When God brings our nature back to the first state of man by the resurrection, it would be pointless to mention such matters [i.e., all the contextual details that influence our behavior in this lifetime] and to suppose that the power of God is hindered from this goal by such obstructions. He has one goal: when the whole fullness of our nature has been perfected in each man, some straightway even in this life purified from evil, others healed hereafter through fire for the appropriate length of time, and others ignorant of the experience equally of good and of evil in the life here, God intends to set before everyone the participation of the good things in Him, which the Scripture says eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor thought attained. This is nothing else, according to my judgment, but to be in God Himself.
…When our nature will have its tabernacle pitched again by the resurrection, and all the corruption which has entered in connection with evil will be abolished from the things that are, then the festival around God will be inaugurated in common for those who are covered by the resurrection, so that one and the same joy will be set before all. No longer will rational beings be divided by different degrees of participation in equal good things. Those who are now outside because of evil will eventually come inside the sanctuary of divine blessedness. …The apostle says this more plainly, expounding the agreement of the universe in the good: ‘To Him every knee will bow’ of heavenly, earthly, and subterranean beings, and ‘every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.’ …He speaks of angelic and heavenly beings, and by the rest he signifies the creatures which are ranked next after them, namely us, for all of whom one harmonious festival will prevail.St Gregory of Nyssa, called “Father of Fathers” by the Seventh Ecumenical Council, in chapter 10 of On the Soul and the Resurrection.
Some Data on Modernity’s Downsides
Yes, I love to talk about topics—like fairies and an atemporal fall—that don’t fit into most modern categories. Nonetheless, I’m truly on board with the modern scientific method and grateful for the many blessings of contemporary life. As a history major in college and graduate school, I’ve long loved to think about the question of progress in human history. Owen Barfield thought C.S. Lewis was a little backward for thinking that human history showed no signs of overall progress. My favorite thinkers, however, have always been the ones who agree with C.S. Lewis in this rather unpopular conclusion. David Bentley Hart, for example, writes in his most recent subscription newsletter essay “Time, Technology, and History: Disjointed Reflections on the Rise of Homo Interreticulatus” that “there is no such thing as a science of history, in the sense of some theory or experimental regimen that could reduce the flow of human events to a set of invariable laws—economic, social, political, anthropological, or whatever—or produce reliable models for predicting what comes next.” After rejecting even the grand systems of Hegel and Heidegger while pressing this point as far as he can, Hart maintains that:
Historical eventuality is a vast, tumultuous, uncharted river carrying all our fragile vessels along—hazardous, scarcely navigable, and with unanticipated bends always just ahead. All we can really be certain of is that there will be moments of acute crisis when all the river’s currents will be forced together in a particularly turbulent confluence or precipitated down a particularly steep chute, and survival will depend on whose hands hold the tiller.
Coming down from the heights of these sweeping philosophical claims, I also love to think about the more mundane causes of modernity and tallying up what we have lost. Skipping over the delightful considerations of how our modern secular world came to be (which I will likely continue to blog about for years to come as I’m endlessly fascinated with the rise of many wildly irrational modern ideas such as secularity, the autonomous individual, the sovereign nation state, and a libertarian concept of freedom), this blog post will just focus on tallying up of what we have lost. Of course, what has disappeared in the face of modernity is generally much less visible to us than the many celebrated benefits.
While we generally think of modern life as far more secure and non-violent than premodern life, the total number of human deaths by conflict have climbed astronomically since the rise of the secular nation state and its totalizing ideologies (generally connected to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648). Take a look at the death tolls from the many devastating (and often ideological) conflicts of modern nations compared to those of premodern nations:
Charts like that one above are ideally read with some understanding of the ways in which Marxism, fascism and capitalism are all expressions of the totalizing ideologies that serve the power of secular nation states. However, such considerations take us off tract.
Getting back to the numbers, of course, the massively escalating total numbers of human deaths by conflict within the chart above are in some large part the result of rapid growth in the worldwide human population (due substantially to the positive benefits of modern medicine and agriculture). However, even when the growing human population is factored in, per capita death rates due to human conflicts have still been measurably higher overall since the Enlightenment (not discounting the great blessing of well over a decade of historically low rates of human conflicts globally):
(As an aside, before moving to the next types of data, it is worth noting that any consideration of human death rates across time should include the increased rates of induced abortions to some extent. Obviously, this is an extremely politicized topic that creates distractions and understandable concerns from multiple directions. However, I’ll simply point out here that there were an average of 56 million induced abortions each year from 2010 to 2014 according to the World Health Organization. Any serious consideration of human death rates across all of human history would need to take these substantial numbers into account to some degree.)
Moving past global human death rates, however, the real genius of the secular myth of progress is that the devastation of modernity is hidden underneath piles of improvements—the majority of which are truly very good (certainly, we should all celebrate and continue to advocate for medical progress and progress in the legal protections provided to the most vulnerable). However, we should also track the losses. These make up a massive but hidden list such as environmental devastation, losses in human attention and consciousness (difficult to define and measure of course) as well as vast extinctions in local culture, craft and lore of place. Especially these last factors (of human attention and consciousness along with local culture, craft and lore of place) all correlate profoundly with the real empowerment and happiness of people. My strong suspicion is that humans in the modern world are substantially less happy, perceptive and capable on average than humans in the premodern world. If we could measure the presence of mental health needs, depression and addictions in the premodern world globally, I suspect that our modern world would not compare as favorably as many today might imagine.
However, this kind of data is not easy to find and perhaps not even possible to extrapolate in any form. Instead, I will do what I can here to sketch a picture with the various pieces of disjointed data that I have been able to find.
Insects are a good place to start. As a boy (in 6th grade), I got to know a couple of PhD students in entomology from Cornel University. They gave me a tour of the facilities there which were some of the best in the world. As friends of our family, they spent time looking over my own collections as an amateur naturalist of various insects, skulls, birds eggs and many other small items arranged with care on the shelves in my bedroom that I called my museum. Because my father was a PhD student (in literature) at SUNY Binghamton, I was able to check out books from the library at Cornel University. By the end of 8th grade, I had checked out well over a hundred books on insects from one of the best entomology libraries in the world. In addition to raising all kinds of bugs to feed to my many snakes, lizards and other pets, I also did a lot of things that many other children did. I collected milkweed leaves and raised monarch butterflies. I spent hours looking through the inches of bugs that piled up under streetlights at night. One time I found a beautiful female specimen of a giant water bug close to four inches long. I had read about these in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard where she recounts her astonishment at watching a frog, who she thought was beautiful and filled with life, collapse suddenly in on itself before its empty skin floated ghostlike to the bottom of the shallow water where it had been sitting at the surface in the sunlight. Dillard spent some time reading to find what could have caused this incredible vision, and concluded that it must have been a giant water bug. I named mine Cleopatra, and I watched her feed happily on several frogs before I released her.
With my own children, I’ve tracked down the nuptial flights of queen ants on warm days after light rains. We’ve collected these native queens and raised them carefully until they lay eggs and the eggs hatch so that the queen is attended by the nanitics as she begins to build her colony. (Nanitics are the very first generation of workers who are smaller and hatched without the benefit of other workers to care for them as eggs.) Despite growing up for 14 out of the first 18 years of my life in Taiwan, I began to suspect while raising my own children that insect populations in America were not what they used to be when I was a child. As I looked into it, there have, in fact, been massive world-wide drops in insect biomass globally since I was a child. This study shows a global 45% decline of invertebrates over the past 40 years (Dirzo Science, 2014):
Another study shows a 75% loss of insect life from 63 locations in Germany identified as low-altitude nature protection areas surrounded by human populations and measured between 1989 and 2016 (Hallmann in PLoS ONE, 2017):
While I don’t find that most people know about the global loss of insect biomass, there have been some reports on the struggles of honeybees and monarch butterflies. Just to look at the data on monarchs is truly saddening. When eastern and western monarch populations are taken together, we have seen an overall 75% decline from 1975 to 2019:
Just focusing on the western monarch, we see that while the number of overwintering sites monitored by concerned people has climbed dramatically, the total number of monarchs reported has dropped to virtually zero in 2020:
While we don’t know much about why insect populations are declining, one candidate is pollution levels that are not connected to local areas but are instead widespread in global ocean and ground water sources. Prominent among these kinds of pollutants are micro-plastics. I do not know much about the definitions of what constitutes micro-plastic pollution or about its possible harm to living things or ecosystems. At any rate, micro-plastic are just one example out of many kinds of pollutants that we could look at. They are an area of growing study, and the initial data on the prevalence of micro-plastic pollution is sobering:
Turning to a human health indicator that gets limited new coverage (and where micro-plastic pollution is also one suspect), there are several studies of male sperm counts dropping substantially in recent decades worldwide. This most well-publicized study was from France:
With far more complicating factors involved but nonetheless worth considering when evaluating longterm changes in human culture, it is also worth looking at overall fertility rates for humans in various parts of the world:
Now we come to one of the most important indicators of human cultural health: the prevalence of local artisan guilds and handcraft traditions. These are numbers that are not easy to find, but there is not doubt that these numbers are in dramatic decline worldwide as a result of globalized industrialization. Both human languages and human handcraft traditions are disappearing completely on a yearly basis. This first study shows the decline in Japan and then in a specific city in Japan (revered for its many handcraft traditions):
Finally, one more local study in the loss of handcrafts, this one from Pakistan:
Of course, handcrafts indicate the life of towns and cities. Human cultures also involve food production and agricultural life. On this topic, Wendell Berry is, of course, a leading contemporary thinker. (However, his basic concepts of human scale and collectively learning how to care for your particular place are equally applicable to cities, towns and farmland.) Without getting into the theories, here are some simple examples of numbers regarding the relative size and number of agricultural land holdings over time (generally showing the replacement of the family farm with corporate agriculture:
This next chart shows data that I’ve found almost no examples of (with this one being a low-budget study). However, one key indicator of human cultural health is our relationship to work versus sacred time, and this indicates what we would expect in the modern world:
While wealth distribution, of course, involves a very complex set of factors, there is a case to be made that our long-term trends in this regard from premodern to modern times have not been healthy. This is related, as well, to the factors above involving our relationship to local places and to work versus sacred time.
Finally, here is some data that has gotten a great deal of attention (and of which much more could be found). Our collective consumption of mass media and entertainment has escalated dramatically by every measure. Much of this, of course, is saturated by increasingly sophisticated efforts to keep our attention and to shape our appetites. One of many books on the topic that I recommend is Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams. Here are some basic charts regarding out consumption of entertainment, specifically:
Most of the charts above are easily found online by searching key terms on the charts themselves. I’m glad to answer questions about sources in comments here as well. This is, obviously, not a formal study of any kind, but just a tour of categories where I have found numbers that felt relevant to me in consider what we may have lost as people with the rise of the modern Enlightenment in Europe and the secular nation state (which has been exported as a concept to the entire globe).
the ground of all nature is personal presence
The Bible doesn’t give you imagery of some other place than this world. In the Old Testament, the New Testament, in the Prophets, in Paul—the only image of salvation that there is, is cosmic. It’s always not just human beings praising God but all the animals of the land and the sea. It’s a restored creation. It has a new Jerusalem in it—that imagery of a purified Jerusalem descending to earth. There is no notion of going to some ethereal heaven apart from the rest of creation.
