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.

Jordan Daniel Wood and Maximus on the Answer to Hegel

I have described entry into the holism of the Gospel (see my The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation) by engaging the theory of Slavoj Žižek who is working in the multiple registers of philosophy, psychology, cultural theory, and theology. Žižek takes as his point of departure the Kantian critique of the Cartesian Subject deployed by Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in which Hegel depicts the Subject as arising in conjunction with the empty X of the “thinking thing.” That is, this failure of the Cartesian cogito (as depicted by Kant) is not a failure but the foundation of the Subject in Žižek’s Hegel. The nothingness at the center of the Subject makes for the very possibility of a Subject. Žižek boils this down in his self-description as a Pauline-Hegelian theorist. He sees Hegel as a development of Paul’s theology (primarily Romans 7) and considers Hegel the summation of philosophical thought and the ground of Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. That is, Hegel (according to Žižek and others) is the summation of human thought and the human project. For Žižek there is no escaping Hegel as Hegel says it all, capturing the true atheistic essence of the gospel.

 My point, in the concluding chapter of my book, is that the gospel and Paul offer an alternative world, an alternative psychology, and an alternative theology to Hegel – not claiming that Žižek/Hegel are simply wrong but picturing theirs as the singular alternative sublated and resolved through the gospel. Mine, however, is primarily a negative description of the all-inclusive nature of Žižek/Hegel, to get at the all-inclusive nature of the gospel. Jordan Wood, in his reading of Maximus, sets forth a fulsome positive picture of this alternative.

Jordan hits upon the truth in Maximus’ theology (a development of New Testament theology through Origen) which, I am convinced, is the proper ground for the peace and love of the gospel to be fully recognized. To begin with, he sees Maximus as recognizing the pervasiveness of Hegel’s description (obviously, before Hegel) and then moving beyond, while taking into account, this understanding (sublation):

Thus Maximus knows what Hegel claims few do: “That these forms [e.g., finite vs. infinite, subject vs. object, and so forth] are different everyone knows; but that these determinations are still at the same time inseparable is another matter.” You cannot meaningfully predicate infinity of God without simultaneously referring to infinity’s negation, the finite. The abstract meaning of infinity is itself negatively determined by the concept of finitude. Abstract infinity remains a finite predicate, since it positively depends for its sense on its not being whatever we mean by “finite.” While these categories are indeed different, they are also inseparable. Their very difference unites them.[1]

Maximus recognizes what Hegel will also spell out, namely that what are taken to be absolute differences amount to interdependent relations. Being and nothingness, life and death, or good and evil are interdependent antitheses through which a synthesis can be attained. Hegel reads Genesis 3 and “the knowledge of good and evil” as the prototype of all human thought. The good has its existence over and against evil and evil has its existence over and against the good. Hegel’s point is that antitheses, like good and evil or infinite and finite, are not simply known in tandem but have their being in tandem. Maximus, however, recognizes that what is meant by difference is not difference at all, but a form of interdependence.

So, step one in Maximus’ depiction of the created and uncreated is a depiction of these categories (e.g., creator/creation, finite/infinite, divine/human) as absolutely different, such that when they are brought together in Christ this bringing together is not on the order of a Hegelian dialectic and synthesis. Maximus’ reason for rejection of dialectical difference is inadvertently illustrated by Hegel. Death, for Hegel, is the source of life, while nothingness is the source of all that is:  

The activity of dissolution is the power and work of the Understanding, the most astonishing and mightiest of powers, or rather the absolute power. … This is the tremendous power of the negative; it is the energy of thought, of the pure “I.” Death, if that is what we want to call this nonactuality, is of all things the most dreadful, and to hold fast what is dead requires the greatest strength. . .. Spirit is this power … looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being. This power is identical with what we earlier called the Subject.[2]  

The Subject arises through the power of death and negation. Hegel is fusing thought and being, making of psychology an ontology. He is taking the Kantian problem with the Cartesian cogito, (the empty X of “I think” in Kant’s estimate) not as an irresolvable problem, but as the ground of an alternative metaphysic and psychology. In this understanding nothingness and death are the absolute resources against which life and being are derived. In short, this is the abstraction which may best express Paul’s depiction of the law of sin and death.

