A Massive Sea Change in Recent Theology

It is far from hyperbole to say that a momentous intellectual sea change is currently underway within the Anglophone field of Christian philosophy and theology. For far too long we have been breathing the musty and stagnant air of analytic philosophy and its dearth of astonishment, coupled with its denial of the mystery of being and/or metaphysics. And for far too long we have been choked by the aleatory whirlwind of the dizzying, yet powerful, rhetoric of postmodernism and its declaration of the “end of metaphysics.” Is there a way between the univocal stagnant air of analytical dominance and the whirling ubiquitous air of equivocal postmodern difference?

The answer is the phoenix-like return and resurgence of an analogical style(s) of metaphysics, a style(s) that is blowing in upon our intellectual shores with a freshness and vigor that must be likened to a metaphysical Pentecost.[1] This air is breathed by figures of Radical Orthodoxy and their enlivening and imaginative reminder of the centrality of analogy and participation for Christian discourse, it is present in the ever-ringing aesthetic and rhapsodic voice of David Bentley Hart, and its presence is there inspiring the poetically metaxological thinking of William Desmond and his ever-ascending influence, it even breathes underneath and through Cyril O’Regan’s apocalyptic modality of theology, to name a few of the figures involved in the analogical turn.

The return of analogical discourse requires a polyphonic voicing of creaturely being’s arising from out of the depths of nothingness as it obeys the call of being spoken forth, from out of the infinite depths of the ever-greater triune God of love. Here, as Augustine saw more than anyone else, the Deus Abyssus is sounding-forth homo abyssus and the drama of being commences as finite freedom enacts its response to triune love. All styles and forms of analogical discourse think this drama, in one manner or another. However, one thinker in particular has made it the very leitmotif of his thinking exhibited in a dramatic and kenotic rendition of the analogia entis, namely, Ferdinand Ulrich (1931-2020). This rendition is especially seen in his speculative masterwork: Homo Abyssus: The Drama of the Question of Being. With the extraordinary gift of D.C. Schindler’s superb translation (2018) of this text a definitive and determinative new voice has been added to the sea change exhibited in the polyphonic and Pentecostal re-enactments of the analogia entis. Ulrich’s voice is thus a voice with which all serious Christian thinkers must contend. 

To situate Ulrich in my analogical topography and narrative it is helpful to compare the translation of Homo Abyssus with the 2014 translation of Erich Przywara’s magnum opus, Analogia Entis: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm by David Bentley Hart and John Betz. The two texts share a remarkable “elective affinity”—to borrow a phrase of Goethe’s—with each other, in terms of both their speculative density and difficulty and their little-known status in the English-speaking world. Concerning the latter, arguably, the discovery of the figures of Przywara and Ulrich has been precipitated by the ascendency of Hans Urs von Balthasar studies in the Anglophone world. Certainly, speaking of my itinerary of thought it was my interest in, and work on, the Swiss theologian that acted as a segue into the speculative genius of Przywara.

But the immediate question arises: if Przywara is a speculative genius and, indeed, if Analogia Entis is the greatest work in Catholic metaphysics in the twentieth century, as has been argued, then why was his work not readily translated into English like his other contemporaries such as Karl Rahner, Romano Guardini, Karl Adam, Augustine Bea, and not too far behind these figures, von Balthasar? The simple answer is the almost impenetrable Teutonic style, of the nearly expressionistic metaphysical prose that Przywara wrote in. The very same can be analogously applied to Ulrich’s dense Teutonic prose, although his style is certainly more restrained and less expressionistic than Przywara’s it is nonetheless almost hermetically sealed, as Martin Bieler notes in his fine introduction to the text.[2] Hence the deferral of these two great feats of Herculean translation.

But the puzzle is complicated when one makes the apposite comparison of these two texts with Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in terms of speculative difficulty and the commitment and demand it places on the reader. Indeed, William Desmond likens the experience of reading Hegel to beating one’s head against a wall. Reading Przywara and Ulrich, in both German and English, must likewise be likened to such an experience. But Hegel was never ignored, and Christian scholars and thinkers committed to studying him, seeking to unlock the speculative machinery and labyrinth which is his thought (as Bieler also notes in the introduction).[3] Indeed, many philosophers and theologians even began to enjoy, even love, this speculative Hegelian beating and tarrying with the negative to the point of bewitchment.

But for whatever reason the great German Catholic speculative lights—that were able to match Hegel’s system—never caught on in the English-speaking world. Przywara was forgotten after a few writings of his appeared in English early on and Ulrich was simply not known until now. Yet there is cause to rejoice with the timely translations of these two monumental texts of high Catholic metaphysical and speculative genius. Indeed, this speculative bruising is beginning to be embraced by many a Catholic thinker in both philosophy and theology. Przywara and Ulrich can no longer be ignored, and philosophical and theological thought can no longer take the easy way out.

