Christ as Analogy Versus the Lie of the Anti-Christ: Maximus as an Answer to the Challenge of Barth

Though it may be an odd juxtaposition to pit Maximus the Confessor against a much later theological development, it might be argued that Maximus’ notion of transfiguration into the image of Christ (in which he deploys terms like analogy) grounds theology differently than the analogy of being or the univocity of being. Whether or how the analogia entis, as Barth would have it, is the anti-Christ, there is no question that theology, the church, and Christianity attached itself to the worst forms of evil; a failure most ingloriously manifest in the Holocaust but continuing in a variety of forms. The argument is not so much whether theology experienced its own form of the fall, but the question is about the details. Does the fault lie with Constantinianism, Augustinianism, or Onto-Theology? Is it primarily the fault of Rene Descartes, or as Radical Orthodoxy would have it, is it Duns Scotus that ruined everything? The story that one might tell to illustrate where the fault lies is highly contested, but nominalism and voluntarism and the subsequent rise of secularism and atheism describe the reduction of God (to a part of the furniture of the universe) and then his eventual banishment. This result is beyond question, but the issue is whether there is a unified story that explains this disaster and what would constitute its alternative?

 In the description of Conor Cunningham, the story can be told through the singular idiom of “meontotheology” (his neologism) in which absolutely nothing serves in place of the divine absolute.  “Nihilism is the logic of nothing as something, which claims that Nothing Is.”[1] Cunningham is not so much arguing with the grain of the thinkers he is detailing, but is demonstrating that their key idea or point of mediation often reduces to nothing. He begins his story with Plotinus and Avicenna, fore-echoing Descartes: “Avicenna (Ibn-Sina) was directly influenced by Plotinus. He took from the Neoplatonists the idea that being was equivalent to the intelligible (in this sense creating was thinking) . . .”[2] Being then, is a possibility or logical contingency of thought. Scotus extends this understanding such that Cunningham concludes: “there is but one being, which in its unity is formally distinct from itself (namely God), such that univocity of being again for this reason ‘is not’ being; already as one being it departs from pure existence. This is the meontotheology of nihilism’s logic: nothing as something.”[3]  The real univocity concerns not being per se, but nonbeing.

It was not that Scotus’ was arguing toward this conclusion, but as Cunningham makes the case, his system permits the conclusion that what the finite and infinite share is nothing (as an essence). That is “there is a latent univocity of non-being” in God and creation and this is all they share. Scotus would completely separate God and creatures such that “God and creature share in no reality.”[4] Yet, “Every created essence [is] nothing other than its dependence with regard to God.”[5] The substance of this dependence is in a contingency or possibility which reduces to nothing in itself: “Hence God and creatures do share in a certain ‘non-reality’, whose nullity is nonetheless fundamental.”[6] Cunningham demonstrates the same logic at work, in various forms, in Plotinus, Avicenna, Ghent, Scotus, Ockham, Henry of Ghent, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Paul Celan, Sartre, Lacan, Deleuze, Badiou, and Žižek.  In each of them there is a mediating term or idea that reduces to a reified nothing.

While this may initially appear to be a fantastic claim, I would suggest that what Cunningham has hit upon is more extensive and compelling than he realizes. My work has added a footnote to his understanding, taking it out of the realm of philosophy or theology alone, and describing it in terms of psychology, desire, and even a necessary part of a failed human identity. The philosophical and theological fold into the psychological as they reify the symbolic order. That is, language per se is made substantial and points only to itself, and this is not simply a philosophical dilemma, this is the human dilemma. The truth illustrated by Descartes is that thinking strives toward being. “I think therefore I am” translates into “I would be through my thought.” Nominalism and voluntarism – a separation between God and his word – leaves us with something other than the divine Word and brings us to the Cartesian moment. The word (the symbolic, language, law, thought, propositions, philosophy, etc.) serves in place of the Word (Jesus Christ).

In other words, the problem of theology and philosophy is not a problem apart from what the Bible describes as the universal problem: reliance on the law (trust in the symbolic, trust in Judaism, trust in culture, etc.) displaces a direct reliance, trust and participation in the reality of God given in Christ. By the same token, univocity, analogy, being, propositionalism, onto-theology, inasmuch as they foster a mediating principle which functions to displace the first-order reality of Jesus Christ are then, the anti-Christ.

