Symposium Introduction

Ostensibly, Adrian Pabst’s Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy is an essay on individuation and individuality. The questions surrounding individuation—what makes an individual an individual, what makes one entity numerically distinct from another, what accounts for an individual’s self-identity across time and change (each of which also has an epistemological form)—have constituted perennial problems within philosophy ever since antiquity. As the title of Pabst’s work suggests, however, identifying the principle of individuation or the nature of “the individual” quickly plunges one into the far wider and deeper waters of metaphysics and politics as such. Within the realm of metaphysics the question of individuation involves notions of substance and accidents, relation, causality, generation, the status of universals, the relationship between matter and form, essence and existence, and transcendence and immanence. Within the realm of politics the identification and description of what constitutes “the individual” has immense ramifications for understanding the nature of sovereignty, the polis, and desired forms of human sociality and solidarity.

As for its method and argument, Pabst offers a genealogy of two rival accounts of individuation that stretches from Plato and Aristotle to Wolff and Kant. However, the book could also be called an exercise in ambitious and tendentious portraiture. Pabst is supremely clear on the theologically and philosophically superior account of individuation and the dire deleteriousness of its inferior yet ascendant rival. These judgments come across in the portraits of varying length and detail he provides of figures as diverse as Aristotle, Gregory of Nyssa, Boethius, Avicenna, Gilbert Porreta, Suárez, and Spinoza.

On Pabst’s telling, the inferior and deleterious account of individuation begins with Aristotle and runs through and is developed in the medieval, early modern, and modern periods. What characterizes the Aristotelian account is, broadly speaking, a metaphysical horizon of immanence. Individuation is explained by the generation of individuals by individuals and is in some sense “self-caused” by the individual in question. The broader context of this account of individuation is the Aristotelian priority of substance over being and over relation as mere “accident,” the separation of the science of being as being from the science of the divine, and an account of the divine as the distant telos of beings rather than source of all being as such which remains present in and with beings. It is this immanent vision of individuation which in various ways courses through Avicenna and Gilbert Porreta, Scotus and Ockham, Suárez and Spinoza, and Leibniz and Kant. In the process this account of individuation becomes associated with a host of banes within theology and philosophy: emphasis upon an arbitrary divine will, fideism and rationalism, the ascendance of logic and semantics over metaphysics and of efficient causality over first, formal, and final causality, and an autonomous sphere of pure nature.

The superior account of individuation begins with Plato and reaches its culmination in Christian Neo-Platonism. What characterizes the Platonic account is a metaphysical horizon of transcendence, understood not as the contrast or negation of the immanent but as its source, ground, and end. Individuation is not explained solely in terms of generation or self-causation, but in terms of relationality and participation in the Good. Relation and participation in a transcendent source of being and goodness become metaphysically constitutive of the individual. To speak of relation and participation in the Good is also to speak of hierarchical, for what an individual is, is also determined by its degree and manner of participation in the Good. However, the Platonic account of individuation in terms of participation, relation, analogy, mediation, the Good, and hierarchy is only perfected within Christianity as its account not simply of the transcendent Good, but of a triune God who is ecstatic and self-giving plentitude, pure and loving relation in and of himself, and who becomes supremely present to his creatures in Jesus Christ. Such a vision of individuation and its vast metaphysical context can be found in the likes of Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Boethius, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Aquinas.

Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy is, then, an ambitious, tendentious, and unapologetic apologia for a doctrine of God and of the creature which remains decidedly within the broad stream of Christian Neo-Platonism. As should be made clear in the symposium responses and replies which follow, Pabst’s able articulation and defense of the merits of Christian Platonism renders the book both a powerful source of inspiration and a formidable foe to be engaged depending upon one’s theological and philosophical leanings. Rodney Howsare, for instance, questions both the form and content of the genealogy the books puts forth, while Robert Saler asks what place a theology of the cross could and might have in such a metaphysics. Gregory Walter then reflects upon the category of possibility in both divine and creaturely being. Finally, and appropriately, Benjamin DeSpain takes up the work’s critique of secular liberalism and its vision for a “imperative of relationality” within politics.



Can There Be Too Much Plato?

A Reading of Adrian Pabst's Metaphysics

WE GET OUR FIRST extended look at the way Pabst thinks metaphysics ought to be done in his section on Plato. For Plato, the ecstatic, self-giving Good is the source of all else that exists—e.g., the forms and the things found in the material world—and, therefore, all things are constituted as what they are precisely in their relationship with the Good, and either other forms or material things. Plato refuses, then, to beg the question as to why there are individual things besides the Good (this would be on account of the essential generosity of the Good), but he also refuses to beg the question of individuation. Individuation comes about precisely as individual forms or individual things find their place in relation to the Good and other forms and things. Individuation, then, is paradoxically relational. Furthermore, the order in which individuation occurs is a hierarchical one, insofar as different sorts of things participate in different degrees in the Good. Finally, for the purposes of our summary at least, this hierarchical, metaphysical order has political implications inasmuch as the vertical relationship between the things we encounter in this world and the transcendent Good is never irrelevant to the horizontal relationships that occur within the sublunary, and still hierarchically ordered, human realm. This would preclude the sort of politics of mere immanence that we begin to get in Aristotle.

We get our first extended look at the way Pabst thinks metaphysics ought not be done in his section on Aristotle. It should be noted, however, that Aristotle is not all wrong and even introduces an important notion (the relationship between act and potency) that helps to make Christian Neo-Platonism, with its synthesis of Plato and Aristotle, an improvement over Platonism alone. In Aristotle, the ecstatic Good of Plato gives way to the more isolated Self-Thinking Thought (Prime Mover), and although this latter is still the final cause of all things, it is hard to see how it can still be the efficient or formal cause. Individuation, in Pabst’s reading of Aristotle, is no longer understood in the context of the relationship between all things with their Source and each other, but is rather seemingly taken for granted. As Pabst puts it:

If all that is stands in potency to the Prime Mover as the final cause and if there is no formal mediation of actuality, then Aristotle cannot explain how the realm of form-matter compounds comes into existence and is sustained in being. . . . Indeed, the actuality of the first mover does not act as efficient cause for the sublunary world and thus cannot explain how and why individual composites are actualized and individuated (52).

As alluded to above, Pabst does prefer Aristotle’s notion of matter as pure potency to Plato’s matter as chaos, but he thinks it more significant that, theologically speaking, Aristotle’s indifferent Prime Mover marks a regression. And both thinkers come under fire for failing to account for why matter should exist in the first place. We are now introduced to the triple advantage of Christian metaphysics over either Plato or Aristotle: first, God is the creator even of matter; second, God creates out of a deliberate act of love; third, God is also constituted by relationality. While none of these things is strictly speaking available to the philosopher qua philosopher, they certainly have metaphysical implications once they are revealed, and I suspect that Pabst would argue that they make good philosophical sense, in hindsight. I also suspect that Pabst would say that even from the side of philosophy the question of the “why” and “whence” of matter and the pervasiveness and centrality of relationality ought to have been given more thought, even in the pagan Greeks. Be that as it may, my main reason for bringing up the relationship between philosophy and theology is to point out a sub-thesis of Pabst’s text: namely, that the appropriation of Greek metaphysics by Christian theologians by no means simply left those metaphysics in tact, as if the line between philosophy and theology could be drawn so sharply. Indeed, it is patchy and porous in Pabst’s view; when the two become separated, metaphysics gives way to “the transcendental science of ontology” (384).

The remaining heroes and villains in Pabst’s book are divided between those who prioritize relationality to substance in their metaphysics on the one hand, and those who understand individuals to be self-individuating and, therefore, falsely autonomous vis-à-vis God and each other on the other. These latter are also going to tend to divide ontology from theology and prioritize logic and semantics to metaphysics. In fact one of the more interesting aspects of Pabst’s book is the catalogue of features that folk as otherwise different as Scotus (a realist) and Ockham (a nominalist) have in common. In the end, Pabst is going to recommend the Christian Neo-Platonism running from Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa through Boethius and Thomas Aquinas to Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa, and, closer to our time, through “Italian civic humanism” to the Cambridge Platonists and Russian sophologists to twentieth-century nouvelle theolgie. “The real alternative,” Pabst maintains, “to the transcendental science of ontology . . . is a revivified theological metaphysics that develops Plato’s notion of relational participation in the direction of Trinitarian relationality, which upholds the ‘ontological difference’ between Creator and creation through analogical relation and anagogical union with God” (384). And I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the fact that Pabst also documents the significant political implications that flow out of these contrasting metaphysical approaches.

So what is one to make of all of this? Let me try to answer that, first, by addressing the very project of genealogies of modernity, and then by assessing the success of this particular genealogy. There is little doubt that a book of this nature is going to elicit eye rolls from all manner of modern theologians and historians of theology who have had quite enough of genealogies of modernity. The historians in particular will argue that an a priori narrative determines the manner in which the various players are treated on the way, so that no one thinker gets the careful attention he/she deserves. Since individual thinkers will be swept up in the narrative, they will be judged on terms and in circumstances other than their own. In short, if you want to know about the thought of, say, John Duns Scotus, this book will be of little or no help.

Of course this raises a series of complicated questions that cannot be addressed in a short review, but I would like to make a few arguments in favor of the enterprise. First, a genealogy of modernity is not that different from the various philosophical histories of philosophy (borrowing a phrase from Gilson) found at least as early as the works of Plato (Theaetetus and Philebus) and Aristotle (Metaphysics, book 1). The purpose of these overviews of various positions was not so much to present the “historical” Heraclitus or Parmenides, as it was to pass philosophical judgment on the relative merits and demerits of past philosophical positions. Heraclitus is going to look quite different when the question I’m asking is, “How does Heraclitus’s view of the relationship between being and process look in the light of reality as we encounter it, or in the light of other thinkers of different eras on the same question?” than he will look if my question is, “What did Heraclitus think about the relationship between being and process in the light of the intellectual milieu in which he was writing?” Both questions are valid. They are also not unrelated. If I’m asking the former, it may help to know a fair amount about the latter. However, the two questions are going to be pursued in different ways using different methods.

Second, it will inevitably be claimed that this approach is simply inaccurate, that we can’t possibly learn about, say, Duns Scotus in one chapter in a book which has very likely framed the question in a way that Duns Scotus would have never framed the question. Hans-Georg Gadamer addresses this sort of objection in a discussion of period instrument reproductions of classical or baroque music.1 As Gadamer puts it: “Thus for example, historicizing presentations—e.g., of music played on old instruments—are not as faithful as they seem. Rather, they are an imitation of an imitation and are thus in danger ‘of standing at a third remove from the truth’ (Plato)” (119–20). There are musical academies that specialize in reproducing, say, Bach’s Brandenberg Concertos on the exact instruments (or reproductions thereof), in the exact same way (as much as possible), and on the exact same scale (in terms of orchestra size and the like) as in Bach’s day. It might seem simply obvious that such painstaking historical scholarship and attention to detail would show greater affection for or fairness to Bach’s music than an interpretation of the same pieces with a modern piano and a modern orchestra, perhaps even conducted by a person who has been “corrupted” by classicism, romanticism or even modernism. Yet Gadamer makes the rather counterintuitive suggestion that it is quite possible that it is the latter performance that does more justice to Bach, for, rather than treating Bach as a dead composer in the museum of baroque music history, he is treated as somebody who might still have something musical to say on modern instruments, after the Classical, Romantic and Modern periods. The question is whether there is something here that transcends time and place, and this, of course, will require an act of discernment and retrieval on the part of the person interpreting the work in a new context. The historical reproduction will be safer and more accurate, but at the risk of implying that Bach is irrelevant as a composer and to the non-specialist listener of today.