The imagery is of a renewed world, a renewed cosmos in which everything—mineral, vegetable, animal, human—is present. The ground of all nature is personal presence. That’s more original than everything else. I think that is a reality that one can confirm in experience not just through some sort of set of metaphysical commitments.
It’s clear that, when you interact with animals, you’re interacting with personal beings. I don’t give a damn how offensive that is to anyone in the tradition. You are dealing with creatures that have consciousness, that have identity, that have (to some degree) personality, so they are spiritual beings. Any attempt to deny that is simply based on a rather childish fixation on a notion of what constitutes proper human dignity. The notion that they are somehow excluded from the universal dispensation of a new creation seems to me, self-evidently, a rather squalid picture of things. Those who have owned a dog know who that dog is—unlike every other dog in many ways—that he or she has little idiosyncrasies or habits …you know if this dog is excessively timid. You are, in all of nature, always confronted with a kind of personal presence. I tend to think that here [Sergei] Bulgakov is right: all of nature, all of creation, is in its inmost essence always already personal. Its destiny can’t be the destiny of a machine that merely collapses into dust at the end of its utility. Apokatastasis literally means restoration of all things, and all things would seem to include all things.
This is from a short video clip of a forthcoming interview with David Bentley Hart that will be included within a larger documentary from what I’ve heard.
The term apokatastasis is used in the New Testament just once (in Acts 3:21) but is also talked about by many early church fathers in relation to Paul’s reference, in 1 Corinthians 15:28, to Christ subjecting himself to God so “that God may be all in all.” I’m tempted here to reflect on the similarities and differences between David Bentley Hart’s vision of the eschaton and that of N. T. Wright. Both of them insist upon a heaven that is in profound contact with the here and now, but they go about this in radically different ways. Wright insists upon the materiality (fleshly and earthly) of heaven and avoids metaphysical categories. Hart grounds the presence of God in the here and now as well as in the most substantial reality of “personal presence” and of “spiritual beings.” While Hart beautifully maintains that this is a “reality that one can confirm in experience not just through some sort of set of metaphysical commitments,” even in this passage, you can see that Hart is leaning in to metaphysical categories that he believes are profoundly present in Paul and other New Testament authors as well.
I’m also tempted to consider the image of the fire of God burning at the heart of each individual thing (each self) within creation—an image that shows up prominently in the church fathers, in Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889), and in George MacDonald (1824 – 1905). However, I’ve tried to write about all of this before, and I will leave off trying to do any of it again for now.
Notes and Reading List on the Atemporal Fall
One of the more challenging topics I’ve read, written, and talked about in the past few years is the atemporal fall. I get more and more questions about it, so I’m collecting a reading list here that I can build out over time and share easily in response to questions. This concept of an atemporal fall was widespread in the Hellenistic Jewish and early Christian context (the entire background of Jesus and Paul) but has not been prominent within the Latin tradition of theology for a long time. As the piece linked below by Alexander V. Khramov demonstrates, this is largely because Augustine moved over the course of his own lifetime away from the idea of an atemporal fall that he had first learned as a new Christian—rejecting what had been the standard idea in the Greek speaking theological world. Augustine did this for what were apparently theologically-motivated reasons related to his own unique readings of Paul on topics such as original sin (another way in which Augustine shaped theology in the West for long after his lifetime).
Put simply, the atemporal fall is the idea that humanity was created in a heavenly realm of time and space and that the human fall literally caused a reduced form of time and space to come into being. Humanity then also showed up within this fallen world but in a new and reduced form of themselves. Many early church fathers (including Augustine at least for the first part of his career) considered Genesis 1 to be about the eternal creation of God while Genesis 2 moved our cosmic story across the line into the fallen world that we now inhabit. This means that the fall of humanity took place outside of time as we now experience it—therefore “atemporal.”
Calling this concept the “atemporal fall” privileges the relationship of the fall to our present world in terms of time and does this at the expense of space. However, our current world is related to the world from which we fell in terms of both time and space. In fact, a Christian understanding of an atemporal fall must maintain both a spatial and a temporal participation between the fallen world and the eternal creation of God. Without this participation, the idea of an atemporal fall reduces easily to a full dualism or heterodox gnosticism rather than remaining simply a contingent dualism (with actual participation in the life of God throughout all of reality) as we see in the New Testament and the church fathers.
One other reason that it so difficult to speak now of an atemporal fall is that it is entirely incompatible with a physicalist or mechanistic metaphysics (which is really just the blindness or prejudice of refusing to have any metaphysics at all). Our modern secular world of inert material resources that exist only to be manipulated for the sake of progress or commodification (creating more stuff to awaken new consumer desires) cannot be understood as a reality that is ultimately dependent upon a more permanent, substantial and living world. Although modern humans still have an atrophied nous (“the single eye of the heart” that Jesus teaches about or the “intuitive mind” of the Greek philosophers) that can perceive the most substantial, free and alive realities, we only give any attention or respect to what we can see with our frail fleshly eyes and control with muscle or money. For all of these reasons, you are unlikely to hear much about the atemporal fall in our world today.
While on the topic of imponderables, any consideration of an atemporal fall must also posit some version of a corporate and heavenly Adam as well as Jesus Christ. As we read in Paul, Jesus is the second Adam and also the first human to be fully created (or to have displayed the fullness of the divine image for which purpose humans were created). Jesus is also called the head of the entire body of his people. Likewise, Adam is, of course, the source or head of the entire human race. Both figures relate to human history and to all other human persons, to some significant extent, from outside of history. There is much more to consider on these points, but it is beyond the scope of these notes.
Where I first heard of this concept was in fairytales or mythologies. We see this atemporal fall suggested in the bending of our world into its current reduced shape as this took place in Tolkien’s stories with the downfall of Númenor. It shows up in the myths of Atlantis and of the Temple-Garden of Eden sinking into the earth with the great flood. I’ve written about this in several places such as these:
- A Brief Christian History of the Cosmos (with Some Defense and Exposition)
- Dreaming with Mr. Raven [which draws largely on George MacDonald’s fantasy novel Lilith]
Few authors write about the idea of an atemporal fall outside of fiction and story. The first place that I saw any reference to it in a contemporary nonfiction source was in The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart where he speaks explicitly of time as we know it now being “fallen” and reduced in its form. Even in this book, however, the concept is not developed but simply eluded to. Most other places where I have found this idea talked about are just recordings of conversations between authors and scholars as well as a few articles and blog posts. I’m hopeful that some books coming out in future years will give this more formal attention. If anyone reading these notes and this list has additional resources, please let me know.
Without further ado, here is the reading list:
- “Fitting Evolution into Christian Belief: An Eastern Orthodox Approach” by Alexander V. Khramov in the International Journal of Orthodox Theology (2017). Also found here from the publisher.
- “Paul’s Adam and Paul’s Christ” by David Armstrong on A Perennial Digression from 26 August 2021.
- “St Maximus the Confessor on the Cosmic Fall” by Jordan Daniel Wood at the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog on 14 November 2020.
- “Sergius Bulgakov on Evolution and the Fall: A Sophiological Solution” by Charles Andrew Gottshall at the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog on 1 May 2017.
- The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart (2005).
- “The Devil’s March: Creatio ex nihilo, the Problem of Evil, and a Few Dostoyevskian Meditations” by David Bentley Hart. Published in Creation “ex nihilo”: Origins, Development, Contemporary Challenges (2017) and Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest (2020).
- Torstein Theodor Tollefsen in his chapter “Saint Maximus the Confessor on Creation and Incarnation” from the book Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology edited by Niels Henrik Gregersen.
- I am excited about a forthcoming book by Jordan Wood called The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus the Confessor (from the University of Notre Dame Press, publication date not yet finalized but within a year). It promises insight on many topics and possibly this one as well.
- The Fall and Hypertime by Hud Hudson (2014). [Recommended by Stephen R. L. Clark (as something he wants to read related to this).]
- Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures by Paul J. Griffiths (2014). [Recommended and not yet read by me.]
- The Symbolism of Evil by Paul Ricoeur. [Recommended and not yet read by me.]
One final note regarding provenance with this topic:
- This claim is properly within the truth domaines of theology, anthropology, metaphysics, myth and poetry.
- As for the physical sciences: they do not conflict at all with the concept of an atemporal fall. At the same time, science cannot give us any evidence of it on its own terms.
- As for exegesis of scripture: it takes an atemporal fall for granted on every page. It, however, is not something we tend to see as modern readers. One example is Romans 8:19-23. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
P.S. A few of my family members occasionally read and interact with my theological postings on my blog. Shortly after I posted the material above, one of my amazing sisters commented to me elsewhere about the atemporal fall being rather incomprehensible, so I gave this summary a shot:
Dear sister, a distinguished and much-loved Orthodox theologian of the last generation, Olivier Clément, wrote a book called Transfiguring Time: Understanding Time in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition that is probably the best start I could think of for talking about an atemporal fall.
One way to describe the atemporal fall is to say that all of cosmic history in this current fallen world of ours is the result of only one moment or event within the heavenly or eternal time of God’s kingdom life. When the heavenly Adam fell (who was created for the purpose of filling an un-fallen cosmos with life in God’s image and so that the incarnation might take place even without a fall) all of fallen human history unrolled instantly—from the Big Bang until the last moment of biological life anywhere in our cosmos. This means that every part of this contingent story that we are in right now is only incompletely in contact with the true history of humanity’s un-fallen relationship to God. Our fallen history did not destroy us and our world, because, at the instant of our fall, the eternal Son and Word of God joined himself to us even to the point of death. This incarnation shows up in the middle of our fallen time when Mary says yes to God—undoing the human fall in cooperation with God. However, this incarnation and death and resurrection of God are also the “lamb slain from the foundation of the cosmos” (as John says in his Apocalypse). Every moment of cosmic history is therefore the immediate result of two things: 1) Adam’s resistance to life with God and 2) Christ’s commitment to incarnation in the flesh even though humanity resisted life with God and brought death to themselves and their entire world.
Coming at the atemporal fall from another direction, my second best approach would be through the work of a living and also much-loved Orthodox theologian John Behr with a book called John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (now in a 2nd ed.). In this book, John Behr explains how all of the early church fathers understood John the Theologian to be teaching in his gospel that the work of creation by God was only accomplished upon the cross by Jesus Christ from the very foundation or middle of our contingent and fallen time.
Dreaming with Mr. Raven
Adam—hearing God’s call to divine fellowship—dreamed of green and flowering cities, tempting even angels with the visions. They, leaning in, enticed Adam, in turn, to dream more and more lavishly. Before his eyes had fluttered open, his visions had long outstripped his childish wisdom and grown lost in fantasies of life apart from God. Only partially awake, Adam’s world first stirred in pain. It grew in twilight amid broken brotherhoods, crushed by death and darkness.
Early along this thorny road to God, first Adam beheld Eve and rejoiced that they would not be alone, though, he spurned her soon as a temptress, and went to dwell with Lilith. When Lilith left Adam to wield fierce powers as Queen of Death, Adam return to Eve and her children brought them promises of life. But bitter labor and broken fellowships soon took Adam back beneath the earth to dream fitfully again.
Watching his tortured dreams from the sweet-scented Cave of Machpelah, Adam first saw Mary. Gazing as she spun her yarn for the temple veil, Adam thought vividly of what it would be to wake fully and behold himself saying yes to God. He felt again God’s hands giving form to clay—his own soul shaped again with the knitting of the child that Mary carried.
