Call him not Pseudo-Dionysius

In terms of the developing Christian-Platonic tradition, this book is Plato at his near-finest. It marks a watershed in Christian reflection and will dominate Christian metaphysics for the next thousand years. In terms of authorship, it is certainly not Paul’s traveling companion, given that he quotes Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote after the turn of the century. Further, his discussion of monasticism reflects a reality that wouldn’t have been established until much later.

pseudo dionysius

Argument of book: whatever transcends being must transcend knowledge (593A).

The whole is reflected in the part: “Within its total unity it contains part and whole, and it transcends these too and is antecedent to them” (648C). Every part of the universe reflects God’s oneness. He is replicated and differentiated in the energies (is this the same as saying the Logos is replicated in the logoi?).

The Good shows forth the processions of God (680B). If we say the processions “go out” from God, we are speaking analogically, for the Trinity isn’t in a place, per se. The Good isn’t a being but excess of being. The Good returns (reditus) all things to itself (700A). All things desire it.

The source of every duality is a monad (721D). Every number preexists in the monad (821A). Every number is differentiated as it goes forth from the Monad. Every being derives from the Pre-existent. Being precedes the entities which participate in it. God is not a facet of being, but being is a facet of him (824A). The exemplars of everything pre-exist as a transcendent unity within God.

Mystical Theology

A negation is not simply the opposite of an affirmation, but that which is prior to affirmation (1000B).

Hierarchy = sacred order, activity or understanding (164D). Because the divine realities are invisible, they must be communicated and mediated through symbols.

Conclusion:

As is usually the case with Platonic and Neo-Platonic literature, it is often soaring in terms of beauty. Ps. Dionysius’s discussion of the priest-as-hierarch needs to be seen as hyperbole. Few people are at that level of Being.

Further, his discussion of monks, not only reflecting situation that wouldn’t have arisen some centuries later than 70 AD, places the monk at the highest level of being.  But when you read Paul’s comments on the equality of believers and table fellowship, it’s hard to square the two.

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Phenomenology of Spirit (Review)

Where to begin a review on a book of this magnitude? While this might seem like a difficult question, the easiest answer is also the most Hegelian: start anywhere, for you will end up in the final moment of the dialectic. (Any parenthetical citations in this review refer to the paragraph numbers in the Miller translation) With that said, let’s begin:

Preliminary notes from Charles Taylor (Cambridge, 1975)

The problem in Hegel’s time:  man as the knowing subject faced a number of divisions.

  • separated from nature, which he now sees as brute fact
  • what can bridge the gap between mind and world?
  • self-consciousness leads the individual to distinguish himself from his community.
  • opposition between finite (free will) spirit and infinite (fate) spirit.

The goal: philosophy is to understand how these divisions overcome themselves. Oppositions arise out of an earlier identity.  An entity cannot be utterly distinguished from its “Other” because it cannot exist on its own.  Taylor:  “It is not related to an other but to its other, and this hidden identity will necessarily reassert itself in a recovery of unity” (Taylor 80).  

Hegel rejects Greek dualism and almost stumbles upon a biblical Hebraism.  He sees the Cartesian project as inherently mechanistic and incoherent (what connects mind and matter?  Cartesians have never really answered this).

Unfortunately, Hegel still sees the idea of a mind/soul in a body as a “dualist temptation.”  He does admit, though, that it is foreign to Greek thought (81).  

Hegel is drawing upon Herder’s expressivism.  Thought, language, etc does not exist without a medium.  Thus for Hegel, the subject, no matter how spiritual, is necessarily embodied.  This is true up to a point, but runs into problems in two areas:  God/Geist is not embodied (at least not God the Father and the Holy Spirit, though Hegel gets around that) and the soul exists in a disembodied state after death.
[1] What does phenomenology suggest? Something like the external world appears to me in a certain way and/or my mind constructs these categories. If so, how would a phenomenology of spirit be possible, since spirit is usually not associated with the external world? This is why Kant’s noumenal distinction is wrong. Just what is it that appears in appearance? Appearance is the showing forth of what something is.

[2] The short answer: Reason recapitulates itself. It doubles back. Take the category of abstract being or reason or spirit. In the abstract it is an empty category. To say that something is says nothing specific about it. Yet, it is not Nothing. Therefore, oscillating between this “Being” and “Nothing” is Becoming, which can account for particularity.

[3] Therefore, Reason must Reflect upon itself and become self-consciousness. As Glenn Magee notes, “Speculative Philosophy holds up a mirror (speculum) to the Idea itself: it allows the Idea to comprehend itself (Magee 88). In fact, following the Kabbalist tradition, the “mirror” allows one to behold the deeper essence of Spirit (120).

[4] This leads to the infamous Master-Slave dialectic: simple awareness of objects cannot produce consciousness of self. We can’t just know objects. We must act and overcome on them. Self-consciousness is only achieved when our desire is directed on other desires: when we see ourselves in the other. The master is actually serving the slave because he depends on the recognition from inferiors. His identity is based on what inferiors think of him.

[5] We come finally to Absolute Spirit. It manifests itself in three modes: Art, Religion, and Philosophy. The first two are inadequate because they use sensuous images and can only approach from finite vantage points. But philosophy is able to give self-knowledge that doesn’t depend on picture-thinking.

[6] Substance becomes Subject. It retains self-consciousness’s own self and can now be a predicate. Spirit is the unity between Subject and predicate. When Spirit remains just substance, it remains an object to itself. Spirit must become subject by uniting and sublating the object.

