Note: We are grateful to share this book review by guest writer Lancelot Schaubert. He is a chaplain and artist working in Brooklyn as well as author of the novel Bell Hammers. In this essay, Lancelot reviews The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor by Jordan Daniel Wood.
Now and again, a work emerges that first heats up a genre until it’s red-hot, breaks it, and then — if it’s lucky and well-crafted — forges a younger genre from the shards of the elder, Narsil to Andúril. Tolkien’s long procrastinated and then rushed introduction to C.L. Wren’s translation of Beowulf remains mandatory reading both for the field and fantasy writers at large. Lewis’s introduction to On the Incarnation by Athanasius continues to encourage young undergrads as the retitled essay “Read the Old Books,” while his almost instinctive intro to Medieval thought The Discarded Image (based on a lifetime of lecture notes and written before renal failure ended his life) floodlit the blind spots of his literature protégés lounging on Magdalen couches as well as those of the multitude of later pilgrims who would annually set their hearts on some form of Medieval scholarship. Once upon a time, Charles Dickens received more scorn than Stephen King by the critical community until none other than Chesterton — worshiped in part by some (Gary Wills) and hated in part by others (David Bentley Hart) — corrected our vision with his impressionistic biography of the daily weather of that mind who made Marley’s ghost. On Writing redefined both memoirs and style manuals by combining them. Milton’s Areopagitica made it possible for more versions of Paradise Lost to first find their way into print and then into subsequent pillorying before the average WorldCon panel, an inquisition that wields Miltonian free speech to bind and murder Miltonian free speech in those few modern fantasy writers who share Milton’s faith in God — killing Milton’s faith with Milton’s ideas for Milton’s sake, for God’s sake.
Heat. Shards. Reforged. They take the genre, break the genre, and in trying to remeld the pieces, make something brand new.
The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor by Dr. Jordan Daniel Wood has redefined Maximus scholarship precisely by heating it and breaking it. Whether it reforges it all into something new is a matter of luck and craft to be judged by future generations. The core of the book — the main text — is rather short and to the point: only about the length of Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone. But once you add in footnotes, this thing burgeons to the length of some Stephen King horror tome. That’s no critique, so much as a quick point about the bamboo nature of this piece — strong, slender, almost bare stalks supported by a vast system of shoots that, if left to send out new sprouts, might take over the entire wood. A rival Wood in the wood.
Wood begins, turns, and ends this journey towards Creation as Incarnation, mind you, with Maximus. The man who had his hand and tongue maimed for blaspheming Christology proper before later having his theology — and confession — affirmed at Constantinople. A hot tongue, the breaking of it, and a reforging so that all now speak the language Maximus spoke. If, indeed, the canonized saint’s ideas do mean that creation is incarnation, that upends many, many long traditions. Wood seems well prepared for such consequences in his own life: “Major christological developments always appear initially unbelievable, always a scandal.” He’s talking, in context at his conclusion, about the nature of Jesus in general. The scandal of incarnation seems a unique scandal that we Christians seem to forget until we run into an Orthodox Jew or Muslim and have a conversation that goes beyond matzah and falafel. So it goes with the Rock who makes men fall. But history may rhyme here: a maiming of the tongue turned, in time, lingua franca. That indeed creation is incarnation. And vice versa.
Someone who read this manuscript early on (indicated by the nod at the end) convinced Wood that his approach felt Hegelian. That unnamed thinker got the gist of it: it’s insufficient to merely show a dialectic of creator and creation, a thesis and antithesis. The synthesis of the two is Christ. Therefore Christ more than entails both Creator and creation: He redefines the original terms. And that redefinition ought to radically alter our categories, ought to reforge the sword. Wood’s entire project refuses to simply “repeat what Maximus never disputes: that… God could never enjoy identity of any sort with the world he makes from nothing,” pointing out how Maximus refutes anything Creator and creation could share in common. Over and over again, in ways like this, Wood anticipates the “yeah, but” and the “no, and” and other petty objections and name-calling of pantheism and theopanism that will, invariably, refuse to deal with the main argument that Creation is Incarnation in Maximus. It, frankly, reminds one of Hart who must say, again and again, to readers of That All Shall Be Saved either “I’m sorry, you must be mistaking me for someone else” or “that’s not my argument.” In a similar vein, Wood appears to fear not so much being wrong (his argument may terrify with its simple, logical consistency — an almost hilarious bull headedness in the chinashop of theology) as being misunderstood. And so he’s incredibly careful, threading teacup handle after teacup handle with those horns of his as if to show there’s more than one way for a stubborn bull to clean out theology’s chinashop. So it’s seldom boring, at least not for books of this type. (Good luck preaching to the disinterested, but that’s a matter for future smiths and other blades.) As someone rather addicted to good prose at the expense of good scholarship and brimming with a burning hatred of most all modern religious nonfiction, I found the scandal of Wood’s idea enticing enough, yet also loved his strong language: it falls much less often into academic copulating over the copula.
