The Light of Christ Illumines All: Apophatic and Cataphatic Interplay in Dumitru Stăniloae and Maximus the Confessor

Apophatic theology has become a trademark of Eastern Orthodoxy in theological discourse. An internet search on the topic turns up a plethora of blog posts, articles, books, polemics, criticisms, etcetera. Even in catechetical texts apophatic theology can take up sections of a chapter, properly explaining the negative way of theology for the neophyte or inquisitor. It often assumes a monolithic character in Orthodox literature, where there is a negation of cataphatic theology which leads to a mystical experience with God. However, with a keener glance one can see that the coloring of apophaticism is not the same across Orthodox theologians, and at times can differ significantly. In this paper we will outline the apophatic-cataphatic relationship in the theology of Dumitru Stăniloae (1903-93) with reference to St. Maximus the Confessor’s tenth Amibguum to show that there is an interplay between apophatic and cataphatic theology. Finally, it will provide some concluding thoughts on the importance of this interplay for the place of rationality in Orthodox theology.

Full paper here

A Matter of Nothing: The Doctrine of Creation According to Sergius Bulgakov and Georges Florovsky

This post is a developed version of my 20th Century Orthodox Dogmatics midterm which was submitted to Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology’s Three Hierarchs Essay Competition. I give my thanks to Father Matthew Baker for his outstanding class and critiques of my paper.


ἀξιῶσε, τέκνον, ἀναβλέψαντα εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν καὶ τὰ ἐν αὐτοῖς πάντα ἰδόντα, γνῶναι ὅτι ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων ἐποίησεν αὐτὰ ὁ Θεὸς καὶ τὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων γένος οὕτως γεγένηται.” – II Maccabees 7:28

The doctrine of creation is of such importance for the Orthodox Church that it was enshrined in the Nicene Creed, in which God the Father is “Creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.” This has been understood within the tradition of the Church to mean God created all things ex nihilo, ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων, from nothing. However, this very notion of nothing, as well as questions of substance and necessity, led to a fundamental disagreement between Russian theologians of the 20th century. Did this creation mean that ‘nothing’ was a kind of limit to overcome, the result of God’s self-limitation? Or was it merely the absence of anything, a “no-thing” which meant that creation was novel, completely unrelated to God in substance? This paper will examine these opposing doctrines of creation via the late Fr. Sergius Bulgakov and his influences from Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyev and their common inheritance from German Idealism, as well as the response by the late and devoutly respected Fr. Georges Florovsky.

Fr. Sergius Bulgakov (1874-1944) was a prominent Orthodox theologian whose legacy is his theologumenon: Sophiology.1 He developed this doctrine from the work of previous Sophiologists, primarily Vladimir Solovyev (1853-1900) whom Bulgakov considered to be “one of the ‘fathers’ to him personally.”2 While Bulgakov has no consistent definition as to what Sophia is,3 one can roughly figure it to be the essence of God which though not a hypostasis has hypostaticity.4 The identification of Sophia as the divine nature is from Vladimir Solovyev who states that Sophia is the “universal substance, or absolute unity of the whole.”5 For Solovyev the essence of God “cannot be one thing among many” and thus is a “universal substance or ‘all in unity.’” This notion of all in unity must be unpacked since it became axiomatic for Bulgakov.6

Because Sophia is “the universal substance” she contains “the latent potentiality of all things,” which implies a plurality that is actively subjected to a unity.7 Thus indeterminate multiplicity has never existed per se in Sophia, nor has God ever created it, but is eternally reduced to unity since Sophia is the universal substance.8 However, Solovyev makes a distinction of Sophia inside of God, “the eternally actual state,” and Sophia outside of God, the “potential state,” the former being all in unity, the latter being “all in division.” Solovyev labels this outside state as Chaos, which is the “antithesis of the Divine Being” who is eternally suppressed by God to a state of “pure potentiality.”

God then must overcome Chaos in three ways: by His mere fact as all in unity, His right to conquer Chaos by showing its falsity and thus proving His truth, and by having Chaos participate in the divine life, transfiguring and thus absorbing Chaos back into unity.9 The absorption of Chaos back into the divine is thus an act of synthesis between God’s truth and Chaos, thus reflecting a Hegelian influence.10 Chaos’ false “system of eternal ideas, reasons or truths, each one of which, linked with all the others by an indissoluble bond of logic” go through the process of determinate negation and are brought into unity, the absolute idea in this case being Sophia.11

This goal of all in unity is apparent in Bulgakov, especially in the act of creation’s becoming. Bulgakov describes creation as being ex nihilo, however he refuses to see ‘nothing’ as a limit for the absolute, or a space or void in which God can create.12 Nothing
is not “something totally extradivine” since there is nothing apart or outside of God, “just as there is not even any ‘outside of’ or ‘apart from.’”13 Bulgakov then reasons that this very nothing must have been created by God, thus making nothing a relative concept since nothing must relate to something.14 Nothing then correlates to a state of being which is incomplete and thus becoming.

God is the sole author of creation; however, He creates by His substance, the Divine Sophia, mixing it with nothingness to produce the world which is a “becoming being” because of its emergence from nothing.15 This same idea can be found in Solovyev in where Chaos is willed into existence and thus emerges “out of its nothingness” to be reabsorbed into unity.16 Creation then is not novel, but rather “a re-arrangement” of Sophia combined with nothing.17 This
creation is the Creaturely Sophia which is in the process of becoming so it can “reflect in itself the countenance of the Divine Sophia” which is the entelechy of fr_sergius_bulgakovcreation.18 For Bulgakov, this very process of creation is creatio ex nihilo, and that the cataphatic knowledge one can derive from it is that the world was made from God’s own essence, a statement also found in Solovyev.19

Sophia is the identity principle which allows for the unity between the world and God and thus allows God to “split” Himself into nothingness and then synthesize the creation.20 The goal for creation is the same for Bulgakov as in Solovyev. Sophia’s submergence into nothing leads to an all-multiplicity which must be overcome by the Creaturely Sophia.21 Creation “is only in a state of potentiality, which the world must actualize in itself” by liberating itself from nothing.

Confronted with the problem of necessity, Bulgakov emphatically denies that God needs the world when relating to His inner divine life.22 The world, then, is a work. However, Bulgakov is also quick to deny any sense of arbitrariness in the act of creation, and affirms that the world is necessary to God not for Himself but “for the world itself,” and as such God could not have not created the world.23 Since God is love, it is proper for Him to expand beyond divinity, otherwise His absoluteness would be a limit on Himself who is the Absolute.24 Furthermore, God needs the world in order to love outside Himself, to love the “not-Himself.” This seems to be pulling from Fichte’s idea of the “absolute I” which splits itself in order to establish a subjective-objective relationship between the “I and not-I.”5 Without the world God cannot love outside Himself and would thus reflect a Satanic, egoistic pride.26 Borrowing further from Fichte, this necessity is not an external pressure (after all, there is no ‘outside’ to begin with), but rather is “the necessity of love, which cannot not love” and thus makes creation necessary.27 This same view is found in Solovyev as well, which states that Sophia is not content merely overcoming the possible challenges of Chaos, and as such God wishes for there to be another nature outside Himself that “may progressively become what He is from all eternity – the absolute whole.”28

While during his life Bulgakov had many admirers, he was faced with criticism for his Sophiology, even by fellow Russian émigrés to Paris. One critic who excoriated Bulgakov’s theology without mentioning him by name was Fr. Georges Florovsky (1893-1979). Though interested in Solovyev from a scholarly perspective,29 Fr. Georges diverged insuperably from Bulgakov in his opinion on the Russian philosopher, seeing “the rejection of Solov’ev in toto [po vsei linii] as a personal religious duty and a task that needs to be undertaken in due course by contemporary Russian religious and philosophical thought.”30 This criticism extended to Bulgakov’s theology which Florovsky characterized as being “long hindered” by Solovyev’s influence.31 More specifically, one can find the underlying problems with Bulgakov’s theology by analyzing Florovsky’s critique of German Idealism, a movement that influenced both Bulgakov and Solovyev.

In German Idealism Florovsky found a determinative influence of Hellenism which characterized the entire philosophical project.32 The problems and issues that plagued Idealism were essentially Hellenistic in nature. Antiquity could not comprehend “the empirical, the changeable, the variety” and “especially the event.” The response was then “to overcome the event, to overcome time” in order to discover the “actual world” which is unchanging in nature. Ancient thought is a morphology of the world in which instability is rejected and one seeks for “the eternally ideal world, of the world of paradigms and prototypes.”33 This same trajectory of thought is repeated in Idealism as its “pathos…was aimed at the search for the unchangeable foundations of the world.”

Concerning the doctrine of creation, German Idealism ultimately bore two different pathi, one of infinity (as seen in Fichte) and one of form, the latter eventually coming to dominate. The world in Idealism “is always finite, always limited…always a very sharply defined image.” Even Chaos cannot escape this as it “is the womb bearing forms, it is impregnated with these forms from ancient times.” All things, even Chaos, “adapt themselves to the circle, the rhythm of the universe.”34 This domination of form was especially prominent in Hegel, who saw “the progressing infinity as something ‘bad’” and instead seeks to find complete unity. The language no doubt reminds one of Chaos being suppressed and subjected to unity by God in Solovyev, or the overcoming of all-multiplicity in Bulgakov.

