Experiencing God or Experiencing Nothing

For God created us in such a way that we are similar to Him (for through participation we are imbued with the exact characteristics of His goodness), and from before the ages He determined that we should exist in Him.[1]

Maximus the Confessor

Ours is a secular age in that direct experience of God is mostly unavailable. The Bible directly equates truth, wisdom, life, love, and light with Christ (and with experience of Christ), but the tendency is to soften this or to make it metaphorical. We seemingly no longer have direct access to God in the development of the virtues, in the experience of love, in the development of wisdom, or in peace of mind. To say what disrupts experience of God (the actualization of “existing in Him”), is part of an exercise in regaining this experience, but in brief, Christ is displaced as his own medium, his own reality, his own wisdom, and his own logic. Philosophy, human wisdom, human experience, and human logic (centered on nothing but themselves) become prime reality, and in Christian theology (popular and academic) Christ is made to fit an already existing frame and foundation.

Escaping the Obstacle of Ontotheology

The postmodern critique of ontotheology permanently dispels the notion that propositions, doctrine, or philosophy, can (in phallic/masculine form) “say it all” or lay its own foundation. The point is not to promote irrationality but reason cannot lay its foundations or encompass prime reality. What this has meant for theology, is that the person of Christ as foundation takes on a singular significance – Christ is a logic and reality that cannot be fit to an already existing frame or laid on another foundation. Examples of the significance for theology of the turn from ontotheology are the work of Stanley Hauerwas (in his turn to ethics), James McClendon (in his development of a practical theology), a return to the work of Karl Barth, and in Catholicism the new theology (nouvelle théologie) focused on escaping scholasticism. Historically the shift might be characterized as the difference between Origenism and Augustinianism, or in broad terms (too broad, but containing some truth) the difference between eastern and western theology. The general turn is one that joins faith and practice, and as with my work on the doctrine of sin and salvation, the impetus is to describe the work of Christ in real world terms.  

Realization of Christ as Prime Reality and as Salvation

I presume the defeat of sin and evil in salvation is describable phenomenologically and psychologically. First, in Christ’s confrontation with sin and death, we can describe his defeat of these categories in historical, psychological, systemic, and corporate terms. Second, we can describe incorporation into Christ and defeat of the categories of sin and evil. The implication of the incarnation is that there is a universally shared human predicament and resolution addressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Two things come together – the plane of human reality is a final reality in that God in Christ enters this plane of reality, and the universally shared failure addressed by the incarnation is corrected or being made right on this plane of reality. This is not to exclude mystery, but we can describe how the mystery of Christ takes hold in life, in love, in virtue, and in wisdom. We can, as with the historical person of Christ, experience and describe what it means for divinity and humanity to be joined in one person. This is the profound truth of Christ that exceeds every other truth. There is no logic or reason that can begin to approach this truth – it is a truth of a different order.

A practical way in which the singularity of Christ shows itself is that the Christian faith provides a diagnosis and solution to the human predicament that is unique, especially as it involves the incarnation. Even before consideration of the incarnation, a distinguishing mark of the Judeo/Christian faith is the seriousness of embodiment and death. This is one of the things that ties Judaism and Christianity together – the reality of history and embodiment. The death and resurrection of Christ addresses the human predicament, not by introducing another reality but by resolving the problem of death through resurrection. This contrasts with most every other religion, (many of which deny death by one means or another). Either there is innate immortality of the soul (downplaying embodiment), or material reality is unreal (as in Hinduism it is maya), or people do not stop living at death but survive as disembodied spirits or souls (as in animistic religion and ancestor worship). The problem of death is not to be solved on another plane of reality (or through death denial) but through incarnation, death, and resurrection.

