Introducing William Desmond

by Christopher Ben Simpson, Ph.D.

Metaphysics and the Fourfold Sense of Being 

Metaphysics

Metaphysics asks the question of being: the meaning of being—the significance of the “to be” (BB 3). Metaphysics also asks the ultimate “why” of being: why being and not nothing? (BB 4; HG 3). William Desmond understands the “meta” of metaphysics as double, as referring to how it is to meditate on both the “beyond” (implicit in the question of the “why” of being) and the “in the midst” of being as intimately related—an “interpretive fidelity” to the emergent happenings in the middle that refer one to otherness and transcendence (BB xiii). Part of the being “in the midst” that Desmond considers to be good metaphysics is its awareness that it always starts too late—in medias res—in the middle of things (BB 5; AOO 3). In this middle, the metaphysician encounters and struggles with an excess of being—not merely indeterminate but plural and “overdeter­minate”—that gives rise to the astonishment and perplexity that constitute the abiding engine of metaphysical thought (BB 52, 204). This excessive or gratuitous surplus of given being calls at once for a metaphysical thinking that is an act of gratitude for such gratuity (BB 230–31) and for a mindfulness that is itself generous toward its objects, its others (BHD 267). Such a generous endeavor to mindfully interpret the plenitude of being must, for Desmond, be itself plural—plurivocal. It must take up Aristotle’s observation: to on legetai pollachos (“being is said in many ways,” BB xiii, 34). As seeking to do justice to this fullness, metaphysics requires a finesse that recognizes that being—and our best intelligent understanding of being—extends beyond the horizons of determinate intelligibility and so disquiets our thinking and strains our language (BB 45). At the same time, metaphysics is not something to be overcome. Indeed, for Desmond, it cannot be; it is inescapable—for all reflection is dependent on and complicit in the question of the meaning of the “to be” that moves us to wonder and perplexity (BHD 341). Metaphysics proceeds from an inherent exigence—from our need to think it.

The Fourfold Sense of Being

Desmond begins his metaphysics with the “how” of metaphysics—how it proceeds—how to go about talking about being. This “how” of metaphysics takes the form of a “logic” reminiscent of—and indeed related to— that of Hegelian dialectic but with important differences—regarding the nature and the importance of difference. This “logic” (though Desmond does not call it such) intends to lay out the aforementioned plurality of ways of talking about and relating to being. Desmond’s name for this plurality is “the fourfold sense of being.” This fourfold sense of being proposes a way to think about metaphysics, and our relation to what is other to thought, that is plurivocal and thus appropriate to the plural fullness or overdetermination of given being (DDO 5). Desmond writes: My claim is that the fourfold sense of being offers a flexible systematic framework that allows us complexly and very comprehensively to interpret the variety of possible relations, and the very ontological richness of what is at stake in each of the perplexities (BB xiii). Such a plural and flexible framework is necessary in order to deal with the complex interplay of many elements—unity and multiplicity, sameness and difference/otherness, immediacy and mediation, determinacy and indeterminacy, immanence and transcendence—that is entailed in our understanding of being and in being itself. One moves through the fourfold sense of being, propelled by a dunamis, an immanent exigency, an eros whose orientation toward/desire for wholeness and otherness drives thought through the breakdown of less whole, less true understandings of being until all of the senses are teleologically suspended in the open whole of the metaxological community of being, which is the true. This fourfold sense of being is the basis for Desmond’s understanding of selves or ethical selvings (how we relate to our selves), of human ethical communities (how we relate to others), and of God and religion (how God relates to humans and the world in general and how we relate to God).

§1. The Univocal

The first of the fourfold senses of being is the univocal sense of being. The univocal sense stresses immediate unity and simple sameness over multiplicity, mediation, and difference (DDO 6; BHD 6; BB xii; PU 12). There is a unity, sometimes an immediate unity, between mind and being or between self and other. In this univocal relation, there is a heavy emphasis on determinacy such that all being is seen to be determinately intelligible—”that to be is to be intelligible, and that to be intelligible is to be determinate” (PU 12). Thus, mind can, in principle, know being fully and without remainder. So the univocal sense can be understood as a kind of “naïve realist” position that holds forth an ideal of “objective mind” (DDO 142; PU 105).

The univocal sense of being is at once true and untrue to being—bearing an indispensable role but intimating senses beyond itself. Desmond sees the univocal sense as true to being—indeed, as necessary to talk about being—in that we need determination to identify and distinguish in the happening of the between (BB 48; PU 12). Yet it is when univocity is made the exclusive sense of being that one encounters problems, namely, that it cannot account for the complexity either in the external object/other/being or in the internal subject/self/mind or in their relation to each other (BHD 6). Univocity, in trying to fix truth determinately—in seeking to attain comprehensive consistency and coherence—runs against limits that undermine its claims to absoluteness (BB xiv–xv, 73, 81–82). Univocity, pressed to the extreme of making such absolute claims, subverts itself in two principle ways. First (on the side of the object/ other), univocity abstracts itself from the chiaroscuro, the ambiguity of being, and ignores what does not fit into its determinate framework—thus equivocally contradicting itself by actually ignoring that to which it intends to attend. Second (on the side of the subject/self), the univocal sense of being cannot univocally account for the will to univocity—the desire to account for all of being in terms of determinate intelligibility—itself (BB 81–82).

§2. The Equivocal

The second of the fourfold sense of being is the equivocal. The equivocal sense stresses manyness over unity, difference over sameness, ambiguity over clarity (DDO 6; BHD 6). It calls attention to unmediated (even un-mediat-able) difference—seeing a sheer plurality and a fragmented dispersal that cannot be brought into any kind of a unity (PU 12–23). There is such a stress on immediate difference that there is little if any relation between mind and being—there is no mediation between self and other. Otherness recedes into unintelligibility. Thus, the equivocal sense of being stresses indeterminacy in our relation to being—a doubling of voices that cannot be brought to a unity (BB 87). This reflects a kind of “subjective mind” that sees no community between mind and being (and any supposed community in being but as a subjective projection) that one finds in a strong empiricism or skepticism (PU 105).

The equivocal sense, like the univocal, is at once true and untrue to being—bearing an indispensable role but intimating senses beyond itself. The equivocal sense of being, for Desmond, is truthful in that it points to the equivocity in being itself—in being’s becoming. The equivocal sense calls attention to being as an ongoing process (a “universal impermanence”) in which there is often an intermingling of opposites and in which univocal determinate labels thus have limited staying power (EB 123). However, the equivocal sense, taken on its own, advocates a sheer plurality that is merely fragmenting. Here being and mind are set in opposition to one another such that there is no relation but only unmediated difference (BHD 6; BB xii; PU 12–13). Like univocity, equivocity is a privative relation in which there is only a negative sense of separation. The univocal and the equivocal senses “are two sides of the same orientation to the immediate” that sees all relation in such either/ors as total presence/absence, total union/difference, total determinate-clarity/indeterminate-ambiguity (DDO 6, 237). The equivocal sense, again like the univocal, subverts itself in that remaining with sheer equivocity means not only the dispersal of being but the dissolution of mindfulness itself. There is no reason the absolute claim of equivocity should stand when all other absolute claims cannot. For Desmond, the inherent drive of mindfulness cannot stop with equivocity’s mere fragments; it calls for a deeper understanding of the differences, othernesses, and ambiguities in the flux of being (BB 132, 142). This calls for the mediating work of the dialectical sense of being.

§3. The Dialectical

The dialectical is the third of the fourfold sense of being. The dialectical sense, unlike the univocal and equivocal, stresses neither simple sameness nor simple difference. Ultimately, the dialectical stresses a unity of the same and the different—a unity produced from the side of the self to encompass the difference of otherness (DDO 6). The dialectical seeks to recover or return to the promise of the univocal sense beyond the difference and dispersal of the equivocal (BB 143, 175, 178). The dialectical sees the contradiction of the equivocal, not as a dead-end for thought, but as a source to drive thinking on to seek a better determination of the significance of such contradiction and ultimately of the meaning of being (BB 144). The dialectic dwells with otherness by placing it in the context of—by subsuming it within—a deeper togetherness, a larger whole, a more embracing totality (EB 120). This greater unity is thought itself—thought that thinks itself in thinking its other (BB 175, 446).

The dialectical sense of being seeks to attain unity through mediation. The mediation of difference is an expression of the self-transcending dynamism of thought which is itself internally differentiated and complex—itself a process of finding unity in difference (DDO 6; BB xii). Mediation endeavors to think through the immediate equivocity, difference, and ambiguity of being (BB 131; PU 14). Dialectical mediation tends to see all mediation in terms of self-mediation—difference and otherness is ultimately but an occasion for the self to come understand itself—to return to itself—to attain greater self-consciousness (BHD 6–7; BB xiv–xv). With regard to determinacy, the dialectical sense sees self-mediation as proceeding through a process of self-determination. The dialectical sense agrees with the univocal in taking all being to be determinately intelligible, but it also sees this as the fruit of a process in which the indeterminate is shown—or made—to be determinate by the thinking self (EB 117). This self-mediation and self-determining dialectical sense of being can be understood in terms of idealism—an “erotic mind” that strives to incorporate all otherness into itself (DDO 142; PU 105).

