A Note on His Teachings During This Feast Day of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite

Christians feast Saint Dionysius the Areopagite today. He was appointed by the Apostle Paul as the first bishop of Athens after he became a Christian while hearing Paul teach on the Areopagus (Acts 17). Among other places, Dionysius is always depicted in the icon of the Dormition with the other bishops who were there: James, the brother of the Lord, Timothy and Heirotheus. Stories about Dionysius pour forth across time like exotic treasures from a viking trove. For example, while living in Alexandria, Egypt years before his conversion, he noticed the sky darkening one day and remarked at the time that either the creator of the world must be suffering or the world must be ending (later learning that this was the day of Christ’s crucifixion). After becoming a Christian, Dionysius traveled to see Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ and to hear from her directly about her son who had died, returned from the grave and ascended into heaven. Dionysius reports that if he had not known anything about Mary, he would have immediately recognized her as a remarkable and holy woman because she radiated a divine light. For most of Christian history, Dionysius was also thought to have traveled to Paris in Gaul where he died a martyr. However, most historians of hagiography now consider Saint Dionysius (or Denis) of Paris to have been another saint with the same name. Either way, Saint Dionysius of Paris is the most famous cephalophore of the many who appear in Western Christianity, and most images of this saint show him carrying his own head (with the halo sometimes with the head and sometimes where the head should be and sometimes partially in both places). The account was much loved of Dionysius the Areopagite picking up his own head after his decapitation and carrying it to the church to deliver a powerful sermon on the beauties of repentance before he finally laid himself down to rest.

Among the many potent and beautiful materials connected to Dionysius the Areopagite, are a set of astounding writings that patristic scholars continue to marvel over. Most scholars today would say that these writings are by a later person working within his school of teaching:

  • Divine Names (Περὶ θείων ὀνομάτων)
  • Celestial Hierarchy (Περὶ τῆς οὐρανίου ἱεραρχίας)
  • Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (Περὶ τῆς ἐκκλησιαστικῆς ἱεραρχίας)
  • Mystical Theology (Περὶ μυστικῆς θεολογίας)
  • Ten epistles

Despite having a reputation for extraordinary (almost alienating) profundity and depth, these writings are loved by the whole church and considered well within the framework of all that was shared by the mothers and fathers of the church within its earliest years.

Not knowing Greek and being one who loves to find excellent shortcuts in my learning, I recently read a summary of all that Dionysius taught by a leading contemporary American scholar (professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University). I highly recommend Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric David Perl. While focusing on the core metaphysical system that is astoundingly consistent and rigorous throughout the works of Dionysius, Perl (a devout Christian himself) does cover angelology and the nature of sin along with the incarnation. In fact, Perl’s book concludes: “Dionysius’ discussions of the incarnation suggest that the whole of being, as theophany, is to be understood in incarnational terms, and that God incarnate, as the ‘principle and perfection of all hierarchies’ is the fullness of reality itself. Being as symbol, as theophany, and hence as being, is perfectly realized in Christ, in God incarnate, the finite being which is God-made-manifest.”

So what is taught by this school of Saint Dionysius? Everything around us each moment that we see, feel, smell, hear and touch is a manifestation of God—a theophany. Everything that exists does so only because it is intelligible by our nous (the mind’s eye or the mind of the heart). We cannot ultimately distinguish between intelligibility and existence. All intelligibility is also a simultaneous revelation of God and a hiding of God in one and the same event. God is not one of all the things that exist but is instead the source of all that is revealed or made intelligible. This means that God does not exist but makes all existence possible, that God is no thing but is revealed by all things. This relationship between God and creation defies explanation under the categories of either monism or dualism and is sometimes called non-dualism. All of creation is simply the manifestation of God while also the veil that keeps God eternally hidden.

Sensations (our five physical senses) inform our nous (mind’s eye or inner perception) but are not needed in order for our mind to see things. We can perceive the life of angels, for example, without the need of our physical senses. However, despite expounding an understanding of the world that makes spiritual bodies more substantial than material bodies, Dionysius does not in any way disparage or undermine material things. He writes explicitly that Plotinus was wrong about matter being evil and develops a line of thought from Proclus to argue that matter is a direct gift of God and a revelation of God’s own love, life and goodness. Dionysius repeatedly clarifies that there is no lack of divine goodness or power within any of the furthest reaches of the hierarchies or emanations that connect together the world revealed to us by God. It is not that spirit is closer to God and matter is further from God. Both come directly from God, but matter depends up on spirit and mind for its existence in a hierarchy of being that continually holds everything together. “The entire hierarchy of reality, therefore, from the highest seraph to the least speck of dust, is the immediate presence and manifestation of God.”

There would be pages to write here in summarizing the wonderful and life-giving teachings that we receive in such clear terms from the school of Dionysius. He clearly identifies sin, evil and suffering and states the case most boldly and unequivocally that these have not final place in the life of God into which we are invited and which is restored for us in incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Dionysius goes so far as to say that any attempt to give a reason or a purpose to evil (any kind of theodicy) is itself the greatest of evils. Evil is a contingent, purposeless and irrational lack being or intelligibility that ultimately can only be made full and good.

When we see and feel the sensible world around us, we gather all of these sensations up into a wholeness of perception until we see all of these sensations united together with the higher forms that hold them together. In this form of seeing with our mind, there is no leaving of any physical sensations behind but a weaving together of them all so that we can perceive them as a unified whole within the life of God who is both fully revealed by this wholeness of vision (the immanent and immediate source of all that is) and entirely hidden (transcendently apart from every thing as the one and constant source of each thing’s existence). God is, as Augustine says—at one and the same time—higher than my utmost and more inward than my innermost. God’s transcendence is the result of his profound immanence.

Icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos from the Cathedral of the Dormition located on the north side of Cathedral Square of the Moscow Kremlin in Russia.

if you take Christ as the measure of reality itself

Here is some transcription from near the end of “The Lila of the Logos” with Jordan Daniel Wood interviewed by David Armstrong (at A Perennial Digression). Note that much of their discussion refers to a book by Jordan Wood called The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus the Confessor (forthcoming from the University of Notre Dame Press, publication date not yet finalized but within a year).


DAVID: So zeroing in, then, on the way that the event of Jesus or the event of the incarnation (and really, as John Behr would tell us, for the incarnation we need to look to the passion, and we need to look to Pascha not to Christmas), but looking at the passion and the way the passion reveals reality (so I’m gonna botch this and I know you’ll correct me on it), but Maximus says something to the effect of the crucifixion revealing the logos of judgment and the resurrection revealing the logos of the purpose of the world’s creation, right? Or do I have that reversed?


So no, actually, you have it right. There’s just another piece to it. …You’re rightly bringing together two things. One, so for example, in Centuries in Theology 166, it says, “He who knows the principles of the cross and the empty tomb, knows the principles of the world and all of its creatures.” Principles is logoi. And he also, by the way, says they also know the principles to unlocking the mysteries of scripture. …Well, …that little paragraph ends by, what you just said, which is, “He who knows the principles of the resurrection knows the purpose for which creation came to be.” So there’s that. There’s also another thing he says which is importantly related which is that, he says that the passion is the judgment of God, and the actual conception in Mary, the incarnation itself, is divine providence.


…For Maximus’s metaphysics—for a lot of reasons I won’t get into—what we experience, we also give existence to because you are a hypóstasis which is for him the fundamentals or element of being. What you can do (which is kind of at once an amazing but also a sort of harrowing idea) is that you can, for example, fundamentally imagine something and try to bring it into being by lending your very life or existence or self to it which is what makes sin so difficult and what makes, say, Evagrius’ instructions about the thoughts so essential (which is why he keeps all that). Because you need to know what sort of fantasy you might, what sort of a nightmare you might be laboring consciously or not to bring into being so that it’s not just a problem in your mind but it’s really a part of the world. But quote, as he says (and Origen and Gregory of Nyssa and all of them say), that’s why not everything that appears is a work of God. So you can experience something, right, that is actually a figment of your own imagination, but because you try to bring into being it doesn’t rest a mere figment it becomes even if incompletely or inadequately—usually that right—it becomes in some sense a phenomena, an illicit one that God never wills. So, by the way, his theory of evil is going to be a little more complicated than just privation, although that’s part of it. But I’m not going to do that right now. So all that to say, there’s something about experiencing which is also fundamentally active. In an almost metaphysical or ontological sense, you’re never simply experiencing something utterly external to you because you’re also always interpreting it and reacting to it simultaneously, right, and your very interpretation and then what you do in some sense contributes to the phenomenon being constructed. Go back to Christ in the passion. What is it that he experiences? Well, the full range of human emotion: grief in the garden, sadness, terror, fear. …But where do these come from, in some sense, is the question. Well one one of the things that this comes from is, actually, our sin. When he says Adam’s sin, I argue in the book, he means the sum total of all humanity’s sin—all individuals collectively and individually.