Similarly, theologians or philosophers, in contrast to the historians, aren’t content simply to know about the historical Augustine or Ockham; rather, if they believe that all reason is traditioned reason, they also want to make a retrieval wherein they “test everything and hold fast to that which is good.” These acts of retrieval look at individual thinkers of the past in the light of the whole in a way that is analogous to the role of the composer or conductor vis-à-vis the individual instruments in a symphony. As Josef Pieper argues in In Defense of Philosophy, philosophy’s job is to say something about the whole, rather than just the part, whereas the scientist gains his precision (precaedere: to cut off) by considering a part in abstraction from the whole. Since Pabst wants to say something about the whole of the metaphysical tradition, from Plato through the Middle Ages to the moderns and even postmoderns, there is little chance that he will satisfy, in terms of precision, the various specialists on the various figures he addresses. Although, even here it should be said that Pabst seems to have done his homework on the individual thinkers with which he deals, both in terms of languages and the work of specialists. This notwithstanding, I don’t think that Pabst’s attempt should be considered invalid for its inevitable lack of precision, because: (a) as communal, linguistic animals, we ought not avoid engaging the history of thought as we try to formulate our answers to perennial human questions, and (b) we can’t do this without attempting to determine how an individual thinker fits into the broader discussion, and whether or not individual contributions mark an advancement or setback on the issue. In short, I have no problem in principle with the ambitions of Pabst’s project, and would even argue that such projects are unavoidable if we are going to do good theology and philosophy going forward.

A final question that arises along these lines regards the implication that there is some sort of causal link between ideas that is analogous to the passing on of family traits. Here I will simply say that as long as we understand genealogy in an analogous way, that is, a way which acknowledges both the similarities and dissimilarities between genealogies proper and intellectual genealogies, we ought not rule out the possibility of Pabst’s approach. If we recall, for instance, that Etienne Gilson’s intellectual work began with Descartes, and that he was unable to account for many of Descartes central ideas without first looking at their medieval antecedents, we can see that ideas get “passed down” without having to subscribe to some sort of biological or mechanical causality. I don’t think Pabst can be accused of overplaying the analogy of genealogy here.

But the question still remains regarding the relative merits of this particular attempt at the foregoing, and here I am mixed. On the one hand, I am largely sympathetic to Pabst’s recommendation of Christian Neo-Platonism. I am also on board with his notion that bad metaphysics have bad ramifications for both theology and politics. This point is made convincingly by David Bentley Hart (in Thomas Joseph White, ed., The Analogy of Being: Invention of Antichrist or the Wisdom of God? [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011]) when he shows that the Christology of the first seven ecumenical councils is unthinkable apart from a proper understanding of the analogy of being. I am even quite sympathetic with Pabst’s vision of politics as rooted in a hierarchical relationship of beings to each other in the Good (God).

My reservations begin when I compare Pabst’s overview of the history of metaphysics with that of Hans Urs von Balthasar in volumes 4 and 5 of The Glory of the Lord (vol. 3 of Herrlichkeit). In the interest of space I will do scarcely more than mention two concerns. First, Pabst is a little too quick to gloss over the many difficulties that have come with Christianity’s flirtation with Platonism. While it is true that in many ways Christianity disciplined its Platonism with the doctrines of creation, incarnation, and Trinity, it is also true that were it not for the heretics (e.g., Arius), Christianity may never have drawn the line as clearly as it eventually did. If Origenism and Arianism are two things you get when Platonism is not sufficiently refined, it seems odd that Pabst rarely alludes to such dangers. Is it because he has become fixated on the dangers of Aristotelianism? We may also ask if even in its rejection of Platonism simpliciter, the church successfully purged itself of all of the dangers inherent in Christian Neo-Platonism. Balthasar wonders, for instance, whether the squeamishness regarding human sexuality that we find in many church fathers, including his beloved Maximus, has more than a little to do with remaining Platonist prejudices, or whether the early church’s failure to develop a distinctly Trinitarian spirituality to go with its Trinitarian theology may have stemmed from the fact that its spirituality was still overly Platonic. He also wonders, in Was durfen wir hoffen?, whether or not both the Eastern tendency towards apokatastasis and the Western tendency towards massa damnata do not stem from the same Platonically tinged understanding of the relationship between divine and human freedom.

A second concern flows from this first: namely, for all of Pabst’s talk of analogy, the method which seems to prevail in his treatment of the history of thought comes closer to that of dialectic, and this is a pattern I find in Radical Orthodoxy readings of history in general. Again, a comparison with Balthasar may be helpful. With the latter’s notion that the “truth is symphonic” comes an understanding that the truest position is the one that contains the most, taking up a wide variety of partial truths and making a place for them. For example, without the notion of the distinction of Trinitarian hypostases, homoousios would simply entail Sabellianism, but when kept together with the distinction between hypostasis and ousia, homoousios helps us to say something true regarding the Son’s equality with the Father without denying their distinction. In Balthasar’s telling of the history of metaphysics, for instance, Aristotle does not so much represent an alternative to Plato as he represents a balancing influence. If Aristotle grants too much autonomy to the sublunar, and, therefore, political order, there is a danger in Plato that nothing outside of the Good is really given space to exist or that politics are construed in an overly utopian fashion. While Pabst acknowledges that Christianity refines Platonism with its doctrine of creation, he doesn’t seem eager to acknowledge the degree to which thinkers like Maximus and Thomas were able to articulate a more distinctively Christian metaphysic precisely on account of the influence of Aristotle on their thought. It’s not that Pabst doesn’t acknowledge, at least at times, the positive influence of Aristotle, it’s that he doesn’t treat Aristotle with the same charity that he treats Plato; nor does he submit Plato to the same scrutiny that he does Aristotle. In short, Plato and Aristotle are not related in a merely dialectical fashion in the best of the Christian metaphysical tradition, but are seen as complements, both attaining to some of the truth contained in the Christian doctrine of creation: participation and rightful autonomy, rather than participation instead of autonomy. Chalcedon has a “without confusion” to go with its “without separation.”

Even in his treatment of nominalism Balthasar is more nuanced than Pabst, and this is because he sees Ockham’s concern, at least in part, as an attempt to do justice to the transcendence of God on the one hand, and the proper autonomy of the created order on the other. This means that Balthasar can read modern philosophy not just as a series of simple errors, but also as an attempt to get at a truth that had not been properly addressed in the Christian Neo-Platonism of the fathers and scholastics. There is little doubt, for instance, that Balthasar would have seen Dignitatis Humanae as an attempt to give the sort of attention to the question of individual freedom and even rights that the tradition had up until then failed sufficiently to articulate. If all heresies contain a partial truth—and Liberalism is nothing if it isn’t a Christian heresy—then setting oneself simply in dialectical opposition to Liberalism is bound to land one in a position that is less than fully catholic.

While, in sum, I am largely sympathetic to Pabst’s project and learned enormously from his remarkable book, I worry that the tone is often more dialectical than catholic, and this is a worry that I often experience when I read the Radical Orthodoxy school. I wonder if I might not apply Kierkegaard’s assessment of his own and Luther’s thought to this book: it will be best understood when read as a corrective.

  1. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Crossroad, 1991).

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    Adrian Pabst


    On Platonism and Christian Theology


    Let me begin my essay by thanking Christian Amondson and his team for organising this symposium. It is an immense honour to have my book Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy featured on Syndicate. I am also very grateful to the authors of the four essays who have engaged so closely with my work: Professor Rodney Howsare, Dr. Robert Saler, Professor Gregory Walter and Benjamin DeSpain. Their praise is humbling and their probing questions, criticisms and suggestions have given me much to think about.

    Since the book was published in May 2012, there have been a number of reviews, including one by the late John Hughes.1 John was killed in a car accident last July, aged thirty-five. I would like to honour his memory and his crucial contribution to contemporary Christian theology, above all his superb book The End of Work on the possibility of a post-secular, non-state socialism that builds on early Romanticism.2 The gaps in my book on the link between metaphysics and politics are to a large extent filled by John’s work, and I shall return to the centrality of the Romantic tradition of which William Morris was perhaps the best exponent.

    For now, a few points need to be made about my rationale for writing a book on metaphysics in the first place. Is not metaphysics wedded to a foundationalist conception of being and to transhistorical, objectively fixed notions of truth or meaning that ground modern philosophy and politics? Does not the demise of modernity finally liberate subjectivity from the illusion of a life invested with sacred significance and governed by supernaturally determined ethical ends? In short, has not the advent of a post-theistic ontology eliminated the possibility of a theological metaphysics? On the contrary, for my argument is that metaphysics never went away and that it is returning to the fore.3

    My book contends that it was the late medieval exit from metaphysics which brought about the modern “political ontology” that is now in crisis. For this reason, I argue that late modern philosophers from Nietzsche to Heidegger and from Jacques Derrida to Jean-Luc Marion are wrong to dismiss the whole Western tradition of metaphysics since Plato as onto-theological. The metaphysical politics that my work seeks to develop overcomes the modern logic of dualism and the postmodern dialectics of difference in the direction of the non-modern logic of paradox that charts an alternative modernity.

    Such an alternative modernity emerges from the long, intellectual tradition which nouvelle théologie and Radical Orthodoxy have sought to preserve and extend—a kind of Romantic orthodoxy that eschews much of the modern Reformation and Counter-Reformation in favour of the patristic and medieval legacy shared by Christians East and West. This legacy concerns the teachings on the church fathers and doctors like St. Augustine, Dionysius or St. Thomas Aquinas on the unity of nature and the supernatural against the modern separation of the natural universe from divine creativity and grace. Thus, appealing to an alternative modernity has to start with a rejection of the modern dualism of nature vs. grace or faith vs. reason.

    But to say this is neither merely to look back in anger at the onset of modernity nor to wallow in nostalgia in relation to the foundational creed and the councils of the early church. On the contrary, it is to link the patristic and medieval legacy to modern Romanticism with their shared emphasis on natural intimations of the divine poesis and on human, artistic activity. It is this Romantic tradition that has helped sustain and create the high culture, which has mediated faith, reimagined theology and renewed the human quest for its transcendent telos. That is what underpins Pope Emeritus Benedict’s defence of traditional liturgy (including the Tridentine Mass) against the onslaught of “sacro-pop”—“parish tea party liturgies and banal ‘cuddle me Jesus’ pop songs,” as Tracey Rowland so aptly writes in her book Ratzinger’s Faith.4

    Beyond the liturgy, Romanticism is also key to saving secular culture from itself. By rejecting both absolute instrumental reason and blind emotional faith, the Romantic tradition outwits the contemporary convergence of soulless technological progress and an impoverished culture dominated by sexualisation and violence. More fundamentally, it opposes the complicit collusion of boundless economic and social liberalisation that has produced laissez-faire sex and an obsession with personal choice rather than objective (yet contested) standards of truth, beauty and goodness—an argument particularly well made by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in his seminal book Lost Icons on our cultural bereavement.5

    In short, the renewal of metaphysics is vital for the re-hellenisation of Christianity and an orthodox yet generous renaissance of Christian culture and politics.