The dialectical sense, like the univocal and the equivocal sense of being, is at once true and untrue to being. The dialectical sense of being, for Desmond, is truthful in that it points to the necessity of thinking through the ambiguity and instability of partial truths and of coming to have some intelligible understanding of being in its becoming and its otherness (DDO 124; BB 131, 141, 362). The dialectical points to the immanent development—the inherent exigence—of thought as it develops and comes to further articulation and determination (EB 123, 125). However, the dialectical sense taken on its own tends to absolutize itself and its self-mediation such that thought thinking itself becomes a univocal totality that is deaf to any mediation but its own—a solipsistic circle that closes in on itself (DDO 124; BB xiv–xv, 163, 164; PU 14). The problem with self-mediation’s self-absolutizing is that it fails to take otherness or genuine plurality—as that which is other to thought thinking itself—seriously (DDO 118; PO 210; BB xiv–xv). Reference to the other is always a subordinate moment to the self-mediating whole (BHD 2).

The dialectical sense of being, again like the univocal and the equivocal, ultimately (in Desmond’s view) subverts itself and intimates the metaxological sense beyond it—dialectical thinking is itself aufgehoben, so to speak. Desmond sees the dialectical sense as subverting itself in its failure to adequately pay attention to othernesses—transcendences and infinities within, without, and above—that resist the dialectical sense’s total reduction to immanent unity and remain sources of persistent perplexity (DDO 4; BB xiv–xv). By failing to account for these othernesses, the dialectical sense fails in its own project of total self-mediation and calls for another—an otherwise—kind of mediation or dialectic that is not constrained by the dialectical sense’s univocal ambition. The breakdown of the dialectical sense intimates the metaxological sense of being inasmuch as it presents another manner of dialectic, one displaying an awareness of other forms of mediation than self-mediation and “a more discriminating sense of otherness”—an openness to transcendences or certain irreducible excesses to self-mediation (DDO 4, 118–19; BB 137, 178).

§4. The Metaxological

The fourth sense of the fourfold sense of being is the metaxological. This neologism of Desmond’s refers to a logos—word, discourse, account—of the metaxu—the between, the middle, the intermediate. It is “a discourse concerning the middle, of the middle, and in the middle” (DDO 7; BB xii). The metaxological sense is a discourse of and in the middle—a thinking that is between the totalizing closure of rigid univocal “objective” thinking and the fragmented discontinuity of equivocal “subjective” thinking (DDO 28, 114, 207; PO 3–4; PU 108). The metaxological sense is also a discourse concerning the middle—striving to be mindful of what is at work in the happening of the ethos, the milieu, the between of being as our given place—to be attentive to the community of being’s plurality of others in interrelation (PU 12). Thus, the metaxological focuses on thought in terms of interest or “inter-esse“—as being moved by wonder and perplexity at the fullness of our being in the between—our interest in esse arising from our inter-esse (BHD 137; BB 64, 452). The metaxological sense of being stresses plurality, “doubleness,” difference, and otherness over oneness and sameness while seeking a form of unity that is a being-with that is not reductive to otherness—namely, a community. Desmond, in his concept of the metaxological, advocates an “affirmative doubleness”—a genuine plurality—that takes the dia of dialectic seriously and resists the reduction of the double—the plural—to a simulacrum of otherness in the self-division of the one in a single, dialectical process (PO 5; BHD 113, 114, 120, 274–75; BB 158, 163, 188, 196; PU 15). Such a view of genuine doubleness or plurality places an accent on otherness (emphasizing Desmond’s second requirement or exigency of thought) even in the context of togetherness (BHD 7, 81, 248, 272; PU 14–15). Thus affirming otherness and togetherness leads the metaxological sense of being to present the relation between mind and being, between self and other, between the diversity of beings as a community—as a plurality of singulars in interplay in an “open whole” (DDO 127–28; BHD 129; BB 418, 451; PU 15).

The metaxological sense of being also focuses on mediated relations over the immediate relations of the univocal and equivocal senses. The metaxological is like the dialectical in its affirmation that the self and the other are neither absolutely same nor absolutely different (DDO 7; BHD 23; BB 129). However, unlike the dialectical, the metaxological sees the difference between the self and the other as being mediated from the side of the other as well as from the side of the self. This double mediation entailed in the metaxological sense of being consists of both self-mediation (thought thinking itself in thinking its other) and intermediation (thought thinking its other) such that dialectical self-mediation is limited in its trajectory toward the self-enclosure of total self-mediation by the irreducible otherness of the other in its own relating to and mediating with consciousness (BHD 130, 176–77; BB 162; PU 15, 56). Thus, the metaxological sense treats the middle in which the self and the other meet as a plurally mediated community in which the self is but one mediating center of power and thus should be hospitable to the mediation of the other out of its otherness (BHD 7; BB xii; PU 14–15; EB 481).

From a hypothetical third-person perspective on the happening of being in the between, there is a situation of general intermediation in which there is an open community of singulars, “a plurality of centers of active being” mediating out of themselves with their others—multiple self-mediating wholes mediating with one another such that there is an excess to any single self-mediating whole (DDO 115; BHD 129; BB 188, 196; PU 15). From the first-person perspective of the involved (interested, inter-esse, between-being) singular self there is, again, a situation of double mediation, of both self-mediation (of coming to intelligent self-articulation and self-understanding in relation to one’s others) and intermediation (of seeking to come to terms with the other in its otherness as it manifests itself to us), so as to articulate our relations with our others intelligently while preventing closure—while obviating the temptation to reduce all mediation to self-mediation in the name of total(izing) intelligibility (DDO 116; BHD 8, 128; BB 163, 196, 418). This intermediation of the metaxological sense stresses surplus otherness—it calls attention to and tries to find ways of intelligently talking about the overdeterminacy (neither reductive univocal determinacy, nor lacking equivocal indeterminacy, nor totalizing dialectical self-determinacy) that characterizes the community of being—the “between.”

The metaxological sense of being is a plurivocal way of speaking, in kind, of the plural community of being. This can be seen in two ways: first, in the way that the metaxological sense includes or takes up the truth of the prior senses of being; and second, in the way that the metaxological sense views genuine plurality, otherness, and transcendence in being. First, the metaxological sense of being is, for Desmond, the truth of the other senses—it takes up their plural perspectives on being, which “is said in many ways” (PO 60; BB 33). The metaxological sense (or “metaxological realism”) is superior in that it maintains the best of the thus-far partial truths of the preceding senses in a fuller and more inclusive and complex open whole that avoids the failings and blind spots of these more limited perspectives. The metaxological sense includes or reiterates or redeems the promise of the sense of unity and the lived immediacy of our community with being, the sense that we really do reach the other, intimated by the univocal; the awareness of a certain irreducibility to otherness, difference, indeterminacy, and rich ambiguity recognized by the equivocal; and the rejection of simplistic dualism (between self and other) and the sense of togetherness in the midst of difference understood by the dialectical. It does this without including the fixation on determinacy and blindness to complex otherness inherent in the univocal (or naïve realism); the discontinuous plurality of the equivocal (or skeptical empiricism); or the totalizing, self-mediating holism of the dialectical (or idealism) (DDO 142–44; BB 178). It is thus, in its plurivocity, that the metaxological is the fullest sense of being—giving the fullest articulation of the overdetermined middle (PO 210; BHD 101; PU 12).

The second way in which the metaxological sense is plurivocal is in how it lets there be genuine plurality, otherness, and transcendence in being. The plurivocity of the metaxological sense reflects the plurality of being in its character as an overdetermined excess made up of unrepeatable singulars (BB 34, 88, 465). Being is a manyness that necessitates a finessed many-sided thinking—able to regard simplicity and complexity, sameness and difference, clarity and ambiguity, stability and flux, immediacy and mediation, determinacy and indeterminacy, self-determination and overdetermination—in their relations and in their difference. In this facet (in its preference for the plural) the metaxological is a kind of reinstatement of equivocal difference (either/or) after dialectical unity (both/and)—a both-either/or-and-both/and that sees genuine difference in the midst of community. As such, the metaxological sense acknowledges the “being beyond totality” of certain irreducible transcendences or infinitudes that cannot be reduced to a single unity: the interior infinitude of the self, the exterior infinitude of becoming, the superior infinitude of the absolute (BB 201, 408).

In the sequel, I will lay out Desmond’s understanding of God as Agapeic Origin.

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[Much of this two-part introduction was drawn from my Religion, Metaphysics, and the Postmodern originally published with Indiana University Press in 2009 and reprinted with Wipf & Stock in 2016. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher. There are A LOT of parenthetical references to Desmond’s works: The intent is that the reader can find therein many points of entry to dive into Desmond’s own writings.]

Abbreviations

AOO = Art, Origins, Otherness. Albany: SUNY Press, 2003.
 BB = Being and the Between. Albany: SUNY Press, 1995.
 BHD = Beyond Hegel and Dialectic. Albany: SUNY Press, 1992.
 DDO = Desire, Dialectic and Otherness. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1987.
 EB = Ethics and the Between. Albany: SUNY Press, 2001.
 GB = God and the Between. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.
 HG = Hegel’s God. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003.
 PO = Philosophy and Its Others. Albany: SUNY Press, 1990.
 PU = Perplexity and Ultimacy. Albany: SUNY Press, 1995.

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Christopher Ben Simpson is Professor of Philosophical Theology at Lincoln Christian University in Lincoln, Illinois. He is the author of several books, including Modern Christian TheologyReligion, Metaphysics, and the Postmodern, and The Truth is the Way, and the editor of William Desmond and Contemporary Theology and The William Desmond Reader.

