A Conversation Between David Bentley Hart and John Milbank on You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature (April 2022)

Below is a conversation between David Bentley Hart and John Milbank hosted by Notre Dame Press and on the topic of Hart’s forthcoming book You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature (April 2022). This title comes from John 10:34 where Jesus is quoting Psalm 82:6.

DBH: I don’t understand the resurgence of this view of grace and nature or grace and supernature …because I tend to ascribe it to pathologies rather than to the logical exigencies of the moment. …It does answer a certain appetite for well-defined boundaries that are non-porous and exclusive. The hard and fast distinction between nature and supernature is also a distinction between those truths which are salvific in those which are not and tends to confine the former in an almost positivistic sense in a series, in a set of, divinely revealed and yet not rationally deducible truths that are the exclusive possession of a tradition. If you’re a traditionalist very worried about the liceity with which Christian culture seems to be flirting with all sorts of other possibilities of the narrow gate to salvation, what that means, I can see psychologically why you might want to embrace this as a way of reasserting cultural and religious demarcations. Because what it tells us is the entirety of nature, the entirety of natural experience, the entirety of art (and nature and culture and sociality) all of that is, in a sense, extrinsic to the saving mystery that comes in the form of a certain set of information that can be provided by Catholic tradition alone. I don’t know. It may be unfair. …But my first response is that there’s some kind of psychological need for the question to reassert itself or this way of seeing things to reassert itself.

Moderator: Any lived implications for why do you think it would be important to correct this pathology as it were?

DBH: Well, you know my experience of it is that it does breed a kind of moral obtuseness. I must say, many who are in this school, that’s simply what they’ve been told: that grace is extrinsic to the nature of the creature, but it carries with it the implication that the circle of the saved, the circle of those who receive grace is extremely small, that we should be comfortable with this, that in fact this is part of the good news. I mean, I think there is a kind of morally atrophying effect on the imagination and on the motives of the heart, and I’ve seen it. This is actually why I wrote the book to begin with, the rather grim experiences I had at various places I taught as a visiting professor where this style of second scholastic Thomism was resurgent again, and I saw that it appealed specifically to a desire to affirm the meagreness of grace in a sense and, in fact, in a sense, to rejoice in that and to find reasons for being comfortable with that.

…I remember speaking recently [and] this came to me second hand, from a Cistercian not a Dominican but a Cistercian in this tradition who was arguing that so great is the elevation from nature to supernatural and so unmerited by the creature that if God were to save but one soul and condemn all the rest to hell it would still be a cause of rejoicing. I mean, at that point you’ve arrived at consummate absurdity. There’s no point speaking of the gospel as good news. Obviously, it’s rather bad news for the cosmos at large. It may be good news for Henry, the one guy who enjoys the super elevation. It creates a kind of hardness of heart and a kind of spiritual narrow vision that’s hideously damaging and also drives saner souls away from Christianity.

Milbank: I very much agree with all that David has said, and I share his bewilderment. Why are all the good arguments and all the solid historical scholarship being rejected? I’d tend to agree with him that, while the people who’ve returned to neo-scholasticism are perfectly sincere, I do think that to explain why that’s happened we have to look at sociological, psychological and even pathological explanations. Part of the answer is a sense of panic and a sense that things have got too complicated and that there’s a past that we need to go back to that was simpler. It’s easier, you just have to read Thomas Aquinas and the way you’re told to read it. …It saves you an awful lot of hard work, and I think it’s a sincere but completely false diagnosis of the surrender to liberalism.

In fact, I think the people who were trying to overcome pura natura had had a sophisticated critique of modernity and of liberalism. Therefore the other reason why people are returning to pure nature is a kind of actually sinister doublethink. It allows Catholics to speak in the purely public sphere without making any apparently, any specifically, Catholic claims and to insist on conclusions that, actually, they’re only coming to because they’re Catholic but to pass them off as natural conclusions. It’s ultimately a power move because it’s saying we want to appropriate in the name of the church an essentially liberal, technocratic, individualist, non-teleological modernity because it’s completely clear that, if you assert pure nature, you lose teleology. This is why I’m puzzled that somebody like [Alasdair] MacIntyre can’t see that. It’s clear that [Francisco] Suárez completely loses teleology and goes over to something more like a kind of neo-stoic kind of view of morality. So it’s not an accident that this leads to so-called integralism or, if you like, a very bad form of integralism that’s all too akin to the moves made by somebody like Mura [spelling?], you know, that the church then is the arbitrary power in charge of an essentially secular sphere with privileges reserved for this elite group. In other words, let’s make no bones about this, the return to pure nature is incipiently fascistic.

DBH: And has revealed itself as such. I don’t know if those watching this review have encountered the [Thomas] Crean and [Alan] Fimister volume Integralism, but it’s a perfect example of a perfectly consistent (with a few dissonant American inflections about the free market and things like that which are just, you know, neoliberalism at it’s arbitrarily most acute expression) but it shows you that ultimately the sphere of nature has to be confined (within the limits of which is capable) would have to be governed from above by the cognoscenti who have access to a saving knowledge that either will or will not be embraced by the subjects of the regime but nonetheless.

And by the way, John, I would also add that that, in some cases at least, we see this in American Catholic circles, it allows certain Catholic public figures to argue for ends that don’t come from their Catholicism but to which they’ve decided there’s a kind of yeah there’s a kind of indifference on the part of grace, that nature has its own intrinsic logic that, though obedient to natural law, nonetheless has exigencies and limits that allow for prudential uses of non-christian measures to bring about the peace.

It’s a curious thing, too, because it is a retreat not really to an older Catholic tradition of any great antiquity. There’s something we should point out here, is this is already a 16th century aberration that we’re talking about one that the reason it is so comfortable with the kind of state absolutism in things like the integralism volume is this very partition between nature and supernature in this absolute sense is already the carving out of a secular sphere complete in itself. It’s totally at odds with the language of scripture, with the language of patristic tradition, with most of medieval tradition. I’m not aware of it actually organically coming from Thomas except unless you pluck certain phrases… And of course every really impressive Catholic theological and scholarly mind of the modern period that rejects it out of hand is clearly an aberration. Yet it seems to be the safe harbor for a certain sort of troubled soul that’s fleeing a modernity with which it’s actually quite complicit.

Milbank: I think what David is doing is arguing that the certain figures that you might see as the radicals, slightly seen on the margins (we are talking about Maximus, Eriugena, the School of Chartres, Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa and I would add to that many 17th century French Oratorians, [DBH speaking at the same time: “Cambridge Platonists”] even [Nicolas] Malebranche), that actually these people are the most orthodox in a certain sense because they’re following through on the implications of orthodoxy, particularly insisting on the divine unity, simplicity, on the ultimately perspective of eternity as being what one has to ascend towards. And if one believes in divine simplicity and unity and creation else nothing, you cannot simply see the creation as a kind of arbitrary production of God standing alongside God simply in the way that you know that teacup over there on my desk is alongside the plex. There’s too much even in the the most respectable thinkers that sometimes sounds like that, including the idea that God is looking at a repertoire of choices before him, a kind of menu and selecting from those menus. This is an absurdly idolatrous view of God, and it doesn’t really concur with what the Bible is talking about, the fathers are talking about, Augustine and Aquinas at their best are talking about.

