Reflections on the Impact of Jürgen Moltmann on My Theological Journey

I was saddened to hear of the passing, on Monday, of Jürgen Moltmann. I am told he was working on one more manuscript, even at age 98. As I thumb through my well-worn copy of the Crucified God with its copious underlining and notes in the margin, it brings to mind my excitement in reading Moltmann as a missionary in Japan, and for the first time finding an explanation of Christ’s saving work, with immediate implications. Moltmann displaces legal justification with the turn to liberation from bondage as the focus of salvation. What particularly struck me was his picture of psychological liberation and the turn to Sigmund Freud to explain both the problem and the solution.

Moltmann describes the passage from an Oedipal conception of God to a religion of brotherly love: “In origin Christianity is not a father-religion; if it is a religion at all it is a son-religion, namely a brotherly community in the situation of the human God, without privileges and without the rebellions that are necessary against them.”[1] This would point me toward the work of Slavoj Žižek, with its primary focus on getting rid of the oppressive force of the obscene super-ego father, which functions in both human personality and religion as an oppressive, punishing, law-giver.

In Moltmann’s portrayal, deploying Freud’s mythical picture of the Oedipal horde, both the human sickness and its expression in human religion can be traced to (either an unconscious or conscious) guilt. He describes Freud’s prehistoric primal horde father, who prohibited his sons from possessing their mother or sisters, by castrating them. Even should the mother allow it, the sons can only sire children through the permission of the father, thus the sons kill their father. “Totem religion emerged from the sons’ awareness of guilt as an attempt to relieve this feeling and to reconcile the injured father through subsequent obedience.. . . It makes it a duty to repeat the crime of parricide again and again in the sacrifice of the totem animal.”[2] As Moltmann explains, “The parricide and blasphemer is out for annihilation and therefore falls into apathy. He rebels against the restrictions laid down by the authority of the father, but his rebellion does not free him from being a mirror image of his adversary. In the Oedipus conflict he remains clamped to his opponent.”[3] This sickness is both religious and psychological: “These are two sides of the same coin. There are psychological and religious forms of straitened and hindered humanity, sick and on the way towards death.”[4]

Christ on the cross demythologizes the obscene father who laid down the law and its castrating effects. “God allows himself to be humiliated and crucified in the Son, in order to free the oppressors and the oppressed from oppression and to open up to them the situation of free, sympathetic humanity. Knowledge and acceptance of the new situation extends God’s freedom from the gods and antigods who produce the universal feeling of guilt and the need for compensation, right into the unconscious.”[5] Moltmann acknowledges that the obscene father and idols may still haunt us, “But if one can laugh at them, one need no longer repress them. They are still there, but they have lost their power.”[6]

The idols with their punishing guilt are replaced by a loving and suffering God that is psychologically liberating. The situation of the “the crucified God” presents us with the “pathos of the loving and suffering God” and the idols and fetishes – and their implicit “refusal of the cross,” are defeated.[7] Combined with the power of the resurrection, this affords one to abandon the imposed suffering of guilt, and allows for hope, even in the face of death. “Christian faith understands itself as faithfulness to hope as it is mindful of the resurrection of Christ, and as faithfulness to the earth as it is mindful of the cross of Christ. Because it leads man into this history of God, it frees him for an acceptance of human life which is capable of suffering and capable of love.”[8]

Moltmann pictures the human disease as a rejection of life, an incapacity in the face of repression and fear, and an overall apathy, which is summed up in fear of death. He launches his book with the pronouncement that the cross of Christ can enact a reorientation to death which changes everything: “only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom which changes the world because it is no longer afraid of death.”[9] God and the world are reconceived in light of the cross, and the task of theology is to speak of God and the world in light of the cross. “As far as I am concerned, the Christian church and Christian theology become relevant to the problems of the modern world only when they reveal the ‘hard core’ of their identity in the crucified Christ and through it are called into question, together with the society in which they live.”[10] The Crucified God comes after his Theology of Hope, but as he explains, his theology of the cross is the “reverse side” of the focus on resurrection in the theology of hope.[11] The theology of the cross addresses the problem of death as it is construed in religion, society, psychology, and politics. With the cross there is a new diagnosis of the human situation: “the cross alone, and nothing else, is its test, since the cross refutes everything. . . .”[12] The cross is the means of diagnosing and curing the problem of death denied.

A society, psychology or politic founded on death denial cannot recognize the depth of suffering it inflicts, and a church caught up in defense mechanisms against death, absorbed by the social environment, is worthless before the suffering inflicted by the world. A church at home in the world has become the problem, and only the rediscovery of homelessness can offer hope and healing. The various reformations of the church are a rediscovery of homelessness: “It is this inner homelessness which enables it to perpetuate its institutions, even when they become an established part of society.”[13] Only in continually rediscovering its origins does the church become “a dangerous and liberating reality.” This “faith becomes aware of the incommensurability of the cross of Christ with the revelation of God, and realizing this, becomes aware too of its own strangeness and homelessness in its own Christian world.”[14] The world is built on death denial, and the cross deconstructs this false understanding, leaving the church and Christians strangers in the world.

Perhaps this strangeness is most sharply felt in Moltmann’s depiction of the way in which Christian knowledge functions. Knowing God on the basis of analogy and metaphysics is part of the human problem (knowing God through the world). The God of metaphysics “is determined by its unity and indivisibility, its lack of beginning and end, its immovability and immutability” but this God is not directly knowable or capable of love. This form of knowing is a defense mechanism: “As the nature of divine being is conceived of for the sake of finite being, it must embrace all the determinations of finite being and exclude those determinations which are directed against being. Otherwise finite being could not find a support and stay against the threatening nothingness of death, suffering and chaos in the divine being. Death, suffering and mortality must therefore be excluded from the divine being.”[15] Theology as a defense mechanism against death has dominated the theological project. Moltmann’s statement of this made a lasting impact: “Christian theology has adopted this concept of God from philosophical theology down to the present day, because in practice down to the present day Christian faith has taken into itself the religious need of finite, threatened and mortal man for security in a higher omnipotence and authority.”[16] The metaphysical concept of God rules out the death of God – “evacuating the cross of deity.” It is this notion, of a distant, unmoved mover which Moltmann attacks at every stage of his theology.

Rather than beginning with analogy, and the finitude of the world to describe how God is known, with Luther and Hegel, Moltmann presumes God is only directly known in the cross.

The theology of the cross therefore takes quite seriously God’s interest in his knowledge through man. God reveals himself in the contradiction and the protest of Christ’s passion to be against all that is exalted and beautiful and good, all that the dehumanized man seeks for himself and therefore perverts. So God here is not known through his works in reality, but through his suffering in the passiveness of faith, which allows God to work on it: killing in order to make alive, judging in order to set free. So his knowledge is achieved not by the guiding thread of analogies from earth to heaven, but on the contrary, through contradiction, sorrow and suffering. To know God means to endure God.[17]

To know God in Christ is to abandon the “dreamed-of-exaltation” of knowing God in his divinity, and it is to turn to God in the humanity of Christ – abandoned, rejected and despised. This “brings to nothing his dreamed-of equality with God, which has dehumanized him, and restores to him his humanity, which the true God made his own.”[18] Man’s inhumanity is his pursuit of deity, and he is made fully human only in the embrace of the crucified God.

With Luther, Moltmann concludes one can know God indirectly through the world (the focus of the theologians of glory) but he can only be known directly in the cross with the saving knowledge of God. Knowing God directly is to know of his deliverance. “His grace is revealed in sinners. His righteousness is revealed in the unrighteous and in those without rights, and his gracious election in the damned.” God is fully God not in his eternality, but in what is opposite to eternality. “God is only revealed as ‘God’ in his opposite: godlessness and abandonment by God. . . . The epistemological principle of the theology of the cross can only be this dialectic principle: the deity of God is revealed in the paradox of the cross.”[19]

The Unmoved Mover is not the Father of Jesus Christ, and Moltmann prophetically declares it is time to make an absolute departure from such notions, so as to recover the Christian faith. This is not the faith of bourgeois conservatives or of Christian nationalists but this faith “breaks the spell of the old philosophical concept of God, at the same time destroying the idols of national political religions.”[20] The death of God on the cross cannot be understood or accepted on the basis of Greek metaphysical presuppositions, but “God’s Godness” is known only in the event of the death of Christ. The omnipotent God of metaphysics is impotent in his incapacity for suffering, finitude, and love. This God that cannot suffer or die is incapable of relating or being known. This God that we project upon the idols of our imagination is the God from which Christ delivers:

Thus at the level of the psychology of religion, Christian faith effects liberation from the childish projections of human needs for the riches of God; liberation from human impotence for the omnipotence of God; from human helplessness for the omnipotence of God; from human helplessness for the responsibility of God. It brings liberation from the divinized father-figures by which men seek to sustain their childhood. It brings liberation from fear in the ideas of political omnipotence with which the powers on earth legitimate their rule and give inferiority complexes to the impotent, and with which the impotent compensate their impotence in dreams. It brings liberation from the determination and direction from outside which anxious souls love and at the same time hate.[21]

The projection by finite human beings of the impassable God, threatened as they are by their finitude and creation, is a counter salvation system to that of Christ. But the God of metaphysics, the Oedipal father, is an impotent and incomplete being in his inability to experience death, finitude, helplessness and powerlessness. Worship of omnipotence by the helpless, as a defense mechanism, deprives them of the love of God. It is this love by which the Father of Christ is defined. The “almighty” is a being without history or experience or destiny or love.[22] This God that oppresses human beings is the devil from which Christ delivers in his love.

For Moltmann, faith always speaks of a practical liberation from the various forms of oppression foisted upon man by social, religious, and political institutions. He notes that both institutional and psychological oppression must be addressed simultaneously. “Personal, inner change without a change in circumstances and structures is an idealist illusion, as though man were only a soul and not a body as well. But a change in external circumstances without inner renewal is a materialist illusion, as though man were only a product of his social circumstances and nothing else.”[23] This fullness of salvation and liberation cannot make peace with the principalities and powers which beset him inwardly and outwardly. Liberation is a real world throwing off of oppression.

It is interesting (or was to me, being in Japan) that Moltmann turns to the example of Christian students in Japan who recognize Christian complicity in the problem. Students at Meiji-Gakuin declared, “God does not exist in this church, but rather in the living deeds of a man involved in human relationships.” Thus, they barricaded the church as by “making our church a refuse dump we want to proclaim to the university authorities and our fellow students that Christianity and worship can become symbols of the absence of humanity and contempt for it.”[24] Moltmann concludes, “Only someone who finds the courage to be different from others can ultimately exist for ‘others’, for otherwise he exists only with those who are like him.”[25] This critique of society can only occur through identity with the Crucified, by “a witnessing non-identification with the demands and interests of society.”[26] Christian identity is founded upon this act of God in Christ, the crucifixion, in which God identifies with the godless and abandoned.

When faith becomes fearful and defensive, it is focused on morality and penal law and misses the identity of God in Christ.  “He who is of little faith looks for support and protection for his faith, because it is preyed upon by fear. Such a faith tries to protect its ‘most sacred things’, God, Christ, doctrine and morality, because it clearly no longer believes that these are sufficiently powerful to maintain themselves.”[27] A faith that is afraid for itself and its Christ is a lack of faith. Fearful faith would build a defensive wall so as to defend “true belief, pure doctrine and distinctive Christian morality.” “They accept the increasing isolation of the church as an insignificant sect on the margin of society, and encourage it by their sectarian withdrawal.”[28] The God of metaphysics, of conservative social and moral ethics, is not the God who died on a cross. Where the cross is not kept front and center, the tendency will be either decay by withdrawal or decay through assimilation. Both are forms of fear, unbelief, and ultimately death denial. True faith is willing to confront the world and acknowledge Christ as effective ruler, and in this faith, fear is overcome.

Moltmann described in real-world terms the freedom of the children of God through faith. This freedom can be described in concrete and specific psychological terms and entails a fully embodied (political and social) deliverance. Moltmann describes the need for a “psychological hermeneutics of the word of the cross”[29] and this set the course of my theological journey.

Thank God for the faithful witness of this servant of Christ.


[1] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press,1993) 307.

[2]  N. O. Brown, Love’s Body, (New York 1968), 122. Quoted in Moltmann, 304.

[3] Moltmann, 307.

[4] Ibid, 313

[5] Ibid, 307.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 312.

[8] Ibid, 313.

[9] Ibid, 1.

[10] Ibid, 3.

[11] Ibid, 5.

[12] Ibid, 7

[13] Ibid, 10.

[14] Ibid, 37.

[15] Ibid, 214.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, 212.

[18] Ibid, 213.

[19] Ibid, 27.

[20] Ibid, 215

[21] Ibid, 216.

[22] Ibid, 223.

[23] Ibid, 23.

[24] Ibid, 14-15.

[25] Ibid, 16.

[26] Ibid, 17.

[27] Ibid, 19.

[28] Ibid, 20.

[29] Ibid, 291.

Christian Championing of Jordan Peterson Exposes a Perverse Form of the Faith

The popularity of Jordan Peterson as part of a conservative backlash to this supposedly postmodern moment is surprising in its scope and in the fact that many Christians have found a champion in Peterson. This however may say more about the shape of modern Christian faith than it does about the depth of insight of Peterson. A faith that can celebrate our “Common Stories, the participation in our common rituals” and which looks to the hierarchy of culture, politics, or as Peterson puts it, the unified attention which has evolved through time through myths, stories, and the development of social order as the truth, this is not the Truth of Christ.[1] But Peterson is not confused about his stance (he does not identify as a Christian and he does not hesitate to interpret Christ and the Bible according to his definition of truth).[2] The confusion arises with Christians who imagine law, the symbolic order of culture, the structural hierarchies of state, society and church, are definitive of the gospel.