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Dionysian Ponderings: The God Who is Theophany

All created being, all that is and will ever be, flows from the one transcendent Deity who is Father, Son, and Spirit. St Dionysius the Areopagite seems to be clear on this point, but it’s difficult to pigeonhole him in one of the popular contemporary constructs of divinity, at least as popularly pictured. He is not a theist, as his God is not a perfect and supreme being contrasted with other beings. He is not a pantheist, as his Deity is neither an individual entity nor the totality of entities. Perhaps he might be described as a panentheist, in that all that exists is encompassed by God and indwells God, yet how does one picture beyond being? And he most certainly cannot be classified as a process theist, given the asymmetrical relationship between the Dionysian One and the created many. Consider this passage from the first chapter of The Divine Names:

To sum up. It is the life of the living, the being of beings, it is the source and the cause of all life and of all being, for out of its goodness it commands all things to be and it keeps them going. We learn of all these mysteries from the divine scriptures and you will find what the scripture writers have to say regarding the divine names refers, in revealing praises, to the beneficent processions of God. … They call it cause of beings since in its goodness it employed its creative power to summon all things into being, and it is hailed as wise and beautiful because beings which keep their nature uncorrupted are filled with divine harmony and sacred beauty. But they especially call it loving toward humanity, because in one of its persons it accepted a true share of what it is we are, and thereby issued a call to man’s lowly state to rise up to it. In a fashion beyond words, the simplicity of Jesus became something complex, the timeless took on the duration of the temporal, and, with neither change nor confusion of what constitutes him, he came into our human nature, he who totally transcends the nature order of the world.

This is the kind of divine enlightenment into which we have been initiated by the hidden tradition of our inspired teachers, a tradition at one with scripture. We now grasp these things in the best way we can, and as they come to us, wrapped in the sacred veils of that love toward humanity with which scripture and hierarchical traditions cover the truths of the mind with things derived from the realm of the senses. And so it is that the Transcendent is clothed in the terms of being, with shape and form on things which have neither, and numerous symbols are employed to convey the varied attributes of what is an imageless and supra-natural simplicity. (I.3-4)

Dionysius speaks of a divine movement or procession from the indescribable and indivisible Trinitarian unity to the multiplicity of creation, crowned in the Incarnation of the eternal Son. Through the names, symbols, and images of Scripture and Liturgy, we are given to contemplate the God beyond being who clothes himself “in the terms of being.” Dionysius mentions two divine names in particular—being and cause: being, for he is the absolute source and giver of finite being; cause, for he is the metaphysical explanation for the existence and diversity of the cosmos. Perhaps we might describe this way of speaking as analogy, but analogous to what? The God of Dionysius surpasses all whatness and all existing. We cannot compare beings and “beyond-beingly being.” Dare we speak of an analogy of non-being? Yet this can’t be right, for Dionysius tells us that “the Good is not absolutely incommunicable to everything. By itself it generously reveals a firm, transcendent beam, granting enlightenments proportionate to each being, and thereby draws sacred minds upward to its permitted contemplation and to the state of becoming like it” (II.2). If creatures participate in the Good, then they participate in the whole divinity, each according to its finite mode of being, just as the the radii of a circle share in the center point or the impressions of a seal share in the prototype (II.5).

Throughout The Divine Names we are presented with a subtle interplay between divine transcendence and divine immanence. We need to be careful not to interpret God’s otherness from creation as distance and difference, in the way two finite beings are distant and different. “Just as the form Fire, as that which is common to all fires, whereby they are fires, is not itself one of the fires,” writes Eric Perl, “so the One, as that which is common to all beings, whereby they are beings, is not itself one of the beings” (Theophany, p. 22). Yet just as form is mirrored in each of its appearances, so God in his supra-beingness is present within beings, for he is all in all. God is immanent in his transcendence, transcendent in his immanence:

But now let me speak about the good, about that which truly is and which gives being to everything else. The God who is transcends everything by virtue of his power. He is the substantive cause and maker of being, of subsistence, of existence, of substance, and of nature. He is the source and the measure of the ages. He is the reality beneath time and the eternity beyond being. He is the time within which things happen. He is being for whatever is. He is coming-to-be amid whatever happens. From him who is come eternity, essence and being, come time, genesis, and becoming. He is the being immanent in and underlying the things which are, however they are. For God is not some kind of being. No. But in a way that is simple and indefinable he gathers into himself and anticipates every existence. So he is called “King of the ages,” for in him and around him all being is and subsists. He was not. He will not be. He did not come to be. He is not in the midst of becoming. He will not come to be. No. He is not. Rather, he is the essence of the things which have being. Not only things that are but also the essence of what they are come from him who precedes the ages. For he is the age of ages, the “predecessor of the ages.” (V.4)

The negations and antinomies of Dionysius’s rhetoric break open the veil between being and the beyond being. But he is not just speaking hyperbolically. This language flows from his Neoplatonic, yet now (hopefully) Christianized, metaphysics. God is the undetermined determination of every thing (“the essence of the things which have being”)—that which makes it to be and to be what it is. Perl elaborates:

We are now in a position to see what Dionysius means when he describes God as not any thing but the cause of all things and hence subject to no name and to all names. The operative principle is the Neoplatonic law that “the things that belong to the effects pre-exist in the causes” (DN II.8, 645D). Since determination is the cause of being to that which it determines, God is the cause of all things in that he is present to all thing as the constitutive determinations by which each is itself and so is. God is the “illumination of the illumined and principle of perfection of the perfected and principle of deification of the deified and simplicity of the simplified and unity of the unified … and, to speak simply, the life of living things and being of beings” (DN I.3, 589C). He is present to all beings as being, the universal character common to all beings such that they are beings: God “neither was nor will be nor came to be nor comes to be nor will come to be; rather, he is not. But he is being to beings” (DN V.4, 817D). Likewise he is present to all living things as life, the universal determination by which they are living things as distinct from non-living things. But the determining, constitutive divine presence is not limited to such exalted attributes as being and life, but includes all the features of each thing, which constitute it as that distinct thing, as itself, and hence as a being. “In the cause of all things the paradigms of all beings pre-exist … Paradigms … are the being-making determinations …, pre-existing unitarily in God, of beings, which theology calls pre-determinations, and good wills, determinative and creative of beings, according to which the beyond-being both predetermined and produced all beings” (DN V.8, 824C). Hence these “paradigms” or λόγοι contained without distinction in God, are explicitly identified as the defining or determining principles which make beings to be. God is thus present in each being as its determining or defining λόγος, by which it is itself and so is. All the features of all things, therefore, are God-in-them, making them to be by making them what they are, so that God is not only being in beings and life in living things but “all things in all things” (DN I.7 597C). (pp. 28-29; cf. “Emanation, Cosmos, and the Plotinian One“)

Readers of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas will immediately think of the divine ideas; readers of St Maximus the Confessor, the divine logoi; of St Gregory Palamas, the divine energeia. We will return to this topic in a future post. But for now what is important for us to see is the presence of the One in beings as their uncreated cause. Even “difference,” says Dionysius, may be attributed to God, “since he is providentially available to all things and becomes all things in all for the salvation of them all” (DN 9.5). Perhaps we might describe Dionysius’s view as creatio ex deo, but only if we immediately qualify the divine substance as nothing. Creatio ex deo thus becomes equivalent to creatio ex nihilo, which then becomes ex nihilo creatio. The eternal nothing unfolds itself as that which it is not. Parmenides is turned upside down: ex nihilo aliquid fit. I thought I was being particularly brilliant when I thought of this, but then I was informed that John Scottus Eriugena stole this from me over a millennium ago. And to make matters worse, I then discovered that I had posted on my blog the following (long forgotten) citation from Eriugena five years ago:

We believe that he made all things out of nothing, unless perhaps this nothing is he himself, who—since he is extolled as super-essential above all things and is glorified above everything that is said of what is understood—is not unreasonably said to be ‘nothing’ through excellence, since he can in no way be placed among the number of all things that are. For if he himself is at once all things that are and that are not, who would say that he is or is not something, since he is the being and more than being of all things? Or, if he is not something, by excellence and not by privation, it follows that he is nothing, by infinity. (Exp. 4.67; see John Sikkema, “In an Ineffable Way and in Infinite Ways”)

And Eriugena was commenting on Dionysius! Surely this is compelling evidence for chronesthesia.

Dionysius presents us with a remarkable vision: the ineffable, indescribable, illimited being-beyond-being manifesting, presenting, expressing himself in the mode of finite multiplicity. Perl proposes the concept of theophany as an appropriate descriptive term:

For Dionysius, then, as for Plotinus and Proclus, the whole of reality, all that is, is theophany, the manifestation or appearance of God. For the entire content of any being is God present in it in a distinct, finite way, and in virtue of this distinction, knowable in that being as its intelligible content. It is just as distinct, or finite, that God is present in the being, or that the being is a presentation of God. For to be “present” means to be given or available to thought, i.e. to be intelligible. And as intelligible, as given to thought, God is apparent, or manifest, in and as the being. To be present, to be manifest, to be finite, to be distinct, to be intelligible, are ultimately all the same, and all are elaborations of the only possible meaning of “to be.” The understanding of being as theophany is thus a strict consequence, developed in the Neoplatonic tradition, of the original principle that to be is to be intelligible.

