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Beyond Žižek and Milbank to Hegel and the Salvation of Persons

Though G.W.F. Hegel is sometimes portrayed as focused on rationalism,[1] what holds his philosophy and his conception of Christianity together, is his focus on personhood. Knowledge and reason do not exist apart from the personal but are grounded in the divine Person: “Knowledge is here accordingly no immediate knowledge of a corporeal object, but knowledge of God; God is the absolutely universal Object; He is not any kind of particularity, He is the most universal Personality.”[2] In turn, the development of human personality is in conjunction with the Person of God found in the Trinity, in which God’s kenotic self-giving through the Son and Spirit immerses him in the life of the world. This is the truth of every personality: “In friendship and love I give up my abstract personality and thereby win it back as concrete. The truth of personality is found precisely in winning it back through this immersion, this being immersed in the other.”[3] Human personality knows itself as and through the divine Person as “by virtue of his fundamental nature,” man “knows himself as infinite Personality.”[4] Hegel equates Spirit and person but not with the abstract notion of person, as only in “love and friendship” does the person arise and maintain himself, thus achieving true subjectivity – “which is its personality.”[5]

In the argument of Robert Williams, for Hegel, personhood is central to understanding God and spirit.[6] Spirit is personhood for Hegel, and divine and human personhood united in Spirit is redemption. Divine and human personhood unified or synthesized in the Spirit unifies not only the Divine and human but overcomes the differences in which humanity is alienated from God. Forgiveness or redemption in reconciliation is the movement between divinity and non-divinity in which the gap separating them (evil, according to Hegel) is overcome. Reconciliation is movement from both sides of the gap, in which God indwells humanity and humanity is taken up into God. Christ as creator and creature inaugurates the movement completed in the Spirit, in which the divine indwells the non-divine and the non-divine inhabits divinity.

In Ursula Roessiger’s account of Hegel, “By their respective involvement in other-being, both the divine and the non-divine are transfigured such that reconciliation (the winning back of one’s personality as concrete) is possible.”[7] This is the way Hegel launches his work on Religion, by bringing together human thought and Spirit as constitutive of persons: “Speaking generally, it is through thought, concrete thought, or, to put it more definitely, it is by reason of his being Spirit, that man is man; and from man as Spirit proceed all the many developments of the sciences and arts, the interests of political life, and all those conditions which have reference to man s freedom and will.”[8] Human freedom and creativity flow from the fact that humankind is Spirit, and by Spirit Hegel makes reference to the essence of God shared with humanity.

This essence, or the lifting up of the creaturely to the divine has God going outside of his transcendence (through Christ and the Spirit) to humanity, and humanity surpassing itself into divinity (through Christ and the Spirit). The terms “thought” and “consciousness” refer directly to the experience of God, in which humanity arrives at divinity: “God is the beginning of all things, and the end of all things. As all things proceed from this point, so all return back to it again. He is the centre which gives life and quickening to all things, and which animates and preserves in existence all the various forms of being.”[9] Hegel lists “human relations, activities, and pleasures, and all the ways in which these are intertwined; all that has worth and dignity for man, all wherein he seeks his happiness, his glory, and his pride, finds its ultimate centre in religion, in the thought, the consciousness, and the feeling of God.”[10] The experience of God in human thought and creativity, completing what it means to be human, is through the Spirit. The spirit occupied with this end sheds the limitations of finiteness and is related to the infinite and to freedom (Personhood).

This is an unfolding and dynamic reality, but it is not, as Slavoj Žižek has pictured it, an emptying out of divinity. Žižek’s death-of-God theology is aimed at getting rid of the Otherness of God by getting rid of God, having Christ’s death signify the end of transcendence. But Hegel gets rid of this oppressive otherness by synthesizing transcendence and immanence, divine and human, in the kenotic love of God definitive of Trinity, which overflows to all of creation. This dawning of the Spirit over all things is the unfolding of creation and history, in which God’s Trinitarian self-relation gathers the world into its embrace.  

Žižek may accurately portray the common understanding of transcendence: a God who is immovable, impassable, Other, imposing, and beyond material reality. “Do those who call themselves ‘Christians’ not prefer to stay with the comfortable image of God sitting up there, benevolently watching over our lives, sending us his son as a token of his love, or, even more comfortably, just with some depersonalized Higher Force?”[11] Hegel, it is true, rejects this notion of transcendence, but not to get rid of the category, but to conceive of God as fulfilling his role as Creator through creation (how could it be otherwise). This introduces a dynamic possibility into God, but it is a simple acknowledgement of the reality portrayed in creation and redemption. Yes, God is becoming “all in all,” and this is a process, but one which does not negate eternality. God’s personhood is completed in Christ, the incarnation, the giving of the Spirit, but this is always who God is.

John Milbank, on the other hand, argues that Hegel cannot accept the paradox of the hypostatic union, and that with Protestant theology as a whole, seeks to immanentize God. He seems to accede to Žižek’s atheistic interpretation of Hegel:

So the crucial thing at issue between myself and Žižek is the question of the interpretation of Christianity. I wish to argue that he concludes that atheist Christianity is true Christianity only because he accepts a dialectical (Lutheran, Behmenist, Kantian, Hegelian) version of Christian doctrine as the most coherent. By contrast, I claim that there is a radically Catholic humanist alternative to this, which sustains genuine transcendence only because of its commitment to incarnational paradox.[12]

Milbank conflates Hegel, Protestantism, and atheism, despite Hegel’s appeal to a broad spectrum of thought, incorporating specifically Catholic theology (for instance, Eckhartian mysticism) and Catholic mysticism and spirituality into his thought. Yet, Milbank seeks to promote a paradoxical/Catholic logic which can maintain tension between contingency and necessity, while he claims Hegelian Protestantism will collapse into either of these two poles. As Roessiger argues, this reduction of Hegel by Milbank as well as Žižek, is mistaken: “there is room for transcendence and paradoxical reasoning in Hegel’s account, both of which suggest that Hegel’s account of religion is theistic, and even mystical, rather than atheistic.”[13] 

The way of the Spirit in Hegel, in spite of Milbank’s reduction of it to pure transcendence (closed within itself) and Žižek’s reduction to pure immanence, is Hegel’s attempt to mediate and synthesize these realities. Hegel would overcome the impasse of the Enlightenment, a problem with which Žižek and Milbank leave him. Hegel describes the work of Kant, Fichte and Jacobi, as giving rise to a faith which can only desire the absolute while denying any possible knowledge of it. As a result, “At the end of the enlightenment we are left with two corpses: faith and reason.”[14] Hegel describes the death of reason as a departure from religion or Christianity, which means “victorious Reason is no longer Reason. The new born peace that hovers triumphantly over the corpse of Reason and faith, uniting them as the child of both, has as little of Reason in it as it has of authentic faith.”[15] Reason limited to the finite is presumed incapable of knowing God, and faith is reduced to worship of the unknown. Faith without reason and reason without faith are both dead.

The attempt to rescue Christianity through rationalism, is not Hegel’s but the Enlightenment project, which reduces God to the abstraction of deism, completely rational, lawful and absent. The embrace of reason, not through faith but in scientism and natural theology, leaves an impersonal God of the gaps, in which God is ultimately excluded, as the gaps, in the workings of the machine, are closed. Hegel is attacking this negative theology (God as unknowable and beyond reason) and posing against it the revelation which constitutes Christianity (the revealing of a Person). Hegel, working from a Johannine and New Testament understanding sees Christianity as disclosing and sharing the divine reality (I have explained this here). God in Christ, through the Spirit, is open to being known and comprehended. “This knowledge of Spirit for itself or actually, as it is in itself or potentially, is the being in-and-for-itself of Spirit as exercising knowledge, the perfect, absolute religion, in which it is revealed what Spirit, what God is: this is the Christian religion.”[16]

As he goes on to explain, “revealed religion is manifested religion because in it God has become wholly manifest.” No longer does God dwell in darkness or secrecy, as in Spirit He is made known and this is the meaning of Spirit. “Here, then, is the consciousness of the developed conception of Spirit, of reconciliation, not in beauty, in joyousness, but in the Spirit.”[17] God and reality are not subject to caprice or darkness, but are revealed, manifest, and made known: “that is, in the eternal reason, wisdom of God; it is the notion of the reality or fact itself, the divine notion, the notion of God Himself, which determines itself to enter on this development, and has set its goal before it.”[18] God has entered into the world and made Himself, the ground and notion of reality, manifest, and human consciousness is the center of this manifestation, in which God shows himself in thought as Spirit. Knowing this Person is on the order of all personal knowing, in which the two become one united in a singular Spirit.