I think another way of putting what David is saying is that he’s insisting that christianity is not qualifying monotheism. Christianity is monotheism. It’s not even qualifying perennial monism, if you put it in a deeper way. I think David and I would agree that in fact neoplatonism and Vedanta and Islamic mysticism are monistic than say Spinoza because imminentism collapses into a kind of dualism, the perspective of the whole versus the perspective of the parts. For all that I rather like Spidoza, I think that’s the problem. So I think his insistence that, actually, an emanationism, a monotheism, these are actually the more monistic visions and that if we’ve got all these things in Christianity like Trinity, incarnation, grace and deification and so on, these aren’t qualifying monism. They are spelling monotheism out. They’re spelling out the logic, the grammar, the coherence of monotheism, and that has an implication which I think David spells out extremely well in this book. There’s no longer any conflict between hospitality towards other religions and an insistence on Christian uniqueness. It’s not an accident that somebody who’s metaphysics was so christological like Nicolas of Cusa was also the first person to say, well hold on, you know, Islam is not all bad and so forth.

Why should that be the case? Exactly because, you’re saying, we agree with this rigorous monotheism. We agree and even with rigorous monism. It’s just that we actually think our doctrines are realizing this even more, and of course the complexity there is that you are referring to historical events. That means the peculiarities, if you like, you’re having to integrate history of metaphysics, and this is why David is right to say Hegel was trying to do the right thing. He did it in the wrong way, in the end, because of this sort of agonism in God that’s probably ultimately to do with Luther via Burma [spelling?], and yet in the end he’s kind of doing the right thing.

…I suppose you could also say that Hegel is is trying to bring together something one could see as a perennial monistic vision with a legacy that’s particularly Western. So my question is roughly along these lines: that, while I agree with you that we’ve got to now look at people like arugula we’ve got to put Eriugena at the center not Aquinas, it remains the case that I still think Augustine and Aquinas are peculiarly great theologians. Why? Because they pay such attention to time, to psychology, to experience, the politics, to history and to ethics. So is it possible to say that the positive thing in the Latin legacy is this sort of attention to the person and to the drama, if you like? But the task now might be to try and sort of reconcile that greater personalism of the West with a valid metaphysical monism that’s more Eastern. That’s the question.

DBH: Well, I think that, of course, [Sergei] Bulgakov already went some considerable way in that direction because he takes, throughout his work, an increasingly rich understanding of what constitutes persons as persons both in the hidden depths of the unexpressed and the expressed and understands this, as he goes along, as the very structure of being itself. I’m perfectly in agreement with that. I believe that what I say actually in the book is not to reject, obviously, Augustine and Aquinas but a certain displacement of the emphasis on scholasticism, say, that would make more room for what’s understood as the minority report but that I actually clarify. I mean I understand Eriugena as, in many ways, making advances not just on the Eastern tradition of which he was familiar but on Augustine as well. Early, when he first enters theological history, with the controversies that Gottschalk roused over a double predestination in the end, this obliged him to master the Augustinian corpus to use Augustine against Gottschalk’s Augustine. If you look at the Periphyseon, you see that he’s ever been as much an Augustinian when it comes to his understanding of the divine nature, how he understands divine simplicity how, he understands God’s expression of the paternal death in filial manifestation and, so to speak, the circuit of the divine rejoicing which is the Spirit and how that encompasses creation in its logic.

Aquinas, too, I will point this out though. When you mentioned earlier this this sort of image of God as deciding between different possibilities and the kind of landscape of possibilities as though he’s an extrinsic agent faced with, you know, a decision regarding which car to buy (the creation). This is one of the places where Thomas goes back and forth because, first of all, because his infra-lapsearian understanding of the incarnation immediately separates the rationale of creation from christology at least logically speaking, if not in actual fact. Then even the issue of whether or not the world that is the world of Jesus of Nazareth is the best of all of all worlds he could have created, he does say that there’s no such thing because they are an infinite number of worlds between that world and this that modally still are infinitely short of the glory of God. So I mean there is, there, a hint already of this problem of how to understand creation as a decision of a will, but it’s a sort of fleeting moment in Thomas. It’s one of the moments that he hasn’t thought out particularly well. I don’t want to blame him, but it becomes determinative in this later manualist tradition to a very great degree because once again the very nature of creation being infinitely remote from the order of grace already is a kind of arbitrary construct of the divine will to which super added there could be a gracious sequela if God chooses but he needn’t choose. So it’s not entirely absent from Aquinas, but, no, I agree with everything you just said.

In fact, you more or less uh answered the question you asked me before you asked me the question, so i’m a little at a loss here to think of how to amplify on it. But I think Bulgakov actually laid out the program better than any other modern theology and understanding. Well, first of all, because he took the time to understand the tradition. Even when he got it wrong, he had a vast grasp of the antecedent history of Western Christian thought before the German idealists. He understood where the German idealists went astray. I mean, of course, he begins, as all Russians in that period did, in a dialogue with Hegel and Schelling (with the late Schelling). I think his union of Augustinian personalism and the Maximian metaphysics is one of the brilliant theological syntheses of the 20th century and one that’s only now becoming more and more.

Milbank: It’s terribly encouraging. Yeah.

DBH: You see more and more as translations of Bulgakov are appearing over here.

Milbank: Can I follow that up with a related question? …If I was doing a similar sort of thing, possibly the words impossibility and paradox would feature more. I sometimes notice you edging away from paradox which is interesting because it’s such a favorite term for [Henri] de Lubac. So just to try to flesh that out a little bit. You know, throughout your book, you’ve got this idea of a point of indifference or indeterminacy between coming out and going back, between creation and salvation, and ultimately between God and creation. And I think this is correct that—and again it’s like Eriugena—you have to say that God is somehow more than God, that uncreated god is also created god. But if we’re saying there’s something more than God even though there can’t be something more than God and if we’re refusing any kind of univocity of being or something like that [and] we’re refusing the idea that there’s a bigger framework of being, then aren’t we forced to see that very much as paradox? I  think slightly similar considerations apply, without spelling them out, to Christology where there’s a coincidence even though finite and infinite aren’t in competition to say that they’re perfectly coming together is somehow mystery.

Then just to illustrate the use of the word impossibility, the only point where I slightly hesitated in the book was when you were saying, look, there’s evil there because we’re on the journey from nothingness to God (and so, as it were, nothingness as an alibi) because if everything, if God is drawing us forth and there’s nothing sinister about this nothingness—there’s no pagan sinisterness left about the nothing—don’t we still have to say that the fall remains absolutely incomprehensible and in a way we only have a kind of ethical access to that? Again, I think that’s where there may be a difference between [us].

DBH: I don’t think the difference, though, is as great as you think. If you look at what I say about that, what I mean is simply that the possibility… all I’m saying there is, the possibility of evil is not the divine need. This is the problem. Well, why did God ordain an order in which evil was a possibility? What was the purpose thereof? Like I said, whatever that possibility is, it’s not ordinated in the theological sense, it’s not ordained by God towards a specific end in which evil plays a constitutive part. It’s simply that, if the possibility opens up there, it opens up within that vocation out of genuine nothingness. But you’re right, I mean it still doesn’t explain—because I’m quite clear—I take the high intellectualist understanding of rational freedom is that, even in that infantine state, children are better than we are, after all for, the very simple reason that they genuinely, until a certain degree of sophistication sets in, are like God, incapable of evil. God is the eternal child.

