Paul with Kant, Sade and Lacan, on the Source of Evil

Paul warns in 2 Corinthians that “scripture slays” (2 Cor. 3:6) in that it is not grounded in Spirit. This could be stated as the law, the symbolic order, principle, letter, or language, slays if it is taken as an end in itself. The problem Paul is addressing is the relationship between the written word, whether in the form of letters of recommendation, the Scriptures, or Torah, and the reality of embodied humans. Paul does not need letters written with ink, as he has the Corinthian believers as living letters bearing the living Word in their heart. Words or laws inscribed on stone, even if put there by the finger of God, by angels, or by the highest law giver, cannot possibly compare to the Spirit of the living God written on the heart. The former is a “ministry of death” in that it does not pertain to flesh and blood and spiritual reality. Paul refers to it as a “ministry of condemnation” or a “ministry of death” which is “from death to death” in that it is a fading reality which “veils” its own transitory nature. This ministry of death obscures or veils its own reality but it also veils the truth or the true glory which comes from the Spirit.

The thinker who unwittingly stumbled over Paul’s equation of death, emptiness and deception, with the law, was Immanuel Kant. Kant arrives at what he calls “the supreme principle of morality”[1] which he captures in his categorical imperative: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”[2] The beauty of the Kantian maxim, in his own estimate, is that it does not depend upon anything residing outside of the maxim or outside of the rational will of the one following the maxim. Kant equates the will, not with “a presupposed condition” or “any inclination” but he connects this maxim directly and only with the power of the will.[3] The problem Kant stumbles upon, is that if his maxim is completely enclosed in the will, then there is no determinate content to it, and it may give rise, not to the supreme principle of morality, but to what Kant calls radical evil. This radical evil, like its counterpart in the good, is completely enclosed in human will. “So we can call this a natural propensity to evil, and because we must always accept the guilt for it we can call it a radical innate evil in human nature, though one we have brought upon ourselves.”[4]

This radical evil is a necessary possible result of Kant’s anthropology as reason and freedom are not dependent upon anything outside of itself: “Now the human being actually finds in himself a faculty through which he distinguishes himself from all other things, and even from himself insofar as he is affected by objects, and this is reason.”[5] The faculty of reason provides simultaneous access to absolute freedom and to the choice of evil, for no reason (outside of the will). As Alenka Zupančič explains: “Evil, radical evil, is something that can be defined only in paradoxical terms as the ‘free choice of unfreedom’. In other words, here, too, a genuine negation of freedom proves impossible. The subject is free whether she wants to be or not; she is free in both freedom and unfreedom; she is free in good and in evil; she is free even where she follows nothing but the trajectory of natural necessity.”[6] Reason, the law, the categorical imperative, all arrive at a pure form or pure idea, which does not depend upon anything but itself.

Paul exposes the inherent fault or evil in this orientation to the law, locating it in the drive or desire which stands behind it. As he describes in Romans 7:7, the law gives rise to desire or covetousness: for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COVET’” (Rom. 7:7). In Paul’s description, the law generates the desire it forbids.

The Freudian explanation or the ‘Freudian blow’ to philosophical ethics, which accords with Paul’s description, is that “what philosophy calls the moral law – and, more precisely, what Kant calls the categorical imperative – is in fact nothing other than the superego.”[7] The superego is not God, the will, or a rational moral imperative, but is the individuals attempt to be a law unto themself. Rather than the law being inscribed on the heart, the transgressor of the law, would inscribe themselves into the position of the law, thus obtaining what the law obstructs or forbids. In his drive to freedom (from the law of the father) he enslaves himself to this law (the law of the father or superego taken up into his own identity). The moral imperative, as Freud recognized, is a “moral masochism” in which the individual subjects himself to his own “cathected” father image – which gives rise to the worst forms of evil.

The superego serves in place of the law, and proves itself in relation to the ego. Thus, Freud pictures the superego as the seat or medium of the death drive; the law or the letter kills in giving rise to a dynamic of death. As Zupančič describes, “In so far as it has its origins in the constitution of the superego, ethics becomes nothing more than a convenient tool for any ideology which may try to pass off its own commandments as the truly authentic, spontaneous and ‘honourable’ inclinations of the subject.”[8] The superego is, in Freudian terms, the attempt to be one’s own father. In Pauline terms, this orientation to the law is a displacement of the true Father.

Interestingly, Kant’s critique of the biblical notion of evil aligns with Paul’s universalizing of the problem of the law. This is not simply a historical problem which humanity inherited from its progenitors, but is the problem which every individual faces. The problem of evil is not a historical but a logical problem, though Genesis seems to present the problem as one residing at the beginning of history. For Kant, evil presents itself as part of his understanding of freedom. “The propensity to birth evil is not only the formal ground of all unlawful action, but is also itself an act (of freedom).”[9] Kant posits an original freedom at the heart of every human, but if the original innocent pair were irresistibly seduced or tricked, then this is not true freedom. For God to punish what they could not and did not have the power to resist means God is unfair.

According to Kant, humans are not subject to determinations beyond their control, yet they do evil, which demands an explanation. “Kant’s solution to this problem is that one has to recognize the propensity to evil in the very subjective ground of freedom. This ground itself has to be considered as an act of freedom [Aktus der Freiheit]. In this inaugural act, I can choose myself as evil.”[10] There is the possibility, in Kant’s own estimate, that the categorical imperative may be grounded in a perverse will, in which the service of the seeming good is actually pure evil: “It may also be called the perversity [perversitas] of the human heart, for it reverses the ethical order [of priority] among the incentives of a free will; and although conduct which is lawfully good (i.e. legal) may be found with it, yet the cast of mind is thereby corrupted at its root (so far as the moral disposition is concerned), and the man is hence designated as evil.”[11] But by Kant’s own criteria, it is not clear how the individual might sort out radical evil and the good.

