If it is one’s sordid fate to be an academic philosopher, one might even try to convince oneself that the question of existence is an inept or false query generated by the seductions of imprecise grammar, or one might simply adopt the analytic philosopher’s classic gesture of flinging one’s hands haplessly in the air and proclaiming that one simply finds the question entirely unintelligible. All of this, however, is an abdication of the responsibility to think. This rare and fleeting experience of being’s strangeness within its very familiarity is not a transitory confusion or trivial psychological mood but a genuine if tantalizingly brief glimpse into an inexhaustibly profound truth about reality. It is the recognition, simply said, of the world’s absolute contingency. The world need not be thus. It need not be at all. If, moreover, one takes the time to reflect upon this contingency carefully enough, one will come to realize that it is an ontological, not merely an aetiological, mystery; the question of existence is not one concerning the physical origins of things, or of how one physical state may have been produced by a prior physical state, or of physical persistence across time, or of the physical constituents of the universe, but one of simple logical or conceptual possibility: How is it that any reality so obviously fortuitous—so lacking in any mark of inherent necessity or explanatory self-sufficiency—can exist at all?The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart (in the opening of part two)
The American philosopher Richard Taylor once illustrated this mystery, famously and fetchingly, with the image of a man out for a stroll in the forest unaccountably coming upon a very large translucent sphere. Naturally, he would immediately be taken aback by the sheer strangeness of the thing, and would wonder how it should happen to be there. More to the point, he would certainly never be able to believe that it just happened to be there without any cause, or without any possibility of further explanation; the very idea would be absurd. But, adds Taylor, what that man has not noticed is that he might ask the same question equally well about any other thing in the woods too, a rock or a tree no less than this outlandish sphere, and fails to do so only because it rarely occurs to us to interrogate the ontological pedigrees of the things to which we are accustomed. What would provoke our curiosity about the sphere would be that it was so obviously out of place; but, as far as existence is concerned, everything is in a sense out of place. As Taylor goes on to say, the question would be no less intelligible or pertinent if we were to imagine the sphere either as expanded to the size of the universe or as contracted to the size of a grain of sand, either as existing from everlasting to everlasting or as existing for only a few seconds. It is the sheer unexpected “thereness” of the thing, devoid of any transparent rationale for the fact, that prompts our desire to understand it in terms not simply of its nature, but of its very existence.
The mystery of being becomes deeper, however, and even somewhat urgent, when one reflects not only upon the seeming inexplicability of existence as such, but also upon the nature of the things that have existence. The physical order confronts us at every moment not simply with its ontological fortuity but also with the intrinsic ontological poverty of all things physical—their necessary and total reliance for their existence, in every instant, upon realities outside themselves. Everything available to the senses or representable to the mind is entirely subject to annicha (to use the Buddhist term): impermanence, mutability, transience. All physical things are composite, which is to say reducible to an ever greater variety of distinct parts, and so are essentially inconstant and prone to dissolution. All things are subject to time, moreover: they possess no complete identity in themselves, but are always in the process of becoming something else, and hence also in the process of becoming nothing at all. There is a pure fragility and necessary incompleteness to any finite thing; nothing has its actuality entirely in itself, fully enjoyed in some impregnable present instant, but must always receive itself from beyond itself, and then only by losing itself at the same time. Nothing within the cosmos contains the ground of its own being. To use an old terminology, every finite thing is the union of an essence (its “what it is”) with a unique existence (its “that it is”), each of which is utterly impotent to explain the other, or to explain itself for that matter, and neither of which can ever be wholly or permanently possessed by anything. One knows of oneself, for instance, that every instant of one’s existence is only a partial realization of what one is, achieved by surrendering the past to the future in the vanishing and infinitesimal interval of the present. Both one’s essence and one’s existence come from elsewhere—from the past and the future, from the surrounding universe and whatever it may depend upon, in a chain of causal dependencies reaching backward and forward and upward and downward—and one receives them both not as possessions secured within some absolute state of being but as evanescent gifts only briefly grasped within the ontological indigence of becoming. Everything that one is is a dynamic and perilously contingent synthesis of identity and change, wavering between existence and nonexistence. To employ another very old formula, one’s “potential” is always being reduced or collapsed into the finitely “actual” (always foreclosing forever all other possibilities for one’s existence), and only in this way can one be liberated into the living uncertainty of the future. Thus one lives and moves and has one’s being only at the sufferance of an endless number of enabling conditions, and becomes what one will be only by taking leave of what one has been. Simply said, one is contingent through and through, partaking of being rather than generating it out of some source within oneself; and the same is true of the whole intricate web of interdependencies that constitutes nature.
There are various directions in which reflection on the contingency of things can carry one’s thoughts. One can follow, at least in principle, the chain of anything’s dependency back through ever deepening layers of causality, both physical and chronological—descending toward the subatomic, retreating toward the initial singularity—and still ultimately arrive at only the most elementary contingencies of all, no closer to an explanation of existence than one was before setting out. Alternatively, if one prefers metaphysical logic to the multiplication of genetic enigmas, one can forgo this phantasmagoric regress toward primordial causes altogether and choose instead to gaze out over the seas of mutability and dependency in search of that distant stable shore that, untouched by becoming, prevents everything from flowing away into an original or final nothingness. Or one may attempt to turn one’s thoughts from the world’s multiplicity and toward that mysterious unity that quietly persists amid the spectacle of incessant change: that oneness that is everywhere and nowhere, at once in the world and in one’s consciousness of it, holding all things together as a coherent totality while also preserving each separate thing in its particularity, and each part of each thing, and each part of that part, and so on ad infinitum. In seeking to understand the world in any of these ways, however, one may be tempted to try to reduce the essential mystery of existence to something one can contain in a simple concept, like a mechanical or physical cause, or a trivial predicate, or something else that one can easily grasp and thereafter ignore. Thinkers in all the great religious traditions have repeatedly warned that it is far easier to think about beings than about being as such, and that we therefore always risk losing sight of the mystery of being behind the concepts we impose upon it. Having briefly awakened to a truth that precedes and exceeds the totality of discrete things, we may end up all the more oblivious to it for having tried to master it.
Even so, one must try to understand, even if only now and then. Reason is restless before this question. And any profound reflection upon the contingency of things must involve the question of God, which—whether or not one believes it can be answered—must be posed again and again in the course of any life that is truly rational.
More from Eric Perl’s book Theophany which so far is unpacking that “being as convertible with intelligibility is such an important idea for platonic thought [that has] disappeared with the rise of nominalism” (as a friend who better understands put it).
Despite differences of expression, the structure of participation, implying at once transcendence and immanence, remains the same in Plato, Plotinus, Proclus, and Dionysius: one and the same term is present in many different things, and as what is the same in all of them (immanent), it is other than and unconditioned by all of them (transcendent).
But if all the determinations of all things are the presence of God in them, then God is not merely “in all things,” as if he were in something other than himself. Rather, God is the whole content of reality, “all things in all things.” God “is all things as cause of all things, and holding together and prepossessing in himself all principles, all limits of all beings.” The various features, characters, or natures, the determinations found in a thing, constitute the entire intelligible content of that thing, all that there is in it for the mind to encounter. And since to be is to be intelligible, they constitute the whole of the thing itself. A being can be nothing but the totality of its intelligible determinations, down to the least details by which it is this particular thing and no other. The divine processions are “in” all things, then, not as contained in something other than themselves, but as constituting their entire content. God is the “cause” of all things, and so subject to all names, therefore, in that the entire intelligible content of all things, and hence the whole of reality, is nothing but the differentiated presence of God.