One might even speculate that if this hard road of metaphysical reflection and speculation was not ignored by Christian thinkers in the first place then we would have avoided the dead-end one-way street of a Christian thinking that presumes to be post-metaphysical, as Jean-Luc Marion and his adepts used to propose. But was it not also the case that the Christian thinkers who whole-heartedly embraced postmodern thinking without metaphysics were rightfully discontented with the dead letter of Catholic Scholasticism that is still embraced (inexplicably) by not a few English-speaking Catholic philosophers and theologians? After putting in the hard work one sees how Przywara and Ulrich speak directly to the paucity of the above approaches. Both thinkers do this by incarnating imaginative metaphysical vision into the flesh and blood of a supple and finessed metaphysical mindfulness that brings us face-to-face with the metaphysical mysteries of human existence before the ever-greater mystery of the Christian God.

Before turning to Homo Abyssus it is helpful to briefly situate Ulrich within the various schools of creative and dialogical Thomism in the twentieth century. In terms of trend-setting approaches there are two major schools (I leave aside Analytical Thomism here). The first is what has come to be termed, “transcendental Thomism.” This school was inaugurated by the thinking of Pierre Rousselot, made famous by Joseph Marechal and Rahner and it is often said that it was to this school that Bernard Lonergan belonged. To oversimplify: this style of Thomism seeks to bring Aquinas into dialogue with the Kantian critique of metaphysics. It concentrates on the dynamism of the intellectual act, understood as an orientation towards absolute being.

This is enacted under the hermeneutic tactic of what Marechal called “transposition” which is—put simply—a way of reading and fusing the major philosophical intuitions and questions of one thinker onto another age and thinker. For example, in this approach you could never have a pure Aquinas or a pure Kant; each would be changed by the other in the dynamic act of living thought or the act of “transposition.”

The second major “school” is what is often termed “existential Thomism.” It is typified in Jacques Maritain and, especially, Etienne Gilson. Within the orbit of “existential Thomism” you also have Cornelio Fabro and Josef Pieper. Central to this approach is the act of being-itself or the “to be” and hence a strong emphasis is placed on being’s verbal nature. Major figures that one finds these thinkers dialoguing with are Bergson, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger.

Ulrich was neither a “transcendental Thomist” nor an “existential Thomist,” but rather a “speculative Thomist.” The main figure of speculative Thomism, on whom Ulrich is dependent, is Gustav Siewerth (Siewerth was indebted to Max Müller). Siewerth’s untranslated magnum opus is Thomism as a System of Identity. The roots of speculative Thomism can no doubt be traced to the great nineteenth century Catholic engagement with Hegel—much of which was condemned in Vatican I (think: Anton Günther). “Speculative Thomism” can be described as a creative unfolding of Thomism that is in dialogue with the great, yet ever-dangerous visonary themes of German Idealism and, especially, the all-encompassing system of Hegel. For both Siewerth and Ulrich the pivotal figure is Hegel. Yet things grow even more complicated as both immediately throw Heidegger into the mix. Hegel and Heidegger are thus the two major figures defining the problems that “speculative Thomism” is seeking to face.

Indeed, the whole of Homo Abyssus can be said to be a Christian welcoming and unwelcoming of Hegel and Heidegger into a specifically Christian speculative reflection on the unfolding of the event of creation and man’s dramatic response to the gift-character of being given-away by the Trinitarian God of love. I will unpack this momentarily. In passing it should be noted that Ulrich’s Homo Abyssus is also in conversation with the other two schools of Thomism mentioned. One finds Gilson, Fabro, Rousselot, Marechal and Rahner all mentioned. As well as Blondel and Louis Lavelle which shows Ulrich’s indebtedness to the thinking of French spiritual realism. Further, like Blondel’s Action (1893), Homo Abyssus is responding to Hegel with equally pan-logistic ambitions, now crystallized and baptized in a Christian logic of love that seeks to judge and reduce all thinking and acting of man to a yes or no to God. 

Ulrich also takes over Przywara’s brilliant reading of modern philosophy as a “pseudo-theology,” as elaborated in Analogia Entis (1932). Both are in agreement that the highest instance of pseudo-theology in philosophical modernity is Hegel’s speculative controlling of triune mystery and his swallowing up of theology by philosophy and the concept. Continuing the comparison with Analogia Entis it can certainly be argued that, like Homo Abyssus, the two key figures with which the text is contending is likewise Hegel and Heidegger. But in Przywara’s text one senses the sweep of the entire tradition of Western philosophy in his topologies which reflect the rhythmic polarity of analogical being: Parmenides/Heraclitus, Plato/Aristotle, Augustine/Aquinas, Hegel/Kierkegaard, Husserl/Heidegger.