God visited this night of Adam’s world as Jesus Christ and walked the dusty roads with Adam’s sons and daughters. Remembering lost evenings of quiet fellowship in a first fruited garden—a place governed by lights and filled with the voice of God—almost, Adam came forth from his cave to stand with God again.
Yes, watching Mary follow her son through death within his bitter dreams, Adam’s ears and eyes longed to fully wake and walk with God himself. Then a bold cry thundered up from the depths of the earth, filling buried Eden and echoing through the cave of the patriarchs. John, called out to the dead and sleeping, “Behold, the new Joshua and the son of David, putting death to flight. He approaches. Stir yourselves and behold.”
I dream now with Mr. Raven—George MacDonald’s Adam librarian—gathering little worms across the grassy fields of paradise where a thousand, thousand sleeping souls surround us, buried but ready to learn of light and air, to hear the echoes of Mary’s yes to God, the yes that even Adam and Lilith, finally, would imitate.
A Note on His Teachings During This Feast Day of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite
Christians feast Saint Dionysius the Areopagite today. He was appointed by the Apostle Paul as the first bishop of Athens after he became a Christian while hearing Paul teach on the Areopagus (Acts 17). Among other places, Dionysius is always depicted in the icon of the Dormition with the other bishops who were there: James, the brother of the Lord, Timothy and Heirotheus. Stories about Dionysius pour forth across time like exotic treasures from a viking trove. For example, while living in Alexandria, Egypt years before his conversion, he noticed the sky darkening one day and remarked at the time that either the creator of the world must be suffering or the world must be ending (later learning that this was the day of Christ’s crucifixion). After becoming a Christian, Dionysius traveled to see Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ and to hear from her directly about her son who had died, returned from the grave and ascended into heaven. Dionysius reports that if he had not known anything about Mary, he would have immediately recognized her as a remarkable and holy woman because she radiated a divine light. For most of Christian history, Dionysius was also thought to have traveled to Paris in Gaul where he died a martyr. However, most historians of hagiography now consider Saint Dionysius (or Denis) of Paris to have been another saint with the same name. Either way, Saint Dionysius of Paris is the most famous cephalophore of the many who appear in Western Christianity, and most images of this saint show him carrying his own head (with the halo sometimes with the head and sometimes where the head should be and sometimes partially in both places). The account was much loved of Dionysius the Areopagite picking up his own head after his decapitation and carrying it to the church to deliver a powerful sermon on the beauties of repentance before he finally laid himself down to rest.
Among the many potent and beautiful materials connected to Dionysius the Areopagite, are a set of astounding writings that patristic scholars continue to marvel over. Most scholars today would say that these writings are by a later person working within his school of teaching:
- Divine Names (Περὶ θείων ὀνομάτων)
- Celestial Hierarchy (Περὶ τῆς οὐρανίου ἱεραρχίας)
- Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (Περὶ τῆς ἐκκλησιαστικῆς ἱεραρχίας)
- Mystical Theology (Περὶ μυστικῆς θεολογίας)
- Ten epistles
Despite having a reputation for extraordinary (almost alienating) profundity and depth, these writings are loved by the whole church and considered well within the framework of all that was shared by the mothers and fathers of the church within its earliest years.
Not knowing Greek and being one who loves to find excellent shortcuts in my learning, I recently read a summary of all that Dionysius taught by a leading contemporary American scholar (professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University). I highly recommend Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric David Perl. While focusing on the core metaphysical system that is astoundingly consistent and rigorous throughout the works of Dionysius, Perl (a devout Christian himself) does cover angelology and the nature of sin along with the incarnation. In fact, Perl’s book concludes: “Dionysius’ discussions of the incarnation suggest that the whole of being, as theophany, is to be understood in incarnational terms, and that God incarnate, as the ‘principle and perfection of all hierarchies’ is the fullness of reality itself. Being as symbol, as theophany, and hence as being, is perfectly realized in Christ, in God incarnate, the finite being which is God-made-manifest.”
So what is taught by this school of Saint Dionysius? Everything around us each moment that we see, feel, smell, hear and touch is a manifestation of God—a theophany. Everything that exists does so only because it is intelligible by our nous (the mind’s eye or the mind of the heart). We cannot ultimately distinguish between intelligibility and existence. All intelligibility is also a simultaneous revelation of God and a hiding of God in one and the same event. God is not one of all the things that exist but is instead the source of all that is revealed or made intelligible. This means that God does not exist but makes all existence possible, that God is no thing but is revealed by all things. This relationship between God and creation defies explanation under the categories of either monism or dualism and is sometimes called non-dualism. All of creation is simply the manifestation of God while also the veil that keeps God eternally hidden.
Sensations (our five physical senses) inform our nous (mind’s eye or inner perception) but are not needed in order for our mind to see things. We can perceive the life of angels, for example, without the need of our physical senses. However, despite expounding an understanding of the world that makes spiritual bodies more substantial than material bodies, Dionysius does not in any way disparage or undermine material things. He writes explicitly that Plotinus was wrong about matter being evil and develops a line of thought from Proclus to argue that matter is a direct gift of God and a revelation of God’s own love, life and goodness. Dionysius repeatedly clarifies that there is no lack of divine goodness or power within any of the furthest reaches of the hierarchies or emanations that connect together the world revealed to us by God. It is not that spirit is closer to God and matter is further from God. Both come directly from God, but matter depends up on spirit and mind for its existence in a hierarchy of being that continually holds everything together. “The entire hierarchy of reality, therefore, from the highest seraph to the least speck of dust, is the immediate presence and manifestation of God.”
There would be pages to write here in summarizing the wonderful and life-giving teachings that we receive in such clear terms from the school of Dionysius. He clearly identifies sin, evil and suffering and states the case most boldly and unequivocally that these have not final place in the life of God into which we are invited and which is restored for us in incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Dionysius goes so far as to say that any attempt to give a reason or a purpose to evil (any kind of theodicy) is itself the greatest of evils. Evil is a contingent, purposeless and irrational lack being or intelligibility that ultimately can only be made full and good.
When we see and feel the sensible world around us, we gather all of these sensations up into a wholeness of perception until we see all of these sensations united together with the higher forms that hold them together. In this form of seeing with our mind, there is no leaving of any physical sensations behind but a weaving together of them all so that we can perceive them as a unified whole within the life of God who is both fully revealed by this wholeness of vision (the immanent and immediate source of all that is) and entirely hidden (transcendently apart from every thing as the one and constant source of each thing’s existence). God is, as Augustine says—at one and the same time—higher than my utmost and more inward than my innermost. God’s transcendence is the result of his profound immanence.
that becomes our picture of the libertarian modern individual subject invested with absolute prerogatives whose freedom consists in pure spontaneity of will
In this third and last interview of David Bentley Hart by Tony Golsby-Smith, Tony starts out asking David to contrast Augustine’s reading of Paul with the reading that we get in Gregory of Nyssa (the focus of their first and their second interviews). Tony uses language at first that casts all of Augustine in an exclusively negative light, but David quickly points out that Augustine is revered as a saint both east and west, and gives several reasons for this. David points out multiple ways that Augustine’s theology is most beautiful at its outset (including elements that David praises as filled with timeless beauty and insight). However, David says that he follows the Irish theologian John Scottus Eriugena in using the early Augustine to critique the late Augustine. David argues that Augustine’s later theology grows calcified and cruel as Augustine labors under some basic misunderstandings of the original Greek in Paul and also faces tremendous stresses in the challenges of life and church leadership within the Western part of the Roman Empire.
David and Tony’s conversation ends up moving into an analysis of the modern world. David makes a case here for how the fall of Christianity came about as a response to the problems of late Augustinian theology, especially as it became even more extreme in various late medieval Catholic theologians as well as in the works of Luther and Calvin. Although the reformers come out looking entirely rejected and condemned in this excerpt, David (here and elsewhere) does have praise for both Luther and Calvin (although primarily only as a stylists, in the case of the latter).
I’ve transcribed the passages below for three key insights that I’m interested to consider further. First is that the modern autonomous self and its sovereignty of will is a concept that can be traced back to the theology of the late Augustine with regard to God. Second is that the modern nation state is the inheritor of a relatively late medieval concept of divine sovereignty that briefly went under the name of the “divine right of kings” but quickly was handed over to the secular nation state (at the Peace of Westphalia), giving rise to modernity and secularism as we know it today. Third is that secular modernity came about in large part because the God of late Augustine became a false God that was rejected (while at the same time becoming the basis of our own self-understanding.
From the high middle ages onward and in the next century, the 14th century more and more, the Augustinian tradition—in a now modernized and even more severe form—began to become one of the dominant strains of thought. Luther comes out of an Augustinian monastic tradition. He’s familiar with nominalist doctrines of absolute sovereignty—ideas that actually go beyond Augustine’s much more careful much and more brilliant metaphysical understanding of God—and begin more and more to take the element of what looks like sheer arbitrariness in the God of the late Augustine and elevate that to a virtue to make it represent divine sovereignty which now becomes the highest good.
There’s a curious convergence between this way of thinking about God and the emerging political models of early modernity. The absolute monarch (which is not a medieval idea, it’s an early modern idea), the absolute prerogatives of the nation state—more and more there’s some sort of strange occult interchange going on between the picture of God as this absolute sovereign (hidden behind quite often the nominalist veil of absolute mystery who’s only dealing with his creatures is the pure power of his will to be the sovereign disposer of all things) and the image of the monarch as the absolute sovereign. Then you could argue that the story of modernity has been more and more the migration of this understanding of what it is to be free—to be truly free, to be absolutely sovereign, to be just pure will willing what it wills for the sake of what it wills—migrates from the image of God to the image of each individual, and that becomes our picture of the libertarian modern individual subject invested with absolute prerogatives whose freedom consists in pure spontaneity of will—sovereignty over self.
How this happened—you can see the genealogy of this picture of divine sovereignty and its effect both in political thought and on our thinking about what it is to be a free rational creature from the late medieval period onward, but it’s by a subterranean stream that this is a possibility in late medieval thought because it has always been latent in the tradition going back to the late Augustine. Because from the moment the late Augustine decides that the answer to the Pelagians is this story of absolute praedestinatio anti-provisum merit—which is one of his clear misreadings of Paul (that God predestines either to damnation or salvation entirely without any pre-vision of the merits of the creature because those merits are in fact the effects of predestination not their premise, not their cause)—from that moment onwards, this poison, I hate to say it, is present in the blood system of the West and of Christendom.
…Theologically, [Calvin] took it to a new extreme because he was willing in book three of the Institutes to say something that neither Augustine nor Aquinas would say, which was that God predestined the fall. So that the whole drama of fall, mortality, damnation, salvation exists purely as the display of divine power, display of divine sovereignty. Calvin’s quite clear here (and sadly there’s great precedent for this in the tradition), the rarity of grace, the fact that it’s given to only very few (understand, the vast majority of humanity was created with no other purpose than to suffer eternally)—the rarity of grace is what demonstrates its preciousness, its goodness. Actually the truth is, if that were true, it would demonstrate a certain revolting ego in that grace.