What distinguishes man from the animals is Spirit, that is “he is consciousness” but he attains to this consciousness or Spirit only “when he withdraws himself out of immediate identity with the particular state of the moment.”[19] Only by negating or arising above the natural and immediate to the Spirit does man come to God and to the fulness of his own personhood. As Roessiger describes, “the expression ‘God is love’ is meant to encapsulate the entire eternal movement of spirit by demonstrating that spirit’s activity is bound up with the special kind of reconciliation achieved within the loving exchange.” So too man in self-giving love comes to self-consciousness, not in the self, but through friendship and love of the other. Forgiveness and love are “immersion into other-being, the giving of oneself over completely to the other.”[20] This marks the passage into infinite personhood.

In so doing, man achieves the thought of God and it is in this thought that “all the distinctions of the arts and sciences and of the endless interweaving of human relationships, habits and customs, activities, skills, and enjoyments – find their ultimate center” that is “in the one thought of God.”[21] In the thought of this Person flows all personhood and creativity. “It is in thinking that humanity truly exists for the first time. The universal object, the essence of the object, is for thinking, and since in religion God is the object, he is such essentially for thinking.”[22] To be human is to think, and the highest thought, God, brings humanity into the fulness of personhood.


[1] Slavoj Žižek describes this view of Hegel in the following manner: “Hegel as the absurd ‘Absolute Idealist’ who ‘pretended to know everything,’ to possess Absolute Knowledge, to read the mind of God, to deduce the whole of reality out of the self- movement of (his) mind—the image which is an exemplary case of what Freud called Deck- Erinnerung (screen- memory), a fantasy- formation intended to cover up a traumatic truth.” Slavoj Žižek, “The Fear of Four Words: A Modest Plea for a Hegelian Reading of Christianity,” Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 27.

[2] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures On the Philosophy of Religion: Together With a Work on the Proofs of the Existence of God vol. 1, Trans. By E. B. Speirs, and J. Burdon Sanderson, (London:  Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co. Ltd., 1895) 121.

[3] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 3, edited by Peter C. Hodgson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 285-6. Cited in Ursula Roessiger, A Metaphysics of Faith and Reason: Mystical and Trinitarian Elements in Hegel’s Philosophy of Religion, (University of Pennsylvania, PhD Thesis, 2017) 43. LPR 3, 1827, E285-286 G210-211.

[4] Philosophy of Religion 1, 230.

[5] Philosophy of Religion 3, 194, Cited in Roessiger, 43.

[6] Robert R. Williams, Hegel on the Proofs and Personhood of God: Studies in Hegel’s Logic and Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[7]  Roessiger, 18.

[8] Lectures On the Philosophy of Religion 1, 1-2.

[9] Ibid, 2.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Žižek, Monstrosity of Christ,  25.

[12] Milbank, Monstrosity of Christ, 117.

[13] Roessiger, 107.

[14] Ibid, 29.

[15] G.W. F. Hegel, Faith and Knowledge, translated by Walter Cerf and H.S. Harris (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977), 55. Cited in Roessiger, 30.

[16] Philosophy of Religion 1, 83-84.

[17] Ibid, 84-85.

[18] Ibid, 85.

[19] Ibid, 134.

[20] Roessiger, 51-52.

[21] Philosophy of Religion 3, 84. Cited in Roessiger, 29.

[22] Philosophy of Religion, 3, 189. Cited in Roessiger, 32.

Hegel and Bulgakov: Relating to the Infinite Through the Finite

Sergius Bulgakov’s sophiology is both creaturely and divine, with creaturely Sophia dependent upon the suppositions of divine Sophia. G.W.F. Hegel’s notion of dialectic fits Bulgakov’s creaturely Sophia, in that dialectic (dualism) is not itself a method or way, but the necessity that presents itself in the finite human condition. Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, marking the relation between the finite and knowable and the infinite and unknowable presumes that cognition is limited to the finite, to the unknowable and that ultimate reality, God, “the thing in itself,” are beyond cognition. But Kant, in examining the instrument of reason or the grounds for its possibility, in Hegel’s estimate, is like someone attempting to learn to swim prior to getting into the water. “If we are not to begin philosophical speculation without having attained rationally to a knowledge of reason, no beginning can be made at all, for in getting to know anything in the philosophical sense, we comprehend it rationally; we are, it seems, to give up attempting this, since the very thing we have to do is first of all to know reason.”[1] How can one make any preliminary conclusions about the rational without being rational?

Kant is steeped in contradiction, which does not mean he can be dismissed, but he provides introduction to the antinomies marking human thought. The resolution is not a refutation of Kant, but for Hegel reason is mediated within a larger “whole” in which the finite and infinite are integrated. The antinomies point beyond the finite and natural to this Absolute. The antinomies between the infinite and finite, heaven and earth, the categories of thought and thought itself, marked the end of cognition for Kant, but for Hegel these differences point to an all-encompassing relational reality which makes thought possible. What is being experienced in finiteness is a relation to the infinite.

As Gillian Rose puts it in explaining Hegel, “The limitation of ‘justified’ knowledge of the finite prevents us from recognizing, criticizing, and hence from changing the social and political relations which determine us. If the infinite is unknowable, we are powerless. For our concept of the infinite is our concept of ourselves and our possibilities.”[2] In place of Kant’s transcendental method, Hegel proposes the idea of phenomenology, of a new order of logic, of absolute ethics, all of which introduce the relational into the rational as they are brought together in human consciousness.  “For it is consciousness itself which makes the distinction between the finite and the infinite, between knowable appearances and unknowable things-in-themselves. It is consciousness which posits an unconditioned infinite, a being or things-in-themselves, which exist outside any relation to consciousness, and hence at the same time are related to consciousness in a negative sense.”[3] It is consciousness which has apparently known the ‘unknowable’ infinite so as to define it. Consciousness of what counts as finite and infinite does not divide consciousness, but it points to a more fundamental reality which cannot be pre-judged. The infinite or absolute cannot be relegated to something outside consciousness as its presence has made itself known, even if it is through seeming impossibility or contradiction. But this impossibility is the very possibility of the absolute and infinite made known, and so the goal for Hegel is to recognize its presence and history.

Bulgakov, like Hegel, sees 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 or crack in reality, making nothing or evil generative of all else (and I am guilty of reading Hegel through Žižek). It is precisely this sort of arrogant presumption, that Hegel is exposing, but of which he is sometimes accused. According to Rose, Hegel is not proposing that “the actual as rational” is an accomplished fact in human rationality but “the truth of this proposition must be sought.”[4] It would seem to be a nearly tautological truth that true rationality deals with what is actual and what is actual gives rise to a true rationality – how could it be otherwise? But it has been misread as a justification of existing reason. “Hegel is precisely drawing attention to the illusions (relations, difference) of bourgeois society. He is warning against an approach which would see illusion as rational, which makes illusion into the absolute principle of the whole.”[5] As Hegel explains, “Philosophy is its time apprehended in thoughts”[6] and “always comes on the scene too late to give instruction as to what the world ought to be.”[7]  The very possibility of philosophy points to the Absolute and the rational, but philosophy cannot capture its own possibility.

