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Hans Urs von Balthasar


From his book, Cosmic Liturgy, The Universe according to Maximus the Confessor.
Translated by Brian E. Daley, S.J., Ed. A Communio Book Ignatius Press, San Francisco

Chapter 1: The Dark Radiance

a. The Dialectic of Transcendence

"A ray of darkness" (σκότους ἀκτὶς): this image sums up Pseudo-Dionysius' conception of God and also that of Maximus. It is a conception of God that brings to a conclusion an almost boundless tradition of Hellenistic, Jewish, and Christian thinkers, all of whom celebrated God's transcendence. The summit of all being, in the view of Plato and Aristotle, was enthroned in radiant but inaccessible light. Soon, however, Eastern mists began to gather around this Olympian peak, and it began to loom more and more steep and distant, until it disappeared altogether in complete incomprehensibility. The ever-more-transcendent God of Jewish apocalyptic, where some features of the biblical revelation [of God] exceeded their own limits; the God of Philo, exalted above the divine "powers", above the principles of intelligibility (logoi) and the angels, above domination and providence and goodness itself; the unrecognizable "abyss" of the Gnostics; the "superessential Father" of Origen; Plotinus' Good-beyond-all-being; Gregory of Nyssa's God, eternally beyond the reach of love and beyond the grasp of vision: all of these were steps toward the "mystical theology" of the Areopagite, who imparted to the idea of a transcendent being the final and most adequate level of expression.

But this idea of transcendence only came to be grasped effectively because the parallel notion of God's complete immanence had come to be recognized, conditioning and paving the way for his transcendence. The Stoics, and before them Heraclitus and Parmenides, had laid the groundwork for this theology of immanence. But while for these two classically opposed Presocratics transcendence and immanence came down, in the end, to the same thing—for Heraclitus the world swallows God up, for Parmenides God dissolves the world in himself—and while for the Stoics the Logos that dwells in the world could no longer gather itself together as an absolute, transcendent divine principle, Philo and (even more) the Christian Apologists began to develop a genuine sense of the dialectic between transcendence and immanence. Earlier Greek theology rested on a presumption of contradiction, which either (as in Plato) conceived the world simply as the decadent shadow of a genuinely transcendent ideal realm or else (as in Aristotle and the Stoics) saw the ideal as little more than a way of defining the borders of an absolutely real, inherently divine world; Gnostic theology could only see God and the world as engaged in a tragic, radical antipathy, even though the Gnostics tried without success to temper this opposition by generating countless intermediate beings. But the insight began to dawn, at the beginning of the Christian era, that transcendence and immanence in fact only complement one another. Even God, who is in no sense a part of the world, who is absolutely unrivaled in his power and fullness of being, must for that very reason dwell within every entity that claims, in one way or another, the name of Being. It is finally in biblical revelation that this sublime realization, that God's absoluteness and the finitude and relativity of the world do not mutually exclude each other, comes to its maturity. This sense of unity was foreshadowed in Philo's thought, a synthesis of Platonism and Stoicism against the background of the Bible, although it still threatened there to slide off in one direction or the other. But once the idea had been grasped, even the intermediaries of the Gnostic systems could take on a new, positive role: they no longer needed to be simply bridges between contradictory, hostile poles but could actually represent the ways God is near to the world and present within it—as "powers", as radiant means of involving himself in a "history of salvation". And when Wisdom, the focal point of this divine involvement in the world, finally shone forth for Christian faith as the personal Word, the human Christ, all doubts about the possibility of reconciliation between God and the world disappeared.