…You know, obviously, I believe that the whole notion of eternal torment is an accident of ecclesial history, and I can give you any number of arguments for why it became the predominant view. For most of Christian history, most Christians were largely unacquainted with the details of something like the theology of grace that you have in the late Augustine. It’s only in early modernity. …One of the reasons why, obviously, Calvin is an influential figure is because the printing press existed, and I think more and more the theology of the 16th century became more and more militantly late Augustinian. I want to point out again in Catholicism too, not just in Reformation in Evangelische circles but in a lot of Roman Catholicism as well. It also was the first time that many Christians actually came to be acquainted with the full contents of this theological and dogmatic tradition. Actually, [for] most medieval Christians you know, rather vaguely, there’s heaven, there’s hell, there’s the Mother of God who will plead first before her son the Judge. …Once a year you may communicate if you’re especially pious, if you’re one of the peasants. There’s not a strong consciousness of the theology—as a system of thought about God and God’s relation to creation. But in the early modern period, the late medieval into the early modern period, now, it becomes a matter of general consciousness, and that’s the beginning of the end when the Augustinian tradition is dominant. All of these movements—the Reformed church, Lutheranism—at first they’re marked by great vitality, but all these modern expressions of Christianity more and more begin to sink into a kind of morbidity because as people become aware of the full spectrum of this kind of late Augustinian theology [they are going to] see how repellent it is.
Now at first this will take the form of attempts to rescue other kinds of Christianity from historical forgetfulness, like John Wesley was a great reader of the Greek fathers, and he rejected out of hand this picture so the Methodist tradition stands outside. There were huge movements of universalism in 19th century Britain (not just in Britain …but throughout the Christian world, Russia too)—but if you just look at Britain in the 19th century, the the sheer number of prominent figures who were believers like say the Brontes, Lewis Carroll, George McDonald, you know, …Tennyson—you go down the list of people who are devout but with enough sensitivity and intellectual tact to be genuinely horrified by the picture they’ve been presented. But then of course what also happens is that more and more, at a very tacit, very quiet level, more and more people are driven away from this picture.
The late modern picture of God that became dominant, the voluntarist God of absolute sovereignty who was rooted in the late Augustine’s theology, is two things at once. He becomes the model of freedom as such, pure sovereignty, so he becomes a rival to each of us, an intolerable rival. He’s also a tyrant, and for both those reasons he has to be killed. In modernity, we discover our liberty by killing the ancient omnipotent rival to our liberty—the only one who can be sovereign in a way that leaves us subordinate to him. But also he’s a tyrant, you know, you cannot believe, you cannot love this God, and you should not, and he must die. So by the time we get to the late 19th century, and Nietzsche’s proclaiming the death of God and giving it a genealogy that’s rather brilliant, but one thing he leaves out is the degree in which the age [of] the death of God, the birth of modern atheism, the fragmentation of the Christian view of reality is something incubated within late medieval and early modern christianity itself.
The Mysterious Case of a Missing Catechism Chapter on Orthodox Eschatology
Yesterday, an online friend of mine (Aaron Beethoven) shared a passage in English that was purported to be translated from a French catechism published for use by the Orthodox church in 1979. This passage seemed to be saying that the doctrine of eternal torment in hell was a monsterous abuse that Orthodox Christians must reject:
Let us state outright: the idea of eternal hades and eternal torments for some, and eternal blessedness, indifferent to suffering, for others, can no longer remain in a living and renewed Christian consciousness the way it was once depicted in our catechisms and our official theological textbooks. …It is high time to put an end to all these monstrous assertions of past centuries, which make of our God that which He is not: an ‘external’ God, Who is merely an allegory of earthly kings and nothing more. Pedagogical intimidation and terror is no longer effective. On the contrary, it bars entry to the Church for many of those who are seeking the God of love.
I could not find this English translation in many places online, and none of them provided much information. Therefore, I asked around for more information, and this is what I have learned.
Catéchisme pour les familles: Dieu est Vivant (my own translation of the title being Catechism for families: God is Alive) was published in 1979 (with another French edition printed in 1987). It was a work for church use by French catechists, theologians and priests from Russian, Greek and French backgrounds. Olivier Clement was the editor and a contributor alongside Fr. Cyrille Argenti and Fr. Alexandre Turincev. The book received the blessings of Metropolitan Meletios (Greek) and Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Surozh.
It was published in English as The Living God: a Catechism (2 volumes, translated by Olga Dunlop) by SVS Press (where it is noted that it was originally written in French as a “catechism for the family” but with little other information given online about the source book). Mysteriously, a chapter of the original text was left out of this English edition. I have not yet read this SVS Press edition, so I do not know if this missing chapter is noted or explained in their book in any way. This chapter was titled “L’ESCHATOLOGIE ORTHODOXE” (“Orthodox Eschatology”) and was written by Father Alexandre Turincev who had initially published it in the Orthodox journal Contact (no. 54) in 1966.
An English translation of this missing chapter was published in the Greek Orthodox Theological Review (58:1-4) in 2013 as “An Approach to Orthodox Eschatology.” This was translated by Brad Jersak (with the Monks at Holy Transfiguration Hermitage, British Columbia) and Michael Gillis. You can find a full PDF of it here.
As I inquired about this, a few who could read French and had the text in French suggested that the translation I found online was not strong and that the brief passage was taken out of context. I’ve now been able to read the entire chapter in the English translation by Brad Jersak and Michael Gillis (published in the Greek Orthodox Theological Review). This entire chapter is beautiful and profound with a clear depth of understanding regarding patristic Christianity as well as a strong sense of just how terribly our understandings of Christian eschatology have gone astray over the course of Christian history in various damaging ways. It seems clear to me that the controversial passage in question entirely fits the full context of the chapter. I could give many other examples from elsewhere in the chapter, but consider this one:
We have arrived at the crucial point: Gehenna, hell, damnation, eternal suffering. …First, one remark: the notion of “eternal” (Greek: aionios) does not belong to the category of obvious and clear concepts. In the vulgar sense of the term, eternity is understood as a measure of time, or rather as a lack of measurement, as an essentially flawed infinity—an absence of end. But in the Bible, “eternal” is synonymous with God or divine life. For this reason, eternity is not commensurate with time. …Eternity is a life of another “nature,” another quality. Eternity is the fullness of divine life. And hell? Does it exist or not? St. Thérèse of Lisieux has written somewhere, “I believe that hell exists, but I do not think anyone is there.” It is easy to understand her. The pure and angelic Thérèse seeks to defend the infinite love of her God against the dogmas of the implacable guardians of the faith …But she, along with them, is mistaken if she thinks hell exists as an objective place, designed or created by the Creator and predestined for the damned.
While this passage illustrates that the wider context of the whole article agrees with the shorter passage circulating online, Fr. Alexandre Turincev does go on to talk about what hell is. He even describes hell as eternal in this passage (as translated by a native French reader who has maintained online that Fr. Alexandre Turincev does not support universalism): “The fact that we will be judged at the Last Judgement by the Love and the Truth of God certainly does not diminishes our responsibility for our life and does not take away anything to the tragic nature of our situation. …Only man, by freely refusing it, or revolting against it, can oppose this (God’s) compassion and ever remain in the suffering of his refusal (of it).” With more context and in the translation by Brad Jersak and Michael Gillis, this reads:
The mercy of God is limitless. Before it, the ‘sin of all flesh,’ says St. Isaac the Syrian—all the sin of the world—is ‘but a handful of sand thrown into the Immense Sea.’ Only man, by a free refusal or rebellion, may oppose this mercy and remain always the suffering of his refusal. The Eastern Fathers love to repeat this saying: ‘God created us without us, but he cannot save us without us.’ St. Isaac the Syrian, in his Homily 19, says the following, characteristic of the Orthodox view of ‘the last things’: ‘Let the sacrilegious thought that God ceases to love the sinner never enter the mind of man. But love acts in a double way: it torments sinners and becomes a source of joy to those who have performed their duty.’ ‘In my opinion,’ adds this Father, ‘the torment of Gehenna is repentance.’
Returning to the original passage that I found circulating online, I also closely compared the English translation of it circulating online from an unknown translator with the translation published by Brad Jersak and Michael Gillis. Both English translations looked consistent and faithful to each other in their meanings (despite being varied in their word choice and syntax). Finally, I took the French text and ran it through Google translate to get a third English version which did not indicate any issues in the two human translations.
This missing chapter is bold and beautiful. It seems clear that Fr. Alexandre Turincev was a patristic universalist (sometimes also called purgatorial universalism or ἀποκατάστασις). His chapter frequently quotes one of the most outspoken voices on this topic from the ancient church, Saint Isaac the Syrian. It also seems clear that Fr. Alexandre Turincev found most of the more familiar Christian teachings on eternal torment to be monstrously repugnant and damaging to the church. Finally, the entirety of these clear teachings from Fr. Alexandre Turincev were fully approved for use in the training of all those new to the faith by the distinguished and responsible figures of Olivier Clement, Metropolitan Meletios (Greek) and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.
Why this chapter went missing in our only English edition of this book seems likely to me to be a sad story. Evidently, our Orthodox faith in America is not as deeply informed by this aspect of our Christian tradition from its earliest years. I would be grateful to learn more about this missing chapter and its author. I would also be grateful to hear of any reasons for why this chapter was left out of our English printing of this resource.
If you are interested, as a next step, be sure to read this full chapter by clicking here to get a PDF.
In addition, here is the other English translation of a brief passage from this missing chapter that has circulated a online in a few places (translator unknown):
Let us state outright: the idea of eternal hades and eternal torments for some, and eternal blessedness, indifferent to suffering, for others, can no longer remain in a living and renewed Christian consciousness the way it was once depicted in our catechisms and our official theological textbooks. This outdated understanding, which attempts to rely upon Gospel texts, renders them literally, roughly, and materially, without penetrating into their spiritual meaning, which is concealed in figures and symbols. This understanding is becoming a more and more intolerant violation of the conscience, thought, and faith of the Christian. We cannot tolerate that the sacrifice on Golgotha turned out to be powerless to redeem the world and conquer hades. Otherwise, it would be necessary to say that all of Creation was a failure, and Christ’s feat was also a failure. It is high time for all Christians to jointly witness to and disclose their intimate mystical experience in this realm, and in the same way their mystical hope and, perhaps, their indignation and horror regarding the materialistic representations of hades and the dread Judgment set forth in human images. It is high time to put an end to all these monstrous assertions of past centuries, which make of our God that which He is not: an ‘external’ God, Who is merely an allegory of earthly kings and nothing more. Pedagogical intimidation and terror is no longer effective. On the contrary, it bars entry to the Church for many of those who are seeking the God of love.
To compare to the text above, here is the English translation of this same passage as translated and published by Brad Jersak and Michael Gillis:
Let us state frankly: the idea of eternal hell and eternal suffering for some and eternal bliss (indifferent to suffering) for others can no longer remain in the living and renewed Christian conscience as it was formerly presented in our catechisms and our official theology courses. This archaic conception, which claims to be based on the Gospel texts, misunderstands them in a literal, coarse, and material sense, without penetrating the hidden spiritual meaning of the images and symbols. This conception is increasingly showing itself to be an intolerable violation of Christian conscience, thought, and faith. We cannot accept that the sacrifice of Golgotha has revealed itself to be powerless to redeem the world and conquer hell. Otherwise we should say: creation is a failure, and redemption is also a failure. It is high time for all Ghristians to witness in common and reveal their mystical experience—intimate in this area—as well as their spiritual expectations, and perhaps also their revulsion and horror before materialistic, anthropomorphic representations of hell and the last judgment, and of the heavenly Jerusalem. It is high time to be done with all these monstrosities—doctrinal or not—which are often blasphemous, from ages past, which make of our God of love that which he is not: an “external” God who is merely an “allegory of earthly kings and nothing else.” The pedagogy of intimidation and terror is no longer effective. On the contrary, it blocks entry into the Church to many who are seeking a God of love “who loves mankind” (the “Philanthropos” of the Orthodox Liturgy).