As Hegel describes it,

For such a purpose philosophy at least always comes too late. Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready. History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom. . . . The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.[8]

Philosophy, the owl of Minerva, is dependent upon a reality that precedes and surpasses it but which makes it possible. To reason, to do philosophy, is to acknowledge that human knowledge and existence is dependent upon and subsequent to an experience and reality which constitutes our world, which makes thought and reason, and even the actual, a possibility. Reality, Hegel says, has completed its “formative process” upon our arrival, and the hope of “maturity” is that reality as it is conceived will one day coincide with what is real.

To deny this possibility, or what is the same thing for Hegel, to deny God, is on the order of denying the possibility of reason. As he goes on to argue, actuality and rationality must coincide in God, and to believe God exists is to acknowledge as much. Or even if God exists, and yet is counted unknowable, then nothing is knowable.

For the two aspects the objective and subjective have but one foundation for their further determination, and but one specific character pervades them both. The idea which a man has of God corresponds with that which he has of himself, of his freedom. Knowing himself in God, he at the same time knows his imperishable life in God; he knows of the truth of his Being, and therefore the idea of the immortality of the soul here enters as an essential moment into the history of religion.  The ideas of God and of immortality have a necessary relation to each other; when a man knows truly about God, he knows truly about himself too: the two sides correspond with each other.[9]

Knowing God is reason’s possibility and it is this possibility that is actualized in reason, which brings together the objective and subjective. The idea of God and the understanding of self are necessarily interdependent. A false or inadequate understanding of God will give rise to a false or inadequate understanding of the self, but the tendency is not to relinquish my “fixed finiteness” as this serves as my absolute. On the other hand, “To relinquish my finiteness and to reach it would be one and the same thing.” My finitude is only rightly understood in relation to what is infinite. Thus, “The interest or motive not to reach that something beyond, and the interest I have in maintaining myself, are identical.”[10]

Where this false understanding is the shared understanding of a society, this will give rise not only to inadequate religion but a failed state and society, as religion serves as the foundation of the State (in Judaism, according to Hegel, they are one and the same). Thus, according to Hegel, “A nation which has a false or bad conception of God, has also a bad state, bad government, bad laws.”[11] The direct correlate of an unknowable God is an unknowable self, and thus all truth or possibility of truth, for myself, is impossible. Truth must be mediated and the self is rendered dependent, enslaved, unfree. Thus, in this situation, the self is powerless against the State. In Hegel’s estimate, since European societies have a bad conception of God, in which he is unknowable, this explains why they have a bad state. While they acknowledge the existence of God, “To say merely that ‘God exists’ is to ascribe bare, characterless existence to a meaningless name.” Natural consciousness might assign predicates such as “perfection” or “necessity” to God but they still cannot “be added up to tell us what the empty name ‘God’ means.”[12] This objectification of God results in a self-objectification, which misses the immanent realization of God in Spirit.

For example, the Cartesian cogito, “I think therefore I am” concludes to an inaccessible self, divided from thought. The existing thing, is a bare existent thing in itself, and what is passed over is the “I Am” of the tetragrammaton.  Finding the terminus of this “I am” in the self is on the order of identifying God’s existence as impersonal other; here “I am” rendered other to myself, assigning to the self a being that is inaccessible, the thinking thing that does not arise in thought. The “I think” is indeed dependent upon an “I Am” but not one that is graspable in thought, but which is the very necessity for thought. Being, mind, the noumena, the thing in itself, is not thinkable but provides for all thought and experience. God is more intimate to myself than my own thoughts. He is the Absolute in whom we live, move and think and in and through whom we have being.  The Absolute is thought, but cannot be thought or reduced to comprehension. There is only the possibility for a relational, dynamic, temporal, approach to the Absolute.


[1] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures On the Philosophy of Religion: Together With a Work on the Proofs of the Existence of God vol. 1, Trans. By E. B. Speirs, and J. Burdon Sanderson, (London:  Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co. Ltd., 1895) 53.

[2] Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology, (New York: Verso, 2009) 48.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 87.

[5] Ibid.

[6] G.W.F. Hegel, Hegel, Vorlesungen über Rechtsphilosophie 1818–1831, Edition und Kommentar in sechs Bänden, hrsg. von Karl–Heinz Ilting, Stuttgart, Friedrich Frommann, 1973, 26, cited in Rose, 87.

[7] Ibid, Rechtsphilosophie, 27-8, cited in Rose, Ibid.

[8] G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, Translated by S.W Dyde (Kitchener Ontario: Batoche Books, 2001) 20.

[9] Hegel, Philosophy of Religion, 79-80.

[10]Ibid, 177.

[11] Ibid, 247.

[12] Rose, 100.

Apologies to Hegel: Knowing God is Essential

One thing we all know to be true about Hegel – he is presumptuous, assigning too much weight to philosophy and human knowing, and thus he is pitting philosophy against Orthodox Christianity.

Whatever else one might say about Hegel, the presumed consensus is precisely wrong, both in its reading of Hegel and most likely in its understanding of the Christian faith. One does not have to read much of Hegel to recognize he is challenging the presumptuousness of Enlightenment thought, in particular that of Immanuel Kant, as it has impacted theology. He is arguing for a biblical, doctrinal, Trinitarian, Alexandrian, Christianity, in which Christian dogma, and not human reason takes first place. He is not displacing Christ or Christianity but working from the axiom of the incarnation, very much like Maximus the Confessor. As Hans Urs von Balthasar notes, Hegel is a thinker on the order of Maximus, sharing focus on synthesis, on Trinity, on escaping a finite dialectic, and even on developing the Chalcedonian formula. As Balthasar puts it, “Maximus looks straight in the eye of Hegel, who clearly derived his synthetic way of thinking from the Bible-more precisely from the anthropological antitheses of the Old Testament and from that between the Bible and Hellenism, as well as from the reconciling synthesis of Christ, understood principally from a Johannine (and thus, in effect, from an Alexandrian) perspective.”[1] Balthasar here pictures the singular difference as Maximus being more open in his Christology, “everyone recognizes that his ontology and cosmology are extensions of his Christology, in that the synthesis of Christ’s concrete person is not only God’s final thought for the world but also his original plan.”[2] Yet, he pictures them as directly reflecting one another. Maximus’ focus on synthesis and not confusion and his bold application of “theological truth to philosophical, ontological, and cosmological thought” is directly taken up by Hegel (it is here that Maximus is looking into the eyes of Hegel).[3] As Balthasar notes in private correspondence concerning his work on Maximus, “This morning I put the finishing touches on a new two hundred-page book about Maximus Confessor, the ‘Hegel’ of the Greek fathers and ‘father’ of Eriugena.”[4] Could the problem be that, like Maximus, Hegel is developing a form of thought so centered upon Christ that it is beyond the common notion of reason. At a minimum, to accuse Hegel of presumptuously displacing Christ is misdirected.

First of all, Hegel is concerned to recover Christ as the true import of the Bible. He recognizes that all parties might appeal to the Bible, but philosophy, theology and reason are implicitly undermining Scripture. He describes a form of exegesis that “has taken counsel with reason” and “pretends only to lay stress on the understanding of the word, and to desire to remain faithful to it” but empties it of all spiritual value and content.[5] He describes a system in which “in downright earnest” exegetes imagine “the Bible is made the foundation” but due to the very categories of thought and reason with which Scripture is read “the thoughts of the interpreter must necessarily be put into the words which constitute the foundation.” In turn, “Commentaries on the Bible do not so much make us acquainted with the content of the Scriptures, as rather with the manner in which things were conceived in the age in which they were written.”[6] The “most contradictory meanings have been exegetically demonstrated by means of Theology out of the Scripture, and thus the so-called Holy Scriptures have been made into a nose of wax.”[7] This form of exegesis, a “Theology of Reason,” “is put in opposition to that doctrinal system of the Church,” though it “pretends only to lay stress on the understanding of the word, and to desire to remain faithful to it” in reality it “takes possession of the written word” and bends it to its own shape.[8]

Hegel notes that all heresies appeal to the Scriptures. So too the “Theology of Reason,” claims to keep to Scripture as foundation but is a form of reason alien to the Bible.  The end result of this approach is not encounter with God, but the knowledge of God made impossible. “It no longer gives our age any concern that it knows nothing of God; on the contrary, it is regarded as a mark of the highest intelligence to hold that such knowledge is not even possible.”[9] Hegel is attempting to bring about a return to the faith of the Bible, by refuting the negative understanding associated with the Theology of Reason.