To say that reality is the appearance of God, however, may be misleading, if it is taken to mean that God is, so to speak, “there,” behind or inside all the appearance, an object prior to and apart from them. If God is not any being, then what is reality the appearance of? Such a question again attempts to reduce God to a “what,” a being, an object of thought, violating all that has been said about divine transcendence and about all being as appearance. When we speak of reality as the appearance of God, we must remember that since all reality is theophany,  God, as “that which appears,” is not another being, another member of reality. The doctrine of being as theophany means not that God is and is himself, and also appears, but rather that God is nothing but what is differently present, or appears, in and as all things. To pass from appearance to what is appearing, from being to God, is not to pass from one thing to another thing. Rather, since God is not another thing but the enfolding of all things, to go from beings to God is to gather the whole diverse content of reality together, and in so doing, since being necessarily involves multiplicity and distinction, to pass beyond being. (pp. 32-33; also see Andrew Louth, Denys the Areopagite, pp. 85-86)

Theophany, the manifestation of divinity, the appearance of God—as I sit outside on my deck, watching the trees gently moving in the wind, listening to the birds, how can it not be that here is the sacramental presentation of the living God, not as some entity hiding beneath the physical but as the divine making itself? And if here in my backyard, then also anywhere and everywhere. Andrew Louth in a lapidary sentence: “The world is God’s glory made manifest” (p. 85). God is no thing and therefore not anything that I perceive or intellectually apprehend, yet we see him and know him in everything, Dionysius tells us:

God is therefore known in all things and as distinct from all things. He is known through knowledge and through unknowing. Of him there is conception, reason, understanding, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name, and many other things. On the other hand he cannot be understood, words cannot contain him, and no name can lay hold of him. He is not one of the things that are and he cannot be known in any of them. He is all things in all things and he is no thing among things. He is known to all from all things and he is known to no one from anything. (DN 7.3)

The antinomy is almost unbearable. Known and unknown, perceived and yet invisible, available for intellectual cognition but beyond thought. The “all” and the “none” must be kept together if we are to catch the Dionysian vision. “Because God is all things in all things,” Perl comments, “to see anything is to see God in that thing. All knowledge is knowledge of God because all being, all that is given to consciousness in any mode, is nothing but the finite, differentiated presentation of God. Since all things are nothing but God-in-them, there is nothing to be known in anything but God-in-it.” For this reason Dionysius delights and “revels in the contemplation of colors, shapes, sounds, scents, tastes: in all that we perceive, in our every sense-experience, we are encountering God, and the same content, the same glorious theophany, is found not less but more intensely as we ascend to higher modes of cognition” (p. 93). Our apprehension of finite reality necessarily implies apprehension of the divine.

The words of Dionysius, as exegeted by Dr Perl, reminded me of these words of David Bentley Hart:

God is not only the ultimate reality that the intellect and the will seek but is also the primordial reality with which all of us are always engaged in every moment of existence and consciousness, apart from which we have no experience of anything whatsoever. Or, to borrow the language of Augustine, God is not only superior summo meo—beyond my utmost heights—but also interior intimo meo—more inward to me than my inmost depths. (The Experience of God, p. 10)

St Gregory of Nyssa and St Maximus the Confessor appear to have influenced Hart more directly than the Areopagite (see The Beauty of the Infinite, as well as the relevant essays in The Hidden and the Manifest). Yet Hart and Dionysius stand together in the Christian Neoplatonic tradition.

On the Areopagus, the Apostle Paul declared that he had come to declare the unknown Creator the Greeks had long sought (Acts 17:28):

”In him we live and move and have our being.”

To be is to be encompassed by God.

To be is to be indwelt by God.

To be is to image God.

To be is to know God.

God is theophany.

Blessed Dionysius, pray for us.

(cont)

Posted in Dionysius the Areopagite | Tagged , , , , , , , | 62 Comments

“You who have become a stranger to the world ought to possess a faith, an outlook, and a manner of life which has about it something unusual, something different from that of all worldly people”

Wishing to lead his disciples to perfect faith, the Lord said in the Gospel: “Whoever is unbelieving in a small matter will be unbelieving also when it comes to something important; and whoever believes in a small matter will believe also when it comes to something important.” What are the small matters, and what the important ones?

The small matters are things offered by this world, which the Lord has promised to provide for those who believe in him—things such as food, clothing, and whatever else is necessary for the body’s well-being, health, and the like. About these he commanded us not to have the slightest anxiety but confidently to trust him, for he will supply all the needs of those who make him their refuge.

On the other hand, the important matters are the gifts pertaining to the eternal and incorruptible world, which he has promised to provide for those who believe in him, and who are ceaselessly concerned about these things and ask him for them as he commanded.

The Lord said: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be yours as well.” Thus each person is to be tested by these trivial and transitory things to see whether he or she believes that God will supply them. We are to have no anxiety about such things, but are to be concerned solely with the eternal blessings to come.

It will then be obvious that one believes in the incorruptible things and really does seek the eternal blessings, if one preserves a strong faith concerning the things we have spoken of.

All who submit to the word of truth should test and examine themselves, or else be tested and examined by spiritual counselors, as to the way they live out their belief and surrender themselves to God. Are they really living by God’s word, or only by an imaginary belief based on a false notion of righteousness and faith?

It is regarding his faith in small matters, that is to say, in temporal matters, that each person is examined and tested. Hear how this is done.

Do you say you believe that you have been deemed worthy of the kingdom of heaven, that you have been born from above as a child of God, that you are a co-heir with Christ, and that you will reign with him for ever, rejoicing like God in light brilliant beyond description throughout the untold ages of eternity?

No doubt you will answer, “Yes, that is the very reason why I left the world and gave myself to the Lord.”

Examine yourself, then, to see whether worldly cares may still have a hold on you; whether you are very preoccupied with feeding and clothing your body, and with your other pursuits and your recreation, as though your own power kept you alive, and you were obliged to make provision for yourself, when you have been commanded to have no anxiety whatever concerning yourself.

If you believe that you will receive everlasting, eternal, abiding, and bounteous blessings, how much more should you not believe that God will provide you with these transitory, earthly benefits, which he has given even to impious people and to beasts and birds?

You who have become a stranger to the world ought to possess a faith, an outlook, and a manner of life which has about it something unusual, something different from that of all worldly people.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.

St Macarius of Egypt

Posted in Citations | 6 Comments

Funeral Homily for Aaron Edward Kimel

Delivered by Father Alvin F. Kimel, Jr.
22 June 2012

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Introduction

Not once have I ever entertained the possibility that I would ever find myself in this moment, preaching at the funeral of one of my children.

I stand here today not to offer a eulogy for my son Aaron. There will be other opportunities for such eulogies, as we each seek to find healing for our loss and to understand the tragic decision of Aaron to end his life.

My purpose, rather, is to offer an argument. Aaron was brilliant. He loved a good argument, and he usually won. Aaron and I did not often speak about God. At some point in high school he moved into a scientific materialism from which he would not be moved. He was not a militant atheist, as he acknowledged that it was possible, however unlikely, that God might exist; but he simply could not, would not, embrace a Christian worldview. Yet for the sake of family, he always said grace with us at dinnertime.

I am not a philosopher. There is no argument I can offer that Aaron could not demolish in five seconds flat. I stand before you as a priest of the Church for over thirty years. But most importantly I stand before you as a bereaved father, who has been utterly devastated by the death of his beloved son.

Aaron’s death has been a traumatic—and clarifying—event for me. I see reality more sharply, more clearly than I have ever seen it before. I stand before you, therefore, either as a madman … or a prophet of God Almighty. I cannot judge. You must be my judge. God will most certainly be my judge.

Nihilism

Aaron did not believe in God. He did not believe in transcendent reality. He did not believe in a life beyond the grave. Life has no ultimate meaning or significance. After death there is only nothing.

In Aaron’s room I found my old copy of the short stories of Ernest Hemingway. I do not know when he borrowed it. Perhaps he read the story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” In this story we read the prayer of nihilism:

Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.

It is a relentlessly bleak, hopeless view. Despair is its only conclusion.

Aaron was a man who lived in profound interior pain. He had come to the conclusion that nothing in this world, neither medicine nor psychiatry nor career nor even the love of his family could deliver him from the despair and futility that had possessed and paralyzed him. And so he made what seemed, to him, to be the logical choice.

A logical choice … if, and only if, Aaron’s worldview is true. If Aaron is right, then he has indeed found relief from his suffering, relief in nothingness, relief in nada, nada, nada. We who have been left behind must now suffer the repercussions of Aaron’s decision; but he at least he is at peace … if Aaron is right …

The Christian Alternative

But there is an alternative. Consider the possibility that there really is a divine Creator, a transcendent deity of infinite love who has brought the world into being from out of nothing. Consider the possibility that this Creator has made human beings in his image in such a way that we can only find our supreme happiness in communion with him. Consider the possibility that this God has actually entered into his creation, taking upon himself the limitations of humanity, including even suffering and death, precisely to restore us to himself and incorporate us into his divine life. Consider the possibility that for us this God died a cruel and horrific death on Calvary and rose to indestructible life on Easter morning, destroying the power of death once and for all and opening history to the promise of a new heaven and a new earth, a future where “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

God is Love, for he is eternally the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The world springs from love and will be consummated in love. In the words of St Isaac the Syrian:

In love did God bring the world into existence; in love does he guide it during its temporal existence; in love is he going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of him who has performed all these things.

It may all sound too good to be true. It may all sound like a an old wives’ tale. But it meets Aaron’s objections head on. Life is not nothingness. Life is not absurd. God is good and wills only our good. God is love and his love will triumph. There is thus genuine hope for liberation, healing, transformation, rebirth, both in this world and in the coming kingdom.

This is the Christian faith in which Aaron was raised yet which he eventually found to be unpersuasive. The empiricist worldview which dominates our culture increasingly renders the Christian worldview implausible, and the whole world consequently suffers from the despair of nihilism.

I cannot, will not acquiesce to Aaron’s agnosticism and its resignation to despair. I know something of the darkness that bound Aaron’s heart; but this tragedy has quickened my faith, and I pray that it will do so for you also.

One of my favorite books is C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is The Silver Chair. The children, along with the marsh-wiggle Puddleglum are captured by the Green Lady and taken into her underworld domain. She casts a spell upon them and attempts to persuade them that this dreary underworld is the real world, that everything that they remember about Narnia and the true world is but a dream. But Puddleglum stands fasts; he refuses to disbelieve:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.

