Theology Beyond Theology: Radicalizing Orthodoxy

The world today is in turmoil. It is united only by a decadent version of Western culture, which is the domination of all life by objectification and subjective valorization. Older and more spiritually integrated cultures struggle against this in order to reassert themselves, but often in the mode of what are also decadent echoes of the deep past, reduced for that reason to a merely modern assertion of raw power and identity.

Appeals to global unity are framed in terms of the Western mode of decadence: calls for us to abide by a formal, rules-based order, indifferent to ends, but alert to every preference, every fragmented assertion of desire and complaint. It is in these terms that we are supposed to be respectful of the cultural other and especially the non-Western other, but the overriding irony is that such a dual pluralism of value plus unity of supposedly brute fact is an entirely Western outcome, much at variance with the natural integralism of most human cultures, generally bound together by a religious representation of ultimate reality.

The more the West insists, instead, upon its older roots, the more it might be able to resonate with the other in a different and yet perhaps more deeply sympathetic way. Currently, global unity is conceived in starkly univocal terms and cultural difference is seen as arbitrary and equivocal, with, in consequence, a mounting conflict between the abstract anywhere and the defended somewhere in multiple guises. But were the West to rediscover its own more integrated aspect, might a more tempered mode of conflict arise, allied to a more realistic prospect of co-living and tolerance, founded upon the always open analogical resonance between cultures and civilizations?

To suggest this is not to seek to deny the advantages that have accrued from the separation of spheres and expertises in the Western past, nor of the prizing of the uniqueness of the individual and the desacralization of power which is allied to an increased sense of contingency, mutability, pragmatism, and experiment in working out the best political and social arrangements. But it is to suggest that this process has lost sight of its integrating spiritual vision which eventually became a Christian one. Without this vision, what dominates is, covertly, a distorted version of the same.

From Pythagoras and Socrates onwards, the West refused mere monism, pure physicalism, and pure atomism. It chose to understand reality as articulated and articulable by embodied intelligence, as answerable to questions, construable by grammar and modally alterable in traceable ways. Yet if the real was rational, it was also found to contain apparently irrational gaps of mathematical and ontological incommensurability and discontinuity. Spaces that were only seemingly traceable by another sort of “internal,” spiritual reality with its esprit de finesse.[1] Thus the Pythagoreans combined their interest in the mystery of geometric mediation with a new stress upon human friendship and on direct spiritual communication as the foundation of the city.[2]

So, for the ancient Greeks, embodied things were real, but irreducible intelligence was also real, along with their shared mediating sphere of soul, which shapes life and propels motion. In the case of Plato, all of reality starts to be thought of as an aesthetic and ethical mediation between the ineffable One and the mystery of the addition of difference.[3] In a certain sense, the person was already present, plus relationality was already philosophically central, and just for these reasons the city was already conceived as being at once naturally sacred destiny and a voluntary one. The merging of the Classical outlook with the Biblical one intensified these features. Now even the Absolute comes to be more emphatically viewed as the subjectively judged interplay of the One with the Many, while matter as mere matter so nearly vanishes as to become entirely transparent to the workings of the Logos. Equivalently, the divine Logos so transcends the realm of finite existences that it can be envisaged either as beyond being or as pure to-be, fully opening to view for the first time the ontological difference between beings and Being as such.

The absolute reason that now so completely emanates or gives itself as to bring things about is also an absolute will, whose own eternal thinking is a kind of bringing itself about, though without any normal ontic reflexivity that would render it a real causa sui; a reasoning that is also generation or eventuating. In extension of Plotinus, God is now accordingly seen (as in Victorinus and Maximus) to be as much in motion as he is at rest, since, beyond Aristotle, who disintegrated motion into indefinitely minute moments of activity and potential, kinetic transition is now accorded full ontological dignity and is regarded as intensified, not inhibited by thought (these being points that Aquinas had later lost sight of). Motion is now perceived to be in a manner already spiritual, and intellectual reflexivity to be in one respect an infinitely rapid motion or temporal duration; the Plotinian insight later recovered in modern times by Félix Ravaisson and Henri Bergson.