This will, as John describes, show itself in obvious ways in a series of lying possibilities. There is a lying spirit, there are lying prophets, and there is the big lie of the anti-Christ (I John 4:1-3).  The lie which would separate the humanity and deity of Christ is connected to every form of lying and liars, but the primary thing John notes about these liars and their lie is, “They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them” (I Jn. 4:5). Either the world or Christ, in John’s estimate, serves as foundation and ground. This difference marks the lie over and against the truth and shows up in one’s ethical orientation. The truth is connected to love, while the “spirit of error” not only separates the deity and humanity of Christ, but it separates ethics and theological understanding. Theoretically it is possible to hate the visible neighbor and love the invisible God, but this too is a sign of the lie (I Jn. 4:20). Living in God or living through God, is the way John characterizes the truth as it shows itself in love (I Jn. 4:16).

The danger is we might read John analogously, metaphorically, or hyperbolically, (according to the world?), and miss that he is speaking literally. There is no padding, no mediating term, no emanation, in John’s life lived in God. Instead, there is direct identity between the life of God given in Christ and the life of the believer. Jesus is God come in the flesh, and this includes the flesh of his body the church, and only thus is he life and love and truth, and there is no possibility of stating this according the world.

The theologian who has best captured and built upon this literalism of identity, may be Maximus the Confessor. Far from fitting Christ to the frame of the world, Maximus presumes the incarnation of Christ – God come in the flesh – is the truth of the world. Maximus succeeds in holding together doctrine, hermeneutics, and ethics in the singular concept that just as Christ bodies forth God in the world, the world (as his creation, as what he holds together) is subsequent to and taken up in the incarnation. Paul Blowers rehearses many of the themes worked out in my recent blogs (the equation of Christology and cosmology, the incarnation as preceding both Scripture and the world and serving as their logic, etc.) but Blowers specifically pits Maximian theology against analogy: “the Confessor’s primary analogy to convey the condescension of the Word into the logoi of creatures (and of Scripture, and of the virtues) is the incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth. In reality this is not an ‘analogy’ at all since it is precisely the Logos ‘destined…before the foundation of the world’ to become the incarnate and sacrificial Lamb (1 Peter 1:19-20) who originally contained the logoi and willingly communicated his presence to creatures through them.”[7] As Jordan Wood summarizes the point: “This remarkable observation—that the ‘analogy’ between historical and cosmic Incarnation is no mere analogy—commits Blowers to the thesis that for Maximus the Word’s condescension in the logoi of creation, in Jesus, in Scripture, and in the deified are ‘eschatologically simultaneous’.” He concludes, “And so the truly astounding insight, one Blowers seems to intimate, is that Maximus rethinks not just how God is present in Jesus in order to distinguish this presence from God’s presence in the cosmos, but that he then reintroduces this mode of presence as the potential mode the Word might be present in the cosmos itself.”[8]

The term analogy may still apply, but it has taken on a direct identity with the divine. As Wood puts it, “Here ‘analogy’ takes on altogether jarring and different senses than we’re used to encountering in much modern theology. Here it implies a symmetry between God and the world grounded in hypostatic identity (like Christ’s natures).”[9] Maximus employs “analogy” in this sense, that saved humanity is analogous to the union found in Christ. It is not an analogy of being, but the analogy of Christ. In the same way that Jesus Christ is constituted a particular individual (the divine in the human), so all humans become who they are, as John describes it, only through participation and union with the divine life.  “For each of those who has believed in Christ according to his own power, and according to the state and quality of virtue existing within him, is crucified and crucifies Christ together with himself, that is, he is spiritually crucified together with Christ. For each person brings about his own crucifixion according to the mode of virtue that is appropriate to him . . .” (Amb. 47.2). Humans are both created and infinite, not because these categories reside naturally together in body and soul, but because Christ, in his hypostatic union stands at the head of a completed humanity in which flesh and Spirit inhere. However, in each individual this life will manifest uniquely but “analogously” to Christ.  

Maximus illustrates the point with Melchizedek who, “so transcendentally, secretly, silently and, to put it briefly, in a manner beyond knowledge, following the total negation of all beings from thought, he entered into God Himself, and was wholly transformed, receiving all the qualities of God, which we may take as the meaning of being likened to the Son of God he remains a priest forever” (Amb. 10.45).[10] What is true of Melchizedek is true, first of all in Christ: “For alone, and in a way without any parallel whatsoever, our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, is by nature and in truth without father, mother, or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (Amb. 10.46). Maximus goes through each of the points set forth in Hebrews: he is without genealogy, as both of his births are inaccessible and incomprehensible. He has no beginning or end of days because he is absolutely infinite – “He is God by nature. “He remains a priest forever, for His being is immune to death by vice or nature, for He is God and the source of all natural and virtuous life” (Amb. 10.46). What is true of Christ and Melchizedek can be extended to all: “And you must not think that no one else can have a share in this grace simply because Scripture speaks of it solely with respect to the great Melchizedek, for in all human beings God has placed the same power that leads naturally to salvation, so that anyone who wishes is able to lay claim to divine grace . . .” (Amb. 10.46). What is true of Christ is true of every believer:

