In this video recording, ClassicalU Director Jesse Hake interviews theologian Dr. Jordan Daniel Wood on the topic of Christian eschatology. Dr. Wood shares his understanding of the topic from the New Testament as well as the writings of Maximus the Confessor, George MacDonald, and others.https://vimeo.com/manage/videos/747700803
I’m Jesse Hake, and I’m here with Jordan Wood. We’re going to be having a conversation on theological questions that are related to some of Jordan’s writings and studies. Jordan, what got you into the study of patristics, and how did you head in that direction in your own academic life?
I actually went to a Bible college. I was raised in a Protestant tradition that was focused mostly on scripture. So when I was there, I studied the text — most of the curriculum was just the biblical text, the original languages, and context. And so, I had a lot of questions as one does once one starts really reading the Bible closely. I heard that there were other Christians in history that had perhaps approached the Bible by interpreting it differently. And so I went to do a degree at St. Louis University, and I wrote on Origen of Alexandria and how he interpreted scripture. And that opened up the whole tradition to me after that. So that was my entry point.
All right. Tell us the rest of your education. Where did you get your Ph.D., and what were some of the focuses of your study there?
After I went to St. Louis University and I wrote on Origen and early Christianity, I went to Boston College and did my Ph.D. there in historical theology and thought I was going to be writing on St. Gregory of Nyssa. I ended up—after taking one course, in fact, three weeks of one course on St. Maximus the Confessor, a seventh century Greek father—I decided that I was definitely going to write on this guy. And so I focused, primarily—in my work on Maximus—on the relationship between the Word’s incarnation in history and then the whole of creation: God’s act of creating the whole of history. And so that, I think, relates to some of the things we’ll discuss.
I was just going to say that there is a relationship between the act of creation in Christ and one of the questions that I’ve come across in listening to some of the podcasts that you’ve been on (as you’ve promoted your book on Maximus the Confessor coming out in October of 2022). This relates to some comments you’ve made that are kind of, you know, eye opening and that leave you wondering, “Did he really just say that?” These are along the lines of: “history and the past isn’t the past to God” and “history is not subject to the limitations that we might assume that it is subject to” and that “part of salvation, part of creation is remaking, in some sense, the past” and that “we participate with God in these things.” Are these ideas that you picked up first from Maximus? Or where did you begin to use this language? And then, for what part of that kind of language that I’m using, would you say: “wait, you know, you’re out of line right there” or “that’s not exactly how I would want to say it…”?
Well, let’s see. So, you know, I was thinking about where I first started thinking about this cluster of issues. And I don’t know if there was one single reading, one author, or one work that started my thinking down this line. In fact, it was kind of a confluence or a simultaneous thinking through of several different things. So yes, looking at the work and the theology of St. Maximus the Confessor was mind bending because of what he says about the incarnation, to which, maybe, we can return a little later. But also, you know, I’m a fairly large fan of George McDonald, the fantasy author from the nineteenth century, a Scottish writer. And the things that he says—on the one hand about creating fantasy literature and about the imagination, and then the actual way he depicts these things in some of his better known works1 (like Phantastes or Lillith, the novel or romance)—all this came in conjunction with just thinking through basic things that we all, or that Christians at least, take for granted—things that we say we believe.
I could just take a quick example. In John chapter 1, we get, right off the bat: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God. And the Word was God.” All right, we get that “through Him, all things were made and, apart from Him, nothing was made that has been made.” Okay, we get that. So we get the picture of the Word as something like that through which God has created the whole world and which is himself God. But you get to verse 14 and you get: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Right. And you ask the question, hold on a second: The word became flesh? What exactly does that mean?
Because that word “became” can’t work in the way that it does with me if I say, you know, “I became a father at age 27 when I had my first child.” You know, the day before that, I wasn’t a father. I became a father after that. Pretty easy. It’s a sequence: before, after. But that can’t be what the “Word became flesh” means because the flesh is the thing that “becomes” in a temporal way, the way I became a father. So what does it mean for the Word to become something that can become in time? That’s not so clear. His becoming in time can’t be subject to the limits of what it means [for the rest of us] to become in time. That’s another way to put it. But all I’ve been saying is based off this single statement that we all agree on, that the Word became flesh. So when you start thinking about it, you ask questions and you push the limits.