DAVID: To quickly pause, he says, as you’ve pointed out, that Adam falls from the first moment of his coming to be. …The way to understand that in what I am calling orthodox gnosticism is not that there’s a historical personage Adam who’s created fallen. It’s that there’s a spiritual humanity whose fall is it’s coming to be in time with the whole sarkic history that we could scientifically fill in with evolution, right, and in some sense that’s actually, we could also say, that is the orthodox gnostic or maximian or whatever explanation for all of cosmic history in so far as humans are microcosmic. We are radically connected to and contain everything else that exists and like so in some sense the whole evolutionary history of the universe with all of its death, suffering and horror is our fault even though we come to be at a particular moment through a particular set of processes within that story. There is a legitimate theological path to saying, “No, we caused this. We are responsible for this nightmare world.”

JORDAN: Yeah, and that’s exactly right. I mean, if salvation is the result of some event that happened in the middle of history so that I can say that what happened to him somehow saves me and deals with my sin, well, then obviously we’re already sort of—because, also, I would assume people would say it deals with the sin of those that came prior in history—so we’re already kind of abandoning in soteriology, or in our ideas of salvation from this one man Jesus Christ, we’re already abandoning, whether we know it or not, the idea of simple cause and effect through a series. Again, Melchizedek’s deification of salvation comes from the man Jesus on Golgotha. It doesn’t have any other source. There is only one grace which pours forth to the universe, and it’s that one, right. So it doesn’t respect time. It doesn’t need to. So we already kind of like concede that. I like to point that out to people. We already kind of conceived that, I mean just in the way we normally say, “Yeah, Christ save the world. His act, his work saves the whole world, even those that came prior.” So, yeah, exactly what you said. I like what you’re saying about the sort of orthodox gnosticism. Maximus says three different times that Adam fell, quote, “at the very instant he came to be” which is to say there has never been a true Adam, a true human, [a] fully perfected human being. I try to get into that in the chapter in the details about how that comes about in Maximus’s thought and why it’s more radical even than Irenaeus’s view, and how actually he combines Irenaeus’s view, Gregory of Nazianzus’s view and Evagrius’s view into one, and he does it christologically so it’s an incredible thing.

That goes back to the idea, again, [that] the passion is the judgment of God. What is the judgment of God? Well it’s a response to sin, but it’s also the beginning of providence, restoration. It comes about by the Word of God experiencing, on the one hand, the full range of the emotions which are themselves results of a sinful fallen world like fear, grief, sorrow, right all of this, desperation, hey, let’s go to the dereliction—abandonment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken”—right, forsakenness, God forsakenness. These are a result of our collective Adam’s sin, and yet at the same time—what you alluded to with your remarks about evolutionary history—they are also, in some sense, the condition. Because in fact you, David Armstrong, weren’t born 2000 years ago, or 2 million, or 200. So you are born into a world in which Adam has already fallen. This is bizarre, now, because it means that the whole range of passions (which Maximus the monk is also very concerned to talk about passions and the dialectic of pain and pleasure which he does quite a lot), the passions themselves are—as they present, as we act, as we are experiencing them—both the condition and the consequence of Adam’s sin.


So when the true Adam, Christ, experiences them, in His passion, not only does he experience them as a result, a reaction (like, say, in the Origenist myth where God’s judgment is just a reaction to the falling intellects), but he actually in his very experience of them he gives himself, his hypóstasis, to them to be the condition for our own free development which can waver into sin. So this is a deep thing. It takes quite a lot more to unpack, but I’m just trying to give a taste here: where it says his act of being passive of suffering is simultaneously the creation of the possibility for our whole range of emotion and passions which are themselves the conditions of sin and the consequences of sin. So there’s a lot of simultaneities going on here. He’s simultaneously suffering so that he might actively transfigure our suffering into salvation and ultimately death, right, it’s trampled by death. Simultaneously he suffers passions which are themselves the simultaneous condition and cause of our, of all Adam’s, sin, the whole fallen world. But all of this he’s doing simultaneously by being, while being, the Word of God, divine, so that he himself the the Principle with a capital “p,” the Logos, is infusing in even the principles of our passions, the very power of his divinity, you might say the power of resurrection.

So the very passions by which we fall and create worse passions are still themselves imbued—imminently, deeply, buried, like in a tomb—they are buried with the principle of divinity itself, the Word of God himself, always there like a seed, he’ll say elsewhere, always there like the seed of the good to bud forth. So he’s infused [divine life within suffering and death].

By the way, this has crazy consequences, like, lots of them. But here’s just two. One of them is that it’s a simultaneity. (I’ll say it’s a Caledonian symmetry, simultaneity, or reciprocity.) …But let’s say it’s a simultaneity where it’s not only that he receives the results of all of our own sufferings and sin and wages of sin which is death, but also reciprocally, he suffers in all of us. In Maximus, by the way I’m not just saying that, it’s not interpretive, he explicitly says that in Mystagogy, I think, 24. And he definitely says it in the exposition on the Lord’s prayer. Actually, I think that’s where it is. No, I’m sorry, he says he mystically suffers in all of our suffering, that’s in the Mystagogy. In the exposition of the Lord’s prayer, when he’s talking about how the Lord became poor, he says that we are to (he became poor, like these statements about he’s the least of these, what you did to them he did to me, all that) Maximus says at one point, “God himself in the flesh says this to you. He’s saying to you that he actually receives whatever you do to others.” Ao there’s a fundamental personal reciprocity. It’s not just that the Aon takes on as a consequence of our sin. Right, he became sin and a curse for us according to Paul. It’s not just that he takes on all of our sin, but he inserts himself into our the very conditions for our sinning, and that is actually the seed which from within will destruct all of the all of the bs phenomenon that we create through our passions and we try to live into in the false world and the false selves we try to actualize and lend ourselves parasitically our own life for these fantasies to take on a life of their own. All of that will be destroyed and that destruction will actually be our salvation and resurrection.


DAVID: So I’m thinking of, too, I’m thinking of Paul talking about how I’m filling up the sufferings of Christ, or we are one with the sufferings of Christ. Then I’m also thinking of Origen, and I can’t think of where he says this, but he says at one point that (and I think it’s a commentary on maybe the last supper scene in Luke), but he says something to the effect of Christ will not taste the wine of the kingdom until I have been fully healed. He continues to suffer because I am still sinning, effectively, which goes hand in hand with what you’re saying, right?


JORDAN: Yes, strands in Origen absolutely hint at this. Gregory of Nyssa’s In Illud, I think, fundamentally offers the structure. Because what’s the issue there? It’s an exegetical one—1 Corinthians 15:28, the subjection of the Son of the father. What does that mean right? (And of course, Eunomius, they think they have [it.] Like, “look, how can you say that the Father and the Son are equal when the whole ending of the thing is the Son’s subjection to the Father?” So that’s a good passage for them.) So when Gregory of Nyssa, when he turns to it, he does a remarkable thing that not a lot of people comment on. He basically has to say: the Son’s subjection is ours. But the only way you can say that is if the Son is fundamentally identical to me and what happens to me happens to the Son. What an incredible thing. So, in order to protect the pro-nicene position, in order to protect the absolute divinity of the Son, you have to make him absolutely identical with us—because he is subject.

Origen already made the great point about [how] our submission has to be like because, of course, his shouldn’t be like, it’s not like he’s enslaved or subjugated. So he makes that point in the book one of On First Principles. But here Gregory goes a little further and says, actually, he also is submitting in us to the Father, and so that’s why it’s an incredibly universalistic text because it’s not until the whole of humanity is subject to the Father that the Son is subject to the Father. But the assumption operative throughout is: what happens to us happens to him. He explicitly says that.

So it’s the same kind of, that reciprocity, which comes from a fundamental identity or what I like to call in the book “the hypostatic identity” which generates the difference and therefore makes them reciprocal because it happens within one identity, the person of the Word. So the Word can be the subject of both sides, and as the subject he is the is—the identity of both, even though naturally they’re utterly opposed.


So all that to say, this is being actually worked out in the middle of history in the passion culminating in the crucifixion because he doesn’t just become sin for us as a reaction. (Like in the Origenist tradition, God judges the world as a reaction to the falling intellect’s sin, as it were, even if you say simultaneous or whatever.) It is in fact that he also becomes the fundamental condition, he gives himself to become the fundamental condition of his own rejection so that he might overcome that rejection by being within it, personally, always offering the divinity, the power of resurrection, the Holy Spirit, the graces which come through the sacraments, all of that stuff is always directly and immediately offered because he alone is the mediator between God and man as 1 Timothy says. …So when Maximus says the passion is the judgment, that’s a little glimpse of what he means. It is a lot going on.

