Gregory of Nyssa: The Trinitarian Economy of Salvation in Baptism

According to the Nicene Creed, as expanded upon by Gregory of Nyssa, the economy of salvation, as set forth by Christ in the baptismal formula (Matt. 28:19), is Trinitarian as God is Trinity and salvation is entry into the life of the Trinity. God’s abiding presence in Christ through the gift of the Spirit in baptism, shapes – informs – is the substance of, human transformation. This makes orthodox belief a direct correlate of salvation, and it also identifies the failure of belief connected with particular failures of salvation. “Therefore, since the power that gives life to those who are reborn from death to eternal life comes from the Holy Trinity upon those who are deemed worthy of the grace through faith, and likewise the grace is imperfect if any of the names of the Holy Trinity are omitted in saving baptism (cf. Acts 19.2–3)”[1] Just as salvation consists of a certain dynamism of the Trinity, so too heresy and sin consist of a dynamism of ignorance, self-love, and darkness in the absence of life coming from the Father by the Son and Spirit. For example, Gregory argues that Macedonian subordinationism will result in a deformed faith lacking in a true formation of piety. In turn, a failure of belief surrounding the Holy Spirit is the equivalent, according to Gregory, to a still born baby; “not a living human being” but “bones in the womb of a pregnant woman.”[2] If any person of the Trinity is not recognized, as in the baptismal formula, a failure of life results: “the mystery of rebirth is neither perfected without the Father by the Son and the Spirit alone, nor does the perfection of life come through the Father and the Spirit in baptism if the Son is passed over in silence, nor is the grace of the Resurrection perfected by the Father and the Son if the Spirit is omitted.[3]

In the Nicene Creed (325 A.D., revised in 381) the essentials of belief about the Father as Creator, the Son as Savior, and the Spirit as the giver of Life, are encapsulated in Christian belief about baptism, and may have been based on a baptismal creed. This is made clear by Gregory, who was involved in the revision of the original creed, and of whom it might be said, his theology is shaped by the baptismal formula given to the disciples by Jesus.[4] Gregory pictures all of the “Lord’s doctrine” of the gospel as summed up in Jesus baptismal formula: “Now the Lord’s doctrine is this: Go, he said, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt 28.19).”[5] This doctrine “is the foundation and root of right and sound faith (Tit 1.13, 2.2), and we do not believe there is anything else surer or more sublime than that tradition.”[6]

In combatting the early heresies of Arianism and Sabellianism, Gregory continually appeals to the understanding conveyed in baptism to sort out both the distinct role of each person of the Trinity, and their necessary contribution to the singular life of salvation thus conveyed. A baptism or a faith that is not fully Trinitarian cannot be said to be saving, as it is the Father, Son and Spirit who perfect the giving of life. The life conveyed in Baptism is Trinitarian in its origins and reception: “Thus when we heard ‘the Father’ we have heard the cause of all; when we learnt of ‘the Son’ we were taught the power shining forth from the first cause for the upholding of all things (cf. Heb 1.3); when we acknowledged ‘the Spirit’, we understood the power that perfects all things brought into being through creation by the Father through the Son.”[7] This understanding unfolds from the beginning of the letter, where Gregory once again quotes the baptismal formula.

As he succinctly spells it out, “because the life which comes to us through faith in the Holy Trinity is one, taking its source in the God of all, issuing through the Son, and effected in the Holy Spirit.”[8] The life of the Trinity is singular, and a mystery, but it is this singular mystery which, as in the image of water gushes from the Father in the life-giving bath in the Spirit through the entry into the death and resurrection of the Son. Baptism is the basis for receiving salvation and correctly apprehending the nature of the Trinity: “For this reason we place all our hope and the assurance of the salvation of our souls in the three hypostases acknowledged by these names, and we believe in the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1.3) who is the fountain of life (cf. Ps 35.10), and in the only-begotten Son of the Father ( Jn 3.14, 18) who is the Author of life, as the Apostle says (Acts 3.15), and in the Holy Spirit of God, concerning whom the Lord said, it is the Spirit who gives life ( Jn 6.40).”[9]

Gregory, deploying baptism and the baptismal formula, argues against the Macedonians who would make the Son and Spirit servile. “This bears the stamp of grossest impiety—to conceive of some weakness or powerlessness, whether in smaller or greater degree, concerning the only-begotten God (Jn 1.18) and concerning the Spirit of God. For the word of the truth hands it down that both the Son and the Spirit are perfect in power and goodness and incorruptibility and in all the sublime conceptions.”[10] As he sums up in the next paragraph:

If we piously confess the perfection of all good in each of the persons in the Holy Trinity in whom we believe, we cannot at the same time say that it is perfect and again call it imperfect by introducing scales of comparison. For to say that there is a lesser with regard to the measure of power or goodness is nothing else than to affirm that in this respect it is imperfect. Therefore if the Son is perfect and the Spirit is also perfect, reason does not conceive a perfect ‘less perfect’ or ‘more perfect’ than the perfect.[11]

Using the same formula, Gregory counters the charge of Sabellianism aimed at himself. He argues that there are three distinct and unconfused persons but One life which comes by the Three. While there is only ‘one life’ that comes to the believer through the three persons, its transmission follows the differentiated order of names that were handed to the disciples by Jesus (cf. Matt. 28:19-20).  “For it is not possible that the Father be called his own Father, for the title is not validly transferred from his own Son to the Father, or to suppose that the Spirit is not one of those named so that by addressing the Spirit the hearer is led to the thought of both Father and Son. The hypostasis individually and exclusively signified by each of the names corresponds to the titles accorded them.”[12] While the Three are One in the Life they share, they are distinct and unconfused in their hypostasis or personhood. The Father is the “cause of all” while the Son “upholds all things” and the Spirit “perfects all things.”[13]

Gregory’s conclusion: the sound faith is transmitted in baptism and the baptismal formula handed down by Christ. “It has no need of subtle interpretation to assist its truth, since it is able to be grasped and understood in itself from the primary tradition. We received it from the Lord’s own voice when he imparted the mystery of salvation in the washing of regeneration (Tit 3.5). Go, he said, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you (Mt 28.18–20).”[14] Salvation and Trinitarian orthodoxy are established together, as Jesus’ doctrine of salvation is established in baptism.

[1] Gregory, “Letter to those who discredit his orthodoxy, requested by those in Sebasteia,” (hereafter, To those in Sebastia), Anna M. Silvas, Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters: Introduction, Translation and Commentary, Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 83. Leiden: Brill, 2007, 138.

[2] Alexander L. Abecina, Christ, the Spirit and Human Transformation in Gregory of Nyssa’s In Canticum Canticorum (The University of Cambridge, PhD Dissertation, 2021), 71. The reference is to Gregory’s commentary on Ecclesiastes, 11:5.

[3] Silvas, Ibid.

[4] This is the argument of Abecina, Ibid.

[5] Silvas, Ibid.

[6] Silvas, Ibid.

[7] To Heracleianus, Silvas, 192.

[8] To those in Sebastia, Silvas, 138.

[9] Ibid, 138-139.

[10] To Heracleianus, Silvas, 195.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. 192.

[13] Ibid.

[14]  Ibid. 191.

My Eclipse: Searching for Mystery in Southern Illinois

The corporate nature of the sun disappearing was obvious as this part of the country moved into the path of totality. Country roads and small towns that may normally see a few dozen vehicles a day were inundated by hundreds of thousands lined up to witness the blotting out of our source of life. I had not thought finding a parking space and a good view of an object 100 times the diameter of the earth should be a problem, and as it turned out front row seats were available to all.

Faith packed some peanut butter and crackers, our solar eclipse glasses, and we made our way to Benton, Illinois along clogged freeway arteries out of St. Louis. Thousands stopped in parking areas along the freeway, in McDonalds and Walmart parking lots and traffic stopped on I64, so our GPS sent us into the backroads of Southern Illinois.

We chose Benton, as it was far enough away from the main attraction in Carbondale, but even in quiet Benton someone was charging $25 for parking. We found a small park just off the center of town, where the locals had gathered. At least they seemed local, as a mother was cursing throughout the eclipse that her children should stop looking at the sun. Eclipse glasses had been handed out at many businesses and the news of the eclipse had dominated the airways, but the small family may have not gotten word. Imagine the children’s surprise and disappointment – the day the sun disappears, they showed up at the wrong park, on the wrong part of the earth, and they could not look. This odd alignment, along with a father and son passing a football in front of us, provided the background for the celestial event.

Math, planetary motion, or the basics of astronomy were never my strong suit, so the fact that the moon perfectly blocked out the sun, though not news to me, still was striking. Even the math is an odd alignment: the sun is about 400 times larger than the moon but also about 400 times further away. Thus, the lens cap of the moon fits perfectly over the sphere of the sun. Maybe this is why the event has struck fear and awe in nearly every people group and religion on record.

In Japan, I visited the cave, that gave inspiration to much of Japanese State religion, probably due to an eclipse. The sun, Amaterasu, disappeared into a cave in Southern Japan, in what I presume is one of the earliest stories explaining total eclipse. The cave is along the coast in Miyazaki, and is called “Heavenly Cave” due to the sun goddesses visit, which sent the land into darkness. Apparently, there was a family spat, when her younger brother, and all-around trouble maker, Susano-no-Mikoto, made her angry. First, he destroyed Amaterasu’s rice fields her sacred hall, then he tossed a skinned horse into her sacred weaving hall. One of Amaterasu’s weavers saw the horse and died of shock, causing Amaterasu terrible grief. Infuriated, she hid herself in the cave, along the coast.

When she disappeared, the gods held a general conference, with eight million gathering in a nearby cave. They discussed how to lure her out and attempted a series of tricks. First, they gathered up roosters and set them to crowing, tricking the sun into thinking the world was moving on without her. Then, they placed a large, holy sakaki tree outside the cave, and decorated it with strings of sacred jewels, fine clothes, and an elegant mirror forged from materials of the heavenly mine. Then, the kami deity, Ame no Koyane no Mikoto recited a prayer, and the Ame no Uzume no Mikoto began to perform a dance. This dance got the assembly of gods to laughing. Amaterasu grew perplexed by the party noise and cracked open the stone door of the cave to peek out. She asked, “Why are you all dancing and laughing?” To this, the dancing deity Ame no Uzume answered, “We are happy, for there is one more glorious than you out here among us.” This trick worked. Curious, Amaterasu opened the stone door wider to catch a glimpse of the glorious god and saw her own reflection in the mirror. Tajikarao no Mikoto grabbed hold of the cave door and flung it away. Thus, Amaterasu was lured out from hiding and light was restored to the world.[1] Though quite roomy, from my mortal perspective, I’m not sure what caused her to pick this particular cave, though the Southern tip of coastal Japan is quite beautiful.