Jacques Lacan adds a problematic layer onto this Kantian/Freudian dilemma, with his own categorical imperative: “Don’t compromise, don’t give way on your desire as it is fidelity to one’s desire itself that is elevated to the level of ethical duty.”[12] As Dylan Evan’s notes, “The very centre of Lacan’s thought … is the concept of desire.” Lacan argues that “desire is the essence of man” (Seminar XI, 275), and the goal of therapy is to articulate and recognize the nature of desire (Seminar I,183). Lacan’s three registers (the real, the symbolic and the imaginary) intersect with and emerge from his symbol for desire – objet petit a (Seminar XX, 87) and the conscious and unconscious dialectic occurs in and around the medium of desire (Seminar II, 228).[13] Lacan links desire with the life force and “the moral law, looked at more closely, is simply desire in its pure state.”[14] To give way on desire is to give up on life and subjectivity as the structure and dynamic which gives rise to the desire for the self is precisely the dynamic necessary for subjectivity to occur. The impossibility of the desire is the necessary structuring principle against which desire (jouissance) forms.

Likewise, in Žižek’s understanding, apart from desire for self or the compulsion to obtain the self there is no self. He uses Paul’s terms for sin to describe the rise of the Subject. The “hermeneutical” procedure of isolating the letter of the law creates a frontier or “coast-like” condition between the real (with the obscene superego) and the symbolic and out of this tension jouissance or forbidden desire arises. The letter and jouissance describe the form and substance of life under the compulsion to repeat – the letter being that which “returns and repeats itself” in the life force of desire.[15] The problem is now double layered, in that the moral law, the will, duty, or reason, taken as an end in and of themselves, are without any recourse to circumstance – the world. In turn, Lacan’s jouissance (or evil desire) is indistinguishable from that desire necessary for life.

We are surrounded by examples of those who performed the most evil deeds, due to their form of the categorical imperative. Paul counts himself blameless in regard to the law as a Pharisee, and for the same reason he persecuted and killed Christians, and thus considers himself the chief of sinners. Adolph Eichmann appeals to the Kantian categorical imperative (doing his duty, obeying the law) while on trial in Jerusalem, as reason enough for killing Jews. The Marquis de Sade appeals to the categorical imperative as a call to universal sadism – each one is duty bound to pleasure himself through his neighbor. He has one of his novelistic characters propose as his maxim to murder anyone who gets in his way: “With regard to the crime of destroying one’s fellow, be persuaded it is purely hallucinatory; man has not been accorded the power to destroy; he has at best the capacity to alter forms . . . what difference does it make to her creative hand if this mass of flesh today is reproduced tomorrow in the guise of a handful of centipedes.”  This is the law of universal metamorphosis, and murder is simply part of this universal principle.

Both Kant and Sade need an eternity to pose the possibility that the highest good (the holy will, or the diabolical will), though not now attainable, might be attained in an eternal future. In Sade, this clearly translates into the worst form of evil (eternal sado-masochistic torture chambers), but the point is Kant is aligned with Sade in putting into place the machine of compulsive repetition. Desire, the good will, the categorical imperative must be pursued and it must be pursued endlessly into eternity. “This then necessarily leads to the exclusion of (the possibility of) this object (the highest good or ‘diabolical evil’), an exclusion which, in turn, supports the fantasy of its realization (the immortality of the soul).”[16] The categorical imperative requires a bad infinity (no longer simply desire but drive), giving rise to the dept of the human sickness, the compulsion to repeat. Here we no longer have to do with life, but the pure form of the death drive. Kant cannot imagine that someone would want their own destruction, but Lacan pictures this, not as an extreme, but the human situation; “on a certain level every subject, average as he may be, wants his destruction, whether he wants it or not.”[17]

My point is not to refute either Sade or Kant, but to indicate how it is that the worst forms of evil might be associated with the law. To call this “radical evil” is obviously as mistaken as to imagine that there is a highest moral principle obtainable through the will. Both are mistaken, but the lie of this mistake is the universal deception which Paul equates with the law.


[1] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Edited and translated by Allen W. Wood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 8 (Ak 4:392).

[2] Ibid, 38 (Ak 4:421).

[3] Ibid, 38 (Ak 4:420).

[4] Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (Jonathan Bennett, 2017 )15. https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/kant1793.pdf

[5] Metaphysics of Morals, 68 (Ak 4:452).

[6] Alenka Zupančič, Ethics of the Real: Kant, Lacan (New York: Verso, 2000) 39.

[7] Ibid, 1.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 88.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, 25. Cited in Zupančič, 89.

[12] Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (London: Verso, 1999) 153.

[13] Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1996) 36.

[14] Zupančič, 2.

[15] Evans, 100.

[16] Zupančič, 100.

[17] Ibid.

Apologies to Hegel: Knowing God is Essential

One thing we all know to be true about Hegel – he is presumptuous, assigning too much weight to philosophy and human knowing, and thus he is pitting philosophy against Orthodox Christianity.

Whatever else one might say about Hegel, the presumed consensus is precisely wrong, both in its reading of Hegel and most likely in its understanding of the Christian faith. One does not have to read much of Hegel to recognize he is challenging the presumptuousness of Enlightenment thought, in particular that of Immanuel Kant, as it has impacted theology. He is arguing for a biblical, doctrinal, Trinitarian, Alexandrian, Christianity, in which Christian dogma, and not human reason takes first place. He is not displacing Christ or Christianity but working from the axiom of the incarnation, very much like Maximus the Confessor. As Hans Urs von Balthasar notes, Hegel is a thinker on the order of Maximus, sharing focus on synthesis, on Trinity, on escaping a finite dialectic, and even on developing the Chalcedonian formula. As Balthasar puts it, “Maximus looks straight in the eye of Hegel, who clearly derived his synthetic way of thinking from the Bible-more precisely from the anthropological antitheses of the Old Testament and from that between the Bible and Hellenism, as well as from the reconciling synthesis of Christ, understood principally from a Johannine (and thus, in effect, from an Alexandrian) perspective.”[1] Balthasar here pictures the singular difference as Maximus being more open in his Christology, “everyone recognizes that his ontology and cosmology are extensions of his Christology, in that the synthesis of Christ’s concrete person is not only God’s final thought for the world but also his original plan.”[2] Yet, he pictures them as directly reflecting one another. Maximus’ focus on synthesis and not confusion and his bold application of “theological truth to philosophical, ontological, and cosmological thought” is directly taken up by Hegel (it is here that Maximus is looking into the eyes of Hegel).[3] As Balthasar notes in private correspondence concerning his work on Maximus, “This morning I put the finishing touches on a new two hundred-page book about Maximus Confessor, the ‘Hegel’ of the Greek fathers and ‘father’ of Eriugena.”[4] Could the problem be that, like Maximus, Hegel is developing a form of thought so centered upon Christ that it is beyond the common notion of reason. At a minimum, to accuse Hegel of presumptuously displacing Christ is misdirected.