Finitizing Creation and eternal Generation can even come to coincide, and, in fact, have come to coincide within the unfolding of Creation in historical time. The Bible records for us the arrival of truth itself upon earth as apocalyptic disclosure of a truth that is itself an infinite event and a future advent as well as being a current performance. In consequence, truth is now additionally a finite event or deed, and it is the deed of a subject who is wholly identified with this truth. Truth is objectively done or made, but it is also subjectivity; somehow both at once.

The integration of the West depends upon keeping these two facets of the gospel together and linking them to a re-inscribed, not abandoned metaphysical vision that is present in more narrative and symbolic modes in the Hellenistic writings of Judaism and yet kindred to the conceptual vision of the Greeks. Created reality symbolically participates in the absolute; apocalyptic or revelatory disclosures of this absolute are further disclosures of eternal truth, eternal divine creativity, generation, self-relation, and response, conjuring the divine theurgically to bear upon the present in ritual performances, but both promising and enticing also its further arrival in future unspecified moments, threatening human cultural structures with both destruction and renewal, besides its ultimate arrival at the end of time when the division between the outer and the forecourts of God will be mysteriously blurred.

Eventually, as we know too well, this vision of an integration of reality, despite the allowance of difference, comes undone. The vision of eternal gnosis and its mediation is lost, and in consequence the two facets of gospel truth are prised apart from each other, coming now to be in tension, though also in reinforcing mutual collusion. Truth is on the one hand a concrete and publically ascertainable construct; on the other, it is personal preference. It is on the one hand science, to be revered, and on the other hand, fashion, to be enjoyed. As the forgotten Michael Foster and the slightly less forgotten R.G. Collingwood argued in the 1930s, Christian doctrine, especially of the Trinity and Incarnation, remains the ultimate metaphysical presupposition of the West, but it has become fragmented and self-concealing, rather than merely “no longer believed in,” as if that were so crudely possible.[4]

Thus, the Platonic anticipations of the Trinity persist: the West and now the World still seeks to link unity with plurality and to find pattern in motion. The gospel radicalization of the Platonic Trinity still persists: science still seeks both to realize and to confirm truth in outcome. Yet, it is now too rarely allowed that more subjective and emotional performances can also be newly arriving quasi-apocalyptic disclosures, that at once improve the finite through teleologically-oriented addition, open to view more of the eternal and give us some hope of future, unknown transfiguration. In consequence, the arts, with many giant exceptions (like the wonderful English composer of modernist musical mysteries who has just died: Harrison Birtwistle) have increasingly descended into diversion and trivia.

Conversely, we have allowed the entirely valid sphere of operational truth, which is science, to perversely and overwhelmingly determine our sense of what truth as such is taken to be. The gospels opened to view (completing the intimations of Platonism) the idea that truth is inherently “poetic” (because at once self-expressive and self-sacrificial) and that the moving and transformative can be fully meaningful. But today poesis has been reduced to mere techne and the surplus over the technical consigned to a problematic oscillation between the sheerly wilful and the untraceably aleatory. The decadence of the West is literally the decadence of Christian doctrine.

A coherent Christian discourse, of the kind that prevailed up till the year 1200, and somewhat more problematically up until 1300, knew no real divisions between theology, philosophy, and history. Ancient philosophy had already been about the best way of life as well as abiding truth and it was already familiar with ideas of revelatory oracles, of faith, and of transformative grace, however greatly heightened these may be by the New Testament vision—which is as much an exacerbation of Greek notions as it is of Hebraic tradition. Christian thought was for a long time mainly Christian philosophy, rethinking the Logos as the Word of Creation, of Incarnation, and of the Cross; rethinking truth as also subjective and temporal, as with Augustine; rethinking knowledge as always dependent upon testimony and faith; rethinking the Unity of God as inherently Trinitarian, rethinking God as also and eternally human, in the case of Gregory of Nyssa, and later Maximus and Eriugena, who consummated Patristic reflection.

On the basis of this transformation, the entire ancient classification of reality underwent revision. Typically, but variously: accidents came to be seen more emphatically as modal transformations of substance itself within the now more hierarchically integrated reality of Creation;[5] universal genera were seen as pre-including their exemplifications; individual exemplifications were inversely seen as fully containing the universals after the Adamic, Trinitarian, and Christological examples.[6] Extending the Neoplatonic critique of Aristotle, hypostases, or processes of determination that are also determined outcomes, were added to categorical classification, resulting in the Trinitarian and Christological sense of personhood as peculiarly monadic: as being unique and irreplaceable perspectival character and yet also a site of universal and general inclusion.[7] The Neoplatonic trumping of horizontal difference between substance and attribute by hierarchical degrees of being was accepted and yet a novel horizontality of hypostases themselves was now projected into the Godhead.

