“Maranatha”: Praying in the New Year with Sergius Bulgakov

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)

“Come, Lord Jesus!” Maranatha, in the Aramaic and transliterated into Greek, is the conclusion of the whole Bible and of the New Testament in particular. The response given to “the Spirit and the Bride” is “surely I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:17,20). The early church understood this quickness in coming as ushering in the end of all things. According to Sergius Bulgakov, for us who live two thousand years after Christ, this coming “quickly” must be regarded ontologically rather than chronologically.[1] I believe this prayer calls for the Parousia, that is for the presence of Christ in the world even before His second coming.

This is a prayer of turning the world into the New Jerusalem, the Church. The prayer is both personal and cosmic, to “let God be all in all” in me and the world.[2] Christ is present in the Church, but at the same time is called on to come. The second coming of Christ is not merely a future event or goal. This coming of Christ into the world is an avocation or calling for all Christians. This eschatological event is to shape the direction of our life and it captures the meaning of time and history. Christ is coming, and Christians and the Church are ushering in Christ to the world. John tells us in Revelation history has an eschatological goal, and we are to play our creative part in this goal. History is a means of fulfillment of an eschatological anticipation, which human effort and individual and corporate human lives are bringing about. “Come Lord Jesus,” is our effort and prayer. The immanent outworking of our time, our lives, and of history, is the means of the coming of Christ. The coming of Christ is being realized not only beyond history, but also through history. The prayer “Maranatha” is not a task beyond our strength, it is an inner conviction prayed in unison with the prayer to the Holy Spirit: “come and dwell within us.” Through this eschatological understanding, history is seen not merely as a time of waiting for the second coming of Christ. Rather, history is a positive path, which has to be walked. History, therefore, is determined by the “readiness” and “expectation” of what is already present but still to come. We are living in this tension of now, but not yet.[3] “Come, Lord Jesus! Maranatha!” This prayer for salvation implies both the end of the world and the way to this end. We are to bring about and accomplish this end in our lives.

The entire creative activity of life, that is, the whole of human history to which God called the human race is accomplished by this creative inspiration. Our prayer, our life, our creativity, moves history toward eschatology, but at the same time does not deny history, but serves as its inner fulfillment.

As we usher out the old year, the year having passed through infancy to old age in the popular image, we are struck once again with the rapid movement of time. How do we view our time, our history, or history in general? Most of human history is tragic. Hegel calls it a slaughter bench, and Hegel of course, is the one who imagines that through this slaughter, progress occurs. Not an eschatological progress toward a transcendent goal, but an inner, closed, progress within time and history.  

As we pass through the feast of the slaughter of the innocents, a modern-day Herod is slaying the children of Palestine. As we witness the slaughter in Gaza, the slaughter in Ukraine, and remember the slaughter of Vietnam, Korea, the Great War, the Second World War, the Russian Revolution, the Maoist Revolution, the totality of which resulted in hundreds of millions of deaths, we recognize history is tragic.

I have just read a history of the American West, in which General Sherman, who conducted a scorched earth policy in the Civil War, and who was assigned finishing the Indian wars, describes the tragedy of history at a speech he gave at West Point: 

War is written into the human soul. Wars have been, are now, and ever will be as long as man is man. You cannot prognosticate that we are to be wiser and better than those who have gone before us, and that because there is now or in sight no just cause for war, that we are therefore to be forever exempt. Wars do not usually result from just causes, but from pretexts. There probably never was a just cause why men should slaughter each other by wholesale, but there are such things as ambition, selfishness, folly, madness, in communities as in individuals, which become blind and bloodthirsty, not to be appeased save by havoc, and generally by the killing of somebody else than themselves. This should not be, but is the fact, and we are no exception to the general rule.[4]

If corporate history is read as tragedy, we know that the senselessness of life can also be overwhelming on an individual level. As William Shakespeare puts it in Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” As Solomon puts it in Ecclesiastes (1:2): “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’”

History is not simply meaningless tragedy, as we know Christ has broken into history, bringing God’s eternal purposes into time, but we understand how a closed view of the world conveys this. A secular understanding, without recourse to what lies beyond history, cannot account for any apparent meaning in history, though this is the temptation. Examined within its own boundaries, even within its achievements, history turns out to be a great failure.  Christ’s entry into time and history and its rescue, is our story, the story of the Church. In the description of Bulgakov, as an inner force within history, the Church is the place for the realization of salvation – the realm of divine-human reality being joined. This reality is the moving force of history; it drives history towards its fulfillment in eschatology. Time is not “an empty passage into eternity, but is the Church’s development and completion.”[5]

History, we recognize in Christ, is open ended. It is continually open to eternity. But it is this same fact that establishes the tragedy of history when it is approached from the point of view of the expectation of its own inward progress. So too, our own lives. From one perspective every life is tragic, but from the eschatological perspective we understand life as ushering in the Parousia. History is going through a process of creation just as an individual life does. Ironically, the tragedy of life is felt because we are made for eternity. The tragedy of time is felt from an eternal perspective.

The New Testament expresses this in the notion of Kairos, the time for salvation. In Greek, the moment of Kairos was considered a particularly opportune moment for action. In Christian thinking, time is the opportunity for eternity. There is a fullness of time, a purpose for time. In Mark 1:15, for example, it is written: “And saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Similarly, in II Corinthians 6:1-2: “And working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain— for He says, ‘At the acceptable time I listened to you, And on the day of salvation I helped you.’ Behold, now is ‘the acceptable time,’ behold, now is ‘the day of salvation”” ‘The time has come’ or that ‘time is at hand’ in which eternity is breaking into time. Both imply an apocalyptic context. Our history is open to eternity, and our history is a part of the movement of Christ.

Another way to state this is, the First Adam is being fulfilled by the second Adam, and this is the meaning of history. It is the meaning of my history and corporate history.

For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.

So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.

For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. (Rom. 5:17-19)

All humanity shares in the first Adam. All share in the effects of the fall, all share the propensity for sin, and all share the Adam nature. There is a mystical unity of all humankind in the first Adam. In the second Adam, starting with the Incarnation, this mystical humanity is elevated to the notion of the Church as Christ’s Body. Every child of Adam shares a nature, which is made for redemption. This is simultaneously individual and corporate. We can glimpse how our individual humanity participates in corporate humanity and corporate salvation. We are both the subjects and objects of history.

A concrete human being cannot be conceived independently from humankind. Every human being possesses and lives in his/her own individuality and at the same time also possesses humanity in common with others, living in tension between these two realities. The human being is “as much an individual as a social being.”[6] The existence of humankind as one human family is an important presupposition for the understanding of human history as a whole. The human being is seen not only within the closed boundaries of his/her own being or as a “self-enclosed microcosm.” Rather, human beings are “a part of the whole, and form a part of a mystical human organism.”[7] Thus, Paul speaks of all humanity as the first and second Adam.

“The idea of the Church in this sense is applied to the whole world in its real foundation and aim.”[8] The Church is the meeting point of the first and second Adam, history and eschatology, that is the presence of Christ in history. But the Church exists in tension: it is within historical reality, within the first Adam, but equally in the process of transfiguration into the second Adam. This transfigured life is accomplished in history and through history. On the way to the eschaton, human history becomes the history of the Church. Not the church as an institution, but as the spiritual force of the Parousia being worked out in history. Eschatology, the coming of Christ, the coming of the Spirit, functions as the realization of history and its inner fulfillment.

As Bulgakov describes: “The Church has no continuing city on earth, but seeks one to come. Orthodoxy implies inspiration, the eros of the Church, her yearning for the Bridegroom, the feeling proper to his Bride. It is creativeness directed towards the final goal, the expectation of the End.”[9]

Thus in this new year, we pray, and creatively live out the prayer, “Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus.”


[1] Bulgakov, Apokalypsys Ioana [The Apocalypse of John]: http:// www.krotov.info/libr_min/b/bulgakovs/00_bulg.html. Quoting from Marta Samokishyn, “Sergii Bulgakov’s Eschatological Perspectives on Human History” (Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies Vol. 49 (2008) Nos. 3–4, pp. 235–262), 255. https://www.oocities.org/sbulgakovsociety/samokishyn.pdf

[2] This is Samokishyn’s characterization of Bulgakov’s work. “Bulgakov’s main ‘theological slogan,’ I would say, can be expressed in the words: ‘let God be all in all.’” Ibid. 255.

[3] Bulgakov, The Apocalypse of John. Cited from Samokishyn, 257.

[4] H. W. Brands, The Last Campaign: Sherman, Geronimo, and the War for America (New York: Vintage Books, 2023) 362.

[5] Bulgakov, Sviet Nevechernii: Sozertsanie I Umozrenie [Unfading Light] (Moskva: Isskustvo, 1999), 185. Quoting from Samokishyn, 249.

[6] Bulgakov, Sviet Nevechernii, 345. Quoting from Samokishyn, 246.

[7]Bulgakov, Sviet Nevechernii, 346. Quoting from Samokishyn, 246.

[8] Sergii Bulgakov, “Social Teaching in Modern Russian Orthodox Theology,” in Sergii Bulgakov: Towards a Russian Political Theology, ed. Rowan Williams (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 280. Quoting from Samokishyn, 258.

[9] Bulgakov, “Autobiographical Notes” in Sergius Bulgakov: A Bulgakov Anthology, 19. Cited in Samokishyn, 260.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood . . . recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Wood, 117.