He sees his philosophy as a counter to the arrogance of those who would “dispense both with the content which revelation gives of the Divine nature, and with what belongs to reason.”[10] This form of thought (the very form of thought accusing him of arrogance), he accuses of the “blind arrogance which is proper to it.”[11]

If, then, those theologians, who busy themselves with their argumentations in exegesis, and appeal to the Bible in connection with all their notions, when they deny as against philosophy the possibility of knowledge, have brought matters to such a pass, and have so greatly depreciated the reputation of the Bible, that if the truth were as they say, and if according to the true explanation of the Bible, no knowledge of the nature of God were possible, the spirit would be compelled to look for another source in order to acquire such truth as should be substantial or full of content.[12]

Hegel describes the plight of theology in his age (which sounds so familiar), as denying the dogmas and doctrines which once served as the center of the faith. In place of dogmas there is a “widespread, almost universal, indifference towards what in earlier times were held to be essential doctrines of the faith.”[13] Though, according to confession, Christ “continues to be made the central point of faith as Mediator, Reconciler, and Redeemer; but what was known as the work of redemption has received a very prosaic and merely psychological signification.” The old “edifying words have been retained,” but they have been emptied of significance – “the very thing that was essential in the old doctrine of the Church has been expunged.”[14] Depth of faith has given way to a “devotional bent” leaving aside the doctrines on which the early church focused: “the weighty doctrines of the Trinity, of the resurrection of the body, as also the miracles in the Old and New Testaments, are neglected as matters of indifference, and have lost their importance. The divinity of Christ, dogma, what is peculiar to the Christian religion is set aside, or else reduced to something of merely general nature.”[15]

 In particular, Hegel notes the neglect concerning the Trinity, with those of the Enlightenment or those given to theological piety concluding, “the Trinity was brought into Christian doctrine by the Alexandrian school,” or “by the neo-Platonists.” Whether Trinity is essential-Truth no longer matters, “that is a point which is not examined into, and yet that doctrine is the key-note of the Christian religion.” As Hegel sums up, “If an opportunity was given to a large number of these theologians to lay their hand on their heart, and say whether they consider faith in the Trinity to be indispensably necessary to salvation, and whether they believe that the absence of such faith leads to damnation, there can be no doubt what the answer would be.” First of all, such a one would shrink from such words as “damnation” and though he might not want to deny the Trinity, “he would, in case his being directly appealed to, find it very difficult express himself in an affirmative.” [16] He continues in this train with indictment of religious books and sermons, in which one might suppose “the fundamental doctrines of the Christian religion are supposed to be set forth” and yet, he concludes it is highly doubtful they perform this basic task.[17]

Far from Hegel displaying an arrogant dismissal of Christ, doctrine and the church, he can be read as providing a zealous indictment of this very dismissal. So much of what he writes could serve as tract against the contemporary church, not least of which is his dismissal of those who are solely concerned to recover the history of the New Testament. Such theologians are no better than “clerks in a mercantile house, who have only to keep an account of the wealth of strangers, who only act for others without obtaining any property for themselves. They do, indeed, receive salary, but their reward is only to serve, and to register that which is the property of others.” The faith passes through them, like a reward of which they are not the direct recipients. “Theology of this kind has no longer a place at all in the domain of thought; it has no longer to do with infinite thought in and for itself, but only with it as a finite fact, as opinion, ordinary thought, and so on.” A theology focused on history, imagining it enough to recover the historical Jesus, is not encountering and possessing the truth, but is content with what served as truth for others. “With the true content, with the knowledge of God, such theologians have no concern. They know as little of God as a blind man sees of a painting, even though he handles the frame.”[18]

The end product of the Theology of Reason is a denial of the basic premise of the New Testament and the life of Christ. While one might refer to this negative knowledge as a form of reason, Hegel’s point is it is not true reason. True reason is grounded in the Spirit given through Christ. Thus, it is not a Spirit “beyond the stars, beyond the world. On the contrary, God is present, omnipresent, and exists as Spirit in all spirits. God is a living God, who is acting and working. Religion is a product of the Divine Spirit; it is not a discovery of man, but a work of divine operation and creation in him.”[19] God is reasonable and has shared his form of reason in the Spirit, but humankind abandons this reason and abandons the particularity of the Spirit (of incarnation) in grasping for the absolute and universal apart from the concrete.

In particular, Hegel notes, that finite conceptions of the infinite (abstractions), exercise dominance.  “For the doctrine concerning God goes on to that of the characteristics, the attributes, and the actions of God. Such knowledge takes possession of this determinate content, and would make it appear that it belongs to it. It, on the one hand, conceives of the Infinite in its own finite fashion, as something which has a determinate character, as an abstract infinite, and then on the other hand finds that all special attributes are inadequate to this Infinite.” The infinite becomes defined by what it is not, in relation to the finite. “By such a mode of proceeding the religious content is annihilated, and the absolute object reduced to complete poverty.” [20]

Hegel describes the Enlightenment as the “consummation of finite knowledge,” but in imagining it is exalting God by regarding “all predicates” as “inadequate” (mere “unwarranted anthropomorphisms”) in “reality, it has, in conceiving God as the supreme Being, made Him hollow, empty, and poor.”[21] As Balthasar notes in regard to Maximus, “only when Christ appeared did it become irrefutably clear that the creature is not simply pure negation with respect to God and, thus, cannot be saved simply through mystical absorption in God, but rather-however much he is elevated to share in God’s being, however much he dies to the world-the creature is saved only in the express preservation and perfection of his nature.”[22] This is Hegel’s point in regard to the Enlightenment, which ends with a purely negative notion of God and thus misses the concrete reality of Christ due to its misplaced focus on the infinite.

In the typical understanding of the infinite, it takes on its characteristics as the opposite and negative of the finite. As Hegel remarks, this is the foundation of human knowing. Human thought is grounded on difference, such as subject/object or north/south in which the terms are understood in contrast, but as he notes, they are different but “inseparable.”[23] What Kant and the Enlightenment thinkers missed was the inherent negativity in the dualism between infinity and finitude. “The further step which speculative philosophy had to take was to apprehend the negativity which is immanent within the universal or the identical, as in the ‘I’ – a step the need for which is not perceived by those who fail to apprehend the dualism of infinity and finitude, even in that immanent and abstract form in which Fichte understood it.”[24] Thought grounded in the ‘I’ is inherently dualistic. There is no bridge between thought and the thinking thing. Likewise, infinity and finitude contain this same inherent dualism. The infinite is no more accessible than the noumena or the thinking thing. “But this indeterminacy is itself merely a negation with regard to the determinate, to finitude: ‘I’ is this solitude and absolute negation.”[25] What this form of thought misses is its own inherent negativity. As Jordan Wood and Justin Coyle summarize, “We know the Ding an sich [thing in itself] only as unknowable, as that which eludes our grasp. Hegel wants to know exactly how Kant knows all this. How, for instance, does Kant know for certain that what is a priori and so subjective cannot also prove objective? Here Kant’s very attempt to scrupulously police the boundaries of thought betrays a deep presumption. Kant has somehow mapped an unnavigable trench before he’s crossed it.”[26]

As Hegel argues, “This logical knowledge, which comes first, must lie behind us when we have to deal with religion scientifically; such categories must have long ago been done with. But the usual thing is to employ these as weapons against the Notion, the Idea; against rational knowledge.”[27] Hegel is contrasting this “logical knowledge,” with his development of the Christian “Notion” and his new order of reason and science. “In religion it is not, however, with phenomena that we have to do, it is with an absolute content. But those who employ this argumentative kind of reasoning seem to think the Kantian philosophers have existed only to afford opportunity for the more unblushing use of those categories.”[28] Reason must pass beyond the Kantian antinomies and his presumed delimitation of knowledge.

