by Marguerite Porete in the late thirteenth century. For her, unlikeness is not the key that locks the door between God and the fallen soul; rather, it is the key that unlocks that door. She dismisses traditional biblical and patristic motifs in favor of courtly metaphors that better express her speculative theology. Courtly literature provides apt metaphors to describe the relationship between the soul and God. Marguerite does not dismiss the notion of humanity's lost likeness to God, nor does she dispense with grace; indeed, her view of the fallen human condition seems extremely pessimistic. Nevertheless, she flips the traditional equation: creatures must embrace, not escape, unlikeness to God to achieve restoration of lost likeness.

A comparison of the ways in which Achard of St. Victor (d. 1171/2) and Marguerite Porete (d. 1310) handle this issue can help to highlight aspects of what has been labelled "vernacular theology," written primarily by women in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. This new mode of speculation, here represented by Marguerite, challenged the dominant monastic and scholastic paradigms in the West, here represented by Achard.(4) This paper does not seek to prove influences between these two thinkers; rather, it examines a pivotal change in theological speculation and expression during the century that separates them. These authors agree on several fundamental issues, yet the differences between them are definitive. For both, Adam's willfulness alienated humanity from divinity and caused the creature to become unlike the creator. Both also insist that the divine image within the soul is retained despite sin. Both assert that human beings willfully turn away from God and become "unlike" God, not only primordially but continually in everyday life. …

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