So there’s that, and there’s also the question of Christ’s body, which seems to be able to transcend space and time in the Eucharist. How does that work? So you can think through basic convictions, I think, that many Christians hold, and think about their implications. But I was kind of doing that in conjunction with inspiration from authors like George MacDonald, St. Maximus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa.
So the idea of Christ becoming flesh and of that “becoming” not being subject to temporal limitations, is that related to Maximus and other church fathers like Justin Martyr who write about the logos spermatikos ("the word spread like seed")? So are you saying that the incarnation permeates temporal sequences or time? Is that a corollary to the point you’re making?
I guess one way to put it would be—well, we could approach it two ways. Let’s just do it through scripture for a second. I like to start there and hopefully end there. There are statements in scripture like Ephesians 2:10, “You were created in Christ Jesus.” That doesn’t say, “You were created in this principle, that’s the power of God, called the Word that’s just cosmic and only exists, way up there somewhere.” It sounds like it’s saying that the human being who is also God, Jesus Christ—that is where and when you were created. Okay. That already sounds a little bizarre. And so I think most of the time we just sort of move on to the next part of the verse and fight about grace and works, which is the rest of that verse.
Or you could go to Colossians 1 where it’s clearly like this sort of early hymn to Jesus. And it says he is the arche, the “beginning” of all creation. He says the same thing of himself in Revelation, chapter three, verse 14. He refers to himself as “the first of God’s works.” And so what does it mean to say that God’s act of creation (which is an act of creating the conditions of all time—past, present, future) may have occurred in the middle of that time, rather than, as we would naturally assume, at the beginning, like hitting the first domino, you know? There are a few considerations here. One is, it doesn’t seem immediately clear that God’s act—the positive act of creation—must only coincide with the first moment of time, because, of course, the first moment of time is just as distant, as it were, from eternity as this one is right now. So you’re not really getting anything by correlating it automatically with the first moment of time.
But I think the other thing is—and here we come back to “the Word became flesh”—that God’s act of creation is this act of creating the conditions of time, and so it can’t itself be conditioned by time. That means that it can occur or appear or emerge anywhere in time as the first, as it were, ground zero. And what I suggest is that the New Testament is also suggesting—and the Christian faith suggests—that it’s actually the historical incarnation which is the act of God’s creation of the entire world, including all of history.
And that’s not just my own opionion. Maximus says, for example, in a famous line that in Christ, the hypostatic union, which happens in history—he says in Christ “all ages and all the beings within those ages have received their beginning and end,” not just their end. Normally people think: okay, first, creation by God is like the first step, like setting the stage. Then you have to watch the drama unfold, and then this character comes in, and finally it’s maybe the perfection of humanity, but that’s a later act or episode in the story. For Maximus, what he said was that Christ is not just the telos (the end), he’s also the arche (the beginning)—and he’s both at once.
And so all of that to say, the way God’s act of creation must have occurred is by no means just at the beginning of time. And so that opens up just a lot of possibilities that we could consider in terms of what else is possible—what else does time limit or not limit?
So you’re saying that all of time is created from a central point: Jesus Christ’s incarnation. And causation transcends time so that the causes of all historical events that we experience in a pretty rigid sequence, in this lifetime, from God’s perspective, they are caused from the middle of time, as we experience it, in Jesus Christ. Where else in scripture do you see indications of this idea that creation comes in the middle? How would that relate to the Genesis story, which is sequentially at the beginning of scripture and, you know, has a seven day sequence? Does this show up elsewhere in scripture, this idea that the creation of the world is from the cross?
Yes. So I think the correlation that many people have noticed for quite a long time is the correlation between John 1 and Genesis 1. You know, Genesis 1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” John 1: “In the beginning was the word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” But I think, what’s interesting is you've got to continue on in John 1. It’s not just, again, it’s not that “in the beginning, God created,” it’s “in the beginning was the Word.” And the only thing you really get created is, in verse 14: “the Word became flesh.” Flesh is created. So the creation of the flesh of Christ is the act of creation in John 1. Insofar as that’s how you can read John 1 as a kind of opening of the deeper depths of Genesis 1, they’re talking about the same event from two completely different points in time.