He who loses his own life for my sake, will find it— that is, whoever casts aside this present life and its desires for the sake of the better life—will acquire the living and active, and absolutely unique Word of God, who through virtue and knowledge penetrates to the division between soul and spirit, so that absolutely no part of his existence will remain without a share in His presence, and thus he becomes without beginning or end, no longer bearing within himself the movement of life subject to time, which has a beginning and an end, and which is agitated by many passions, but possesses only the divine and eternal life of the Word dwelling within him, which is in no way bounded by death. (Amb. 10.48).

There is an analogy with Christ, but there is no natural analogy between creature and creator, or between God and being. The creator is absolutely separate, unknowable, and beyond human comprehension. There is no univocity or analogy between God and creation. “God . . . is absolutely and infinitely beyond all beings, including those that contain others and those that are themselves contained, and He is beyond their nature, apart from which they could not exist . . .” (Amb. 10.57).  It is Christ alone who has brought together Creator and creation, flesh and Spirit, divine and human in who he is, but he has accomplished this salvation for all who would believe. “For there is nothing more unified than He, who is truly one, and apart from Him there is nothing more completely unifying or preserving of what is properly His own” (Amb. 4.8).

In the words of Ephesians, “He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity” (Eph 2:14–16). There is a law, a symbolic order, a human word which would pursue being, unity, and analogy through a unified nothingness, and it is precisely from this word which the Word of Christ delivers.  Christ alone is “all in all” (Col. 3:11) The theological tragedy is not a separate problem from the human tragedy, of trying to accomplish on the basis of the world what can and has been accomplished in Jesus Christ.

[1] Conor Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism (London: Routledge, 2002), as summarized on the back cover.

[2] Cunningham, 9.

[3] Cunningham, 31.

[4] Duns Scotus, Quodlibetal Questions, V. Quoted in Cunningham, 31.

[5] Scotus, Opus Oxoniense II, d. 17, q. 2, n. 5. Quoted in Cunningham 31.

[6] Cunningham, 31.

[7] Paul M. Blowers, Drama of the Divine Economy: Creator and Creation in Early Christian Theology and Piety, (Oxford: OUP, 2012) 166. Quoted in Jordan Daniel Wood, That Creation is Incarnation in Maximus Confessor,” (Dissertation for Doctor of Philosophy, Boston College, 2018) 94.

[8] Wood, 95.

[9] Wood, 30.

[10] Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua Vol. 1-2; Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014). Hereafter Amb.

Reason Dependent on a Reified Nothing: From Genesis 3 to Kalām

The concept of nothing or emptiness in Scripture is connected to the concept of creation ex nihilo (creation from nothing), to the idol (which Paul declares is nothing), to the concept of death (the biblical depiction is of being brought to nothing), and to the empty tomb of Christ. It is connected to evil in a twofold sense, in that Paul concludes the idol is nothing (nothingness reified) but then immediately warns that this particular brand of nothingness is demonic (I Cor. 10:19-20). The reification of nothing, or making nothing an absolute something, characteristic of idolatry, is a process that is not halted in being exposed, as it is the characteristic form of sin and evil in which nothing “comes alive.”

One way of characterizing the problem raised by natural philosophical arguments is that the category of nothing or absence is made to come alive through the form of reason in which these arguments are packaged. Nothing and darkness are made a positive experience in Anselm’s cosmological and ontological arguments (“God I have seen you, yet I have seen only nothing and darkness”), which is not just any old mysticism and rationalism, but it is the characteristic form of thought taken up by Descartes and modernity. Nothingness and emptiness have come to play a key role in the “virtual reality” (the marker of nothing, zero, illustrates the necessity of nothing behind the virtual) that is the modern, which is neither recognized as virtual nor equated with sin and evil, as it is the nihilism of foundational reason (nothing made something) that has come to dominate in theology. Below, I sketch the biblical depiction of sin and evil (revolving around nothing (death, absence) made something), which has been obscured, and explain, in part, the how and why of this obscuring as it is interwoven with the rationale of the kalām cosmological argument.