This is not simply a rhetorical point, but describes a form of the faith which interprets the gospel through law, which understands Christ through the Old Testament (e.g., dying due to the law) and which attaches primacy to language, symbols, and law, rather than to Person or personhood. For Peterson the personal and personhood is subsequent to language, symbols, and culture – this is no surprise, given his worldview. What is surprising is that Christians would relinquish the primacy of the Person of Christ and God, and assign it to the structures of the social order. While one might agree (or not) that Peterson occasionally says something true, this is very different than confusing his truth with Christian Truth. One is evolutionary, dualistic, gradually unfolding, and ever aiming (never arriving) toward the arche contained in myth, while the other is the Divine Person.

Peterson has made it clear that he is not simply offering advice, self-help, or cultural critique, but is attempting the broadest of philosophical/scientific projects in which he is tracing the rise and function of truth. Peterson and Jonathan Pageau (an Eastern Orthodox Christian) describe the ground of truth as evolving through human attention: “Our own personal attention becomes organised in a more comprehensive and universally viable, rewarding, and stabilising sense when it is related to others; when it is given or offered up to our connection with our family, friends, and fellow citizens; when it is sacrificed to the social hierarchies we participate in.”[3] This attention then gives rise to the unity and coherence of truth.

He does not hesitate to include the Bible and Christianity as supports of his view that truth evolves through human interaction, hierarchy, and organization. Moses did not receive the ten commandments from above, but inductively arrived at them from below and Christ is not the Truth but he “embodies the ideal of ‘speaking the truth.’”[4] As Marc Champagne summarizes, “In his writings and lectures, Peterson presents an ambitious re-reading of the Bible that locates this text in humanity’s evolutionary history, as it were. On his telling, the Biblical stories are a collectively authored attempt to depict the ideal person.”[5] The key point here is not that Peterson reworks the story of Moses, or questions whether the law came from God. Paul and the writer of Hebrews do as much, suggesting angels and not God delivered the law, and that it has a secondary function to Christ. The point is, Peterson gives primacy to both the inductive method, and the laws at which the method arrives. Christ’s claim to be the son of God is itself aimed at displacing divine authority with inductive generalization.[6] Every son can perform the inductive trick.

Peterson has no room for revelation (whether in Christ or otherwise) rather, “different folks observed the conduct of many moral persons, abstracted out the common denominator in their actions, and then reified the resultant abstraction in a narrative format.”[7] The logos for Peterson, is not a person but a “leading principle” distilled from many human samples over a long span of time. “The Bible has been thrown up, out of the deep, by the collective human imagination, which is itself a product of unimaginable forces operating over unfathomable spans of time.”[8] Human beliefs, for Peterson, “make the world, in a very real way – that beliefs are the world, in a more than metaphysical sense.”[9] Human belief (the archetypes, the trues extracted from religion), evolved and tested through time provide a moral and metaphysical order (Peterson’s absolute).

Peterson claims “the meanings of the most profound substrata of belief systems can be rendered explicitly comprehensible, even to the skeptical rational thinker.” He has learned “why people wage war,” which paradoxically revolves around “protecting and expanding belief” but he can tell us how to “ameliorate this tendency,” universal though it is. Unfortunately, in Peterson’s world it is life’s cruelty that produces life: “the terrible aspect of life might actually be a necessary precondition for the existence of life – and that it is possible to regard that precondition, in consequence, as comprehensible and acceptable.”[10] What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, in Peterson’s Nietzschean world. Life’s cruelty and evil is part of life’s necessity.

In terms of his field of specialty, psychology, Peterson is a Jungian, holding that the archetypes (a sort of basic truth) are uncovered in considering all religions, dreams, and myth, which also serve as the foundation of the human psyche. In psychological terms, this is a rejection of the Freudian/Lacanian understanding taken up by Slavoj Žižek, which while recognizing the primacy of language, notes that a fundamental lie must accompany the psychological structuring around language. Language, in this lie, must be reified, made substantive, and accorded a metaphysical reality. (This is precisely what Peterson sets out to do in each stage of his work.) The big lie for Žižek is that there is something substantive to the ego, while in fact the dynamic between the symbolic (the superego, law, language) the imaginary (the ego, the sense of self), creates a dynamic of death drive (the id, the real) which is a dynamic of death and nothingness. This aligns with Paul’s picture of the fallen self in Romans 7 (according to Žižek), but of course, Žižek is an atheist, who denies there could be anything more (he is a Romans 7, atheistic Christian). While Peterson may acknowledge something like God, it is the lying image of God (God as the one who holds the symbolic order together as Big Other, as Superego, as Law Giver) which Jesus, Paul, and the New Testament would rid us of. In both Christian and Žižekian terms, Peterson is a promoter of the lie, that language, society, the symbolic order, is truth per se, and this he equates with God. In terms of Genesis, Peterson is on the side of the serpent, advocating for the dialectic of the knowledge of good and evil as accessing the divine order.

He comes by this conclusion in the typical fashion of Platonists or dualists, by positing two primary forces, chaos and unity, as the dualistic poles which constitute reality. He says, “We are adrift in chaos and longing, in the absence of a firm identity, no foundation underfoot, nothing to strive toward, prone in our lacking conscious and unconscious to decomposition and strife. Something must unite our attention and our action, so that we are integrated, psychologically. Something must unite our interests and endeavours, collectively, so that we can cooperate and compete peacefully, productively, reciprocally, and sustainably.”[11] He points out the dangers on both the chaos and order side of the dualism, but suggests this is the engine of history driving toward extremes but eventual harmony: “It moves forward in time like a powerful motor, pistons cycling back and forth, driving the machine of modern identity toward ever-greater extremes.”[12]

The dialectical war between the state and individual is not one in which either can emerge triumphant over the other, as the dualism is the truth. Too much autonomy of the individual, “freeing himself from religion, family, nation. . . means the totalitarian state becomes more likely” to occupy all these “intermediary roles.” This becomes the opportunity (he uses Covid and the vaccine as an example) “to universalize the collective.” The pendulum swings between Weimar and Reich, between Revolution and Napoleonic empire, between Great Mother and Father, but as the book of Revelation describes, this war produces the heavenly City. “This may seem obscurely mythological to some, but the image of the heavenly city is in fact the ultimate representation of structured harmony, a vision of the reality that might obtain if the entirety of existence properly found its place, served what is highest, and integrated itself into a transcendent whole.” [13] The trick is to keep the Beast or Leviathan from consuming the individual through totalitarian control, and so “nation, gender, family, and religion,” pose the obstacle to totalitarianism. The dialectic must be kept alive, both by preserving the individual but by also preserving intermediate identities such as those found in heterosexual marriage and normative sexual identity. Too much relinquishing of these identities unleashes state control over identity.

Peterson references Platonism and Christianity as playing key roles in imparting this dialectic and keeping it alive. It is in fact, the secret behind the cosmos, the secret of God, carried within each individual. “This perspective is offered by the early Hermetic and the Neo-Platonic writings. It permeates the Christian mysticism running from St. Paul to Meister Eckhart. Within this tradition, the individual is understood as the active embodiment of and participant in the patterns of the cosmos itself—even of the God who created that cosmos—instead of a unity in contrast to or competition with the superordinate social order.”[14] The knowledge of good and evil, the dialectic, provides access to deity, and is itself the divine reflected in each individual. This, according to Peterson, is what St. Paul meant when he “describes the Church as the Body of Christ, he is similarly stepping into this domain of fractal conceptualisation, journeying between macrocosm and microcosm in a manner that is no mere literary trope.” It is like “the head of a city or a company, or of a body of laws, a body politic, or a corporate body we are, like St. Paul, employing this vision of a fractal identity or reality, attempting in that way to describe the very nature of our participation in reality.”[15] Paul, in Peterson’s estimate, had in mind Peterson’s sort of dualism, and the body of Christ, is just one example of how society can organize itself, and in doing so fully participate in reality.

Peterson’s God, and apparently the God of those Christians who align themselves with his metaphysics, is no bigger than the dualism of chaos and unity. Each side of the dialectic, as in the knowledge of good and evil, yin and yang, something and nothing, is required. Evil (suffering and human cruelty) is the means to the good (unity), and the good is never free of the evil. “Unity—purposeful essence— and multiplicity define each other.”[16] Chaos and multiplicity feed new information into unity, freeing it from a frozen totalitarianism. The building blocks of unity are forged in furnace of chaos. Error and fallibility are inevitable and perhaps, the desired constant of the human environment.[17] God needs the devil, just as unity needs the disrupting powers of chaos.

Real evil is to be found only in those who do not fight the good fight and take responsibility for themselves. “The best strategy for coping with the ignorance and suffering that result from our finite nature is to take personal responsibility for one’s hardships and constantly negotiate between sticking with one’s beliefs and revising them.”[18] This is the mode selected by Darwinian mechanisms and taken up in cultural dynamics. The very fact that certain forms of life have evolved and endured is testimony to their foundational role.

While a Christian might find some good advice in Peterson (get married, have a family, etc.), this is not all that is happening. Though he invokes God, Peterson’s metaphysics are at best atheistic or theism of the worst kind. If he is articulating what they see as essentially true, this may mean many Christians are functioning from an atheistic form of the faith or a deeply perverted understanding of God. A metaphysically shallow faith, attached to Christendom, social order and unified rituals and institutions, may need an unbeliever like Peterson to articulate the “conservative values” which now serve in place of the radical faith preached by Christ, but to mistake this for Christian Truth is on the order of fusing the law with Gospel or confusing Christendom with Christianity. It is a failure to grasp the foundational Truth of Christ, and to replace it with an alternative foundation.


[1] Jonathan Pageau and Jordan Peterson, “Identity: Individual and the State versus the Subsidiary Hierarchy of Heaven” (ARC Research, October 2023) 21. (Hereafter, “Identity”).

[2] Which is not to say he may not be confused about the nature of Christianity.

[3] Identity, 1.

[4] Marc Champagne, Myth, Meaning, and Antifragile Individualism: On the Ideas of Jordan Peterson (Societas Book 92) . Societas. Kindle Edition

[5] Ibid.

[6] Champagne, 1812.

[7] Ibid, 100.

[8]  Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, (Toronto: Random House, 2018) 104..

[9] Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (Routledge, 1999) 13.

[10] Maps of Meaning, Ibid.

[11] Identity, 1.

[12] Identity, 2.

[13] Identity, 3.

[14] Identity, 6-7.

[15] Identity, 7.

[16] Identity, 7.

[17] Maps of Meaning, 47.

[18] Champagne, 100.

Rereading Žižek’s Hegel in Light of the Spirit and Truth of Kenotic Love

Though Slavoj Žižek, reading Hegel as if he were an atheist must ultimately misread him, there is a great deal in Žižek’s atheistic reading which commends itself and acts as a guide, not only to Hegel, but to New Testament Christianity as understood by Hegel. The particular point where there is both convergence and divergence between an atheistic and theistic reading of Hegel concerns the meaning of Spirit and the death of God. As Žižek describes it, the Hegelian notion of the “death of God” in Christ amounts to the death of the “transcendent Beyond” as definitive of the experience of God, and this brings about the opening of reality from within (Metastases of Enjoyment, 39). Indeed, this suspension of God as other, and the immediate experience of God as immanent is key to Hegel. But Hegel’s point of departure is not simply negation, but he is focused on the Pauline concept of kenotic self-sacrifice in which one arrives at the Spirit of Christ. The kenotic sacrifice simultaneously marks the death of something “beyond” humanity and this is realized in the Spirit through imitation of Christ’s self-giving love.[1] But it is not simply the negation of God as Other, but the bringing together of the infinite and the finite in Absolute Spirit as Concept [Begriff] or a new form of speculative understanding and Truth.

In Hegel there is a double movement as the infinite negates itself and so arises in the finite and the finite negates itself and this is realization of the infinite.[2] But this is no mere feeling, but is the way of the Spirit, the way of love and of reason. As Hegel states it, “Thus the life of God and divine cognition may well be spoken of as a disporting of Love with itself; but this idea sinks into mere edification, and even insipidity, if it lacks the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labour of the negative.”[3] In Kenotic love God incorporates the finite. As Hegel puts it, “If God has the finite over against himself, then he himself is finite and limited. Finitude must be posited in God himself, not as something insurmountable, absolute, independent, but above all as this process of distinguishing that we have seen in spirit and in consciousness—a distinguishing that, because it is a transitory moment and because finitude is no truth, is also eternally self-sublating.”[4] God is not limited by the finite or infinite, as this would be something less than God.

Žižek gets this understanding half right, in that he misses the movement of Spirit as arising from both God as infinite Father, and the immanent Son. As he describes it, the Hegelian “reconciliation” is the “redoubling of the gap or antagonism” as the gap that separates opposites “is posited as inherent to one of the terms” (Parallax View, 106). “The gap that separates God from man is transposed into God himself” through the death of Christ, so “the properly dialectical trick here is that the very feature which appeared to separate me from God turns out to unite me with God” (Parallax View, 106). There is relief from the oppressive otherness of God as Christ makes God immanent, but in Hegel’s understanding there is not simply the relinquishing of the infinite for the finite, but a realization of the infinite in the finite. In “externalization” (Entäußerung), Luther’s rendering of “kenosis,” Hegel depicts the break from “immediacy” through self-sacrifice, which is the work of the Spirit experienced in the Eucharist, and in the Christian’s taking up the life and death of Christ. In Pauline terms, self-sacrifice or being crucified with Christ is to arrive at the self, and in Hegelian terms self-negation is at the heart of self-actualization.