This horizontality was combined with a new vertical coincidence of opposites and a collapsing of the ontological difference while yet sustaining it, through the force of a single hypostatic action itself, in the case of the Incarnation. In this case, the non-competition of the incommensurable levels of the infinite and the finite paradoxically allows their coincidence, and yet for this to be a complete and seemingly impossible combination, and not merely non-rivalry of the two in Christ (who is infinite and finite, “both at once”), there has to be a fusion in terms of substantial personality or character, which is supplied wholly from the divine side (as nothing can be added to God) and yet wholly subsumes and coincides with a finitely individual realization of assumed universal human nature (according to the “communication of idioms”). The same sense that the divine transcendence of the ontic paradoxically allows and even requires a coincidence with it permits a new conception of the drastic transformability of matter in the case of Resurrection and Eucharist, besides a new sense, only fully realized as late as Leibniz, that the “bond” that holds any reality together, both essentially and existentially, is both mysterious and of direct divine derivation.[8]

Today, I think that an engagement with Buddhist skepticism can help us see how this bond also transgresses the operation of the Law of Non-Contradiction (while of course not denying its absolute regional validity). Each thing as being by definition bounded is at once within and outside itself; at once self-included and self-excluded. Every reality, every res, is an extra-logical miracle that crosses an impossibly incommensurable gulf between a limited interior and an unlimited exterior.[9] The iconic hypostasis that is each thing (and supremely the spiritual thing) exists as a radical discontinuity, as Pavel Florensky surmised.[10]

Throughout all this Christian philosophical revision, the ancient aporiae of the One and the Many, of Being as non-generic, of Substance as being at once concrete thing and essence, and of the different meanings of substance at different hypostatic or modal levels were transformed by the force of Christian belief and teaching. The ontological difference of Being from beings was more foregrounded; the different roles of substance were equalized under the aegis of relationality and generative process; the coherence of being was understood to be ineffably analogical and apophatic in a set of rising degrees of real negations.

In horizontal and temporal terms, the negative opening of the human upon uncertainty and unfulfillment was held to witness to the arrival of the gift of grace as an inherent part of the entire created order whose only destiny, as deriving from God, can only be to return to him, yet without loss of his outgoing Creation. In this light, the addition of history to given reality is an essential addition, whose unfolding is nothing other than the story of the vertical circulation told with an apocalyptic unfolding of the secret that this is also a divine journey in the opposite direction, and a journey of divine-human sorrow and triumph, given the subversion of reality by angelic powers and their human allies that has to be atoningly borne and overcome.

It is clear that our current discourse of university theology has often little to do with this, but is based rather upon an incoherent segregation of history as providing supposed factual foundations, from philosophy as providing supposed rational and conceptual ones, and both from systematic theology as confusingly seeking to blend these two sources of authority. The whole machinery is set up in order to ensure that theology proper remains in a subordinate place in relation to history and philosophy and is unable to reenvisage these in any drastic manner: all it can do is put a gloss upon them or add a new and purely positive supernatural layer that will in reality be itself conceived in empiricist and rationalist terms. When this enterprise finally dies, as it shortly will, in all probability, all one should say is good riddance.

In our current academic era, all the ironies multiply. Much theology has largely been predetermined by its obeisance to dominant current philosophies. In the last century, these were overwhelmingly post-Kantian and anti-metaphysical. Yet now secular philosophy itself worries that Kant was too anti-realist, too anthropocentric, and too closed-off from many developments in modern science and mathematics—especially in his finitism, in contrast to the, in this respect, more modern Leibniz. Theology is consequently wrong-footed, and yet it should reflect that in reality the two dominant modes of philosophy in recent times, the analytic and the phenomenological, both genealogically derive from Catholic late scholasticism—the pivotal figure here being Bernard Bolzano—and that both, in the qualified wake of both Descartes and Kant, offer essentially conservative citadels of epistemological, logical or phenomenal certainty in the face of a nature that seems subject to endless mutation and open to endless transformation by human beings. They are essentially philosophies of passivity concerning either given facts and appearances, or else given operations of reason and language, and not philosophies of life, ineffable feeling, relational connection and creative process.

