Studying the past of certain cultures that have now disappeared can concretely help us in the present. It is enough to be able to follow the chain of events that links what once was with our present to realize that the past never dies, but only transforms.
Knowing what happened to our ancestors and fathers is not meant to delineate today’s choices, but allows us to evaluate the alternatives we have to build a better future.
Movements that seek to change the world reimagine a new history, recognizing that our current situation is neither natural nor eternal. Our beliefs and religions are an agglomerate not only of prophetic revelations and Holy Scriptures, but also of the experiences of ordinary women and men who have helped us to move forward to where we are today.
Studying and examining these events and lives of the past allows us to observe that common thread that binds us to the past and winds its way into the future, as part of a single Plan that GOD has in store for the salvation of the righteous. Among these righteous of heart we can place the Hypistarians, a religious and philosophical doctrine to which was associated the name of “God-fearing”, a term that is still very present in the Islamic, Christian and Jewish tradition.
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Who were the Hypsistarians
We can find in the Hypsistarians similarities with the Abrahamic faiths that suggest that this sect acted as a link between Eastern and Western culture. The Greek term “Ipsistos” (ὕψιστος “hypsistos”) translates the Hebrew עליון (elyon) which means “most high”, recurring in the Bible more than fifty times in place of the Tetragrammaton or in direct relation with the CREATOR. We find it in Genesis (14, 18-20) for the first time, but then also in Psalms (78, 35 ; 82, 6), in Samuel (2Sam 22, 14) Isaiah (14, 13-14), and in many other Books, even of the Christian New Testament (Acts 16, 17).
Hypsistos “Most High” is a superlative term, not worshippers of a simple God of the heavens, but of the GOD who resides highest above all (“Theos Hypsistos”) also called ” Zeus”, the supreme GOD, or with the vocative Zeu Pater (“Father Zeus”) and evolution of Di̯ēus.
These terms and other similar assimilated variations were found in the writings of Gregory of Nazianzus, bishop of Constantinople and theologian recognized by the Catholic Church as the Father of the Church (Orat. 18, 5) and Gregory of Nyssa (Contra Eunom. II). But the term is also linked to a conspicuous number of inscriptions found by archaeologists dating from 100 to 400 AD. Votive offerings, altars, and stelae dedicated to Theos Hypsistos, or sometimes simply to Hypsistos, have been found mainly in Asia Minor (Cappadocia, Bithynia, and Pontus), on the Black Sea coast, and in the old area of Mecedonia.
Unlike their polytheistic contemporaries, the Hypsistars therefore worshiped only one GOD. Gregory of Nazianzus describes this group of believers with similar creeds to Judaism, but they also retained other practices from local cults. They did not worship idols, but venerated the light, observed the Sabbath and obeyed to dietary restrictions, but did not practice circumcision. Gregory of Nyssa in his writings reports that they address to GOD not only with the term Hypsistos, but also with the Almighty (Pantokrator), another adjective typical of monotheistic Abrahamic religions. We can therefore define them as the first non-Jews who embraced the monotheistic cult of Second Temple Judaism. They identified the already known Zeus (the greatest of the Olympian Gods) with the One GOD of the Hebrew Scriptures, remaining particularly opposed to the Trinitarian dogma which remained controversial throughout the period of formation of Critianism.
The Greco-Roman religion in its classical form, mainly polytheistic, can provide important information to better understand the contexts in which today’s religiosity and spirituality have evolved. In those times monotheistic conceptions already existed in the ancient pagan religion (from Latin paganus, from pagus “village”), that is, in the professed religion of the “villagers”. The religious and philosophical thinking of these villagers began to evolve, allowing individual communities to conceive their own personal ideas about the faith. A sort of emancipation of those people of humbler origins who did not want to simply stick to what they had inherited, but who sought firsthand to come closer to the Truth.
It is easy to identify a number of conditions that led to the spread of these new religious conceptions, and among them we find three in particular that succeeded in fostering the thinking and growth of these believers:
- The common use of language (Latin and Greek) encouraged by a growing literacy rate
- The increasing communication through written letters
- The peaceful and relatively safe conditions of travel both by land and sea
New forms of religious activity became increasingly present alongside local and regional cults. We can reasonably assume that local aspects of religious beliefs and behaviors began to influence each other. Local cults, taking on new forms in response to influences from outside, and international cults taking on more of a local character as they expanded into new territories. In other words, a unifying thought, the more orthodox Jews embracing a more liberal thought, but still following the fundamentals of doctrine, and the popular cults rooted in the canonical Jewish Holy Books. Classical polytheism by its nature had generated an incalculable variety of deities and cults, each specific to a particular community, or even in extreme cases, to the imagination of individual believers. While the new monotheism was increasingly homogenizing towards a more global and unique Truth.
Evolution of new religious concepts: caring for the world
At the time of the Roman Empire, some cults therefore began to break away from polytheism, developing outside the context of more classical Judaism and Christianity. Among these were the worshipers of the Theos Hypsistos, which today many scholars consider as evidence of a pagan monotheism.
But the Hypsistos were also great worshippers of the Soul and of external beauty as reflections of GOD Himself. Not the simple appreciation of the exterior, but above all being able to capture the often hidden beauty that surrounds us, whatever our context, promoting spiritual elevation. In a few words, in order to lead a rich and active interior life, one must also be present in the world, showing oneself available and open, enlivening one’s presence in the world through admiration. “Caring for the world” that enriches, feeding the Soul with a continuous admiration of things, not simply beautiful but especially good and right for the life of the believer. In order to replicate good, one must observe and imitate it, just as to extinguish evil, one must first know it and then avoid it.