So to back that up a little bit (and this will be a little easier to say). So when he then says that divine providence is the incarnation itself—from the conception, the annunciation to Mary, all the way through the ascension and ever and always in all things—what he is saying is that the term or the end (terminus) of providence is the hypostatic union. So that also has this sort of weird reciprocal causality there because, then, what he’s saying, you could say, the hypostatic identity which is effected in the annunciation through Mary’s consent (which is a whole other reciprocity between creature and creator), but let’s just say that’s a condition for the passion. He has to be the god-man who dies on the cross, but at the same time it’s also the goal of the passion. So the providence is at once the condition, right, and consequence of the passion, the judgment. And judgment is always infolded in province, and that idea was formally there in Evagrius already that these two, yes we’re saying they’re pairs, but they really are mutually implicating.

So what I what I argue at length (and I’ll close this portion with this), what I argue at length in the book in much more detail is that Maximus takes the the pairing, judgment and providence, mainly over from Evagrius and Didymus, and he fuses that together with Gregory of Nyssa’s idea of reciprocal causality (they were created, in a sense, already anticipating the fall) and he puts this together christologically and identifies them specifically within the work and quintessentially with the passion of Christ. That is what I mean when I say that the world came into being through Christ. With Maximus, I mean I’m interpreting and thinking through and with him, what I think that means is Christ became the ground for the true world which is always a cooperative synergistic effort between creator and creature (which is to say free), but he also then, at the same time becomes, the condition for the possibility of the false world we generate also because we’re free.


DAVID: And so let’s then go from protology to eschatology. So you’ve written elsewhere, and we’ve talked about this before, two points in eschatology that I think are really interesting and that I suspect you’re getting from maximus either directly or indirectly. One is that what one is that you’ve argued before the parousia logically has to heal all of time—that the final, the truly created world, is not a world where we have this dark history or something but it’s overcome and: “Yay! It’ll be good forever now, but we all kind of remember how bad it was.” It’s not like that. It’s like the parousia is literally from beginning to end, all of the suffering, all the evil, all of the death is consumed and it’s gone. With that, kind of a nice symbol of that that you’ve stressed is this idea (and I don’t know if this comes directly from Maximus or not) but the idea that the wounds of Christ themselves, [that] they are still there as a symbol of kind of the current coexistence of the real world and the false world and that when the false world disappears so too do the wounds. Do I have that right?


JORDAN: Yes, that’s what I think. I sadly can’t claim that Maximus said that so that I would have the authority to back up my view on that. I do think it’s an extrapolation, but, no, he never says that. He actually never comments on the wounds of Christ, interestingly, nor much on the resurrected body in, say, the account with Thomas in the Gospel of John. So it’s something I think, from all of this. I guess I could say this, if I wanted to root it in Maximus, I could say, fundamentally, this is how he understands Paul’s remark about “we are the body of Christ.” I mean explicitly in Ambiguum 7 which is otherwise a high-flying metaphysical treatise or reorienting of the whole Origenist view in this christological way, he will side by side quote Gregory of Nazianzus—“we are portions of God flown down from above”—right alongside his logoi doctrine: the logos becomes the logoi and the reverse. Then, right away, he will sight Ephesians: “You are members of Christ’s body.” So for him it’s like, “Look, see, that’s what he meant.” I mean the whole thing is like, look, what it means to be a member of the body of Christ isn’t like you’re a member of some cool club and your name’s on a list or something. It’s you, actually, functionally, you are a part of the body of Christ, and the body of Christ has at least this difference from our body—or the way we typically know bodies now—that is that his body is made up of spirits, a spiritual body.

There’s a whole (and you’ve already talked quite a bit to other people about all that) but make it cosmic, right, so not just a question about the consistency or the sort of nature of the bodies that are raised but the even bigger question about the one body. I mean, in Ambiguum 41 Maximus describes the cosmos again not, otherwise this wouldn’t be remarkable, but he says the cosmos comes together like the knitting of the parts of a body as if it were a single human being.


DAVID: A very Origen thing to do because that’s how Origen describes the world.

JORDAN: Exactly, and you could go all the way back to Plato’s Timaeus. …Look, I mean he calls the generation of this world a “second god” which is generated (using ganal), right, so generated from the first god who can also by the way be called the Father. Yeah, so this world is a living organism, right, all that. So that’s great. So you can go other places for the world as God’s body, but what I, again, and this is often the method I do in the book where it’s like: “Look I’m not saying he didn’t get things from other places. It’s totally fine, but let’s look at it in the matrix of his thought here.” And the determinate content takes on some really different or at least additional implications here.

What he’s saying is that, not just like the world is sort of manifesting God or even (and I know this is like a popular way of talking, it’s totally fine in itself), but it’s not even just theophanic, like the world’s diaphanous to the glory of the light coming pouring forth. It’s that the world doesn’t just reveal his glory, but that he personally is in the world: “what you do to the least of these, you do to me.” Or on the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Or as you said earlier Colossians 1: “I fill up in myself the sufferings that are still lack to Christ.” Or Maximus says, “Jesus Christ,” this is a quote, “Jesus Christ, who is completed by me.” What? God the Word through whom all things were made is not “yet” entirely the Word (and I say “yet” in quotations because, again, it’s not temporal like that) is not fully who the Word is apart from the entirety of his body. “Always and in all things. Always and in all things.” The mystery of his incarnation, right?

So that’s the foundation, his theology of the body of Christ is cosmic of course and christological because all of it is Christ. He has one text where he’s commented—the question is “what is the body of Christ?” like, that’s the question put forth—he gives seven or eight different things. He’s like: the world itself, of course, the eucharist, right, each and every individual body is the body of Christ, each of us, and then he goes through all this stuff. And at the end, he says, “Really, to speak most truly, all of it collectively and all of it individually is the body of Christ.”


So that’s the basis. …So I’m thinking beyond that, and I want to say something that Maximus doesn’t say or doesn’t address, and I want to say: Okay, if that’s true, surely that means everything that’s ever existed in the moment, in an event within which it came to be. Let’s take the holocaust, let’s take, you know, whatever, there’s a million tragedies you can choose from. What am I to make of the claim, that’s the body of Christ too? If it’s the case that the body of Christ is itself the basis, the fundamental subsistence of anything that is. Now, you might say: “Well, privation theory of evil. It’s sort of a failure to be and all that.” That works kind of, but you know, also, it really is there. People remember it. People know it.

So what I want to say then (it might sound cute or sort of clever at first, but I think there’s something deeper that could be probed) is: the tragedies sit upon the timeline of history like the wounds on the body of Christ. They are still his body, but they are not yet fully perfected and healed as his body. In fact, his body isn’t fully perfect until those are healed and so whatever we… (I don’t really care at that point about our presumptions about history and the way time flows and what is fixed by the logic sequence and all that.) I’m sorry, I think theologically, and really even morally, there’s a sort of a revolution here, a rebellion, a moral rebellion, an existential rebellion, that says: God himself can fix the event qua event. It is not as if it’s past to God anyway. There’s that part. But it’s exactly because it’s not past to God that it remains a problem if it stands before God as tragedy, as unfulfilled event, as failure, as (what I think I call in that piece) like “misbegotten existence,” a miscarriage, right?


DAVID: Which is why, this is sort of why people, so as far as I understand the field of Maximus scholarship, there’s sort of an older view which chooses not to see universalism in Maximus, right, and then there’s sort of a growing view that says Maximus is almost certainly a universalists. I know where you fall. …Really, I mean, Origen already has this right, Gregory already has this right, David Bentley Hart has this right, that, if you read Paul, and when Paul says that “God becomes all in all,” right, you’re left with basically two bad options other than the universalist one. Either God becomes all in all by destroying some of the all that he can’t fill, in which case he doesn’t really become all in all, right? Or God becomes all in all, sort of coexisting with the experience of suffering and evil. And the evil and suffering of those creatures is never actually healed, in which case God is partly evil, like, is the only way that this is metaphysically possible, right? If let’s say, you know, I die, I’m suffering in hell fire because I’m so evil and I’m the only person there, you know, and God fills all things in the pleromic end of all creation but nothing changes for me fundamentally, it’s still, my experience, is still evil and suffering—that must fundamentally mean, metaphysically at the end of the day, that God is part evil and I’m simply the manifestation of that part of God that is evil, right?

It’s like universalism is really the only way that we get a God who can fill all things and be all things in all things, right, is through that like final healing of the entire created order which again if the created order is absolutely, quantitatively infinite. …Then it’s a God who (and I’m turning back to the Vedic language because I love the way they put this) you know, Brahman is like constantly engaging in this Lila of realizing all the different forms that God can be, right, and the experience of evil that those different manifestations of Brahman fall into, they are partly real in the sense that they influence—like they’re experientially real right and they determine the kind of orientation of those beings and everything—but they are finally illusory, and they have to be, because there’s nothing other than Brahman, there’s nothing other than God.


