“Very nearly the most difficult of all sins to deal with is judging our neighbor!”

If we remember the saying of the holy fathers, brothers, and put them into practice all the time, it will be difficult for us to neglect ourselves. For if, as they used to say, we do not despise little things and think they are of no consequence to us, we shall not fall into great and grievous things. I am always telling you that bad habits are formed in the soul by these very small things when we say, ‘What does this or that matter,’ and it is the first step to despising great things. You know how great a wrong it is to judge your neighbor. What is graver than this? What does God hate and turn away from so much as from this? As the fathers say, what is worse than judging rashly? Nevertheless, from things that appear negligible a man comes to such great evil. For by accepting a suspicion against the neighbor, by saying, ‘What does it matter if I put in a word [about my suspicion]? What does it matter if I find out what this brother is saying or what that guest is doing?’ the mind begins to forget about its own sins and to talk idly about his neighbor, speaking evil against him, despising him, and from this he falls into the very thing that he condemns. Because we become careless about our own faults and do not lament our own death (as the Fathers put it), we lose the power to correct ourselves and we are always at work on our neighbor. Nothing angers God so much or strips a man so bare or carries him so effectively to his ruin as calumniating, condemning, or despising his neighbor. There are three distinct things here: running a man down; condemning him unjustly; and despising him. Running a man down is saying that so-and-so has told a lie, or got into a rage, or gone whoring, or the like. A man has already committed calumny if he speaks about his brother’s sins as if with sympathy. Condemning a man is saying, ‘he is a wicked liar, or he is an angry man, or he is a fornicator. For in this way one judges the condition of his soul and draws a conclusion about his whole life, saying it is of such a kind and condemns him as such. This is a very serious thing. For it is one thing to say, ‘He got mad’, and another thing to say, ‘He is bad-tempered’, and to reveal, as we said, the whole disposition of his life. It is serious to judge a man for each one of his sins. As Christ himself says, ‘Hypocrite, first take the board from your own eye, then you can see to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.’

You see, he compares your brother’s sin to a splinter and your rash judgment to a board. Very nearly the most difficult of all sins to deal with is judging our neighbor! That Pharisee who was praying and giving thanks to God for his [own] good works was not lying but speaking the truth, and he was not condemned for that. For we must give thanks to God when we are worthy to do something good, as he is then working with us and helping us. Because of this he was not condemned, as I said, not even because he said, ‘I am not like other men’, but [he was condemned] because he said, ‘I am not like this tax-collector’. It was then that he made a judgment. He condemned a person and the dispositions of his soul to put it shortly, his whole life. Therefore, the tax-collector rather than the Pharisee went away justified.

Nothing is more serious, nothing more difficult to deal with, as I say repeatedly, than judging and despising our neighbor. Why do we not rather judge ourselves and our own wickedness which we know so accurately and about which we have to render an account to God? Why do we usurp God’s right to judge? Why should we demand a reckoning from his creature, his servant? Ought we not to be afraid when we hear about a brother falling into fornication said, ‘He has acted wickedly!’ If you know what it says about this in the Book of the Ancients, it would make you shudder. For an angel brought [Isaac the Theban] the soul of someone who had fallen into sin, and said to him, ‘Here is the person you have judged. He has just died. Where do you order him to be put, into the Kingdom or into eternal punishment?’ Can you imagine a more terrible situation to be in? What else could the angel mean by these words than, ‘Since you want to be the judge of the just and the unjust, what do you command for this poor soul? Is he to be spared or to be punished?’ The holy old man, frightened beyond measure, spent the rest of his life praying with sighs and tears and continuous hard work to be forgiven this sin, and this in spite of having fallen on his knees before the angel and been forgiven, for the angel said to him, ‘You see, God has shown you how serious a thing it is to judge; you must never do it again.’ This was the way he granted forgiveness but the soul of the old man would not allow him to be completely comforted from his pain and repentance until he died.

Why are we so ready to judge our neighbor? Why are we so concerned about the burden of others? We have plenty to be concerned about, each one has his own debt and his own sins. It is for God alone to judge, to justify or to condemn. He knows the state of each one of us and our capacities, our deviations, and our gifts, our constitution and our preparedness, and it is for him to judge each of these things according to the knowledge that he alone has. For God judges the affairs of a bishop in one way and those of a prince in another. His judgment is for an abbot or for a disciple, he judges differently the senior and the neophyte, the sick man and the healthy man. Who could understand all these judgments except the one who has done everything, formed everything, knows everything? I remember once hearing the following story: a slave ship put in at a certain port where there lived a holy virgin who was in earnest about her spiritual life. When she learned about the arrival of the ship she was glad, for she wanted to buy a small serving maid for herself. She thought to herself, ‘I will take her into my home and bring her up in my way of life so that she knows nothing of the evils of the world.’ So she sent and enquired of the master of the ship and found that he had two small girls who he thought would suit her. Whereupon she gladly paid the price and took one of the children into her house. The ship’s master went away. He had not gone very far when there met him the leader of a dancing troupe who saw the other small girl with him and wanted to buy her; the price was agreed and paid, and he took her away with him. Now take a look at God’s mystery; see what his judgment was. Which of us could give any judgment about this case? The holy virgin took one of these little ones to bring her up in the fear of God, to instruct her in every good work, to teach her all that belongs to the monastic state and all the sweetness of holy commandments of God. The other unfortunate child was taken for the dancing troupe, to be trained in the works of the devil. What effect would teaching her this orgiastic dancing have, but the ruin of her soul? What can we have to say about this frightful judgment? Here were two little girls taken away from their parents by violence. Neither knew where they came from; one is found in the hands of God and the other falls into the hands of the devil. Is it possible to say that what God asks from the one he asks also from the other? Surely not! Suppose they both fell into fornication or some other deadly sin; is it possible that they both face the same judgment or that their fall is the same? How does it appear to the mind of God when one learns about the Judgment and about the Kingdom of God day and night, while the other unfortunate knows nothing of it, never hears anything good but only the contrary, everything shameful, everything diabolical? How can he allow them to be examined by the same standard?

Wherefore a man can know nothing about the judgments of God. He alone is the one who takes account of all and is able to judge the hearts of each one of us, as he alone is our Master. Truly it happens that a man may do a certain thing (which seems to be wrong) out of simplicity, and there may be something about it which makes more amends to God than your whole life; how are you going to sit in judgment and constrict your own soul? And should it happen that he has fallen away, how do you know how much and how well he fought, how much blood he sweated before he did it? Perhaps so little fault can be found in him that God can look on his action as if it were just, for God looks on his labor and all the struggle he had before he did it, and has pity on him. And you know this, and what God has spared him for, are you going to condemn him for, and ruin your own soul? And how do you know what tears he has shed about it before God? You may well know about the sin, but you do not know about the repentance.

But there are times when we not only condemn but also despise a man; for it is one thing to condemn and quite another to despise, as I have said. Contempt adds to condemnation the desire to set someone at nought as if the neighbor were a bad smell which has to be got rid of as something disgusting, and this is worse than rash judgment and exceedingly destructive.

Those who want to be saved scrutinize not the shortcomings of their neighbor but always their own and they set about eliminating them. Such was the man who saw his brother doing wrong and groaned, ‘Woe is me; him today me tomorrow!’ You see his caution? You see the preparedness of his mind? How he swiftly foresaw how to avoid judging his brother? When he said ‘me tomorrow’ he aroused his fear of sinning, and by this he increased his caution about avoiding those sins which he was likely to commit, and so he escaped judging his neighbor; and he did not stop at this, but put himself below his brother, saying, ‘He has repented for his sin but I do not always repent. I am never first to ask for forgiveness and I am never completely converted.’ Do you see the divine light in his soul? Not only was he able to escape making judgment but he humiliated himself as well. And we miserable fellows judge rashly, we hate indiscriminately and set people at nought whether we see something, or hear something, or even only suspect something! And what is worse, we do not let it stop at harming ourselves, but we go and look for another brother and say, ‘Here is what happened!’ We harm him and put sin into his heart also and we do not fear the saying, ‘Woe to the man who gives his neighbor something dark and dangerous to drink!’ But we do the devil’s work and are not one bit concerned about it. What else has the devil to do but knock us down and harm us? We are found to work with him for our own destruction and that of our neighbor, for a man who harms his own soul is working with, and helping, the devil. The man who seeks to profit his soul is co-operating with the angels.

How can we put up with these things unless it is because we have no true love? If we have true love with sympathy and patient labor, we shall not go about scrutinizing our neighbor’s shortcomings. As it is said, ‘Love covers up a multitude of sins’, and again, ‘Love thinks no evil … hides everything,’ etc. As I said, if we have true love, that very love should screen anything of this kind, as did the saints when they saw the shortcomings of men. Were they blind? Not at all! But they simply would not let their eyes dwell on sins. Who hated sin more than the saints? But they did not hate the sinners at the same time, nor condemn them, nor turn away from them, but they suffered with them, admonished them, comforted them, gave them remedies as sickly members, and did all they could to heal them. Take a fisherman: when he casts his hook into the sea and a large fish takes the bait, he perceives first that the fish struggles violently and is full of fight, so he does not try to pull it in immediately by main force for the line would break and the catch would be lost in the end. No! He plays out the line and, as he says, allows the fish to run freely, but when he feels the line slacken and the first struggles have calmed down, he takes up the slack line and begins, little by little, to draw him in. So the holy fathers, by patience and love, draw the brother and do not spurn him nor show themselves unfriendly towards him, but as a mother who has an unruly son does not hate him or turn away from him but rules him with sweetness and sometimes does things to please him, so they always protect him and keep him in order and they gain a hold on him so that with time they correct the erring brother and do not allow him to harm anyone else, and in doing so they greatly advance towards the love of Christ. What did the blessed Ammon do when those brothers, greatly disturbed, came to him and said, ‘Come and see, Father. There is a young woman in brother X’s cell!’ What tenderness he showed to the erring brother. What great love there was in that great soul. Knowing that the brother had hidden the woman in a large barrel, he went in, sat down on it, and told the others to search the whole place. And when they found nothing he said to them, ‘May God forgive you!’ And so dismissing them in disgrace, he called out to them that they should not readily believe anything against their neighbor. By his consideration for his brother he not only protected him after God but corrected him when the right moment came. For when they were alone he laid on him the hand with which he had thrown the others out, and said, ‘Have a care for yourself, brother’. Immediately the other’s conscience pricked him and he was stricken with remorse, so swiftly did the mercy and sympathy of the old man work upon his soul. Let us, therefore, strive to gain this love for ourselves, let us acquire this tenderness towards our neighbor so that we may guard ourselves from wickedly speaking evil of our neighbor, and from judging and despising him. Let us help one another, as we are members one of another. Which of us, having a wound on his hand or foot, or any other member, would despise it and cut it off, even if it turned septic? Would he not rather bathe it and take away the poison and put a plaster on it, sign it with the cross, apply a relic, and pray and beg the saints to pray for its cure, as Abbot Zosimos used to say to put it simply, not to turn aside or run away from our own members even those of bad reputation but to do all we can to cure their disease. In this way we ought to bear one another’s burdens, to help one another and be helped by others who are stronger than ourselves, to think of everything and do everything that can help ourselves and others, for we are members one of another,’ as the Apostle says. If we are one body each is a member of the other. If one member suffers, all the others suffer with it. What does our ‘cenobia’, our community life mean to you? Do you not reckon that we are one body, and all members of one another? Those in charge are the head; those who supervise and correct are the eyes; those entrusted with instruction are the mouth; those who listen and obey are the ears; those who do the work are the hands; those who run messages, who have outside ministries, are the feet. Are you the head? Fulfil your charge. Are you the eyes? Be in touch and consider. Are you the mouth? Speak and give help. Are you the ear? Listen. The hand? Work. The foot? Do your errands! Let each one give assistance to the body according to his ability and take care to help one another, whether it is a matter of teaching and putting the word of God into the heart of a brother, or of consoling him in time of trouble or of giving a hand with work and helping him. In a word, as I was saying, each one according to his means should take care to be at one with everyone else, for the more one is united to his neighbor the more he is united to God.