The Radical Theology of Maximus the Confessor: Creation is Incarnation

If the end point of Augustinian thought might be said to be the theology of Martin Luther, in which the essence of God is unattainable (nominalism), then the fulfillment of Origen’s theology must be found in the work of Maximus the Confessor (580-662 CE), who pictures identification between God and the world. The logic (the Christo-logic) of Origen’s apocatastasis is summed up in Maximus’ formula, “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things” (Ambigua, hereafter Amb. 7.22). As Maximus explains it elsewhere: “This is the great and hidden mystery. This is the blessed end for which all things were brought into existence. This is the divine purpose conceived before the beginning of beings, and in defining it we would say that this mystery is the preconceived goal for the sake of which everything exists, but which itself exists on account of nothing, and it was with a view to this end that God created the essences of beings” (QThal. 60.3).[1] Creation’s purpose is found in the incarnation (in the lamb sacrificed before the foundation of the world), and this end is present in the beginning, so that incarnation is not simply a singular event within creation but is the basis of creation.

In the incarnation the absolute differences between God and man (those differences which one form of Christianity picture as unbridgeable) are brought together in the God/man Jesus Christ, and this identity between creator and creation is complete:

This mystery is obviously the ineffable and incomprehensible union according to hypostasis of divinity and humanity. This union brings humanity into perfect identity, in every way, with divinity, through the principle of the hypostasis, and from both humanity and divinity it completes the single composite hypostasis, without creating any diminishment due to the essential difference of the natures.

(QThal. 60.2).

This total identity with God on the part of Christ is perfectly duplicated in the Christian. That is, according to Maximus, the Christian becomes Christ: “they will be spiritually vivified by their union with the archetype of these true things, and so become living images of Christ, or rather become one with Him through grace (rather than being a mere simulacrum), or even, perhaps, become the Lord Himself, if such an idea is not too onerous for some to bear” (Amb. 21.15). Maximus is not speaking metaphorically or analogously but is describing a complete identification between the disciple and his Lord. His qualifications pertain only to the difference that what Christ is by nature the disciple attains by grace. Or as he states it in Ambigua 10, the disciple may be limited by his nature but nonetheless reflects the “fulness of His divine characteristics”:

Having been wholly united with the whole Word, within the limits of what their own inherent natural potency allows, as much as may be, they were imbued with His own qualities, so that, like the clearest of mirrors, they are now visible only as reflections of the undiminished form of God the Word, who gazes out from within them, for they possess the fullness of His divine characteristics, yet none of the original attributes that naturally define human beings have been lost, for all things have simply yielded to what is better, like air—which in itself is not luminous—completely mixed with light.

(Amb. 10.41).

Their “own natural potency” is the only delimitation between the identity of the Word and the one reflecting that Word. Otherwise they are “imbued with His own qualities” and are “reflections of the undiminished form of God the Word” and “possess the fullness of His divine characteristics” which totally interpenetrate but nonetheless do not overwhelm or diminish who they naturally are. It is not that the individual is absorbed into the One and so lose themselves, but in reflecting the Word the individual becomes fully who they are. He explains that he is not describing the erasure of the individual: “Let not these words disturb you, for I am not implying the destruction of our power of self-determination, but rather affirming our fixed and unchangeable natural disposition” (Amb. 7.12). One’s natural inclinations are fulfilled through the work of Christ, as “there is only one sole energy, that of God and of those worthy of God, or rather of God alone, who in a manner befitting His goodness wholly interpenetrates all who are worthy” (Amb. 7.12). This is accomplished through the body, the incarnation, of Christ.  

The body of Christ not only accounts for the deification of the Christian but is the means for cosmic deification: “The ‘body of Christ is either the soul, or its powers, or senses, or the body of each human being, or the members of the body, or the commandments, or the virtues, or the inner principles of created beings, or, to put it simply and more truthfully, each and all of these things, both individually and collectively, are the body of Christ” (Amb. 54.2). The body of Christ is the body of “each human being” it is the “virtues” or “the inner principles of created beings.” As Jordan Wood puts it, “Everything is his body.”[2] There is a complete identification (though Maximus is careful to stipulate this is not an identity in essence): “the whole man wholly pervading the whole God, and becoming everything that God is, without, however, identity in essence, and receiving the whole of God instead of himself, and obtaining as a kind of prize for his ascent to God the absolutely unique God” (Amb. 41.5).

Maximus is building upon Origen’s notion that the beginning is in the end and the end is in the beginning, which is Jesus Christ. Thus, he describes the virtuous person through Origen’s formula: “For such a person freely and unfeignedly chooses to cultivate the natural seed of the Good, and has shown the end to be the same as the beginning, and the beginning to be the same as the end, or rather that the beginning and the end are one and the same” (Amb. 7.21). As Maximus explains, from the viewpoint of God taken up by the virtuous person “by conforming to this beginning,” a beginning in which “he received being and participation in what is naturally good,” “he hastens to the end, diligently” (Amb. 7.21). This end is the deification of all things: “In this way, the grace that divinizes all things will manifestly appear to have been realized” (QThal. 2.2).  

As with Origen, it is the incarnate Christ, and not an a-historical or preincarnate Logos, in which he locates the beginning of all things. In the incarnate Word, God has identified with the world, and the worlds beginning and end is found in this identity of the Word (in the middle of history).  As stated in the Gospel of John, this process of creation continues through the Son, and this work is the work of deification:

 In this way, the grace that divinizes all things will manifestly appear to have been realized—the grace of which God the Word, becoming man, says: “My father is still working, just as I am working.” That is, the Father bestows His good pleasure on the work, the Son carries it out, and the Holy Spirit essentially completes in all things the good will of the former and the work of the latter, so that the one God in Trinity might be “through all things and in all things.

(QThal. 2.2).

The Trinitarian work begun through the Son is carried out on all of creation, so that he might be all in all (Col. 3:11).  As Maximus states it in Ambigua 31:

If, then, Christ as man is the first fruits of our nature in relation to God the Father, and a kind of yeast that leavens the whole mass of humanity, so that in the idea of His humanity’ He is with God the Father, for He is the Word, who never at any time has ceased from or gone outside of His remaining in the Father, let us not doubt that, consistent with His prayer to the Father, we shall one day be where He is now, the first fruits of our race. For inasmuch as He came to be below- for our sakes and without change became man, exactly like us but without sin, loosing the laws of nature in a manner beyond nature, it follows that we too, thanks to Him, will come to be in the world above, and become gods according to Him through the mystery of grace, undergoing no change whatsoever in our nature.

(Amb. 31.9)

Maximus might be seen as working out the details of Athanasius’ formula, “God became man that man might become god.” However, he sees this as the working principle of the cosmos, with its own logic and singular explanation. It is not that God became “like” man or that man becomes “like” God, nor is it simply some sort of Greek notion of participation. Maximus gives full weight to both the human and divine principle at work in Christ. He counters the tendency to focus on the deity of Christ at the expense of the humanity. The notion, spoken or unspoken, that the incarnation is in some sense a singular episode in the life of God and not an eternal reality, is here counterbalanced (as in Origen) with a full embrace of both humanity and deity. There is a complete union between God and man, and that union is complete on both sides (divine and human) in Jesus Christ. The movement fully embracing humanity is part of the move to a fully embraced identity between God and humans. “And this is precisely why the Savior, exemplifying within Himself our condition, says to the Father: Yet not as I will, but as thou wilt. And this is also why Saint Paul, as if he had denied himself and was no longer conscious of his own life, said: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Amb. 7.11). In the first instance, Christ really becomes human, and in the second instance, Paul really becomes Christ. There is a perichoretic or hypostatic identity in Christ:  

God renewed our nature, or to put it more accurately, He made our nature new, returning it to its primordial beauty of incorruptibility through His holy flesh, taken from us, and animated by a rational soul, and on which He lavishly bestowed the gift of divinization, from which it is absolutely impossible to fall, being united to God made flesh, like the soul united to the body, wholly interpenetrating it in an unconfused union, and by virtue of His manifestation in the flesh, He accepted to be hidden exactly to the same degree that He Himself, for the sake of the flesh, was manifested and to all appearances seemed to go outside of His own natural hiddenness.

(Amb. 42.5)

In Wood’s explanation, whether he employs the term or not, Maximus is describing perichoresis – “the idea that the deific state involves the whole God in the ‘whole’ creature and the reverse.” Wood describes Maximus’s perichoretic logic as “two simultaneous, vertical movements (both realized horizontally)—God’s descent and our ascent. Both transgress Neoplatonic participation. They make it so that the very mode (and act) of divinity descends into the finite mode (and act) of the creature just as much as the latter ascends into divinity’s; that both modes exist as one reality; and that even in this single reality both modes perdure entirely undiminished—neither’s natural power limits the other’s act.”[3] A prime example is taken from John’s two-fold description that “God is light” and then his statement a few lines later that “He is in the light.”

God, who is truly light according to His essence, is present to those who “walk in Him” through the virtues, so that they too truly become light. Just as all the saints, who on account of their love for God become light by participation in that which is light by essence, so too that which is light by essence, on account of its love for man, becomes light in those who are light by participation. If, therefore, through virtue and knowledge we are in God as in light, God Himself, as light, is in us who are light. For God who is light by nature is in that which is light by imitation, just as the archetype is in the image. Or, rather, God the Father is light in light; that is, He is in the Son and the Holy Spirit, not that He exists as three separate lights, but He is one and the same light according to essence, which, according to its mode of existence is threefold light.

(QThal 8.2)

God himself is the light and this light is “in us who are light.” God is both by nature light and by imitation in the light. As Wood points out, there is the typical “by essence” vs. “by participation” distinction here, but then “it descends or “comes to be” or even “becomes” (γίνεται) participated light (i.e. light in a qualified or finite mode).” God becomes the participated mode. “For God who is light by nature is in that which is light by imitation, just as the archetype is in the image.” In other words, there is full identification between the light that is God and the light in the archetype and the light “in us.” “It’s a claim that in the deified person God descends and ‘becomes’ the very participated mode (and activity) of that person, all while retaining the divine mode unmuted and unqualified and unmediated.”[4]

My point in this short piece is to simply set forth what seems to be the key element in Maximus’ theology, which raises a number of issues. Isn’t there a collapse of any distinction between creator and creation? Doesn’t this reduce to a kind of pantheistic monism, in which everything is Christ? Isn’t this an example of a failure of a breakdown of thought – identity through difference simply reduces to sameness? Isn’t this a return to Hegel, with total focus on the historical becoming of God? Is this a relinquishing of the distinctive role of Christ? While there are possible answers to these questions, the questions indicate the radical nature of Maximus’s Christo-logic.


