Bulgakov’s “The Tragedy of Philosophy” as Entry into Sophiology

MAN WAS CREATED IN THE IMAGE AND LIKENESS OF God. This means that the image of the Holy Trinity is imprinted upon every part of his spiritual nature. Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (Gen. 1:26). So says the word of God, precisely pointing, by means of this plural number, to the trihypostaticity of the Divinity and the triunity of the image of God – which after all, is also the human image.”[1] Sergius Bulgakov

To attempt to describe the atmosphere or texture of Sergius[2] Bulgakov’s theology in doctrinal terms is in danger of missing the warmth and spiritual excitement of his theological project, and yet the attempt to simply restate or summarize his theology without reference to its doctrinal significance also falls short, as he is demonstrating a revolutionary shift in the very tenor of his writing. Rather than writing analogously about God (e.g., Thomas Aquinas) he presumes to speak directly of divine love (Sophia). There is no presumed gap or distance between creator and creation as Jesus Christ brings together the divine and human (Bulgakov sees Maximus as central to this development).[3] He is doing theology in a different key, and this shows up even (or especially) in his early work laying out his Trinitarian Sophiology in contrast to the philosophical project. Even as he describes the particular failings of philosophy, the failures illustrate the necessity of the Trinitarian Personhood reflected in the human image. His philosophical critique is so interwoven with his personalism and Sophiology, that this may be the place (his The Tragedy of Philosophy) to start with Bulgakov. Rather than beginning with being (or with presumptions of the economic and immanent Trinity, his description of the western failure characterized by Thomas Aquinas) or with reason, Bulgakov’s starting premise is the Trinity or a trinitarian holism necessary for reason, which cannot be subjected or reduced to reason but apart from which reason fails.

Presumed throughout is the eternality of the humanity of Christ, so that the truth of the intra-Trinitarian relationship is the truth of God and humans, and there are not two realms of truth (the presumption not only of philosophy – e.g., noumena/phenomena, act/being, – but of western theology, e.g., economic and immanent Trinity, Creator and creation, as a divide). There is one necessary realm of truth which reveals itself in human personhood, pointing to the Divine Person. What gets obscured, according to Bulgakov, and what he aims to recover is the focus on personhood (the person of God revealed in Christ and taken up in the human image) and the manner in which the person of Jesus Christ, in particular, bridges or brings together the antinomies of creator and creation (as developed in his Sophiology).[4] He presumes to develop a Chalcedonian orthodoxy (on the order of Maximus) but to more completely illustrate and define its parameters.

 His Sophiology develops as an overcoming of the antinomies of reason as expressed in philosophy, which provides a platform or insight (negative though it is), as spelled out in The Tragedy of Philosophy. The book traces the three characteristic mistakes found in philosophy, against the background of a Trinitarian theology and dogma, which in the description sounds fairly dry, but in the execution traces psychoanalytic and experiential reality such that human thought, perception, and experience, correctly perceived, is integrated directly with the reality of the Trinity. Philosophy is a tragedy but it is a tragedy awaiting and pointing toward the particulars of a Trinitarian solution.

Bulgakov applies Trinitarian theology, very much in the pattern of Paul in Romans 7, in that the tripartite reality of human experience and the human subject, absent the Trinity, does not hold together, but chapter 7 of Romans may be the necessary prologue to the heights of chapter 8, and so too Bulgakov’s philosophical engagement opens the path to his Sophiology. Throughout Bulgakov’s tracing of the problem, the light of the answer (the equivalent of Rom. 8) shines through. As Paul depicts in Romans, one might begin with the law, with the ego, or with the body of death, but what is specifically missing, as detailed in Romans 8, is the Trinity. The negative moment points to its singular resolution in Christ. Paul fills in the functioning of the human subject as a participation in Christ, by which we realize God as Father, and thus have life and being in the Spirit. Bulgakov carries out the same project in his depiction of the three-fold mistake of philosophy, and of course this Threeness is that of the Trinity absent this acknowledgement.

The philosophical project (and the human project) is always striving to bring together that which, outside of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, cannot be made to cohere. Philosophy begins with a basic mistake, the premise of his book, in its focus on human choice (Greek hairesis), so that philosophy is by definition a heresy.  All philosophy bears the singular characteristic of “arbitrary election, the choice, of some single thing or part instead of the whole: that is precisely a one sidedness.”[5] Rather than beginning with the reality of God in Christ, philosophy begins with choices or perspectives or an elected portion of this reality. Rather than beginning with the reality of God and extrapolating reasonably from this reality, philosophy begins with reason and attempts to describe reality (inductively or deductively). As a result, there is a philosophical drive to reduce plurality (all things) to a singular thing (monothematism).

