Real Presence as Opposed to Deferred Meaning

Japanese is a language suited to a people concerned to gauge response (agreement or disagreement), and aiming to gain consensus, in that the meaning of a sentence is not clear from the beginning or middle but only becomes clear at the end. The statement can be turned to a negation, a question, or the subject changed all-together according to the ending of the final word of the sentence. What might seem a bold declaration can be turned round, softened, or negated, depending on how it is being received. Jacques Derrida saw this deferral of meaning as characteristic of writing and language in general, so that the entire signifying chain holds out a meaning that is deferred so that the subject/Subject is continually being uncoiled in speech.

Just as in Japanese, faced with a run on sentence, the meaning or substance of speech is always in process but never arriving. Derrida tried to capture this in his neologism “différance,” in which the changed vowel cannot be detected from the way it sounds. What the added letter indicates is that language is built on difference: the different letters and contrasting sounds or the different meanings of words compared to other words creates meaning, so that it is only through contrast and difference that meaning unfolds along an endless signifying chain. To attach some substantive element, some final meaning, or some essence or presence to the Subject speaking due to his speech, contains the deception inherent to language.

An object endures through time due to its static nature, but language does not endure but rather passes away as soon as it arises. It has no enduring being. One who is coming to his identity in and through language is subject to the fate of language. Thus, what Derrida means by his new word concerns the death dealing nature of language: “The a of différance, thus, is not heard; it remains silent, secret and discreet as a tomb: oikesis.”[1] Tomb in Greek, oikesis, is akin to the Greek oikos (house) from which the word “economy” derives. Thus, to dwell in the house of language is to dwell in the house and economy of death. “And thereby let us anticipate the delineation of a site, the familial residence and tomb of the proper’ in which is produced, by différance, the economy of death.”[2] A Subject put into pursuit of an object, or identity as an object (the ego, or the notion of an enclosed self-subsistent center), through language is involved in an impossible contradiction.

Jacques Lacan would do for the human psyche what Derrida did for the text, finding there the pursuit of identity and presence through a three-sided play of language.  Following Freud, he finds in the compulsion to repeat a key to human self-destructiveness. Where Freud grounded the compulsion in a biological need to return to the stable material realm, Lacan explains the compulsion as arising from language and the struggle to establish the self in and through language. Lacan connects the compulsion to repeat to the ‘insistence of the signifier’ or the ‘insistence of the signifying chain’ or the insistence of the letter as a means to establish the self. To be present to the self or to have a self-presence gives rise to the compulsion to repeat so as to gain the self. He connects the compulsion to death in the “death drive” or “death instinct.”[3]

In the death drive one would be integrated into the signifying chain, converting the word into flesh (body and ego), simultaneously immortalizing the flesh through the word and its endless play. Thus, Lacan concludes the death instinct is “the mask of the symbolic order” of language (Seminar II, 326). The death instinct is the “insistence to be” through language.

Lacan, followed by Slavoj Žižek, considered his explanation of the human psyche as an extrapolation from the Apostle Paul. Paul is laying out this framework primarily in Romans, but is building upon the Hebrew Scriptures, dealing with the fall, with the law, and picturing both the human predicament and its resolution in Christ as arising from the economy described in Scripture. The knowledge of good and evil, the law, idolatry, or simply the “letter” in Paul’s depiction, kills. In the language of cabalists, Adam makes knowledge his own destiny and his own specific power.[4] So too with Paul, the law is not inherently deadly but the tendency is to reify it or make it substantive and by this means lend substance to the one who takes up the letter. The letter kills as no life or Spirit is to be found in the letter of the law.

Another approach to the same idea is to be found in the spectacle of the idol. The idol (the visual) is invested with substance through language. It is made a divine spectacle, not because the wood or metal from which it is crafted contains peculiar properties, but because it is invested with divine power through language.

A way of putting this that taps into the entire biblical economy is that God’s presence is displaced where the letter, where the knowledge of good and evil, or where the idol displaces that presence. That is, the economy of presence and absence which Derrida, Lacan, and Žižek, attached primarily to language is an economy that originally pertains to God’s presence. The letter kills as it cannot produce the presence which comes from God alone.   

In the economy of the Bible, the presence or absence of God is determinative of success or failure and is equated with life or death or truth and lies. From the opening verses of Genesis, God’s presence in the Garden represented by the Tree of Life, and by his walking in the Garden in the “cool of the day,” means all is well. With the entry of sin, access to God, to the Garden, and to the Tree of Life are cut off (Gen 3)

As the Psalmist indicates, “the nearness of God is my good” (Ps 73:28). God’s presence is equated with life and joy (Ps 16:11) and there is nothing better than to “dwell in the house of the Lord” and to behold his beauty and “meditate in His temple” (Ps 27:4). The presence of God is portrayed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as the equivalent of fulness of life and blessing. God assures Abraham, Moses, Jacob, and Israel in general that he will be with them, and so there is no cause for fear as they will endure and be successful. As God says to Moses, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest” (Ex 33:14).[5]

Likewise, salvation in the New Testament is equated with having access to the presence of God: “for through Him (Christ) we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph 2:18); “in whom we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him” (Eph 3:12). Partaking of the body of Christ (Luke 22:19-22), receiving the indwelling Spirit (Rom 8:9-11), entering the Holy of Holies (the very presence of God) (Heb. 10:19), and inhabiting the City of God, the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21) are all equated with salvation. This presence gives eternal life, peace, love, joy, hope, forgiveness, freedom from sin, and access to God in prayer.

However, what is meant by Christ’s or God’s presence, is not an instance of presence in general but it carries a peculiar and specific meaning in Scripture. The presence of God pertains to God’s indwelling and active presence, comingled with the person in whom this presence is manifest. The presence of God is equated with the Gospel, with grace and with truth. It is “constantly bearing fruit and increasing, even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth” (Col 1:6). This presence has obtained a hold on believers: “Therefore, I will always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them, and have been established in the truth which is present with you” (2 Pe 1:12). This presence is an ever-increasing reality culminating in the final presence or Parousia of Christ but present now in and through the believers: “For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming?” (1 Th 2:19). As the saints “increase and abound in love for one another” they are established “without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints” (1 Th 3:12–13). In and through his presence a process of sanctifying preservation is enacted which will be secured with the final Presence/Parousia: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th 5:23). There must be an active pursuit of this abiding presence: “abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming” (1 Jn 2:28).

God’s presence is not simply an effect of language, the absorption of or in an idea, or the repetition of a divine formula. Nor is God’s presence simply that God is nearby. God’s presence accomplishes what the failed pursuit of the letter attempts. The human word made flesh, ossifies, entombs, and kills while God’s Word made flesh brings about the comingling of the divine and human. In the same way that Jesus Christ is both God and man, so too those who take on his identity experience this hypostasis.

Maximus the Confessor’s description of the person of Christ describes the manner in which there is a real presence in the life of every believer:

He does the things of man,according to a supreme union involving no change, showing that the human energy is conjoined with the divine power, since the human nature, united without confusion to the divine nature, is completely penetrated by it, with absolutely no part of it remaining separate from the divinity to which it was united, having been assumed according to hypostasis. (Amb. 5.14)

He assumed our being that we might assume His, joining together His Spirit as the substance of our life and His body as our continued incarnation of the Word. Through this Word Christians “become partakers of the divine nature” (I Pet. 1:4) and escape the corruption of His absence.

(Sign up for our next class beginning January 30th: Philemon and Ephesians: Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Paul https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] Jacques Derrida, Différance, translated by Alan Bass, Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp 3-27.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The prime example of the drive to establish the self through language, inclusive of the deployment of language to establish being, and the impossibility of the enterprise is captured in Rene Descartes’s cogito.

[4] Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, Translated by Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993) 80.1.

