The Vates Christ Jesus and the Plurivocity of Being

by Brian. C. Moore, Ph.D.

David Burrell warns us that a properly deft use of analogous terms “demands an awareness that we are functioning as creatures ourselves in a created order whose principles remain unknown to us, yet whose lineaments can be glimpsed from time to time” (Faith and Freedom, p. 120). And further: “How little we can expect to understand the order God intends in a universe we apprehend so minimally” (p. 122). “Perhaps the decisive thing has always lain in what is hidden,” says Adrienne von Speyr. Indeed, an apophatic reserve is not only necessary in our thinking about God, but also with regards to the cosmos and our very selves. “How could we know what God wants to do with us when we cannot even know what we are nor who we are?” asks Leon Bloy. Given the depravity and sorrow so evident in fallen time, the unknown becomes consolation and hope. Yet Sergius Bulgakov reminds us that the “lineaments” glimpsed from time to time are also prophetic. “Art is the Old Testament of Beauty, of the kingdom of the coming Comforter and of course is itself filled with prefigurements of what lies ahead” (Unfading Light, p. 402). Such hints are both visionary gift and cause of anguish. “Art must hide in itself a prayer for the transfiguration of the creation … Patiently and with hope it must carry the cross of being unquenched in its craving and wait for its hour” (p. 403). Because the kingdom is creation in its fullness, one must exercise ascesis that does not foreclose on being. “There is a severe discipline involved in openness to the plurivocal presence of things,” notes Desmond (Being and the Between, p. 311). In Buddhist compas­sion there is a hint of reverence for the flux of being. Desmond presses further when he speaks of a needed “ontological respect” that engenders a love of singularity, for “the singular is a certain promise of infinitude” (p. 311). This promise of infinitude underlies the ungovern­able flash of beauty that draws the poet into a mode of discovery that is not to be confused with imagination construed as mere fancy, a choice between a plethora of possibles. I cannot emphasize this enough. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche unmasked the nihilism of nature divorced from Christian revelation or at least the precritical naïveté where the cosmos was full of gods. Modernity evacuated the cosmos of intrinsic value. Attempts to construct meaning on the basis of human imagination alone is the project of will-to-power. Nietzsche is the poetic version of the Faustian scientist. Certain modern nihilists make a religion of politics because meaning has no ground other than what you can persuade the majority of people to believe. It’s Thrasymachus redux.

Goethe prescribed silence. His reverence for nature and the quiet grace of the rose and the lily suggests another possibility. The creation may speak, may even sing, though the music might be threnody in response to what mankind has wrought. If “insight into image” is the proper mode of human knowing, one comes upon a middle where permeable borders allow for a genuine meeting between person and thing. Truth is an event that happens, not something usefully cataloged in an encyclopedia and known ahead of time. If being is communicative and the human is the spiritual place where the cosmic flesh registers a message, it may behoove one to listen. Thus, Desmond parses out the ontological implications of what is frequently taken as a mere figure of speech:

Metaphor may be a revelation of reality. Metapherein – the thing carries itself across to revelation, metaphorizes itself; this is its spread beyond metaphysical identity. In its self-metaphorizing, it reaches out to more, reaches into the meta, the middle. The metaphorical “as” thus seeks to identify the plurivocal “is” of the “this” in its otherness. Thus the thing may be, so to say, an ontological metaphor, bespeaking the power of being, and not just the human imagination (emphasis mine). If the thing is a poiēsis of the original power of being, then the metaphorical “as” may well be in rapport with the “is” of the thing, and rapport in an entirely realistic, though not objectivistic sense. (Being and the Between, p. 310)

That is to say, the plurivocity is a function of the richness of the Actual, not the notional infinity of yet undecided choice. Catherine Pickstock is especially good at drawing out the quality of the unanticipated in dramatic truth. In Repetition and Identity, she explores the deeper significance of Thomist analogy. “Analogy in its most radical sense (as considered by Aquinas, for example) does not summon a similarity of proportion of equivalence between two different pairs, but rather an obscure likeness of “attribution” which pertains between two unlike things, without being expressible outside the specific conjoining of their unlike­ness” (p. 52). Thus, analogy should never be understood as a kind of forced allegory as one sometimes finds in patristic biblical exegesis (it may still be charming and instructive, of course). Pickstock continues, “According to this conception, analogy is not an isolatable property in which two things or parts equally share; rather, it is the fitting­ness or conve­nientia which binds them to reveal a kinship only apparent through this very conjunction (emphasis mine)” (p. 52). The “fitness” here is in no way a product of whim or merely adventitious coincidence. It is not a question of selecting two disparate things and coercing synthesis like the names of bad eighties rock bands, nor is it a product of a tertium quid that abstractly binds them together. Instead, one discovers something more like the odd entan­glement evinced in quantum theory between electrons literally galaxies apart. Connections that transcend the physical plane witness to a metaphysics of community held by bonds of relation that display an aesthetic both fecund and beyond rational capture as reason is normally defined. “Because there exists no template or formula for successful combination, analogous fittingness constantly reveals beauty in myriad ways, without exhausting it” (p. 52).

