Celsus on Initiation


"That I do not, however, accuse the Christians more bitterly than truth compels, may be conjectured from hence, that the cryers who call men to other mysteries proclaim as follows: 'Let him approach whose hands are pure, and whose words are wise.' And again, others proclaim: 'Let him approach who is pure from all wickedness, whose soul is not conscious of any evil, and who leads a just and upright life.' And these things are proclaimed by those who promise a purification from error. Let us now hear who those are that are called to the Christian mysteries: Whoever is a sinner, whoever is unwise, whoever is a fool, and whoever, in short, is miserable, him the kingdom of God will receive. Do you not, therefore, call a sinner, an unjust man, a thief, a housebreaker, a wizard, one who is sacrilegious, and a robber of sepulchres? What other persons would the cryer nominate, who should call robbers together?”

The mysteries to which Celsus refers to are the Mystery Cults that flourished in his time. Mystery Cults, generally, facilitated a connection to the divine by zeroing in on a specific god or myth and then conveying a secret meaning of that theme. But first, anyone wishing to join had to be initiated. Initiation usually began with a kind of probationary period. You had to set yourself in good order before you approached the divine. No god was going to do it for you. In his view, the lack of initiatory rites within Christianity means that any yahoo can show up at a church and expect to accepted as a full member. A Christian might retort that it is Celsus who is missing the point. If the divinity is freely accessible to all, the initiatory process becomes superfluous. The problem is, Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians seem to confirm some of the objections of Celsus. The epistle contains a number of rebukes to early churches in Corinth after their members lapsed in conduct. It appears a number of Paul’s coreligionists decided that they had already been saved and could therefore take certain liberties with their behaviors.

Mystery cults were gradually extinguished as the Roman Empire became more decidedly Christian. But the initiatic ideal gradually worked its way back into Western social systems in a number of ways: chivalric codes, guilds, priestly orders, etc. Not that this should be read as those groups being themselves resurrections of pagan societies. Perhaps they influenced them, perhaps not—it doesn’t really matter. Nor does it matter if it was the unique agent of the Christin faith itself that dissolved them. The point is, forming these kinds of initiatic societies seem to be pretty sternly embedded in human behavior. Even their secretive quality came back with a vengeance and the world has been dealing with lizard people conspiracies ever since.

It seems like most people could use something like a mystery school in their lives. If not to facilitate some kind of growth, then to least have some method of studying the world others than by whatever politics are popular at the moment. But therein lays the rub, modernity reveres knowledge only when it infers power and exclusivity breeds the neuroticisms of being within the group as well as the suspicions of being without.

Related to this is a recurrent criticism of contemporary spiritual movements, that they lack conviction. Or, when they try to make up for this with an excess of discipline, they become the kinds of orders that become overtaken with sadism. Some might say it would be better to do away these kinds of groups as a whole. The initiate would declare that very attitude to be the problem. The cults don’t warp people, they just highlight the deficiencies already present. The same time bombs remain out there.


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