The Subject of the Lie  

The resolution to the problem of death is aimed at formation of a new Subject. Theology and psychology merge in the description of a peculiar form of the human Subject which exists by virtue of a primordial disturbance – the Subject of the lie. Sin creates a wound or cut or obstacle in nature which constitutes one form of human subjectivity. Into the realm of immediate sense experience and “natural” animal copulating, a gap or obstacle has been introduced which constitutes the Subject. Sin, in this understanding, is not something which Adam or anyone “falls into,” as if they were fully functioning Subjects prior to the event; rather in the deception described in Scripture and psychoanalysis, sin is the passage into human subjectivity (the Subject that is self-constituting).

In brief, Jacques Lacan takes up the Freudian death drive and argues the human Subject arises around pure negation or absence, such that evil, death and absence are originary. Slavoj Žižek extends this, through Friedrich Schelling, to demonstrate how God and all things arise from an originary evil (Immanuel Kant’s “radical evil”). Surprisingly, Augustine, who also develops the notion of evil as privation, points to radical evil at the heart of the human Subject.

Augustine depicts an ineffable absence within himself. His depiction of stealing pears is clearly modeled after the Genesis story of the fall, as he indicates: “How like that servant of yours who fled from his Lord and hid in the shadows!”[2] As Pantanteleimon Manoussakis indicates, “Contrary to Greek ethics, evil for Augustine is not a mistaken choice, vice is not ignorance, and sin is not a category of epistemology that could be regulated and rectified by degrees of knowledge.” Augustine does not reference an outer temptation or anything on the order of the serpent. He is fully aware that his action was evil. “In fact he goes a step further – and this adds a whole new dimension on the problem of evil – for his theft lacked any reasonable motive; his transgression was “for no reason … there was no motive for my malice except malice.”[3]

Augustine’s description of evil goes against the Aristotelian notion that every human action is aimed at some good. “Not only there was [sic] no good that motivated Augustine’s action in the garden of Thagaste, but not even what Aristotle would call the apparent good: ‘No, I mean more: my theft lacked even the sham, shadowy beauty with which even vice allures us.’”[4] Evil is not accounted for, but is its own cause. It is the groundless ground. It has no explanation and is not intelligible and to imagine otherwise would, in Augustine’s estimate, amount to a defense of the necessity of evil.

Ontotheology, propositionalism, Platonism, foundationalism, or the fallen Subject, are made of the same stuff as Augustine’s thieving Subject. To imagine that Christ can be set on another foundation is to assign ontological priority to this nonentity.

Christ the Foundation and Wisdom of God: Experiencing God

This then sends us back to the Bible and patristic sources, in order to describe the peculiar logic and experience found in Christ. According to Maximus the Confessor, Christ is not a truth among other trues but is the foundation of truth:

For the Word, who created all things, and who is in all things according to the relation of present to the future, is comprehended both in type and in truth, in which He is present both in being and manifestation, and yet He is manifested in absolutely nothing, for inasmuch as He transcends the present and the future, He transcends both type and truth, for He contains nothing that might be considered contrary to Him. But truth has a contrary: falsehood. Therefore, the Word in whom the universe is gathered transcends the truth, and also, insofar as He is man and God, He truly transcends all humanity and divinity.[5]

The Word has his own “being” and “manifestation.” There is no natural logic or philosophical logic or natural reason which can comprehend the fact of the God/Man. This is not a truth established over and against falsehood, as there is no “contrary” dialectic which establishes this truth. This is a logic all its own and an experience of a different order. He is his own manifestation in the life of the believer. He “transcends” the truth and all humanity and divinity and all conceptions of the same. The person and work of Christ is its own point of departure. No other logic or reality mediates Christ, as he constitutes a logic and reality, and he alone mediates himself. But inasmuch as we become Christ, we too enter in to this reality which has no genealogy, no precedent, no explanation, other than Him.

