Continuatum a parte octava.
In the last entry, I attempted an honest wrestling with a variety of solutions to the problem of the delay of Jesus’ parousia. I proceeded dialectically and concluded with an aporia in a variety of options, from Irenaeus, to Origen, to a possible Christian way of affirming Maimonides, to a contemporary form of democratic, progressive, collectivist messianism with classical roots in Christian and Jewish Tradition.
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I know that there are Christians in virtually every community who will be dissatisfied with my unwillingness to simply embrace “the plain sense of Scripture” where that is concerned. As I have written about here, and David Bentley Hart recently completed a series on, there are numerous problems with biblical literalism as a method that also apply, mutatis mutandis, to patristic literalism or fundamentalism about other phases of Christian history. Essentially, any attempt to arbitrarily take some slice of the Christian past as being of universal, permanent authority in its literal sense, original meaning, and authorial intention is, I will argue, both unhelpful and logically impossible for culturally atmospheric reasons beyond the control of fundamentalists and critics alike. And this implies theologically that we must treat the major hypostaseis of Christian Faith—Father, Son, and Spirit—as mysteries, enigmas whose meanings are gradually unfolding in our ongoing historical experience, through encounters both personal and mediated, enabled by community, ritual, text, and theology. And this means precisely taking Jesus Christ himself as one such mystery, whom we do not yet fully understand and will not until the final horizon is reached.
Let me proceed by offering a demonstrative example and then recourse to the epistemology of a relevant Church Father. The example I wish to make use of is Christ’s ascension. First, it should be noted that the ascension is not uniformly described in the New Testament. In Paul, it would appear that resurrection and ascension are conflated with one another as two dimensions of a single doxōsis. Mark and Matthew mention a resurrection (that we do not get to see in Mark’s original ending) but no ascension; John mentions a forthcoming ascension (Jn 20:17) that he does not describe, though we do get other descriptions elsewhere in Johannine literature (e.g., Rev 12:5). It is only Luke-Acts that narrates Jesus’ ascension as a separate event from the resurrection, taking place after forty days and the week and some change prior to Shavuot/Pentecost, but these texts preserve two different versions of the event (Lk 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11). Luke has clear literary and theological motivations for narrating the ascension as he does: his desire to relate the major events of the activity of Jesus and the early community to the Jewish festal cycle; his desire to ground apostolic authority in direct encounter with the risen Jesus, including the grounds for the gentile mission; etc. This does not mean that he preserves no genuine memory of the event, but simply that it would be unwise to pretend that his neater approach to the material lacks any ulterior cause. It is generally the task of a later generation to revise the ambiguities of an earlier one in ways that are useful; it is then often enough the task of some successive generation after that to recover sight of the layers to understand how best to receive and transmit that which has been passed down.
Let us assume for argument’s sake that Jesus’ resurrection and ascension were two distinct events and that they took place more or less as Luke describes. (I’m not actually entirely confident of that, but again, for simplicity, let us proceed with the traditional narrative.) Jesus, when he ascends, is taken up in a cloud to heaven (Acts 1:9-11) and later is seen standing at the right hand of God (7:55). This should not be collapsed into his session: the implication is that Christ is not yet reigning, but simply standing in God’s court. The transition to a sitting Christ implies a distinct eschatology.
