Prepositional knowledge


From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever!”    (Rom 11.36)

To hear God in Scripture is to see oneself (James 1). To see oneself truly is to see God – to see God speaking me into existence, painting me into being. To know oneself is to know the truth about oneself, and that means experiencing oneself as given. Acknowledgment of this is all we truly give back to the God who gives us life and being – to know ourselves within the absolute priority of God’s initiative, of God before all things, in all things, beyond all things, “from whom and through whom and to whom are all things.” We possess ourselves, the purpose, meaning and fullness of our existence, prepositionally. Can “I” be something over and above this? Can “I” possess a truth that exceeds these prepositions? No, the gift I am given to be is the gift I am given to see, and that is to see and know myself as the truth and beauty of being “from,” “through,” and “to” God.

Mary quite contrary?


I just finished a wonderful book, Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ, by Aaron Riches. It’s as informed and clear an exposition of Conciliar Christology as you’ll find. I read it on the heels of having finished Timothy Pawl’s equally excellent (but very different in its approach) In Defense of Conciliar Christology. I was with Riches all the way through his project until he expounded a Mariology of co-redemption that caught me by surprise and about which I have grave reservations. I’ll leave the reservations for now and just relay the relevant portions from Riches. Too much of the standard Protestant/Evangelical response to such claims about Mary are knee-jerk reactions that don’t engage the best, most serious attempts to express Mary’s unique status and role. It’s no surprise that Evangelicals are uncomfortable appreciating Mary. They do well talking about Abraham as the “Father” of the faith. They’re not so keen on owning Mary as the “Mother” of the faith.

There are foundational agreements I have with Riches’ treatment of Mary – that the Son has “two nativities,” that Christ’s concrete, human nature is ex Maria (of/from Mary), that her God-given role extends beyond that of being merely a receptacle to incubate and deliver Jesus). Evangelicals could do with some prolonged reflection upon the humanity of Christ ex Maria. And Riches got me reflecting upon the matter, which I appreciate. My reservations have to do with conclusions Riches draws (for example, that Mary not only is the source of Jesus’ human nature, but that she is “constitutive within the experience of mystical encounter with Jesus”) which are neither explicitly conciliar nor follow obviously from conciliar claims. Let me just share the relevant portions of Riches book at this point (from chs 10, “Son of Mary,” and 11 “The Weight of the Cross”) and leave you to reflect on them.

…[Th]e Logos did not assume a human person or the ontological infrastructure of a fully individuated human being, but rather assumed human nature so as to himself constitute the existence of this human being.

Whence this human nature? Whence its concrete inheritance? Here Riches maintains (rightly) that the Logos…

…truly receives his particular human nature ex Maria; indeed he allows his human particularity to be constituted in its specificity by her flesh, by her humanity, by her concrete genealogy and by the history of her people. The Son, in his incarnate nature, is truly a persona composita [a compound personal existence]; he is irreducibly both ex Patre and ex Maria. This is not to say that the Incarnate Son possesses an individuated mode of being discrete from his divine individuality…rather, it is to say that the particularity of Jesus’ human nature is concretely inherited in a way that it cannot be understood solely in reference to his eternal filiation…Just as the divinity of Christ is only knowable in terms of his concrete filiation from the Father…so analogously the Incarnation [Tom: or better, “humanity”] is only specified by the filiation of Jesus from Mary.

Riches describes the derivation of humanity from Mary as occurring within…

…a field of concrete relationality [that is] enabled by the fluid exchange of the Jesus-Mary relation; it begins at the Annunciation, continues through the Incarnation and is re-incarnated in every mystical encounter with Christ, which can only take place within concrete history as an unrepeatable event of the recognition of a genuine ‘other’, a historical figure with a genealogy who cannot be reduced to an abstraction. Thus the “unceasing, fluid exchange with the Theotokos”…is rooted, not only in the fact that Jesus in the Incarnation proceeds ex Maria, but also in the fact that she is constitutive within the experience of mystical encounter with Jesus. The particularity of the human Jesus cannot be thought of or accounted for outside the Jesus-Mary relation because the esse personale [personal nature] of the divine Son is human only to the extent that he receives himself ex Maria.

…the ex Maria procession cannot simply be subsumed within the ex Patre fact of who the Incarnate Son is. The Incarnate Son is persona composite, as Constantinople II designated. This means that the “enhypostatization” of the Son’s Incarnate nature cannot be upheld without a Mariological consequence. There can be no indifference in Christology to the carnal womb and personal being that gives the Logos his humanity.