The devilish or the demonic in Scripture, from Genesis 3, is not portrayed as a positive ontological force which opposes God, but as a corrupting sub-personal entity which would alienate and empty out the presence of God. The serpent appears in Genesis 3 from among the creatures, out of creation – it appears and disappears. The perspective sold by the serpent is the immanent frame (a closed universe) in which knowing (epistemology – “knowing good and evil”) is attached to being (ontology – “you will be like gods”). Death is denied (“you won’t die”) but is displaced by the positive knowing and being which, I presume, are not exposed in the subsequent experience of shame and alienation. The isolating, alienating factor of sin, its death denial, and its exponential mimetic desire (in the first pair and their offspring) will all become part of the biblical depiction of sin. What is offered in place of life is death, in place of God shame and absence are held out as divine experience. In place of naming and knowing God, a knowing which refers back to itself (the reduplicated “I”) is taken up.  And this is always what the arche, the principle of the world does; it constitutes a closed world in which nothing is made an absolute impassable boundary. The idol is an unobtainable object which creates exponential desire which gives rise to child sacrifice.

Paul equates sin with this same idolatrous desire which comes to grip everyone, as they are confronted with the law and they find that their own “I” or ego is as unobtainable as an idol. The death connected with this desire can either be a slow masochistic struggle with one’s own body of death, or it can just turn to murder or idolatrous slaughter (Rom. 3), but the point is to gain, through death, what was withheld by desire. This is why Paul connects universal death with the spread of sin, as death evokes the response which characterizes sin.

The mistranslation of Ro 5:12 and Augustine’s formula for original sin (all somehow mysteriously sin in Adam) reverses cause and effect, so that instead of death spreading to all and giving rise to sin, sin is made the cause of death such that anyone subject to death has to have been thought to have somehow sinned. In Paul’s original argument, it is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout the passage is the universally observable truth that death reigns (“death spread to all men” v. 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 verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way around. Sin’s struggle, in Paul’s explanation, is a struggle for existence in face of the reality of death. The biblical picture in Genesis and Ro 5 accords with the obvious reality that we all have the problem of death.

The human project is to extract from the mortal that which is immortal, to make the perishable imperishable and this is what Paul calls sin. Notice that the sequence of events in I Cor 15:55-56: O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” Paul is describing a law, given power, through sin’s orientation to death.  This law of sin and death pertains to any law, any symbolic framework, which would reify nothing.

A different way of saying all of the above, is through a misconstrued creation ex nihilo (as Jacques Lacan first recognized), in which nothing is posited as that out of which every subject generates himself. The self consists of a three-fold dynamic in which the symbolic order (the law) names and posits an object (the ego – the “I”) which is nonexistent, and the drive or dynamic to grasp or obtain, is death or the death drive. In this depiction the human subject is a continually generated creation ex-nihilo. Like Martin Heidegger’s vision of a vase, as structured around and containing nothing, or actually creating a void, this named void describes every idol. This captures Paul’s depiction of the subject that would displace God: the law acts as father creator, and the ego is the object he would draw from the nothing, and this dynamic of death serves in place of life.  On the way to thinking and grasping after being, there is a generation of nothing. But this exercise is continually reduplicated in various human undertakings, whether religious (idolatrous religion but also every sacrificial form of religion), philosophical (Conor Cunningham runs this down exhaustively), or in the philosophical arguments for God

Many things reduce to nothing, but it is the way in which philosophical arguments providing for the initiation of the theological project have introduced nothing into the heart of theology which is my present concern. It is not so much the legitimacy of the various philosophical arguments for God but the form of reason with which they are connected and to which they give rise, which requires scrutiny. As I have previously claimed, the danger with the traditional arguments for God is that they impart the epistemological skepticism upon which they rely as normative. The “reason” that attains God in the ontological argument (on the basis of an incomparable difference) is deployed by Descartes, critiqued but confirmed by Kant, so that the gap between a thinker and his thought, between the noumena and phenomena, or between God and the world, is the implicit necessity which Hegel and Schelling expose. The peculiar modern form of thought, which René Descartes is usually credited as fathering would generate or identify being with thought (“I think therefore I am”).  The move is a reduplication of the lie of Genesis 3 in its claim to life through knowing, and can be directly traced to Descartes’ deployment of Anselm’s ontological argument. Anselm illustrates the same move in both his cosmological and ontological arguments, as in his cosmological argument all thought ceases before the ontological divide but in the latter, there is a singular thought of God or the name of God which begins from the other side of this ontological divide in which immortal being is grasped (though this greatest thought does not allow for any other thought, such as thought of the created order).

