Readers of Maximus Confessor have long whispered of a gathering insurrection. Wait and keep watch, they’ve cautioned: the Maximian synthesis draws ever close. Sure, there have been prophets. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Polycarp Sherwood, Lars Thunberg – each spoke Maximus’s name into a largely heedless Western audience. Does the publication of Paul Blowers’s Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World signal the eve before the great and terrible day of Maximus? Or is it already upon us? Alright, perhaps I’ve indulged some drama. Perhaps Blowers doesn’t yet break the seventh seal. Perhaps instead he extends a deft, guiding hand through the expanse of Maximus’s thought. Still, it’s exactly the “theo-dramatic” bits of Maximus’s theology that Blowers wants to recover. The book stages a drama in several acts.
The whole comprises four parts, and Part I two chapters. In the first curtains rise on an embattled Byzantium. Blowers tropes Maximus as “betwixt and between” – a conceit that captures the theological and political turbulence of his time. Here Blowers retraces Maximus’s perambulations; negotiates the rival icons of the Greek and Syriac Vitae Maximi; lingers over monastic politics; and wades into the monenergist-monothelite tide whose wake finally made of Maximus a Confessor. The second chapter shifts into a theological key. There Blowers applauds Maximus as author: not Byzantine scholastic, not elder sage – but both. Maximus plays in ten thousand styles exactly because and to the extent that he participates the Word’s revelry (Amb. 71). For Maximus, “Authorship is participating… in the self-disclosure of the Logos-Christ, the Word who authors all truth, goodness, and beauty” (73).
Part II studies “The Cosmic Landscapes of Maximus’s Theology,” or creation (chapter 3), cosmic christology (chapter 4), and the Church (chapter 5). Chapter 3 prods Maximus’s readers to conceive his doctrine of creation outside the confines of comparison to Evagrian or Dionysian legacies. Blowers rather thinks Maximus a “Neo-Irenaean” for whom christology and creation necessarily run together. It’s this “theo-dramatic” that threads together Blowers’s interpretations of Maximus’s logoi-theory, eschatology, divisions of being, and ultimately his christoform politics. The fourth chapter on christology forms the book’s conceptual lynchpin, likely because it’s also Maximus’s. Here Blowers expounds Maximus’s programmatic dictum from Amb. 7 that “always and in all things the Logos, who is God, desires to realize the mystery of his embodiment.” It’s here too that Blowers braves a reading of Maximus’s difficult teaching on “multiple incarnations,” one that stimulates two of our panelists. The chapter also features scrupulous commentary on Maximus’s christological subtleties, not least his teaching on the composite Christ and dyotheletism. Chapter 5 depicts the Church’s role in the transfiguration of the cosmos as it features across Maximus’s Mystagogy. Here Blowers sees Maximus’s doctrines of divine ecstasy and cosmic christology “made thick” (to borrow Maximus-talk) in ecclesial, sacramental, and eucharistic practices.
The book’s third part reads human nature as a “work-in-progress.” Chapter 6 traces Maximus’s anthropology proper along familiar lines: the human’s priestly vocation, her fall and damage, her sexuality, and her last thing. This introduces Chapter 7, where Blowers describes Maximus on atonement and speaks into the contested question of Maximus’s apokatastasis. On the former, Blowers emphasizes the cruciform or “staurological” nexus between creation and salvation. On the latter, Blowers finds in Maximus what Balthasar himself did not, namely a proponent of Balthasar’s own hopeful (but finally uncertain) eschatology. Chapter 8 treats of Maximus on eros – God’s and ours. There he maps Maximus’s “dialetics of desire” to show that eros stands as the beating heart of the theo-drama. Its players enact the drama by learning to imitate God’s eros for them, principally in virtue and liturgical formation.
A fourth and final part closes the book, measuring Maximus’s long afterlife in the medieval west (Eriguena and his like), in Byzantine scholasticism (John of Damascus, Photios, Michael Psellos, Isaac the Sebastocrator), in the contest over filioque, hesychasm, in the Philokalia tradition, in modern Orthodox thought, and in extra-orthodox retrieval (by Balthasar, ecotheologians, and virtue ethicists). An epilogue rewrites Balthasar’s icon of Maximus as bridge between East and West into one between all “participant actors in the cosmic drama whose central plot is the full fruition of the politeia of Jesus Christ” (331).