And yet the curious truth is that it is exactly the reduction of reality to inertia, or the tout fait, as Bergson put it, that encourages the sense that it is completely fixable and controllable, and that thinking is a matter of following algorithms for the sake of predictability and control. In this way the Cartesian seizure of the Baconian Christian sense that truth as charity is to do with producing a outcome (a sense that can be construed mystically and symbolically, as by either Comenius or much later C.S. Pierce) ensures that this sense will be taken in a one-sided scientistic and technologizing way.[11]

The further irony then is that Christian obeisance to current philosophy, as towards current social science, turns out to be merely an obeisance towards a distorted legacy of Christian thinking. By now, the genealogical details have been filled in by many scholars, drastically qualifying Heidegger’s tracing of the rise of onto-theology.[12] Where once metaphysics in a Neoplatonic trajectory concerned equally both God and Being (and both in coincidence) it became first to be primarily about Being, with God potentially reduced to an ontic item within this general field, then about Being as innately univocal and so as clear and distinct, and then about the clear and distinct which is obviously more to do with our knowledge of being than with being as such. In this way, what we today think of as “metaphysics,” which is primarily ontology with a reserved possibility of the undertaking of natural theology, was only ever a “grey ontology” in Jean-Luc Marion’s phrase; it was always, at least from Suarez onwards, already in itself half “critically” overturned into epistemology, with a resulting theoretical skepticism in consequence about the existence of God, real things, the soul, and ontological selfhood.

We now know that Kant never entertained for consideration anything like what we find in Aquinas, and that his conclusions, far from marking a revolutionary new critical epoch, were on one measure only a more drastic sustaining of a Baroque conservatism in the face of the Renaissance, with its pantheistic and Promethean dangers, and yet, at the same time, most notably with Cusanus, its promise to extend the Patristic and Boethian tradition in terms of a new metaphysics of participated creativity in the case of both nature and humanity.

This would have been a real Western modernity, whereas the modernity we actually have is a sort of reactionary resistance born of a corruption of the Christian metaphysical trajectory. Of course, an alternative and more radical modernity has always lurked in the shape of Spinoza, yet his thought also was marked by neo-scholastic rationalism, and just for this reason was unable to think analogy and relational tension. Instead, by following Suarez and erecting modal variations into real differences, it was forced either to think of the one divine substance as canceled out by the modes that express him, or of those modes as concealing his monistic reality.[13] This is in effect a license for ceaseless transhuman and nihilistic reconfiguration of the real.

The genius of Jacobi realized the hidden similarity between the Kantian and the Spinozan twists upon the neo-scholastic legacy: in either case, we face a shuttle between two nothings: of appearances, which are untrue, and noumena, which are inaccessible in the former case; between modes which are full but secondary, and substance which is empty but primary in the latter.[14] Jacobi was, of course, an amateur and a journalist. But that is significant. For while, on the whole, theologians have slavishly tried to accommodate themselves to supposedly neutral secular philosophies that are just twisted Christian reflection, a whole cavalcade of “outsiders” to academic theology, and sometimes academic philosophy, have instead continued to realize that the potential of reason in the West is only the potential of Christian reason—even if you happen to be an atheist.

Thus, Jacobi himself suggested that all reason relies upon a kind of religious faith and trust in reality; Hegel and Schelling developed further, in however debatable a fashion, the implications of the Trinity for logic and metaphysics, with Pierce later taking this up in Schelling’s wake. Kierkegaard took much further the thought that truth is subjective and that Christ redefined philosophy as existential commitment and performance. Maine de Biran realized that the Christian focus upon the incarnation of mind in body points to the truth that the body, and corporeal feeling (in the wake of the real, Malebranche-influenced, Scottish Hume!), is a zone that transcends the contrast of inner and outer, rendering metaphysics as epistemology impossible.[15]