And now I give you an example from the Fathers. Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The centre point is the same distance from any point on the circumference. Now concentrate your minds on what is to be said! Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God himself is the centre; the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the centre are the lives of men. To the degree that the saints enter into the things of the spirit, they desire to come near to God; and in proportion to their progress in the things of the spirit, they do in fact come close to God and to their neighbor. The closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God. Now consider in the same context the question of separation; for when they stand away from God and turn to external things, it is clear that the more they recede and become distant from God, the more they become distant from one another. See! This is the very nature of love. The more we are turned away from and do not love God, the greater the distance that separates us from our neighbor. If we were to love God more, we should be closer to God, and through love of him we should be more united in love to our neighbor; and the more we are united to our neighbor the more we are united to God. May God make us worthy to listen to what is fitting for us and do it. For in the measure that we pay attention and take care to carry out what we hear, God will always enlighten us and make us understand his will.

St. Dorotheos of Gaza

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A (New) Suspended Middle? On David Bentley Hart and the Nature-Grace Question

by Ty Monroe, Ph.D.

Inasmuch as nature’s and grace’s distinction and relation entails the specific matter of human nature’s compatibil­ity with divinity—its ordering toward graced participa­tion in, likeness to, and ultimate unity with God—the nature-grace debate is much more than a singular con­cern or cordoned-off locus of theological reflection. It is, rather, an inquiry into the very core of reality, into the reason for anything’s existence. And this is because an investigation of the rela­tionship between nature and grace is an inquiry into the relationship between crea­turehood and divinity, world and God. David Bentley Hart recognizes this fact, and for this reason his recently published series of essays, You Are Gods (hereafter, Gods), makes a significant contribution to the nature-grace debate. In addition to probing the dis­cretely anthropological concerns which have often served as entry points, Hart’s analysis makes plain to the reader that underlying all expressions of the nature-grace relation is one fundamental question: how to think the Creator-creature relation and distinction? By dilating his scope so patently, Hart leads the reader toward the core of the matter. He shows that our thinking and desiring the discrete objects of our present existence is never merely what it seems but is instead evidence of a prior appercep­tion of and an ultimate intention toward the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. But he then traces this line of inquiry to its necessary conclusion, plumbing the ontological depths which such anthropological considerations, on their own, only begin to sound.

In this review essay, I want to summarize and interrogate the three primary ways in which Hart has thrust the broader nature-grace debate into somewhat new territory, beyond the back-and-forth of what I would call broadly intra-Thomistic debates—whether about natural desire, velleity, obediential potency, or even intrinsicism vs. extrinsicism. I also aim to show how, in doing so, Hart has placed the debate on such a precipice that any ‘further’ step is one in which Hart himself seems hesitant to make. To the pivotal features of his proposal, then:

  1. Hart’s wager in the nature-grace debate moves well beyond the ‘intrincism’ of de Lubac (et al.) by a) its moral reassessment of the relationship between gratuity and necessity and b) its explicitly ontological reframing of that question. To that last, he is not merely addressing the issue of humanity’s intrinsic capacity for and ordering toward the divine, but is instead positing humanity’s nascent unity with the divine, as well as divinity’s own mutual or reciprocal capacity for and fundamental unity with the human.
  2. Though this more radical intrinsicism enjoys a notable proximity to certain German Idealist systems—namely, Hegel’s—Hart nevertheless recoils from what he takes to be the excesses of Hegelianism, disastrous as he thinks it is to any meaningful distinction between the creaturely and the divine.
  3. He thus aims to occupy a middle space well beyond less radical intrinsicisms but short of Hegel’s totalizing vision, primarily by suffusing his entire reading with a rigorously teleological soteriology. That soteriology is bulwarked by his version of an ‘analogical interval’ between divinity and humanity, over against a notion of divine-human identity.

Each of the three features of his proposal is not that difficult to glean from the book, but I hope that my explicating them serially and in view of their interrelations will prove fruitful. Ultimately, I aim to flag where and how they depend on and yet remain in tension with one another, especially as it pertains to Christology. This will allow me to chart the suspended middle of Hart’s new nature-grace revolution and to assay its coherence. My summary account is this: Hart is right to stage a more radical intrinsicism, for in rejecting the idea that a divine telos is extrinsic to or only contingently possible for humanity, he has simultaneously rejected the notion that creating, redeeming, and becoming human are extrinsic to God. In this way he has allowed the fullness of the Christian revelation to be more fully animated by its singular Grundprinzip, the Incarnation. Yet, merely saying that the unity-in-distinction of nature and grace, of creature and creator, means that creation is not extrinsic to God, Hart’s proposal remains suspended between1 the less radical intrinsicisms which he’s surpassed and some further position which, he thinks, would wholly rupture the creator-creature distinction. Without a positive articulation of how what it means to be ‘God’ preserves but also transcends the mere distinction between divinity and humanity—and so includes creaturehood, even in its very historicity—Hart remains in tension with his own Christocentric intrinsicism and with his own otherwise unwavering commitment to the ultimate primacy of the Good.

A More Radical Intrinsicism

Hart’s endeavor surpasses previous attempts to secure the intrinsic relation of nature to grace which merely affirm that human nature is always and everywhere ordered to, capable for, and in some sense desirous of the supernatural (i.e. divinized) end, but which still define the gratuity of this gift over against necessity. Put positively, for Hart the very terms of necessity and gratuity must be wholly recalibrated. This continues prior efforts which Hart undertook in That All Shall Be Saved (hereafter, Saved). Gift and necessity only seem to be mutually exclusive to one another, since they are often pitted against one another in our (merely) creaturely mode of existence. For, here essence and existence—nature and action—remain potentially and often concretely distinct, such that even if my best nature or character ‘demands’ my generosity toward my children, I can hypothetically (if not also actually) entertain and even enact generosity’s lack. Not so with God, who is the very love, generosity, and parental care which God always has and will exhibit, even when cauterizing us with the consuming fire of painfully purgative affection:

Between the immanent and the transcendent, or the finite and the infinite, such rivalries of agency are not even cogently conceivable. An intrinsic rational desire for God would constitute a “right” to God’s grace only if our nature were our own achievement. Yes, in a sense God does manifestly owe his creatures grace, within the terms of the gift of creation; but that is a debt he owes ultimately only to his own goodness. (Gods, 9)2

If these kinds of claims appear in Hart’s earlier writings on apokatastasis, they are deepened and expanded on the anthropological-phenomenological front in Gods, with its several chapters on knowledge, desire, and ethico-aesthetic judgment. That they render his proposal a step well beyond, say, any de Lubac-inspired recalibration becomes clear when one considers, say, de Lubac’s own recalibration of gratuity and necessity.

When the nature-grace debates, begun in part through the interventions of Maurice Blondel, took on the force of a narrow, intra-theological controversy, the crux of the matter was Henri de Lubac’s resistance to the concept of natura pura.3 And at the heart of his ‘intrinsicist’ (or ‘anti-extrinsicist’) critique was a rejection of the notion that God might create a rational human whose innate end is some form of beatitude short of the visio Dei, whose flourishing might culminate in some ‘merely natural’ desire for of happiness—i.e. a natura pura. For, he concluded, even the hypothetical could do much to distort our thinking about the concrete and thoroughly graced character of human existence as we actually experience it. His resistance forced the question of necessity and gratuity, writ large. For, as those opposed to de Lubac’s intrinsicism complained (and still do), to say that there is inherent in human nature, per se, a ‘natural’ desire for the ‘supernatural’ is to place a constraint upon God. Surely, God couldn’t place an intrinsic desire for union with the divine within a nature and then fail to fulfill that desire with (at least) the offer of participation in the divine life. And, so, to constrain God in this way would be to render such an offer a debt, something owed rather than something gifted ‘gratuitously.’

For his part de Lubac did aim to rethink the terms of nature and grace by rethinking the terms of necessity and gratuity.4 Primarily, de Lubac reminded his readers that to be given a nature—nay, to be given existence such that one might receive and instantiate a nature—is already to have received something gratuitous. Worry over dessert and debt in view of the human’s supernatural teleology is, then, a product of forgetting that all these terms must be understood already and always under the sign of the gift. So far, so good, except that in order to shore up his footing on the question of gratuity, de Lubac makes eminently clear that he sees the gratuity of this prior gift as in fact secured by its non-necessity:

[…] we can continue to say that if God had wanted, he could have not given us being, and that he could have not called this being that he gave us to see him. For if this language is inadequate, it is not at all because of the sovereign freedom it recognizes in God […] God could not be constrained by anything, either from outside or from within himself, to give me being. Neither could he be constrained by anything to imprint in my being a supernatural finality. And if it is true that in God all is identified in a perfect simplicity, at the very least through relation to me, I must carefully distinguish and always maintain a twofold gratuity, a twofold divine gift, and therefore, if one may say so, a twofold divine freedom.5

In this way, while de Lubac has begun to recalibrate our understanding of gratuity and necessity, he has done so merely by pushing the goalposts back from redemption to creation.6 However, it’s even this kind of thinking that Hart’s proposal largely rules out—and, to my mind, rightly so—precisely because he seeks a more totalizing recalibration. With characteristic tenacity, Hart forces us to recognize that God’s simplicity and eternality transcend the mere definition-through-opposition that regularly (though not always) determine our expressions and experiences of gratuity and necessity. This is precisely because, as the Good, God’s ‘necessary compulsion’ toward generosity simply is God’s character. This is no ‘external’ compulsion (whatever we might wrongly understand as wholly ‘external’ to God, anyway); it is instead simply what it means for God to be God.7 When we define or secure God’s gratuity by reference to a voluntarist expression of freedom not bound by God’s eternal and unchanging character, we ultimately question whether God is who God is in some arbitrary sense, and we posit a shadow God, a God-behind-God who, even if ‘hypothetically’ looms over and shapes our perception of the revealed God. If God is the free and gratuitous creator and redeemer precisely because God might not have created and might not have saved (or might decide not to save all), what of that other ‘possible’ God and his actions, anyway? What, too, of God’s ontological stability? Central to Hart’s entire proposal is that for all of God’s doings, from creating to redeeming to ultimately and fully restoring, God’s character transcends the apparent opposition between freedom and necessity: God’s utter freedom create and to deify is motivated by an ultimate and unflinching love and goodness which surpasses even the mere consideration of its opposite—i.e., its withholding—without its being impersonal and restricted divine ‘automation.’

In making this wager, however, Hart is doing more than merely tweaking our moral vision. For, by refusing to define divine gratuity by the lack of its purported ‘opposite’—namely, necessity in its deficient and merely creaturely mode—one is necessarily rethinking the distinction-and-unity of divinity and creaturehood as such. Anthropology, and a phenomenological analysis of knowledge and desire may be the entry point, but, as always, ontology is the core issue. And at the very core of the core is the issue: the divine-human relationship.