JORDAN: Which is to say, the only thing that’s real is what God wills. I don’t mean that in a volunteeristic sense, but it means that everything, insofar as you’re going to give—let’s say you’re going to valorize something with the term real—then you are also making the further claim, consciously or not, that that manifests the divine will which then manifests the divine character, who God is really. So when you’re faced with tragedy, what are you going to say? You either say that’s real and then you have this …you know there are trends in theology and stuff that …the death of God sort of thing that in some versions of processed theism, this is kind of the idea is that the tragedy itself is so real and we we dare not sort of denigrate that, that God himself sort of cowers before it. I actually don’t think it’s so different than a lot of the classical theists who hate the process stuff to simply say, like with Boethius or something, well in a sense God, you know, everything that is present to God [is] in an infinite indeterminate flash of an instant—the eternal now. Okay, well, what is present to God when, when… Is the holocaust present to God, then? Does it ever leave or go? …Okay, you might say it doesn’t emerge, it’s not subject to generation and corruption, the way a lot of phenomena are that we see now. But it did occur. It happened in some sense. Either God is confronted with it precisely because it’s not subject to generation and corruption, it’s always there, or else God sees nothing at all and isn’t aware of it. Right, so which is it? It’s another way of saying what you’ve already articulated in a metaphysical way, which is like either, right, either it stands there as a part of God like it’s evil, or it’s like God failed to be all God, all in all.

What I want to say then, in the perspective we’re talking about, is two things. …Well, actually, like three things. Let’s put some pieces together.

If the eschaton is God being all in all, then, almost by definition, it’s not like it’s just the last episode in a series of episodes, the denouement, the sort of …untying it. It has to be, if it really is all in all, that would include all moments qua moments, so it has to be the perfection not only at the end of a series but the perfection of all parts of the series. Okay, so there’s that part and then, as you say, it has to be God all in all, which is to say the full expression, theophanic glory manifest in all things. I don’t think tragedies manifest that. Therefore there’s something there which has not yet come to be. It’s not yet manifest, and so that still awaits perfection even though, from our perspective, it’s done and gone.

So there’s that right, that’s the general thing. Now, the other part of this, though, that’s harrowing really, is the universalist aspect. Actually, what universalism says is that tragedies are not yet done, not because …you want to respect the sort of ontic integrity of a tragedy as such and let’s not tinker with it (it happened and it’s gone but it’s still kind of always there in the past, however that works with God in time), but universalism says that we must right the wrongs no matter when they happened to occur in the seriality of time as we know it, as we experience it. So it’s a promise of the destruction of destruction, which is to say the salvation of all events, not just people who endure events, which is to say the perfect eventuation of every event. So tragedies are only half events—that’s privation, but they’re actually worse than that. They are events which have taken a false perfection. They are deformations, not in simply a privative sense, but more like when your body is deformed as Gregory of Nyssa says, right, like a wart is still a part of the body but it also disfigures it. It takes a false end and grows into it, and so it mars the body. So the only way you can deal with those tragedies and respect both the reality of it and the unreality of it, is to destroy it and in its destruction is actually its true perfection.


DAVID: And so I’m thinking of the crucifixion itself. I’m thinking of the crucifixion, and I’m thinking of the Johannine conflation of the crucifixion with the enthronement of the Son of Man, glorification. And I’m thinking to myself, like, the way that, on this reading of things, the way I’m thinking of that is that, in the true world, what we experienced as the crucifixion is actually Jesus’s enthronement as messiah and lord, right? It’s actually that moment in which Christ reigns on Zion over all of creation and leading all of creation, leading Israel, the nations, all all created worlds in worship of the one God. And in the fallen world, that becomes his abject vulnerability and suffering and death, and I feel like the evangelist, the Johannine evangelist, is actually gazing on the crucifixion with bifurcated vision. He is seeing the historical event, but he is seeing, shining through, the exact opposite. The darkness of the historical event is paradoxically manifesting the glory of what is supposed to be happening, right?


JORDAN: Yes. You might put it this way. The perfection of all tragedies, which I have said here, I’ve spoken in this way, has yet to occur. It, actually, has always occurred. So what could have been, hypothetically, is actually what is only, always, (again to use the term a little bit misappropriating it). So what John sees isn’t even just what’s supposed to happen (although that’s not wrong to say it that way) but is what is the only happening. The only actual happening of that moment is what he actually sees, even though he also still sees. So the “already not yet” isn’t just a linear thing nor is it simply a spatial thing like a higher [or] lower thing. It’s a meeting of the two.

DAVID: As manifested by the resurrection. Because, had there been no resurrection, right, Jesus is just another dead first century potential messianic claimant. It’s because of the glorification of Jesus after death that we now look back on the whole, really, like forwards and backwards on all of universal history. This, I think, also answers one of the questions I’d written and that you and I have talked about before. You know, if the cosmos is the body of Christ, how does that guarantee the uniqueness of Jesus? What I’ve come to see is that question is exactly the wrong way around because the cosmology and the protology and the eschatology that Maximus is articulating is a response to the whole of the paschal mystery, right? You start with the experience of the event of Christ as mediated to us, and then you try to construct our understanding of the world around that. It’s not a let me start from absolute first principles and work my way down. It’s, and in that sense it’s actually, I feel, like Maximus and Origen and Gregory and all of these people, they actually offer a theology that’s very credible, I think, in like a postmodern context. Because we’re not trying to do like God’s eye view of things, right? We’re starting from what we actually experience, this mystery of Christ crucified and risen, and we’re trying to extrapolate from that what has to be true for our experience of this to be valid.


JORDAN: Yes, exactly. …I hope everyone could, I think, if everyone’s honest with themselves, there is a fundamental judgment of faith, and what you take to be the canon of the real. Just because I experienced something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s real. It’s real as a phenomenon. It doesn’t mean it’s real as the phenomenon, the one that it’s supposed to be, as it were, or always is in the one true world. So yes, you’re exactly right to say they begin there, and they have decided, in faith, and Maximus makes a huge deal of faith for this reason, I think. He calls it …he plays on, by the way, the idea in Hebrews 11 that faith is the, we usually translate it “substance of things hoped for,” well, it’s “hypostasis.” So that takes on a new resonance. Faith is the “person” of things hoped for. Well who’s that? Well, Christ in you, that’s who it is. Faith is, as it were, the first sort of pangs of the birth of Christ in your soul is another theme. But so Christ himself is faith really, and it’s Christ in you which is faithful. So that’s interesting.

…So it’s that. It’s exactly what you just said. I don’t presume that just because, you know, the world seems to me and to all of us to work this way that that is in fact the final limits. In fact, I make the argument in one of the chapters that for Maximus the fall can just as readily happen if you take, quote, natural limits as final actual existential limits: the limitations of what is real. So the limits of nature (nature is something you can conceive as an idea in your mind, you can know a definition, so how to differentiate this or that or you know how like this belongs in this genus therefore it doesn’t belong in this one) and so nature allows you to make these sort of abstract and not unreal but abstract divisions, but of course if you believe in the God-human, what is actually real needs to be chastened by the fact of the God-human rather than the limitations perceived by your abstractions. Which of course should show you, they should, that God and human beings can’t be the same thing, the same real, the same reality, the same hypostasis.

So this is where, I think, when you look at Christ and you say that is true hypostasis (and very often Maximus likes to speak in terms of creation as “giving hypostasis to”), if you think that that is real, that man, he is the (as Maximus also says, “he himself is not subject to any natural law but is in fact the telos of all law”), if you think that’s true, thenyou’re gonna turn to everything else, even things that seem to you immediately obvious and clear and real and substantial and you’re going to start, if you really, if you believe what you said about Christ, you’re going to start saying well, it seems like it’s impossible that… hey, but go back to something we said earlier: that two places could in some sense, right, be in fact interpenetrating and that Mr. Raven over here (in Lilith, the George McDonald book) can say, “Oh, actually you are standing in your study even though you’re standing here in the woods.”


That seems like naturally wrong, abstractly it seems just a kind of confusion, a category error. But if you take Christ as the measure of reality itself, then you need to just go ahead and start doubting reality as it presents itself to you, and he thinks that we when we don’t do that, that’s the source of the fall because we cling to the finite, the limited naturally conceived, as if it were actually the limits of reality itself which then makes us afraid because death is my end. And I want to avoid it, and I need to survive so how could I love my enemy, right? So it becomes ethical as well as spiritual.

That’s all a long way of, I think, agreeing with you. It’s very much that procedure, what you said. …I try to end the book this way. In the conclusion, I try to do this (it’s a little abstract and I know that but sometimes that does get to the point quicker), but what I try to claim there (and I do find some help in Hegel, but, honestly, I found it in Maximus first) [is] if we speak in terms of universal versus particular, we are simply speaking in terms of what I would call, in the book, “the logic of essence or nature” or what you might just call “abstract logic” which is to say these two co-determine each other. What do I mean? Well something is universal exactly because it isn’t particular. Thus I find humanness in you, in your particular, and in me and in people in the past and in people in the future. So obviously, it’s universal. That’s what a universal is, it shows up in many different particulars. Which is to say, it can’t be particular in order to be universal. That’s how you even discern what a universal is and how you define it for your middle schoolers. …You got to start there. You’re like, well, look, here’s a water bottle. Do you have a water bottle? Okay, why do you use the same name? This is just Socrates, right, back, all the way back, Euthyphro, right? (I mean not the water bottle, but, you know….)

