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.

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World: The Defeat of Evil as the Revealing of the Mystery

Paul describes Christ as revealing the mystery which has remained closed to every previous generation of humankind (Eph. 3:5). Matthew pictures Christ as fulfilling the words of the prophet: ”I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matt. 13:35). René Girard explains that this mystery hidden since the foundation of the world is the mystery of scapegoating, that which organized primitive culture and religion and which controlled violence. The violence unleashed on the innocent victim served to channel violence to a singular sacrifice (rather than unleashing violence of all against all) and it made of the scapegoat the sacred deliverer, delivering the sacrificers from whatever plague or sickness they imagined threatened. And as Girard explains, the scapegoat really did deliver from uncontrolled violence, and allowed the crops to be planted and the society to survive, rather than succumbing to all-out violence.

The efficacy of the scapegoat, however, depended on its true function being a compounded mystery. In the first instance, the innocence of the scapegoat is not a possibility that poses itself in the original murder, but then the murder itself is obscured as the myth of the scapegoat as a sacred deliverer hides the murder. Those who kill the scapegoat do not know what they are doing, first in the blind rage in which they kill the scapegoat and then in the myth which hides the murder. The killers are blind (they are doing it but obscuring the fact) to the murder and then to the sacralization of the innocent victim. The end of the story, in Girard’s telling, is that the innocent victim Jesus, speaks for the oppressed scapegoat and reveals the scapegoating mechanism as that which stands behind all sacrificial religion, and he makes impossible the mystery, that up to his exposing it, stood at the center of religion and society.

Girard’s theory, for many, provides a complete theory of the atonement and an omnicompetent explanation of the work of Christ. Whether Girard saw it that way may be beside the point, but it is no critique of his theory to suggest that what he describes is a pattern that repeats itself in a variety forms, not limited to sacrificial violence but characteristic of the lie that stands behind all violence. That is, the mystery of which Paul speaks and which Jesus exposes, is a mystifying lie, an obscuring of origins, a false dialectic, which stands behind sacrificial religion but which also stands behind all human violence at an individual and corporate level. The equation of violence and power is the original form of the lie, that expresses itself in the scapegoating mechanism (among other forms of the lie). Violence not only reifies and deifies the scapegoat, but this is always the work of violence. The larger principle is not simply that the violence directed against an innocent scapegoat sacralizes and reifies the scapegoat, but all violence “mystically” reifies.

In fact, Girard begins his theory with a reexamination of Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex, which illustrates the point that the violence of the superego directed against the ego (death drive) reifies the split between the ego and superego, creating the registers of the Subject. The superego, in the voice of the father or the oppressive force of the law, is directed against the ego and the tripartite (ego, superego, id) dynamic is “born” (which is the wrong word, as this is a living death in Freud’s estimate). But what is to be noted is that the oppressive violence of the id, channeled through the superego, taking the ego as its victim, gives rise to the very notion of a self. Even if one rejects this Freudian picture of the dynamic of self, it illustrates the point, of how a lying violence gives birth to a fictional “reality.” Karl Marx’s picture of the functioning of capital, Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s picture of the dialectic of life and death or something and nothing, and Peter Berger’s explanation of religion, all illustrate the same point.

As Berger explains, the phenomenon of religion depends upon a mystifying lie:

Whatever may be the “ultimate” merits of religious explanations of the universe at large, their empirical tendency has been to falsify man’s consciousness of that part of the universe shaped by his own activity, namely, the socio-cultural world. This falsification can also be described as mystification. The socio-cultural world, which is an edifice of human meanings, is overlaid with mysteries posited as non-human in their origins.[1]

In Berger’s depiction, the dialectic process of society consists of three steps – externalization, objectivation, and internalization.

Externalization is the ongoing outpouring of human being into the world, both in the physical and the mental activity of men. Objectivation is the attainment by the products of this activity (again both physical and mental) of a reality that confronts its original producers as a facticity external to and other than themselves. Internalization is the reappropriation by men of this same reality, transforming it once again from structures of the objective world into structures of the subjective consciousness.[2]

Berger concludes, “It is through externalization that society is a human product. It is through objectivation that society becomes a reality sui generis. It is through internalization that man is a product of society.”[3] The notion that religion or society is a sui generis or self-constituting construct blocks all questions of genealogy and simply poses the social world as reality itself.

Berger explains he is appropriating Marx and Hegel, who illustrate this three-step process in regard to capital and the human psyche. As he notes, “The terms ‘externalization’ and ‘objectivation’ are derived from Hegel (Entaeusserung and Versachlichung), are (sic) understood here essentially as they were applied to collective phenomena by Marx.”[4] Capital is externalized in paper and coins, objectivized as intrinsically valuable, and internalized as a prime marker of value. Hegel, Marx, and Freud are each building upon a constricted Judeo-Christian understanding. So, for example, Isaiah’s picture of the idolater (Is. 44:15-18), carving the idol with one half of a piece of wood (externalization), turning and cooking his lunch with the other half (allowing for the obscuring objectivation), and then turning back and bowing to the carved piece (internalization) as a god captures the same movement.

Religion is accounted for in this process as the obscuring or mystification of the process – the disconnect between externalization and objectivation. “The sacred or numinous begin as perceptions ‘externalized,’ projected upon the skies (thus sky-gods are recognized) and upon persons and natural objects (hence shamans and sacred groves and springs). The externalized sacred objects thereby acquire status as factors in social life (so magic, incantation, and worship arise).”[5] The religionist, like the idolater, does not recognize he is the one shaping the idol and reifying or absolutizing what is essentially a projection (a product of the imagination).

The religionist does on a corporate level what Freud describes is happening on an individual level. The Oedipal-self obscures the fact that it is the engineer arranging the oppressive self-relation as the religionist obscures or falsifies the fact that religion is a projection (a necessary sacred canopy) of the socio-cultural world. The child externalizes its own image as seen in the mirror, then it objectivizes or reifies the image as perceived through the projection of the superego, then the internal life is made up of this dialectic between ego and superego.

As indicated, Berger, Marx, and Freud, are building upon the dialectic first worked out by Hegel. An easy entry into Hegel is provided by Slavoj Žižek’s understanding of Hegel as building upon the cogito of René Descartes. Descartes’ isolation of himself in the “heated room” and reduction of the real world to a category of doubt and his reconstruction of that world, up to and including God, is pictured by Hegel, according to Žižek as following the course of every Subject:

when Hegel determines madness as withdrawal from the actual world, the closing of the soul into itself, its ‘contraction’. … Was this withdrawal into itself not accomplished by Descartes in his universal doubt and reduction of the cogito … which … involves a passage through the moment of radical madness? … That is to say, the withdrawal into self, the cutting off of the links to the Umwelt, is followed by the construction of a symbolic universe that the subject projects onto reality as a kind of substitute – formation destined to recompense us for the loss of the immediate, presymbolic real.[6]

The passage into subjectivity involves the “ontological necessity of madness”… the mad gesture of radical withdrawal from reality that opens up the space for its symbolic (re)constitution.”[7] There is a sacrifice of one world and subjection to an oppressive symbolic order (the law has a totalizing effect). To maintain that the product of thought is objectively true, or to fuse thought and being, involves a form of madness that is at once so universal so as to be nearly inaccessible or a complete mystery.

