Introducing William Desmond: God as Agapeic Origin

by Christopher Ben Simpson, Ph.D.

The metaxological sense of being is a vision of being that entails genuine otherness, transcendence, and difference in the midst of community. Central to this vision is the way in which divine otherness or God relates to this metaxological community. If being is an overdetermined excess made up of unrepeatable singulars that constitute genuine difference in the midst of community, does this have a bearing on how we are to talk about God?

The central metaphor for God in Desmond’s work to date is that of agapeic origin. God, for Desmond, is the original transcendence—the origin and creator of the world that is other, transcendent to the creation, to the becoming of the world (BB 447; PU 187). There is, in the metaxological conception of God, a clear (and distinctly monotheistic) alternative to the “holistic self-creation” of Hegel’s dialectical God (HG 8). The transcendence of the origin—of God as the unique, singular, “first” and “primal” giver (BB 506; EB 202, 505; HG 136; AOO 6)—entails a radical sense of origination, a “genuine” origination that is absolute and unconditional (DDO 197; AOO 6, 288). Such creation is a hyperbolic thought, a metaphysical metaphor for something that exceeds determinate intelligibility (BB 269; HG 131). God’s origination is creation ex nihilo (DDO 242; BB 262)—bringing being into being from nothing. The nothing so names the “qualitative difference” between the radical origin and the radically originated and the “hyperbolic asymmetry” between the creator and the creation such that the latter’s being is utterly dependent on the former. Thus, as created from nothing, as coming to be in an unconditional origination that is bound by nothing, the created universe is “shadowed” by the nothingness (nihilo) from which (ex) it was made (creatio)—nothingness is ontologically constitutive of finite creation (BB 269; HG 129–30).

The agapeic origin is the possibilizing source of being-at-all. The origin’s originating of finite being (creation of creation), as a radical creation out of nothing, has to do with the primal “coming to be” of finite being (HG 128–31). God here is an answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing, the question of being-at-all, and as such is presented as the ground of “the fact itself “—the fact of given finite being at all (DDO 180–81, 188). The agapeic origin is the “possibilizing source,” “the primal and ultimate power of creative possibilizing,” the ground of possibility that makes being able to be at all (BB 231, 335, 338). It is the original power of being (BB 330, 335) that is the sustaining (and thus relatively or rather relationally immanent) ground of being and thus human origination and creativity (AOO 288).

The origin of the world is not an empty transcendent beyond or an erotic lack or defect seeking fulfillment (DDO 193; HG 139), but an always-already-full-ness. The agapeic origin’s origination issues from a “superplus” (HG 139) surplus—a plenitude that is “an excess of completion and wholeness” (DDO 193; BB 166, 255, 330). Creation does not come from a compulsion, from a desire to remedy a defect, but from an already present completion, a perfection or “pluperfection” (DDO 193; BB 215). The origin’s wholeness beyond lack, far from being the basis of God’s merely (univocal/equivocal) insular, static self-enjoyment, is a surplus out of which it transcends itself in asymmetrical creation—creation of the other that is not merely a function of self-relation (as with the dialectical, erotic origin) (BB 215, 255).

Finally, the agapeic origin is the source of the community of created being as plural, singular, and good. The agapeic origin is the originating and sustaining ground of the metaxological community of being (PO 113; BB 263). As such, it is the ground (the source and sustainer) of the genuine, nonreductive plurality of creation (DDO 180; BB 264, 338; AOO 293)—a true community of plurality made up of unique (idiotic) singularities in commu­nicative relation to one another (BB 330; PU 48). This created plural yet singular community of being bears a certain doubleness—at once independent of and depen­dent upon God as agapeic origin. It is independent of the agapeic origin in that the origin originates the other as truly other and thus as given to itself, freely released into being for itself (PU 187, 218; EB 202; AOO 6). In giving being to the other, God gives the gift of free otherness to the other. Finite being is ontologically dependent upon the origin in that there is yet an asymmetrical relationship between them as finite being has been radically originated from nothing by the origin—its being as finite, as having come-to-be, points back to its origination and to its origin (HG 164). Finally, finite beings are given to be themselves as good in themselves—as bearing inherent value from but not for the sake of the origin (so as to make the value of finite being extrinsic, instrumental for divine self-fulfillment) (BB 186, 511–12; PU 196; EB 44; BR 229; HG 140).