Hart’s more fundamental reassessment of these central questions of ontology takes different forms throughout the essays. For example, he makes the subtle but necessary transition between anthropological and phenomenological speculation to ontology simply by his seeing through to its furthest conclusion the necessary and dynamic relation between knowing and being. I say ‘dynamic,’ because his (correct) proposal extends beyond the stock-in-trade claims that the knowable is the existent and vice versa, or that there’s some reasonable correspondence between the orders of knowing and being. Rather, his assertion is that “the ordo cognoscendi is the inversion of the ordo essendi, and that the terminus ad quem of each is the terminus a quo of the other.”8 While knowing and being can be conceived of distinctly, they are not, in fact, anything other than a unified whole: to know fully is to become or, at least, to evince one’s ultimate unity with the known. This means that there are both substantive and formal connections between the opposed pairs of knowing-being and nature-grace: which is to say, knowing is always and already an engagement in being, or the becoming-unto-Being, just as nature is always and already a teleological ordering toward and passage toward graced divinization. But this is also because true knowledge—full knowledge of the True in the most comprehensive, holistic sense—is that very passage from nature unrealized in its telos to nature fully realized in graced theosis. Hart points up the substantive and formal connections in a passage that’s too jam-packed to summarize and too fruitfully furious to skip over:

All too often, the [nature-grace] debate was shaped by perceived antitheses and disjunctions where there were in reality only continuities, albeit as descried from sometimes inverse perspectives. Just as the ordo cognoscendi and the ordo essendi are one and the same continuum (as considered now from one pole, now from the other), so too perhaps are such seeming binary oppositions as nature and grace, creation and deification, the first gift and the second gift, the claims of the creature upon God and God’s gifts to the creature—not to mention sufficient and efficacious grace, or the antecedent and consequent decrees of God, or any number of other oppositions that this essay has not directly addressed. And the passage from one pole to the other, rather than involving an extrinsic addition to or intrinsic annihilation of anything, should be understood as occurring only along that continuum, and as progressing only by relative degrees of intensity within an original unity. There is no abiding difference within the one gift of both creation and deification; there is only grace all the way down and nature all the way up, and “pure nature”—like pure potency or pure nothingness—is a remainder concept of the most vacuous kind: the name of something that in itself could never be anything at all. Creation, incarnation, salvation, deification: in God, these are one gracious act, one absolute divine vocation to the creature to become what he has called it to become. (Gods, 19)

N.B.: keep in mind unity-in-distinction, as it will crop up again at important junctures below.

Having made explicit the necessary connection between being and knowing, between phenomenological and ontological inquiry, Hart further substantiates the radical terms of his intrinsicism: the dynamism of creation’s ordering toward deification must imply humanity’s intrinsic compatibility for, in some sense its ultimate and even prior union with, divinity. For, Hart thinks, a nature “can never become something truly extrinsic to itself without ceasing to be what it was.”9 Yet Hart’s proposal takes one further step, bringing us to the very marrow of theological reflection and of Christianity’s central revelation: God’s creating only eventually to deify—a fact only really known and ontologically guaranteed by the fact of God becoming human, let us not forget—reveals not only the intrinsic relation of humanity to divinity but also the intrinsic relation of divinity to humanity. If on pain of ultimately denying divine simplicity we come fully to reckon that God is what God does, we come also to see that

God became human so that humans should become God. Only the God who is always already human can become human. Only a humanity that is always already divine can become God. God is all that is. Whatever is not God exists as becoming divine, and as such is God in the mode of what is other than God. But God is not “the other” of anything. (Gods, xviii)

This fundamental compatibility and, in Hart’s case, cautiously-posited mutuality and unity between Creator and creature is the metaphysical ground upon which his moral and epistemic arguments rest. His is thus a more thoroughgoing and radical intrinsicism which is bound up with the simple recognition that while our knowledge of God is not comprehensive, the God we know through God’s personal self- disclosure is actually the God who is.

Hart v. Hegel: Jericho or Jabbok?

The further implications of this even-more-radical intrincism come through in various ways throughout Gods, whose capstone essay posits a chiastic structure to reality, a broadly exitus-reditus schema to the whole of divine action, creation through redemption:

the immanent telos of God’s own life and the transcendent telos of the life of a spiritual creature are, formally and finally, one and the same telos: the divine essence, understood as the perfect repletion of God’s life and love and knowledge. As God is God in the eternal and eternally accomplished movement of God to God, so we are gods in the process of becoming God solely by virtue of always existing within that movement, proceeding from the same source and toward the same end; we do in the mode of finitude, contingency, and successiveness, and so are not God in se; but teleologically we are nothing but God. (Gods, 32)

These stakes of the wager mustn’t be glossed over. Of course, they have already elicited complaints of heresy, whether of a pantheistic sort or otherwise. Though, trigger-hair worries over affirming the radically imminent presence of God are evidence of one’s forgetfulness that pantheism or panentheism, in some form or another, is actually a fundamentally Christian way to think, when suffused with the insights of God’s self-revelation in history.10 More interesting, then, is to survey the battle which Hart self-consciously wages, not against a set of thinkers who think he’s already collapsed the distinction between divinity and humanity altogether, but against excesses of thought and expression in German Idealism which he takes actually to have entertained such a collapse. Indeed, he lays that very charge at the feet of G. W. F. Hegel.11 Yet the onslaught against the Swabian is hardly a straightforward rejection; rather, Hart’s is a delicate balance between cautious approbation and withering criticism.

That balancing act is necessary, if only because in turning away from stock-in-trade conceptions of the divine-human relationship and its expression in the various iterations of the nature-grace debate, Hart is ultimately seeking to renegotiate the terms of unity and opposition and of subject and object. And his laudable impulse is, like Hegel’s, toward an ultimate unity, though not at the expense of plurality as such. Yet, aside from his remonstrations against Hegel’s often ambiguous diction and hubristic attempt at a totalizing system, Hart’s primary complaint is against the untenable terms of unity which he thinks any honest reader of Hegel must notice. Eschatological and even primordial unity between Creator and creature, yes, but not unity conceived as symmetrical identity or “dependent reciprocity.”12 By this Hart means that creatures are always in the mode of dynamic recipients, necessarily depending upon their Creator from within their agonistic process of becoming like their Creator, and so becoming who they ‘were’ within God’s eternal act of creation-redemption and who they are truly meant to ‘become’ but are not yet. However, he makes clear that the Creator mustn’t be thought to be dependent upon those creatures’ process of teleological fulfillment in order to be or become what the Creator is or was meant to be, and especially not upon the strife and evil present within that creaturely history.

But the tension remains. Having made his own wager and transcended previous intrinsicist formulations to the point of positing a compatibility of humanity for divinity and vice versa, even a “primordial commonality”13 or ultimate “moment of indistinction,”14 Hart perhaps now sits alone, opposite only Hegel, or at least some reading of him. Will Hart defeat Hegel, Joshua-like, at Jericho, or is he Jacob, wrestling with the Sage of Jena in the mud of the river Jabbok, only to have his hip touched and so to limp in perpetuity? Moreover, would the limp be a blessing or a curse?

The terms might best be put in the form of a question: How is it that the LORD’s having created this world and ordained it to theosis is, in some sense, fully revelatory of and so intrinsic to God’s character or identity, while, at the same time, God’s identity is not constituted by and so ‘dependent upon’ the dynamically unfolding process of history, much less upon the violent and bloody vagaries of the creaturely narrative? Hart is unwavering in his commitment to charting a middle path here. An extended quote from another recent publication is worth presenting in order to highlight the delicate balance:

Those who believe that [Hegel] was in fact a theist and an orthodox Christian […] tend to believe also that for him there really is a transcendent God who is luminously present to himself and known to himself in his eternal being, and that the story of Geist in history and nature is only a participation of the finite in the infinite sufficiency of that self-knowledge, and is to that degree wholly modally contingent. If that were so, the classical analogical interval between God in himself, as the eternal order of the trinitarian life, and the secondary, economic, and subordinate expression of that order in creation would still be present, and would still constitute a kind of cordon sanitaire between God’s innocence in se and the accidental violence of fallen time.

Now, mind you, that interval does not imply—or should not—some kind of initial arbitrariness in God’s act of creation. It should be taken entirely as a modal qualification of creation, a clear statement that creation is ontologically contingent upon God, and that it in no way modifies or qualifies the divine nature. That does not mean that creation does not belong to God’s nature from eternity, or that creation is the conditional result of some sort of trinitarian “primordial decision” (Urentscheidung). That is a silly anthropomorphism that ultimately reduces trinitarian thought to mythology. Rather, all that need be said is that creation follows necessarily from who God freely is in the infinity of the divine nature, but that who God freely is is not dependent upon that expression of the divine. More simply, creation follows from who God is, but who God is does not follow from creation. (And, since God is not a thing or a finite substance, that absence of reciprocal dependency is perfectly logically coherent.) (“The Sage of Jena”)

The tension lies between saying that creation-redemption is a (freely) necessary act which “belongs to God’s nature from eternity,” and also saying that to be the transcendent God is to be That which is and which knows Itself as (and thus, in some sense, can be known by us as) ‘transcendent’ precisely by being and being known apart from any reference to the modally contingent order of creation-redemption. The shorthand version: “creation follows necessarily from who God freely is in the infinity of the divine nature, but that who God freely is is not dependent upon that expression of the divine”—i.e., there is no ‘reciprocal dependency.’

Suspended By Teleology

How Hart occupies this moment of tension is perhaps already clear from the above quotes: he maintains the necessity of positing an analogical interval between the creaturely and the divine. The motivation for and inner logic of Hart’s invocation of analogy is simply the primacy of the Good. Such primacy, he thinks, can only be fully affirmed and preserved in one’s thought patterns if one views the entirety of the creation-redemption drama through a teleological soteriology. By that clumsy term I just mean to denote Hart’s dogged commitment to seeing everything that is or seems real to us through the lens of the final consummation in the deifying presence of God to, in, and perhaps as all things.

Teleology serves as an epistemic and ontological grounding principle throughout Gods. It produces two sets of outcomes. It means that what humanity is, is only truly what it will become in divinization, and that one can only know what’s ultimate about reality from the vantage point of an eventually and fully realized eschatology. For Hart, what’s most real and true about creaturehood is that it’s on its way toward fulfillment in the divine life and, to whatever extent possible, that it now dimly foreshadows what that fulfillment might be like. Hart doesn’t sketch many of the details, but we can presume that we’re seeing ‘reality’ when we’re seeing creatures exemplify the Good, in actu.

The second upshot of Hart’s commitment to teleology is implied by the first. While his claim about humanity’s intrinsic capacity for the divine might seem like a valorization of human nature and of creaturehood, in fact it also moves Hart to cultivate a critical eye toward the creaturely order as it is presently constituted. If what’s truly ‘natural’ is something that we are only implicitly, something we are becoming, then what we and the rest of Creation are and do now is regularly and unmistakably marked by sin’s deformity. Ours is in a world ruled by “archons and powers and principalities and daemons”15 which suffers a “provisional dualism”16—provisional precisely because, in the world’s violent struggle with its own deficiencies, its historical particularities do not univocally bespeak the eternal God. In this sense Hart’s is unlike the non-provisional dualisms of certain ancient ‘Gnostic’ systems, which risk eternalizing strife: Hart’s dualism posits something of an eternal ‘future.’ In the teleological view, provisional dualism anticipates its own dissolution. The ramifications of such an outlook would appear to be manifold, even if Hart doesn’t spin all them out.17

We return, then, to Hegel. For Hart, the metaphysical and epistemological wager of Hegel’s system is simply too steep, precisely because in Hegel’s way of affirming the radical presence of divinity within the structure of creation, Hart sees him positing within divinity an intrinsic capacity for and even identity with creaturehood as it is now, not only as it will be. For Hart, Hegel is all too willing to define God by reference to the historical development of Geist in history—that’s to say, with the othering which God is not only in the eternal begetting of a Son and in their mutual co-inherence (and Aufhebung) in and as Spirit, but also with the divine othering that occurs in the very act of creating and creation’s process of becoming, bloody and butchered as it undoubtedly is. Hegel thus constructs “a narrative monism unqualified by any hint of true gnostic detachment, irony, sedition, or doubt.”18 To the extent that creation is its own history, divinity cannot be or even be defined by its union with creaturehood as it exists now. The ravages of creaturely history, with its seemingly intrinsic evolutionary violence and in the apparently unavoidable physical and psychical slaughterhouse of human rule and society, cannot be in any sense ultimate features of the ‘real.’ Thus, for Hart, the ‘middle’ chapters of the story which currently seem all too real to us now in fact only tell us a half truth about who and what creaturehood is. And that is precisely because they say nothing true about what divinity is, and thus they say nothing true about what we are to become: errare non est humanum, nec divinum. Humanity’s real esse is what divinity ultimately already is. Loss of analogy, of some interval between creature and Creator, is loss of teleology and the primacy of the Good. So, pace O’Regan (et al.), Hegel is not ‘too Gnostic;’ rather, he’s not Gnostic enough. At least, insofar as ancient Gnosticism’s most valuable insight is, to Hart’s mind, a keen memory of the New Testament’s own (provisional) dualism, its detachment and sense of irony about this present aeon.

