Maximus the Confessor: Knowing Christ as Breaking the Bonds of Human Knowledge

The parameters of human thought are captured in the statement, “Identity through difference reduces to sameness.” It is a plural parameter in that the first half of the statement captures the form of thought that is focused on difference. Greek dualism,[1] the Kantian distinction between noumena and phenomena, or the biblical portrayal of human knowledge as falling into the dialectical pairs of good and evil, illustrate some of the possible infinite pairs expressing a necessary difference. Language is structured on binaries and human entry into language depends upon the child entering into the capacity for differentiation, which is to say that identity through difference may describe philosophical or sociological possibilities all of which depend upon a more basic psychology.

Paul gives us the psychological form of the dialectic in Romans 7, in which the I is pitted against itself (I do what I do not want to do). He provides the religious form of the dialectic in his depiction of the Jewish reification of law and Jewishness (opposed to Gentiles). He depicts a sexual/psychological form of the dualism in the male/female duality, and he pictures a sociological dualism in the slave/free duality.

The second form of the parameter, the reduction to sameness, is often equated with eastern forms of monism or pantheism, which may also be a psychology, religion, and sociology. But to characterize the two forms of thought as eastern and western may be to miss that that identity through difference implies sameness. Hegel’s dialectic between death and life (or something and nothing), taken up by Heidegger, is indistinguishable from the Zen Buddhist thought of Nishida Kitaro (something Heidegger and Nishida recognized in one another). Just as with a “good” dependent on its opposite “evil” (as in the knowledge of good and evil), so too life dependent on death, or “something” dependent upon “nothing,” implicitly privileges evil, death and nothingness. Hegel, more than Heidegger, seems to recognize the inherent violence and evil (the necessity of the “slaughter bench of history”) grounding his dialectic, which the fascists (Heidegger and Nishida) served blindly. Though Sigmund Freud privileges the western notion of the ego and denigrates the drive to sameness, equating it with eastern religion (dubbing it the Nirvana Principle), in his later thought (emphasized by Jacques Lacan) he recognizes both phases of identity as part of the universal human sickness. The reality is that, though some may emphasize difference or sameness, the two are interdependent and always found together.

René Girard depicts sameness in terms of the undifferentiated violence which gripped the generation of Noah, constituting the flood. Universal destruction is a violent melding into the One. The resistance to sameness in the differentiation of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the Jewish Law, and the continual slide into idolatry, intermarriage, sexual and religious indifference, is the predominant story of the Bible. Differentiation turned into “absolute difference” (reification of the Law and Judaism) is the failure of thought attached perhaps to second Temple Judaism, pharisaic religion, or the religion practiced by Paul (the Pharisee) and his contemporaries. The absolute distinctions of Judaism in its depiction of God as holy and unapproachable, is the final preparation for the recognition of the revelation of the Messiah.

The New Testament depiction of the God/man ushers in a new order of knowing, psychology, sociology, and ultimately peace, founded upon knowing Christ rather than identity according to difference and sameness. It may be that Maximus the Confessor (580-662 A.D.) works out most completely how it is that Christ surpasses difference and sameness. Maximus comes at the end of a centuries long debate in which the heretical tendency was to either overemphasize the deity or the humanity  of Christ. The Council of Chalcedon makes a bald statement about the “hypostatic” union of deity and humanity in Christ:

of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood . . . 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.

The effort is to maintain the difference of two natures combined in one person, avoiding both difference of persons (there is a single unified person) yet maintaining difference of natures (yet “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation). What Maximus recognizes is this formula cannot be maintained on any other basis than that of Christ Jesus himself. Knowing Christ entails a new metaphysical understanding and an alternative epistemological order (knowing Christ is its own order of logic and its own order of being). To fit Christ to a Greek or any human frame of understanding will be to inevitably fall into identity through difference (an unapproachable transcendence) or sameness (immanence without transcendence). This is not simply a theoretical or philosophical danger, as Maximus recognizes that knowing Christ is a transformative knowing (involving deification or becoming united with Christ). How we know is determined, in this case, by who we know. Failing to know rightly, Maximus the Monk and ascetic recognizes, is to fail to know the love of God rightly. To enter into Trinitarian love is not a possibility available through human knowing, and human misunderstanding is not simply a failure to know rightly but this form of knowing is an obstacle to love.[2]