Similar stories occur around the world, with the Hindu Serpent God attempting to eat the sun. The Greeks believed the gods were angry and the Sun deity was abandoning the earth, giving us the word eclipse. In many myths such as the Egyptian, Chinese and Inca, the sun is attacked by monsters and sun worshippers attempt various tricks to scare them away. Several cultures think the eclipse dangerous for unprotected pregnant women. The Navajo nation goes on full lock down and prayer during an eclipse. As David Begay, a Navajo astronomer explains, “During the eclipse, we must be in full prayer and reverence. Prayers must be focused on the concept of the sun or moon going through an ending, and we are to pray about the ending of bad or evil, or the ending of phases of life. In addition, our prayers must be focused on the birth and renewal that will arrive when the eclipse ends.”[2] Many, like the Navajo, connect eclipses to both death and birth, with the sun and moon performing a mating ritual, after which creation is renewed.

This most religious of events around the world, did not raise issues of mortality or the sacred in Benton central park. At least, so far as I could tell, from the cursing mother and the football game, the little group surrounding us were not awestruck with reverence. Faith and I waited until the universe returned to normal, and the sun fully escaped the moon’s embrace, until we were alone in the parking lot watching the full reappearance of the sun.

The world continued to turn on its proper axis and we joined the hundreds of thousands attempting to escape rural Illinois. When I mentioned to a friend that the eclipse made me think of the tenuous nature of the human circumstance, he questioned whether it required an eclipse to make that obvious.

[1] According to the Miyazaki Travel Guide,hid%20herself%20in%20a%20cave.

[2] Phys Org, April 8th 2024.,red%20ribbon%20or%20anything%20red.

Maximus the Confessor and Synthesis or Unity Without Confusion

THEREFORE, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man . . . recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ (excerpt from The Chalcedon Formula, AD 451).

The controversies surrounding the person of Christ, are not so much resolved at Chalcedon, as the parameters of what can and cannot be said are set. The heresies of Arianism (claiming Christ is not divine) and Sabellianism (claiming the Father, Son and Spirit are representative modes or aspects of the singular Godhead), form the poles Chalcedon is aimed at avoiding. It is not only Christology though, which is at stake, as every part of Christian dogma entails navigating between absolute and irresolvable difference or a unity which erases all difference. Is the Godhead one or three, is Christ God or human and in what measure, is humanity primarily soul or body, is the Church a human or divine body, is the Bible the very Word of God or is this the role of Christ, is the universe constituted a realm separate from God (as pure nature) or is nature understood only with reference to divine grace? The differences and the problem of unifying difference could be endlessly multiplied to include every level of reality (the gap between the conscious and unconscious, between the individual and the social, between male and female, the wave-particle duality of quantum physics, etc.). Who are we, who is God, and what is the nature of reality, are ultimately at stake in our understanding of unity and difference. Too much focus on difference or on sameness will have the same violent result of obliterating the constitutive parts of the whole. This was not simply the problem of Kant and Hegel; the problem of the “One and the many” (is reality a plurality or a unity, is God One and yet immanent in the universe) is the oldest of philosophical questions, but it pertains in the most personal manner. Who am I in relation to the neighbor is a singular question. Relationship to the neighbor, to God, to the world, is part of the issue of the I. So, what is at stake at Chalcedon and in Christianity in general, is the unique resolution to dualism and division, and the claim is that in Christ the most fundamental of problems is resolved. Thus, in the Christological and Trinitarian controversies the arcane attention to semantics, to processions, to nuance, may occasionally lose sight of the goal, but the goal of maintaining difference in unity is of supreme importance.

Unity, synthesis and love require difference, distinction, and plurality, and there is the obvious and overwhelming choice of disunity, violence, false synthesis, and hatred. Body/soul, male/female, heaven/earth, divine/human can fall short of unity in the fleshly, the patriarchal, the earthly, or the human. On the other hand, there is no fulness of personhood without the difference synthesized in an abiding unity. There is no pure body, pure soul, pure heaven or pure earth, and there is no humanity apart from divinity. The whole is not reducible to its parts. There is no soulless or bodiless human, no human devoid of the other or devoid of God, and no unity or love apart from difference. This is what is at stake in the Christological and Trinitarian controversies.

The debate pertains directly to the most immanent and practical. The Christian understanding of the Holy Trinity and the person of Christ is the archetype and ground for realizing and understanding the synthesis between interior subjectivity and exterior otherness (who am I in relation to God, the neighbor, and the universe), and the means of realizing their co-inherence (or of arriving at love). There is no pure inward or outward, self and other, even within the Godhead. The union without confusion and separation is definitive of divine and human. The true love, making up the essence of the divine is also what it means to be fully human, but this divine essence is not simply an idea but a participatory reality. Thus synthesis, perichoresis, and unity, are continually interpenetrating because they are without confusion and separation. This is the power of God and the power of love definitive of love of God and love of neighbor, and it is Maximus the Confessor who first begins to articulate the positive fullness of the Chalcedonian formula.

Maximus takes the largely negative statement of Chalcedon and extrapolates to a series of revolutionary, but seemingly, inevitable conclusions. He spells out in a concrete fashion how it is that Christ reconciles all things in himself bringing together the created and divine:

He, one and the same, remained unchanged, undivided and unconfused in the permanence of the parts of which he was constituted, so that he might mediate according to the hypostasis between the parts of which he was composed, closing in himself the distance between the extremities, making peace and reconciling, through the Spirit, the human nature with the God and Father, as he in truth was God by essence and as in truth he became man by nature in the Dispensation, neither being divided because of the natural difference of his parts, nor confused because of their hypostatic unity.[1]

What Christ has done in himself; he has done for all of creation. “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things.”[2] The incarnation is the way in which God is drawing all things to himself, completing and fulfilling the work of creation. “This is the great and hidden mystery. This is the blessed end for which all things were brought into existence. This is the divine purpose conceived before the beginning of beings, and in defining it we would say that this mystery is the preconceived goal for the sake of which everything exists, but which itself exists on account of nothing, and it was with a view to this end that God created the essences of beings.”[3] In short, “creation is incarnation.”

In the incarnation the absolute differences between God and man (those differences some forms of Christianity picture as unbridgeable) are brought together in the God/man Jesus Christ, and this identity between Creator and creation is complete. That is, according to Maximus, the Christian becomes Christ: “they will be spiritually vivified by their union with the archetype of these true things, and so become living images of Christ, or rather become one with Him through grace (rather than being a mere simulacrum), or even, perhaps, become the Lord Himself, if such an idea is not too onerous for some to bear.”[4] What Christ is by nature the disciple attains by grace, coming to reflect the “fulness of His divine characteristics.”

Having been wholly united with the whole Word, within the limits of what their own inherent natural potency allows, as much as may be, they were imbued with His own qualities, so that, like the clearest of mirrors, they are now visible only as reflections of the undiminished form of God the Word, who gazes out from within them, for they possess the fullness of His divine characteristics, yet none of the original attributes that naturally define human beings have been lost, for all things have simply yielded to what is better, like air—which in itself is not luminous—completely mixed with light.[5]

This is not the erasure or destruction of the individual, but the opposite, the coming to the full powers of self-determination.[6] It is not that the individual is absorbed into the One and so lose themselves, but in reflecting the Word the individual becomes fully who they are. One’s natural inclinations are fulfilled through the work of Christ, as “there is only one sole energy, that of God and of those worthy of God, or rather of God alone, who in a manner befitting His goodness wholly interpenetrates all who are worthy.”[7] This is accomplished through the incarnate body of Christ, which accounts not only for the deification of the Christian but is the means for cosmic deification: “The ‘body of Christ is either the soul, or its powers, or senses, or the body of each human being, or the members of the body, or the commandments, or the virtues, or the inner principles of created beings, or, to put it simply and more truthfully, each and all of these things, both individually and collectively, are the body of Christ.”[8]

For Maximus, Christ resolves the problem of the One and the many, in that God is One and is simultaneously present in the universe creating and upholding all things, as Paul says (Col. 1:15-17; or Heb. 1:3), through his powerful Word. There is the singular Word or Logos, but this Word penetrates all things in what Maximus calls logoi. The logoi are like the musical notes making up a symphony or the single letters making up words and the words making up a book, in which the letters and words take on there meaning in the whole. All things have their being through the differentiation of the logoi, which flow from and are harmonized in the Logos. The logoi constitute both the difference and the unity. God’s wisdom and reason is made multiple in the universe through the logoi, or the “natural differences and varieties” so that “the one Logos as many logoi” remain “indivisibly distinguished amid the differences of created things, owing to their specific individuality which remains unconfused both in themselves and with respect to one another” while at the same time “the many logoi are one Logos, seeing that all things are related to Him without being confused with Him, who is the essential and personally distinct Logos of God the Father, the origin and cause of all things, in whom all things were created, in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities: all things were created from Him, through Him, and return unto Him.”[9]

Maximus traces this unifying power of Christ, maintaining distinction without confusion, to every phase of salvation and creation.  Like air “illuminated by light” or “iron suffused by fire,” so too God in Christ is establishing, illuminating, refining, and drawing all things to himself in divine love.  The Logos as the unifying power of letters and words of Scripture, not only gives these words their meaning, but clothes them in his Person. So too the many members of the body of Christ, are like the individual members of the human body, each playing its crucial role in the incarnate body of Christ. The “Church of God is an image of God because it realizes the same union of the faithful which God realizes in the universe. As different as the faithful are by language, places, and customs, they are made one by it through faith.”[10] Maximus allows for myriads of differences among the peoples of the earth, while pointing to their oneness in Christ. Everyone converges with all the rest, with no one “in himself separated from the community.”[11] God brings about the union among different people, the different nature of things “without confusing them but in lessening and bringing together their distinction, as was shown, in a relationship and union with himself as cause, principle, and end.”[12]

God is unifying and synthesizing all things, maintaining difference without confusion, through the divinizing work of the God/man. “What could be more desirable to those who are worthy of it than divinization? For through it God is united with those who have become Gods, and by His goodness makes all things His own.”[13] He is our beginning and end marking our telos and power. “For from God come both our general power of motion (for He is our beginning), and the particular way that we move toward Him (for He is our end).”[14] The multiplicity of differences are synthesized in the unifying perichoresis of God made man.