Analogy, then, names the fundamental prophylactic against any expression of divine-human unity or mutuality which would result not merely in their abstract conflation but, more importantly, which would make possible a conception of divinity that besmirches God’s moral innocence. It’s worth noting that this way of wielding the analogical distinction is somewhat different from standard Thomist usage, and seeing this difference might be helpful for exploring underlying rationale for Hart’s own usage. There is, of course, a fairly subtle logic to the standard Thomist usage for analogy, one that attempts a balance between continuity and discontinuity.19Yet the terms of that balance are rather different from Hart’s. That’s to say, analogy is often deployed to guard against precisely the kinds of affirmations and denials Hart himself is so fond of making. Say that it was intrinsic to God’s character, and therefore in some sense morally ‘necessary’ for God to create, to effect redemption, and to patiently await the correction of all, and you will quickly be reminded that this is to abrogate the predicatory limits set by the analogia entis. As I’ve been told before, it’s a mistake to make too much of my unconditional love for my children which leads me to conclude, hopefully, that I would wait aeons for any of them to return to me were they to try to exempt themselves from my love. That is, I’m wrong to think of God’s love similarly, since such thinking, I’m told, fails to reckon with the analogical gap between my creaturely expression of fatherhood and the LORD’s transcendent mode thereof. Apparently, because of ‘analogy’ we learn that the God Who is love is totally ‘free’ to stop waiting. Or, if one affirms that God’s ‘necessary’ freedom for the Good entails concluding that the only reasonable and eventual telos for a creaturely will made in God’s image is to transcend the mere freedom of indifference and ultimately attain Godlike freedom only for the Good, one will be told scolded for failing to attend to discontinuity, for running afoul of the maior dissimilitudo.20 I’ll let the reader ponder whether these competing uses of analogy among Hart’s likely detractors are not, in fact, incoherently at cross purposes. A dissimilitudo or radical distinction between divine and human natures there surely is, but what it means or amounts to is the key question.

What matters here is the difference between certain standard uses of ‘analogy’ and Hart’s own expressions of analogical reserve. At least since Saved, Hart’s unabashed confidence in the capacity of our speech to point accurately in God’s general direction stems from his confidence that the goodness and beauty of the creaturely world, from which our thought and predication extrapolates toward the divine, is on solid footing. Despite all protestations to the contrary, Hart does not claim to have definitive knowledge of God or ultimate comprehension even of God’s ways and means here below, yet he’s on the warpath against a cowering form of epistemic humility and in favor of a morally confident one,21 against those who would use analogy to curb our trust in God’s character as both creator and redeemer. But as I’ve already intimated, their morally and aesthetically fuzzy speech-policing leads in some sense to equivocation, rather than serious analogical continuity: somehow, what we might all see as unreasonable and even evil within the realm of human action can, in their view, be reconciled with divine Goodness by gesturing toward the concept of analogy.

Hart thus deploys analogy within the context of thoroughgoing moral and aesthetic continuity. And this continuity of linguistic meaning is won by—or, at least, walks hand-in-hand with—his affirmation of greater ontological continuity between divinity and humanity. For Hart, then, analogy is not “an interval merely of accidental and extrinsic relatedness between two separate things. Our being in God and God’s being in us are both also and more originally God’s being as God.”22 When he does use analogy negatively, it’s only to make clear that what we cannot say about God is what mistakenly implies God’s complicity in and identification with our world in all of its dynamic change and, in particular, its violent struggle with its own ontological lack and deformity, i.e., evil. Thus, he sees analogy’s lack in Hegel’s system as no better or worse than its misuse by, say, a certain kind of Thomist who deploys it to restrict our speech about God’s intrinsic ordering toward creating, supernaturally ordering, and becoming human.23

All of which raises the stakes even further, leaving the reader to wonder: does his use of analogy and its ever-so-delicate rapprochement with and rejection of Hegel(ianism?) work? Is it coherent to posit a fundamental compatibility, or even primordial commonality, a moment of indistinction between the creator and creature yet disallow any real reciprocity between the divine and the creaturely? Can we say, as I think we ought, that there is nothing arbitrary about these features of God’s action and so also God’s identity, but then deny that that the historical working-out of those actions are somehow intrinsic to God’s identity? What would it mean to posit a reciprocal or mutual relationship between divinity and humanity, and why should we care? Should we want a Jericho or a Jabbok outcome for Hart v. Hegel?

I want to conclude by showing why we should seek more clarity from Hart on these matters and why, more specifically, we would want him to reconsider the terms of his divine-human compatibility so as to include some form of ‘reciprocity’ and/or thoroughgoing identity, though not, I must make clear, of the ‘natural’ or ‘essential’ kind—indeed, the only way unity between creator and creature is achieved is through a hypostatic or personal unity which simultaneously transcends and preserves absolute natural difference (cf. Jesus Christ). Note that, in principle, all of this has little to do with Hegel or with how best to read Hegel. Even if I’d read more of Hegel than I have up to this point and could provide a more full- throated defense of the Sage of Jena, doing so would only be helpful or necessary to the extent that Hegel’s thought is productive of further inquiry about the God-world relationship. In my naiveté I happen to think that it is,24 but the exegetical point so far remains secondary, if only because the terms of my inquiry are, I think, set by the Gospel itself and by Hart’s own best impulses. To pursue clarity, then, I conclude with three questions.

Three Concluding Questions

1) What does it mean ‘to be God’ or ‘to be divine’? Hart has already gone a long way toward answering this question: to be God is precisely to be the God who creates and redeems in time, as an eternal act of divine perfection. Hart has already pointed us to this, the revealed God. His is the God whose radical transcendence and incomprehensible power and wisdom are expressed to us truthfully as overflowing goodness, precisely in and as the beginning and end of all things. Hart is already an apostle for the God-behind-whom-there-is-no-other. To have wagered this utter recalibration of necessity and gratuity, of divinity and humanity, of hiddenness of manifestation, is already to have begun to make the most important wager—namely, allowing God to define Godself through the very acts of creating and redeeming.

But for us to know that this is who God is and for God actually to be that God takes more than an abstract ontological proportion or analogy between divinity and humanity. Rather, in fact, these terms have their radical distinction and positive unity expressed in—nay, generated by—the personal union of the Word. Hart’s recognition of this fact, his grounding of his proposal in Christology, is evident at various junctures, even if at times the anthropological and ontological speculation in Gods can appear to float free of that grounding. Ultimately, Hart has made clear that there is no ‘natural’ nor any ‘humanity’ apart from the supernatural precisely because Jesus Christ’s personal union of these two ways of being is the condition of the possibility of there being a human nature or a creaturely order whatsoever: so, he proclaims, the natural and supernatural may be radically (modally) distinct, yet they remain more fundamentally united, just as divinity and humanity are distinguished on the level of nature but remain united in the hypostatic identity of Christ’s single subject.25 So central is the Incarnation to the very structure of reality that he can say that “creation is the incarnation in the fullness of all its necessary historical and natural dimensions.”26 Thus, I think Hart has reckoned with the fact that God’s self- definition, God’s very identity in some sense includes being a creature. For, to be God is simply to be Christ: the simultaneously divine-human hypostasis of the Word, who is perichoretically one with the Father and the Spirit: thus, to be God is also to be the Father and to be the Spirit, but not, on pain of affirming tri-theism, in ways that exclude the identity of the Son.

Christology is the only solid footing for Hart’s broader endeavor to define what it means to be human by what it means for the human ultimately to become divine. Such Christology ought to be faithful to all of the ecumenical councils by attending to the post-Chalcedonian theology that made possible the later councils, Constantinople II through Nicaea II. For, it’s this Christological perspective that sees to its conclusion the radical reassessment of God’s relation to the world begun dogmatically at Nicaea, a reassessment to which Hart’s entire project is an integral contemporary contribution. Christo-logic teaches us to define what it means ‘to be divine’ in view of the fact that there is no ‘divine’—there is no ‘God’— who is not already implicated in being united to creaturehood. There is no divine essence not hypostatized as one of the Persons of the Trinity, including the divine-human Son, united perichoretically to the Father and the Spirit. In Hart’s own words: “God became human so that humans should become God. Only the God who is always already human can become human. Only a humanity that is always already divine can become God.”27

2) How does the preceding not lead to a kind of ‘reciprocity’ or mutual sharing in the very identity of ‘God’? Or, what reciprocity might we actually countenance? Of course, the reciprocity which Hart rejects he also qualifies with the modifier ‘dependent’ and he also glosses as entailing God’s being a ‘result’ of the oftentimes patently deviant the world-historical process.28 Remember that teleological soteriology is the governing Gestalt, and rightly so. If we thus simply think further through the Irenaean soteriological dictum, God became human so that the human might become God,29 we understandably assume ‘directionality’ to this logic—that’s to say, the point seems to us not so much about merely ‘trading spaces,’ since we conclude that the point of that union is the perfection of one nature (the human) by means of its union with the other (the divine). We’re inclined to avoid predicating creaturely imperfections of the divine, per se, precisely because if in becoming human the divine takes into itself what imperfections are proper to the human, what good is it for the human to ‘become God’? Teleology is rendered aimless, it seems, in such a balanced equation, since the target (‘becoming divine’) is a moving one, at best. And if the divine is defined as a ‘result’ of all of the world’s processes, the target is evil, at worst.

When routed through the logic of teleological soteriology, what the question of reciprocity seems to boil down to is this: is it better to be divine than to be human? I think, however, that we can see this is a false dichotomy if we consider another Irenaean dictum and also see its ultimate Christo-logic.

“The glory of God is a living human being.”30 That human, we must maintain, is none other than Christ and all who are finally and fully conformed to his image, who are likewise divinized, but who all remain fully human, or, rather, who are fully human precisely because they are divinized. Everything short of such an existence isn’t ‘full’ humanity.31 In this way, to predicate of ‘the divine’ something of the imperfections of humanity is simply an impossibility, precisely because these imperfections are not constitutive of being fully human, especially not the immoral sort. And this is perhaps a soteriological way of charting the claim that Christ is, in Maximus the Confessor’s words, “neither mere man, nor naked God.”32 There is no ‘divine’ which is not hypostatized as a specific subject, and thus no ‘divinity’ whose identity doesn’t also include personal identity as, in the case of the Word, or perichoretic union with, in the case of the Father and Spirit, a real and full human. Thus, the salvific goal is not ‘to be divine’ but to be fully ‘divine-human’ in the identity of a person in whom the two natures unite perichoretically33 yet without confusion.

3) Does this then mean that ‘to be God’ is to be “wholly the ‘result'” of the world’s processes, of history’s developments and changes, let alone its glaring abysses of hatred and evil? Is God yet waiting to become fully God? It seems to me we must tender a two-part answer to these questions if we’re to be faithful both to the ancient tradition of Christological speculation and also to the New Testament.

First, let me say that Hart is undoubtedly right that Christianity’s commitment to the primacy of the Good cannot withstand any imputation of evil to God’s character, since to do so would be to give in to an un-Christian and irrational voluntarism.34 I’m skeptical, however, whether this must mean, then, that we must or even can think ‘the divine’ in such a way that the historical development of the world is not somehow intrinsic to God’s identity. In fact, I’m skeptical that the primacy of the Good can itself be preserved if we tend toward thinking of the divine identity in this way. It seems to me that Hart recognizes this and so remains in some tension with himself, wanting at once to say that “nothing in nature or history can be simply extrinsic to this movement of the Father’s ‘achievement’ of his own essence in the divine life,”35 while also speaking of a divinity who is “actus purus […] is always already absolved of, triumphant over, and in no need of the negative.”36 This is a point of tension not because we must instead affirm a sense of essential and yet extrinsically fulfilled ‘need’ in God for evil, but because locutions like the latter seem quick to distance God from history, while locutions like the former only vaguely posit anything of God’s unity with history by way of mere negation (e.g. ‘not extrinsic’). One wonders whether Hart yet countenances a divina natura pura, a hidden God at odds with his true, revealed God.