Eric Perl, in his book Theophany, quoting and explicating Saint Dionysius the Areopagite:
God is the “illumination of the illumined and principle of perfection of the perfected and principle of deiﬁcation of the deiﬁed and simplicity of the simpliﬁed and unity of the uniﬁed… and, to speak simply, the life of living things and being of beings.” He is present to all beings as being, the universal character common to all beings such that they are beings: God “neither was nor will be nor came to be nor comes to be nor will come to be; rather, he is not. But he is being to beings.” Likewise he is present to all living things as life, the universal determination by which they are living things as distinct from non-living things. But the determining, constitutive divine presence is not limited to such exalted attributes as being and life, but includes all the features of each thing, which constitute it as that distinct thing, as itself, and hence as a being.
…Here these “paradigms” or logoi contained without distinction in God, are explicitly identiﬁed as the deﬁning or determining principles which make beings to be. God is thus present in each being as its determining or deﬁning logos, by which it is itself and so is. All the features of all things, therefore, are God—in—them, making them to be by making them what they are, so that God is not only being in beings and life in living things but “all things in all things.” This constitutive presence of God in all things is what Dionysius variously calls the “powers,” “participations,” “processions,” “providences,” “manifestations,” or “distributions” of God. All these expressions refer to God’s causal presence.
Excerpts from “The Sophiology of Father Sergius Bulgakov and the Living Tradition” by Andrew Louth (printed in The Wheel, Summer 2015, pp. 5-9):
Bulgakov had felt this danger, and it was his sense of this danger that gradually led him from the Marxism he had espoused as a young man back to the faith of his fathers. Marxist economics could not see nature as God’s creation, and tended to regard nature as material for human consumption and use. Bulgukov’s sense of the fundamental wrongness of such an attitude to nature came to him as an experience about which he wrote in his Autobiographical Sketches, passages from which he—signiﬁcantly, I think—included in the early pages of Unfading Light. Let me quote a few passages:
“Evening was falling. We were traveling along the southern steppe, covered with the fragrance of honey—coloured grass and hay, gilded with the crimson of a sublime sunset. In the distance the fast-approaching Caucasus Mountains appeared blue. I was seeing them for the first time My soul had become accustomed long ago to see with a dull silent pain only a dead wasteland in nature beneath the veil of beauty, as under a deceptive mask; without being aware of it, my soul was not reconciled with a nature without God. And suddenly in that hour my soul became agitated, started to rejoice and began to shiver: but what if it is not wasteland, not a lie, not a mask, not death but him, the blessed and loving Father, his raiment, his love? …God was knocking quietly in my heart and it heard that knocking, it wavered but did not open. …And God departed.”
But it didn’t end there. Bulgakov goes on to speak of renewed experiences:
“Before me the first day of creation blazed. All was clear, all became reconciled, replete with ringing joy. …And that moment of meeting did not die in my soul; this was her apocalypse, her wedding feast, the first encounter with Sophia.”
…Bulgakov’s sophiology, whatever its intellectual antecedents, grew out of his pondering on what man achieves through his re-creative activity, and his realization that he could only make sense of his experience of the beauty of nature by accepting its sophianic foundation, which entailed accepting the reality of God.
From this realization, we can, I think, begin to understand the fundamental role of sophiology in Bulgakov’s theology. It is, and this is not incidental, related to the way his theology is rooted in the Liturgy. This was something that Fr. Alexander Schmemann saw, even though he was somewhat averse to Bulgakov’s theology. In an article called “Trois Images,” he speaks of Bulgakov celebrating the Divine Liturgy:
“My third memory of Fr. Sergius, the third image, is … of Fr. Sergius before the altar, celebrating the liturgy …He was not ac- complishing a well-established rite, traditional in all its details. He delved down to the very depths, and one had the impression that the Liturgy was being celebrated for the first time, that it had fallen down from heaven and been set up on the earth at the dawn of time. The bread and the chalice on the altar, the ﬂame of the candles, the smoke of the incense, the hands raised to the heavens: all this was not simply an “office.” There was accomplished here something involving the whole created world, something of the preeternal, the cosmic—the “terrible and the glorious” [strashnoe i slavnoe], in the sense these liturgical words have in Slavonic. It seemed to me that it is not by chance that the writings of Fr. Sergius are very often laden—so it seems—with liturgical Slavisms, that they themselves so often resonate with liturgical praise. It is not just a matter of style. For the theology of Fr. Sergius, at its most profound, is precisely and above all liturgical.”
The Liturgy, like Sophia, negotiates an “in-between,” relating man to God.
…What is creation like, if God indeed created it (through Wisdom)? As we ask these questions, we ﬁnd ourselves asking questions that have exercised Christians for centuries, and perhaps most acutely at the beginning, when, in the second century, Christianity faced the manifold challenges of Greek philosophy and Gnosticism. Christianity was not consonant with just any View of the universe. Christians agreed with the Platonists over the existence of a transcendent divine, divine providence and human free will, and adopted Platonist arguments against other Greek philosophers—Aristotelians, Stoics and Epicureans—who rejected one or other of these positions. They completely rejected the view, held by most of those whom scholars now call Gnostics, that the universe was the product of a god or gods who were either malevolent or negligent. At one point Irenaeus defends the Christian view of a universe, created out of nothing by a good God who rules it through his providence, by appealing to the Christian Liturgy:
“How can they say that ﬂesh is destined for corruption, the ﬂesh that has been nourished by the body and blood of the Lord? Either they must change their opinion, or cease to offer him what they have said they do. Our opinion is consonant with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist confirms our faith. We oﬂer him what belongs to him, harmoniously proclaiming the communion and union of ﬂesh and spirit. For taking from the earth bread, after the invocation of the Lord it is no longer common bread, but Eucharist, joining together two realities, the earthly and the heavenly, so that our bodies, receiving the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, but possess the hope of eternal resurrection. We make an offering to him, not because he needs anything, but to give thanks for his gifts and to sanctify the creation.”
For Irenaeus, to take bread and wine, to offer them to God and invoke the Holy Spirit to transform them into the Body and Blood of Christ, entails a certain View of creation: that it is good, that the one to whom we offer the Eucharist is the Creator. In the same way, for Bulgakov, to celebrate the Eucharist entails that creation belongs to God, that it is not alien to him, that to be a creature is already to be graced, something that Fr. Schmemann’s “third image” seems to suggest: Bulgakov’s celebration of the Divine Mysteries seemed to him something autochthonous, something rooted in the very being of creation. It is this intuition that lay at the heart of his sophiology.
Two Orthodox priests, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick and Fr. Stephen De Young, have been podcasting together recently and shared about these five-ish angelic falls. They have also referenced three human falls which Fr. Stephen has blogged about previously here as well. These lists include some notes and clarifications later shared by Fr. Andrew in an outline group connected to the podcast group.
These five-ish angelic falls are wrapped up with the three human falls listed below but are articulated here from the angelic perspective:
- Succession myth / serpent (=devil) cast into Hades. Attempt to overthrow the Most High from His throne in heaven that parallels various pagan myths of younger gods destroying the former gods. This is represented in all pagan myths as a success, but it is a failure in Genesis.