Hegel proposes a path around Kantian dualism, inherent to human reason, in worship of the Incarnate Christ: “Worship is thus, in fact, the eternal process by which the subject posits itself as identical with its essential being.”[29] In worship we become what we truly are and we escape the dualism inherent to abstract reason. “Through worship, unity is attained; what is not originally united, however, cannot be posited or made explicit as such. This unity, which appears as the act, the result of worship, must be recognised, too, as existing in and for itself. For what is object for consciousness is the Absolute, and its essential characteristic is that it is unity of its absoluteness with particularity. This unity is therefore in the object itself; for example, in the Christian conception of the Incarnation of God.”[30] There is a direct encounter with God in Christ, in which the Absolute is fused with particularity. “This self-existent unity, or, put more definitely, the human form, God’s becoming man, is in fact an essential moment of religion, and must necessarily appear in the definition of its object.”[31] Religion, in Hegel’s definition, is encounter with God, and thus the incarnation is definitive of religion.

However, if one is committed to reflection rather than incarnation as the central guiding point, darkness will prevail. There is no determinate content, but only abstraction devoid of spirit. In the incarnation, however, the darkness is lifted: “The content, it is then said, commends itself to me for its own sake, and the witness of the Spirit teaches me to recognise it as truth, as my essential determination. And, undoubtedly, the infinite idea of the Incarnation for example that speculative central point has so great a power in it that it penetrates irresistibly into the heart which is not as yet darkened by reflection.”[32]

The turn to the incarnation involves passage beyond abstraction to the concrete, or what can be known by faith. Faith, “actuated by the courage of truth and freedom, grasps the truth as something concrete, as fulness of content, as Ideality, in which determinateness the finite is contained as a moment.”[33] No longer is one given to the abstract negative of logical knowledge, but there appears its opposite, “thinking reason” grounded in God as Spirit. “God is not emptiness, but Spirit; and this characteristic of Spirit does not remain for it a word only, or a superficial characteristic; on the contrary, the nature of Spirit unfolds itself for rational thought, inasmuch as it apprehends God as essentially the Triune God.”[34] As I pointed out (here), Hegel’s notion of Spirit is Johannine in that it is a result of and continuation of the incarnation. All the members of the Trinity are made known in Christ. That is, in the first instance, Christ is God’s image known and being made known. “Thus God is conceived of as making Himself an object to Himself, and further, the object remains in this distinction in identity with God; in it God loves Himself.”[35] This love is then shared through the gift of the Spirit, which is the gift of God’s life and Spirit. “Without this characteristic of Trinity, God would not be Spirit, and Spirit would be an empty word.”[36] In this understanding, true reason and knowledge, the knowing of a determinate content within the human subject, are opened.

So, the choice is a theology, philosophy, and mode of reason on the order of nominalism, or accentuating the divide which marks the immanent and economic Trinity. As Hegel notes, most theologians would have no problem fudging on or relinquishing belief in the Trinity, and of course what they are simultaneously relinquishing is knowing God.

What is laid down by the Christian religion as the supreme, absolute commandment, “Ye shall know God,” is regarded as a piece of folly. Christ says, “Be ye perfect, as My Father in heaven is perfect.” This lofty demand is to the wisdom of our time an empty sound. It has made of God an infinite phantom, which is far from us, and in like manner has made human knowledge a futile phantom of finiteness, or a mirror upon which fall only shadows, only phenomena. How, then, are we any longer to respect the commandment, and grasp its meaning, when it says to us, “Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” since we know nothing of the Perfect One, and since our knowing and willing are confined solely and entirely to appearance, and the truth is to be and to remain absolutely and exclusively a something beyond the present ? And what, we must further ask, what else would it be worthwhile to comprehend, if God is incomprehensible?[37]

The point of biblical Christianity is knowing God, and apart from this knowledge it is not clear Christian faith survives. “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Such verses could be multiplied as they serve as the backbone of the faith, yet Hegel is accused of arrogance for taking this knowledge seriously, and in the meantime this simple and most concrete fact, the very point of Christianity, is passed over. As Hegel perceived it this is the height of arrogance and the last stage of the degradation of man. It is “all the more arrogant inasmuch as he thinks he has proved to himself that this degradation is the highest possible state, and is his true destiny.”[38] But of course this form of arrogant dismissal of the foundations of the faith is directly counter to the true faith. “Such a point of view is, indeed, directly opposed to the lofty nature of the Christian religion, for according to this we ought to know God, His nature, and His essential Being, and to esteem this knowledge as something which is the highest of all.”[39] Knowing God is the point of Christianity and Hegel is the thinker who has accentuated this truth.


[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor, Translated by Brian E. Daley, S.]. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988) 207.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] In a letter from 1937, to Emil Lerch. Cited in Jordan Daniel Wood, The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor (p. 217). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[5] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures On the Philosophy of Religion: Together With a Work on the Proofs of the Existence of God vol. 1, Trans. By E. B. Speirs, and J. Burdon Sanderson, (London:  Kegan Paul,  Trench, Trubner, & Co. Ltd., 1895) 28.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 29.

[8] Ibid, 28.

[9] Ibid, 36.

[10] Ibid, 37.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 32.

[13] Ibid, 38.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, 39.

[17] Ibid, 40.

[18] Ibid, 41.

[19] Ibid, 33.

[20] Ibid, 28.

[21] Ibid, 29-30.

[22] Balthasar, 207-208.

[23] On the Philosophy of Religion, 56.

[24] G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Tran. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 40.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Jordan Daniel Wood and Justin Shaun Coyle, “Must Catholics Hate Hegel?” Church Life Journal (June 8, 2018). https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/must-catholics-hate-hegel/

[27] On the Philosophy of Religion, 55.

[28] Ibid, 56.

[29] Ibid, 70.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid. 151

[33] Ibid, 30.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid, 30-31.

[37] Ibid, 36.

[38] Ibid, 36-37.

[39] Ibid, 37.

The Logic of John Expanded Upon by Hegel

In the Gospel of John the incarnation, as presented in the Prologue, is the interpretive key, not only to the book of John, but as Origen and Maximus the Confessor take it, to everything. That is Maximus, following an interpretive tradition from John through Origen and the Cappadocian Fathers reaching to G. W. F. Hegel, focuses on the logic of the Logos as presented in John.  In the words of Maximus, “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things.”[1] The Word become flesh is the goal of creation. The incarnational work begun in Jesus culminates in spiritual worship, an order of spirit and truth in which the historical Christ is the entry point and touchstone of the Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit is to incarnate Jesus (14:26), to glorify Jesus in the disciples by making what is His, theirs (16:14). The Logos sets up the unfolding (in John), from the Word made flesh to the outpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh. Jesus identifies his words directly with Spirit: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (John 6:63). Jesus is the Logos of God but by the same token his words come directly from God and are light, life, truth and Spirit (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). The incarnate Logos is the interpretive key for understanding the Spirit as the singular movement of history, and this understanding of John is definitive of the Hegelian project – tracing the phenomenology of Spirit.[2]

The argument, as worked out by Benedict Viviano can be summed up in two steps: 1. “our principal thesis is that the key to the right understanding of the Johannine concept of the Spirit as a force working in the believers who live in the world of history is the incarnation, the word of God made flesh in space and time.” 2. “of all John’s many interpreters it is the Christian philosopher Hegel who has done the most to take this Johannine doctrine of the Spirit seriously in its singularity and in its richness. And it is Hegel who has worked out its implications for an understanding of the universal significance of the biblical historical mode of discourse, as well as for an understanding of the meaning of the human historical process as a whole.”[3] In John, the work of the Spirit is to expand (universalize) the saving revelation of Christ, and it is Hegel who has focused on explicating a proper understanding of this work of the Spirit.

