A reader named Eirik recently asked me what I would include in “the perfect reading list, the perfect Canon… to momentarily escape from the difficulties of the new dark age” (how well put!). Actually, I’ve been contemplating this for quite some time, and have been encouraged by John Milbank to do precisely that. In fact, just last week my wife and I were looking at a yurt that we might build on our farm which could function as both a kind of retreat house and place for teaching classes in Sophiology, gardening, beekeeping, and related subjects. So, inspired by this constellation of cosmic hints, below is a preliminary (and I mean preliminary) syllabus for such an undertaking. Please don’t take it as exhaustive.
Poetry is certainly the most sophiological of literary forms, so I think that’s the place to start. In my anthology The Heavenly Country I include about one-hundred pages of poetry—including selections from St. Francis of Assisi, St. Hildegard of Bingen, Dante, William Everson, David Jones, and Franz Wright among many others. That’s a good place to start, but for an in-depth study of sophiological poetry focused on single authors, perhaps the Metaphysical poets Henry Vaughan (1621-95) and Thomas Traherne (1637?-1674) and the too often neglected Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) are great authors to investigate. The German Romantic poet Novalis, especially his sublime Hymns to the Night, is also eminently rewarding as spiritual nourishment. And one can never go wrong with Wordsworth, whose sophiological intuitions are often clouded by anxieties of the encroaching darkness.
Modern Sophiology begins with the appearance the astounding Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) whose contribution to religious thinking has yet to be fully appreciated. Boehme can be a tremendously difficult read—he had to basically invent a language to convey his mystical insights—but his most accessible work is The Way to Christ. The writings of The Philadelphian Society, particularly those of Jane Lead, John Pordage, and Thomas Bromley, are also worthy, though, with the exception of Bromley’s The Way to the Sabbath of Rest, are notoriously hard to come by in printed form (though I think they can be found in electronic form for free, often in downloadable PDF format). St. Hildegard and St. Francis likewise offer much (notice how Sophiology is preeminently interdisciplinary: I’m afraid it can’t be helped).
Sophiology occupies a space between (metaxu) theology and philosophy (as well as between art and science) so it should come as no surprise that a rich source of Sophiology comes from philosophizing theologians and theologizing philosophers (like your humble servant). The great Russian sophiologists are a great place to start. Just off the top of my head, Vladimir Solovyov’s Russia and the Universal Church, Sergei Bulgakov’s The Bride of the Lamb, Pavel Florensky’s The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, and just about anything by Nikolai Berdyaev are full of inspiring sophiological insights. Likewise, the writings of contemporary thinkers John Milbank and William Desmond (and, to some degree, David Bentley Hart) also offer much in way of nourishment.
Without a doubt, the most sophiological historian currently working (though I doubt very much she would describe herself as such) is the biblical scholar Margaret Barker, who has single-handedly disclosed the sophiological content of the Bible. All of her work is worthy of consideration, but perhaps her most concentrated exposition of the Sophiology of the Old Testament is her study The Mother of the Lord, Volume I: The Lady in the Temple, published in 2012, although she has been a bit slow to come out with Volume II! Berdyaev’s The Meaning of History is also an important contribution to the way we think about history.
Probably the fountainhead of a sophiological approach to science is J.W. von Goethe and his phenomenologically-informed “delicate empiricism”; and there is probably no better place to start than his Theory of Colours. But it’s important, I think, not only to read about what he has to say, but to actually undertake his demonstrations, at least some of them. Pierre Hadot’s The Veil of Isis and Mary Midgley’s Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning are extremely provocative in their critiques of scientism, the religion of our age. Celia Deane Drumond’s work is also of great theoretical value, as are the contributions of Rupert Sheldrake, Brian Josephson, and David Bohm among many others. In addition, Rudolf Steiner’s profound and often prophetic lectures on agriculture, medicine, and beekeeping are essential reading in a program of sophiological science.
Sacred Mathematics and Geometry
A sophiological curriculum would be impoverished without a study of sacred mathematics and geometry including explorations of the Golden Ratio, the Fibonacci series, and the Platonic solids. Math and geometry disclose the beauty of Creation. A quote attributed to Werner Heisenberg concerning natural science is equally true of math and geometry: “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”
In a sophiological approach to music, I could do no better than to point readers to the work of my dear friend, Therese Schroeder-Sheker in both of her careers as composer and recording artist and as the founder of music thanatology, a therapeutic care of the dying. Likewise, among many other possibilities in the vast history and vocabulary of music, I would point to the Anglican hymn tradition, many examples of which attend to the glory of God shining through Creation: “Morning Is Broken” and “Love Lives Again” with lyrics by the aforementioned Eleanor Farjeon and William Henry Draper’s “All Creatures of Our God and King,” the lyrics of which were adapted from St. Francis’s “Canticle of the Sun” provide only a few examples. There are many more!
Any program of sophiological education would need to include experience in the fine arts—drawing, painting, movement, sculpture, instrumental and vocal music. The idea isn’t to become a professional; the idea is to become human.
As with the fine arts, experience in the practical arts is a sine qua non in a sophiological education. Beekeeping, gardening, woodworking, handcrafts such as knitting and crochet, animal husbandry, and so forth—all examples of working with nature or the products of the natural world—allow one to participate in the world of Creation as almost nothing else does. Even more, this work allows one an experiential immersion in the worlds of life and death in ways we might not be aware of without a phenomenological presence to their realities.
I’ve written about much of this in my book, Transfiguration. But there is so much more to be said, so much more to be disclosed and experienced. This is the essence of Sophiology.
Steve Winwood’s version of Eleanor Farjeon’s “Love Lives Again”
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Garden.