Both Biran and Ravaisson argued that only the reality of grace makes sense of the natural and primordial dominance of habit, since habit would seem to be something that has to come to be, impossibly before itself. It is therefore only comprehensible if being itself, which is always active, is love and self-donation.[16] Maurice Blondel, exiled by fanatics of laicité from Paris to Aix-en-Provence, argued that thought and action also of themselves call for grace, because they are constitutively incomplete.[17] Rosmini, Bulgakov, and Simone Weil all variously suggested that only a Trinitarian ontology makes sense of our relational oscillation between me as containing the world in awareness and the world as containing me in our shared materiality. Or more generally that such an ontology alone makes sense of the oscillation between the open “I” of each subject or substance and the objective modal propositionality that alone defines its identity. In either case, the existential and copulative synthesis is taken to be creative action that is teleologically disclosive as well as ontologically mediating and ethically reconciling.[18]

In other words, while theology, by failing to be also philosophy and history, was rendering itself irrelevant, various noble mavericks continued to sustain something like the abandoned Renaissance enterprise of developing a metaphysics of creative participation in divine Creation and the inner divine Trinity, thereby adding a historically aware horizontal dimension to what was already the vertical perspective of Eriugena, who had distinguished hypostatic levels of nature according to their relationship to the creative process. And indeed, as time passes, it is always the names of these mavericks, heterodox or orthodox, who survive and whose books are read, not those of academic functionaries.

In the twentieth century, the Biranian legacy in particular, for which the cogito opens directly upon being in general, rather than corralling a substantive thinking substance within narcissistic representation, gave rise to the Christian philosophies of Weil, of Blondel, of Marcel, and even of Bergson, whose superficially differing outlooks are now shown to share a great deal in common, and which possess affinities both with Russian sophiology and Anglo-Saxon attempts to mediate between empiricism and German idealism in the cases of T.H. Green, F.H. Bradley, C.S. Pierce, A.N. Whitehead, and R.G. Collingwood.[19] A convergence upon a philosophy of mediation and creativity, and consequently upon a Trinitarian and Christological ontology, is detectable in each of these lineages.

Furthermore, what we can now see, thanks to the work of Andrea Bellantone, William Desmond, Emmanuel Gabellieri, and others, is that in fact the purportedly “anti-metaphysical” stance of modern philosophy, both analytic and Continental, was itself one continued outcome of metaphysics as debasedly understood ever since Duns Scotus and cannot be taken to be its post-metaphysical antidote (it is no accident that Heidegger’s first thesis was about a Scotist text). For this philosophy is still after all metaphysics reduced to univocal ontology and so inevitably become epistemology, but now modified in order to look more objective by focussing exclusively upon the newly discovered “third world” modes either of appearances or of logical-linguistic quantification, deemed indifferent at once to normal strong reality and to merely psychological subjectivity.

A great deal, it should be said (emphatically) has thereby been valuably discovered by modern philosophy, but no modes of being are exclusive; appearances are always linguistically structured and linguistic structures always “show” something in excess of themselves. Within this interplay we are after all ineluctably forced to “speculate” in an ontological mode about the hidden consistencies that lurk behind the manifest, as Husserl was highly aware (and yet, in effect, suppressed) and in so speculating we cannot divide our theorizing from what we decide to do in practice. We read what shows itself as disclosive signs and we interpret by acting just as we act by interpreting. In so doing, we commit our bodies and our futures to our faithful and integral “conjectures” in the Cusan sense, which are no abstract speculations, but emotionally engaged existential stances, putting us potentially at psychic risk. In other words, because our lives and thoughts still take a Trinitarian and Incarnational shape, we still act like Christians.

Perhaps the success of what, as I have suggested, is literally Christian natural science, has revealed to the world Christian truth. But if so, only in a perverse way, only one-sidedly by reducing everything to represented and controlled objects. Beyond the proof that the philosophy of success succeeds, we need to unleash the wider Christian philosophy of benign, beautiful, and interpersonal theurgic arrivals under grace.

In doing so, we need to abolish theology and recover a blending of theology, philosophy, and history, as Collingwood suggested long ago. What characterizes such an enterprise above all is an awareness that Christianity, despite its mediated dualism in continuity with Plato (after Pythagoras and Socrates), does not compromise a shared Eurasian monism, nor a shared near-Oriental monotheism. In contrast to Spinoza’s lurking dualism of the whole substance over the modes which inevitably deceive us, Neoplatonic or Vedantic emanation is the most monistic that one can get.