First of all, Hegel is concerned to recover Christ as the true import of the Bible. He recognizes that all parties might appeal to the Bible, but philosophy, theology and reason are implicitly undermining Scripture. He describes a form of exegesis that “has taken counsel with reason” and “pretends only to lay stress on the understanding of the word, and to desire to remain faithful to it” but empties it of all spiritual value and content.[5] He describes a system in which “in downright earnest” exegetes imagine “the Bible is made the foundation” but due to the very categories of thought and reason with which Scripture is read “the thoughts of the interpreter must necessarily be put into the words which constitute the foundation.” In turn, “Commentaries on the Bible do not so much make us acquainted with the content of the Scriptures, as rather with the manner in which things were conceived in the age in which they were written.”[6] The “most contradictory meanings have been exegetically demonstrated by means of Theology out of the Scripture, and thus the so-called Holy Scriptures have been made into a nose of wax.”[7] This form of exegesis, a “Theology of Reason,” “is put in opposition to that doctrinal system of the Church,” though it “pretends only to lay stress on the understanding of the word, and to desire to remain faithful to it” in reality it “takes possession of the written word” and bends it to its own shape.[8]

Hegel notes that all heresies appeal to the Scriptures. So too the “Theology of Reason,” claims to keep to Scripture as foundation but is a form of reason alien to the Bible.  The end result of this approach is not encounter with God, but the knowledge of God made impossible. “It no longer gives our age any concern that it knows nothing of God; on the contrary, it is regarded as a mark of the highest intelligence to hold that such knowledge is not even possible.”[9] Hegel is attempting to bring about a return to the faith of the Bible, by refuting the negative understanding associated with the Theology of Reason.

He sees his philosophy as a counter to the arrogance of those who would “dispense both with the content which revelation gives of the Divine nature, and with what belongs to reason.”[10] This form of thought (the very form of thought accusing him of arrogance), he accuses of the “blind arrogance which is proper to it.”[11]

If, then, those theologians, who busy themselves with their argumentations in exegesis, and appeal to the Bible in connection with all their notions, when they deny as against philosophy the possibility of knowledge, have brought matters to such a pass, and have so greatly depreciated the reputation of the Bible, that if the truth were as they say, and if according to the true explanation of the Bible, no knowledge of the nature of God were possible, the spirit would be compelled to look for another source in order to acquire such truth as should be substantial or full of content.[12]

Hegel describes the plight of theology in his age (which sounds so familiar), as denying the dogmas and doctrines which once served as the center of the faith. In place of dogmas there is a “widespread, almost universal, indifference towards what in earlier times were held to be essential doctrines of the faith.”[13] Though, according to confession, Christ “continues to be made the central point of faith as Mediator, Reconciler, and Redeemer; but what was known as the work of redemption has received a very prosaic and merely psychological signification.” The old “edifying words have been retained,” but they have been emptied of significance – “the very thing that was essential in the old doctrine of the Church has been expunged.”[14] Depth of faith has given way to a “devotional bent” leaving aside the doctrines on which the early church focused: “the weighty doctrines of the Trinity, of the resurrection of the body, as also the miracles in the Old and New Testaments, are neglected as matters of indifference, and have lost their importance. The divinity of Christ, dogma, what is peculiar to the Christian religion is set aside, or else reduced to something of merely general nature.”[15]

 In particular, Hegel notes the neglect concerning the Trinity, with those of the Enlightenment or those given to theological piety concluding, “the Trinity was brought into Christian doctrine by the Alexandrian school,” or “by the neo-Platonists.” Whether Trinity is essential-Truth no longer matters, “that is a point which is not examined into, and yet that doctrine is the key-note of the Christian religion.” As Hegel sums up, “If an opportunity was given to a large number of these theologians to lay their hand on their heart, and say whether they consider faith in the Trinity to be indispensably necessary to salvation, and whether they believe that the absence of such faith leads to damnation, there can be no doubt what the answer would be.” First of all, such a one would shrink from such words as “damnation” and though he might not want to deny the Trinity, “he would, in case his being directly appealed to, find it very difficult express himself in an affirmative.” [16] He continues in this train with indictment of religious books and sermons, in which one might suppose “the fundamental doctrines of the Christian religion are supposed to be set forth” and yet, he concludes it is highly doubtful they perform this basic task.[17]

Far from Hegel displaying an arrogant dismissal of Christ, doctrine and the church, he can be read as providing a zealous indictment of this very dismissal. So much of what he writes could serve as tract against the contemporary church, not least of which is his dismissal of those who are solely concerned to recover the history of the New Testament. Such theologians are no better than “clerks in a mercantile house, who have only to keep an account of the wealth of strangers, who only act for others without obtaining any property for themselves. They do, indeed, receive salary, but their reward is only to serve, and to register that which is the property of others.” The faith passes through them, like a reward of which they are not the direct recipients. “Theology of this kind has no longer a place at all in the domain of thought; it has no longer to do with infinite thought in and for itself, but only with it as a finite fact, as opinion, ordinary thought, and so on.” A theology focused on history, imagining it enough to recover the historical Jesus, is not encountering and possessing the truth, but is content with what served as truth for others. “With the true content, with the knowledge of God, such theologians have no concern. They know as little of God as a blind man sees of a painting, even though he handles the frame.”[18]

The end product of the Theology of Reason is a denial of the basic premise of the New Testament and the life of Christ. While one might refer to this negative knowledge as a form of reason, Hegel’s point is it is not true reason. True reason is grounded in the Spirit given through Christ. Thus, it is not a Spirit “beyond the stars, beyond the world. On the contrary, God is present, omnipresent, and exists as Spirit in all spirits. God is a living God, who is acting and working. Religion is a product of the Divine Spirit; it is not a discovery of man, but a work of divine operation and creation in him.”[19] God is reasonable and has shared his form of reason in the Spirit, but humankind abandons this reason and abandons the particularity of the Spirit (of incarnation) in grasping for the absolute and universal apart from the concrete.