[5] God’s presence is connected to the ark of the covenant, so that wherever the ark goes God is present, as in aiding in the defeat of an enemy (I Sam. 4:6-7). The particulars of how his presence manifests varies. “He can come in dreams (Gn. 20:3; 28:13), in more or less veiled theophanies (Gn. 18:1 ff.; 32:25 ff.; Ex. 3:2 ff.; 24:10 ff.; 34:6 ff.; Ps. 50:3), in the cloud . . . in visions at the calling of the prophets (Is. 6:1 ff.; Jer. 1:4 ff.; Ez. 1:4 ff.), in the storm, in the quiet breath (1 K. 19:12 f.), in His Spirit (Nu. 24:2: Ju. 3:10; 11:29; 1 S. 11:6; 19:20), with His hand (1 K. 18:46), in His Word (Nu. 22:9; 2 S. 7:4; 1 K. 17:2 etc.). The messiah is expected to come in history Oepke, A. (1964–). παρουσία, πάρειμι. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 5, p. 861). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Cunningham, 9.

[3] Cunningham, 31.

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

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

[6] Cunningham, 31.

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

[8] Wood, 95.

[9] Wood, 30.

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

Have a Maximian Christmas: The Contrast of Total Darkness and Total Light

As we pass through advent, this waiting period brings two perspectives into contrast. The forces of Rome, the forces of darkness, the forces of poverty, close in on Joseph and Mary as pregnant Mary is forced to travel, and they find only animal accommodations. This period is representative of the long darkness, which may seem endless. The dark night before Christmas is representative of a long history in which a dark perspective prevails, but this nihilistic view is one that can grip us at any time. As Shakespeare’s Macbeth expresses it, after murdering and manipulating his way into power:

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle. 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 the writer of Ecclesiastes describes it, the matter is not simply belief or lack of belief in God, as this belief alone still abandons one to the vanity of life:

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them; While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain: In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened, And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low; Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets: Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.  (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8)

William James puts the same sentiment in the modern scientific idiom:

Though the scientist may individually nourish a religion and be a theist in his irresponsible hours, the days are over when it could be said that for Science herself the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Our solar system, with its harmonies, is seen now as but one passing case of a certain sort of moving equilibrium in the heavens, realized by a local accident in an appalling wilderness of worlds where no life can exist. In a span of time which as a cosmic interval will count as but an hour, it will have ceased to be. The Darwinian notion of chance production, and subsequent destruction, speedy or deferred, applies to the largest as well as the smallest facts. It is impossible, in the present temper of the scientific imagination, to find in the drifting of the cosmic atoms, whether they work on the universal or on the particular scale, anything but a kind of aimless weather, doing and undoing, achieving no proper history, and leaving no result. Nature has no one distinguishable ultimate tendency with which it is possible to feel a sympathy. In the vast rhythm of her processes, as the scientific mind now follows them, she appears to cancel herself. The bubbles on the foam which coats a stormy sea are floating episodes, made and unmade by the forces of the wind and water. Our private selves are like those bubbles … their destinies weigh nothing and determine nothing in the world’s irremedial currents of events.”[1]

Both Koheleth and James share the perspective, which goes unrelieved by belief in God, that death and chance happen to all. Better a living dog than a dead lion (Ec. 9:4): “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun” (Ec. 9:5-6). It is not simply that hope for life beyond the grave will relieve the burden, as every indication (experiential, scientific, observational) is that life reduces to meaninglessness.  Maybe there are clear moments when the heavens do indeed seem to declare the glory of God, but what may go unacknowledged for believer and unbeliever alike, is the fear that it all amounts to a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Is the believer or even the optimistic humanist, grasping after the delusion of meaning, as the alternative is unbearable. Isn’t Nietzsche correct, that a hard-boiled honesty, in the face of the darkness, is most difficult and yet most necessary. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he insists “nothing today is more precious to me and rarer than honesty.”[2] Nietzsche recognizes our capacity for self-deception – our “will to truth” – may be nothing more than a means of escape given our proneness to self-protective delusion. If honesty and truth go hand in hand, as it seems they must, it may be that an understanding of the perspective of Koheleth, William James, and McBeth precedes a full appreciation not only of the constitution of the darkness but the nature of the light.

That is, the birth of Christ (the incarnation) can be made to fit too small of a notion, in which he does not so much change up our reality as give hope of deliverance from our perception of reality. In this tepid notion of reality and religion, the full depth of the problem of the human dilemma is not appreciated, and as a result the radical nature of the incarnation is not realized. Jesus, as I have been arguing for the last few blogs, can be made to fit a ready-made frame of truth (e.g., Constantinianism, Neo-Platonism, nominalism, nationalism, or most simply, some form of dualism). A dualism of heaven and earth or body and soul can easily accommodate, through a form of denial, the darkness which accompanies full recognition of the star of Bethlehem. Christ may be misrecognized as a mere sacrifice, as an emergency measure, as a legal remedy, as an appeaser of divine anger, but what goes unrecognized is that God come to earth in Christ is not simply dispelling a problem, ridding us of a potential future darkness, but is encompassing all creation in who he is.

Incarnation is theosis enacted. There is a union between God and world in which God has eternally attached who he is to what we are and what we are has become part of who he is. We might think of it as an innovation, but it is not an innovation that violates the true nature of the world and ourselves, but there is now a reality opened up which exceeds human possibility. The world understood through the limits of its own laws explains the darkness of Koheleth and James, but in Christ the world is no longer understood as existing according to the limits of this immanent frame.

The laws and principles of nature are not violated (“nature is preserved inviolate”) but there is an innovation in which God’s power and wonder are directly manifest: “When, however, the mode is innovated—so that the principle of nature is preserved inviolate—it manifests a wondrous power, for it displays nature being acted on and acting outside the limits of its own laws” (Amb. 42.26).[3] The innovation of Christ does not change natural principles but he opens up the possibility and reality of these principles, acting in and upon nature in a new way. His divine mode of being is united with the principle of human nature, such that the ongoing existence of human nature is conjoined to the newness of his transcendent mode of being. In him, according to P. Sherwood, “the [human]nature and will are wholly divinized, not as to their nature, which re-main ever human, but according to the mode of their existence [which is divine]. This is the mystery of Christ.” [4]

Christ is acting in a manner beyond human nature, so as to demonstrate the union of the divine and human. Where God might be consigned to a kind of negative transcendence (unknown and unknowable), Jesus assumed our being and “joined together the transcendent negation with the affirmation of our nature and its natural properties, and so became man, having united His transcendent mode of existence with the principle of His human nature, so that the ongoing existence of that nature might be confirmed by the newness of the mode of existence” (Amb. 5.14). God is bodied forth in the world, accomplishing in the mystery of his embodiment a filling out of who is for the world and a completion of what the world is for him. This reveals the nature of the world and the nature of who God is. God and world, creator and creation, human and divine, are conjoined in Jesus.  

What we see in the birth of Jesus is that the created order continues: birth, life, death, and evil, account for the natural reality Jesus experienced. At the same time the natural is taken up by and in the supernatural.  Jesus is fully human and even in the midst of walking on water, curing the blind, cleansing the leper, and raising the dead, the natural order continues, but the supernatural now interacts, takes up, innovates, and makes something new of the natural. A virgin gives birth, a dead man is raised, and the grave – the natural end of man – is emptied of its contents. The created and uncreated are unified in Jesus and this is now who and what they are:

For there is nothing more unified than He, who is truly one, and apart from Him there is nothing more completely unifying or preserving of what is properly His own. Thus, even when He suffered, He was truly God, and when He worked miracles the same one was truly man, for He was the true hypostasis of true natures united in an ineffable union.

(Amb. 4:8).

The miraculous birth of Jesus marks the incarnation, a new stage in the relation of God to the world. It is not that either the divine or human become something different or something other than what they are, but the way things are – not in their being but in their mode of existence are transformed. It is not that God’s purposes have been changed, but vision is no longer constricted by the darkness. The ground and goal of creation found in Jesus Christ is nothing less than the union of God and the world (an impossibility according to Platonic, Aristotelian, or natural principles). The ground and goal are not those found in creation, but what is found in the incarnation. Jesus, as Paul says, is the first fruits (I Cor. 15:20-22), the firstborn of a new sort of humanity (Col. 1:11), that duplicates the divine image in the human. In Jesus we see the new mode for humanity, no longer enslaved to the laws of nature.