[1] Maximus, Epistulae (1-45), PG 91,361-650, Cited in Mika Kalevi Törönen (2002) Union and distinction in the thought of St Maximus The Confessor, Durham theses, Durham University. 32.  Available at Durham E-Theses Online:

[2] Maximus, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 7.22.

[3] On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios, 60.3.

[4] Ambigua 21.15.

[5] Ambigua 10.41.

[6] Ambigua 7.12.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ambigua 54.2.

[9] Ambigua 7.15

[10] Mystagogia, Soteropoulos 1993′ [= PG 91,657-717] 154: 13-154: 20 [= PG 91,66813C] cited in Törönen, 164.

[11] Myst. 1, Soteropoulos, 152: 19-26 [= PG 91,665D-668A]; Acts 4: 32, cited in Törönen, 165.

[12] Myst. 1, Soteropoulos, 154: 13-154: 20 [= PG 91,66813C]] cited in Törönen, 164.

[13] Ambigua 7.27.

[14] Ambigua 7.10

The Discarding and Recovery of Resurrection

For some years I taught at an institution where penal substitution was the pervasive understanding, and at the same time I sat on the board of a campus ministry of a local university where the campus minister (who had no formal training) had been mentored by both a graduate of this institution (the former campus minister) and a professor (at the university) from out of the liberal wing of the Disciples of Christ. When it came out that he had no firm grasp on the necessity of the bodily resurrection, and he was teaching as much, I presumed some line had been crossed. On a board made up of ministers, elders, and business leaders, I found myself trying to convince them that the bodily resurrection of Christ was a fundamental part of the Christian faith. While many of the more conservative might have normally wanted to affirm the resurrection, the focus on the spirituality of the event, leaving aside the physicality, seemed to satisfy. What I discovered is that in both fundamentalism and theological liberalism, bodily resurrection is not a bedrock necessity. As the young campus minister put it, finding the body of Jesus would not change his faith. The Platonism of his Disciples of Christ’ indoctrination (an outright denial of the possibility or necessity of resurrection) was easily understandable, but the fact that there was, from the other side, no objection or dissonance caught me by surprise. Should it all be chalked up to a harmless Platonism, or is this on the order of a counter-Christianity which John identifies with the anti-Christ?

If our destiny is a timeless, bodiless, nonmaterial eternity, then any focus on the bodily and material must be a sign at best and a distraction at worst. As the proponents of a resurrectionless or semi-resurrectionless Christianity might argue: “Isn’t the resurrection simply an exclamation mark to Jesus’ saving us from hell and taking us to heaven? So, resurrection illustrates the theological point, that Jesus sacrifice on the cross has been accepted by God, our sins are now paid for due to Jesus bearing the penalty, and the resurrection is the stamp of approval on the payment of debt. It points to Jesus’ authority and power, verifies his message, inaugurates his departure, but is not itself central or integral to the faith. It is a sign of his authoritative preaching, but is not itself part of that revelation. It does not need to be a separate event from the ascension, when Jesus “sheds his body” and is seated in his former place of disembodied glory. Afterall, isn’t the incarnation only a brief episode in the life of Jesus, so why make such a fuss over that even briefer moment between death and disembodied bliss? Afterall, the soul is innately immortal, and resurrection can at best be a pointer to this reality, expressed in a momentary bodily sign. I assume something like this must have been the thought process.

This then can easily be blended with seventeenth-century rationalism and a post-Enlightenment skepticism (regarding miracles), limiting the resurrection to an a-historical spiritual event in the minds of the disciples. In our enlightened age we now understand that resurrection is scientifically impossible, though the primitives who wrote the New Testament may have been easily swayed. Perhaps, like the two on the Road to Emmaus, someone felt a burning in their heart, and this then turned into mass delusion, and it was passed along that some had seen a vision of the resurrected Jesus. We might say, Jesus was raised in their heart, but this should not be taken as a literal, historical event. Resurrection is the spiritual exaltation of Jesus, and all can agree on this point, and there need be no concern about literal bodies and flesh and blood survival of death.

I discovered it is nearly impossible to make the case for bodily resurrection as central among those focused on life after death, going to heaven, and inward spiritual piety. Where death is made a retributive payment for sin, a necessity required by God, and is primarily a fleshly predicament resolved through shedding the body, the resurrection is nothing more than an addendum or a fable. I made the mistake of trying to explain higher criticism, and the other influences which had gripped our campus minister, through his professor educated in 19th century rationalism. But the real problem is not so much rationalism, an attack on miracles, higher criticism, or the requirement of more proofs for the resurrection. The problem is the gospel has gone missing. Denial of the resurrection is a denial of the Christian faith. The resolution is the gospel, and a (re)presentation of salvation as presented in the New Testament in which resurrection is the main event and central to faith.

Step one is understanding death is at the center of the human problem. Where death is understood to be the final enemy, the root cause of sin, an evil unleashed on all of creation, the ruling orientation of this world, the power exercised by the principalities and powers, the deception by which Satan rules (that death is life-giving), the marring of the human image, the futility giving rise to human suffering, and the center of the human logos, then it can be understood that the resurrection of Christ defeats this final enemy, overcomes the rule of sin, gives hope that all of creation will be unleashed from bondage, defeats Satan by exposing the lie of sin, restores the human image to its divine purpose, relativizes human suffering in light of glory, and offers a different Logic or alternative Logos to human rationalism. Resurrection saves because death is at the center of all that destroys.

The biblical portrayal, that the reign of death is the cause of sin, has been rendered inaccessible, in part, by the presumption of Augustinian original sin (a mysterious and inherited guilt). Where this presumption can be set aside, it is clear that death and not sin is pictured as primary: it is death that is the “last enemy” (1 Cor 15:24–25); death and Hades (the place of the dead) are the last thing to be thrown into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:14); Paul’s primary thing from which he needs rescue is “this body that is subject to death” (Rom. 7:24); sin is the sting or result of death and not the other way round (that is death is not the sting of sin in I Cor. 15:56); the problem is not that sin reigns and then comes death but death accounts for the spread of sin because “death spread to all men” (Rom. 5:12), “death reigned” (v. 14), “the many died” (v. 15), “death reigned through the one” (v. 17), “as sin reigned in death” (v. 21). As Paul concludes in 5:21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way round. In Paul’s explanation in Romans 5, it is not sin that is inherited from Adam but it is death which Adam passed on and which gave rise to sin.

Hebrews pictures the devil enslaving humanity as he wields fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15) and Paul describes this same reign of fear and enslavement (Rom. 8:15). Hebrews explains, the death of Jesus was intended to “destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil.” John puts it succinctly, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (I John 3:8). At the opening of Revelation Jesus holds “the keys of death and Hades” (Rev. 1:18). Presumably the one who holds the keys to death has taken control of what was formerly under Satan’s power. He has the power to unlock the chains which bound human kind. Resurrection is a direct defeat of sin and death.

Step two is to understand that salvation means the salvation of all things. Salvation is cosmic, corporate, and inclusive of the entire created order. There is a continuity between the death and bodily resurrection of Christ, because what death would destroy is God’s good creation, and the defeat of death is not simply the release of souls but the beginning of recreation, a new heaven and earth. God pronounces his creation good, and its goodness is restored and fulfilled in the work of Christ. His plan was not to abandon the world but to save the world. He loves the world and gave his son that it might be saved (John 3:16). “For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:19–21).

The mission of Christ, reduced to payment for sin, misses embodied resurrection life with God as the principle and purpose behind creation. It misses the fact that creation’s purpose is found in Jesus Christ, that redemption is cosmic completion, and that the Church’s part in a continued incarnation is a fulfillment of creation. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Romans 11:35). We know this due to the incarnate Christ who “is the summing up of all things . . . things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Ephesians 1:10). As Colossians states, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. . .. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col. 1:15, 20). Colossians 1:15-20 describes the reconciliation of all things. Nothing is discarded or abandoned, all people and all things are included in the new creation inaugurated on Easter morning.

Step three is to understand that resurrection defeats the sinful orientation to death, now. Resurrection life is inaugurated on Easter as all can live in the hope that life now reigns in place of death and they can begin to live that way. “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him” (I Jn. 4:9). The fear, that would obstruct love is cured through the love of Christ: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear” (I Jn. 4:18). On the other hand, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death” (I Jn. 3:14). John explains: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (I Jn. 3:15-16). Fear of death leaves one under the control of death and incapacitates love and gives rise to violence. Resurrection life defeats this fear controlled orientation.

Fear, death, hatred, and violence, pose the orientation to death, and life, love, abiding in Christ, and laying down life for others constitutes the resurrection option. Paul’s depiction of the power of God, available now, is found in Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and reign over the powers which is a singular movement: “what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion (Eph 1:19–21).

Step four is to understand that resurrection inaugurates a new sort of kingdom, a new sort of human cooperation, a new society, in which self-giving love is afforded, as the zero-sum game of the reign of death is defeated. The captivating power, the darkening power, the death dealing power, is not the power of God but the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers (the cosmocrats), the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12). The cosmic struggle is not removed from the historical, political, and earthly, and so too, the Christian engages these spiritual forces through their earthly manifestations. Ideologies and institutions manifesting the various forms of individual and corporate violence and oppression (e.g., nationalism, fascism, racism, sexism, legalism) constitute the cosmos of darkness. There is no mystery as to the power of evil (this power of death and violence is the coin of the realm of the kingdoms of darkness) undone by the gospel of peace, truth, and righteousness instituted in the kingdom of resurrected life. Salvation is not simply deliverance from sin but fulfillment of who God is in Christ for creation. Where Jesus is reduced to helping get rid of sin, what gets lost are the purposes for all of creation fulfilled in Christ but also in the Church as a continuation of incarnation.

As I began to write this, I realized that the steps necessary for realizing the centrality of the resurrection could be nearly endlessly multiplied to include the apocalyptic breaking in of life in death, the centrality of revelation, the second coming of Christ, the recognition of a future universal resurrection, etc.. But one essential understanding, is the key role resurrection plays in recognizing the work of the Spirit. For Paul, the preaching of Jesus’ resurrection and the inauguration of new creation is tied to the gift of the Spirit.

For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.    However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness.  But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you (Rom. 8:6–11).

Resurrection life in the Spirit enables human righteousness and is at the center of the living hope of the Christian life.