The Christian vision of reality is so much more real, more beautiful, more enchanting, and profoundly more true than any vision of reality offered by modern culture and the scientific worldview.

And so here is my first response to my son:

“Aaron, I do not know if you had retained your faith in Christ whether your pain would have been more bearable, but it might have given you grounds for hope, for a supernatural hope that the world cannot give.”

Aaron’s Hope

But what hope does my son now have? He is dead. He died an unbeliever. He died a suicide. This is the hard, terrible truth. Aaron would not want us to minimize the harshness of any of this. He knew Christine and I would find this very, very hard. In the old days, some preachers would have declared him damned. He certainly would not have been granted a church burial. Today we know more about depression and mental illness. We know how depression constrains and limits our existential freedom. Aaron did not kill himself with blasphemies on his lips. His suicide was not the culmination of a wicked life. It was an escape from a world that could not heal the sickness of his mind and bring relief from intolerable suffering. Aaron jumped to his death because he had lost all hope, because despair had possessed his being. This I believe to be true. And so I know that God will be merciful.

But even so, I wish to say something more. Not only will the eternal Father be merciful to my Aaron; but he will most assuredly heal his heart, deliver him from the bonds of darkness, and raise him into glorified life with Jesus Christ the eternal Son, with the Blessed Virgin Mary and with all the saints. Aaron will know the joy and bliss of the kingdom of God.

Despite his suicidal disbelief, Aaron will not be permitted to have the last word. The risen Christ reserves that word to himself, and it is a word of the absolute triumph of love and grace. By the inner promptings of the Holy Spirit, Aaron will open his heart to the mercy and love of God. He will allow the Father to flood him with his holy light and liberate him from all despair. He will allow the Savior to bind his wounds and forgive his sins. He will allow the Spirit to fill his heart with joy and grace. Painful purification may be necessary—it is not easy thing to relinquish our self-will; it is not an easy thing to repent of one’s sins—but the grace of God will triumph in the heart of my son. This I declare in the name of Jesus. Amen. Amen.

Brought face to face with his Savior, can we entertain, even for one moment, the possibility that Aaron would hold out eternally against that unconditional love and mercy that is God the Holy Trinity? How could he? Did he not love his mother? Did he not love his siblings Alvin, Bredon, and Taryn? Did he not love his best friends Bryan, Jill, and Laura? Did he not love me, his broken father?

Brothers and sisters, there is no time limit on the unbounded love of God. It does not expire at the moment of death. God has created us for himself. In love Christ searches and searches for that one lost sheep and does not rest until he has found it and restored it to the fold.

Aaron’s ultimate salvation is revealed in the love I hold in my heart for my beloved son. In the words of the Scottish preacher George MacDonald: “Shall a man be more merciful than God? Shall, of all his glories, his mercy alone not be infinite? Shall a brother love a brother more than The Father loves a son?—more than The Brother Christ loves his brother?”

God forbid! God’s love infinitely surpasses our love for Aaron. God will find a way to awaken faith and repentance in his heart. Divine love will conquer both obstinacy and despair. “God’s mercifulness,” as St Isaac writes, “is far more extensive than we can conceive.”

I will not be saved without my Aaron. There can be no heaven for me without my son. My love for him is too great. He is too much a part of my life, my identity. We will be saved together in Christ. God will make it so.

And so, my brothers and sisters, I bid you to give thanks for the life that was, and is, Aaron Edward Kimel.

I bid you to pray for my son. Pray that God will forgive his sins, heal his brokenness, and renew his heart and soul in the life and glory of the Holy Spirit.

And I bid you to hope for Aaron’s eternal salvation with confident and indomitable hope. He will be restored to us in the kingdom of Jesus Christ, and we will be restored to him. Our love will not be broken; our love is not broken. The infinite, unfathomable grace of God will triumph. God is good. God is merciful. God is love.

Let me close with the famous words of the 13th century English mystic, Dame Julian of Norwich:

All shall be well,
and all shall be well,
and all manner of things shall be well.

Amen.

.

Aaron Edward Kimel died by suicide on 15 June 2012. He was 32 years old. He is grievously missed every day, every hour, every minute. He was a joy to each of us. A very special and gifted man. Brilliant, dry sense of humor, peacemaker, a lover of classic rock, expert on Marvel comic books, passionate Redskins’ fan, nerd. Please remember Aaron in your prayers today. May he rest in peace.

Posted in Sermons & Liturgy

Passing Beyond the Neo-Patristic Synthesis

by The Very Rev. Dr. John Behr

Looking back at the past century, this paper explores, first, the genesis and limitations of the Neo-Patristic synthesis and, second, the specialization and fragmentation of the discipline of theology, thereby also indicating possible new directions. The return to the Fathers, urged by Florovsky and others in exile in the West, was seen as both a liberation from the “Westernized” theology of their own past and a distancing from the “Westernized” religious philosophy of Bulgakov; yet in appealing to the “mind” of the Fathers, rather than more concretely to their texts, Florovsky drew from the same well-spring of Romanticism and Idealism. The legacy of the Neo-Patristic synthesis is mixed: it was a breath of fresh air and stimulated many great works, but it has also stymied theological reflection by, first, not paying close enough attention to the particularity of each Father and, second, by giving the impression that theology can only be carried out under a patristic guise. The specialization within the different fields of theology over the past century has also been a mixed blessing: it has, on the one hand, fragmented the discipline to the point that it is hard to see all the fields belonging together as theology; but on the other hand it has also provided a dramat­ically increased understanding and knowledge of the historical contextuality of the Christian faith and each element within it, so that we are again able to hear the distinct voices of others. As such, the future of Orthodox theology may lie not so much in returning to some lost golden age of purity, which in reality is always our own projection of self, but in hearing the dialogue of the Christian witnesses, learning to take part in that conversation, and then, with all the resources now available to us, to address the Word of God to the twenty-first century.

Despite all the prior anxiety regarding the change in millennium, the world continued turning as we transitioned from the twentieth to the twenty-first century and human life continued uninterrupted. However, hermeneutically speaking, a seismic shift had occurred, one that we are only beginning to chart. In an instant of time, a distance of centuries opened up, offering a new perspective on what had, till that moment, been our own present. The objectification of an era as “the past century” provides a critical space in which, as we look back at how things were done in the last century, new questions can be raised, new insights emerge, and steps forward taken. There are two particular features of the last century that I would like to consider: the genesis and limitations of the “neo-patristic” synthesis, and the specialization and fragmentation of the discipline(s) of theology. This analysis of our own immediate past also provides indications of possible new directions.

The “Neo-Patristic Synthesis”: its Genesis and its Limitations

Even during the course of the twentieth-century itself, it was clear that Orthodox theology was being reborn, entering into a new, creative, and fertile period of life. The pangs of this rebirth involved political upheaval and exile, and problematic relations with various “others” as a new identity was forged. The account of this rebirth that became all but canonical for most of late twentieth-century Orthodoxy is one of liberation, struggle, and retrieval, involving a number of émigré theologians, the two main protagonists being, of course, Frs Sergius Bulgakov (1871–1944) and Georges Florovsky (1893–1979). Exiled in the West, the émigré theologians were liberated from the “Western captivity” of Eastern Orthodox theology, the “pseudomorphosis”, thinking in foreign categories that it had suffered over the previous centuries using Protestant to reject Roman Catholicism, and Catholic to reject Protestantism, but forgetting its own distinctive voice. Along with rejecting their own “Westernized” past, Florovsky and others also felt compelled to counter the continuing “Western” influence in Russian religious philosophy, having its roots in the encounter of the nineteenth-century Slavophiles with German Romanticism but manifest contempo­raneously, and most dramatically, in the sophiology of Bulgakov. Yet in and through these struggles, the émigrés in the West were also able to return (as were their Western counterparts likewise) to the authentic source of true theology, the Fathers, with the aim that in so doing they themselves would be able to address the existential questions of their own contemporary world. A “neo-patristic synthesis’ was thus forged, an authentically Orthodox style of theology based upon the Fathers rather than any outside influence. The strength and vitality of this creative approach, as well as the persuasiveness of its self-narrative, is witnessed by fact that it has been assumed as a given by the vast majority of Orthodox theologians in the latter half of the past century, as the only framework within which to theologize in an orthodox manner.

All the tremendous fruit produced during these years notwithstanding, the persuasive rhetoric of the neo-patristic synthesis is no longer able to convince as easily as it had done in the past, nor cover over the weaknesses of its own account, methodology, and self-understanding. Looking back, now, across the gap of a change in century, we are perhaps in a better position to take a critical reevaluation of this rebirth, the identity that it constructed, and its limitations. Bulgakov always had his admirers, though there has been in recent decades a considerable renewed interest in his works by a wide range of readers, Orthodox and non-Orthodox. In addition to providing a more sympathetic reading of his sophiology, recent scholarship has also opened new insight into the genesis of the “neo-patristic synthesis”, the dynamics and resources deployed in the conflict, that enable a critical assessment of this dominant paradigm.