In particular, Hegel notes, that finite conceptions of the infinite (abstractions), exercise dominance.  “For the doctrine concerning God goes on to that of the characteristics, the attributes, and the actions of God. Such knowledge takes possession of this determinate content, and would make it appear that it belongs to it. It, on the one hand, conceives of the Infinite in its own finite fashion, as something which has a determinate character, as an abstract infinite, and then on the other hand finds that all special attributes are inadequate to this Infinite.” The infinite becomes defined by what it is not, in relation to the finite. “By such a mode of proceeding the religious content is annihilated, and the absolute object reduced to complete poverty.” [20]

Hegel describes the Enlightenment as the “consummation of finite knowledge,” but in imagining it is exalting God by regarding “all predicates” as “inadequate” (mere “unwarranted anthropomorphisms”) in “reality, it has, in conceiving God as the supreme Being, made Him hollow, empty, and poor.”[21] As Balthasar notes in regard to Maximus, “only when Christ appeared did it become irrefutably clear that the creature is not simply pure negation with respect to God and, thus, cannot be saved simply through mystical absorption in God, but rather-however much he is elevated to share in God’s being, however much he dies to the world-the creature is saved only in the express preservation and perfection of his nature.”[22] This is Hegel’s point in regard to the Enlightenment, which ends with a purely negative notion of God and thus misses the concrete reality of Christ due to its misplaced focus on the infinite.

In the typical understanding of the infinite, it takes on its characteristics as the opposite and negative of the finite. As Hegel remarks, this is the foundation of human knowing. Human thought is grounded on difference, such as subject/object or north/south in which the terms are understood in contrast, but as he notes, they are different but “inseparable.”[23] What Kant and the Enlightenment thinkers missed was the inherent negativity in the dualism between infinity and finitude. “The further step which speculative philosophy had to take was to apprehend the negativity which is immanent within the universal or the identical, as in the ‘I’ – a step the need for which is not perceived by those who fail to apprehend the dualism of infinity and finitude, even in that immanent and abstract form in which Fichte understood it.”[24] Thought grounded in the ‘I’ is inherently dualistic. There is no bridge between thought and the thinking thing. Likewise, infinity and finitude contain this same inherent dualism. The infinite is no more accessible than the noumena or the thinking thing. “But this indeterminacy is itself merely a negation with regard to the determinate, to finitude: ‘I’ is this solitude and absolute negation.”[25] What this form of thought misses is its own inherent negativity. As Jordan Wood and Justin Coyle summarize, “We know the Ding an sich [thing in itself] only as unknowable, as that which eludes our grasp. Hegel wants to know exactly how Kant knows all this. How, for instance, does Kant know for certain that what is a priori and so subjective cannot also prove objective? Here Kant’s very attempt to scrupulously police the boundaries of thought betrays a deep presumption. Kant has somehow mapped an unnavigable trench before he’s crossed it.”[26]

As Hegel argues, “This logical knowledge, which comes first, must lie behind us when we have to deal with religion scientifically; such categories must have long ago been done with. But the usual thing is to employ these as weapons against the Notion, the Idea; against rational knowledge.”[27] Hegel is contrasting this “logical knowledge,” with his development of the Christian “Notion” and his new order of reason and science. “In religion it is not, however, with phenomena that we have to do, it is with an absolute content. But those who employ this argumentative kind of reasoning seem to think the Kantian philosophers have existed only to afford opportunity for the more unblushing use of those categories.”[28] Reason must pass beyond the Kantian antinomies and his presumed delimitation of knowledge.

Hegel proposes a path around Kantian dualism, inherent to human reason, in worship of the Incarnate Christ: “Worship is thus, in fact, the eternal process by which the subject posits itself as identical with its essential being.”[29] In worship we become what we truly are and we escape the dualism inherent to abstract reason. “Through worship, unity is attained; what is not originally united, however, cannot be posited or made explicit as such. This unity, which appears as the act, the result of worship, must be recognised, too, as existing in and for itself. For what is object for consciousness is the Absolute, and its essential characteristic is that it is unity of its absoluteness with particularity. This unity is therefore in the object itself; for example, in the Christian conception of the Incarnation of God.”[30] There is a direct encounter with God in Christ, in which the Absolute is fused with particularity. “This self-existent unity, or, put more definitely, the human form, God’s becoming man, is in fact an essential moment of religion, and must necessarily appear in the definition of its object.”[31] Religion, in Hegel’s definition, is encounter with God, and thus the incarnation is definitive of religion.

However, if one is committed to reflection rather than incarnation as the central guiding point, darkness will prevail. There is no determinate content, but only abstraction devoid of spirit. In the incarnation, however, the darkness is lifted: “The content, it is then said, commends itself to me for its own sake, and the witness of the Spirit teaches me to recognise it as truth, as my essential determination. And, undoubtedly, the infinite idea of the Incarnation for example that speculative central point has so great a power in it that it penetrates irresistibly into the heart which is not as yet darkened by reflection.”[32]

The turn to the incarnation involves passage beyond abstraction to the concrete, or what can be known by faith. Faith, “actuated by the courage of truth and freedom, grasps the truth as something concrete, as fulness of content, as Ideality, in which determinateness the finite is contained as a moment.”[33] No longer is one given to the abstract negative of logical knowledge, but there appears its opposite, “thinking reason” grounded in God as Spirit. “God is not emptiness, but Spirit; and this characteristic of Spirit does not remain for it a word only, or a superficial characteristic; on the contrary, the nature of Spirit unfolds itself for rational thought, inasmuch as it apprehends God as essentially the Triune God.”[34] As I pointed out (here), Hegel’s notion of Spirit is Johannine in that it is a result of and continuation of the incarnation. All the members of the Trinity are made known in Christ. That is, in the first instance, Christ is God’s image known and being made known. “Thus God is conceived of as making Himself an object to Himself, and further, the object remains in this distinction in identity with God; in it God loves Himself.”[35] This love is then shared through the gift of the Spirit, which is the gift of God’s life and Spirit. “Without this characteristic of Trinity, God would not be Spirit, and Spirit would be an empty word.”[36] In this understanding, true reason and knowledge, the knowing of a determinate content within the human subject, are opened.