If liberalism, fundamentalism, evangelicalism, or particular theories of the atonement have displaced the bodily resurrection, such that it need not be taught or emphasized, it may be that resurrectionless or semi-resurrectionless “Christians” constitute the largest unreached people group in the world. Proofs of the resurrection, dispelling rationalism, deconstructing theories of the atonement, will not do. They need to hear the fulness of the gospel, as a resurrection centered Christianity has yet to penetrate their religion.

From Žižek to Bulgakov: Dividedness as the Entry Point of Kenotic Love

One of the tragedies of reducing atonement to a legal theory (penal substitution or divine satisfaction), beyond the low or evil view of God and the shallow view of the human plight, is the loss of the gospel diagnosis of the human problem. It was through the work of Friedrich Hegel that an alternative, a personal or psychological theory was posed (preserved, in the West) which bore deep resonance with an Eastern understanding. Thus, it is no surprise that Sergius Bulgakov utilizes Hegel and German idealism in his theology. Slavoj Žižek utilizes Hegel in his psychoanalytic theory and theological understanding, posing a parallel understanding (which might be read as a development of an alternative to Western theories of atonement). Bulgakov and Žižek present parallel notions of the human predicament, both rendering the human problem and its solution in a psychological/theological idiom. Žižek’s atheism is an obvious delimitation in describing a cure, but even so, kenotic love (which in Žižek’s version has no ontological ground, and though acknowledged is anomalous to his system) is definitive of the solution and an indicator of an alternative understanding of the self.

Where the legal idiom is taken as primary, the split or gap or self-antagonism, such as Paul describes in Romans 7, is thought to be inherently pathological in its disjointedness. The split is a sign of sin and guilt, and salvation would amount to closing the wound of self, and achieving an inner wholeness and centeredness. The way toward this wholeness is through being made right with the law, and being integrated or interpolated into its singular voice. God as model of this goal, is singular and undivided, and the presumption is that the human image is self-contained, like God. In this understanding, rather than Trinitarianism and a kenotic understanding of the divine taking precedent, God is primarily unmoved, unchanging, distant and inaccessible.

In contrast, for Žižek the divided self is both the problem and the cure, as there is no escape from the conflict of drives or the antagonism between the registers of the self (symbolic, imaginary, and real). Antinomy is not the problem of reality but its basis. Where Kant exposes the structuring principle of the world in antinomies, Hegel presumes this is not a problem to be solved, but the very nature of reality and this is Žižek’s point of departure. “And does not Hegel, instead of overcoming this crack, radicalize it? Hegel’s reproach to Kant is that he is too gentle with things: he locates antinomies in the limitation of our reason, instead of locating them in things themselves, that is, instead of conceiving reality-in-itself as cracked and antinomic.”[1]

In one of his sustained engagements of the human predicament in light of German idealism, The Parallax View, Žižek describes the gap within thought and being in a series of systems notable for their irresolvable difference.   The gap that exists between the conscious and unconscious is one that repeats itself in a series that Žižek maintains constitutes human reality.  There is the gap between the individual and the social, the ontological gap between the ontic and the transcendental-ontological, there is the wave-particle duality of quantum physics, and the gap between the face and the skull in neurobiology, and the gap which is the real. The perceived gap or difference is constitutive of “reality” and closure of the gap or dissolution of dissonance, the exposure of the primordial lie, would amount to a dissolving of this perceived reality. The goal is not to overcome the gap but to conceive it in its “becoming” and thus manipulate it.[2] So, one should learn to enjoy their symptom rather than cure it, as the symptom is the reality of the Subject. There is a sense in which Bulgakov would concur.

Bulgakov, likewise see antinomies and division as characterizing reality, but he sees this “crack in reality” as indicating the kenotic love of God (kenotic love as an ontology). Both Žižek and Bulgakov are following Hegel in this understanding, but Žižek would ontologize the absence (not love), making nothing or evil generative of all else. Death drive, or evil is subject to manipulation but, inasmuch as it is prime reality, it cannot be completely overcome; nor would one want to overcome it, as this nothingness is the only possible ground for the freedom of the Subject. The absolutely free, autonomous Subject can be preceded by nothing, and this is the Nothing and negation Žižek links to death drive. The Subject arises from and has “life” through this power of absence. In his account of Schelling, Žižek presumes Schelling reads this understanding into God himself: “A whole new universe is disclosed here: the universe of pre-logical drives, the dark ‘ground of Being’ which dwells even in the heart of God as that which is ‘in God more than God himself.’ For the first time in the history of human thought, the origin of Evil is located not in humanity’s Fall from God, but in a split in the heart of God himself.”[3]

Bulgakov also traces the split into God, assigning it to his kenotic love, and also suggests this may entail the rise of evil: “He spares even Satan, the father of lies himself, but he defeats him on his own paths, allowing the chaff to grow together with the wheat until harvest. He ‘permits’ evil in order to protect the very foundation of creation: its freedom and self-determination.”[4] God does not impetuously destroy evil, as the apostles would at Samaria.

The relation of the Creator to creation in ‘synergism’ always remains meek and restrained, the kenosis of God in creation. This kenosis is determined by the union of God’s omniscience and wisdom in relation to the paths of the world, but with the self-limitation of His omnipotence. God waits for creaturely freedom to say: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word’ (Luke 1:38).[5]

To seek to overcome difference, to violently destroy evil, to force the hand of God, is not the solution but the problem.

Both Žižek and Bulgakov read Hegel’s critique of Kant, not as a denial or overcoming of the Kantian antinomies, but pointing toward the rupture within the Absolute itself. Bulgakov’s idea of kenotic love is a reflection of Hegel’s attempt to describe the dynamics of the kenotic Subject, and Bulgakov and Žižek share this meta-psychological idiom in their understanding of the human Subject. According to Bulgakov, “This antinomical task makes the I into a riddle for itself, into an insoluble charade. That which […] appeared […] to be the most reliable and most self-evident […] fulcrum turns out to be situated at the point of an antinomical knife, to be a living paradox, which, obviously, cannot be understood from out of itself.”[6]

Like Žižek, Bulgakov does not presume to resolve the paradox, but affirms paradoxical antinomies as a pointer to a reality beyond the self-enclosed I.

In antinomies there is given experiential, graphic proof of the supra-rational character of being, or, what is the same thing, of the insufficiency of the powers of reason for adequately comprehending it. The presence of antinomies inevitably leads us to the conclusion that the current state of being is transitional, unfinished, and, in this obvious incompleteness, it now reveals openings to different possibilities of consciousness.[7]

Both Bulgakov and Žižek see the attempt to resolve the antinomies or to overcome them, as inherent to the human disease. For Bulgakov, this is the tragedy of philosophy and for Žižek this defines the end point of philosophy reached by Kant: “the original motivation for doing philosophy is a metaphysical one, to provide an explanation of the totality of noumenal reality; as such, this motivation is illusory, it prescribes an impossible task” or it describes the human disease.[8]

As Jack Pappas puts it, for Bulgakov the split within the Absolute is not an indicator of absence, evil or pathology but serves as a sign of the resolution of “the loving self-donation of the Father’s very substance to the Son-Word and the Spirit, a dynamic upsurge of desire whose ens realissimum finds expression in loving relation to others.”[9] The giving of the Father to the Son, and the outpouring of the Son for the world, realizing the kenotic giving of the Spirit, is a Trinitarian movement definitive of God and of the completion of human-kind in the image of God. This is the heart of Bulgakov’s notion of divine Sophia: “Sophia as the substance of divine self-consciousness is itself the eternal reality of the Absolute in its self-revelation, the identification of the differentiated Father, Son, and Spirit in mutual recognition.”[10] As humans enter in to the divine wisdom, like their Savior, kenotic love is realized as the fulness of personhood.

This poses a different understanding of the human predicament as outlined in Romans 7. Dividedness, alienation, disassociation, point to the cure of self-giving love, moving beyond the self and acknowledging the fulness of the self in relation to the Other. Bulgakov offers a counterproposal to Žižek, “one which refuses to identify self-sacrifice (kenotic love) with loss and fragility with negation. Indeed, Bulgakov’s Sophia indicates that the essential fracture which yields differentiation is not merely an open wound concealed by a veneer of hysterical self-deception, but rather a donative self-offer that produces the possibility of relation and expressive re-identification in otherness.”[11] The wound of self is not healed through closure, but is the opening to the Other, the healing of which is in taking up the cross in kenotic love.

(Sign up for the course, The Theology of Maximus the Confessor with Jordan Wood. The course will run from 2024/3/25–2024/5/17 and will meet on Saturdays.)

[1] Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (p. 8). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

[2] Slavoj Žižek, Parallax View (The MIT Press; 2009) 6-7.

[3] Zizek, Less than Nothing, 12.

[4] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (p. 233). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sergii Bulgakov, The Tragedy of Philosophy: Philosophy & Dogma (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2020), 125. Quoted from Jack Louis Pappas, “Sergii Bulgakov’s Fragile Absolute: Kenosis, Difference, and Positive Disassociation” in Building the House of Wisdom: Sergii Bulgakov and Contemporary Theology: New Approaches and Interpretations (Aschendorf

[7] Sergius Bulgakov, The Sophiology of Death: Essays on Eschatology: Personal, Political, Universal (pp. 1-2). Cascade Books. Kindle Edition.

[8] Zizek, Less than Nothing, 10.

[9] Pappas, 120.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Pappas, 121.

Reassessing Hegel in Light of Maximus

My reading of Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel has been through the work of Slavoj Žižek, which obviously fails to grasp the theological centeredness, or even the possibility of the orthodox Christ centeredness, of Hegel’s thought. I realized my short sighted treatment of Hegel when Jordan Wood suggested in conversation (a conversation which will be published on Saturday, 3/16), Hegel is in line with the outworking of the Origenist, Maximian, theological project and is an orthodox Christian. This goes against the overwhelming consensus, and it is no surprise that even those of us who might be inclined to read Hegel in this light, have not done so (due to the consensus).