[1] On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios here after QThal.

[2] Jordan Daniel Wood, That Creation is Incarnation in Maximus Confessor,” (Dissertation for Doctor of Philosophy, Boston College, 2018) 227.

[3] Wood, 209-210

[4] Wood, 211.

Gnosticism, Existentialism and Nihilism: The Root of the Human Disease

The shared context and perspective of 2nd century Gnosticism and modern existentialism has been pointed out by Christopher Lasch, Eric Voegelin, and most brilliantly by Hans Jonas.  The dualism, the antinomianism, the individualism, but most starkly, the sense of alienation, arising from the Roman disestablishment of traditional religion and modern disenchantment, gave rise to thought and religion steeped in and ultimately dependent upon a radical dualism. The individual alone in a hostile or indifferent world finds herself abandoned and helpless before the laws of fate or nature. The world is a horror; the laws of the universe a tyrant under which the individual is crushed and helpless. There is order, but it is an order of absolute law which leaves the human alienated, imprisoned, and alone. To acknowledge this incomprehensible darkness and alienation is the beginning of freedom. The realization of the sickness contains the negative knowledge giving rise to the will to defeat it. To be integrated into or reconciled with the world is to be ruled by ignorance and it is to squelch the inner spirit which is by definition transcendent. The power of the cosmic laws felt in total alienation is the dark truth which points to the inner spark and possibility of freedom.

The climate of moral confusion in which old faiths were dying, gave rise to a new imperialism, the spread of education (aimed not at mastery and mental discipline but at utility), as rapid circulation of goods and ideas created a new cosmopolitanism which would throw off the former provincialism. In this world in which the old myths could no longer be directly believed there was an effort to reinterpret them, not in order to believe but in order to surpass belief and regain the enchantments/insights and vigor of a former time. In Lasch’s description, it “was a time when the accumulation of wealth, comfort, and knowledge outran the ability to put these good things to good use. It was a time of expanding horizons and failing eyesight, of learning without light and great expectations without hope.”[1]  In the depiction of both Jonas and Voegelin, the overlapping context produced an overlapping turn to “salvational knowledge.”

It was the overlap of the times and thought that drew Jonas deeper into his lifelong study of Gnosticism. He found in his study of Heidegger and Gnosticism a “dimly felt affinity” which “lured” him on into examining Gnosticism, for at the base of both he began to uncover what he would identify as a shared nihilistic element.[2] Jonas turns to Pascal, whose description he claims was the first to face the frightening implications of modern cosmology. Rather than finding himself at home in the universe, Pascal describes the early tenets of an existentialism, which both in its Christian and atheistic manifestations, speaks of a profound alienation. God has been set at such a distance, he had absconded (Deus absconditus) and therefore is fundamentally unknowable (according to Nicholas of Cusa, John Calvin, and Martin Luther). Pascal would take up the notion, as did the Jansenists to whom he had converted and become an influential member. This notion accentuated human loneliness in the unfolding perception of modern cosmology (the notion of a world machine governed by immutable laws).

 Pascal speaks of a fundamental fear: “Cast into the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened.”[3] As Jonas notes, it is the indifference in the imperception (the not-knowing) of the universe that gives rise to the feeling of insignificance and loneliness. The universe is blind to man, so that just as his being can be attributed to a blind accident, so too his destruction is of no consequence. Yet, unlike any other part of the extended universe man is a thinking reed. The world is all res extensa (as his contemporary, Descartes had taught)– it is all matter and extended magnitude and only the human knower stands out as a thinking thing. But this very thought alienates, separates, and brings the awareness of being easily dispensable. His consciousness is alienating, marking the “unbridgeable gulf between himself and the rest of existence.” [4]  Alienation, foreignness, estrangement, is the very substance of reflection as the mind does not work to integrate but in thinking separates itself. That is, Pascal, as in mathematics so too in religion and philosophy, is ahead of his age and recognizes what Descartes did not: the thinking thing is lost in the universe.  As Pascal notes, “I cannot forgive Descartes. In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God.”[5]

Pascal continues, “I am frightened and amazed at finding myself here rather than there; for there is no reason whatever why here rather than there, why now rather than then.”[6] In more settled times the cosmos may have been felt to be man’s natural home, now, according to Pascal, man should “regard himself as lost” locked away as he is in the “prison-cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the (visible) universe.”[7] Telos has been lost as the “utter contingency” of existence gives rise to the feeling of being out of place. The Copernican universe captured an understanding of the mathematical gears but has knocked man from its center and denied him any sense of an intrinsic teleology or meaning.

Pascal may be the first to feel himself left unsupported by the inherent ontological frame. There are no values and the self is, in Jonas description, left unsupported and thus “thrown back entirely upon itself in its quest for meaning and value. Meaning is no longer found but is ‘conferred.’ Values are no longer beheld in the vision of objective reality, but are posited as feats of valuation. As functions of the will, ends are solely my own creation.”[8] Vision is displaced by will and the temporal can no longer contain the goodness of eternity, as the first hints of an overt nihilism begin to surface. As Nietzsche will poetically phrase it (in Vereinsamt): “Now man is alone with himself. The world’s a gate to deserts stretching mute and chill. Who once has lost What thou hast lost stands nowhere still. . . Woe unto him who has no home!”[9]

Pascal has faith in God, but this faith and this God are no longer the outgrowth of or connected with the natural world:

This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes forever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition, and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.[10]

God is unknown and unknowable and the universe does not reveal the creator’s purpose but only power, immensity and will – God’s will and power and human will. The reason for the universe eludes man and the question is beyond answering. “The deus absconditus, of whom nothing but will and power can be predicated, leaves behind as his legacy, upon leaving the scene, the homo absconditus, a concept of man characterized solely by will and power—the will for power, the will to will.”[11]

The nihilism kindling early theistic existentialism will become the key pole characterizing the dualism which will become primary in both theistic and atheistic existentialism. Nothing, death, darkness, and absence will inform something, life, light, and presence. The turn to the individual and the will to power, whether of the Hegelian or Nietzschean form, will characterize the modern.

There is only one other example, according to Jonas, in human history in which “tarrying with the negative” or the overt embrace of nihilism is recommended. Jonas suggests that the only other epic which compares to this “cataclysmic event” is the rise of Gnosticism as a distinct religion. “That is the gnostic movement, or the more radical ones among the various gnostic movements and teachings, which the deeply agitated first three centuries of the Christian era proliferated in the Hellenistic parts of the Roman empire and beyond its eastern boundaries.”[12]

Jonas gathers under the name gnostic a highly diversified and widespread phenomenon which is distinctly not Christian but which is feeding on the same cultural disturbances that mark the rise of the Christianity. The various forms of Gnosticism appearing in a variety of places and in many languages, share the “radically dualistic mood which underlies the gnostic attitude as a whole” constituting it a unified system or systems. “It is on this primary human foundation of a passionately felt experience of self and world, that the formulated dualistic doctrines rest. The dualism is between man and the world, and concurrently between the world and God.”[13]

Jonas locates the impetus behind arcane gnostic doctrine in the same feeling of alienation which characterizes the modern. The “absolute rift” between man and the world and the feeling of alienation is projected onto a God, who is by definition, alien to the world and has no part in the physical world. True deity is beyond the world: “Unknown, the totally Other, unknowable in terms of any worldly analogies.”[14]

The principle or law bringing forth the material world might be attributed to some lower deity or personal agency, but this agency is subject to a deeper “impersonal necessity of dark impulse.” No allegiance is owed to this demiurge as the laws it serves are beneath the spirit or divine spark within humankind. The passion, ignorance and blind force which brought forth the world is without knowledge or benevolence. The world only sets forth a negative knowledge, that which is sick, unenlightened, ruled by necessity and power. But it is in the face of this dark power that man recognizes his true essence, found in knowledge of self and of God: “this determines his situation as that of the potentially knowing in the midst of the unknowing, of light in the midst of darkness, and this relation is at the bottom of his being alien, without companionship in the dark vastness of the universe.”[15]

It is not that the world is chaotic, rather it is a cosmos of order “but order with a vengeance, alien to man’s aspirations.” The universe is a complete and orderly system but the law that orders the system would and has dominated humankind under the guise of logos or reason. “But cosmic law, once worshiped as the expression of a reason with which man’s reason can communicate in the act of cognition, is now seen only in its aspect of compulsion which thwarts man’s freedom.”[16] Man is counted out of the necessities of the universe. Fate, misidentified by the Stoics as providence, is a tyrant. The supposed providence, once attached to the power exercised by the stars, is nothing other than law, order, and fate which stands opposed to human freedom.

Rather than seeking to integrate the self into this law, like Pascal and Heidegger, one should feel frightened: “Dread as the soul’s response to its being-in-the-world is a recurrent theme in gnostic literature. It is the self’s reaction to the discovery of its situation, actually itself an element in that discovery: it marks the awakening of the inner self from the slumber or intoxication of the world.”[17] The knowledge (gnosis) thus gained will liberate from servitude to the law, to “providence,” to seeking to be integrated into the cosmos. Where the Stoics pursued freedom through consent to the law, the Gnostics would overcome the law through the power of gnosis (power against power). There is no longer the presumption of finding significance in the whole (e.g., the city, the empire, the cosmos) or the law of the universe or cosmic destiny.