But that’s how you even come to apprehend what a universal means, signifies. It is exactly that it shows up in many particulars. So the first lesson it tells you about itself is that it’s not particular. What it means to be universal, necessarily, is determined by the fact that it is not particular, and the reverse. Where do I find David or where do I find this particular water bottle here, not this brand, not this style, this one, only right here, so it’s utterly confined to this time, this place. So that means it’s not universal which is what it means to be particular. I bring all that up because what it means is, thinking in terms of universal or particular, automatically means thinking in terms of mutual dialectical determination where you’re really speaking about just two poles which form one continuum of a dialectic. If we frame the question about Christ’s primacy and uniqueness as if what it means to be prime is just to be particular, such that Christ can’t be universally, say, present always and in all things accomplishing the mystery of his incarnation, if he has to be not universal in order to be particular, then actually we haven’t thought very much about what we mean by primacy or exceptionality of Christ or the primacy or the uniqueness of Christ because we haven’t made him unique at all. He’s just another particular.

So what I try to argue or close in the book, and Maximus has some really helpful material getting exactly at some of this, which is, where I try to say, it’s exactly Christ’s uniqueness is actually most manifest in the fact that he is both particular and universal as one person, as himself. He is, in fact, the condition of the very dialectic that we were framing the question with, to begin with. He’s that much above it, that he can be all of it. And isn’t that just the logic of incarnation anyway. He is so much, he is not simply divine abstractly (like a list of attributes of mortal, impassable and others), nor is he simply human, as we know it (a list of attributes, mortal, right, central, sinful). He is both at once, which is to say his person isn’t reducible to either abstractly. And that’s why Maximus can make the incredible claim that in Christ, quote, “God has shown himself to be beyond humanity and divinity.” What it means to be beyond divinity is to be able to be both divine and human or, as he puts it elsewhere, the God beyond God.

So all that to say, exactly, agreeing with you. We frame, and it’s actually fine. You’ve got to start somewhere. So it’s okay. I’m not mad about it, but it’s just the framing of the question (“So is he unique if he’s everywhere and always in all things?”) actually already hasn’t yet allowed the logic of Christ or, what I call in the book, “christologic” to chasten the very definition or logic of the terms because there is something more than universal and particular. It’s Jesus.

DAVID: That’s a great mic drop. I’m conscious of time. Obviously, we’re going to do this again. So, Jordan, thanks so much for doing this, and, yeah, like I said, we’ll do this again.

the world and ourselves, as we find them, are less than fully existent because we do not perfectly love God

In Theophany by Eric Perl, when covering Dionysius on the nature and causes of evil, Perl ends with a wonderful explanation of the fact that any apparently successful theodicy is itself evil. Here is the full passage:

For Dionysius, evil is privation and lack and weakness and asymmetry and failure [usually translated as “sin” but literally having the negative meaning “missing” or “failing”] and aimless and beautyless and lifeless and mindless and irrational and purposeless and unstable and causeless and indeterminate and unproductive and inactive and ineffective and unordered and unlike and limitless and dark and insubstantial and itself no being whatever in any way whatsoever.

Dionysius’ inability, or rather refusal, to assign a cause to evil, then, marks not the failure but the success of his treatment of the problem. To explain evil, to attribute a cause to it, would necessarily be to explain it away, to deny that evil is genuinely evil at all. For to explain something is to show how it is in some way good. “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.” Only by not explaining evil, by insisting rather on its radical causelessness, its unintelligibility, can we take evil seriously as evil. This is why most “theodicies” fail precisely insofar as they succeed. To the extent that they satisfactorily account for or make sense of evil, they tacitly or expressly deny that it is evil and show that it is in fact good. Dionysius’ treatment of evil, on the other hand, succeeds by failing, recognizing that the sheer negativity that is evil must be uncaused and hence inexplicable, for otherwise it would not be negativity and would not be evil.

It has been wisely remarked that any satisfactory account of evil must enable us to retain our outrage at it. Most theodicies fail this test, for in supposedly allowing us to understand evil they justify it and thus take away our outrage. For Dionysius, however, evil remains outrageous precisely because it is irrational, because there is no reason, no justification for it. The privation theory of evil, expressed in a radical form by Dionysius, is not a shallow disregard or denial of the evident evils in the world. It means rather that, confronted with the evils in the world, we can only say that for no reason, and therefore outrageously, the world as we find it does not perfectly love God, the Good, the sole end of all love. And since the Good is the principle of intelligibility and hence of being, to the extent that anything fails to partake of that principle it is deficient in being. The recognition of evils in the world and in ourselves is the recognition that the world and ourselves, as we find them, are less than fully existent because we do not perfectly love God, the Good.

For a little more context, just before this passage in Theophany by Eric Perl, there is a fascinating summary of Plotinus defending an incoherent idea that matter is evil. Proclus rejected this as did Dionysius, both claiming that matter must be good. Here are the details regarding Proclus and Dionysius on this point:

Proclus differs from Plotinus by expressly rejecting the doctrine that evil is matter and that, as matter, it is necessary. He argues, more consistently than Plotinus, that “if matter is evil, one of two things is necessary: either to make the Good the cause of evil, or [to make] two principles of beings.” Either alternative is unacceptable. “Since matter is from the Principle, even this has its entrance into being from the Good. …Nor is evil from the Good.” To say, as Plotinus does, both that matter is evil and that it proceeds from the Good leads to absurdity: “Thus the Good will be evil, as the cause of evil, but evil will be good, as produced from the Good.” Proclus further argues that matter, precisely in that it is a necessary aspect of the sensible cosmos, cannot be evil: “But if matter is necessary for the All, and the cosmos would not be ‘this all-great and blessed god’ if matter were absent, how can the nature of evil still be referred to this? For evil is one thing, and the necessary another, and the latter is such that [the universe] could not be without it, but the former is privation of being.” By denying Plotinus’ identification of evil with matter, Proclus thus avoids the difficulty of claiming that evil is a necessary condition for the good cosmos.

…[Dionysius] expressly follows Proclus in denying Plotinus’ “notorious” position that “evil is in matter, as they say, in that it is matter.” Dionysius argues, first, that “if [matter] is in no way whatsoever, it is neither good nor evil. But if it is somehow a being, and all beings are from the Good, this too would be from the Good.” He goes on to take up Proclus’ cogent argument that if matter is necessary, it cannot be evil: “If they say that matter is necessary for the completion of all the cosmos, how is matter evil? For evil is one thing, and the necessary another.” Whatever is necessary for the perfection of the whole is not evil but good. If, as Plotinus argues, matter is necessary, then it cannot be evil. This argument is effective not only against Plotinus’ doctrine that matter is both evil and a necessary consequence of the Good, without which the (good) cosmos could not be produced, but also against all attempts, such as have been made from antiquity to the present, to explain the evils that occur in the world as necessary contributions to the perfection of the whole. Any such theory, as Dionysius here points out, does not explain evil but rather explains it away by claiming, in effect, that it is not really evil at all.

every possibility of evil inherent in the conditions of finite freedom is conquered while actually bringing free spiritual natures into existence

Creation is not the magical conjuration into existence of something that possesses all the attributes of the past without actually possessing a past. Surely that must be true, right? If it were, then there would be no such thing as free rational creatures, but only fictional characters summoned into existence in a preordained state of character.

So, the issue of evil isn’t a utilitarian calculus, it’s a matter of the process whereby nothingness and every possibility of evil inherent in the conditions of finite freedom is conquered while actually bringing free spiritual natures into existence. But spirit can exist only under the conditions of those rational conditions that logically define it. To ask why God did not create spiritual beings already wholly divinized without any prior history in the ambiguities of sin—or of sin’s possibility—is to pose a question no more interesting or solvent than one of those village atheist’s dilemmas: can God create a square circle, or a rock he is unable to lift? A finite created spirit must have the structure of, precisely, the finite, the created, and spirit. It must have an actual absolute past in nonbeing and an absolute future in the divine infinity, and the continuous successive ordering of its existence out of the former and into the latter is what it is to be a spiritual creature. Every spiritual creature as spirit is a pure act of rational and free intentionality away from the utter poverty of nonbeing and toward infinite union with God. This “temporal” or “diastematic” structure is no less intrinsic to it than is its dynamic synthesis of essence and existence, or of stability and change. And that means that even the first stirring of a created spiritual nature’s existence must be a kind of free assent to existence on the part of the creature.