So, the choice is a theology, philosophy, and mode of reason on the order of nominalism, or accentuating the divide which marks the immanent and economic Trinity. As Hegel notes, most theologians would have no problem fudging on or relinquishing belief in the Trinity, and of course what they are simultaneously relinquishing is knowing God.

What is laid down by the Christian religion as the supreme, absolute commandment, “Ye shall know God,” is regarded as a piece of folly. Christ says, “Be ye perfect, as My Father in heaven is perfect.” This lofty demand is to the wisdom of our time an empty sound. It has made of God an infinite phantom, which is far from us, and in like manner has made human knowledge a futile phantom of finiteness, or a mirror upon which fall only shadows, only phenomena. How, then, are we any longer to respect the commandment, and grasp its meaning, when it says to us, “Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” since we know nothing of the Perfect One, and since our knowing and willing are confined solely and entirely to appearance, and the truth is to be and to remain absolutely and exclusively a something beyond the present ? And what, we must further ask, what else would it be worthwhile to comprehend, if God is incomprehensible?[37]

The point of biblical Christianity is knowing God, and apart from this knowledge it is not clear Christian faith survives. “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Such verses could be multiplied as they serve as the backbone of the faith, yet Hegel is accused of arrogance for taking this knowledge seriously, and in the meantime this simple and most concrete fact, the very point of Christianity, is passed over. As Hegel perceived it this is the height of arrogance and the last stage of the degradation of man. It is “all the more arrogant inasmuch as he thinks he has proved to himself that this degradation is the highest possible state, and is his true destiny.”[38] But of course this form of arrogant dismissal of the foundations of the faith is directly counter to the true faith. “Such a point of view is, indeed, directly opposed to the lofty nature of the Christian religion, for according to this we ought to know God, His nature, and His essential Being, and to esteem this knowledge as something which is the highest of all.”[39] Knowing God is the point of Christianity and Hegel is the thinker who has accentuated this truth.


[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor, Translated by Brian E. Daley, S.]. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988) 207.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] In a letter from 1937, to Emil Lerch. Cited in Jordan Daniel Wood, The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor (p. 217). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[5] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures On the Philosophy of Religion: Together With a Work on the Proofs of the Existence of God vol. 1, Trans. By E. B. Speirs, and J. Burdon Sanderson, (London:  Kegan Paul,  Trench, Trubner, & Co. Ltd., 1895) 28.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 29.

[8] Ibid, 28.

[9] Ibid, 36.

[10] Ibid, 37.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 32.

[13] Ibid, 38.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, 39.

[17] Ibid, 40.

[18] Ibid, 41.

[19] Ibid, 33.

[20] Ibid, 28.

[21] Ibid, 29-30.

[22] Balthasar, 207-208.

[23] On the Philosophy of Religion, 56.

[24] G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Tran. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 40.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Jordan Daniel Wood and Justin Shaun Coyle, “Must Catholics Hate Hegel?” Church Life Journal (June 8, 2018). https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/must-catholics-hate-hegel/

[27] On the Philosophy of Religion, 55.

[28] Ibid, 56.

[29] Ibid, 70.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid. 151

[33] Ibid, 30.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid, 30-31.

[37] Ibid, 36.

[38] Ibid, 36-37.

[39] Ibid, 37.

Jordan Daniel Wood and Maximus on the Answer to Hegel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the mystery remains concealed by Jesus, and can be drawn out by no word or mind, for even when spoken of, it remains ineffable, and when conceived, unknown” (according to Gregory). Beyond this, what could be a more compelling demonstration of the Divinity’s transcendence of being? For it discloses its concealment by means of a manifestation, its ineffability through speech, and its transcendent unknowability through the mind, and, to say what is greatest of all, it shows itself to be beyond being by entering essentially into being.[9]

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Maximus explanation:

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

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

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

In Maximus most fulsome explanation:

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

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

He explains how and why this is the case:

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

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

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

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


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

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

Press, 1977) 18-19.

[3] Wood, 198.

[4] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor Translated by Brian E. Daley, S.]. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988) 207.

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

[6] Wood, 4.

[7] Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua Vol. 1-2; Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 5.15. Quoted in Balthasar, 209.

[8] Ambigua 7.16.

[9] Ambigua 5.5.

[10] Ambigua 5.5.

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

[12] Wood, 175.

[13] The Responses to Thalassios, 60.4.

[14] Wood, 183.

[15] The Responses to Thalassios, 3.19.

[16] Wood, 182-183.

[17] Wood, 183.

[18] Ibid.

[19] The Responses to Thalassios, 61.6.

[20] The Responses to Thalassios, 61.7.

[21] The Responses to Thalassios, 61.8

[22] Wood, 186.

The Sublime Experience of God

If there were a singular term which could include the moral, rational, cosmic, and divine as part of a realization or part of an experience, the term “sublime” may come closest. At any rate, I want to build on the term, to name the ultimate Christian experience or to locate the point of Christianity. To call this an “experience” may already be problematic due to the way we presently divide up our world, but this is also part of the point. There is the need to reunite fundamental human experience with an explicit moral and cognitional content which accounts for the individual before God in the world.