In a sense, it already confronted our historicist and meta-philosophical anxieties which we cannot now avoid. Is not any philosophical system an arbitrary decision as to what determines and what is determined (spirit or matter, for example)?[20] Is it not also an arbitrary decision as to which mode to privilege: the object, the senses, thought, the phenomena, the imagination, language, mathematics, actuality or potentiality, etc.[21] But an emanative philosophy allows that there is but one “flow” of and from the One and that even the ordered descending hypostases are, from another point of view, equally valid modal perspectives: indeed, that even the One itself both is and is not such a perspective.

None of that is denied by Christianity, which in fact builds upon such a perspective: nor does Christianity deny the unity and simplicity of God. To the contrary, the suspicion of idols in the Old Testament is the suspicion of gods, not as to their reality, but as to their ultimacy and cultic subversion of our attention. It is just for this reason that these Scriptures possess already a latently “gnostic” bent, which in time increases the suspicion that lesser gods, or angels or daemons, have interfered with created reality: for the book of Enoch this includes precisely the suspicion that human technology derives from secrets that dubious angels, like the Titan Prometheus, should never have let us in upon. The New Testament is the record of the in-breaking of a secret deeper than the knowledge of such control already promised by Enoch, Jubilees, and kindred writings: the truth that submission in love is more powerful than power: the real, ultimate, public gnosis.[22]

But it belongs to this ultimate apocalypse, which comprises the whole of the gospels, that we should not idolize even the one: the true One is also many, is only established in unity by repeating himself without going outside himself, and by becoming self-aware of this. Similarly, the true One, being such innate generosity, also does go outside himself into even the limited by limiting or withdrawing himself (as both Weil and Blondel taught, in line with the Lurianic Kabbalah) and yet of course cannot do so, being omnipresent, and therefore must at some mysterious point coincide also with the extra of limitation, scarcity, and rarity which now takes on an unexpected value as such.

Thus, if the Creation was pre-thought in the Logos, it was also pre-thought in a Son of God who is equally a Son of Man, in a mediating figure who, like Sophia his mother, was always already there with God, who has now arrived and yet remains the one to come. Were it not that God is also Man there could be no redemption, because otherwise to refuse God is simply to exit reality. But read with objectivity, the New Testament again and again suggests that the Incarnation is as much or more a matter of the revealing of a hidden celestial truth than it is the narrative report of the realization of this truth for the sake of our salvation. How could it be otherwise?

God who is God does not lack anything in himself, not even free generosity that extends beyond himself. It is madness to think that he adds generosity to himself by a decision to create that he might not have taken: a true humility instead realizes that Creation shows God to be innately creative in ecstasy, just as he is innately relational in enstasy—only outside himself because within himself, but only within himself because outside himself. And only infinite and all-inclusive because also including the finite which is not all-inclusive; so only finite (as Eriugena’s “created god”) because he is the kenosis of the infinite which is inherent to it.[23]

Christianity, therefore, in its very particularity, is still a thinking of the perennial and the universal, common to all of Eurasia and perhaps to the entire globe. If we can recover a measured Christian integralism of thought and practice, in the wake of so many “esotericists” like John Pordage, J.C. Oetinger, Louis Martin, Emmanuel Swedenborg, William Blake, or Franz von Baader (who turn out merely to have been, at least in some measure, more radically and authentically orthodox), then maybe we will be able to communicate better with other cultural legacies and offer them something more than debased Christianity as scientism.

From our fellow, ancient, non-western Christians in Africa and the Near East perhaps we need to learn things; attend to the implications of their much larger biblical canon, which includes many more inter-testamental apocalyptic texts and so tends to favor a stronger sense of Christ’s fused unity, albeit in perhaps unsatisfactory ways.

From further East, we need to relearn a certain monism, while not falling into the caricatures of the East as totally adverse to the recognition of finite stability and individual interruption which have often been proposed by Westerners anxious to fantasize an alternative to Christianity from Schopenhauer onwards.[24] Yet the balance between unity, essence, and personhood suggested by the central Christian doctrines and the implications of the idea that “beyond” even the essential Trinitarian unity of God lies the “personal” Christological unity that binds Creator and Creation together in one consistent but open character and style, remains surely suggestive of a universal revision of our sense of the universal. Neither unity nor individuality are ultimate; relationality and shared idiom matter just as much, but without abolishing either unity or the individual. It is so obviously a matter of politics as much as philosophy.