The Synoptics have Jesus quote Ps 110:1-4, in which God instructs an unnamed “Lord” to “Sit at my right hand, until I make thine enemies a footstool for thy feet” (Matt 22:44; Mk 12:36; Lk 20:42); interestingly, Jesus’ quotation of the Psalm in-text is in response to a question about the importance of Davidic descent for the messiah. It is all but impossible, given the timing of the Gospels’ authorship, to think that the Synoptic Evangelists do not mean for the reader to make the connection that Jesus is in fact now the Lord sitting at the right hand of the LORD—YHWH—in heaven, until his enemies have all been subdued. This is the point he makes to the chief priest and elders when on trial: they will see him in that position of divine session (Matt 26:64; Mk 14:62). The Deutero-Paulines speak of Jesus’ session at the right hand of the Father (Eph 1:20; Col 3:1), as does Hebrews (Heb 1:3; 8:1; 10:12); the Apocalypse potentially mentions Christ sitting at God’s right hand, when Christ says in the opening epistulae that he has sat down with his Father on his throne, probably here envisioned as a bisellium (Rev 3:21). For each of these authors, with their different distinctives, Jesus’ ascension and session accomplish a few things: they take him to the locus as well as the power of cosmic supremacy; and they signal that in and through his glorification, his followers enjoy a path to and even a proleptic taste of their own future exaltation. Christ’s session does not imply that there are no more enemies, per se: in Ephesians, there is tension held between the fact that Christ has ascended “far above all” divine powers (Eph 1:21), some of which are hostile to his terrestrial assembly (6:12ff), with the more summative and final truth that the one who descended to the underworld is also the one who “ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (4:9-10). And yet, Christ is also the one who has already “reconciled all things in heaven and on earth, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20). His ascension takes him beyond the reach of the powers he has already subdued, who have yet to acquiesce to his Lordship through ethical conformity, divine and human.
Now, importantly, for the people who first described this belief, there was a very specific cosmography that it alluded to: a geocentric universe, in which a rotund Earth was surrounded by concentric spheres of crystalline, aethereal heavens, in the lower seven of which were the seven planetai—the “wandering stars” Selēnē/Luna, Hermēs/Mercurius, Aphroditē/Venus, Hēlios/Sol, Arēs/Mars, Zeus/Iuppiter, Kronos/Saturnus—and in the upper of which were the Fixed Stars and the Primum Mobile. The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars were divine beings or bodies of divine beings; their spheres were host to a variety of aerial daimonia and aethereal gods and goddesses, the “powers and principalities” of whom Paul writes. Pervasive throughout this universe was the World Soul, structuring it from above the Divine Nous, transcendent of all the One. To say that Jesus had ascended “far above all the heavens” was to imply that Jesus had gone beyond the celestial spheres to the hypercosmic place of Divine Nous, subordinate to the One God; in the language of Jewish apocalypticism, the Great Angel of YHWH, the celestial viceregent and high priest of the heavenly hosts. Logically, then, when others claimed to go on journeys of heavenly ascent, it was through this universe they traveled; when Paul writes that he ascended as far as the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2), James Tabor is probably right that he is self-deprecating: only the third heaven!
Consider, then, what it would mean in 2022 to attempt to hold literally to the confession of the ascension in the original sense it was made. Bracket for the moment that we now know the Ptolemaic cosmos is not literally true; even if it were contingently or locally true, to hold strictly to the New Testament account in our context would actually diminish the substance of what Christians believe. For Christ to have ascended beyond simply the seven planets would not even get him out of the solar system; to have ascended beyond the sphere of the fixed stars (those observable with the naked eye from our planet) would still leave plenty of the observable universe through which Jesus had not progressed. In other words, to preserve the sense that Jesus has ascended to the cosmically supreme status, and filled all things with himself and/or reconciled all things to God, one must abandon the literal sense of biblical material about his ascension. Likewise, for Jesus to sit at the right hand of God implies, as John Damascene recognized, that God has a right hand for Jesus to sit at. Certainly, for the first Christians, the biblical God was divinely embodied; it would not be until the turn to Middle and Neoplatonism in Early Christianity that a fully incorporeal deity would take hold on Christian consciousness in the second and third centuries CE. But the moment one confesses God as what it is to be God in the ultimate sense—infinite existence, consciousness, and bliss—to maintain the literal sense of Jesus’ glorification as first described would imply that he had ascended to the viceregal seat of a local divinity. This is only avoidable by seeing Jesus’ ascension in less literal terms, not as a vertical ascent through ancient cosmography but as translation or rapture (if I can use that loaded term) from a state of ordinary human living to one of infinite divine transcendence that, unexpectedly, retains his humanity intact and is thus theandric in character. From our perspective, the essence of what has been traditionally believed requires a different accidence to endure.