He raises the question as to why this should be, and answers, “It is the spirit of system and the pathos of system; and a system is nothing other than the reduction of many and all into one, and conversely, the deduction of all and many out of one.”[6] He describes the drive as the human sickness or a manifestation of original sin. As the title of this chapter indicates, “The Nature of Thought,” this chapter and the first portion of the book is about fallen human thought as evinced in philosophy, but philosophy is simply a case in point of the human predicament. The philosopher “has desired a system. In other words, he has wished to create a (logical) world out of himself, out of his own principle – ‘you shall be as gods’ – but such a logical deduction of the world is not possible for a human being.”[7] The philosopher, like every human, has taken up the appeal of the serpent, to make of the dialectic of knowledge a replacement for living reality. Reason or philosophy as its own origin and end betrays signs of the human malaise: “Sickness, corruption, the perversion of all human existence which presented itself in original sin, also, in other words, afflicts reason, and makes it impossible for reason to gain access to the tree of heavenly knowledge, since access is denied by the fiery sword of the cherubim – the antinomies.”[8] Philosophy puts on display, not a personal pride, but the objective role of hubris, in that the philosopher, like the legalist, has no sense of the limits of the system. This then gives rise to the contradictions or antinomies of the system.   

In Pauline terms, this starting point reduces God to the system of the law. In psychoanalytic terms (which is to say the same thing in different terms), the human sickness is to interpolate the self (and with the self, all of reality) into the symbolic order. The law, the logos, the symbolic, or philosophy, would serve as its own end, displacing the divine Logos with a human word. Bulgakov traces the philosophical impetus, but he has in mind the general human orientation toward deception, violence and sin: “Logical continuity, or, what amounts to the same thing, the continuous logical deduction of all from one, making the whole system circle around a single centre which can be passed through in any direction, and which admits of no hiatus or discontinuity of any kind: this is the task which human thought naturally and inevitably strives to complete, not stopping short of violence, and self-deception, of evasions and illusions.”[9]

Logical monism, or the attempt to bridge subject and object, subject and predicate, noumena and phenomena, or to create a synthesis out of the antinomies, demands a full investment of faith (a violent bringing down of reality to fit it into the system). Every philosophy “dimly or distinctly, instinctively or consciously, timidly or militantly” claims “to be the absolute philosophy, and each of which regards its own sketch of what is as the system of the world.”[10] Hegel’s system is the characteristic illustration of overcoming the antinomies: “Hegel – and in his person, all philosophy” supposes it can bind reality into a system.[11] It presupposes what is impossible – to begin from itself, or generate from itself what can only come from what truly exists. The impossibility shows itself in the characteristic failure of philosophy, of taking one arm of tripartite reality as an end in itself.

 As Bulgakov describes, philosophy will choose either “(1) hypostasis, or personhood; (2) the latter’s idea or ideal form, logos, thought; (3) substantial being as the unity of all moments or states of being, as the self-actualizing whole.” These three philosophical moments can be summed up in the formula, “I am Something (potentially everything).”[12] This is a true enough statement, but philosophy “incessantly” cuts apart this indisseverable statement. “Philosophizing thought produces heresies through the arbitrariness of these disseverations, and through its choices of discrete beginnings; and the style of philosophizing is determined by the way in which this dissection is made.”[13] Philosophy takes what exists and that which is a necessary component of human consciousness and attempts to enter into this reality by segmenting and privileging a particular component.

The classic example is Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” The thinking thing is privileged over being. Being is subject to question and doubt, and is presumed to be determinate only through the predicate of thought, the second I. The first I and the second, (the thinking thing and that which exists as the predicate) are only conjoined in thought. This presumption cuts off the subject from its predicate and copula, as if the subject precedes predication and existence. Descartes is using his formula as a foundation to arrive at the certain proof of his existence and the existence of God, performing a dissection of thought in order to reduce it to the parameters of reason.