His argument, then, parleys with all of the serious readers of Maximus in eras from Eriugena’s to our own. Wood shows us a textbook case of proper Trivium usage. Sayers once lamented how few of us speak to the question, how few of us read a text and understand — and then articulate — both the author’s intended meaning and then — and only then — whether we agree. Wood takes Maximus at his word when Maximus says, “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things.” Wood espouses Maximus’s logic, the contextual grammar, and the rhetorical weight of this statement over and over again showing how any other reading than a literal one — creation “according to the very logic of the Incarnate Word” — belies an obtuseness not in Maximus, but his readers. If so, you can see why they cut out his bold tongue (that of Maximus, I mean). Because of this literal reading, Wood goes beyond simply defending the statement as literal. “I also seek the truth of what he means,” he says at the start — not simply the historical and grammatical context, but the implications of the thought, the theology, the logic behind Maximus’s grammar and rhetoric. Not only did Maximus say what he meant, he meant what he said.
So what did he mean?
Wood begins with the God-World relation, setting up that Hegelian dialectic of two absolute categories. Never the twain shall meet. Or shall they? He cites Eric D. Perl, whose thesis often emerges in citation, but never found a publisher, one that follows the Neochalcedonian logic of Maximus regarding the enhypostatization of created beings in the Word, a logic many like Törönen believe Perl overstates. Wood systematically goes through the Platonizing of Maximus and the Thomistic subjection of Maximus, both of which refuse to see his words as they are: that creation is incarnation. And therefore they ignore the “enormous systematic problems.”
But for Wood, those problems do not shatter the sword. They merely offer hope of something new forged of the shards.
The axis of the problem is Christ. We found ourselves pulled by modalism on the north pole and dualism on the south. If we’re honest at the outset, it’s almost impossible to talk about these things without one or the other idea magnetizing us towards its pole. That’s no call to treat Wood’s ideas with kid gloves so much as a word of caution that we ourselves fall not into tu quoque.
Christo-logic is defined by Wood as hypostatic identity, which generates a natural difference. He insists hypostasis is irreducible to, inseparable from, and indifferent to the nature it is. For irreducibility: that the Son remains who he is, personal character intact, within the Trinity’s core. That irreducibility of the individuating principle of Christ to either of his natures applies also to the created order, he remains who he is within creatures. For indifference: Christ’s divine nature is both universal (in the Creator) and particular (in creation); Christs human nature is both universal (in the Creator) and particular (in creation). In other words, the very idea of Christ relieves the pressure — makes us indifferent to — either side of the particular (part of creation) or universal (transcendent God) debate. For identity: once body and soul unite an individual (in this case, Christ), then they achieve relative union. That hypostatic identity both enables and generates a natural difference, for in Christ we find the “conjunction… union… [and] generation of opposites.” This offers us a perichoretic dance akin to the inner workings of the Trinity, only this time manifested in the one person whose activities completely interpenetrate one another as the cutting burn and burning cut of a sword pulled from the forge. The agent remains one, but the act remains twain interpenetrated, one to the other. Burning and cutting. In Christology, the only unity comes through the act of perichoresis. As events disclose logic, and as logic applies solely to fact (factum he seems to use in a sort of pun here), the Incarnation discloses the inherent logic — and doing — of all creation. Therefore the objective Christo-logic of everything we subjectively absorb solely by means of the singularity of when it was, is, and will be actualized: the prime death and resurrection of the Son. Christ plays in ten thousand places, indeed. We would be well heeled to genuflect and make the sign of the cross in every where and when and in the teeth of every what and how and why. Not merely symbolically, Wood seems to say, but face to face with Golgotha and the empty, sealed, tomb (and its type in Her womb) here and here; now and now.