Milbank: What I’m driving at is that, given the sort of metaphysical incomprehensibility of evil, the fact that it’s just sheer nonsense, there is a sense in which our access to it is existential and dramatic. Perhaps at that point, is it possible to say that the Vedantic doesn’t quite have the platonic sense of the good and the linking of the good to our behavior in the city and so forth? Isn’t there something different here?

DBH: Yeah, no, I mean obviously there are differences. Although even there you have to qualify that regarding whether you’re talking about certain schools of Advaita Vedānta or Vishishtadvaita and forget about Vaita, but the Vishishtadvaita tradition also has political theory and cultural theory at the margins that actually makes room for understanding the good as a pragmatic and practical and social thing as well. But you’re right. This is one of the deficiencies of the Vedantic tradition. You do have to turn back to the Christian platonist tradition and then again, as Augustine lays out, there is nothing like the City of God before the City of God. It’s sort of a thunderbolt in that it understands that the eternal and the historical coincidence in Christ has ramifications that an older, more antique platonic metaphysics hadn’t yet discovered for obvious reasons.

But let me get back to the thing about nothing. The question, the way it’s often posed, is why didn’t God simply create beings already beyond the capacity for evil, and my only claim there that I’m making is that a creature is a creature only if it has the history of a creature. It actually has to have an absolute past in non-being. It can’t be a fiction, not simply a dramatist persona who has been crafted with a fictional past and that, whatever the mystery of evil is of sin, it happens in that always pastness of whatever it is that makes us who we are. It’s why it’s understood in Christian thought as an inheritance even though it’s also something that I think  Bulgakov is right about. You have to understand what’s happening on the threshold between the ionic and the chronic. So I’m not trying to put the blame on nothingness as this is just a sort of constitutive deficiency and that evil is explicable in those rational terms. To me evil, like the designated hitter rule, is just a mystery that no one can penetrate how this could have happened.

As for paradox again, it depends. I’m all for paradox as long as one remembers that the proper meaning of paradox is that the contradiction is at one level, at the apparent level, but what it reveals is an unexpected and deeper unity. Again, one of the things I love about Bogakov’s christology is that he took the neo-chalcedonian, what would almost look like a paradoxical use of hypothesis as uniting natures that otherwise would almost be antithetical to one another, which creates to me a kind of Christ chimera. And he used the image of sophia in the sophianic language to see how, in fact, what this affirms is the rootedness of both divine and human nature in the divine depth, the divine paternal depth of what he calls hypostasibility. But that infinite intention towards full personhood [is] again a way of grounding the metaphysics in a kind of personalism. I don’t use the word paradox as much as you do. In fact, I tend to think you use it a little obsessively if you don’t mind my saying so. …On the one hand, you’re right, you can impoverish the language of Christianity if you don’t insist upon the sheer surprise of christology, but I still think that, to use one of your terms, that what we’re pushing towards is a christological momentum which reveals that the paradox, actually, is the revelation of a deeper rationality that can be unfolded through a proper trinitarian metaphysic. You need the Holy Spirit there to do this, but I don’t think those are great differences between us. It’s a matter of idiom.

Milbank: I didn’t think they were, and I should probably unpack paradox a bit more.

DBH: You don’t want to be mistaken for just one of those people who, in the train of Kierkegaard, stop with the paradox and then demand a kind of, if not fideistic, at least, you know at least, theatrically…

Milbank: No, no, I think that probably misreads Kierkegaard anyway.

DBH: No, it does. I think when you get to the late writings, Practice in Christianity [1850] and Works of Love [1847], you realize that that itself, as is infuriatingly the case with Kierkegaard, is a stage in a progressive argument. But what you encounter first is paradox.

Milbank: Yeah, I think that the point is more that, if you like, this point of indifference. If it isn’t simply a kind of univocal sort of monism, then inevitably it’s incredibly enigmatic, and it leaves us in a kind of to and pro and so on, but if i could just…

DBH: Well, can I just interject there clearly, I mean, remember, that point of indifference is very much pneumatological. I mean it’s in, not only my essay, but, something I would point out, in Paul. You know, ttranslations for so long have obscured this, but in Paul there is a rhetorical and then logical sort of indifference at times between divine and human spirit.

Milbank: I completely agree with all you say about the spirit. And actually that leads well into the next question because this has to do with the model, you know, the circle of glory that your book is very much about, the circle. It’s about an outgoing and a return, and they’re the same things. And your model of the Trinity is often very much to do with return. I mean, there is being, a manifestation and then there is a rejoicing that sort of takes you back to the beginning.

And incidentally, I don’t want to fail to say this. I thought that the way you connect the theology to the chiasmic co-belonging of being and intelligence is fantastic. That’s just wonderful, and that’s a new move that I think is really, really important.

But that keeps me on the track of the circle, so that you insist very strongly that, you know, the beginning and the end are identical, and of course that’s completely correct. It can lead us, you know, with the kind of question that Origen asks about, well, could there be repeated falls? And I guess that the answer to that as it is in Origen is christological, that you discover, if you’re fallen, that you actually can’t fall because God has brought you back again.

DBH: I believe there’s only one circle of eternity. I don’t believe there are successive circles.

Milbank: No, I get that, but I think it’s for christological—it’s because God has gone right down to the bottom.

DBH: And been brought back in the Spirit.

Milbank: But that does raise the question about the relationship of the the circle to the straight line. Quite rightly, you say that Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine have actually quite similar models of the Trinity and quite similar understandings of the Spirit as a kind of bond, but there there is, as you know, there is another model of the Trinity that we find in Dionysus, that we find in Victorinus, that we find in Maximus and we find in Eriugena which is deriving from Porphyry and is this sort of “esse, vivere, intelligere” (sometimes expressed as “essence, potency and operation model”) which you might say, you know to put it really crudely, it where the other one is circular this is kind of developmental. So my question is along the lines of: is there any sense at all in which there is also linearity in God, a sort of progress in God in which there’s the moment of being, the moment of manifestation but then the intellectual moment is in a way, the the spiritual moment, is in a way, the third moment. Yeah, and whether then we can sort of…

DBH: That’s why Hegel’s question is an inevitable one for Chrsitisans.

Milbank: Yes, if you like, it’s almost saying there’s a kind of epitasis in God and whether one can relate that to the idea that evil is a kind of impatience. It’s a failure to get to the end, if it’s a failure to arrive at the spirit. It’s a failure to arrive at the incarnation. It’s a failure to have thecomplete Trinity, if you like. So my question is just whether one could do more with that other model of the Trinity and how one would integrate it with the more circular model.

DBH: Yeah, I mean, obviously, the two models aren’t exclusive, and the easy thing to do is simply to try to divide them between the eternal and the temporal, you know.

Milbank: But this is an advanced course, you know…

DBH: Right. But I mean also that if you allow that to become a discontinuity then, in a sense, the course of history both expresses and dissembles but also doesn’t participate in the divine mystery. So I think that, yeah, I like the idea that, and others have said it before, that the Spirit also represents a kind of futurity. You get this in the Cappadocians occasionally, while denying all temporality of God, speaking of the Father in one sense as that absolute past that is always becoming manifest and moving towards the absolute future of Spirit. In time, this is manifested, of course: the age of Spirit is coming, the Olam Haba is the spiritualization of creation, I mean the absolute revelation of the Holy Spirit, the fabric of nature. There’s no reason not to map this onto the story of the history of revelation as well as Gregory of Nazianzus did which again, as I say, is why the sort of questions that Hegel raises are implicit already within the tradition.