That gives you new perspectives on the origin of time. So there’s hints there. I think, yeah, there’s quite a few moments in the gospel of John in particular. And for this, I recommend Fr John Behr’s book John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel, which is a really great investigation of the Gospel of John from a lot of different angles. But he speaks, for example, quite a bit about when Christ, after he’s betrayed, comes out and Pilate says, “Behold, the man.” There’s very strong exegetical and linguistic and conceptual resonance with God’s project in Genesis to create. Gregory of Nyssa had already noticed this way back then, and Origen did too.
It doesn’t actually say in Genesis 1:26, right away that God created male and female. At least in the Greek version, it says, “God created the human.” And it’s with an article, “the human.” Then it says, “Male and female, He created the human.” Well, Paul says, in Christ, there is no longer male and female. So Christ is where “male and female” is both possible and sort of united. And so “the human” really only comes about, at least in the Gospel of John, when Christ is introduced by Pilate unawares. Of course, he doesn’t really know what he’s saying. He says, “Behold, the human.” Christ is the perfection of humanity. It’s God’s work finished [as in John 19:30 where Christ says “it is finished”]. Finally, the project of forming the human being, which is already announced in Genesis 1, is culminated in Christ and ultimately in his crucifixion (the outpouring of his love for all of humanity, which therefore saves us, preserves us, makes us). Therefore Ephesians 2:10 says, “You were created in Christ Jesus.” Right. And so you can start kind of connecting these dots or bringing these various scriptures that maybe sometimes sound like throwaway lines, but you look at them with new eyes. And thinkers like Maximus and Gregory of Nyssa help us do that.
So if we accept that creation takes place from the middle, from Jesus Christ. Am I correct in having heard you talk about the idea that the past can literally be changed by God? What is the claim there?
What is the claim? Well, let me just start with this: I want to try to unsettle our assumptions because the claim’s going to sound too radical to even be worthwhile unless we start there. We have to initiate ourselves a little. Let's talk about those Christians who believe, for example, that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ. Well, even already in St. Ignatius of Antioch, early second century, he’s calling it the body and blood of God. But it’s the body that’s been broken for you, and it’s the blood that’s been poured out for you. And it’s that body which has been raised for you and in which you are raised. So I think those of us who would consider the Eucharist as, in some sense, having the real presence of the body and blood of Christ or as being the body and blood of Christ or however you want to put it, would assume that the Eucharist really only happens after Christ is broken, killed, resurrected, and ascended. And then you have access to the body and blood of Christ.
Well, then, if we look, though, at the order, the sequential order, laid out in most of the gospels, Christ offers the Eucharist (according to, I think, most traditions or a lot of traditions) on Thursday night, the day before he’s crucified and the night that he’s betrayed, right before he is betrayed. How is it possible? Or you might ask it this way: what exactly is Christ offering to the apostles on Thursday night when he offers the cup and the bread? Well, many people would say, that’s the institution of the Eucharist. What Christ offers is his own broken, killed, resurrected, and ascended body on Thursday. And yet he won’t be broken until Friday, and he won’t resurrect until Sunday, and he won’t ascend until 40, 50 days after that.
So what happened on Thursday night actually assumes that these later events have, in some sense, already happened. So this, even just from that perspective, should start to unsettle what we normally assume about the absolute fixed limits of time and sequence, cause and effect. And so if we’re willing to accept that—or if we’re willing to accept the unsettling that I think the incarnation should affect because, after all, that’s the actual unity of eternity with time. So what’s the nature of that? It can’t simply be limited by time if eternity is just as much a part of Christ as time is. Whatever way you wanna do it, however you wanna unsettle it, I do think, at that point, possibilities open up such as the possibility of revisiting and even “rehappening” events which, to our perspective, are past.
We assume that because events have already happened in the past that they are done happening, but that’s a prejudice. That’s an assumption that, certainly in the light of some of the things we were just considering, maybe should be questioned.
Then there’s this other additional dimension to this, as in St. Maximus who is very strong on the doctrine known as deification or theosis (especially seen in the Eastern tradition, but also in the West)—the notion that salvation is the gradual unifying of yourself with God, or, as it were, you becoming incorporated into the body of Christ, which is divine and human. And if that’s the case, and if God transcends time, then becoming more like God doesn’t just mean becoming more morally like God, which is true: more loving, more merciful, more just. It also means becoming less bounded by the things that don’t bind God, including time.