To the previous question, then. The reason that we can first say ‘no’ to the question of whether God is ‘waiting’ to be God is, once again, grounded in Christology: during his historical life on earth, the one divine Son, the singular hypostatic identity of the Word, experienced a process of development and maturation which itself entailed his ‘becoming’—i.e. his becoming fully rational and thus, in some sense, ‘fully’ human in all of his acts of reason and volition. And yet, on pain of endorsing a rather crude Nestorianism, we affirm that Christ was fully and throughout this process ‘divine,’ and worthy of the name ‘God.’ And if we say that this is so precisely or only because of his identification with and as his other nature, the divine nature, we are already begging the question—that is, we’re already deciding ahead of time that the notion that being ‘God’ doesn’t entail being the personal unity of the divine and human but instead entails instantiating the divine nature more primarily than the human or instantiating the divine nature in a manner that, at least conceptually, excludes his being human. Thus, Christ is God throughout his life, such that we have Christological grounding for concluding what would perhaps seem patently obvious: here, in the ‘middle’ of (his own personal) history, God is already God.

And, yet, the follow-up to the initial ‘no’ requires further clarification, since if that process of development is to matter at all, it must be somehow included within the identity of the divine-human ‘God’ who is its telos. Note my choice of words here: the telos of salvation is not the achievement of a nature, much less one nature over another; rather, the telos is personhood, is the double-natured Person who is already the fulfillment of both natures in their perichoretic identity, and is our shared personhood in and even as Him. This fact allows us to consider the question of the ‘results’ of history on both of these related fronts, that of the Son of God and that of the many sons and daughters of God.

First, we must ask: is the person of Christ, the Word, his history? Is he his own sufferings? It seems to me fundamental to human personhood to be, in some sense, our history, our narrative, and for various reasons. For one thing, I cannot even name or identify myself nor even my own body fully without telling a narrative of my history, in all of its ups and downs. In the case of the Word, we ought preeminently to think this way. If Christ is a fully human person because he is a fully divine-human person, so also does his eternal-and-temporal identity positively include a history. The ‘who’ of Christ must include his actions and his passions—all of them. This seems only too evident in moral and existential terms. The ‘ultimate’ teleological goal of his resurrection, ascension, and recapitulation of all things receives its meaning from its beginning in God’s eternal counsel, its consummative end in the deification of the whole created order. Yet its meaning is incomplete without its middle, its actual historical outworking, including the evil done to him. One of the Holy Trinity was crucified37 precisely because One of the Holy Trinity “learned obedience through the things he suffered” (Heb. 5:8) and, while always and ever ‘God,’ nevertheless, his full identity as God, seen from the protological and eschatological perspectives, includes both the goal which he reached and the path he took to get there. The risen Christ is the Christ who no longer bleeds, but whose scars bespeak a real and meaningful process toward victory.

Or, does he yet bleed? That last question becomes more pertinent not only when we consider the very mechanics of humanity’s deification—in which, a case could be made, the goal is our personal perichoretic union with the persons of the Trinity38—but also and more immediately when we consider the scriptural tendency to think of Christ’s own person in corporate terms. This tendency crops up at various junctures, whether in Matthew 25 or in Paul’s claim to be “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions,” (Col. 1:24) and it seems to indicate that although our tortuous, sin-ridden path toward deification is different from Christ’s own historical and utterly sinless path, in some sense ours is also Christ’s path—i.e., it is also ‘God’s’ path. It’s what leads Maximus, for example, to say that “if the poor man is God, it is because of God’s condescension in becoming poor for us and in taking into himself the sufferings of each one sympathetically and ‘until the end of time,’ always suffering mystically through goodness in proportion to each one’s suffering.”39 For, as Maximus understands, it is no mere hyperbole to claim that “Jesus my God and Savior, who is completed through me who am saved, brings me back to himself who is always filled to overflowing with plenitude and who can never be exhausted. He restores me in a marvelous way to myself, or rather to God from whom I received being and toward whom I am directed.”40 Thus, these ultimate (if seemingly extreme) entailments of totus Christus41 logic shed further light on the notion that while God is now ‘all in all,’ simultaneously God ‘will be‘ all in all at the final subjection of all things. We can only say this with utter seriousness if history matters, not only to ‘us’ but ultimately to God’s identity, precisely because and so that it can matter to ‘us’ insofar as we are divinized with God.

The questions, then, of whether “the Absolute is wholly a ‘result'” of the world’s historical process,42 or whether “the economic Trinity actually somehow constitutes the immanent in its ultimate identity,”43 are questions that can only be answered first if one clarifies the terms, and then if one reckons with the logic that must govern those terms. For, while the divine nature is not a result of human nature—not least because natures do not act, only persons do—the personal identity of God the Word is constituted by both his eternality and his temporality, just as his hypostasis is the composite of his two naturally distinct natures.44 In his person he transcends the distinction even between eternity and historicity precisely by being their personal identity without erasing their natural and infinite distinction. But he does not transcend it by the sheer negation of one to the preference of the other, his identity being defined by one over against the other. He is the already and not-yet, but not in such a way that the ‘already’ wholly evacuates the ‘not yet’ (I resist the urge here to use the term ‘sublation,’ the way a small child ought to resist the urge to use a razor-sharp knife, knowing that his capacities are undoubtedly more to blame for the danger than is the implement itself).

Hart has, I think, already faced up to the notion that to be ‘God’ requires a deeper logic than one might employ merely to discern what it means to be the divine nature simpliciter. But in his pursuit of a more radical intrinsicism, he has opted largely to forgo making sense of this framework by grounding it fundamentally in the hypostatic identity of the two natures, instead preferring to speak of a natural compatibility, primordial commonality, and capacity for shared hypostatization.45 What I fear is that his effort to affirm and protect the primacy of the Good without conceiving of the ultimate unity of divinity and humanity in the form of hypostatic identity will end up falling short of its eminently laudable goal. To press us to think God always and ever as the God who creates, redeems, and is or becomes human only to stop short of some more positive claim about God’s identity vis-a-vis history is to posit a suspended middle between the less radical intrinsicism which he’s left behind and some more thoroughgoing account of the divine-human union (and so also of the nature-grace relationship). Granted, to come up short, so to speak, in the presence of history’s unmistakable and unspeakable horrors is more than understandable. But if we’re to champion teleological soteriology as we should, if we’re to reckon with the redemption of that ever elusive creature, time,46 we must reckon with its positive role within the identity of God.

The alternative given to us by Hart, while elegant and almost entirely compelling, rests on what amounts to a quasi-miaphysitic47 notion of union in which the identity and constitution of the persons deified therein remains fundamentally static. In this schema, the divine-human union only fully exists in the primordial beginning, ‘wherein’ the logoi remain still folded within the one Logos, considered sub specie aeternitatis, and in the end, ‘wherein’ the completion of all things seems to shine, but perhaps without an real sense of its journey there. While I have no delusion that he intends it to be so, this approach to the divine-human union and its historicity threatens to undermine his soteriological aims. It risks becoming an already completed teleology which is its own dissolution and in which genuine linear movement toward completion begins to look ultimately meaningless.

The teleological soteriology that is the driving engine of Christian thought and action does not requires saying that God’s being all in all is the transformation of humanity into divinity and of history into eternity—indeed, when we understood deification finally by reference to Christ’s union of the two in his hypostatic identity, we see that there is not and need not be any transformation of a previously-compatible nature, since compatibility lies in the capacity of personhood to unite extremes.48 Instead, it entails saying that the assumption of such opposites into God the Word’s identity, the fulfillment and revelation of their utter unity. Only in this way can we understand the Good in its truly dynamic fullness, and only can the Good be dynamically fulfilled, while being the Good all along the way. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega precisely because he is also beta through psi. This is not to be understood in such a way that Christ is the fallenness of history, precisely because ‘true’ history is the narrative of the Good’s victory: I am not the harm committed against me or which I’ve committed against others, but I am the strength earned despite and even through such sin, and I am the love I choose in turning away from such a false past. In the final consummation, if we’re to forget the nihil of historical evil—and forget it, in some real sense, I think we must—we cannot therefore erase the memory of the self-sacrificial love wrought in response to such nihil: won’t we remember the valor and love of Sts. Stein and Kolbe, while the evil and hatred which became the negative condition of the possibility of their love will finally be able to be ‘seen’ by all for what it is not? That is, won’t it be ‘unseen’ and dissolved in oblivion? If so, it is only because such a positive account of history becomes real first in Christ, who in his own discrete hypostasis only suffers but never perpetrates evil, and who in his corporate identity is the Good seeking its final primacy. Suspended in his own genuinely historical middle, he can redeem and, eventually, fully transfigure it once for all because he has and continues to live and, in some sense, be that middle.

[S]ince as our Lord Jesus Christ is the beginning, middle, and end of all the ages past, present, and future, one could say that through the power of faith, “the end of the ages”—I mean that end which will be actualized by grace according to its proper form in the deification of the worthy—”has already come upon us.” (Q. Thal. 22.6)49

 

Footnotes

1 The perhaps cheeky joke here entails a reference to Balthasar’s somewhat ambivalent assessment of Henri de Lubac’s proposal as a suspended middle between theology and philosophy. John Milbank has subsequently assessed this suspension in less ambivalently positive terms and seen it as a more pervasive balancing act between various extremes.

2 Note that this is part of a broader reassessment of gratuity and necessity vis-a-vis God

3 Though, as Aaron Riches has recently argued, this did not ultimately mean for de Lubac an outright rejection of the concept as a pure hypothetical, or else de Lubac perhaps wouldn’t have been able to maintain his staunch agreement with a particular intrepretation of Humani Generis. See Riches, “Qualcosa Di Dio: The Metaphyisics of Desire and Paradox of the Real,” Communio 49 (Spring, 2022), 168–9. He is right, it seems to me, to focus on de Lubac’s consistent attention to the concrete existence of humans; however, as I note below, in this effort he still ultimately defines gratuity by reference to the hypothetical lack of such a gift.

4 For a concise summary of this aspect of de Lubac’s proposal, see John Milbank, The Suspended Middle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 43–7.

5 “The Mystery of the Supernatural,” in Theology in History, trans. Anne Englund Nash (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 302. Later, de Lubac quotes Romano Guardini: “[God] is also Master of himself, there is thus no ‘pressure of being’ in him that he would be interiorily constrained to follow. God is absolutely free… But he loves truly and actually” (“Mystery,” 315).

6 Riches points out that the block quote above was one de Lubac seemed to stand firmly behind into his very last years, and that it was precisely on these grounds that he remained untouched by the remonstrations of HG (“Qualcosa Di Dio,” 164–5). Thus, Riches is only partly right to say that de Lubac “is wholly uninterested in abstract speculations about other possible worlds—logical deductions of God’s potentia absoluta. As valid as it may be to affirm the divine potentia absoluta, such speculation tells us little about the real world and history, and even less about God.” (ibid., 157). For, at bottom, the shadow of the God-who-might-not-have-created secures the foundation of reality’s ‘gratuity,’ such that the non-concrete does play a key role in de Lubac’s thought. Riches’ own claims about this perspective thus seem ultimately irreconcilable:

Positively, this amounts to a declaration that God is God and can create as he pleases. He could have created an intellectual being without calling it to visio; he could also have saved the human race without becoming incarnate […] God is God. God could have created the world otherwise, just as he could have graced it otherwise. As such, the anathema leaves wholly uncontested the core theological proposal of Surnaturel, according to which the divine gratuity is neither secured or defended by ‘contrast,’ by separatio with a ‘pure hypothetical.’

In short, I remain unable to square that final claim with what precedes.