    On Platonism and Christian Theology

    According to Rodney Howsare, the genealogical account of metaphysics that my book outlines can be defended not only in terms of detailed historical scholarship but also on the ground that certain ideas transcend both time and place. In his words,

    Theologians or philosophers, in contrast to the historians, aren’t content simply to know about the historical Augustine or Ockham; rather, if they believe that all reason is traditioned reason, they also want to make a retrieval wherein they “test everything and hold fast to that which is good.” These acts of retrieval look at individual thinkers of the past in the light of the whole in a way that is analogous to the role of the composer or conductor vis-à-vis the individual instruments in a symphony. As Josef Pieper argues in In Defense of Philosophy, philosophy’s job is to say something about the whole, rather than just the part, whereas the scientist gains his precision (precaedere: to cut off) by considering a part in abstraction from the whole.

    At the same time, Howsare cautions against my glossing over the many difficulties that Christian theologians encountered in their engagement with Platonism. I certainly agree with him that my book pays insufficient attention to the many doctrinal controversies that revolve around the use of Platonist philosophy in Christian theology. In my defence I would say that my book has two closely connected aims. First, to provide a sustained critique of the de-hellenisation of Christianity and, second, to outline how a theological metaphysics can contribute to its re-hellenisation. As such, the focus of the book is less on doctrine itself as on the ways in which a metaphysical conception of relationality can elucidate an orthodox and catholic Christian theology of creation and the Trinity.

    Crucially, this enterprise is about rereading Plato, especially his account of the integral unity of the self, the city and the cosmos, which helps explain why early Christian theologians embraced the Platonist legacy. However, Howsare is absolutely right to remind us about Hans Urs von Balthasar’s point that “the squeamishness regarding human sexuality that we find in many church fathers, including his beloved Maximus, has more than a little to do with remaining Platonist prejudices.” One question that arises from this is whether the source for this is to be found in Plato or in later Platonist figures. It is true that my book does not analyse in detail the transmission of Plato’s thought and its reception by the church fathers and doctors. What I try to show instead is that Plato certainly does not view the body as an iron cage for the soul. On the contrary, he emphasises the integral union of body with soul and the bodily senses which mediate to the mind the forms that are embodied in things and their mysterious sharing in the Good, the form of all forms—an account that resonated strongly with Augustine during his process of conversion.

    I also agree with Howsare that Christian theology should not posit a dialectical opposition between rival positions but rather acknowledge a balancing influence—an analogical corrective. Accordingly, Plato and Aristotle, or Aquinas and Ockham, are best seen as complements in the pursuit of truth and wisdom about the nature of God or the world. However, this risks assuming some neutral vantage point from which we can pass objective judgment—an ahistorical position that is outside time and space. In reality, we are embedded in traditions of thought, interpretation and practice, and the dominant tradition in the West since the late Middle Ages has been a nominalist and voluntarist theology, as many scholars who are not part of Radical Orthodoxy have documented: Ludger Honnefelder in Germany, Olivier Boulnois in France, Michael Allen Gillespie in the United States, to name but a few.6

    My book attempts to provide a rebalancing away from the nominalism and voluntarism that underpin the modern project, which is unravelling. For this reason, I focus on the realism and intellectualism that I trace predominantly but not exclusively to Plato and Christian Neo-Platonism. For example, Aquinas is still widely seen as operating an Aristotelian turn of Christian theology away from the Neo-Platonism of St. Augustine and others. My contention is that Thomas actually restored and renewed Christian Neo-Platonist theology against the radical Aristotelianism of the twelfth century. Far from diminishing Aristotle, this represents a more faithful reading of him, not least because he was the first Neo-Platonist philosopher. There was much gain in what he bequeathed, but also some loss, notably the abandonment of a more participatory metaphysics that does not undermine autonomy.

    It is true however that my book could have done more to acknowledge the problems of Platonism and also Aristotle’s crucial contribution to Christian theology. Aristotle’s focus on the ends that are internal to human activities and his accentuation of practical wisdom and craft offer precious resources to think through the implications of divine poesis, notably by using concepts such as energeia and actuality. In no way does this signify some simplistic return to a golden age that in fact never existed. On the contrary, Aristotle’s legacy is vital for a profound renewal of the entire tradition spanning both East and West. As David Bradshaw has shown, the notion of energeia links Aristotle’s philosophical contribution to St. Paul’s theological thinking.7 For St. Paul, God gives the gift of his infinite energeia in such a way that human acts are synergically fused with acts that emanate from God, yet also are God—the divine economy of the Trinity.

    The tradition of Neo-Platonist theurgy extends this account, in particular the work of Iamblichus, Proclus, Damascius and Dionysius the Areopagite who view divine and human activity as profoundly linked and cosmically mediated.8 Here God’s kenotic descent marks the full immersion of the soul in its embodied condition, and it is the practice of liturgical praise and theurgic rites that in turn deifies humankind and unites its more fully to God. Within the tradition of Christian theology that integrated theurgy (rather than the Platonism of essences), Aristotelian being becomes supreme actuality or actus, which gives itself ecstatically while at the same time always remaining within itself. One reason why this tradition is so important today is because it can help us to re-enchant religious transcendence and recover the archaic Western wisdom in a more culturally mediated and dispersed idiom. A more imaginatively “incultured” faith can unite the patristic fusion of biblical revelation with Greco-Roman philosophy to the Renaissance and Romantic blending of high with popular and folk culture. Aristotle’s legacy is thus vital for a cultural renaissance of Christendom.

    1.  John Hughes, review of Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy, by Adrian Pabst, New Blackfriars 95, no. 1055 (2014) 119–21.

    2. John Hughes, The End of Work: Theological Critiques of Capitalism (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007).

    3. Cf. Frédéric Nef, Qu’est-ce que la métaphysique? (Paris: Gallimard, 2004).

    4. Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

    5. Rowan Williams, Lost Icons. Reflections on Our Cultural Bereavement (London: Continuum, 2000).

    6. Ludger Honnefelder, Ens inquantum ens. Der Begriff des Seienden als solchen als Gegenstand der Metaphysik nach der Lehre des Johannes Duns Scotus (Münster: Aschendorff, 1979); L. Honnefelder, Scientia transcendens. Die formale Bestimmung der Seiendheit und Realität in der Metaphysik des Mittelalters und der Neuzeit (Duns Scot, Suarez, Kant, Pierce) (Hamburg: Meiner, 1990); Olivier Boulnois, “Analogie et univocité selon Duns Scot: La double destruction,” Les Etudes Philosophiques 3 (1989): 347–69; O. Boulnois, Être et représentation. Une généalogie de la métaphysique moderne à l’époque de Duns Scot (XIIIe–XIVe siècle) (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999); Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay on the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993); Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

    7. David Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

    8. Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, 2nd ed. (Kettering, OH: Angelico, 2014).

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      Rodney Howsare


      The Cross and Metaphysics

      First, I would like to thank Adrian Pabst for his gracious and thoughtful response to the reviews thus far and, then, Robert Saler for his provocative questions regarding suffering and the place of the cross in a Christian metaphysic. If I were to put my worries over a one-sided plea for Christian Platonism in more positive terms, it would have taken the form of a call for a more Christocentric approach. But this is just where Radical Orthodoxy, or at least John Milbank, has faulted Balthasar for corrupting de Lubac’s breakthrough with a Barthian taint (see, for instance, The Suspended Middle). I’d like to extend this discussion, then, with a series of quotes from Maximus the Confessor. I find his relative absence in Pabst’s book curious in the light of Maximus’s refusal to work out the God-world relationship in abstraction from decidedly Christological questions, but I also find Maximus relevant to the present discussion for his synthesis of Plato and Aristotle. Indeed, it might just be his appreciation for the latter that enabled him to fight for the proper autonomy (stability?) of the human nature and will of Christ against both the monophysites and monothelites.

      Here is Maximus, from Quaestiones ad Thalassium, commenting on 1 Peter 1:20 (“Like a spotless and unblemished lamb, Christ was foreknown before the foundation of the world, and has appeared among us at the end of time for your sakes”):

      This brings humanity to identity with divinity in every mode [of its being], by the structure of a concrete individual, and brings into existence a single, composite individual from both [natures], without introducing the slightest diminution of the substantial distinction between them . . . and nothing at all of what belongs to either is lost because of the union . . . 

      This is the great and hidden Mystery; this is the blessed end, for whose sake all things have come to be; this is the divine goal, conceived of before the beginning of all beings, which we here define as the preconceived end, for whose sake all things exist, and which itself exists for the sake of nothing else. With this end in view, God produced the essences of things . . .

      [The Incarnate Word] made visible even the remotest depths, if one may put it this way, of his Father’s goodness, and showed himself the end for which created things clearly received the beginning of their existence . . .

      For all ages exist because of Christ . . .and the things within those ages have received the beginning and end of their existence in Christ.  Union, after all, was conceived before the ages began . . .

      Etienne Gilson’s defense of the notion of Christian philosophy (which Heidegger famously compared to a wooden iron) had to do with the fact that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo coupled with the revelation of God’s name to Moses had transformed Thomas’s metaphysics from within, as it were. In other words, it’s not just that Thomas took Aristotle (or Plato for that matter) and added the doctrine of creation and a new concept of God; it’s that Thomas’s metaphysics are no longer simply Aristotelian (or Platonic), but have been transformed in the light of Christian doctrines, based on revelation.

      Of course space doesn’t permit us to get into the complex debate over Christian philosophy that ensued from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, or even into the various (incompatible?) versions that emerge from Blondel, Gilson, Maritain and de Lubac, but at the very least calling attention to this inner transformation of Christian philosophy as a result of Biblical revelation raises the possibility that if Christian philosophy can be transformed (from the ground up) by the doctrine of creation, it can be transformed, similarly, by Christology, including Christ’s representative death for us at the hands of the most religiously and philosophically astute people of the first century.

      What we find in the quotes from Maximus above is a refusal, as already stated, to work out the God-world relationship in abstraction from the question of the two natures in Christ, or even in abstraction from the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” This is what Balthasar refers to as the Christological analogia entis and I don’t think its relative absence in the sort of metaphysics coming out of Radical Orthodoxy is simply a matter of oversight. It’s difficult to see Maximus as a necessary corrective to Dionysius when you see Balthasar as a Barthian corruption of de Lubac.