If the ex Maria filiation of the Incarnate Son so constitutes his secundarium esse [his second, human nature] that she should be understood as playing a metaphysically permanent role in his incarnate persona composita, then Mary, in a sense, supplies not only the fleshly substance that makes Jesus “human,” but also the human infrastructure (education, culture, family, etc.) that forms and essential component of the personality of his human being. Recognizing this helps us to see how Mary, as a figure of the mystical body and its personal guarantor, supplies in herself at the origin a human suppositum and persona that uniquely corresponds with the homo verus of her divine Son. And so Mary is in herself the mystica persona of humanity united to Christ.

Mary thus constitutes…an order of grace that is singular: Jesus is God “by nature,” the saints are gods “by adoptive participation,” while Mary alone is a god “by affinity…[since] the venerable bonds which render her Christ’s Mother touch the very threshold of the divinity.” May is neither deiform by nature nor merely by adoptive participation; she is the Theotokos who encompasses God in her womb…and therefore she is the prototype of adoptive filiation. This means that, on account of her unique relation to the Son at his incarnate source, she is the first and exemplary member of his mystical body and therefore the personal representative of mystical union. In her…mode of being the first and perfect receptacle of the divine grace of her Son, the Church is fully present as co-belonging to the Incarnation. Adoptive participation in Christ is in this way made possible by the adopted daughter of God, since the grace of adoptive filiation dwells in its original plentitude in Mary in order that she may conceive the Son in whom we are predestined to be adopted filii in Filio [‘sons’ in the ‘Son’].

In the following chapter, Riches takes this Mariological metaphysics of Incarnation to the Cross and draws further conclusions:

If the incarnate filiation of ex Maria entails that the Theotokos “plays a permanent role in Christ’s metaphysical constitution qua ‘compound hypostasis’,” it is also the case that as the first and exemplar embodiment of receptivity to the grace of adoptive filiation, she plays a permanent role of co-belonging to the Cross, and so to the concrete content of the Son’s glorification. If Mary is truly the vera persona humana [the truly personal human] correspondent to the verus homo [true humanity] of her divine Son, then we would indeed expect a direct association to exist between her personal being as Theotokos and the personal act of synergistic love she presents at Golgotha. To the same extent that the Incarnation is determined by the Son’s pro nobis [the ‘for us’ orientation of the Incarnation], a “weight” that binds him from the moment of his incarnation in the womb of Mary to the Cross that is the goal of his mission, the union of Mary and Jesus must be realized within this “weight,” and must be perfected in the Pietà of the Virgin of Anguish, bearing in her arms the Crucified Lord. The Virgin is truly the exemplar of adoptive filiation, the first in the order of grace of the Spirit’s adoption of human beings into the communion of adoptive filiation, because her being too is centered on the sacrifice of Calvary.

Because Jesus must divest himself of the forma divina, the Mother must divest herself of the divine maternity in order to remain united with her Son. When the Son empties himself unto death, Mary becomes deprived of her child and of the God to whom she gave flesh. Giving her Son and her God to the Cross, Mary becomes dispossessed of the unique privilege of being “Theotokos.”

For the Mary-Jesus unio to be perfected, the distancing must be every greater…Mary must be stripped of her Son not only by physical death but also by a state of divine abandonment in which she can no longer claim to be the “Mother of God.”

The abandonment of Jesus by the Father on the Cross is…a true dilation of the Trinity insofar as the Crucifixion is understood primarily as an abandonment of Jesus by the Holy Spirit, the vinculum amoris of Father and Son.

Mary’s personal co-being with Jesus exerts, through the Spirit, a via curcis that ensures that the Sacrifice of Calvary will be established in terms of an unceasing, fluid exchange of theandric maior dissimilitudo between the original martyrdom of the Church and the unique Sacrifice of the Son. To this extent, there can be no argument about co-redemption. As a descriptive term of what actually happened on Calvary, it is a fact. The verus homo is the Redeemer, and the Virgin of Nazareth is with him in his unique act of Redemption. The Mother is in communio with her Son at the foot of the Cross: she suffers and sorrows with him; she is united with him in mutual abandonment. All of this entails from her exemplary status, her perfect co-being with the Son in the Spirit and her perfect docility to that same Spirit by which her perfect act of sequela Christi proceeds.

…[Mary] is irreducibly with the Crucified in his solitary act of redemption. But just as his persona does not “add” to his verus homo, so Mary’s co-redemptive role is not a contribution of something otherwise lacking in the Son’s redemptive sacrifice.