The inner life requires attention to the world, and even the hermit and the solitary ascetic in the desert manage to find a source of inspiration for their meditation in their surroundings, whether it be in the lonely starry sky, the arid sand of the desert, the silent nature or any other part of GOD’s Creation that they can contemplate.
Spirituality and admiration are able to proceed along the same path of growth. If we strive to restore a spiritual life within us, or if we want to increase our inner being, surely we should consider starting by giving admiration its rightful place in our lives. Like the Hypsistarians by turning our attention towards the greatness of GOD and Creation, so as to conceive a starting point and a vision of our next goal in the future. The spirit does not expand if it does not start from a perspective of humility, where no longer looking at oneself, pushes and elevates the spirit through admiration and emulation of what is good and right around us. But the starting point must always be the imitation of GOD, as the Book of Leviticus suggests:
Be Holy for I the LORD your GOD I’m Holy
(Lv 19, 2)
Being a saint, or holy, does not mean being recognized by a religious institution as such. If we analyze the term, we observe that in its etymology there is the Latin word sanctus, past participle of sancire, that is, to make a pact, a covenant, or a consecration.
In order to obtain concrete results in the spiritual search, the human beings of our time must therefore arouse this admiration, and nourish their spirit with this particular emotion. But we must not dissipate it with regard to futile things, because we cannot be fascinated only by what is beautiful to our eyes, but by all those things, activities and people that are constructive, edifying and exciting.
Goethe and the enthusiasm
One etymology of the word enthusiasm can be traced back to the Greek enthus or en-theos, which means “to have a God within.” Being, or even simply feeling inspired, as only true believers are, provides incredible strength not only for the soul.
Even though the sacred meaning of this term seems to have been lost, today enthusiasm means that impulse, passion and attraction towards something or someone. The Ipsistars certainly possessed this strength of spirit if their thought has managed to reach us today, and also thanks to Goethe we have an example of the legacy they left.
…I found no denomination of faith to which I could unreservedly ally myself. Now, in my old age, however, I came to know of a sect, the Hypsistarians, who, caught between pagans, Jews, and Christians, declared that they wished to cherish, admire, and honor the best, the most perfect that could come to their knowledge, and in as much as it should have a close connection with the Deity, to render reverence to it. A joyful light so suddenly illuminated me from a dark age, for I had a feeling that all my life I had aspired to qualify as a hypsistarian. This, however, is no small task, for how does one come, within the limits of one’s individuality, to know what is most excellent?
The worshippers of the Most High GOD were mentioned in this letter that Goethe, late in life, wrote to his friend Sulpice Boissière. The greatest German leterate of all times had never fully adhered to a religious denomination, although he considered himself a spiritual man, and almost all his works confirm it. No true worship suited him, he did not go to church, and he remained distant from that institution throughout his life, although he always respected it. He had his children baptized and had nothing to object against a religious funeral for his wife, he never publicly broke relations with the church, but its rules were alien to him. Then one day he heard of the sect of the Hypsistarians, whose profession of faith was simple: “They declared themselves ready,” Goethe reported, “to esteem, admire, venerate whatever excellent and perfect things they could know.”
Neither Jews, nor Christians, nor Muslims, nor pagans, the Hypistarians had as their only belief admiration, the ability to be moved and inspired by what is “high” “elevated”, and consequently tend to imitate for personal growth. Goethe recognized the Hypistarians as his spiritual brothers, confiding to his correspondent that he regretted not having known earlier this religious group whose ideal corresponded exactly to the doctrine of Weltfrommigkeit, or “piety for the world” that he had always professed, that commitment to take the world seriously in view of the Judgement of GOD, very similar to the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam. This discovery, he continues, “brought forth for me from a dark age a ray of joy, for I felt that during my whole life I had endeavored to behave as a hypsistar.” Goethe’s thought should therefore inspire people in continuing to have faith that the light will soon come, the dark age will be banished, but that is only if we learn to admire the good and replicate it. The good will save us, as it has always saved the righteous through the reincarnation of souls, what the Jewish mystical tradition calls Gilgul.
The common worship of the Theos Hypsistos seems to have emerged in a wide swath of the Eastern Roman Empire during the same period that saw a parallel development of both Christianity and Judaism. This leads us to conclude that the concepts of the One GOD made its way into the spirit of believers during that period and began to be situated within polytheistic doctrines. The uncircumcised semi-proselytes and sympathizers of Hellenistic Judaism present mostly in Asia Minor and parts of the Balkans became strict monotheists, even though they considered themselves free from the strictest Mosaic Law. Analyzing this historical context, we can observe the path that has led the faith in the unique GOD up to our days, a passage full of vicissitudes that however has maintained a constant: it has led us closer and closer to that unreachable Truth that guarantees our growth and evolution. We cannot judge who among Judaism, Critianism and Islam is closer to the Truth, but we easily understand that in order to get closer to GOD we must remain open to the World, capable of being moved and free from judgments towards others. In this way we will be able to concentrate in our personal growth path, and maybe as it happened for the Hypistarians, contribute to the improvement of doctrine and humanity.
- “One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire” Stephen Mitchell, Peter Van Nuffelen (Aprile 2010 – Cambridge University Press) 9781139488143
- “Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity” Athanassiadi, Polymnia ; Frede, Michael (1999)
- Mitchell, Stephen (1999). “The Cult of Theos Hypsistos Between Pagans Jews and Christians”. In Athanassiadi, Polymnia; Frede, Michael (eds.). Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity. Oxford: Clarendon Press
- Bowersock (2002), 362