The old patterns of thought, of course, did not simply disappear. They still haunt Clement's excerpts from Gnostic literature and his own theology of creation; they claim undeserved attention in the works of Origen, who sees the Divine Persons arranged in hierarchical order like emanations and who misinterprets the corporeal realm, again in Gnostic fashion, as a decline from transcendence. There are echoes of them in the spiritualizing ascetical and mystical theology of the early monks, and even the mysticism of the great Cappadocians is not wholly free of them. The fact that peace had finally been made between God and the world, however, despite these occasional stirrings of disquiet, is proved by Plotinus' vast vision of Being—only understandable in its fullness against the background of Christianity—which expressly and polemically turns against the Gnostic practice of downgrading the world. And although evil, for Plotinus, was still inextricably tied up with the material realm, Pseudo-Dionysius was able to take the further step of proclaiming peace with God even there. He brought to completion the final reconciliation between Platonism and the Stoics, between the human sense of a reality that is simply beyond the world and the vision of a world reaching out to be a perfectly ordered universe (kosmos) precisely in its variety, its nonidentity, its internal oppositions and relativity. Because God is endlessly distant from all things, he is near, internal to every one of his creatures—he protects, preserves, satisfies the needs of each creature in its very otherness, its difference from him. This great anonymous thinker's decisive achievement, then, was not simply negative theology—although he clearly developed it, with consummate consistency, to a point unknown before; he also recognized, with impeccable honesty, that such sytematically negative assertions about God can only stand if it is supported by a positive theology that has been thought through with equal consistency and thoroughness: that is why his God, who is nameless, possesses all the names of his works. Even greater than a God who defines himself only by his absolute otherness from the world, this God proves his very otherness in the fact that he can give positive Being to what is not himself, that he can assure it its autonomy, and for that very reason —beyond the gaping chasm that remains between them—assure it a genuine likeness to himself.

Was there still a step to take, even beyond Pseudo-Dionysius? Yes, and it was reserved for Maximus. Origen had developed a system of "intermediate beings" that went beyond Gnosticism by speaking of the forms the divine Logos has taken in the world in the course of salvation history and of the ranks of created spirits corresponding to the degree of their fall away from God; and Plotinus had added to the structure, building it into a graduated system of emanations from an original One. Pseudo-Dionysius appropriated this system in two important ways. First, he borrowed the idea of potentialities for being, which possess a kind of existence halfway between God and the world, as the basic structures of created reality: "being in itself", "life in itself", "mind in itself", and so on. As he attempts to explain them, these potentialities are, when considered as a point of origin, God himself, insofar as God's being can be shared; when considered as modes of participation, they are aspects of the world, insofar as it shares God's being. Secondly, he borrowed the idea of a hierarchy of creatures, a huge ladder—such as Philo had once described it—reaching down in unbroken continuity from the highest seraph, who stands directly before God, to the lowest worm and rock; in tune with ever-fainter echoes of the divine music, all the creatures on the ladder bow low and reach upward in an eternal game of loving condescension and yearning ascent, joined to each other by insatiable desire.

This "golden chain of being" is certainly a captivating picture: its upper end rests in God's fingers, and it hangs down unbroken to the border of nothingness, a shaft of light, spreading gradually outward and downward from the heart of its source, from pure intensity, into realms of increased shading and color but also of darkness, until in the end it disappears. Yet this conception of Being also risks the final loss of what had been achieved. It risks postponing once again the unity of a transcendence beyond all Being and an immanence within all Being, in order to make room for a struggle between Being and Nothingness (or matter), light and darkness. Of course, the themes of emanation and the hierarchy of beings, in Pseudo-Dionysius, are always subordinate to the more basic dialectic of positive and negative theology and, for that reason, are never developed to the fullest extent possible. But it is Maximus who banishes even the hidden contradictory influences of these themes and who finally reconciles the idea of a hierarchy of Being with the assumption of a structural analogy between God and the world. In fact, the emanation of "being in itself", "life in itself", and so on, disappears in his works, and they are replaced by univocal, inner-worldly universal principles, which he calls "generalities" (καθόλα). Later on, we will discuss the meaning and implications of this change in greater detail. With Maximus, too, the Pseudo-Dionysian hierarchies of the "thrice three heavenly choirs", with their liturgy, disappear, as does the ecclesial hierarchy and liturgy, arranged in a corresponding order. In their place, Maximus gives primary emphasis to the tension within the world between the intellectual and phenomenal realms, the world of thought and the world of sense. Rather than gazing upward along the straight ladder of being at choirs of increasingly heavenly spirits, to search for the Divine Reality above the highest movements of the dance, Maximus' eyes look for God in both realms of the world, in sense and intellect, earth and heaven, and meet their limit in both. Only the closure of the two, the growing reciprocity that forms the world as a whole, becomes for him the place where the Transcendent appears, visible precisely in this burgeoning immanence as the One who is wholly other.