Methodologically, this is appropriate because we do not really understand the essence of anything, uncreated or created. This is Nyssen’s great epistemological discovery: we delineate the essence or nature of things by common perception, custom, and convenience, but we cannot really know the fundamental stuff of anything, from quarks to quintessence.All we can know are the energies of things: their workings, activities, effects, and make analogical and aporetic conclusions about the things from their effects. Nyssen’s epistemology is a corollary of his cosmology and ontology: for Nyssen, everything is made up of the Divine Ideas, the thoughts of God, the emanated qualities derived from the divine infinity and conglomerating into the world that we cognize and sense. Nyssen therefore concludes that matter is not real, as one of the first Idealists to take Idealism to its logical conclusion. Matter is not real, though corporeality is: there is no actual substrate, in a development of Plotinus’ understanding of matter as non-being. “None of the things that pertains to the body,” he writes, “is on its own a body, neither shape, nor colour, nor weight, nor extension, nor size, nor any other of the things regarded as qualities, but each of them is a logos and their combination and union with each other makes a body” (De Anima et Resurrectione 124C). Ergo, “[w]e find out that matter is made up of constitutive qualities. If matter is deprived of those qualities, it will not be cognized by reason” (De Opificio Hominis 212D). A consequence of Gregory’s aporetic, apophatic non-essentialism is that our knowledge and therefore our love of things can always grow further: because God is the infinite nous, and all naturally finite things participate the divine infinity by residing as thoughts in the Divine Mind and so are infinite by grace, everything returns infinitely into the God whence it all infinitely comes, and knowledge and love are asymptotic paths of ascent along such things to their source and destiny in God. Because it is not possible to know God in full, it is not possible to know the things God creates in full either. Gregory’s chief symbol for this is the theophanic succession in his Life of Moses: from the burning bush (Vit. Mos. II.1-116) to the Sinai theophany (II.117-201) to the vision of God’s backside (II.202-321), which Gregory interprets as Moses’ epiphany that his desire to see God’s glory and comprehend God is never going to be satisfied. God can only be enjoyed, not understood, and that enjoyment admits of no satiety. To modify a Lewisian analogy, one cannot contemplate the beam itself; one can only look along in enjoyment, for everywhere one looks there is light proceeding outward and back from the viewer, the noemata of the divine nous irradiating the world of our sense and cognition everywhere we look, whether with the eyes of our flesh or the eyes of our hearts.
This includes, obviously, Christ himself. We cannot know in comprehensible language fully and completely what Jesus is; we can know that he is, how he is, and in loving that which we know, come to an ever greater appreciation of his mystery. But we will not ever finally arrive somewhere, saying “Aha!” Not even the Trinitarian hypostaseis do that. God does not know what he is in the form of an abstract propositional content, only who he is, in the form of a direct contemplative experience of himself in the tropos hyparxeos of the Son, and a direct consummate love of himself in the tropos hyparxeos of the Spirit. God does not reduce himself to some kind of abstract philosophical content. Nor do those definitions of God common to the Christian Tradition—as infinite being, infinite mind, etc.—contradict the utterly aporetic and apophatic character of divine knowledge. What does “infinite being” mean, anyway? The unrestrained, fully actualized activity of existence? We could stack contingent being on contingent being ad infinitum and never know. Similarly, we cannot come up with some dogmatic content of Christ and confuse either what we have said positively with the whole truth or the words we have said with the reality which they signify. Consider Chalcedon. Jesus is fully divine and fully human; but do I know what it is to be divine? Do I even know what it is to be human? Any and every definition I can produce of either is simultaneously likely to name something true and to stop at an arbitrary limit of insight that in the moment of its reification becomes an idolatrous boundary, a mental preference for the false safety of a comprehensible definition over the open seas of mystery. These words “divine” and “human” are as much placeholders for my ignorance as descriptors that signify, meant to gesture towards ideas I might associate with each quality, but still not meaningfully substitutive for the raw realities the words point to, which are, respectively, simpler beyond all my attempts at discursive iteration and more complex beyond my best attempts to simplify.