In Žižek’s understanding, the focus is on the negative moment. The move from the legal, symbolic, totalizing religion of Judaism to Christianity, is due to the death of Christ which suspends the perverse relation to the law. In Žižek’s Hegelian/Lacanian notion of dialectic, Judaism and Christianity posit the gap either as a gap between man and God or as within God, respectively. Judaism posits the gap between God and man, as God stands outside the Law in that he cannot be properly represented within it. The holy of holies, the empty room, is isolated and separated from everyone by a series of walls emphasizing God’s absolute transcendence to the Law. God is the Other, outside of the symbolic, and yet the one who holds the symbolic together (Parallax View, 106). The death of Christ exposes the orbit of the oppressive symbolic in God as Other. In Žižek’s Hegel the death of Christ, the fulness of the work of the Trinity comes into effect as thesis/antithesis/synthesis. There is the suspension of the Other (thesis) in the death of God (antithesis). The Holy Spirit is “then posited as a symbolic, de-substantialized fiction” which exists in and through the “work of each and all” (synthesis) (Metastases of Enjoyment, 42).

Of course, the primary contention between a Christian and atheistic reading of Hegel, revolves around Spirit. In Žižek’s reading the Spirit is a fiction, which is not a dismissal of its importance, as the Spirit is an open fiction, where the movement of the Subject, in all of its phases prior to the gift of the Spirit is a necessary lie, but one that remains hidden. The hidden force of negation or death drive animates the Subject – giving life through death, but in therapy exposure of the lie, the death drive and its attendant categories, can be tapped as a source to unplug from perversion and to come to an understanding of Being as sustained in and through negation. The encounter with the death drive is a “limit-experience” which “is the irreducible/constitutive condition of the (im)possibility of the creative act of embracing a Truth-Event: it opens up and sustains the space for the Truth-Event, yet its excess always threatens to undermine it” (Ticklish Subject, 161). Behind the good, the true and the beautiful is the constitutive background of the death drive – “the Void that sustains the place in which one can formulate symbolic fictions that we call ‘truths’” (Ticklish Subject, 161). The means of manipulating the truth is through tapping into the underlying ground of the death drive and approaching the void of deception in which the symbolic truth is grounded. The death of Christ and dying with Christ provides access to this deception undergirding the truth. The truth inheres in a lie, so to refer to the Spirit as a fiction, is a new form of truth.

For Hegel, the Spirit is not a fiction but the absolute truth: “it is here maintained that this content, which the knowledge of absolute Spirit has of itself, is the absolute truth, is all truth, so that this Idea comprehends the entire wealth of the natural and spiritual world in itself, is the only substance and truth of all that constitutes this world, while it is in the Idea alone that everything has its truth, as being a moment of its essential existence.”[5] This truth, in the Spirit is a realized truth. Kenotic love unites the infinite and finite in the Concept (Absolute Spirit), which is the realization of presence (God’s and the self) and identity. Hegel slowly recognizes the inadequacies of other forms of sacrifice, which fall short of fostering the social relation, inherent to kenosis. Mere self-negation, apart from the establishment of a community of the Spirit, simply ends in self-defeat.[6] To be a living sacrifice or to “live” sacrifice is not simply a negation, but the arrival at one’s true essence.

A way to get at the divergence in regard to Spirit, is in Žižek’s focus on the death of Christ, which more or less sums up what he has to say about the gift of the Spirit and resurrection (unlike Hegel). Where for Hegel the death of Christ results in the immanence of God in the Spirit, Žižek has more to say about death, which he equates with resurrection and spirit. He repeatedly refers to Christ’s cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mk. 15.34; Mt. 27.46)., “In Lacanian terms, we are dealing with the suspension of the big Other, which guarantees the subject’s access to reality: in the experience of the death of God, we stumble upon the fact that ‘the big Other doesn’t exist’” (Metastases of Enjoyment, 42). This negation or death opens up the possibility of life in the spirit.

In describing the death of Christ, Žižek equates life and death: “Life and death here are not polar opposites, contrasts, within the same global Whole (field of reality), but the same thing viewed from a global perspective” (The Monstrosity of Christ, 292). He concludes, “The (temporal) death of Christ is his very (eternal) life ‘in becoming’” (The Monstrosity of Christ, 292). Death and life are not in some sort of “pseudo-dialectic relation as utter loss/negation (death) and its reversal into absolute life” (The Monstrosity of Christ, 292). The death of Christ is the founding of the community of the Spirit and this community is his resurrection. According to Žižek, “That is to say that Christ’s death, in the Hegelian reading, is the disappearance of disappearance. It is in itself already what becomes for itself the new community.”[7]

Christ’s death reveals the psychoanalytic ground; the Freudian moment of madness which Schelling anticipates and which Žižek comes to understand Paul to describe in Romans 7. Radical negativity, the death of Christ or death drive, is the constitutive moment of the event which serves as the ground of a Subject no longer constrained by law or ideology (the significance of the resurrection Event). Resurrection can be identified with death as they both amount to the destruction of one’s symbolic supports and the emergence of a new form of subjectivity. This new form of subjectivity is the hysteric, which Lacan and Žižek equate with Hegel – “that most sublime of hysterics.” Where the masculine orientation identifies unquestioningly with the symbolic order of the law, the hysteric questions the status of the law. So, for example, Žižek identifies hysteria with the Paul of Romans 7. The feminine, hysteric position from which Paul writes describes the necessary passage through negativity and death drive as this is the road trod by Christ himself.

In my original reading of Hegel, through Žižek and Lacan, the role of negation was key to understanding the rise of the Subject in the dynamic interplay of the three registers of symbolic, imaginary, and real. The real is the engine of negation and death which explains the negative energetics dominating fallen personhood. I think this reading is a partially true reading of Hegel, in its diagnosis of the disease, much as Žižek’s is an insightful reading of Paul’s depiction of the problem in Romans 7. But both Paul and Hegel pass beyond this negative moment. But for Žižek, nothingness and death drive precede the Subject and are the primary “substance” constituting the Subject. In Žižek’s atheistic creation ex nihilo (a creation from nothing) God and truth, subject and object, are preceded by death drive and nothingness, which he does not hesitate to call evil (Reader, 273). Lacan also describes the death drive as the attempt to go beyond the pleasure principle to the realm of excess jouissance, the pure substance of the death drive, which he also does not hesitate to call evil: “We cannot avoid the formula that jouissance is evil” (Seminar VII, 184–5). This evil is subject to manipulation but, inasmuch as it is prime reality, it is not something that can be finally and completely overcome; nor would one want to overcome it, as this nothingness is the only possible ground for the absolute freedom of the Subject. Absolute freedom and autonomy cannot, by definition, be constrained by a prior Good (in Žižek’s reading). The absolutely free, autonomous Subject can be preceded by nothing, and this is the Nothing and negation Žižek links to death drive.

But of course, if one understands Hegel is working with negation, not in an atheistic sense as a point of origin, but in the Pauline sense of kenotic self-giving love, this will account for the illness of the Subject diagnosed as more or less incurable by Lacan and Žižek, and go beyond this privileging of the negative, to kenotic self-giving love, truth and unity in the Spirit.


[1] This is the argument of William Goggin, Hegel’s Sacrificial Imagination, (University of Chicago, PhD. Thesis, 2019).

[2] Goggin, 12.

[3] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 10.

[4] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: One-Volume Edition – The Lectures of 1827. Edited by Peter Hodgson. One-Volume Ed edition. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1988, 190. Quoted in Goggin, 273.

 [5] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures On the Philosophy of Religion: Together With a Work on the Proofs of the Existence of God vol. 1, Trans. By E. B. Speirs, and J. Burdon Sanderson, (London:  Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co. Ltd., 1895) 206.

[6] Goggin, 11.

[7] See On Belief, 106 – 51; The Puppet and the Dwarf, 171; The Parallax View, 106; For They Know Not What They Do, liii.

Beyond Žižek and Milbank to Hegel and the Salvation of Persons

Though G.W.F. Hegel is sometimes portrayed as focused on rationalism,[1] what holds his philosophy and his conception of Christianity together, is his focus on personhood. Knowledge and reason do not exist apart from the personal but are grounded in the divine Person: “Knowledge is here accordingly no immediate knowledge of a corporeal object, but knowledge of God; God is the absolutely universal Object; He is not any kind of particularity, He is the most universal Personality.”[2] In turn, the development of human personality is in conjunction with the Person of God found in the Trinity, in which God’s kenotic self-giving through the Son and Spirit immerses him in the life of the world. This is the truth of every personality: “In friendship and love I give up my abstract personality and thereby win it back as concrete. The truth of personality is found precisely in winning it back through this immersion, this being immersed in the other.”[3] Human personality knows itself as and through the divine Person as “by virtue of his fundamental nature,” man “knows himself as infinite Personality.”[4] Hegel equates Spirit and person but not with the abstract notion of person, as only in “love and friendship” does the person arise and maintain himself, thus achieving true subjectivity – “which is its personality.”[5]

In the argument of Robert Williams, for Hegel, personhood is central to understanding God and spirit.[6] Spirit is personhood for Hegel, and divine and human personhood united in Spirit is redemption. Divine and human personhood unified or synthesized in the Spirit unifies not only the Divine and human but overcomes the differences in which humanity is alienated from God. Forgiveness or redemption in reconciliation is the movement between divinity and non-divinity in which the gap separating them (evil, according to Hegel) is overcome. Reconciliation is movement from both sides of the gap, in which God indwells humanity and humanity is taken up into God. Christ as creator and creature inaugurates the movement completed in the Spirit, in which the divine indwells the non-divine and the non-divine inhabits divinity.

In Ursula Roessiger’s account of Hegel, “By their respective involvement in other-being, both the divine and the non-divine are transfigured such that reconciliation (the winning back of one’s personality as concrete) is possible.”[7] This is the way Hegel launches his work on Religion, by bringing together human thought and Spirit as constitutive of persons: “Speaking generally, it is through thought, concrete thought, or, to put it more definitely, it is by reason of his being Spirit, that man is man; and from man as Spirit proceed all the many developments of the sciences and arts, the interests of political life, and all those conditions which have reference to man s freedom and will.”[8] Human freedom and creativity flow from the fact that humankind is Spirit, and by Spirit Hegel makes reference to the essence of God shared with humanity.

This essence, or the lifting up of the creaturely to the divine has God going outside of his transcendence (through Christ and the Spirit) to humanity, and humanity surpassing itself into divinity (through Christ and the Spirit). The terms “thought” and “consciousness” refer directly to the experience of God, in which humanity arrives at divinity: “God is the beginning of all things, and the end of all things. As all things proceed from this point, so all return back to it again. He is the centre which gives life and quickening to all things, and which animates and preserves in existence all the various forms of being.”[9] Hegel lists “human relations, activities, and pleasures, and all the ways in which these are intertwined; all that has worth and dignity for man, all wherein he seeks his happiness, his glory, and his pride, finds its ultimate centre in religion, in the thought, the consciousness, and the feeling of God.”[10] The experience of God in human thought and creativity, completing what it means to be human, is through the Spirit. The spirit occupied with this end sheds the limitations of finiteness and is related to the infinite and to freedom (Personhood).

This is an unfolding and dynamic reality, but it is not, as Slavoj Žižek has pictured it, an emptying out of divinity. Žižek’s death-of-God theology is aimed at getting rid of the Otherness of God by getting rid of God, having Christ’s death signify the end of transcendence. But Hegel gets rid of this oppressive otherness by synthesizing transcendence and immanence, divine and human, in the kenotic love of God definitive of Trinity, which overflows to all of creation. This dawning of the Spirit over all things is the unfolding of creation and history, in which God’s Trinitarian self-relation gathers the world into its embrace.  

Žižek may accurately portray the common understanding of transcendence: a God who is immovable, impassable, Other, imposing, and beyond material reality. “Do those who call themselves ‘Christians’ not prefer to stay with the comfortable image of God sitting up there, benevolently watching over our lives, sending us his son as a token of his love, or, even more comfortably, just with some depersonalized Higher Force?”[11] Hegel, it is true, rejects this notion of transcendence, but not to get rid of the category, but to conceive of God as fulfilling his role as Creator through creation (how could it be otherwise). This introduces a dynamic possibility into God, but it is a simple acknowledgement of the reality portrayed in creation and redemption. Yes, God is becoming “all in all,” and this is a process, but one which does not negate eternality. God’s personhood is completed in Christ, the incarnation, the giving of the Spirit, but this is always who God is.

John Milbank, on the other hand, argues that Hegel cannot accept the paradox of the hypostatic union, and that with Protestant theology as a whole, seeks to immanentize God. He seems to accede to Žižek’s atheistic interpretation of Hegel:

So the crucial thing at issue between myself and Žižek is the question of the interpretation of Christianity. I wish to argue that he concludes that atheist Christianity is true Christianity only because he accepts a dialectical (Lutheran, Behmenist, Kantian, Hegelian) version of Christian doctrine as the most coherent. By contrast, I claim that there is a radically Catholic humanist alternative to this, which sustains genuine transcendence only because of its commitment to incarnational paradox.[12]

Milbank conflates Hegel, Protestantism, and atheism, despite Hegel’s appeal to a broad spectrum of thought, incorporating specifically Catholic theology (for instance, Eckhartian mysticism) and Catholic mysticism and spirituality into his thought. Yet, Milbank seeks to promote a paradoxical/Catholic logic which can maintain tension between contingency and necessity, while he claims Hegelian Protestantism will collapse into either of these two poles. As Roessiger argues, this reduction of Hegel by Milbank as well as Žižek, is mistaken: “there is room for transcendence and paradoxical reasoning in Hegel’s account, both of which suggest that Hegel’s account of religion is theistic, and even mystical, rather than atheistic.”[13] 

The way of the Spirit in Hegel, in spite of Milbank’s reduction of it to pure transcendence (closed within itself) and Žižek’s reduction to pure immanence, is Hegel’s attempt to mediate and synthesize these realities. Hegel would overcome the impasse of the Enlightenment, a problem with which Žižek and Milbank leave him. Hegel describes the work of Kant, Fichte and Jacobi, as giving rise to a faith which can only desire the absolute while denying any possible knowledge of it. As a result, “At the end of the enlightenment we are left with two corpses: faith and reason.”[14] Hegel describes the death of reason as a departure from religion or Christianity, which means “victorious Reason is no longer Reason. The new born peace that hovers triumphantly over the corpse of Reason and faith, uniting them as the child of both, has as little of Reason in it as it has of authentic faith.”[15] Reason limited to the finite is presumed incapable of knowing God, and faith is reduced to worship of the unknown. Faith without reason and reason without faith are both dead.