This approach to immanence and transcendence is, of course, not without its limits in Maximus' works; that will be clear from what we said in the introductory chapter, since Origen, even more than Pseudo-Dionysius, left his mark on the underlying features of his thought. In this respect, Maximus remained a child of his time, a disciple of his master. But the fact that he was able to develop his own basic insight, in spite of such influences, makes him one of the greatest thinkers in Christian intellectual history. Ferdinand Christian Baur put his finger on the decisive point when he wrote, "Just as [Maximus] attempted to preserve the balance between Christ's two natures in the Monothelite controversy, so, too, it belonged to his style of thought to insist on the autonomy of man; this was in contrast to Platonism, which otherwise—as the Areopagite reveals—stands in a close relationship to Monophysitism"(1). For "man", here, we can simply read "world". It is also true that Maximus thus became the decisive connecting link to Erigena, in whose work the theology of Pseudo-Dionysius takes on a much more cosmological character. But while in Erigena this inclusion of the world in the divine process begins to lend an almost pantheistic tone which threatens to overshadow the positive Christian tradition, theology remains for Maximus completely dominated by the Christian spirit of discernment between God and the world. It is not "heavenly liturgy", as it is for Pseudo-Dionysius, or "cosmic gnosticism", as it is for Erigena; theology, for Maximus, is Cosmic Liturgy.

b. The Dialectic of Analogy

The theme, then, that will be with us throughout this study is the reciprocal relationship of God's transcendence and God's immanence; from this relationship it follows that God is so completely identical with himself that he is able to form all the things that participate in him both into integral units marked off from each other by mutual dissimilarity and into a whole built out of the mutual similarity of the parts.

In that he always remains unchanged, by his own nature, and admits of no alienation from himself through change—neither a more nor a less —yet he still is all things to all, through the boundless abundance of his goodness: lowly with lowly creatures, exalted with the exalted, and the substance of Divinity for those whom he makes divine (2).

He is like a gentle wind, which stirs through all things, imperceptible in himself yet perceived in each different creature. Elijah felt him as a light breeze, "for all feel the wind's breath: it goes through all things and is not hindered or captured by any of them"(3).

For who could really understand or explain how God is completely in all things as a whole and is particularly in each individual thing yet neither has parts nor can be divided; how he is not multiplied in a variety of ways through the countless differences of things that exist and which he dwells in as the source of their being; how he is not made uniform through the special character of the unity that exists in things; how he offers no obstacle to the differences in created essences through the one, unifying totality of them all but truly is all in all things, without ever abandoning his own undivided simplicity (4)?

This, surely, was the inconceivable mystery of the divine peace that Dionysius had celebrated and that Maximus now outlined in a sharper, more philosophical way. It is the mystery of a supreme, self-contained simplicity, fully coexisting with the twofold, incomprehensible, and irreversible self-opening of this unity to both the world as a whole and the world in all its particulars. Whenever they seem about to fall on each other in open hostility, the opposing forces of the world always return, in the end, to the form of unity: the individual to the totality, and vice versa (5). But the unity of God cannot be fully grasped, either in the pole of a particularizing individualism or in that of a faceless totalitarianism that melts all particularity down. Within the world, unity is only visible as the "fluidity of love", as the inconclusive, incomprehensible convergence of opposites. This is the way Pseudo-Dionysius had described our longing desire for God: as the melting of the individual to a fluid state and, at the same time, as the solidification of what, in that individual, is irreplaceable and particular. In the world, there is always a polarity between "participators and the participated, but that is not so in God"(6). Yet this polarity that binds active and passive together and forces both of them into a reciprocal giving and taking, this inner movement, is the underlying rhythm of being in the world and is therefore also the precise place where God is present, "where his incomparable otherness appears. All created being "moves completely or else is moved, causes or is caused, contemplates or is contemplated, speaks or is spoken, . . . acts or is acted upon"(7). In this state of their being formed for each other, in their relatedness (σχέσις), Maximus sees the basic characteristic of all the things that exist in the world (8).It is not as if passivity were produced in some way by a principle opposed to God, as ancient Greek and Gnostic thought imagined—not as if it flowed out of nothingness, out of some kind of original matter that formed the underlying stuff of the world; it is also not as if beings in the world come closer to God to the degree that they lay this passivity aside and are taken up into the pure act which God is. Rather, the very passivity of creatures comes from God, is inseparably tied to their createdness, and is not pure imperfection because even being different from God is a way of imitating him. So to the degree that the creature comes closer to its own perfection, its passivity is also made perfect; and its perfection is the pure state of "undergoing God" (παθεῖν αὐτόν —that is, τὸν Θεόν) [9], a state in which, as we will see, its "activity" is also perfected.