 In one form or another, this dissection of subject, predicate, and being indicates the history of philosophy. “Every philosophical system . . . is governed by an attempt of this kind: the subject, or the copula, or the predicate is announced as the single beginning, and everything is made to derive from it or to lead towards it. Such a ‘deduction,’ whether of the subject from the predicate, of the predicate from the subject, or of both from the copula, in fact presents philosophy with its principal task, and, thereby presents an insoluble difficulty to philosophical thought, which strives toward monism, strives to reduce everything to a first unity, no matter what.”[14] Bulgakov’s book is mostly dedicated to proving this point in three philosophical moments or movements, through engaging a wide range of philosophical thought, but focused most intensely on Immanuel Kant, Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. (I will return, in future posts, to the specifics of his proofs).

Though Bulgakov is focused on philosophy’s denial or dissection of a triadic unity and the tragedy which results, the same story could be told in the register of psychoanalysis or theology. The psyche strives to unify the self, experienced as mind and body, or as the objective I in the mirror and the I of experience. For Jacques Lacan, the Cartesian dilemma is the human dilemma, in that every subject is split by language. The enunciating subject is split from the subject of the statement (the enunciated) and thus the subject is inescapably split or castrated by language. By taking up and defining the self through language, there occurs a three-way split between the symbolic (language), the ego or imaginary, and the dissonance of nonbeing or death drive created in the relation between the two. Here, the tragedy is not a philosophical or metaphysical mistake, but the human sickness and neurosis which arises from trying to make the self a synthesis out of an antithesis. The compulsion to repeat, the death drive, human violence toward the other and self-destructiveness, can be traced to the psychoanalytic sickness.

The point is universalized in Paul’s use of the law, which pits the subject against itself. “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15). The philosophical and psychoanalytical is captured in Paul’s depiction of the I split by the law, but Paul includes the religious, the legal, the sexual and the social, or every aspect of the human predicament. What Bulgakov claims about philosophical systems seems to be a particular instance of Paul’s point, that could be described as the drive to a legal monism, in which the law is the system of the world, and the split between the two ‘I’s (Jew/Gentile, male/female, slave/free, mind/flesh, body/spirit) caused by the law would also be resolved through the law.

 Bulgakov, like Paul, will not so much resolve the dilemma of the split as address it through the reality of the Trinity. His presumption is that humans are created in the image of God and it is only on the basis of the divine image that the human image can be approached (if not comprehended). Like the Divine Person, the human person cannot be defined. “The essence of the hypostasis consists precisely in the fact that it is indefinable and indescribable; it stands beyond the limits of the world and of the concept, even though it continually reveals itself in them.”[15] It is not that the self cannot be named, but the I is not merely the subject of thought and reason, but thought and reason arise from the subject. The subject, transcendent as it may be, is revealed through the immanence of its predicates. “The subject, the hypostasis, is always revealed, always expresses itself, in the predicate. It goes without saying that the hypostasis in this sense is not the psychological I, psychological subjectivity, which already defines the hypostasis as a predicate, not as a subject.”[16]

The life force or spirit of the human subject is no more definable than the divine Spirit. Just as the Son bears the image of the Father, so too every child of God is defined in this relationship: “Eternity belongs to the hypostasis; it is eternal in the same sense as eternal God, who Himself breathed His own Spirit into humanity at the latter’s creation. The human being is the son of God and a created god; the image of eternity is an inalienable and indelible part of him.”[17] Humankind bears eternity in the image, and Bulgakov suggests that even suicide is not actually aimed at annihilating or extinguishing the I (“suicide attempts represent a kind of philosophical misunderstanding, and are directed not at the I itself, but only at the way in which it exists, directed not at the subject, but at the predicate”). As Bulgakov sums up, “The hypostatic I is the philosophical and grammatical Subject of all predicates; its life is this predicate, endless in its breadth and depth.”[18] The Father, Son, and Spirit, are the reality of subject, predicate, and copula of being. The Father is revealed through the Son, and this lived out realization is the work of the Spirit. This participation in the divine is the reality behind human thought and experience, and even a failure of thought points to its completion in this reality.

[1] Sergij Bulgakov, The Tragedy of Philosophy (Philosophy & Dogma), trans. by Stephen Churchyard (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2020) 91. Many thanks Jim, for the gift of this book. It is a key into Bulgakov.

[2] Or Sergij, or Sergei, among some 9 possible variants.

[3] See Jonathan R. Seiling, From Antinomy to Sophiology: Modern Russian Religious Consciousness and Sergei Bulgakov’s Critical Appropriation of German Idealism (PhD Dissertation, Toronto School of Theology, 2008) 229-233.