Lastly, as to the question of Roman Catholics’ fidelity to HG or to magisterial teaching more generally, it’s hardly a deflection simply to admit that this is a complicated matter. If one takes it that the encyclical sets what Riches calls a “dogmatic limit” (“Qualcosa Di Dio” 168), one will have to give a fuller account of how this is so: do all (seemingly) definitive claims in papal encyclicals set (irreformable?) dogmatic limits? That, simplistically construed, would seem to flood the magisterial archive with an impossible supply of ‘dogmas,’ much of it arguably reformable if not already reformed (what to say, already, about HG’s apparently hard line on monogenesis?). If one takes a subtler tack so as to say that the specific claims regarding what God can or cannot do are, in fact, dogma, one still must do the necessary work of interpreting and applying those statements and its lexical contents. For example, would creating a “rational being” [entia intellectu] not ordered and called to the beatific vision [“quin eadem ad beatificam visionem ordinet et vocet“] in fact be creating a ‘human being’? All of which will seem to some like just so much obfuscation in service of avoiding fidelity to the Church’s teaching office. Yet the history of Catholic theology and its magisterial bounds suggests that these complexities must be faced squarely if one is to be faithful both to the tradition and to the ongoing demands of theological inquiry in both the speculative and practical registers.

7 See Gods, 105, 116.

8 Gods, 99.

9 Gods, 11.

10 I won’t spend any more of the reader’s precious time trotting out texts from the tradition—and not only the ‘exotic’ thinkers like Nyssen and Maximus—to substantiate my claim here, let alone quotes from, say, St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians!

11 Gods, 69, 81.

12 I begin here to draw on Hart’s more recently published essay, “The Sage of Jena” <https:// davidbentleyhart.substack.com/p/the-sage-of-jena>.

13 If it’s not unfair to do so, in an effort to gain the utmost clarity about Hart’s positions I here quote a paper recently given at the 2021 international Bulgakov conference, Building the House of Wisdom: Sergij Bulgakov 150 Years after His Birth: “Gods, Chimaeras, and Portmanteaux: Bulgakov and the Metaphysics of Personhood.” In the same paper, he speaks of a “primordial indistinction” between divinity and humanity.

14 Gods, 108; cf. ibid., 101, 110–11.

15 Gods, 77; note that here Hart isn’t merely waxing solipsistically eloquent but is instead just riffing on standard Pauline locutions.

16 Gods, xv; cf. ibid, 77.

17 Concomitantly, Hart’s proposal may also seem to some readers a danger to certain forms of natural law ethics, and something similar could be said of his reading of Genesis 1–3 (viz., the Fall) as meta-historical. However, I don’t think that taking seriously humanity’s historical dynamism, in its epistemic and/or ontological modes, is inimical to natural law reasoning as such, even if it presents challenges whose navigation will be hard-won but necessary.

18 Gods, 88.

19 In recent decades was deployed perhaps most forcefully in order to ward off (or qualify) everything from dialectical Barthianism to an oftentimes a-metaphysical, grammatical-linguistic (‘language-game’) conception of doctrine. The key here is to safeguard against accounts of theological knowledge and speech that appear too scared to talk positively about God—too worried about naive metaphysics and their concomitantly naive epistemologies to accept that our God-talk has any real purchase on the realities to which they refer—and implicitly the watchword is analogical continuity, or at least correspondence: our talk about God is both somewhat intelligible to us and even to outsiders of the faith, precisely because as creatures our being and our experience and our thinking and speaking all bear an analogical bond with the Creator. But these subtleties of analogy’s usage take on a different pungency when deployed in the other direction, so to speak, against the so-called rationalism of those who are seen to fail at reckon ing any (or a sufficient) distinction between God and creation and who thus undermine transcendence and freedom vis-a-vis creaturely action and contingency.

20 Indeed, the preservation of the creaturely mode of ‘freedom’ for evil perhaps lies at the very center of, say, von Balthasar’s championing of the analogia entis in pursuit of an unflinching commitment to the ‘drama’ (read: tragedy) of the creaturely wager. On which, see Jordan Daniel Wood, “George MacDonald against Hans Urs von Balthasar on Universal Salvation,” <https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2020/04/26/george-macdonald-against-hans-urs- von-balthasar-on-universal-salvation/>.

21 Among other inspirations for this endeavor, one can count George MacDonald. See his “A Higher Faith,” from his Unspoken Sermons, Series 1.

22 Gods, 105.

23 I’m inclined to think that this more stringent use of analogy represents a departure (or, at the very least, a marked change in emphasis) from some of Hart’s earlier writings on analogy, if only because in the latter he seems not to be seeking to recalibrate wholly our understanding of gratuity and necessity, and so also the ontological continuity that it would imply. See, for example, his “The Destiny of Christian Metaphysics: Reflections on the Analogia Entis,” in The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in Theology and Metaphysics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017). This essay (or a form of it) originally appeared in The Analogy of Being: The Invention of the Anti-Christ or the Wisdom of God?, ed. Thomas Joseph White, OP, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).

24 This, not because Hegel’s system warrants no critique or challenge, but rather because I think first that Hegel, too, wishes to validate the ultimate primacy of the Good (a point which Hart at times seem to concede by reckoning the distance between Hegel’s ‘voluntarism’ and that of the middle Schelling [see Gods, 81–2]) and because I disagree with Hart’s quick dismissal of any true Christic center to Hegel’s later thought. Ultimately, it matters little to me whether an ‘Hegelian’ reading of Christology and of reality more generally is faithful to every facet of Hegel’s textual and conceptual ‘kaleidoscope.’ For, every reading and appropriation of another’s thought is and must be a creative re-reading and re-appropriation, with and sometimes even against the original author. One needn’t, for example, co-sign every locution of Hegel’s in the Preface to the Phenomenology in order to recognize even here Hegel’s commitment to the ultimate primacy of the Good (see, in particular, §§18–21, which Hart points to in order charge Hegel with a crude notion of God’s being the mere ‘result’ of the world’s process). While a more straightforward account of the primacy of the Good over evil is evident in the concluding sections of the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (viz. 1827 series), the key to any constructive re-appropriation of Hegel seems to entail sorting out the way that ‘evil’ (like ‘falsehood’) is both like and unlike all other negations. That’s to say, it requires understanding how evil might represent the extreme negation or antithesis, such that it remains categorically different from all other forms of negation and opposition, but also such that its sublation is really its redemption (a possibility perhaps already evident in §39 of the Preface). Here again I wonder whether Hart hasn’t already opened himself up toward Hegel’s way of thinking, if only because in his advocacy for a ‘provisional dualism’ he has in some sense tethered fall and (initial) creation closely, though not simplistically. Perhaps this feature of Hegel’s thought is not, in fact, salvageable or requires significant re-appropriation. Whatever the case may be, we all stand to gain the more Hart wrestles with Hegel.

25 Gods, 18–9.

26 Gods, 113.

27 Gods, xviii. One ought, I think, to hear resonances between this impulse in Hart’s thinking and Robert Jenson’s biblical and ultimately conciliar rejection of the logos asarkos. For concise treatments, see “Jesus in the Trinity,” Pro Ecclesia viii.3 (1999), 308–18, and “Once more on the Logos asarkos,” IJST 13.2 (2011), 130–33. Jenson briefly notes his own affinity for Neo-Chalcedonian Christology and the later ecumenical councils.

28 “The Sage.”

29 Cf. Adversus Haereses iii.19.1.

30 AH iv.20.7.

31 I do not, of course, mean this in the sense that prior to divinization we lack the dignity of ‘full humanity;’ rather, I only mean that total dynamic fulfillment of what we possess innately in potency forces us to reckon with the possibility of becoming ‘even more human’ than we currently are (or at least I currently am, as my loved ones can undoubtedly confirm).

32 Maximus, Amb. 5.3.

33 The hypostatic identity of the Word grounds the radical natural distinction of the two natures and their inseparable, unconfused, and perichoretic union. That the union is perichoretic is a claim traceable to Gregory of Nazianzus, but one which seems to reach its fullest conceptual fruition in the thought of Maximus. On which, see Jordan Daniel Wood, The Whole Mystery of Christ (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2022), 43–53, et passim.

34 Whether or not he’s right to attribute it flatly to Hegel, it strikes me as perceptive of Hart to link the voluntarism of the late medieval period to that which perhaps reaches a crescendo in the middle Schelling (by way of Böhme).

35 Gods, 115.

36 Gods, 117.

37 See Canon 10 of Constantinople II.

38 On which, again, see Wood, The Whole Mystery, 123–32.

39 Ecclesiastical Mystagogy, §24 in Selected Writings, trans. Berthold (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985), 212. Particularly helpful here is Wood’s treatment of this passage at various junctures in The Whole Mystery, in conjunction with his discussions of God-world reciprocity in his fourth and fifth chapter. On the specific question of historicity and reciprocity in Maximus’ thought: “Hence arises the possibility—one that has grounds, I think, in parts of Maximus’s corpus—of a fundamental or primordial reciprocity between God’s eternal self-knowledge (cf. Q. Thal. 56.7) and the particularities of historical events, yet not in such a way that the former simply determines the latter (lest there be no true reciprocity at all). From this vantage the Word himself, through his creative condescension as the logoi of creation (cf. CT 1.66–67—historical and cosmic at once!), would be the identity that grounds such a reciprocity. Then creation would prove an inevitable “result” of God’s self-knowledge even while it does not possess any “simultaneous” or “co-eternal” (i.e., natural) relation to the divine essence itself (as ruled out by texts like Q. Thal. 60.9.” (The Whole Mystery, 274n21).

40 Myst. §5, Berthold, 192

41 One can see similar impulses at work in Gregory of Nyssa’s magisterial exegesis of 1 Cor. 15:28, In illud: Tunc et ipse Filius (GNO iii.2:3–28), trans. Rowan A. Greer (with J. Warren Smith) in One Path for All: Gregory of Nyssa on the Christian Life and Human Destiny (Eugene, OR: Cascade Publishing, 2015), 118–32.

42 Hart, “The Sage.”

43 Hart, Gods, 71.

44 For the conciliar basis of Christ’s composite person and their shared, symmetrical identity, see Canon vii of Constantinople II: “and if anyone understands the two natures in the mystery of Christ in the sense of a division into parts, or if he expresses his belief in the plural natures in the same lord Jesus Christ, God the Word made flesh, but does not consider the differnece of those natures, of which he is composed, to be only in the onlooker’s mind, a difference which is not compromised by the union (for he is one from both and the two exist through the one [εἷσ γάρ ἐξ ἀμφοῖν και δί ̓ ἑνός ἀμφότερα / unus enim ex utroque et per unum utraque]) but uses the plurality to suggest that each nature is possessed separately and has a subsistence of its own: let him be anathema” (trans. Norman Tanner, SJ, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils [Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1990], 117).

45 Hart has begun to share some of the more detailed Christological (and anthropological) entailments of and reasons for this move, especially in “Gods, Chimaeras, and Portmanteaux.” Hart seems to suggest that hypostatic identity understood as the ‘nonformal positivity’ which exhibits ‘total indifference’ to the natures it unites (to use Wood’s words) simply cannot bear the weight it ought in signifying and explicating the divine-human union. He opts, then, to appropriate Bulgakov’s notion of Sophia (or ‘sophianicity’), specifically in its mediating role on both sides of the creator-creature distinction. Such sophianicity is an intrinsic ordering and compatibility of each nature to one another and, he adds, toward hypostatization. To those at all familiar with Wood’s reading of Maximus, it might seem like the divergences between their proposals are so vanishingly thin to matter any more. However, Hart’s other motivation for charting this route seems to pertain to his desire to preserve the analogical gap, and that, as I’ve already shown, is a concern driven almost solely by his concern for the primacy of the Good. To speak of the human as having the essential capacity for ‘becoming divine’ is then to speak precisely with the logic of nature rather than hypostasis, and this perhaps generates even further concerns about divine and human integrity or identity. If the notion of hypostatic identity as the ground of both identity and radical distinction between the natures—in Christ and ultimately in those deified by, in, and as Christ (without dissolution of their own hypostatic personhood) —can be shown to preserve the primacy of the Good and address some of the concerns I raise here about the dynamism of teleological soteriology in its true historicity, then perhaps there’s a way forward for reconciling their competing approaches.

46 One might add that truly seeing the Word as the unity of time and eternity will result in taking history more seriously, but not in the form of a reductive ‘historicism.’ The latter is united more closely to a-historical approaches to metaphysics, since both share the ultimate impulse to think that history has little or no intrinsic meaning.