So God reveals himself as equally superior to the more "passive" material world and the more "active" intellectual world, regardless of the fact that the mind reflects him more brightly than does matter. His being is "absolutely inaccessible, equally so (κατὰ τὸ ἴσον) to visible and to invisible creation"(10). The "difference between uncreated and created nature is infinite (ἄπειρον)"[11] and grows ever greater and less controllable. This is reflected in the fact that the perfection of the creature can only be expressed in the paradox of its complete "disappearance" before God (as the stars disappear before the sun) [12], a process that implies at the same time its full establishment as a creature and even its "co-appearance with God"(13).

God's immanent name, then, is the name Being; his transcendent name is the name Not-being, in that he is not any of those things we can speak of as being. The second of these names is more proper to him, since such negation means a reference to God as he is in himself, while an affirmation only refers to him in his activity outside of himself. This is not contradicted by the fact that Maximus, along with the tradition reaching from Philo to Gregory of Nyssa, says we can only know God's existence—know that he is (14)—not his essence, or what he is (15). For this "being" of God has not, in itself, any conceptual content; it lacks even the notion of concrete immediacy implied by "existence" in the created sense (16). Thus affirmation and denial do not contradict each other here:

Negation and affirmation, which stand in opposition to each other, are happily blended when it comes to God and come to each other's aid. The negative statements that indicate that the Divine is not "something" —or better, that tell us which "something" is not God—unite with the affirmative statements whose purpose is to say what this Being, which is not what has been indicated, really is. On the other hand, the affirmative statements only indicate that the Divine is, not what it is, and so are closely tied with the negative statements whose purpose is to say what this Being is not. So long as they are simply taken in relation to each other, then, they show the opposition we call antithesis (ἐξ ἀντιθέσεως); but when they are referred to God, they show their intrinsic interdependence in the fact that these two poles mutually condition each other (τῷ εἰς ἄλληλα τῶν ἄκρων κατὰ περίπτωσιν τρόπῳ τὴν οἰκειότητα)[17].

This linguistic shell game reveals, in fact, that our words only describe our creaturely efforts to speak of God and so cannot bring the One who is utterly other into our field of vision. Even negative language, which in itself—without the anchoring of affirmation—only points into the void, does not directly lead toward the transcendent God. He lies far beyond both modes of knowing.

He who is and who will be all things to all—and who exercises this role precisely through the things that are and that will come to be— is in himself no part of the realm of things that are and come to be, in any way, at any time, nor shall he become so, because he can never be categorized as part of any natural order of beings. As a consequence of his existence beyond being, he is more properly spoken of in terms of not-being. For since it is indispensable for us to recognize the difference, in truth, between God and creatures, the affirmation of what is above being must be the negation of all in the realm of things that are, just as the affirmation of existing things must be a negation of what is above being. Both of these ways of speaking must, in their proper sense, be applicable to him, yet on the other hand neither of them—being or not being—can be applicable in a proper sense. Both are applicable in their own way, in that the one statement affirms God's being as the cause of the being of things, while the other denies it because it lies, as cause, so infinitely beyond all caused being; on the other hand, neither is properly applicable, because neither way of speaking presents us with the real identity of what we are looking for, in its essence and nature. For if something cannot be identified as either being or not being in terms of its natural origin, it clearly cannot be connected either with what is, and what is therefore the subject of language, or with what is not, and what is therefore not the subject of language. Such a reality has a simple and unknown mode of existence, inaccessible to all minds and unsearchable in every way, exalted beyond all affirmation and denial (18).