As David Bentley Hart describes the Hegelian system:

the system in its entirety, depending on the angle from which it is viewed, is susceptible of every possible characterization or interpretation: disembodied abstraction or radical empiricism, mystification or disenchantment, absolute idealism or dialectical materialism, Mandarin detachment or bourgeois conformity, historical essentialism or essential historicism, a “totalizing metaphysics” or the ultimate “deconstruction of metaphysics,” and so on and so on.[8]

There is a seeming impossibility of getting beyond the all encompassing system described by Hegel, but this, I believe is precisely Paul’s depiction of what is accomplished in Christ. That is, the obscuring of origins through an originary violence or an originary hostility is precisely the dialectic Paul pictures as exposed by Christ.

Paul, in Ephesians, has in mind the peculiar dialectic of Jew and Gentile which creates a dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14), but which organizes the Jewish world (2:15: “which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances”). The enmity of the law which creates the fabric of this fictional construct is not a reality (created by God) but a human system built upon human enmity and violence (2:15 – Christ abolishes the enmity in his flesh, which is not from God but is cured by God in Christ). For a Jew, Gentiles are nothing at all and Jewishness is over and against the nothingness (of the Gentile) as an absolute something. The organizing hostility for Jews and Gentiles alike, something on the order of the sacrificial violence described by Girard, is undone in Christ: “to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). This is the archetypical mystery revealed as Judaism depended upon this division, and Christ is reconstituting humanity, showing the divine purpose in creation: “by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity” (Eph. 2:15–16). Jewishness depended upon division and enmity and it was from this hostility, marked by the dividing wall in the temple that the religion, rightly or wrongly, was conceived. But Judaism is a case in point of the obscurity of every culture and religion founded upon a dialectic (inside/outside, near/far, citizen/alien, something/nothing).

In Paul’s depiction, there is a cosmic order of darkness dispelled in this revealing of the mystery. God’s will, God’s eternal purposes for the cosmos, have been revealed in Christ: “To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things” (Eph. 3:8). The purposes of creation, once obscured behind the mystery of enmity and division are now revealed in a unifying vision in which all things are being incorporated into God: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4–6).

The mystery revealed in Christ is the exposure of the lie, which pictures reality as a violent dualism (e.g., divine/human, creator/creature, nothing/something, life/death, Jew/Gentile, ego/superego, immanent Trinity/economic Trinity, heaven/earth, transcendent/immanent). The mystery revealed is an exposure of the mystification of evil, dependent upon alienation, dialectic, and dualism. The picture of God’s purposes worked out in Christ brings together absolute difference into a unified whole:

But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. Eph. 4:7-10


[1] Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Anchor; Reprint edition, 1990), 90.

[2] Berger, 3-4.

[3] Berger, 4.

[4] Berger, 21.

[5] Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1966) 4-25. As summarized by James McClendon, Witness: Systematic Theology Volume 3 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000) 28.

[6]Slavoj Zizek, F.W.J. von Schelling, The Abyss of Freedom/Ages of the World (University of Michigan Press, 1997), 8-9.

[7] Ibid.

[8] David Bentley Hart, You Are Gods (p. 70). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

The Ongoing Creation Ex-Nihilo of Humanity

Is it possible to glimpse the nothing from out of which creation came and is coming? I do not mean in the Buddhist or Heideggerian sense in which nothing is an ontological category – a necessity for the something. The Christian nothing is not a dialectical necessity that accompanies all that is something, though the primordial darkness can only break through in the cracks of what is. It is not the ontological empty space into which God inserted creation. Christian nothing, or the ex-nihilo, is not something that precedes, grounds, or serves as a point of expansion; rather, the Christian nothing from out of which God called creation bears no quality and does not show itself other than through dissolution, absence, and death.  The nothing may take on a dynamic, but it is the dynamic of destruction. Creation ex-nihilo that is, opens the possibility of evil as the return to the nothing from out of which creation arose.  On the other hand, to picture creation as anything less than having an infinite destiny (theosis or divinization) makes of creation a dynamic of nothingness. Existence as something less than union with the divine entails turning creation over to the ex-nihilo from out which it arose. Creation without final cause and purpose which sinks back into the oblivion from which it arose is a creation dominated, not by God, but by nothing. On the other hand, a creation (especially of the rational kind) which is continually called forth from its beginning into exultant praise and participation in the divine life, fully and forever sheds itself of the remnants or possibility of the nothingness from which it arose.

The play and possibility of the nothing – the possibility of evil – is perhaps best understood and approached in Paul’s depiction of the dissolution of the dynamic of death in the believer. The “I” that is crucified with Christ is subject to dissolution as there is a dynamic taken up with the human interplay between the ego (a transliteration of Paul’s word for “I”), the law and what Paul calls the “body of death,” all of which is undone in Paul’s depiction of baptism (Romans 6:1-6). On the other hand, in the psychoanalytic approach to Paul there is the demonstration of how this nothingness – the deception of sin – can play a central and competing role in human life.

In Slavoj Žižek’s picture, the Subject arises from out of nothing, with the implication that this nothing precedes the Subject and is 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 and nothingness, which he does not hesitate to call evil, but it is out of this originary evil that the Subject arises. However, there is only one step from Paul to Žižek, if it is understood that Žižek is expanding upon Paul’s sinful, deceived Subject.

For Žižek, 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, the point of departure for German idealism (Žižek’s key resource), cannot, by definition, be constrained by a prior Good. The absolutely free, autonomous Subject can be preceded by nothing, and this is the Nothing and negation Žižek links to death drive (the primary dynamic in the Subject).

Even for God, in the depiction of Friedrich Schelling, if nothingness precedes and comes after God or perhaps God’s creation, then nothingness is the predominant ontological condition. The passage from nothing (the eternal nothing without beginning or end) to something (the beginning of God) is an act that is eternally repeated in the passage from eternity to time. In other words, everything, including God, ultimately arises from and tends towards this absolute nothing. In any case, even if it is only the human Subject that arises from nothing and returns to that nothing, then Žižek’s description fits with a so-called “Christian vision” in regards to most of the human race (in Augustinianism and Calvinism).

The theological import of this is that evil is a necessary part of the good. The gap in reality – nothingness, sin, death drive, and evil – is not overcome but accounted for and accommodated. Evil is not finally and fully subject to the good but the good arises from and is ultimately subject to the evil which precedes it. The Fall is at the origin of the Subject, so that transgression, sin, and evil, precede the very possibility of the “good.”  In biblical terms, the very possibility of the “knowledge of good and evil” (of the symbolic) in Genesis is preceded by the serpent, temptation, and death.

The death of Christ, in this atheistic theology, does not overcome the gap but suspends the desire to overcome the reality of death and nothingness. The Hegelian notion of the “death of God” in Christ amounts to the death of the “transcendent Beyond” and this brings about the opening of reality from within (Metastases of Enjoyment, 39). The dynamic of nothingness (death drive), for Žižek, is necessarily at the foundation of subjectivity and its reconstitution, as it is in and through the death drive that “Nothingness is counted as Something” which gives rise to the Subject (Ticklish Subject , 157). Ultimately death or nothingness is the ontological (un)reality over which the Lacanian Subject is constructed (and which is the motive force behind the sacrifices in the name of the law (subjection to the punishing Superego).