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)

The world and its principles cannot contain the principle that “showed up in Mary’s belly.”[5] Given this world’s laws as final explanation the darkness prevails – this is the honest conclusion. Given the reality of the incarnation, the world is not all “sound and fury,” a vanity signifying nothing, and humanity is not a momentary bubble cast up by the sea of nature. The world is imbued and being imbued with the qualities of Christ and we are part of accomplishing this yielding to what is better – the dark world made luminous as it is mixed with the light.


[1] William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, quoted from a sermon by Stanley Hauerwas: “Advent — facing God in the face of nothingness”: https://www.abc.net.au/religion/hauerwas-advent-facing-god-in-face-of-nothingness/14119072?fbclid=IwAR0qLzOdP_YLkYVwf3WN1ul2IBbL8da9uQxNrQF2IBQIOXUaUP8E-nqbz0s

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, (tr.) W. Kaufmann (New York: Penguin, 1954) 8.

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

[4] P. Sherwood, The Earlier “Ambigua” of Saint Maximus the Confessor and His Refutation of Origenism, Rome 1955, 57-58.

[5] The phrase is from Hauerwas in the above cited sermon.

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 Contrast Between Luther and Maximus

There is a move among Finnish and Scandinavian theologians in general to draw parallels between the theology of Martin Luther and Maximus the Confessor. While such parallels are interesting, it might be more interesting and necessary to first state the obvious differences.

Maximus and Luther are working with two different notions of salvation and atonement, with Luther more focused on the individual and Maximus on cosmic salvation (see my blog explaining Maximus here). Luther holds to an Augustinian notion of original sin and his theology is slanted if not defined by his focus on forensics.

Is his focus on forensics or on law versus grace definitive of his theology, such that there is no ontological understanding or access to divine essence? One might argue the point, but this is not an uncommon conclusion about his theology, which stands in contrast to Maximus picture of access to the divine essence in creation and incarnation. Is imputed righteousness characteristic of Luther’s theology, such that it all is defined in legal or theoretical terms? Some Lutherans might argue otherwise and this may not be fair to the fulness of his theology, and there are those (such as the Finnish theologians) who argue Luther had his own notion of apocatastasis, but what can be said is that Calvin comes in the wake of Luther and Calvin’s theology is forensic (and Luther’s is commonly perceived as being of a similar order). On the other hand, Maximus follows Origen and the early church in his depiction of theosis (perhaps not entirely absent in Luther) – bringing to maturity in the second Adam the race of the first Adam through divinization. Maximus sees this as a present reality unfolding toward the eschaton.

 Luther’s theory of the two kingdoms allows for full participation of the Christian in the necessities of state violence, including the violent suppression of peasants, Jews, and heretics. The peace of Maximus, the enacted theosis in the life of the believer, the cosmic context of virtue grounded in the incarnation of Christ, stands in contrast to Luther’s picture of the Christian life as an unending (violent?) struggle with sin.

Maximus’ picture of salvation is holistic and unified (grounded as it is in the reality of the Trinity) while Luther depicts a split individual struggling with sin, living in two different kingdoms, such that the spiritual and hidden kingdom of God momentarily serves the immediate and practical necessities of the earthly kingdom, allowing this ethic to dictate the lived Christian ethic. Luther affirms the necessity of violence and maintains that people of faith are to be the instruments of violence. After all, “The deviancy of some would call down punishment on all. At a certain point, God even owes it to himself, as it were, to his honour, we might say, to strike.”[1]

Luther tended to demonize his enemies with a violent and abusive rhetoric (which is not to ignore that he often spoke of love), and there is no question that his antisemitism is imbibed by the creators of the Holocaust. Maximus depicts salvation as the destruction of death, and this is the resource and reality out of which the Christian is to live. Monk Maximus would die at the hands of the state and it is not entirely implausible that, given the right circumstance, the ex-Monk Luther might have approved.

But this cursory list of contrasts does not get at the world of difference between Maximus notion that creation is incarnation and Luther’s semi-nominalism. For Luther, God, in his essence is hidden from us, and we do not live with the resource of access to the immanent Trinity. For Maximus, God is revealed in Christ and this is the truth not only of salvation but of the purposes of creation. Luther’s theology lays the groundwork for modernity[2] while Maximus’ theology is the culmination of a premodern theology, pointing toward a very different sort of world order. The enchantment of the world in light of Maximus’ Christo-logic (which is not any old sort of enchantment or magic) and the disenchantment of the world in light of Luther’s direct attack on indulgences and magic, and the secularism implicit in Luther’s thought and theology gets at the fundamental difference. And of course, this is not to attribute (blame/credit) all of secularism to Luther, but again, his theology seems to have enabled secular developments.[3]

As Charles Taylor describes it, Luther reversed the fear factor in his attack on indulgences and on the magic the church could enact (a needed disenchantment):

A great deal of Catholic preaching on sin and repentance was based on the principle that the ordinary person was so insensitive that they had to be terrified into responding. . .. But just this cranking up of fear may have helped to prepare people to respond to Luther’s reversal of the field.[4]

We can locate Luther within the context of nominalism – as nominalism defines both what he is for and what he is against and it is in a nominalist context that he makes these arguments. The father of nominalism, the way of the modern (via moderna), William of Ockham (1287-1347), denied the existence of universals (nominalism indicates we have only the names), which was an underlying foundation for Thomas (1225-1274) and Scotus (1266-1308). Consequently, Ockham would stress the importance of the will (God’s and man’s) over and above the intellect.[5] Luther will challenge the role of human will, attacking what he sees as semi-Pelagianism.

Luther believes that God’s absolute power renders the efficacy of the human will entirely useless. Or in terms of human understanding, it is not as if God can be aligned with the good (as we know it) as God is determinative of the good and so the good must be aligned with the (arbitrary?) will of God.

As Luther states it in the 19th Thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation: “Anyone who observes the invisible things of God, understood through those things that are created, does not deserve to be called a theologian.” God is not grasped through the being of the world (against the scholastics) but God comes to us only on the basis of promise or covenant, and this does not pertain to His essence or the essence of the world. As Taylor puts it, “God must always remain free to determine what is good. The good is whatever God wills; not God must will whatever is (determined by nature as) good. This was the most powerful motive to reject the “realism” of essences for Occam and his followers.”[6]

This sets up a peculiar Lutheran dialectic, in which faith stands over and against reason or in which the theology of glory is opposed to the theology of the cross. The theology of glory clings to works-righteousness while the theology of the cross is dependent on faith alone. Likewise, grace stands over and against law, yet grace needs the law that it might be understood to be a gift and not an accomplishment of the law. If the law “serves no other purpose than to create a thirst and to frighten the heart,” the gospel “satisfies the thirst, makes us cheerful, and revives and consoles the conscience.”[7] The “presumption of righteousness is a huge and a horrible monster. To break and crush it, God needs a large and powerful hammer, that is, the Law, which is the hammer of death, the thunder of hell, and the lightning of divine wrath” (26.310).[8] The greater the paradox, conflict, and struggle, all the better:

“All the works of God are in conflict with His promise, which nevertheless remains completely true and unshaken. . . . The marvelous counsels of God in governing His saints must be learned, and the hearts of the godly must become accustomed to them. When you have a promise of God, it will happen that the more you are loved by God, the more you will have it hidden, delayed, and turned into its opposite” (4.326).

As David Tracy describes it, “Luther’s notion of dialectic … is structured as a conflict of opposites that not only clash but imply and need each other.”[9] The dialectic, like any dialectic refers only to itself, so that what is known pertains not to any necessarily existing reality but to the language of dialectic.