The point of all this dialectic is first and foremost to make clear that no neutral, common "concept" of Being can span the realities of both God and creature; the analogy of an ever-greater dissimilarity stands in the way, preventing all conceptualization of the fact and the way they are. So the "not" cannot be bracketed away from "being" for the briefest instant of our reflection: if one were to try and hide it even for a moment when considering the essence of the creature, it would immediately appear, with commanding force, on the side of God. Of course, this dialectic of being and not-being preserves its life and color only as long as we are reflecting on the relationship of God to the world—relationships of nearness and distance, of immanence and transcendence. As soon as the thinker tries to detach himself from these relationships and to project himself into the realm of the Absolute, everything becomes gray, every tangible shape melts away.

Dialectical movement does not grasp God. It must simply limit itself to the statement of opposites: in one and the same moment, God "goes forth out of himself and remains within himself". And even this is simply a statement about the relation of the world to God, for God only "goes forth" and "moves" in that he causes motion, God "remains in himself" only in that he causes stable identity (19).

God is the one who scatters the seeds of agape (charity) and eros (yearning), for he has brought these things that were within him outside himself in the act of creation. That is why we read, "God is love", and in the Song of Songs he is called agape, and also "sweetness" and "desire", which are what eros means. For he is the one who is truly loveable and desirable. Because this loving desire has flowed out of him, he— its creator—is said to be himself in love; but insofar as he is himself the one who is truly loveable and desirable, he moves everything that looks toward him and that possesses, in its own way, the power of yearning (20).

Insofar as it is both eros and agape, the divine mystery is in motion; insofar as it is loved and longed for, it moves all that is capable of eros and agape toward itself. To put it more clearly, the divine mystery is in motion insofar as it endows beings capable of longing and love with an inner share in its own life; on the other hand, it moves other beings insofar as it stimulates the longing of what is moved toward it, by means of its very nature. Or again: God moves and is moved, thirsting that others may thirst for him, longing to be longed for, loving to be loved (21).

This dialectic of motion and rest teaches us no more than the dialectic of being and not-being. It simply brings us, once again, back to the focal point of this polarity within creaturely existence, where the creature's precise difference from God and his precise similarity with God stand inseparably linked. For in the path of historical existence lie both the creature's powerlessness and his vitality. This is the ultimate reason why there is, in Maximus' ontology, no absolute affirmation or negation and why the "superessential light" remains a "dark radiance".


1. Die christliche Lehre von der Dreieinigkeit und Menschiverdung Gottes (Tübingen, 1842), 268.

2. Ambigua; PG 91, 1256Β.

3. Scholion on The Divine Names i; PG 4, 2O8C.

4. Ambigua; PG 91, 1257Β.

5. See the bizarre but pointed comparison used by John of Scythopolis in the scholia to Pseudo-Dionysius: In De Div. Nom. 4; PG 4, 2690.6.- In De Div. Nom. 4; PG 4, 252C.

6. Ambigua; PG 91, 1296A.

7. So Centuries on Knowledge I, 7; PG 90, 1085Β; Ambigua; PG 91, 1153Β.

8. Ambigua; PG 91, 1296D.

9. Ibid.; PG 91, 1288B.

10. Ibid.; PG 91, 1077A.

11. ibid.

12. Centuries on Knowledge 1, 79; PG 90, 1113 B.

13. [In German: "nur das Da-Sein oder Dass-Sein".]

14. Ambigua; PG 91, 1216B; cf. 1129A; 1288B.

15. [German: "Denn dieses 'Sein' ist selbst kein begrifflicher Inhalt, es fehlt ihm alles Inhaltliche, das noch im weltlichen Sinn von 'Da' enthalten ist."Balthasar is playing here upon the implications of the "Da" in "Dasein", which in Heideggerian terminology is used to denote the concrete, historical existence of an individual being].

16. Ambigua; PG 91, 1288C.

17. Mystagogia; PG 91, 664AC; cf. Moscow Centuries on Knowledge 1 (ed. Epifanovich, 33).

18. See John of Scythopolis, In De Div. Nom. 5; PG 4, 333CD.

19. Ibid., 4; PG 4, 265CD.

20. Ambigua; PG 91, 1260C.

21. Ambigua; PG 91, 1260C.

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