For the first ten of its eleven chapters, the Metamorphosis or Golden Ass of Apuleius (c. 125-c. 180) seems to be nothing more than a diverting, frequently ribald burlesque; but then, in the closing pages, the tone entirely changes, and all at once the farce gives way to one of the loveliest and most devout expressions of faith in a compassionate divine savior in all of ancient literature. Lucius—the tale’s protagonist and narrator, who has endured nearly a year in the form of an ass—wakes one night near the sea at Corinth and, seeing the full moon above him, purifies himself in the tide and prays to this “shining goddess” and “Queen of Heaven” that she deliver him from the magic that binds him.
When he then falls asleep upon the strand, the goddess visits him in a dream, rising out of the sea in all her beauty. Her hair is unbound, her head wreathed with flowers and crowned with a gleaming lunar disc set in a silver circlet, her body clad in radiant white, crocus yellow, and rose red; she wears, draped from one shoulder, a black, flower-hemmed cloak whose dark folds, aglow with an unearthly splendor, are adorned with coruscating images of the stars and the moon at mid-month.
“Moved by your supplications,” she tells Lucius, “I am come to you: I, the begetter of everything in nature, mistress of all elements, firstborn of the ages, the supreme deity, queen of the souls of the dead, first among all those in heaven, the single form of all gods and goddesses—I, who by my will superintend the shining summits of heaven, the wholesome breezes of the sea, and the pitiable silences of the underworld—I, whose single divinity is venerated throughout the world under numberless aspects.”
She recites some of the names by which she is known among the nations, but reveals that it is the Ethiopians and Egyptians who call her by her true name, Queen Isis. She promises Lucius that she will restore him to human form on the morrow, but charges him to remember that now and until the day he dies he has been dedicated to her service. She assures him, however, that she will grant him a long and glorious life, and that when at last he descends to the dead he will see her shining among the shadows of Acheron, reigning in the Stygian firmament, and she will bring him into the Elysian Fields.
The next day, during public festivities in her honor, the goddess fulfills her promise, and Lucius, now dressed in the white garment of a votary, joins in a triumphal procession of her worshippers. He resolves to enter her priesthood, despite his initial doubts about the vow of sacerdotal chastity, and finally presents himself at her temple to be inducted into her mysteries. He never directly divulges what the sacraments of initiation are, but after submitting to them he does report—apparently quite earnestly—that the experience was a profound one: He drew near, he says, to the very border of death and placed a foot upon Proserpina’s threshold, and then was ravished through all the elements, and saw the sun shining in its full glory at midnight, and was even allowed to approach both the chthonian and celestial gods to adore them in person. Once the rites have been concluded and several days have passed, just before his reluctant departure from the temple to return home, he falls down before the image of Isis and utters a fervent prayer to the goddess who has saved him.
“O You,” he says, “truly holy and eternal redemptrix of humankind, be ever generous to the mortals whom you cherish, bestowing a mother’s sweet love upon the miserable in times of trial. Neither day nor night nor the smallest single moment is devoid of your blessings, for you protect men at sea and on land, and you chase away life’s storms by stretching forth your saving right hand, with which also you unwind the inextricably tangled weave of fate and calm Fortune’s tempests and restrain the baneful courses of the stars. The gods above worship you, the gods below venerate you, you turn the earth, you give the sun its light, you rule the world, you trample down hell . . . ” (And so on.)
It is a remarkable—and hauntingly familiar—inventory of divine powers and blessings. Isis creates and nourishes and sustains; Isis loves and protects; Isis defeats death and hell; Isis saves. Moreover, Lucius learns all of this in a moment of revelation and personal conversion, an experience of the profoundest inner transformation, of which his outer transformation from beast to man is only a symbol. And his new life among the saved becomes actual for him only through a sacramental initiation that carries him beyond the power of death, borne up by the grace of divine and omnipotent love.
There was a brief period in the early heady days of the anthropology of religion, when James Frazer was still in fashion, during which it was regarded by many as something of a scandal that so many seemingly common elements could be found in both the Christianity of the early centuries and many of the pagan devotions of late antiquity. To this day, in fact, there are Christians who become terribly anxious at the suggestion that the early Church, in many places, had something of the form of an Asiatic or Hellenistic mystery cult, or that other sects that offered salvation through sacramental association with a savior deity cherished some of the same religious aspirations of Christianity.
Really, though, there is nothing alarming or even surprising in the discovery that the gospel spoke to religious hopes that existed outside its corporate boundaries, or that early Christian devotion should have been expressed in forms not wholly alien to the culture and language of its time.
What is genuinely worth reflecting upon, however, is the particular way—at once recognizable in its time and yet also subversive—in which Christianity answered the religious expectations of much of the ancient world. For example, as the great classicist Walter Otto argued with such penetrating insight, the very essence of a great deal of ancient piety (to which Apuleius’ tale bears such striking witness) was the longing for theophany: a genuine vision of the god one worshipped, vouchsafed through a gracious divine condescension. The whole of temple worship revolved around this desire: The figure of the god or goddess in his or her shrine, gazing through the temple doors out toward the courtyard and altar, was understood not simply as a decorative offering to the divine, but as a revelatory disclosure of the divine, in the house in which the god or goddess was pleased to dwell on earth. To see the divine face—the face of God—was the great passion that animated pagan religion, in a vast variety of its native expressions.
Early Christianity certainly spoke to this deep and deeply pious yearning, but in a way that was not only unprecedented but probably impossible, within the context of pagan culture, to have imagined. Something of extraordinary cultural significance occurred when Christianity succeeded (over a few centuries) in both preserving and overturning the religious logic of theophany, by offering humanity a vision of the face of God, but one visible only in the face of a crucified peasant, and thereby in the face of every neighbor who demands our love. I suppose one might call it a kind of Aufhebung (in the Hegelian sense): a dialectical moment of synthesis that both preserves and destroys what has gone before—or that preserves by destroying. Whatever one calls it, however, it constitutes one of those rare historical transitions that separate one epoch from another irrevocably, a shift in moral imagination that somehow remakes the world.
Whatever the case, what pagan and Christian culture shared in this regard was the conviction that the vision of God is possible because it is somehow continuous with the entire reality of life within the spiritual economy of the natural world. For pagans and Christians alike, the entire cosmos is already a revelation of divine glory, a mirror of transcendent beauty and power, shaped and illuminated by a truth that shines through it in every instant. This is the common world of both pagan and Christian culture, however radically the understanding of that world may have been altered as one creed yielded to the other.
It may be, moreover, that modernity constitutes yet another epochal transition, but one more radically alien to both the pagan and Christian visions than either ever was to the other. At least, this was the thought that flitted through my mind as I was re-reading Apuleius this week. For better than three centuries, we moderns have been training ourselves to think of the physical world in purely mechanistic terms; we have—perhaps for the first time in human history—dedicated ourselves to seeing the universe about us as a reality from which every possibility of theophany has been scrupulously excluded. That is a revolution in spiritual sensibility whose ultimate cultural consequences, I am fairly sure, do not bear contemplating.
David Bentley Hart is a contributing editor of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press).