As Maximus explains in Ambigua (hereafter Amb.) 10 (explaining a statement of Gregory the Theologian that seems solely concentrated on reason and contemplation), true philosophy is always combined with true practice. He says “practice is absolutely conjoined with reason” as “right thinking” alone restrains “irrational impulses.” He describes the mode of human reason as clouded or veiled as it is misdirected from its telos of knowing God and is confined to “surface appearances” and is caught up “solely into what can be perceived by the senses, and so discovers angry passions, desires, and unseemly pleasures” (Amb. 10.7). He makes a distinction between knowing “polemically and agonistically” as opposed to a true rationality (Amb. 10.5). One can know through identity and difference (agonistically, polemically, dialectically), or one can know according to Christ.

True rationality will no longer play the contradictory game of imagining absolute difference as conceivable (the very ground of conception), and thus reducing it to sameness. Christ unifies what is absolutely transcendent and immanent, not in a new combination of these categories, but as their very definition.  As Jordan Wood puts it in regard to Maximus, “Divine and human natures are not only incommensurably different while perichoretically unified, but ineffably identical in Christ. . .. God is not merely transcendent, nor merely immanent, but is mysteriously the identity of both, and this renders him all the more transcendent.”[3]

Apart from Christ, transcendence is really a non-category, the equivalent of death or nothingness. That is, transcendence rendered as a mere negation, is no transcendence at all. God as an apophatic mystery is the equivalent of Heideggerian nothingness or Hegelian death. In both instances, the negation is the true power behind any positive being. By the same token, an apophatic God may serve as a reified nothingness – an absolute difference providing the background of all that is something. Though Maximus refers to the categories of transcendent and immanent or apophatic and cataphatic, these are not the basis of knowing nor do they constitute a metaphysical reality, as in Christ these categories are brought together such that Christ surpasses transcendence and immanence and apophatic and cataphatic. As Maximus writes,

As much as He became comprehensible through the fact of His birth, by so much more do we now know Him to be incomprehensible precisely because of that birth. “For He remains hidden even after His manifestation,” says the teacher, “or, to speak more divinely, He remains hidden in His manifestation. For the mystery remains concealed by Jesus, and can be drawn out by no word or mind, for even when spoken of, it remains ineffable, and when conceived, unknown. (Amb. 5.5)

Christ as the ground of true knowledge and true reason is not a ground that can be reduced or known on some other basis. This knowledge is ineffable, not in the sense that nothing or absence serves as the ground of knowing, but all knowing and all positive being gives itself in Christ as its own ground and is not apprehended on some other foundation. This is a positive transcendence – a new order of transcendence.

Beyond this, what could be a more compelling demonstration of the Divinity’s transcendence of being? For it discloses its concealment by means of a manifestation, its ineffability through speech, and its transcendent unknowability through the mind, and, to say what is greatest of all, it shows itself to be beyond being by entering essentially into being. (Amb. 5.5)

An immanent demonstration of transcendence or a manifestation of concealment or an articulation and knowability which reveals an inarticulate unknowability, is the only basis upon which transcendence is made known. It is only as Christ is beyond being that he can enter into being. What we learn in Christ is that a full transcendence is the basis for immanence. As Wood puts it, “He is not merely beyond knowability and unknowability (speech and silence, affirmation and negation, etc.). This very transcendence is what allows him to be both at once, and his being both at once is therefore the premiere index of this newly appreciable transcendence.”[4]

This seeming paradox is of the same order as the paradox that knowing does not serve as its own ground or that language arises from a deep grammar that is not itself subject to explanation. Christ is the foundation, the bedrock at which the spade is turned. Christ preserves absolute difference within the singular person he is (this is Maximus’ is), as the immanent manifestation of this absolute. This is a new order of transcendence and a new order of reason, bringing together what otherwise is radically separate, and bringing it together “without difference, without separation, and without distinction.”