[4] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 35. Cited in Katy Leamy, “A Comparison of the Kenotic Trinitarian Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Sergei Bulgakov” (2012). (Dissertations (2009 -). Paper 211. http://epublications.marquette.edu/dissertations_mu/211), 36.

[5] Bulgakov, 3.

[6] Ibid. To miss this point will not only amount to missing the thesis of the book, but is the characteristic theological mistake. The issue is on the order of that of Jordan Wood in his departure from David Bentley Hart, or the tradition through Origen to Maximus, taken up by Bulgakov. The antinomies of heaven and earth, God and human, subject and object, are only resolved in the concrete case of the God/Man Jesus Christ. Reason cannot overcome these antinomies but Christ (in reality), in who he is, brings them together. Thus, reason begins with Jesus Christ as ground. Otherwise, it is not clear what a subject or reason might be.  

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Ibid, 7.

[9] Ibid, 3.

[10] Ibid, 3-4. Bulgakov has passed through commitment to Marxist Hegelianism, then with his conversion and the Russian Revolution, at this writing, he is without a job or a library in Crimea.

[11] Ibid, 6.

[12] Ibid, 9.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, 10.

[15] Ibid, 11.

[16] Ibid, 12.

[17] Ibid.

[18] 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.

God With Us: The Shattering of the “Idea of God” and Discovery of His Presence

“My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? … And most are offended by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not.” CS Lewis[1]

Last night we finished a course on the Holy Spirit through PBI, and each of the participants (all seasoned pastors and theologians) described experiencing (at some point in their lives but reappreciated in our time together) something on the order of what Lewis describes as the shattering of former ideas and the realization of God’s presence in the realms of marriage, fatherhood, friendship, prayer and ultimately every order of being. The class brought home the recognition that centering, contemplative prayer opens a continual awareness of divine activity pervading our world. We are so attuned, in this secular age, to a disenchanted mechanical universe (the “God-forsakenness” of the world in Charles Taylor’s description) that it takes conscious effort to wake up to the endless iconic nature of the world. In continually looking for God to show-up, it may be we have missed the still small voice beckoning through friendship, contemplative prayer, and married love. The ordinary course of human suffering and love, the questions of a child, and even a rescued cat (continually present in class), testify, we realized, to the divine presence. The recognition requires a relinquishing of settled (limited) notions of God which then opens us to the unsettling realization of the pervasive presence of the Spirit.

The seeming tension between a settled idea of God and continually attempting to conjure up God’s presence are not opposed but consist of the same failure. To divinize an idea is to miss the enfleshed manner in which God comes to us. An “idea” is not enfleshed, it is not felt, it has no presence, and it gives no comfort but at the same time it offers no threat. Isaiah pictures Immanuel (God With Us) as shattering human ideas, human religion and human plans, precisely because they depend on death, darkness and absence. If the music is intense enough, the lights and smoke adjusted just right, and the medium is appealing, it may be that “whisperings and mutterings” may seem to conjure up God’s presence, but Isaiah warns the real thing shatters this conspiratorial belief system.

Mathew announces that Christ as Immanuel brings about this shattering presence of God, and it is Israel and her institutions who will stumble over God With Us. But is Jesus the same one who “will sweep into Judah” and “fill the breadth of your land”? Is God With Us on the order of water which “will overflow and pass through” reaching “even to the neck” and is it his metaphorical wings which will cover the land (Isaiah 8:8)? Mathew also quotes Isaiah to say the Messiah is one who will cause no disturbance: “He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope” (Mt 12:19–21, ESV). How will he bring about a revolutionary justice and provide universal hope without causing a disturbance? How is it that from the womb of a humble peasant girl, as a baby in a manger, working in a carpenter’s shop, teaching a few disciples for three years, and dying on an implement of torture reserved for slaves, Christ changes the world order?