Furthermore, it is because one must overcome the changing to find the eternal that Idealism tried to comprehend existence from the event which is the manifestation of existence, of the original prototype, “for existence is nothing other than the power and the
need to reveal itself.” All mysteries of existence then will be revealed, and the only mystery left “is the power of revelation” itself. As such, any accomplished perception is a revelation of the absolute – economy swallows up theology and an identification of God and the world is made, thus leading to pantheism.35

This critique could equally be applied to both Bulgakov and Solovyev who both identified creation as being Sophia, and thus consubstantial with God. Bulgakov is aware of this criticism and avidly denies that Sophiology is pantheism, but rather “panentheism, where all is in God or for God.”36 Bulgakov sees pantheism as “pan-divinity and thus the absence of divinity” whose “distinguishing trait” is that God is “the highest degree of the evolution of the world, while considering the world to be the initial principle of the evolution of God.”37 Bulgakov even criticizes Hegel and Schelling for falling into this very pantheistic fallacy.38 However, Florovsky sees pantheism’s distinguishing trait as “the absolute, insoluble connection of God with the world” which means that even if God is not identified with the world, He nevertheless needs it – the world is a necessary being.39 If the world does not exist, neither does God, and if He does exist, then the world must also. God needs the world in order to reveal Himself, a point that Bulgakov undeniably teaches.40 If God remained within Himself then he would not exist since to exist for Bulgakov is to exist for another. Because of this very necessity as an attempt to make creation’s existence non-arbitrary, the world “constitutively belongs to the perfection of the divine existence,”41 it is a “part of the fullness of the very concept of God.”42 The world then is “the eternal double of God” not only in Idealism, but for Bulgakov as well – the Creaturely Sophia is merely the Divine Sophia in the process of becoming.43

In place of Bulgakov’s Sophiology, Florovsky puts forward the Orthodox interpretation of creatio ex nihilo in which neither the world nor time existed before the act of creation.44 This means, in clear opposition to Bulgakov, that the world is a contingent being and need not exist.45 The world’s very “createdness” means that its “cause and foundation” lies “outside the world” – it is not consubstantial with the divine. There is an impassable ontological gulf between God Who is uncreated and man who is created. This further means that created being is a substance and not a phenomenon, not an act of becoming or synthesis, but an essence.46

Florovsky, like Bulgakov, says that it is imprecise to say that creation is outside of God, but he arrives at a very different conclusion; creation is outside God in the sense it is ex nihilo and thus is a “heterogeneous substance” that is completely unlike God.47 There is no “kind of limitation to the Divine fullness,” but rather a novel creation. There is no external necessity for God to create, for there is nothing outside of God before creation.48

6a0120a679bde1970b01310f316eee970cYet while both may agree there is no external necessity, Florovsky goes further than Bulgakov to say that there is no necessity for creation at all. At the beginning of the second part of his essay Creation and Creaturehood, Florovsky discusses the problem of necessity with reference to Origen. Florovsky here is candidly speaking about Bulgakov for
the problems inherent in one exists in the other.49 Origen believed that in order to maintain the immutability of God and His attributes of being Creator and Pantokrator, creation had to be co-eternal for God to exercise His omnipotence over.50 If not, then there would have been a change in God in which He would have became Creator rather than be so from all eternity. Furthermore, for Origen any sequence or interdependence of predicates indicated temporal change and this clashed with the unchangeability of God.51 As such, Origen denied any sequence or interdependence of the predicates as a whole, and thus “asserted the necessity of the Divine self-disclosure ad extra,” a “’not-I’” from all eternity that was a necessary being for God’s completeness.

This critique is a repetition of that found in The Crisis of German Idealism and ultimately of Bulgakov as addressed above. However, to this problem Florovsky supplies the Orthodox response via St. Methodius of Olympus: the perfect Divinity “cannot depend on anything…except on His own nature,” meaning “God creates solely out of His goodness” and not His essence.52 Florovsky is quick to list a possible riposte: one must take into account “’the image of the world’” that existed with God from all eternity.53 Indeed, if revelation is co-eternal with God, and God is unchanging, does this not mean the idea of the world is eternal and necessary, thus meaning God eternally contemplates the non-I of creation, and once again not only makes God impossible without creation but creation becomes a necessary being that completes the fullness of God? The final deduction is that the world would be introduced into the inner life of the Trinity, again leading to pantheism and vindicating Bulgakov’s Sophiology.54

Florovsky answers this dilemma with the distinction of God’s will and His essence; the idea of the world and God’s will for it exists “by His volition” and not His essence. Thus, while the idea of the world is “obviously eternal,” it is “in some sense not co-eternal” precisely because it is “’distinct and separated,’” from His essence. God need merely to think up the idea of creation, an act done “in perfect freedom” which means “He as it were ‘becomes’ Creator, even though from everlasting.” Furthermore, taken from St. Athanasius, Florovsky affirms the distinction between that which is primary and secondary for God, the former belonging to the essence, the latter to the will.55 In the Trinity, the essence or “structure is antecedent to the will and thought of God” and thus antecedent to His works. As such, the idea of the world has a contingency on God’s will in the sense that its eternity is not one of essence, but one which is free and need not have been.56 This does not mean there is no reason for the “thinking up” of the divine world, but Florovsky agrees with St. Augustine’s prohibition to seek out these reasons.

The will is not bound or constrained in order to “think up” or create the world, but makes it out of the superabundance of love that has no necessity.57 Yet the idea of the world, one of the constituents of the eternal counsel of God, is not the world itself and thus remains unchanged and is not involved in the process of formation since it is outside the world.58 The world is created according to the idea, and the world strives to realize the idea, but the idea itself is not the subject of this striving, but “a norm and a goal established in God.” While the creation is the divine idea made substantial, it is still a new reality that “must realize this idea in its own becoming.” Creation exists outside of God, and yet is united to Him and grows closer by fulfilling its telos as established by God, an act that because of its creation ex nihilo is one of “self-determination”.59

While Florovsky was critical of Bulgakov’s thought, he always maintained a high level of respect for his colleague. Florovsky chose Bulgakov to be his father confessor not long after meeting him, and while the minority report on Sophiology bearing Florovsky’s signature noted the theological problems that Bulgakov had, Florovsky never went so far as to label him a heretic.60 Nevertheless, the doctrine of creation in Bulgakov’s Sophiology ultimately is at odds with the patristic tradition as the concept of the necessity of the world is foreign to the teaching of the Scriptures, the Fathers, and ultimately the Church. Florovsky is correct to point out that it is precisely God’s allowance for nothing to exist outside Himself that preserves the loving act of creation, for creation then is an act “out of the absolute superabundance of His mercies and goodness” in which the world “exists only through the sovereign and all-perfect freedom and unspeakable good pleasure and love of God.”61



1Nikolai Sakharov, “Essential Bulgakov: His Ideas About Sophia, The Trinity, and Christ,” in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 55, no. 2 (2011): 165 & 206.
2Alexis Klimoff, “Georges Florovsky and the Sophiological Controversy,” in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 49, no. 1-2 (2005): 67 & 73.
3Sakharov, “Essential Bulgakov,” 177.
4Ibid., 181; Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 106, 444.
5Vladimir Solovyev, Russia and the Universal Church, trans. Herbert Rees (London: Bles, 1948), 156.
6Sakharov, “Essential Bulgakov,” 177.
7Solovyev, Russia, 156-57.
8Ibid., 157
9Solovyev, Russia, 157-58.
10Hegelian thought also influenced Bulgakov in his dogmengeschichte. See Bulgakov’s introduction to The Lamb of God, 1-88.
11Solovyev, Russia, 158; Andrew Bowie, German Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 46.
12Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 124.
13Ibid., 124-25.
14Ibid., 125.
15Ibid., 125, 445; Sakharov, 178.
16Solovyev, Russia, 161.
17Sakharov, “Essential Bulgakov,” 178 & 201.
18Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 127.
19Ibid., 126-27; Solovyev, Russia, 161.
20The identity principle is roughly “the link between the subject and object world that makes judgements possible” and implies that “what is split and then synthesised in the judgement must…in some way already be the same.” “Friedrich Wilhelm von Schelling,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed February 4, 2014,
21Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 127.
22Ibid., 119.
23Ibid., 119-20.
24Ibid., 120.
25Bowie, German Idealism, 39.
26Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 122.
27Ibid., 120.
28Solovyev, Russia, 160.
29Klimoff, “Georges Florovsky,” 72.
30Ibid., 73. Brackets are Klimoff’s. For further criticism of Solovyev by Florovsky, see “Reason and Faith in the Philosophy of Solov’ëv,” in Continuity and Change in Russian and Soviet Thought, ed. E. J. Simmons (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955), 283-97.
31Ibid., 75.
32Georges Florovsky, “The Crisis of German Idealism (I): The ‘Hellenism’ of German Idealism,” in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. XII, trans. Claudia Witte (Vaduz, Europa: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1989), 24.
33Ibid., 25.
34Ibid., 26.
35Ibid., 26-27. Florovsky’s critique of German idealism, and its relationship to Sophiology, is continued in the second part of his essay in which he deals with the problem of history, as well as its relation to the Reformation. However, for the scope of this paper, only his critique of pantheism will be discussed. For more, see Georges Florovsky, “The Crisis of German Idealism (II): The Crisis of Idealism as the Crisis of Reformation,” in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. XII, trans. Claudia Witte (Vaduz, Europa: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1989). The observation that economy swallows up theology is from Fr. Matthew Baker.
36Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 121.
37Ibid., 121 & 134.
38Ibid., 134.
39Florovsky, “The Crisis of German Idealism,” 27.
40“…Either the creation of the world is an impossibility for God, in which case the impossibility would constitute a limit for Him, would make Him limited; or in the case of such a possibility, God’s love could not fail to actualize it by creating the world. Consequently, God-Love needs the creation of the world in order to love, no longer only in His own life, but also outside Himself, in creation.” Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 120.
41Florovsky, “The Crisis of German Idealism,” 27.
42Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 121.
43Florovsky, “The Crisis of German Idealism,” 27.
44Georges Florovsky, “Creation and Creaturehood,” in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. III: Creation and Redemption (Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Company, 1976), 43.
45Ibid., 46.
46Ibid., 48.
47Ibid., 46.
48Ibid., 52.
49The charge of Origenism against Bulgakov was also made by another Russian emigre, Vladimir Lossky who reported Bulgakov’s doctrine to the Moscow Patriarchate and wrote against Bulgakov’s Sophiological apologetic in The Dispute about Sophia (Paris, 1936). Sakharov, “Essential Bulgakov,” 201.
50Ibid., 52-54.
51Ibid., 54.
52Ibid., 54-55.
53Ibid., 55.
54Ibid., 56.
55Ibid., 58.
56Ibid., 59.
57Ibid., 60.
58Ibid., 61.
59Ibid., 73.
60Klimoff, “Georges Florovsky,” 70 & 89.
61Florovsky, “Creation and Creaturehood,” 57.