The attempt to rescue Christianity through rationalism, is not Hegel’s but the Enlightenment project, which reduces God to the abstraction of deism, completely rational, lawful and absent. The embrace of reason, not through faith but in scientism and natural theology, leaves an impersonal God of the gaps, in which God is ultimately excluded, as the gaps, in the workings of the machine, are closed. Hegel is attacking this negative theology (God as unknowable and beyond reason) and posing against it the revelation which constitutes Christianity (the revealing of a Person). Hegel, working from a Johannine and New Testament understanding sees Christianity as disclosing and sharing the divine reality (I have explained this here). God in Christ, through the Spirit, is open to being known and comprehended. “This knowledge of Spirit for itself or actually, as it is in itself or potentially, is the being in-and-for-itself of Spirit as exercising knowledge, the perfect, absolute religion, in which it is revealed what Spirit, what God is: this is the Christian religion.”[16]

As he goes on to explain, “revealed religion is manifested religion because in it God has become wholly manifest.” No longer does God dwell in darkness or secrecy, as in Spirit He is made known and this is the meaning of Spirit. “Here, then, is the consciousness of the developed conception of Spirit, of reconciliation, not in beauty, in joyousness, but in the Spirit.”[17] God and reality are not subject to caprice or darkness, but are revealed, manifest, and made known: “that is, in the eternal reason, wisdom of God; it is the notion of the reality or fact itself, the divine notion, the notion of God Himself, which determines itself to enter on this development, and has set its goal before it.”[18] God has entered into the world and made Himself, the ground and notion of reality, manifest, and human consciousness is the center of this manifestation, in which God shows himself in thought as Spirit. Knowing this Person is on the order of all personal knowing, in which the two become one united in a singular Spirit.

What distinguishes man from the animals is Spirit, that is “he is consciousness” but he attains to this consciousness or Spirit only “when he withdraws himself out of immediate identity with the particular state of the moment.”[19] Only by negating or arising above the natural and immediate to the Spirit does man come to God and to the fulness of his own personhood. As Roessiger describes, “the expression ‘God is love’ is meant to encapsulate the entire eternal movement of spirit by demonstrating that spirit’s activity is bound up with the special kind of reconciliation achieved within the loving exchange.” So too man in self-giving love comes to self-consciousness, not in the self, but through friendship and love of the other. Forgiveness and love are “immersion into other-being, the giving of oneself over completely to the other.”[20] This marks the passage into infinite personhood.

In so doing, man achieves the thought of God and it is in this thought that “all the distinctions of the arts and sciences and of the endless interweaving of human relationships, habits and customs, activities, skills, and enjoyments – find their ultimate center” that is “in the one thought of God.”[21] In the thought of this Person flows all personhood and creativity. “It is in thinking that humanity truly exists for the first time. The universal object, the essence of the object, is for thinking, and since in religion God is the object, he is such essentially for thinking.”[22] To be human is to think, and the highest thought, God, brings humanity into the fulness of personhood.


[1] Slavoj Žižek describes this view of Hegel in the following manner: “Hegel as the absurd ‘Absolute Idealist’ who ‘pretended to know everything,’ to possess Absolute Knowledge, to read the mind of God, to deduce the whole of reality out of the self- movement of (his) mind—the image which is an exemplary case of what Freud called Deck- Erinnerung (screen- memory), a fantasy- formation intended to cover up a traumatic truth.” Slavoj Žižek, “The Fear of Four Words: A Modest Plea for a Hegelian Reading of Christianity,” Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 27.

[2] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures On the Philosophy of Religion: Together With a Work on the Proofs of the Existence of God vol. 1, Trans. By E. B. Speirs, and J. Burdon Sanderson, (London:  Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co. Ltd., 1895) 121.

[3] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 3, edited by Peter C. Hodgson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 285-6. Cited in Ursula Roessiger, A Metaphysics of Faith and Reason: Mystical and Trinitarian Elements in Hegel’s Philosophy of Religion, (University of Pennsylvania, PhD Thesis, 2017) 43. LPR 3, 1827, E285-286 G210-211.

[4] Philosophy of Religion 1, 230.

[5] Philosophy of Religion 3, 194, Cited in Roessiger, 43.

[6] Robert R. Williams, Hegel on the Proofs and Personhood of God: Studies in Hegel’s Logic and Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[7]  Roessiger, 18.

[8] Lectures On the Philosophy of Religion 1, 1-2.

[9] Ibid, 2.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Žižek, Monstrosity of Christ,  25.

[12] Milbank, Monstrosity of Christ, 117.

[13] Roessiger, 107.

[14] Ibid, 29.

[15] G.W. F. Hegel, Faith and Knowledge, translated by Walter Cerf and H.S. Harris (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977), 55. Cited in Roessiger, 30.

[16] Philosophy of Religion 1, 83-84.

[17] Ibid, 84-85.

[18] Ibid, 85.

[19] Ibid, 134.

[20] Roessiger, 51-52.

[21] Philosophy of Religion 3, 84. Cited in Roessiger, 29.

[22] Philosophy of Religion, 3, 189. Cited in Roessiger, 32.

From Žižek to Bulgakov: Dividedness as the Entry Point of Kenotic Love

One of the tragedies of reducing atonement to a legal theory (penal substitution or divine satisfaction), beyond the low or evil view of God and the shallow view of the human plight, is the loss of the gospel diagnosis of the human problem. It was through the work of Friedrich Hegel that an alternative, a personal or psychological theory was posed (preserved, in the West) which bore deep resonance with an Eastern understanding. Thus, it is no surprise that Sergius Bulgakov utilizes Hegel and German idealism in his theology. Slavoj Žižek utilizes Hegel in his psychoanalytic theory and theological understanding, posing a parallel understanding (which might be read as a development of an alternative to Western theories of atonement). Bulgakov and Žižek present parallel notions of the human predicament, both rendering the human problem and its solution in a psychological/theological idiom. Žižek’s atheism is an obvious delimitation in describing a cure, but even so, kenotic love (which in Žižek’s version has no ontological ground, and though acknowledged is anomalous to his system) is definitive of the solution and an indicator of an alternative understanding of the self.

Where the legal idiom is taken as primary, the split or gap or self-antagonism, such as Paul describes in Romans 7, is thought to be inherently pathological in its disjointedness. The split is a sign of sin and guilt, and salvation would amount to closing the wound of self, and achieving an inner wholeness and centeredness. The way toward this wholeness is through being made right with the law, and being integrated or interpolated into its singular voice. God as model of this goal, is singular and undivided, and the presumption is that the human image is self-contained, like God. In this understanding, rather than Trinitarianism and a kenotic understanding of the divine taking precedent, God is primarily unmoved, unchanging, distant and inaccessible.

In contrast, for Žižek the divided self is both the problem and the cure, as there is no escape from the conflict of drives or the antagonism between the registers of the self (symbolic, imaginary, and real). Antinomy is not the problem of reality but its basis. Where Kant exposes the structuring principle of the world in antinomies, Hegel presumes this is not a problem to be solved, but the very nature of reality and this is Žižek’s point of departure. “And does not Hegel, instead of overcoming this crack, radicalize it? Hegel’s reproach to Kant is that he is too gentle with things: he locates antinomies in the limitation of our reason, instead of locating them in things themselves, that is, instead of conceiving reality-in-itself as cracked and antinomic.”[1]

In one of his sustained engagements of the human predicament in light of German idealism, The Parallax View, Žižek describes the gap within thought and being in a series of systems notable for their irresolvable difference.   The gap that exists between the conscious and unconscious is one that repeats itself in a series that Žižek maintains constitutes human reality.  There is the gap between the individual and the social, the ontological gap between the ontic and the transcendental-ontological, there is the wave-particle duality of quantum physics, and the gap between the face and the skull in neurobiology, and the gap which is the real. The perceived gap or difference is constitutive of “reality” and closure of the gap or dissolution of dissonance, the exposure of the primordial lie, would amount to a dissolving of this perceived reality. The goal is not to overcome the gap but to conceive it in its “becoming” and thus manipulate it.[2] So, one should learn to enjoy their symptom rather than cure it, as the symptom is the reality of the Subject. There is a sense in which Bulgakov would concur.

Bulgakov, likewise see antinomies and division as characterizing reality, but he sees this “crack in reality” as indicating the kenotic love of God (kenotic love as an ontology). Both Žižek and Bulgakov are following Hegel in this understanding, but Žižek would ontologize the absence (not love), making nothing or evil generative of all else. Death drive, or evil is subject to manipulation but, inasmuch as it is prime reality, it cannot be completely overcome; nor would one want to overcome it, as this nothingness is the only possible ground for the freedom of the Subject. The absolutely free, autonomous Subject can be preceded by nothing, and this is the Nothing and negation Žižek links to death drive. The Subject arises from and has “life” through this power of absence. In his account of Schelling, Žižek presumes Schelling reads this understanding into God himself: “A whole new universe is disclosed here: the universe of pre-logical drives, the dark ‘ground of Being’ which dwells even in the heart of God as that which is ‘in God more than God himself.’ For the first time in the history of human thought, the origin of Evil is located not in humanity’s Fall from God, but in a split in the heart of God himself.”[3]

Bulgakov also traces the split into God, assigning it to his kenotic love, and also suggests this may entail the rise of evil: “He spares even Satan, the father of lies himself, but he defeats him on his own paths, allowing the chaff to grow together with the wheat until harvest. He ‘permits’ evil in order to protect the very foundation of creation: its freedom and self-determination.”[4] God does not impetuously destroy evil, as the apostles would at Samaria.

The relation of the Creator to creation in ‘synergism’ always remains meek and restrained, the kenosis of God in creation. This kenosis is determined by the union of God’s omniscience and wisdom in relation to the paths of the world, but with the self-limitation of His omnipotence. God waits for creaturely freedom to say: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word’ (Luke 1:38).[5]

To seek to overcome difference, to violently destroy evil, to force the hand of God, is not the solution but the problem.

Both Žižek and Bulgakov read Hegel’s critique of Kant, not as a denial or overcoming of the Kantian antinomies, but pointing toward the rupture within the Absolute itself. Bulgakov’s idea of kenotic love is a reflection of Hegel’s attempt to describe the dynamics of the kenotic Subject, and Bulgakov and Žižek share this meta-psychological idiom in their understanding of the human Subject. According to Bulgakov, “This antinomical task makes the I into a riddle for itself, into an insoluble charade. That which […] appeared […] to be the most reliable and most self-evident […] fulcrum turns out to be situated at the point of an antinomical knife, to be a living paradox, which, obviously, cannot be understood from out of itself.”[6]

Like Žižek, Bulgakov does not presume to resolve the paradox, but affirms paradoxical antinomies as a pointer to a reality beyond the self-enclosed I.

In antinomies there is given experiential, graphic proof of the supra-rational character of being, or, what is the same thing, of the insufficiency of the powers of reason for adequately comprehending it. The presence of antinomies inevitably leads us to the conclusion that the current state of being is transitional, unfinished, and, in this obvious incompleteness, it now reveals openings to different possibilities of consciousness.[7]

Both Bulgakov and Žižek see the attempt to resolve the antinomies or to overcome them, as inherent to the human disease. For Bulgakov, this is the tragedy of philosophy and for Žižek this defines the end point of philosophy reached by Kant: “the original motivation for doing philosophy is a metaphysical one, to provide an explanation of the totality of noumenal reality; as such, this motivation is illusory, it prescribes an impossible task” or it describes the human disease.[8]

As Jack Pappas puts it, for Bulgakov the split within the Absolute is not an indicator of absence, evil or pathology but serves as a sign of the resolution of “the loving self-donation of the Father’s very substance to the Son-Word and the Spirit, a dynamic upsurge of desire whose ens realissimum finds expression in loving relation to others.”[9] The giving of the Father to the Son, and the outpouring of the Son for the world, realizing the kenotic giving of the Spirit, is a Trinitarian movement definitive of God and of the completion of human-kind in the image of God. This is the heart of Bulgakov’s notion of divine Sophia: “Sophia as the substance of divine self-consciousness is itself the eternal reality of the Absolute in its self-revelation, the identification of the differentiated Father, Son, and Spirit in mutual recognition.”[10] As humans enter in to the divine wisdom, like their Savior, kenotic love is realized as the fulness of personhood.

This poses a different understanding of the human predicament as outlined in Romans 7. Dividedness, alienation, disassociation, point to the cure of self-giving love, moving beyond the self and acknowledging the fulness of the self in relation to the Other. Bulgakov offers a counterproposal to Žižek, “one which refuses to identify self-sacrifice (kenotic love) with loss and fragility with negation. Indeed, Bulgakov’s Sophia indicates that the essential fracture which yields differentiation is not merely an open wound concealed by a veneer of hysterical self-deception, but rather a donative self-offer that produces the possibility of relation and expressive re-identification in otherness.”[11] The wound of self is not healed through closure, but is the opening to the Other, the healing of which is in taking up the cross in kenotic love.

(Sign up for the course, The Theology of Maximus the Confessor with Jordan Wood. https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings. The course will run from 2024/3/25–2024/5/17 and will meet on Saturdays.)