Our symposium stages scenes beyond the drama Blowers writes. Fr Andrew Louth submits both a dubium and a challenge. The first asks after Blowers’s use of diastema to name the interval that yawns between created and Creator. Surely, Louth wonders, God remains present in and to creation without needing to “overcome” a gap – that’s the dubium. And the challenge? Louth asks Blowers how we should conceive Maximus’s theology of sophia. Has Maximus a “sophiology” like Sergius Bulgakov’s? The topic’s difficult because capillary: it’s at once everywhere and nowhere in particular. Speaking well of Maximus on wisdom remains a tall order, one that Louth thinks Blowers up to.
Aristotle Papanikolau poses a triple question. The first concerns Blowers’s lodestar, Hans Urs von Balthasar. No doubt historical theologians, Papanikolau thinks, ought to learn from and own their debts to recent theology. But debt risks penalty. Do Balthasarian categories – “theodrama,” “play,” “script,” and so on – overwrite Blowers’s Maximus? Next, Papanikolau seeks a blueprint of virtue’s machinations in Maximus. That Maximus doesn’t practice the cool logical forms proper to the scholastic idiom does not render his virtue theory subordinate to (say) Thomas’s. Thomists source Thomas’s virtue ethic to various ends – for moral therapies like trauma theory or psychoanalysis, for example. What might it look like, Papanikolau asks Blowers, for Maximus’s readers to do likewise? Last, he questions whether Blowers’s criticism of John Zizioulas’s Maximus doesn’t indulge overcorrection.
Natalie Carnes repeats a question that has long exercised Maximus’s readers, at least since it puzzled Eriugena in the 9th century. Like him, Carnes want to know what Maximus – or rather Blowers on Maximus – means by “multiple incarnations.” Getting that right is important, she thinks, for stopping gaps within a new theological idiom, here “deep incarnation.” Two problems attend this pattern of thought: first, how to avoid collapsing the Trinity into Christ; second, how to avoid collapsing Christ into world. Maximus’s talk of “multiple incarnations” points up a solution. If Blowers is right to say that Maximus distinguishes modes of incarnation, then “deep incarnation” needn’t spell collapse. Read theo-dramatically, Maximus’s “multiple incarnations” do not erase but rather enshrine difference. The point has less to do with multiple incarnations, then – as if the Word incarnates himself with serial repetition. It has rather more to do with how the Word incarnates himself differently. Wouldn’t “diversity of enfleshments,” Carnes asks, better capture Maximus’s stress on the various modes of incarnation?
Jordan Daniel Wood recites Eriugena’s question still again, though now to a very different and doubtless highly provocative end. What might it mean, Wood challenges, for Maximus to mean what he says about “multiple incarnations”? That is, what if “incarnation” (Wood notices Blowers’s scare-quotes) is actually just incarnation? More, what about Maximus’s claim that deification sees us “become the Lord himself?” Where in Maximus Wood sees identity between God and world, Blowers discerns natural difference and thus analogy. But if the world be hypostatically (not naturally) identical to the Word – as are Christ’s human and divine natures – then identity needn’t sunder natural difference. In this way, Wood thinks his reading secures both natural difference (and so analogy) and radical identity in Maximus. Like Papanikolau, Wood too offers a peroration in defense of Zizioulas. Blowers’s critique betrays, Wood thinks, the logic of natures exactly where Zizioulas reads Maximus according to the logic of persons.
The panelists honor Blowers’s Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World by playing John of Cyzicus to Blowers’s Maximus – by posing ambiguities, that is, and seeking elucidation. They’re rich responses to a rich book. Both together stand testament to Maximus Confessor, whose thought remains among the most elegant, resplendent, and difficult thinkers in the Christian tradition. Readers of patristics in general and Maximus Confessor in particular will not miss this symposium on Paul Blowers’s long-sought masterwork. Neither should anyone with interest in perennial theological questions. I repeat what our author and panelists already know: a Maximian dawn breaks upon the horizon. Wait and keep watch.