God has his own autonomous purposes which are beyond human comprehension, but what can be known is what God has promised. For Luther, God is the cause of all things, while the human remains a passive recipient of God’s action. There is no free will for man in Luther’s estimation: “We do everything of necessity, and nothing by ‘free-will’; for the power of ‘free-will’ is nil, and it does no good, nor can do, without grace.”[10] According to Roland Millard, for Luther, “The sovereignty of God’s will necessarily excludes any causality on the part of the human person.”[11] Where Maximus describes a synergistic working of human will with the will of God, for Luther human will stands over and against the will of God.

In this understanding, Scripture no longer pertains to ontological necessity but to covenantal promise. Scripture is proclamation and promise so that rather than salvation history or ontological realism, for Luther the Word is a promise. The Word is the means by which God condemns sin and promises salvation (the law and the gospel). But this promise is had, not through the achievement of a real-world defeat of sin, but only on the basis of promise: “Sin is always present, and the godly feel it. But it is ignored and hidden in the sight of God, because Christ the Mediator stands between” (26.133). It is not that sin and the law are ever suspended or surpassed: “There is a time for ‘killing’ the flesh through the law, and a time for reviving the spirit through the gospel. Complacency and self-righteousness require the former, fear and despair the latter. The one ‘who masters the art of exact distinction between the Law and the Gospel should be called a real theologian’ (23.271; cf. 26.115).[12] Though Luther finds the Gospel partly revealed in the Old Testament and he finds the Law mixed in with the New Testament, his primary point is that the Law of the Old Testament stands over and against the Gospel of the New Testament.

Maximus notion of free will, his picture of the whole Bible and the whole world proclaiming the Gospel seems contrary to Luther’s sharp divide between Law and Gospel and between creation and Creator. Whether one agrees with the cosmic (universal) salvation of Maximus and his peculiar Christo-logic, or whether one prefers Luther’s faith alone and imputed righteousness, it would be a mistake to blend these two contrasting worlds without noting their stark difference. The two contrasting orders of salvation, revelation, and the God/world relation in Maximus and Luther represent two very different conceptions of Christianity and the world.


[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007) 42. An understanding Taylor links to Luther.

[2] By the same token, we might sight the history of modern Western philosophy as in some sense flowing from within the wake of Lutheranism. Is the dualism of Descartes (between faith and reason), or Kant’s split between the noumena and the phenomena (and the eventual turn to phenomenology), far removed from Luther’s two kingdoms and his interiorized Christianity? In fact, faith alone (sola fide) does not seem too far removed from German idealism. Luther’s focus on a groundless Word (not grounded in metaphysics) will come to resemble phenomenology and the linguistic turn in philosophy and society. While it is too simplistic to chalk this up to Luther, it is doubtful it could have happened apart from the Reformation instigated by Luther.

[3] At least this is the argument of Charles Taylor.

[4] Taylor, 75.

[5] Roland Millare, “The Nominalist Justification for Luther’s Sacramental Theology” (Antiphon 17.2 (2013)) 169-170.

[6] Taylor, 97.

[7] Luther’s Works Volume 23, p. 272 hereafter cited by volume and page.

[8] Stephen and Martin Westerholm, Reading Sacred Scripture: Voices from the History of Biblical Interpretation (p. 233). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[9] D. Tracy, ‘Martin Luther’s Deus Theologicus’ in P. J. Malysz and D. R. Nelson, eds, Luther Refracted (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2015): 109. Quoted in Mark Norman, “Luther, Heidegger and the Hiddenness of God” Tyndale Bulletin 70.2 (2019) 302.

[10] Luther, Bondage of the Will, 180.

[11] Millare, 172

[12] Westerholms, 234.

The Peaceful Hermeneutic of Origen: The End of Deicide

In the ninth century, the Buddhist sage Linji Yixuan told a monk, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Locating the quote in the Zen tradition and its complete detachment from the historical Buddha may be pertinent, in that an embodied Buddha goes against the tenets of the religion. Modern Western Buddhists give a benign reading to the quote such as, don’t assume you have the answers or always be willing to question your assumptions. Maybe the point is not to settle on any sure propositions especially as they might be attached to an actual fleshly historical figure. Maximus the Confessor notes that the best of human thought, which he located in the Greek philosophical tradition, ends in deicide. The murder of the Messiah is the end result of all sorts of forces, but what Maximus has in mind is what the earliest church fathers noticed, even given the Bible, given Jesus, given Christian history, given the church, without the gospel as starting premise the human tendency is to obliterate faith in a God who has come in the flesh. The most destructive elements to the early Church were not those who were seeking to literally kill and destroy Christians but those who became Christians.

Origen, who writes the first text on how to read the Bible, is faced with three kinds of false teaching: the simple (who believe God is corporeal), the Marcionites (who believe in two Gods – the Old Testament Jewish God and the Father of Christ) and the Jews, and all of them are eagerly reading the Bible with a literal hermeneutic, counter to the reality of the incarnation. Origen’s task in On First Principles is nothing short of setting forth an alternative or new understanding of God, humans, and the world, in the principle or rule which will guide Bible reading. Only in the incarnation will the seeming dualisms and contradictions in the world, in Scripture, and in humanity find a unifying principle. He insists, according to M. F. Wiles, on “the absolute unity of the message of Scripture from beginning to end.”[1] As Barbara Bruce puts it, “The one God was revealed in both Testaments, and a peacemaker was the person who could demonstrate the concord and peace of the Old Testament with the New.”[2]

Origen’s peaceful hermeneutic strategy is most clear in his reading of Joshua. Israel (of the flesh) is typical of those with a literal hermeneutic and a literal view of the world in that reading a book like Joshua she “understood nothing in them except wars and the shedding of blood,” and as a result was “incited to excessive savageries” and was “always fed by wars and strife.” Here Origen spells out his hermeneutic strategy, which applies to his overall reading of Scripture: “But after the presence of my Lord Jesus Christ poured the peaceful light of knowledge into human hearts, since, according to the Apostle, he himself is ‘our peace,’ he teaches us peace from this very reading of wars. For peace is returned to the soul if its own enemies—sins and vices—are expelled from it.” Reading “according to the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ” serves to equip for battle, not according to the flesh, but against the spiritual enemies that “proceed from our heart” namely, “evil thoughts, thefts, false testimony, slanders,” and other enemies of “our soul.” [3] Origen is describing the powers that rule the world and the human heart and the means of defeating them, namely through a proper hermeneutic. He describes this spiritual reading as enabling the life-giving breath of the Spirit to be imparted to us.

This peaceable new life is built on his notion that the incarnation demands a new understanding of reality, and this serves the new hermeneutic. Scripture as an extension of incarnation constitutes Bible reading as the most essential sacrament.[4] “As the people listened to Scripture, letting the words penetrate their minds, they were partaking of the body of Christ. Even as they were careful during the Eucharist celebration not to let one particle of bread drop to the ground, so also must they reverently attend to the Word.”[5]

Origen is forced by the heretical circumstance to drop his own biblical exposition so as to undertake the first manual on biblical hermeneutics, and the place he begins pertains to the broadest assumptions about God and the world revealed in the Trinity and incarnation. His first principles are not first because they are easy but because apart from these principles the Christian religion is being completely misconstrued.

Origen’s peaceable hermeneutic is not only aimed at harmonizing antagonisms in conceptions of God and scripture, as his larger concern is to create disciples who will prove to be true witnesses (martyrs to peace over and against the violence that would kill them). Just as he sees Bible reading in light of the broadest of perspectives, he also understands that only those who are grounded in the truth will prove true in death. He wants to create those who can endure the violence of persecution without themselves giving in to violence. There is no Word apart from the historical incarnation and apart from those who would continue the incarnation, specifically through martyrdom.