If you read French (which I sadly do not), here is this same brief passage in the original language:
Disons franchement : l’idée de l’enfer éternel et de souffrances éternelles pour les uns, de béatitude éternelle (indifferente à la souffrance…) pour les autres, ne peut plus, dans la conscience chrétienne vivante, rénovée, rester telle que la présentaient autrefois nos catéchismes et nos cours officiels de théologie. Cette conception archaïque, qui veut s’appuyer sur les textes évangéliques, les comprend d’une manière littérale, grossière, matérielle, sans pénétrer dans le sens spirituel caché des images et des symboles. Cette conception se présente de plus en plus comme une violation intolérable de la conscience, de la pensée et de la foi du chrétien. On ne peut admettre que le sacrifice du Golgotha se soit révélé impuissant à racheter le monde et à vaincre l’enfer. Sinon il faudrait dire : la Création est un échec, la Rédemption aussi est un échec. Il est grand temps pour tous les chrétiens de témoigner en commun et de révéler leur expérience mystique, intime dans ce domaine, ainsi que leurs espérances spirituelles, et peut-être aussi leur révolte et leur épouvante devant les représentations anthropomorphes matérialistes de l’enfer et du Jugement dernier, comme de la Jérusalem céleste. Il est grand temps d’en finir avec toutes ces monstruosités, doctrinales ou non, souvent blasphématoires, des siècles passés, qui font de notre Dieu-Amour ce qu’il n’est pas : un Dieu “externe” qui n’est qu’une “allégorie des rois terrestres et rien d’autre”. La pédagogie d’intimidation et de terreur n’est plus efficace, au contraire, elle barre l’entrée dans l’Église à beaucoup de ceux qui cherchent un Dieu d’amour et “qui aime l’homme” (le “Philanthrope” de la liturgie orthodoxe).
Finally, for a little more context from the original French text as printed in Catéchisme pour les familles: Dieu est Vivant, this text below comes from from the three images above (shared with me and some others online):
Une approche de l’eschatologie orthodoxe
par le P. Alexandre Turincev
Arrivant presque au terme de cette Septième Partie sur le deuxième Avènement du Seigneur, au cours de laquelle nous avons parlé, en particulier, des signes précurseurs de ce deuxième Avènement, de la fin du monde et du Jugement, il nous paraît utile de donner quelques extraits d’un article du P. Alexandre Turincev, paru dans la revue Contacts (nº 54, deuxième trimestre 1966).
Cet article est intitulé : « Une approche de l’eschatologie orthodoxe ». (Eschatologie veut dire ce qui concerne les fins dernières, le sort de l’homme après la mort.)
Le P. Alexandre, qui a une longue et profonde expérience des âmes et de la vie chrétienne, témoigne ici avec chaleur de sa foi et de son espérance devant « l’énigme du monde et de l’homme, celle de la fin dernière de l’évolution cosmique, du sens de l’histoire humaine, du destin de chacun de nous… » Il est convaincu que « le monde ne peut pas être expliqué à partir de lui-même » et que « son sens et son but suprêmes sont cachés dans l’histoire de l’homme et non pas dans l’évolution du cosmos. » Il affirme que «c’est en vain que l’homme cherche, en dehors du Christ, l’explication de ces énigmes».
«L’avènement de la vie du siècle à venir suppose la fin de
celui dans lequel nous vivons, “la fin du monde”. Mais…
«(…) Saint Jean Chrysostome, dont le sermon inspire conclut, dans la liturgie orthodoxe, les matines de Pâques, clame : “L’enfer a été frappé de mort lorsqu’il rencontra le Christ”, et il ajoute : “Il a été frappé de mort, parce que tu l’as anéanti, frappé de mort, parce que tu l’as humilie: frappé de mort, parce que tu l’as enchaîné: frappé de mort, parce que tu l’as tué.”
«Dans le contexte eschatologique général, comment faut-il considérer ces affirmations follement catégoriques de saint Jean Chrysostome concernant l’enchaînement, l’humiliation, la mort de l’enfer, son anéantissement? Disons franchement : l’idée de l’enfer éternel et de souffrances éternelles pour les uns, de béatitude éternelle (indifferente à la souffrance…) pour les autres, ne peut plus, dans la conscience chrétienne vivante, rénovée, rester telle que la présentaient autrefois nos catéchismes et nos cours officiels de théologie. Cette conception archaïque, qui veut s’appuyer sur les textes évangéliques, les comprend d’une manière littérale, grossière, matérielle, sans pénétrer dans le sens spirituel caché des images et des symboles. Cette conception se présente de plus en plus comme une violation intolérable de la conscience, de la pensée et de la foi du chrétien. On ne peut admettre que le sacrifice du Golgotha se soit révélé impuissant à racheter le monde et à vaincre l’enfer. Sinon il faudrait dire : la Création est un échec, la Rédemption aussi est un échec. Il est grand temps pour tous les chrétiens de témoigner en commun et de révéler leur expérience mystique, intime dans ce domaine, ainsi que leurs espérances spirituelles, et peut-être aussi leur révolte et leur épouvante devant les représentations anthropomorphes matérialistes de l’enfer et du Jugement dernier, comme de la Jérusalem céleste. Il est grand temps d’en finir avec toutes ces monstruosités, doctrinales ou non, souvent blasphématoires, des siècles passés, qui font de notre Dieu-Amour ce qu’il n’est pas : un Dieu “externe” qui n’est qu’une “allégorie des rois terrestres et rien d’autre”. La pédagogie d’intimidation et de terreur n’est plus efficace, au
contraire, elle barre l’entrée dans l’Église à beaucoup de ceux qui cherchent un Dieu d’amour et “qui aime l’homme” (le “Philanthrope” de la liturgie orthodoxe).
«Un saint moine du Mont Athos, un staretz qui fut presque notre contemporain, écrit ce qui suit, en s’adresavec toute la multitude de tes freres, et quand il ne resterant qu’un seul des ennemis du Christ et de l’Eglise dans les ténèbres extérieures, ne te mettras-tu pas avec tous les autres à implorer le Seigneur afin que soit sauvé cet unique frère non repenti? Si tu ne le supplies pas jour et nuit, alors ton cæur est de fer – mais on n’a pas besoin de fer au paradis.”
«Et saint Paul, qui était si véritablement uni au Christ qu’il a pu affirmer : “Ce n’est plus moi qui vis, mais c’est le Christ qui vit en moi”, n’a-t-il pas dit qu’il était pret a être “séparé du Christ pour ses frères”?
«Chacun de nous ne doit-il pas de même supplier le Seigneur : Que tous mes frères soient sauvés avec moi? Ou alors que je sois, moi aussi damné avec eux! Notre Seigneur n’attend-il pas de nous une telle priere? Et cette prière ne sera-t-elle pas la solution du probleme de l’enfer et de la damnation ?»
in this ascent, the sensible symbols are not merely left behind
A few key passages from the last chapter in Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric D. Perl:
Because being is theophany, all sense perception is an apprehension of symbols of God. In view of this metaphysical basis for his theory of symbols, Dionysius cannot and does not maintain the sharp distinction between intelligible “names” and sensible “symbols.”
…All symbols, in that they are both similar and dissimilar, at once reveal and conceal that which they symbolize, and this is the very nature of a symbol and hence of being as symbol. Not only does a symbol both reveal and conceal, but it does both in one: it conceals precisely in and as revealing, and reveals precisely in and as concealing. Every being, or symbol, is a differentiated expression, a presentation, a coming forth of God into openness, manifestness, availability. As such it reveals God, making him knowable in and as the content of that being. To know anything is to know God as manifest in that thing. The Platonic doctrine of participation, which Dionysius invokes in justifying the suitability of all things as symbols of God, makes it clear that the symbolized is not extrinsic to but present in the symbol, that the symbol is a genuine presentation of the symbolized. But to reveal God in this way is to conceal him. For precisely as differentiated, as finite, and hence as available, as a presentation, every being, or symbol, is not God himself and thus conceals him, leaving him behind, inaccessible, in the dark.
…Only by being concealed in symbols can God be revealed. For if he were not concealed, then what is revealed would be not God but some being, something which is and can be known. If we are truly to know God, if what is revealed is to be God himself, then what we know must be the unknowable, what is revealed must be concealed, for otherwise it would not be God that is known and revealed. Only by symbols is this possible. Hence, as Dionysius here indicates, there can be no non—symbolic knowledge of God, no knowledge of God without the concealment of symbolism. Only a symbol, in that qua symbol it conceals what it reveals, can make God known without objectifying him as a being, enabling us to know God without violating his unknowability, and thus truly to know God. The concealing is the revealing. Dionysius’ doctrine of symbols is thus another expression of the principle that God is given to every mode of cognition, including sense perception, and is inaccessible to all cognition whatsoever.
…It is never true to say, then, that we know God; not from his nature, for this is unknowable and surpasses all reason and intellect; but from the order of all beings, as presented-as-a-screen from him, and having certain images and likenesses of his divine paradigms, we go up, by way and order according to our power, to the beyond all things, in the taking away and transcendence of all things and in the cause of all things. Wherefore both in all things God is known and apart from all things.
…The symbolic nature of being is most fully realized in the angels. …The angels reveal what is hidden; they announce the divine silence; they present-as-screens lights which interpret what is inaccessible. These paradoxes capture the very essence of symbolism: to hide what it reveals by revealing it and to reveal what it hides by hiding it. Any interpretation, in that it is not the meaning itself but an interpretation of it, leaves behind, renders inaccessible, the meaning which it presents. But in view of Dionysius’ understanding of all being as theophany, and the doctrine that the angels possess in an eminent way all the perfections of lesser beings, this is true not only of the angels but, analogously, of all things. To be a being is to be a symbol, to interpret the inaccessible, to announce the divine silence.
…Because of the identity between revealing and concealing in symbolism, there is no opposition between the symbolic knowledge of God in and from beings and the union with God in unknowing by the taking away of all beings. The ascent from sense to intellect to the union above intellect, in which unknowing is the culmination and enfolding of all knowledge, is also the ascent from sensible symbols to intellectual contemplation to unknowing. …In this ascent, the sensible symbols are not merely left behind. For the very nature of a symbol is such that to know it is to unknow it. To understand a symbol as a symbol is to ignore it, to attend not to the symbol as an object in itself but rather to the meaning it concealingly reveals. Conversely, to attend to a symbol as an object in its own right is to fail to know it as a symbol. To a person who cannot read, for example, a written word is an object consisting of ink on paper. But a reader, in the very act of perceiving the word, is oblivious to the word as such and attentive only to its meaning. The more he ignores the word as an object, the more deeply immersed he is in the meaning, the more perfectly he is reading and the better he is knowing the word as what it really is, as a symbol. The non-reader might argue that the reader is simply disregarding the word in favor of something else; this is precisely the attitude of those who see in the Dionysian ascent from sensible symbols to intellectual contemplation to mystical unknowing a rejection or abandonment of sense and symbol. But in fact, of course, it is the reader, who in perceiving the word unknows it in itself, who truly knows and appreciates the word as word.