Though the arguments and theories of Gnosticism and existentialism in regard to the law may be vastly different, nonetheless they share this antinomian tendency. Nietzsche can declare “God is dead” and in Gnosticism “the God of the cosmos is dead” but in both instances a nihilistic vacuum is created in which “the highest values become devalued.” This nihilistic conclusion is the impetus behind the abandonment of transcendence in modernity and to the positing of a radical dualism which does not allow for any intelligible connection in Gnosticism. The gnostic God is completely unknown (the absolutely absconded) and the “known” is primarily negative. As Jonas puts it, “this God has more of the nihil than the ens in his concept.”[18] He is totally different, hidden, and beyond. Just as hidden human nature (spirit) is revealed in its alienation, the divine counterpart is posited primarily as an absence. In practice, there is not a lot of difference between the denial of transcendence and a transcendence removed from any normative reality. There is no law, no sign, no value attached to human action in either instance. Existential man and pneumaticos man do “not belong to any objective scheme, is above the law, beyond good and evil, and a law unto himself in the power of his ‘knowledge’.”[19]

As a formula from the Valentinian school epitomizes gnosis: “What makes us free is the knowledge who we were, what we have become; where we were, wherein we have been thrown; whereto we speed, wherefrom we are redeemed; what is birth and what rebirth.”[20] This “thrownness” is fundamental to Heidegger, and may echo Pascal’s “Cast into the infinite immensity of spaces,” but Jonas claims its origin is gnostic: “In Mandaean literature it is a standing phrase: life has been thrown into the world, light into darkness, the soul into the body.” [21] It denotes an original violence and the necessity of a certain helpless passivity as one “speeds” from “who we were” to “what we have become” and the only element left out is the present. One is caught between the poles of past and future – one is born and one dies, and as in Heidegger, all major terms are determined by past and future. “Leaping off, as it were, from its past, existence projects itself into its future; faces its ultimate limit, death; returns from this eschatological glimpse of nothingness to its sheer factness, the unalterable datum of its already having become this, there and then; and carries this forward with its death-begotten resolve, into which the past has now been gathered up.” There is no present but only the crisis between past and future in which the between continually eludes and fades. In other words, what is lost is eternity, real presence, the essence of God and the essence of reality.

Jonas is not only describing the modern discovery of the shared darkness, the explicit deployment of darkness as a means to the light, that Hegel will call the dialectic, which Freud will refer to as death drive, but he is also depicting what Lacan and Žižek locate in Paul’s encounter with the law. Paul and John are countering the false teaching which will become Gnosticism. It is precisely this existential sort of gnostic nihilism that the Word become flesh defeats. Eternity has intersected time and the light has overcome the darkness and darkness and death are not determinative. The Gospel and Epistles of John explicitly describe the developments of this proto-Gnostic thought as relying on the dualism between flesh and spirit and depending upon a series of dualisms, which Jesus, in John’s depiction will defeat by collapsing the poles upon which they depend. Jonas’ insight into the modern and ancient predicament, which he sums up as nihilism, seems to describe the fundamental human disease.[22] Gnosticism and existentialism partake of the overt form of nihilism which absolutizes nothing as its realization of something (what the Bible calls idolatry).


[1] Christopher Lasch, “Gnosticism, Ancient and Modern: The Religion of the Future?” Salmagundi, No. 96 (Fall 1992), pp. 27-42. Available online at https://www.sfu.ca/~poitras/pc_gnosticism_92.pdf

[2] Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, Third Edition, 2001), 320.

[3] Blaise Pascal Pensees, ed. Brunschvicg, fr. 205. Quoted in Jonas 322.

[4] Jonas, 322.

[5] Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensées (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958), 24.

[6] Pascal Op. cit. fr. 72. Quoted in Jonas 323.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jonas, 323.

[9] Quoted in Jonas, 324.

[10] Pascal, English, 20.

[11] Jonas, 324-325.

[12] Jonas, 325.

[13] Jonas, 326.

[14] Jonas, 327.

[15] Jonas, 327-328.

[16] Jonas, 328.

[17] Jonas, 329.

[18] Jonas, 332.

[19] Jonas, 334.

[20] Clemens Alex., Exc. ex Theod., 78. 2. Quoted in Jonas, 334.

[21] The Mandeans are the last surviving Gnostics from antiquity. Quoted in Jonas, 334.

[22] The nihilism may be explicit, as it is in Gnosticism and existentialism, or it may be implicit as it is in idolatry.

A Genealogy of the Lonely Modern

In the typical scenario, which comes loaded with the modern view of history, the question is posed, “Would you smother baby Hitler in the crib, given the opportunity?” What if we discover, perhaps with the deed complete, it was actually Hitler’s reading of Nietzsche, and that in fact there were many German boys of a peculiar intellect and disposition who, given bad philosophy, could fill the role of Hitler candidates. Smothering baby Nietzsche will not really help, as he too arises with the secular age whose end he envisions.[1] The problem with the scenario is contained in the presumption that Hitler is an isolated, unique individual, and not a product of his time and circumstance.

John Milbank though, has the perfect candidate for smothering. According to Milbank, Duns Scotus is the culprit who created the theological vision that ultimately disenchanted the world which has given rise to both modern experience and modern political structure, with all of its attendant disasters. Milbank would explain the modern and secular, whether modern American evangelicalism or modern global Christianity as a “thinned out version of the Catholic faith” – all the result of the theology of Scotus.[2] In turn, Milbank imagines that if we could recover medieval ecclesial and political structures the root problem would be addressed. He puts on display both a failed understanding of the nature and depth of the human predicament and its solution.

My point here is not simply to indicate the weakness in attaching blame for all of modern thought to one medieval scholar. Milbank, after all, is simply following a long line of modern scholarship (the very thing he is critiquing) which would attach supreme importance to one individual or a particular stream of history. While it is not exactly “the great man theory of history” (in which history is biography), it is something of a “disastrous idea theory of history” which attaches a near sui generis notion to particular ideas, periods and persons. For example, Leslie Newbigin, typical of the previous generation, wrote of Rene Descartes having caused the second Fall of humanity. He presumed that if Descartes had not gone into that warm room on a cold day and composed his meditations (beginning with “I think, therefore I am”) the modern period would not have commenced or would not have been so disastrous. The tendency is to think, “That darn Descartes, he ruined it for all of us.” This, “If it weren’t for that darn Descartes-that darn Scotus-that darn Hitler-view of history,” is faulty, not simply in its simplistic view of history but is attached, I would claim, to a peculiarly thin (modernist) theology which does not presume, as I think the New Testament does, something like a negative unified field theory of sin (addressed in the work of Christ).

It is not that we cannot or should not trace the genealogy of ideas, as we really do live in a world impacted by the thought of particular individuals and there really are streams of thought or historical circumstances that shape our horizons. It is true, that basic human experience is changed up in this secular age and that our world has been disenchanted, no matter our personal (religious or nonreligious) frame of reference. There is no passing over the depth of details to be found in Scotus or William of Ockham and their part in bringing about the secular. The mistake is not in tracing the genealogy of ideas, but it is in imagining that any one individual or any one age or epoch is a realm apart and thus does not share in a common root failure. Milbank’s intense focus on Scotus could and has been argued on the details but the larger error, whatever the merit or lack in the details, is to imagine this failure is a one-off event which can then be corrected by returning the world to something like its pre-Scotus state.[3]

Conceptually modernity, for example, with its turn to nominalism and the focus on divine sovereignty (divine power) in philosophy and theology (something like a pure formalism or legalism), with its juridical-constitutional model of autonomous state authority (the government is secular and the ecclesial powers are now subservient), with its presumption of bio-political control of the human body through the body politic (the biological body is written over with secular law), seems to simply be an aggravated reconstitution of Paul’s depiction of sin as a misorientation to law. The voluntarist conception of God (focus on the will or causal power of God) was secularized in the conception of the state and in the focus on the individual, and this raw power is codified in law and by legal (state) institutions.

The steps that lead to exclusive focus on divine sovereignty (as opposed to divine love or beauty) follows the course Paul traces as the universal predicament, in which the unmediated presence of God is traded for the force of the law. For Paul, the reality of every individual is understood in light of the experience or identity of corporate humanity (unregenerate humanity) in Adam and in Israel. In Eden, the law of the knowledge of good and evil literally displaces God and is made the means to life, and the law of Sinai is made to serve the same end. Part of the point of Christianity, perhaps the main point, is to separate out this obscene orientation to the law (psychologically and religiously) so as to be able to arrive at the law of love. Sin, in Paul’s definition, fuses itself with the law so that one who becomes a servant of the law (as Paul did, and as Adam did, and as, in Paul’s explanation, everyone does) becomes a servant of sin and incapacitates agape love.

The irony is that Christianity has done its work in extracting this condition (orientation to the law of sin and death) from religious enchantment. Now the law is not presumed to have any religious (ontological) ground but is a secular establishment, a bare and open law built upon raw power, that nonetheless reigns in the psychic and social orientation. In this nominalist universe no appeal can be made to an actually existing goodness, as the best we have – all we have – is the mediating power of law and legal institutions. “Might makes right” may have always been the case, but in the medieval period kings presumed they were the channel of a divinely bestowed power (and there was a check on this power), but in the secular realm power is its own legitimating force (there is no ecclesial legitimating power) so that war is the constituting power of the state to which it will need continual recourse. Making war makes the state. In the same way money, in the early stages of capitalism, was a sign of God’s blessing and depended upon this theological construct, now money need not appeal to any outside legitimation. Money is its own legitimating power. Human life is literally and metaphorically put on the market, so that life and time become a commodity to be bought and sold.  

As Charles Taylor has described it, the immanent frame now prevails, or as Carl Schmitt (the famous Nazi jurist) has put it, “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state but also because of their systematic structure.” As Schmitt describes it, “the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver” and with secularization we are left with omnipotent law.[4] It is no surprise then that miracles (due to natural law), become an impossibility, and by the same token, according to Mike Pompeo, there should not even be the possibility of questioning the constitution. The modern constitutional state reigns supreme (in place of the divine). The constitution replaces commandments, the nation replaces the community of faith, and at an individual level human decision and will is the final arbiter of ethics.