Milbank: The interesting thing about the “being, life, intelligence model” is that it exists in the East and in the West. It’s in there, and therefore it is a point of mediation and perhaps a point where we see how we can integrate more evolutionary and historical thought into this monistic picture.

DBH: Right. Which again, Eriugena is tremendously helpful. You ask that question, but Eriugena has already, to some degree, demonstrated how these two models of the Trinity are not in competition with one another, how both take in the mystery of creation and as a trinitarian mystery of divine self manifestation, both return and so to speak (in the full development, you have to be careful of the language you use because someone will accuse you of being a process theologian if you dare use the wrong word here) but you know what I mean is that the Father really unfolds fully in the Son and reaches the complete form of divine knowledge and joy in the Spirit that is a procession that is both a generation: God generating God and God proceeding from that generation as God, you know, to to the fullness of God.

Moderator: Thank you very much. Unfortunately, we are already at the end of our time. However, I would like to give David the final word if he could finish responding to your previous question and also, perhaps, tie it in more explicitly to the nature super-nature debate for our viewers.

DBH: The nature super-nature debate. I honestly, I mean it’s a very complex thing now that you’ve asked but to return to that issue.

Moderator: Five minutes?

DBH: Well, that may be too much time because that’ll tempt me to say even more. I was trying to come up with a very simple formula. I wanted to leave you with something enigmatic and aphoristic. Then you say five minutes. You can conquer the world if you use those five minutes correctly. Okay, all right.

Understand that the revived second scholastic Thomism is one that, in a sense, entirely cuts off nature and history and culture from the trinitarian mystery. The Trinity becomes information that the church possesses as does the beatific vision, neither of which have to enter into our understanding of history or nature or evolution. In a sense the entirety of Christian revelation as a saving mystery has become an extrinsic fact about a world that exists in itself without manifesting the divine except insofar as it is vaguely oriented towards transcendental goods. I don’t think that’s what the Christian story is. I don’t think that makes sense of God becoming a man that humanity might become God and that the tikkun olam, apokatastasis ton panton, the restoration of all things would be the real revelation of the God who is all in all. It is such a truncation, such an abridgment of what is proclaimed from the New Testament onward that I think that it’s fundamentally a nihilistic parody of Christianity.

So that’s how I would tie it in with what John and I have been discussing here. I mean as exotic as it may sound, I think it is simply good, New Testament, Nicene, Calcidonian, reflection. I don’t even say that in an exclusive way because the non-Calcidonian churches actually have a rich a Christological [heritage]. It’s just a different language. I just mean that this is orthodoxy. The richness of it takes in the entire experience of nature and the human community of human culture and of the history of evolution. Grace infuses all of this, and it’s already fundamentally redemptive. Creation and salvation are not separate moments. They are the calling of all things out of nothingness into union with the God who, in a sense, not just expresses himself but is the God he is in being God in the created as well. I think that’s not only where the future of healthy Christian orthodox reflection leads, but you have to prevent at all costs this alternative picture which is so hideously destructive of that beautiful narrative.

Milbank: What you’re saying though does surely involve, and I think implicit in what you’re saying, that there’s value in the finite and the scarce as well as in the infinite and the plenitude.

DBH: Yes. Yeah.

Milbank: Ultimate value, in a sense.

DBH: I mean that actually the history, the story, the labor of being created and being saved, which is one and the same, includes Alice in Wonderland, Michelangelo’s David and all the butterflies that you’ve ever appreciated. Yes and not to see that, not to understand that, is a form of consummate philosophical and theological philistinism.

Milbank: Blasphemy as well, yeah.

DBH: Blasphemy, yeah, against the goodness of creation and the infinite modalities of God’s beauty.

Book cover.

in this ascent, the sensible symbols are not merely left behind

A few key passages from the last chapter in Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric D. Perl:

Because being is theophany, all sense perception is an apprehension of symbols of God. In view of this metaphysical basis for his theory of symbols, Dionysius cannot and does not maintain the sharp distinction between intelligible “names” and sensible “symbols.”

…All symbols, in that they are both similar and dissimilar, at once reveal and conceal that which they symbolize, and this is the very nature of a symbol and hence of being as symbol. Not only does a symbol both reveal and conceal, but it does both in one: it conceals precisely in and as revealing, and reveals precisely in and as concealing. Every being, or symbol, is a differentiated expression, a presentation, a coming forth of God into openness, manifestness, availability. As such it reveals God, making him knowable in and as the content of that being. To know anything is to know God as manifest in that thing. The Platonic doctrine of participation, which Dionysius invokes in justifying the suitability of all things as symbols of God, makes it clear that the symbolized is not extrinsic to but present in the symbol, that the symbol is a genuine presentation of the symbolized. But to reveal God in this way is to conceal him. For precisely as differentiated, as finite, and hence as available, as a presentation, every being, or symbol, is not God himself and thus conceals him, leaving him behind, inaccessible, in the dark.

…Only by being concealed in symbols can God be revealed. For if he were not concealed, then what is revealed would be not God but some being, something which is and can be known. If we are truly to know God, if what is revealed is to be God himself, then what we know must be the unknowable, what is revealed must be concealed, for otherwise it would not be God that is known and revealed. Only by symbols is this possible. Hence, as Dionysius here indicates, there can be no non—symbolic knowledge of God, no knowledge of God without the concealment of symbolism. Only a symbol, in that qua symbol it conceals what it reveals, can make God known without objectifying him as a being, enabling us to know God without violating his unknowability, and thus truly to know God. The concealing is the revealing. Dionysius’ doctrine of symbols is thus another expression of the principle that God is given to every mode of cognition, including sense perception, and is inaccessible to all cognition whatsoever.

…It is never true to say, then, that we know God; not from his nature, for this is unknowable and surpasses all reason and intellect; but from the order of all beings, as presented-as-a-screen from him, and having certain images and likenesses of his divine paradigms, we go up, by way and order according to our power, to the beyond all things, in the taking away and transcendence of all things and in the cause of all things. Wherefore both in all things God is known and apart from all things.

…The symbolic nature of being is most fully realized in the angels. …The angels reveal what is hidden; they announce the divine silence; they present-as-screens lights which interpret what is inaccessible. These paradoxes capture the very essence of symbolism: to hide what it reveals by revealing it and to reveal what it hides by hiding it. Any interpretation, in that it is not the meaning itself but an interpretation of it, leaves behind, renders inaccessible, the meaning which it presents. But in view of Dionysius’ understanding of all being as theophany, and the doctrine that the angels possess in an eminent way all the perfections of lesser beings, this is true not only of the angels but, analogously, of all things. To be a being is to be a symbol, to interpret the inaccessible, to announce the divine silence.