Mary’s suffering, then, is both a true participation in the Cross and a contribution of nothing but “adequate response” of the ecclesia immaculata, a response in the Holy Spirit that is itself a grace given in Christ. By the grace that flows backwards from the Cross, Mary gives her own consent, fiat mihi [“Let it be to me”], to that on which God himself waits: the immolation of the sacred victim.

Beata Virgo


Virgin birth. Orthodox belief. Still held to by conservative Protestants, but abandoned as mythology by many. Even among those who hold to it as a matter of tradition, it’s an artifact of that tradition that may not animate and sustain a living faith. I’ve been recently mulling over this with some friends and thought I would express here my own sense of the importance and necessity of the Virgin Birth.

Two preliminary comments. I don’t view the virgin birth as a means of avoiding original sin. I could be convinced otherwise I suppose, but I don’t think there’s any original sin to avoid. So I don’t go there to explain the need or necessity of the virgin birth. Secondly, Dwayne and I have elsewhere argued the importance of virgin birth to Jesus’ self-understanding and sense of mission. That’s very important, but I’m not addressing that here. But do not underestimate the formative power of Jesus knowing that in an absolutely unprecedented and mysterious manner, his birth and existence are not the result of natural procreative acts. Very literally, his human existence is explainable only as willed by God uniquely and specially. The power of such a belief to shape Jesus’ self-understanding (and his parents’ understanding of who Jesus is) is incalculable, but I’ll not explore it here. Instead I want to try to explain why we think the virgin birth is metaphysically necessary to divine Incarnation. I don’t mean explaining metaphysically ‘how’ the Incarnation occurred. Fat chance. All I want to show is that a natural birth through normal human procreation is in fact incompatible with divine Incarnation.

Why do I suppose the necessity of virgin birth to divine Incarnation? I do so because it’s the only way I see to make sense of a one-subject/two-natures (Chalcedonian) understanding of the God-Man. If we suppose natural procreation (Joseph impregnates Mary), we then have to concede the existence of Jesus’ human nature independent of divine activity or intention, and this is precisely what we want to deny, namely, that the ‘human nature’ of Jesus has any existence independent of the Logos. Conciliar Christology maintains that the human nature of Jesus has existence only insofar as it subsists in the person of the Logos. Jesus’ human nature was thus “enhypostatic,” that is, made concrete only in the Logos. But if we suppose natural procreation, we cannot say Jesus’ human nature exists only by virtue of this unique divine action. On the contrary, if Mary conceives after the natural order of things, Jesus’ birth and life follow as a matter of natural law and the Incarnation is a ‘conjunction’ of two naturally independent realities. But we say the concrete human nature, the human life of Jesus from beginning to end (conception, gestation, birth, life) exists only as it subsists in the Son. It has no explanation for its existence outside God’s personal, intentional willing.  It’s ontologically constituted, made possible at all, in and through the Logos. But if Mary conceives naturally, we have a full and created account of Jesus’ human nature and existence as not uniquely enhypostatized in the Son.

The virgin birth – not mythology.

Rorschach redemption

87241fc01b5a5f0a8aef2974cc9bb8feMy good friend Dwayne shared some of his spiritual journey with me. In describing how he used to view God in conversation with the Bible to how he now views God, he compared his reading of Scripture to Rorschach’s inkblot test. The metaphor struck me so deeply, I wanted to share it.

Rorschach was a Swiss psychologist who developed the inkblot test used to study a person’s psychological health and emotional functionality. It’s not an objective test (like a multiple test question). It’s a projective test. It asks a subject to respond to ambiguous stimuli (those weird inkblot images). The mind fills in the gaps and resolves the ambiguity on its own and thus reveals itself in its responses. What you see reflects as much your own state of mind as it does what’s on the card. I don’t know how much they use the test nowadays. I took it years ago. Got the job, so I guess I passed.

As Dwayne describes it:

When I first started doing theology as a profession in 1998, I was pretty much a double predestination Calvinist. I believed that God as Creator had the complete right to eternally predestine some to eternal heaven or eternal hell. I thought of it as simple property rights. If God made us for himself and he wants to play with us like toy soldiers, so be it. Who are we to tell the Creator of all what to do? If he wants some of us to be the winning side and others to be the losing side, so be it. It made total sense to me from the Scriptures.