Origen’s father had been martyred and only his mother’s hiding his clothes prevented young Origen from joining his father. As Eusebius tells the story:

When Severus began to persecute the churches, glorious testimonies were given everywhere by the athletes of religion. This was especially the case in Alexandria, to which city, as to a most prominent theater, athletes of God were brought from Egypt and all Thebais according to their merit, and won crowns from God through their great patience under many tortures and every mode of death. Among these was Leonides, who was called the father of Origen, and who was beheaded while his son was still young.[6]

Torture and death called for preparation on the order of an athlete preparing to win a contest. Eusebius tells of Origen writing “to his father an encouraging letter on martyrdom, in which he exhorted him, saying, ‘Take heed not to change your mind on our account.’” [7] This letter is the earliest record of his vast writing project which would only come to an end with his own torture and death.

From the age of 18, when Origen was selected to train catechumens, he understood his task was to prepare his charges for martyrdom. Eusebius gives the account of seven of Origen’s students, who in quick succession, were tortured and martyred. One of his outstanding student martyrs was Potamiæna, who had burning pitch poured over “various part of her body, from the sole of her feet to the crown of her head.” Not long after the officer overseeing her death, moved by her manner of death, converted and was also martyred.

As Eusebius describes Origen’s end, he suffered “bonds and bodily tortures and torments under the iron collar and in the dungeon; and how for many days with his feet stretched four spaces in the stocks he bore patiently the threats of fire and whatever other things were inflicted by his enemies.” The goal was not to kill him immediately but to make him suffer, but not long after, he died as a result of the tortures. As Eusebius records, “what words he left after these things, full of comfort to those needing aid, a great many of his epistles show with truth and accuracy.”[8] In other words, his is the writing of a martyr for martyrs, in order to prepare for and live out a life of defeating death, and his life proved true in death.

The pattern Christians are emulating, reenacting, or repeating is that of Christ, tortured and crucified, but defeating those who killed him both in the manner of his death and in his defeat of death. The martyr faces the principalities and powers in a hermeneutical contest in which two realms of truth or two powers are pitted in a life and death struggle in which life and death are the two powers, the two principles, or the two forms of thought. The state proves its power and truth in displaying the crucified, broken, naked, terrorized, body of Christ and his followers. The human body marks the site in which the social body, the political body, or the religious body, impresses its truth. Torture and death are a means of establishing a regime of truth and this is why the martyr is the witness to a counter truth.

As Paul Kolbert writes, torture poses a potential hermeneutical crisis that does not differ much “from the hermeneutical challenges of everyday life.”[9] In Origen’s description, the common passions of life, avarice for example, can breed an exponential desire for money such that one begins to acquire money through force and shedding human blood. This everyday “hermeneutical failure” demonstrates how an inward greed can become an outward violence such that a natural desire becomes “full blown demonic theater.”[10]

In the exegetical strategy of the state, the tortured, maimed, and killed are a sign (a letter) of the final power, the sovereign power of Rome in this case, which proves its final and all-powerful word in the flesh of its victims. The tortured are non-persons, non-citizens, so many lice (in Nazi hermeneutics) who, in their humiliation and otherness, mark the personhood and power of those who exercise power over them. The cross, or the instrument of torture, is the clearest demarcation of two regimes of truth (those who crucify and those crucified).

Origen explains to Ambrose, preparing for his martyrdom, that he must first undergo an inner martyrdom so that when it came to being tortured, he would not defile himself with any untoward word or thought toward his torturers and should in no way be diverted from devotion to God. He must willingly and without anger confess his faith so as to bring the rage of his torturer into contrast with his own tranquility. But to do this he must first ground himself in the Word.[11]

There are two systems on each side of the cross, and Origen understood his task as one of filling out the alternative to violence by bodying forth or enfleshing the alternative in the manner of Christ. As Kolbert puts it, “Origen’s intensely Christian and intellectual response to state-sponsored terror resists the Roman state’s efforts to impose its own violent discipline on bodies through a voluntary, nonviolent discipline, a counter-asceticism that not only opposes the Empire’s interpretation of the world, but also embodies an alternative to it.”[12]

Just as the literalist disfigures the body of the biblical text, in the same mode the torturer would disfigure the flesh in service of violence. What arises in the body of Christ is an alternative meaning attached to bodies and to the letter: an opening to the Spirit. As Origen describes it, reading the Bible rightly, according to the flesh, soul, and spirit includes a right understanding of God, a right understanding of the world, and only with this understanding can one endure torture. Reading by the Spirit, or a figural reading “is a means of freeing knowledge from its cultural captivity to power.” Reading Scripture rightly, is a “spiritual exercise through which readers cultivate a nonviolent hermeneutic, one that embraces the broader signification of material figures (both in Scripture and in the rest of the human world) rather than violently disfiguring them.”[13]

 According to Origen, Christ in his silence “under the scourge and many other outrages” manifested “a courage and patience superior to that of any of the Greeks who spoke while enduring torture.” When Jesus “was being mocked and was clothed in a purple robe, and the crown of thorns was put on his head, and when he took the reed in his hand for a scepter, he showed the highest meekness. For he said nothing either ignoble or angry to those who ventured to do such terrible things to him.”[14] Origen’s comparison pictures a test of two world systems, and Christ’s nonviolent response is the sign of an alternative, peaceful, understanding to be embodied in the church and its hermeneutic.

(To register for our next class with PBI, “Reading the Bible in Community” starting the week of September 26th and running through November 18th register at https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] M. F. Wiles, “Origen as a Biblical Scholar,” The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 1, ed. P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans (Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 454–89. Quoted in Origen, Homilies on Joshua, trans. and intro Barbara J. Bruce (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002) 7.

[2] Bruce, Ibid.

[3] Origen, Homilies on Joshua, 14.1.

[4] Henri Crouzel, “Origen and Origenism,” The New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 10 (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967), p. 771. Quoted in Bruce, 6.

[5] Bruce, Ibid.

[6] Eusebius, Church History,  6.1–2

[7] Ibid, 6.2.

[8] Ibid, 6.39.

[9] Paul R. Kolbet, “Torture and Origen’s Hermeneutics of Nonviolence” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, September 2008, Vol. 76, No. 3, p. 552.

[10] Kolbert, 554.

[11] Origen, Exhortatio ad martyrium (Koetschau et al. [1899–1955]: 2.3–47); trans. Greer (1979: 41–79). Quoted from Kolbet, 554.

[12] Kolbert, 552.

[13] Kolbert, 562

[14] Origen, Against Celsus, 7.55.

“You are Gods”: According to Maximus the Confessor

In that Maximus is explaining Gregory the Theologian and referencing Origen and going beyond him, and accounting for the New Testament picture of the person of Christ (and refuting the Neo-Platonism of his day along the way), to summarize Maximus comes close to a summation of the view of the early church. Maximus provides an unparalleled explanation, not only of Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 82:6, but of the New Testament picture of Christ being “all in all” or the summation and goal of creation (so that creation and incarnation are mutually implied). On the other hand, to try to fit Maximus to some other frame is to miss the peculiarly Christian nature of his explanation. He makes constant appeal to the incarnation as the singular case for understanding the God/human relationship and Christian salvation. He is well versed in Platonism and Neo-Platonism and is precisely not a Platonist or Neo-Platonist but shows the inadequacies of Greek philosophy.[1] He is coloring in the lines set out by Chalcedon but Chalcedon, at least compared to Maximus, is more of a warning than explanation. The fact that his tongue is torn out, his right hand cut off, and that he is sent into exile points, not to his heterodoxy, but to the thin thread of orthodoxy in the East.

My minimalist picture of Jesus’ quotation and deployment of Psalm 82:6 (in the previous blog here) sets the parameters for the more fulsome explanation of Maximus. The picture in Peter, in the Psalms, and that given by Jesus, is that humans were made, as Peter says to “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). As Jesus says about himself, “I am the Son of God” (John 10:36) and in some fashion he extends his status to all humankind through quoting (Ps. 82:6), “You are gods.” In short, the New Testament teaches that humankind was made for union with God.[2] Maximus builds upon this conclusion and draws out its implications.