 Due to Maximus’ recognition of the dialectic of difference as the ground of human thought (the human failure of thought) he makes of difference, not a dialectic, but an irreconcilable absolute. “Maximus never disputes— that, for instance, since the uncreated is not the created, God could never enjoy essential identity with the world he makes from nothing. Maximus even intensifies their natural contrast by denying any commonality between them whatsoever.”[3]  As Hans Urs Von Balthasar describes, Maximus duel with the Monothelites caused him “to take seriously and to apply, in all its consequences, the formula of the Council of Chalcedon, which asserts the “unconfused” character of the two natures of Christ and which prevents any dissolving of the human substance in God.”[4] For Maximus the divine and human difference is absolute and theoretically irreconcilable. As a result, “Maximus looks straight in the eye of Hegel,”[5] who “recognizes a kindred christological instinct to synthesize created contraries but he outstrips Hegel by insisting that Chalcedon’s Definition govern every synthesis.”[6] This is not a formal theory, an abstraction, or something on the order of an analogy of being. This is the accomplishment of the person of Christ that cannot formalized:

For the superessential Word, who took on himself, in that ineffable conception, our nature and everything that belongs to it, possessed nothing human, nothing that we might consider “natural” in him, that was not at the same time divine, negated by the supernatural manner of his existence. The investigation of these things exceeds our reason and our capacity for proof; it is only grasped by the faith of those who reverence the mystery of Christ with up right hearts.[7]

Christ does not provide a pattern for formal understanding or a Hegelian example of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. “We believe that He Himself, by virtue of His infinite transcendence, is ineffable and incomprehensible, and exists beyond all creation and beyond all the differences and distinctions which exist and can be conceived of within it.”[8] What is accomplished in the person of Christ is ineffable, precisely in that two absolutely different natures reside in one person:

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” (according to Gregory). 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.[9]

The “ineffable manner of union” of the two natures in Christ is beyond  comprehension (or dialectical synthesis or true knowledge for Hegel). The one who “transcends being” entered into being, and he who transcends human nature subjugated himself to this nature but “He elevated nature to Himself, making nature itself another mystery, while He Himself remained entirely beyond comprehension, showing that His own Incarnation, which was granted a birth beyond being, was more incomprehensible than every mystery.”[10]

Where Hegelianism sees the movement of history, in its synthesizing possibilities, as bringing about Spirit (in Žižek’s interpretation of Hegel, this movement is endless – never arriving at Spirit), Maximus sees Christ as the end of a synthesizing dialectical possibility. The movement of time and history is not intrinsically salvific, but Christ makes of this movement “a weapon for the destruction of sin and death, which is the consequence of sin.”[11] For Maximus the rule of sin and death is the constituting “condition of passibility.” From the false beginning in Adam humankind is thrown into a downward spiral which Christ turns into a weapon of destroying judgment. The simultaneous judgment and creative providence found in the incarnation are key in the dimensions of the work of Christ:

If, as we just read Maximus saying, “the perfect re-formation” comes to be “within Him, according to the ineffable union,” if “the whole mystery of Christ” is precisely that “all the ages and the beings existing within those ages received their beginning and end in Christ,” and if indeed our very potential to resist the Word’s Incarnation and thereby illicitly hypostasize a counterfeit creation— if, I mean, even this slavish passion to sheer finitude— is itself made possible by God’s veritable act of creation in and as Christ, then we should expect to find Maximus making explicit this concrete reciprocity or simultaneity at every level of his contemplation of the historical.[12]

The reciprocity or simultaneity of creation and judgment through incarnation is a point Maximus illustrates at length. Christ does not depend upon negation and death, but judges and defeats these categories while simultaneously bringing about creation. The passage in Christ is not toward an endless dialectic, as Christ presents an immovable essence and a final stability which brings the agony of dialectic to an end:

For the union of the limit of the age and limitlessness, of measure and immeasurability, of finitude and infinity, of Creator and creation, and of rest and motion, was conceived before the ages. This union has been manifested in Christ at the end of time, and through itself bestows the fulfillment of God’s foreknowledge, so that creatures in motion by nature might find rest around that which is absolutely immovable by essence, departing completely from their movement toward themselves and each other, so that they might acquire, by experience, an active knowledge of Him in whom they were made worthy to find their stability, a knowledge which is unalterable and always the same, and which bestows upon them the enjoyment of the One they have come to know.[13]