…Because of the identity between revealing and concealing in symbolism, there is no opposition between the symbolic knowledge of God in and from beings and the union with God in unknowing by the taking away of all beings. The ascent from sense to intellect to the union above intellect, in which unknowing is the culmination and enfolding of all knowledge, is also the ascent from sensible symbols to intellectual contemplation to unknowing. …In this ascent, the sensible symbols are not merely left behind. For the very nature of a symbol is such that to know it is to unknow it. To understand a symbol as a symbol is to ignore it, to attend not to the symbol as an object in itself but rather to the meaning it concealingly reveals. Conversely, to attend to a symbol as an object in its own right is to fail to know it as a symbol. To a person who cannot read, for example, a written word is an object consisting of ink on paper. But a reader, in the very act of perceiving the word, is oblivious to the word as such and attentive only to its meaning. The more he ignores the word as an object, the more deeply immersed he is in the meaning, the more perfectly he is reading and the better he is knowing the word as what it really is, as a symbol. The non-reader might argue that the reader is simply disregarding the word in favor of something else; this is precisely the attitude of those who see in the Dionysian ascent from sensible symbols to intellectual contemplation to mystical unknowing a rejection or abandonment of sense and symbol. But in fact, of course, it is the reader, who in perceiving the word unknows it in itself, who truly knows and appreciates the word as word.

…The ascent from symbols is the penetration into them. To rise to unknowing, to remove all the veils, to take away all things, is most fully to enter into the symbols, or beings. At the peak, therefore, we find the perfect union of knowing and unknowing, in which all beings are most perfectly known in being wholly unknown just as a word is most perfectly known in being ignored, because all beings are nothing but symbols of God. The mystical union is not a non-symbolic encounter with God as an object other than all things. It is rather a penetration into all things to God who, as “all things in all things and nothing in any,” is at once revealed and concealed by all things. To ascend to unknowing is to see the darkness hidden and revealed by all light, to hear all things “announce the divine silence.”

…The incarnation is thus seen to be fully consonant with, and indeed the fullest expression of, the Neoplatonic philosophical conception of God as not any being but the power of all things, as pure Giving, as Overflow, or, in Dionysius’ terms, as Love. In this sense it is true, as has often been remarked, that Dionysius understands the incarnation in terms of the Neoplatonic metaphysics of procession and reversion. But this need not mean that the incarnation is merely another procession, additional to and parallel with the universal, creative procession of God to all things and all things from God. Rather, 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.

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).

1:13:25

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?

1:14:08

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.

1:19:36

…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.

1:27:01

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.

1:31:12

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?

1:31:50

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.

1:34:06

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.

1:37:47

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?

1:39:11

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.

1:41:22

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.”

1:44:01

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?

1:46:05

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.

1:48:49

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.

1:54:03

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?

1:55:20

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.

1:57:49

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.”

2:01:18

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.

Wells of Sorrow Unfathomed

“For if joyful is the fountain that rises in the sun, its springs are in the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the Earth.” —J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

Light and hope break into the stories of J.R.R. Tolkien from every direction—with the descent of eagles, the arrival of friends, the return of wizards, and the fireside meals of hobbits. However, his stories remain tightly encased within a realm of death and separation. Yes, Aragon leads the armies of elves, dwarves, men (and even a few hobbits) in a desperate bid to distract Sauron himself and to allow Frodo, Sam and Gollum to overthrow him decisively. However, the real point of the older stories—first written years earlier by a pious young language scholar and further developed after his return from the devastation of the First World War—is that Arwen must say farewell forever to her father and then again to her husband who must leave her to receive death alone. Tolkien offers no final escape from death and separation for all of time.

True, we get an even larger story within which our world of death and time fit. As Eru Ilúvatar conceived the Ainur from his thought and taught each of them how to make music before the start of time, their singing weaves Eä into being as an embodied world (the cosmos of stars containing Arda as the planet holding Middle Earth). However, this world is almost immediately corrupted following the discordant song of Melkor who is allowed to enter Eä where he seeks domination over it and most especially over the Children of Ilúvatar (the divided households of Elves and Men) who have Eä as their home.

There are only two small hints given by Tolkien regarding any possible recovery from this containment of Ilúvatar’s children within a world bound by time, death, and eternal separation. First, from outside of time, we are given the account of the third theme in Eru’s music that Melkor found to be sweeter, more beautiful and ultimately unquenchable. What this theme might have contained is hinted at from within the history of Eä by only one obscure tale that went unpublished in Tolkien’s lifetime: “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth.”

This brief story describes a connection between this world of time and death and the timeless realm of Eru Ilúvatar which would allow communion to be restored one day between the Children of Ilúvatar and the Ainur—between the embodied world and that of solid light and song. In this story, Andreth (a wise-woman among humans) shares with Finrod (a wise-man among elves) about a set of ancient and almost entirely lost beliefs among some humans regarding the nature of human embodiment and the indissolubility of body and soul. Tolkien’s myth is so deep that it contains its own metaphysics, so body and soul here are not exactly what we might think of in our own understandings of these words, but to translate fëa as “soul” and hröa as “body” is the best that we can do here. They share of the mysterious bond between these two aspects of the Children of Ilúvatar (men and elves) in terms that suggest the inevitability of incarnation so that God’s image within embodied creation might be restored and all (or much) that is now bound by death might be restored:

What can this mean unless it be that the fëa shall have the power to uplift the hröa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Eä, and beyond Time? Thus would Arda, or part thereof, be healed not only of the taint of Melkor, but released even from the limits that were set for it in the ‘Vision of Eru’ of which the Valar speak.

Therefore, I say that if this can be believed, then mighty indeed under Eru were Men made in their beginning; and dreadful beyond all other calamities was the change in their state.

“Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” (likely completed in 1959 but not printed until 1993 within Morgoth’s Ring, the tenth volume of Christopher Tolkien’s 12-volume series The History of Middle-earth)

Beyond these two points of ultimate hope beyond the horizon of history, however, Tolkien keeps his stories confined tightly by the horizon of death and separation across all of time. Not only is there no reunion possible within history for elves and men, but humanity ultimately can do no more than accept their own death willingly (with no promise of a reunion between their fëa and hröa that would constitute a communion between the timeless realms of Eru and the storied cosmos of Eä—the union of earth and eternity).

Within this life, we should gaze upon the fountain in the sun but accept that it springs from “the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the Earth.” This confinement to the realm of death is a great part of Tolkien’s faithfulness and gift to his readers. In part, it is related to his insistence that one-to-one allegory be strictly avoided within mythology and fairytale, but it goes beyond this to his insistence upon eucatastropy as the only truth available to us now. If Tolkien is right that we have nowhere to turn in this life but to “the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the Earth,” how is this in any sense a hope? We can only recall what the Christian scriptures place at the foundations of our cosmos: a slain lamb (Revelation 13:8). This world is founded upon God’s own death.

Here Tolkien is within an old Christian tradition that considered death itself a gift prepared by God from the foundation of the cosmos as “the limits that were set for [Eä] in the ‘Vision of Eru’ of which the Valar speak.” This is a limit that even Finrod (an elven loremaster) is astounded to learn from the woman Andreth might ultimately be overcome. For virtually all the inhabitants of Tolkien’s mythical earth, this bondage to estrangement or death is a limit that was assumed to be a permanent aspect of their creation. Tolkien only hints at the incarnation and resurrection within one unpublished story, but the eucatastropy of the cross is clearly within view throughout his work. A death that must be accepted as a gift is central to Tolkien’s work and may be considered a basic aspect of the third theme in Eru’s music—the theme that finally overcomes Melkor’s discord.

As difficult as this cross is to bear, we must insist with Tolkien that the only way to the resurrection is through the grave. Tolkien took this so seriously, that he would not allow any form of human resurrection to enter into his mythology (other than the smallest hint within one unpublished story). This shows us not only the essential nature of death as a gift that we must receive but also the power of a truly human resurrection. When a human life overcomes death, “what can this mean unless it be that the fëa shall have the power to uplift the hröa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Eä, and beyond Time?” With death overcome, humanity has the capacity to unite all of embodied creation with God’s eternal life.

