• Michael Martin

Sophia and the Technological Colonization of Reality

Immaculate Heart

The movements of celestial bodies, the sprouting of life from a seed, the intricate social structures and behaviors of a bee colony, the wondrous unfoldment of gestation—all reveal a wisdom that speaks to more than the randomness of cosmic and evolutionary accidents. Likewise, the unmistakable beauty of the natural world, its colors and forms, discloses an inherent goodness in Creation. But all of these would be for nothing were there not beings to receive and contemplate them. Sophia is the agent as well as the catalyst inhering, disclosing, and inviting participation in these wonders, for her delights are with the children of men.

This understanding of Sophia has much in common with the classical concept of the anima mundi, the world soul. Plato describes the world soul in the Timaeus: “Now the body of the heaven has been created visible; but she is invisible, and, as a soul having part in reason and harmony, is the best of things brought into being by the most excellent of things intelligible and eternal.”[1] As Louis Dupré observes, Christianity has had a complicated relationship with the idea of a world soul (almost indistinguishable from God in Plotinus in Enneads 5.1.2, for example), though it was comprehensively jettisoned in the West following the burgeoning influence of Aristotle upon Scholasticism, neither of which had need of a world soul.[2] During the seventeenth century, Hermetic philosophers such as Robert Fludd and Thomas Vaughan, faced with the nihilistic proposals of natura pura and the materialism of Baconian and Cartesian science, maintained the philosophical and theological integrity of the world soul (and the spiritual dimensions of natural science). Despite their protestations, the juggernaut of modern science rolled on without them.

In the Jewish mystical tradition (kabbalah), the Shekinah, a feminine being associated with God’s presence (glory) who was at times said to be in exile (a notion probably derived from Gnosticism), was popularly regarded as “a providential guide of Creation.”[3] This idea has much in common with Sophia. Turning to Margaret Barker’s thesis, it is important to consider whether the exile of Wisdom from the Temple, the exile of Sophia in the Gnostic mythos, and the exile of the Shekinah not only evoke the same historical and metaphysical reality, but also speak to a movement in the human soul that intuits Sophia’s presence despite her absence, that seeks a more complete picture of the cosmos, that hungers for wholeness. We sense a disorder in how things are, even down to a metaphysical level. And metaphysical disorder begets other disorders.

The Eastern Church, which has never had much use for Scholasticism, has been a little less lukewarm to the idea of the world soul, but has not generally expounded upon it. But the maverick theologian Sergius Bulgakov was intimidated neither by his critics nor by a lazy understanding of what constitutes “Holy Tradition,” and freshly examined the notion of a world soul in his work.

Bulgakov argues that the innate search for integrity characteristic of human beings indicates a sophianic drive and, furthermore, that such an integrity actually exists in the cosmos: that is, it is not merely a psychological need, but an ontological and cosmological superstructure. “And this unifying force,” he writes, “this cosmourgic potency is nothing else but the creaturely Sophia herself, who is the image of divine being, the force of ‘integrity.’ She is, in this sense, the world’s soul and entelechy, who is being actualized, or becoming in the world. She is the life of the world.”[4] Here, as elsewhere, Bulgakov—like Vladimir Solovyov and Pavel Florensky—points to the Virgin Mary as emblematic of the sophianization of the world, existing, as she does, “at the boundary of heaven and creation,”[5] the metaxu.

My claim is that this sought-for integrity, in all truth a metaphysical desire, is a desire to see things as they truly are, to know them in their essence. And this is as true for the desire to find an authentic way to live as it is for the desire to know God; or, in the words of St. Paul, it is the desire to know even as we are known (1 Cor 13:12). But it is not possible to know things as they truly are without knowing reality as it truly is. And the only way to approach knowing things as they truly are is through a contemplative engagement with them.

A contemplative engagement, in some sense at least, awakens Sophia. And this is where the Gnostic mythos, the Shekinah of the kabbalah, and the Sophia of Proverbs all coalesce. Sophia is not in exile. Not technically, at least. Nevertheless, one of her attributes (as seen in the Virgin Mary) is absolute humility: she will never intrude upon our experience uninvited, but, like the Virgin in the upper room at Pentecost, patiently waits for a movement towards her. In this, her metaxological office is manifest. That is, as at Pentecost she awaited the movement of the Holy Spirit, presently she awaits a movement from us. She was the catalyst for the Apostles; she is also our catalyst. So, we can say, she is in exile until our attention awakens her. At least that’s how it feels. In truth, she is not in exile: we are. The reciprocal movement in this awakening, indeed, reveals the sophianic reality implicit in our own being.