But as I look back, more than anything I see that I looked at the Scriptures like a Rorschach Blot. I saw my own theological and emotional despair more than what the Scriptures actually say. Back then, I pretty much hated myself, and hated everyone else, why paradoxically being codependent as hell. What I’ve learned in my personal journey is that many times we see the Bible as we are, not as it is.

I like the analogy – a lot. I wouldn’t say the Bible is pure ambiguity (like one of Rorschach’s inkblots). It is sufficiently specific of course (specific people, era, culture, message). Nonetheless, it is a mirror that reveals the reader. We are the text being read. It’s a thought shared by at least some biblical authors themselves. James 1.23-25:

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

I believe it was Barth who said something along the lines of ‘The Bible is not where we come to ask God our questions and have him provide the answers, but where God asks the questions and we must answer’. Scripture is where we come to be read by God, parsed by the Spirit, exegeted by the Logos. This is why though theology may be more than autobiography, it’s never less than autobiography. It’s also why, though “I” must read for myself, I must never read “alone.” We read the Scriptures together to call each other into being. This challenges me to examine my own reading. How does my reading of Scripture reveal my own sense of self, my fears, my angst and despair, my desires, etc.? Similarly, what do the readings of others say about them?

Not to books are we called,
Not to parchment, quill, and ink;
But to your flesh, voice, and blood,
Else deeper do we sink.
I read to be read by you,
That your Spirit me may parse;
Not for an errorless text,
Christlike persons are far more sparse.

Excedens et excessum

analogyI’ve added The Syndicate to my blog roll. The have such helpful reviews and conversations. Check them out. You’ll find books addressing a wide range of topics that are team-reviewed, so you get alternative perspectives. I love the approach. One particularly interesting review-conversation I’m enjoying addresses Johannes Hoff’s book The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa. Among the reviewers, I was especially challenged by John Betz’s review which I thought I’d share here. Read his review got me thinking of ways to imagine the God-World relation as “mirror” (as Divine Mångata). The italics are original to Betz. The bold emphasis is added by me.

In his most recent book, The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa, Johannes Hoff describes Cusa’s body of writings as “a seriature (in the sense of Jacques Derrida): a cord, rope, or series of unique gestures designed to approximate the apocalyptic turning-point at which God comes to mind” (189). Something similar could be said here. The Analogical Turn is a work that defies—perhaps intentionally (see 56!)—linear analysis, exposition, or summary. Indeed, on a first reading the chapters appear to lack, as Hamann once said of Socrates’s maxims, “the bridges and ferries of method that would have established a community among them.” Upon closer inspection, however, one discovers a method that bears some analogy to the “bowling game” that Cusa invented and is the subject of his first book—a game in which “skillful players might be able to move their bowl in a helicoidal circle around the target point” (157). In other words, though the development of Hoff’s argument is not linear, and anyone looking for a straightforward exposition may very well be frustrated, each chapter nevertheless brings us closer to the target of seeing what Hoff sees in Nicholas of Cusa: a pre-modern visionary whose thought has the post-modern potential to lead us beyond the modern dialectic between univocity and equivocity, and back to an alternative, pre-modern analogical vision of the age to come (xv).

The basic argument here, accordingly, is that modern dialectics have blinded us to reality—either in the way that modern scientific rationalism tries to extort from creatures a univocal meaning they have never had, or in the way that postmodernism denies that creatures have any intrinsic meaning at all that is not a function of culture, the will to power, or the play of différance. In short, both of these extremes—“the univocity of modern scientific rationality and the ambiguous equivocity of post-modern pop culture” (xv)—have rendered reality opaque. And so we need to go back to Cusa’s analogical rationality if we are to go forward into an apocalyptic future in which the world will be seen for what it is, a transparency of divine things, and one can “see in every creature an image of the divine amabilitas (206). Fittingly, therefore, the work concludes with a mystagogical ascent to a Cusa-inspired vision of God. Given the richness of this work and the limitations of the present review, however, some delimiting and focusing of perspective will be necessary. In the following, therefore, I will limit my comments to those aspects of this work that I found most interesting, but also integral to the kind of perspective Hoff wants to provide.