47 By this I do not mean a ‘miaphysitism’ of the crude and caricatured sort one glimpses in the polemical depictions of, say, Apollinarius. No, those charges of a hybridized, centaur-like conception of the Christological union ought instead to give way to a subtler reading of the miaphysite tradition from Apollinarius through Severus. Instead, I mean here the sort of interpretation that Bulgakov (a clear inspiration of Hart’s in these pages) gives in his defense of the anthropological and soteriological impulses of Apollinarius’ unitive Christology, or of the sort that Gregory of Nyssa’s soteriology and eschatology entertain—an irony, perhaps, given Nyssen’s tenacious polemic against Apollinarius! (on which Christological complexities, see Monroe, “Toward Unity: On the Christology of Gregory of Nyssa” Studia Patristica CXV, vol. 12, [Leuven: Peeters, 2022], 107–24). In fact, throughout we find Hart elegantly embroidering the Nyssenian patrimony, from its fundamental commitment to the primacy of the Good to its ‘transformative’ soteriological ontology (see, e.g., Gregory’s Cant. 1 [GNO vi.28–9]). Indeed, we would all do well to remember that in their complaints against the somewhat vague formulations of Chalcedon—and, worse, the patently divisive Christology latent in Leo’s Tome—it was the miaphysite communities and their thinkers who pushed the Church to reconcile unity and distinction. This they did both by forcing thinkers like Leontius of Byzantium and Maximus to meet their concerns for hypostatic unity while seeing in that singular identity the distinction of natures. All of which is to say that my appellation of miaphysitic is hardly a negative judgment.

48 As Maximus makes clear, in deification, “we too, thanks to Him, will come to be in the world above, and become gods according to Him through the mystery of grace, undergoing no change whatsoever in our nature” (Amb. 31.9), but the lack of change in nature does not rule out hypostatic identity in Christ, nor does it rule out our perichoretic personal unity with the Trinity.

49 On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios, trans. Fr. Maximos Constas, Fathers of the Church 136 (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2018), 152.

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Why is there anything rather than nothing?

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“Through him I am known, and I share being with him, and I remain in him and in the Spirit, and I shall make my abode in all of you”

“And they were afraid,” the Evangelist says, “on entering into the cloud. And a voice came from the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.'” For then the Lord Jesus, who is uncircumscribed, truly thundered from the mountain as if from heaven, in a storm of light and in the sound of the glory of his coming; and the Father on high sounded forth his voice—a voice of power from the cloud that radiated light, as Scripture tells us, and said to the disciples:

“This is my Son, the Beloved, the only One, transfigured today on Mount Thabor in his humanity; this is the stamp of my individual being, the radiance of my glory, the unchanging image of my super-substantial being. This is my strong right arm, my all-powerful right hand. This is my personified wisdom and power, through whom I created the ages, and brought all things into being from nothing, in whom I am well pleased and through whom I have saved you, through whom I appeared and in whom I shed light on the world and create it anew, in whom I have come to be known and through whom I was glorified, in whom I continue to receive glory and through whom I glorify you and will glorify you again. He is the one who reveals my name among men and women, and I revealed him and bore witness to him and showed him forth at the Jordan; he gave me glory, and I gave him glory today, and will glorify him in the inaccessible light. He lives in me without confusion, and I in him without a change, flashing forth in a way that befits a triune God; he is in me singly and I in him in a threefold sense—the first because of the assumption of humanity, the second because of the existence of the divinity. He is the begotten light, I the unbegotten; he the only Son, I the unbegotten Father, source of all things; he is the Word in the beginning, and is God the beginning, before all ages, I the beginning of the beginning and Father of the Word, the Mind that is above all mind and all substance. He is the light, I am the spring of light; he is the life, I am the cause of life; he is the ‘sun of justice’ who shines forth in me, I am known in him as the light of three suns, beyond all substance, and in him I shine with ‘all the fullness of the Godhead, in a bodily way.’ In him I am well pleased, and in him I have willingly chosen you; I remain in him without change, without confusion, without separation, without alteration. I shine out in him, I reveal and foreknow and cleanse and enlighten you, I make you holy in him. In the light of his glory you will see me, the inaccessible light; in him you will recognize me and in me you will see him; the one will happen so that you may be formed, the other so that you may be perfected; or because he dwells in you in this world, and you will be divinized in the next.

“You will see the Son in the Spirit, you will recognize the Father in the Son; in the light of the Spirit you will see ‘the shining forth of my glory,’ in the image the archetype, and from within yourselves you will see what is beyond all substance. And you will see clearly, and know that he remains in me and I in him, and that we are known without confusion, as he himself said to you; he gives light in me, and I perform miracles in him. He makes you new in me, and I bring miraculous works to perfection through him and the Spirit. He speaks in me and acts in me, and does nothing except in me and in the Spirit; and when I speak through him and in him and with him, and remain there, I do these works in the Spirit. He speaks in me in the Spirit, and I speak through him and do all things in the Spirit. Now he flashes forth in me, seen as a single person; but then I will shine forth in him, recognized in threefold form. He is in you, you in him, and I am recognized in a threefold way in him. He is completely in me, without change; he comes from me without flowing away, and is with me beyond time. He does not exist after me, and no other God or Son has come to be besides me or before me. He is always completely in me and in himself, without separation; and I am always complete in him and in myself, without being affected or undergoing separation. And my Spirit is completely from me and in him and in me and in himself, in an unspeakable way. Through him I am known, and I share being with him, and I remain in him and in the Spirit, and I shall make my abode in all of you. No one comes to me, except through him and the Spirit; and no one comes to him, except through me and through the Spirit, as he has made clear among you. And no one can see or know me, unless—as I have said—he reveals me in the Spirit according to his own decision, to whom he wishes; just as a word reveals the mind hidden within it, and the mind the word that comes forth from it in the spirit.”

So the Father spoke from above, exhorting them: “Listen to him,” trust in him, follow him, proclaim him, remain in him—and he will remain in you. Receive him, and through him receive me, and he will give you light and will make you holy, and will bestow all things on you as gifts.

St Gregory the Sinaite 

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The Spiritual Diary of Sergius Bulgakov

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Searching for Our Human Face: Healing the Unclean, Touching the Untouchable

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

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Kim Fabricius writes movingly of the woman in Mark 5 who probably suffered from a uterine hemorrhage. Her condition is socially dangerous, physically fragile, emotionally crushing. Levitical law has sanctioned her outcast, someone who is not only very much outside, but whose presence threatens to make anyone in contact with her ritually unclean. For the ancient world in general, human experience was distinct from that of the modern individual. To be part of a community was to be constituted as a person. Outside of that was darkness, a ghostly half-existence. There’s a reason Socrates chose to drink hemlock over leaving Athens. In her vulnerability and odium, it is with great risk that the afflicted woman dares in desperate hope to come amongst the people in order to approach the Lord. Extreme shunning threatens fragmentation, a metaphysical state of Gehenna where the permanently unwelcomed are bitterly unhoused.

Touch—the word occurs four times in five verses. Contact with the unholy is supposed to make you unholy too. But Jesus—Jesus both violates and subverts the culturally accepted understanding of contagion: purity, he demonstrates, he teaches—purity, not impurity, is catching. In moral terms, goodness, not badness, is contagious, and acceptance trumps rejection.

The touch of Christ spreads life, not isolation and death. The alteration in touch is the music of Eucharistic reversal. The last bit is perhaps a slight misstep. Making holy is altogether an ontological transaction. Those who speak in moral terms frequently are talking about something quite different. This is nothing like the extension of liberal tolerance. “The goal is not something like Sweden: the goal is deification.” (Robert Adams quoted in Bauerschmidt, Julian of Norwich and the Mystical Body Politic of Christ, p. 122). As John Zizioulas writes, “The Church is catholic, not because she is obedient to Christ, i.e., because she does certain things or behaves in a certain way. She is Catholic first of all because she is the Body of Christ” (Being as Communion, p. 158). And as William Desmond clarifies, the action of Christ upon the person takes place at a depth beyond the deliberations of voluntarist will: “A willingness beyond self-will has to take root in the deepest sources of the self; one has to be refashioned utterly into an other self of agapeic good will. This latter is not just an act of will, or a sequence of acts of good will. It is a transfigured condition of being” (Perplexity and Ultimacy, p. 155; emphasis mine).

The transfigured condition of being is bathed in Taboric light. It is likely to engender babbling and being besides oneself. Certainly, an individualized sense of identity reveals itself to be indescribably barren and impoverished. Desmond, again, elucidates:

At the deeper level again, one finds that one’s will is not owned as absolute willingness. It is not that the words “my own” are to be disowned; rather “my own” is to be owned differently, by being dispossessed of ownership. “My own” is not “my own.” “Ownness” is a gift . . . “Mine” is not now entwined with “no.” The different owning here is twinned with a “yes,” that is not my “no” to the other. “Yes,” “no,” “mine,” “yours,” “ours,” all must receive transfigured expression. (p. 155)

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I pick now, almost at random, from books at hand or in splendid disarray upon shelves overburdened and double-stacked.

There is no isolated, pure, independent ‘I,’ but there is a vast and universal web of ‘I’s, in which I have a true and right place. And understanding for me and for you comes by concentration not on your or my ego as such, but upon the web, the interrelation, through and in its several component parts. This is—clumsily put—an aspect of the characteristic Eastern understanding of dharma. (Rowan Williams, A Silent Action, p. 18)

The “obligation” to give myself to another is the ground of the possibility of freedom, precisely because the self that I give has been received by me from another, indeed, from a host of others. To refuse to give ourselves is not to refuse an externally imposed regulation, but it is a failure of that very self, whose nature is gift. (Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt, Julian of Norwich and the Mystical Body Politic of Christ, p. 196)

Personality from its very nature presupposes another—not the ‘not-self’ which is a negative limit, but another person. Personality is impossible without love and sacrifice, without passing over to the other, to the friend, to the loved one. A self-contained personality becomes disintegrated. (Nicolas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, p. 57)

The triple act of faith, hope, and love overcomes the inertia of the law of identity. I stop being I, my thought stops being my thought. By an unfathomable act I renounce the self-affirmation ‘I = I.’ Something or Someone helps me escape my self-enclosedness. (Pavel Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, p. 51)

Yet, if this new sense of identity and connection is the truth of reality, few seem aware of it. Most who preach the gospel are unaware of it. Instead, they absorb uncritically the atomized self and profess the possibility of the redemption of the individual separate from the loving transfiguration of all. Further, to reject this soteriology is to be classed with the heretics, placed outside the boundaries of ecclesial smoothness. Not only is this wrong, it is incredibly lazy, full of a spiritual sloth that mistakes religious caution for steadfast fidelity. The bold patience, creative insight, the true ecclesial power is lost.

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Searching for Our Human Face: The Liminality of Body

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

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The body of Christ is the transformative key. But let us step back for a moment and simply consider the strangeness of the body and the unique qualities of human bodies. John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock co-authored the chapter on touch in Truth in Aquinas. It is a remarkably rich reflection that in nuce indicates the altered ontological and epistemological modes of nuptial reality in the eschaton. They remark first upon the liminal nature of the human body as itself a crossing of thresholds: “what Aristotle has already discovered . . . long before Husserl and Merleau-Ponty . . . is that the body is not just another object in the world of which we are aware. . . . it is, as body, quasi-subjective, and is also the mysterious sphere of mediation between subjective and objective, psyche and hule” (p. 73). The body is both a condition of possibility for awareness and a mode of interpretation through which the uniquely personal is both known and manifest: “we touch things bodily; bodies, however, do not themselves touch, since then there would be no mediation and no touch; therefore it is the soul which touches through bodies” (p. 73).