The focus of his work, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers (or The Ambigua) is, according to his translator, “unified around the experience of divinization, which Maximos characterizes as the deepest longing of the saints, the desire of human nature for assimilation to God, and the yearning of the creature to be wholly contained within the Creator.”[3]

Maximus takes up the specific notion and quotation, “you are gods,” in explaining Gregory’s oration on Paul’s being caught up into the third heaven: “Had Paul been able to express the experience gained from the third heaven, and his progress, or ascent, or assumption.”[4] Maximus explains that there are three ways of understanding the fact that some human person might be designated “God.” This might name a condition, an essence, or a grace. “Man” names an essence, while “wicked” or “foolish” name a condition, while “a name indicative of grace is when man, who has been obedient to God in all things is named ‘God’ in the Scriptures, as in the phrase, I said, you are Gods, for it is not by nature or condition that he has become and is called ‘God,’ but he has become God and is so named by placement and grace.”[5] This “grace of divinization” is not conditioned by anything preceding it as it is “completely unconditioned.” It does not refer to a faculty or capacity within the natural essence of man, as then it would no longer be grace.

Maximus thinks the word “assumption” best fits the estate achieved by Paul. It is a passive term and “not something that the apostle accomplished, but rather experienced.” Assumption takes into account both the passive quality but “the activity of the one who assumes” in that “the apostle left behind the names and qualities that had properly been his, for he transcended human nature virtue and knowledge.” And in this way “the name of God, which formerly stood at an infinite distance from him, he came to share by grace, becoming and being called God, in place of any other natural or conditional name that he had prior to his assumption.”[6] Grace does not work by nature or condition, as God himself sets the terms and condition: God is the condition.

I was reminded here and found helpful Barth’s picture of revelation (which I have written on here). God as Revealer, Revelation and Revealedness is not conditioned upon something else. God is the one who reveals, and he is the content of this revelation, and is the means of this revelation being received. But what Barth misses and Maximus takes into account is the link between redemption and creation. Divinization not only conditions revelation and redemption but describes creation’s logic and purpose. That is, in describing the Logos, Maximus is describing the logic of creation as well as of redemption.

The patristic understanding which Maximus assumes, that the Logos is the incarnate and not the preincarnate Christ, serves as his description of the Logic of creation: “for it is owing to Him that all things exist and remain in existence, and it is from Him that all things came to be in a certain way, and for a certain reason, and (whether they are stationary or in motion) participate in God.”[7] This Logos which stands behind creation’s purpose is the embodied Word: “For the Logos of God (who is God) wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of His embodiment.”[8] The mystery of his embodiment is the abiding reason and explanation to be found throughout the created order.

Though the quote above uses the phrase “participate in God,” Maximus immediately turns, not to Plato or Aristotle but to the incarnate Christ, to explain this participation. The insight of Jordan Daniel Wood, is that participation, as it is understood in Plato or Neo-Platonism, does not go far enough: “The problem arises when we imagine that participation exhausts the God-world relation. More than anyone, Maximus challenges this assumption precisely because he always discovers that the contours of the cosmos are those of Christ.” As Maximus puts it (above), “the Logos of God wills always and all things to accomplish the mystery of His embodiment.” Creation is itself an outworking of the incarnation, and as Wood puts it, “Maximus’s proper Christology really is his metaphysics or cosmology.” In other words, Christ is “the paradigm of creation” and “the perfect microcosm of the world.” Wood raises the question: “does participation describe the peculiar logic of the Incarnate Word?” He answers with a blunt, “No.”[9]

The danger is to imagine we might plug Maximus into some logic (such as Neo-Platonism) other than the specific and unique logic of the incarnation, which for him accounts for all of creation. Creation does not account for itself “naturally” but calls for the supernatural as both logic and end. The logic of Christ is its own logic and Maximus has no concern to relate it to anything else. In fact, quite the opposite: he is concerned to show that it is unrelated to any other account of knowing.

He lays out the parameters of “natural thought” and its end. “Natural intellectual motion,” as he explains, “has its relation to all relative objects of thought” but this eventually leaves one “with nothing left to think about, having thought through everything that is naturally thinkable.” Natural thought does not arrive at God through some natural given, only God himself provides the condition or experience for knowing him. As in Barth’s formula, so with Maximus, “God is not an object of knowledge or predication” such that he is grasped like other objects of knowledge, “but rather (he is grasped) according to simple union, unconditioned and beyond all thought.” He is knowing and the effect of knowing and the progress of knowing. “God made Him our wisdom, our righteousness, our holiness, and our redemption. These things are of course said about Him in an absolute sense, for He is Wisdom and Righteousness and Sanctification itself, and not in some limited sense, as is the case with human beings.”[10] Or as in Barth, God is the subject, object, and predicate of his revealing which, according to Maximus provide for being known “on the basis of a certain unutterable and indefinable principle” known “only to the One who grants this ineffable grace to the worthy.”[11]

The alternative is not nature, but what is “contrary” to grace in that it is attached to a “disposition” in those set “on a course to nonexistence, and who by their mode of life have reduced themselves to virtual nothingness.”[12] This is not to pit nature against grace, on the order of a two-tiered Thomism or pure nature before its time, as Maximus leaves nature intact but it is a nature which is properly itself only when imbued with grace.

The beginning and end of man consists of a cultivation of the seed of the Good. Man, from his beginning, “received being and participation in what is naturally good, and it is by conforming to the beginning that he received being and participation in what is naturally good, and it is by conforming to this beginning through the inclination of his will and by free choice, that he hastens to the end.” The origin and end cohere in one guided by the Word. “Having completed his course, such a person becomes God, receiving from God to be God, for to the beautiful nature inherent in the fact that he is God’s image, he freely chooses to add the likeness to God by means of the virtues, in a natural movement of ascent through which he grows in conformity to his own beginning.”[13] Created in the divine image man returns to this origin by adding the likeness through his own life course. This can be termed a “natural movement of ascent” as he grows in conformity to the nature in which he was created. Grace can be resisted or obstructed, but this has nothing to do with a pure nature but simply describes one bent toward nothingness.

Man owes his existence directly to God and he can be said to be a “portion of God” insofar as he exists, “for he owes his existence to the logos of being that is in God” insofar as he is good as “he owes his goodness to the logos of wellbeing that is in God; and he is a “portion of God” insofar as he is God, owing to the logos of his eternal being.” Maximus describes this in terms of a true ipseity, which he pits against false notions of movement and impassibility (as in Plato and Aristotle). “In this life he has already become one with himself and immovable, owing to his state of supreme impassibility” and in the life to come in an ongoing divinization “he will love and cleave affectionately to God Himself, in whom the logoi of beautiful things are steadfastly fixed.”[14] He arrives at his beginning and end and is fixed in his totality in the totality of God and is rightly called God in this divinization.


[1] Jordan Daniel Wood has laid to rest the notion that participation, in the Greek sense, adequately encompasses Maximus understanding of divinization. Jordan Daniel Wood, “That Creation is Incarnation in Maximus Confessor,” (Dissertation for Doctor of Philosophy, Boston College, 2018).

[2] A focus of the Bible, which is not absent in Maximus but not emphasized, is that the obstacle that would keep us from this realization is nothing less than a cosmic force for evil opposing God and ourselves.

[3] Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua Vol. 1, Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) xvii.

[4] Ambigua 20.1.

[5] Ambigua 20.2.

[6] Ambigua 20.3.

[7] Ambigua 7.16

[8] Ambigua 7.22.

[9] Wood, 11.

[10] Ambigua 7.21

[11] Ambigua 15.9

[12] Ambigua 20.2

[13] Ambigua 7.21.

