Pseudo-Dionysius and the Non-Existence of Evil: The Saga Continues…

Pseudo-Dionysius and the Non-Existence of Evil:
The Saga Continues…

So far I’ve written about St Athanasius on evil, published a related article on this, and followed it up with a blog post on Darth Nihilus. All of these were thoughts on how to solve the problem – if evil is absolute non-existence, then what does it mean to be sinful and yet go about our daily lives as very much live people? If sin is evil and is the absence of relation with God from whom all being comes, then surely as soon as one sins, one should cease to exist?

I’ve offered a number of solutions to this so far – one using St Maximus to suggest that we are given a grace period in our lives on earth in which to work toward virtue and participation in God, where once that grace period is over, those of us who have chosen nothingness will collapse back into nothingness. I also offered an interpretation of Athanasius suggesting that perhaps we’ve already started to become nothing in our very lives now, and that we become a sort of person-shaped black hole – a real negative influence on the world by merit of sucking goodness into our empty, hollow selves, so that we become less and less persons the more we sin (the Darth Nihilus theory).

Yesterday, as I was reading through Ps-Dionysius’ Divine Names, I came across an alternative idea that works as a nice mid-way between these two ideas. Dionysius is also a big fan of evil being non-existence, but he takes the time to wrestle with our problem on exactly how that translates into our lives.

Firstly, it helps that Dionysius has got a thoroughly Neoplatonic understanding of participation and goodness. Everything comes from God, who is Good, and we all have a share in that goodness to a greater or lesser extent – so there are gradations of goodness. The nice thing about this, is that he can then talk about gradations of evil. Things are not just either good or evil for Dionysius. There must be something in between, since clearly those of us who sin have not fallen into nothingness – we still have being, ie. goodness. Therefore, when we sin, we become a little more un-real – there is a small amount of evil in us. And since evil is the privation of goodness, what this really means is that we have failed to be virtuous – there is an absence of virtue in us. This then, is another way that Dionysius describes evil:

Hence the evil inhereth not in the devils or in us, as evil, but only as a deficiency and lack of the perfection of our proper virtues.” (DN Ch. 4, p89)

(Apologies for the antiquated 1920s translation, my newer English translation is in a box in Cumbria somewhere). As already hinted at in this quotation, this applies not only to Dionysius’ understanding of humans, but also to devils and demons as well. There is no evil being, only beings which have turned to evil.

Image result for good omens

Crowley is a fine example of a demon who clearly isn’t by nature evil.

Even more interestingly, Dionysius extends this to say, since all things were made good, all things must by nature be good. It is only by acting against its nature that a being is evil:

Wherefore ‘tis not evil for a creature so to act as preserveth its nature undestroyed; evil is the destruction of its nature, the weakness and deficiency of its natural qualities, activities, and powers.” (DN Ch. 4, p89-90)


“… hence the devils are not evil in so far as they fulfil their nature, but in so far as they do not.” (DN CH. 4 p89)

Dionysius offers us a very positive view of the potentiality of all beings to be good. So long as there is a someone, then there is still hope for them – they have not yet lapsed into true absence. This also gives us a vivid understanding of evil as weakness. It is not power but deprivation, and failure to truly live:

…they are called evil because they fail in the exercise of their natural activity. The evil in them is therefore a warping, a declension from their right condition; a failure, an imperfection, an impotence, and a weakness, loss and lapse of that power which would preserve their perfection in them.” (DN CH. 4 p89)

Dionysius tells us that someone who is evil is never strong. Contrary to lots of popular depictions, where a villain believes they’re shutting off various compassionate elements of their character for the sake of strength and power, Dionysius says all such persons have is a deficit of Goodness, which is being itself. They are simply gradually becoming nothing. This is where the comparison fits more with the Darth Nihilus theory I suggested last time. In choosing evil we are gradually becoming less and less real, more and more a nothing and a no one.


Thanos believes himself to be gaining power by throwing his daughter off a cliff. Dionysius thinks this just makes him weak.

Dionysius also manages to overcome a serious problem in Neoplatonic thought through this same reasoning. Both Plotinus and Proclus wrestle with the problem of matter being evil, or to what extent, at least, matter is evil. Plotinus especially ends up implying matter is evil, and Proclus whilst conceding that matter as a something must come from the One, still places matter at the very bottom of the hierarchy of things furthest from the One. Dionysius has a much more positive view of matter, precisely because he starts with the principle that everything comes from God, and everything that comes from God is good. Matter exists and is therefore good. And if matter is necessary for the development of the universe, as Dionysius believes it is, then how could such a necessity ever be considered anything but good?

Where he leaves us with some unanswered questions however, is the extent to which beings today can still reach for the goodness in their prelapsarian natures. Is my perfect nature still within my grasp if I just try to be virtuous enough, or has there been some kind of ontological change in the Fall that means I can no longer attain this nature? This is perhaps an element of Neoplatonism that lingers in his thought, or a testament to the fact that I haven’t read enough Dionysius to draw a solid conclusion, but certainly in Chapter 4 of the Divine Names, we have very little recognition that retrieving our original natures and acquiring being in God through virtue might pose a difficulty of any kind. Either way, Dionysius’ is taken up by Maximus, who resolves these tensions by describing a balance between ascetic practice clearing space for virtue and the Holy Spirit instilling virtue through grace, but that is a story for another day!