One does not sense this same sweep in Homo Abyssus. Rather, one senses that the entire scope of the text is a metaphysical Christian contending with Hegel and, I am tempted to say, to an almost obsessional point. Heidegger is clearly determinative for the text, but Hegel is simply pervasive. Ulrich’s thinking, like Siewerth’s, consists in seeking to hold on to what they think best in Hegel speculation (one thinks of Claude Bruaire as well) while, at the same time, exorcising Geist. Both wish to meet Hegel on his own triadic speculative ground and explain how creation can be speculatively unfolded—on the basis of exemplary causality—without losing the distinct gift-character of creation, even if Ulrich goes much further in this regard than Siewerth.

Whereas, for example, a Przywara or Desmond think that this very ground is itself quicksand and they seek to take the fight fully outside the system. This is perhaps too simplistic, but I have worries as to Ulrich’s ultimate success over Hegel. But what I am prepared to say, at this point, is that Homo Abyssus is the Catholic text which has had the greatest success in staring down the barrel of Hegel’s speculative gun, even if Ulrich’s victory may not be absolute in ending the analogical war against totality.[4]

It is time for the baptism by fire: How does Ulrich’s speculative genius stare down the speculative barrel of Hegel’s rather large and complex gun? There is no easy way to translate Ulrich’s language into graspable terms. But I will do my utmost to allow for the reader an initial foothold. Ulrich seeks to show that creation can be speculatively unfolded in a way that does not essentialize being by initially hypostatizing being in the moment of Hegelian indeterminate vacuity/nothingness of empty being which must be negated (the negation of negation). Rather, Ulrich seeks to show that this Hegelian move is the paradigmatic form of human temptation that refuses to see that being never exists qua being but has always already been given away by God as a free gift.

Hegel’s system is the culmination of the original sin that refuses to receive creation as gift in a move to know and be like God, as we are told in Genesis. Here we feign to be sovereign masters of being and ourselves (substance become subject). Being is not a tertium quid that lies next to God or between God and creation, it is the medium/giving that has always already been given away. Being is never an empty nothing that exists, so to speak, in essentialized abstraction. It is superessential giving that is always—following the early and middle Heidegger—the being of beings. Being as the first created effect (understood again primarily on the basis of exemplary causality) of God is the image of divine goodness that is, in its ever-giving self-emptying (kenotic), always-already handed over to finite creation as the gift of the Trinitarian God. 

The whole of Homo Abyssus revolves around the speculative unfolding of this self-emptying mystery of being as love. Or what Ulrich calls, following Siewerth, the “movement of finitization.” The ground and center of the text then is a speculatively imaginative post-Hegelian/post-Heideggerian interpretation of one line in De potentia, I.I., where Aquinas says that being is: completum et simplex, sed non subsistens [being is complete and simple yet nonsubsistent]. Homo Abyssus is the great feat of this speculative unfolding of one line from Aquinas read in view of answering Hegel’s speculative logic of God’s unfolding within the becoming of creation, understood as the contradiction of the negation of negation.

Further, in Ulrich’s reading of Aquinas’ completum et simplex, sed non subsistens, as has already been partly noted, he reads this phrase through the lens of Heidegger’s ontological difference between being/beings. Being cannot be reduced to beings—as the ideal superessential positivity of act—but nor does it ever-exist as being qua being outside its self-emptying abandon to beings. Being is the being of beings but, at the same time, different from and not reducible to beings. Being is the light through which beings are and are seen.

Ulrich’s speculative unfolding of being’s paradoxical mystery of completum et simplex, sed non subsistens is divided into two parts. The first part of the text (pp. 9-222) unfolds the metaphysical structure of being’s movement of finitization in the ontological moments of reality, ideality, and bonicity, while the second part (pp. 225-487) shows how man is the very “focal point” or plumb line in which these ontological moments and movement occur. The latter part reveals the drama in the question of being and here Ulrich’s originality shines forth. Man must co-enact or co-create the very meaning and ordering of creation. Here it is remarkably (but not unproblematically) shown that man, understood as the capax entis, is the locus of being’s unfolding. Ulrich says, “the self-achievement of reason is at the same time the achievement of the self-unfolding of being in the three moments.”[5] The “inner tendency” of Homo Abyssus corresponds then to the plan of Hegel’s Logic and Phenomenology.[6]

Nevertheless, Ulrich gives a profoundly Christian incarnational and analogical twist to this Hegelian concern, insofar as he attempts to make sure that pneumatic reason is always already embodied and never abandons the domain of the sensible, or rather, the furthest reaches of being’s self-emptying loving descent in the maternal womb of matter. Man for Ulrich is always already—borrowing from Rahner—”Spirit in the world,” in via and the via here is the “little way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, as he beautifully describes his metaphysical thinking. Here he shows, with his friend and promoter von Balthasar, that Christian metaphysics is always a “metaphysics of the saints.”