- Initial fall in the heart or mind of a divine council member. This is not recounted in Genesis directly. Subsequent readings of Genesis tend to fill in the gap and place this succession myth before creation (as in Milton’s Paradis Lost). However, casting it before the creation of the world creates a basic logical problem. You can’t dethrone the Most High God in reality, but you can try to dethrone him in the hearts and minds of his creatures. This requires there to be other creatures. Therefore, the serpent (a member of the divine council) is depicted as having “overthrown God” within his own heart at beholding the creation of humans and then to have invited humans to do the same. This succession myth gets told in Isaiah 14. The dethroning happens in the minds of the fallen angels, which is how this is described by St. Gregory the Great.
- Casting out of the devil into the Underworld for tempting mankind: the serpent, a divine council member, overthrows God in the hearts of humanity by tempting them with a shortcut to maturity and is sent by God to preside over the land of dust (i.e. of death or Sheol). This is the first angelic fall directly depicted in Genesis (a failure in contrast to the triumph of pagan succession myths). [Fr. Andrew notes that “fall” from this point on is not a moral fall or betrayal. In that sense, these angels are already fallen before these events happen. Fall here focuses on “being cast down.”]
- Apkallu / Watchers / Nephilim-generation (the Watchers (the fathers) falling by generating nephilim). Angels tempt humans with technology for which they are not ready and then involve themselves in human procreation to produce a line of demigods (1/3 fallen angel) who start human royal dynasties. Paralleled in pagan myths such as the Sumeran Kings List and the story of the Apkallu or the story of the Seven Sages.
- Nephilim / Unclean Spirits / Mastema+crew (the nephilim (the sons) falling by being defeated by the Flood when most are cast into the Abyss). Many of these demigods are finished off by Joshua and David. Their spirits trouble the earth as unclean spirits.
- Accepting worship post-Babel. Fallen angels receive the worship offered to them at the Tower of Babel (gate of the gods) and become the 70 gods of the original divine council placed over the traditional 70 nations.
- Satan (=devil?) falling like lightning. When Christ says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning” after his 70 disciples return from their commissions to declare the kingdom of God. This is also connected with Rev. 12:9. Some claim that Christ’s earthly ministry changed something for Satan. Are these two different figures who both fall, or is this one figure, one person, who falls two different times in two different ways? St. Andrew of Caesarea thinks it’s one figure who falls in two different ways.
Three human falls:
- Fall of Adam. A trespass but no mention of sin in Genesis (seeking a childish shortcut to maturity despite God’s warning). This trespass of Adam brings death. It is the first fall and the last enemy to be defeated by Christ.
- Fall of Cain. Considered by several patristic writers to be the first to sin with his murder of his brother.
- Fall of humanity at the tower of Babel. Coming under the dominion of the angelic powers overseeing the nations.
From the “Stanton Lecture 8: The Surprise of the Imagined” by John Milbank (drawing heavily on Stephen Clark):
It is common to the entire Biblical and Classical legacy to recognise that, as Stephen R.L. Clark put it, ‘our thoughts are not entirely made by us’. …It is above all Stephen R. L. Clark who has grasped how the question of religious belief in supernatural entities—in gods, angels, daemons and fairies—is intrinsically bound up with the question of the ontological status of our thoughts and imaginings. He begins the highly nuanced and philosophically crucial reflections of his essay ‘How to Believe in Fairies’ with Yeats’ (and Chesterton’s) assumption that one should take seriously perennial folk-beliefs until one has serious reasons to doubt them. And today, he suggests, scepticism concerning the existence of fairies and the like is now on all-fours with scepticism concerning the existence of a mental reality: ‘if desires and beliefs are not real causes, and neither are fairies, why should we not investigate fairies as convenient fictions? If, on the other hand, they are real causes, maybe what we call “fairies” are so too’. He also cites W.Y. Evans Wentz’s summation of Celtic fairy lore: ‘the only verdict which seems reasonable is that the Fairy-Faith belongs to a doctrine of souls’. Clark then goes on to argue that if desires, feelings and beliefs are indeed real, then the phenomenological evidence is that they often tend ‘to arrive’ in our minds with surprisingly intrusive unpredictability and irregularity, as if we were indeed being ‘possessed’. In addition, he points out that moods are readily found to be contagious—such that, one can add, we daily discover that the ‘second world’ of our imagination is not a solipsistic one, but rather one to some degree shareable (as Wittgenstein suggested) through proferred words and gestures which engender communities of feeling. If then, the mental as the imaginary is real at all, then it makes far more logical and evidential sense to treat is as a real ontological sphere rather than a reality somehow ‘inside’ our isolated subjectivities, or ‘epiphenomenally’ produced by bodies as a coating of spectral icing sugar whose metaphysical status is simply begged.
…He then goes on to adumbrate a subtle and ethically acute analysis of the relationship between human emotions and reports and theories concerning fairies. Very often they appear as pagan gods put in their proper, subordinate place: thus they are creatures of unambivalent and abiding loves and hates, not entirely malicious, but completely given over to caprice and impulse, without any regard for ends, since their destiny is to live forever within time and they do not trouble themselves concerning eternal destiny. As Clark suggests, the temptation of ‘new age thinking’ as inaugurated by Yeats (and which Clark, as a Christian, discusses with a unique patience and degree of sympathy) as he himself half-knew, is for human beings wholly to give themselves over to these real influences, in reaction against a technocratic world in league with a falsely disenchanted (and so denatured) modern Christianity. We would then start to inhabit an amoral world of vivid, random emotions, beauty divorced from the good, and heroic, sacrificial violence, accompanied by startling symbols – since, as we saw Hume taught, feeling and image are always twinned. Clark appropriately cites William Blake’s warning against returned Druidry in Britain: ‘gods are visions of the eternal attributes, or divine names, which when erected into gods become destructive of humanity. …For when separated from man or humanity, who is Jesus the saviour, the vine of eternity, they are thieves and rebels, they are destroyers’. Certainly, human beings need to be open to all ‘influences’, on pain of being the prisoners of a few ‘material’ ones; but this openness is dangerous unless we are supremely receptive to the unifying influence of God and of the Divine Humanity which (as Blake finally realised, with a developed orthodoxy that anticipates sophiology and is not at all gnostic) guards against the influence of a distorted and itself ‘druidically’ idolatrous monotheistic influence which would sacrifice the Creation to the Creator.
In this context Clark notes that, traditionally speaking, the fairy-realm has been associated not just with a carefree innocence and endless festival, but also with disillusionment, aridity and sterility. This concurs with the fact, that as the Irish scholar John Carey has noted, Celtic Christianity tended to locate the sidhe alternatively as unfallen human beings or as chastised pagan gods or yet again as half-fallen angels. In keeping, perhaps, with the first reading, Clark suggests in the conclusion of his essay that there can be ‘third fairies’, perhaps rather like Tolkien’s elves, who combine joy with a tinge of sadness, and so point beyond earthly paradisal timelessness towards the real spiritual Good of eternity which is the active contemplation of infinite love.
…[Clark’s] own insight that fairies are now on one fairy-footing with all other fantasies, including human thoughts as such, would rather suggest that …one not only ‘can’ but must believe in fairies (and so forth) in order to go on believing in the reality of the very thoughts that we think. For if thoughts are ireducibly real as thoughts, transcending all matter, then they must come from outside us and finally from above us. And if imaginings are real as imaginings, irreducible to physical motions, sensations or intentional abstractions, then they must belong in, and derive from a real dream-world like the one twice visited by Alice: the mundus imaginalis of the near-Orient.