In common usage, the sublime is a combination of experiencing fearsome, overwhelming phenomena such as a raging storm at sea, threatening cliffs or mountains, towering thunder clouds, before which we are normally reduced to insignificance in comparison to their power, but in the sublime experience, instead of feeling diminished, we are able to take it in and feel our own soul or imagination enlarged. As a boy in Texas, there were several occasions in which on a long ride, alone on the prairie, I was surrounded by distant thunder storms, an endless expanse of wilderness, and rather than being frightened I felt a great thrill, which I equated with an experience of God. I could not name this sublime experience, but I presumed correctly (I am now convinced, fifty years later), it was the center of my newfound faith.

There is a terrible beauty that makes of the fearful something attractive the more fearful and powerful it is, as long as we find ourselves in safety. As Immanuel Kant describes the situation,  “the irresistibility of [nature’s] power certainly makes us, considered as natural beings, recognize our physical powerlessness, but at the same time it reveals a capacity for judging ourselves as independent of nature and a superiority over nature…whereby the humanity in our person remains undemeaned even though the human being must submit to that dominion.”[1] The sense of safety and wellbeing is at once physical (involving all of the physical senses) and yet it is centered in our soulish or cognitive capacity.

The problem with Kant is that he identifies the safety of the sublime with objective reason. He equates it with suprasensible reason or the recognition that it is through cognitive capacities or powers of reason that humans can count themselves above nature. It is not just that he may be confusing reason with God, but I believe he fails to understand the experience of God inherent to the sublime.

I think we can go beyond Kant, but Kant himself points beyond what he calls reason, by describing the pleasure of the sublime experience as mixed with something like displeasure or what he calls negative pleasure. Where he characterizes experience of the beautiful as a positive pleasure, the sublime calls forth an admiration or respect which he characterizes as a negative pleasure. What he did not have the psychological vocabulary to describe, but which he seems to be aiming at, is the notion of a limit experience.

A limit-experience is what it feels like to be undone, or to have the notion of the self as a unified subject thrown into question. A limit-experience according to Michel Foucault, is that which wrenches the subject from herself and which throws into question the notion of a unified subject. If we think of Freud’s reading of Kant, in which the reason behind his categorical imperative is identified with the superego, this negative pleasure might be mistaken for a simple masochism or what Freud called a moral masochism. That is, by not acknowledging the supreme limit which the sublime might be challenging, Kant neither faced the limit experience of death, nor the manner in which ultimate unity is linked to the divine. In other words, he fails to connect the sublime experience to the limit experience definitive of Christianity and in this failure, he fails at both ends of his description of the sublime.

He does not recognize that the ultimate experience of nature is to take it in all at once, either in the simple wonder at the fact that a world exists or in recognition of creation ex nihilo. His picture of the world and of human imagination limited it to a priori, necessary, and stable structures which he considered inherent to the world and necessary to the mind. His thought about the world (there are absolute and necessary laws) structured his depiction of the powers of human imagination.  He allowed a role for intuition, but it was an intuition dependent upon an already existing framework of the mind. As Cornelius Castoriadis notes, “the imagination remained bound to functioning in a pre-established field in Kant’s theoretical work.”[2]

Castoriadis turns specifically to creation ex nihilo to suggest an alternative understanding of the human capacity for creation. He acknowledges that there may be a set of historical or natural conditions linked to creativity in general, but these conditions are not sufficient to account for that which is truly creative. Kant’s notion of the sublime only points to a derived realization. Much like the problem of cosmological arguments for God, the God that might be conceived within these arguments tends to be fit to the pattern of reason which implies his existence from the world.

Kant not only limited the extent of the human imagination in its positive mode, he also did not account for the height of the obstacles it might overcome. It is not simply creation from nothing, but the human experience of this creation power in resurrection faith, which he misses. He maintains that the sublime gives one a sense of immortality, but what should be posed against this intimation is the simultaneous recognition of one’s mortality. As in Paul’s definition of Abraham’s resurrection faith, he had faith in “the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not” (Rom. 4:17). The existential realization of the reality of death and God’s ability to give life to the dead is the personal realization of his power to create from nothing. In other words, Paul is depicting the limit experience of death (as in the living death of being old and unable to have children) with the capacity to conceive of creation from nothing.

Kant is instructive as, in his failure of thought, he helps locate the distinctive difference contained in the Christian experience of the sublime. The overwhelming power and danger of the world are not subdued by an innately immortal soul, or immortal reason, but by the specific death dealing work of Christ. Just as the most powerful force in the world is the big bang behind creation from nothing, so too the personal realization of this power is to be had in Christian resurrection faith.

This is the Christian sublime: the simultaneous recognition of the overwhelming power and danger of the universe exploding into existence and the existential recognition that this power is unleashed in our own life in resurrection power. The ground of sublimity lies within each of us as we reflect upon what might be taken as fearsome, formless colliding galaxies and planets coming into being. Or as it says in Genesis, the world was a chaos in the beginning but in verse 2 the Spirit hovered over the waters and brings order out of the chaos. The same hovering, indwelling Spirit brings order out of the chaos of the human mind. This chaotic power brought to order within ourselves and in the world describes the ultimate sublime experience.

 Being quite young, and having no name or developed understanding of Christian doctrine, I had no way of putting flesh on my first experience of the sublime.  I thought it enough to reproduce the situation, returning continually to the prairie, so as to re-experience the wonder.  As the years went by and I was taught to be more rational, and not to confuse faith and experience, my moments of bliss were whittled down. If I had been properly discipled, properly indoctrinated, I would not have been turned from these early experiences but I could have been turned to exploring and understanding them. Of course, we cannot live in continuous wonder and joy, but by putting a name and understanding to this experience, we can at any time or place experience the epiphany of the sublime.


[1] Critique of the Power of Judgment (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant), ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 261–262. I am referencing the Stanford Encyclopedia article on Kant’s notion of the sublime.