 A more obvious and pervasive incidence of the same thing is the Kalām cosmological argument, which develops as part of the Islamic version of scholasticism as an attempt to establish and defend the tenets of Islam. The Arabic Kalām literally means “speech, word, utterance” and is derived from the expression Kalām Allāh (Word of God) and refers to a special mode of thought and argumentation. Kalām denotes then, not just one argument, but the discipline within Islam, and eventually Judaism (as in Jewish Kalām or Kalāmists), which will be absorbed by Christian scholasticism and western rationalism which will foster the same abstraction and the same gap between God and his word. The controversy surrounding the “Word of God” in Islam (is the Word created or part of the essence of God) marks the problem as it will arise in Christian scholasticism regarding the person and work of Christ. The focus on the equivocal or analogous as opposed to the univocal and propositional, describes the gap brought about in the peculiar abstractions surrounding and prompted by kalām.

Knowing God on the basis of the world is obviously very different than knowing God through Christ, which is not inherently a problem, but the first sort of knowing has historically come to interfere with the second order of knowing. It has given rise to a reason to which the Logos of Christ is made to adhere. It is not simply that the argument falls short of the personal God of the Bible, but it fosters a cause and effect notion in which God might be an extrapolated cause of reason, behind or before the universe, but is removed by the very mode of the argument from our words and world.

William Lane Craig, as one of the key promoters of the kalām cosmological argument, posits this gap in God as existing between “His timeless intention to create a world with a beginning, and His power to produce such a result.” The distinction is between “His causal power in order for the universe to be created” and “God’s timeless intention to create a temporal world.” Causal forces exist in time (this side of the nothing in creation ex nihilo) and exist over and against the eternal (prior to nothing) and so the thought (which is eternal), and “God’s undertaking to create” (which has a definitive beginning), must be differentiated.[1] What is implicitly made to differentiate and divide is the nothing, prior to which God only intends to create and after and out of which he creates.

God’s undertaking is the very first event God causes, which posits the same sort of infinite regress the argument rejects. The kalām argument depends on there not being an actually existing series of objects or discrete entities (an infinite library or infinite rooms in a hotel reduces to contradiction as subtraction or addition to either will not register) reduces to a logical contradiction. Yet Craig needs this same discretion to exist in the mind of God so he does not simply fall back on an unreasonable eternity. He insists on this element of the argument to preserve the argument from the unreason it repudiates and builds upon.

This is not so different than imagining that God is self-caused, as if there is a division between the being of God and the cause of that being – one that allows for the thought of God. This supposition, as worked out in Schelling and Hegel, is not simply necessary for God but it is a necessary move to posit reason as its own sufficient ground. Reason as absolute – the reason of God – cannot be constrained or contingent lest it be caused by something beyond pure reason. Eternity, for Schelling, holds out absolute freedom as that which is enjoyed by a Will which wants nothing as it is wanting in nothing. It is actualized – or in the language of Craig, it becomes a causal power – when it actively and effectively wants this nothing (Indivisible Remainder, 23). Only nothing can avoid the possibility of some determinate content, but this is a nothing made something, so that God himself is produced through the creation ex nihilo of pure and perfect reason. The formal conversion of nothing into an actively sought after “nothing” accounts for the absolute “ground” of God’s coming to himself. “The blissful peace of primordial freedom thus changes into pure contraction, into the vortex of ‘divine madness’ which threatens to swallow everything, into the highest affirmation of God’s egotism which tolerates nothing outside itself” (Indivisible Remainder, 23). Otherwise nothing would ever happen. What Schelling and Hegel expose is the necessary role of negation and nothing in absolute reason.  

God serves as his own ground and posits himself in the absolute freedom and rationalism of the enlightenment. An argument which will deliver God, is an argument in which reason is posited as more primary than belief in God.  The strength of the argument depends upon the strength of the reason deployed and absolute reason depends upon a conclusion arriving at the absolute. Craig’s version of the kalām argument depicts the gap of nothingness which the argument brings to life.

The point of the incarnation, the empty tomb, the risen Lord, is to erase the reifying lie inherent, not only to modern rationalism, but surrounding the impetus to alienation and death (he who would save himself). Where the cosmological argument assumes that something exists, then argues from the existence of that thing to the existence of a First Cause or a Sufficient Reason of the cosmos, Christian believers presume to encounter God in his essence in Christ, and this presumption tells us what sort of world we live in. There is no inherent incommensurateness, no gap, no duality, no noumenal/phenomenal split, as creation, language, the world, are perfectly suited to revealing God, but what stands in the way of this revelation is the insistence on a sufficient knowledge apart from the act of God.

[1] “Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause?: A Rejoinder,” forthcoming in Faith and Philosophy. Quoted from Wes Morrison, “A Critical Examination of the Kalam Cosmological Argument,” accessed at