And so Maximus will clearly say that, in deification “We become without principle and beginning.” He says that we will transcend these limits. He says, at one point, that we will “leap over the intervals of time and space and not be limited by them.” So if becoming more like God means becoming less limited by time, then it’s as if the events which seem past to us are now opened to us like doors that we can walk through, which before we thought were impossible to walk through. Why does that matter? Because, I think what it does is it opens up the potential or possibility of rectifying, of changing, of making right things which we in the past have made wrong.
And I would say that that’s actually one major aspect of what it means to be judged by God. You know, God doesn’t simply judge us just to judge or just to enforce a penalty, but his judgment is to bring about correction and truth and rectitude and reconciliation, as Paul says in Second Corinthians chapter five.
As we all already kind of know in our own lives, reconciliation is a difficult and painful work. So you definitely still have the pain involved in judgment and punishment. It’s not fun. You don’t really want to do it. But it also, then, would promise the perfection of things that we have made imperfect, even though they’ve happened in the past. And I don’t see why that’s an impossible prospect. St. Gregory, for example, at one point in one of his homilies says that, “in the end, everything that has come to pass will be as if it was not at all.” But he’s really specifically thinking about, I think, all of our regrets, all of our failures, all of our sin.
And in other words of George McDonald, “Salvation is good where evil was.” That includes when and where it was—not just “God can bring good out of evil” or “we can make the best of difficult things and regrettable things that have occurred” but that we can actually change what has occurred.
And from that perspective, I would just throw out there as a potential, a point of reflection, you know, when we, even in this life, reconcile with someone we’ve hurt or try to repair damaged relationships, we already know how difficult it is just to even say things like, “I’m sorry” or “please forgive me for this” or “I did this.” And that is, in and of itself, perhaps, from my perspective, it’s just the prelude to the full restoration, which will be one in which you don’t just say, “I wish I had done this rather than that,” but you will actually go back and do that rather than what you did. And the only reason why that would be impossible is if the physical limits that we currently experience are absolute limits of our experience. And for all of the reasons I’ve mentioned (and some others), I don’t think we have to assume that.
So you think we begin to participate in this very, you know, overwhelming and almost fairytale level of wonderful news? Like, I can go back and not only not say the horrible thing I said to my wife, but say the grateful thing that I want to have said? That just sounds like it is pie in the sky thinking that will get a response like, “holy cow, what are you thinking, the world doesn’t work that way.” But I am also hearing you say that we participate in it, to some degree, now. It’s not all just completely in the future. So with repentance, apologizing, reconciling, are we in some sense beginning to change the past now? Would you say that’s an accurate way to put it?
Yes, I think, absolutely. I mean, look, Peter has that line: “Now is the time for judgment to begin with the house of God.” Judgment isn’t just a future thing any more than salvation is just a future thing. Paul says in Second Corinthians five: “Today is the day of salvation.” And Maximus will ultimately say those two are the same act of God, cooperating with God. They’re just two aspects of it because in order to fully build up and become who you are, you must destroy who you have mistaken yourself to be. And you know, Paul will say “put off your old self” and “I have been crucified with Christ” and “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” So something had to die. This is why, then, I would say, judgment is in our acts of repentance, going to the liturgy, of confession, of forgiveness, of love, of service, of everything that makes up the Christian life, the spiritual life of prayer. Everything that makes up your life is a preparation for your own perfection, but the perfection of you and your own history and of all its past events as well.
So in this sense, we, by prejudice, we normally just think, well, I’m becoming a better person. Hopefully I’m working on myself, and I won’t make the mistakes I made in the past. But if the past itself lies in your future, then what you really are doing is you’re already beginning to change the past by preparing yourself to be the kind of person who will be able to do what you ought to have done when you’re given the opportunity to do it again.
So absolutely, it’s a seamless process, but the process doesn’t need to go just in a line. It feels like a line right now, because you do have to start somewhere as a creature. But if your end is to be “uncreated” (to be as bold as Maximus and borrow his word there, since that’s bold, and I don’t want to say that just on my authority or anything, but somebody like Maximus or St. Gregory, or St. Isaac) if your end is to transcend your created limitations, that will include the temporal ones. And so, insofar as you prepare yourself through ascesis, through ascetical life, through liturgy, you’re preparing yourself for judgment, which is to say, judgment is already occurring on you. And as you progress in that, you will become more and more open to and available to and ready for the last, the divine judgment which will be your opportunity and cooperation and participation in rectifying the whole of all creation with God cooperatively.