Full text of this lecture available here.
Excerpts from “Stanton Lecture 8: The Surprise of the Imagined” by John Milbank.
So how can everything be at once entirely interrelated, and yet in integral, reserved excess of relationship? Once more we need the model of participation as paradox which is the same paradox as the paradox of the gift. A substance is related as giving though sharing a capacity to be separately imitated only by retaining that which it shares in order to remain a ‘personal’ giver. Inversely, a substance receives another substance in relation only by imitative sharing which reserves as mystery the very thing which it proffers as ‘the rite of the mystery’, so to speak.
…In this way culture is provisional resurrection: every artifact is a tombstone which remembers the past, projects the future and aspires after eternity and for this reason, as the ancient Egyptians realised, every city is first a temple because it is a graveyard. Nor are all monuments equal: Heidegger’s jug really does command a greater intrinsic presence than the fairy-liquid bottle, not just because of the array of forces at its command, but because of the greater intrinsic coherence of the forces making for beauty, which ensure that not even the efforts of a Warhol can match the survival through the millennia of one particular finely-crafted pot, supremely embodying the eidos of ‘potness’. …And as to imagination: here again we have a reversible hierarchy—physical reality is more real as more substantive; but imagined reality is more real as more aspiring upwards to a spiritual condition.
…And through the same gesture monotheism is perfected rather than qualified, because one ‘resolves’ in a mystery the aporia whereby the Creation as the divinely imagined ‘other’ to God is and yet is not outside God, who is omnipresent. The doctrine of the Trinity allows one to hold to both sides of the aporia with equal force: the art of Creation as externalised imagination possesses integrity outside God, and on this account it eventually returns to God; but equally, God is in himself the internalised art of the Creation (in its entire extent which is unknown to us) and the return of this inner Filial imagination to its Paternal fontal source by its ceaseless organic renewal of spousal Spiritual inspiration, through whose equally maternal ‘excess’ over its own imaginings it is generated in the first place.
…Humans, in order to freely love God, and so in a sense to be free in relation to God and even free of God, as Eckhart might say, must give back to God more than he has given us. This is only possible because God himself becomes more than God by repairing the third metaphysical indigency whereby God lacks his own lack—God lacks the worship of God, as Pierre Bérulle put it. But Christ as the divine-humanity is impossibly more than God and renders back to God more than God has given. In this way to the divine imagination is impossibly added also the human imagination of the divine. Of course under the conditions of sin this ontological atonement took the form of a suffering one—a passage through disaster perfectly endured and so integrated into the gift that is impossibly more than even the greatest imaginable gift.
…Yet in the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ we are offered a further mystery that in some sense indicates a resolution of the everyday one. What holds together here is the divine-human substance as identical with the being, or better, the reality of God. So in participatory consequence, all of nature is transubstantiated, and thereby restored to its original integrity. In a sense the transformation and inherence at the Mass is no more mysterious than any other transformation or inherence, and if it is imagined by us as taking place, then that is because it is real, and because all reality is most fundamentally imagined. Ordinarily, holding together and transformation occur through the mediated interaction of substance and relation, but we can now see that these things make no sense outside the divine presence to all things achieved through participation in the divine imaginative, creative act.
This quadruple summation of completed monotheism as divine and humanly imagined Creation, Trinity, Incarnation and Transubstantiation, consummates the vision and claim of these lectures. This is the view that, in order fully to perform the philosophic act of saving the appearances of the ordinary, we must invoke the seemingly strange and exotic teachings of theology, and the strangest of all, which are the teachings of Christian theology.
Full text of lecture available here.
Hell is with us at all times, a phantom kingdom perpetuating itself in the wastes of sinful hearts, but only becomes visible to us as hell because the true kingdom has shed its light upon history. In theological tradition, most particularly in the East, there is that school of thought that wisely makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, and that interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement. Hell is the experience (a possibility in each moment) of divine glory not as beauty, but as a formless sublimity; it is the rejection of all analogical vulnerability, the sealing off of the “self” (or the cosmos) in univocal singularity, the “misreading” of creation as an aboriginal violence. The “fire” of hell is that same infinite display of semeia [signs] by which God is always declaring his love, misconstrued (though rejection) as the chaotic sublime rather than the beautiful, not susceptible of analogical appropriation, of charity; it is the soul’s refusal to become (as Gregory says) the expanding vessel into which the beauty of God endlessly flows. For exile is possible within the beauty of the infinite only by way of an exilic interiority, a fictive inwardness, where the creature can grasp itself as an isolated essence. Hell is, one might almost say, a perfectly “Kantian” place, where the twin sublimities of the star-strewn firmament above and the lofty moral “law” within remain separated by the thin tissue of subjective moral autonomy: where this tissue has become impervious to glory, the analogy of the heavens is not the transforming voice of God but only a mute simile, an inassimilable exteriority, and so a torment. Hell is the perfect concretization of ethical freedom, perfect justice without delight, the soul’s work of legislation for itself, where ethics has achieved its final independence from aesthetics. Absolute subjective liberty is known only in hell, where the fire of divine beauty is held at by, where the divine apeiron [limitlessness] miraculously divests itself at the peras [boundary, end, extremity] that, in Christ it has already transgressed and broken open, and humbly permits the self to “create” itself. True, though hell is the purest interiority, it is also by contagion a shared interiority, a palpable fiction and common space superimposed upon creation, with a history of its own; but still, it is a turning in, a fabrication of an inward depth, a shadow, a privation, a loss of the whole outer world, a refusal of the surface. For Eastern Christian thought, in particular, it makes no difference here whether one speaks of death, sin, or hell: in each case on speaks of the same privation, the same estranging history, the same limit shattered by Easter; and hence there can be no aesthetic explanation of hell (something that few of the Fathers occasionally foolishly attempted) that would make of it a positive moment in the exposition of divine beauty, a part of the universe’s harmonious ordering of light and darkness. Hell cannot serve as an objective elements of the beautiful—as source of delight—because it is an absolute privation of form and quantity; it has no surface, nor even a shadow’s substance; its aesthetic “place” is the sealed outside of an inside.The Beauty of the Infinite by David Bentley Hart
Several people have asked me questions about what this post means, so here is a summary in advance with more direct language. God doesn’t need death to create, but He subverts death to achieve all of His original intentions anyway. The Bible teaches a human fall outside the start of time and of our cosmos as we know it. All death (of any kind) is a result of this atemporal human fall (which is also manifested within history as you can consider in this post).
In other words, God has always had incarnation in the form of the Son as an eternal plan and purpose, and humans are actually created outside of time as we now know it. Our showing up within this current corrupt reduction of time and space is a result of our collective decision outside of time to try a shortcut that resulted in this corrupted first creation that we now know but which is still being made (in Christ) into the new creation that will be fully revealed at Christ’s second coming.
The image in Revelation 13:8 of a Lamb slain from he foundation of the cosmos has come to mean a lot to me, as this captures the idea that Jesus Christ has been suffering with His creation since the start of time.