[14] Ambigua 7.22

Christ as the True Vitruvian Man: An Affirmation of the Cosmic Christ and a Critique of Richard Rohr

Not all visions of the Cosmic Christ are of equal value and some stray off into the panentheistic “flow” to such a degree that one might mistake his dog for Christ or the creature for the Creator. Perhaps I need to restate and clarify my previous blog. While the Franciscans and Barth in the West have retained and developed elements of an Eastern Orthodox sensibility (my previous point), I did not mean to conflate Duns Scotus’s understanding, for example, with the best of Eastern Christology. The accusation leveled at Scotus is that his univocity of being led to the notion that an immanent frame of understanding is self-grounding and adequate. The argument of Radical Orthodoxy is that Scotus’s conception of the univocity of being led to the Enlightenment expulsion of God, as nature’s explanation lies within.

Richard Rohr’s embrace and development of Scotus’s univocity of being illustrates precisely what John Milbank and his Radical Orthodox colleagues warned, rightly or wrongly, are implicit in Scotus’s thought. As Rohr boils it down, because Scotus “believed we can speak ‘with one voice’ (univocity) of the being of waters, plants, animals, humans, angels, and God” we arrive at the conclusion, “Our DNA is . . . divine.”[1] The implication is that just as a swimmer should “be able to be the river” we are all in the flow of God and we need to realize we are God (Rohr slightly nuances this). This reading of Scotus seems to fall under John Milbank’s critique, that Scotism seems to put God and man in competition in the same space for power – a notion connected to the rise of secularism.

As Daniel Horan has pointed out in his book length work on Milbank and Scotus, Milbank presumes univocity constitutes a metaphysics but Scotus deploys this understanding only in discussions of logic, semantics, and epistemology, not as an alternative to analogy, but as an explanation of analogy.[2] Radical Orthodoxy however, would be unimpressed with Horan’s fine distinction, as in Milbank’s view it is not possible to separate epistemology from metaphysics as epistemology implies a particular metaphysics. But my point is not to defend Milbank’s reading of Scotus.

If Milbank’s critique does not to apply to Scotus, it would seem that it hits the mark with Rohr, who claims to be an expositor of Scotus.  Rohr concludes that univocity refers precisely to metaphysics: “We are already connected to everything—inherently, objectively, metaphysically, ontologically, and theologically.” [3] While Rohr seems intent on reenchanting the universe he has struck upon an odd formula, the very formula many point to as giving rise to the disenchanting of the universe in the first place. Whether the genealogy of secularism runs directly through Scotus, or Scotus and Occam to Protestantism, the point is that the very thing Scotus is accused of is precisely the way Rohr understands him.

This is a long way from Maximus the Confessor’s presentation of cosmology, anthropology, soteriology, eschatology, finding harmony in a unified Christology. Maximus maintains that the creation reflects the glory of God and that humans can raise the degree of creation’s participation in this glory. As Lars Thunberg states, “His system of theology was in fact a spiritual vision of the cosmos, of human life within that cosmos, and therefore of the economy of salvation, the salvific interplay between the human and the divine.”[4] There is participation, interplay, a lifting up into participation in the divine. This participation contrasts with Rohr’s notion of univocity in which, “We all participate in the same being. God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4), and thus reality is one too (Ephesians 4:3-5).”[5] The participation seems to be automatic and built in and is not simply analogous reflection and a participation to which one rises. No subtleties here. Which brings me to my point in illustrating the Cosmic Christ as a displacement of the Vitruvian Man.

My illustration of the Cosmic Christ as the true Vitruvian Man (in my previous blog), Jonathan pointed out to me, is riddled with problems (a discussion we take up with Matt in our upcoming podcast). The potential problems Jonathan had with my illustration are not so different from the problems I would have with some of Richard Rohr’s illustrations and conceptions. So, not so much in an effort to answer Jonathan’s objections or to save my illustration but to point to the issues at stake in how we comprehend the Cosmic Christ, I want to defend my argument for displacing the Vitruvian Man with Christ. I have no particular attachment to the illustration, but the very issues it raises pertain to a proper comprehension of the Cosmic Christ.

What Leonardo, or Vitruvius before him, were attempting (implicitly if unconsciously) in the Vitruvian Man, was to describe the coherence of things presumed in Christianity but they sought this coherence within an immanent frame (the human frame quite literally). The secularizing element (which would develop with the Enlightenment) was to arrive at an abstraction of man so as to translate this abstract ratio to both architecture and to the world. These ratios only work in the abstract, and the point is not in reference to any particular man, but to the ideal man. As Jonathan rightly points out, the Vitruvian Man in representing the dimensions of the human body as a microcosm is focused on the disincarnate mathematical dimensions of the body (e.g. a palm is four fingers, a foot is four palms, a cubit is six palms, four cubits make a man, a pace is four cubits, a man is 24 palms, etc.). My point in putting Christ in place of the Vitruvian Man is precisely to maintain the positive developments of the Renaissance and Enlightenment while avoiding the failures.

There is a sense in which all that was good and true (the coherence of the world and the human ability to follow its logic) and all that was wrong with the ideas which would blossom in the Enlightenment (anthropocentrism, chauvinism, the turn to mechanics, and ultimately secularism or the presumption of a self-grounding world) are represented in seed form in the Vitruvian Man. In displacing the Vitruvian Man with the Cosmic Christ there is an acknowledgement of coherence, a readability of the universe, without the singular focus on the model of mathematics and mechanics and without the chauvinism entailed in privileging a class of bodies (white, European, males). There is an appreciation for a recapturing of a classical focus on the senses (particularly sight) and the body without a desensitizing turn from the auditory revelation found in the historical Jesus.

It is telling that at points, Leonardo’s reading of the body onto the world sounds like Rohr or vice versa. In a notebook from 1492, Leonardo mused, “By the ancients man has been called the world in miniature; and certainly this name is well bestowed, because, inasmuch as man is composed of earth, water, air and fire, his body resembles that of the earth.” The universals are within and the divine need play no role. Rohr simply extends the immanent frame so as to include the divine: “we can speak “with one voice” (univocity) of the being of waters, plants, animals, humans, angels, and God.” While this may seem to be an affirmation of the material it is the loss of the material world in the shared abstraction of being. The immanent presence of the divine within this univocal being is also constituted an empty abstraction. Rohr maintains, “Creation is the Body of God” and he wants to downplay the particular body of God found in Jesus. He holds that “Jesus” must vanish that “Christ” may come forth. Rohr’s Christ, dispossessed of Jesus, takes on the abstraction of all being which has no specific historical characteristics but which blends with all matter and bodies.  

There is an equilibrium contained in the name of Jesus combined with Christ in which the cosmic, preexistent, reality is made specific and accessible through the incarnate Jesus. The notion of a singular logic, the coherence of the universe, and its accessibility are implicit in Christ as Creator and Redeemer. But, as with Maximus, there is not a given metaphysical univocity of being, but a participation in the divine being through Christ that is not inherently available in the material universe. There is a specific necessity for the historical Jesus, the specifics of the shared body of Christ. It is not that Jesus affirms every story, every body, every form of material existence equally. It is the cruciform life of Jesus that is the point of access to the Cosmic Christ.


[1] Richard Rohr, https://cac.org/the-univocity-of-being-2015-05-27/.

[2] See Peter Leithart, “The Scotus Story” in January 19, 2015 Patheos.

[3] Rohr, Ibid.

[4] Thunberg, Lars. Man and the Cosmos: the Vision of St. Maximus the Confessor. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1985. p. 31. Quoted from https://orthochristian.com/96486.html

[5] Rohr, Ibid.

Are Ultimate Evil and Ultimate Goodness in Confrontation in Alternative Christianities?