This is not to say that our world as we know it right now, under the bonds of death, is not also beautiful and communicative of the life, love and glory of God. However, this beauty of the Creator is only fully seen by a heart that has accepted death. Saint Pavel Florensky says:

The goal of the ascetic’s strivings is to perceive all of creation in its original triumphant beauty. The Holy Spirit reveals itself in the ability to see the beauty of creation. Always to see beauty in everything would be “to be resurrected before the universal resurrection,” to have a foretaste of the last Revelation, that of the Comforter.

From “Letter Nine” in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters by Pavel Florensky (translated by Boris Jakim)

Tolkien insists that the catastrophe is good and fills his stories with the in-breaking of this goodness (typically at its most wonderful when it comes from the most humble of sources, as we see within the goodness of Shire life). However, Tolkien insists with his mythology that our lot in this world is, ultimately, to take up our cross (Matthew 16:24-26) and to pray that, in our own flesh, we might be “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body” (Colossians 1:24, ESV). This is the ascetic’s strivings of which the saints teach which allows us to see the beauty of creation. Like the believing thief who hung beside Christ, may we die willingly with him.

15h c. Ethiopian crucifixion icon

Here is a place for you in the midst of my growing household…

For several years, I’ve come back regularly to an effort at summarizing the whole story of the Bible within as few words as possible. Here’s a recent attempt. Is it making sense?

God said, “Let there be light.” A few days later, God said, “Let there be heavenly bodies to guide an ageless dance between the great light of day and the many beautiful lights of night over which I delight to sing.”

Finally, God said to humanity, “Here is a place for you in the midst of my growing household so that you who carry my image can learn to show me fully to all that share life with me. Enjoy this home and care for it, my children, but be warned that refusal of this place in my household will lead to your death.”

But humanity said to God, “We are mature already, and we are ready now to be like you.”

God replied, “No, my children. To join with you fully is my purpose, but that step in the dance is not yet reached. Because of your disordered desire, you will need to mature within the realm of death where your own will cannot forever take you away from my life. This restriction of time by the contingency of death will limit your wanderings as you each mature amid the confusion and suffering of your misdirected loves. I will be with you, and you can still mature fully to show your divine image as my human family to all of my creation. Even from the foundation of this realm of death in which you must be entombed, my eternal Son will participate fully in your suffering, and a woman among you will bear fruit. She will be a human who prepares and agrees, even within the realm of death, to carry my perfect image as my eternal Son. Through her acceptance of her own humanity, this woman will fulfill my intent for all humanity as a way for me to join with my creation. With this union of her child’s life and the Life shared by me and my eternal Son as our gift to all creation, everything that we have made will be restored in the life of this woman’s child.”

And humanity slowly reply, “Remember us, O Lord, in your kingdom.”

in participatory consequence, all of nature is transubstantiated

Excerpts from “Stanton Lecture 8: The Surprise of the Imagined” by John Milbank.

So how can everything be at once entirely interrelated, and yet in integral, reserved excess of relationship? Once more we need the model of participation as paradox which is the same paradox as the paradox of the gift. A substance is related as giving though sharing a capacity to be separately imitated only by retaining that which it shares in order to remain a ‘personal’ giver. Inversely, a substance receives another substance in relation only by imitative sharing which reserves as mystery the very thing which it proffers as ‘the rite of the mystery’, so to speak.

…In this way culture is provisional resurrection: every artifact is a tombstone which remembers the past, projects the future and aspires after eternity and for this reason, as the ancient Egyptians realised, every city is first a temple because it is a graveyard. Nor are all monuments equal: Heidegger’s jug really does command a greater intrinsic presence than the fairy-liquid bottle, not just because of the array of forces at its command, but because of the greater intrinsic coherence of the forces making for beauty, which ensure that not even the efforts of a Warhol can match the survival through the millennia of one particular finely-crafted pot, supremely embodying the eidos of ‘potness’. …And as to imagination: here again we have a reversible hierarchy—physical reality is more real as more substantive; but imagined reality is more real as more aspiring upwards to a spiritual condition.

…And through the same gesture monotheism is perfected rather than qualified, because one ‘resolves’ in a mystery the aporia whereby the Creation as the divinely imagined ‘other’ to God is and yet is not outside God, who is omnipresent. The doctrine of the Trinity allows one to hold to both sides of the aporia with equal force: the art of Creation as externalised imagination possesses integrity outside God, and on this account it eventually returns to God; but equally, God is in himself the internalised art of the Creation (in its entire extent which is unknown to us) and the return of this inner Filial imagination to its Paternal fontal source by its ceaseless organic renewal of spousal Spiritual inspiration, through whose equally maternal ‘excess’ over its own imaginings it is generated in the first place.

…Humans, in order to freely love God, and so in a sense to be free in relation to God and even free of God, as Eckhart might say, must give back to God more than he has given us. This is only possible because God himself becomes more than God by repairing the third metaphysical indigency whereby God lacks his own lackGod lacks the worship of God, as Pierre Bérulle put it. But Christ as the divine-humanity is impossibly more than God and renders back to God more than God has given. In this way to the divine imagination is impossibly added also the human imagination of the divine. Of course under the conditions of sin this ontological atonement took the form of a suffering onea passage through disaster perfectly endured and so integrated into the gift that is impossibly more than even the greatest imaginable gift.

…Yet in the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ we are offered a further mystery that in some sense indicates a resolution of the everyday one. What holds together here is the divine-human substance as identical with the being, or better, the reality of God. So in participatory consequence, all of nature is transubstantiated, and thereby restored to its original integrity. In a sense the transformation and inherence at the Mass is no more mysterious than any other transformation or inherence, and if it is imagined by us as taking place, then that is because it is real, and because all reality is most fundamentally imagined. Ordinarily, holding together and transformation occur through the mediated interaction of substance and relation, but we can now see that these things make no sense outside the divine presence to all things achieved through participation in the divine imaginative, creative act.

This quadruple summation of completed monotheism as divine and humanly imagined Creation, Trinity, Incarnation and Transubstantiation, consummates the vision and claim of these lectures. This is the view that, in order fully to perform the philosophic act of saving the appearances of the ordinary, we must invoke the seemingly strange and exotic teachings of theology, and the strangest of all, which are the teachings of Christian theology.

Full text of lecture available here.

Creation, Fall and Evolution in Maximus the Confessor According to Torstein Theodor Tollefsen

Preface

Several people have asked me questions about what this post means, so here is a summary in advance with more direct language. God doesn’t need death to create, but He subverts death to achieve all of His original intentions anyway. The Bible teaches a human fall outside the start of time and of our cosmos as we know it. All death (of any kind) is a result of this atemporal human fall (which is also manifested within history as you can consider in this post).

In other words, God has always had incarnation in the form of the Son as an eternal plan and purpose, and humans are actually created outside of time as we now know it. Our showing up within this current corrupt reduction of time and space is a result of our collective decision outside of time to try a shortcut that resulted in this corrupted first creation that we now know but which is still being made (in Christ) into the new creation that will be fully revealed at Christ’s second coming.

The image in Revelation 13:8 of a Lamb slain from he foundation of the cosmos has come to mean a lot to me, as this captures the idea that Jesus Christ has been suffering with His creation since the start of time.