As Maurice Blondel taught, the point is both linkage and addition.[25] Metaphysics discovers links, but also adds them. Practice links by addition but also discovers new connections. Thereby theory and practice are one for a Christian metaphysics “of a higher degree” that is also an ethical and political practice.

How to get there? One simple, final suggestion. The more it seems that we turn against Christianity, the more secular philosophers write books discovering just how Christian we are. They write books about the Bible often much more discerning than those written by believers or by Biblical critics.[26] Does this not suggest that we need to break with our primordial Christian practice in the West, however humanistically admirable, of first training children in the classical and supposedly secular myths and truths, and only offering the Bible and the Christian legacy in a Sunday compartment, or later or to a selected few? Would it not be better here to copy other, more integrated religious cultures, and from the very outset offer children, in an open and non-didactic way, the Hebraic and Christian as well as classical sources of our civilizational legacy?

One way or another, our response as Christians to the crisis of our times should be the demand to people in the West, whether they think that they believe or not, that they reconsider the ineluctable character of its Christian identity. The first question to be posed is whether they are the unwitting victims of a long deformation and obfuscation of that identity, which the West has now imposed on everyone else? The next question is: can we today recover that identity and repeat it differently?

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay was originally one of the twenty papers delivered at the major international conference, The Future of Christian Thinking held at St Patrick’s Pontifical University in Maynooth, Ireland. The event was hosted by the Faculty of Philosophy and organized by Drs. Philip John Paul Gonzales and Gaven Kerr. For more information see here.

[1] See Emmanuel Gabellieri, “Incommensurabilité et mediation. La triple puissance de la métaphysique” in Emmanuel Tourpe ed., Penser L’Être de L’Action (Leuven: Peeters, 2000), 101-17.

[2] Simone Weil, ‘The Pythagorean Doctrine’ in Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks, trans. Elizabeth Chase Geissbuhler (London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976), 151-201; Emmanuel Gabellieri, “Le pythagorisme comme métaphysique à venir: La question du vinculum chez le dernier Blondel” in Maurice Blondel et la métaphysique (Paris: Parole et Silence, 2016), 91-109.

[3] See both articles by Gabellieri, who argues against Heidegger that what the West has forgotten is not Being, but the analogical mediation between Being and beings: the Platonic and then the Christian Trinity. To suggest instead that it has forgotten Being is for him to remain Parmenidean and to overlook the specificity of the Western legacy. Though for how its triadism might relate to a wider Eurasian monism (and by implication, the Platonic triad to the Neoplatonic One), see the end of this essay.

[5] See Robert Pasnau, Metaphysical Themes, 1274-1671 (Oxford: OUP, 2013), 183-5. The view that only substance really exists, with accident being its mode, tends to be a Dominican one, as in Albert, Aquinas, and Eckhart.

[6] See Christophe Erismann, L’Homme Commune: la genèse du réalisme ontologique Durant le haut Moyen Âge (Paris: J.Vrin, 2011).

[7] See Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: SUP, 2015), ‘An Archeology of Ontology’, 111-175.

[8] The Leibniz-Des Brosses Correspondence, ed. Brandon C. Look and Donald Rutherford (New Haven, CN: Yale UP, 2007). And see Emmanuel Gabellieri, “Le pythagorisme comme métaphysique à venir.” Leibniz’s sense of a divine bond uniting things is, however, too ontically direct, suppressing the difference between incommensurable levels of causation, and needs to be thought of in more participatory terms.

[9] See Graham Priest, One: Being an Investigation into the Unity of Being and of its Parts, including the Singular Object which is Nothingness (Oxford: OUP, 2016).  

[10] Pavel Florensky, At the Crossroads of Science and Mysticism, trans. Boris Jakim (Kettering OH: Angelico, 2014); The Meaning of Idealism; the Metaphysics of Genus and Countenance (New York: Angelico, 2020).

[11] Lefèvre d’Étaples was a link between Cusanus and the Baconians with respect to knowing as making. Bacon gets rid of the Trinitarian aspect to this, which Comenius later restores. See John Milbank, “Religion, Science and Magic: Rewriting the Agenda” in After Science and Religion: Fresh Perspectives from Philosophy and Theology (Cambridge: CUP, 2022), 75-143.