…The ascent from symbols is the penetration into them. To rise to unknowing, to remove all the veils, to take away all things, is most fully to enter into the symbols, or beings. At the peak, therefore, we find the perfect union of knowing and unknowing, in which all beings are most perfectly known in being wholly unknown just as a word is most perfectly known in being ignored, because all beings are nothing but symbols of God. The mystical union is not a non-symbolic encounter with God as an object other than all things. It is rather a penetration into all things to God who, as “all things in all things and nothing in any,” is at once revealed and concealed by all things. To ascend to unknowing is to see the darkness hidden and revealed by all light, to hear all things “announce the divine silence.”
…The incarnation is thus seen to be fully consonant with, and indeed the fullest expression of, the Neoplatonic philosophical conception of God as not any being but the power of all things, as pure Giving, as Overflow, or, in Dionysius’ terms, as Love. In this sense it is true, as has often been remarked, that Dionysius understands the incarnation in terms of the Neoplatonic metaphysics of procession and reversion. But this need not mean that the incarnation is merely another procession, additional to and parallel with the universal, creative procession of God to all things and all things from God. Rather, Dionysius’ discussions of the incarnation suggest that the whole of being, as theophany, is to be understood in incarnational terms, and that God incarnate, as the “principle and perfection of all hierarchies” is the fullness of reality itself. Being as symbol, as theophany, and hence as being, is perfectly realized in Christ, in God incarnate, the finite being which is God-made-manifest.
if you take Christ as the measure of reality itself
Here is some transcription from near the end of “The Lila of the Logos” with Jordan Daniel Wood interviewed by David Armstrong (at A Perennial Digression). Note that much of their discussion refers to a book by Jordan Wood called The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus the Confessor (forthcoming from the University of Notre Dame Press, publication date not yet finalized but within a year).
DAVID: So zeroing in, then, on the way that the event of Jesus or the event of the incarnation (and really, as John Behr would tell us, for the incarnation we need to look to the passion, and we need to look to Pascha not to Christmas), but looking at the passion and the way the passion reveals reality (so I’m gonna botch this and I know you’ll correct me on it), but Maximus says something to the effect of the crucifixion revealing the logos of judgment and the resurrection revealing the logos of the purpose of the world’s creation, right? Or do I have that reversed?
So no, actually, you have it right. There’s just another piece to it. …You’re rightly bringing together two things. One, so for example, in Centuries in Theology 166, it says, “He who knows the principles of the cross and the empty tomb, knows the principles of the world and all of its creatures.” Principles is logoi. And he also, by the way, says they also know the principles to unlocking the mysteries of scripture. …Well, …that little paragraph ends by, what you just said, which is, “He who knows the principles of the resurrection knows the purpose for which creation came to be.” So there’s that. There’s also another thing he says which is importantly related which is that, he says that the passion is the judgment of God, and the actual conception in Mary, the incarnation itself, is divine providence.
…For Maximus’s metaphysics—for a lot of reasons I won’t get into—what we experience, we also give existence to because you are a hypóstasis which is for him the fundamentals or element of being. What you can do (which is kind of at once an amazing but also a sort of harrowing idea) is that you can, for example, fundamentally imagine something and try to bring it into being by lending your very life or existence or self to it which is what makes sin so difficult and what makes, say, Evagrius’ instructions about the thoughts so essential (which is why he keeps all that). Because you need to know what sort of fantasy you might, what sort of a nightmare you might be laboring consciously or not to bring into being so that it’s not just a problem in your mind but it’s really a part of the world. But quote, as he says (and Origen and Gregory of Nyssa and all of them say), that’s why not everything that appears is a work of God. So you can experience something, right, that is actually a figment of your own imagination, but because you try to bring into being it doesn’t rest a mere figment it becomes even if incompletely or inadequately—usually that right—it becomes in some sense a phenomena, an illicit one that God never wills. So, by the way, his theory of evil is going to be a little more complicated than just privation, although that’s part of it. But I’m not going to do that right now. So all that to say, there’s something about experiencing which is also fundamentally active. In an almost metaphysical or ontological sense, you’re never simply experiencing something utterly external to you because you’re also always interpreting it and reacting to it simultaneously, right, and your very interpretation and then what you do in some sense contributes to the phenomenon being constructed. Go back to Christ in the passion. What is it that he experiences? Well, the full range of human emotion: grief in the garden, sadness, terror, fear. …But where do these come from, in some sense, is the question. Well one one of the things that this comes from is, actually, our sin. When he says Adam’s sin, I argue in the book, he means the sum total of all humanity’s sin—all individuals collectively and individually.
DAVID: To quickly pause, he says, as you’ve pointed out, that Adam falls from the first moment of his coming to be. …The way to understand that in what I am calling orthodox gnosticism is not that there’s a historical personage Adam who’s created fallen. It’s that there’s a spiritual humanity whose fall is it’s coming to be in time with the whole sarkic history that we could scientifically fill in with evolution, right, and in some sense that’s actually, we could also say, that is the orthodox gnostic or maximian or whatever explanation for all of cosmic history in so far as humans are microcosmic. We are radically connected to and contain everything else that exists and like so in some sense the whole evolutionary history of the universe with all of its death, suffering and horror is our fault even though we come to be at a particular moment through a particular set of processes within that story. There is a legitimate theological path to saying, “No, we caused this. We are responsible for this nightmare world.”
JORDAN: Yeah, and that’s exactly right. I mean, if salvation is the result of some event that happened in the middle of history so that I can say that what happened to him somehow saves me and deals with my sin, well, then obviously we’re already sort of—because, also, I would assume people would say it deals with the sin of those that came prior in history—so we’re already kind of abandoning in soteriology, or in our ideas of salvation from this one man Jesus Christ, we’re already abandoning, whether we know it or not, the idea of simple cause and effect through a series. Again, Melchizedek’s deification of salvation comes from the man Jesus on Golgotha. It doesn’t have any other source. There is only one grace which pours forth to the universe, and it’s that one, right. So it doesn’t respect time. It doesn’t need to. So we already kind of like concede that. I like to point that out to people. We already kind of conceived that, I mean just in the way we normally say, “Yeah, Christ save the world. His act, his work saves the whole world, even those that came prior.” So, yeah, exactly what you said. I like what you’re saying about the sort of orthodox gnosticism. Maximus says three different times that Adam fell, quote, “at the very instant he came to be” which is to say there has never been a true Adam, a true human, [a] fully perfected human being. I try to get into that in the chapter in the details about how that comes about in Maximus’s thought and why it’s more radical even than Irenaeus’s view, and how actually he combines Irenaeus’s view, Gregory of Nazianzus’s view and Evagrius’s view into one, and he does it christologically so it’s an incredible thing.
That goes back to the idea, again, [that] the passion is the judgment of God. What is the judgment of God? Well it’s a response to sin, but it’s also the beginning of providence, restoration. It comes about by the Word of God experiencing, on the one hand, the full range of the emotions which are themselves results of a sinful fallen world like fear, grief, sorrow, right all of this, desperation, hey, let’s go to the dereliction—abandonment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken”—right, forsakenness, God forsakenness. These are a result of our collective Adam’s sin, and yet at the same time—what you alluded to with your remarks about evolutionary history—they are also, in some sense, the condition. Because in fact you, David Armstrong, weren’t born 2000 years ago, or 2 million, or 200. So you are born into a world in which Adam has already fallen. This is bizarre, now, because it means that the whole range of passions (which Maximus the monk is also very concerned to talk about passions and the dialectic of pain and pleasure which he does quite a lot), the passions themselves are—as they present, as we act, as we are experiencing them—both the condition and the consequence of Adam’s sin.
So when the true Adam, Christ, experiences them, in His passion, not only does he experience them as a result, a reaction (like, say, in the Origenist myth where God’s judgment is just a reaction to the falling intellects), but he actually in his very experience of them he gives himself, his hypóstasis, to them to be the condition for our own free development which can waver into sin. So this is a deep thing. It takes quite a lot more to unpack, but I’m just trying to give a taste here: where it says his act of being passive of suffering is simultaneously the creation of the possibility for our whole range of emotion and passions which are themselves the conditions of sin and the consequences of sin. So there’s a lot of simultaneities going on here. He’s simultaneously suffering so that he might actively transfigure our suffering into salvation and ultimately death, right, it’s trampled by death. Simultaneously he suffers passions which are themselves the simultaneous condition and cause of our, of all Adam’s, sin, the whole fallen world. But all of this he’s doing simultaneously by being, while being, the Word of God, divine, so that he himself the the Principle with a capital “p,” the Logos, is infusing in even the principles of our passions, the very power of his divinity, you might say the power of resurrection.
So the very passions by which we fall and create worse passions are still themselves imbued—imminently, deeply, buried, like in a tomb—they are buried with the principle of divinity itself, the Word of God himself, always there like a seed, he’ll say elsewhere, always there like the seed of the good to bud forth. So he’s infused [divine life within suffering and death].
By the way, this has crazy consequences, like, lots of them. But here’s just two. One of them is that it’s a simultaneity. (I’ll say it’s a Caledonian symmetry, simultaneity, or reciprocity.) …But let’s say it’s a simultaneity where it’s not only that he receives the results of all of our own sufferings and sin and wages of sin which is death, but also reciprocally, he suffers in all of us. In Maximus, by the way I’m not just saying that, it’s not interpretive, he explicitly says that in Mystagogy, I think, 24. And he definitely says it in the exposition on the Lord’s prayer. Actually, I think that’s where it is. No, I’m sorry, he says he mystically suffers in all of our suffering, that’s in the Mystagogy. In the exposition of the Lord’s prayer, when he’s talking about how the Lord became poor, he says that we are to (he became poor, like these statements about he’s the least of these, what you did to them he did to me, all that) Maximus says at one point, “God himself in the flesh says this to you. He’s saying to you that he actually receives whatever you do to others.” Ao there’s a fundamental personal reciprocity. It’s not just that the Aon takes on as a consequence of our sin. Right, he became sin and a curse for us according to Paul. It’s not just that he takes on all of our sin, but he inserts himself into our the very conditions for our sinning, and that is actually the seed which from within will destruct all of the all of the bs phenomenon that we create through our passions and we try to live into in the false world and the false selves we try to actualize and lend ourselves parasitically our own life for these fantasies to take on a life of their own. All of that will be destroyed and that destruction will actually be our salvation and resurrection.
DAVID: So I’m thinking of, too, I’m thinking of Paul talking about how I’m filling up the sufferings of Christ, or we are one with the sufferings of Christ. Then I’m also thinking of Origen, and I can’t think of where he says this, but he says at one point that (and I think it’s a commentary on maybe the last supper scene in Luke), but he says something to the effect of Christ will not taste the wine of the kingdom until I have been fully healed. He continues to suffer because I am still sinning, effectively, which goes hand in hand with what you’re saying, right?