[1] Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (p. 8). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

[2] Slavoj Žižek, Parallax View (The MIT Press; 2009) 6-7.

[3] Zizek, Less than Nothing, 12.

[4] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (p. 233). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sergii Bulgakov, The Tragedy of Philosophy: Philosophy & Dogma (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2020), 125. Quoted from Jack Louis Pappas, “Sergii Bulgakov’s Fragile Absolute: Kenosis, Difference, and Positive Disassociation” in Building the House of Wisdom: Sergii Bulgakov and Contemporary Theology: New Approaches and Interpretations (Aschendorf

[7] Sergius Bulgakov, The Sophiology of Death: Essays on Eschatology: Personal, Political, Universal (pp. 1-2). Cascade Books. Kindle Edition.

[8] Zizek, Less than Nothing, 10.

[9] Pappas, 120.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Pappas, 121.

Reassessing Hegel in Light of Maximus

My reading of Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel has been through the work of Slavoj Žižek, which obviously fails to grasp the theological centeredness, or even the possibility of the orthodox Christ centeredness, of Hegel’s thought. I realized my short sighted treatment of Hegel when Jordan Wood suggested in conversation (a conversation which will be published on Saturday, 3/16), Hegel is in line with the outworking of the Origenist, Maximian, theological project and is an orthodox Christian. This goes against the overwhelming consensus, and it is no surprise that even those of us who might be inclined to read Hegel in this light, have not done so (due to the consensus).

For thinkers like Derrida, Levinas, Adorno, Deleuze and Bataille, there is the “metaphysical” Hegel who, in Robert Pippin’s phrase, served as these philosophers whipping boy.[1] According to Gavin Hyman, “This was what has become known as the ‘textbook’ or ‘cliché’ Hegel, a caricature our ‘new’ readers (e.g., Rowan Williams) believe to be far removed from what is warranted by Hegel’s own texts.”[2] Far from being a postmodern Hegel, this is the modern, rationalist Hegel. “This is a Hegel too who represents the apogee of modernity’s omniscient aspirations. His all-seeing System, crowned with the concept of Absolute Knowledge, seems to deliver modernity’s totalising dream. It appears to be a ‘God’s eye view’ recast in the terms of a secularised modernity, to which all is subordinated, and in light of which all is intelligible.”[3]  

Žižek’s is the opposite of this reading, in that he sees Hegel as the truth of the human condition, which is ultimately devoid of the metaphysical form of truth, in that it is purely symbolic and pragmatic. According to Pippin, “Žižek’s ambitious goal is to argue that the former characterization of Hegel attacks a straw man, and that, when this is realized in sufficient detail, the putative European break with Hegel in the criticisms of the likes of Schelling, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Deleuze, and the Freudians, will look very different, with significantly more overlap than gaps, and this will make available a historical diagnosis very different from the triumphalist one usually attributed to Hegel.”[4]

Then in the wake of the work of Gillian Rose, thinkers such as Rowan Williams read Hegel as working within a theistic and more orthodox ontology. What may be strange in these various readings, is that Žižek’s atheistic reading is closer to Williams theistic reading than the classical text-book reading. That is the extreme atheism and theism converge at key points.

This may account for my reaction to Jordan’s suggestion. I must admit, given my own slanted reading it had not occurred to me to consider Hegel the Christian. On the other hand, my reading of Žižek, who considers his work as an extension of Hegel, lands as close to the kingdom as possible (for an atheistic materialist). Beyond this, Žižek’s insights into the human condition, are derived directly from the deep psychology posed by Hegel, which I have understood (as has Žižek) as biblical insights. Thus, it is no surprise that Hegel’s depth of insight is, as with Žižek, directly related to the Apostle Paul.

So, Hegel’s reception may not mean much given the reception of Origen and Maximus. That is, there is a form of reason and thought implied in a Maximian speculative theology, which apart from a few thinkers such as Sergius Bulgakov, has mostly been written off (Bulgakov’s appreciation of German idealism is not surprising, in this light). An apocalyptic, universal, cosmic, Christianity has also been obscured or written off. Thus, it is no surprise to realize Hegel is also misunderstood, as he is promoting a form of Christianity unrecognizable to most Christians. In turn, given that Hegel’s is the first post-foundational, post-enlightenment, postmodern philosophical/theological project, it should be no surprise that a form of thought which by-passed the enlightenment-modernist project should converge (at least in part) with his form of thought.

According to Rowan Williams, Hegel’s philosophy coincides at key points  with what has already been said by theology:

Dialectic is what theology means by the power of God, just as Verstand is what theology means by the goodness of God. Verstand says “Everything can be thought”, “nothing is beyond reconciliation”, every percept makes sense in a distinctness, a uniqueness, that is in harmony with an overall environment. It is, as you might say, a doctrine of providence, in that it claims that there can be no such thing as unthinkable contingency. But … thinking the particular in its harmonies, thinking how the particular makes sense, breaks the frame of reference in which we think the particular. God’s goodness has to give way to God’s power – but to a power which acts only in a kind of self-devastation. And, says Hegel, the “speculative” stage to which dialectic finally leads us is what religion has meant by the mystical, which is not, he insists, the fusion of subject and object but the concrete (historical?) unity or continuity or followability of what Verstand alone can only think fragmentarily or episodically.[5]

According to Gavin, “Williams shows how what Hegel speaks about philosophically is said religiously by the language of theology.” The deep grammar of theology “is what enables the truths of philosophy to appear; we would not be able to perceive the speculative truth of philosophy outside the light of the divine truth of theology.”[6] The modernist project came to an impasse, and Hegel affects a rescue of philosophical thought through theology. Thus, in William’s estimate, Hegel’s thought is an extension of a speculative theology.

Far from Hegel being an atheistic philosopher (per Žižek), it can be argued (and has) that his thought and reason begin with Christ, and specifically with the kenotic self-giving love of Christ described by Paul. Hegel turns, as the introduction to his early works indicates, from the law of Kant to the “Pantheism of Love.” “What Hegel rejected in framing the Pantheism of Love, he never reaffirmed later on. He found a new logic, a new rationalism to solve the problem insoluble by the rationalism he had overcome in his earlier years.”[7]

 In his turn to love, he saw the inadequacies of the law, focused as it is on guilt and punishment. “A law has been made; if the thing opposed to it has been destroyed, there still remains the concept, the law; but it then expresses only the deficiency, only a gap, because its content has in reality  been annulled; and it is then called a penal law. This form of law (and the law’s content) is the direct opposite of life because it signalizes the destruction of life. . .[8] Law speaks only of destruction of life and perpetual guilt. “For the trespasser always sees himself as a trespasser; over his action as a reality he has no power, and this his reality is in contradiction with his consciousness of the law.”[9] In the key text “The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate” Hegel broaches the alternative to law in kenotic sacrificial understanding. As the title of his heading indicates, “Love is the only thing which transcends penal justice.”[10] He seems to directly contradict a Calvinistic notion of penal substitution: “For this reason it is also contradictory to contemplate satisfying the law by punishing one man as a representative of many like criminals, since, in so far as the others are looked on as suffering punishment in him, he is their universal, their concept; and the law, as ordering or punishing, is only law by being opposed to a particular.”[11] Instead of seeing Jesus as satisfying the law, Hegel suggests love is entry into a completely different order: “Jesus makes a general demand on his hearers to surrender their rights, to lift themselves above the whole sphere of justice or injustice by love, for in love there vanish not only rights but also the feeling of inequality and the hatred of enemies. . .”[12] Hegel does not see a direct continuity between law and love since “law was opposed to love,” not “in its content but in its form.”[13] Love is of the Spirit, and it is Spirit alone that “can undo what has been done.”[14]

Hegel’s point of departure, like Luther and Paul, is captured in Philippians 2:7: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interest of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself [ἑαυτòν ἐκένωσεν], taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:4-8). Hegel passes from seeing Christ as the embodiment of Kant’s categorical imperative and Kantian ethics, to the centrality of self-giving love described by Paul.

According to William Goggin, “Hegel’s retrieval of kenosis as the reflexive representation of sacrifice forms the core feature of the imaginary syntheses of religion as they are elevated into the conceptual necessity of philosophical comprehension.”[15] Hegel’s project is a reconceptualization of the atonement, which seeks to make cognizant the self-giving love of Christ. The meaning of the death of Christ in kenosis is the basis on which he turns to a revaluation of negativity – of tarrying with the negative. It is not any death, or death in general, but Christ’s death with which Hegel is concerned. “As seen in the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Hegel’s awareness of the pivotal role of kenotic sacrifice in the development of his system does not wane with time. If anything, it would seem, Hegel becomes increasingly clear on this point.”[16] As Hegel puts it, “When it becomes comprehended spiritually, this very death becomes a healer, the focal point of reconciliation.”[17] It is healing, not because it reconciles with the law, but because it works an immediate reconciliation in the Spirit.

Here, one can embrace Žižek’s understanding, that the first step in the Hegelian reading is suspending the punishing superego equated with God. Hegel goes to some length to demonstrate, there is no final reconciliation in the realm of law, retribution and punishment. While one might “picture,” as opposed to experience, “satisfaction” of the law, Hegel points to the “realization” of reconciliation. “Representing the kenotic self-sacrifice of God, the death of God points the way to a sacrifice of God as representation, to the negation of the absoluteness of the reflective, representational standpoint itself.”[18] The Christian in Christ can pass beyond representational picture thinking and experience, within herself, the reality of reconciliation.

Hegel describes alienation as an experience of the self, and in turn his project is to describe reconciliation. “The disparity which exists in consciousness between the ‘I’ and the substance which is its object is the distinction between them, the negative in general… Now although this negative appears at first as a disparity between the ‘I’ and its object, it is just as much the disparity of substance with itself. Thus what seems to happen outside of it, to be an activity directed against it, is really its own doing, and substance shows itself to be essentially subject.”[19] The self objectifies itself, as in the object in the mirror, creating an inner antagonism, cured only by self-giving love realized in the Spirit. There is an enacted unity in the Spirit as the I and its object, existence and essence, are unified. Through kenotic self-negation, Spirit is realized and grasps the self as its own – with the self becoming what it essentially is. There is an end to the antagonistic self-relation through the reconciliation of the Spirit. According to Hegel,

Spirit has two sides which are presented as two converse propositions: one is this, that substance alienates itself from itself and becomes self-consciousness; the other is the converse, that self-consciousness alienates itself from itself and gives itself the nature of a Thing, or makes itself a universal Self. Both sides have in this way encountered each other, and through this encounter their true union has come into being. The self-emptying [Entäußerung] of substance, its growth into self-consciousness, expresses the transition into the opposite…that substance is in itself self-consciousness. Conversely the self-emptying [Entäußerung] of self-consciousness expresses this, that it is in itself the universal essence…two moments through whose reciprocal self-emptying [Entäußerung] each become the other, Spirit comes into existence as this their unity.[20]

This resonates with Paul, Lacan and Žižek. Lacan and Žižek describe their psychoanalytic understanding in conjunction with Romans 7, in which self-consciousness forms in an alienation between the object or thing in the mirror, reducing to an object, viewed from the subject position. The I is split, and as Paul explains in Romans 8, it is only in the work of the Spirit that the self experiences reconciliation with self and God.

Christianity is “revelatory,” according to Hegel in that the problem of overcoming the antitheses of understanding is realized in passage into Absolute Knowledge. But Absolute Knowledge is not an abstraction or picture thinking but is the end point of a kenotically realized identity. “It is the moment of kenotic sacrifice that unites Substance with Subject.”[21] The I must die with Christ, in a kenotic self-giving love, which does not turn from death and sacrifice, but is a taking up of the cross of love.

Given this reading, one can quote Žižek’s favorite passage from Hegel, and recognize, Hegel is not describing death per se, but the death of Christ as accomplishing a healing reconciliation on the order of theosis.

“[T]he Life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather life that endures [erträgt] and maintains itself in it [in ihm sich erhält]. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment [Zerissenheit], it finds itself…Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being. This power is identical with what we earlier called Subject, which by giving determinateness an existence in its own element supersedes abstract immediacy, i.e., the immediacy which barely is, and thus is authentic substance: that being or immediacy whose mediation is not outside of it but which is this mediation itself.”[22]

The Subject of being is nothing less than divine or a participation in divinity. As Goggin states it, “Hegel understands his idealism as the conceptual clarification of Christianity. Hegel was, in good faith, interpreting Christian dogma as an idealist project, as depicting a logic of kenotic sacrifice that reshaped the space of reasons and made possible the emergence of the speculative system.”[23] This is not a wholesale endorsement of Hegel, nor is it to suggest that Hegel has fully achieved his goal of making kenosis the ground of cognition, but this can be said to have been his goal. This alone calls for a reassessment of Hegel.   

(Sign up for the course, The Theology of Maximus the Confessor with Jordan Wood. https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings. The course will run from 2024/3/25–2024/5/17 and will meet on Saturdays.)


[1] Robert B. Pippin, Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 4. Quoted in Gavin Hyman, “The ‘New Hegel’ and the Question of God,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory (Spring 2020) 19:2, 276.

[2] Gavin, 276.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Robert Pippin, ‘Back to Hegel?’ Mediations 26.1-2 (Fall 2012-Spring 2013), p. 8. Quoted in Gavin, 277.

[5] Rowan Williams, ‘Logic and Spirit in Hegel’ in Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology, ed. Mike Higton (London: SCM Press, 2007), pp. 37-38. Cited in Gavin, 279-280.

[6] Gavin, 280,

[7] Friedrich Hegel, On Christianity: Early Theological Writings, Trans. By T. M. Knox with and Introduction and Fragments translated by Richard Kroner (New York: Harper Torch Books, 1948) 12.

[8] Hegel, On Christianity, 225.

[9] Hegel, On Christianity, 227.