Where in Hegel, time, history and movement save (through dialectic and synthesis), for Maximus Christ is the immovable center of history. In the person of Christ what is distinctly different has been brought into union, not through a dialectic, but through both providence and judgment rendered in the incarnation. Maximus sees providence and judgment as part of the singular power of Christ, exercised in the multiple dimensions of the incarnation. “Providence is the union itself, the God-man; judgment is the Passion, the suffering God.”[14]

In Maximus explanation:

On the right, then, is the mystery, according to providence, of the Incarnation of the Word, which by grace brings about divinization in a manner transcending nature for those who are being saved. This mystery was predetermined before the ages, and absolutely no principle of beings can approach it by nature. On the left is the mystery, according to judgment, of the life-giving passion of the God who willed to suffer in the flesh. This mystery brings about the utter destruction of all the properties and movements contrary to nature that were introduced into nature through the primal disobedience. It also produces the perfect restoration of all the properties and movements that were previously in nature, according to which absolutely none of the principles of beings can ever be adulterated. From these, by which I mean providence and judgment, that is, from the Incarnation and the Passion, there came forth—because of the stability, purity, and incorruptibility of courageous virtue and immutability on the level of practice, and because of the clarity and brilliance of mystical contemplation and knowledge there came forth, I say, like horse-drawn chariots racing “through the middle of two brass mountains . . .[15]

The stability, incorruptibility, and immutability of Christ in the incarnation is at once bringing about natural potential and judging and destroying the unnatural incarnation of falsehood. Thus, the incarnation is the enacted judgment and outworking of God’s providence bringing about divinization in those who are being saved. This mystery is simultaneously destroying all that is contrary to nature while restoring and bringing to fulness the potential in nature. Maximus is clear about the fundamental reciprocity between creation and judgment characteristic of the whole mystery. “The union reveals divine goodness and “will” (θέλησις), God’s absolute desire, while the Passion evinces Christ’s concrete love for human beings in his “consensual” (καθ’ ἑκούσιον) or voluntary response to a determinate phenomenon— our transgression, the actual sins of all persons.”[16]

This is not a dialectic dependent upon death, but is salvation from death wrought in the person of Christ. God wants human beings to be divinized, made into his image, but humans resist God’s creation in Christ. “In his divine counsel God knows Adam’s true and false beginnings because— and this is truly critical— God knows and wills Adam. Which is to say, God wills and thus creates not an abstract arrangement of essences or mere instances of nature but actual, individual, free persons, the very persons who in themselves freely hypostasize something other than themselves.”[17] Thus “human persons make God a suffering God-man. The Passion at once establishes and responds to actual persons, since, of course, God’s judgment sustains the singularity and distinctiveness of all persons— even in and through the depths of their deluded self-destruction.” Rather than dialectic giving rise to the Subjest, there is the outworking of providence and judgment in Christ who “concretizes, in himself, the essential paradox of human freedom, the possibility of both our primordial error and our eventual embrace of God, our “initial” and “perfect” formation.”[18]

In Maximus most fulsome explanation:

For in truth it was necessary—necessary, I say—that the Lord, who according to His nature is wise and just and powerful, should not, in His wisdom, ignore the means of curing us; nor, in His justice, despotically save humanity when it had fallen under sin by the inclination of its own will; nor, in His omnipotence, falter in bringing the healing of humanity to completion. He therefore made manifest the principle of His wisdom through the mode by which He healed humanity, namely, by becoming man without undergoing any kind of change or alteration. He showed the equality of His justice in the magnitude of His condescension, when He willingly submitted to the condemnation of nature in its passibility, and he made that very passibility a weapon for the destruction of sin and death, which is the consequence of sin, that is, for the destruction of pleasure and the pain which is its consequence. And He did this because the rule of sin and death had established themselves in our condition of passibility, along with the tyranny of sin associated with pleasure and the oppression associated with pain, for the rule of pleasure and pain over our nature subsists within our passibility.[19]