The connection between these two points ought to be sufficiently clear, but in case it is not: Christian language of faith, even Christian dogma, cannot be static because the epistemic framework in which it exists is not static, and if the meaning of the language does not change, it is actually quite possible for its literal meaning to depreciate the value of Christian faith rather than increase it. This is in fact what happened at Nicaea: a traditional literalism was abandoned in favor of an innovative synthesis that better preserved the (irreducible and unknowable) essence of Christian Faith. It is then again what happened at Chalcedon; and so on. David Bentley Hart and, before him, Robert Louis Wilken, are both completely correct to assert as they do that the final meaning of Christianity is to be found in the future, not the past: and that future will inevitably determine how we structure and restructure the lineage of faith, which events we take to be instances of ongoing revelatory impact. But the basic principle is secure: the only living Christology is an evolving Christology, and an evolving Christology logically requires that we engage in the task of Christography, of retracing our steps from first apocalypse through its continuities and on down to the present. If we do not, we both risk misunderstanding what we have received and the work that went into discerning it, as well as the possibility of failing at our own task, which is not simply to play with pretty ideas about Jesus, but to get on with the business of doing what he told us to do and of walking with him in the present into that eschatological future. It may well be that much that we now feel quite confident of will strike us at future stages of our pilgrimage as once-helpful but then-outmoded pedagogy; there is no harm in that possibility so long as we are honest with ourselves about the limits, possibilities, and necessities of Christian Faith on the one hand and careful, skilled, and judicious about our discernment on the other. Christians may find that epistemically unsettling: it does not seem to promote a certain grounds for faith. But that is simply to put them on the same playing field as everyone else, subject to all the same ambiguities of knowledge that everyone has to deal with. When Christians have been less powerful, say, under the rule of Zoroastrian and Muslim societies in the East, they have not required this sort of certainty to function. The psychosis inherent in the need for an immutable, infallible authority to tell Christians what is certainly and unshakably true, while it is not limited to modernity, has never been quite as inflamed as it is in modernity: the Enlightenment’s creation of both fundamentalism and materialistic naturalism, as two sides of the same coin, is well-documented, as is its evocation of papal infallibility in response to changing social and political tides and the new fideism of much of the Orthodox world. It is not that we are the first generation of antirationalist fideists, but that when ancient people descended into fideism, cultural resources of philosophy to critique and clarify one’s stances existed at the ready to force dissidents back into the intellectual fold of reason, where today we seem to lack many of the basic elements of such a public culture of inquiry and syllogistic logic, from a general distaste for honest dialectic down to the basic inability to distinguish the literary genera of myth, folklore, report, history, hagiography, and philosophy.
Is there then no guide to authentic Christian belief and praxis which Christians can trust? Does the Spirit not truly speak? I do not go so far, though to go very far at all would be to begin a new series on the Spirit, which I intend to do sometime around Theophany of the upcoming year. (Ten installments in what was originally conceived as a four part series has me itching to digress once more in the meantime, I must confess.) For now I will simply say that if the Spirit of Truth is said to “guide us into all the truth” (Jn 16:13), which I affirm, it is interesting how much we read into that sentence and assume must be true about that process. Any teacher can attest that good pedagogy frequently involves evasion of questions and digressions deemed unhelpful, sometimes because they rightly complicate the picture the teacher intends to communicate; that teaching is often, especially in the humanities, in large part the construction, transcendence, deconstruction, and reconstruction of paradigms with students as they evolve and become capable of bigger vistas of the truth of a subject, until they eventually become capable of handling the relativistic, asymptotic, and aporetic character of knowledge itself; that sometimes stories false at the level of the letter (ad litteram) either convey the truth more effectively in a metaphorical mode or do a good job of leading students forward in their reasoning power beyond their present limits. Teachers know that sometimes the only path to an idea requires a winding road with the students through half-truths; that student morale must be kept up by often hyperbolic celebrations of their accomplishments to stave off discouragement at the immensity of the task of becoming educated about the mystery of reality. My Latin students do not realize that in learning the firm, constant rules of the Active Indicative conjugations of the Latin verb, they have two other moods in the Active and the entire Passive to learn in this and two other moods, not to mention Irregular Verbs, gerunds, and the like; their picture of the total verbal system will change with each successive discovery, their confidence in their accomplishments usefully shaken at each juncture. As Lewis (again) wrote in “The Weight of Glory,” the first-time student of Greek Grammar, merely seeking to matter the morphology of -μι verbs, cannot fathom the pleasure of reading Homer or Euripides straight out; her whole idea of what Greek is has been skewed, but necessarily so, by the experience of elementary grammar. The same process follows in Latin, Hebrew, English, Sanskrit, whatever: morphology comes before syntax, and syntax before the labor of reading, and parsing before enjoyment. (I say this even as someone who strongly believes in teaching classical languages viva voce, “with living voice.”) Thus similarly, Lewis argues, the passage from the Law—our pedagogue, according to Paul (Gal 3:24-26)—to Gospel, from this life to the life of the world to come.