Among the many consequences of modern secularism is the rise of an intense and peculiar individualism, in which the organic and communal sense of the subject is displaced by the notion that the individual is a monad – an isolated entity.  It is only with the secular that there needs to be a reaffirmation of a basic biblical understanding and an integral part of medieval culture: humans are constituted as part of a family or group. Hegel hits upon this truth as if it is a discovery. As he explains in the very beginning of “Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage,” self-consciousness could be achieved only through being acknowledged by others. As the philosopher Immanuel Levinas has described it, at the most fundamental level, “self-consciousness is not one-sided action as people assume, but; it necessitates an other to reach it.” Facing with an “other” is not only necessary for the recognition of the self but it is also a must to have a self-consciousness.

The necessity to describe this mutuality would not likely have arisen in a traditional culture. As Taylor describes it, “One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are ‘buffered’ selves.” The traditional porous sense of self came with certain deficits in that the emotional and moral life did not exist in an inner, mental space and was thus subject to a variety of malevolent influences such as spirits, demons, or cosmic forces.[5] But the buffered individual has been removed from this world of fear at the price of a profound sense of isolation. An article in JAMA journal of psychiatry refers to this as an epidemic of loneliness responsible for the death of 1 American every 5.5 minutes due to suicide and opioid overdose, which is chalked up to the root cause of loneliness. An annual mortality of 162 000 Americans is attributable to loneliness (exceeding the number of deaths from cancer or stroke), which is a term that, according to the British historian Fay Bound Alberti, did not exist in the English language until 1800.[6]  

Is not the destructive nature of modern loneliness an indication this is simply an aggravated condition of the objectified “I” which Paul depicts as arising in conjunction with the alienating law? In Paul’s depiction, this ἐγὼ or “I” is not subject to growth and change as it is an object fixed as part of a formal structure under the law, characterized by fear and struggle. The antagonistic dialectic between the law of the mind and the law of the body is, according to Paul, the very thing that produces this isolated ego desperately grasping after life and power through the law. Freud could be quoting Paul in calling the ego “the seat of anxiety” due to its fear of annihilation under the cathected law (the superego).[7] As Lacan will describe the ego (renaming it the imaginary), “Alienation is the imaginary as such.”[8] This fully interior or self-conscious ego, or this “I” which is one’s own is, in Paul’s description (and Paul is commenting on Genesis 3) the Subject of sin.  

This is not an attempt to simply lump together all forms of sin, but it is to suggest that a true genealogy of the modern begins with a biblical diagnosis, which also promises more than a return to the medieval or artificial attempts to reenchant the world.


[1] Enough smothered babies equal a holocaust type strategy – Hitler was, after all, attempting to correct history. It is the strategy of the powers from Pharaoh to Herod to the late modern Democratic Party.

[2] See John Milbank, Beyond the Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of People, (Wiley Blackwell).

[3] If modernity is a turn to the individual, and society is pictured simultaneously as made up of individual monad’s, this is not an error corrected by imagining one individual has reconstituted the whole.

[4] Carl Schmitt,  1928 (2008), Constitutional Theory, transl. J. Seitzer, (Duke University Press, London), p. 36.

[5] Charles Taylor, “Buffered and porous selves” https://tif.ssrc.org/2008/09/02/buffered-and-porous-selves/

[6] Dilip V Jeste, Ellen E Lee, Stephanie Cacioppo, “Battling the Modern Behavioral Epidemic of Loneliness: Suggestions for Research and Interventions,” JAMA psychiatry, 77(6) https://escholarship.org/content/qt47n6790s/qt47n6790s.pdf?t=q7c0kj

[7] Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id (Standard Edition), 59-60.

[8] Jacques Lacan, Seminar III, 146

Philosophy with Paul and Freud

Before laying out the philosophical possibilities of Paul and Freud, it should be noted that both provide a peculiar impetus for engaging in philosophical discourse: people are sick and philosophy is a means of aiding the diagnosis. Philosophy is not a realm apart from what it means to be human but is a concentrated articulation of this predicament. The reason for taking up philosophy with Freud and Paul is not the reason with which philosophy tends to justify itself – as a quest for ultimate reality, the articulation of what is ontologically the case. Philosophy puts on display the failures we all experience but it also provides an alternative means of understanding the needed cure. So, the point of delving into philosophy in this instance (which is not every instance), is primarily theological. Philosophy provides alternative access, a well-articulated demonstration, a clear presentation of the human disease addressed by the Great Physician.  

The Apostle and the founder of psychoanalysis describe the human subject as consisting of three registers, which are simultaneously interdependent and antagonistic, and these registers not only pertain to the (sick) individual but describe the three possibilities of philosophy. This philosophy in three parts revolves around three facets or three surfaces created by language functioning as prime reality. Philosophy, like the human subject, consists of language as a medium, language as providing an object, or language as a mode of negation. Paul refers to these three parts as the ego, the law, and the body of death, and Freud references the same basic parts as the ego, the superego, and the id (or it). The English word “ego” is a transliteration of the Greek word Paul deploys to refer to himself, and he situates this “I” as an effect of its relation to law and death (thus he will speak of the dissolution of the “I” as a cure).

Freud, in his final period, arrives at his three-part construct with his recognition that Eros (sex, life, pleasure) is inadequate to explain the sickness of the subject, so he posits Thanatos or death as a second instinct, and with his positing of this death instinct he arrives at the tripartite subject. This would amount not only to a new topography of the Subject but a different understanding of the energetics at work in the Subject. No longer did Freud see mankind as controlled by one goal, rather man seemed bound towards death in and through the detour that is life. It was not that death as a force (independent of man) overwhelms man, but that man stands opposed to himself and brings about his own destruction. He takes death up into himself, all the time imagining that it is the means to secure or save the self (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 54). Jacques Lacan will note that with this positing of a second instinct, all of Freudian theory can be translated from the biological into a linguistic realm. He pictures the three parts of the subject as three sides of a primordial or founding linguistic construct (a lie). In this sense (and Lacan notes as much), it is a spreading out of the Pauline category of law, and the human problem with the law, to include language per se.

How we read Paul in regard to the law will determine the role accorded to language and philosophy. If we read Paul and the New Testament as primarily concerned with reconciling us to the law, this is an indicator of the philosophical stance that will result. It is no accident that it is Anselm, who posits the definitive nature of the law in our approach to God and in the meaning of the atonement, while at the same time incorporating Platonic philosophy into theology. The point is not to blame Anselm but to point to his founding of scholasticism (the fusion of theology with Greek thought) as the end point of a process in which language per se (in the law, in his description of the subject, in his description of reality) becomes primary. Thus, the philosophical/theological task is, like the job of every good lawyer, to describe/prescribe the law of the Father (Anselm pictures it as a zero-sum game in which there is a precise logic at work). This is the Aristotelian Philosopher king sort of philosophy in which there is an unquestioning wisdom attached to this order of knowing, not perhaps so much in the details as in its very authoritative status as an order of wisdom.

In this understanding, determining reality and how it is to be negotiated is the joint undertaking of philosophy and theology as both are engaged in the same discourse (law, logic). The law of the Father gives us metaphysics, Newtonian science, and consists of a singular (conscious) surface which prevails from Plato to Descartes. Anselm’s law of the cross is precisely a philosophical, legal, requirement and his approach to God is through a linguistic formula (the ontological argument). Everything is ontological, or in Freudian terms “phallocentric,” so that theology is an extension of philosophy (ontotheology) as language puts all things in our grasp. The law is the logos is the Logos without interruption.

On the other hand, if we recognize that Paul is actually suggesting that the law is in no way normative or even regulative but is, in fact, enmeshed in contradiction (due to sin), our philosophical stance will be a turn from metaphysics (concerned as it is, primarily, with how to describe a harmonious reality). Now we have to do with a discontinuity, a questioning of the law, and a turn to the human subject. Paul describes two contradictory laws at work in the mind and body and we are, according to Paul, ruled by a law that, by definition, we do not know. Sin has deceived us with regard to the law and we do not any longer have control or understand what law is at work within us. Now our concern is not so much with keeping the law, describing the law, extending the law, but there is a questioning of the law.

With the passage through Luther and the philosophic shift from Kant to Hegel, philosophy as psychology comes to this second element of the subject. Prior to Kant it was just a matter of looking into the mirror of nature and allowing Being to disclose itself but now the categories of perception receiving the phenomena of the world are removed from the thing in itself (the noumena). Just as Kant notes that Descartes’ “I think” in no way discloses “the thing that thinks,” he notes that there is a necessary obscuring in perception of the reality which stands behind it. It is not that perception is an illusion but it contains apriori categories (the ontic) which do not coincide with the ontological. This difference is illustrated in a series of unresolvable antinomies: time and space are limited by a perceived beginning and yet are infinite and necessary categories; the world is composed of simple parts and yet these simple parts are nowhere in existence; spontaneity is part of the causality of the universe and yet the world takes place solely in accord with the laws of nature and without spontaneity; there belongs to the world a being that is absolutely necessary and yet this being nowhere exists. Where pre-Kantian philosophy would mark this up to the illusion of false appearances, which it is the task of philosophy to get beyond, Kant does not denounce this appearance of reality as secondary but he raises the question as to the very possibility of appearances.

With Hegel there is the presumption that the Kantian antinomies are not mere gaps in understanding but pertain to reality. Reality itself is incomplete, built on antagonism, and dependent on death and absence. God himself, in Hegel’s taking up of Luther, is made complete only in his dying on the cross. Sin and salvation, or good and evil (among other contrasting pairs), have the same ontological ground (to which there is no alternative), so the same structure and categories inform each. The goal is not to overcome the gaps or difference (to defeat evil) but to conceive the gaps, which seem to keep the subject from arriving at full self-identity, as the origin of the Subject (and thus to reorient the Subject).