Bulgakov, Sergius. The Lamb of God. Translated by Boris Jakim. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2008.

Florovsky, Georges. “Creation and Creaturehood.” In The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. III: Creation and Redemption, 43-78. Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Company, 1976.

________________. “The Crisis of German Idealism (I): The ‘Hellenism’ of German Idealism.” In The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. XII. Translated by Claudia Witte, 24- 30. Vaduz, Europa: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1989.

Klimoff, Alexis. “Georges Florovsky and the Sophiological Controversy.” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, no. 49, 1-2 (2005): 67-100.

Sakharov, Nikolai. “Essential Bulgakov: His Ideas About Sophia, the Trinity, and Christ.” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, no. 55, 2 (2011): 165-208.

Solovyev, Vladimir. Russia and the Universal Church. Translated by Herbert Rees. London: Bles, 1948.


The Concept of the Gnomic Will in St. Maximus the Confessor

Theological students (and, apparently, especially converts) sometimes tend to act if they are omniscient when it comes to theological matters. Yet, this last semester in my Church History class, as we were going over the monothelite controversy1 it became quite apparent that no one really knew what St. Maximus’ doctrine of the gnomic will was. Some suggested that it was an additional will acquired at the fall (it’s not), others – rather most – remained silent, likely to avoid espousing heresy. Me, being one of those omniscient theological students (and, even worse, a convert!) decided to read multiple books on St. Maximus’ theology and even had my girlfriend buy me On the Cosmic Mystery of Christ for my name-day present. This blog post is a rather modest attempt to explain what the gnomic will in its most basic form. I profess that I am by no means an expert on Maximus, having only read a few monographs and some direct sources, but I do believe it is enough to flesh out the concept for others to understand at a rudimentary level.

In his works, St. Maximus uses a variety of words interchangeably and inconsistently, a style that can make his work quite difficult to weave through (Bathrellos 120).2 However, this cannot be solely attributed to the saint as Maximus discovered, for example, “that the term ‘gnomie’ has many different meanings in the Holy Scriptures and in the Holy Fathers” which called for careful discernment to identify the multiple nuances.3 However, in his Disputation with Pyrrhus, Maximus articulates a distinction between the will as a faculty of nature, and the mode of willing which relates to the hypostasis:

“The will and the mode of willing are not the same, just as the power of sight and the mode of perception are not the same. Will, like sight, is of nature. All things which have identical nature have identical abilities. But the mode of willing, like the mode of perception – in other words, to will to walk or to will not to walk, and the perception of the right hand or of the left, or of up or down, or the contemplation of concupiscence or of the rational principles in beings – is only a mode of the use of a power, of the employment of will and of perception. And the same distinction may be applied to other things as well. These things demonstrate that have, by nature, the will to eat or not to eat, to walk or not to walk. But these negatives are not applicable to the will as such, but only to the particular mode of willing.”4

The distinction is absolutely vital, for if the natural will is located in the hypostasis as the monothelists believed, then either the one will of God implied Sabellianism since there would only be one hypostasis, or that the three persons of the Trinity implied that there were three different wills:

“For if one suggests that a ‘willer’ is implied in the notion of the will, then by the exact inversion of this principle of reasoning, a will is implied in the notion of a ‘willer.’ Thus, will you say that because of the one will of the superessential Godhead there is only one hypostasis, as did Sabellius, or that because there are three hypostases there are also three wills, and because of this, three natures as well, since the canons and definitions of the Fathers say that the distinction of wills implies a distinction of natures? So said Arius!”5

With the distinction between the natural will and the mode of willing, we can now begin to understand the gnomic will. The gnomic will is “one sub-category within the much larger category of ‘the mode of willing’” which relates to “a mode of willing, but is so ‘in relation to some real or assumed good.’” Farrell’s quotation from Maximus, that the gnomic will relates to “some real or assumed good,” means that “the gnomic will is a form of actualization of the human natural will that is marked by sinfulness,” since our deliberation means we are subject to “ignorance…to mutability, to the possibility of committing evil deeds, to passions and to actual sinfulness,” all realities that pertain to fallen human hypostases.6 Thus, Christ lacks a gnomic will since his hypostasis is that of the second member of the Trinity, the Logos. While one might claim this diminishes Christ’s humanity, it does not, “for gnome does not pertain to the logos of nature (λόγος φύσεως) but is a mode of use (τρόπος χρήσεως) through which we gain experience of the ways in which the good is achieved.”7 Thus, Maximus says, “the humanity of Christ does not simply subsist [in a manner] similar to us, but divinely, for He who appeared in the flesh for our sakes was God. It is thus not possible to say that Christ had a gnomic will.”8

Icon of Saint MaximusIt should be noted that the gnomic will pertains to fallen human hypostases and not the human hypostasis as such.9 This means that the saints in heaven whose wills are deified (just as Christ’s was even during his ministry) will still maintain their free-choice despite the fact they will no longer be able to sin.10 For those whose wills have been deified, there still exists differing options, but each and every choice is good. There will be no more deliberating over what is right, examining our options, weighing the consequences, being uncertain about the outcome, etc., rather the saints choose from a variety of equally good options in which the outcome is already known. The saints “wills will move in different ways, and they will vary in regard to their mode of moving (τῷ τῆς κινήσεως τρόπῳ). The saints in heaven will have a (sinless) mode of willing.”11 Thus Maximus avoids the trap of multiple falls that Origen fell into, while preserving the God-given faculty of free-will.12

1Monothelitism is the heresy that claimed Christ only had one will (though there are many permutations of the basic theological point). St. Maximus’ and St. Sophronios’ dyothelitism was upheld as Orthodox by the decisions of the sixth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople III) in 681 A.D. For a general overview of the controversy see Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ: Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of Saint Maximus the Confessor (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), 60-98; Joseph P. Farrell, Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor (South Canan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1989), 67-84; John Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Devisions, The Church in History vol. II (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989), 333-73.
2For example, the word θέλειν means ‘will’ when used in Disputatio 292B, D and 293 A, but means ‘the mode of willing’ in Opusc. 3, 48A. Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ, 120, n. 113.
3St. Maxmimus the Confessor, The Disputation With Pyrrhus of our Father Among the Saints Maximus the Confessor, Joseph P. Farrell trans., (South Canan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1990), 34. I have taken some of the Jacobean language Farrell uses for his translation and substituted it with modern english usage instead, i.e. ‘does’ instead of ‘doth’.
4Ibid. 10-11.
5Ibid. 5-6. Farrell’s footnote is also worth quoting: “Because our Lord exhibited a will distinct from the Father at Gethsemane, Arius maintained that He was only the highest of creatures. In doing so, Arius accepts the principle that the faculty of will and its operations are rooted in nature, but he denies that there are two natures in Christ. He thus confesses his own type of Monotheletism.” See also Bathrellos, Byzantine Christ, 130.
6Bathrellos, Byzantine Christ, 132-33.
7Ibid. 157.
8Disputation, 32. Brackets are Farrell’s.
9Bathrellos, Byzantine Christ, 156.
10Farrell, Free Choice, 111-15. It should be noted that Bathrellos disagrees with Farrel on point, saying that “Farrell…has…misinterpreted this passage by arguing that for Maximus, proairesis belongs to human nature, and that the saints in heaven will have a proairesis which will not be moved by the ‘things in the middle’…for Maximus, the saints in heaven will not have a proairesis but only an active intellectual desire (ὄρεξις ἐνεργὴς νοερὰ: Opusc. I, 24C).” Bathrellos, Byzantine Christ, 159. Bathrellos on page 149 says that “Proairesis relates to deliberation (βουλὴ or βούλευσις), which is a searching appetite (ὄρεξις ζητητική).”
11Bathrellos, Byzantine Christ, 159. Italics are Bathrellos’s.
12Farrell, Free Choice, 90.