[10] Hegel, On Christianity, 224.

[11] Hegel, On Christianity, 226.

[12] Hegel, On Christianity, 218.

[13] Hegel, On Christianity, 225.

[14] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Vorlesungen, Band 5, 246; Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, 467. Cited in William Ezekiel Goggin, Hegel’s Sacrificial Imagination, (PhD Dissertation, The University of Chicago, 2019) 284.

[15] Goggin, 278.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Vorlesungen. Ausgewählte Nachschriften und Manuskripte Band 5, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion, 249; Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Press, 467-468 (Translation modified). Cited in Goggin, 277.

[18] Goggin, 258.

[19] Hegel, Phenomenology, 21. Cited in Goggin, 244.

[20] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.  755 (Translation modified). Cited in Goggin, 255-256.

[21] Goggin, 255.

[22] Hegel, Phenomenology, 19. Cited in Goggin, 243.

[23] Goggin, 235.

Is The Secular Another Form of the Symbolic?: Charles Taylor and Paul’s Gospel

Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, provides three possible meanings for secularity: (1.) a divorce between religion and politics, as public spaces have mostly been emptied of God. (2.) religious belief and practice are no longer the norm. (3.) belief in God is one option among many, and may not be the easiest option.[1] While his is the most authoritative work on the secular, and at some level is an irrefutable recounting of the emergence of the peculiarities of modernity, nonetheless each of these meanings have been challenged. As Jon Butler bluntly states it, “All three of Taylor’s “secularities” are problematic and probably wrong.”[2]

In regard to thesis (1.), Butler argues that in most of the world, including the United States, many if not all parts of Europe, most of the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and Latin America, it is hard to discern the divorce between religion and politics. In regard to thesis (2.) he argues, it is not at all clear that decline in belief typifies the United States, Latin America, the Middle East, or South Asia. Butler acknowledges there have been shifts with such things as the rise of conservative Protestantism, Pentecostalism (in Latin America) and decline in mainline denominations and “irritation” of traditional Catholicism.

Butler’s main argument is in regard to thesis (3.). He argues that Taylor has not made it clear for whom “conditions of belief” have changed, not accounting for the experience of ordinary people. In Butler’s critique, Taylor tends to slide unnoticeably between the realm of ideas (the realm of intellectuals) and experience (a shared imagination), blurring the difference. He suggests a category between or beyond belief and unbelief, namely “religious indifference.” At a time when public disbelief might result in punishment or death, of course, most everyone is going to profess belief, but this may hide indifference. “After the formal Christianization of the Roman Empire and well into the early modern period, unbelief and behaviors seemingly supportive of unbelief became criminal. Paganism and heresy; not just atheism, brought gruesome punishment and death. Long before Luther or Calvin, Church and government tortured, burned, and executed critics and reformers.”[3] The Church and its political backers had to resort to force and authority to sustain Christian belief long before the 1500’s, as belief did not seem to be nearly as irresistible as Taylor imagines. Apparently, it was not “virtually impossible not to believe.”  

A wide variety of literature demonstrates, in Butler’s account, that “the Church needed the support of secular authorities to sustain even a tentative, if also powerful, hold on the religious commitment of ordinary people before 1500. Rather than belief being axiomatic, as Taylor argues, it was contingent and threatened from inside as well as outside.”[4] Belief, however, was not primarily challenged by unbelief, according to Butler, as unbelief speaks of actually caring about religion. Isn’t it as Max Weber argued, that just as some are not musically inclined most may not be religiously inclined, one way or another? “In highly different ways, Taylor misses something important about ordinary religious practice—that indifference, born of many different causes, may be more important to difficulties faced by religion in many ages, including the ages Taylor insists were axiomatic for religion in the West, than unbelief and the formal expressions of irreligion that attract great thinkers.”[5]

Taylor’s project may accurately trace the history of ideas and the thoughts of intellectuals and those working within a philosophical tradition, but this does not necessarily capture the experience of the majority.

Of course, belief; unbelief; and skepticism have been the stuff of philosophical argument for centuries. But at best, indifference receives little attention and even less analysis. It shows up mainly in accounts of ordinary beliefs, attitudes, and behavior and usually in brief discussions of lay absence from religious observance, whether formal, as in church or synagogue or mosque services, or informal, as in discussion of popular leisure or otherwise ‘secular’ culture. Typically, absence, and certainly indifference, are noted, often with some alarm, but little dissected.[6]

Part of what is at stake in the reading of secularity, is what to make of the supposed post-secular. If the secular was equated with a detached rationalism, mind/body dualism, individualism, the privatization of religion (connected to individualism), and these modern categories are now collapsing in the post-modern age, does this mean there is an opening for religion and God? Or in fact, is the indication (with Butler and others) that there was always something else, perhaps something deeper at work, which secularism and its critique only touch upon? If this is the case, then the emergence of the religious in this post-secular age, raises questions about what this might mean.

In a Pauline critique of the human predicament, the shared human problem is not irreligion, levels of religious belief, or the possibility of believing otherwise (Taylor’s secularization thesis). In spite of the Protestant notion that belief or unbelief is fundamental, which in turn has given rise to conceptions of the secular (with its notions of various dualisms and private religion), Paul does not locate the fundamental human problem with religion/irreligion or belief and unbelief. For Paul the fundamental human problem is bondage to deception due to the orientation to the law. Whether the law is from God, from nature, or from the angels, is not Paul’s concern, but the problem is this symbolic order, taken as primary, creates a gap, alienating humans from God and enslaving them to a lie. The law is not itself the problem, but the primacy given to the law. This law, or symbolic order, might be connected to the Jewish law, though Paul is specifically arguing this is not simply a Jewish problem but the human problem. In turn, the divisions and dualisms that mark every human (Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female) due to their entanglement with various symbolic orders, are addressed by Jesus Christ.

Slavoj Žižek and Jacques Lacan are among those who recognize that Paul is engaging a universal and fundamental predicament, in which the human Subject is structured by this orientation. Lacanian theory is committed to the “reality” of Paul’s description of the problem, eschewing Paul’s picture of the solution in Jesus Christ. The result of this orientation, in Paul’s description, is not unlike the isolated individualism, the evacuation of the reality of God, and the creation of a polity (the city of man, this dark world, the principalities and powers) described in Taylor’s version of the secular. None of which is to deny the value of Taylor’s project, and is even an affirmation of several of the fundamental trues he has hit upon. It is simply to qualify and set this understanding in a larger frame, along with Butler, to suggest that the impetus behind the modern shares a genealogy that is universal.

The danger is that to isolate the secular as a peculiar epoch in human history, is to pit the secular against the religious in a dialectic that is not only factually wrong, but misses the manner in which the symbolic, be it sacred or secular, displaces the divine reality. That is, the conception of secularism may be the peculiar thing about the secular, and not the underlying reality called secularism. This concept is lent a force that characterizes the human tendency to assign primacy to the law or the symbolic. The danger is in reifying the secular as if it has the power claimed on its behalf, as if it is the law ordering human reality.

This shows itself in the slowly evolving undermining of Paul’s radical gospel. Where Paul pictured the Christian believer as entering a new society in the church, where the old reigning socio-cultural order does not pertain, the rise of the “secular” is simultaneous with a caving in to the primacy of this order. For the first Christians, Christ was Lord, and it was understood that professing and acting on this faith may mean death at the hands of the state. Then in a Constantinian Christianity there was a divide, with “the religious” referring to monks, friars and nuns, devoted full time to the religious life, as opposed to the “secular clergy,” who would have to occupy two distinct realms. [7]

Skipping forward 1000 years, Henry VIII becomes head of the state church “with the power of the national state embodied in the king (the state-church). It was to the King’s ‘laws and decrees’ that the subjects made absolute submission, not to the Bishop of Rome.” This in turn led to a direct contradiction of Paul’s picture of freedom from the law. Obedience to the king was equated with obedience to God, and was thus an acting out of holiness. No longer is there a departure from the reigning social order but subsumption of the church into this order. “Obedience of a servant to a master, of a wife to a husband, of a pupil to a teacher, of a subject to a prince, of lower degree to higher degree, was analogous to the obedience of a Christian to God. The whole deferential social order was wrapped in divinity and teleologically determined by God’s scheme of redemption.”[8] This church/state order is, after all, “ordained by God” (in this understanding).

The American experiment attempted to separate what Henry and history had welded together, but this separation was based on the dualism between body and soul, the same dualism which had coopted Paul’s gospel. William Penn formulated the difference in his separation of church and state:

Religion and Policy, or Christianity and Magistracy, are two distinct things, have two different ends, and may be fully prosecuted without respect one to the other; the one is for purifying, and cleaning the soul, and fitting it for a future state; the other is for Maintenance and Preserving of Civil Society, in order to the outward conveniency and accommodation of men in this World. A Magistrate is a true and real Magistrate, though not a Christian; as well as a man is a true and real Christian, without being a Magistrate.[9]

Serving God is an inward affair, and obeying the magistrate or being a magistrate in no way impinges on this inward reality. According to John Locke, “The care of Souls cannot belong to the Civil Magistrate because his power consists only in outward force: But true and saving Religion consists in the inward persuasion of the Mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.”[10]

Thus in the American experiment the state controlled the body, and religion was concerned with the inward self, and the two realms do not overlap. What this meant in practice is that the church was consigned to a “spiritual realm” which was thought not to pertain to the political. “People make an ‘inward judgement’ about truth and salvation, and on such matters one cannot be compelled to believe by outward force. There is this assumption of the inner mind as distinct from the outer body, religion being aligned with the inner working of the mind, and civil society with the outer, with the body. The magistrate has nothing to do with religion in this sense, because it is harmless to the state.”[11] It works in a way similar to State Shinto in Japan, in which one Christian described being forcibly convinced that Shintoism and honoring the Emperor were non-religious, and then he says, we were all forced to bow to the Emperor as part of Christian worship. So too in a Christianity which concedes the realm of the body to the state, obeying the laws of the state is at once non-religious and bodily, and a means of coercing obedience to “God’s ordained order.”

Though the Americans attempted to throw off the domination of the state over religion, they did so in part, by conceding to the state the bodily, outward, and coercive (violent) realms. Certainly, there was a focus on the centrality of the individual, her rights, and access to the natural law of rationality, and this along with the role of religion is a continuing tension. This might be a peculiarity of the secular, but it is a peculiarity based upon the lie of absolute individualism (an isolated, self-determined autonomy), accompanied by notions that inward and outward, body and soul, mind and body, church and state, inhabit separate realms. It is the lie the gospel would expose, but more than that it is the unreality from which it delivers.  


[1] My summary of the list from Jon Butler, “Disquieted History in A Secular Age” in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, Craig Calhoun, eds. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010) 195.

[2] Butler, 195.

[3] Butler, 200.

[4] Butler, 204.

[5] Butler, 209.

[6] Butler, 209.

[7] Timothy Fitzgerald, “Encompassing Religion, privatized religions and the invention of modern politics” in Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formation, Timothy Fitzgerald ed.  (London: Equinox Publishing, 2007) 220.

[8] Fitzgerald, 224.

[9] Penn, William. 1680. The Great Question to be Considered by the King, and this approaching Parliament, briefly proposed. and modestly discussed: (to wit) How far Religion is concerned in Policy or Civil Government, and Policy in Religion? With an Essay rightly to distinguish these great interests, upon the Disquisition of which a sufficient Basis is proposed for the firm Settlement of these Nations, to the Most probable satisfaction of the Several Interests and Parties therein. (By one who desires to give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. and to God the things that are God’s.] (microfiche). Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland. Quoted in Fitzgerald, 211.

[10] John Locke, 1689. A Letter Concerning Toleration, (2nd edn. London) 11. Quoted in Fitzgerald, 214.

[11] Fitzgerald, 214.

Experiencing God or Experiencing Nothing

For God created us in such a way that we are similar to Him (for through participation we are imbued with the exact characteristics of His goodness), and from before the ages He determined that we should exist in Him.[1]

Maximus the Confessor

Ours is a secular age in that direct experience of God is mostly unavailable. The Bible directly equates truth, wisdom, life, love, and light with Christ (and with experience of Christ), but the tendency is to soften this or to make it metaphorical. We seemingly no longer have direct access to God in the development of the virtues, in the experience of love, in the development of wisdom, or in peace of mind. To say what disrupts experience of God (the actualization of “existing in Him”), is part of an exercise in regaining this experience, but in brief, Christ is displaced as his own medium, his own reality, his own wisdom, and his own logic. Philosophy, human wisdom, human experience, and human logic (centered on nothing but themselves) become prime reality, and in Christian theology (popular and academic) Christ is made to fit an already existing frame and foundation.

Escaping the Obstacle of Ontotheology

The postmodern critique of ontotheology permanently dispels the notion that propositions, doctrine, or philosophy, can (in phallic/masculine form) “say it all” or lay its own foundation. The point is not to promote irrationality but reason cannot lay its foundations or encompass prime reality. What this has meant for theology, is that the person of Christ as foundation takes on a singular significance – Christ is a logic and reality that cannot be fit to an already existing frame or laid on another foundation. Examples of the significance for theology of the turn from ontotheology are the work of Stanley Hauerwas (in his turn to ethics), James McClendon (in his development of a practical theology), a return to the work of Karl Barth, and in Catholicism the new theology (nouvelle théologie) focused on escaping scholasticism. Historically the shift might be characterized as the difference between Origenism and Augustinianism, or in broad terms (too broad, but containing some truth) the difference between eastern and western theology. The general turn is one that joins faith and practice, and as with my work on the doctrine of sin and salvation, the impetus is to describe the work of Christ in real world terms.  