“One major challenge to any ancient metaphysical conception of the world is the modern doctrine of evolution.” Torstein Theodor Tollefsen raises this critical point at the end of “Saint Maximus the Confessor on Creation and Incarnation” (his contribution to Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology edited by Niels Henrik Gregersen). While Tollefsen immediately acknowledges that “Maximus probably held the view that the world was made recently and that all species were made by God in the beginning,” Tollefsen goes on to explain how modern evolutionary science can fit seamlessly within the metaphysical system that Maximus provides. As far as I can tell, what Tollefsen proposes lines up to a remarkable degree with the position outlined in “Sergius Bulgakov on Evolution and the Fall: A Sophiological Solution” by Charles Andrew Gottshall (posted to the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog on May 1, 2017).
In summary, Maximus sees the fall of humanity as having two aspects. These can also be expressed as “two senses of hamartia” (the Greek term typically translated sin). They are not two falls of humanity but just our human fall seen from two perspectives: 1) humanity’s relation to God outside of time wherein we collectively made a free and culpable choice to become what God intended for us via the wrong pathway and 2) humanity’s suffering within time under the bondage of corruption alongside of the entire cosmos that we are meant to tend and bless.
In its first aspect, our fall is an atemporal event that takes place within the “eternal now” of God’s presence and in which humankind “reached for its humanity as made in the image of God, situated in the tension between paradise and oikoumené, but failed to achieve it in the proper way.” (Although Tollefsen does not specify this directly, it seems clear that Adam in this sense for Maximus is understood as God’s vision of humanity seen collectively as a whole—as the perfect body of Christ to use Paul’s language.) In Ambiguum 42, Maximus states that our nature fell unnaturally into wickedness “at the instant it was created.” (Note in this blog post that Maximus actually makes this strange claim “on three separate occasions.”) Tollefsen explains that this “first ‘failure’ of Adam …was culpable, since he fell of his own choice from good into evil.” According to Tollefsen: “Maximus does not …commit himself to any definite speculation on the state of innocence. …The first [sense of hamartia] was culpable and indicates a fall from innocence, but the text does not say that this first is to be understood temporally.”
In its second aspect, our human fall “was the innocent transformation of human nature from incorruption into corruption.” This consequence of our fall is “innocent” in that we and the entire cosmos (with no rational will of its own and therefore no choice in the matter) suffer a contingent consequence that we could not have fully foreseen. Tollefsen says that this aspect of “humankind’s fall from perfection …is probably understood in a temporal sense” in that after “a period of existence in paradise” we experienced the fall “with its consequences for the whole of creation, when human beings were transformed from incorruption to corruption.” Summarizing Maximus, Tollefsen further explains: “Corruption, comprising all kinds of physical weakness and death, is not natural. It is not in accordance with the proper nature of a being, which rather is the divine purpose of its logos. Thus while human salvation involves healing from sin and gaining incorruptibility, animals, if they should be conceived as participating in the divine scheme of salvation, only need healing from corruptibility.”
Critical to the full metaphysical framework that Maximus presents is that “the plurality and diversity that characterizes the world is willed by God, and [it] shall not disappear in the consummation of the ages.” In God’s final purposes, “particular beings are meant to be preserved as themselves in their particularity.” In conclusion, Tollefsen claims: “The transformation from incorruption to corruption [of the entire cosmos] may be interpreted within this picture. [It describes] a purpose that is not achieved throughout the natural history of the world, but is reached in the eternal kingdom of God.”
When taken together (and summarized in my own layman’s terms), we get a vision of creation as being initiated within God’s timeless presence with the central and guiding principle of creation from before creation’s start being the incarnation of the Logos as human. Christology, in this case, expresses a unity between God and creation—with humanity being the principal link within the created order. Humanity, however, grasping at a false path toward our ultimate end as the focal point of God’s image within creation, recasts our entire experience of the process of creation itself within a contingent corruption of the entire cosmos (expressed within our current cosmic time). For now, we are no longer fully able to see God’s creative work underway except in so far as we can see it through Jesus Christ, and all that we see is subject to the delusions and blindnesses imposed by ourselves and many others within our current contingent time. This human fall does not prevent God’s creative acts and intentions from taking place, but our falleness introduces the temporary experience of suffering and death into the entire creative process as it unfolds within time. From start to finish (even before humanity arrives within the fallen temporal sequence), creation within cosmic time is marred by corruption (but not prevented or destroyed). Within this context, the incarnation, death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus Christ become the revelation and restoration of our true and eternal condition as well as remaining the telos of creation as it always was. This telos is enacted within history as the incarnation of Jesus Christ but reveals a truth that cannot be fully seen or known until history is finished and transformed.
Biological evolution, in this scheme, is just the creative work of God unfolding as this ongoing work is experienced within the fallen confines of our current cosmic time. The entire natural history of our cosmos combines together the achievement of God’s eternal ends with the contingent experience of corruption, suffering and death. In this, the whole of creation becomes a kind of prolonged and painful labor and delivery. Ultimately, the claim here is that all the eons of biological evolution participate in the crucifixion and death of Christ as well as in Christ’s transfiguration, resurrection and glorification (rendering all the suffering of humanity and the cosmos contingent yet fruitful in the end). In this way, the final telos of all creation is “not achieved throughout the natural history of the world, but is reached in the eternal kingdom of God.”
Passages from Tollefsen relating to what God intends and is creating according to Maximus:
How does God know beings? They are known, Maximus states, as his own acts of will. Maximus says that in the logoi, beings are circumscribed essentially and genetically (that is, as known and as willed) by their own logoi and by the logoi of beings that surround them.
…God knows particulars. He not only knows them; he loves them. …The logoi, as conceived by God, are contemplated by God according to the essential relationships they were intended to found. …Natural relationships are for …the actualization of a movement of love, which is what God has made possible within this system of being. According to Maximus’s interpretation, when beings are conceived within such an order, this is meant to guarantee a certain integrity of being and to make possible a certain providential and soteriological dynamics of movement.
The plurality and diversity that characterizes the world is willed by God, and is as such shall not disappear in the consummation of the ages. Particular beings are meant to be preserved as themselves in their particularity. However, in the present age this particularity has turned into a source of self-enhancement on the part of particular beings. This self-enhancement is sinful, since it involves an encroachment upon the integrity of both one’s own being and the being of others. In this way suffering, pain, corruptibility, and death rule the natural world. The divine remedy, however, is not the reduction of particularity, plurality, and diversity to an essential, ontological unity. Rather, it is the reduction of self-enhancement to the detriment of other beings to a unity in love that is made ontologically possible because God has transcendentally (in his logoi) knit the bonds of being that make it possible.
…The inﬁnite divine Mind who eternally contemplates his own knowledge of beings has contemplated them in their logoi in all the possible ways of development these possible beings might enfold.
…While it will not accord with the methods of science to search for final causes, a metaphysical doctrine of the world as made by God cannot dispense with the concept of final causality.
…Even if the natural development of life is replete with struggle, suffering, and death, the Christian metaphysics of Maximus reckons with a ﬁnal consummation in which all suffering and corruptibility are overcome. A cosmos made by God according to his goodness, will, and purpose must be conceived as directed, in the divine Mind, toward some goal.
Passages from Tollefsen relating to what we experience in this life given our fallen condition according to Maximus:
Maximus expects a universal transformation of the cosmos. Also, salvation does not just concern the remission of sin, since only rational creatures can sin. In Ad Thalassium 42, Maximus interprets the Greek term hamartia, which is usually translated “sin,” in its literal sense as a failure or as missing the mark, like when one shoots with a bow. The first “failure” of Adam, he says, was culpable, since he fell of his own choice from good into evil. This is what we would designate as sin in the usual sense of the term. The second failure, however, following upon the first, was the innocent transformation of human nature from incorruption into corruption. According to Maximus, corruption, comprising all kinds of physical weakness and death, is not natural. It is not in accordance with the proper nature of a being, which rather is the divine purpose of its logos. Thus while human salvation involves healing from sin and gaining incorruptibility, animals, if they should be conceived as participating in the divine scheme of salvation, only need healing from corruptibility.