For thinkers like Derrida, Levinas, Adorno, Deleuze and Bataille, there is the “metaphysical” Hegel who, in Robert Pippin’s phrase, served as these philosophers whipping boy.[1] According to Gavin Hyman, “This was what has become known as the ‘textbook’ or ‘cliché’ Hegel, a caricature our ‘new’ readers (e.g., Rowan Williams) believe to be far removed from what is warranted by Hegel’s own texts.”[2] Far from being a postmodern Hegel, this is the modern, rationalist Hegel. “This is a Hegel too who represents the apogee of modernity’s omniscient aspirations. His all-seeing System, crowned with the concept of Absolute Knowledge, seems to deliver modernity’s totalising dream. It appears to be a ‘God’s eye view’ recast in the terms of a secularised modernity, to which all is subordinated, and in light of which all is intelligible.”[3]  

Žižek’s is the opposite of this reading, in that he sees Hegel as the truth of the human condition, which is ultimately devoid of the metaphysical form of truth, in that it is purely symbolic and pragmatic. According to Pippin, “Žižek’s ambitious goal is to argue that the former characterization of Hegel attacks a straw man, and that, when this is realized in sufficient detail, the putative European break with Hegel in the criticisms of the likes of Schelling, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Deleuze, and the Freudians, will look very different, with significantly more overlap than gaps, and this will make available a historical diagnosis very different from the triumphalist one usually attributed to Hegel.”[4]

Then in the wake of the work of Gillian Rose, thinkers such as Rowan Williams read Hegel as working within a theistic and more orthodox ontology. What may be strange in these various readings, is that Žižek’s atheistic reading is closer to Williams theistic reading than the classical text-book reading. That is the extreme atheism and theism converge at key points.

This may account for my reaction to Jordan’s suggestion. I must admit, given my own slanted reading it had not occurred to me to consider Hegel the Christian. On the other hand, my reading of Žižek, who considers his work as an extension of Hegel, lands as close to the kingdom as possible (for an atheistic materialist). Beyond this, Žižek’s insights into the human condition, are derived directly from the deep psychology posed by Hegel, which I have understood (as has Žižek) as biblical insights. Thus, it is no surprise that Hegel’s depth of insight is, as with Žižek, directly related to the Apostle Paul.

So, Hegel’s reception may not mean much given the reception of Origen and Maximus. That is, there is a form of reason and thought implied in a Maximian speculative theology, which apart from a few thinkers such as Sergius Bulgakov, has mostly been written off (Bulgakov’s appreciation of German idealism is not surprising, in this light). An apocalyptic, universal, cosmic, Christianity has also been obscured or written off. Thus, it is no surprise to realize Hegel is also misunderstood, as he is promoting a form of Christianity unrecognizable to most Christians. In turn, given that Hegel’s is the first post-foundational, post-enlightenment, postmodern philosophical/theological project, it should be no surprise that a form of thought which by-passed the enlightenment-modernist project should converge (at least in part) with his form of thought.

According to Rowan Williams, Hegel’s philosophy coincides at key points  with what has already been said by theology:

Dialectic is what theology means by the power of God, just as Verstand is what theology means by the goodness of God. Verstand says “Everything can be thought”, “nothing is beyond reconciliation”, every percept makes sense in a distinctness, a uniqueness, that is in harmony with an overall environment. It is, as you might say, a doctrine of providence, in that it claims that there can be no such thing as unthinkable contingency. But … thinking the particular in its harmonies, thinking how the particular makes sense, breaks the frame of reference in which we think the particular. God’s goodness has to give way to God’s power – but to a power which acts only in a kind of self-devastation. And, says Hegel, the “speculative” stage to which dialectic finally leads us is what religion has meant by the mystical, which is not, he insists, the fusion of subject and object but the concrete (historical?) unity or continuity or followability of what Verstand alone can only think fragmentarily or episodically.[5]

According to Gavin, “Williams shows how what Hegel speaks about philosophically is said religiously by the language of theology.” The deep grammar of theology “is what enables the truths of philosophy to appear; we would not be able to perceive the speculative truth of philosophy outside the light of the divine truth of theology.”[6] The modernist project came to an impasse, and Hegel affects a rescue of philosophical thought through theology. Thus, in William’s estimate, Hegel’s thought is an extension of a speculative theology.

Far from Hegel being an atheistic philosopher (per Žižek), it can be argued (and has) that his thought and reason begin with Christ, and specifically with the kenotic self-giving love of Christ described by Paul. Hegel turns, as the introduction to his early works indicates, from the law of Kant to the “Pantheism of Love.” “What Hegel rejected in framing the Pantheism of Love, he never reaffirmed later on. He found a new logic, a new rationalism to solve the problem insoluble by the rationalism he had overcome in his earlier years.”[7]

 In his turn to love, he saw the inadequacies of the law, focused as it is on guilt and punishment. “A law has been made; if the thing opposed to it has been destroyed, there still remains the concept, the law; but it then expresses only the deficiency, only a gap, because its content has in reality  been annulled; and it is then called a penal law. This form of law (and the law’s content) is the direct opposite of life because it signalizes the destruction of life. . .[8] Law speaks only of destruction of life and perpetual guilt. “For the trespasser always sees himself as a trespasser; over his action as a reality he has no power, and this his reality is in contradiction with his consciousness of the law.”[9] In the key text “The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate” Hegel broaches the alternative to law in kenotic sacrificial understanding. As the title of his heading indicates, “Love is the only thing which transcends penal justice.”[10] He seems to directly contradict a Calvinistic notion of penal substitution: “For this reason it is also contradictory to contemplate satisfying the law by punishing one man as a representative of many like criminals, since, in so far as the others are looked on as suffering punishment in him, he is their universal, their concept; and the law, as ordering or punishing, is only law by being opposed to a particular.”[11] Instead of seeing Jesus as satisfying the law, Hegel suggests love is entry into a completely different order: “Jesus makes a general demand on his hearers to surrender their rights, to lift themselves above the whole sphere of justice or injustice by love, for in love there vanish not only rights but also the feeling of inequality and the hatred of enemies. . .”[12] Hegel does not see a direct continuity between law and love since “law was opposed to love,” not “in its content but in its form.”[13] Love is of the Spirit, and it is Spirit alone that “can undo what has been done.”[14]

Hegel’s point of departure, like Luther and Paul, is captured in Philippians 2:7: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interest of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself [ἑαυτòν ἐκένωσεν], taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:4-8). Hegel passes from seeing Christ as the embodiment of Kant’s categorical imperative and Kantian ethics, to the centrality of self-giving love described by Paul.

According to William Goggin, “Hegel’s retrieval of kenosis as the reflexive representation of sacrifice forms the core feature of the imaginary syntheses of religion as they are elevated into the conceptual necessity of philosophical comprehension.”[15] Hegel’s project is a reconceptualization of the atonement, which seeks to make cognizant the self-giving love of Christ. The meaning of the death of Christ in kenosis is the basis on which he turns to a revaluation of negativity – of tarrying with the negative. It is not any death, or death in general, but Christ’s death with which Hegel is concerned. “As seen in the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Hegel’s awareness of the pivotal role of kenotic sacrifice in the development of his system does not wane with time. If anything, it would seem, Hegel becomes increasingly clear on this point.”[16] As Hegel puts it, “When it becomes comprehended spiritually, this very death becomes a healer, the focal point of reconciliation.”[17] It is healing, not because it reconciles with the law, but because it works an immediate reconciliation in the Spirit.

Here, one can embrace Žižek’s understanding, that the first step in the Hegelian reading is suspending the punishing superego equated with God. Hegel goes to some length to demonstrate, there is no final reconciliation in the realm of law, retribution and punishment. While one might “picture,” as opposed to experience, “satisfaction” of the law, Hegel points to the “realization” of reconciliation. “Representing the kenotic self-sacrifice of God, the death of God points the way to a sacrifice of God as representation, to the negation of the absoluteness of the reflective, representational standpoint itself.”[18] The Christian in Christ can pass beyond representational picture thinking and experience, within herself, the reality of reconciliation.

Hegel describes alienation as an experience of the self, and in turn his project is to describe reconciliation. “The disparity which exists in consciousness between the ‘I’ and the substance which is its object is the distinction between them, the negative in general… Now although this negative appears at first as a disparity between the ‘I’ and its object, it is just as much the disparity of substance with itself. Thus what seems to happen outside of it, to be an activity directed against it, is really its own doing, and substance shows itself to be essentially subject.”[19] The self objectifies itself, as in the object in the mirror, creating an inner antagonism, cured only by self-giving love realized in the Spirit. There is an enacted unity in the Spirit as the I and its object, existence and essence, are unified. Through kenotic self-negation, Spirit is realized and grasps the self as its own – with the self becoming what it essentially is. There is an end to the antagonistic self-relation through the reconciliation of the Spirit. According to Hegel,

Spirit has two sides which are presented as two converse propositions: one is this, that substance alienates itself from itself and becomes self-consciousness; the other is the converse, that self-consciousness alienates itself from itself and gives itself the nature of a Thing, or makes itself a universal Self. Both sides have in this way encountered each other, and through this encounter their true union has come into being. The self-emptying [Entäußerung] of substance, its growth into self-consciousness, expresses the transition into the opposite…that substance is in itself self-consciousness. Conversely the self-emptying [Entäußerung] of self-consciousness expresses this, that it is in itself the universal essence…two moments through whose reciprocal self-emptying [Entäußerung] each become the other, Spirit comes into existence as this their unity.[20]

This resonates with Paul, Lacan and Žižek. Lacan and Žižek describe their psychoanalytic understanding in conjunction with Romans 7, in which self-consciousness forms in an alienation between the object or thing in the mirror, reducing to an object, viewed from the subject position. The I is split, and as Paul explains in Romans 8, it is only in the work of the Spirit that the self experiences reconciliation with self and God.

Christianity is “revelatory,” according to Hegel in that the problem of overcoming the antitheses of understanding is realized in passage into Absolute Knowledge. But Absolute Knowledge is not an abstraction or picture thinking but is the end point of a kenotically realized identity. “It is the moment of kenotic sacrifice that unites Substance with Subject.”[21] The I must die with Christ, in a kenotic self-giving love, which does not turn from death and sacrifice, but is a taking up of the cross of love.

Given this reading, one can quote Žižek’s favorite passage from Hegel, and recognize, Hegel is not describing death per se, but the death of Christ as accomplishing a healing reconciliation on the order of theosis.