The Analogical Turn turns on Cusa’s overturning of modern perspective, which Hoff traces back to the work of Cusa’s contemporary and fellow priest, Leon Battista Alberti (1406–72), who “applied the mathematical methods of Euclid to the art of painting” (47). On the face of it, there does not seem to be anything problematic here: Alberti’s mathematical mapping of perspective can subsequently be seen in the geometrical art of Piero della Francesca, who is best known and admired for his paintings of gospel scenes (e.g., The Baptism of Christ from 1450). Nevertheless, Hoff sees a problematic turning point here that will subsequently define the “world picture” (in the Heideggerian sense) of the modern age. The problem, as he sees it, is that the vanishing point of the work of art mirrors that of the viewer, eo ipso “putting the latter in the position of a sovereign observer who can control the space of his perception as if it were nothing but a mirror image of his subjective position” (48). In other words, from this point on, Hoff argues, modern perspective is defined not by a “being seen” (as one is seen by the gaze of an icon) or by a misty seeing of the invisible through the visible—one could just as well say, of the infinite through the finite—but by the dominant viewer (the new and only topos noetos) and this viewer’s imaging of reality in narcissistic terms, according to his conception of it. In short, reality is now configured in my image and according to my representation of it. Thus, according to Hoff’s genealogy, the “winged eye” of Alberti (which appears on the flipside of his portrait medallion) leads directly to the “thinking I” of Descartes’s cogito (57)—and thence, one might add, to the synoptic transcendental ego of Kant.

At this specular point a distinctly modern perspective is established (which for Hoff is also the presupposition of modern individualism). For once the artist no longer sees his or her task as a mimesis of the Creative Art, as an iconic rendering of the invisible through the visible—as Alberti insisted, “the invisible is not the business of painters” (57)—the symbolic universe of the Middle Ages gives way to the “digital universe of Descartes and Leibniz” (69). Corporeal entities, as for Descartes, come to be regarded as “nothing but ‘extended things’ (res extensae) that can be represented analytically, based on functions and equations, without remainder” (64); and so, inspired by visions of a mathesis universalis, matters of symbolic concern are “pushed aside in favor of simpler strategies of scientific progress” (65). Thus, as Hoff keenly observes, it was ironically modern artistic innovation—initially its obsession with geometrical “truth-likeness,” but then its dialectical flight into the dreamy, illusionary world of the Baroque (57)—that led to scientific contempt for art (as irrelevant to the search for truth); and, more generally, for the “symbolic sensitivities of theologians, artists, and poets” (65)—in short, for any metaphysical sensibility that sees in the world more than modern science, even in its wildest dreams of progress, can contain. To be sure, there were some things that did not fit the mathematical model perfectly, such as the “squared circle”; but Leibniz proffered a solution even to this seemingly insuperable problem by defining the mathematical constant as an “irrational number” (65), thereby making it possible to disregard “every deviation in mathematical space as a quantité négligeable” (65).

Now, turning to Cusa, what Hoff finds so interesting about the German cardinal, and why he finds him so important for us to consider today, is that Cusa understood Alberti’s vision of reality (its epistemology and corresponding ontology) and decidedly rejected it. Without denying “the possibility of representing a circle, for example, with a polygon composed of a potentially infinite number of sides and internal angles,” he nevertheless maintained that “mathematical comparisons can only provide us with conjectures and not precise descriptions of our analogical world” (67). In other words, anticipating Kurt Gödel mutatis mutandis by nearly half a millennium, Cusa argued that because the world is structurally analogical, and opposites coincide in God alone, an exhaustive mathematical account of reality is impossible (66). In short, nothing can be pinned down and mastered; the Continental, Hegelian desideratum of a complete system and the Anglo-American desideratum of a final analysis are equally impossible. For in our world, in which everything is “enmeshed in the comparative logic of excedens (exceeding) and excessum (exceeded), of larger and smaller” (68), “nothing has the analytic ‘property’ [of being] one with itself. We may make rational conjectures about the identity of individual substances, but they are never analytically precise” (164).

For this reason, as Hoff observes, “Cusa had no use for Leibniz’s ‘Principle of Sufficient Reason.’ He felt no need to contort his mind in order to justify the uniqueness of our being in the world as ‘inalienable property’ by means of rational calculations” (165). On the contrary, Cusa saw in the modern dream of a mathesis universalis (insofar as this entailed the presumption of completeness) a distortion and flattening of reality, a reduction of its mystery to a deceptive mastery, moreover, a premature grasping (patterned on the story of Genesis 3) after godlike knowledge of all mysteries—and, as such, an obstacle to our mystagogical ascent through kenotic abasement (following the contrasting pattern of Christ, who did not cling to his “own” or to any “inalienable property,” but emptied himself, according to Phil 2:6f.). Thus, just as Heidegger once did for his own purposes, Hoff can summarize Cusa’s metaphysical vision in the words of Angelus Silesius’s famous poem, “Die Ros ist ohn warum; sie blühet, weil sie blühet. Sie acht nicht ihrer selbst, fragt nicht, ob man sie siehet” (165).