As Maximus describes it in regard to Mary and Jesus’ virgin birth, the seemingly impossible is made possible and the paradoxical is rendered as part of a new order of understanding:

Thus, “though He was beyond being, He came into being,” fashioning within nature a new origin of creation and a different mode of birth, for He was conceived having become the seed of His own flesh, and He was born having become the seal of the virginity of the one who bore Him, showing that in her case mutually contradictory things can truly come together. For she herself is both virgin and mother, innovating nature by a coincidence of opposites, since virginity and childbearing are opposites, and no one would have been able to imagine their natural combination. Therefore the Virgin is truly “Theotokos,” for in a manner beyond nature, as if by seed, she conceived and gave birth to “the Word who is beyond being,” since the mother of one who was sown and conceived is properly she who gave Him birth. (Amb. 5.13)

Only one beyond being could so fashion being, providing the seed for his own flesh, preserving the virginity of His own Mother, and making her who is subject to His being, give birth to the one beyond being. “For ‘in a manner beyond’ us, the ‘Word beyond being truly assumed our being,’ and joined together the transcendent negation with the affirmation of our nature” thus His is a power “that is beyond infinity, recognized through the generation of opposites” (Amb. 5.14).

As Maximus notes, it is not as if human identity has its existence apart from the possibility of this reality found in Christ, as human “essence itself, which plainly is not a self-subsisting hypostasis, for it has no existence in and of itself, but instead receives its being in the person of God the Word, who truly assumed it” (Amb. 5.11). The identity of Christ as the God/man is not subsequent to human identity but is the very ground and source of human identity. It is only “in a manner beyond man,” that “He truly became man” and it is only due to His transcendence over nature that he came to be “according to nature, united and unimpaired” but this fact about who he is, the logic of the incarnation, is the logic of creation and of human identity. As Maximus succinctly puts it, “As God, He was the motivating principle of His own humanity, and as man He was the revelatory principle of His own divinity” (Amb. 5.18). Just as he is the ground of his humanity, he is the ground of all humanity, and this is made known in who he is. In all “that He did He confirmed the presence of the one through the other, since He is truly both” (God and man) (Amb. 5.17) and this difference is the ground of all human identity and the ground of true knowledge. “The conjunction of these was beyond what is possible, but He for whom nothing is impossible became their true union, and was the hypostasis in neither of them exclusively, in no way acting through one of the natures in separation from the other, but in all that He did He confirmed the presence of the one through the other, since He is truly both” (Amb. 5.17). Christ is the possibility and potentiality of what it means to be human. This possibility cannot be otherwise known or approached. The incarnate Christ is the very ground of human possibility, the purpose and ground of creation, and the understanding of this reality, like the reality itself, is only known though him.

Maximus is well aware that the temptation is to relinquish the absoluteness of divine transcendence or to make this absolute negation itself part of the typical dialectic constituting human knowledge: “it is not, as some would have it, “by the negation of two extremes that we arrive at an affirmation” of something in the middle, for there is no kind of intermediate nature in Christ that could be the positive remainder after the negation of two extremes” (Amb. 5.20). There is no dialectic between transcendence and immanence on the order of the Hegelian dialectic or the dialectic of the knowledge of good and evil. What is absolute remains absolute in the revelation and reality of Jesus Christ.

[1] Dualism is, of course, the wrong word, but it is a perceived dualism that functions through the contradictory notion of absolute difference (an inherent contradiction). There are no conceivable absolute differences as, if they are conceivable, they are not absolute. Absolute differences can in no way be brought together in human thought. It is also an obvious overgeneralization to simply portray Greek thought as working on this false dualism, as it too contains both forms of thought (e.g., Plato’s deployment of the chora).

[2] See Andrew Louth, Maximus the Confessor, (London: Routledge, 1996) 25-26.

[3] Jordan Daniel Wood, “Both Mere Man and Naked God: The Incarnational Logic of Apophasis in St. Maximus the Confessor”; in Maximus the Confessor as a European Philosopher (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2017) 111.

[4] Wood, 117.

The Virgin Birth as Refutation of Plato’s Parable of the Cave

Plato’s parable of the cave depicts the opposite movement to that which is occurring in the Virgin Birth. If one thinks of the cave as a womb, the entire struggle is to escape the cave/womb or set aside the material world and to achieve the singular source of light, the sun. Those imprisoned in the cave live in a world of shadows in which the only light is from a fire behind them, but the prisoner turned philosopher journeys toward the sun, representative of transcendent philosophical truth. As he journeys away from the cave/womb, or away from material reality, the philosopher draws closer to transcendent truth. With the birth of Christ, the equivalent of the singular light or the sole source of truth comes to inhabit the womb.