      These sorts of concerns are present in Saler’s questions as well, but I agree with Pabst that Luther’s theologia crucis is not the answer. The danger with Luther, as well stated by Pabst, is that the cross becomes such a strange interruption into God’s dealings with the world that they end up rendering God’s manifestation in nature either obsolete or simply contradictory (theologia cricus vv theologia gloria). And although I would like to state once more that I am largely sympathetic to Pabst’s project, I do worry that there is thoroughly unchastised theologia gloria going on here. Or, another way of stating my worry is that there seems to be no difference in Pabst between an aesthetic theology and a theological aesthetics.

      If I may return to Balthasar for a moment, I’d like to suggest that the way to bridge the gap between a bald theologia gloria and a contradictory theologia crucis is to be found in the Christian notion that being is coextensive with self-giving love. It’s not so much, then (with Marion), that we must find a God beyond being, as it is that we must affirm that in God being and love are coextensive. As Balthasar raises the issue in Love Alone is Credible:

      The transition that fulfilled the philosophical universe in the Christian-theological one [and here Balthasar is talking about the very sort of Christian Platonism that Pabst is recommending], granted to reason, enlightened and strengthened by grace, the highest possible vision of unity. Because of this unity, the question whether revelation introduced a special principle of unity was all but left behind (18).

      Of course that “special principle of unity” is, for Balthasar, love, which finds its highest expression in history in the self-offering of the Son to the Father on our behalf. But the love that is represented here is not something simply new (or contradictory); it is, rather, the historical expression of the very nature of God, or, of what Balthasar has called “the Trinitarian law of self-surrender.” Notice that Maximus says above that Christ’s work reveals “even the remotest depths of the Father.” (This is why neither Maximus nor Balthasar could juxtapose, à la Luther, Deus Absconditus with the God revealed in Christ.) For Balthasar it also reveals the innermost depths of the meaning of Being: which gives itself to essences both so that they might exist, but also that it might inhere. For Balthasar (following Ulrich) created Being is simultaneously rich and poor.

      A final word then is in order about the relationship between philosophy and theology. It is not simply the case that revealed theology introduces something “brand new” into the world that we then have to go back and integrate into a purely natural philosophy or metaphysic (in this I agree with Pabst). Since God is both creator and redeemer, vestiges of the fact that the meaning of Being is self-giving love are already in nature (cf., Bonaventure’s vestiges of the Trinity), even if they haven’t always been properly noted. At one point Balthasar wonders why the realm of interpersonal love and, especially, marriage and procreation, don’t take a more central place in classical philosophy. I mean, the fact that there are males and females and that they are able, together, to procreate is not a data of revelation. Nor is the idea of marriage. These things are very much a part of the natural order.

      This is not to say that we could have figured out, through “unaided reason,” that God is a Trinity of persons who are self-giving. But it is to say that once we know this it helps us to make better sense of the world, as world. Put differently, there is no taking away the scandal of the cross, nor its appearance as foolish. The end of the story is a surprise. But like all good drama, it’s a surprise that makes sense in hindsight and forces us to go back and reexamine the whole drama again and wonder why we didn’t see it coming.



Creation, Cross, and Metaphysics

Can We Be at Home in the World?

ADRIAN PABST HAS GIVEN us a brilliant monograph which pulls off two tasks that are hard enough to do on their own, but constitute a near-miracle when they coincide: aggressively tracing a single theme across a swath of intellectual history broad enough to constitute a virtual textbook in historical theology while also marshaling this erudition in support of a bold constructive thesis. Unlike some similarly magisterial texts to which it doubtlessly will be compared, Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy retains throughout its exploration of diverse sources an admirably sharp focus; at no point in its four hundred–plus pages is the reader tempted to wonder why and how a particular figure under investigation fits into the broader sweep of Pabst’s argument. While the overarching question that animates the text is nothing less than the relationship of Christian theology to philosophy as that controversy has taken shape from the beginnings of the Christian movement, the presenting issue is the fate of how what is arguably the most paradigmatic question of Hellenistic philosophy—the relationship of the one and the many—has been retained throughout the patristic, medieval, and modern periods up to our own time.

Specifically, Pabst centers in on the question of individuation and how the account that one gives concerning the nature of individuation has political, cultural, and theological implications. The narrative that his book offers is one of two fundamentally divergent paths in which Platonic/Neo-Platonic understandings of individuation as rooted in participation in a hierarchy of diffused good eventually gives way to more immanent accounts of individuation as tied to formal principles, which “are located in beings and lack any metaphysical relation with God’s created activity” (272). This move from creation to immanentist generation corresponds to a politics that begins with the agon of democracy but soon descends into the barely concealed violence at the heart of postmodern celebrations of competing interests as non-transcendably inevitable and in fact valuable in their own right. Lost in this transition is a metaphysically rooted affirmation of relationality as a core principle of ontology that might engender, not only renewed interest in theology per se, but reclamation of the task of politics as pursuit of genuinely common good. To argue for that Neo-Platonic affirmation is the ultimate goal of Pabst’s analysis.

For my purposes, of most of interest is Pabst’s sketch—necessarily brief and allusive—is how the specifically theological implications of a revitalized Neo-Platonic Christian metaphysic might inform the shared task of making sense of our world in humane fashion. In other words, having no particular quarrel with the book’s detailed descriptions of the fate of individuation in (predominantly) Western philosophy and theology, I am most interested in pressing Pabst to build on the achievements of his book’s constructive vision (a vision that repeatedly cites, as a sort of urtext, Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial Regensburg lecture in which Benedict similarly enumerates the deleterious theological and political effects of dehellenization upon Western culture). As is both inevitable and salutary, the implications of this vision are not limited to the final chapter, but inform the book’s source selection and exegesis of those sources throughout. Pabst clearly views the eclipse of the Neo-Platonist account of individuation and hierarchy as a loss for both theology and politics, and thus the possibilities for what the recovery of this tradition might mean in our time animate the entirety of the text.

The first thing to note is that Pabst’s book renders the valuable service of nuancing, and even flat-out correcting, what have become rather hackneyed complaints against the supposedly non-relational character of patristic and medieval Christian metaphysics (due at least in part, perhaps, to the later emaciation and sometimes repudiation suffered by this inheritance at the hands of modernity and modernity’s medieval antecedents, particularly the nominalists). While the basic structure of Pabst’s prescriptive argument (that is, advocating a revitalized metaphysic in the broad tradition of Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas as a tonic for postmodernism’s various philosophical and political stalemates) will not be new to anyone familiar with the currents of Radical Orthodoxy that inform Pabst’s methodology, his book is notable for its zeroing in on two core themes—hierarchy and creatio ex nihilo—and their deployment by such thinkers as Augustine, Dionysius, and Aquinas in order to articulate a fundamentally relational account of individuation.

This contribution is all the more valuable for its timeliness in contemporary theology. While Pabst spends most of his energy in the book defending the Neo-Platonic trajectory from the attacks of philosophers engaged in battle against what they take to be ontotheology, an equally significant challenge to Hellenistic metaphysics in theology proper comes from those who would disparage so-called “classical theism.” These critiques, often offered by such partisans of relational ontology as process and feminist theologians (a partisanship, it should be noted, to which Pabst too is clearly devoted), censure “classical” Christian metaphysics for positing what they take to be a cartography of the divine that employs hierarchy and unilateral creation from nothing in order to promote distance between God and the world and fixed, static relationships among creatures. Pabst, however, weaves together the Neo-Platonic Christian imagery of creation as hierarchy and the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo to argue for a more doxological understanding of hierarchy that outflanks the sterility of “theism” as it is characterized in early modernity and caricaturized ever since. As he explicates the “gratuitous, free, and continuous divine gift of being that brings everything out of nothing into actuality” in connection with Dionysius,

The Incarnation manifests God’s kenotic decent and calls on the whole of creation to receive and return it liturgically in an asymmetrical gift-exchange that perfects the degrees of being of each creature standing in analogical relation to its creator. Divine creativity issues forth in a sacred order wherein individuation is neither purely internal nor purely external to beings but instead marks God’s gift of goodness that actualizes all things relationally. This sacred order is both hierarchical and participatory in the sense that the cosmos is characterized by degrees of being and perfection and things are positioned relationally at different stations in the hierarchy of creation. (148)

Overcoming the truncation of this vision—begun already with strands in Aristotle but perpetuated by a medieval/modern rogues gallery of figures such as Ockham, Scotus, and Spinoza—is what Pabst sees as the key to regaining a “theological metaphysic” that “gestures towards a pluralist universalism that avoids the enduring metaphysical dilemma of either monism or dualism and the similarly enduring ethical temptation of either absolutism or relativism” (453) while moving also towards a “postsecular nonliberal vision of politics, the economy, and society” (302). Regardless of whether one is as sanguine as Pabst about this possibility, if nothing else after Pabst’s book no one will be able to claim that Neo-Platonic metaphysical visions of the sort defended by Augustine and Aquinas do not posit relationality as a core ontological principle, or that Christian views of cosmic hierarchy can only support political visions of stasis as opposed to ongoing (participatory) dynamicity.

As Pabst recognizes, though, to the extent that this vision is to be recognizably Christian, it must follow Augustine, Aquinas, et al. in tying creation and hierarchy to the triune existence of God and the triune character of God’s salvific love for creation. But this raises the question of what I take to be a significant gap in Pabst’s text: the absence of a robust Christology. The book concludes by invoking the possibility of a gift economy “grounded . . . ultimately in the mystical union of the divine and the human in Jesus Christ” (455), and indeed Pabst goes so far as to argue that “only Christian theology can give a rationally intelligible account of divine revelation because in and through Jesus Christ alone is God visible and able to be known as a personal Creator God” (440). So certainly the incarnation as a decisive moment in the Trinitarian economy is not lost in Pabst’s revival of Platonism.

However, surely the significance of Jesus of Nazareth to Christian metaphysics, including their Neo-Platonic variety, must extend beyond the kenosis and “paradox” (441) of the incarnation itself and into the actual life, death, and resurrection of the crucified Messiah. While it is not my intention to fault Pabst for what he does not include in his already rich text, I would argue that the question of how a theology of the cross does or does not have a home in his vision does have significant import for his hopes towards what theology and metaphysics might accomplish in our political imagination.

More specifically, the ability to see the world as a “creation” that participates in something akin to a freely gifted diffusion of God’s goodness and love is crucial for the kind of politics for which Pabst advocates. But this sort of optic is regularly challenged by the sheer scope of suffering and horror in our world, suffering that often goes far beyond the breadth of the political per se. It is one thing to read the newspaper headlines and be horrified by the inhumanity of war; however, as David Bentley Hart and others have noted, far more indicative of the fact that we exist in the midst of a sort of “provisional cosmic dualism” is the seemingly random suffering of humans at the whim of indifferent nature. To hear accounts of Indian peasants starving to death or dying in preventable conflicts is to encounter questions of justice and fair distribution of resources; however, to hear of an Indian toddler dying a horrible death due to a seemingly random collision with a passing vehicle is to confront a more existential terror of life’s pain and threatened meaninglessness. Surely it is this sort of terror that plays a significant role in fueling a global biopolitics based on assumptions of scarcity and competition rather than abundance—that is, exactly the sort of biopolitics to which Pabst thinks our contemporary lack of metaphysical vision has condemned us.