Bathrellos, D. The Byzantine Christ: Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of Saint Maximus the Confessor. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Farrell, J. P. Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor. South Canan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1989.

_________, trans. The Disputation with Pyrrhus of our Father Among the Saints Maximus the Confessor. South Canan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1990.

The Ring of Fire

The icon of the 'parousia' shows how Christ is both the source of joy and the source of anguish

The icon of the ‘parousia’ shows how Christ is both the source of joy and the source of anguish

Before I begin with assessing the 3rd part of Alex’s critique of Jesus as a Savior, I need to explain the conception of Hell in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Hell, unfortunately, is depicted to many at a young age as Dante’s Inferno, a place where demons will torture you in gruesome ways beyond description (never mind that Hell was “prepared for the devil and his angels”), a sadistic and malevolent place that makes the worst of human atrocities seem banal. Johnathan Edward’s Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God comes to mind. Of course, many who study theology in any of the three major Christian traditions (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox) come to realize that hell isn’t an over-amplified version of the Soviet Gulags. Many describe it as the absence of God, but even this is not correct.

Hell, in the Orthodox tradition, is God Himself. God’s grace, or His energies, pours out to all unconditionally at His second coming, and affect each individual depending on the state of their relationship with Him. If a person spent their life living the life of theosis, coming to know God and participating in Him, drawing ever closer into infinity with Him, combating the passions, overcoming sin, learning love, charity, patience, humility, etc, then they experience the fire of God as warmth and joy, one which will continue to deify them for eternity.

Those who have chosen instead to commune with their passions, desires, with anything other than Christ, will experience these same energies as pain, though it is quite literally God’s love that pierces us. We are no longer able to run away from our passions which we have made into our gods, and as they choke us, our own conscience condemns us for having chosen death over Life. It is, as St. Isaac the Syrian says, “the scourge of love” that afflicts us in the afterlife.

For a more robust presentation, as well as its history in Scripture and the Church Fathers, please read this article. With that, let us examine Alex’s piece:

Madoka doesn’t punish those who don’t believe in her or fail to thank her. Jesus sends nonbelievers and sinners to hell

As I mentioned above, Hell is a condition one finds oneself in having rejected Life and communed with sin and death, having made our passions our own god(s). If we are in hell, it is because we have chosen these things instead of Christ, and our reaction to seeing God’s love and grace, the “scourge of love”, is going to hurt. God will return to earth to transform His creation, and He will (and does) love all.

A true savior doesn’t ask for compensation for his/her services.  A savior gives freely without hope of admiration for doing good deeds. And a savior most certainly doesn’t turn right around and slap the ungrateful in the face.  This is why Jesus isn’t a savior at all. He’s a mafia boss offering protection that nobody asked for.  And if you don’t pay your dues, he’ll get back at you another way.

Let’s get one thing clear, theologically: Christ does not need us at all. He doesn’t need us to worship Him, He doesn’t need us to love Him, He doesn’t need us to pray to Him. The Holy Trinity is a communion of Three Persons that are fully within one another and yet distinct: the perfect communion that all men strive towards. God went to the Cross freely and redeemed all of mankind, regardless of whether or not they would accept Him (which is what Pope Francis was trying to say awhile back). There is no compensation for this gift, it is given freely – no works could ever achieve it. Though, I must be clear, I am not advocating Protestantism: while works done outside of Christ can not earn us salvation (i.e., Pelagianism), once we are baptized into Christ and are members of His Body, works are transformed and indeed are salvific (“work out your salvation in fear and trembling”). But at no point does God owe us this. Furthermore, to reiterate, hell is our experience of God when He returns, and He is going to return to save His creation whether we want him to or not.

In contrast, Madoka doesn’t demand any worship whatsoever.  In fact, her circumstances actually make worship impossible because only Homura knows that she ever existed and besides the words of the “prophet” we can never even determine objectively that Homura’s claims are true.

Man’s worship of God is his way of participating in Him, and thus being deified by Him. The effects of worship are going to be for our benefit since, as I just said, God doesn’t need it. One of course may choose not to worship God since love is freely given, but I do put forward that this is the response man has when he truly beholds God’s glory (something no one reading this has probably done). The disciples themselves were dumbfounded when they saw this, Peter telling the Lord that he would be willing to build three tabernacles (and as a theological aside, the light beheld was nothing else than the uncreated energies of God). I’m sure Alex would disagree with me on this, but that his prerogative.

Furthermore, Madoka doesn’t require worship because the metaphysical tradition that is being emulated in the show is Buddhism, in which Karma flows through each person and which there is no central deity that is the ground of being. For me to critique this would to enter into a far larger debate which I have no intentions of doing in these responses.

She did what she did because it was the right thing to do.  This ties in with the secular outlook on why we do good deeds and why Madoka is once again an awesome example of a humanistic hero.  Like Madoka, if we live our lives freely doing good deeds, the only reward we really need is the happiness of knowing that you helped someone out.

Once again, I pointed out in my first post the problems any kind of moral system derived from a physicalist paradigm run into, and that it leads us eventually to moral nihilism (amongst other things). If there is no ontological basis for calling something good, if there really is no ought, then honestly, why should I care? If there is no rational basis for morality, then why give it the time of day? Look, I’ll be blunt, unless this problem can be solved – which I don’t think it can for the physicalist – for one to tout Secular Humanism is just as deluded as believing in an ‘Old Man in the Sky’ who gives us rules to follow [pro-tip, no Christian should believe in this anyways – it’s heresy]. Neither system is based upon reality, which is why I have never understood this New-Athiest obsession with Secular Rights. If naturalism is true, then human rights don’t exist. “You have all these rules [Batman], and you think they’ll save you…”

Christians all too often do their good because they’ve been told that “belief is not enough to save you, good works are needed, too,” and so they help others because it’s been mandated by a higher power.  Or more selfishly they put up a facade of kindness because doing so will reap them rewards in the afterlife.

Yes, many Christians begin fighting against their own self-will, which is inclined to sin, because they know that it is by their works they will be judged. However, doing good deeds to avoid hell has always been seen as the most base way to be saved and betrays a spiritual immaturity in the believer (after all, “perfect love casts out fear”). As one progresses in their relationship with God, one finds oneself doing these acts out of love for one’s neighbor, and a genuine desire to encounter Christ with every person we meet since all are made in God’s image. Do not many children learn not to misbehave first by more corporal forms of punishment, and then slowly out of a love for their parents? The main reason I fear to upset my Mom and Dad is not because of any kind of punishment, but because of the disappointment and grief I would cause them. I love them both, and as such I want to bring joy to them, not the opposite. The fear of God is supposed to become a fear of being away from God because we love Him.1

As for the “facade”, one would think that God could see through this given that He is omniscient. However, from Elder Paisios the Athonite:

Elder, Abba Isaac writes, “No kind of repentance that takes place after the removal of our free will 2 will be a well-spring of joy, nor will it be reckoned for the reward of those who possess it.” How can anyone repent without exercising his own free will?

– One may be forced to repent, having fallen in the eyes of others around him, but such repentance has no humility. This is how I understand it.

Do you mean that there is repentance that is not voluntary?

– Yes, it is compulsory repentance. I ask you to forgive me for some harm I have caused to you so that I may be spared the consequences, but I have not changed inside. A fiendish person will pretend to have repented, and will proceed cunningly, offering prostrations with feigned kindness, to deceive others.

When someone goes to tell his sins to a Spiritual Father merely because he is afraid of going to hell, even this is not true repentance. He’s not repenting for his sins, he’s afraid of going to hell!

True repentance means that one is first aware of his sins, is pained by them, asks God for forgiveness, and then goes and confesses them. This is why I always recommend Repentance and Confession together. I never recommend Confession alone.

Notice, for example, what happens when we have an earthquake. You see those who have a good disposition will be moved deeply, they will repent and change their way of life. But the majority of people keep this fear of God only for a short period of time; and when the danger is past, they resume their former sinful life. This is why, when someone told me that there had recently been a very strong earthquake in his hometown, I told him, “It shook you up, but did it really wake you up?” “It woke us up,” he said. Then I said, “Sure, but you’ll go back to sleep again”.3

Back to Alex’s piece:

You should never be compelled to do the right thing because you’re hanging to the edge of a cliff and someone who can save you tells you that you must dedicate your life to your rescuer, otherwise you’re going to get pushed.