This not only challenges Greek thought, but as Mircea Eliade points out, since Plato sums up the pervasive religious and philosophical worldview, it challenges a predominant form of thought. There is an obvious impossibility posed in a virgin giving birth but this impossibility is a sign of the even more profound impossibility of God becoming human. This is on the order of the cave housing the sun, or the motherly and earthly encompassing and housing ultimate reality; an impossibility for the Greeks. Jesus born of a virgin is the bringing together of the human and divine in a way that was/is inconceivable for most of humanity.

Plato’s parable of the cave captures the fact that for most people in most of history ascent to the absolute (whether absolute truth, the place of God, etc.) is to shed the finite, material and relative. In the incarnation, signaled by the Virgin Birth all horizontal and vertical wires are crossed. It is more supernatural than the pagan portrayal of the coupling of the gods, as it is by sheer power and does not call upon the natural sex act. Justin Martyr (165 CE), refuting comparisons between the virgin birth and mythological couplings of the gods, writes of the Spirit which “when it came upon the virgin and overshadowed her, caused her to conceive, not by intercourse, but by power.”[1] Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-97 CE) writes, “That a virgin should give birth is sign of no human, but of divine mystery.”[2] Pagans could easily conceive of sex among the gods, but the virgin birth by-passes the sex act. However, it is also more natural and integrated with the human condition, in that Jesus will suffer, die, and experience the human predicament in its fullness, which is even more scandalous to the pagan mind. The Greek and pagan, but maybe just the human idea of God is inverted in the Virgin Birth, as the fully human and the fully divine are intermixed in the motherhood of Mary, her conception through God, and she gives birth to one who is fully God and fully human.

The point of Christianity, beginning with the Virgin Birth, is subversion of the pagan world, but by the same token Greek and pagan thought would continue to attack and attempt to subvert this basic Christian conception of the world. The Gnostics, Marcion (c. 85-c. 160 CE) and Valentinus (c. 100-c. 175 CE), argued that the created order was evil and that the soul had to escape the body in order to achieve enlightenment, so Christ could not have become a human body without loss of divinity. Likewise, Docetists, who shared a Gnostic world view claimed, “If he suffered he was not God; if he was God he did not suffer.”[3]

Christian apologists of the second century, such as Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, appeal to the Virgin Birth to defend the incarnation against Gnostic and Docetic opponents, appealing primarily to Mary’s human motherhood as evidence of Christ’s humanity. In the words of Ignatius; “Be deaf, then, to any talk that ignores Jesus Christ, of David’s lineage, of Mary; who was really born, ate, and drank; was really persecuted under Pontius Pilate; was really crucified and died.” Tertullian goes to great lengths to emphasize the fleshiness of the birth of Christ, precisely to combat the heresy of Marcion:

Come now, beginning from the nativity itself, declaim against the uncleanness of the generative elements within the womb, the filthy concretion of fluid and blood, of the growth of the flesh for nine months long out of that very mire. Describe the womb as it enlarges from day to day, -heavy, troublesome, restless even in sleep, changeful in its feelings of dislike and desire. Inveigh now likewise against the shame itself of a woman in travail, which, however, ought rather to be honoured in consideration of that peril, or to be held sacred in respect of [the mystery of] nature. Of course you are horrified also at the infant, which is shed into life with the embarrassments which accompany it from the womb. … This reverend course of nature, you, O Marcion, [are pleased to] spit upon; and yet, in what way were you born? You detest a human being at his birth; then after what fashion do you love anybody? … Well, then, loving man [Christ] loved his nativity also, and his flesh as well…. Our birth He reforms from death by a second birth from heaven.[4]

For Tertullian, as Christina Beattie puts it, “The human flesh which unites Christ with Mary is as intrinsic to his identity as the divinity which unites him with God, for without her there can be no true salvation of the flesh.”[5]