The theology of the cross is not a simple epistemological principle that can be applied gratuitously to cover over such horror in generic fashion; however, within Christian discourse in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant streams, the cross of Jesus Christ and the subsequent empty tomb has served to speak directly to the dynamic triumph of God’s life over the forces of death and hopelessness in ways that—at their best—escape both sentimentality and the flight into false serenity for which metaphysical speculation is occasionally indicted (whether fairly nor not). Indeed, within contemporary continental philosophy at least, I would argue that it is the refusal to varnish suffering with platitude that makes certain rigorously sober materialist accounts of reality seem more noble than a number of Christian alternatives. For Pabst to extend his vision in compelling fashion in the face of this Ivan Karamozov-like refusal of consolation, his account of Trinitarian economy might do well to engage more deeply with the metaphysical implications of the Good as that which the world—including nature itself—crucifies.

Indeed, to confuse the otherwise clear lines between metaphysical hero and rogue in Pabst’s account, I would suggest that it was in fact Luther—however indebted to the same nominalist strands rejected by Pabst as he was—who offers an admirably clear sense of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo as being crucial, not simply for protology, but for speaking faithfully about how God brings life out of death and justification out of fallenness. In other words, for Luther and his subsequent theologians of the cross, creatio ex nihilo remains an ongoing and politically critical reality of God’s dealing with a fallen world. Within politics, appropriating this line of thinking might entail a move past Badiou (whose invocation of Paul as an architectonic of the onset of universalism Pabst approvingly cites) and his problematic dismissal of the importance of the cross to the Christian event and towards something more akin to the Christological maneuvers of those theologians (“liberation” and otherwise) who invoke the metaphysics of the cross precisely as the sort of indispensable critical principle that is necessary to shock the world out of the politics of immanent scarcity and death-dealing global structures. Indeed, elaborating on a theology of the cross within the doxological metaphysics offered by Pabst’s book might go a long way towards avoiding the pitfalls of dolorism occasionally associated with the theologia crucis while simultaneously helping those who suffer locate their own experience within the praise of creation’s ontological beauty that is so central to the Platonic worldview.

Given the erudition and creative facility with sources on display in this, Pabst’s first book, I do not doubt that his constructive framework can encompass such a thickening of the Christological content of his metaphysics; my hope is simply that he might be convinced that it is a necessary future step in the unfolding of his vision’s promise.

  • Avatar

    Adrian Pabst


    Metaphysical Theology and the Lack of Christology

    In his essay, Robert Saler argues that a metaphysical theology requires a robust Christology, which he says is a significant gap in my book. Like the doctrinal disputes connected with Platonism, Christological debates are largely absent not because they are unimportant but because the focus is on how a theological metaphysics of creation and of the Trinity offers a better account of individuation than philosophies of immanence. However, this symposium is a welcome opportunity for me to clarify some of the Christological issues that Saler rightly highlights. I agree with him about the importance of acknowledging the reality of human suffering and the sheer scale of both social dislocation and ecological devastation. All this raises fundamental questions for a Neo-Platonist theology that stresses the interplay of the good, the beautiful and the true.

    Luther’s contribution to a theology of the cross is particularly vital at a time when both secular nihilism and pietistic religion exacerbate demoralisation and despair. At the same time, the nominalist theology that underpins Luther’s position introduces a series of dualisms that are ultimately incompatible with the patristic legacy he sought to retrieve—grace disconnected from nature, faith divorced from works, Christ outside the Trinitarian relations, scripture without tradition, etc. In his laudable attempts to provide a corrective to the corruption of Christendom, Luther ended up being perilously close to the Jansenist Augustinian position of near or total human depravity after the fall and the notion that nature does not mediate divine creativity.

    Here nouvelle théologie offers a far better route towards the renewal of creedal Christianity. Aquinas is central to this resourcement precisely because his theology is loyal at once to the radicalism of central Christian paradoxes and yet loyal also to the temperate mediation which those paradoxes instil. Among these paradoxes are God’s gift of life out of death and salvation out of fallenness. The key difference with Luther is that Thomas connects Christology to a Trinitarian metaphysics that outflanks in advance the modern separation of reason and revelation and philosophy and theology that characterises Luther’s thinking. By contrast with these dualisms, nouvelle théologie has consistently argued that the doctrine of the incarnation of the Logos lies behind the unique exaltation of reason in the history of the West. At the same time, we have to believe, beyond possibility of philosophical demonstration, in this incarnation and its disclosure of the infinite reasonableness of God. This suggests that a rational affirmation of the possibility and ultimacy of truth can only be upheld by faith. Our faith must be reasonable, but the modern evolution of rationalism into nihilism shows that the rational endeavour requires a supra-rational trust in its very possibility. By sundering faith from reason, the “Baroque” Thomism of contemporary neo-scholastics reinforces the double hydra of rationalism and fideism that modernity inherited from the nominal and voluntarist theology of late medieval Franciscans such as John Duns Scot or William of Ockham.1

    Beyond the genealogy proposed by Radical Orthodoxy and others, one can make here a more fundamental point about Christology: the fact that the plenitude of reason once arrived in time shows that we cannot divorce incarnate reason from knowledge of history. Henri de Lubac insisted that both theology and philosophy require an attention to historical context and the importance of the disclosive event. Against Adolf von Harnack and later Karl Rahner, “resourcement” theologians like de Lubac and, more recently Pope Emeritus Benedict, have opposed the collapsing of salvation history into human history as such. The reason is that the ground for this identity can only be an ahistorical idea, namely that the most essential truths are either “positively” present in moral actions of the individual (as for Harnack) or “transcendentally” present a priori in the structures of all human knowing (as for Rahner).

    By contrast, to emphasise the contingent arrival of saving truth is also to link it to certain concrete actions, which are definite states of being. Hence nouvelle théologie has never elevated history above ontology. Instead, it has shown that what is common to human nature as such is a matter of being as much as it is a matter of knowing. At the same time, “revelation” concerns both an immutable transformation of human being and a re-disclosure of our lost original nature, which the fall never fully destroyed. There can be little doubt that much of this can be found in the authentic legacy of Aquinas, notably the much-commented but little-understood analogia entis and the temporal mediation of God’s continual creative action, which is emphasised in the Compendium.

    My reason for focusing on the Compendium of Theology is because it is usually presented as a brief, nontechnical summary of the Summa Theologiae aimed at students and scholars as an introductory, accessible handbook, which adds nothing new to the thought of Aquinas. However, the sheer clarity with which Thomas presents his reflections on the three theological virtues provides key conceptual clues to his whole œuvre. He notably shows little interest in any nature/grace or philosophy/theology divide. Rather, he puts the Trinity and Christology more clearly centre stage, and his Trinitarian and Christological thinking is articulated in more Neo-Platonic terms than perhaps anywhere else in his work. Three elements are key: first, the hierarchy of the order of being; second, the super-eminence of divine being and goodness; third, the participation of creation in the Trinitarian economy. Linked to these Neo-Platonic elements are three key themes: the theme of divine government, Aquinas’s Cyrilline Christology and the centrality of the transcendental aliquid. In turn, the notion that underpins all this is the principle of motion—within the triune Godhead and the whole of creation.

    Indeed, Thomas’s theology of esse is more like a literal meta-physics in which “motion” is the central principle—from the movement of inanimate things all the way to the culmination in the fully internalised motion of the Trinity. Like Aristotle, Aquinas as we know makes metaphysics about being. But unlike Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) and, later, Duns Scot, he does not include God within the univocal concept of common being. Nor does Thomas follow Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and designate God as the topic of metaphysics, whereby the first mover is being as such.2 Rather, Aquinas paradoxically sees the inwardness of God as only disclosed by revealed theology. Beyond Augustine, he would seem to put this in still more physical terms as the inner “motion” of the Godhead as Trinitarian.

    The Compendium does not first present a metaphysical account of esse and then articulate some revealed dogmas in the second instance. Instead, it describes throughout the entire text a Trinitarian metaphysics that involves a rising scale of ever more intimate motion from matter through plant, animal and human mind to God (as in book 4 of the Summa Contra Gentiles). Blending Aristotle’s physics with Plato’s metaphysics, Aquinas develops Christian neo-Platonism in the direction of a metaphysical theology of the Trinity, Christology and creation. According to this metaphysical account, the presentation of Christ as one divine esse is fused with a presentation of him as the culmination of historical motion coinciding with Trinitarian motion. In ethical and political terms, the world describes the Christic, Trinitarian order to which all beings naturally tend, and just government requires an openness to the supernatural Good in God. Far from ignoring human suffering or our fallen nature, it suggests that hovering over the abyss of nothingness discloses our utter dependence on God, who for us and for our salvation gave his only Son.

    1. John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006 [orig. pub. 1990]); André de Muralt, L’unité de la philosophie politique. De Scot, Occam et Suarez au libéralisme contemporain (Paris: Vrin, 2002); Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

    2. See my “Priority of Essence over Existence,” in Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 155–200.



“Speak! That I May See You”

Sub-Creation and Possibility

WIDE YAWNS THE GAP; connexion is no more;
Check’d Reason halts; her next step wants;
Striving to climb, she tumbles from her scheme;
A scheme, analogy pronounc’d true;
Analogy, man’s surest guide below.

Edward Young, Night Thoughts

There is no doubt that modern theology and philosophy, in both their speculative and practical modes, privilege freedom. Carl Schmitt has rightly understood the center of these concerns in his definition of sovereignty: a person is sovereign who decides the exception.1 Pinning power to exceptionality shows that possibility always exceeds the grasp of politics in its modern, liberal mode. This emphasis on the power to act marks our age as an age dominated by volition as well as possibility. For modern theology and philosophy, it seems that the way to underscore possibility is to free it entirely from its ties to actuality, that is, to invert the relationship between possibility and actuality such that the possible, that is, what a thing could be, in fact determines its actuality. There is no single way that possibility has been elevated, no chief advocate for possibility’s superiority. For instance, it seems that to attend to this same freedom, in other words, to avoid the atomism of the subject or modern essentialism, demands that we develop a metaphysics of the event. Adrian Pabst has adroitly demonstrated in his genealogy of individuation how this age longs after possibility and the cost of that shift to politics and theology. I find his argument convincing and his account of the various figures accurate and important.

I wish to press two related concerns. The first concerns the being of God; the second the kinds of participatory possibility that his work outlines. The being of God, is, of course, a tremendous question, and should not in any way diminish Pabst’s accomplishment or his choice to focus on the problem of individuation. The second concern focuses on the possibility the creature does posses in the kind of realist participatory metaphysic that Pabst advocates.