The deft hand, the delicate touch is the signature of knowing approach, the most fitting appreciation and acknowledgement of otherness. “Hypersensitivity of touch and intelligence are inseparable” (p. 75). Wisdom may be oddly tied to human nakedness. “Aquinas, directly following Aristotle, insists that human beings are the prudentissimum of all animals, because they have the strongest sense of touch: presumably this is related to our nakedness (relative lack of body hair), as well as to our handedness” (p. 75). This assertion ties back to something we saw in the reflections of Martha Nussbaum on Odyssean excellence. “For Aristotle and Aquinas to say that the person of most sensitive touch is also the person of most intelligence, is tantamount to saying that the most secure life is purchased at the price of the most exposed life. Understanding . . . is only to be acquired through extreme empirical encounter, which always risks self-destruction” (p. 76). Pickstock and Milbank discern here an epistemological signpost, analogy that could not be recognized apart from revelation. “Only what might entirely die, entirely and indestructibly lives. (Even for Aristotle, intelligence is a kind of resurrection.)” (p. 76).

Yet touch, by itself, is insufficient. “For Aquinas, one must supplement the link of human intellect with touch, with a link to vision, since certainly with respect to its exclusiveness (though this also permits its greater engagement), touch is deficient” (p. 82). Though immediately, this reservation is overtaken by paradox. Vision is not truly separate from touch and divine vision is both a touching and a making. “If we allow that for Aquinas, vision is also a mode of touch, then we can see how for him the divine intellectual vision as touching is also an encounter, a shaping, a making, a contriving” (p. 82). All this invites even more synaesthetic fusion. Thomas “specifically mentions the power of the human tongue, which has a far more exact sense of taste than with any other animal” (p. 75). Now taste and speech and touch and vision are joined. And suddenly, we leap beyond anthropology to Christology that transforms our knowledge of the human. Christ’s advent as both bridegroom and Pantocrater suggests creation is only fully known as a flourishing reality in a state of eschatological fullness. The language of wedding, of joining and ecstatic knowing, is anticipated in the momentum of Christ’s adventurous coming. “One can also mention again here that the Incarnation provides, for Aquinas, a ‘foretaste’ of the beatific vision, implying that this vision is also a tasting, the most intimate touch” (p. 82).

The foretaste of the kingdom is most astonishingly present in the sacrament of sacraments. The eighth day leavens the bread of heaven. And though it has often been remarked, it is also frequently missed, the unique exchange, the reversal of ordinary transaction that occurs. But notice, also, the expansion beyond the restrictions of finite being and exclusive love:

Ordinarily food and drink become us; here we are to become this food and drink. And in this case, at last, the exclusiveness of touch which permitted its penetration, is conjoined with that generality and commonality hitherto peculiar to sight and hearing. For when we touch the body and blood of Christ, we touch everything, and infinite others may touch all the same points of this body at the same time . . . In the Eucharist, touch as taste ceases to be restrictive in its exclusivity. Instead, from now on, if we wish to see the universal, to see God, we must aspire to touch and shape in truth, along with all other people, every last finite particular as included within and disclosing the body of Christ. (p. 84)

I will stress this again and again. “Henceforward, the journey to God is equally the journey to the God-Man, and so equally to all creatures, and no longer away from them” (p. 84). Milbank and Pickstock assert a definitive change; the knowing of flesh is not a temporary measure, a second best for the weak and the dumb. Intellect is not superior in the form of deracinated angelism. “And since God is now revealed as touch, the new ontological exaltation of the sensory over the intellectual is no mere pedagogic means, but an appropriate new disclosure of the ultimately real” (p. 87).

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Jordan Daniel Wood on the Fall, Suffering, and Theodicy

Yesterday was a good day on social media for Jordan. He became involved in two conver­sa­tions on Facebook and Twitter, both on the topic of theodicy. As Eclectic Orthodoxy readers know, Jordan is a brilliant theologian with a gift for explaining difficult and complex matters in a way that is understandable to us ordinary folk. So I thought I’d share with the brethren his insights on suffering and theodicy.

Facebook discussion

Jordan: My brief reply would begin with the following three observations, mostly unsubstantiated here since I’ve little time:

1. Genesis 1-3 isn’t historical, but “mythological” in the deeper, more ancient sense (where primordial realities are cast back to an unobservable past, which indicates that these realities so characterize our entire historical experience that they cannot even properly be conceived as yet another episode within that history). But, it must be admitted, this only slightly mitigates the original question. In fact what matters more than the historical veracity of these stories is the sequential structure that even non-literalist readings and classical doctrines of faith assume: first God was “before” creation, planning it out, as it were, and “after” that he executes the plan. Reading Genesis (1-11 esp.) as myth, or, if you like, as inspired at the level of “Spirit,” means we’re also free to deny the assumption that God’s act of creation must itself involve such a sequence. This mitigates the original question further, but not entirely, since the question is less about why God began things in such a way (i.e. “set us up”), and more exactly about why any dimension or aspect of God’s creation should permit evil. We might put the same question in the present tense: Why does God continue to bring forth rational beings into this world, here and now, given its fallen character–the ignorance, malice, greed, hatred, error, misjudgment, and suchlike that seemingly dominates it? My 1 year-old is, after all, just as much an effect of God’s creation ex nihilo as any supposed individual “Adam” and “Eve” were. All to say: Genesis must be read nonliterally, and yet this does not finally resolve the issue at hand. We must therefore move beyond mere exegesis into properly speculative theological thinking.

2. On the one hand, the very fact that creatures must begin at all means that they must begin in process. That’s because having a beginning means that you are not yet at your end–that your end is, as it were, “beyond” your current state. So you must strive for it, make your way towards it, attain it. You’re made already in process, already on some path or way. All the more so if your true beginning is your true end: this would mean that even the beginning you necessarily begin with, is not yet even your true beginning in being (not just that it’s not yet the end). Hence, if it’s true that, say, Christ himself–the event of the Incarnation–is our true end *and* beginning (Eph 1, Col 1, Apoc 3.14, Apoc 22, etc.), then this means that what we currently perceive to be our beginning is only a relative beginning, not yet our real start. And so our “necessary” beginning appears to be like this: we begin not because we’re truly finite, but rather our seeming to have a beginning makes us think we’re merely finite (not to mention our brute end, death!). In other words, the very fact that we begin to be is the occasion for our own self-deception, whereby we imagine that we are merely dust. (Here Gen 2.7 should condition everything we think about Gen 1-3, by the way). Or as Maximus says, Adam “fell at the very same time he began to be.” So the fact that we are finite-beings-meant-to-become-finite/infinite beings (theosis) means that we necessarily begin in ignorance of God, the world, and ourselves–and ignorance is the mother of all vice. But even here we’ve not yet answered the original question. It remains unclear why God would undertake creation at all if it must begin in this way.

3. That’s to say, evil starts to appear as a “necessary” component or condition of creation itself. That, we’re often told, is “gnostic” and thus heretical, since it seems to deny creation’s goodness. And yet Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus all say that not every phenomenon in creation is “a work of God.” Anything that falls short of expressing God’s infinitely good and loving will is no effect of his will, and thus not a work or creation or result or term of his will. So here we are: this world is a damnable mixture of God’s universal and ubiquitous, totally good will for each and all creation (the logoi) and our own pseudo-“creations” that we give our own lives to make “real,” but ultimately in vain. Nor are such “creations” limited to individual acts or lives: this world is pervaded by the work of “Adam,” of the collective ignorance and foolishness that form the conditions for all sin, and precisely because we are created with the potency to become God, our ignorant acts can take near-cosmic dimensions. This is a dire view, far worse than anything Augustinian original sin conveys with its merely genetic handing on of perverted tendencies in the will. For now the very heights of our vocation in Christ, to become God-human beings, is itself an occasion for our universal fall. So this observation too, while it further changes the framework of the original question, cannot resolve it.

So why would God create beings whose very end is the apparently necessary condition for their failure of that end? There are no abstract resolutions to such a question, in my opinion. But that very realization introduces a yet deeper one: no abstract resolution exists because no abstract creation exists. Creation finds its perfection, rather, in the fullness, the maturation, the absolutely open plenitude of interpersonal love. Which is to say that God set out in creation to make not an “order” of “things,” but to have children. The command of proliferation he gives to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1 is the very command he himself, in Christ, is out to fulfill–to be fruitful and multiply. Creation is adoption, it’s raising children, it’s attending to the manifold uniqueness that is every person, is the unconditioned realization of love. And as such, it is a work of God and us together, for not even God can create a person without that person’s participation, since person’s are never who they are apart from the vital interrelations of life (not even God is a person without such interrelations). Here the parenting analogy is more appropriate: God isn’t like a parent principally in that he sets up conditions of our coming-to-be and lets free will have free reign; that’s not even what parents do, since a main job of parenting is setting parameters to the child’s free, imaginative play, precisely so that the imagination can explore the unknown without the full consequences of such exploration as an adult. Rather God is like a parent in that nothing, not even our “necessary” ignorance and failures along the way, would ever stifle his infinite love for us, and so, since it was precisely that infinite love that is the movement of creation itself (its reason and ground and end), nothing we do in ignorance constitutes a reason against our creation. So is this ignorance and the heinous evil it permits “necessary” for God’s act of creation? Not abstractly, not at all. But might *I* “need” to suffer this or that evil to become what I will find I’ve always wanted to be? Perhaps. As a parent, I can say: sometimes one child “needs” something that another doesn’t, so that I wouldn’t say that just because one approach worked for one child, it is therefore “necessary” for “good parenting” in general (i.e. abstractly) to take that approach. No, parenting isn’t like that: the only way a good parent knows what is “necessary” in any actual case for good parenting, is for that parent really to *know* the child in question–know what they need, how they need it, what are their limits, what are their trials, etc. Creation is God’s act of parenting, his act of raising child gods to become, in Christ, co-heirs and “friends” who will no longer “need” anything other than the love and truth God is. There are no abstract resolutions to the question of evil precisely because creation is the very opposite of an abstract act–it’s our adoption as God’s children to, somehow, become his equal. An act of sheer love.

Twitter Conversation

Picforth: Serious question for the universalists out there: is it really that much better if Hell is conceived as temporal and so of finite duration rather than eternal and unending? The moral question of a good God seems unresolved by this. But I’m interested in being convinced otherwise. I suppose I think the suffering of life should be sufficient unto itself; anything additional needs to be entirely organic and oriented toward a healing process, not arbitrarily imposed from without. I guess that is what most universalists presume, but suffering is still hard. I just really don’t want us to give ourselves an easy out with a sort of metaphysical shrug, thinking “this too shall pass.” Anyone who’s suffered immense physical or emotional pain knows how utterly useless such sentiment really is. Worldly suffering is temporary AND terrifying.

Jordan: I don’t deny the latter, but surely my kid enduring a chronic illness, even, is qualitatively different from suffering to no end whatsoever. But then if there is a qualitative difference, then surely there’s a qualitative moral difference in God’s permitting one or the other. It’s hard enough to believe in God before horrendous provisional suffering. It’s impossible—nay, evil—to believe before unending torment. The very consciousness that suffering will end nowhere in particular makes it a completely different sort of suffering, I’d think. And I say this as one who also believes that all past suffering must be destroyed in the end.

Picforth: Idk honestly. I mean I think I get it in the abstract. But when I had my kidney stone a couple years ago, knowing that the pain had to end somewhere (even if it killed me) was not a consolation. And the psychological torment of not knowing when added to the physical pain. All that to say you’re probably correct. But it doesn’t solve any problems related to theodicy as far as I can tell, nor cast them in any different light.

Jordan: Surely it casts it in a different light: I simply don’t know what it means to equate the suffering of a child and that same child’s putative eternal suffering for having chosen to reject God as a result, at least partly, of the first suffering. Nor do I think we’re somehow being more authentic or serious about suffering if we make such an equation. Everyone I know who’s endured real suffering—my mother for instance—would say it’s better to have relief than to know the suffering will not end. You said not knowing when added to the pain. Well, imagine knowing that the answer is never. There’s nothing abstract about this. We don’t do right by anyone’s suffering by pretending that the lack of provisional consolation is the same as guaranteed inconsolability. Nor by wondering whether any relief is much better than none.

At least before provisional suffering I can and do demand that God rectify all tragedy and evil: precisely because it is finite it can also be revisited and changed imo. But the very essence of endless torment entails the impossibility to make any such demand of God.

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