…Maximus does not, as far as I can see, commit himself to any deﬁnite speculation on the state of innocence. He …distinguished between two senses of hamartia. The ﬁrst one was culpable and indicates a fall from innocence, but the text does not say that this ﬁrst is to be understood temporally. However, in Ad Thalassium 1, he mentions in passing humankind’s fall from perfection. This is probably understood in a temporal sense: there was ﬁrst a period of existence in paradise; then came the fall with its consequences for the whole of creation, when human beings were transformed from incorruption to corruption.
…What Maximus actually says does not have to be interpreted in the sense that one has to reckon with some kind of historical paradise in the past. If we look at the divisions of being in Ambiguum 41, one of the divisions is between paradise and oikoumené, as if these were somehow present in the cosmic building and not as if one came before the other in time. Further, in Ambiguum 42, Maximus states that our nature fell unnaturally into wickedness “at the instant it was created.” These Maximian descriptions need not be anything other than a metaphysical sketch of the structures or powers and possibilities of the world and of culture. When humankind originated within the fabric of nature, it reached for its humanity as made in the image of God, situated in the tension between paradise and oikoumené, but failed to achieve it in the proper way.
Note that, while working to grasp Tollefsen’s summary of Maximus on these points, it can be helpful to have this additional map in hand:
In Ambiguum 41, Maximus presents his system in a nutshell. He draws a perspicuous and, I would say, beautiful picture of the cosmos as it comes forth from God in its procession (that is, creation) and converts to God in the ﬁnal restoration. He describes ﬁve basic divisions in accordance with which the cosmos is arranged: (1) the division between uncreated and created nature, (2) the division of created nature into intelligible and sensible being, (3) the division of sensible being into heaven and earth, (4) the division of earth into paradise and oikoumené, and (5) the division of oikoumené into male and female. By oikoumené he probably means the inhabited world [as Andrew Louth translates it in Maximus the Confessor, Early Church Fathers (London: Routledge, 1996), 157].
Fr. Andrew Louth with “The Necessity of Platonism for Christian Theology.”
Delivered remotely to the King’s College Chapel, January 17, 2021.
Link to full video of this 2021 Robert Crouse Memorial Lecture.
Summary of the opening comments before my transcription picks up: Christianity is not an intellectual pursuit, and being a Platonist certainly is not required to be a Christian. Louth clarifies that he is not promoting Christian Platonism or interested in any such intellectual camps, as if we needed to opt between alternatives such as “Christian Platonism” or “Christian Aristoteliansim” or “Christian Existentialism.” Finally, Louth makes it clear that he does not consider Aristotle to be fundamentally at odds with Plato but instead to be within the Platonic tradition. What Louth does claim is that, in pursuing the intellectual work of Christian theology, we find that Platonism provided a necessary backdrop or framework—one that uniquely enables Christian thinkers to articulate the centrality of Christ in a way that preserves the mystery of Christ from being sucked up into transcendence or drawn down into imminence.
Transcription of select portions:
There is not doubt that among the fathers Plato could be held in very high regard. Saint Athanasius [d. 373] …refers to Plato as “great among the Greeks” (though in the context of attributing to him a false doctrine of creation from pre-existent matter). In Saint Anastasios of Sinai’s Questions and Answers [7th century], we find this story. There is handed down an ancient tradition that a certain learned man used often to curse Plato the philosopher. Plato appeared to him in his sleep and said to him, “Man stop cursing me, for you only harm yourself. For that I’ve been a sinful man, I do not deny. When Christ came down into Hades, truely, no one believed in him before I did.”
Plato then had a certain respect among all the fathers, at least in late antiquity. By the end of the first millennium, regard for Plato was more conflicted. Among the anathemas added to the Synodikon of Orthodoxy after the condemnation of John Italus in 1082, an anathema was pronounced on those who “pursued Hellenic learning”—which certainly included Plato—”and are formed by it not simply as an educational discipline but who follow their empty opinions and believe them to be true.”
Aristotle himself had less appeal to the fathers. In a famous phrase, often cited by others, Saint Gregory the Theologian recommended that Christians should present their theology …in the manner of fisherman (apostles) not in the manner of Aristotle. [This] quip that was capped by Saint John Damascene. When writing against John Philoponus, he commented that Philoponus’ problems, both trinitarian and christological, would not have arisen had he not introduced Saint Aristotle as the thirteenth apostle. In both these cases, it seems, that Aristotle meant his logical works which had, in fact, already been incorporated into a fundamentally Platonic context.
…Christian Platonism seems to me a category mistake. …The idea of Christian Platonism …sees these positions—Christianity, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism and so on—as collections of doctrines. But recent scholarship has retrieved a much more adequate understanding of what was meant by philosophy in late antiquity by insisting that such philosophies were not just a matter of doctrines, though they involved doctrines and the philosophers argued over them among themselves, but are primarily to be seen (to use part of a title of a book containing English translations of the most prominent scholar espousing this view, namely Pierre Hadot) as a “way of life.” In this sense, certainly, Christianity could be regarded, and sometimes presented itself, as a philosophical school. But to speak of Christian Platonism muddies the waters. This has been evident especially since Mark Edwards published his book with the provocative title Origen Against Plato in which Origen is presented not as a Christian Platonist (as he has often been) but as an explicit critic of Plato. The different philosophical schools in late antiquity could and did overlap in the doctrines they espoused, but what distinguished them was also quite clear. It was where they found their authority for the doctrines they maintained: the dialogs of Plato, the writings of Aristotle, the Christian scriptures. In late antiquity, in reaction against the Christian and Jewish appeal to their ancient scriptures, we find philosophical schools of a general Platonic color, appealing to the authority of supposed ancient oracles such as the Chaldean Oracles or the treatises ascribed to the thrice greatest Hermes (Hermes Trismegistus), oracles that were claimed as the ultimate source of the doctrines Plato, something that Plato had not exactly discourage in his own appeal in the Symposium to the teachings of Diotima the priestess of Manitea.
The notion of Christian Platonism confuses the issue, suggesting that Christianity is, as it were, adjectival to Platonism, whereas the reverse was the case for all of those claimed as Christian Platonists. They supported their doctrines by appeal to the scriptures, so at best they could be regarded as Platonic Christians. The only thinker of late antiquity I can think of who might reasonably be regarded as a Christian Platonist was Synesius of Cyrene, the Platonist and neoplatonist who became a Christian, indeed a Christina bishop, but made it clear in a letter to his brother that truth was something he had learned from Plato while what he was to preach as a Christian bishop were no more to him than popular myths. But Synesius is pretty well a unique case.