Of course, as seen above, this isn’t why Christians should be doing good works either. However, let’s just roll with this for a second: why can’t I do good works for this reason? On what ontological grounds can you show me that this would be wrong? If morality is arbitrary and irrational, then really I could do ‘good’ or ‘bad’ works for whatever reason (or lack of) I want.

Looking at the flip side of the situation, what does it say about the character of the helper if all they’re thinking about is how being nice can be of some benefit?

Note that earlier Alex said there was an innate reward in doing good, which is “the happiness of knowing that you helped someone out.” Couldn’t this be an impediment to good works since it is ultimately striving after a fleeting feeling of self-satisfaction rather than thinking about the other person? Couldn’t, hypothetically, someone do good works solely or largely for these positive feelings about oneself, and thus build up a mental image that “I am a kind, loving person” or “I am charitable and selfless”, etc?

True salvation is given unconditionally and Madoka passes this test where Jesus fails.

True salvation means one is saved from something. Christ, if we follow Him, saves us from the powers of sin and death and transfigures us into loving, righteous, joyful, deified human beings. Quite literally, “ye are gods.” He just won’t do it against our will.

1It is here that I break off with my Protestant bloggers: works are indeed salvific, but only works that are done in synergy with Christ, or works in Christ. In this case, we are co-workers with God in our salvation, and are transformed by His grace that we must cooperate with. This is not Pelagianism, nor is it ‘meritorious’ – it is the classic Christian doctrine of synergy. For more, see: Russel, N. Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis. [amazon] One may also see the article I linked at the beginning of this post.

2Given the context of the passion, I think it is clear that St. Isaac doesn’t mean the removal of “free-will” as a facet of man, or that he literally loses the ability to choose. This becomes clearer by Elder Paisios’s example.

3John Sanidopoulos. Elder Paisios: On True and False Repentance. From Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Counsels: “Spiritual Struggle” (vol. 3).

Picture References

Whenever a Bell Rings…

TWWK has recently been running an online anime group that’s watching Haibane Renmei. Unfortunately, the time slot is too late for me since I have to get up extra early on Sunday’s to unlock my Cathedral (that’s being a sextant for you!). The show is one that I have been meaning to watch for quite some time now, and have started multiple times. It’s easy to see the parallels to Christianity: on a superficial level we have angel wings and halos, and on a deeper level we have some of the things that are mentioned over at the Beneath the Angels. That said, I want to take a different route, one that is anti-Christian, but not in the sense of secularism. I speak of one of the earliest heretical groups in the history of the Church: the Gnostics.

For those who don’t know, Gnosticism was a religious movement that began in late antiquity, around the same time that Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman Empire.1 While Christian Gnosticism has become popularized by the works of authors such as Elaine Pagels, Gnosticism itself was not a unified movement and appeared in various other religions including non-mainstream Judaism and paganism. Though a full covering of Gnosticism is not my intention, there are a few key doctrines that I’d like to touch on, some of which can be seen in the first episode of Haibane Renmei.

One of the key teachings in Gnosticism, influenced by its Platonic heritage, is that the created world of matter is inherently evil; the soul was originally part of the divine but fell into the world of matter where it is now trapped. Salvation consists of receiving divine knowledge (gnosis) via a mediator of some kind. Upon learning, the Gnostic could no longer be affected by the world, and as such was immune to falling away. Thus some expressed their rejection of creation by extreme asceticism, while others indulged in any debauchery they could think of since it had no affect on their soul.

Now, one may wonder what any of this has to do with Haibane Renmei. While the falling into created existence resembles Rakka’s dream of falling, the connection is superficial at best since the dreams of each of the characters varies, some having no inherent connection to Gnosticism. Futhermore, Rakka’s birth is an event that is celebrated; the kids gather around (despite Reki’s warnings) and look on in awe at the giant egg that has materialized in the storage closet. Everyone waits with anticipation, glad to have another join their ranks. None of this resembles an aversion to the material.

Haibane Renmei - Rakka gets her wings

Yet, the scene that can most aptly be described as a baptism – the emergence of Rakka’s wings – has a far different feel. The moment is preceded by a longing to return to the world, to have one’s memory and identity restored, and the sobering conclusion that such a feat was impossible. The Gnostic saw salvation in consisting of learning that they themselves were part of the divine, and thus Rakka’s forgetfulness of who she is mimics the Gnostics previous enslavement to the world in which they do not remember their divine origins. As Rakka’s wings spread, the music playing is a far cry from anything resembling joy, and the blood, violence, and sheer amount of pain all point that there is an inherent tragedy in what is taking place. Rakka’s birth into being a Haibane carries an inherent fallen character: it is the result of losing one’s identity, and becoming something that is no longer human.

Baptism, for the earliest Christians, was not just a symbol but an actual participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. The early Christians knew that after their baptism they were likely to be persecuted, tortured, and killed, and yet they went to the font (or lake/pond/river) willingly, knowing that the principalities and powers of the world, the satanic powers that be, could not prevent them from joining the Body of Christ. This rejection was seen in a practice in the early baptismal rite, one that has continued today in the Orthodox Church, in which the catechumen faces West and is told to blow or spit upon Satan. They were then faced East for the rest of the service, showing their leave taking from the kingdom of this world, and embracing the kingdom not of this world.

There is one other facet of Rakka’s ‘baptism’ that resonates more with the Gnostic narrative: that it is inevitable. I am, admittedly, making inference via the Platonic roots of Gnosticism, but nevertheless I feel that my observation is not without warrant. The souls that were caged within flesh were the result of the fallen world, which was a by product of the first aeon’s fall from the divine Pleroma from within God. The relevant theological point is that in Platonism, and hence I’m assuming in Gnosticism, there was no distinction between God’s will and his nature, his grace and his essence. These distinctions were made by the Church Fathers (St. Athanasius and St. Gregory Palamas, respectively), but were unknown to Plato or the Gnostics. Thus, since the fall of the first aeon must have been from God’s essence, it was inevitable that it would occur, and that all the events that occurred after would as well (in short, determinism). While the acquisition of gnosis freed one from the bonds of fate, the initial entrapment of matter seems to me as the result of fate. Thus just as the Gnostic was forced to be trapped in his material body, Rakka had no choice but to become a Haibane. The lack of freedom, to say the least, is disconcerting.

1For an excellent summary of Gnosticism, see Antonia Tripolitis, ‘Chapter V: Gnosticism,’ in Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002). The information here comes from this chapter.

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Today He Who Hung the Earth Upon the Waters…

This is a response to Alex’s second post in his series on why Madoka is a better savior than Jesus. In this post, Alex says why Madoka’s sacrifice was more true than Christ’s.

Madoka made a true sacrifice in that she actually gave something up, never to reclaim it again.  By contrast, Jesus just had a rough weekend.

Of course this only if we accept this definition of sacrifice (which there is no logically pressing reason to do so). Christ’s sacrifice of His own life was, as I detailed in my last post, to destroy the powers of sin and death that held mankind captive and incapable of being united to the Trinity. As regarding Christ’s “rough weekend,” I would like to quote from Fr. Thomas Hopko in regards to the level of temptation that Christ endured as compared to anyone else:

People sometimes think that Jesus’ temptations were nothing, since He is the divine Son of God. They consider His sufferings as empty gestures, devoid of true pathos and pain, since He is God’s divine Word, the One by whom all things were made. If Jesus of Nazareth is really God’s Son in human flesh, they say, what can it mean that He is tempted and suffers? Isn’t it a joke? And a bad one at that! And if His sufferings consisted in but half a day on a cross, do not thousands and even millions of people suffer much more than He? How many people there must be who would gladly hang on a cross for a few hours in order to free themselves of months, years, and even decades of the most agonizing suffering and pain! And to be raised up for everlasting life but a day and a half later – who wouldn’t wish it? And who wouldn’t endure it?

The Truth is, however, that Jesus’ temptations and sufferings, precisely because He is God’s eternal Son in real human flesh, are incomparably more terrifying and agonizing than those of any “mere man,” and of all “mere men” who ever were or will be. For Jesus is God, experiencing as God in His own human soul and body the rejections of His creatures, the betrayals of His brothers, and the abandonment of His own God and Father on the Cross, for the sake of reconciling all creation with Himself in perfect, unending communion and life. In this sense it is wholly accurate to say that no creaturely mind, of men or of angels, can even begin to imagine the magnitude of the temptations and sufferings of Jesus Christ for the sake of His beloved world. In Him all temptations and all sufferings that ever were or will be are experienced to the boundless infinity of His divine person. His, therefore, are temptations and sufferings which transcend creaturely comprehension. They literally cannot be fathomed. They can hardly even be imagined. They can only be wondered at with speechless adoration and wordless praise: His silence in death can only be met by our silence in awe-inspired amazement!1

One could of course wave this off given that Christ was the God-man, but once again, Christ overcomes temptations flawlessly so that this can be recapitulated into the human nature that He shares with us as Fr. Thomas points out. Christ overcomes temptation so that we can as well, and do so as members of His body, the Church. He does it for our sake, not out of any kind of necessity.