Thick and thin concepts articulate thick or thin things. “Thick” things contain an excess of semiotic power. “Things are never present without their accompanying signs, just as sublunary bodies are never without their attendant shadows” (p. 73). The inherent, vital energy of created being resists univocal closure into the fixities of Heidegger’s “standing reserves.” Whereas modern science proposes an asymptotic approach to neutral being that strives for a knowledge that equates mystery with ignorance; and so the method equates wonder with curiosity, the latter destined to vanish, along with mystery once conceptual mastery has disclosed the mechanism behind action. Then one has identical repetition. Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum purchases security at the cost of sterile monotony: the closer one approaches his epistemic ideal, the more it is one damn thing after another, but nothing ever happens. In contrast, Pickstock discerns in created things their own intrinsic spark of freedom. Certainly, she is correct to recognize that a thing cannot be thought without also thinking potential variations, but this should not be primarily attributed to the selective power of will. “To say that the possibility only exists in our imagination would seem to wield an arbitrary decision (either idealist or reductively empiricist) to elevate the epistemological over the ontological (emphasis mine, this is the modern move)” (p. 73). The truth behind animist religions or theologies that recognize the angelic intelligence infused in nature or in the sophianic speculations of the Russian silver age echoes in Pickstock’s intriguing question: “If the haystack is only apparent to me insofar as I can imagine it as differently shaped or coloured, then by what warrant do I say that this imagination arises only in my mind and not also as a kind of emanation of the haystack itself?” (p. 73). In short, the creative power co-opted for the imagination by modern men who believed they were stranded in a meaning­less universe turns out to be a synergy called forth by the cosmos itself. Significantly, the flourishing of a thing allows for ever greater expression of its actuality. One is figuratively light years removed from how Burrell describes Scotus’ univocal complacency. “If one presumes Scotus’ way of grasping the nature, the formula which accom­panies that understanding will normally be presumed to have captured the essence as well … alternatively, one might be tolerant of diverse formulae, confident one has grasped the nature” (p. 184). The result is indifference to the artistry required to touch upon truth that remains wildly open to supplement.

I love Chesterton for whom paradox is a sign of the elusiveness of Christian truth. Paradox becomes a way of circumventing the logician who is like the clever boy who precociously advances six months ahead of his peers. He astonishes his schoolmates. He appears to have surmounted that invisible barrier between adolescence and adulthood. And yet, he is still a callow youth. His prodigious feats will be commonplace to every one of them soon enough. Facility with logic is only a mundane virtuosity. Theo-logic is topsy-turvy mirth that con­founds univocal certitudes. Yet one has to admit that occasionally Chesterton’s pen is too glib with paradox. It can become a facile judo not much ahead of the advanced school boy. Then it is just another rhetorical strategy that can be quickly and rather mechanically deployed. If you ever try to walk the path of the vates, you must discover slowness. The mystery comes in slowness, can creep up on one unawares. You are living your life, perhaps sleepy with comfortable, familiar routine, when you are suddenly shook with the very strangeness of the familiar. Well, that is the lesson of The Napoleon of Notting Hill, isn’t it? The ordinary world, the one folks take for granted, is something else entirely. And here I am bound to come up against a sticky wicket. Right off the top, I confess I’ll appear to be talking out of both sides of my mouth. I’m going to plump for paradox and hope I’m six months ahead of the rest of you duffers.

There’s a nice quote of Erich Przywara’s in the preface to the English translation of Analogia Entis. I’ve used it before in something or other I’ve scribbled out, but I’m fond of it so I’m going to bring it up again.

Christ is the eternal archetype of the inner and outer world. All the beauty of the cosmos – the majesty of the high mountain range, the lovely simplicity of the verdant fields, the brilliant concert of birds in the springtime forests and the cracking and thundering of storms at night, the still solitude of the mountain retreat and the powerful rushing together of the industrial city – is a manifold image of his unity. (p. 107)

It’s easy to pass over that first bit – “the eternal archetype of the inner and the outer world.” Charles Taylor writes about the modern “buffered self.” We like to think of our inner life, the interior, as exclusively ours, the spiritual site of retreat and inviolable autonomy. But we come from nothing. Our inner life is sustained by gift just as much as the cosmic world. The psyche is fragile, subject to emotional storms and the destructive effects of physical and mental distress. The deep structure of the soul encompasses such considerations, but also transcends them. If one thinks of the appearance of being, the things that arise in time and lapse into the apparent nullity of death as the light of a non-appearing energy (forms are invisible), then it’s possible to conceive the spiritual as a concentrated intensity of being that manifests as bursts of temporal action. I sketch all that to oppose mysticism reduced to psychology and the hazy ghost of popular prejudice. The interior is hyperbolic to time and space. Though our inner life is deeply wounded and fractured by sin, this is not the normal state. Jesus enacts a flourishing human inner life which is porous to the Father as Father, not simply the “ground of being.”