As Spirit in the world, man ever lives between Spirit and world. Here our task is to think within the “luminous night of reason” that reflects and undergoes the drama of the “luminous night of being.” (This expression is drawn from John of the Cross, but also hearkens back to Pseudo-Dionysus’s “dazzling darkness”). Here being—as God’s giving—exchanges itself for the night and nothingness of matter, understood as the final stretching forth of love. Man, for Ulrich, is analogically between being’s superessential giving (Light/Spirit/our ability to think metaphysically) and the dark sensibility of fleshed and material beings (night/world/animality/sensing and matter).

If one tips the delicate analogical balance of our being but a little, we move towards either a Gnostic spiritualization of ourselves where being and spirit are univocalized into an identity (Hegel), thereby forgetting being’s superessential transcendence over man. Here we become angelic light-bearers bewitched by a false transcendence from the world. Or inversely, if we abandon being fully to the night of matter and the multiplicity of beings we are reduced to the equivocity of mere animality, pure sense/sensing (think of Deleuze) and materialization (Marx) where we reach a demonic chthonic underground that is the inverse side of the false transcendence of the “angelic” light-bearers. Both are demonic modes of thought that deny the incarnational reality of our analogical being ending, as Ulrich will say, with an “Anti-God.” 

Indeed, in many places in Homo Abyssus Ulrich’s language employs apocalyptic language and images from the Book of Revelation which shows that what is ultimately at stake in Christian metaphysics is the radical yes or no to Christ and triune love. For only Christ shows us fully the truth of being (light) and our humanity (night) in his self-giving (kenosis) and exchange in which he takes on the form of a slave and bears the nothingness of sin. Ulrich’s text transcends philosophy into theological depths because the God of creation and redemption is what assures us of the truth of our humanity, as revealed in the Word made flesh.

Ulrich’s thinking, like Przywara’s, is a gift to the Church in a time when we hardly know what it means to be Christian or human anymore. We must not give up on the hard metaphysical task of remembering our origin and end, the Alpha and Omega of our existence because as Ulrich is keen to remind us “grace arrives along the path of being.” Ulrich’s voice in Homo Abyssus resounds with possible answers to these questions and thus Ulrich and Schindler’s translation must be contemplated and celebrated. But both can only occur once we see that the task of being human and Christian belong together as the same task.

It is a dramatic task which we ourselves must perform, a task received from Christ incarnate and crucified and the triune love which he reveals, rather than seeing both our humanity and our Christian faith as dead facts which have arrived long ago. Rather, both are intertwined mysteries in which the abyss of infinite love calls out to the abyss of finite love, indeed, sounds the very depths of the nothing in an admirable exchange of places.  

EDITORIAL NOTE: The author wishes to thank D.C. Schindler for his generous email correspondence with him on some of the metaphysical questions covered by this essay.

[1] See my, Reimagining the Analogia Entis: The Future of Erich Przywara’s Christian Vision (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019). Foreword by Cyril O’Regan.

[2] Introduction in Homo Abyssus: The Drama of the Question of Being (Washington, DC: Humanum Academic, 2018), xvi. It also must be noted that Schindler wrote an indispensable guide to the text. See A Companion to Ferdinand Ulrich’s Homo Abyssus (Washington, DC: Humanum Academic, 2019).

[3] Introduction, xvi.

[4] My worry, which I will not develop in this contemplative celebration, is that by reviewing the Creator/creature relation on the basis of ideal exemplary identity to the point where finite creatures bears the mark of necessity and a certain absoluteness, comparable perhaps to Eckhart’s divine spark, runs the risk of not fully respecting the radical difference between God and creation, a difference without which God’s intimacy to creation always sways towards identity. This is my strong worry with Siewerth’s “system of identity” and it is not full abated by Ulrich’s rightful accenting of the third moment of the good (bonicity) in the “movement of finitization.” All of this, of course, demands explanation which is not possible here. 

[5] Homo Abyssus, 242

[6] Ibid., 281.


Featured Image: Hildegard of Bingen, The Universal Man, 13th century copy of her 12th century manuscript; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Philip Gonzales

Philip Gonzales is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the Pontifical University of St. Patrick's College Maynooth. He is the author of Reimagining the Analogia Entis: The Future of Erich Przywara's Christian Vision.

Read more by Philip Gonzales

Newman: Saint and Modern Doctor of the Church?

Erich Przywara, one of the most influential 20th c. theologians, argues that Cardinal Newman should not only be declared a saint, but a Doctor of the Church.

John Henry Newman Young