Realization of Christ as Prime Reality and as Salvation

I presume the defeat of sin and evil in salvation is describable phenomenologically and psychologically. First, in Christ’s confrontation with sin and death, we can describe his defeat of these categories in historical, psychological, systemic, and corporate terms. Second, we can describe incorporation into Christ and defeat of the categories of sin and evil. The implication of the incarnation is that there is a universally shared human predicament and resolution addressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Two things come together – the plane of human reality is a final reality in that God in Christ enters this plane of reality, and the universally shared failure addressed by the incarnation is corrected or being made right on this plane of reality. This is not to exclude mystery, but we can describe how the mystery of Christ takes hold in life, in love, in virtue, and in wisdom. We can, as with the historical person of Christ, experience and describe what it means for divinity and humanity to be joined in one person. This is the profound truth of Christ that exceeds every other truth. There is no logic or reason that can begin to approach this truth – it is a truth of a different order.

A practical way in which the singularity of Christ shows itself is that the Christian faith provides a diagnosis and solution to the human predicament that is unique, especially as it involves the incarnation. Even before consideration of the incarnation, a distinguishing mark of the Judeo/Christian faith is the seriousness of embodiment and death. This is one of the things that ties Judaism and Christianity together – the reality of history and embodiment. The death and resurrection of Christ addresses the human predicament, not by introducing another reality but by resolving the problem of death through resurrection. This contrasts with most every other religion, (many of which deny death by one means or another). Either there is innate immortality of the soul (downplaying embodiment), or material reality is unreal (as in Hinduism it is maya), or people do not stop living at death but survive as disembodied spirits or souls (as in animistic religion and ancestor worship). The problem of death is not to be solved on another plane of reality (or through death denial) but through incarnation, death, and resurrection.

The Subject of the Lie  

The resolution to the problem of death is aimed at formation of a new Subject. Theology and psychology merge in the description of a peculiar form of the human Subject which exists by virtue of a primordial disturbance – the Subject of the lie. Sin creates a wound or cut or obstacle in nature which constitutes one form of human subjectivity. Into the realm of immediate sense experience and “natural” animal copulating, a gap or obstacle has been introduced which constitutes the Subject. Sin, in this understanding, is not something which Adam or anyone “falls into,” as if they were fully functioning Subjects prior to the event; rather in the deception described in Scripture and psychoanalysis, sin is the passage into human subjectivity (the Subject that is self-constituting).

In brief, Jacques Lacan takes up the Freudian death drive and argues the human Subject arises around pure negation or absence, such that evil, death and absence are originary. Slavoj Žižek extends this, through Friedrich Schelling, to demonstrate how God and all things arise from an originary evil (Immanuel Kant’s “radical evil”). Surprisingly, Augustine, who also develops the notion of evil as privation, points to radical evil at the heart of the human Subject.

Augustine depicts an ineffable absence within himself. His depiction of stealing pears is clearly modeled after the Genesis story of the fall, as he indicates: “How like that servant of yours who fled from his Lord and hid in the shadows!”[2] As Pantanteleimon Manoussakis indicates, “Contrary to Greek ethics, evil for Augustine is not a mistaken choice, vice is not ignorance, and sin is not a category of epistemology that could be regulated and rectified by degrees of knowledge.” Augustine does not reference an outer temptation or anything on the order of the serpent. He is fully aware that his action was evil. “In fact he goes a step further – and this adds a whole new dimension on the problem of evil – for his theft lacked any reasonable motive; his transgression was “for no reason … there was no motive for my malice except malice.”[3]

Augustine’s description of evil goes against the Aristotelian notion that every human action is aimed at some good. “Not only there was [sic] no good that motivated Augustine’s action in the garden of Thagaste, but not even what Aristotle would call the apparent good: ‘No, I mean more: my theft lacked even the sham, shadowy beauty with which even vice allures us.’”[4] Evil is not accounted for, but is its own cause. It is the groundless ground. It has no explanation and is not intelligible and to imagine otherwise would, in Augustine’s estimate, amount to a defense of the necessity of evil.

Ontotheology, propositionalism, Platonism, foundationalism, or the fallen Subject, are made of the same stuff as Augustine’s thieving Subject. To imagine that Christ can be set on another foundation is to assign ontological priority to this nonentity.

Christ the Foundation and Wisdom of God: Experiencing God

This then sends us back to the Bible and patristic sources, in order to describe the peculiar logic and experience found in Christ. According to Maximus the Confessor, Christ is not a truth among other trues but is the foundation of truth:

For the Word, who created all things, and who is in all things according to the relation of present to the future, is comprehended both in type and in truth, in which He is present both in being and manifestation, and yet He is manifested in absolutely nothing, for inasmuch as He transcends the present and the future, He transcends both type and truth, for He contains nothing that might be considered contrary to Him. But truth has a contrary: falsehood. Therefore, the Word in whom the universe is gathered transcends the truth, and also, insofar as He is man and God, He truly transcends all humanity and divinity.[5]

The Word has his own “being” and “manifestation.” There is no natural logic or philosophical logic or natural reason which can comprehend the fact of the God/Man. This is not a truth established over and against falsehood, as there is no “contrary” dialectic which establishes this truth. This is a logic all its own and an experience of a different order. He is his own manifestation in the life of the believer. He “transcends” the truth and all humanity and divinity and all conceptions of the same. The person and work of Christ is its own point of departure. No other logic or reality mediates Christ, as he constitutes a logic and reality, and he alone mediates himself. But inasmuch as we become Christ, we too enter in to this reality which has no genealogy, no precedent, no explanation, other than Him.

Maximus illustrates the point with the example of Melchizedek:

He alone in this respect is mentioned by Scripture, probably because he was the first who through virtue passed beyond both matter and form (which may be understood as his being without father or mother or genealogy), and by knowledge he surpassed all things subject to time and the age, things whose temporal existence began with their creation (for creation did not deny them their being in time), without stumbling over them in his mind as he followed his divine course, which is perhaps what having neither beginning of days nor end of life means. And 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. For every saint who has made exemplary progress in beauty is thereby said to be a type of God the giver. Consistent with this principle, the great Melchizedek, having been imbued with divine virtue, was deemed worthy to become an image of Christ God and His unutterable mysteries, for in Him all the saints converge as to an archetype, to the very cause of the manifestation of the Beautiful that is realized in each of them, and this is especially true of this saint, since he bears within himself more prefigurations of Christ than all the rest.”[6]  

Melchizedek, like Christ, cannot be reduced to matter or form or genealogy. He cannot be reduced to a particular age and time, as he is beyond this form of material creation and has been taken up into God himself. He has been “transformed” – receiving “all the qualities of God” and being made in the likeness of Christ. But what is true of Christ and Melchizedek is true of every saint as the Beauty of Christ is “realized in each of them.” The experience of Melchizedek is open and available to all imitators of Christ.

Maximus completes the thought with a final appeal to Hebrews and the depiction of the singular reality establishing a different order of Subject:

If, in addition to these things, he should also deny himself, having lost his life, according to the divine voice, which says: 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.”[7]

The life and Subject that would find itself, ground itself, father itself, or constitute its own presence, is cast aside for a different order of reality and experience. The Word of God vivifies and creates a new Subject, who through putting on virtue and knowledge enters a different order of existence in and through “His presence.” So the follower of Christ, like Christ, is no longer a creature of a particular family and genealogy, and is no longer a Subject of time but puts on the full likeness of Christ as he possesses “divine and eternal life” and “is in no way bounded by death.”  

Jesus Christ is an economy and a reality, and the only access to this economy and reality is through Him. Putting on Christ is to put on the wisdom and virtue of God. The wisdom of Christ is Christ. The virtue of Christ is Christ. The love of Christ is Christ. The hypostatic joining of deity and humanity in Christ is repeated in the saint who experiences immediate union with God in Christ, not through an ecstatic departure but through a union of the human with the divine. The created nature is brought to its full limit and potential and is thus preserved through the Word.  

In summary: the divine and human brought together in the person of Jesus Christ is the mystery that is repeated in the salvation Christ brings. Christians comprehend this salvation – that is, it exists on a historical and earthly plane of reality – we see the God-Man Jesus Christ acting in history, defeating sin death and evil (the experience of nothing) and so too the experience of salvation can be described in terms of human transformation and experience.


[1] Maximus the Confessor, The Ambigua, Volume 1, trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 7.38.

[2] James J. O’Donnell, Augustine Confessions, vol. II (Oxford, 2012), 126-7. Cited in Pantanteleimon Manoussakis, “St. Augustine and St. Maximus the Confessor between the Beginning and the End” (Peeters Publishers, Studia Patristica, 2016) 2. Published in Academia edu – https://www.academia.edu/28215430/St_Augustine_and_St_Maximus_the_Confessor_between_the_Beginning_and_the_End

[3] Ibid, Manoussakis. The Augustine quote is from Confessions, II 4.9.

[4] Manoussakis, 3, Citing Augustine’s Confessions, II 6.12.

[5] Maximus the Confessor, The Ambigua, Volume 2, trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 37.8.

[6] Ambigua, 10.45

[7] Ambigua, 10.48.

Jordan Daniel Wood and Maximus on the Answer to Hegel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Maximus explanation:

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

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

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

In Maximus most fulsome explanation:

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

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

He explains how and why this is the case:

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

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

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

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


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

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

Press, 1977) 18-19.

[3] Wood, 198.

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

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

[6] Wood, 4.

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

[8] Ambigua 7.16.

[9] Ambigua 5.5.

[10] Ambigua 5.5.

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

[12] Wood, 175.

[13] The Responses to Thalassios, 60.4.

[14] Wood, 183.

[15] The Responses to Thalassios, 3.19.

[16] Wood, 182-183.

[17] Wood, 183.

[18] Ibid.

[19] The Responses to Thalassios, 61.6.

[20] The Responses to Thalassios, 61.7.

[21] The Responses to Thalassios, 61.8

[22] Wood, 186.

False Incarnation in Jordan Daniel Wood and Maximus the Confessor

In conversation with Jordan Wood, Jordan mentioned the notion of a false incarnation proposed by Maximus the Confessor. I found the idea intriguing, fitting as it does with a psychotheological portrayal of the human predicament. Jordan traces two beginnings or moments of creation in Maximus, a false beginning giving rise to a failed understanding (of creation, the self, and God) and the real moment of creation, in the Spirit, through Christ. Romans 7 contains Paul’s example of the dynamic of the false incarnation (the focus of psychotheology), in which the “I” would manipulate the law as the end point of desire, a desire which defines and consumes the self. Romans 8 describes the undoing or displacement of this false creation or false imaging as the individual is found in Christ and through the Spirit is born into the participation and love of God. I had not thought of this as two beginnings, but this fits Paul’s portrayal.

In Maximus’s theology, Adam turned away from God “together with coming-into-being,” thus “bringing about the phenomenal but illusory (and death-dealing) world.”[1] This false world of the first Adam (humanity outside of Christ) repeats itself in every representative of Adam (humanity). “Adam’s sin corrupts God’s creation by illicitly ‘creating’ or sourcing a false world radically hostile to God, a world into which we are born and because of which our very mode of becoming becomes damaged.”[2] As Jordan describes,  “sin illicitly ‘creates’ a ‘world’ and a ‘history’ that are not truly God’s creation.” According to Maximus, “Adam (or the concrete human being in history) has received two fundamentally opposed beginnings. We have the fantastical but self-actualized “human,” on the one hand, and the true human being, Jesus Christ, on the other.”[3] As Maximus writes, Christ contained all of human nature (or all of Adam within himself) and brought him to perfection: “When the Divine Word clothed Himself in human nature without undergoing any change, and became perfect man like us in every way but without sin, He manifested the first Adam in both the mode of His creaturely origin and the mode of His birth.”[4] “Christ ‘manifests (φαινόμενον) Adam; he makes Adam into a real historical phenomenon at long last.”  Maximus declares that “all the ages and the beings existing within those ages received their beginning and end in Christ.”[5]

This means the beginning of creation (the true beginning in Christ) is in the middle of history. As John Behr notes: “According to The Martyrology of Jerome, ‘On March 25, our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, conceived, and the world was made.’”[6] In the false beginning the creature is necessarily brought into existence involuntarily, but in Christ all voluntarily give assent to be born into life “in and as Christ” entailing the other Maximian formula, “creation is incarnation.”  Now all voluntarily give “assent to be born into life in and as Christ, entailing that creation is indeed Incarnation.”[7]

The personhood of Jesus Christ is at the center, not simply as beginning, but as the very substance of the image of God. The nature of this image is not some abstract principle, some ability or capacity; rather, the image is the person of Christ. Christ is the very substance of the image in which humankind is created. The Christ event “is the enhypostatic act of the Word of God in history. Like any event, the historical Incarnation is also the disclosure of the person who acts and is acted upon. Every event contains and is contained by a person whose whole truth resists reduction to either an abstract genus or an abstract instance of some generic principle. The Christ-event is a happening every bit as resistant to abstraction as the logic it discloses is.”[8]

The incarnation of Jesus (the person of Christ) is the truth of all persons and the true beginning of all things, and false incarnation is the obstruction or turning from this beginning. False incarnation is a grasping (enfleshing) of the wrong image (an “imaginary” image in Lacanian theory), focused as it is on abstractions (spectral images), as if personhood is made up of something other than true personhood. The comparison is something on the order of Platonism and Christianity, with the former working with “eternal and transcendent trues” and the latter focused on the reality of the person of Christ. For Maximus, “Christ” names neither an essence nor “simply a general, metaphysical rule (essence/nature) nor a mere individual that appears only as an exception to that rule— an instance of something more common whose individuality emerges merely as what is particular or not-common.” Christ alone brings together the divine and created – he is, in his person the concrete identity of these two natures. This is no formal abstraction, as he is the “very condition for the (existential) possibility of any further abstraction about him whatever.”[9] He is not an instance of a universal or a particular principle. “In Christ particulars and universals and their mutual dependency are created.”[10] Time and eternity, God and creation, and beginning and end, brought together in the incarnate Christ is the substantive beginning comprehending the whole.