Przywara asserts: “This is the message of ‘John the theologian’: how God and cosmos are correlated in the ‘Logos-Lamb who was slain'” (p. 112). That is the chief motif of Maximus the Confessor as well, how all the universe was planned for and loved because it is radiant with the intimate life of the Son. “‘And the Logos became flesh.’ But ‘flesh’ here (sarx) can be taken to signify not only the flesh of the human body; it can be taken to signify all matter, all physical nature. All matter, all physical nature, is the Body of Christ,” says Sherrard. Renaissance neo-platonism and hermetic teaching articulated the mirroring between man the microcosm and the larger macrocosm. I intend more: in Christ, the dynamism of the gift is brought into the foreground. So if you want to talk about divine exemplars and the relation between the eternal and the temporal, you shouldn’t do it as if the temporal is an eidos of static eternity or as if the exemplars persist in the immanent life of the Trinity as a set of pre-existent options that God may or may not choose to create. “It is only in the measure that God is creator that there is need at all for ideas, since the divine intellect as such has no need of ‘being informed by a plurality of species’ by which it knows. Indeed, divine simpleness would be violated were that required,” explains Burrell (p. 84). It is because of Jesus and not outside of the narrative of the gospel that the pagan esoteric teaching about man and the cosmos is true. It is because of Christ that one can exclaim “the very universe is an expression of what it means to be fully human” (James Arraj, Mind Aflame, p. 46). All this must come as a very great surprise to folks who have been taught to dogmatically believe the universe a cold, accidental machine and man an adventitious and rather haughty ape dithering about on a backwater planet orbiting a middling sun in an unexceptional galaxy amongst thousands upon thousands of others — less shocking, of course, if they had been taught not to be impressed by the mindless weight of numbers.

“Creation is not arbitrary fiat, modeled on the capricious finger snap of some oriental despot,” says William Desmond. “Creation is intrinsic to His very life, it is the inner landscape of His own Being,” says Sherrard (Human Image, World Image, p. 157). It is certainly a mistake to think God is like Hegel’s Absolute, needy at the start and requiring the world to attain perfection. (For that matter, the supposed perfection of Hegel’s Absolute is ultimately stultifying and self-satisfied. The complex Whole achieved through erotic dialectic eliminates initial lack by drawing the curtain on dramatic aseity. The notion that a certain kind of poverty is richer than an abundant determinate wealth does not occur to Hegel. Trinity, after all, was for him only an image for intellectual conquest of the other. In the Triune life, however, there is a kenotic “letting be” that allows Father to be Father which is synonymous with the Sonship of the Logos and the infinite surprise and delight of Spirit.) It is an equally grave mistake to think God loves creation as an especially treasured toy or as a delightful something that could just as well not be so far as God’s perfection is concerned. Were this so, the kingdom would be perhaps a very large and joyous cosmos, but it would not be a revelatory one. The infinite depths of creation are the gift of theosis, which is not an extrinsic grace that may or may not be attached to a “pure nature,”nor are they merely the trace or footprint of the divine. There is an agapeic erotics that confuses those who want to apply the law of non-contradiction to the God who is Triune. Such an erotics does not come from lack, but plenitude. (In a similar vein, Hans Urs von Balthasar will argue for something like “supertime” in God’s eternity for the surprise and delight of love’s happening is first the event of divine life before the partici­pated source of any creaturely experience.) God, of course, is beyond perspective. Folks who think of God’s knowledge as even an omni-perspec­tive tend to import creaturely terms. While creation groans and God “works,” the “it is finished” proleptically applied to what is for us an eschatological future hides the coinci­dence of divine patience with a bliss that does not wait. “And where else are we? Do you suppose the godhead able to create a world that would not be Paradise? Is the Fall another thing than our not knowing this, that we are in Paradise?” writes the great Borges in “The Rose of Paracelsus.”

(Go to “The Transcendence of Metronomic Time”)

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1 Response to The Vates Christ Jesus and the Plurivocity of Being

  1. Wayne Fair says:

    This post takes me to the hinterlands of meaning, the anagogic event horizon of language, gesturing towards the infinitely “real” in-and-beyond creation. It (your post) is filled with “an excess of semiotic power”… Perhaps it is the most un-ironic thing in all true “science” that “quantum mechanics” (in spite of the metaphysical biases implicit in its name) may turn out to be the greatest, most pregnant of analogies…

    I have only recently been wrestling (for my first time) with the “angel” of Przywara – so far barely able to “limp” away from the benevolent confrontation. I have been helped along by Michael Di Fuccia’s book on Owen Barfield (Owen Barfield: Philosophy, Poetry, and Theology) – where Di Fuccia finds fascinating confluence of thought between Barfield and Przywara (and, interestingly, Pickstock)

    Thank you, Brian, for sharing your wonderment!

    Liked by 1 person

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