[12] See, for example, the essays in Jean-Marc Narbonne and Luc Langlois ed., La Métaphysique: Son Historie, Sa Critique, Ses Enjeux (Paris: J.Vrin, 1999).

[13] The “modal distinction” in Scotus and Suarez sees the accident as having some separate “mode” of distinction from the substance, where the Dominicans like Aquinas saw the accident as only an entirely non-separable mode of the substance. Just how this was the case was left obscure, but perhaps necessarily obscure, for a more participatory outlook. See Agamben, The Use of Bodies, 146–75; Pasnau, Metaphysical Themes, 244–74.

[14] See John Milbank, “Hamann and Jacobi: the Prophets of Radical Orthodoxy” in. J. Milbank, C. Pickstock and G.Ward eds., Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (London: Routledge, 1998), 21–37. The current essay is in a sense a sequel to that one: with “radical orthodoxy,” implying the radical subversiveness of traditional orthodoxy, now also involving a “radicalized orthodoxy,” or the contention that more marginal and sometimes dubiously regarded Christian thinkers, who thought through to the end the inherent paradoxes of orthodox doctrine, are “yet more orthodox” and are crucial for the future of Christian thought. See also Conor Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism: Philosophies of Nothing and the Difference of Theology (London: Routledge, 2003).

[15] See John Milbank, “The Psychology of Cosmopolitics” in The Resounding Soul: Reflections on the Metaphysics and Vivacity of the Human Person eds. Eric Austen Lee and Samuel Kimbriel (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015), 78–90.

[16] See John Milbank, “The Mystery of Reason,” in The Grandeur of Reason: Religion, Tradition and Universalism, ed. Peter M. Candler Jr and Conor Cunningham (London: SCM, 2010), 68–117; Andrea Bellantone, La Métaphysique Possible: Philosophes de l’esprit et modernité (Paris: Hermann, 2012); “Le sacrifice comme horizon de l’être” in Jean-Louis Vielllard-Baron ed., Le Supplément d’âme ou le renouveau du spritualisme (Paris: Hermann, 2016), 89–103.

[17] See John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 210–20; Gabellieri, “Incommensurabilité et Médiation”; Marie-Jeanne Coutagne, “Sur la puissance de la métaphysique,” in Tourpe, Penser L’Être de L’Action, 85–100; Emmanuel Tourpe, “De L’Être comme idole à l’Être comme amour: La contribution philosophique décisive de Blondel” in Coutagne and Monzano, Maurice Blondel et la métaphysique, 155–67.

[18] See John Milbank; “Foreword” to Sergij Bulgakov, The Tragedy of Philosophy (New York: Angelico, 2020); “Trinitarian ontology and the division of being: a Rosminian reflection” in Sophia, III. No 2, 2021, 189–231; Simone Weil, “The Pythagorean Doctrine.”

[19] See Bradley, Collected Essays.

[20] This is the question raised by François Laruelle. See his Philosophy and Non-Philosophy, trans. Taylor Adkins (Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota UP, 2013).

[21] See Étienne Souriau, The Different Modes of Existence, trans Erik Beranek and Tim Howles (Minneapolis, MN: Univocal, 2015).

[22] See David Bentley Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse: an Essay on the Future of Christian Belief (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2022); Jean Vioulac, Apocalypse of Truth: Heideggerian Meditations, trans. Matthew J. Peterson (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2021). But my perspective on apocalypse is more akin to Hart’s than to Vioulac’s.

[23] I am much indebted here to the crucially more rigorous new approach opened up to the New Testament by David Hart: see David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (Yale, NH: Yale UP, 2017). Also to John Behr and Daniel Jordan Wood. Hart has at last released the Bible from its Teutonic Protestant captivity. An epochal event.

[24] See François Cheng, Vide et Plein: Le langage pictural chinois (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1991).

[25] On the metaphysics of addition, see also Rowan Williams’ masterwork, On the Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

[26] For example, the treatments of the New Testament by Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben and François Jullien.

Featured Image: Anselm Kiefer, Saint Merrie, taken by Fred Romero; Source: Flickr, CC BY 2.0.


John Milbank

John Milbank is Emeritus Professor of Politics, Religion and Ethics at the University of Nottingham where he is also President of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy. His most recent book, written with Adrian Pabst, is The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future.

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