What if this, though, is a true picture of the dynamic of the lie that is displaced in Christ? Then it is possible to speak of self-participation – even a freedom of choice – in the creation of the Subject. That is, we are responsible for our own creation or lack thereof, as we can name the nothingness which clings to us and out of which we are arising.

This nothingness or dynamic of death is the creative force in a Lacanian psychoanalytic frame, but the danger is that a Christianity that sees creation as subsumed by or returning to the nothing (in whole or part) is giving ontological priority to the ex-nihilo. Where reality is not finally and fully grounded in the divine it is not clear that any finite creature “exists” in the fulness of the term. Especially in the case of the rational or spiritual creature, how can this rationality or spirituality be fully so apart from having as its final end participation in the reality of God. The fully spiritual and rational creature then, can be said to continue the most direct role of co-creator (the responsibility assigned in the dominion mandate of Genesis) through direct participation, as David Hart puts it, “in their own origination from nothingness.”[1] To quote Hart at length:

And only by this primordial assent does humanity in its eternal “multi-hypostatic” reality— as the eternal Adam of the first creation— freely receive its being from its creator: and this even though that assent becomes, on the threshold between the heavenly Aeon and time, a recapitulation of the Fall, an individuating acceptance of entry into the world under the burden of sin, such that every soul is answerable for and somehow always remembers that original transgression. In that moment, the spiritual creature concurs in its own creation, and God hands the creature over to its own free self-determination. Here, naturally, the language of past and future can devolve all too easily into a mythology of individual guilt historically “prior” to any person’s actual life; but, of course, there was no fall “back then” in historical time, either for the race or for the individual. Rather, the Fall “happened” only as belonging to the temporal unfolding of that eternal assent. It “happened”— or, rather, is happening— only as the lingering resistance of nothingness to that final joyous confession, the diminishing residue of the creature’s emergence ex nihilo. For no creature can exist as spirit in God except under the condition of having arisen from nothingness in order to grow into his or her last end. That passage from nothingness into the infinite, which is always a free intentionality toward a final cause, is the very structure of created spiritual beings. They could not be spirit otherwise.[2]

This is not the self-positing “I” of the Cartesian cogito but is precisely the defeat and undoing of this psychoanalytic or Pauline “I” in that there is a relinquishing or willing deconstruction of this Subject.  The “I” that would posit itself through itself, freely and intentionally gives up on this project so as to be “in Christ” and thus through the Spirit to be joined to the Father. The Oedipal “I” or the Cartesian “I” would be its own father or originator. It is the free and willing abandonment of this project – the project of the Fall engaged by every human – that the Subject in its fullness emerges as one assenting to the eternal end, the continuation and completion of creation ex-nihilo.

A fundamental way of summarizing this understanding is the recognition that the play between life and death within the human creature is directly concerned with the life/Spirit given by God or a turning away from this Spirit so as to engage in death. Irenaeus (as I have shown here) describes the necessity of the Spirit of God, not as a force apart from man but as molding and blending the handiwork of God: “But when the Spirit here blended with the soul is united to God’s handiwork, the man is rendered spiritual and perfect because of the outpouring of the Spirit, and this is he who was made in the image and likeness of God.”[3]  That is, the Genesis account is only completed through the active participation of God in the man as Spirit.

While all three elements, body, soul and Spirit, constitute the image of God in which man was created, Irenaeus’ (who is following Paul) use of Spirit (sometimes seeming to refer to God and man simultaneously) portrays the perfection of full co-participation between the divine and human while also allowing for a diminishment of participation: “One of these does indeed preserve and fashion (the man)  – – this is the Spirit; while as to another it is united and formed–that is the flesh; then comes that which is between these two–that is the soul, which sometimes indeed, when it follows the Spirit, is raised by it, but sometimes it sympathizes with the flesh, and falls into carnal lusts.”[4] The Spirit “preserves and fashions” the man, so that there is no human apart from Spirit. The Spirit is not something added to man, and yet there is the possibility, in following lusts, that the role of the Spirit is diminished.

Hart, depicts how this beginning and end calls for willing surrender through free participation:

This is the ultimate reason that the first moment of the creature’s being is at once a vocation issued by God and yet also an act of free self-positing on the part of the creature. Just as the Holy Spirit is not some limited psychological individual consciousness possessed of an isolated self, who is first himself and who then only latterly assents to the Father’s self-utterance in the Logos, but is instead hypostatic as God’s own eternal assent to and delight in his own essence as manifested in the Son; so also the spirit in us is nothing but a finite participation in that eternal and infinite act of divine affirmation and love. The spiritual creature exists as always, in its origin and its end, wholly surrendered to God. And the chiasmus of the Spirit in us, in our creation and deification, is always the Spirit rejoicing in the love of Father and Son. The inmost reality of the spirit in each of us, that is, is nothing but that act of joyous accord with and ecstatic ascent into God.[5]

As he explains, “every creaturely spirit freely wills its own existence” but this is not a freedom exercised apart from God or who the creature is in God. “The eternal Yes of God to the creature is always already the creature’s eternal Yes to its creator, for the latter exists only within the eternal Yes of the Father to his own image in the Son, in the delight of the Spirit; and this is the Son’s Yes to the will of the Father; and this is also the Spirit’s eternal Yes to the Father’s full expression in the Son; and, in the end, these are all one and the same Yes.”[6]

There is a possible Yes and No to the unfolding creation and completion of the Subject in the life of the Spirit. The possibility of the ex-nihilo may threaten but for Paul the Subject precedes and exceeds the possibility of death and the constraints of the “I.”  There is not only the possibility but the necessity, (due to the goodness of God) of a Subject apart from sin (the fall back into nothingness). A Christianity which does not acknowledge the end of creation in participation in the divine (divinization, theosis, apocatastasis) may take on the look of an atheism in which Subjectivity requires death, sin and nothingness as its primary “substance.”


[1] David Bentley Hart, You Are Gods (Kindle Locations 2265-2268). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Hart, 2269-2281.

[3] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 6, paragraph 1.

[4] AH 5.6.1

[5] Hart, 2324-2328.

[6] Hart, 2330-2334.

The Peace of Jesus’ Body Versus the Violent Semantics of the Flesh

The semantic load that can be attached to the biological body is undergoing a continual extension, in that there is seemingly no end to the arrangement of gender identity. In a Lacanian psychoanalytic frame, the complete identity with the symbolic order though, is not really a multiplicity of types but is a singular type which he would dub “masculine.” “Masculine” does not refer to gender but to an orientation to the symbolic order. One might identify with these structures as they presently exist in the society or attempt to “bend the rules” but of course the rules are bent so as to conform to them. That is, the letter is prime reality and the biological body is divided or separate from this reality. The masculine (as opposed to the feminine, in a Lacanian frame) does not question the symbolic order as prime reality.