What gradually comes to light here has enormous metaphysical, existential, and even political consequences; for even one’s politics is invariably a reflection of one’s implicit or explicit metaphysical commitments. Whereas, on the modern model, which funds “the liberal societies of the modern age,” “every singularity is identical with its essence” (165) and thus a “one” unto itself, for Cusa “nothing but God is One and identical with itself” (164). This is not to deny that creatures possess an analogical “oneness” as images of the “divine simplicity” (162); but, as Hoff notes, as analogical singularities, “the uniqueness of created individuals is neither analytically accountable nor conceivable as a ‘property’ that creatures ‘have’” (162). Rather, “the miracle is that every creature and every person is a singularity, not despite, but exactly because it owes everything it is to a giver whose perfections cannot be owned” (163). Indeed, rather than being one’s own property, according to Hoff’s Cusa-inspired metaphysics I cannot but “receive the gift to be one with myself (165).


Just how different this Christian-Neo-Platonic vision is from that of modern Western liberalism (for which the individual is his or her own inalienable property) goes without saying. In the language of Paul, “You are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19); in the language of James, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (Jas 1:17). In other words, in an image of the triune simplicity, to be one is to be related (which is also why the sexes cannot be understood in isolation but refer to one another). Or, to put it in the paradoxical words of the gospel, one finds one-self precisely by losing one-self in love (Matt 16:26)—as with marriage, which is therefore an icon of human completeness (Mark 10:8), pointing to the perichoretic completeness of the Trinity. Such, in any event, is the paradoxical precision of the gospel, which gives the lie to rationalistic dreams of a final analysis: nothing created can be itself by itself. But as Cusa and Plato before him realized, seeing things for what they are, as unique images of the divine “oneness,” is not something everyone can see. As Hoff puts it, “For the same reason that the believer has to lose herself in order to find herself, she has to lose the world in order to see it as it actually is” (206). Indeed, contra the myth of the Enlightenment, which is arguably an ignis fatuus, even a kind of darkness, it requires a conversion away from oneself to the light, which one does not by rights possess in oneself. In the memorable words of Augustine, arguably the greatest of Christian Platonists, “si ergo accedendo illuminamini et recedendo tenebra mini: non erat in vobis lumen vestrum, sed in Deo vestro” (In Joh. Tract. XIX, xii).

Here is not the place to debate the extent of Augustine’s Neo-Platonism, or, for that matter, his criticism of the Platonists (e.g., in book VII of the Confessions, where the emphasis begins to shift toward divine humility and the necessity of the church and of sensible, sacramental mediation as a remedy for intellectual pride). It would be safe to say, though, that Cusa’s doctrine of divine simplicity as a coincidence of opposites makes it easier for him to say why this turning toward the divine light is not simply a Platonic epistrophē but precisely a turning toward Christ in humility and learned ignorance as the One in whom maximum and minimum incomprehensibly coincide. Indeed, for Cusa, the Platonic epistrophē, which demands a turning away from the mundus intelligibilis toward the mundus intelligibilis, is actually accomplished in no other way than by turning to the incarnate Word—in whom alone we face the One who is otherwise invisible and unknown. As Hoff wonderfully puts it, “Whoever turns his face to God turns his face to the face of Jesus” (213).

Thus, precisely at the height of the influx of Platonism into Western Christianity, in the wake of the Council of Florence (1438–39) and the subsequent establishment of the Platonic Academy under the leadership of Ficino, Cusa radically transformed Platonism by centering it not simply in an ad hoc way, but now with metaphysical justification, on the person of Christ. For “he is both uncontracted qua his divine nature and contracted qua his human nature; and this enable us to redirect our attention: whoever calls his name and turns his face to his face is facing the invisible gaze of the Father who sent him (Jn 12:45)” (213). Moreover, “Christ is not only the light of truth that manifests itself in the darkness of his creation. He is also the way to this truth (Jn 14:6); and this way can only be found in the ‘body of the faithful (corpus fidelium) . . . called the Christ-formed universal gathering (Christiforme ecclesia catholica) . . . and made up of all rational spirits adhering to Christ’” (219). For, as the one in whom the uncontracted and the contracted, the infinite and the finite, coincide, Christ is the one who “enfolds within [himself] (in se complicare) all multitude and, thus, is unreplicable, since it is the enfolding of all multiplication, or multitude” (161).