Philosophy up to Hegel is seeking to harmonize reality, presuming that the gaps or antinomies can be explained or covered over. Kant posits the impossibility of this overcoming while Hegel begins with the necessity of this difference. Hegel too is presuming a comprehensive program for philosophy, but he presumes it is just a matter of counting in the antinomies, gaps, death, and nothing, as not only part of reality but productive of reality. The antagonism at the heart of identity through difference, the dialectic, is at the very center of the negative force generating reality.

In Lacanian terms, we pass from the masculine identity with the law to a feminine questioning of the law. The masculine-superego-metaphysical attempt to say it all is ruled out of court as the thing that thinks – the subject herself – eludes us. Thinking of Richard Rorty, nature turns out to be a mirror that excludes us from its reflection. The history of philosophy might be mostly reduced to one long gaze in the mirror, and with post-Kantian philosophy the mirror comes up for examination. The philosophic mirror stage was a long time in coming but now the phenomena of knowing becomes the primary concern as “taking a look” turns out to be inadequate.

Between this masculine, superego, law-based register and the feminine, ego, contradictory and inaccessible law-based register there stands the id or the real or the third phase in philosophy.  Here the focus is upon what underlies the difference between the masculine and feminine – the pure absence or nothing.  The Freudian, Lacanian place in philosophy would assign this idic or real the primary role.  If there is a positive unfolding of nous or spirit in Hegel, here there is no question that primacy is given to death and the power of death taken up in the negating power of a lie. Thus, this third phase is the necessary pointer to that which lies beyond the subject and the powers of philosophy. The atheism of Lacan and Žižek is a full-blown Pauline sort of recognition of the necessity of suspending the law and the God associated with this sinful orientation. The punishing effects of the sinful orientation to the law, or the disease of being caught up in the antagonism of dialectic, is the domain of this idic third phase in philosophy. Here philosophy becomes most theological as this diagnosis of the human condition is the proper realm of theology – a realm relinquished by theology and which thus made room for and gave rise to psychoanalysis.

I do not mean to suggest these three possibilities are exhaustive of the relation between theology and philosophy. This clears the ground though, for a different sort of exchange, neither masculine nor feminine nor idic, between philosophy and theology. This fourth way begins where Romans 7 and where Žižek and Lacan leave off, in that it proposes a dissolution of the real and a suspension of the power of death as the controlling third term in the subject and in philosophy.

The Necessity of Nietzsche: An Apocalyptic Philosophy for an Apocalyptic Theology

One’s philosophical orientation and preferences are reflected in their theology and vice versa but it may be that a particular theology inevitably requires or depends upon its philosophical expression, apart from which the theology would not exist. Whether one is Platonic or Aristotelian (in Nietzschean terms they are both fallen post-Socratics) may make a slight theological difference but the presumption is that “ordinary avenues of philosophic reason” are adequate for Augustinian, Thomistic, or certain Protestant theological leanings. One may need to tweak his Plato or Aristotle but the presumption is that the philosophy and theology are more or less interconnected if not exactly interchangeable. There is no questioning of reason, language, or human psychology, at least not enough to bring the enterprise to a halt. Thus, the Augustinian shift is guided by Neo-Platonism (Augustine equates Plato to Moses) in the same way Thomism is Aristotelian (for Thomas, Aristotle is “the philosopher”). Anselm of Canterbury, in both his philosophic arguments and his atonement theory, is the proper father of scholasticism in his pure distillation of a theology guided by Platonic philosophy. Modern philosophy and theology, in its Cartesian presumptions, will follow a predictable, interlocked pattern (Platonic and Anselmian). So too, Nominalism might as well name both a theology and philosophy as the theology is determined by the philosophy.

It is only in recognizing that theology and philosophy became inextricably interwoven in shared presumptions and foundations (summed up in the term “ontotheology”) that Friedrich Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God can be taken as both theological and philosophical. For Nietzsche Christianity was “Platonism for the masses,” so his pronouncement is prophetic (the spirit in which his Zarathustra makes it) of the coming collapse of Western thought and religion. The demise of the God of the philosophers is implied in the demise of the Christian God, but the death of God is not simply a metaphor for Nietzsche. This death simultaneously points to the role of Platonism and Platonic Christianity in its denial or obscuring of the role of death.

The death of God in Christ on the Cross was, for Luther, the point for challenging scholasticism (the fusion of Greek and Christian thought) and what Luther called “the theologians of glory.” Hegel will take up the Lutheran refrain, not simply as a challenge to the Aristotelian God of pure thought, but also as a new founding moment in the understanding of how God and those created in his image must take up death in the founding of an authentic subjectivity. Hegel’s tarrying with the negative is a zeroing in on the Lutheran challenge to the God of the philosophers but it is also a challenge to modern (Cartesian) notions of an ego-based reason and subjectivity. Nietzsche takes the refrain one step further to declare God and the philosophy and morality attached to him as dead. As with Hegel, his is a call for a new form of radical subjectivity.

There is a shared recognition of the orientation to death that is thematic in Hegel and his heirs. Though Nietzsche is often pitted against Hegel – Hegel is philosopher of the system and Nietzsche is anti-system – yet they share reaction to Kant and the uncovering of a new form of subjectivity centered on the exposure of mortality and death. In the end, Hegel and his disciples (Marx, Freud, Lacan, and Žižek) are the arch-conservatives who brilliantly recognize the darkness of nihilism and imagine its mechanisms can only be manipulated (death drive – the real can be toyed with but must ultimately be submitted to) so as to provide a less painful outcome. Nietzsche names the nihilism and calls for a new religious order – a new myth. Where Hegel and his followers will privilege philosophy and presume it takes precedence over religion, Nietzsche shares with Kierkegaardian existentialism and theological apocalypticism the recognition of the need for the breaking in of a new world order.

His depiction of himself as the singular Antichrist, the marker of a new age on the order of B.C. and A.D., may not be accurate in his sense that he was alone but the work of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, (the French postmodern turn) but also of Martin Heidegger, all take their inspiration, if not their existence, from Nietzsche. He considered himself (as depicted in his autobiographical work Ecce Homo) philosophical dynamite:

I know my lot. One day my name will be linked to the memory of something monstrous—to a crisis like none there has been on earth, to the most profound collision of conscience, to a verdict invoked against everything that until then had been believed, demanded, held sacred. I am no man, I am dynamite.

Whether or not he was the match, the fuse, or the beginning of the explosion, (or is he only, as Bertrand Russell portrayed him, a literary figure) there is no question that the modern world begins to come undone in his wake. It is not just his appropriation by the Nazis, but he is linked with a new form of thought – apocalyptic in its import – (an ironic characterization as he sees religious apocalypticism as the problem). It is this apocalyptic element (the world unchained from its Sun and the need for a new religious myth) that distinguishes him from the mainstream of post-Kantian thinkers.  

What he calls “Socratism” is the refusal to deal with human finitude and his return to mythology, his uber man, his will to power, and especially his myth of eternal recurrence are his attempt to recreate the pre-Socratic dynamism. He recognizes that the success of human artifice – the Apollinarian (culture, art, literature, science) is in direct proportion to its direction and control of the Dionysian (passion, tragedy, emotion, revelry). The rise of the Over Men must freely move “beyond good and evil” with its notion of an objective or divine standard. Violence may be a necessity but the goal is that these new heroes, by whatever means, must lead humankind into accepting they are free spirits who can, of themselves, create a new order.

In his return to Dionysus, obscured by Plato, Nietzsche presumes the Platonic project to control the passions through reason is squelching the power of creativity. The Greek tragedian’s full acknowledgement of the Dionysian was an art form that gave inspiration to the shining light of Apollo. Plato’s reason repressed the tragic Dionysian truth (that we live to die) and simultaneously dismantled the Apollonarian manner of dealing with it in human culture.

Plato pictures passion as a black horse, which the charioteer or reason is to subdue by teaming with the white horse (spirit), the very imagery Freud will deploy in his depiction of the tripartite psyche:

…in its [the ego’s] relation to the id it is like a man on horseback, who hast to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength while the ego uses borrowed forces (e.g., the superego). The analogy may be carried a little further. Often a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide it where it wants to go; so in the same way the ego is in the habit of transforming the id’s will into action as if it were its own.

 Freudian psychoanalysis is founded upon the notion that the ego, as the center of reason, can gain control over the passions of the id. Though Freud grows less confident in his belief that his “new science” can control the unreasonable idic forces, nonetheless his enterprise of psychoanalysis is dedicated to the prospect that the drives can be manipulated if not subdued. Lacan and Žižek, in this sense, are the true arch-conservative Hegelian-Freudian thinkers as the real of death drive is the final power of good and evil. The emptying out of the Cartesian subject in Marx and Freud takes on a laborious technical odor of politics and the clinic, while Nietzsche represents the call for an apocalyptic break beyond good and evil.

In this he represents the break that inspired the last great metaphysician, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger too presumes authentic existence has to confront the negating power of nothingness and death with a new power of freedom.

Anticipation…unlike inauthentic Being-towards-death, does not evade the fact that death is not to be outstripped; instead, anticipation frees itself for accepting this. When, by anticipation, one becomes free for one’s own death, one is liberated from one’s lostness in those possibilities which may accidentally thrust themselves upon one; and one is liberated in such a way that for the first time one can authentically understand and choose among the factical possibilities lying ahead of that possibility which is not to be outstripped. Anticipation discloses to existence that its uttermost possibility lies in giving itself up, and thus it shatters all one’s tenaciousness to whatever existence one has reached.

Facing the fact of death is transformed by Heidegger into its own metaphysical freedom, which in his taking up of National Socialism demonstrates the bloody aspect of the Nietzschean enterprise he saw Hitler achieving. The Dionysian forces require sacrifice – and as Freud, Lacan and Žižek recognize and Heidegger did not, the rider of the black horse ultimately takes his orders from his mount. I would prefer, if these were the only choices, the more or less self-conscious nihilism of the latter thinkers to Heidegger’s enacted naïve nihilism, which brings us back to Nietzsche’s perception of his project as a resolution to nihilism.