One other way to put all this is to say that every moment is a work of God. It’s not that God’s creation is just like one time, one episode, one moment, one second. The whole series, the entire conditions of seconds and minutes and days and years and all of that is a work of God. Every act, every moment, every event, every word, every thought is also a work of God. And surely, if evil and sin and tragedies are not willed by God, then whatever God did will in its place has not yet occurred, even if it’s in the past from our perspective. And so what we get to do and what the work of judgment does, is finish the work of creation, even the creation of ourselves.
Aren’t we in danger though, of undoing, you know, my own memory of what I’ve learned from my mistakes, or—to take the most extreme example—will we be able to go back and not crucify Christ? Will we be able to undo that great evil of the slaughter of our Lord? You know, is not some of this a part of who we are? Are Christ’s wounds eternally a testimony to His love of us?
So at this point, I’ll just say I’m going out on a limb on my own here, and don’t attribute my errors to anyone else but me. From my perspective (borrowing, though, the perspective of Maximus that the Logos is in all things in, and in all events, and in all ages and in all the creatures of those ages), every event now, even the tragic ones, have in them the seeds of the true events that they ought to have been. So even the crucifixion, even if we undo, as it were, the crucifixion, it’s not as if we take away an event or that you delete it from a line. It’s that the crucifixion proved to be something far greater and totally and infinitely good rather than what it was, which was tragic.
Some of this stuff we’re stretching because it’s not only about things you can experience, really, and we can’t conceptualize these things in some kind of neat and tidy way. I grant that, but we can get a feel for it, and we can get a hint of it now.
As far as what we’ve learned, you know, in the past, I think it’s true to say that, for me right now, I needed to go through this or that ordeal, or somehow I learned a lesson I would’ve perhaps not have known otherwise. Well, on the one hand, at least, we should admit that we don’t really know that. I don’t know if I could have learned that lesson in any other way. All I know is that I, in fact, learned it that one way. So what else is possible in that event, or what else has a seed of that event that lies dormant and might not yet have blossomed? I can’t perceive that until it actually happens, so I don’t know if it’s the case that that was the only way.
But on the other hand, too, I think that the great depths—and I’m going to use a word here, just because I almost don’t know what other word to use—the depths of God’s kenosis (His self-emptying in creation) is such that even though I, as an immature, ignorant creature who had a beginning in space-time, and who doesn't know much of anything precisely because I had to begin and I have to grow (that’s Saint Irenaeus)—it can be the case that I might have to go through something in order to learn a lesson, but the perfection of that series, that progression, that spiritual perfection, might actually include the undoing of what I initially needed.
So the necessity, relative to me at a stage of progression does not become an absolute necessity which is therefore fixed and eternal. So to go to the wounds of Christ, just to be especially provocative or whatever, I would say it’s possible—I should be careful the way I say it—it’s possible that the reason why or the deeper sense of Christ’s wounds on His risen body, is that we are His body. And in so far as we’re incomplete, we are a wound on that body. And so of course the wounds can’t be gone until they’re gone through me, because I’m the one who’s wounding Him.
And so I’m not totally sure that the wounds of Christ are eternal, and this is insofar as they represent tragedy or a rejection and a violent revolt against God. Because, actually, I don’t think that is eternal any more than I think that my sin is necessarily eternal. Those two need to be destroyed, but you’re not losing anything when you destroy them because they’re not anything in themselves anyway. They’re illusions. Not that they didn’t really happen, but that they are illusions that we made real precisely because we always try to make real what is really a delusion. We generate, in our own fantasies, the way we think the world is, the way I think I am, the way I think God is, and we try to make it real, and we’re partially successful, but only for a time. There’s going to come a time where that needs to be destroyed.
So I’ll ask one more. You know, you’re stirring up a lot of hard questions… I’ve had a pretty easy life compared to an awful lot of people in human history. And I can listen to this and think, wow, what a blessing to go back. And, you know, the example of the unkind thing I said to my wife, instead of, “Thank you.” But is it almost a mockery of someone who has suffered serious abuse in childhood, which I’ve never had to, you know, I haven’t had that experience, and I’m wary of the adult who’s listening and who is suffering. And it just seems like you can go back and undo the—well, of course it would be the abuser going back and undoing the abuse—right? But you know, it almost feels disrespectful of the victim to even talk about that. It is such a, I mean, at one level it’s a fairytale level of awesomely good, you know, if you take the whole picture. But at another level it’s almost too fairytale—to flip the word fairytale in a negative way—it is like “pollyannaish.” Are you taking seriously the awfulness of human suffering?