Cusa thus provides a remarkable metaphysical justification for the church in that here, in the one body of Christ, we see the manifestation of metaphysical reality: that multitude is nothing other than the unfolding and explication of oneness; that individuals are therefore metaphysically referred not to themselves, but to him. For metaphysically, “I am an image of the divine ‘one’ that owes everything it is to its participation in the divine oneness” (161). Indeed, in keeping with Cusa’s analogical metaphysics, for which nothing but God is by nature one with itself, it is in turning toward Christ that we are made whole and become by grace the “ones,” the unique individuals and—by incorporation into Christ—members of the one body that we really, metaphysically are. This is why at various points Hoff notes that, in our fallen state, “we are not what we are” (212), and that, picking up on a cue from Augustine (sermon 272), we must therefore become what we are, which is to say, that we must become what we are in Christ (13, 211). As Cusa writes in De docta ignorantia (before Luther!),

Our justification is not from ourselves, but from Christ. Since He is the complete fullness (omnis plenitudo), in Him we obtain all things . . . Therefore, the higher a man ascends in the immortal virtues, the more Christlike he becomes. For minimum things coincide with maximum things. For example, maximum humiliation (humilitatio) coincides with exaltation (cum exaltatione): the most shameful death of a virtuous man coincides with his glorious life, and so on—as Christ’s life, suffering, and death manifest all these points to us (185).

There is thus for Cusa, following Paul, no higher (Platonic) term of contemplation or speculation than what one can see in Christ and him crucified: “Sunt igitur omnia mysteriain crucifixione innocentis Christi complicate” [all mysteries are enfolded in the crucifixion of the innocent Christ] (181). Indeed, as Hoff notes, “the crucifixion is the key to Cusa’s ‘hunt for wisdom’” (181). For not only is Christ the real and symbolic center of the universe in that he manifests the oneness of God (as the coincidence of the infinite and finite, the absolute maximum and the minimum); he also invites us into his oneness with the Father as members of his one body: “That they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one” (John 17:23).

What is arguably most striking about Cusa’s re-vision of the Platonic tradition, however, is that this invitation to share in the oneness of God (at which point of self-abandonment it becomes possible to see God as the non aliud, as the “non-other” than every creature) is less an invitation to a Platonic-mystagogical ascent as it is an invitation to a Christian-mystagogical descent (to the point of conformity to the Cross of Christ). For “unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). Thus, to employ that most precise trope of paradox, whose mysterious form is a sign of a greater precision than anything modern analytic method could attain, we come to see that, as Heraclitus prophetically intimated, “the way up and the way down are one and the same” (Diels B60): we come to see that the ascent occurs by way of a descent, by way of a following of Christ (to his cross) in order to rise with Christ (in his resurrection).

But, once again, such a metaphysical vision is inaccessible to the modern man, who is immured in his modern perspective—the perspective of “the modern Narcissus,” who puts himself “in the position of the eye point of a mathematically generated picture” (151), and precisely thereby makes his eye unreceptive to the light of the vision of God. As Hoff puts it, quoting Kleist, “nur schade dass das Auge modert, das die Herrlichkeit erblicken soll” [it’s just a pity that the eye molders that is called to the vision of glory] (167). As much as this book is about ontology, it is therefore also—and perhaps even more so—about conversion, metanoia: for it is only when one actually becomes “an image of divine simplicity” (169) by becoming one with Christ that one can see the world for what it most truly and most precisely is: an analogy of the One who is manifest in Christ. As Cusa puts it, “Created things . . . are not seen perfectly unless their Creator is seen” (207), which, in turn, is possible only when Christ their archetype is seen, and in him all things (John 1:3). Indeed, only then, as we are turned toward Christ (213), and the “incomprehensible light of the creator shines forth in our desire” (206), does the universe (uni-versum) in all its splendor come into view: only then are we able to see “in the real space of face-to-face encounters” (99) the “invisible in the visible” (203), and “see in every creature an image of the divine amabilitas” (206).