As Paul describes this type, “the law dominates the man for whatever time he lives” (Romans 7:1 DBH translation). Paul will identify this type, according to his own experience, as ignorant of their own actions and having an incapacity to discern evil. There is a fusion between sin and the law so that Paul, at the time he was doing it, could not discern the sort of evil in which he is engaged. As he describes, in a parallel passage in Galatians, his zeal for the law and his advancement in Judaism were marked by his persecution of the church and his desire to destroy it (Ga 1:13-14). For Paul, the law was not a marker of sin and evil but was fused with sin such that he could not perceive his own evil due to his zeal for the law. As he advanced in law-keeping and in Judaism he simultaneously advanced in his participation in evil. It did not occur to Paul the Pharisee that there was a reality which exceeded the measure of the law. Clearly, Paul is not imagining that in this understanding he has rightly perceived the law; quite the opposite, as he dubs this orientation as “having confidence in the flesh.” The problem is, the flesh marked by the law, has become a principle unto itself.

In the masculine the symbolic order reigns supreme and the biological body is written over and made to conform to this semantic load. This is not really the problem of any particular group of people, but in Paul’s terms this is the universal problem. There is (in Eph. 2) the divided body which may refer to the individual (divided into mind and flesh in Eph. 2) or the division of gender, race, or social status. The divided body might be classed, as it is in Ephesians, as either circumcised or uncircumcised or elsewhere he will talk of male and female identity, but the point is that this division makes of the flesh a sign system, or a blank slate for inscribing the symbolic order of the law. Circumcised or uncircumcised is clearly the imposition of a sign system (the law), on the biological body. We know that male and female can also bear this same sort of cultural inscription in which the biological is overwritten with a meaning that is not inherently part of gender. To be female in Japan, for example, may bear a very different meaning than it bears in Korea or the United States. Female can be assigned the meanings of passivity, nurturing, or servitude, all of which bear meaning in a particular culture in conjunction with what it means to be male. So too, the idea with circumcision and uncircumcision is that it is a binary that is not simply a description of physical marks, but is a religious and ethnic division inscribed in the flesh (Jew/Gentile). Paul refers to it as a mind and flesh issue (2:3 – the very opposition which gives rise to the peculiarities of human desire).

Paul then calls this the “enmity of the flesh,” but of course inasmuch as Christ is going to destroy this enmity in his own flesh, the problem is not the flesh per se but the semantic load invested in the flesh. Paul describes this semantics of the flesh in connection to conforming to the world; a conformity in which death reigns, and which is controlled by the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). He also speaks of a lust of the flesh, which he seems to connect to a spirit mind duality (Eph. 2:1-3). There is an antagonism, a sacrificial economy, that in both Walter Wink’s and Rene Girard’s description, predominates in human culture and religion. We can read Christianity as either fitting into and as a support of this sacrificial economy (divine satisfaction or penal substitution, or the oppression of women, or the “domination system”) or we can read it as disrupting this economy and order.

This principle or power (as Paul also refers to the same force) may be what Wink calls the domination system or the system of redemptive violence. As Slavoj Žižek describes it, redemptive violence is inscribed deep within the human psyche. The original sacrificial relation is established within the Subject (with passage through the mirror stage) between the imaginary (the ego or “I”) and the symbolic (the superego) which establishes the alienated distance from the real of the body. The passage is from being a body to establishing a symbolic distance from the body (and having a body): “The body exists in the order of having – I am not my body, I have it” (Organs without Bodies, 121). Self-consciousness arises simultaneously with the realization and refusal of the body and its mortal contingencies (sexuality/castration) so that the Subject arises over and against the real of the body. The symbolic or the soul “has to be paid for by the death, murder even, of its empirical bearer” (The Žižek Reader, vii). Žižek, following Paul, describes the process as giving rise to two bodies. That body which one might think can be reduced to the biological dimension is refused: the “subject turns away from her biological body in disgust, unable to accept that she ‘is’ her body” (Organs without Bodies, 93). Since “the body refuses to obey the soul and starts to speak on its own, in the symptoms in which the subject’s soul cannot recognize itself” she rejects the body (Organs without Bodies, 93). But this body that is rejected cannot be equated with the biological body as the body has already been overlaid with the symbolic “forcefully distorting its normal functioning” (Organs without Bodies, 93). So, there is the biological body and this second body: “The body that is the proper object of psychoanalysis, the body as the inconsistent composite of erogenous zones, the body as the surface of the inscription of the traces of traumas and excessive enjoyments, the body through which the unconscious speaks” (Organs without Bodies, 93). It is this second body, and not the physical or biological body per se, which the Subject struggles against and which makes up unconscious experience constituting desire. The biological body with its biological interests (wellbeing, survival, reproduction) is not at the center of the human Subject but the true “interior” is this second body.

When “we penetrate the subject’s innermost sanctum, the very core of its Unconscious, what we find there is the pure surface of a fantasmatic screen” (Organs without Bodies, 93). Žižek describes the rise of this screen of the fundamental fantasy as an attempt to “outpass myself into death” (Tarrying with the Negative, 76). One hastens to assume death in the form of the letter or symbolic (“potentially my epitaph”) in order to avoid it (Tarrying with the Negative, 76). The dead are immortal in that they are no longer subject to dying, so identity through the dead letter achieves an enduring (immortal) identity.

As we see further on (in chapter 2 of Ephesians) Christ is going to resolve the various antagonisms of the flesh in his flesh, or as chapter 1 concludes through his body. The unity of the body is achieved in the incarnation (it is precisely our tendency toward a disincarnate dualism that is overcome). Paul describes a present tense resolution through Christ’s resurrection and ascension and the Christian participation in the same (Eph 2:5–6). Death is marked by the division within the body, but Christ overcomes this division, as can those “in Christ” – in and through the body of Christ.

Though he does not use the word flesh in his description of “works,” Paul is clearly talking of the flesh. Circumcised or uncircumcised, or keeping the works of the law, is a matter of maintaining the signs in the flesh of Jewish ethnicity, the most important of which is circumcision. Where we are caught up in the law, in the symbol system, of being Jew or Gentile, or taking on the identities of the flesh that depend upon division, love is incapacitated (precisely the “work” for which we were made and toward which Paul is aiming).

Giorgio Agamben and Žižek both provide a picture from Romans 7, which explains how law can potentially create an obstacle to love. In Paul’s illustration (in 7:1-3), Paul describes a masculine orientation to the law with the husband of the woman representing the law. The woman that has a husband is bound by law to the husband. The woman’s relationship to her husband is the prototypical social obligation, marriage being the foundation of the family and of society, but it is also the prototypical love relationship. The problem occurs when these two are pitted against one another; when “social life appears to me as dominated by an externally imposed Law in which I am unable to recognize myself … precisely insofar as I continue to cling to the immediacy of love that feels threatened by the rule of Law” (The Puppet and the Dwarf, 117). The law can only be said to “bind” when desire is in some way curtailed by the law. Love, understood as synonymous to this sort of desire, an element deep within the self which only refers to the self, can only experience the regulation of law as an imposition on the true nature of the self. The woman whose husband is alive, but who has fallen in love with another man, experiences the law as that which opposes her love. In fact, her love (her enjoyment or jouissance – evil desire) is here synonymous with sin (The Monstrosity of Christ, 273). Her notion that she is loved by her consort is, in turn, to imagine that deep within her is “some precious treasure that can only be loved, and cannot be submitted to the rule of Law” (The Puppet and the Dwarf, 117).