It has recently been pointed out that Florovsky’s criticism of Russian religious philosophy was in fact only a part of his broader argument against Western theology as a whole following the great schism (which never degenerated into a polemic against the “West” simpliciter).1 The common tradition of the undivided Church, he claimed, was that developed by the Greek Fathers (amongst whom he included Augustine) as a Christian Hellenism, and which remains preserved intact in Eastern Orthodoxy. Already in 1936, the year before his Ways of Russian Theology appeared and building upon themes present even earlier in his pre-theological phase, Florovsky urged those present at the First Pan-Orthodox Congress of Theologians held in Athens to return to their roots, emphasizing that this does not mean a return to dead texts but to the “creative fire of the Fathers, to restore in ourselves the patristic spirit”, to establish a “continuity of lives and minds” with the Fathers. Their work, he further claimed, established a “new Christian Hellenism” which has become a “standing category of Christian existence”, so that any aspiring theologian must enter a “spiritual Hellenism … Let us be more Greek to be truly Catholic, to be truly Orthodox”.2 This return to the Fathers in this way, Florovsky insisted in a number of articles over the following years, should never degenerate into a “theology of repetition.”3 “It is a dangerous habit,” he said in a memorable passage, “‘to quote‘ the Fathers, that is, their isolated sayings and phrases, outside that of the concrete setting in which only they have their full and proper meaning and are truly alive. ‘To follow‘ the Fathers does not mean just ‘to quote‘ them. ‘To follow’ the Fathers means to acquire their ‘mind,’ their phronema.”4 In another piece written towards the end of his life, Florovsky likewise emphasizes how the Fathers themselves, in their appeal to tradition were appealing to “the mind of the Church, her phronema,” something which could only “be attested and confirmed by a universal consensio of Churches”, however difficult this is to establish.5 Moreover, he says, “it was precisely the “consensus patrum which was authoritative and binding, not their private opinions or views … this consensus was much more than just an empirical agreement of individuals. The true and authentic consensus was that which reflected the mind of the Catholic and Universal Church”.6

It may well have been the sophiologists’ own claim to precedent in the Fathers, and especially Palamas, that prompted Florovsky to turn to the Fathers. It is certainly evident that Florovsky deployed his appeal to the “mind of the Fathers” to construct a neo-patristic synthesis, his Christian Hellenism, in opposition to the “Westernised” religious philosophy of Bulgakov and others. It is less evident, but no less the case however, that in doing so Florovsky drew from the same well-spring of Romanticism and Idealism. His habitual recourse to experiential categories (such as “mind”, “experience”, “vision”) attributed to various subjects (especially “the Fathers” and “the Church”) is not supported by way of a sustained explication of such notions in any particular Father or Fathers,7 but, as has recently been pointed out, derives from the Romanticism of Schelling, mediated through Möhler and Kireevsky.8 Möhler’s contribution to Orthodoxy is not limited the familiar notions of “sobornost” and “living tradition”, appropriated by Khomiakov, but also his insistence that this living tradition, as the principle of unity in the Church, is manifested in its “catholic consciousness,” “the sanctified mind from the time of the apostles”, defined in opposition to those who have fallen astray and known by a kind of intellectual intuition or spiritual grasp or vision.9 In Kireevsky, such ideas were combined with a call for a return to “the philosophy of the Holy Fathers”, a transformation of pagan philosophy resulting from their “superior vision” and “immediate, inner experience … communicated to us … as the testimony of eyewitnesses concerning a country they have been to.”10

The point of uncovering Florovsky’s own dependence on Romanticism and Idealism in his articulation of an Orthodox theology supposedly based upon a return to the Greek Fathers and their pure and unadulterated Christian Hellenism is not to suggest that all we now need to do is to purge this last remaining trace of Western influence to arrive at an even more purified Orthodoxy. Rather, the aim has been twofold. First, to signal how the neo-patristic synthesis was constructed in dialectical opposition to, and exclusion of, the other. Identity, of course, only comes about through difference; but in the case of Florovsky, difference always seems to be hardened into conflict. Exasperated, Bulgakov asked him: “why do you have such an involuntary need to cast opposition from difference, animosity from non-affinity.”11 Despite the rhetorical deployment of the terms, “East” and “West” are not diametrically opposed, hermetically sealed units, but have, in fact, been continually influencing one another, shaping each other’s identity. It is essential to recognize this reality and so acquire a truly authentic catholicity, fully becoming whom we are called to be in Christ, rather than only partially and polemically so.12 The second point is that, beyond tracing the genealogy of Florovsky’s own thought, focusing on his appeal to “the mind of the Fathers” directly exposes a fundamental weakness in his methodology and hermeneutics, which is that making such notions the primary point of reference effectively negates any need for careful, disciplined, and patient reading of the patristic texts—the point is not to quote the Fathers, but to acquire their mind. Their particular differences are not ignored, but neither are they in view: it is the consensus of the Fathers, their phronema, that is important. Any differences between them are also likewise elided: differences are recognized, but the particular voice of each Father is not important, for what alone is “authoritative and binding” is their consensus, expressing “the mind of the Catholic and Universal Church”.

Already in 1937 Bulgakov had noted that treating the Fathers in this way would be a rather “rabbinic approach” to their writings, smoothing out and harmonizing differences between them as the Talmud does with different rabbis.13 Rather than appealing to their “mind” of the Fathers, Bulgakov himself focused much more explicitly on their “writings”, granting them a “guiding authority”, though not infallibility, and emphasizing that they need to be “understood within their historical context”. This means that the authority of their writings is necessarily bounded by certain limitations, which, he claims, “is much more greatly felt, of course, when it comes to their scriptural exegesis, which was utterly bereft of the modern hermeneutics of textual and historical scholarship.”14 Florovsky also knew that the words of the Fathers have to be contextualized, and stated his position trenchantly: it is, we have heard him say, “a dangerous habit ‘to quote’ the Fathers, that is, their isolated sayings and phrases, outside of the concrete setting in which only they have the full and proper meaning and are truly alive.” It is indeed a dangerous habit only ‘to quote’ the Fathers, to repeat the phrases and sayings we all know so well. One must indeed pay careful attention to the context of these words and sayings. But for Florovsky, this context is primarily the “mind”, “vision”, or “experience” of the Fathers, the “mind of the Catholic Church”, not the particular historical situation of each Father, the struggles in which they were engaged, and the unique witness, in all its particularity, that each bore.

There are two comments that need to be made in the light of this analysis. Firstly that disciplined, historical study—the fruit of twentieth-century scholarship—is indeed necessary. Every reading of a text will certainly be conditioned by the historical context of the reader; we can never completely suspend our own presuppositions. Bulgakov’s disparagement of Patristic exegesis just mentioned is a rather telling case. But we can certainly bring them to the fore and let them be questioned by the material we study. If we do not do so, we will never in fact learn anything. We will instead only find confirmation of what we think we already know: starting with our dogmatic theology, as it has been synthesized over the centuries from the conclusions of the great councils to the handbooks of dogmatic theology, we would turn to the fathers to find confirmation of this, and conclude that they are in fact all in agreement (with what we already knew). The ascesis of disciplined historical study allows us to hear the distinct voices of particular Fathers, at least as they have been preserved in their writings, a limitation which demands from us even great circumspection. One can read the Fathers “rabbinicaly”, as Bulgakov put it, but better to do so in a manner which enables us to hear them as living, historically-situated, witnesses, each with a distinct voice, in dialogue (where differences need not be oppositional, but complementary), to learn to share in that conversation and take it further. The history of theology is not so much a history of ideas (the history of the development of “trinitarian theology” or “Christology” for instance), nor the disclosure of a transcendent subject (the “mind of the Church”), but a history of concrete, historically situated Christians, bearing witness to, and embodying, their faith in Christ until he comes again. The site of the theologian is history, standing between the definitive act of God in Christ and his return, patiently and dialogically learning to hear the Word of God and bring all under the sign of the Cross, driven by the tension of the already-but-not-yet.

The second comment is that if the ability to speak theologically is learnt this way, by entering into the conversation, then we are indeed free to speak in our own times in our own idiom, and not only free to do so, but under the obligation to do so, to continue to address the world with the good news of Christ. To do requires genuine creativity. But it also demands rigor—a rigorous hermeneutic and a rigorous clarity in method and exposition. Every claim to be representing a particular Father’s position certainly now needs to be defendable at the most rigorous scholarly level; it no longer suffices to claim that an argument or a position represents their “mind”, their “intention”, or an even larger project, the gradual unfolding of a metaphysical truth, of which the Fathers themselves may not have been aware. But more importantly, we need to acknowledge that not every theological argument needs to be couched in terms of following the fathers nor presented as an explication of them. The neo-patristic synthesis whilst undoubtedly being a breath of fresh air that stimulated many great advances, in some ways has also stymied creative, and faithful, reflection and theological articulation. But if we are going to go beyond explicating the writings of the Fathers, as indeed we must, we must also learn how to develop a theological discourse which is clear, not only about what it has to say, but also about how it is speaking, how it handles questions of divine revelation and human language, Scripture and its interpretation, liturgy and the nourishment it supplies, faith and reason, and now, in our post-modern, multi-cultural contexts, about our own first principles and those of others.

Specialization and Fragmentation of Theology

The second observation regarding the past century that merits reflection is much more general, and that is increasing specialization of theological scholarship and, simultaneously, its increasing fragmentation, to the point that it no longer clear at all that different areas belong to a common discipline of theology.15 For the first millennium and more, theology was pursued by the contemplative reading of Scripture in the context of the school of liturgy and in the tradition of the Fathers. But during the course of the second millennium, this paedeia fell apart (East and West): the practice of sacra pagina became the discipline of sacra doctrina, in which passages of Scripture were accumulated in support of dogmatic points, the loci communes, which then took on a life of their own, as the building blocks for dogmatic theology, resulting in handbooks of dogmatic theology that in turn provided the categories used in the study of Church History and the Fathers. Almost invariably the textbooks of these subjects divide up the early centuries into distinct periods corresponding to modern systematic categories: for instance, the “Trinitarian” debates of the fourth century followed by the “Christological” debates of the following centuries, assuming that “Trinity” and “Incarnation”, as we now understand these terms, are given categories of theological reflection whose history we can trace as various Fathers worked towards a more perfect understanding of these elements of the Christian faith. St Athanasius’ classic work, On the Incarnation, is thus summed up as “he became man that we might become god”, despite the fact that this is a passing comment in the penultimate section of the work, directed against the Gentiles, rather than being the heart or the conclusion of the work. In fact, if we read his text that way, we will have missed altogether what he has to say about the Incarnation, in the first treatise to be devoted to the topic.