Within Pabst’s analysis there seems to be a divide presented in the book: possibility first for creatures and actuality out of God or possibility self-given by things themselves, or some other permutation. But what of God’s being in creating this divide? Pabst attends to individuation and only occasionally skirts up against the being of the God who in some accounts is the reason for such individuation. The individuation he advocates has being participating in God’s being; it is because of this participation, not because of what the individual is or could be. I think there is a lot here that I want to learn from Pabst. Are there ways that, for instance, Scotus’s failure is solely in his view of knowledge and his construction of metaphysics, not in his use of infinity as a name for God? It may be that infinity does not suffice to hold out the maior dissimilitudo that analogical participation demands. Thomas and Maximus both tame the hyperessentialism implicit in the Dionysian corpus; but need they? This would extend his genealogy to address much of contemporary theology and its intersections with phenomenology.

The second concern is more mundane but no less import for occupying the earth. Is it possible to preserve Pabst’s critique of possibilism while still upholding the aims of modern possibilists, so long as these concerns are transported into a different key? In order to bring this thesis to actuality, I shall first discuss Johann Georg Hamann’s important definition of “world” in his Aesthetica in Nuce and then J. R. R. Tolkien’s remarkable Ainulindalë. Together, these two texts demonstrate that the gift of creation engenders the gift of possibility that exists between creatures such that they participate in the creative possibility of God; thus, there exists an analogical possibility that God is; posseset? A fully actualized possibility? Surely not just a mundane possibility extended to infinity.

Hamann plays an important but minor role in Pabst’s work. He is among the many who show how the theological metaphysics that Pabst advocates should move beyond Thomas and his immediate heirs. But there are twists in this trajectory, twists that advance the creative participation of creatures in God that may surprise and capaciously expand God in ways that are only briefly outlined by either Aquinas or Nicholas of Cusa. Hamann wrote Aesthetica in Nuce in order to oppose a variety of currents of his time, the chief of which was Johann Michaelis’s burgeoning rationalist interpretation of the Bible.2 In opposition to this and its attendant theories of human language and reason, Hamann advocates in this dense writing a laconic definition of Schöpfung: “Speak! That I may see you! This wish is fulfilled through creation, which is an address to the creature through the creature; for one day speaks to the other, and one night to another.”3 Hamann understands the creative activity of God to be a shared communication between creatures. This, when compared to Dionysius, suggests that all things in themselves, in their particular acts, have a share in the aitia that is God. God may create but God does not create without creatures. Such a claim need not oppose the idea of creation out of nothing, nor does it have to lead to Hegel’s way of adopting this statement of Hamann’s. Individuation is Pabst’s theme: his account seems to lead to a kind of participatory creativity on the part of creatures.

No better text exists for my question than Tolkien’s Ainulindalë.4 This beautiful text never reached a state satisfactory to Tolkien but the work still puts forward his notion of sub-creation in a powerful way. This notion seems to fit the kind of individuation Pabst advocates and would carry out his project of defending it against contemporary alternatives. Indeed, could Tolkien be a theological-metaphysical peer of Deleuze and Whitehead?

Tolkien’s text shows forth this kind of Christan neo-platonism in a poetic mode, one that can rival the kinds of constructivism and poesis that many contemporaries advocate.5 This writing purports to be the work of the medieval Englishman Ælfwine, who visits a strange island to the west of Britain; there he hears the tales of the elves. This tale concerns the beginnings of Middle Earth. The elves recall the work of Ilúvater, who creates beings called the Ainur. Ilúvater speaks and sings to these Ainur, giving them “themes of music.” Later, he gives them a task. They shall devise “Great Music.” This, however, is important, “And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will.” This was a great music; however, the greatest of the Ainur, Melkor, desired to “bring into Being things of his own” and he makes discord and destruction, noise, to visit the Great Music. In response, Illúvater makes two themes that interact with Melkor’s theme; the Music concludes in one fantastic sound. The final speech that Illúvater makes shows the power of poesis in its participatory mode. It is yet utterly surprising, that is, can go beyond the given and immanent possibilities, but not in such a way that it is self-generated and autonomous: “And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that has not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall be but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” Even as the Ainur “adorn” these themes, the elves latter point out that no one knows the what these human beings will contribute to the music. This poesis involves the kind of “adornment” that the Ainur and elves undertake but seems to be an even fuller participation in the Flame of creativity. It seems to me that Pabst’s positive account of individuation would lead to this kind of human poesis.

Individuation matters a great deal in theological metaphysics and in political theology as well. Now I hope Pabst’s project can continue his thesis and genealogical approach to embrace poesis and more reflection on the being of God than that already implicit in his excellent work.

  1. Carl Schmitt, Politische Theologie: Vier Kapitel zur Lehre von der Souveränität, 8th ed. (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2004), 13.

  2. See Sven-Aage Jørgensen, “Nachwort,” in Sokratische Denkwürdigkeiten / Aesthetica in nuce (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam, 1998), 182ff.; John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 123–28.

  3. Hamann, Werke, ed. Joseph Nadler (Vienna: Herder, 1950), 2:198.

  4. All quotations are taken from the last version of the Ainulindalë found in J. R. R. Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring: The History of Middle Earth, vol. 10, ed. Christopher Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 9–10.

  5. It would be worth comparing Tolkien’s sub-creation to Agamben’s poesis as articulated in “Poiesis and Praxis,” in The Man Without Content, trans. Georgia Albert (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 68–93.

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    Adrian Pabst


    Mystical Metaphysics and Sophiology

    Gregory Walter encourages me to say more about poesis and the being of God, two themes that he says are largely absent from the book. I agree with him that the book does not mention poesis much, but it does refer to the being of God in terms of Christian Neo-Platonism’s Trinitarian metaphysics of relationality. One could connect this with the idea of an alternative modernity that stretches from late medieval realism via the Renaissance, Protestant mysticism and Romanticism to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sophiology. Linking these strands is the notion that nature is dynamic and that our human embeddedness in a creative cosmos discloses the presence of God in the world, which is revealed most of all in God’s kenotic self-giving. The one triune God gives Himself absolutely and without reserve, and the radical simplicity of divine essence is paradoxically reflected in the diversity of creation. God’s essence is both incommunicable and self-sharing—a paradox that finds its supreme expression in the mystery of divine Wisdom. As the tradition of sophiology suggests, wisdom is at once creative and created, divine and human. It is the “relational between” (or metaxu) of Creator and creation that draws fallen humanity into union with God. Thus the shape of God’s unreserved gift of participation in the divine is sophianic.

    Sophia is central in seemingly disparate strands of modern Christian theology and key to the idea of an alternative modernity that outflanks the shared pessimism of the rationalist and empiricist Enlightenment. At the heart of such a rereading of the Western tradition lies the notion that God’s wisdom is at the same time the creative source of nature and all souls therein and also the created nature or world-soul. As such, Sophia discloses the irreducible relationality of natural immanence to supernatural transcendence—not a separate pole in space but instead the “mediate immediacy” of God’s presence in the world. And in the giving, receiving and returning of the gift of divine wisdom, God’s ecstatic self-donation deifies creation and unites us ever-more closely to the Creator.

    Most importantly of all, wisdom is neither a tertium quid nor a fourth divine person but rather the very middle between divine transcendence and created immanence, as the Russian tradition of sophiology teaches. For nothing can subsist outside God, whether between humanity and God, or between God who was made man and mankind that is destined to be deified. Likewise, Sophia is no third term between the three divine persons or between the essence of the Godhead and the persons of the Trinity, otherwise persons, relations and essences would be specific instances of something more general and fundamental than God.

    At the same time, there is a middle or metaxu (the term used by Sergei Bulgakov) because without mediation the relations within the Trinitarian Godhead would either dissolve into independent univocal substances or into a self-founded equivocal monism. Moreover, mediation cannot be an endless dialectical oscillation either between such substances or within a monistic ground of being, for dialectics would then be reducible to the opposing poles or an ontological extra that too remains unexplained. Therefore sophianic mediation is best understood as something that is coextensive with the divine essence, the persons and their substantive relations—an ineffable communication between them that exceeds the grasp of human cognition and is accessed experientially.

    According to Vladimir Solovyov, Sophia describes the “pan-unity” that envelops the whole of creation and reunites it to God—the process of deification through which humanity can perfect its God-given form. Unlike the formal identification of God with nature that would warrant the charge of pantheism, Russian sophiology—like Boehme’s mysticism and early German Romanticism—draws our attention to divine self-revelation through the natural world. For wisdom is both the energy that enables the internal and intentional act of perception and the essence of that which is perceived. Similarly, Bulgakov’s work overcomes modern dualism and monism as well as post-modern pluralism in the direction of “integralism”—the idea that there is an underlying unity that binds creation to its Creator. This unity neither stands apart from God nor is identical with God but rather springs forth from God as the shaping power of wisdom or the manifesting power of the divine super-abundant light of glory. To receive and return the gift of divine wisdom is to realise our God-given being and uplift creation to an ever-closer union with the Creator, so that “we evermore dwell in him and he in us” (1 John 4:12–13).



Holding Metaphysics and Politics Together

LET ME BEGIN, if I may, by expressing my gratitude to the editors at Syndicate for inviting me to participate in this symposium on Adrian Pabst’s Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy.1 All parenthetical paginations are references to this text. This study is certainly an impressive achievement for a number of reasons, not least of which is Pabst’s staggering ability to seamlessly integrate various lines of argument into a tightly constructed and thoughtful reflection on the metaphysics of individuation, which considers the question of what separates individual things or kinds things from one another. In addition to making a persuasive case for a relational metaphysics of individuation, which I largely agree with, Pabst also manages to demonstrate, through the differing theories of individuality he considers, the harm done to both theology and philosophy when they are rigidly separated from one another. Moreover, Pabst always has an eye on the political and cultural implications of the varying philosophical theories and theological ideas he considers, which he develops into a rather sophisticated critique and response to modern secularism.

Pabst’s many accomplishments in each of these areas certainly deserve far more attention than I can give them here since my purpose in this essay is not to review the book’s achievements but to engage in more critical dialogue with the work itself. So instead, I will focus on how Pabst’s genealogical schematization is related to the political implications he draws from the two rival theories of individuation he addresses. Pabst’s principle argument is that individuation cannot be explained through secular ontologies of immanence but, rather, is best understood in relational terms originating in the Neo-Platonist metaphysics of participation (xxviii). For those aware of recent trends in theological discourse, especially the movement commonly known as Radical Orthodoxy, the genealogical account that Pabst uses to structure the work will not be all that surprising; nevertheless, it is worth noting that his distinct focus on the metaphysics of individuation makes a unique contribution to a somewhat familiar narrative.2

Pabst’s genealogical account essentially tells the tale of how two rival theories of individuation take shape through a series of shifts in the understanding of metaphysics, which begin in antiquity and continue into the medieval, early modern, and modern eras. On one side of the divide are those theologians and philosophers that posit a Neo-Platonist metaphysics of relational participation to account for individuality; on the other side, stand those thinkers that propose some sort of ontology of self-individuation. The former tradition originates with Plato, whose theory of “the ecstatic outflow and relational self-giving of the Good in which all participate” (38) is appropriated and developed through theological reflection on the revelation of Christ and the Trinity by figures such as Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius the Areopagite, Boethius, and Aquinas (455). Alternatively, there are the various theories of self-individualization foreshadowed by Aristotle’s theory of composite substances and, what Pabst calls “theo-ontology,” which serves as a precursor to the onto-theology of Scotus and William of Ockham as well as the transcendental science of ontology associated with or attributed to Gilbert Porreta, Suárez, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant, among others (395, 397).