In Žižek’s logic of the exception (masculine sexuation), her “love” is a symptom of the prohibition and the prohibition has its force only in the exception. The exception, in Žižek’s view, could be seen as creating the rule. As in Kafka’s short story The Trial, Josef K. discovers that the elaborate system of the law which bars him from entering a certain door is actually built by himself for himself (Reader, 45). The law is a construct erected by and for those who stand outside of it. If the woman in Paul’s illustration were to love her husband and not consort with other men, and if this were the universal case, the law would “disintegrate.” The law functions in this sense like a psychoanalytic symptom: “A symptom … is an element that … must remain an exception, that is, the point of suspension of the universal principle: if the universal principle were to apply also to this point, the universal system itself would disintegrate” (The Universal Exception, 171). The woman, as the one who is subject to the law, represents an orientation of inherent transgression: “The subject is actually ‘in’ (caught in the web of) power only and precisely in so far as he does not fully identify with it but maintains a kind of distance towards it” (The Fragile Absolute, 148). The dynamic of sin is an identity caught up in a web which tightens its grip the more it is resisted. In Žižek’s description of the couplet law/sin, the law is a transcendent “foreign” force that serves to oppress what is perceived as the love relationship (The Monstrosity of Christ, 271). The law becomes an obstacle to be overcome in order for love to be possible.

Žižek’s point is that this sort of love is not agape love but rather a form of love or enjoyment (jouissance) in which the obstacle constitutes the (lost) love. The woman’s living husband is a necessary part of this sort of consorting, as he is the obstacle that makes the sexual relationship with the “other.” This construct is synonymous with sin: “‘Sin’ is the very intimate resistant core on account of which the subject experiences its relationship to the Law as one of subjection, it is that on account of which the Law has to appear to the subject as a foreign power crushing the subject” (The Monstrosity of Christ, 271). The Subject is attached to a “pathological agalma deep within itself” and it is attachment to this supposed exception or remainder that gives the law the specter of an oppressive foreign force (The Monstrosity of Christ, 271). There is a resistant core, a holdout or remainder on the part of the Subject: “The notion that there is deep inside it some precious treasure which can only be loved and cannot be submitted to the rule of Law” (The Monstrosity of Christ, 271). The deception or illusion that sin works is to construe the law as a closure of identity which by its very nature – its absoluteness – excludes love. Sin mediates the law as a power over and against love.

It is from the seeming failure of interpellation or the failure of universality to account for the exception that the totalizing symbolic takes hold. From one perspective it can be said “that the subject never fully recognizes itself in the interpolative call … and this resistance to interpellation (to the symbolic identity provided by interpellation) is the subject” (The Indivisible Remainder, 165). The woman consorting with her lover only understands herself over and against the law, while she may imagine her relationship to her lover in some way pre-exists her relationship to the law. “Is not this hysterical distance towards interpellation … the very form of ideological misrecognition? Is not this apparent failure of interpellation … the ultimate proof of its success … that is to say, of the fact that the ‘effect-of-subject’ really took place” (The Indivisible Remainder, 166)? Ideological interpellation, from the Subject’s perspective, might appear to be relieved or in some way mitigated if the Subject simply maintains a cynical distance towards the interpolating power. The woman in Paul’s illustration might say to herself, “I know the law says not to consort, but the law does not account for my true self.” “Hegel’s Beautiful Soul maintains a cynical, passive distance towards power, but this is precisely the power of interpellation doing its work” (Reader, 229–30).

We are made for good works, and this is love, a love that is not available through a misorientation to law. Paul assures us these works are not of the ethnic kind and not works that are foundational: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (2:10) – this is the foundation.

The Gentiles and Jews have a flesh problem (Eph. 2:11-13): near and far, inside and outside, excluded and included, citizens or aliens. Christ has undone the gauge of distance, and of inclusion and exclusion. He has suspended (καταργέω) the effect of the misorientation to the law.  If body (sῶma) is the Subject with the qualifiers of death and sin (“the body of sin and death” according to Paul) describing the orientation to the law, to crucify the body of sin so that it is suspended or brought to nothing (καταργέω) describes the profound reorientation brought about by participation in the body of Christ.

Christ has suspended this problem of the flesh:

“For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing (καταργήσας) in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace” (Eph. 2:14-15).

We can specify what Christ has done and how he has done it. In Wink’s terms, Christ has abolished notions of redemptive violence and he has defeated the domination system. There is an undoing of the violence of the law which has been coopted by sin and domination. This law plays out in nearly every realm of psychological and social life.

Relief is brought from the domination system of the family:

I believe Jesus was so consistently disparaging because the family in dominator societies is so deeply embedded in patriarchy, and serves as the citadel of male supremacy, the chief inculcator of gender roles, and a major inhibitor of change. It is in families where most women and children are battered and abused, and where the majority of women are murdered. In a great many cultures, men are endowed with the inalienable right to beat, rape, and verbally abuse their wives. The patriarchal family is thus the foundation on which the larger units of patriarchal dominance are based.[1]

There is an undoing of Jewish purity laws and the markers of inside and outside:

Table fellowship with sinners was a central feature of Jesus’ ministry. These sinners, notes New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, had been placed, or had placed themselves, outside the holiness code of Israel as it was being interpreted by certain circles in first-century Palestine. To include such outcasts in the realm of God was to reject the views of those who valued separation from the uncleanness of the world. Jesus’ table fellowship with social outcasts was a living parable of the dawning age of forgiveness.[2]

The gender divide is defeated, as male and female are no longer a mode of securing identity:

Respectable Jewish men were not to speak to women in public; Jesus freely conversed with women. A woman was to touch no man but her spouse; Jesus was touched by women, and touched them. Once, a prostitute burst into an all-male banquet, knelt at Jesus’ outstretched feet, and began to kiss them, washing them with tears of remorse and relief, wiping them with her hair and anointing them with oil. Despite the shocked disapproval of the other men, Jesus accepted her gift and its meaning and took her side, even though she had technically rendered him unclean and had scandalized the guests (Luke 7: 36– 50).[3]

Jesus’ system, the ontology or ground of his work, is one of peace and nonviolence:

Jesus rejects violence. When his disciples request permission to call down fire from heaven on inhospitable Samaritans, Jesus rebukes them (Luke 9: 51– 56). Instead of praising the disciple who, in an attempt to save Jesus from arrest, cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave, Jesus reacts: “No more of this!” (Luke 22: 51)— an injunction the church took literally for the next three centuries. According to Matthew, Jesus says, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26: 52).[4]

In place of a system of division, hierarchy, and domination, a system of equity prevails, beginning with a different economy:  

The gospel of Jesus is founded on economic equity, because economic inequities are the basis of domination. Ranking, status, and classism are largely built on power provided by accumulated wealth. Breaking with domination means ending the economic exploitation of the many by the few. Since the powerful are not likely to abdicate their wealth, the poor must find ways to overcome the Domination Epoch from within.[5]

In short there is an ending of the domination system:

The words and deeds of Jesus reveal that he is not a minor reformer but an egalitarian prophet who repudiated the very premises of the Domination System: the right of some to lord it over others by means of power, wealth, shaming, or titles. In his beatitudes, his healings, and his table fellowship with outcasts and sinners, Jesus declared God’s special concern for the oppressed.[6]

The real world defeat of the violence of the flesh inscribed with the law is accomplished in the suspension of this violent “ontology” and economy in the unifying peace of the body of Christ – this is the work for which the body was made.