In the Genesis account, Adam, who for Maximus is representative of all humanity, receives the breath of God, but the true inbreathing of the Spirit  occurs only when man is born of the Spirit (so Genesis 2, the beginning is found only in the end which Christ brings about). Being born of the Spirit is the initiation of the true imaging (deification). “Birth by Spirit grants one the power to become God,” and this is a power that in one sense is beyond humanity and yet is part of his natural capacities. As “it is evident . . . that the process from spiritual birth to achieving the full stature of divine filiation is itself the process of creation.”[11] Being born of the Spirit “is nothing other than birth ‘according to Christ in the Spirit,’ or— which comes to the same — living in a way that allows Christ’s own births (both of which find their term in his hypostasis) to take place in you.”[12] While in sin there is a failure to be fully myself or to be completely created (truly born), in Christ there is a regeneration flowing backward and forward, so that in becoming “all in all,” what is not complete is being made complete.

This end in the beginning is portrayed in the Genesis 2 account, which in Maximus’ view, is an all-inclusive (mythical?) depiction, while Genesis 3 depicts a false beginning. Adam is ignorant of God, himself, and the world as is evidenced in his ready willingness to partake of the forbidden fruit. As Maximus puts it, “For after humanity’s transgression, the end can no longer be indicated through the beginning, but only the beginning through the end. Nor does one seek the principles of the beginning, but rather researches those principles that lead beings in motion to their end.”[13] The historical beginning recounted in Genesis 3 is a false beginning, cut off from its true end. In this beginning, “Adam rejected ‘this deifying and divine and nonmaterial birth’ and preferred the immediate pleasure of sensible things to spiritual delights ‘that were not yet fully evident to him.’ He was thus ‘condemned to a material, mortal, and corporeal birth, outside the power of his free choice [ἀπροαίρετον].’”[14]

In Maximus’ portrayal, just as Genesis 2 may depict an all-inclusive end, so too Genesis 3 depicts a continually reenacted event inclusive of all fallen humanity. Sin is not a necessity or inheritance, but describes a beginning and world based on an improper goal and “erroneous judgement” (his definition of evil) continually enacted.[15] “So construed, the Fall names not principally an ancient event, nor simply an event simultaneous with becoming as such, but an event that occurs at all moments of becoming in this world— in the generation, conduct, corruption, and death of every person.”[16]

In one paragraph Maximus depicts the full movement of the two beginnings:

God, then, truly became man and gave our nature the new beginning of a second birth, which through pain ends in the pleasure of the life to come. For our forefather Adam, having transgressed the divine commandment, introduced into our nature another beginning of birth—in contrast to the one that had preceded it—constituted by pleasure, yielding to pain, and ending in death. Following the counsel of the serpent, he conceived of pleasure not as succeeding any prior suffering, but rather as terminating in suffering, and so he subjected, through this unrighteous origination in pleasure those who like him were born of the flesh, together with himself, to the just end of death through suffering. Conversely, our Lord, having become man, and having created for our nature a new beginning of birth through the Holy Spirit, and having accepted the death through suffering that was justly imposed on Adam, but which in Him was completely unjust—since it did not have as the principle of its beginning the unrighteous pleasure that arose from the disobedience of the forefather— destroyed both of these two extremes (I mean the beginning and the end) of human birth according to Adam, neither of which was brought into being by God.”[17]

For Maximus the Garden of Eden is not perfect or complete, as perfection and completion (pleroma) are only brought about in Christ. There is not the possibility one can experience this fulness and abandon it, as this contains the inherent contradiction (an imperfect perfection) which demeans both God and his purposes in creation. “For starters, even the bare possibility that we might experience the perfection of our faculties in God and yet move away from him belies God’s own beauty, indeed that God is beauty itself, since ‘whatever is not good and desirable in and of itself’ and ‘does not attract all motion to itself, strictly speaking cannot be the Beautiful.’” Maximus rejects the notion that the first pair were perfect or complete:

The first man, consequently, being deficient in the actual movement of his natural powers toward their goal, fell sick with ignorance of his own Cause, and, following the counsel of the serpent, thought that God was the very thing of which the divine commandment had forbidden him to partake. Becoming thus a transgressor and falling into ignorance of God, he completely mixed the whole of his intellective power with the whole of sensation, and drew into himself the composite, destructive, passion-forming knowledge of sensible things.[18]

Adam’s desire, as Paul describes it (and as taken up by Lacan and Zizek), becomes twisted around the law: “For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness” (Rom. 7:7-8). Adam, Paul, or everyman mistakes the created for the ultimately desirable, and thus displaces the ultimate object of desire, God, with that which is finite. Maximus comes close to describing the futility of the Lacanian interpretation of Paul’s death drive (the drive to escape the death drive):

Thus the more that man was preoccupied with knowledge of visible things solely according to the senses, the more he bound himself to the ignorance of God; and the more he tightened the bond of this ignorance, the more he attached himself to the experience of the sensual enjoyment of the material objects of knowledge in which he was indulging; and the more he took his fill of this enjoyment, the more he inflamed the passionate desire of self-love that comes from it; and the more he deliberately pursued the passionate desire of self-love, the more he contrived multiple ways to sustain his pleasure, which is the offspring and goal of self-love. And because it is the nature of every evil to be destroyed together with the activities that brought it into being, he discovered by experience that every pleasure is inevitably succeeded by pain, and subsequently directed his whole effort toward pleasure, while doing all he could to avoid pain, fighting for the former with all his might and contending against the latter with all his zeal. He did this believing in something that was impossible, namely, that by such a strategy he could separate the one from the other, possessing self-love solely in conjunction with pleasure, without in any way experiencing pain. It seems that, being under the influence of the passions, he was ignorant of the fact that it is impossible for pleasure to exist without pain. For the sensation of pain has been mixed with pleasure even if this fact escapes the notice of those who experience it, due to the passionate domination of pleasure, since whatever dominates is of a nature always to be prominent, overshadowing the perception of what is next to it.”  

The masochistic fusion of pleasure with pain results in the pleasurable drive toward death. “Ignorance of creation intensifies ignorance of God. Knowing neither God nor creation, Adam cannot know himself; he, in his deluded self-love, fancies himself fulfilled by bare sense pleasure. Such pleasure always disappoints. Pain follows hard upon pleasure because no finite phenomenon can sate infinite desire. Thus the whole of this miserable existence, which vacillates pitilessly between pleasure and pain, relies first and last upon ignorance of God, creation, and the self.”[19] The pursuit is to fulfill desire in that which cannot possibly satisfy, which only intensifies the effort, so that the ego is completely given over to this lie. The lie, in Paul and Lacan and seemingly Maximus, constitutes the core of a false self.

Thus our life became filled with much groaning—a life that honors the occasions of its own destruction and which, out of ignorance, invents and cherishes excuses for corruption. Thus the one human nature was cut up into myriad parts, and we who are of one and the same nature devour each other like wild animals. Pursuing pleasure out of self-love, and for the same reason being anxious to avoid pain, we contrive the birth of untold numbers of destructive passions.[20]

Thus, humankind always eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, always flees from paradise, in the effort to produce life from death.  

However, humankind’s false start does not contradict or preclude that creation is incarnation: “Quite the contrary: that we can “create” a counterfeit world by incarnating, in ourselves, our own impassioned delusions proves possible only because creation’s very logic is already that of the Word’s actual Incarnation in and as all things.”[21] As Paul demonstrates in Romans 7, it is possible to create a death dealing dynamic which would embody the letter of the law. This is the false principle of the law, a law unto itself. The law made absolute is the manifest principle of absolutizing finitude, of worshipping the creation as creator, or of self-deification. But just as Paul pictures the reversal of Romans 7 in Romans 8, so too all humanity is involved in the reversal brought about in Christ.

Adam represents the universal fact that every person causes the Fall, and that therefore every person, empowered by Christ’s personal human freedom, must freely undo that Fall. After all, God’s intention and will and desire (his logoi) in creating at all is not principally to make a created order, an impersonal hierarchy of variously arranged essences. His goal is to create concrete, free, unique, ultimately deified persons. There is a logos of every person, and every person’s logos is also Christ the Logos. Creation’s perfection, its true beginning and end, is nothing less than the personal perichoresis of God and creation— beholding God “face to face.[22]

Creation was made for deification (a truth indicated even in false deification), and there is the sense, as shown in Christian baptism (Maximus’ example) that freewill plays a part in every part of the process. According to Maximus, “He who is God by nature was born bodily yet without sin and for our sake accepted the birth of baptism unto spiritual adoption, I believe that for this reason the teacher (Gregory) connected the birth of baptism with the Incarnation, so that baptism might be considered as the abolition and release from bodily birth.” The second birth not only fulfills the first but releases from the bonds and limitations of being set on the finitude it entails:

Those who interpret the divine sayings mystically, and who honor them, as is right, with more lofty contemplations, say that man in the beginning was created according to the image of God, surely so that he might be born of the Spirit in the exercise of his own free choice, and to acquire in addition the likeness by the keeping of the divine commandment, so that the same man, being by nature a creation of God, might also be the son of God and God through the Spirit by grace. For there was no other way for man, being created, to become the son of God and God by the grace of divinization, without first being born of the Spirit, in the exercise of his own free choice, owing to the indomitable power of self-determination which naturally dwells within him.”[23]

The false start contains both the truth of human participation in their creation and full participation in God; that is the true beginning is found in its end (choosing to be born and attain to deity). This first creation is, in Paul’s description suspended or sublated by the second but it is a work in process. “If creation does not seem to us the sublime Incarnation of the Word ‘always and in all things,’ perhaps that means not that creation is something other than Incarnation but rather that ‘creation’ as it appears is not yet truly creation, not yet God’s finished work, not yet the world.”[24] As Maximus writes, “it happens that—because the disposition of their will has not yet been fully extracted from its passionate fixation on the flesh, and because they have not been completely imbued by the Spirit.” Maximus pictures the process of this sublation in his picture of the interplay of the two beginnings:

The mode of our spiritual birth from God is twofold. The first bestows on those born in God the entire grace of adoption, which is entirely present in potential; the second ushers in this grace as entirely present in actuality, transforming voluntarily the entire free choice of the one being born so that it conforms to the God who gives birth. The first possesses this grace in potential according to faith alone; the second, in addition to faith, realizes on the level of knowledge the active, most divine likeness of the God who is known in the one who knows Him. In those whom the first mode of birth is observed, it happens that—because the disposition of their will has not yet been fully extracted from its passionate fixation on the flesh, and because they have not been completely imbued by the Spirit with active participation in the divine mysteries that have taken place—it happens, I say, that their inclination to sin is never very far away for the simple reason that they continue to will it.[25]

Christ extracts humanity from captivity by its first beginning by taking upon himself all of the vicissitudes of this false incarnation and overcoming them.

For the very thing which Adam freely rejected (I mean the birth by the Spirit leading to divinization), and for which he was condemned to bodily birth amid corruption, is exactly what the Word assumed willingly out of His goodness and love for mankind, and, by becoming man in accordance with our fallen state, willingly subjecting Himself to our condemnation (though He alone is free and sinless), and consenting to a bodily birth, in which lay the power of our condemnation, He mystically restored birth in the Spirit; and so for our sake, having dissolved in Himself the bonds of bodily birth, He granted, through birth in the Spirit, to those who believe in His name the power to become children of God instead of flesh and blood.[26]

The first birth, through Christ, is no longer a form of bondage but an opening to birth in the Spirit. Though bodily and Spiritual birth may appear as distinct temporal moments, this division is due to sin or the human attempt to make themselves (in Freudian terms to be their own father). For Maximus, there is though, an inevitable passing through these two moments as the first birth is the means to the second birth. “In this way God joined together in me the principle of my being and the principle of my well-being, and He closed the division and distance between them that I had opened up, and through them He wisely drew’ me to the principle of eternal being, according to which man is no longer subject to carrying or being carried along, since the sequence of visible realities in motion will reach its end in the great and general resurrection. . .”[27]

In conclusion:

The pattern is clear: whatever characterized the Word’s becoming in history is what characterizes our primordial becoming, since the Word’s becoming is ours. Not that this characterizes our appearance in this phenomenal world. The two beginnings remain absolute antitheses. No possible compromise can be brokered between them, since they oppose one another as what God does and does not create— surely an absolute distinction.[28]

There are two distinct beginnings: the phenomenological beginning experienced with our physical birth and the bringing forth of an I or ego (the false incarnation) which must be sublated by the second and true birth in the Spirit through the Son.


[1] This is John Behr’s summary in the Foreword to the book, Jordan Daniel Wood, The Whole Mystery of Christ (pp. ix-x). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Wood, 153.

[3] Wood, 144.

[4] St. Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties In Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios; Translated by Fr. Maximos Constas, (Washington D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press) 21.2.

[5] Wood, 153.

[6] Wood, ix.

[7] Wood, ix.

[8] Wood, 142.

[9] Wood, 142-3.

[10] Wood, 143.

[11] Wood 147.

[12] Wood, 154.

[13] The Responses to Thalassios, 59.12.

[14] Wood, 148.

[15] The Responsis the Thalassios, 1.2.12.

[16] Wood, 157.

[17] The Responses to Thalassios, 61.7

[18] The Responses to Thalassios, 1.2.13.

[19] Wood, 165.

[20] The Responses to Thalassios, 1.2.15.

[21] Wood, 145.

[22] Wood, 166.

[23] Maximus the Confessor, The Ambigua, Volume 2, trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 42.31-32.

[24] Wood, 145-6.

[25] The Responses to Thalasios, 6.2.

[26] Ambigua, 42.32.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Wood, 153.