Hegel begins his philosophical career as a seminarian, particularly interested in the Gospel of John. Two of his favorite texts were John 4:24 (“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”) and John  16:13 (“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”)[4] As T.M. Knox, the translator of his early texts on John notes, “After years of theological study, Hegel came to the conclusion that the spirit underlying the letter of Christian dogma could be discerned only if he first placed the teaching of Jesus in its historical context.”[5] To approach a right understanding of Spirit is to understand the particular events and teaching of Jesus, which pertains directly to his reading of John. According to Knox, Hegel’s theological and philosophical thinking begin with his reading of the Prologue of John.[6] The young Hegel finds in John the key to the solution as to how a particular historical event (in the life and death of Jesus) can have universal significance. The answer is to be found in Jesus’ incarnation, enfleshing the will of the Father, and ushering in the universal saving work of the Spirit.

Jesus therefore demands attention for his teachings, not because they are adapted to the moral needs of our spirit, but because they are God’s will. This correspondence of what he said with God’s will, and his statements that “who believes in me, believes in the Father.” “I teach nothing save what the Father has taught me”(which particularly in St. John is the dominant and ever recurring idea), gave him his authority, and without this authority they could not in themselves have been brought home to his contemporaries, no matter how eloquent his conception of virtue’s worth.[7]

Jesus embodies the will of God, such that he is the incarnation of His will. “He who has seen me, has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:8). Jesus’ teaching is straight from the Father. The historical, enfleshed, concrete person Jesus is the entry point into the universal God. Hegel notes, “John is the Evangelist who has the most to say about God and the bond between God and Jesus.”[8] Commenting on the Prologue to John, he notes that what is being offered here are not judgments or concepts, but being and life. However, the recipients of this Gospel cannot receive, these seemingly (“intellectually”) contradictory ideas (such as God became flesh, the Logos is Divine) apart from the Spirit. “Of the two extreme methods of interpreting John’s exordium, the most objective is to take the Logos as something actual, an individual; the most subjective is to take it as reason; in the former case as a particular, in the latter as universality; in the former, as the most single and exclusive reality, in the latter as a mere ens rationis.”[9] As Knox notes, “Hegel is arguing that the living relationship between God, Jesus, and men can be apprehended in spirit, but this creates difficulties for the intellect.” If it is understood according to standard reason “insoluble contradictions arise” but Hegel sees Christ synthesizing what cannot be intellectually grasped.[10] Analytic reason forces one to separate God and Logos (or form and matter), but in Hegel’s understanding they are one life, “aspects of one whole.” [11]  

As Hegel puts it, “God and the Logos are only different in that God is matter in the form of the Logos: the Logos itself is with God; both are one.”[12] Hegel, in a manner that reminds one of Maximus’ logoi, clarifies that this explains the basis of God’s presence in creation: “The multiplicity, the infinity, of the real is the infinite divisibility realized: by the Logos all things are made; the world is not an emanation of the Deity, or otherwise the real would be through and through divine. Yet, as real, it is an emanation, a part of the infinite partitioning, though in the part (ἐν αὐτῷ is better taken with the preceding οὐδὲ ἕν ὃ γέγονεν) or in the one who partitions ad infinitum (if ἐν αὐτῷ is taken as referring to the λόγος), there is life.”[13] On the other hand, the “single entity” or “the restricted entity” is “opposed to life,” it is “something dead.”[14] Human reason divides into subject and predicate, such that all finite things have their opposite (e.g., light and darkness), but only in Christ are the oppositions inherent to consciousness overcome. For example, “John the Baptist was not the light; he only bore witness of it; he had a sense of the one whole, but it came home to his consciousness not in its purity but only in a restricted way, in specific relations. He believed in it, but his consciousness was not equivalent to life.” Jesus’ consciousness “is equivalent to life” as “in it consciousness and life differ only in that the latter is being, while the former is being as reflected upon. Though John was not himself the φῶς (light), yet it was in every man who comes into the world of men (κόσμος means the whole of human relationships and human life, i.e., something more restricted than πάντα and ὃ γέγονεν v. 3).”[15] The Cosmos is the world of men (not all being), such that Christ is enlightening all human interconnections and relationships.

As Hegel explains, it is not simply a case of man’s being lighted by entry into the world, though the light is also in the world. The world and all of its relationships are in the light of this man, but the world did not realize that the whole of creation is brought into “self-consciousness” in him. “Nature now coming to self-consciousness was in the world but it did not enter the consciousness of the world.” That is, “the world of men did not recognize that Jesus was ‘Nature becoming conscious of itself, i.e., was the Logos.”[16] As he puts it in Philosophy of History, “This reflection of the mind on itself is individual self-consciousness — the polar opposite of the Idea in its general form, and therefore existing in absolute Limitation. This polar opposite is consequently limitation, particularization, for the universal absolute being; it is the side of its definite existence; the sphere of its formal reality, the sphere of the reverence paid to God.”[17] Those who recognize Christ are empowered to have life through this particular one who is life. “They do not become other than they were, but they know God and recognize themselves as children of God, as weaker than he, yet of a like nature in so far as they have become conscious of that spiritual relation suggested by his name (ὄνομα)” as they too become men lighted by the true light and they find their essence in God.[18]

The Jewish principle, which may be representative of the human principle, would separate thought and reality, reason and sense, and “this principle involves the rending of life and a lifeless connection between God and the world, though the tie between these must be taken to be a living connection; and, where such a connection is in question, ties between the related terms can be expressed only in mystical phraseology.” Hegel takes the term Son as an example. If it is understood in its ordinary sense, the meaning of Jesus being the Son of the Father will be lost – and this is the tendency in “reflective thinking.” “Thus the son of God is the same essence as the father, and yet for every act of reflective thinking, though only for such thinking, he is a separate essence.”[19] Hegel might have the Chalcedonian formula in mind, as he specifically defends the absolute difference between deity and humanity, and recognizes that on the basis of human intellect there is no reconciling of these “opposites,” yet in Christ what cannot be conceptually or intellectually synthesized are brought together. The choice is one of clinging to the intellect as a means of grasping God (knowledge), or accepting Jesus (faith). “The relation of Jesus to God, as the relation of a son to his father, could be apprehended as a piece of knowledge or alternatively by faith, according as man puts the divine wholly outside himself or not. Knowledge posits, for its way of taking this relation, two natures of different kinds, a human nature and a divine one, a human essence and a divine one, each with personality and substantiality, and, whatever their relation, both remaining two because they are posited as absolutely different.”[20] Those who cling to irreconcilable difference “save the intellect” by opting for “destruction of life.”[21] There is only an objective knowing which does not allow for a relational fulness of the Subject.

Christ’s relation to the Father forms the basis for understanding every child of God who comes to share in the life of the Spirit. Here Hegel employs a metaphor on the order of Jesus’ depiction of the branches and the vine (John 15:4-16). “A tree which has three branches makes up with them one tree; but every ‘son’ of the tree, every branch (and also its other ‘children,’ leaves and blossoms) is itself a tree. The fibers bringing sap to the branch from the stem are of the same nature as the roots.”[22] In the words of Jesus, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:5-7). Hegel explains both the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit through this analogy, and then broadens it to include all children of God.