Maximus describes something approaching psychoanalytic masochism, in which one takes pleasure in their own destruction as pleasure has been fused with death (or as in Hegel, death is the primary resource of life). He pictures death as being mothered by pleasure such that “Adam’s life of pleasure is the mother of death and corruption.” The death of Christ brings an end to this fusion of pleasurable dying, bringing about the possibility of eternal life: “the death of the Lord, which came about for the sake of Adam, and which was free of the pleasure associated with Adam, is the progenitor of eternal life.”[20]  

He explains how and why this is the case:

It seems to me, then, the word of Scripture has rightly distinguished between how, on the one hand, generation from Adam accompanied by pleasure, in tyrannizing our nature, was providing food for the death that arose in consequence of that pleasure; and how, on the other hand, the birth of the Lord in the flesh, which came about because of His love of mankind, eliminated both of these things, by which I mean the pleasure associated with Adam and the death that came about because of Adam, eradicating Adam’s punishment along with his sin. That is, it was not possible for the Lord’s generation as man—which was in no way touched by that beginning whose end was death—to be conquered in the end by corruption through death. This is because, as I said, the word of Scripture has distinguished these things from one another, because for as long as our nature was being tyrannized solely by the characteristic marks of Adam in its beginning and end, by which I mean generation and corruption, it was “not the time for the judgment” enabling the complete condemnation of sin “to begin.” But when the Word of God appeared to us through the flesh and became perfect man but without sin, and in the flesh of Adam willingly bore only the punishment of Adam’s nature, and when He “condemned sin in the flesh,” innocently suffering as “righteous for the sake of the unrighteous,” and converted the use of death, reworking it into the condemnation of sin but not of nature, then, I say, “it was the time for the judgment to begin,” a judgment consistent with this conversion of death and leading to the condemnation of sin.[21]

In Maximus’ description, the dialectic of the law of sin and death has been defeated. The agonistic struggle Paul describes and valorized by Hegel is ended by Christ. The tyrant of death and corruption are judged and destroyed as Christ condemned sin and converted death into the means of destroying sin. As Jordan summarizes:

The judgment of the Passion thus restores my freedom and invites me to choose to be created, to be born of the Spirit rather than from my own primordial delusion. I must come to recognize the depths of God’s love in the fundamental God world reciprocity generated in the Word’s historical experience. That reciprocity creates the freedom to undo my own misuse of freedom exactly because the Word’s identification with the false world is simultaneously his identification with the true one. He made himself the hypostatic identity of bad and good infinities. That is, he received, in his Passion, the entire burden of the errant motions of every individual rational being, and by making them his own— he who is essentially God— endowed the very false “principles” our sin falsely incarnate, namely the “law of death,” with the deeper principle of providence, the complete deification of even this universe and of the “me” I make in vain. His true Incarnation, always and in all things, destroys all false incarnations from true beginning to true end— for he is both.[22]

Žižek (whose entire corpus is grounded in the notion of freedom) openly embraces the necessity of a deception as the condition for the Subject. While there is no alternative to the primordial lie in Žižek’s reading of Hegel, Maximus sees the gospel as specifically engaging this falsely incarnated Subject arising around a false dialectic and depicts the how and why of its dissolution and sublation in Christ.

[1] Jordan Daniel Wood, The Whole Mystery of Christ (p. 198). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 1977) 18-19.

[3] Wood, 198.

[4] 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.

[5] Ibid. According to Balthasar he arrives at his synthesis on the basis of an antithesis between the Old and New Testaments arriving at a Hellenistic Johannine Christological synthesis.”

[6] Wood, 4.

[7] 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) 5.15. Quoted in Balthasar, 209.

[8] Ambigua 7.16.

[9] Ambigua 5.5.

[10] Ambigua 5.5.

[11] St. Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties In Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios; Translated by Fr. Maximos Constas, (Washington D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press) 61.6.

[12] Wood, 175.

[13] The Responses to Thalassios, 60.4.

[14] Wood, 183.

[15] The Responses to Thalassios, 3.19.

[16] Wood, 182-183.

[17] Wood, 183.

[18] Ibid.

[19] The Responses to Thalassios, 61.6.

[20] The Responses to Thalassios, 61.7.

[21] The Responses to Thalassios, 61.8

[22] Wood, 186.