[7] Being is no longer an abstraction, as in [2]. It is now Being-as-Spirit. Its previous determinations [read: those moments when x is contrasted with y] have since been sublated. Hegel gives us a reversed chain of being (cf Magee, The Hegel Dictionary).

[8] If Spirit is now universal self-consciousness, then it is community (Hegel 781). Logos has now been refracted outward.

[9] If [6] holds then we have something like Gnosticism: Spirit empties itself of itself and falls into substance. As Subject, though, it goes out of that Substance and cancels out the difference between objectivity and content (Hegel 804). Like some strains of Gnosticism, this is a “fall into otherness and multiplicity and a return by means of “finding myself.”

The Good in Hegel:

*He has a good epistemological insight that the knower is always involved in the known object.
*Hegel anticipated all of the good insights made by communitarians. We do not possess our identity intrinsically, but only in relation to something else. Identity will always involve difference because identity consists of relations.
*His stuff on community is very good.

The Bad

~From a theistic standpoint Hegel appears irreconcilable with traditional theism. Much of what he says, if on the level of created reality, is quite good, but when you move this to the nature of God we have all sorts of problems: process theism, open theism, patripassianism.

Works Cited

Magee, Glenn. Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.
—————–. The Hegel Dictionary. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011.

Taylor, Charles. Hegel. Cambridge, 1975.

T. F. Torrance (Intellectual Biography)

This book is divided into two parts: a brief treatment of Torrance’s life and an examination of his thought. His parents were missionaries to China and fostered a deep piety and evangelistic zeal in the young Torrance. Torrance grew up reading the bible through each year. His dad could repeat the Psalms and Romans by heart.

T. F. Torrance: An Intellectual Biography

Of particular interest is Torrance’s lectureships in America, ironically at liberal institutions. They were not ready for his evangelistic style of lecturing. Auburn Theological Seminary (largely liberal) invited a 25 year old Thomas Torrance to guest lecture. He ended up evangelizing his students on the deity of Christ. He was invited to teach at Princeton University but they told him it was to be a neutral atmosphere and that he shouldn’t get involved with the students religious beliefs.
Torrance: I make no such promises. He was hired nonetheless.

McGrath skillfully makes use of unpublished mss and shows us a very interesting side of Torrance. Torrance’s life often borders on a heroism found in novels.

His Thought

Was Torrance a “Barthian?” No. As he made powerfully clear to Donald Macleod he was an “Athanasian” before he was a Barthian. Nevertheless, Torrance’s legacy is connected with Barth’s.

On the reception of Barth

No one is a pure Barthian. McGrath notes the numerous difficulties in Barth’s reception in the English-speaking world. This narrative takes place within Torrance’s “cold war” with John Baillie. McGrath quotes A. Cheyne in suggesting four different ways someone could “receive” Barth’s teachings:

1. Superficial influence, but largely unchanged and staying within the liberal tradition
2. Entire outlook affected but withheld ultimate approval.
3. real but cautious admirers.
4. Uncritical admirers (Alec Cheyne, “The Baillie Brothers,” in Fergusson, Church and Society, 3-37, 33, quoted in McGrath, 89).

McGrath notes that Barth wasn’t well-received in the Scandinavian Lutheran countries, given Barth’s firm commitment to Reformed Christology. Barth took longer to make headroads into Anglican because, as McGrath ruefully muses, Anglicanism didn’t have much of a dogmatic center (McGrath 122-123). This was not the case in Presbyterian Scotland, which in many ways was a dogmatic center!

McGrath lists four criteria that must be in place if a foreign thinker like Barth is to make headway:
1. Competent translations of the most important works into the new language.
2. A journal dedicated to sympathetic viewpoints.
3. A publishing house which is prepared to handle primary and secondary material.
4. A platform where a rising generation may be influenced.

Torrance’s thought is a Reformed reworking of Athanasius’s insight that the homoousion–the oneness of being between Father and Son–means a oneness of Being-in-Act in God’s saving and revealing himself to us. The doctrine of the Trinity is an outcome of an intellectual engagement with God kata physin. “The nature of God was disclosed to be such that Trinitarian thinking was the only appropriate response to the reality thus encountered” (161). Scientific realism allows direct correlations between self-revelation of God and God himself.

McGrath breaks new ground in shedding light on a key tension in Torrance’s so-called “Barthianism.” Can there be a positive relation between God’s self-revelation and a bare natural theology? Maybe. Problem: If all theology proceeds from God’s self-revelation in Christ, then where can natural theology fit (185)?

Early Torrance: “revelation is an act in which God confronts us with his person, in which he imparts himself” (Torrance, Christian Doctrine of Revelation, 32, Auburn lectures). If this is the case, how can man “reason upwards to God?” Again, and as always, the solution is found in Athanasius. Knowledge of God and knowledge of the world share the same foundations in the rationality of God the creator.
1. God is in possession of an intrinsic rationality–the divine logos.
2. That logos has become incarnate in Jesus Christ, so that Christology becomes the key to accessing the inner rationality of God.
3. the divine rationality is also seen in the created order, in which the divine logos can be discerned at work in the contingent yet ordered nature of the world.
4. Creation (1-3) makes natural theology possible.

The book is magnificent. Its rather foreboding price prevents it from being an otherwise perfect introduction to Torrance’s thought