…Yet again, to say that evil is not necessary in itself does not mean that the possibility of evil–possibility, not necessity–is not present in the “venture” of creation. To say that a negative possibility is entailed in something is not to say that there is any intrinsic necessity for or positive value in the actualization of that possibility. When surgery is performed to remove a tumor, it is possible that there will be nerve damage. That does not mean that nerve damage is an intrinsically good or necessary aspect of surgery. The possibility of a falling back toward evil and nothingness is entailed in the creation of a free finite spiritual being, almost by definition. That does not mean that the actual falling back toward evil and nothingness is in itself a necessary or good “part of the journey.” But, in the course of God overcoming evil and nothingness in finite free spiritual creatures, it may happen. Happily, one would like to believe, God does not cease to conquer that evil, in this age or the age to come.

David Bentley Hart (in the comments here)

Gnosticism in the Words of David Bentley Hart (2013 to 2020)

I became interested in the portrayal of Gnosticism by David Bentley Hart over his career because it is complex and it sounds like it will feature prominently his forthcoming book You Are Gods (due out in 2021). In pulling together this summary of key passages below from four sources, I find the portrait consistent over time despite its complexity (and some possible shifts in focus). Despite the many points of similarity, what distinguishes Gnosticism from Christianity is the fact that Christianity (like Platonism) maintains a participatory metaphysics with no complete ontological schism between earthly or fleshly creation and the life of God.

Four Sources (identified below by the publication year in bold here):

  1. “Jung’s Therapeutic Gnosticism: the Red Book Reflects a Lat-Modern Desire for Transcendence without Transcendence” posted to First Things by David Bentley Hart, January 2013.
  2. The Story of Christianity published in 2015.
  3. “The Devil’s March: Creatio ex nihilo, the Problem of Evil, and a few Dostoyevskian Meditations” is an essay contributed to Creation ex nihilo: Origins, Developments, Contemporary Challenges (eds. Gary A. Anderson and Markus Bockmuehl) in 2017 as well as reprinted in Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest in 2020.
  4. Transcription of David Bentley Hart on the “Actually, It’s Good” podcast from an episode titled “Gnosticism… It’s Good” published Nov 17, 2020.

Gnosticism Overview:

  • To the Gnostics of old …this world is an immense prison guarded by malevolent powers on high, a place of exile where the fallen and forgetful divine spark dwelling deep within the pneumatikos (the “spiritual man”) languishes in ignorance and bondage, passing from life to life in drugged sleep, wrapped in the ethereal garments of the “souls” it acquired in descending through the planetary spheres, and sealed fast within the coarse involucrum of an earthly body. The spiritual experience at the heart of the Gnostic story of salvation was, as Hans Jonas puts it, the “call of the stranger God”: a call heard inwardly that awakens the spirit from its obliviousness to its own nature, and that summons it home again from this hostile universe and back again to the divine pleroma—the “fullness”—from which it departed in a time before time. (2013)
  • The earliest Gnostic or proto-Gnostic teacher of whom we know was Simon Magus (or Simon the Magician) who makes a brief appearance in the Book of Acts, where he attempts to purchase supernatural powers from the Apostles Peter and John. …Simon’s story contains a number of elements common to later, more developed schools of Gnostic speculation: the idea of a primordial fall within the divine realm itself; the claim that this world is the creation not of God but of inferior beings; an understanding of salvation as spiritual recollection followed by escape from the powers who rule this world. The great second-century systems devised by Valentinus, Basilides and other Gnostic sages all taught that the true God has no connection to this world, and that the material cosmos is the evil or defective creation of the ‘archons’ or ‘rulers’ who reign in the planetary spheres above, or of a chief archon, the ‘demiurge’ or ‘world- maker’ (often identified with the God of the Old Testament). Many spoke of a divine Pleroma or ‘Plenitude’ of light, a sort of pre-cosmic community of divine beings called the ‘aeons,’ generated in eternity by the divine Father, who himself remained eternally inaccessible, even to his own offspring. According to some Gnostic systems, the lowest of the aeons Sophia or Wisdom, conceived an unlawful longing to know the hidden Father, and in this way fell from the fullness of the godhead; then she, in one way or another, generated the demiurge and the lower powers; and then, either by accident or through divine cunning, sparks of divine spirit became enmeshed within the machinery of the demiurge’s cosmos. (2015)
  • Thus the spiritual temper of Gnosticism is, first, a state of profound suspicion—a persistent paranoia with regard to the whole of apparent reality, a growing conviction that one is the victim of unseen but vigilant adversaries who have trapped one in an illusory existence—and then one of cosmic despair, and finally a serenity achieved through final detachment from the world and unshakable certitude in the reality of a spiritual home beyond its darkness. The deepest impulse of the gnostic mind is a desire to discover that which has been intentionally hidden, to find out the secret that explains and overcomes all the disaffections and disappointments of the self, and thereby to obtain release. (2013)
  • For the Gnostic, the world is a prison from which the spirit must flee altogether in order to find the true light of truth. In each case, though, what remains constant is the real hope for an encounter with a divine reality greater than either the self or the world. (2013)
  • For Gnostics, the inner ‘call of the stranger God’ remained an expression—however tragically muted and distorted—of a perennial and universal spiritual longing: the wonder at the mystery of existence that is the beginning of all philosophy and all worship, the restlessness of the heart that seeks its rest in God, that luminous elation clouded by sorrow that is the source of all admirable cultural achievements and all spiritual and moral heroism. Even at its most despairing, the Gnostic religious sensibility still retained some vital trace of a faith that, in more propitious circumstances, could be turned back towards love of the world and towards a vision of creation as a vessel of transcendent glory. (2013)

What Distinguished Gnosticism from Christianity:

  • Gnosticism (even Christian Gnosticism) was clearly not an organic outgrowth of the Apostolic Church, but rather a kind of syncretistic, trans religious theosophy that drew from Christian, Jewish, Greek, Syrian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Persian sources, often simultaneously. As such, it may be likened to modern ‘New Age’ spirituality. (2015)
  • Even pagan observers were apparently able to tell the difference. The great Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus (205—70) attacked Gnosticism vigorously, but never treated it as a species of Christianity. (2015)
  • Gnosticism spoke to a particular sort of spiritual discontent among persons of a certain type of temperament. It was not, however, a message of hope for a suffering humanity. (2015)
  • So what is the great distinction? Well, God created this world. There aren’t two gods. Well, even then, there are certain ambiguities there. As the lawgiver, God the Father is not even the author of the law. …What we vaguely call gnostic sects, …if they can be classified as in any way as heterodox, …[is] this willingness to amplify that provisional dualism into a complete ontological schism. (2020)
  • If I had to say that there is one thing that these schools had in common so that you could classify them as gnostic, is that …there is none that has an explicit metaphysics of participation. (2020)
  • [Compare the last two points to Clark in Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy: “Both pagan and Abrahamic Platonists have found corporeal nature sacramental. Plotinus …denounced those ‘gnostics’ who despised the earth. Porphyry, his pupil, was until recently the only ‘professional philosopher’ to write at length in favour of ‘the rights of beasts’ (Porphyry 2000). Nor was this at odds with Plato.” (110)]
  • One has to tread delicately here because I’m more than willing to say that, in one sense, all of creation is a real theophany, a real incarnation, even, of the divine story, of the divine nature, but am I willing to allow that the fallenness of that history is constituent of the goodness, is constituent of the nature of God such that violence, death, betrayal, cruelty become, even if negative, nonetheless probative aspects of the divine story? That is actually not a gnostic impulse. To say that is just the opposite. The so-called gnostics …[had] absolute horror of that suggestion. The God most high is not, in any of these systems, …is in no way involved in the fall of nature. The Father remains absolutely inaccessible, unknown, incomprehensible and removed from any taint of evil, from any finitude. It is something of a point of …a neurosis in the gnostic texts that might alone explain why they go in the direction they go in—the anxiety to make sure that in no way can the evil of this world, the darkness of this world, the pain of this world in any way be attributed to the true divine nature. (2020)

How Gnosticism Can Help us to Read the NT:

  • My interest in recovering the real form of gnosticism, trying to understand what it really was (if we are going to keep trying to use that word) is mostly to try to detach our understanding of the New Testament and the early church from the pictures that we formed of it based on later theological developments, later theological habits of thought, and later cultural alienations and estrangements from the original texts that allow us to imagine that we understand the world of the New Testament much better than we actually do. (2020)
  • There is a kind of “provisional” cosmic dualism within the New Testament that simply cannot be evaded: not an ultimate dualism, of course, between two equal principles, but certainly a conflict between, on the one hand, a sphere of created autonomy that strives against God and, on the other, the saving love of God in time. (2017)
  • The explicit claim of Christian scripture is that God’s will can be resisted by a real and (by his grace) autonomous force of defiance, and that his purposes can be hidden from us by the history of cosmic corruption, and that the final realization of the good he intends in all things has the form—not simply as a dramatic fiction, for our edification or his glory, nor simply as a pedagogical device on his part, but in truth—of a divine victory. (2017)
  • We tend to characterize Chrsistianity’s understanding of creation as, in an unqualified way, one of affirmation. Now it is in the sense that there is no notion in Paul or John that this world is literally ontologically estranged from God to the point that it is actually handiwork of a lesser celestial demon or the demiurge. And yet if you actually look at the New Testament, the Gospel of John is about as stark and dualistic in some of its formulations as it’s possible to be. Christ descends from above, and that above is not—and this is one of the things that I hope we talk about, the cosmology of the first century and other things like angelology that are often misunderstood, not just by modern Christians but Christians from the medieval period onward—but that descent is quite real. He is the man who is above, and he alone knows the secrets of the Father and descends into the darkness and the darkness does not comprehend him. Throughout John’s gospel, it is a war of darkness and light, and it’s also a light that divides rather starkly. Christ passes through the Gospel of John not like the frail man of sorrows or the political revolutionary of the synoptics but as already, not only risen but as one who comes from the mysterious realm that is already in some sense if not alien to but so transcendent of this realm that there can only be enmity until the end between the children of this world and of the devil who is called the ruler of this age, the ruler of this world, the archon of this world or the prince of this world in the King James and the one who comes from the Father who alone reveal the words of eternal life that gnosis that saves and heals. (2020)
  • In Paul, 1 Corinthians 15 is where it is most evident, but it is there throughout Paul. The current age, the olam ha-zeh in Hebrew, is not just a somewhat diminished reality. It is one that has been under the rule of mutinous angelic celestial powers literally in the heavens above separating us physically and spiritually from the highest heaven of God the Father as well as beings under the earth and on the earth that are very much the sort of malign spiritual agencies that were part of the intertestamental and second temple literature of the Noahic fall. For Paul, if you read 1 Cornithians 15, the age to come is one in which these powers are subdued by force, placed under the governance of the Son that may be handed over to the Father, and only then will the cosmos be under the rule of God and the way clear, physically and spiritually, to communion between us and God so that there is no longer any height or depth, no angel or archon or power between us and God. That imagery should be taken very literally because Paul meant it quite literally. The fallen heavens are guarded by these sentinel beings and the nations governed by them. The age to come is one in which we will put aside flesh, and he means flesh. …[Flesh] is actually an element incapable of inheriting the Kingdom of God. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.” So our body in the olam ha-ba, the age to come, will be a spiritual body that is literally a body composed of the element called spirit which is a semi-physical reality in its own right in the metaphysics that Paul’s language presumes. (2020)
  • So there is a very dark view of the condition of the cosmos under the reigning archon, the god [or archon] of this present evil age [or cosmos]. …It’s easier for twentieth and twenty-first century Chrsitians with antibiotics that work and when strep throat doesn’t kill your child and infant mortality rates aren’t fifty-two percent. It’s easy for us, somehow, to delude ourselves that the dissatisfactions and sorrows of life that we haven’t encountered aren’t as bad as they’ll prove to be, and we certainly can’t look at the world from the perspective of ancient persons who understood suffering and reconciled themselves to it far more easily than we do. Nonetheless, throughout Christian history, this provisional dualism [rather quickly] receded. It is there up to the early Alexandrians. You find it even in Origen when he talks about the nature of the cosmos. They still inhabited the same cosmology. It’s almost literal, physical estrangement, and I should say estrangement of nature between creation and the most High God. (2020)
  • Interviewer: “Even as late as Maximus, they are still claiming that Chrisitianity is this true gnosticism. …And one of the key claims is that—especially in the Alexandrian tradition starting with Origen—not everything that appears to us is a work of God, a creation of God. …That infuses the New Testament themes that you are talking about with the most substantial sense in which that provisional dualism is a true dualism, that one side has to be overcome, obliterated. This is inherent in the gospel, in the Kingdom of God.” Hart: “Right. …It is actually Paul who speaks of the ‘god of this age.’ John and Ephisians both speak of the archon, the prince of this cosmos. First John, all things lie in the power of the evil one. The heavenly spheres are throned by archons and powers and principalities in Romans, in First Corinthians, in Ephesians. They are cursed by a law that was in fact ordained by lesser, merely angelic powers. Galatians quite clearly says the law was written by angels delivered through human mediators. So even the law comes to us in a defective form because the angels that govern the nations, even the angel that governs Israel apparently—the Angel of the Lord, is defective in his rule. So the world is a prison of spirits, and this is a darkness and in John it doesn’t know the true light. A divine savior descends from the aeon above into this world. In John, aionios doesn’t mean everlasting in the durative sense. It doesn’t necessarily even mean the age to come, in the sense of the future but actually refers to things heavenly or divine that exist in the aevum or aeon above rather than in the realm of chronos time. He brings with him a wisdom that has been hidden from before the ages we’re told in Romans and Galatians and Ephesians and Collasians. It’s a secret wisdom unknown even to the archons of this cosmos in First Corithians. He has the power to liberate fallen spirits we’re told in John 8. And now there are certain blessed persons who possess gnosis, First Corinthians, and they constitute an exceptional group called the pneumatikoi, the spiritual ones. …In Jude, when it speaks of psychical men who do not possess spirit, and that is always translated as ‘who don’t possess the Holy Spirit’, but there is no ‘the’ and no ‘holy.’ It means …who are without spirit. In that context, it is as much a quality of one who has been sanctified as it is an actual element or constitution of their nature. And so the savior opens a pathway through the planetary spheres, the heavens and the armies of the air and the powers on high. That is when Paul will tell us that neither death nor life, nor angels nor archons nor things present nor things imminent nor powers nor height nor depth nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God.” (2020)
  • This is the way that Paul is thinking constantly. Creation is that which is yet to be revealed. In part, creation is something that is constructed by spiritual natures. He doesn’t talk in terms of a demiurge. He does talk in terms of a god of this world, but …the world we inhabit is the one that has been corrupted by spiritual natures. I think he probably has a book of Enoch notion of the degree to which angels participated in this, the degree to which we participated in it. I don’t know if what he talks about the impress, the image of the celestial man, if we fully understood, but that seems very much inline with the first and second and third century mysticism of the true human who dwells in the heavenly places as the true image of God and of the Son of God. Until then, the world that we inhabit, that we create together as spiritual beings, that we perceive, that is the work of our wills in our ignorance is maya. …You’ve already got it there in the neoplatonic tradition, I just think that there are all these wonderful Indian thinkers who had all sorts of categories and reflections that can enrich the Christian treasury of terms. But actually, it’s a good term. …What does maya mean? …Appearance, illusion. …To a degree, that’s the meaning it has. …But really, it’s the same Indo-European root as maguš, magic. It’s the power of creation but it’s also illusion. It has that dual sense. There’s that kind of demiurgic distance between us and the world that is a work of spiritual estrangement from God that’s both, in one sense, natural, even physical if you want to use the Pauline language and also moral. Berdyaev instinctively understood that this is something that is actually there in the essence of the New Testament language even though he wouldn’t be encouraged to think that from later Christian thought—although in the East, obviously, many of these tropes were retained a bit more fully. (2020)

How Gnosticism Shows up Today (all points below from the 2013 source):