Why the Church’s own experience should not match this normative educational charter has never been, for me at least, satisfactorily explained. The concept of infallibility strikes me as at best self-defeating and at worst a category confusion. Humans either cannot know something with the completeness that infallibility implies or, alternatively, infallibility attains to language that is by its very nature significant and symbolic of the realities it pertains to describe and must be exceeded anyway in the course of coming to know the reality so gestured towards (which is, again, an infinite quest). Inerrancy might be reassuring, but it is indefensible when applied to Scripture: even when it is admitted that Scripture is only inerrant concerning “faith and morals,” but not concerning history or science, the main problem is that in many cases it is not just history and science which are at odds with one another across the scriptural canon and with what we now know, but also theologies. Scripture contains multiple theologies; Christian history contains multiple theologies; any attempt to suggest a constancy across this history is a synthesis presently in motion, whether concerning cosmology, Christian attitudes towards Jews and Judaism, ecclesiology, the social order, or anything else. One can only sail down the Heraclitean River of the Christian Tradition toward the farther shore that one hopes is on the other side.
Here ends my series on Christ, following on the post “God: A Theography in Four Phases.” I will likely, eventually, follow this up with either an article or a series of articles tackling Pneumatography—an overview of how ruach, pneuma, and/or spiritus became the Holy Spirit and in an attempt to provide some sort of systematic, speculative synthesis. If one has interest, I have already engaged in some pneumatology here at A Perennial Digression, here, here, here, here, and here. But one should not look for a continuation of this particular series until January, around Theophany time, at the earliest; I feel far too much impulse to be digressionary, and with October more than half over, the compulsion to write about spooky things drives me. There shall be one more post in this series that will be purely bibliographical, following which, Deo volente, some more monstrous or macabre post will come before that great feast of all gods and ghouls is upon us.
See James D. Tabor, Paul’s Ascent to Paradise: The Apostolic Message and Mission of Paul in Light of His Mystical Experiences (rep.; Charlotte, NC: Genesis 2000, 2020).
For all that follows of Nyssen, see George Karamanolis, The Philosophy of Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2021), 84-87, 121-125.
Cited in Karamanolis, The Philosophy of Early Christianity, 85.
Karamanolis, The Philosophy of Early Christianity, 85.
I might make a point here that one need not take the supersessionistic tact of Lewis in saying so: one might graduate from the pedagogue’s instruction, but part of the point is that the skills learned from the pedagogue endure in one’s mature intellectual life. One does not learn Greek Grammar to forget it; Torah is not meant to be abandoned or abolished, as Christ is clear (Matt 5:17-20).
I am still reading through this series (I finished the second part yesterday and am gonna read the third one soon), but I find it fascinating how you and DBH manage to combine the mysticism with the history without abandoning either and this is really what attracts me to this type of thinking where you can let your mind contemplate the infinite and experience this intimacy without abandoning or making up the history behind the tradition. Thank you, David. And I would really love to read the books you recommend for further reading.
So can we say that even before Plotinus there is a sense of the First God being supranoetic?
I did note when you gave the cosmology it went : Planetary spheres - World Soul - Nous - One; would, in the second century, this hold true, or would it be more like world soul -> demiurgic nous -> highest nous (that is the Good)?
I guess its a pedantic difference at that point; but I would like to hear your, I guess, henography (just to parallel theography/christography).
All I know about the status of the highest god before Plotinus is that Philo and Clement foreshadowed the Neoplatonic apophatic character of the highest god while themselves being Middle Platonist.