The theological reflection of the Fathers is thus divided into a range of distinct topics—God, Christ, creation, salvation, Mariology, ecclesiology and so on—each of which are treated as discrete, so that one can compare or synthesize any of these elements as treated by different Fathers without the necessary task of examining how any given Father held all these elements together (if indeed he ever recognized them as being distinct to begin with). With this fragmentation within the study of the Fathers, it is not surprising that over the last decades of the past century the specialized discipline of Patristics became untethered from its moorings in theology to become the study of Late Antiquity, in which all too often the patristic writings are mined for anything else other than theology.

The study of Sacred Scripture has likewise been set loose from theological concerns, governed instead by the rubrics of historical-critical studies: the original authorship, context and redaction of the various books, the history the people of Israel and their religion, or of “the Jesus movement” as it is sometime called. As such, it is not surprising that when scholars, trained in such methodologies have attempted to come to terms with the dogmas articulated in patristic theology, they have not-infrequently resorted to the language of myth.16 And with this being the state of scriptural study, it is not surprising that, beyond the occasional quotation, Orthodox theology in the trajectory of the neo-patristic synthesis shows no serious or sustained engagement with Scripture or its scriptural scholarship: they inhabit two very different worlds. The exception is Bulgakov; but he, as we noted earlier, was prepared to jettison patristic exegesis as being incompatible with modern findings of historical-critical scholarship. What engagement there has been with patristic exegesis has usually drawn upon the presuppositions of mid twentieth-century scriptural scholarship (praising the historical reality of Antioch typology, and hesitant about the Platonizing tendency of Alexandrian allegory), and also regards exegesis as something separate from theology proper, as if the debate between Antioch and Alexandria over exegesis was something separate from, although simultaneous with, the debate about Christology.

The same point can be made with reference to the study of liturgy. Looking back once more to the twentieth century, it would seem that the greater part of the study of liturgy proceeded as if it were an archaeological study: determining how particular rites were celebrated in different places at different times. Although we now know much more about the various hymns we use, the content of this hymnography, the theology it presents through its poetry and its use (and amazing juxtapo­sition) of scriptural imagery, has not yet really been explored, perhaps, again, because we had been persuaded that the proper way to use Scripture was otherwise, as a historical document, and that what we say in Church is therefore nothing but fanciful poetry. An alternative approach treated liturgy as an expression of man as a worshipping being, a phenomenology of worship, as it were. But here again, very little attention is actually given to the hymns and the prayers; attention was captivated by the phenomenon of worship and its role in human life.

Similar points can also be made, mutatis mutandis, with respect to the other fields covered under the rubric of theology. Theology, as a unified discipline or paideia, has clearly fractured into a number of discrete fields. However, this is not cause for lament, for it has also meant, in reverse, that within each field a phenomenal amount of scholarship has been expended, erudite volumes produced, and a depth of knowledge attained. And all this has been necessary: in this way, the spell of a “harmonization” of history from our own perspective is broken, and we can begin to “hear” each historical witness faithfully. However, to do so as theology requires a creative moment of reintegration. The “re” here in “reintegration” is not meant to suggest that we need to return to a lost gold age of (eastern) theological purity; the past is gone, we stand at this moment of history and no other, and the past was never “pure” anyway. Rather, the task is before us to learn how to hold together the depth of historical knowledge that we now have as a richer theological symphony, to use the imagery of St Irenaeus, the coming together of many distinct voices in the praise of God.

One way in which this might be accomplished may well be through a return: returning, now with all of our more historically informed knowledge, to reconsider that which we are perennially tempted to forget – how it was that we first learned the language of Christian theology. That the Scriptures are opened only in the light of the Passion, and that Christ is recognized in the breaking of bread, these also being the only two things which the apostle specifically says that he received and delivers (“traditions”), provides a model or paradigm for how Scripture and liturgy are the framework and sustenance for theological reflection. That once recognized Christ disappears from sight, that his presence, his parousia, coincides with his passing, his transitus, places the theologian, as discussed earlier, squarely in the dimension of history, straining forward to meet the Coming One by looking backwards at the trace that Christ has left of himself in this world and its history: “through him you sought us when we were not seeking you, but you sought us that we might begin to seek you” as Augustine put it in his Confessions. Theology, so construed, is not simply an abstract discourse “about God”, as “zoology” is a discourse about animals and “geology” about the world. Rather it bears witness to the work of God in this world and its history, bringing light out of darkness and life out of death. It is exegetical, it is liturgical, and it bears witness, it is martyria. Having passed into the twenty-first century, we can now use the wealth of scholarship that it has placed at our disposal, passing beyond the limitations that we have analyzed, to speak the Word in a language that can address our contemporary world.

Endnotes

1 Brandon Gallaher, “‘Waiting for the Barbarians’: Identity and Polemicism in the Neo-Patristic Synthesis of Georges Flovosky,” Modern Theology 27 (October 2011), 659-691. The following paragraphs on Florovsky and Bulgakov are greatly indebted to this essay. [The footnotes to the Gallaher essay have been updated to reflect the published version – Ed.]

2 Florovsky, “Patristics and Modern Theology”, Diakonia 4.3 (1969), 227-32, at 229-30; originally in Procès-Verbaux du deuxième Congrès de théologie orthodox à Athènes, 19-29 août 1976, ed. Savvas Agouridas (Athènes, 1978).

3 Florovsky, “St Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers,” Collected Works, 1, 105-20, 127, at 111 (originally in GOTR 5.2 [Winter 1959-60], 119-31).

4 “Palamas,” 109.

5 Florovsky, “The Authority of the Ancient Councils and the Tradition of the Fathers,” [1967] CW 1, pp. 93-103, at pp. 98-99.

6 “The Authority of the Ancient Councils”, 103.

7 The fathers certainly speak from their experience of Christ, but they do not appeal to this experience to justify their theological assertions. Romanides (“Critical Examination of the Application of Theology“) appeals to St Gregory the Theologian’s words in Or. 28 as such an appeal, missing the force of such rhetoric, which Gregory deploys to lead his audience to realize that they cannot do so but “must start again” (see John Behr, The Nicene Faith, 2 vols. (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2004), 2.336-8); St Symeon the New Theologian certainly appears to do so, but always with a purpose, to emphasize the authority of the spiritual father (see J.A. McGuckin: “Symeon the New Theologian [d.1022] and Byzantine Monasticism,” in A. Bryer & M. Cunningham eds., Mount Athos and Byzantine Monasticism [Variorum, 1996], 17-35; “St Symeon the New Theologian [969-1022]: Byzantine Spiritual Renewal in Search of a Precedent,” in R.N. Swainson ed., The Church Retrospective, Studies in Church History, 33 [Ecclesiastical History Society, 1997], 75-90; “The Luminous Vision in Eleventh-Century Byzantium: Interpreting the Biblical and Theological Paradigms of St Symeon the New Theologian,” in M. Mullet & A Kirby eds., Work and Worship at the Theotokos Evergetis 1050-1200, Belfast Byzantine Texts and Translations, 27 [Belfast, 1997], 90-123); and even St Gregory Palamas, when he replies to Barlaam’s criticism that he (Palamas) speaks as if he has reached the heights of contemplation, replied that: “If you call here a paradigm (paradeigma) what we spoke of there figuratively as myrrh, listen now attentively: ‘We have left almost entirely neglected the skills of argumentation, but have grasped little or nothing of the true wisdom; rather we run as though into the odour of myrrh but without having the myrrh itself on our hands’. Are not these things there explicitly? Clearly then you are wrong in claiming that we said we had attained it, when we were saying that we had not yet attained it” (Ep.1 Bar, 230.6f; the passage quoted from his letter to Akindynos is found at Ep. 1 Ak, 219.19f).

8 Gallaher, “‘Waiting for the Barbarians'”.

9 Gallaher, pp. 676-678; Johan Adam Möhler, Unity in the Church, or the Principles of Catholicism (Washington DC: CUA Press, 1996), 96, 107-11, 177; 87; 110; 122; 175-180.

10 Ivan Kireevsky, “fragments”, On Spiritual Unity, 276-91, at 283; quoted in Gallaher, p. 674.

11 Letter of 18/31 August, 1924, quoted in Gallaher, p. 662.

12 Gallaher: “What we are suggesting is that perhaps the future of Orthodox theology is not through the tired self-reflexive movement of grasping at a purely Eastern phronema somehow available hermetically sealed from the post-great schism West in the Fathers and the liturgical tradition, in say Cappadocian ontology and eucharistic ecclesiology—to name but two … Rather, quite the opposite might be the case, ecclesial identity … might be discovered through finding out who one is in and through that which seems at first most different from or even hostile to one. … a positive encounter with all that is Western … To alter Kipling, East is West and West is East and ever the twain shall meet; implicating one another in a ceaseless creative tension, a coincidence of opposites. To take an example from the Eastern pole, … we come to know Florovsky as most Eastern a religious thinker best at the very points where he uniquely transmutes the Westerner Mohler in his reading of the Fathers and so, despite himself, Florovsky mediates Schelling to his neo-patristic sythenesis and is, in this way, a sort of closet Romantic while remaining wholly Patristic” (681-682).