[1] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be (p. 76). Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale. Kindle Edition.

[2] Wink, 73-74).

[3] Wink, 69-70.

[4] Wink, 68

[5] Wink, 66.

[6] Wink, 65.

Real Presence as Opposed to Deferred Meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid.

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

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

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

“You Are Gods”: The Satanic Version

The point of Jesus’ statement, “You are gods” (John 10:34) might be summed up as theosis or being found “in Christ” or being filled with the Holy Spirit. That is, the explanation is inclusive of the New Testament doctrine of salvation. Christians, as Peter says, are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) and so participate and are in union with God. The yeast that is integrated and assimilated into the whole batch of dough is divine. The union between a husband and wife marks the mystery of human and divine union (Eph. 5). As Irenaeus puts it, “For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God.”[1]  Or as Athanasius succinctly put it, “He became man that we might become god.”[2] This may sound demonic, or at least Jesus’ contemporaries thought so: “Many of them were saying, He has a demon and is insane. Why do you listen to Him?’” (Jn. 10:20). Isn’t this demon talk or a near reduplication of the serpent’s temptation in Genesis? 

The opposite of biblical deification, at least in the church fathers, is not what moderns might imagine post-Nietzsche, when we hear, “You are gods.” That is, we might think the satanic version is simply to say the same thing again, perhaps in a slightly different register (and without all the qualifications that have been made in order to help Jesus express himself better). The statement may conjure up images of Nietzsche’s superman, or of a completely autonomous individual – the captain of his own soul, churning out values and determining his world. We may imagine a kind of irreligion or atheism which gains freedom and power in throwing off all belief.

Even in the negative assessment of the statement we may be missing the original sense, as in, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” The supposed statement of Dostoevsky (it is actually Sartre misquoting The Brothers Karamazov) attributes a potency, hedonistic though it may be, to disbelief. Whether in its positive atheistic Nietzschean guise (“wiping the horizon clean,” etc.) or in its negative conservative ideological form (presuming religion and transcendental authority are necessary to set limits to human evil), there is a presumed freedom, either liberating or dangerous. In being god and displacing God, in this misunderstood demonization, there is a presumed empowerment that is fundamentally mistaken, and the error is exposed at multiple levels.

As Jacques Lacan put it, reversing Dostoevsky’s formula: “If God is dead nothing is permitted.” On its surface this may ring hollow, but the evidence Lacan is observing in the clinic is universally available. People are sick, twisted, and mentally ill. They kill themselves at almost the same rate they kill one another. People live under deadly constraints so that death is often the only option. Violence is not a choice but a necessity: there is random violence, national violence, religious violence, political violence, familial violence, or entertaining violence, but violence is the necessity that orders people’s lives. It may not be an overt physical violence, but simply a description of the life of the individual. Intrusive thoughts reduce many to marionettes controlled by their sick conscience which takes obscene delight in not allowing a moment’s rest. Of course, the conscience torturing them is their conscience – and any pleasure had in the sickness involves the ongoing suffering of the individual inflicting the pain. The more pain, the more divine satisfaction, so that one is continually working toward satisfying the god/voice in the head.

The source of this voice may be communal or individual, religious or irreligious; it matters not. The hedonistic command to enjoy is as deadly as the puritanical command to abstain from enjoyment. The command to sacrifice may come from the gods or it may come from the neighbor’s dog. The sacrifice may be the sacrifice of the first born, the sacrifice of a virgin, the sacrifice of the soldier, or the pedophile’s child sacrifice. People are sick, but they are not sickened by freedom but by enslavement. The gods they serve, personal or corporate, hedonistic or puritanical, demand constant vigilance, constant sacrifice, and human life is mostly spent in futile servitude to what is nonexistent.

Though Nietzsche railed against the slave religion of Christianity, he too succumbed to mental enslavement and ended his life a drooling idiot. The fact that his mental break came at the sight of a man beating a horse, indicates it was not freedom but human cruelty and evil – and perhaps the cruelty he inflicted upon himself – which he could not endure. The Übermensch turns out to be a pitiful wreck, and we live in the wake of this presumed freedom which induced an even heavier dose of enslavement. But the issue was never religion versus irreligion, or atheism versus theism.

In fact, one way of characterizing Jesus’ statement and the faith of the New Testament is as a form of irreligion (only a slight misnomer). The Romans presumed Christians were atheists, because they refused worship of the Roman gods. Judaism and Christianity are both characterized by their rejection of any form of idolatry (the only form of religion for much of the world). But Jesus statement gets at the fact that idolatry per se is not the root of the human problem (isn’t he guilty, one might ask, of the very idolatry Judaism condemns?). The Jews accuse Jesus of the worst form of irreligious blasphemy in claiming equality with God. Saul persecuted Christians for the same reason his Pharisee brothers accused Jesus of blasphemy.

Humans are enslaved, but what they are enslaved by is a deadly orientation, lust, or drive, which might take an infinite variety of forms. Paul characterizes it as an orientation to the law, in which the Jewish law is only a particular instance of the universal problem. His point to the Judaizers in Galatia is that a return to Judaism is the equivalent of a return to idolatry. The weight of the law might be felt in the inclusion/exclusion of the Jewish law, but this wall of hostility is not peculiar to Jews. It is not simply a “Jewish problem” or a “religious problem” but is the universal problem of suffering under the hostile condemnation of law.  

To imagine God is doing the condemning, in the case of Jesus (and otherwise), is to miss the obvious fact that the world powers of Jerusalem and Rome are doing the torturing and killing of Christ. The killing of Jesus – revolving around his claim to deity – marks the source of the problem and the victim. The necessity to kill Jesus arises due to their respective gods. In Roman religion and Jewish religion, God incarnate must be killed to preserve the religion.

Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor arrives at the same conclusion when Jesus happens to show up at the inquisition in Spain. After healing the sick and raising the dead, the Inquisitor has Jesus arrested and that evening enters his cell, so as to explain why the Church must burn him at the stake. Where Jesus had resisted the temptations in the wilderness, it is precisely those temptations which the Roman Church has utilized to steal human freedom. The Church will offer bread in exchange for worship: “give man bread and he will bow down to you, for there is nothing more indisputable than bread. But if at the same time someone else takes over his conscience – oh, then he will even throw down your bread and follow him who has seduced his conscience.” While freedom of conscience may be the lure, “there is nothing more tormenting” than this freedom. The Inquisitor explains to Jesus that his prime mistake was to imagine there were others like him, able to bear the weight of deity. In refusing the miracle of leaping off the Temple, you wrongly presumed “there are many like you” but “you did not know that as soon as man rejects miracles, he will at once reject God as well, for man seeks not so much God as miracles.” The Inquisitor explains that Jesus has expected too much of people, and luckily the Church has stepped in where Jesus failed. But now that Jesus has shown up, he must be silenced lest he presume to speak and interfere with the established religion of the Church. Everything has been handed over to the Church and now belongs to the pope, and “you may as well not come at all now, or at least don’t interfere with us for the time being.” [3]

The weight of freedom is too much so that enslavement to religion, to gods, or to human hierarchy, is the price most are willing to pay, faced with the responsibility Jesus places upon them. Better the self-binding enslavement of the common human condition; the condemnation Paul describes in Romans 7 and which the New Testament characterizes as both Jewish and pagan, which pertains to a human problem not a God problem.  

To call it a legal problem, with Luther and Calvin, or to simply say it is a problem internal to the law, misses the point. The problem of the law is not a problem contained in the law but in people; in those who imagine life, identity, salvation, and being are in the law. But this law may consist of corporate or individual dictates. It may be a corporate law, as in the Kara tribe in which all babies whose top teeth come in before their bottom teeth must be killed, or it may be an individual compulsion to be tortured or to torture kill, rape or maim. It may be another that is destroyed, or it may be that the fervor or compulsion is directed at the self. What law is not the primary concern and abolishing the law is not the primary concern, but suspending the punishing effects of a particular orientation to the law is the point of the gospel.

But at this point the Lacanian and Dostoyevskian dictates may fold into one another. Nothing is permitted and everything is permitted may simply be two sides of the same coin. The law, individual or corporate, from God or from the individual, touches upon a drive which knows no limits and yet must be served unto death. To call this a religious or atheistic problem in our present circumstance is to miss the point that religionists and hedonists may serve the same god. Or should we imagine that Catholic and evangelical pedophiles and sex perverts, saved as they are, consist of a higher quality pervert than those dirty hedonists?

The difference may be that the religious perverts, unlike the Harvey Weinsteins of pagan Hollywood, have the corporate protection of the church to keep their proclivities from coming to light. Who is more enslaved and degenerate, the lone individual driven to sexual violence under the obscene command to enjoy, or an institution that produces and protects such an individual? Nothing is permitted on one side of the coin, but underneath all things are permitted, but both arise from the same destructive obscenity. As Slavoj Žižek has put it in regard to the Roman Church, “You must not have sexual pleasure, but you may enjoy all the little boys you desire.” Or as mega pastor Ted Haggard put it to Larry King, though he had heatedly preached against homosexuality and was then caught in a homosexual affair, “You know Larry . . . Jesus says ‘I came for the unrighteous, not for the righteous . . .’ So as soon as I became worldwide unrighteous, I knew Jesus had come for me.” Nothing is permitted and thus everything is permitted, but the same oppressive force reigns on both sides of the coin.

All of this to say, the satanic version of “you are gods” is to blind one to the source of life available in God and Christ, and the inherent moral responsibility this entails. The satanic lure is bent on selling a mediating knowledge in place of knowing God directly. Partaking of the knowledge of good and evil results in hiding, shame and fear, with idolatrous religion emerging only many centuries later. The turn from God cannot be described as empowerment (even of the evil kind). It is not the attainment of agency and freedom, but the turn to murder, mayhem and uncontrollable lust. But religion or irreligion may consist of the same punishing gods, and the point of “you are gods” is to not only name the idol, but the deep grammar from which it arises. In the context in which Athanasius and Irenaeus explain divinization this is their point. 

In leading up to his succinct statement (“He became man that man might become god”) Athanasius notes, “The barbarians of the present day are naturally savage in their habits, and as long as they sacrifice to their idols they rage furiously against each other and cannot bear to be a single hour without weapons.”[4] He describes a fearful and enslaved people who are subject to gods of their own making, but these are not deities that empower but which enslave to warfare and violence. The turn to Christ and deification is aimed at relieving humankind of its impotency in the face of the demonic gods they have manufactured. “But when they hear the teaching of Christ, forthwith they turn from fighting to farming, and instead of arming themselves with swords extend their hands in prayer. In a word, instead of fighting each other, they take up arms against the devil and the demons, and overcome them by their self-command and integrity of soul.” They gain self-command by putting off their worship of idols and, in that wonderful turn of phrase, “they turn from fighting to farming.”[5] In realizing they are made for divinity they turn from demonic warfare to the creation care of the original dominion mandate.

Irenaeus, in his explanation of divinization and “you are gods,” points to the same impotency and enslavement. Those who miss the deity of Christ and assert, “He was simply a mere man” remain “in the bondage of the old disobedience” and “are in a state of death having been not as yet joined to the Word of God the Father, nor receiving liberty through the Son, as He does Himself declare: If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” (Jn. 8:36). If they do not receive “the incorruptible Word, they remain in mortal flesh, and are debtors to death, not obtaining the antidote of life.” Irenaeus references both John 10 and Psalm 82, and explains that it is those “who despise the incarnation of the pure generation of the Word of God” who thus “defraud human nature of promotion into God.”[6] By refusing the Word of God and participation in deity they remain in the sickness unto death, and this constitutes subjection to the one who wields the power of death.

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


[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.19.1.

[2] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 54.3.

[3] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990) book V, 250-255.

[4] Athanasius, 52.2.

[5] Athanasius is commenting on Isaiah 2:4: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into sickles, and nation shall not take sword against nation, neither shall they learn any more to wage war.” 

[6] Against Heresies, 3.19.1

The Word as the Fulness of Divine and Human Personhood: The Implication of Lacan and Žižek in Barth’s Theology

Karl Barth concludes that the Trinity, or who God is in his essence, is who he is in the three-sided aspect of revelation. “God’s Word is God Himself in his revelation.” The revelation of God is not something added to who God is, but this revealing is who he is and what is revealed in the revelation is God’s self. “For God reveals Himself as the Lord and according to Scripture this signifies for the concept of revelation that God Himself in unimpaired unity yet also in unimpaired distinction is Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness.”[1] God is the one who reveals, and he is the content of this revelation, and is the means of this revelation being received. The work of the Father as revealer, the Son as what is revealed, and the Spirit in the reception and participation in this revelation is the center of the Christian faith.