…So I am not making a case for Christian Platonism. What might seem a more fruitful line could be to note the overlap in doctrines between Christianity and Platonism. There is genuine and important overlap in the doctrines Platonists and Christians embraced. Both believed in the existence of the divine (God or gods), in divine providence (God’s care for the universe), that humans are responsible for their deeds and will be rewarded or punished in an afterlife. In other words, both Platonists and Christians maintained a belief in a moral universe which required that divine providence held sway but did not override human free will. Now to talk of free will is already to use later Christian terminology. Earlier philosophers, both pagan and Chistian, spoke rather of human responsibility. Other philosophical schools had different doctrines, believing that the cosmos was either the result of chance (as Aristotelians were held to belief) at least in the sublunary regions. In the celestial realm, the movement of the stars and planets was indeed predictable or governed by an ineluctable fate (as the Stoics were held to maintain). Christian thinkers drew on an established body of their arguments that had been developed by earlier thinkers (mostly Platonists), but there were Platonic doctrines that Christians rejected. For example, Platonists believed that the soul was immortal—that is, it had existed from eternity and that it would continue to exist to eternity. For Christians, the soul had only an immortal future. Christians believed in the resurrection of the body, a doctrine incomprehensible to most non-Chrsitian philosophers in late antiquity as the Apostle Paul discovered at Athens. Nevertheless, Chistians responded warmly to the idea that, in virtue of possessing a soul, there was a certain affinity between the human and the divine, something expressed in a distinctively Chrsitian way by their doctrine of the human created in the image of God, a doctrine based on the Bible.
…Nevertheless, this overlap or assimilation of Platonic and Christian theology in the patristic period is not what I have in mind in speaking of the necessity of Platonism for Christian theology.
…[Walter] Pater’s expositions begins: “Platonism is not a formal theory or body of theories but a tendency or a group of tendencies, a tendency to think or feel and to speak about certain things in a particular way, discernible in Plato’s dialogs as reflecting the particularities of himself and his own mental complexion.” And he goes on to show how an appeal to the general is not intended to detract from our attention to the particular but rather enables us to notice what is particular about the particular. For it is only when we compare one particular with another of the same kind that we notice the particularity of the particular. Later on in this chapter, Pater puts it like this: “By its juxtaposition and coordination with what is ever more and more not it—the contrast of its very imperfection at this point or that with its own proper and perfect type—this concrete and particular thing has in fact been enriched by the whole color and expression of the whole circomplacent world concentrated upon or, as it were, at focus in it by a kind of shorthand now and, as if in a single moment of vision, all that which only a long experience, moving patiently from part to part could exhaust, its manifold alliance with the entire world of nature is legible upon it as it lies there in one’s hand.”
What seems to me important about this procedure of understanding is that it is not a procedure in which, as it where, by applying a certain method we pass from ignorance to knowledge. It is rather a process by which the knowledge we already have, knowledge both of the world around us as well as knowledge of forms of human excellence is clarified and deepened. The process is one of clarification in the light of experience rather that appeal to some empirical observation that adds in some way to our knowledge understood as a collection of information. This growing understanding is, however, a matter of long experience, an experience that is itself central to a way of life.
…This means that any meaning we find in the world in which we live is, in some sense, received from, even given by something (not yet someone to Plato) beyond understanding. This transcendent reality, bestoying meaning, is glimpsed beyond the good and the beautiful. For Plato himself, this was something untheorizeable. It remains an intuition thought it almost imperceptibly tips over into religious, even theological, intuition.
I remind you at this point about a quotation from C.C.J. Webb that my revered mentor, Professor Donald MacKinnon, used to growl forth in his lectures in Cambridge half a century ago, “We could not allow the name of God to a being on whose privacy an Actaeon could intrude or whose secrets a Prometheus could snatch form him without his assent.”
Plotinus, as we shall see, takes a step beyond Plato but does not take away the sense of transcendence as beyond meaning yet the source of meaning. In this, Plotinus finds a sense of something that would make possible the continuing fruitfulness of meditation on Plato in the Christian tradition that indeed lent the Christian vision the intellectual coherence it needed to articulate its own vision of reality, a vision opened up by revelation, though because it is the revelation of God—ineffable, incomprehensible—it is a revelation that remains a mystery unknown and unknowable.
What I just expressed is something that I only found the means to articulate through having to reread, recently, Hans Urs von Balthasar in order to write a chapter commissioned for the forthcoming Oxford handbook on Hans Urs von Balthasar on the influence on the great Swiss theologian of Plato and the Platonic tradition. In the long section on Plato, in The Realm of Metaphysics in Antiquity, Balthasar presents Plato as the supreme witness to philosophy in antiquity while at the same time recognizing inherent limitations. Sternly shaking himself free from poetry and myth, as from an old passion, Plato devotes himself to the quest for truth discovered by reason. But this quest is for him a religious quest, seeking true divinity that transcends the gods—the spurious divinity of the myths. And he does this by occupying himself with becoming like God so far as is possible, by becoming righteous and holy with wisdom. This is, however, a quest, that though pursued by reason cannot be represented solely by transparently rational procedures. The slave in the Meno is shown already to be aware of truths that he had not been taught and of which he is unaware, and this because learning is for Plato a matter of recalling what the soul has already experienced. The myth of the rebirth of the immortal soul in this life in this body is evoked to explain something that reason can reveal but cannot explain.
Other attempts to explore what is involved in the rational pursuit of truth, for instance in the Symposium or the Phaedrus, invoke themes of inspiration, the longing for eros (understood as a dymo, neither god nor human, immortal nor mortal)—themes that seem to transcend or undermine reason. Myth for Plato is to be found and belongs where the lines drawn by philosophical reflection stretch beyond its grasp, and in telling these myths, Plato demonstrates a literary power to evoke and persuade in a way very different than the demonstration of truth by rational argument.
…Heraclitus’ system of pure being is rejected, and Plato seems to be following Parmenides in the pursuit of pure being in the sense that “…only becomes more demanding since now it must take becoming with it up into being, the half up into the whole. This whole is the soundest, the most honorable. Inspiration, eros, myth can point to nothing higher.
…Now is born that philosophic aesthetic of the grand style to which even Plotinus will be able to make no significant alteration and which will lay down the pattern for all Western forms of humanism, of antiquity, the middle ages, and right into modern times—an aesthetic which seeks to draw out the glory of God which breaks in upon the human scene in the direction of the human of what for the moment is the same cosmic sublime.
…Though for Balthasar it is Plotinus who sees what the final implications of Plato’s intuition really amount to. He starts a paragraph like this: “Plotinus stands in awe and wonder before the glory of the cosmos.” Here I suggest, Balthasar reaches for his touch stone for understanding of Platonism, in this case that of Plotinus. The cosmos—manifestly a vast ensouled organism in which individual souls, rational and irrational, have their share—throughout this glorious world radiates the presence of an eternal and intelligent spirit in which noesis and noema, the action of thought and the object of thought are one. …And in the ultimate ground of this spirit, there is an unutterable generative mystery at work which in all the splendor of the cosmos simultaneously reveals and hides itself, present everywhere and yet unapproachable. All intellectual activity in heaven and earth circles round this unattainable generative mystery—all longings, love, struggles upwards towards it. All the beauty of the world is only a sign coming from it and pointing to it, so that as he contemplates and seeks to understand the things of the world, the philosopher is compelled at a deeper level to run away, to let go, to turn again to the uniqueness of absolute unity.