What precisely might it be that first century Christianity opposes in pagan religion or simply non-Christian religion? Given the multiple positive references to Greek and pagan thought in both Testaments, it is clearly not a wholesale rejection of human wisdom and religion per se. Religion was not itself a realm apart from everyday life such that one could separate it out and thus avoid it. To be a citizen, to go shopping in the market, to own a home, would necessarily overlap with the realm of the sacred. But two specific acts, participation in pagan sacrificial rites and in occupations of war and violence, were beyond the pale for the first Christians and seemed to demarcate the Christian faith from the surrounding world. Pagan sacrificial rites, as Bruce McClelland describes it, “exemplified quite unequivocally a resistance to the Christian message, if for no other reason than that Christ was presumed to be the ultimate and last sacrificial victim.”[1] Non-participation in the military and limited participation in the rites of Rome were, of course, not necessarily two separate realms.  Given René Girard’s interpretation of sacrificial religion as a process in which the realm of the sacred is created through violence (the sacrifice of the scapegoat covered over in myth), then the early Christian refusal of pagan sacrificial religion can be read as part and parcel of its overall rejection of violence.

By the same standard, contemporary nationalism and capitalism (the reigning “religious” ethos) may constitute the world of our everyday life but as with archaic religion, if violence is beyond the pale the Christian must recognize the line of demarcation. The difference in the modern period is that the violence of archaic religion has been demystified by Christ, which means the genesis of religious myth has ceased. However, a Christianity aligned with nationalism and materialism has separated itself from archaic violence only to engender an un-circumscribed violence. The scapegoating mechanism no longer functions but at the same time violence is no long regulated or delimited. Nationalism and capitalism, in their potential for global destruction are unprecedented and if left unchallenged, extinction of all life on the planet is not simply one possibility but the only possibility.  

As Girard has described it, only sacrificial religion “has been able to contain the conflicts that would have otherwise destroyed the first groups of humans.”[2] Christ has forever exposed the true nature of sacred violence but where Christians are not Christian enough(?), this exposure may simply unleash an unopposed violence.  If Christ is the final sacrifice, the exposure of the scapegoating mechanism, the alternative to sacred violence, then nationalism and capitalism too must be overtly resisted at their point of violent sacrifice and only a fully functioning form of the faith offers the necessary resistance. This is not merely a matter of personal piety or concern for the preservation of an untainted religion, rather it is the means of exposing the anti-Christ, defeating Satan, and redeeming the cosmos.

The mode of resistance, the unfolding subject of biblical revelation culminating in Christ, is not on the basis of violence but is found in a reorientation to even the presumption of violence. There are a group of “power words” deployed throughout Scripture which characterize the violence and sacrifice which Christ opposes and defeats. Knowing (as in the “knowledge of good and evil”), grasping (grasping the forbidden fruit or “taking hold” of Christ), being (“I am and there is no other”) describe the Fall and fallenness in terms of the deployment of power. The attempt to “stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life,” to become the grasper (Jacob) of the blessing, to make a name and storm the heavens through a grand tower, to grasp and seduce (Genesis 39:12), as with the slave granted forgiveness but who then “seized and began to choke his fellow slave,” all describe the attempt to grasp life or substance through violence. As Mathew describes it, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force” (Mt 11:12).  It might be summed up in Jesus warning that he who would grasp life, he who would save his life, by that very act loses it.

 The nature of this power is exposed in the ultimate power grab: “Now he who was betraying Him had given them a signal, saying, ‘Whomever I kiss, He is the one; seize Him and lead Him away under guard.’ After coming, Judas immediately went to Him, saying, ‘Rabbi!’ and kissed Him. They laid hands on Him and seized Him” (Mark 14:44-46). The seizing, delivering, and handing over, encompass the ultimate sin, often laid at the feet of Judas. But Judas starts the chain reaction of “delivering” or “handing over” (παραδίδωμι contains both the gift, δίδωμι, and its destruction) in which he “hands over” Jesus to the Jews (Mark 14: 10), who in their turn “bound Him, and led Him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor” (Matthew 27:2). The Jews picture their handing him over as a self-evident sign of guilt: “If this Man were not an evildoer, we would not have handed him over to you” (John 18: 30; cf. also Mark 15: 1 and Matthew 27: 2). At the end of the trial Pilate will hand Jesus over to the Jews to be crucified.  John equates this handing over or delivering up with darkness, with Satan entering into Judas, and with the uncleanness that clings to the Apostles feet. Jesus is delivered over to the Gentiles or Romans through the Jews by means of an Apostle, such that every class of human is involved in this deliverance. Darkness, sin, death, uncleanness, and evil, are encompassed in the movement which delivers Jesus unto death.

Simultaneous with the grab for heaven is the inauguration of the mode in which the kingdom will be established through one “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6). It is specifically not by violent grasping but by non-grasping nonviolence that Jesus is characterized and that he is to be imitated (imitation of Christ is the point in this passage). The will of Christ in his surrender is identified with the new law, inscribed on the heart through the final sacrifice (Heb. 10:14-18). The surrender of Christ as victim was not only identical with the law of the new covenant written on hearts; it came about also “by the power of the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:13ff.). The breathing out of the Spirit is specifically connected with the non-grasping, relinquishing mode of Jesus death. “And Jesus cried loudly, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit'” (Luke 23:46). Suffering is here understood unambiguously as surrendering and handing over the Spirit to the Father. The act of dying, the fulfillment of the mission, and the handing over of the Spirit to the Father come together in the singular event described by Hebrews as the sacrifice of Christ.  Jesus’ judges and his executioners wanted to punish a criminal, to grasp him and hand him over; he wanted to give himself, as the Last Supper sayings show, for the many.

Maximus the Confessor says that Christ on the cross altered the “use of death.” He means that death, which was brought by God after the fall into Eden as punishment, was transformed by the crucified one into a means of salvation from sin.  Maximus compared the scene of the garden of Eden and the cross, suggesting one is a grasping and one is a relinquishing. As Girard has described it, whoever in dying places himself in the hands of another renounces entirely any further self-determination and hands himself over to the treatment of this other. Every act of surrender made during a person’s life may have its limits, but at the moment of dying these limits can be broken down. Death is passage beyond an inexorable limit, beyond all previous limits. Jesus surrendered himself “by the power of the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14) and in imitating his death, in taking up his cross and dying, we too are entrusted in the Spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46). Death becomes the mode of surrender which endures sacrificial violence and overcomes it.

The ultimate destruction aimed at Christ is deflected through a direct confrontation with and exposure of violence. This is the sacrifice that reverses sacrificial violence – it sanctifies, it is the means of character change involved in inscribing the law on the heart, and it is an alternative mode of knowing written on the mind (Heb 10:14-18). As Graham Ward describes it, “Jesus’s life is the performance within which the salvation promised by God is made effective for all; just as the narration of Jesus’s life, work and teaching is the performance (re-enacted by each reader/listener) by which the salvation effected by God in Christ is made available to all.”[3] The Word made flesh is an alternative “representation” or a new mode of inscription. Where in violent sacrifice the flesh is transposed into a semiotic, a grasp for meaning, in the incarnate word flesh becomes the bearer of meaning. As we make the word flesh, taking up Jesus’ way of thinking and perceiving we enter a (metanoia – noeo – a knowing) mode which is not simply a moral category but an epistemological one in which the living word cannot be grasped or possessed or fully comprehended. There is no end of reading, no end of repeating the story as we take up this word which never accommodates grasping ownership.

Life cannot be had through our word, our knowledge, our grasping, our violence. We must give up on this grasping of life. Redemption means a (re)turn to the word of God but the way we get there pertains to our method. The Word must now be inscribed upon the heart and we must be enscribed in the word.  We must be entextualised and take up this word and walk. We must be animated by the narrative force of Christ which is precisely enacted in a non-violent relinquishing of life.

In summary, a “Christianity” wedded to nationalistic and materialistic violence is bound toward an apocalyptic destruction which can only be interrupted by a true form of the religion. It is the confrontation between this anti-Christ and Christ which Scripture depicts as the final confrontation between good and evil, a confrontation now unfolding in two forms of the faith.

(Register for the Module on Religion and Culture on Monday the 27th at https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org.)


[1] Bruce McClelland, Sacrifice and Early Christianity (Ph.D. Dissertation Chapter 5).

[2] https://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/08/on-war-and-apocalypse

[3] Graham Ward, Christ and Culture (Blackwell Publishing Ltd), p. 45.