God With Us in the womb, in ordinary life, on a cross, and in the resurrection has, in Irenaeus image, recapitulated all things, so that the world is opened to Trinitarian fellowship. Hans Urs von Balthasar describes Christ as convening a “cosmic liturgy” as he has opened up the world to divine love: “the essence of all being has become visible in Jesus Christ” who reveals the Father, as “a wellspring of reciprocal love.”[2] The fellowship of friends, the love of marriage, the birth of a child, and quiet meditation bear the presence of Immanuel. As Julian of Norwich pictures it, “everything is penetrated, in length and breadth, in height and in depth without end; and it is all one love.”[3]

Many of us have tended, perhaps due to the combined influence of modernity and patriarchal religion, toward a settled idea of God. A static God, a stale theology, a world emptied of the grandeur of God, passes over the unsettling dynamic of God With Us. The incarnation opens to us the interdependent relations of the Trinity, and the fact that Jesus displays the dependence of an infant upon his mother, the dependence of a child on his parents, dependence upon other people’s generosity (e.g., the wealthy women who provided him support), and just the basic human dependence on culture, demonstrates an interdependent reality on a continuum that extends into the Trinity. To be dependent on God and others or to be an interdependent part of a community is part of the mediating reality of knowing God. In Jesus we see the divine in every area of human life: his healing touch, his thirst, his sorrow at death, his love of children, and his tiredness, are mediating realities in which he is known as “I am.” This relational understanding of God revealed in Christ is not a departure from the “I am that I am” revealed to Moses, but its completion; the fulfillment that goes ahead into Egypt and the world.

The Bible knows nothing of the Unmoved Mover but pictures God in dynamic interpersonal relationships such as deliverer, father, mother, husband, beloved, companion, friend, advocate, liberator, king, and judge. God is interpersonal relatedness and this reality extends to his relationship to the world. The God of the Bible gets his hands dirty shaping earth (adamah) into his likeness. Rather than God being unmoved, unoccupied, and settled he is pictured as a shepherd, farmer, laundress, construction worker, potter, midwife, physician, baker, artist, writer, nurse, and homemaker, busily going about the tasks which occupy people and in which we can recognize his activity. Far from an uninvolved patriarch or distant king, God is pictured as giving birth, nursing the young, and is particularly concerned with children, the poor and the weak. The world is alive with the activity and grandeur of God but it may be that the idea of God blinds us to the reality. The Bible points to the constellations, the wonders of nature, the constancy of the seasons, as bearing the fingerprint of God. A she bear protecting her cubs, a mother hen hovering over her chicks, the work of ants, the stealth of the badger, the fragility of birds or even inanimate objects such as running water, light, fire, rocks, or clouds point us to his presence and activity.[4]

Elizabeth Johnson lists the variety of names in the Mishnah as a further example of the dynamic identity of God. In this post-biblical Jewish usage he is the Living God, Friend of the World, Mighty One, Searcher of Hearts, the One who knows the thoughts of all, Lord of Consolations, Height of the World, Eye of the World, Life of the World, Beloved, the One who dwells in hidden places, the Heart of Israel, the One who understands, the One who spoke and the world was, Justice of the World, Home of the World, Rock of the World, the Holy One, Holy Spirit, the One who hears, Peace of the World, Strong One, Merciful One.

In the spirit of Paul on the Areopagus referencing an idol to the “unknown god,” God may also be approached through the myriad of names and activities found in traditional religions: Alone the Great One, the Powerful One, Wise One, Shining One, the One who sees all, the One who is everywhere, Friend, the Greatest of Friends, the One you confide your troubles to, the One who can turn everything upside down, the One there from ancient times, the One who began the forest, the One who gives to all, the Rain-giver, Highest of the Highest, Unknown, Queen of Heaven whose glory shines in mist and rainbow, Great Spirit, Great One of the Sky, Protector of the Poor, Guardian of Orphans, the Chief, the Almighty, Watcher of everything, Owner of everything, Savior of all, the One who loves, who gives birth to the people, who rules, who makes children, who embraces all; the One who does not die, who has not let us down yet, who bears the world, who has seen many moons, who thunders from far-off times, who carries everyone on her back, who is heard in all the world; the One who blesses. The world knows something of the God revealed in Christ, and just as Christ reappropriates and gives new meaning to the Hebrew names for God, he appropriates and fulfills human expectations of an ultimate interpersonal reality.