In the fifth century the problem is reversed, as Nestorians referred to Mary as Christokos, to emphasize Mary was only the mother of the humanity of Christ and not his divinity. To correct this division between the humanity and deity of Christ, the Council of Ephesus (CE 431), affirmed by Chalcedon (CE 451), dubbed Mary, Theotokos (God-bearer), to affirm the divine and human unity of Christ. The definition of Chalcedon describes Christ as “truly God and truly man … as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer (Theotokos).”[6]

As I have described it here, it may be that the focus on and eventual veneration of Mary, did not translate into a full embrace of the feminine, motherhood, or the earthly. As Luce Irigaray has described it, the veneration of Mary made of her “a likeness” or a simulacrum of the reality so that the feminine was put into the service of making “reproduction-production of doubles, copies, fakes, while any hint of their material elements, of the womb, is turned into scenery to make the show more realistic.”[7]

Though the denigration of womanhood and the earthly can be traced to such early key figures as Augustine, it is precisely in Augustine that the Virgin Birth commanded a startling sort of orthodoxy. In one of Augustine’s Christmas Day Sermons based on Psalm 85:11 he describes the Virgin Birth as a joyous merger of heaven and earth:

Truth, which is in the bosom of the Father (Jn 1: 18), has sprung from the earth, in order also to be in the bosom of his mother. Truth, by which the world is held together, has sprung from the earth, in order to be carried in a woman’s arms. Truth, on which the bliss of the angels is incorruptibly nourished, has sprung from the earth, in order to be suckled at breasts of flesh. Truth, which heaven is not big enough to hold, has sprung from the earth, in order to be placed in a manger.[8]

Augustine imagines Christ saying:

To show you that it’s not any creature of God that is bad, but that it’s crooked pleasures that distort them, in the beginning when I made man, I made them male and female. I don’t reject and condemn any creature that I have made. Here I am, born a man, born of a woman. So I don’t reject any creature I have made, but I reject and condemn sins, which I didn’t make. Let each sex take note of its proper honor, and each confess its iniquity, and each hope for salvation.[9]

Beattie concludes that, despite his patriarchal tendencies and the tendency to denigrate the body, “Augustine thus affirms the goodness of the body, including the female body.”

So Mary’s motherhood of Christ repudiates both those who would denigrate the body or those who would question the deity of the human Jesus. It demands a recognition of the goodness of creation, even the messy side of creation in childbirth. Any fear of contamination is not due to the flesh but due to sin. As Augustine says in another work attributed to him, Christ defends Mary’s motherhood against a Manichaean by saying “She whom you despise, 0 Manichaean, is My Mother; but she was formed by My hand. If I could have been defiled in making her, I could have been defiled in being born of her.”[10]

In Plato’s cave we encounter the symptomatic problem in human religion, philosophy, and thought, in that it would fly toward the sun to gain access to God but in Christ this world is turned upside down as the son has come to earth. In the human economy there is a forgetting of life and a death-dealing grab for truth beyond the stars, but the guiding star of Christmas night points us to a humble manger, most likely located in a cave outside of Bethlehem, where God is With Us.

[1] Justin Martyr, “First Apology” n. 33 in The First and Second Apologies, trans. with notes Leslie William Barnard in ACW 56 (1997), 46. I am following Christina Jane Beattie, God’s mother, Eve’s advocate: a gynocentric refiguration of Marian symbolism in engagement with Luce Irigaray (PhD University of Bristol, 1998). Quotes are from her dissertation at

[2] Ambrose, Expos. Ev sec. Luc., Lib. ii. 2,3 in Livius, The Blessed Virgin, 131.

[3] Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979 [1963]), 35.

[4] Tertullian, “On the Flesh of Christ” in The Writings of Tertullian, Vol. 2, trans. Peter Holmes, in ANCL 15 (1870), 170-71.

[5] Beattie, 102.

[6] In Bettenson, Documents, 51.

[7] Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman (SP), trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985 (1974) 340.

[8] Augustine, “Sermon 185” n. I in Sermons 111/6 (184-229Z) on the Liturgical Seasons, trans. and notes Edmund Hill OP, ed. John E. Rotelle OSA, WSA III, 5 (1993), 21.

[9] Quoted from Beattie, 102.

[10] Tract. contr. quinque haeres., cap. v., Int. Opp. Augustini. Append., Tom. 8 in Livius, The Blessed Virgin, 70 (translation modified).