This second point ties in with the first point I made about Jesus’s omnipotence.  Because Jesus always knew that he was going to be brought back to life after dying, his sacrifice wasn’t a real sacrifice.  It would be the equivalent of disciplining a child by taking away a toy for a set amount of time only to replace it with a better one once the lesson had been learned.  It’s nothing but a complete farce.

Alex means to say Jesus’s omniscience, not omnipotence. Either way, the analogy is insufficient since Christ goes to the Cross not to learn any kind of lesson, but to die “for the life of the world” (John 6:51). Not to mention, one would think that the garden of Gethsemane would nevertheless undercut Alex’s point; Christ specifically lets his human nature act out its natural fear of death, but still stays in total submission to the will of His Father (which is the same will as His own divine nature, as there is only one will in the Trinity). Plenty of Christians will say that they know they are supposed to die a martyrs death if called to it, and many also firmly believe in the age and promises to come. Yet, apostasy happens. Why? Because being faced with one’s death is far scarier than theorizing about it.

Madoka didn’t have such a loophole to escape from after she made her wish.  Her sacrifice was real and permanent.  An eternity separated from your loved ones who have forgotten you ever existed is an unbelievable sacrifice fitting of Madoka’s truer selflessness.

Of course many have rejected and mocked Christ’s sacrifice (as there is no shortage of such in our modern culture), yet God still went to the Cross. Furthermore, Madoka was not entirely forgotten as evidenced by Homura, and still seems to be interacting with the world to some extent, especially in the prevention of creating witches. Technical points, I know, but they evidence that Madoka is not entirely separated, as she has gone to a higher plane of existence (because, as I said in my last post, she is a Bodhisattva).

Furthermore, Christ’s sacrifice was indeed real (at least in the eyes of a Christian). Human nature has been redeemed from death and sin, and can once again be united to its Creator. Whether one accepts this and begins the long path of salvation is another question entirely, but nevertheless the effects of Christ’s death and Resurrection are permanent, even if He is not eternally dead.2 “Behold the Lamb of God…”

The next question you need to ask yourself is, “could I make such a sacrifice given the circumstances?”  If the answer is a quick and casual, “sure, no problem,” it’s probably not a sacrifice.  If you asked me if I’d be willing to be tortured and killed for the sake of every person’s salvation after death and after three days be brought back to life to sit at the right hand of god forever, I’d do it in a heartbeat.  There’s just no question that’s a sweet deal.  In fact, I’d provisionally be willing to stay dead forever for the sake of everyone’s salvation.

No, a sacrifice is a sacrifice regardless of how much one struggles to make it or not. Perhaps you could quip it was a rather easy decision, and thus did not extol much spiritual/mental/emotional effort on your part, but it is nevertheless a sacrifice. Certainly in the Judaic paradigm that Christianity grew out of, Christ’s sacrifice was a sacrifice – in fact it was such a humiliating one to the eyes of most Jews that many could not accept it.

However, there is another thing I would like to respond to; Alex’s question is posed as if Christ were any other human who needed to make a kind of deal. Now, I know Alex realizes that according to Christian doctrine Christ is God, and thus such a situation is absurd: Christ knew He would be going to the Cross before creation even existed. Nevertheless, the unsettling aspect of his example is that it ignores the metaphysics at play, and the differences that sets Christianity apart from Buddhism, or Madokaism, if you will. Alex’s death and resurrection to sit at the right hand of God the Father would of meant nothing metaphysically as humanity would ultimately remain unchanged. Nor would his “provisional…[remaining] dead forever” accomplish “everyone’s salvation” as death would not be conquered. There is an ontological gap between the uncreated God and created humanity, and it is only the Incarnation that bridges it.

However, if you asked me to obliterate myself from having ever existed in order to prevent the suffering of others, I’d have to consider that long and hard because my legacy is something I value highly.  The generous side of me wants to say I’d be willing to make that kind of sacrifice, but my more self-preserving instincts protest that’s too high a price.

At what point does this get subjective? I am sure there would be plenty of people who would nullify their existence to prevent the suffering of others, or something along similar lines. Once again, what really baffles me is the value put on existence in this paradigm. I mentioned in my last post that one of atheism’s key problems, or at least this kind of reductionist atheism, is that values themselves have no ontological referent and are thus just as illogical, and just as “mythological”, as the religions that they are used to criticize. If Alex is nothing more than the assemblage of bio-chemical machinery that has no intrinsic value, then why is the obliteration of one’s existence too high a price? Of course one’s instincts can get in the way, but that should not be much of an issue given what is at stake. Then again, if there is no inherent value to human life, then why even bother saving it? In fact, this is assuming that we even need salvation in the first place, which nature is utterly silent about.

Simply put, she was forced by the logic of her wish to cease her own existence, past, present and future.

Except she did no such thing: though it is implied by the characters in their crying out about such a horrid fate, Madoka still exists at the end of the show, just at a higher state. She has yet to enter Nirvana, if my understanding is correct.

This was a costly sacrifice with tangible repercussions for Madoka that (debatably) were not offset by the benefits that she attained through transcendence.  By contrast, can Jesus’s sacrifice really be called a sacrifice at all?  In order for something to be a sacrifice, you have to lose something, but all Jesus did was die and come back to life stronger than ever.  The only thing that can be argued to be lost was time, but what is three days to an eternal being? 3

Once again, it matters not if Jesus foreknew his Resurrection, it is still a sacrifice. He died that we may live, He gave up his life so that we could have Life. “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to all those in the tombs, bestowing life!” Christ’s Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection completely ontologically changed the entire universe into which suffering, death, despair, and evil have been overcome, and that man can participate in this if he so chooses to. Madoka only eliminates despair insofar as she prevents it coming to its full culmination by the annihilation of the magical girls before they totally succumb. For the girls there is no union with the divine, no overcoming of the passions (especially in the case of Sayaka), no purification, no telos. There is perhaps an afterlife, as implied by Madoka’s final scene with Sayaka, but if indeed the final stage for Madoka and others is the cessation of their existence, for I see no reason as to think why their fate would be any different than her own, then how is that any different than the world we live in now?

The Crucifixion

Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on the tree,
The King of the angels is decked with a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped on the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the Cross with nails.
The Son of the virgin is pierced by a spear.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
Show us also Thy glorious resurrection.

1 Fr. Thomas Hopko, The Lenten Spring: Readings For Great Lent. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983), 144-45.
2 It is of importance that I include the Resurrection here as well: had Christ not come back from the grave then mankind would still not be able to resurrect themselves. The Resurrection of Christ means that we too may participate in the Resurrection via our baptism into the Church. Had this not happened, then the whole thing would have been a farce. Since the telos of Christianity is theosis, or deification via union with the divine, an eternal death on Christ’s part would be utterly meaningless. Part of the beauty of the Cross is that it is where death itself is destroyed, and that the constant human history of life being swallowed up by death is completely overturned. The selflessness lies in the fact that God did not owe this to humanity, nor was He bound by necessity, but like the act of creation ex nihilo He did it out of His love for man, his philanthropy.
3 If Alex’s definition of sacrifice were the only, then we would not be able to say that Christ even lost time since Christians do not believe in ‘soul sleep,’ or the teaching that our souls are dormant and unaware until the Resurrection.

Picture References


The Problem is Choice, Mr. Anderson…

It is probably premature of me to write a response before the argument is finished, but this morning I saw a post on TWWK’s blog about how Alex of Ashita no Anime is writing a series of posts on why Madoka is better than Jesus as a savior. Needless to say, I knew I would bite before even finishing the first sentence.

Alex begins his argument as such:

Madoka started as a humble human who transcended existence.  Jesus was always a god, which calls into question the logic of his methodology and thereby also the validity of said godhood.

Now, many would point out that Madoka’s very humanity is a metaphysical impediment to salvation to begin with: how can a mere man save mankind? If one is of the same ontological essence as their savior with no difference, then on what grounds can one human be lifted up as savior over the entire race? Any moral, spiritual, ethical, etc., advancement would have nothing to do with ones ontology, but rather how far one progressed upon a path of those categories, which means the locus of salvation still lies outside of the person. Indeed, Madoka’s own transformation is because of the karmic power of the universe, something that while humans interact with, ultimately lays external to them, and as such it is that karmic power that is the actual saving factor and not Madoka. While Madoka interacted with it on an unprecedented level, metaphysically speaking that could have been granted to whomever since no humans are ontologically different from one another in the Puella universe. This is why Madoka is far more akin to a Bodhisattva than Christ since she herself is not the locus of salvation. While she may certainly help man with their enlightenment (just as the saints help us with deification), she is not the savior. If this debate sounds familiar, its because its what the Catholic missionaries and the Buddhists argued about when Roman Catholicism was introduced to Japan in the 16th century.

Alex continues:

Madoka is a wonderful example of a humanistic hero because if anything in humanism can be called a “commandment” it is the willingness of people to give of themselves for the sake of others.  Although she was just a person, Madoka realized that she possessed the potential to save many.  She gave all of herself willingly and completely for the sake of others with no thought of reciprocation. In a twist of logic that I like to think of as a natural kind of altruistic karma, she received a reward of sorts—a change in her very nature that is at least equivalent to what most people could consider a demigod.