The agapeic origin, as Desmond’s preeminent metaphysical metaphor (BB 208, 231, 330; PU 137, 207, 230; HG 3) or “hyperbole” for God, designates the particular character of God’s/the origin’s creation/origination as agapeic. As intimated above, agapeic origination is creation not from lack but from surplus or plenitude. Here, the agapeic origin is to be understood in contradistinction to the erotic origin, which, because of some lacking in itself (some indeterminacy or lack of wholeness or completion), seeks to produce/fulfill/complete itself in the production of creation—a creation always provisionally other. The agapeic origin does not need to produce itself in its origination—it is “always already itself.” The agapeic origin is instead a plenitude that freely originates out of a fullness and not a lack or internal necessity (BHD 79–80; BB 166; PU 188, 207, 231; HG 135)—a “creative excess” out of which genuine creation happens (BB 256, 261).

Agapeic origination generously gives forth genuine otherness (PU 196). It lets the other of creation be as other (as other to the agapeic origin) (BHD 80; PU 216–18, 231; HG 70; AOO 288)—as an irreducible otherness (BHD 90; BB 261–62) “in itself” (BHD 80, 116) and for itself (BB 262, 448; EB 164). The being of the world is “released”—given as free from the origin—into being for itself (BB 257, 263–64; EB 164, 200; HG 136; AOO 6). Thus, agapeic creation cannot be reduced to self-mediation (BHD 80; PU 218–19; AOO 287).

In giving otherness, the “agapeic One” gives rise to more than one, to a genuine plurality (HG 138). Desmond describes this in terms of an affirmative doubling or redoubling that is not the self-division of the One but a “real Secondness” (BHD 80-81, 116, 120; PU 220). Thus, agapeic creation is the source of difference and plurality (DDO 242; PU 238; EB 502; HG 70)—the excessive generosity that gives rise to plurality (BHD 81). The plurality of the created world is composed of singulars—finite beings that are not only other to God but other to each other. The agapeic origin is thus the ground of singularity and genuine (“idiotic”) self-hood as well. As creator of this plurality of singulars, the agapeic origin is the giver of “the between,” “the middle” as the “space of open being” (BB 262). God is the original (originating) ground of metaxological community of being (DDO 242; PO 8, 113; BB 263; PU 137, 234, 238).

In all of this, the “agapeic” character of the agapeic origin’s creation/origination is best described in terms of the “gift.” God’s creation, the giving of being to be as other and for itself, is a gift (PU 133, 144, 196, 216–17; EB 505)—a true gift of love. It is a giving that gives the given as a gift. Agapeic creation is a gratuitous origination, a “non-possessive dispensation” (DDO 191), an act of pure generosity exceeding itself for the sake of the other—not merely giving something to the other but giving the other to be as such, giving the other itself (BB 418, 501; EB 207). There is a disproportion and asymmetry in the directionality of giving—God’s creative gift is something that could not ever be returned; it would ever exceed any attempt. It is difficult for us to think this excessive gift, to think agape—it is foreign, other, transcendent to our (all too erotic) conceptual economies (BB 410, 542; PU 195).

Creation as agapeic gift implies a certain freedom in created being. Beings and human beings in particular are given, are “released” into (BB 257, 264) an ontological freedom, a freedom to be for themselves as other (BHD 182; BB 79; EB 138)—a freedom “given from,” a being given free(ly) from, the agapeic origin. In creating, the agapeic absolute “absolves” itself from its creation—makes it other and free. In so doing, the agapeic origin allows creation the freedom to absolve itself from the origin such that there is a permitting, a “letting be” of evil—a patience to evil (BB 263)—that can be horrifying to us (PU 249). Yet there is a conceptual consistency between the existence of the agapeic origin and the existence of evil, for a creation without the possibility of evil is not the result of agapeic creation, not truly other to the creator, not released, free.

As agapeic, for Desmond, the origin is good or rather, the Good (BB 71; EB 281). The agapeic good is not extrinsic to God; God is “agapeic transcendence,” the “free identity of being and the good” (PU 195). And, as the agapeic origin gives forth being, so does it give goodness to being (BB 71; PU 195, 216–17; EB 495, 503). God creates being as good for itself, as valuable in itself. God creates the world and says “It is good” (BR 224). As such, the agapeic origin is the original ground of goodness in being (EB 200, 496). And, as such, it can provide both a way out of the nihilism of instrumental mind and a ground for our trust in being and knowledge (BB 71, 359).

(Return to Part 1)

[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.