Ironically, Nietzsche located the heart of this nihilism in what he perceived as the apocalyptic approach in Western religion, which set its hope on an ideal world to come or on the otherworldly heavens. For Nietzsche, apocalyptic Christianity was Platonic and he did not know of a Christianity focused on the redemption of this world. But as I have described it (here) this is the very definition of what is now called apocalyptic theology. With its inaugurated this-worldly eschatology, its deceived law of sin and death, and its recognition of God breaking into the world so as to give his own person, in Christ, as the subject of knowledge, apocalyptic theology is now anti-Platonic. Part of this apocalyptic understanding is the recognition that death denied is definitive of sin, and this is the power Christ has come to defeat. The point of this revelation is the realization of freedom from slavery to the controlling principles of the human order. God has invaded the world, not to eventually abandon it, but to reclaim it.

In other words, Nietzsche in his recognition of the pervasive nihilism inherent in Platonic and modern thought, in his focus on the Platonic/Christian obscuring of death, and in his recognition of the need for an apocalyptic break from the prevailing orientation, represents the shift that would give rise to a return to the original New Testament notion of apocalyptic salvation.  

If you would like to learn more register for our upcoming class (June 28th through August 20th), Philosophy for Theology, which will use my book, The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation, as the text.

Cosmic Meaning Versus the Cosmic Christ

What does an illicit romantic affair have to do with war? How does slavery pertain to human psychology? The psychoanalytic and biblical claim is that all share the same structure and they each generate meaning through this structure. All depend upon a split or divide which generates a struggle or drive in which the imagined goal of love, peace, power, or success, is equated with resolution to the struggle.

“True love” cannot be obtained through the law as the deep core of the self is, by definition, that which is beyond the law. I cannot possibly be equated with or captured in something so prosaic as a norm, a law, or a covenant. Deep within me resides the essence of who I am and this essence is in excess of the law, beyond the human symbolic order. The relationship to one’s spouse is the prototypical social obligation, but how can this obligation, this contract, this burden, capture my true essence. Social life consists of an externally imposed law in which I cannot possibly recognize myself. This bind in no way captures the fullness of my capacity for love or more precisely, for being loved; instead, it curtails the depths of my desire which pertains to my true self. Strangely, I experience this depth of love most completely when I feel the imposition of the law. When I feel the forces of society and law as an opposition to my love, then I know that the precious treasure at my core can only be loved without being submitted to the rule of law.

In turn, the very definition of peace is the resolution achieved through war. There is no peace apart from the war which defines it – it would be unrecognizable in itself. Just as perverse love depends upon its opposition, war is not only the means to peace but a symptom of an ever-elusive peace. Just as love is dependent upon the logic of exception (that which exists as an exception to the law) there is a notion of peace that is a symptom of war; more an exception creating the rule of continuous warfare than any positive entity in itself. The contradiction of achieving peace through war seems to pose itself even more directly than the notion that love is necessarily transgressive, yet the path to peace through total war and obliteration seems inevitable.

So too, there is only one way to be a master and that is through the slave. Apart from this enslaved other the subject of master cannot exist. The slave may have the advantage in freeing himself from dependence on the master (at least in Hegel’s depiction) but he cannot pass beyond the dialectic. He potentially reaches its core in recognizing the master represents fear of death and does not, within himself, contain enslaving control. One must still tarry with the negative or face the reality of death and the fear of death to come to this core realization. (Hegel simply exposes the nothingness at the core of the system, but his is a reified nothing that would still keep the dialectic up and running as the subject is this self-antagonism. The dialectic of the subject is the subject.)

The contradiction clearly shows itself when the slave/master relation is reduced to a psychology in which one must play the role of both master and slave. Only continual self-punishment will bring either the pleasure found in ultimate control or the overcoming of that control. Pain and suffering are the very substance of domination and power. As in the wars of the 20th century, only total war – the war to end all wars – will bring bring an end to suffering (peace as obliteration). When it is a dynamic reduced to an individual the pain is the pleasure and the suffering is the power, but each system, individual and corporate, consists of the same twisted logic.

The drive to gain life, peace, love, and substance is turned into a simultaneous drive toward death, war, transgression, and annihilation. The ultimate subject is gained through a final overcoming. The illusion is to imagine the goal (the object giving rise to desire) can survive beyond the struggle. In every instance the subject which would be obtained is simultaneously generated and made impossible by the system of its creation. That is, the lure of the system is to imagine the transgression, the conflict, the subjugation, is a means to an end when it is the means which is generating the imagined end.

If this is the problem of sin, what difference might it make if this system goes unrecognized and the work of Christ is made to fit the problem rather than to defeat it? This explains the various forensic explanations of the work of Christ in which God is the subject gaining satisfaction from his own self punishment. God is reduced to a dialectic struggle, with the Father deploying evil men to kill his Son so that he might have the satisfaction of his suffering and death. Eternal suffering in hell is equated with the suffering of the Son on the Cross, so that no distinction can be made between those that torture the Son in the passion and the Father who requires that they carry out this torture – only he requires eternal torture as part of who he is as eternal justice.  

Knowledge of God, in this understanding, cannot be separated from the dialectic of the law. Through the “the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate,” according to Tertullian, the vision of God is made possible. According to Thomas Aquinas, “the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed.” Oh, happy day when we can delight, along with God, in relishing the torture of the majority of the human race, knowing that God’s justice and human will (particularly in the unrepentant) continue to exercise ultimate power. The law bringing about this punishing God is the means and end of this God. Life, God, and truth are folded into law, and the power or sovereignty of God (God as master) or the free will of human beings become the primary subjects of theological discourse.

Hegel and Calvin represent the culminating point of this God, with God either taking death and nothingness up into himself or being directly equated with evil. Atheism and fundamentalism are near equivalents – with leftist Hegelians presuming God disappears and makes room for a corporate (Marxist) spirit (incarnate will) and fundamentalists equating all that happens, good and evil, with this God. In this system evil is a means to the good, death is the means to life, love is consonant with hate, and sin is the occasion for grace. There is no truth beyond the dialectic. Even the resurrection gains its meaning as part of a dialectic with death and sacrifice. Resurrection becomes a footnote – sacrifice accepted – rather than death defeated.

No part of the work of Christ need challenge the contradictory nature of the system. Revelation is not the revealing of a new truth exposing the lie of sin, but is an establishment of the law. The law is not mitigated, corrected, or suspended but it becomes the economy for explaining the work of Christ. Rather than the work of Christ exposing the meaning systems of this world, his meaning is subsumed into this world order. This explains why the name of Christ has been invoked for justification of holocausts, inquisitions, crusades, war, and the worst of human horrors. Christ is incorporated into the dialectic which supports sexual transgression, war, and slavery, and which aggravates and does not cure the human disease.

Christ as revelation, exposing the lie of this world’s violent wisdom, establishes an alternative truth, peace, love, and subjectivity. Christianity as Revelation exposes a world order built upon the death-dealing orientation of dividedness and dialectic. Christ as God, as the Cosmic Christ, as the full openness of God, is not an addendum, a proviso, or a fulfillment (in the way this is normally understood). Christ is revelation in a two-fold sense: his work is an exposure of the lying dialectic generating this world’s meaning and he serves as foundation to an alternative world of meaning and truth. Christ is the structuring order or the inner ground of creation and it is in him that creation’s purpose is revealed.

Salvation in Christ is not simply a negation of sin, or an effect of the Fall, but the goal of creation. A Christianity focused on the Fall is of the same order as love that needs transgression, peace which requires war, and self-mastery which includes self-enslavement. Sin becomes the essence of salvation where we imagine it is sin that necessitated the incarnation. So too every doctrine is reduced. In this failed system predestination is not about cosmic purposes but about who is in and who is out; the incarnation is not a revealing of the essence of God but a secondary manifestation; the resurrection is not about the defeat of death but about a payment accepted; and redemption is not about participation in the Trinity but about going to a disembodied heaven. The mission of Christ, reduced to payment for sin, misses the incarnation as the principle and purpose behind creation. It misses the fact that creation’s purpose is found in Jesus Christ (the God/Man), that redemption is cosmic completion, and that the Church’s part in a continued incarnation is a fulfillment of creation. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Romans 11:35). We know this due to the incarnate Christ who “is the summing up of all things . . . things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Ephesians 1:10). In Christ, love, peace, and identity are not an effect or symptom of the law and sin but, in the words of Athanasius, an effect of “our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Perhaps the fundamental hurdle to a sin-based notion of Christ is the attachment to human decision, human history, and human time as the controlling factor in the purposes of God. The work of Christ is depicted as necessarily subsequent to sin, rather than as who and what has been predestined “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). In Scripture there is no choice preceding this choice as this is an eternal fact about God. Jesus Christ is not a contingent reflection of God, dependent upon creation and Fall, but creation is an outworking of the love of God found in Christ. It pertains, as Paul describes it to the divine immanence (who God is in himself): “…having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself” (Ephesians 1:9). The will of God does not reside in some dark transcendent council as his will has been revealed in Christ.

Love, peace, and human wholeness cannot be adequately grounded in a salvation geared to deliverance as they will continue to be grounded in a failed cosmic order. Only by recognizing Christ as the foundation of a new order of meaning can we escape the cycles of transgressive love, war, and oppression. Salvation is the overcoming of sin but it accomplishes this overcoming only in a positive fulness and return to Christ as the completion of creations purpose. God’s plan in Christ is beyond human meaning as it is an outworking of love, peace, and identity as participation in the very essence of God.