There is not one settled concept which is adequate for God but what is required is an inexhaustible variety of names and concepts which allow for a dynamic unfolding of the divine reality. Even “Abba,” the name revealed by Christ, does not sum up or amass the Truth in one stroke. As expressed in the metaphor of Henri de Lubac, one can only keep afloat in knowing God in the way that a swimmer keeps afloat, through a continuous stroking of the water. As Johnson puts it, referencing de Lubac, “They are forever brushing aside the representations which are continually reforming, knowing full well that these support them, but that if they were to rest for a single moment they would sink.” As Aquinas notes, if you imagine you have understood God, then what you have understood is not God. [5]

Even the world (in all of its parts), which is open to understanding, seems to require infinite exploration and explanation. I spent some twenty years teaching scientists English in Tsukuba Science City in Japan, and among my students, one was spending his career studying the circulatory system of the silk worm, another was studying the genome of rice, another was a specialist in the human intestine. Several meteorologists passed through my classes and I discovered there are forest meteorologists, desert meteorologists, and those who specialize in ocean currents, but there was no accurate working model of world wide weather as the variables and factors are too great. Tsukuba boasted a small particle accelerator but it was well known that the subatomic world was proving bottomless and the only hope was for larger accelerators. There was no area of science, no matter how small its area of study, that was settled or finished. Just the opposite, the tiniest realm, to say nothing of the rapidly expanding universe, is proving to have infinite depth so that the world seems to consist of an endless number of, what Jason Baxter calls, finite infinities.

In Baxter’s explanation, there was a window between the 12th and 15th century, prior to the secular age but subsequent to the reign of Greek notions in which infinity was equated with incomprehension, in which beauty began to be experienced in terms of the infinite. Where classical philosophers strove to whittle down diffuseness to a tapered and simple whole (the One despite the plurality), the “Gothic aesthetic,” as Baxter dubs it, found a new point of analogy between the world and its maker in the infinite. Thierry of Chartres, for example, discussed how each creature potentially functioned as a mirror of God, with the world consisting of an infinite variety of mirrors reflecting one face: “Just as a single face, when casting its reflection off many mirrors, is still one” (Commentum super Boethii librum De Trinitate, II,48), so God looks at the world and history and sees his face reflected in an infinite number of mirrors. Nicholas of Cusa, in his treatise, On Searching for God, “tells a spiritual brother that the path to God is a paradoxical ascent accomplished by a descent into the world.” He deploys the mustard seed as an example, which grows into a tree which then drops thousands of seeds, each potentially becoming a tree such that “if its potential should be unfolded in actuality, this sensible world would not suffice, nor indeed, would ten or a thousand or all the worlds that one could count.” Nicholas then performs a thought experiment unfolding the infinity immediately available in the mind:

All capacity of the whole sensible word, and not only of this one world but also of an infinite number of worlds . . . How great a magnitude there is in our intellect! . . . through similar ascents, you will be able to ascend from the power of the millet seed and likewise from the power of all vegetable and animal seeds. The power of no seed is less than that of the mustard seed, and there are an infinite number of such seeds. Oh how great is our God, who is the actuality of all potency!

As Baxter notes, “That last part is important, because even if all the potentialities in every seed were unfolded into their infinities, the world would still be but a shadowy explication of God.” [6]

If we settle upon a static image, an idea, a limited whole, a distant and perhaps patriarchal notion of God, then we miss the iconic dynamic of God With Us in the boundless finite infinities. He is with us in creation, in history, in time, in the human circumstance, which mirrors his infinity. We can see him at work in the infinite depth of friendship, in the ever unfolding love of marriage and in the bottomless fellowship and relationship in the world all around us. Immanuel, in shattering the settled finite idols, offers up the infinite icon of the world as the mirror of his image.

(Thank you to Allan, Matt, David, Rob, Dan, Trenton, and Justin for exploring these possibilities together.)

[1] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London: Faber, 1966), 52.

[2] Theo-Logic, III, 438.

[3] Julian of Norwich, Showings, trans. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 296-97; see Joan Nuth, Wisdom’s Daughter: The Theology of Julian of Norwich (New York: Crossroad Pub., 199 1). Quoted from Elizabeth Johnson, “Naming God She: The Theological Implications” (2000). Boardman Lectureship in Christian Ethics. 5. http://repository.upenn.edu/boardman/5

[4] See Johnson, Ibid.

[5] Henri De Lubac, Discovely of God, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: I?]. Kenedy, 1960), 120-2 1. Johnson, Ibid.

[6] Jason Baxter, “The Nine Billion Names of God” in Church Life Journal (December 8, 2021) https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-nine-billion-names-of-god/?fbclid=IwAR22nJYREsZNhrTDkBOusl2B6OjvVUK36tOFiBUKZl0bKD4qiIMrRxRgXbk