Reassessing Hegel in Light of Maximus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Gavin, 276.

[3] Ibid.

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

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

[6] Gavin, 280,

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

[8] Hegel, On Christianity, 225.

[9] Hegel, On Christianity, 227.

[10] Hegel, On Christianity, 224.

[11] Hegel, On Christianity, 226.

[12] Hegel, On Christianity, 218.

[13] Hegel, On Christianity, 225.

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

[15] Goggin, 278.

[16] Ibid.

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

[18] Goggin, 258.

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

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

[21] Goggin, 255.

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

[23] Goggin, 235.

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.

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.