[2] (Castoriadis Reader 319-337).  See https://iep.utm.edu/castoria/#SSH3aiv

The Immoral Argument for God

In philosophy of religion and apologetics the moral and religious arguments for God proceed from the universality of religious beliefs or morality to the conclusion that God must exist. As C. S. Lewis describes the moral argument, there must be a universal moral law, or else ethical or moral disagreements would make no sense, all moral criticism would be meaningless, promise keeping would be unnecessary, and no one would think to make ethical excuses.  From here Lewis extrapolates to a moral Law Giver who made us like himself, instilling a universal moral law within us. The religious argument proceeds along the same line, extrapolating from a universal or perhaps sui generis religious experience to the existence of God.  This presumption is taken up in modern religious studies in the positing of a sui generis notion of religion (all religions can be traced to the same source) and the presumption behind the moral argument is taken up in modern ethical studies in the notion that the primary work of an ethicist is to study ethical quandaries in an effort to arrive at correct decisions (reducing ethics to human decision and will). In both instances there is the presumption that the impetus to morality and religion can be extracted from the particulars of culture (in pure reason or transcendental experience), as if there is a universal reason and experience not mediated by culture.

An inherent problem to both of the arguments concerns, not just their legitimacy (which might be preserved), but the mode of argumentation or reason undergirding the arguments, which more or less reigns in both secular and religious studies. In theological studies, for example, there is a common presumption that universal understandings of religion and morality are parallel to the religion and morality of the Bible and that there is no need to challenge either the impetus behind religion or morality as they are universally experienced.  This strikes me as false at several levels: it is not true to the deadly nature of religion and morality on display all around us and it is not true to the biblical depiction of human morality and religion. What seems obvious (and we do not need atheists to make the argument, as this is the biblical picture) is that human religion is foundational to humankind and that foundation is murderous (the working premise of the theory of René Girard and of various apocalyptic theologies). In turn, morality may indeed be instinctive and innate, such that the human sense of justice, morality and law, whether corporate (giving rise to war) or personal (giving rise to murder) is directly connected to the worst forms of evil, justified as part of a righteous cause (which is not to reduce all morality and justice to immorality and injustice but simply to indicate the human bent).  

Kant’s moral argument demonstrates the potential problem with every moral argument, in that it does not conclude to any specific or definitive moral content and it has been deployed in the name of the worst sorts of evil (see here).  A specific result of the Kantian notion that ultimate moral duty is accessible through reason, is the presumption that knowing the right and recognizing evil need not be informed by Christian faith. Human reason and moral sensibility are presumed sufficient to arrive at the truth, and Christ is a prototype of what can be otherwise known by reason, though we may still need rescue from out of the world, even in Kant’s understanding.  The general result (of Kant and the Enlightenment) is a division between theology and philosophy of religion, in which certain topics, such as the problem of evil, have been partitioned off from theological explanations of the Cross, and theological explanations of sin have not engaged the possibility (which I presume is the biblical explanation of evil) that human morality and religion are (potentially?) immoral and evil. This is rather odd, considering that we live at a point in history in which it is nearly universally recognized that the worst of human atrocities, the Holocaust, was carried out by the heirs of the Enlightenment. Given the realities of history and the actual arguments which were set forth in the wake of Kant, the alternative to the received religious and moral philosophical arguments for God might begin, not from a presumed positive moral and religious understanding, but from the opposite. What I will call the “Immoral Argument” is a partial indictment of the traditional arguments but also a suggestion that the inverse of these arguments points directly to the specifics and necessity of the work of Christ.

To lay the groundwork for the immoral argument, the two notions of evil, privation theory and radical evil (a term coined by Kant), have to be considered in light of the Cross. Assigning evil, either to privation of the will or to the necessity endured in order to have a free will, as has been done in philosophical theology, precludes grappling with evil as radical or diabolical (the biblical picture of what the Cross defeated).  Rather than pit these two theories against one another, radical evil (the notion that evil is its own ground) might be equated with the lie of the serpent in Genesis, the covenant with death in Isaiah, and with the prominent role of the diabolical in the Gospels. It is not simply a theory to be judged true or false, but in the Bible it is a false possibility, as it is a lie that is posed and acted upon as part of human reality. Interestingly, Kant hits upon the notion of radical evil as part of his depiction of human freedom and autonomy, which fits with the biblical lie of sin (the drive to human autonomy and an alternative knowledge).

In defending perfect freedom, Kant requires both a will acting without constraint or contingency (so as to be free) and reason, which is self-evident and self-grounding. It is this combination of free will and reason which gives rise to his categorical imperative: “It is there I discover that what I do can only be unconditionally good to the extent I can will what I have done as a universal law.” The will contains the possibility of the good as it enacts the universal moral law uncovered through reason. His concise formula of this imperative, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” is the compelling force behind duty and morality.  He concludes that “If one finds the right and acts on it from the motive of a purely good will this is to walk the path of perfect moral duty.”

Even in Kant’s own explanation, the possibility that one is committing evil, under the compulsion or conviction that he is doing the good, poses itself. Given the moral maxim that one should always tell the truth, he can find no exception, even when it might mean the death of an innocent person (a murderer asking after a hidden victim must be answered truthfully, according to Kant). “I must not lie – confronted with the temptation to do so, I sense the categorical imperative as the claim upon my will. I ought to tell the truth for the truth’s sake. With that pure motive, without self-interest, I decide to tell the truth; morality has prevailed.” Kant is prepared to let the chips fall where they may on behalf of moral duty.

 The truth for truth’s sake seems to have taken flight of any earthly consideration or particular contingent circumstance. As Stanley Hauerwas has noted, “Only an ethics based on such an imperative can be autonomous, that is, free of all religious and anthropological presuppositions. Only by acting on the basis of such an imperative can an agent be free. Such an ethic is based on reason alone and can therefore be distinguished from religion, politics, and etiquette.”   Jacques Lacan claims, in his critique of the Critique of Practical Reason, that Kant displays “a respect for something entirely different from life, in comparison and contrast to which life and its enjoyment have absolutely no worth. [Man] lives only because it is his duty, not because he has the least taste for living. Such is the nature of the genuine drive of pure practical reason.” 