There are multiple ideas going on in this paragraph, some that I even agree with. First, I want to speak on humanism, but specifically from the point of naturalism1 (since humanists are not committed to naturalism, and my critique only affects the latter). I will be using naturalism here as synonymous with physicalism, the philosophical position that only physical objects and systems exist. The logical implication is that metaphysics thus do not exist, and that as such metaphysical claims – most pertinently those of religions – are false. Of course, if one is both a naturalist and a humanist, then the teleological and moral values of humanism seem to be undermined by naturalism since such values are not in and of themselves part of nature. Let me explain.

Since the naturalist is committed to a stance of rejecting metaphysics, it means that all values must have an ontological root within the fabric of nature. In other words, they must exist intrinsically within nature. If not, then moral values are just as illusory as the other metaphysical concepts (i.e., God) that are rejected by the naturalist. Now, there is a distinction I need to make here: the difference between the concept of morality or teleology and the content of those concepts. There is no doubt that the concept of morality can be seen in nature: humans have written countless works on ethics and teleology just as they have about supernatural phenomenon, myths, theology, etc. We can measure the neuron and brain patters that fire off via fMRI scans when we deliberate about such concepts, and we can view the innumerable amount of spiritual artifacts left behind by almost every human civilization. The concept of morality and teleology, just as the concept of God, can no doubt to be said to exist within nature.

But what about the content of those concepts? After all, evolutionary psychology touts that many of our altruistic behaviors and intention-seeking patterns are part of our genetic makeup, things we have inherited from the long history of evolution. We tend to group together and act altruistically because pack-mentality was an aid to our survival and thus the propagation of our genes. Our ancestors sought out purpose and meaning because its what helped them to make sense of their chaotic surroundings and thus survive, or perhaps because its a by-product of consciousness. Hence, we see such moral and teleological values inherit within our species, and have no need to fear of any kind of ‘metaphysical boogiemen’ to force us to face nihilism. To be good is in our genes.

Then again, so is to rape, to steal, to murder, to cheat, to lie, to deceive, to commit infidelity, to do all the common actions that blind us or others from that which is good or beneficiary for the ‘well-being of conscious creatures’.2 Not to mention, our propensity for religious belief and other concepts (i.e., free will) also likely have evolutionary roots (which no Christian would even feel bothered by), but the naturalist rejects these as illusory. Morality and teleology are no different, as evolution does not provide us with ontological truths, but merely survival mechanisms, regardless of their falsity or validity. In order for morality and teleology to exist rationally they have to have a root within nature. Nature mustNietzche say ‘man ought to survive’, ‘man ought to have value’, but of course nature does no such thing. Nature simply is. Values of these sorts are human constructions, but they do not have any actual reality to them, any kind of substance. They are just as fictitious as the metaphysical gods rejected by the naturalist.

One of course could shift into subjectivity: so there is no moral objectivity, so what? I can still choose my own moral system. The problem of determinism aside, subjective ethics suffer from the same problems as objective ethics, or at least if one wants to remain rational (which is the whole drive of the New Atheist movement, after all). We can choose criterion to base our subjective ethics off of: happiness, liberty, well-being, safety, etc., but these suffer from the same critique as above as there is no inherent reason to pick any of these values as they have no ontological root. Thus, even if one builds such a subjective (really, consequentialist) moral system, it could be perfectly consistent, it could even achieve the goals it wishes, but it most certainly is not rational for there is no rational reason to pick any value over another. In fact, one could very well take the most caricatured depiction of hell, (or while I’m at it, the non-caricature of double-predestination!) and say that this is the reason they think Jesus is a better savior than Madoka, or is a better God than any god, and there could be no rational response from the naturalist as all these values are not only subjective, but are just down-right fables.

I know this has been a large tangent for just one sentence, but it is of key importance: if indeed naturalism leads, as I have been hinting, to both moral and teleological (and epistemic) nihlism, then any rational critique given can only be that God is inconsistent with His own system, and nothing more. The real problem for anyone holding this philosophical position is that if values indeed do not have any ontological grounding, then on what grounds do we even value rationality?

Although she was just a person, Madoka realized that she possessed the potential to save many.  She gave all of herself willingly and completely for the sake of others with no thought of reciprocation. In a twist of logic that I like to think of as a natural kind of altruistic karma, she received a reward of sorts—a change in her very nature that is at least equivalent to what most people could consider a demigod.

As I pointed out above it is the karmic power laden within the universe, and not Madoka, that is the locus of salvation. That said, Alex’s statement is still correct since he’s only talking about potential – I’m just reiterating my point. I agree with his next two sentences as the show leaves little room to argue: Madoka’s decision was based upon her love for others and her empathy with their suffering, and her accepting the contract turned into a demigod (Bodhisattva, really). Christians could have recourse to the problem of change and that if one changes it means they are inherently not perfect, but I have a feeling that would mean little to most reading.

Alex then begins his critique of Christ:

Jesus on the other hand started as god and was always a god.  Even having taken human form he was still a god, omniscient and omnipotent.  The incomprehensible process of having to sacrifice himself and come right back begs the question of why he didn’t just set up the system the right way to begin with.  Why create everything just to change it a few thousand years after the beginning of recorded history?  Why have any old testament at all if the current status quo was always going to be the end result?

Alex, of course, is correct in that Christ was still fully divine even after His incarnation. To answer his question as to “Why create everything just to change it a few thousand years after the beginning of recorded history,” one needs recourse to Genesis and the fall of man. It was not God’s intention that man is in the current state he is – broken, fallen, and sick, enslaved to the powers of sin and death – but Adam, so to speak, broke the fast and partook of the knowledge of good and evil before he was ready to. Wait — what?

More than one Church Father has explained Genesis in this light: Adam and Eve, while not fallen, were still child-like in that they were to continue to grow with God, even before the fall (in fact we never stop growing and communing deeper with God since He is by nature infinite). It is not that they were so oblivious as to know not to disobey God (after all, Eve’s first response to the serpent was the recollection of God’s commandment), but rather they were in a constant processes growing with God by participating in God’s grace. Certain Church Fathers even saw that outside of Paradise was chaos. Perhaps this is because God’s plan was that Adam and Eve were to bring those areas into paradise as part of their synergy in working with God, and thereby drawing closer to Him (such a view lends itself nicely to Theistic Evolutionists). Yet, they disobeyed, and when they did such they decided to commune with death rather than Life, non-existence rather than the Source of existence, and thus an ontological rift was made that would affect themselves and the rest of mankind to come. Yet God let this happen since He bestowed man with free-will since love must be given freely for it to be love. If Adam and Eve had no free will, indeed if none of us had free-will, then Christianity would be utterly incomprehensible.

Thus the incarnation of Jesus Christ to heal this rift, to destroy this barrier. One must understand that living in a traditionally Protestant nation, there seems to be a focus on solely Christ’s work on the Cross, with the Resurrection being proof of this work. But in Orthodoxy, Christ’s entire life is salvific, as the incarnation joins the human and divine natures without confusion (meaning the essences do not mix to create a synthesis) under the God-man Jesus Christ, allowing for the human nature to become deified. Christ lives out his life all the way up until adulthood (which encompasses all of adulthood regardless of age) so that he can sanctify each step, so that we may live each of those steps in Him and be healed. The same is true of His being tempted, of His baptism, of His death.

resurrection2Christ’s death sanctifies death so that it can be a gateway to life, so that by dying we can die within Christ. Furthermore, Christ’s death, since he is the Source of Life, destroys the very powers of sin and death, a reality represented in Orthodox icons of the Resurrection in which Christ stands on top of the gates of Hades themselves, lifting Adam and Eve out of their graves, while the saints of the Old Testament look on in awe and wonder. The incarnation then has further implications, as even if Adam and Eve had not fallen there still would have to of been a Theotokos, a God-bearer, as it is only by uniting the two natures that we could be deified.

Looking at Jesus from this perspective makes him seem rather callous for allowing people to suffer death for so long when he could have done something about it sooner and capricious as well for having to go through so many loops to achieve something that the all-powerful creator of the universe could have accomplished by snapping his fingers and being done with it.

The problem, of course, is free-will: it is not that God could not have saved man earlier (in fact he tells the Israel that the coming of the Messiah is delayed because of their sins, if I remember correctly), but it is that man himself is stubborn and resists God. Salvation takes place in time since man himself is a temporal creature, and as such it was not until the ‘coming of time’ (I forget the exact passage, may someone remind me of it?!) that Christ was to be incarnate. He waited until there was one who was the perfect icon of what the nation of Israel was supposed to be, the perfect icon of the Church: The Virgin Mary. It was precisely because the Virgin Mary was perfectly obedient in her entire life, and because she was to be the new Eve, that God chose her to be the Mother of God, the Theotokos. Had Mary declined, Christ would have not of been incarnate. Such a view may scandalize many, but for Orthodox Christians this only makes sense since God calls us to be co-workers in our salvation, taking the grace God gives us and working with Him – just as Adam and Eve were suppose to – and that Mary’s acceptance of her role was the ultimate act of synergy between God and man. Had she denied this role, then she would not have been the living Ark of the Covenant that she is, as her disobedience would be yet another example of the Garden, another example of what Israel constantly was doing: betraying God. Yet, it is precisely because she did accept that God used her to bear the Incarnation.