* * *

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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5 Responses to Introducing William Desmond: God as Agapeic Origin

  1. brian says:

    “Agapeic creation is a gratuitous origination, a “non-possessive dispensation” (DDO 191), an act of pure generosity exceeding itself for the sake of the other . . . ”

    I think this insight might be intriguingly paired with the chapter on Jealousy in Pavel Florensky’s The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. The common notion of jealousy derives from conceptions rooted in erotic lack. The idea of a jealous Agape strikes the modern ear as oxymoronic, but the confusion disappears if one recognizes that Agapeic jealousy is the urgent, determined care of the Creator for each singular, unique creature and the Community of Being that requires each and every singular to be the beloved chosen from eternity. Such a choosing is not a kind of arbitrary election of options, the voluntarist notion of freedom writ large, but the generosity of a pluperfect aseity who gives freedom, otherness, existence to creatures.

    Now eschatologically, how could one equate such an agapeic generosity with, say, the Calvinist god jealous of his glory? Creation as theophany is already lost sight of where love of the creature and love for God are posited as a zero sum game. The creation as a gift of love is turned into the malicious game of a petty tyrant. The dominant metaphysics of modernity fostered such a depraved theology — though it may have worked the other way as well, idolatrous religious conceptions rendering false trails in metaphysics plausible.

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    • Hey now! Take it easy on the Calvinists – the defects in our theology are slowly being worked out – the voluntarism that is present early in Reformed theology reached its apogee in the late 18th Century with the likes of Jonathan Edwards. However, that theological dead end is absent in the development of Reformed thought in Barth and Torrance, who began reading the Father’s and interacting more with Orthodoxy in the 20th Century. But, I will say that Torrance and Barth are deficient on matters of classical theism and Christian metaphysics. Contemporary theologians like Julie Canlis have gone even further to identify the latent participatory theology that is clearly present in Calvin (especially in his commentaries), and comports quite well with Irenaeus and his theology of participation and recapitulation; or in the work of James Dolezal who is working hard to recover Divine simplicity, impassibility, and classical theism, which has been woefully under-emphasized in Reformed theology.

      If I were to take a stab at the issue of God’s jealousy for his own glory, and it’s defect in certain strands of Calvinism, is the category error of attribution. The biblical referents for this notion are clearly present in Isaiah 42 and 48, but the context is over and against idolatry, which had been so destructive to Israel. The problem, as I see it, is a fundamental inconsistency, where Reformed theologians, in theory subscribe to Divine simplicity, but functionally subvert it – so that jealousy (along with sovereignty) is deemed as a proper Name for God, rather than an improper attribute, analogy, or anthropomorphism that describes the Nature of God’s love and glory in a way that we might gain some understanding of him. This is where I find your comments on agapeic jealousy, or the description of the superabundance of God’s love in the post to be most instructive.

      All this to say, while Orthodox Christians might not be entirely satisfied with the contours in Modern Calvinism, the cross pollenization with Orthodoxy, and resourcement with certain strands of Thomism have, on the whole been good for us crusty Calvinists. And, yeah, even with my pushback here, your criticism is fundamentally fair and deserves engagement.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    A question about this passage:

    Thus, as created from nothing, as coming to be in an unconditional origination that is bound by nothing, the created universe is “shadowed” by the nothingness (nihilo) from which (ex) it was made (creatio)—nothingness is ontologically constitutive of finite creation.

    If I substituted “contingency” for “nothingness” the last independent clause, would it still mean the same? If not, could someone interpret the passage for me, please. Thanks!

    Like

    • Perhaps “formless” works? I don’t think he is speaking of ontological vacuity. I’m new to Desmond, so I am still grappling to understand as well. It reads to me like he is speaking of an uncreated reality, that does carry with it a kind of contingency. But, it also seems that the nothingness of which he speaks carries real ontological weight. Maybe a cosmic analogy to something like dark matter or anti-matter illustrates the point?

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      I am not a Desmond expert, but I take him to mean by nothingness that quality of God which denotes his radical ‘no-thingness’. The nothingness from which creation has come is a no-thingness, to which qualitatively no created being or object compares, to which in other words everything created is radically dissimilar. This radical otherness, this nothingness, is following Desmond (if I read him right), somehow present in or constitutes, the created order by reason of having its origin ex nihilo. Does this elucidate the quote? Well that is how I understand it.

      I think indeed one could make the substitution of contingency for nothingness without much problem, as you suggest, for the sentence immediately before the referenced passage denotes the notion of contingency, “The nothing so names the “qualitative difference” between the radical origin and the radically originated and the ‘hyperbolic asymmetry’” between the creator and the creation such that the latter’s being is utterly dependent on the former.”

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