Original Post

“One major challenge to any ancient metaphysical conception of the world is the modern doctrine of evolution.” Torstein Theodor Tollefsen raises this critical point at the end of “Saint Maximus the Confessor on Creation and Incarnation” (his contribution to Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology edited by Niels Henrik Gregersen). While Tollefsen immediately acknowledges that “Maximus probably held the view that the world was made recently and that all species were made by God in the beginning,” Tollefsen goes on to explain how modern evolutionary science can fit seamlessly within the metaphysical system that Maximus provides. As far as I can tell, what Tollefsen proposes lines up to a remarkable degree with the position outlined in “Sergius Bulgakov on Evolution and the Fall: A Sophiological Solution” by Charles Andrew Gottshall (posted to the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog on May 1, 2017).

In summary, Maximus sees the fall of humanity as having two aspects. These can also be expressed as “two senses of hamartia” (the Greek term typically translated sin). They are not two falls of humanity but just our human fall seen from two perspectives: 1) humanity’s relation to God outside of time wherein we collectively made a free and culpable choice to become what God intended for us via the wrong pathway and 2) humanity’s suffering within time under the bondage of corruption alongside of the entire cosmos that we are meant to tend and bless.

In its first aspect, our fall is an atemporal event that takes place within the “eternal now” of God’s presence and in which humankind “reached for its humanity as made in the image of God, situated in the tension between paradise and oikoumené, but failed to achieve it in the proper way.” (Although Tollefsen does not specify this directly, it seems clear that Adam in this sense for Maximus is understood as God’s vision of humanity seen collectively as a whole—as the perfect body of Christ to use Paul’s language.) In Ambiguum 42, Maximus states that our nature fell unnaturally into wickedness “at the instant it was created.” (Note in this blog post that Maximus actually makes this strange claim “on three separate occasions.”) Tollefsen explains that this “first ‘failure’ of Adam …was culpable, since he fell of his own choice from good into evil.” According to Tollefsen: “Maximus does not …commit himself to any definite speculation on the state of innocence. …The first [sense of hamartia] was culpable and indicates a fall from innocence, but the text does not say that this first is to be understood temporally.”

In its second aspect, our human fall “was the innocent transformation of human nature from incorruption into corruption.” This consequence of our fall is “innocent” in that we and the entire cosmos (with no rational will of its own and therefore no choice in the matter) suffer a contingent consequence that we could not have fully foreseen. Tollefsen says that this aspect of “humankind’s fall from perfection …is probably understood in a temporal sense” in that after “a period of existence in paradise” we experienced the fall “with its consequences for the whole of creation, when human beings were transformed from incorruption to corruption.” Summarizing Maximus, Tollefsen further explains: “Corruption, comprising all kinds of physical weakness and death, is not natural. It is not in accordance with the proper nature of a being, which rather is the divine purpose of its logos. Thus while human salvation involves healing from sin and gaining incorruptibility, animals, if they should be conceived as participating in the divine scheme of salvation, only need healing from corruptibility.”

Critical to the full metaphysical framework that Maximus presents is that “the plurality and diversity that characterizes the world is willed by God, and [it] shall not disappear in the consummation of the ages.” In God’s final purposes, “particular beings are meant to be preserved as themselves in their particularity.” In conclusion, Tollefsen claims: “The transformation from incorruption to corruption [of the entire cosmos] may be interpreted within this picture. [It describes] a purpose that is not achieved throughout the natural history of the world, but is reached in the eternal kingdom of God.”

When taken together (and summarized in my own layman’s terms), we get a vision of creation as being initiated within God’s timeless presence with the central and guiding principle of creation from before creation’s start being the incarnation of the Logos as human. Christology, in this case, expresses a unity between God and creation—with humanity being the principal link within the created order. Humanity, however, grasping at a false path toward our ultimate end as the focal point of God’s image within creation, recasts our entire experience of the process of creation itself within a contingent corruption of the entire cosmos (expressed within our current cosmic time). For now, we are no longer fully able to see God’s creative work underway except in so far as we can see it through Jesus Christ, and all that we see is subject to the delusions and blindnesses imposed by ourselves and many others within our current contingent time. This human fall does not prevent God’s creative acts and intentions from taking place, but our falleness introduces the temporary experience of suffering and death into the entire creative process as it unfolds within time. From start to finish (even before humanity arrives within the fallen temporal sequence), creation within cosmic time is marred by corruption (but not prevented or destroyed). Within this context, the incarnation, death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus Christ become the revelation and restoration of our true and eternal condition as well as remaining the telos of creation as it always was. This telos is enacted within history as the incarnation of Jesus Christ but reveals a truth that cannot be fully seen or known until history is finished and transformed.

Biological evolution, in this scheme, is just the creative work of God unfolding as this ongoing work is experienced within the fallen confines of our current cosmic time. The entire natural history of our cosmos combines together the achievement of God’s eternal ends with the contingent experience of corruption, suffering and death. In this, the whole of creation becomes a kind of prolonged and painful labor and delivery. Ultimately, the claim here is that all the eons of biological evolution participate in the crucifixion and death of Christ as well as in Christ’s transfiguration, resurrection and glorification (rendering all the suffering of humanity and the cosmos contingent yet fruitful in the end). In this way, the final telos of all creation is “not achieved throughout the natural history of the world, but is reached in the eternal kingdom of God.”

Passages from Tollefsen relating to what God intends and is creating according to Maximus:

How does God know beings? They are known, Maximus states, as his own acts of will. Maximus says that in the logoi, beings are circumscribed essentially and genetically (that is, as known and as willed) by their own logoi and by the logoi of beings that surround them.

…God knows particulars. He not only knows them; he loves them. …The logoi, as conceived by God, are contemplated by God according to the essential relationships they were intended to found. …Natural relationships are for …the actualization of a movement of love, which is what God has made possible within this system of being. According to Maximus’s interpretation, when beings are conceived within such an order, this is meant to guarantee a certain integrity of being and to make possible a certain providential and soteriological dynamics of movement.

The plurality and diversity that characterizes the world is willed by God, and is as such shall not disappear in the consummation of the ages. Particular beings are meant to be preserved as themselves in their particularity. However, in the present age this particularity has turned into a source of self-enhancement on the part of particular beings. This self-enhancement is sinful, since it involves an encroachment upon the integrity of both one’s own being and the being of others. In this way suffering, pain, corruptibility, and death rule the natural world. The divine remedy, however, is not the reduction of particularity, plurality, and diversity to an essential, ontological unity. Rather, it is the reduction of self-enhancement to the detriment of other beings to a unity in love that is made ontologically possible because God has transcendentally (in his logoi) knit the bonds of being that make it possible.

…The infinite divine Mind who eternally contemplates his own knowledge of beings has contemplated them in their logoi in all the possible ways of development these possible beings might enfold.

…While it will not accord with the methods of science to search for final causes, a metaphysical doctrine of the world as made by God cannot dispense with the concept of final causality.

…Even if the natural development of life is replete with struggle, suffering, and death, the Christian metaphysics of Maximus reckons with a final consummation in which all suffering and corruptibility are overcome. A cosmos made by God according to his goodness, will, and purpose must be conceived as directed, in the divine Mind, toward some goal.