 As the Jews recognize in John, Jesus makes himself equal with God (John 5:18; 10:33). What they do not recognize is his call to all people to participate in this Trinitarian relationship. In his counter to their accusation Jesus does not deny the claim to deity but points to Psalms, which acknowledges deification of all who have received the word: “Jesus answered them, ‘Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I SAID, YOU ARE GODS’? ‘If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (John 10:34–36). The Jews are right, Jesus claims divinity, but they misunderstand the self-giving love (kenosis) which calls everyone into this Divine Trinitarian relationship. As Hegel notes, to get them to look beyond his individuality, Jesus takes several approaches. He continually appeals “to his oneness with God,” but it is the Father “who has granted the son to have life in himself, just as the father has life in himself. He and the father are one; he is bread come down from heaven, and so forth”[23] His is a shared life with the Father, and one open to being shared with all. But to try to sift this through Jewish conceptuality, “as a by-product of the imagination” is to empty it of truth “and, instead of the life of the image, nothing remains but objects.”[24]

Just as the Word became flesh, so too the Spirit must transform the fleshly mind, bringing together in each particular individual the universal truth made immanent in Christ. As Hegel states it, “The union of universal abstract existence generally with the individual – the subjective – that this alone is truth.”[25] As he puts it succinctly in an earlier work, “The truth is the whole.”[26] (As Maximus puts it, “The end is in the beginning and the beginning is in the end.”[27]) In contrast, in a Greek metaphysical understanding, the meaningful is in the timeless, ahistorical, universal and necessary realm, and truth is precisely not particular or individual. The Enlightenment, in this sense, is Greek, and English deism is the sign that the historical personage of Christ really has no place in this religion. As Hegel notes, religion can “adumbrate reason” or it can serve as its own sort of reason. “It makes a difference, however, whether Reason is explicitly developed in Religion, or merely adumbrated by it, as constituting its hidden basis.”[28]

In Hegel’s estimate he is staying true to the Nicene creed and the Gospel of John:

It was the Church that recognized and established the doctrines in question — i.e. the Spirit of the Church; and it is itself an Article of Doctrine: “I believe in a Holy Church;”as Christ himself also said: “The Spirit will guide you into all truth.” In the Nicene Council (A.D. 325), was ultimately established a fixed confession of faith, to which we still adhere: this confession had not, indeed, a speculative form, but the profoundly speculative is most intimately inwoven with the manifestation of Christ himself. [29]

Then, once again quoting from the Prologue of John, he concludes, “The profoundest thought is connected with the personality of Christ — with the historical and external. . . it is the very grandeur of the Christian religion. . .”[30]

Christian truth is historical and personal, and in Christ the particular, the individual, the personal and the historical are the universal. There is nothing more Christian, and Hegel sharpens this Christian theological reality. Christian reason is a different order of understanding and it is Hegel who develops this difference. [31] Hegel describes a universal abstract existence united to the individual, which is the true reason (the Logos) which governs the world and gives history its intelligibility. As Viviano argues, “Hegel is here clearly speaking about God in the form of Spirit, «the energizing power realizing» God’s aim in history, which became incarnate in Jesus and is then carried on by the gift of his Spirit, as in the period before Christ the Spirit was active as the Spirit of prophecy.”[32] As Hegel succinctly describes it, “This spiritual movement, which in its simplicity gives itself its determinateness, and in this determinateness gives itself its self-equality – this movement, which is thus the immanent development of the concept, is the absolute method of the concept, the absolute method of cognition and at the same time the immanent soul of the content.”[33] The spiritual movement of history is the arrival at a true self, the “immanent soul” coming to fulness.

Hegel sums up his understanding of the point of John, and in doing so summarizes the central point of his project.

This one, the Spirit, desires to guide you into all truth – not the company of Christ and his words. Only {erst) after him [Christ] and his instruction through the text will the Spirit come upon the apostles, will they become full of the Spirit for the first time. We could almost say that if you led Christianity back to its first appearance then you would be bringing it back on the basis of Spiritlessness; for Christ himself says that the Spirit will only (erst) come after me when I have gone away. The text of the first appearance thus contains only the presentiment of what the Spirit is and of what will be known as true.[34]

To go back to the historical Jesus, absent the gift of the Spirit, is to understand Christ “on the basis of Spiritlessness,” lacking the personal Spirit and Truth which Christ came to convey. As J. N. Findlay indicates in the Forward to Phenomenology of Spirit, “spiritual identification of two natures was conceived of as first occurring in the historic person of Jesus, it was also thought of as being capable of being shared by a whole society of believers, to whom the Divine Spirit at work in Jesus could be further communicated. Such a union of the individual and the specific with the transcendently universal is of course for Hegel the sense and ‘truth’ of everything.”[35] The transcendent and universal brought together in the particular person of Jesus, is for Hegel as for John, the very entry into truth.

Contrary to the common assumption, Findlay concludes, “If Hegel was nothing better, he was at least a great Christian theologian.”[36]


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

[2] This is the conclusion of Benedict T. Viviano, “The spirit of John’s Gospel : a Hegelian perspective” published in Freiburger Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie (2001) pp. 368-387.

[3] Viviano, 387.

[4] According to Hans Kung, The Incarnation of God: An Introduction to Hegel’s Theological Thought as Prolegomena to a Future Christology, trans. J.R. Stephenson (New York 1987; orig. 1970), p. 423. Cited in Viviano, 370.

[5] G.W.F. Hegel, On Christianity: Early Theological Writings by Friedrich Hegel, Trans, by T. M. Knox With an Introduction and Fragments Translated by Richard Kroner, (New York: Harper Torch Books, 1948) vi.

[6] Early Theological Writings, 60.

[7] Ibid, 76.

[8] Ibid, 255.

[9] Ibid, 257.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 257-258.

[13] Ibid, 258.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, With Prefaces by Charles Hegel and the Translator, J. Sibree, M.A. (Kitchener Ontario: Batoche Books, 2001) 40.

[18] Early Theological Writings, 259.

[19] Ibid, 260.

[20] Ibid, 264.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid, 261

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] The Philosophy of History, 36. Cited in Vivano, 373.

[26] G.W.F. Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes, ed. J. Hoffmeister (Hamburg 1952), p. 21. Cited in Vivano, 373.

[27] Ambigua 7.21.

[28] The Philosophy of History, 348.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid, 348-349.

[31] Ibid, Vivano.

[32] Ibid, Vivano.

[33] The Philosophy of History, 10.

[34] Hegel, Werke, Glockner ed. 19, 11, cited in Viviano, 387.

[35] G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, Translated by A. V. Miller with Analysis of the Text and Foreword by J. N. Findlay, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977) xxvii.

[36] Ibid.

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 https://visitmiyazaki.com/mythology/mythological-tale-opening-amano-iwato-the-heavenly-stone-cave/#:~:text=Susanoo%20decided%20to%20retaliate%20with,hid%20herself%20in%20a%20cave.

[2] Phys Org, April 8th 2024. https://phys.org/news/2024-04-solar-eclipse-indigenous-groups-eyes.html#:~:text=Remembering%20Maya%20eclipse%20myths&text=One%20belief%20is%20that%20crops,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: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/1087/

[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

Veneration of the Victory-Tree: A Meditation on the “Dream of the Rood”

The cross of Christ intersects our lives and transforms us at the place we most need Jesus. So, in reflecting upon the 8th century Anglo-Saxon poem “Dream of the Rood,” I am not surprised that a medieval and martial people would understand the cross in terms of military conquest; only then, for the self-sacrificial love of Christ and the cross itself to triumph over violence.[1] For in the mystery of the cross, Jesus sacrifices himself for the life of the world. The cross, hitherto, an object of shame and humiliation becomes an object of devotion and faithfulness to the way of Jesus. And the cross symbolizes and represents Christian love: a self-sacrificial love that extends to enemies as well as neighbors. Christians venerate the cross to draw near to the gift of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and especially during Passiontide, we contemplate the salvation wrought by the work of Christ on the cross. Thus, I invite you to reflect on the “Dream of the Rood” this Holy Week, to venerate the “victory-tree,” on which Christ offered his life for ours, and to meditate upon the great salvation we have in Jesus.

The “Dream of the Rood” describes the poet’s dream wherein he encounters the true cross upon which Christ died. In this dream the cross speaks giving a firsthand account of the crucifixion. The poem can be divided into three sections: it begins by describing the poet’s vision of the exalted cross, then the cross speaks recalling Jesus’s crucifixion from its point of view, and finally the poem concludes in a prayer offered by the poet extolling the glory and wonder of the Christ’s death. In this way, the poet invites us to a profound veneration of the holy cross and contemplation of the paschal mystery.