“[T]he Life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather life that endures [erträgt] and maintains itself in it [in ihm sich erhält]. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment [Zerissenheit], it finds itself…Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being. This power is identical with what we earlier called Subject, which by giving determinateness an existence in its own element supersedes abstract immediacy, i.e., the immediacy which barely is, and thus is authentic substance: that being or immediacy whose mediation is not outside of it but which is this mediation itself.”[22]

The Subject of being is nothing less than divine or a participation in divinity. As Goggin states it, “Hegel understands his idealism as the conceptual clarification of Christianity. Hegel was, in good faith, interpreting Christian dogma as an idealist project, as depicting a logic of kenotic sacrifice that reshaped the space of reasons and made possible the emergence of the speculative system.”[23] This is not a wholesale endorsement of Hegel, nor is it to suggest that Hegel has fully achieved his goal of making kenosis the ground of cognition, but this can be said to have been his goal. This alone calls for a reassessment of Hegel.   

(Sign up for the course, The Theology of Maximus the Confessor with Jordan Wood. The course will run from 2024/3/25–2024/5/17 and will meet on Saturdays.)

[1] Robert B. Pippin, Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 4. Quoted in Gavin Hyman, “The ‘New Hegel’ and the Question of God,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory (Spring 2020) 19:2, 276.

[2] Gavin, 276.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Robert Pippin, ‘Back to Hegel?’ Mediations 26.1-2 (Fall 2012-Spring 2013), p. 8. Quoted in Gavin, 277.

[5] Rowan Williams, ‘Logic and Spirit in Hegel’ in Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology, ed. Mike Higton (London: SCM Press, 2007), pp. 37-38. Cited in Gavin, 279-280.

[6] Gavin, 280,

[7] Friedrich Hegel, On Christianity: Early Theological Writings, Trans. By T. M. Knox with and Introduction and Fragments translated by Richard Kroner (New York: Harper Torch Books, 1948) 12.

[8] Hegel, On Christianity, 225.

[9] Hegel, On Christianity, 227.

[10] Hegel, On Christianity, 224.

[11] Hegel, On Christianity, 226.

[12] Hegel, On Christianity, 218.

[13] Hegel, On Christianity, 225.

[14] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Vorlesungen, Band 5, 246; Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, 467. Cited in William Ezekiel Goggin, Hegel’s Sacrificial Imagination, (PhD Dissertation, The University of Chicago, 2019) 284.

[15] Goggin, 278.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Vorlesungen. Ausgewählte Nachschriften und Manuskripte Band 5, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion, 249; Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Press, 467-468 (Translation modified). Cited in Goggin, 277.

[18] Goggin, 258.

[19] Hegel, Phenomenology, 21. Cited in Goggin, 244.

[20] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.  755 (Translation modified). Cited in Goggin, 255-256.

[21] Goggin, 255.

[22] Hegel, Phenomenology, 19. Cited in Goggin, 243.

[23] Goggin, 235.

The Completion of Creation in Christ: Sergius Bulgakov, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor and Jordan Wood

God’s pronouncement in Genesis chapter one that creation is good, inclusive of the creation of humankind, is amended in the second chapter of Genesis with a “not good” concerning the man. Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus, presume that the original story must be inclusive of the entire scope of creation (its Alpha and Omega), while the second enters into the process already completed in chapter one, with all of human history, but particularly the incarnation and work of Christ, completing creation. As Gregory puts it, “In the case of the first creation the final state appeared simultaneously with the beginning, and the race took the starting point of its existence in its perfection.”[1] The goodness of creation, or its completion, cannot have occurred apart from the completion of the first Adam in the second Adam. The not-good, the incompleteness, and the possibility of failure, are only introduced in chapter two. The goodness of God being all in all – reflected in Genesis one, is accomplished only when humanity is brought to the fulness of its image bearing capacities in Christ. Adam, or humankind as the crown or caretaker of God’s creation, impacts all of creation so that the goodness and fulness of the cosmos is accomplished only in the completion of the human image. Thus, chapter one of Genesis gives us the eternal perspective, while chapter two of Genesis works within the immanent frame of the cosmos. We find ourselves then, in the midst of creation being completed.

In the meanwhile, though we can point out much that is good, the “not good” is pervasive and seems predominant. Given the brutal slaughter of children, the ravages of disease, the suffering of the innocent, and the general depravity of the human condition, which can be summed up as the reign of death, creation is “not good.” Though it has its bright spots, to call creation, as we have it, good, would be a kind of blasphemy. The notion that goodness has or ever will prevail, is not evident or immediately demonstrable from within the death laden present.

Genesis chapter three, provides an explanation, which may be unapproachable historically, in that it bears more weight than the story allows. According to Sergius Bulgakov, “In this sense, although it is a history, the Genesis 3 narrative of the fall is meta-historical in nature; and in this capacity it is a myth, which is grander and more significant in its generalized and symbolical images than any empirical history.”[2] The creation for us, unfolds with the realities of Genesis 3 already in place. The notion that there has been a fall, or that death has not always reigned, or that there is final goodness, is a faith position. There is nothing within this world, absent the story of Christ, that indicates entropy, slaughter, and death, have not always been the case. “An event is described that lies beyond our history, although at its boundary. Being connected with our history, this event inwardly permeates it. But this event cannot be perceived in the chain of empirical events, for it is not there. It took place, but beyond the limits of this world: After the expulsion of our progenitors from Eden, its gates were locked, and an angel with a fiery sword protects this boundary of being that has become transcendent for us.”[3]

The very fabric of human experience would put ultimate valuation, not on some mythical dream time in the eternal past or future, but on this time and place. Goodness in this understanding, is never unadulterated, never pure, but established through the “not-good.” War brings peace, violence ensures justice, death is the means to establishing ongoing life. Faith, even for those that claim it, must be tempered by the reality of this world. This is the “only reality” we have, and the before and after of eternity, are as disconnected as Genesis-one-goodness is from the shameful murderous condition that unfolds from chapter three. Experientially, practically, and realistically, we cannot live as if goodness has the final word. To do so is to ignore the prevailing reality of this world. Or at least, that is the existential choice and investment with which we are presented. The incompletion of the world poses itself as its own form of reality. Time’s entropy, nature’s death, and the absolute limitedness of phenomenal existence are the created order. This reality is not good, not God-connected or infinite, but poses a bad infinite.

In biblical terms, the choice is that between the first Adam and the reality of this form of humanity, and the second Adam and the reality of this form of humanity. In either case, it involves an existential investment of life. With the first Adam, the world is a closed cosmic order in which the pleasures, “successes,” passions, and value systems of the phenomenal world order, are the final truth. This truth may not be rational or transcendental, but it accords death its proper centrality. In this light, the work of Christ is a fabrication spun out of the web of human sorrow in an attempt to find significance in what cannot be assigned final meaning. The suffering and evil of the world have no explanation, no counterpoint, no resolution, and certainly no possible justification. The world as we have it is the best argument that there is no final goodness, no eternal purpose, as death has the final word and is the ultimate reality. In the world, far from encountering the incarnation as the truth of creation “we typically meet ephemera, flux, deceit, self-love, greed, corruption, death—in a word, ‘slavery to time and nature.’”[4]

The creation as we know it is generated not from the goodness of Genesis one, but from the beginning instituted by Adam. This creation is fallen upon arrival, in that death, suffering, shame, finitude, ignorance of God, violence, antihumanism, and anti-creation, are its structuring principles. There is no direct route from Genesis chapter three, back to Genesis one. The goodness, the eternal perspective, the image-bearing capacity, are obscured, rendered incomplete and inadequate in the new order of reality. Adam has instituted creation of a different kind, and we find ourselves in this Adam. As Jordan Wood describes, “We, each and all, endeavor to incarnate in ourselves—in our concrete existence, in our hypostases—what is in itself pure illusion. Evil possesses no essence or hypostasis or power or activity, certainly. But the ‘dishonorable passions,’ which constitute the mixed fruit of our erroneous judgment about this world, acquire in us ‘a dependent, parasitical subsistence’ (παρυπόστασις).”[5]

The divine perspective and its sense of goodness and meaningful existence, gives way to a senseless world based on the sensuous and the senses. That which is good for the eyes, desirous to eat, and offering its own wisdom, obscures the eternal perspective. The limited and finite only has itself as ground. “The flux and finitude of the world has only the grave as a stable and sure foundation. More precisely, it is our free, impassioned attachment to pure phenomena, our deluded judgment that sheer limitation might yield limitless bliss—it is, I mean, our frenzied strife to make this contradiction actual that prevents the world’s true creation and generates in its place a world of our own making, a world of brute boundary.”[6] As Maximus puts it, “In the beginning, sin enticed Adam and persuaded him to transgress the divine commandment, and through transgression sin hypostasized pleasure, and through pleasure sin affixed itself to the very foundations of our nature, condemning the whole of our nature to death, and through man it was pushing the nature of all created beings away from existence.”[7]

In turn, in light of the second Adam, it is the first Adam who created an irrational fantasy world. In the death and resurrection of Christ, in which Christ is true Adam, the perfection of the image, and the finalization of creation, humanity is clearly made for divinity and life, not death and finitude. In the Alpha and Omega of the second Adam, the eternal perspective of the good creation takes hold in human nature. Here is rescue from sin and death, but also Resurrection life imparted as the principle of a new form of completed humanity. The fleshly perspective of a completely immanent frame still tempts, but its reality is shattered by the Resurrected body, the empty tomb, and new life. Christ’s passion, the power of Resurrection, the life of Christ, intersects with and transforms the concrete possibilities, the “pure nature,” of human experience. This is not simply an abstract possibility, but Christ is becoming all in all, the true beginning and end of every person, such that the fictional world of the first Adam – in its universal form, is being displaced for all of humanity.

Here we encounter the completion and fulness of the sixth day. As Jordan sums up:

That is, he received, in his Passion, the entire burden of the errant motions of every individual rational being, and by making them his own—he who is essentially God—endowed the very false “principles” our sin falsely incarnate, namely the “law of death,” with the deeper principle of providence, the complete deification of even this universe and of the “me” I make in vain. His true Incarnation, always and in all things, destroys all false incarnations from true beginning to true end—for he is both.[8]

Either we live in the wake of a cataclysmic eruption in which life sprang from death, or the cataclysm is, as pictured in Genesis, the intrusion of death into life. The incarnation centers creation on a new form of life, amounting to a re-creation, in which all things are made new: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17). There is a transformation of creation from the inside, beginning with Christ. The “natural” world is subject to a futility, which can be taken as its own end and reality but Christ has relativized this meaninglessness. “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:20–21).

Genesis chapter one has no record of this corruption, as it is undone in Christ, the perfector of creation. His beginning and end join the eternal perspective of Genesis one with the New Jerusalem of Revelation:

Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. . . Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nation. . . God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Rev. 21:6; 22:1-2; Gen. 1:31).