Yeah. I mean, that’s the right question. And it’s one that anybody that’s going to talk about any of this stuff has to be able to give an account of or at least face up to. I’m going to borrow some inspiration from George MacDonald on this point and his sermon called “Justice.” At the beginning, he’s making the point that there is no true justice if you just simply have retribution. He uses the kind of trivial example, like, look, if someone steals a watch, that’s really important to you, say it’s a family heirloom or something and it’s gone, they catch the thief, but the watch is gone. You take them to court, you win, you get paid, whatever, a penalty. Do you feel like justice has been done? Well, relatively, yes. It’s better than nothing, right? But there’s no full recognition of the crime. Really, I think, any of us, if we’re honest, the only true perfect justice is the watch returned to the owner. So I actually think this perspective takes more seriously the trauma and tragedy of the past, precisely because it will not allow it to stand even as a distant, vague memory, but it must be rectified.
Put it this way. All of us have had people that have died that were dear to us. And isn’t there a sense in which, you know, especially if someone died in a tragic way, what if someone said you could go back in time and make it so that it wouldn’t have happened? Isn’t there something that initially seems good about that? So going back doesn’t have to mean revisiting, in the sense of, I’m just gonna literally relive what happened. And my suspicion is that the work of divine judgment won’t allow you to even be able to go back until you are prepared to be able to go back, and the other, you know, perpetrator is also only allowed when everyone is ready because every event is coordinated. It’s not an individual performance.
So the event can’t even be revisited apart from all those who participated in making it what it was, good or bad. So when everyone comes to that point, everyone involved, they will not be going back to experience it again, they’ll be going back to making it not an experience and to bringing about what ought to have been experienced in its place, whatever that is. And that is literally something we can’t guess, because it is only by experience that we would know that. And so I would say that’s the heart behind it.
And I’ll add one little anecdote. There’s someone that’s fairly close to me that had a traumatic childhood experience repeatedly. This person through lots of prayer and counseling started having, he wasn’t sure whether to describe it as dreams or visions or something. It’s hard to… it’s like this in-between thing. But they were revisiting those moments, which most people would think is super traumatic. And like, you have to relive it. And there’s a part of that that was an initial response on his part. And yet when he went back in these dreams or visions, when he saw them again, he didn’t just see what happened again, because there was an added dimension. In each case, when he was seeing, again, what happened to him, there was an added figure in the room. Through several envisionings of this thing, he came to learn that it was Christ in the room. And then he has a conversation with Christ about what’s going on. Why don’t you stop it? And he says, “why don’t you do something,” at one point, to Christ. And he says—this is by his own testimony—obviously anecdotal, he says, Christ said back to him, “I’m experiencing what you are experiencing and doing what you are doing.”
And so even in these little glimpses, whatever you want to call that, however you want to evaluate that, even in little glimpses, it is never a simple return to what happened, because you never go back there without Christ. You never go back there without the suffering God, the Lamb of God, who has experienced everyone’s suffering. According to Maximus, he suffers in all in order that he might redeem all with the power of the resurrection of every event. So you’ll never go back alone. You’ll never go back without everyone ready to go back. And you’ll never actually re-experience it because the whole point is that experience was not meant to be at all. So I think those would be some things that I would throw out there just to kind of indicate that, yeah, we have to take that seriously. And I don’t think the work of judgment is an exercise of torment for the victims.
So you’ve mentioned several Christian writers: Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, George McDonald, Father John Behr and his work on John the Theologian. Are there any other Christian writers, theologians who have unpacked this? I mean, the way that you put some of these things so concretely is unique, you know that we can go back and change the past, go back and undo abuse. I honestly, you know, I think I’ve read a good bit of Christian writing and theological material, and I’m not thinking of too much content that’s this sort of explicit and direct. Yeah, you’ve also said “attribute these errors to me,” you know, “these are mine,” at a couple points on specific details. Are there any other authors you’d think of with this? Or is this really you boldly articulating, you know, what you see in a number of other Christian writers, but with a level of concreteness and boldness that is somewhat daunting and new, in a sense, and gutsy in that way?