From that assumption, he moves backwards (the backwards that is forwards) to The Word. One of the things I enjoyed the most about this monograph is how thoroughly it reminds me of eastern storytelling: it works in the sort of beginning-middle-beginning narrative thrust that few Western Films accomplish, though could be enjoyed through the likes of Primer, Upstream Color, Arrival, The Prestige, Inception, Memento, Vanilla Sky, and others of their ilk. By moving towards the beginning, Wood illumines creation as Incarnation in many passages without any amendment. Not his passages, mind you. Maximus’s. Five of them. In one, Maximus speaks of how Christ “encrypted himself in the logoi of beings… a most complete whole together in the wholes, a whole according to each particular, whole and undiminished.” Wood points out how this (1) retains the integrity of the wholes — both the Word and the words, both Creator and creature, (2) that it’s Jesus “Himself” in all things, and (3) that Maximus remains ambiguous when comparing the historical Incarnation to his Incarnation in the world and in words (our logoi). In the second passage, Maximus says, “For because of Christ, or rather the mystery according to Christ, all the ages and everything in those ages have received the beginning and end of their existence in Christ.” Meaning that every creature gets their metaphysical origin (efficient, formal, material causes) and teleological end in the life of Jesus. In the third passage, Maximus writes:
The mystery of the Word’s Incarnation bears the power of all the enigmas and types according to Scripture, as well as the science of all created things sensible and intelligible. And whoever knows the mystery of the cross and tomb knows the logoi of created beings… Only the Word exists… since nothing at all possesses familiarity with Him by a natural relation. For the salvation of the saved occurs by grace, not by nature.
The culmination of creation carries out Christo-logic and the shared identity between God and man in deification is hypostatic: unnatural, yet concrete.
In the fourth, Wood cites Maximus: “And He recapitulated in Himself, in a manner appropriate to God, all things, showing that the whole creation is one just as another human being, completed by the mutual coming together of all its members, inclining itself in the wholeness of its existence, according to one, unique, simple, undefined, and unchangeable idea: that it comes from nothing.” Unveiling creation ex nihilo, Incarnation shows it to be — a la Dionysius — creation ex Deo: the bliss of creation is the bliss of Jesus.
And in the fifth, Maximus grows still more radical:
We ourselves and the Word of God, Creator and Master of the Universe, exist in a kind of womb… In this sensible world, just as if He were enclosed in a womb, the Word of God appears only obscurely, and only to those who have the spirit of John the Baptist. Human beings, on the other hand, gazing through the womb of the material world, catch but a glimpse of the Word who is concealed within beings [τὸν ἐν τοῖς οὖσιν ἐγκρυπτόμενον… Λόγον]…. For when compared to the ineffable glory and splendor of the age to come, and to the kind of life that awaits us there, this present life differs in no way from a womb swathed in darkness, in which, for the sake of us who were infantile in mind, the perfect and super-perfect Word of God, who loves mankind, became an infant.
It calls to mind Lewis’s formulation of The Womb of the Worlds, not to mention more than a couple Eastern liturgies who claim Mary’s womb to be as large as the universe.
From this launchpad of context, Wood qualifies (1) there remains no natural mediation between God and the world, (2) the Logos becomes logoi, not ideas (the participated) — an extremely nuanced position that differs from neoPlatonic forms in which creatures participate by being what Intellect wills and is, one and many (Plotinus), and (3) participation cannot encompass the totality of creation because it does not explain how participants themselves become actors, how the passion of creation becomes action, to use the accidents. Maximus’s logoi do not permit reincarnation — my soul cannot be that of Socrates. But they do permit intentional incarnation. Therefore Maximus conceives of the act of creation both past and present as “one inevitable act.” The Father approves, the Son actualizes it in himself, the Spirit completes — Maximus uses this configuration for creation and the historical Incarnation. Maximus because of this believes the most fundamental truth of God to be that of creator: he does not agree that God could — possibly — have not created. We see then three tiers: God the unparticipated, his eternal works (participated), and his temporal works (participants). The latter two are beings, including those eternally made: “by grace been implanted in originated beings [temporal works/participants], as if a kind of implanted potentiality, loudly proclaiming that God is in all beings.” Wood here assumes a divine procession into all beings according to the very logic of Christ. A supranatural procession of the Word that generates essence from the divine. The logoi then become, according to Maximus, “the body of Christ.” And later: “God will be all things in everything [1 Cor 15.28], encompassing all things and hypostasizing them in Himself, for beings will no longer possess independent motion or lack any portion of God’s presence… we are, and are called, Gods, children of God, the body, and members of God [Eph 1.23, 5.30], and, it follows, ‘portions of God,’ and other such things, in the progressive ascent of the divine plan to its final end.”