  • Current gnostic tendencies due to:
    • The constant erosion of Christendom over the past few centuries, and with the final collapse of the old social order of the West in the twentieth century’s political and ideological storms, and with all those seas of human blood that overwhelmed the ruins.
    • Seemingly irreversible alienation from the natural world that defines modernity. …The realm of the senses has become ever more remote from us, and ever less meaningful for us.
    • We have learned to see nature as only a machine, composed of material forces that are inherently mindless, intrinsically devoid of purpose, and therefore only adventitiously and accidentally directed towards any end, either by chance or by the hand of some demiurgic “Intelligent Designer.” And, with the rise of Darwinism, in the context of the mechanistic narrative, the story of evolution appears to concern only a mindless process of violent attrition and fortuitous survival, random force and creative ruin, in which order is the accidental residue of chaos and life the accidental residue of death.
  • It all is the suspicion of the apparent world, the turn inward towards hidden foundations and secret depths, the fantasy of escape to an altogether different reality.
  • With enough therapy and sufficient material comforts, even gnostic despair can become a form of disenchantment without regret, sweetened by a new enchantment with the self in its particularity. Gnosticism reduced to bare narcissism …might be an apt definition of late modernity as a whole.
  • Ours is one of those epochs that is hospitable to a gnostic sensibility:
    • The newer religious movements that have flourished most abundantly in the developed world over the last century and a half (including a great deal of American Evangelicalism).
    • The smaller sects that keep springing up at the margins (Scientology, for instance) are even more acute manifestations of the same spiritual impulses.
    • Gnostic themes, moreover, have been a persistent and recurrent element in Western literature since the Romantic age.
    • Most of us now are susceptible to the psychologistic assumption that spiritual disaffection is something to be cured by discovering and decoding some forgotten, half-effaced text inscribed somewhere within the self.
  • For Jung, Gnostic myth was really just a poignantly confused way of talking about the universal human tragedy of the ego’s alienation from the unconscious, which each of us enacts in growing out of childhood. The infant dwells in the super-personal unity of the unconscious, so the story goes, wholly unaware of any duality of self and other; but with age comes progressive individuation, which involves the ego’s traumatic emergence from that original state of blissful plenitude into the winnowing drama of personality.
    • And the same story, says Jung, unfolds itself in the development of human society; cultural phylogeny, so to speak, recapitulates psychological ontogeny. Primitive cultures remain just at the boundary of the infantine state, half dreaming in the tender dawn-light of the nascent ego, effortlessly projecting the contents of the unconscious onto the world in the forms of gods, spirits, ghosts, and demons. The somewhat more mature civilized peoples of the ancient world then transformed those projections into rigid religious systems, thus abandoning the flowing immediacy of dreams for the static day-lit objectivity of doctrines. Modern persons abandon myth and creed alike in favor of the subtler projections of ideological and social prejudice. In each case, though, a tragic internal division persists, and is even hardened over time. All of us have lost touch with that inner world in which our souls were born, and remember it only in the alienated forms of imaginary external forces and principles.
    • According to Jung, it was the special distinction of the ancient Gnostics in some sense to have understood this: to have recognized that the stories we usually tell about the world are in fact just projections—just fabrications—behind which lies the true tale we have forgotten, the perennial story of that primordial catastrophe that has shattered each of us within. Unfortunately, not having the benefit of Jung’s “scientific” psychology to explain their spiritual distress to them, the Gnostics inevitably fell back upon projections of their own. They imagined the unconscious as a divine pleroma from which the spirit had literally suffered a prehistoric fall. They interpreted the latent but restless presence of the unconscious behind the ego’s elaborate plaster façade as the imprisonment of a divine scintilla in the vast dungeon of the cosmos. They dramatically transcribed their inchoate awareness of inner inhibitions and confusions into a figural language of hostile cosmic archons. They transformed the ego’s denial of its dependency upon the unconscious into the story of the “god” of this world, who proudly denies that there is any God above himself whose creature he is. And they mistook the dreamlike deliverances rising from their own inner depths for the voice of a savior descending from beyond the sphere of the fixed stars.
    • All understandable errors, Jung thought, but with some singularly unfortunate consequences. In Gnostic thought, the primal human longing to overcome the ego’s alienation from the unconscious was distorted into a yearning for a final escape from spiritual exile and a return to a divine unity transcending world and ego alike. But that, thought Jung, stripped of its mythic garb, is nothing more than a pathetic longing for the ego’s disappearance into its impersonal ground. That would be to trade one tragedy for another. The only true rescue from the human predicament lies not in a retreat from the ego back into the abyss of the unconscious, but in one’s reconciliation with one’s own primordial depths, achieved by raising the unconscious up into consciousness without sacrificing one’s individuality or autonomy. In the end, he concluded, psychic alienation can be conquered only through Jungian psychotherapy. The only true pneumatikos, it turns out, is a psychiatric patient (one whose psychiatrist likes to talk a great deal about archetypes).

evil does not exist by its nature outside of free choice

This is Saint Macrina teaching her younger brother Saint Gregory of Nyssa:

For evil must be altogether removed in every way from being, and, as we have said before, that which does not really exist must cease to exist at all. Since evil does not exist by its nature outside of free choice, when all choice is in God, evil will suffer a complete annihilation because no receptacle remains for it.

Recounted by Gregory in On the Soul and the Resurrection.
Fresco in Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev.

when the whole fullness of our nature has been perfected

God has one goal: when the whole fullness of our nature has been perfected in each man, some straightway even in this life purified from evil, others healed hereafter through fire for the appropriate length of time, and others ignorant of the experience equally of good and of evil in the life here, God intends to set before everyone the participation of the good things in Him, which the Scripture says eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor thought attained. …The difference between a life of virtue and a life of wickedness will appear hereafter chiefly in allowing us to participate earlier or later in the blessedness which we hope for. The duration of the healing process will undoubtedly be in proportion to the measure of evil which has entered each person.

St. Macrina the Younger quoted by her brother St. Gregory Nyssa from On the Soul and the Resurrection.

a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity

We are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For after all, if it is from Christ that we to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity. Sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are a part of the eternal work or purposes of God, which it is well to remember.

From chapter 9 of The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart. [Transcribed from the audible book version with my own punctuation.]

attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity

Simone Weil on her birthday. First, from Gravity and Grace (1947):

Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.

…We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.

The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles, and these movements are associated with the idea of the change of position of nearby objects. I can will to put my hand flat on the table. If inner purity, inspiration or truth of thought were necessarily associated with attitudes of this kind, they might be the object of will. As this is not the case, we can only beg for them… Or should we cease to desire them? What could be worse? Inner supplication is the only reasonable way, for it avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter. What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem. Attention is something quite different.

Pride is a tightening up of this kind. There is a lack of grace (we can give the word its double meaning here) in the proud man. It is the result of a mistake.

…Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.

Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.

From an April 13, 1942 letter to poet Joë Bousquet:

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

On the Christian faith.

Last letter to Father Joseph-Marie Perrin, from a refugee camp in Casablanca (26 May 1942), as translated in The Simone Weil Reader (1957) edited by George A. Panichas:

Wrongly or rightly you think that I have a right to the name of Christian. I assure you that when in speaking of my childhood and youth I use the words vocation, obedience, spirit of poverty, purity, acceptance, love of one’s neighbor, and other expressions of the same kind, I am giving them the exact signification they have for me now. Yet I was brought up by my parents and my brother in a complete agnosticism, and I never made the slightest effort to depart from it; I never had the slightest desire to do so, quite rightly, I think. In spite of that, ever since my birth, so to speak, not one of my faults, not one of my imperfections really had the excuse of ignorance. I shall have to answer for everything on that day when the Lamb shall come in anger.

You can take my word for it too that Greece, Egypt, ancient India, and ancient China, the beauty of the world, the pure and authentic reflections of this beauty in art and science, what I have seen of the inner recesses of human hearts where religious belief is unknown, all these things have done as much as the visibly Christian ones to deliver me into Christ’s hands as his captive. I think I might even say more. The love of these things that are outside visible Christianity keeps me outside the Church… But it also seems to me that when one speaks to you of unbelievers who are in affliction and accept their affliction as a part of the order of the world, it does not impress you in the same way as if it were a question of Christians and of submission to the will of God. Yet it is the same thing.

Letter to Georges Bernanos (1938), in Seventy Letters, as translated by Richard Rees (1965):

I have sometimes told myself that if only there were a notice on church doors forbidding entry to anyone with an income above a certain figure, and a low one, I would be converted at once.

As quoted in Simone Weil (1954) by Eric Walter Frederick Tomlin:

Love is not consolation, it is light.

“Faiths of Meditation; Contemplation of the divine” as translated in The Simone Weil Reader (1957) edited by George A. Panichas:

Religion in so far as it is a source of consolation is a hindrance to true faith; and in this sense atheism is a purification. I have to be an atheist with that part of myself which is not made for God. Among those in whom the supernatural part of themselves has not been awakened, the atheists are right and the believers wrong.

…That is why St. John of the Cross calls faith a night. With those who have received a Christian education, the lower parts of the soul become attached to these mysteries when they have no right at all to do so. That is why such people need a purification of which St. John of the Cross describes the stages. Atheism and incredulity constitute an equivalent of such a purification.

Draft for a Statement of Human Obligation (1943) as translated by Richard Rees:

There is a reality outside the world, that is to say, outside space and time, outside man’s mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties.

Corresponding to this reality, at the centre of the human heart, is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world.

Another terrestrial manifestation of this reality lies in the absurd and insoluble contradictions which are always the terminus of human thought when it moves exclusively in this world.

Just as the reality of this world is the sole foundation of facts, so that other reality is the sole foundation of good.

That reality is the unique source of all the good that can exist in this world: that is to say, all beauty, all truth, all justice, all legitimacy, all order, and all human behaviour that is mindful of obligations.

Those minds whose attention and love are turned towards that reality are the sole intermediary through which good can descend from there and come among men.

Although it is beyond the reach of any human faculties, man has the power of turning his attention and love towards it.

Nothing can ever justify the assumption that any man, whoever he may be, has been deprived of this power.

It is a power which is only real in this world in so far as it is exercised. The sole condition for exercising it is consent.

This act of consent may be expressed, or it may not be, even tacitly; it may not be clearly conscious, although it has really taken place in the soul. Very often it is verbally expressed although it has not in fact taken place. But whether expressed or not, the one condition suffices: that it shall in fact have taken place.

To anyone who does actually consent to directing his attention and love beyond the world, towards the reality that exists outside the reach of all human faculties, it is given to succeed in doing so. In that case, sooner or later, there descends upon him a part of the good, which shines through him upon all that surrounds him.

annihilation itself is no death to evil

Annihilation itself is no death to evil. Only good where evil was, is evil dead. An evil thing must live with its evil until it chooses to be good. That alone is the slaying of evil.

…None but God hates evil and understands it.

George MacDonald (Lilith)