Yeah, honestly, it’s more the latter. There are aspects of this vision that I’ve learned from other people. And the authors you mentioned, I’ll mention another author. When it comes to time, for example, and just the possibility of transcending time, especially as it relates to Christ’s flesh, there is a great, small book by a Catholic theologian called Paul Griffiths who wrote a book called Christian Flesh. And it’s very short, but he’s got some great chapters in there on three different kinds of time and so forth. Another big inspiration for me on issues of time, freedom and the possibility of transcending these limitations that we take for granted is the Russian Orthodox philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev. Particularly, I would recommend a lot of his books, but Divine and the Human is really good and also The Beginning and the End. Most of his book titles are like that, like “this and that.” Truth and Revelation is another good one.
So there are thinkers like that that I’ve drawn inspiration from for various points, but I think the exact synthesis is my own, as I’ve put it here and I’ve tried to draw it out a little bit in my book on Maximus, especially the fourth chapter. There’s quite a bit on human origins, and I have a subsection called “incarnation and time” in there. That’s in the fourth chapter of the book called The Whole Mystery of Christ coming out in October that’s on Maximus. But for a full, kind of comprehensive vision of this, I don’t have one place to point. It’s one reason why I think it might be worthwhile in the future, God willing, to try to lay it out a little more carefully and to think through, maybe, things that are still loose ends.
I’m going to lie one more time, because I keep saying, I don’t have any more questions. This really will be the last one. You’ve talked several times about, you know, the way we try to make real what are actually falsehoods and fantasies, and it seems related, you know, to actually making God’s reality real by what we do. Is this related to Evagrius Ponticus and you know, this idea that our responsibility for our own thoughts is a serious thing? In other words, are we kind of responsible for a lot of false history in maybe more profound ways than we realize?
Yeah. And I think very often, especially in our age, we kind of sense that (and I think especially now, maybe, more than ever, I don’t know if that’s true) but that there is a keen awareness that human action, structural action, systems, can have massive intergenerational effects that are horrible. Right? A lot of our social strife, political stuff, you know, comes down to an awareness of that, and then kind of like, what do you do now? Right? What I’m trying to push a little bit, even more, is that intergenerational aspect but that it also might have actual effects on the space-time itself, like the conditions of creation. That might, again, that’s one of these ideas that seems very out-there and a little bit like, “What’s going on here?” But I don’t know if we totally meditate enough in reading the ascetical writers like Evagrius and John Cassian, even, really the Philokalia in the Eastern tradition, all the writings gathered there.2 I think it’s interesting—if you come at what they’re saying about the passions, the thoughts, seven deadly sins, the seven or eight vices, whatever—it kind of makes more sense of even what they’re doing and, and how they’re thinking about their own, you know, psychological or spiritual life.
The example I always like to use is pride. We very often think of pride as, like, selfishness. Like, oh man, you just always want what you want. But actually from these writings, you learn that pride is actually, first of all, a false image of yourself and then one you try to live into and make everyone else submit to as well. Like: “Who do you think you are, treating me this way? Do you know who I am?” That is the implication there. So you’re living into a picture of yourself, even if you don’t think about it or don’t articulate it to yourself.
So pride actually doesn’t begin with just, I want, I want, I want. It begins with “I.” Who is the “I” that is wanting anything? And what you want is what you think you deserve, and what you think you deserve tells you exactly who you think you are. Right? And so this is a profound diagnosis on its own, right, of selfishness or self-interest or pride, that it actually begins in a self deception? It begins with a false picture of yourself, a portrait, a profile, as it were, that you put out there and then make everyone else try to admire.
You know, when my young daughters—look, they’re actually wonderful, I’m sure they’re going to be saints, and I know they will be someday—but you know whenever one of them thinks they should have candy, like 30 times a day, it’s because they think what, well, I deserve it. You know, like, I’m a little princess. And the implication is that always, like, “Come on. I’m so cute. I’m great. I do my chores.” You know, like, “Why don’t I get anything?” So it’s always—your sins are always—a lot of the fathers say, actually, this isn’t even really controversial—sin is born from ignorance: ignorance of self, ignorance of God, ignorance of the world. You can’t act without a judgment about what is real. Every act is an act of interpretation. If I punch someone, it’s because I have a certain image of them and what they’ve done to me and what they therefore deserve to receive. That’s a whole act of interpreting—the whole situation. It’s not just an action without any intelligibility. It’s exactly because of what I think I see and understand, that I react that way.