Curiously, the way in which we awaken Sophia exactly corresponds to this Pentecostal mood. That is, if we pursue the sophianic through the will, it eludes us. On the other hand, by cultivating a disposition of patient attention—without any attachment to a reward or “payoff”—we allow the sophianic to arise from phenomena. In phenomenology this is called “epoché,” which, to a significant degree, is the setting aside of one’s ego when present to phenomena, be they works of art, objects found in the natural world, or liturgical practices. Another way to say this is to say that when confronted with phenomena we awaken Sophia by mirroring her patience and humility. We awaken the sophianic already latent in our own being, and the sophianic in phenomena responds through disclosure. But this does not mean that every phenomenon has an equal potential to disclose the sophianic, or that we are at all times awake to the proper disposition to perceive it.

Works written corporately—as in advertising or in governmental or business writing—for example, do not seem capable of disclosing the sophianic in anything like the way that is possible (though certainly not assured) in poetry and other literary works, or even film. This is due in part to the grasping intentionality characteristic of the “creative teams” involved in marketing: without the safeguard of the epoché, the will and the ego insert themselves into the process by way of conquest. Likewise, liturgical forms, especially those that try to habituate themselves to the supposed tastes of a congregation (really, to be honest, an audience), may move the feeling but without disclosing anything sophianic. Such are rhetorical moves, rank manipulation, which, at best, are simulacra of the sophianic. Indeed, an ultimately pornographic quality inhabits these desires to influence: they titillate with a promise of erotic satisfaction (however directed, however well-intentioned), but ultimately fail to create an opening into the beautiful. But they open into something.


What, then, of manufactured or otherwise manipulated objects? Is a phenomenological reduction (epoché) even possible with them? Can an AI, for instance, open to transcendence? What happens when we attempt a phenomenological reduction of those afflicted with gender dysphoria and who have reached the point where they turn to medical interventions to “change” their genders? Do we discover that these, too, are rhetorical moves having more to do with marketing of a self than ontology? Or do we find something else? We certainly find a human person in a state of suffering. But, other than this, what is disclosed? And when this rhetorical gesture becomes ideology (or fashion) as, for example, when children are given hormone blockers to delay the onset of puberty while they (and/or their parents) try to decide what gender they are, what then? What can be disclosed?

Similarly, are not GMO foods quite literally other than they appear? Are they not simulacra? Are not fields sprayed with glyphosate images of thanatos rather than of zoë? Are “three-parent babies,” surrogacy, in vitro fertilization, and other intrusions into the realm of human fertility not only marvels of scientific ingenuity but also of manufacturing genius? Natural processes are increasingly “liberated” from nature; and, as they are, are they not more and more rendered products in need of government regulation and corporate protection and thereby become means of control?

This encroaching and, in the main, uninterrogated acceptance of “technological reproduction” in all of its forms delineates a movement away from Sophia and her illumination of the united natural and supernatural realms and toward Ahriman and the darkness of a natural realm subordinated to subnature. When we can no longer differentiate between the Real and the simulacra, we have already compromised our connection to the spiritual in the universe, to God by way of Sophia. And when differentiating between the Real and the simulacra invites ridicule, hostility, and ostracization, we can then be sure that we have entered the realm of the demonic, of Ahriman; that culture has been lured into subnature; and that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). Ahriman’s genius is that it has convinced us that spiritual forces, of any kind, do not exist, and that science and technology hold the keys to prosperity, health, and happiness. In this, it is we who are imprisoned and isolated from the Real, as Sophia is in the Gnostic mythos. It would appear that only a god can save us.

[1] 36E. See also Francis M. Cornford’s classic discussion in Plato’s Cosmology: The Timaeus of Plato (1957; reprt., Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 1997), 57–104.

[2] Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 59–61.

[3] Gershom G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, trans. Ralph Manheim (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965), 105.

[4] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI/Edinburgh, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company/T&T Clark, 2002), 80.

[5] Ibid., 414. Bulgakov’s emphasis.

This is an excerpt from Michael Martin's forthcoming book, Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything, set to appear this Fall from Angelico Press.

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