JORDAN: Yes, strands in Origen absolutely hint at this. Gregory of Nyssa’s In Illud, I think, fundamentally offers the structure. Because what’s the issue there? It’s an exegetical one—1 Corinthians 15:28, the subjection of the Son of the father. What does that mean right? (And of course, Eunomius, they think they have [it.] Like, “look, how can you say that the Father and the Son are equal when the whole ending of the thing is the Son’s subjection to the Father?” So that’s a good passage for them.) So when Gregory of Nyssa, when he turns to it, he does a remarkable thing that not a lot of people comment on. He basically has to say: the Son’s subjection is ours. But the only way you can say that is if the Son is fundamentally identical to me and what happens to me happens to the Son. What an incredible thing. So, in order to protect the pro-nicene position, in order to protect the absolute divinity of the Son, you have to make him absolutely identical with us—because he is subject.
Origen already made the great point about [how] our submission has to be like because, of course, his shouldn’t be like, it’s not like he’s enslaved or subjugated. So he makes that point in the book one of On First Principles. But here Gregory goes a little further and says, actually, he also is submitting in us to the Father, and so that’s why it’s an incredibly universalistic text because it’s not until the whole of humanity is subject to the Father that the Son is subject to the Father. But the assumption operative throughout is: what happens to us happens to him. He explicitly says that.
So it’s the same kind of, that reciprocity, which comes from a fundamental identity or what I like to call in the book “the hypostatic identity” which generates the difference and therefore makes them reciprocal because it happens within one identity, the person of the Word. So the Word can be the subject of both sides, and as the subject he is the is—the identity of both, even though naturally they’re utterly opposed.
So all that to say, this is being actually worked out in the middle of history in the passion culminating in the crucifixion because he doesn’t just become sin for us as a reaction. (Like in the Origenist tradition, God judges the world as a reaction to the falling intellect’s sin, as it were, even if you say simultaneous or whatever.) It is in fact that he also becomes the fundamental condition, he gives himself to become the fundamental condition of his own rejection so that he might overcome that rejection by being within it, personally, always offering the divinity, the power of resurrection, the Holy Spirit, the graces which come through the sacraments, all of that stuff is always directly and immediately offered because he alone is the mediator between God and man as 1 Timothy says. …So when Maximus says the passion is the judgment, that’s a little glimpse of what he means. It is a lot going on.
So to back that up a little bit (and this will be a little easier to say). So when he then says that divine providence is the incarnation itself—from the conception, the annunciation to Mary, all the way through the ascension and ever and always in all things—what he is saying is that the term or the end (terminus) of providence is the hypostatic union. So that also has this sort of weird reciprocal causality there because, then, what he’s saying, you could say, the hypostatic identity which is effected in the annunciation through Mary’s consent (which is a whole other reciprocity between creature and creator), but let’s just say that’s a condition for the passion. He has to be the god-man who dies on the cross, but at the same time it’s also the goal of the passion. So the providence is at once the condition, right, and consequence of the passion, the judgment. And judgment is always infolded in province, and that idea was formally there in Evagrius already that these two, yes we’re saying they’re pairs, but they really are mutually implicating.
So what I what I argue at length (and I’ll close this portion with this), what I argue at length in the book in much more detail is that Maximus takes the the pairing, judgment and providence, mainly over from Evagrius and Didymus, and he fuses that together with Gregory of Nyssa’s idea of reciprocal causality (they were created, in a sense, already anticipating the fall) and he puts this together christologically and identifies them specifically within the work and quintessentially with the passion of Christ. That is what I mean when I say that the world came into being through Christ. With Maximus, I mean I’m interpreting and thinking through and with him, what I think that means is Christ became the ground for the true world which is always a cooperative synergistic effort between creator and creature (which is to say free), but he also then, at the same time becomes, the condition for the possibility of the false world we generate also because we’re free.
DAVID: And so let’s then go from protology to eschatology. So you’ve written elsewhere, and we’ve talked about this before, two points in eschatology that I think are really interesting and that I suspect you’re getting from maximus either directly or indirectly. One is that what one is that you’ve argued before the parousia logically has to heal all of time—that the final, the truly created world, is not a world where we have this dark history or something but it’s overcome and: “Yay! It’ll be good forever now, but we all kind of remember how bad it was.” It’s not like that. It’s like the parousia is literally from beginning to end, all of the suffering, all the evil, all of the death is consumed and it’s gone. With that, kind of a nice symbol of that that you’ve stressed is this idea (and I don’t know if this comes directly from Maximus or not) but the idea that the wounds of Christ themselves, [that] they are still there as a symbol of kind of the current coexistence of the real world and the false world and that when the false world disappears so too do the wounds. Do I have that right?
JORDAN: Yes, that’s what I think. I sadly can’t claim that Maximus said that so that I would have the authority to back up my view on that. I do think it’s an extrapolation, but, no, he never says that. He actually never comments on the wounds of Christ, interestingly, nor much on the resurrected body in, say, the account with Thomas in the Gospel of John. So it’s something I think, from all of this. I guess I could say this, if I wanted to root it in Maximus, I could say, fundamentally, this is how he understands Paul’s remark about “we are the body of Christ.” I mean explicitly in Ambiguum 7 which is otherwise a high-flying metaphysical treatise or reorienting of the whole Origenist view in this christological way, he will side by side quote Gregory of Nazianzus—“we are portions of God flown down from above”—right alongside his logoi doctrine: the logos becomes the logoi and the reverse. Then, right away, he will sight Ephesians: “You are members of Christ’s body.” So for him it’s like, “Look, see, that’s what he meant.” I mean the whole thing is like, look, what it means to be a member of the body of Christ isn’t like you’re a member of some cool club and your name’s on a list or something. It’s you, actually, functionally, you are a part of the body of Christ, and the body of Christ has at least this difference from our body—or the way we typically know bodies now—that is that his body is made up of spirits, a spiritual body.
There’s a whole (and you’ve already talked quite a bit to other people about all that) but make it cosmic, right, so not just a question about the consistency or the sort of nature of the bodies that are raised but the even bigger question about the one body. I mean, in Ambiguum 41 Maximus describes the cosmos again not, otherwise this wouldn’t be remarkable, but he says the cosmos comes together like the knitting of the parts of a body as if it were a single human being.
DAVID: A very Origen thing to do because that’s how Origen describes the world.
JORDAN: Exactly, and you could go all the way back to Plato’s Timaeus. …Look, I mean he calls the generation of this world a “second god” which is generated (using ganal), right, so generated from the first god who can also by the way be called the Father. Yeah, so this world is a living organism, right, all that. So that’s great. So you can go other places for the world as God’s body, but what I, again, and this is often the method I do in the book where it’s like: “Look I’m not saying he didn’t get things from other places. It’s totally fine, but let’s look at it in the matrix of his thought here.” And the determinate content takes on some really different or at least additional implications here.
What he’s saying is that, not just like the world is sort of manifesting God or even (and I know this is like a popular way of talking, it’s totally fine in itself), but it’s not even just theophanic, like the world’s diaphanous to the glory of the light coming pouring forth. It’s that the world doesn’t just reveal his glory, but that he personally is in the world: “what you do to the least of these, you do to me.” Or on the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Or as you said earlier Colossians 1: “I fill up in myself the sufferings that are still lack to Christ.” Or Maximus says, “Jesus Christ,” this is a quote, “Jesus Christ, who is completed by me.” What? God the Word through whom all things were made is not “yet” entirely the Word (and I say “yet” in quotations because, again, it’s not temporal like that) is not fully who the Word is apart from the entirety of his body. “Always and in all things. Always and in all things.” The mystery of his incarnation, right?
So that’s the foundation, his theology of the body of Christ is cosmic of course and christological because all of it is Christ. He has one text where he’s commented—the question is “what is the body of Christ?” like, that’s the question put forth—he gives seven or eight different things. He’s like: the world itself, of course, the eucharist, right, each and every individual body is the body of Christ, each of us, and then he goes through all this stuff. And at the end, he says, “Really, to speak most truly, all of it collectively and all of it individually is the body of Christ.”
So that’s the basis. …So I’m thinking beyond that, and I want to say something that Maximus doesn’t say or doesn’t address, and I want to say: Okay, if that’s true, surely that means everything that’s ever existed in the moment, in an event within which it came to be. Let’s take the holocaust, let’s take, you know, whatever, there’s a million tragedies you can choose from. What am I to make of the claim, that’s the body of Christ too? If it’s the case that the body of Christ is itself the basis, the fundamental subsistence of anything that is. Now, you might say: “Well, privation theory of evil. It’s sort of a failure to be and all that.” That works kind of, but you know, also, it really is there. People remember it. People know it.
So what I want to say then (it might sound cute or sort of clever at first, but I think there’s something deeper that could be probed) is: the tragedies sit upon the timeline of history like the wounds on the body of Christ. They are still his body, but they are not yet fully perfected and healed as his body. In fact, his body isn’t fully perfect until those are healed and so whatever we… (I don’t really care at that point about our presumptions about history and the way time flows and what is fixed by the logic sequence and all that.) I’m sorry, I think theologically, and really even morally, there’s a sort of a revolution here, a rebellion, a moral rebellion, an existential rebellion, that says: God himself can fix the event qua event. It is not as if it’s past to God anyway. There’s that part. But it’s exactly because it’s not past to God that it remains a problem if it stands before God as tragedy, as unfulfilled event, as failure, as (what I think I call in that piece) like “misbegotten existence,” a miscarriage, right?
DAVID: Which is why, this is sort of why people, so as far as I understand the field of Maximus scholarship, there’s sort of an older view which chooses not to see universalism in Maximus, right, and then there’s sort of a growing view that says Maximus is almost certainly a universalists. I know where you fall. …Really, I mean, Origen already has this right, Gregory already has this right, David Bentley Hart has this right, that, if you read Paul, and when Paul says that “God becomes all in all,” right, you’re left with basically two bad options other than the universalist one. Either God becomes all in all by destroying some of the all that he can’t fill, in which case he doesn’t really become all in all, right? Or God becomes all in all, sort of coexisting with the experience of suffering and evil. And the evil and suffering of those creatures is never actually healed, in which case God is partly evil, like, is the only way that this is metaphysically possible, right? If let’s say, you know, I die, I’m suffering in hell fire because I’m so evil and I’m the only person there, you know, and God fills all things in the pleromic end of all creation but nothing changes for me fundamentally, it’s still, my experience, is still evil and suffering—that must fundamentally mean, metaphysically at the end of the day, that God is part evil and I’m simply the manifestation of that part of God that is evil, right?
It’s like universalism is really the only way that we get a God who can fill all things and be all things in all things, right, is through that like final healing of the entire created order which again if the created order is absolutely, quantitatively infinite. …Then it’s a God who (and I’m turning back to the Vedic language because I love the way they put this) you know, Brahman is like constantly engaging in this Lila of realizing all the different forms that God can be, right, and the experience of evil that those different manifestations of Brahman fall into, they are partly real in the sense that they influence—like they’re experientially real right and they determine the kind of orientation of those beings and everything—but they are finally illusory, and they have to be, because there’s nothing other than Brahman, there’s nothing other than God.