(Sign up for the course, The Theology of Maximus the Confessor with Jordan Wood. The course will run from 2024/3/25–2024/5/17 and will meet on Saturdays.)

[1] Gregory of Nyssa, Hom. in Cant. 15, GNO 6:458, trans. Norris, 487: “ἐπὶ μὲν οὖν τῆς πρώτης κτίσεως ἀδιαστάτως τῇ ἀρχῇ συνανεφάνη τὸ πέρας καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς τελειότητος ἡ φύσις τοῦ εἶναι ἤρξατο.” Quoted from  Jordan Daniel Wood, The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor (p. 171). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (p. 170). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[3] Bulgakov, 170.

[4] Wood, 175.

[5]  Wood, 168-169..

[6] Wood, 170.

[7][7] Q. Thal. 61.9, ed. Laga and Steel, CCSG 22, 95, slight modification. Quoted from Wood, 168..

[8] Wood, 186. 

The Satanic Scandal Versus the Scandal of the Cross

In the Bible, both Jesus and Satan are skandalon, or stumbling stones. The scandal or offense, entraps, snares, obstructs, and causes a fall. It is translated as “cause for stumbling,” “cause of sin,” “difficulty,” “hindrance,” “hindrance in the way,” “make fall,” “pitfall,” “stumbling block,” “temptation,” or “temptation to sin.” The Psalms often revolve around those who would kill by laying their snares (Ps. 38:12), setting a hidden trap (Ps. 140:5), and the trap setters imagine they are hidden (“Who can see us?” (Ps. 64:5)), and this is equated with being an evildoer (Ps. 141:9). Intermixed with all this trap setting is the fact of human desire acting to lure one into the trap, thus Saul uses his daughter Michal as a lure for David (1 Sam. 18:21), Joshua warns that the Canaanites, their idols and presumably intermarrying with them, will be a snare (Josh. 23:13), and so too God warns “their gods shall be a snare” and they shall “become adversaries to you” (Judg. 2:3).[1]

Idolatry is equated with a form of prostitution, and the idols play the role of harlots entrapping worshippers in a deadly embrace (e.g., Ez. 16). The obstacle cause of desire, whether idols, gold, golden idols, sex objects, or golden-phallic-idols, consist of giving a divine like status to an obstacle (the obstacle to true divinity). The idol is a scandal, because it simultaneously takes on a divine role and becomes an obstacle to God. The false transcendence gives rise to an exponential desire, which makes the idol “the quintessential scandal, in the Old Testament,” according to René Girard.[2] Entrapment due to desire, whether unleashed by idols or sex objects – which are often equated by the prophets, indicates that human lust plays a deadly role, creating the skandolon.

Idols are a scandal for the Jews but so are Yahweh (e.g., Is. 8:14-15) and Jesus (Matt. 21:42-43). Falling over either sort of scandal causes an exposure, a failure, or a point of shame. The scandal exposed in idolatry concerns the exponential nature of human desire – it is beyond being satisfied and is inherently deceived. That is, there is no end of this pursuit and no gaining what is sought (Ezekiel 23); thus, it is portrayed as deadly in a three-fold sense: it leads to child sacrifice; it imagines death or the grave (what has no life) can give life; it is connected to shame (a living death). Paul equates works of the law, love of money, or simply greed, with idolatrous desire (Col. 3:5-11; Eph. 5:5; Gal. 4:9) and the Christian who would do such things is annulling the scandal of the cross: “Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished” (Gal. 5:11). Every phase of the life and death of Jesus might be equated with a form of scandal: his encounters with the scribes and Pharisees, his teachings and parables, but most significantly the cross is a scandal (I Cor. 1:23). To miss the key role of the skandalon is to miss the significance of Christ.

The competition between the one whose head is crushed and the one whose heel is bruised (Gen. 3:15) involves all of human history and all humanity. That is, the satanic scandal is not nonhuman but, as in the story in Genesis 3, it is the offense of the autonomous human world, presumed as sufficient (the knowledge of good and evil, the idol, the law, etc.). The provenance of this mysterious serpent, linked to satan (perhaps not Satan, but the satan(s)), is of the earth, and the poison he imparts, John sums up as a singular deadly presumption: “For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world” (I John 2:16-17). The term “cosmos,” which depicts a closed world, is John’s word for capturing this world of lust or desire, which prides itself on the presumption of life. This is of the world – it is earthly and human in its origins and end. This pride of life describes the original temptation, but is the ongoing presumption that life is “my” possession, while simultaneously in the “lust of the eyes” and the “lust of the flesh” the object of desire (life, being, substance) is lacking.

The role of the serpent is not mentioned by either John or Paul, and yet both seem to be referring directly to the Genesis account. In Romans (7:7), the law models desire or plays the serpents role, in giving rise to desire. For John, love of the cosmos gives rise to the lust of the eyes. Like the serpent which appears from the earth and disappears into dust, this desire is earth bound in its instigation and pursuit. To assign a metaphysical reality to this serpent may be to miss the nature of the scandal. Lust and desire arise around the illusion that the object of desire, be it the idol, money, or some desirous other, can impart substance (life, wisdom, being). The turn to violence to extract this substance from the blood of Abel, the blood of Joseph, or the blood of Christ, is the end point of this obsessive desire.

The scandalous lie, in Isaiah and which Paul takes up in Romans, depicts the rulers of Jerusalem entering into a pact with Sheol (the place of the dead) or a “covenant with death.” This is to make “falsehood” a refuge and it is to attempt to hide behind a deception (Is. 28:14-15). Paul repeats this accusation when comparing faith and works pitting faith (the true refuge) against the law (a lying refuge): “but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law.  Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone.” The human race, in the image of Isaiah (repeated by Peter and Paul) have entered a covenant with death, and Christ has annulled the covenant and its effects: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, A costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be put to shame” (Rom. 9:31-33; Is. 28:16). The Romans, like the Galatians, are being lured by a false teacher to trust in the law; to locate life in their doing of the law, rather than in Christ.  Paul fuses two passages from Isaiah, to picture the singular stone as both tripping up those who are “missing the law,” bringing them to shame, while those who have faith (trust in this scandalous stone), will not be put to shame.

The cross is a scandal, in light of the presumed self-sufficiency (of the Genesis lie, of the covenant with death, or the doing of the law), as it exposes the scandalous lie denying the reality of death and desire. This spiritual battle is not devoid of flesh and blood, but culminates when the one who is lifted up casts out the prince of this world, and as a result all of humanity is drawn to the crucified (John 12:32). It is the “lifting up” which reveals Jesus’ identity as the “I am” (YHWH): “So Jesus said, ‘When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He’” (John 8:28). Here is the realization of Isaiah, that through the “lifted up” servant “you may know and believe that I AM” (Isa. 43:10; 52:13). This lifting up is a saving revelation, applied from “In the beginning” of John: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4-5). The darkness of the cross is the end point of the satanic scandal, as the cross reverses and exposes the scandal. The stone of stumbling has become the corner stone of a new living temple (I Peter 2:4-8).

The interplay is between the scandalous lie and the scandalous truth in regard to death, with the stone of stumbling or the scandal serving as either headstone or cornerstone.

[1] The list is from David McCracken, The Scandal of the Gospels: Jesus, Story, and Offense (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) 8.

[2] René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1978), 421.

Mimetic Desire Giving Rise to Sin: René Girard and Exposure of the Scandalous Lie

René Girard was insulted with “Girardian Theory” as a description of his work, as mimesis, which is central to every phase of his work, is a well-known phenomenon, recognized from Plato onward in western philosophy and thought.[1] It is not as though Girard discovers mimesis, but he uncovers the logic of mimetic desire in the model of desire, the obstacle cause of desire (the skandolon), and ultimately the founding murder and sacrificial religion. Girard calls his project “mimetic theory” as the entirety of his thought, whether on the novel, anthropology, religion, or theology, is a prolonged description of the workings and logic of human desire, which is mimetic or an imitation (desire is not our own, but what draws into community). Its mimetic quality gives rise to and explains the range of interpersonal dynamics, from envy, pride, rivalry, violence, scapegoating, sacrificial religion, and in turn is a key point in understanding the Judeo-Christian religion in its exposure of this dynamic.

On a surface level the arc of the theory is easy to summarize but may not be convincing, as its inner logic depends upon recognizing the nature of desire which has each of us in its grip and which we have a vested interest in misrecognizing. That is, we are all implicated in this story, and unless we recognize this by penetrating our own self-deception, it is not only Girard, but his identification of the heart of the New Testament, that may fail to impress.

The problem is two-fold. First, the lie surrounding desire is the notion that desire originates within us. It is “my desire” and this is the most private and intimate thing about me. Isn’t desire an expression of my inmost self, arising spontaneously from what is the very center of personhood? The desiring subject, though kept hidden, is taken to be the true subject. An imitated desire, under this definition, is inauthentic and is unbelievable. Corporately and individually amidst the worst forms of evil, as Jesus pointed out from the cross, we do not know what we are doing. We cannot get a handle on the truth, as there is disability in identifying the scandal (the cause of sin) giving rise to human desire.

Second, though envy, jealousy, inadequacy, shame and pride are a universally recognizable part of human experience, there is also the profound sense, as with desire, that these are peculiar and private. This is so personal and shameful, we are unlikely to admit this truth to ourselves, let alone to other people. The tendency is to obscure the underlying feeling of emptiness, of not being enough, of lacking in being, giving rise to desire. To put it in biblical terms (recently rediscovered in psychology), shame is an unbearable experience which requires it be hidden in pride. This truth is hard to bear and describe but is so recognizably the case, which explains the key role of the modern novel in Girard’s discovery.

Anyone who has tried to write about themselves may understand the temptation to flattery and deception – everything rings hollow and false. There is a reason hagiography was and is the predominant form of biography and autobiography and has been for millennia. Inflation, a façade, is much easier to accomplish, and perhaps less painful, than truth. Truth can be sordid, dark, painful to read, and painful to write, yet the best novels touch upon a truth that is immediately recognizable.

The compressed development of the “I” novel in modern Japan illustrates the point, that a certain masochistic destructiveness takes hold in the “confessional novel,” making it the most dangerous profession in Japan (due to suicide). The truth of the human condition can become overwhelming (especially in the Japanese novel which is often entirely lacking in redemptive elements). Likewise, reading Dostoevsky is not hard, simply “because of all the names,” but because the depth of darkness is hard to endure. Envy, rivalry, lust, murderous intent, and the pride that prevails in the human condition reaches uncomfortable levels of intimacy. The best fiction takes up a realism that dispels romanticism and which reduces most mere history (personal or corporate) to a form of fiction.