In his fourth chapter, then, Wood says the vocation — the calling and end goal — of humanity is the hypostatic identity of our created nature with God’s uncreated. An identity between God and the world according to the logic of the Incarnation that remains a product of grace. But how does this not make me God by nature? For one, Wood asserts grace delineates no natural power. Rather God himself is the medium by which we become him and we suffer the deifying act. Because we suffer it, it happens according to no natural principle within us. We cannot, therefore, draw a boundary on it or predetermine its activity. For another, Wood calls grace an “innate power” — something implanted in all from the get-go in potentia. That grace lay dormant within nature itself, always, everywhere, in all things, ready to quicken. Faith is not outside us, but within the intellect “a relational power, or a relationship that effectively realizes in a manner beyond nature the unmediated, perfect union of the faithful with the God in whom they have faith.” God gives faith as God at creation (past, present, future). We enliven it through act. For a third, grace is the Logos as logoi bearing and immediately presenting divinity within nature. “Jesus is completed through me who am saved,” says Maximus, echoing — and extending — Paul whose sufferings filled up what was lacking in Jesus. Wood here shows an interesting grammarian move, ever the lover of language, by riffing on Maximus’s use of “position” as potentially a common phrase coming from an ancient textbook. “A long syllable may come about in eight ways, three by nature and five by position.” The text says and Wood explains, “You pronounce a long syllable “by nature” when, for instance, the syllable contains a long vowel or diphthong (these are already long by nature), and “by position” when, say, the syllable ends in two consonants or is followed by a double consonant.” By position is by convention. Not the essence of the syllables. But convention — position — deals with the deed wrought in conjunction with other speakers. The art of the reader — the Spirit of the authorial trinity according to Sayers. Wood uses this ancient metaphor: “the Word is the reader, and what he reads is himself in and as us, in and as the logoi. In them he enunciates himself as us by convention, utterly free of every natural necessity. Yet what is spoken is no less him. We are short by nature, and likely less. But in the logoi, creation’s “scripts,” the Word masterfully speaks us long and thereby reveals the sublime art he is. We become the Word when we willingly give ourselves to be pronounced by, in, and as him. This sounds perichoretic in tone, and Wood follows with a meditation on Melchizedek: the whole God in the whole creature, the whole creature in the whole God. Does this obliterate our identity? Do we become isochrists? He turns to Maximus in force: “Thus it happens that each of us in his own rank [1 Cor 15.23]…sacrifices the Divine Lamb, partakes of its fleshes, and takes his fill of Jesus. For to each person Christ Jesus becomes his own proper lamb, to the extent that each is able to contain and consume Him. He becomes something proper to Paul, the great preacher of the truth, and again, something distinctively proper to Peter, the leader of the apostles, and something distinctively proper for each of the saints, according to the measure of each one’s faith, and the grace granted to him by the Spirit, to one in this way, and to another in that, so that Christ is found to be wholly present throughout the whole of each, becoming all things to everyone.” Christ becomes the difference. Universals are created and consist in particulars. The Word generates the very womb in which he gestates. And we are crucified with Christ.
To the fifth, then, we move towards a meditation on time itself. Wood asserts that Adam had two beginnings. Adam’s true beginning comes when he is born by the Spirit. His false is birth in the flesh. Because of this, creation fell precisely the moment it came into existence precisely because it did not come completely into existence. It is not yet — nor has it ever been — really real. There emerge four births, then: ontology, physical birth, birth by the Spirit, and deification. Birth by Spirit we choose, and it’s the true way we come to be. But how can we choose to be if we do not yet exist? Because choice is the perfection of an entire series of moments, the “immediate mediator of an exterior act that, successfully executed, finally sates the rational desire which prompted the whole process to begin with.” Our end — our purpose — is contained in our beginning, for that’s the nature of choice, of desire. So even though, chronologically, we move from ontology to physical birth to spiritual birth to deification, if the Word proceeds from the father as us, then we choose with the Word to be deified with the word, incarnate and born by reason and Spirit, physically, and therefore made real in our existence. For the “before” of God is not the past. The “after” of God is not the future. His before is divinity. His after is humanity. Therefore the Incarnation is the start of creation: true creation, a reality beyond place and time. Wood concludes:
The very “events” of Jesus’ historical life are what actualize the universal principles (logoi)—above all of providence and judgment—of every true age, and indeed of every creature that, since it must begin in motion, dwells within and is a vital constituent of that age. Every creature’s motion, sinful or not, generates time. False motion renders existence more crudely finite, slavishly borne along with the flow of phenomena. True motion—the motion of virtue, knowledge, love of God in Christ—brings creaturely motion nearer its term and thus cessation, and hence takes leave of the provisional necessities of spatiotemporal existence. And so the perfection of creaturely logoi are the age. But those logoi carry potentialities that are themselves actualized for the first time in one hypostasis, Jesus of Nazareth. Outside of his historical existence no creaturely principle actually is. Conversely, the actualization of all the principles he himself hypostasizes—through the correction of his Passion and the attainment of his providential union (which bears, recall, “no imprint of time or becoming”)—is also the universal actualization of the mystery of his Incarnation. Thus Maximus does not name only “God” as our true beginning, middle, and end. But also,since our Lord Jesus Christ is the beginning, middle, and end of all the ages past, present, and future, one could say that through the power of faith, ‘the end of the ages’—I mean that end which will be actualized by grace according to its proper form in the deification of the worthy—‘has already come upon us.’