So the ‘many loops’ are largely set up by ourselves and because of our nature, and one can read more if they study the Patristic understanding of Christ’s life and work on the Cross. St. Athanasius does point out that while God could ‘nod His head’, man would simply continue to fall over and over again. This only makes sense as Adam and Eve now have the knowledge of good and evil, and since God won’t deprive them of their free will, we have a never ending cycle of falling from grace. Furthermore, it is by the incarnation that Christ finally ends this, as he accepts the Holy Spirit at His baptism so that in our baptism we receive the Spirit, our ability to once again not lose this grace since it is secure because of Christ in His human nature.

Alex then proceeds to argue why Madoka is better:

In short, Madoka saw suffering and injustice and upon realizing she had the capability to right this wrong, she was moved to action.  Jesus on the other hand sat on his butt for untold millennia watching the people he claims to love writhe in pain and die without salvation before finally getting around to doing something about it.

Madoka only acted upon this in the last time line, she had told Homura to prevent her from becoming a Magical Girl before (not to mention the multiple times she became a witch, even destroying the earth). This is because, unbeknownst to her, Madoka had to wait for karmic time lines to build up in order for her transformation to occur since it is karma and not herself that is the locus of salvation. Christ, on the other hand, had to deal with what humanity gave Him after humanity had first rejected Him (something that is completely absent in Madoka since it’s based upon Buddhism and not Christianity) and when the time came, He most certainly acted. Humans, unfortunately, tend to be a little recalcitrant.

Update: Cytrus of Yaranakya has made a reply from a Buddhist perspective.

1 I speak on naturalism specifically because of private e-mail exchanges that Alex and I have had in which he has claimed this philosophical position, though the term we used there was ‘physicalism’.
2 The term is from Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape.

An Update, a Wish, and a Church Father

Christ is born! My apologies for no post last week, but with Christmas and everything else I’ve been far too busy. Theophany is within a week as well, so there’s nothing major for today. Furthermore, I want to finish my last post on Madoka, which is looking to be a long one, and as such I’ll probably halt my posting until that’s done (otherwise I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it).

That being said, tomorrow is New Year’s Day, the day in which the Orthodox Church celebrates both the circumcision of Christ as well as St. Basil the Great. For those of you who don’t know, St. Basil is one of the three Cappadocian Fathers (the other two being his close friend St. Gregory the Theologian, and his younger brother St. Gregory of Nyssa) who helped to further develop the doctrine of the Trinity. St. Basil himself was also a large player in the development of monasticism, laying down his cenobitic rule,1 and was also a large advocate for social welfare, setting up monastic-ran basiliads in which the poor were treated for no cost at all. His theology courses throughout the life of the Church and beyond; the basiliads of the fourth century would evolve into what is our modern day hospital. CCEL offers the NFPF translation of his works: at the very least, every Christian – Orthodox or not – should read De Spiritu Sanctu (“On The Holy Spirit”).

I hope you all the best during the coming year!

1 Cenobitic monasticism is the form in where monastics are more communal and live together, as contrast to anchoritic monasticism in where monks are more hermitic in practice.


The sound of Caribbean music bounced its way through the air, popping life into a vibrant décor of menus, neon lights, and red counter-tops. Across from me was my father confessor, listening intently to my debacle. I had recently just played the game Bayonetta, and while the violence itself didn’t get to me, its throwing around of religious symbolism did Having angels as enemies bothered me too greatly, though by no means was I trying to judge anyone who felt differently. However, upon putting down the game and going online to actually read how others felt, I had come across one poster who greatly berated video games for their excessive violence, and that merely viewing, not to mention participating, in such things could not be good for the soul. Whether they said this next comment or not (I don’t remember) I left the computer with the following dilemma: it is, for Christians, undeniable that viewing and watching pornography is a sin. However, the act of killing another, whether murder or not, is also a sin, but so many of us have no problem watching this, let alone play a video games where we commit the act ourselves. This felt like a double standard, but at the same time there was something wrong with the comparison, but I couldn’t quite figure out what.

The term ‘pornoviolence’ is a term from the same titled essay by Tom Wolfe in which he essentially argues (at best as I can remember) that violence had become a new kind of pornography for our media, that it was used as a means to excite and gratify its viewers, and to entice them. Scenes of bloodbaths, of evisceration, of death is what sold and thus what was crafted. I personally find it hard to argue against such a critique; how many games can we all call to mind where the objective is ultimately to kill someone or something? Now, this may not of itself be gratuitous as even a game as tame as chess has the routing of the enemy as its primary objective. Yet, how many video games are saturated with visceral and gruesome scenes of death? God of War, Manhunt, Grand Theft Auto, Team Fortress II, Diablo III, Doom, Quake, Unreal Tournament, etc. Again, that’s not to say all these games are equal in this facet: Diablo III and Team Fortress II are not even close to the level of sheer brutality as something like God of War or Manhunt, but nevertheless your still seeing enemies – whether it be a ‘Heavy Weapons Guy’ or some infernal beast from the pit – get blown up into a pulp of sinew and ‘gibs’. I’d like to reiterate that I’m not passing judgment in writing this: I’ve played all of those games listed above, bar Manhunt, and many others, and I still continue to play most of them. To me, as long as violence stays a relatively low level (and I stress the use of that word since I have that the feeling that today’s ‘tame’ is yesterday’s ‘excessive’), it doesn’t bother me. Get to something like God of War, and I start to find it hard to enjoy.

I’ve been focusing so far on video games, but this same phenomenon is in anime; violence permeates almost every show that I’ve watched, and is almost always the modus operandi for solving a problem. But this is where violence need not be as negative; my favorite part of any story is the theme, the central ideas that weave throughout the plot and characters, and ultimately deliver some of kind of deeper message than what is on the surface. As such, violence can often be a metaphor that represents the conflict between good and evil, of light and darkness.1 Christian authors have often used violence in this regard, I need only mention the names of C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. But there is always a fine line; while violence can represent this conflict, the temptation is to focus too heavily on the violence, having the means become the point, and thus descending into a glorified view of violent acts – pornoviolence.

This is how I felt about last Saturday’s episode of Sword Art Online. I’m going to assume that those reading the post have seen the episode, and thus already have some idea of what I’m talking about. Asuna’s being hung up like a doll while Sugou rips off her clothes and taunts Kirito, sexually harassing our heroine while taking delight in the tears shed by both (to the point where he actually licks Asuna’s tears. What is this, SouthPark?). Kirito curses him, Asuna cries as she’s being violated, and Sugou is laughing just as you would expect this one-dimensional, really superficial villain to do (crazy eyes included). I know that there are some themes going on here, the idea of sexual anonymity in the internet, and that Sugou’s rape of Asuna may act like this on some level (though its hardly explored if so at all). But in reality it was nothing more than shock, nothing more than using sexuality as a way to make the viewer see Sugou as a deranged pervert and nothing more.

Rape in a story can be used to make a powerful point, to discuss the horrors of our world and examine them (and hopefully learn how to overcome them). I posted awhile ago on the show Now and Then, Here and There, and how the character Sara was used as a sex slave for the soldiers of Hellywood as an allusion to the use of young girls as sex slaves for guerrilla armies. There is an incredibly powerful scene where she, about to be raped again, fights back and actually kills her attacker. There is blood, there is screaming, there is violence – and yet the result is a far cry to what happened in SAO. The music, the expressions, the entire direction of the scene is highlighting the horror of what is happening, and that it happens all the time in the world. The viewers reaction is almost to look away, to not want to acknowledge it because it is so sad, so terrifying, and so brutal. Yet at no point is there a sense of gratification, a sense of filling one’s lust for pornoviolence. Asuna’s rape on the other hand is nothing more than a kind of plot device, a way to artificially make up for the fact there was no tension at all during the ‘Rescue Asuna’ arc. It works as fanservice, and a pretty twisted version of it at that.

The episode did have something to say thematically: the triumph of the human will (whose profoundness is loss since we live in a culture who assumes such a theme, as opposed to the more fatalistic mindset of the Japanese). However, it seemed to do nothing more than repeat what happened in the finale of the first season, which is entirely unfortunate given the memory altering technology Sugou espoused, and how that could have brought the theme to a new level of depth – imagine Kirito rescuing Asuna, just to discover that she loves Sugou instead, albeit artificially.

Understandably, Kirito’s resolution to the problem was also gruesome; he dislodges multiple appendages of Sugou’s body before flinging his torso into the air, and impaling it as it falls, cybernetic blood spewing forth from his wounds. He saves Asuna, and then heads off to see her at the hospital (I’m sure there’s some twist awaiting us in the epilogue). At the end of it all, this was just a poor way to wrap up the season, a quick fix job that had no tension, no real depth, no real emotional power – just scenes of pornoviolence that did little other than flaunt sexuality and brawn. The only words that came to my mind where those of Asuka: “How disgusting.”

1 This is essentially the answer my father confessor gave me. Pornography is perversion through and through, but violence – in it’s proper context – need not be so.

Picture References
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