Tied up in Barth’s doctrine of revelation and doctrine of God is his approach to epistemology and his stance toward modernism and foundationalism. Revelation is the foundation of the Christian faith (and not self-certainty); it is the objective reality and the subjective appropriation of this reality which constitutes the true. To limit revelation to a proposition, a fact, or reason (another foundation) may miss that what is being communicated is not separate from the means of communication. The revelation or Word is means, content, and appropriation. This is the sui generis point of departure. This does not stand under any other condition or criteria “but is itself the condition.” This is not a possibility to be realized by other means but is the “basis of all possible self-realizations.” “Above this act there is nothing other or higher on which it might be based or from which it might be derived unless it was from the transcendence of the eternal Word of God that came forth in revelation.”[2] Here is Subject, Object, and Predicate. Revelation is not a minus or plus: “it is not another over against God. It is the same – the repetition of God. Revelation is indeed God’s predicate, but in such a way that this predicate is in every way identical with God Himself.”[3]

Barth references and dismisses Cartesian certainty: “One might ask whether this Cartesianism is really as impregnable as it usually purports to be even on the philosophical plane.”[4] His point is to begin only with the certainty of the Word of God. This Word “does not receive its dignity and validity in any respect or even to the slightest degree from a presupposition that we bring to it. Its truth for us, like its truth in itself, is grounded absolutely in itself.” There is a sense in which this might describe the Cartesian or the modern project, but as Barth indicates the modern quest for certainty does not succeed. The procedure in theology, then, is to establish self-certainty in the certainty of God, “to measure it by the certainty of God without waiting for the validating of this beginning by self-certainty.”[5] Only subsequent to this beginning is there the possibility of self-certainty. But even to speak of a beginning, as if it is to be had apart from revelation, is mistaken. It is only in the knowledge of God’s Word that a beginning can be made.

As Barth explains, the movement is not apart from the revealing work of God, though there may be the continual drive to go beyond or below or above. “The position is not that we have to seek the true God beyond these three moments in a higher being in which He is not Father, Son and Spirit.” This would amount to a denial of – an objectifying of the one who is subject. “Here, too there is no Thou, no Lord. Here, too, man clearly wants to get behind God, namely, behind God as He really shows and gives Himself, and therefore behind what He is, for the two are one and the same.” This objectifying of God, making him something other than the subject he is would reduce God to a misconstrued human subjectivity. “Here, too, the divine subjectivity is sucked up into the human subjectivity which enquires about a God that does not exist.”

Barth does not spell out or relate how it may be a failed human subjectivity that tends to objectify and reduce the divine subject, but this is implied. It is only in a healthy human subjectivity that the fulness of the divine subject can be apprehended. “For man community with God means strictly and exclusively communion with the One who reveals Himself and who is subject, and indeed indissolubly subject, in His revelation.” Something less than Trinity would fall short of the divine subject, but would fall short of any form of what it means to be subject. “The indissolubility of His being as subject is guaranteed by the knowledge of the ultimate reality of the three modes of being in the essence of God above and behind which there is nothing higher.” God is relational as part of who he is, and this relationality is synonymous with his revelation and relation to us. Who he is as Father, Son and Spirit is inclusive of revelation and there is nothing beyond or nothing further than this Threeness. This is what it means to be a subject. “Our God and only our God, namely, the God who makes Himself ours in His revelation, is God.”[6]

This capacity for relationship, for self-giving, and for inter-mutual participation names not only the divine subject, but explains what a subject or person is (including what the human subject consists of) and was made for. The relational or personal core of revelation is inclusive of the rational or propositional but these are part of what it means to be personal. The experience of the Word involves a person-to-person relation, but the human side of this exchange is established in the process. “The determination of man’s existence by the Word of God is created thus; it is determination by God’s person.”[7] God with us is God for us in the full sense, in that this is the meaning of human personhood. “God’s Word is not a thing to be described nor a term to be defined. It is neither a matter nor an idea. It is not ‘a truth,’ not even the highest truth. It is the truth as it is God’s speaking person. It is not an objective reality, in that it is also subjective, the subjective that is God.”[8] God is present in what he says and this presence is the only form of self-presence we have.

This self-presence of the Spirit of God, God’s revealedness, is “not so much the reality in which God makes us sure of Him as the reality in which He makes Himself sure of us, in which He establishes and executes His claim to lordship over us by His immediate presence.” Apart from this presence there is only a striving for self-presence and a striving for a real word. Only through the Holy Spirit can man “become a real speaker and proclaimer of real witness.”[9] Though Barth is not here drawing out the contrast between futile striving for and fruitful reception of personhood, the alternative is posed. “The Spirit guarantees man what he cannot guarantee himself, his personal participation in revelation.” Beyond this, this personal participation is a realization or fulfilment of the personal. This “Yes” to God’s revelation “is the Yes to God’s Word which is spoken by God Himself for us, yet not just to us, but also in us.” The fulness of faith, knowledge and obedience as they are realized in the Holy Spirit are nothing less than the realization of personhood. The implication is that apart from this Yes to God and revelation there is negation of the person.

As far as I know, Barth never develops a complete theory of language, or a fuller theory of the subject, beyond what he presents in this exposition of Trinity and revelation. Here is the word properly functioning, and the fulness of what it means to be a subject. However, entailed in his exposition is the implication of the dynamics of the subject apart from God. His sui generis notion of the Word points toward a similar sui generis structuring or attempt at structuring around the human word. His picture of the self-justifying and self-authenticating disclosure of God indicates the inward direction of human failure, in continual attempts at self-justification as means of having or being the self. The drive is not simply to do the right thing but to establish one’s existence. His depiction of God’s revelation as a repetition of God, indicates the prime human neurosis. The attempt to repeat the self or to have the self in repetition describes a key Freudian discovery. The compulsion to repeat is the drive to have life through a death-dealing process.  In his three-part picture of the Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness, he indicates that the attempt to go beyond this is to arrive at nothing and this circulation of nothingness or absence amounts to a three-fold displacement of the Trinity.

In short, Barth sums up the reception of the Word with prolonged appeal to Romans 8, among other Scriptures. If one would reverse engineer Romans 8 or reverse engineer Barth’s depiction of revelation, and take out Christ, the Holy Spirit and Abba-Father, what is left is the dynamic described in Romans 7 (7:7ff). There is law, the split I, and the dynamic of death and the individual caught up in this dynamic which has lost control of the body and will (being ineffective against desire), and there is an overall incapacity resulting from the compulsion to be interpolated into the law. This dynamic of death (in Paul’s summary statement), in the estimate of Slavoj Žižek, sums up the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan.

In Lacan’s summation of his theory, he claims to be doing nothing more than following the working of language as the structuring principle of the human psyche. The dynamic interplay stemming from the fact that humans speak (as opposed to God speaking in Barth) produces the three-fold interplay making up the two sides of consciousness (the symbolic and the imaginary) and the unconscious self (the real). In Lacan’s depiction, language becomes the structuring dynamic of the subject through something akin to Barth’s subject, object, and predicate. The order of language marks the interplay of the three parts of the human subject in its orientation to the word. The one who speaks is the superego, the law, or something like the conscience (in place of the Father or the Revealer). The object of this speech is the ego or I (in place of Christ), who would establish itself in regard to the law. This dynamic between the superego and ego is the taking up of death (the displacement of the Spirit). In other words, the Barthian project indicates something like the futility of the project of Lacan and Žižek. In turn, the disease, suffering, and despair of Freud from which they are extrapolating, point to the Barthian depiction of the resolution. The word as the displacement of the Word describes the human dilemma, and the Word lifting up and filling the place of the word describes the cure.


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God, pt. 1, eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. G. W. Bromiley, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1975), 295.

[2] Ibid. 118.

[3] Ibid. 299.

[4] Ibid. 195.

[5] Ibid. 196.

[6] Ibid. 382.

[7] Ibid. 205.

[8] Ibid. 136.

[9] Ibid. 454.