The End of Naïve Evangelicalism: Exposing the Word of Death

With the storming of the Capitol building, it is clear that we have reached the end of a naïve era: a four-year long indulgence of right-wing politics, and a decades long linking of evangelical religion to nationalism. The exposed underbelly of this religion has shown it to be antithetical to the teachings of Christ. The President’s deployment of his Christian base and the fact that it serves his strategy, indicates the shape of the religion that would serve him. It exceeds guilt by association, as the very possibility of association (with white nationalism, the KKK, or the raw grab for power) is a blasphemous implication of the Prince of Peace in violent nationalism.

 I cannot help but link recent events to an emptying out of the religion, which Faith and I have witnessed personally, since we returned to this country 15 years ago. We came back to work for a Christian College here in Moberly, and it was there we recognized that the religion had morphed into something unrecognizable. The microcosm of the rule by fear and intimidation witnessed at the national level, we witnessed in this institution. The misogyny and maltreatment of women, the commitment to a hellish Christianity built upon fear, and the commitment to a violent God and violent faith, produced systemic abuse which we did not encounter in twenty years in Japan. The forms of violence directly pitted against the rule of law in the Capitol, in this little institution were pitted against basic humane and legal treatment. The same forces that put up a JESUS sign during the storming of the Capitol, the forces that put Donald Trump into office, have transformed what is called “Christianity.” The religion has been turned inside out, along with the nation state, set to destroy what it is meant to uphold and protect.

 In other words, the deployment of the religion in support of the nation state is imploding. The endless sex scandals, the attachment to the cult of personality, the commitment to consumerism over principle and ethics, describes both church and state. It is as if the worst elements of the religion have come to a head in this political period, and the religion connected to the political right has been exposed for the misshapen anti-Christianity that it truly is. The lawlessness of the rioters on Wednesday did not arise in a vacuum, as they were clearly egged on by the President, but this President has been egged on by religious supporters and advisers.

I have pointed to the broad, two-kingdom sort of theology which enabled national socialism (Nazism) in Germany, and which is embraced by American Christian nationalists (here), but I think there is a more specific element in Nazi ideology which coincides with American evangelicalism. The escapism, the “going to heaven when you die,” the otherworldly nature of the American form of the faith, allows death and alienation to reign here upon earth. This was accomplished for Germans in many ways, but archetypically by Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger, the premiere philosopher of the Nazi period, might as well have been declared “Official Nazi Theologian” for his subtle separation of the insights of the Christian faith from the tenets of the teaching of Jesus. He deploys key vocabulary of the New Testament in a negation of the religion. This negative Christianity, instead of trading in resurrection life, presumes the primacy of death and the strategies that deal in death. The religion and philosophy might be summed up in Heidegger’s conclusion that the defining characteristic of humans is death:

Mortals are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either. The essential relation between death and language flashes up before us, but remains still unthought. It can, however, beckon us toward the way in which the nature of language draws us into its concern.[1]

Heidegger’s linkage of language and death may be a flash of insight worth dwelling upon – he continues to dwell upon it and little else – but left in isolation this focus supports and coincides with one of the most destructive periods in human history. At the same time, Heidegger’s singular focus reveals the shape of a Christian theology which allows death to stand in this life as the controlling factor.

Heidegger’s singular link of death and language, which is certainly serious and worth developing, is only one instance of an infinite number of similar links with language. “Humans are they” who can experience life as life because they speak. Humans are they who can tell jokes because they speak. Humans are they who can experience sex as more than mere animal copulation because they speak (etc. etc. ad infinitum). Certainly, humans appear as “mortal and speaking” but they also appear as liars and speaking, as jokesters and speaking, as lovers and speaking, and as potentially immortal and speaking.

The point is not to trivialize the link between language and death but to recognize the many faceted nature of this relation so as to draw out what it must mean to be “constantly delivered to death” (2 Cor. 4:11), or to defeat death through the peculiarity of the Christian orientation to the word.  Heidegger seems to picture deliverance to death as a one-way street, but Paul is here recognizing and moving beyond where Heidegger stops short. More than that, he is describing an impetus behind language – to take up the word and speak – where Heidegger seems to make the case for silence. Paul is describing a reconnection to the world, to human relationships, which is not obstructed by death, due to participation in the death of Christ. The power of the word of the cross is the power of fellowship, the power for life, the power for preaching.

In contrast, a faith which pictures the cross as a death to benefit God (divine satisfaction, penal substitution) or a deliverance from hell, and not a defeat of death and an opening up of the world, leaves death and violence as a world orientation and strategy. Heidegger and evangelicalism share a singular, flat link to death. Heidegger maintains that death is the main thing about humans and evangelicalism allows this singular emphasis to stand.  

Paul is suggesting that all of life is opened up in rightly understanding the link between the word and death, not because the orientation to death is denied, but because it is displaced. In one instance (in both Paul and Heidegger) language and being human might appear deadly and death dealing but in the other (the Pauline alternative to Heidegger), every facet of life, including death, takes on the aura of revelation. Christ’s death defeats death, baptism inaugurates this victory for all, and communion in the body of Christ describes a life that continually overcomes death. As Paul describes the Christian life: “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10). The Christian embrace of immortality is not meant to be an escape from the connection to death, language, and the world, but it is meant to reverse the sinful orientation to death and to open up life and love in the world.  

Think here, again, of my previous reference to Helen Keller (here), who pictures her entry into language as an opening to the world on the order of a divine revelation.  “The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” For the first time Helen experiences “water,” “earth,” “teacher,” “baby,” and some 30 odd things she names in an afternoon. Language acquisition, for Helen, is on the order of divine revelation, but what Heidegger demonstrates is the human barrier to this equation. There is a link between language and death which may characterize people and which is spelled out in philosophy and psychology, but the point of Christianity and even the possibility indicated in language is the opposite of this stunted link.

 I do not mean simply that people have the possibility for future eternal life, but that there is a specific orientation to law and language which is deadly and death dealing and that there is an alternative orientation implied even in this stunted negative orientation. Christian engagement with death is aimed at defeating this deadly orientation here and now.  The point of Christianity, the power conveyed through resurrection faith, takes us beyond he word of death to the word of life.

Heidegger does not note the necessary positive side, which makes the negative appear. He only recognizes the negative aspect, the absence and negativity, and he imagines this absence and nothingness is final ground. Heidegger’s philosophy concludes to a pure negativity and nothingness, which presumes with Hegel that to be human is to be founded on negativity. Heidegger is following Hegel, for whom the human is a negative being who “is that which he is not and not that which he is.” He is a “placeholder of nothingness” as death is definitive. I would suggest, Heidegger and Hegel are partly correct in their assessment. Absent a Christian reorientation to the law of sin and death, humans are driven by death as if it were the force of life.

Paul presumes death, like the word, holds out a series of links and possibilities. His understanding of the truth of death, is that death, like language, is peculiar for humans because it holds out a different, an enduring, possibility. Just as mortality is constituted by the possibility of immortality, death is only death where it is presumed to be something other than ground or end. What I mean here is not that death is necessarily linked in reality to immortality, I just mean that human death is constituted as death because the peculiarity of language necessarily opens up another possibility.

Paul is describing a reorientation to both death and language in which neither is presumed as its own end, and he is presuming upon this inherent possibility within language. This might be taken as a trivial reference to a future possibility, but Paul is describing a present actuality, in which death threatens but this very threat opens the mortal to the immortal. He is linking the inherent possibility of language to the realization of a different reality. Certainly, this is realized through Christ, but this should not be separated from everyday life. Paul is describing the “mortal flesh,” the feeling of being “abandoned,” of being “destroyed,” or of “slowly dying,” with the life of Jesus being revealed. As he puts it, “So death works in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:12). Paul is focused on both sides of the valence of the word – it is joined with death in one instance so as to be joined to life in the other instance.

What Heidegger misses, is that while death and mortality appear as primary in human orientation, it is on the same basis that their opposites also “flash before us.” Immortality, too, is not a consideration for unspeaking animals and it is precisely this possibility that constitutes the peculiar human experience of mortality and death. Death taken as life, immortality folded into mortality, or the enchantment of religion lent to nationalism, describes the human tendency to immortalize the tomb and the religious and “secular” systems which worship the tomb. In a pervasive but bizarre reversal, death takes on the patina of life and immortality, as the human condition is not simply bent to death but to immortality – to immortalizing death. What the Bible calls the covenant with death and links to the lie of the serpent and the lie of idolatry, Heidegger identifies with Dasein, with the house of language, with “being there” or waking up to being, which only death and nothingness can make shine. Heidegger is selling his philosophy on the basis that death and nothingness serve in place of life.

This is not simply the accomplishment of a subtle philosophical mind, but I believe it is the articulation of the human condition outside of Christ. It is the reality that is left standing, one way or another, where death is not dethroned as the point of life. A Christianity focused on the problem of God, the problem of hell, the problem of the law, and which misses the way in which the world is entangled with the lie oriented to death, lets death have the last word. It has failed to enact the reign of the living word.

The sign that authentic Christianity has been traded for a counterfeit is the violence this entails, as violence is the necessity where death reigns. As Heidegger’s philosophy fits national socialism, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, in the same way evangelicalism is a fitting theology for American nationalism and the death of hundreds of thousands sacrificed to Mammon, as both transfer the glow of life and truth to death and violence.

As Hitler needed Heidegger and German Christians, so Trump is dependent on evangelicals to lend a religious aura to his violent grasping after power. Heidegger was Hitler’s favorite living philosopher precisely because of his nihilistic embrace of violence and death. Nazi Christianity (the German Christians who embraced Hitler and the Nazi party as opposed to those who did not) was shown up as hollow and empty, just as the religion which led to the storming of the barricades at the Capitol is now exposed in its promotion of death and violence in place of life and peace. This exposure of the religion, spent as it has been on the coin of the realm of a deadly nationalism, is clearly an empty word, a bankrupt form of the faith.  


[1] Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language, (trans. Peter D. Hertz, New York, 1971), 107-108.