Taken on its own terms, the genealogical formation of these two rival traditions establishes a basic division between notions of individuation that rest on a distinctly theological vision of the asymmetrical relation between God and creation and those based on an ontology of pure immanence (82). As such, Pabst’s genealogy provides, first, a basis for reflection on how stripping God from the metaphysics of individuation encourages the conceptual breakdown of the unity between creator and creation, which is connected to the various ontologies of pure immanence that take root in the early modern era. Second, it demonstrates that the tradition of Christian Neo-Platonism can offer a theological alternative to the division between essence and existence that emerges in Gilbert’s “mathematical Platonism” and late medieval theological voluntarism. Although the clarity and precision of this schematic recasting of the division in the metaphysics of individuation is certainly one of Pabst’s greatest achievements in the book, I cannot shake the sense the he may be asking his genealogical account to accomplish far more than it is capable of doing. My questions for Pabst, therefore, arise from his extension of the dichotomy in his genealogical reflections on the metaphysics of individuation into the opposition he establishes between modern liberalism and his metaphysical politics.

Since the book is principally concerned with the metaphysical problem of individuation, Pabst is careful to note that he only touches on the political implications related to the division between Neo-Platonist theological metaphysics and modern ontologies of pure immanence (450). This political dimension of the work, nevertheless, follows the same dichotomous pattern as Pabst’s genealogical account of individuation; thus, the political opposition between liberal secularism and Pabst’s vision for a post-secular politics is mapped onto the polarity separating the two rival theories of individuation at the center of the book (156). In the penultimate chapter, Pabst comments on the metaphysical, political, and cultural vision offered by both the Eastern and the Western traditions of Christian Neo-Platonist theological metaphysics. He writes:

Metaphysically, it binds together the one and the many and blends differences harmoniously and peacefully. Politically, it opposes both absolutist theocracy and arbitrary secularism in the name of an integral model that distinguishes state and church without divorcing religion from politics. Culturally, it rejects postmodern celebrations of relativism and nihilism in favor of a vibrant civic culture based around “free associations” and their interrelations, thus giving expression to the fundamentally relational nature of man created in the image and likeness of the one and triune God (444).

This is a rather bold claim that is only further magnified by Pabst’s insistence that this tradition offers the only way forward to a vision of a “truly global Christendom” as well as opposing the perceived failures in modern and postmodern theology, philosophy, and politics. Although this study does not, nor could it be expected to, thoroughly work out how Christian Neo-Platonism might actually accomplish all of these things, this passage demonstrates Pabst’s certainty the he has located in Christian Neo-Platonism the one true metaphysics, but one is left wondering how he reaches this conclusion. It seems as if Pabst may be using his genealogical account as proof for the normative character of Neo-Platonist metaphysics, which would be incredibly problematic; however, if this is not the case, then the exact relation between Pabst’s genealogy of Neo-Platonism and the normative claims represented in this passage is not altogether clear.

Contrary to the sense of theological, metaphysical, and political promise offered by Christian Neo-Platonism, Pabst portrays political liberalism as beholden to the modern transcendental science of ontology in which individuality is understood to be an autonomous achievement. According to Pabst, the common characteristic in modern theories of immanence is the exclusion of God from the actuality of individuation (330). Pabst traces the elimination of God from metaphysics to a series of theological shifts that culminate in late medieval nominalism and theological voluntarism (447). The crucial step in Pabst’s narrative is that he causally links voluntarism, modern ontologies of pure immanence, and liberal secularism. Consequently, for Pabst, since the defining quality of the modern transcendental science of ontology is its elimination of God from the actuality of individuation, by extension, then, the key feature of liberalism is the bracketing of God from the political sphere (406, 450). While these running parallels between metaphysics and politics create helpful interpretive patterns, Chris Insole, in a recent essay that is well worth the read, highlights the dangers present in approaching the intellectual history of liberalism through such a schematic program.3

Although Pabst and Insole agree on a number of points, such as the acknowledgment that secular liberalism is rooted in theological and metaphysical claims that are often ignored or denied, Insole’s insistence that it is dangerous to reduce the “complex phenomena” of liberalism to a single notion or defining characteristic occasions some question about the outcome of Pabst’s approach to the intellectual history of secular liberalism. Insole proceeds to argue that theologians should not begin “with metaphysically and theologically freighted definitions” of liberalism or its genealogy.4 Instead, he proposes that theologians should begin by thinking of liberalism as “a set of practices” that may be variously upheld by different thinkers. The advantage to this approach, according to Insole, is that it allows the interpreter to be attentive to the layers, textures, and possibilities in the history of ideas.5 These layers are reflected in how different thinkers and movements implemented the same liberal practices for diverse reasons. One of Insole’s principle concerns in this essay is to demonstrate that there were various ways in which different theological traditions, including Christian Neo-Platonism, and varying doctrinal concerns—related to creation, the fall, ecclesiology, soteriology, and theological epistemology—served as “conduits” to modern liberalism.6 DeHart makes the point that dichotomous genealogies tend to run the risk of somewhat haphazardly casting seminal historical figures and movements into polarizing roles as either protagonists or antagonists depending on their perceived positive or negative relation to the matter at hand. Furthermore, DeHart contends that “the more figures of the past who are assigned a place in the narrative, the more unambiguously their roles and effects are evaluated, the tighter the causal connections are asserted, in short, the more ambitious and schematic the genealogy, the greater the risk.”7 Even though Pabst clearly works at thoughtfully engaging each author that he draws into his narrative, his genealogy undoubtedly runs this risk as he gathers theologians and philosophers from antiquity to postmodernity to make his case. Moreover, since Pabst is moving back and forth between the rival theories of individuation and their political implications, he increases the risk of minimizing various theological and philosophical nuances present in political liberalism that operate outside the division between Neo-Platonic realism and theological voluntarism.

While my time wandering through the annals of intellectual history has not been as long nor anywhere near as prolific as Pabst’s, one thing it has shown me is that we must always hold our genealogies somewhat loosely because the history of ideas is never as clean or clear cut as we would like. By adopting this more open approach, one can more easily leave room for DeHart’s astute instruction that when dealing with a genealogy, “all the more care will be required to notice nuance, surprises, complicated cross-patterns that throw a kink in the smooth line of the story or that place a key figure athwart the supposed direction of development.”8 Yet, this approach appears absent from Pabst’s genealogical account. It may very well be that I have simply overlooked this dimension of the work, and if so, I would be happy to have my error corrected. However, by appearing to use his genealogical account of the two rival theories of individuation as the backbone for the opposition between liberalism and his own political vision, Pabst’s exegesis of the various theologians and philosophers he considers tends to intensify this division as each figure he analyzes falls neatly into one of the two traditions he outlines.

What, then, is one to make of the relation between Pabst’s genealogical account and his vision for politics? My answer, at the moment, is that I am not sure. If the work is intended to initiate a conversation, then the clear lines and restricted interpretations may be seen more as boundaries for these future discussions, which might also account for the sense that Pabst’s genealogy is often governed less by the various thinkers it interacts with and more by the grand narrative it props up. However, if the interactions depicted between the genealogical account of individuation and politics are taken as more universally normative, then the lack of variation seems particularly dangerous for a work that situates itself between proposing a political vision for the future by reclaiming a metaphysics from the past and accounting for the current state of theology, philosophy and politics. For example, if the intellectual history of secular liberalism is reduced to the bracketing of God that develops in voluntarist theology and ontologies of pure immanence, then important figures, like Edmund Burke, and crucial nuances in the doctrines of creation, salvation, epistemology, and eschatology may be excluded from the conversation because they do not match the genealogical patterns. Now, I am not suggesting the Pabst is somehow unaware of the layers and variants in texture within intellectual history, but because he does not directly address them, I remain uncertain about how his work is intended to engage them.

  1. Adrian Pabst, Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

  2. Many of Pabst’s current publications and future projects reveal close ties between his work and the program of Radical Orthodoxy.

  3. Christopher Insole, “Theology and Politics: The Intellectual History of Liberalism,” in Theology, University, Humanities: Initium Sapientiae Timor Domini, ed. Christopher Craig Brittain and Francesca Aran Murphy (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), 190.

  4. Insole, “Theology and Politics,” 174.

  5. Insole, “Theology and Politics,” 183.

  6. Insole, “Theology and Politics,” 186.[/foonote] The vision Insole offers of liberalism’s intellectual history looks drastically different from the picture Pabst supplies, but, according to Insole, that is to be expected since Pabst’s analysis of liberalism begins with the shift in metaphysics that removes God from the actuality of individuation.

    My point here is not to suggest that Pabst’s account of the connection between political liberalism and ontologies of self-individuation is invalid because, as with the rest of the book, his methodical research establishes that these two are definitively linked. Instead, the question that I have is does Pabst intend for this connection to encompass the whole of the liberal tradition or to only represent a layer or a part in liberalism’s far more complex story, which simply lies outside the scope of his book? The answer to this question is complicated by the pattern of Pabst’s genealogical schematic approach because it appears to mask an underlying difference in the constructive and historical implications of the political trajectories derived from the study’s two rival theories of individuation. Since Pabst’s arguments for a post-secular politics is a speculative construct, he can, on the one hand, tailor his genealogical account of Christian Neo-Platonism to support his larger theological and political vision. In this case Pabst draws insights from his genealogical account of Neo-Platonist theological metaphysics to propose a political theory. On the other hand, however, the genealogical links connecting late medieval scholasticism, modern ontologies of pure immanence, and political liberalism converge to give an account of how the shifts in the understanding of individuation inform the current state of theology, metaphysics, and politics in Western society. The interpretive narrowing that takes place in Pabst’s genealogical inquiry is far more understandable in his constructive reconfiguring of the political sphere, but when dealing with the historical reality of liberalism, this narrowing is simply more dangerous because it threatens to flatten the intricate contours of intellectual history to match the constraints in Pabst’s constructive vision.

    Paul DeHart’s recent book provides some further clarity on the general risks associated with this type of dichotomous schematization.[footnote]Paul J. DeHart, Aquinas and Radical Orthodoxy: A Critical Inquiry (London: Routledge, 2012).