On the one hand, the irreferable wonder of the world around us and on the other, stemming from this, a sense of being touched by knowledge in which wonder seems to dissolve any sense of distance between the known and the knower. Wonder before the cosmos does not, at first step, highlight a contrast with our everyday experience (as with the gnostic to whom he was radically opposed and with whom he may indeed include Christians) but reveals a hidden sense of oneness. To Plotinus, in contrast, the vision of the starry heavens directly reveals the certainty of the world’s divinity and an awed reticence fills the soul. It is the manifest and glorious image of an unimaginable wisdom, a wondrous intellectual power reveals itself in this vision. How can the stars be anything other than the divinity manifest? Why should we rob this world, springing forth from God’s spirit, of it Maker and seek to confine him to a meager beyond?
…The stress on individuality [is] wholly positive, divined from above where it is found in the realm of the ideas not from below by material difference. …Poltinas speaks of procession [from the One] as risk but also daring, temerity. An entailment of this is that the One is not separated from anything. Because God is absolutely transcendent, therefore He can be absolutely imminent in all things. Thus does Plotinus reject the utter beyondness of Aristotle’s God (reposing in Himself) but also the Platonic karismas(sp?), separation. Intellection itself reflects the inexpressible unity of the One as the realm of one-many.
This, Balthasar continues, leaves nothing except the One in its moment of eternal self-identity to define what the intellect stretches out towards. God is nothing other than the inner depth of things, the center of that circle whose periphery or circumference they constitute. …The real Plotinus could never rest content with speculation in the modern sense. Throughout his life, he was to stand speechless before the miracle of being that transcends all reason.
…Balthasar concludes his chapter by making the following comment: “Plotinus draws together the various strands of the Greek heritage in his vision of being as beauty because it is the revelation of the divine. Beauty is thus characterized by an inner differentiation between radiance and form, light and harmony. It is in the fact that his formal ontology and aesthetics leaves the way open to pure philosophy and self-conscious theology that Plotinus represents a moment of kairos. It is in this that both the risks and the fruitfulness of his thought for future ages lie.
For Balthasar, Plotinus is clearly the apogee of Platonism, surpassing even the one that he regards as his master. Transcendence, which for both is only fully sensed in the beautiful, is less as with Plato the subject of meditations then a sense of wonder before the transcendent, a raw wonder not to be themetized or theorized, but speechlessness before the miracle of being and its source. This transcendent is absolute and therefore absolutely imminent, experienced as presence, as immediate, palpable but intangible, felt but never understood.
It is this intuition of Plato’s, an intuition that determined the very being of Plotinus, that I want to claim is necessary for Christian theology—necessary in the sense that without it the Christian thinker will find it impossible to articulate the centrality of Christ, the centrality of the cross for Christian theology. It is this sense of speechlessness before the miracle of being and its source that ensures both the acknowledgement of the reality of God (transcendent and immanent—transcendent because immanent and immanent because transcendent) and a sense of the wonder of creation. Now both of these are necessary if the mystery of Christ is not to be sucked up into the transcendent God or drawn down into the mystery of created being.
Plato’s and Plotinus’ intuition remained for them unfulfilled and unfulfilling. The sense behind this intuition that meaning is always received, always being given cannot be ultimately sustained if there is no giver, no God who bestows meaning. For the sovereign reality that must be recognized in the supreme giver, the giver of being itself, cannot rest on the acknowledgement of the creature. This is the mystery of grace which cannot itself demand or require what can only be freely given.
So I leave you with a paradox that Christian theology stands in need of an intuition of the radical givenness of meaning, an intuition that forms the heart of Plato’s metaphysics, an intuition that might even be said to have rendered speechless before the mystery of being its greatest interpreter Plotinus, but which for both Plato and Plotinus could not but remain beyond fulfillment.
Thank you for your attention.
From the Q & A:
…It is this intuition that the meaning of things is not something that we read into them, is not …simply our way of negotiating them, but in fact is something that ultimately is found, not even in the things themselves, but beyond the things themselves and requires from us attention, a contemplative gaze if you like—this is the fundamental issue as I see it.
…What is essential about Platonism for Christianity is that …the truth of things is not something that we confect. It is something that is in some way disclosed and disclosed as a process of refining vision, refining love. It is not something that can be read off from events or even read off from texts.
…Even when they don’t come to a conclusion, the process of the dialog leaves Plato and his interlocutors with a sense that, well, “We know that this is because that isn’t it.” And it’s that sort of intuition that it seems to me is fundamental if our response to the world is a response to the miracle of being rather than just an attempt to make some sense of it.
…In the liturgy, we open ourselves to an experience of being that can be gestured at, that can be reflected in various ways of praising God. …The unwritten traditions are all liturgical acts. …These liturgical acts reach out towards meaning even if we don’t understand why we are doing them because what we are doing is we are standing within a community and drawing on the resources of that community …in order to deepen our sense of openness to the mystery of being which is also the mystery of recreation, …the mystery of everything that is involved in the divine economy.
…There is something in Platonism that we have to take on board if we are going to be able to become Chrisitan theologians. But I don’t believe for a minute that this is done by becoming Platonists, not in the sense of adopting various Platonic doctrines. …There is one thing in which there is no parallel between Christianity and Platonism. …It is only in the Jewish and Christian tradition, in Philo particularly, that God is understood as one who speaks, and what he speaks is the Logos. This is very different from an understanding of the logos that is a meaning that we find in things, a meaning that we think runs through everything. A lot of discussion of what we think is going on in the second century gets completely off the rails because it doesn’t realize how Philo’s idea of talking of God as one who speaks …is something that Platonists could take on but they didn’t really understand what it is about. They didn’t see the idea of God as one who speaks is a way of summing up Genesis one. He is the one who speaks, and his speech comes into effect and is created. …Mark Edwards in his book Origen against Plato …says that all of these people were interpreting text. It was not a free standing discussion of various doctrines which we might or might not share with one another.
…In my experience, most people who are non-philosophers get this point quite easily. They don’t expect to be able to read off from scripture some sort of human wisdom that they are in control of. They are very often very deeply conscious of the fact that listening to the scriptures, trying to understand the scripture, is an encounter, an encounter with God, and that in that encounter what takes place is not, as it were, scripted. …This way of understanding scripture, not as a collection of doctrines or arguments or whatever, …became inevitable at the time of the Reformation and thereafter where people read scripture and understood very different doctrines in it and then saw scripture not as a source of wisdom but rather as a source of argument and knowledge, an arsenal instead of as a treasury. …Trying to understand scripture as a way of mediating an encounter with God is going to make much more sense …rather than trying to see scripture as some sort of textbook. The use of scripture in a kind of frightened way, from the 18th century on, as a way of rejecting what we don’t want to understand about the world in which we live …that is not even thought of by people who argue like that. They think that what they are doing is going back to a way in which the scriptures were understood before all these scientists came along. …That, just as a matter of history, is just wrong. The Genesis account wasn’t read before the eighteenth century as if it was a descriptive account of the way that the world was made. It was understood as a story which was told which helped us to see in what way it was God’s and in what way it was a world in which God was active. …We’ve lost a lot of being able to stand before sacred text and allowing them to help us to understand ourselves and our relationship to God and to other people and have treated them as textbooks, as primitive textbooks of primitive science.
…You know Otto’s idea of the mysterium tremendum et fascinosum. The tremendum is alright, but what is more important is the idea of mystery that draws one into itself, that wants us to go further, to understand more deeply, not to lose this sense of wonder. Attentiveness is absolutely crucial. Certainly in the Eastern tradition it’s a point often made, particularly with the ascetic fathers, that the Greek words for prayer and attention are very similar. There is a sense that they involve one another.