There is much more to be said about this admirable book, which is itself like a beryl stone—to advert to the title of Cusa’s little book from 1458—in that it furnishes material suitable for a new perspective. I have not mentioned, for example, the importance of the vera icona (or, in this case, its replica) to Cusa’s inversion of the modern perspective (215). Nor have I drawn out the important political implications of the Analogical Turn, which seeks to overturn not only the modern dialectic between univocity and equivocity, but also its corresponding political dialectic between “individualism and totalitarianism” (227). All of this stands in need of development. In the meantime, given the richness of Cusa’s vision, we can be grateful to Johannes Hoff for having opened our eyes a littler wider to it—and to seeing just how important Cusa is to the recovery of the kind of metaphysical vision that the Church so desperately needs. Now is not the time to shrink back from metaphysics, as some are wont to do, but rather to give the Christian faith the kind of metaphysics it deserves and, in fact, implies—not an alien metaphysics, to which the faith must conform, but a metaphysics which the faith itself, as its proper articulation and explication, demands. One of the greatest attempts in this direction was made in the twentieth century by Erich Przywara, SJ, most famously in his Analogia Entis; and, given what Hoff has shown us in this book, we may not be surprised to learn that, in an interview from 1954, Przywara admitted that his own thought coincides most nearly not with that of Plato, or even Augustine, but with that of Nicholas of Cusa.

Off the Richter


It’s a party bumpin’,
Chris Brown, no invitations,
Lyrics thumpin’ to the chest,
Give your heart some palpitations,
Flowin’ like libations,
Growin’ in my patience,
Knowing’ indications
of Divine Self-Revelations.
Whew! Feelin’ like the days of Noah,
But I got the Tiger’s Eye like I’m Rocky Balboa.
Boa. Constrictor. Holy Covictor.
Shakin’ the world with a force off the Richter.

(Dwayne Polk)

Memory lane

lib3-3a1I apologize for my absence. New job. Learning curve has me pretty busy. I’ve been reflecting on some previous thoughts regarding the ‘will’, ‘freedom’, issues related to ‘libertarian’ choice, and – no surprise – Incarnation. If such questions interest you, here are a few previous  posts (teasers included) you might enjoy

Creation ex nihilo
“In classical theism, the wonderful truth of ‘divine aseity’ (understood as the fullness of God’s triune life sans creation) thus reduces to mere abstraction. There’s no ‘actual’ God who is ever free ‘in his actuality’ from the determination to create. God doesn’t know what it’s like to be God apart from having determined to create. We think this is bad news precisely because it offers us a God who has no experience of being actually free and infinitely full apart from us.”

God’s creative options
“God either creates to bring all he creates to fulfillment in/through Incarnation, or he doesn’t create at all. All other varieties and created distinctions don’t constitute a range of options God chooses between. They are all potentialities inherent in the capacities and dispositions God breathes into his one determination to create for Incarnation. It should then be impossible not just to speak of this creation apart from Incarnation/Christology, but to speak of God’s creating at all apart from the intention to incarnate. Indeed, I’m suggesting that all possibilities for creation derive from and return to the one possibility of Incarnation.”

God wills our improvisation
“God’s will in sustaining creation as such embraces created improvisation on our part, which means—I’m afraid to utter it—the divine will (viz., logoi) is given to us to improvise upon. I mean, if you want to retain mystery, there you are. The endless possibilities are God’s, their final arrangement is ours. But if this is his will, then it seems to me that the mode of God’s knowing creation would reflect the mode of his willing; that is, God would know the improvisational form which divine logoi finally take in us as a knowledge of form ‘apprehended’ or ‘received’ and not only a knowledge of created being as ‘given’. What the world gives to God is what it gives back to God in improvisation upon and within the grace of being.”

God at the improv
“…so God gives himself (as divine logoi) without reservation to the free determination of created others — viz., God gives himself to be improvised upon. And there’s really no way the trajectories which the world actually ends up taking (this route as opposed to that route) can be eternally known even if the scope of all possible trajectories derives from and is known to God. That actual trajectory is the creature’s discrimination among possibilities, something over and above the possibilities themselves.”

Freedom as creative liberty among loving options
“Would spontaneity in this situation be a violation of freedom if the motivation remains love throughout? What else would a perfected creative liberty be but a certain species of playful spontaneity if God’s will for us terminates in a scope of beautiful possibilities and our truest freedom amounts to a creative choice among them? It seems to me that if our perfected wills can creatively express themselves in this sense, then spontaneity per se would be a fulfillment, not a violation, of our truest freedom.”

Incarnation or nothing at all
“…theologians feel themselves forced to give an account of the faith in terms of innumerable ‘logically’ possible worlds, worlds the possibility of which have to be accounted for theologically so long as they generate no logical contradiction (strictly speaking) but which are unthinkable Christologically.”