All of this is to say that our acts, our thoughts, our habits, the way we live, what we prioritize are so much more complex and interpreted and filled with meaning that we give. Whether or not we consciously do, you know, is another question. Often we don’t. And I think it’s, you know, even other writers will notice this sort of thing. You know, ones that I wouldn’t put in the ascetic tradition, but someone like David Foster Wallace, his famous speech, “This is Water.” That’s the whole point. You have a choice, every situation that you think you’re in, you have a choice of how you’re going to interpret it and therefore how you’ll react to it. It’s a Stoic idea, too, right? My whole point in all this is to say, as with pride, where you begin is a false portrait of yourself, and you try to bring it to life by giving it yourself. You give yourself to that image in order to try to, as it were, incarnate it.
And that means—and we sometimes succeed at that to one degree or another, often we do. But the succeeding at that is actually a bringing into existence of something that ought not to exist because it’s not a result of God’s will. It’s only a result of our ignorant will. Maximus, Origen, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, all say, therefore, that not everything that’s a phenomenon, not everything that appears, is a work of God. Okay. So that means I can encounter things in my experience, which are there, but not because God caused it. That’s bizarre. Well, where did they come from? Well, they came from your ignorance and your ability to give yourself almost sacrificially to this image that you want to bring into existence. Maximus calls sin, therefore, parasitic (para-hypostasis). It’s feeding off of you, but it’s not anything. And yet, you give your life to it. So it’s a false incarnation.
Some of those false phenomenon would be creations that others have made.
You know, that are oppressive.
Exactly. Right. And so, yes, you’ve got the individual one like pride, but what do you do whenever you get, I don’t know, six million prideful people? What kind of structures will come about from that? And what about six billion or seven on the earth right now? And what about an entire history of millions and billions of people that have also been living in these false portraits? And what about if we introduce, say, you know, non-human rational intelligences, insofar as they’ve tried to bring into existence whatever is illicit and ignorant and not truly a work of God, what kind of effects would that have on the cosmos?3 I mean, we don’t know this. We don’t know what the end of this is, but what we could perhaps imagine is that it has profound effects on our very experience and what it is that appears to us in our experience. And the idea that just because it’s there, it must be God’s will is certainly something that we can’t accept because my sinful self is there. My mangled self is there, and I need to, per Paul, I need to be crucified with Christ, to be killed.
Who were the three figures that you mentioned making that simple claim that everything we experience as a phenomenon is not necessarily willed of God?
Yeah. Origen does it first, as far as I know. St. Gregory of Nyssa also says it, and St. Maximus also says it. And in fact, when he does, he therefore calls our soul, the “Demiurge of Evil,” which was what the Gnostics called the creator of this world. So we collectively through our own stupidity (not to be too mean), through our own ignorance, we bring about a world, which we therefore also experience, that isn’t God’s world—except, and this is what makes Maximus in that line, not just, you know, certain kinds of Gnostics—but the Logos is in all things still, even if it’s not yet actualized or brought about. In other words, we can bring about false incarnations, but the true incarnation always, and in all things, according to Maximus, is still always there. So no event is entirely evil. Otherwise it wouldn’t exist. The very fact that you can perceive a tragedy is because something good has been given to it to bring it about—namely people’s thoughts, wills, plans, designs, egos, sins, you know, and actions, ultimately. And so yeah, so those are the three that say it. Maximus says it with a particular vigor that the other two didn’t and actually a lot of that I lay out in chapter four of my book.
All right. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been wonderful.
This is an Altum essay.
Image in header: The Last Judgment (detail: “Paradise”) by Fra Angelico, tempera on panel, 1425–1430, San Marco, Florence.
Jordan Daniel Wood earned a PhD in Historical Theology from Boston College and an MA in Historical Theology from Saint Louis University (summa cum laude). His language competencies include French (spoken and reading), German, Greek (Attic, NT, Late Byzantine), and Latin. His book The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor comes out from the University of Notre Dame in October 2022.
Note: Contributors to Altum share their own thoughts and do not represent ClassicalU.com or Classical Academic Press. If you are interested in writing for Altum, please complete the form at the bottom of our landing page.
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