13 Bulgakov, “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology” (originally 1937), trans. p. 70.

14 “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology”, 71.

15 For what follows, see E. Farley, Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education (Augsburg Fortress, 1994).

* * *

Fr John Behr is the Georges Florovsky Professor of Patristics at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He has published numerous essays and books, including the two-volume The Nicene Faith, Irenaeus of LyonsThe Mystery of Christ, and Becoming Human. Most recently he has published and translated a new critical edition of Origen’s On First Principles. This paper was originally delivered at the Volos Conference in Greece, June 2010.

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St Basil and the Stupid Arithmetic of the Trinity

“When the Lord taught us the doctrine of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he did not make arithmetic a part of this gift!” (On the Holy Spirit 18.44)—thus St Basil the Great introduces a lengthy discussion of the numbering of the Trinity. Basil is contesting a simplistic numbering of the divine hypostases that appears to terminate in tritheism. God has given us holy Names, not numbers, he declares. “The Unapproachable One is beyond numbers, wisest sirs … Count if you must, but do not malign the truth. Either honor Him Who cannot be described with your silence, or number holy things in accord with true religion. There is one God and Father, one Only-Begotten Son, and one Holy Spirit. We declare each Person to be unique, and if we must use numbers, we will not let a stupid arithmetic leads us astray to the idea of many gods” (18.44).

Basil then offers the following explanation:

If we count, we do not add, increasing from one to many. We do not say, “one, two, three,” or “first, second, and third.” God says, “I am the first and I am the last.” We have never to this present day heard of a second God. We worship God from God, confessing the uniqueness of the persons, while maintaining the unity of the divine Monarchy. We do not divide divine knowledge and scatter the pieces to the winds; we behold one Form (so to speak) united by the invariableness of the Godhead, present in God the Father and God the Only-Begotten. The Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son; what the Father is, the Son is likewise and vice-versa—such is the unity. As unique Persons, they are one and one; as sharing a common nature, both are one. How does one and one not equal two Gods? Because we speak of the emperor, and the emperor’s image—but not two emperors. The power is not divided, nor the glory separated. One is the dominion and authority over us; we do not send up glories to God, but glory; the honor given the image passes to the prototype. The image of the emperor is an image by imitation, but the Son is a natural image; in works of art the likeness is dependent on its original form, and since the divine nature is not composed of parts, union of the persons is accomplished by partaking of the whole. The Holy Spirit is one, and we speak of Him as unique, since through the one Son He is joined to the Father. (18.45)

When I first read this passage I thought that Basil was simply invoking the identity of the divine nature to rebut the charge of tritheism: “as sharing a common nature, both [the Father and Son] are one.” This is why all glory given to the Son, the natural image of the Father, immediately and naturally passes on to the Father, for the divine nature the Son possesses has been communicated to him by the Father and is identical to the divine nature of the Father. But Basil also seems to be saying that we cannot say that there are two (and by logical implication, three) hypostases: “As unique Persons, they are one and one.” Hold on, I thought. I was baptized into the Triadic Name. There’s the Father … and there’s the Son … and there’s the Spirit—doesn’t that add up to three hypostases? So I turned to Fr John Behr’s exegesis of this passage for help.

Behr reminds us that for St Basil “whatever is common to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit belongs to their common essence, while whatever is specific to each denotes their hypostasis” (The Nicene Faith, II:308). As Basil states in two of his letters:

If you ask me to state briefly my own view, I shall state that essence has the same relation to hypostasis as the common has to the particular. Every one of us both participates in being by the common term of essence, and by his own properties is such an one or such an one. So also here, the term “essence” is common, like goodness, or divinity, or any similar attribute; while the hypostasis is contemplated in the property of fatherhood, sonship or sanctifying power. (Ep. 214.4)

The distinction between essence and hypostasis is the same as that between the general and the particular; as, for instance, between the animal and the particular human. Therefore, concerning the divinity, we confess one essence, so as not to give a differing principle of being; but the hypostasis, on the other hand, is particularizing, in order that our conception of Father, Son and Holy Spirit may be unconfused and clear. (Ep. 236.6)

So if we are talking about animals in general, we would list everything that all animals share in common—this is their essence or substance. But if we are talking about one particular animal and of what separates it from all other animals, we refer to it by the word hypostasis. Basil proposes that we employ the words ousia and hypostasis along similar lines to speak of the Holy Trinity. Everything that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share in common, everything it means for God to be God, belongs to the divine ousia. But if we want to speak of the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit in his particular existence, or if we want to speak of “them” in their mutual relationships, we use the word hypostasis.

Why then can we not add each divine hypostasis together to total three hypostases? Because if hypostasis denotes whatever is specific and particular to the Father, Son, or Spirit, it is impossible “to single out anything that is common to each hypostasis, as hypostasis, to facilitate counting ‘three,’ for, being common to the ‘three,’ it would have to be classified as belonging to their common essence. The divine hypostases can only be counted ‘singly’—one, and one, and one; or better, and this is clearly Basil’s preference, by using the divine names: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Behr, II:308).

Commonsensically, of course, we do speak of three, and only three, divine persons. How can we not? We read the biblical narrative and we see three divine actors in the drama of salvation. We are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We invoke the “Holy Trinity” in the prayers of the Church. We offer the eucharistic sacrifice to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. But I suspect most of us have not noticed the oddity of our traditional language—three persons, one substance. How do we get to three if we can’t count? Beware of “stupid arithmetic”!

(2 December 2012; mildly revised)

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“Creation arises relative to our astonishment about the ‘that it is,’ not curiosity about the ‘what’ of what is”

Worries about the God of the whole make us wonder about a God beyond the whole? Need such a “beyond” be a dualistic beyond, fixed in a frozen spatiality, void of intimacy with the immanent whole? The metaxological response must be no. Agapeic origination is communicative giving to be, intimate to the being given to be, an intimacy that comes again in the woo of mystic love. Moreover, there is this striking singularity about God: God is God and nothing but God is God. If this is so, we are addressing something absolutely singular that cannot be dealt with wholly in terms of any immanent holism. Are there any terms at all then? Does creation ex nihilo merit attention as addressing God’s singular and hyperbolic transcendence? This singular God contests the primacy of the whole.

God as creator is central to the Western tradition, though now placed in question in a number of ways. For instance, in the wake of evolutionary science, “creation” seems a discredited scientific hypothesis about determinate cosmological beginnings. But surely creation is not a scientific hypothesis at all, with a claim to determinate scientific cognition. It has to do with astonishment and perplexity about the ultimate, expressed in a metaphysical metaphor of origin that shapes our religious sense of the ontological ethos. We are dealing with the thought of something hyperbolic in excess of univocal, scientific determination. Some religious people can be as confused here by a univocal literalism as are their scientistic counterparts – and nemeses. Can we make any intelligible sense of this hyperbolic thought?

If creation is not a scientific hypothesis, is it then a non-reflective myth or a merely naïve “representation”? This question branches out in different directions. If creation is a hyperbolic thought, it cannot be a mere “representation” in Hegel’s sense to be aufgehoben in the Begriff, wherein conceptual thought is said to be at home with itself. Creation, rather, points to something other to thought at home with itself – which yet asks to be thought. If creation is a “representation,” as hyperbolic, it points to what exceeds all “representation” – and all conceptual thought at home with itself.

Likewise, if creation is not the determinative making of a demiurge, it cannot be aligned with any sort of techne. It is disproportionate to any finite making. What makes it thus disproportionate? Its radical origination of the new; its giving to be of the “never before” into its unique “once.” But if creation has to do with the coming to be of the determinate, it cannot be grasped in determinate representations or concepts. This means that creator as origin is not a first being whence other beings become: the ultimate source of coming to be cannot be a being in that determinate sense. It cannot be assimilated to the terms of Heidegger’s critique of “ontotheology.” The projects of Aufhebung or overcoming “ontotheology” cannot be appropriate to creation understood in the hyperbolic sense. Far from being captive to an idol, creation shatters all idols. It is, so to say, a “representation” of hyperbolic transcendence that shatters “representation,” in so far as the latter is liable to be a dissimulating figure of transcendence in immanence.

In many mythologies we find something like “creators,” but it is within the monotheistic religions, stemming from biblical inspiration, that the hyperbolic notion develops. Our concern is philosophical, but this religious source is not irrelevant. An idea of religious provenance becomes the occasion of a more radical philosophical reconsideration. That “creation” has religious origins does not mean it is philosophically illegitimate to engage with it. You cannot put up “No Trespass” signs over religion and order philosophy not to step across. Nor should philosophers themselves erect the “No Trespass” sign. Who is giving the orders here? Anything can become the occasion of philosophical thought; philosophy might have to revisit and revise its cherished ways under the impact of those others, like religion and art, which contest and challenge it. Some ideas are migrants without official passports. They wander extraterritorially from Jerusalem and shock into new astonishment the settled lucidities of Athenian minds.

Creation is said to be one such idea (by Gilson, among others). The claim is something like this: Since in the Greek view of cosmos, existence was eternal, the philosophical question concerns not why anything is at all but rather the what and how of things, as already given in being. Creation arises relative to our astonishment about the “that it is,” not curiosity about the “what” of what is. Thus, by contrast with Aristotle, Aquinas is said to take seriously “that things are at all.” While beings are intelligible, and intelligible perhaps in ways basically described by Aristotelian discourse, that they are at all is not simply an intelligibility; there is no unconditional necessity that they be at all; their being is not self-explanatory; their ontological character shows them as possible or contingent being. Hence the question “Why being at all, why not nothing?” takes on momentous significance.

William Desmond

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