The poet begins by describing his dream as an encounter of the exalted cross. He says, “It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree raised on high, wound round with light, the brightest of beams.” The exalted cross appears as the cross in glory, which is the cross seen from the vantage of God’s victory over sin, death, and evil. When we behold the cross beyond the warped perversion of sin or the tarnish of death, then we like the poet behold the completed work of Christ and God’s presence revealed within all things. Thus, the poet declares, “that was no felon’s gallows.” The exalted cross reflects the glory of God from the place of uttermost despair, the place in which mankind kills the Son of God who became as we are to save us. So, the poet first responds to the sight of the exalted cross by becoming keenly aware of his own sin:

            Wondrous was the victory-tree, and I was stained by sins,

            wounded with guilt; I saw the tree of glory

            honored in garments, shining with joys,

            bedecked with gold; gems had

            covered worthily the Creator’s tree.

            And yet beneath that gold I began to see

            an ancient wretched struggle, when it first began

            to bleed on the right side. I was all beset with sorrows,

            fearful for that fair vision; I saw that eager beacon

            change garments and colors—now it was drenched,

            stained with blood, now bedecked with treasure.

 Indeed, confronted by the cross of glory we should all examine ourselves and confess by my own hand and for me my savior died. Yet, the exalted cross also remains forever the cross of Christ’s cosmic victory over the Enemy, the principalities and powers of darkness, and evil. To encounter the cross means simultaneously to gaze upon the glory of God and the suffering of Christ. The cross joins desolation and the consolation of God. And in the exaltation of cross, we witness the triumph of love over violence.

Then, the poem continues in a new voice, for the cross addresses the poet recalling its participation in Christ’s victory. The cross speaks first of its abuse as the instrument of executing criminals, lamenting, “Strong enemies seized me there, made me their spectacle, made me bear their criminals.” But in Christ’s crucifixion, the cross becomes something more than an instrument of death; for in Christ’s death God redeems all, even the cross. The cross transcends the use put to it by sinful mankind becoming God’s instrument of grace. The cross tells of cooperating with God’s saving purposes:

            …Then I saw the Lord of mankind

            hasten eagerly, when he wanted to ascend upon me.

            I did not dare to break or bow down

            against the Lord’s word, when I saw

            the ends of the earth tremble. Easily I might

            have felled all those enemies, and yet I stood fast.

            Then the young hero made ready—that was God almighty—

            strong and resolute; he ascended on the high gallows,

            brave in the sight of many, when he wanted to ransom mankind.

            I trembled when he embraced me, but I dared not bow to the ground,

            or gall to the earth’s corners—I had to stand fast.

            I was reared as a cross: I raised up the mighty King,

            the Lord of heaven; I dared not lie down.

The cross reveals that God in his wisdom does not save us without us.[2]  God’s plan of salvation includes the cooperation of creation. God saves us by the Blessed Virgin Mary’s cooperation with divine grace bearing God into the world as Jesus. God saves us by the cooperation of human nature and divine nature in the person of Jesus Christ. In the poet’s dream, God saves us by the cross’s cooperation with Christ for the salvation of the world. According to his wisdom, God saves us by drawing us into his own divine life and purpose for all things.

Then, the poem continues while the cross continues to speak describing Christ’s death, burial, and victory, which has caused some to question why the cross should speak so much, if at all. A conscious and intelligent cross might be the fruit of poetic imagination, or as some scholars suggest, the vestiges of a pagan and animistic past.[3] On the contrary, I consider the notion of a conscious relic guiding the Christian soul into deeper meditation of the mysteries of God a profoundly Christian idea. After all, St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”[4] In some way, the cosmos as God’s creature awaits the fulfillment of God’s creative purposes, when mankind will be revealed fully as the “children of God.” The cosmos, then, awaits the full manifestation of God’s work already accomplished on the cross. Creation’s conscious achievement of its end is realized not in some historical or primordial beginning, nor in the accumulation of days and years, nor by marking progress in terms of values or evolutionary biology, but in Jesus’s incarnation come to its fulness on the cross. Creation, after all, exists by God’s pleasure sprung from the fecundity of God’s love and formed according to God’s wisdom. Thus, I am not surprised that modern scientist endeavor to solve the hard problem of consciousness—whence consciousness—to no avail, especially when the presupposition is that matter produces consciousness. Regardless of how complex the chemical, biological, and physical systems of matter present themselves, matter does not produce consciousness much less intelligence. No, it seems more likely, and infinitely more satisfying, that God according to his love and wisdom, identical to the divine mind, creates all that is and grants creation a life of its own imbued with some sort of consciousness proportional to its being and its being loved, which can respond to God its creator and lover. Indeed, all that exists does so because God loves it, and the love of God ultimately revealed by Christ on the cross should not be considered frivolous. Therefore, we do well to learn from the poet that holy relics, the cross, and even the cosmos may serve as guides into the divine mystery of God’s love.

Finally, the poet concludes in prayer that he too might take up the cross and find himself in the glorious presence of God with his saints. After encountering the cross, recollecting his thoughts, the poet said:

            … My spirit longed to start

            on the journey forth; it felt

            so much of longing. It is now my life’s hope

            that I might seek the tree of victory

            alone, more often than all men

            and honor it well. I wish for that

            with all my heart, and my hope of protection is

            fixed on the cross. …

The cross marks the boundaries and defines the lines that chart the Christian life. The poet having received the vision of the true cross can do nothing else but take up his own cross and follow Jesus. Doubtless, suffering will mark the journey, even as Christ suffered, but when we undergo the passion of this life with faith and hope, then love will be our guide. Love will remain as we meet our end, for as the poet says, this life is but “loaned” to us and not our own. We ought then to be both as careful and careless with our lives as Jesus was with his. With great care we tend to our lives that we might grow into likeness of Christ; we offer our lives joined to Christ’s life as a gift to God. But was not our Lord, also, quite careless with his life abandoning it to death for our sake? So too we must not value our lives more than we love God or our neighbor. Only, then, can we know how to love ourselves. Furthermore, when we take up our journey after Christ’s own, we can be sure of its success:

            The Son was successful in that journey,

            mighty and victorious, when he came with a multitude,

            a great host of souls, into God’s kingdom,

            the one Ruler almighty, the angels rejoicing

            and all the saints already in heaven

            dwelling in glory, when almighty God,

            their Ruler, returned to his rightful home.

Not even death impeded Christ’s journey of incarnation, death, descent into the grave, victory, resurrection, and ascension. Death itself became God’s captive, made to serve God’s purposes, and made to usher God’s beloved into glory.

Therefore, as the poet says, when we venerate the holy cross, we venerate the “victory-tree.” Jesus by the grace of God invites us to contemplate the vastness of God’s blessing and love for us. The holiness of the cross is God’s holiness, which is the unwillingness of Christ to succumb to the temptation of establishing his life in this world. His life remained hidden with God. Consequently, he willingly took up the cross that it might raise him up as the King of Glory. The glory of God bore the woundedness of sinful mankind while he himself knew no sin. The wounded cross reveals the cross of glory, and the cross of glory heals our woundedness. Mankind in league with the Evil One contrived the cross as an instrument of terror and the humiliation of God, but God is not mocked. God redeemed the cross itself to preach his victory. And his victory becomes our victory, when we follow Christ, share in his love, and glory in his cross.

This article and others about Christian Spirituality and Acetic Theology by Fr. Jonathan Totty can be found at https://jonathantotty.substack.com/ which is dedicated to Christian pastoral and spiritual writing to foster a love of God and authentic subjectivity.


[1] “The Dream of the Rood” is anonymous and can be read in full online at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/159129/dream-of-the-rood-translation. The version quoted here is translated by Roy M. Liuzza.

[2] “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.” S. Augustine, in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1847.

[3] Richard North, Heathen God’s in Old English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 247.

[4] Romans 8:19

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. https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings. 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.