Above, I promised a sword reforged. Whether it can be wielded or not by future generations — whether its virtue might glow blue at the sign of truth — remains to be seen. But certainly this poses a… well if not novel view of theology, certainly novel to most all modern thinkers. If Wood has the right of Maximus, and if Maximus has the right of it, we have yet to truly understand what great hope lies in the groaning of creation who waits in eager anticipation for the Sons of God to be revealed.
Telchar Forging Narsil by Omgazm.
5 thoughts on ““Is Creation Incarnation?” asks Dr. Wood”
This is heady stuff. But as little as I can claim to understand, it seems difficult to buy on the face of it that everyone was getting St Maximos more or less wrong until Jordan Daniel Wood saved the day. Really now?
Fair question. However, where Wood really differs from previous scholars such as Hans Urs von Balthasar is not that substantial from all that I’m seeing. Wood accidentally brought more Hegel connections into things and has continued to defend that to some degree, but it’s not integral to most of his key points.
I think anyone reading it will actually see how utterly dependent it is on Maximus scholarship. Rather hard to properly push boundary stones without first knowing where they lie.
Or sleeping dogs for that matter.
Particularly when they guard the gates of the dead.
Andrew: certainly is heady stuff for me, I know. So you have my empathy and sympathy. I’m little more than the court jester in this throne room of theological divas; a knave of a knight in this court of philosopher kings. So take my take for what it’s worth: so much motley garb, so many jangling and absurd bells, sound and fury signifying little more than pre dinner entertainment has arrived.
I have three responses to this, I suppose. Being the court jester here, however, you might as well take my response for little more than a punchline. Or a chance to laugh at someone tumbling head over heels:
The first is the nature of the metaphor I abused: shards of Narsil reforged. In that metaphor, the virtue — the governing power — of the old sword of the old failing king is taken and reformed into that of the new king who fulfils the intended purpose of the first. It seems to me Wood is still building upon a tradition and attempting to preserve that tradition’s prior virtues by reforging them into the fulfilment of their stated purpose: understanding and taking Maximus at his word. I think he succeeds on that front. As Maya Angelou is often cited as saying, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Jordan believes Maximus the first time and takes him literally, doing his best to suss out the consequences.
Two, it seems to me that — as he said — breakthroughs in Christology proper are always a scandal. And they _ought_ to be with the Rock who makes men fall. But it’s not like Luke 24 didn’t upend long-standing tradition or Maximus didn’t get his tongue cut out or Jesuits didn’t get in… a bit of hot water for saying there are real moral dilemmas in the world. I’m mindful of black swan events, survivor bias, and a great many other ideas in various interdisciplinary fields that explain — at both ends of a phenomenon’s chronological spectrum, efficient and final — the emergence of what once seemed impossible.
Three, I’m sure the scholars are here on the sidelines (I am no scholar but of… um… perhaps fresh sod and moss between my toes and, currently, the poverty of my late father’s estate). Those scholars might be tempted to say something along the lines of “Have you read all scholarship on Maximus and all of Maximus? Being most right about him may not be that impressive after all.”
Did JDW save the day?
I hope my conclusion was appropriately ambiguous: I do not know. Nor am I a fit critic to so judge his work on that matter. Nor are, in my light hearted opinion of the way history and the history of ideas works, any of his contemporaries. Platonic dialog of contemporaries, whether transcribed or fictitious, may well work and achieve something entirely different from historical dialectic.
Wood did move boundary stones.
That’s something, at least where science and Science is concerned. For as grows the island of our knowledge so grows the shoreline of our ignorance.
Even when in breach of Proverbs 22:28.