Maximus illustrates the point with the example of Melchizedek:

He alone in this respect is mentioned by Scripture, probably because he was the first who through virtue passed beyond both matter and form (which may be understood as his being without father or mother or genealogy), and by knowledge he surpassed all things subject to time and the age, things whose temporal existence began with their creation (for creation did not deny them their being in time), without stumbling over them in his mind as he followed his divine course, which is perhaps what having neither beginning of days nor end of life means. And so transcendentally, secretly, silently and, to put it briefly, in a manner beyond knowledge, following the total negation of all beings from thought, he entered into God Himself, and was wholly transformed, receiving all the qualities of God, which we may take as the meaning of being likened to the Son of God he remains a priest forever. For every saint who has made exemplary progress in beauty is thereby said to be a type of God the giver. Consistent with this principle, the great Melchizedek, having been imbued with divine virtue, was deemed worthy to become an image of Christ God and His unutterable mysteries, for in Him all the saints converge as to an archetype, to the very cause of the manifestation of the Beautiful that is realized in each of them, and this is especially true of this saint, since he bears within himself more prefigurations of Christ than all the rest.”[6]  

Melchizedek, like Christ, cannot be reduced to matter or form or genealogy. He cannot be reduced to a particular age and time, as he is beyond this form of material creation and has been taken up into God himself. He has been “transformed” – receiving “all the qualities of God” and being made in the likeness of Christ. But what is true of Christ and Melchizedek is true of every saint as the Beauty of Christ is “realized in each of them.” The experience of Melchizedek is open and available to all imitators of Christ.

Maximus completes the thought with a final appeal to Hebrews and the depiction of the singular reality establishing a different order of Subject:

If, in addition to these things, he should also deny himself, having lost his life, according to the divine voice, which says: He who loses his own life for my sake, will find it— that is, whoever casts aside this present life and its desires for the sake of the better life—will acquire the living and active, and absolutely unique Word of God, who through virtue and knowledge penetrates to the division between soul and spirit, so that absolutely no part of his existence will remain without a share in His presence, and thus he becomes without beginning or end, no longer bearing within himself the movement of life subject to time, which has a beginning and an end, and which is agitated by many passions, but possesses only the divine and eternal life of the Word dwelling within him, which is in no way bounded by death.”[7]

The life and Subject that would find itself, ground itself, father itself, or constitute its own presence, is cast aside for a different order of reality and experience. The Word of God vivifies and creates a new Subject, who through putting on virtue and knowledge enters a different order of existence in and through “His presence.” So the follower of Christ, like Christ, is no longer a creature of a particular family and genealogy, and is no longer a Subject of time but puts on the full likeness of Christ as he possesses “divine and eternal life” and “is in no way bounded by death.”  

Jesus Christ is an economy and a reality, and the only access to this economy and reality is through Him. Putting on Christ is to put on the wisdom and virtue of God. The wisdom of Christ is Christ. The virtue of Christ is Christ. The love of Christ is Christ. The hypostatic joining of deity and humanity in Christ is repeated in the saint who experiences immediate union with God in Christ, not through an ecstatic departure but through a union of the human with the divine. The created nature is brought to its full limit and potential and is thus preserved through the Word.  

In summary: the divine and human brought together in the person of Jesus Christ is the mystery that is repeated in the salvation Christ brings. Christians comprehend this salvation – that is, it exists on a historical and earthly plane of reality – we see the God-Man Jesus Christ acting in history, defeating sin death and evil (the experience of nothing) and so too the experience of salvation can be described in terms of human transformation and experience.


[1] Maximus the Confessor, The Ambigua, Volume 1, trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 7.38.

[2] James J. O’Donnell, Augustine Confessions, vol. II (Oxford, 2012), 126-7. Cited in Pantanteleimon Manoussakis, “St. Augustine and St. Maximus the Confessor between the Beginning and the End” (Peeters Publishers, Studia Patristica, 2016) 2. Published in Academia edu – https://www.academia.edu/28215430/St_Augustine_and_St_Maximus_the_Confessor_between_the_Beginning_and_the_End

[3] Ibid, Manoussakis. The Augustine quote is from Confessions, II 4.9.

[4] Manoussakis, 3, Citing Augustine’s Confessions, II 6.12.

[5] Maximus the Confessor, The Ambigua, Volume 2, trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 37.8.

[6] Ambigua, 10.45

[7] Ambigua, 10.48.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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