JORDAN: Which is to say, the only thing that’s real is what God wills. I don’t mean that in a volunteeristic sense, but it means that everything, insofar as you’re going to give—let’s say you’re going to valorize something with the term real—then you are also making the further claim, consciously or not, that that manifests the divine will which then manifests the divine character, who God is really. So when you’re faced with tragedy, what are you going to say? You either say that’s real and then you have this …you know there are trends in theology and stuff that …the death of God sort of thing that in some versions of processed theism, this is kind of the idea is that the tragedy itself is so real and we we dare not sort of denigrate that, that God himself sort of cowers before it. I actually don’t think it’s so different than a lot of the classical theists who hate the process stuff to simply say, like with Boethius or something, well in a sense God, you know, everything that is present to God [is] in an infinite indeterminate flash of an instant—the eternal now. Okay, well, what is present to God when, when… Is the holocaust present to God, then? Does it ever leave or go? …Okay, you might say it doesn’t emerge, it’s not subject to generation and corruption, the way a lot of phenomena are that we see now. But it did occur. It happened in some sense. Either God is confronted with it precisely because it’s not subject to generation and corruption, it’s always there, or else God sees nothing at all and isn’t aware of it. Right, so which is it? It’s another way of saying what you’ve already articulated in a metaphysical way, which is like either, right, either it stands there as a part of God like it’s evil, or it’s like God failed to be all God, all in all.
What I want to say then, in the perspective we’re talking about, is two things. …Well, actually, like three things. Let’s put some pieces together.
If the eschaton is God being all in all, then, almost by definition, it’s not like it’s just the last episode in a series of episodes, the denouement, the sort of …untying it. It has to be, if it really is all in all, that would include all moments qua moments, so it has to be the perfection not only at the end of a series but the perfection of all parts of the series. Okay, so there’s that part and then, as you say, it has to be God all in all, which is to say the full expression, theophanic glory manifest in all things. I don’t think tragedies manifest that. Therefore there’s something there which has not yet come to be. It’s not yet manifest, and so that still awaits perfection even though, from our perspective, it’s done and gone.
So there’s that right, that’s the general thing. Now, the other part of this, though, that’s harrowing really, is the universalist aspect. Actually, what universalism says is that tragedies are not yet done, not because …you want to respect the sort of ontic integrity of a tragedy as such and let’s not tinker with it (it happened and it’s gone but it’s still kind of always there in the past, however that works with God in time), but universalism says that we must right the wrongs no matter when they happened to occur in the seriality of time as we know it, as we experience it. So it’s a promise of the destruction of destruction, which is to say the salvation of all events, not just people who endure events, which is to say the perfect eventuation of every event. So tragedies are only half events—that’s privation, but they’re actually worse than that. They are events which have taken a false perfection. They are deformations, not in simply a privative sense, but more like when your body is deformed as Gregory of Nyssa says, right, like a wart is still a part of the body but it also disfigures it. It takes a false end and grows into it, and so it mars the body. So the only way you can deal with those tragedies and respect both the reality of it and the unreality of it, is to destroy it and in its destruction is actually its true perfection.
DAVID: And so I’m thinking of the crucifixion itself. I’m thinking of the crucifixion, and I’m thinking of the Johannine conflation of the crucifixion with the enthronement of the Son of Man, glorification. And I’m thinking to myself, like, the way that, on this reading of things, the way I’m thinking of that is that, in the true world, what we experienced as the crucifixion is actually Jesus’s enthronement as messiah and lord, right? It’s actually that moment in which Christ reigns on Zion over all of creation and leading all of creation, leading Israel, the nations, all all created worlds in worship of the one God. And in the fallen world, that becomes his abject vulnerability and suffering and death, and I feel like the evangelist, the Johannine evangelist, is actually gazing on the crucifixion with bifurcated vision. He is seeing the historical event, but he is seeing, shining through, the exact opposite. The darkness of the historical event is paradoxically manifesting the glory of what is supposed to be happening, right?
JORDAN: Yes. You might put it this way. The perfection of all tragedies, which I have said here, I’ve spoken in this way, has yet to occur. It, actually, has always occurred. So what could have been, hypothetically, is actually what is only, always, (again to use the term a little bit misappropriating it). So what John sees isn’t even just what’s supposed to happen (although that’s not wrong to say it that way) but is what is the only happening. The only actual happening of that moment is what he actually sees, even though he also still sees. So the “already not yet” isn’t just a linear thing nor is it simply a spatial thing like a higher [or] lower thing. It’s a meeting of the two.
DAVID: As manifested by the resurrection. Because, had there been no resurrection, right, Jesus is just another dead first century potential messianic claimant. It’s because of the glorification of Jesus after death that we now look back on the whole, really, like forwards and backwards on all of universal history. This, I think, also answers one of the questions I’d written and that you and I have talked about before. You know, if the cosmos is the body of Christ, how does that guarantee the uniqueness of Jesus? What I’ve come to see is that question is exactly the wrong way around because the cosmology and the protology and the eschatology that Maximus is articulating is a response to the whole of the paschal mystery, right? You start with the experience of the event of Christ as mediated to us, and then you try to construct our understanding of the world around that. It’s not a let me start from absolute first principles and work my way down. It’s, and in that sense it’s actually, I feel, like Maximus and Origen and Gregory and all of these people, they actually offer a theology that’s very credible, I think, in like a postmodern context. Because we’re not trying to do like God’s eye view of things, right? We’re starting from what we actually experience, this mystery of Christ crucified and risen, and we’re trying to extrapolate from that what has to be true for our experience of this to be valid.
JORDAN: Yes, exactly. …I hope everyone could, I think, if everyone’s honest with themselves, there is a fundamental judgment of faith, and what you take to be the canon of the real. Just because I experienced something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s real. It’s real as a phenomenon. It doesn’t mean it’s real as the phenomenon, the one that it’s supposed to be, as it were, or always is in the one true world. So yes, you’re exactly right to say they begin there, and they have decided, in faith, and Maximus makes a huge deal of faith for this reason, I think. He calls it …he plays on, by the way, the idea in Hebrews 11 that faith is the, we usually translate it “substance of things hoped for,” well, it’s “hypostasis.” So that takes on a new resonance. Faith is the “person” of things hoped for. Well who’s that? Well, Christ in you, that’s who it is. Faith is, as it were, the first sort of pangs of the birth of Christ in your soul is another theme. But so Christ himself is faith really, and it’s Christ in you which is faithful. So that’s interesting.
…So it’s that. It’s exactly what you just said. I don’t presume that just because, you know, the world seems to me and to all of us to work this way that that is in fact the final limits. In fact, I make the argument in one of the chapters that for Maximus the fall can just as readily happen if you take, quote, natural limits as final actual existential limits: the limitations of what is real. So the limits of nature (nature is something you can conceive as an idea in your mind, you can know a definition, so how to differentiate this or that or you know how like this belongs in this genus therefore it doesn’t belong in this one) and so nature allows you to make these sort of abstract and not unreal but abstract divisions, but of course if you believe in the God-human, what is actually real needs to be chastened by the fact of the God-human rather than the limitations perceived by your abstractions. Which of course should show you, they should, that God and human beings can’t be the same thing, the same real, the same reality, the same hypostasis.
So this is where, I think, when you look at Christ and you say that is true hypostasis (and very often Maximus likes to speak in terms of creation as “giving hypostasis to”), if you think that that is real, that man, he is the (as Maximus also says, “he himself is not subject to any natural law but is in fact the telos of all law”), if you think that’s true, thenyou’re gonna turn to everything else, even things that seem to you immediately obvious and clear and real and substantial and you’re going to start, if you really, if you believe what you said about Christ, you’re going to start saying well, it seems like it’s impossible that… hey, but go back to something we said earlier: that two places could in some sense, right, be in fact interpenetrating and that Mr. Raven over here (in Lilith, the George McDonald book) can say, “Oh, actually you are standing in your study even though you’re standing here in the woods.”
That seems like naturally wrong, abstractly it seems just a kind of confusion, a category error. But if you take Christ as the measure of reality itself, then you need to just go ahead and start doubting reality as it presents itself to you, and he thinks that we when we don’t do that, that’s the source of the fall because we cling to the finite, the limited naturally conceived, as if it were actually the limits of reality itself which then makes us afraid because death is my end. And I want to avoid it, and I need to survive so how could I love my enemy, right? So it becomes ethical as well as spiritual.
That’s all a long way of, I think, agreeing with you. It’s very much that procedure, what you said. …I try to end the book this way. In the conclusion, I try to do this (it’s a little abstract and I know that but sometimes that does get to the point quicker), but what I try to claim there (and I do find some help in Hegel, but, honestly, I found it in Maximus first) [is] if we speak in terms of universal versus particular, we are simply speaking in terms of what I would call, in the book, “the logic of essence or nature” or what you might just call “abstract logic” which is to say these two co-determine each other. What do I mean? Well something is universal exactly because it isn’t particular. Thus I find humanness in you, in your particular, and in me and in people in the past and in people in the future. So obviously, it’s universal. That’s what a universal is, it shows up in many different particulars. Which is to say, it can’t be particular in order to be universal. That’s how you even discern what a universal is and how you define it for your middle schoolers. …You got to start there. You’re like, well, look, here’s a water bottle. Do you have a water bottle? Okay, why do you use the same name? This is just Socrates, right, back, all the way back, Euthyphro, right? (I mean not the water bottle, but, you know….)
But that’s how you even come to apprehend what a universal means, signifies. It is exactly that it shows up in many particulars. So the first lesson it tells you about itself is that it’s not particular. What it means to be universal, necessarily, is determined by the fact that it is not particular, and the reverse. Where do I find David or where do I find this particular water bottle here, not this brand, not this style, this one, only right here, so it’s utterly confined to this time, this place. So that means it’s not universal which is what it means to be particular. I bring all that up because what it means is, thinking in terms of universal or particular, automatically means thinking in terms of mutual dialectical determination where you’re really speaking about just two poles which form one continuum of a dialectic. If we frame the question about Christ’s primacy and uniqueness as if what it means to be prime is just to be particular, such that Christ can’t be universally, say, present always and in all things accomplishing the mystery of his incarnation, if he has to be not universal in order to be particular, then actually we haven’t thought very much about what we mean by primacy or exceptionality of Christ or the primacy or the uniqueness of Christ because we haven’t made him unique at all. He’s just another particular.
So what I try to argue or close in the book, and Maximus has some really helpful material getting exactly at some of this, which is, where I try to say, it’s exactly Christ’s uniqueness is actually most manifest in the fact that he is both particular and universal as one person, as himself. He is, in fact, the condition of the very dialectic that we were framing the question with, to begin with. He’s that much above it, that he can be all of it. And isn’t that just the logic of incarnation anyway. He is so much, he is not simply divine abstractly (like a list of attributes of mortal, impassable and others), nor is he simply human, as we know it (a list of attributes, mortal, right, central, sinful). He is both at once, which is to say his person isn’t reducible to either abstractly. And that’s why Maximus can make the incredible claim that in Christ, quote, “God has shown himself to be beyond humanity and divinity.” What it means to be beyond divinity is to be able to be both divine and human or, as he puts it elsewhere, the God beyond God.
So all that to say, exactly, agreeing with you. We frame, and it’s actually fine. You’ve got to start somewhere. So it’s okay. I’m not mad about it, but it’s just the framing of the question (“So is he unique if he’s everywhere and always in all things?”) actually already hasn’t yet allowed the logic of Christ or, what I call in the book, “christologic” to chasten the very definition or logic of the terms because there is something more than universal and particular. It’s Jesus.
DAVID: That’s a great mic drop. I’m conscious of time. Obviously, we’re going to do this again. So, Jordan, thanks so much for doing this, and, yeah, like I said, we’ll do this again.