According to the histories of the novel, this modern literary art form takes as its point of departure and development entry into human interiority presumed throughout Scripture. As Erich Auerbach and others have pointed out, from Genesis forward, the literature of the Bible is developing a technique of interiority which will only be fully appreciated and deployed in the modern novel. The “violation of consciousness” or the presumption to enter into human interiority is the working premise of Scripture, taken up in the modern art form. What separates second rate literature from literary masterpieces is the capacity to deal truthfully with human interiority. According to Girard, the “romantic lie” is thoroughly exposed by “novelistic truth”[2] and this novelistic truth is afforded through biblical revelation.

The romantic lie is a manifestation of the singular lie that life, substance and being reside within. The serpent of Genesis models a form of desire, in which divine life is graspable and consumable. The mediation of desire in the tree of knowledge, is the obstacle to its realization (divine life). It is an obstacle to the fulfillment of the promised desire, but the failure of the lie is not its exposure, but a doubling down on extracting life from death. The scandal initiated by the serpent identifies the role of Satan. Satan is the “adversary” or the original fabricator of the obstacle to desire through misdirection of the lie.

Christ directly identifies Peter with Satan and the scandal, as Peter is caught up in human desire in his attempt to misdirect Jesus away from the cross: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block (scandal) to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” His specific guilt is imitating the crowd (saving himself, as evidenced in the High Priest’s courtyard), rather than imitating Christ: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Mt 16:24–25).

Mimesis is not inherently sinful, but the scandalous model becomes an obstacle, unlike the model of Christ. Cain kills able to obtain his place before God. Lamech is a serial murderer, as he would reap divine vengeance and take the place of God. The generation of Noah is consumed by mimetic desire and rivalry until all differences are drowned in sameness. The desire prompted by the lie is exponential. Participation in the divine life is not through extracting life from death (violence, scapegoating, crucifixion) but through taking up the cross. Jesus explanation to those who would kill him is that they are caught up in a murderous lie: “You belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44). They are carrying out the desires of the devil in their murderous plots.

To ignore the mimetic nature of desire is to miss the fundamental impetus to evil. The role of the “model of desire” and the structuring role of the model turned obstacle (the skandolon), give rise to sin. The obstacle cause of desire, is the direct experience of the lie the New Testament calls the skandolon, or in its verb form, skandalizein. The noun gives rise to the verb or is the cause of sinning. Thus, the New American Bible translates Matthew 5:30: “And if your right hand causes you to sin (skandalizei), cut it off.” 

Excision of the scandal is not accomplished through cutting off the hand, but through crushing the head from which it arose. The murderous logic of mimetic desire is undone in Christ’s exposure of its dynamics.

[1] This is the beginning claim of Michael Joseph Darcy,  (2016). René Girard, Sacrifice, and the Eucharist (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from This dissertation is one of the finest summaries of Girard’s work I have come across.

[2] As Darcy points out, “The French title of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel is Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, or literally, ‘romantic lie and novelistic truth.’” Darcy, 2.

The Myth of Modern Disenchantment

The disenchantment of the world with modernity may be on the order of Jesus’ depiction of the emptying out of one unclean spirit, leaving a vacuum then occupied by a multiple of seven. Like the idol maker in the book of Isaiah, the (dis)enchantments of modernity are a force so potent as to blind its adherents to their enchanting role, in animating and calling into existence what has no existence of its own. The secular or modern, are propped up by blindness to the animating force of human perception. It is easy enough to demonstrate the factual error (that modernity has dispelled the occult), what is more difficult is to reveal this trick of reifying from out of nothing an entity with God-like powers of determination. But the myth of modernity might be approached from these two directions: the factual error equating secularity with the occlusion of the spiritual, and the oxymoronic manner in which animating spirits are traded for an animate culture.

This latter is hard to see as it is hidden in plain sight, as the language of “secular” and “modern” fall into cultural reification picturing something like a sui generis animate force. This cultural reification tends to empty the world of human agency, historical causality, and ideological genealogy, to suggest the modern “arose” as a unique epoch unlike any other.[1] The story can be told in any number of ways: Descartes discovered the foundation of reason; Newton dispelled the occult with a mechanical understanding; the laws of nature explain, determine and create everything; and modern science has eliminated the need for God. As a result, we moderns now know there are no ghosts in the machine and we can trust in reason, science, and progress. In this modern age people no longer believe in magic and spirits as the myths have been dispelled, the gods have died, nature is subjugated, and instrumental reason, mechanistic materialism, modern science and medicine now rule. While there are still backward people in certain parts of the world and society, gripped by myth, animism and superstition, for moderns the world has been de-animated, myth has ended, and superstition is no more. A new form of human individual has arisen, as the old foundations have been erased, and a new form of thought and reason have been set in place. The world is forever changed and we moderns can march boldly forward, knowing that progress is an inevitable force unleashed by modern reason and science. There is a clean break with the past as a new age, unlike any that preceded it, has arisen.

What may not occur to the adherent of the modern myth, is that the work of religious myth is now performed by the secular myth. The world may have been emptied of one form of animate power, but now law, culture, and progress are the “new” animating forces (not so new but the force of law that has always been at work). To imagine a rupture has occurred, and a new age has dawned, is to be blind to history and how culture takes flight from its social moorings, in the projections of human agents. This blindness is illustrated in both Orientalism and capitalism.

The myth of the modern animates notions of the progressive West and the backward East. Orientals are stuck in the past, subject to nature, having not yet thrown off superstition, while the Occident is progressive, enlightened, and driven by reason rather than passion. The Easterner and African are still in early developmental stages (the premodern), while the West is modern, mature, a light set on a hill. Progress moves from East to West, so that Westward movement is advancement, while a visit to the East is a return to the past. The Easterner is driven by religion, and superstition undergirds Eastern political structures, while in Western secularism, the state is driven by humanitarian, democratic, principles and not religion.  

Eugene McCarraher in, The Enchantments of Mammon describes as his subtitle describes it, “How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity.” McCarraher suggests that, rather than disenchantment, modernity is simply one more “misenchantment” (as I have explored here). “Far from being an agent of ‘disenchantment,’ capitalism, I contend, has been a regime of enchantment, a repression, displacement, and renaming of our intrinsic and inveterate longing for divinity.”[2] McCarraher is refuting the story of Max Weber, in his supposition that capitalism is a disenchanting force, and he appeals to a series of counter descriptions.[3] According to David Brooks, acquisitiveness stems from a “sacramental longing,” a desire to enter “a magical realm in which all is harmony, happiness, and contentment.” Or as historian Steve Fraser puts it, in the stampede for consumer goods slumbers “a sacramental quest for transcendence, reveries of what might be.” Thomas Carlyle, speaking of 1840’s industrial England, perceived “invisible Enchantments” which left owners and workers alike, “spell-bound” by “the Gospel of Mammonism” in which money possessed and bestowed its “miraculous facilities.” Marx and Engels wrote of the capitalist, in The Communist Manifesto, as “like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world he has called up by his spells.” In the first volume of Capital, Marx writes of “the fetishism of commodities,” and of the attribution of human or supernatural qualities to manufactured goods. Even Weber, after tracing the supposed disenchantment which arises with the Protestant Reformation, writes that “many old gods ascend from their graves” avatars of the “laws” of the market animated by the spirits of “the gospel of Mammonism.” Capitalism, Walter Benjamin informs us, is a “cult” with its own ontology, morals, and ritual practices whose “spirit . . . speaks from the ornamentation of banknotes.”[4]

McCarraher maintains this is not hyperbole or metaphor but that capital bears similar enchantments to a world animated by spirits and deities. As he explains, capitalism is its own sort of cult with its own liturgical codes and high priests, or those who have mastered the arcane art of the deal.

 Its sacramentals consist of fetishized commodities and technologies— the material culture of production and consumption. Its moral and liturgical codes are contained in management theory and business journalism. Its clerisy is a corporate intelligentsia of economists, executives, managers, and business writers, a stratum akin to Aztec priests, medieval scholastics, and Chinese mandarins. Its iconography consists of advertising, public relations, marketing, and product design.” Capital is “the mana or pneuma or soul or elan vital of the world, replacing the older enlivening spirits with one that is more real, energetic, and productive.[5]

The evidence suggests there has not been disenchantment, or an occlusion of the occult, but its reinforcement. As pointed out by Jason A. Josephson-Storm, not only the enchantments of mammon, but the new age has also ushered in crystal healing, energy balancing, chakra yoga, tarot readings, wicca covens, witches and warlocks, ghosts, near death experiences, psychics, extraterrestrials, miracles, etc. A 2005 Gallup poll found that a third of Americans believe in ghosts, while a YouGov survey in 2015 found that 48 percent of Americans believe people can possess one or more types of psychic ability (e.g., precognition, telepathy, etc.) while 43 percent agreed with the statement “Ghosts exist.” As Josephson-Storm concludes, “taken together it appears the majority of Americans are at least open to the idea of ghosts and psychic powers, while a not-insignificant number believe in necromancy.”[6] This then supports his larger point “that the human sciences have internalized the modern project” in “the notion of ‘modernity’ itself as the sign of a pure rupture or difference. In this way modernity has functioned as a master paradigm or episteme—what I have been calling a myth.”[7]

I presume that all that falls short of Paul’s exposure of the animating, enchantments of the law, will displace God with subordinate mythical powers. The reification of idols, the letter of the law, Jew/Gentile, male/female, slave/free, are all of one piece with the enslaving elementary principles, thrones and political powers. The human tendency is to construct a counter reality, in which the human artisans are blind to their role of manufacture – whether a piece of metal, a principle, an ideology, culture, or the ego. Like Aaron’s explanation to Moses, the golden calf was not shaped by human hands, it miraculously emerged from the fire and all were forced to worship with its “natural” appearing. Modernity as a final explanation is made of the same stuff as Aaron’s idol, and the deconstruction and exposure of this means of manufacture is an apocalyptic reordering of human understanding of reality.

[1] See Jason A. Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

[2] Eugene McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (p. 4). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] McCarraher, 3.

[4]McCarraher, 3-5.

[5] McCarraher, 5-6.

[6] Josephson-Storm, 24.

[7] Josephson-Storm, 309.