Passages from Tollefsen relating to what we experience in this life given our fallen condition according to Maximus:

Maximus expects a universal transformation of the cosmos. Also, salvation does not just concern the remission of sin, since only rational creatures can sin. In Ad Thalassium 42, Maximus interprets the Greek term hamartia, which is usually translated “sin,” in its literal sense as a failure or as missing the mark, like when one shoots with a bow. The first “failure” of Adam, he says, was culpable, since he fell of his own choice from good into evil. This is what we would designate as sin in the usual sense of the term. The second failure, however, following upon the first, was the innocent transformation of human nature from incorruption into corruption. According to Maximus, corruption, comprising all kinds of physical weakness and death, is not natural. It is not in accordance with the proper nature of a being, which rather is the divine purpose of its logos. Thus while human salvation involves healing from sin and gaining incorruptibility, animals, if they should be conceived as participating in the divine scheme of salvation, only need healing from corruptibility.

…Maximus does not, as far as I can see, commit himself to any definite speculation on the state of innocence. He …distinguished between two senses of hamartia. The first one was culpable and indicates a fall from innocence, but the text does not say that this first is to be understood temporally. However, in Ad Thalassium 1, he mentions in passing humankind’s fall from perfection. This is probably understood in a temporal sense: there was first a period of existence in paradise; then came the fall with its consequences for the whole of creation, when human beings were transformed from incorruption to corruption.

…What Maximus actually says does not have to be interpreted in the sense that one has to reckon with some kind of historical paradise in the past. If we look at the divisions of being in Ambiguum 41, one of the divisions is between paradise and oikoumené, as if these were somehow present in the cosmic building and not as if one came before the other in time. Further, in Ambiguum 42, Maximus states that our nature fell unnaturally into wickedness “at the instant it was created.” These Maximian descriptions need not be anything other than a metaphysical sketch of the structures or powers and possibilities of the world and of culture. When humankind originated within the fabric of nature, it reached for its humanity as made in the image of God, situated in the tension between paradise and oikoumené, but failed to achieve it in the proper way.

Note that, while working to grasp Tollefsen’s summary of Maximus on these points, it can be helpful to have this additional map in hand:

In Ambiguum 41, Maximus presents his system in a nutshell. He draws a perspicuous and, I would say, beautiful picture of the cosmos as it comes forth from God in its procession (that is, creation) and converts to God in the final restoration. He describes five basic divisions in accordance with which the cosmos is arranged: (1) the division between uncreated and created nature, (2) the division of created nature into intelligible and sensible being, (3) the division of sensible being into heaven and earth, (4) the division of earth into paradise and oikoumené, and (5) the division of oikoumené into male and female. By oikoumené he probably means the inhabited world [as Andrew Louth translates it in Maximus the Confessor, Early Church Fathers (London: Routledge, 1996), 157].

Traditional icon of the creation.

the Logos becomes thick

Maximus walks the ancient path first tread by Irenaeus: Christ reveals the truth of creation. The truth he sees in the historical Incarnation is that everything, all of creation, the entire world, is that Word’s Incarnation. Maximus never qualifies his conviction that the Logos’s self-distribution as the logoi is an Incarnation of this Word. We might expect such qualification since he seems intent upon nestling them into the same category. In his famous and curt explanation of Gregory Nazianzen’s remark that “The Logos becomes thick,” Maximus proffers three instances where this is so: the Word’s historical Incarnation as Jesus Christ, his ineffable self-encryption as the logoi of all creatures, and his consent to be “embodied and expressed” in language.

Jordan Wood (“Creation is Incarnation: the Metaphysical Peculiarity of the Logi in Maximus the Confessor” from the 2017 issue of Modern Theology)

inscribed deep within the Earth

This passage comes after a description of the noetic pursuit of transcendent truth by all of the Greek philosophers, upward and away from the earth. This central theme of noetic ascent is summarized (with appreciation) from the Presocratics through Aristotle, before Foltz turns to incarnation:

Into this trajectory of restless, almost obsessive, transcendence comes the peaceful image (eikon) of the Nativity, a different face of being. That God has really entered into creation—not appeared by proxy like some ephemeral projection, but come into being within the earthly—is visually rendered in the iconographic tradition of the Christian East through subterranean imagery. The Eternal Logos enters substantially into creation kenotically, innocently, as a little child, represented by Mary tending to her child while inscribed deep within the Earth, in a cave, a birthplace written into the essential materiality of the Earth: Incarnation or embodiment itself is taking place within the earth, the principle of all embodiment. Home and inhabitation and immanence on the one hand, and divinity and transcendence and longing on the other, are no longer in incommensurable ends of meaning, metaphysical oil and water, but are held in a serene balance.

The Noetics of Nature: Environmental Philosophy and the Holy Beauty of the Visible by Bruce Foltz.

Thou hast broken open the all-devouring belly of Hell and snatched me out

Here are a few of the many hymns from last night with the start of Lazarus Saturday. Toward the end, several of them break into the voice of Lazarus himself or of Hell itself.

Calling Lazarus from the tomb, immediately Thou hast raised him; but Hell below lamented bitterly, and groaning, trembled at Thy power, O Savior.

Calling Lazarus by name, Thou hast broken in pieces the bars of Hell and shaken the power of the enemy; and before Thy Crucifixion, Thou hast made the enemy tremble because of Thee, O only Savior.

O Master, Thou hast come as God to Lazarus, bound captive by Hell, and Thou hast loosed him from his fetters, for all things submit to Thy command, O Mighty Lord.

The palaces of Hell were shaken, when in its depths Lazarus began once more to breathe, straightway restored to life by the sound of Thy voice.

As man, Thou hast shed tears for Lazarus; as God, Thou hast raised him up. Thou hast asked, O Loving Lord: Where is he buried, dead these four days; thus confirming our faith in Thine Incarnation. [Because, Jesus would have to ask “where” only as a human.]

Wishing in Thy love to reveal the meaning of Thy Passion and Thy Cross, Thou hast broken open the belly of Hell that never can be satisfied, and as God Thou hast raised up a man four days dead.

Joining dust to spirit, O Word, by Thy word in the beginning, Thou hast breathed into the clay a living soul. And now, by Thy word, Thou hast raised up Thy friend from corruption and from the depths of the earth.

“Thou hast called me from the lowest depths of Hell, O Savior,” cried Lazarus to Thee when Thou hast set him free from Hell; “and Thou hast raised me from the dead by Thy command.”

“Thou knowest all things, yet hast asked where I was buried. As man by nature, Thou hast wept for me, O Savior, and Thou hast raised me from the dead by Thy command.”

“Thou hast clothed me in a body of clay, O Savior, and breathed life into me, and I beheld Thy light; and Tho hast raised me from the dead by thy command.”

“Thou hast broken open the all-devouring belly of Hell and snatched me out, O Savior, by Thy power; and Thou hast raised me from the dead by Thy command.”

“I implore thee, Lazarus,” said Hell, “Rise up, depart quickly from my bonds and be gone. It is better for me to lament bitterly for the loss of one, rather than of all those whom I swallowed in my hunger.”

Let Bethany sing with us in praise of the miracle, for there the Creator wept for Lazarus in accordance with the law of nature and the flesh. Then, making Martha’s tears to cease and changing Mary’s grief to joy, Christ raised him from the dead.

Shaking the gates and iron bars, Thou hast made Hell tremble at Thy voice. Hell and Death were filled with fear, O Savior, seeing Lazarus their prisoner brought to life by Thy word and rising from the tomb.