To arrive at a non-contingent necessary reason, the basis for true freedom, reason cannot be grounded in anything else; it must be its own ground. But this self-grounding reason also poses the possibility of a self-grounding evil. His imperative does not specify any particular context or content but poses itself as a self-evident and absolute duty. Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem and the Marques de Sade both appeal to the categorical imperative to justify genocide and murder, which coincide with their sense of moral duty. That is, much like Kant, they arrive at radical evil through the categorical imperative, with the difference that they choose to act upon it.

So, what we call the “moral law” may be nothing more than the superego or the law of sin and death. What Kant calls the categorical imperative can and has been read as a form of moral masochism in which one would serve the father, which could be mistaken for God or God’s law, but which is nothing other than one’s own father image (Freud’s superego, the source of the drive to masochism and sadism). Kant’s moral imperative (or something like it) has been taken up by societies and individuals as a pure form of deadly desire, which Paul sums up as the dynamic of the body of death.

The incapacity of the will Paul describes (doing what he does not want and not doing what he wants) is not due to a lack of a sense of duty or an ignorance of the law. There is no one more duty bound or more steeped in moral and legal imperatives than Pharisaical Paul, but this duty drives him to arrest Christians and consent to their death. It is precisely the Pauline categorical imperative which makes him the chief of sinners, but Paul assumes everyone is subject to the same desire and the same law which give rise to universal immorality. So if we were to make a moral or religious argument of Paul’s theology of salvation, it would be an argument beginning from immorality: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world” (Eph. 2:1). The exposure of universal moral and religious failure in the Bible would seem to weigh against appeal to an an innate positive moral capacity but this also seems to pose another possibility.

Something is displaced in both the moral and religious experience of most people, but this displacement or negation also points to what is hidden from the understanding. When the Hebrew prophets confront idolaters, this is depicted as a lifting of the covers or an exposure of something hidden, which is meant to shame them and bring about repentance. This means the hiding must include repression or hiding from the truth which the prophets bring to consciousness. The hiding of the first couple, the hiding of the Jews behind false idolatrous religion (or ancestor worship and necromancy in Isaiah), or what Paul describes as a hiding behind the Law in Galatians, is dependent upon the repression and negation of what must be available at an unconscious level. Paul’s argument is not that this is a peculiar experience, as all are called to repent from what at some level, they must know to be a falsehood.

Neither the typical religious or moral intuition point, in and of themselves to God, but in their positive form they constitute a self-grounding system (on the order of the categorical imperative and the presumptions behind radical evil). The experience of Paul in Romans 7, for example, depends on the negation and absence of God. God the Father is negated by an orientation to the law (the law serves in place of Abba); the experience of life in the Son is negated by the “I” or the ego; and life in the Spirit is negated by the dynamics of “this body of death.” This trinitarian negativity constitutes an identity in which God is unavailable but indicated, even in his absence. Trust in this system, in Paul’s explanation, is exposed in the agony (Ro. 7) and evil (Ro. 3) it produces. To stick to the law, to the categorical imperative, or to the lie of radical evil, ensures that one will never encounter the God of the Bible, but the danger which Paul warns of and implicit in the moral and religious argument, is that one will mistake the absolute of the moral law for God.

Perhaps this pertains to the legitimacy of the moral and religious arguments only to the extent that they depend on the notions that there is universal access to the moral law and a universally positive religious experience from which one can extrapolate by means of a neutral, objective, and universal reason to an understanding of God. This may not be a wholesale invalidation of some form of the arguments (a weak form?), but it would seem to call for an alternative understanding of reason, and a relinquishing of the notion that there is access to a universal and definitive moral law.

Maybe all my argument amounts to is that there is access to God only through Christ but even this understanding contains its own moral and religious argument as even in his absence, in immorality and false religion, God leaves his trace.

(Registration will be open from Friday the 16th for the next class with Ploughshares Bible Institute, “Imaginative Apologetics,” go to https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/about)

The Biblical Personality Spectrum: 1. The Masculine

Paul, in his depiction of the various stages or possibilities for the human subject (building on the Old Testament), depicts four primary ways of being human or four ways for ordering human subjectivity. The primary poles around which he arranges these four possibilities are desire, language, and death. Each of these elements are interrelated, as desire has to do primarily with lack (lack of being, mortality, death, finitude, sexuality) and language or the symbolic order (law, authority, culture, religion, etc.) is the medium through which desire is channeled in dealing with lack. Each of the primary poles is linked (not exclusively but primarily) to an embodied cognitive capacity so that the auditory, the spectral, or the sensuous, are either privileged or subordinated in the four subject positions. In turn, the emotional spectrum (which is inclusive of all three poles and is not simply “feeling”) can be ranged from the root negative emotion of shame (in which lack or death holds sway through the spectral and sensuous) to guilt (in which the symbolic dominates) to love (in which the punishing effect of the symbolic is suspended).  For Paul, it is not simply a matter of being a Christian, as he will locate Christians in several places along the spectrum, but he does trace a developmental progression. In this short piece, I will describe the first of Paul’s four subject positions: the masculine. Continue reading “The Biblical Personality Spectrum: 1. The Masculine”

The Heart of Darkness: The Appeal of Donald Trump

Organized acts of evil, such as those witnessed over the weekend in Charlottesville, demonstrate the unleashing of ethics turned on its head. Organized evil driven by an ideology endorsed (with a wink and a nod) by the Commander in Chief means evil serves in place of the good. This is not the lawless evil of a random act; rather it is “radical evil” in which a perverse moral law is officially endorsed.  The drive toward a pure race, the perfect socialist revolution, or making America great again, may not overtly promote genocide, mass murder, and white supremacy, but the latter is implicit in the former.  The walls must be built, the foreigners expelled, and the “inferior races” subdued in a world in which the ultimate good is a moral law constituted in the reigning ideology.  The neo-Nazis and the white supremacists are at the service of an ethic that has now been voted into place and which indeed hearkens back to an earlier era.  The American electorate has created the space, through the election of this administration, for these groups to do the dirty work of maintaining the very atmosphere which we breathe[1] – the implicit presumption of white supremacy which is at the foundation of the American idea. Continue reading “The Heart of Darkness: The Appeal of Donald Trump”