  7. DeHart, Aquinas and Radical Orthodoxy, 12.

  8. DeHart, Aquinas and Radical Orthodoxy, 13.

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    Adrian Pabst


    On the Dark Heart of Liberalism

    Benjamin DeSpain raises some very important questions about the link between metaphysics and politics in my book. In relation to my account of the connection between liberalism and ontologies of self-individuation, he wonders whether I “intend for this connection to encompass the whole of the liberal tradition or to only represent a layer or a part in liberalism’s far more complex story, which simply lies outside the scope of his book.” Since the focus is firmly on the nature of individuation, the political implications of the shift from metaphysics to ontology could only be sketched with a very broad brush. I agree with Christopher Insole (whose work is cited by DeSpain) about the manifold layers, textures and possibilities in the intellectual history of liberalism, in particular the different strands of liberal political thought.1

    Where I differ is on the implications of Insole’s claim—endorsed by DeSpain—that liberalism grew out of “a set of practices that may be variously upheld by different thinkers.” While this is undoubtedly true, it does not follow that liberalism is an elusive concept that has no identifiably shared theological and metaphysical sources. Nor do I share the idea that the rival traditions of liberalism are mutually incompatible, as a number of political philosophers such as Larry Siedentop or John Gray claim.2 Rather, my contention is that liberalism lacks a single, unique essence but that all the strands of liberal thought exhibit at least three “family resemblances”: first, positing the primacy of the individual over human association; second, replacing the Good and substantive justice with rights and ground rules and procedures of fairness; third, rejecting the pursuit of shared substantive ends in favour of maximising “negative liberty.” These three tenets can be taken to be centrally constitutive of a liberal political outlook and definitive of liberalism as a distinct political philosophy, whose roots have been traced to late medieval nominalism and voluntarism.3

    The latter point is important for two reasons. First of all, the liberal abstraction from any individuating characteristics or mutual relations builds on Duns Scotus’s univocity of being whereby all things are “bare beings” rather than things in relations to other things and their shared source in being itself. Thus, liberalism rests on an ontology of univocally existing beings that are stripped of all metaphysical positioning to other beings and common being (Aquinas’s Neo-Platonist ens commune, for example). As I try to show in the book, this ontology is the ultimate philosophical foundation for liberal individualism.4 Second, linked to this is William of Ockham’s twin claim that will is the ultimate principle of being (voluntarism) and that universals are merely mental concepts or names (nominalism). Ockham’s nominalist and voluntarist theology is of special significance for the genesis of modern liberal politics because it establishes the primacy of the individual over the universal and posits a radical separation between the infinite eternal and the finite temporal “realm.” That, in turn, provides the foundation for state supremacy vis-à-vis the church and all other institutions within the temporal-spatial realm of the saeculum.5

    This conception characterises liberalism from its earlier antecedents in Ockham via Hobbes and Kant all the way to John Rawls, as André de Muralt has documented. So in response to DeSpain’s comment about the dangers of flattening the complex history of liberalism to a single strand, my argument is that the various liberal traditions emerged from a common source and that this source gave rise to a shared logic that reveals itself in the unfolding of liberalism. Indeed, the triple emphasis on the individual, on rights and rules as well as on “negative liberty” suggests that liberalism is in fact a philosophy with a gloomy outlook and that it ends up going against the very grain of humanity on which it depends.

    How so? Both the Greco-Roman philosophy of Plato, Aristotle or Cicero and Christianity believed that reality was originally and at heart peaceful, and only violent because of the irruption of fate or sin, and so in practice had often encouraged warfare. Liberalism exactly reversed this. In the name of reducing conflict, it thought that reality was inherently agonistic and humans naturally egotistic and indelibly prone to conflict. For this reason seventeenth-century liberalism rejected Renaissance humanism with its high view of the psychic dignity of man. Here it often assumed the legacy—as with Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith—of Calvinist and Jansenist doctrines of near or total depravity. In detailing the horrors committed in the name of liberalism—slavery, imperialist exploitation, abuse of workers—Domenico Losurdo tries to blame these on the alien influence of a “providentialist” political economy which saw governmental intervention in the social and economic sphere as impious: both the earlier Burke and Tocqueville at every stage used such arguments.6 But this is not the distortion of liberalism by ancient theology. Instead, it is the influence of a new (largely Jansenist) theology that is part of the very constitutive fabric of liberalism itself.7

    Liberalism then, is most fundamentally a pessimism. It tries to invent what Jean-Claude Michéa calls “the empire of lesser evil” (l’empire du moindre mal) on the perverse basis of the worst human tendencies. Even when Jean-Jacques Rousseau reversed Hobbes’s conception of man as selfish, greedy, distrustful of others and prone to violence and proclaimed the isolated, natural subject to be wholly innocent, his Genevan inheritance still resonated in his view that society always corrupts through a contagion of mimetic violence. Today then we tend to have in consequence a combination of “right-wing” Hobbesian liberalism in economics with “left-wing” Rousseauian liberalism in culture. Though the two appear in media politics to be at odds, this is a charade to prevent us from seeing that no democratic debate actually exists: nearly all of us are economically right, culturally left, but liberal either way and in secret collusion.

    Thus, right-wing liberalism is so cynical about individual motivation that it entrusts the social order to the public mechanism of the market and legal protection of property to the state. The liberal left, on the other hand, so distrusts society that it endlessly seeks to liberate individual choice from any sort of relational constraints, which it always tends to view as arbitrary and repressive. For if there are no higher values that human beings “should” choose, then the realm in which our various arbitrary choices will be exercised has to be essentially a material one, whether we know this or not. What matters for liberalism is allowing people to have as much freedom of choice among different material goods as possible. If some right-wing liberals think people should be left to harm themselves if they so choose and other left-wing liberals demur, then the latter only do so because they think that thereby individuals are depriving themselves of the full range of life and a longer time in which such choice might be exercised. Either way, both deny the innate human desire for the good and for higher purposes that can be nurtured through educative guidance.

    Ultimately, liberalism undermines the very individual freedom that they claim to uphold (as we argue in chapter 1). For it champions “negative liberty” (the absence of constraints on subjective choice except for the law and private conscience) at the expense of “positive liberty”—the liberty to search for objective truth or the substantive good which offer themselves without constraint or coercion to our wills just on account of their own inherent rightness.8 The liberal preference for negative freedom is the direct consequence of ruling questions of truth or goodness out of the court of public discussion because liberals claim that in diverse societies with rival values the pursuit of such and similar shared ends is necessarily intolerant and oppressive.

    Yet liberalism’s substitution of individual rights and the social contract for the common good ends up creating the very effects which liberals wrongly equate with positive liberty—ideological tyranny, the closing-down of argument and the ironing-out of plurality. Thus liberal politics engenders the kind of illiberalism that it ascribes to all non-liberal positions. Without shared ends, individuals are encouraged to maximise their own subjective choice in conditions of growing market anarchy policed by an authoritarian state, as Karl Polanyi diagnosed in his seminal 1944 book The Great Transformation.9 Connected with this is the progressive loss of a “moral economy” of mutual obligations and the atomisation of society that had hitherto embedded the political and the economic.

    Here one can go further than Polanyi to suggest that the triumph of liberalism more and more brings about the “war of all against all” (Hobbes) and the idea of man as self-proprietary animal (Locke) that were its presuppositions. But this does not thereby prove those presuppositions, because it is only really existing liberalism that has produced in practice the circumstances which it originally assumed in theory. Just as liberal thought redefined human nature as isolated individuals who enter into formal contractual ties with other (instead of the ancient and Christian idea of social, political animals), so too liberal practice has replaced the quest for reciprocal recognition and mutual flourishing with the pursuit of wealth, power and pleasure that is leading to social dislocation and ecological devastation.

    And since in theory and practice liberalism goes against the grain of humanity and the universe we inhabit, we are facing not merely a cyclical crisis (linked, for example, to economic boom and bust or the decline of representative government) nor even just a systemic crisis of capitalism and democracy but rather a meta-crisis. The meta-crisis of liberalism is the tendency at once to abstract from reality and to reduce everything to its bare materiality, leaving an irreducible aporia between human will and artifice on the one hand, and unalterable laws of nature and history on the other. For this reason, liberalism is contradictory, self-defeating and parasitic on the ideas and practices of older and nobler traditions which it destroys.

    Concluding Reflection

    What the essays by Howsare, Saler, Walter and DeSpain have shown is that the argument which I first developed in Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy needs to be developed in relation to the Platonist and Aristotelian legacy, Christology, divine and human poesis, as well as the complex connections between metaphysics and liberalism. In this essay, I have sought to address some of the questions, which their comments and criticisms raise. In conclusion, let me say that I continue to view the tradition of Christian Neo-Platonism as a rich source to develop an alternative modernity. For the dominant strand of modernity is wedded to a secular logic that rests on theological nominalism and voluntarism. Today this strand is in crisis.

    In the case of liberalism, we confront a meta-crisis. Arguably, liberalism is incorrigibly atomistic and oscillates between the individual and the collective. Liberal recognition of association and group identity must always logically give way before the recognition of individual rights that are ultimately upheld by the state. Those nineteenth-century liberals in France (Benjamin Constant, Alexis de Tocqueville and Guizot) and in Britain (Thomas Carlyle, W. H. Gladstone and T. H. Green) who tried bravely, and often brilliantly, to channel liberalism in a more “organicist” direction, were, in reality, producing a hybrid theory which was no longer pure liberalism.10 In retrospect, as Pierre Manent remarks, the problem with their ideas was that they tried to make “tradition” do the work of a previous religious metaphysic.11 Without such a religious metaphysic, the liberal appeal to universal values rings hollow because it ignores the interpersonal relationships that give meaning to abstract notions such as liberty or equality.

    This points to an alternative logic of paradox that eschews modern dualism and the dialectical oscillation between diametrically opposed poles in favour of a “radical centre.” This “radical centre” is the metaphysical realm of real relations and the common good in which all can share—including social bonds of reciprocal trust and mutual giving that underpin diverse forms of human association. By refusing the modern separation of pure nature and the supernatural, such a vision seeks to discern transcendence within immanence—more interior to me than I to myself, as St. Augustine wrote in the Confessions. Metaphysical speculation combined with cosmic contemplation and theurgic practice can help to reimagine theology and renew humanity’s quest for its transcendent telos.

    1. Christopher Insole, “Theology and Politics: The Intellectual History of Liberalism,” in Christopher Craig Brittain and Francesca Aran Murphy, eds., Theology, University, Humanities: Initium Sapientiae Timor Domini (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011).

    2. Larry Siedentop, “Two Liberal Traditions,” in Alan Ryan, ed., The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 153–74, reprinted in Raf Geenens and Helena Rosenblatt, eds., French Liberalism from Montesquieu to the Present Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 15–35; John Gray, Two Faces of Liberalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).

    3. See again de Muralt, L’unité de la philosophie politique.

    4. See my Metaphysics, 272–303.

    5. On this, see Janet Coleman, “Ockham’s Right Reason and the Genesis of the Political as ‘Absolutist,’” History of Political Thought 20 (1999) 35–64.

    6. Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2011).

    7. See Serge Latouche, L’Invention de l’économie (Paris: Albin Michel, 2005), 117–64.

    8. On this distinction, see the classical text by Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 118–72.

    9. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon, 2001 [orig. pub. 1944]).

    10. Arguably J. S. Mill got his “organicism” from Coleridge, not from the liberal or utilitarian traditions.

    11. Pierre Manent, Histoire intellectuelle du libéralisme. Dix leçons (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1987), trans. An Intellectual History of Liberalism, tr. Jerrold Seigel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 80–113.