The interesting thing we can take away from here is that Dionysius proposes that sin is gradually undoing us as people, but more hopefully, that:

“… the depraved sinner, though bereft of the Good by his brutish desire is in this respect unreal and desires unrealities; but still he hath a share in the Good in so far as there is in him a distorted reflection of true Love and Communion.” (DN CH. 4 p85)

Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names. C.E Rolt (trans.) (Grand Rapids, 1920). CCEL version online.



Time-Travelling Atoms and The General Resurrection

(Edit: I have since published an article related to this bog post, specifically on the relevance of this topic to ethics and post-humanism. It can be read here. Let me know if you have trouble accessing it and wish to read it.)

On the Soul and the Resurrection is a dialogue between St Gregory of Nyssa and his older sister St Macrina the Younger. In the dialogue, Macrina assuages some of Gregory’s doubts about the doctrine of the resurrection. Gregory’s faith is wavering since their older brother Basil has just died and Macrina herself is on her deathbed. One of the things Macrina tells Gregory is that our soul hovers over the decomposed atoms or elements (στοιχεῖον) of our body in death, and that in resurrection, we will be reconstituted from those exact same atoms.

One difficulty that arises for us today is: what if my atoms aren’t just my atoms? The matter I am composed of is over 4.5 billion years old (and older still if we think the same basic components had to come together prior to the origin of the Earth itself). The stuff I’m made of has been in rocks, plants, bacteria, other animals, and almost certainly in other humans too. So what does it mean to claim that our exact atoms are going to make-up our body in the General Resurrection?

Within the swaddling dust of the Serpens Cloud Core, astronomers are studying one of the youngest collections of stars ever seen in our galaxy. This infrared image uses data from the “warm” phase of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, letting us peer inme, probably

Well, firstly, we might argue that our idea of atoms isn’t the same as the στοιχεῖον that Gregory and Macrina are talking about. While it’s true that what we consider to be an atom bears very little resemblance to what Gregory and Macrina would have thought of as an atom, we know that στοιχεῖον was term used in formal Physics since the time of Plato to mean “the components into which matter is ultimately divisible, elements” (Online Liddel-Scott Dictionary). For our philosophical purposes then, Gregory and Macrina still share the same problem we do – they are concerned with the way our body breaks down into components not recognisable as us.

Secondly, it is unclear to what extent Gregory and Macrina believed that our atoms would be reused in other organisms. Whilst it is clear their scientific knowledge accounts for the decay of our matter into dust. There is insufficient evidence, at least in On the Soul and the Resurrection, to suggest that they believe that those atoms would be reused by plant life, and ultimately become part of animals or humans again. Thus, it is unclear if Gregory and Macrina have the problem that a modern mind does when reading their exposition of the doctrine of resurrection. Our modern concern is: if all of the atoms that make me up return to me in the resurrection, what about all the many other people who have had use of those atoms? How can I physically exist whilst somebody else requires those atoms in order for their physical form to be resurrected? Gregory after all, following the New Testament, is adamant that our physical bodies (though they will be transfigured) will be resurrected. And for Gregory and Macrina that means all the elements of our body (or atomic make-up) will be resurrected.

There are two ways we can start to deal with this difficulty. One solution comes from the text in question itself. While it may be unclear if Gregory is worried about our atoms being in other humans, he is very aware that his body is always changing in its atomic make-up. He believes that his body is not the same as it was yesterday, and that it is always changing:

For who has not heard that human life is like a stream, moving from birth to death at a certain rate of progress, and then only ceasing from that progressive movement when it ceases also to exist? This movement indeed is not one of spacial change; our bulk never exceeds itself; but it makes this advance by means of internal alteration; and as long as this alteration is that which its name implies, it never remains at the same stage (from moment to moment); for how can that which is being altered be kept in any sameness? (p862)

This is most obviously apparent in growth (he asks at what stage in our human lives will we be resurrected), but it also happens on a daily basis that we are changing. So even though Gregory doesn’t ask our precise question, he asks us something similar, which is – given that its not clear which atoms are ours from moment-to-moment, how is whatever is resurrected even said to be us in physical form?

Macrina gives us a very interesting answer. She starts talking about the timelessness of matter in resurrection. She explains that to be resurrected is to have the effect of time and sin drawn out of our body:

Just as if a man, who, clad in a ragged tunic, has divested himself of the garb, feels no more its disgrace upon him, so we too, when we have cast off that dead unsightly tunic made from the skins of brutes and put upon us[…] shall, along with the casting off of that tunic, fling from us all the belongings that were round us of that skin of a brute; and such accretions are sexual intercourse, conception, parturition, impurities, suckling, feeding, evacuation, gradual growth to full size, prime of life, old age, disease, and death. If that skin is no longer round us, how can its resulting consequences be left behind within us? It is folly, then, when we are to expect a different state of things in the life to come, to object to the doctrine of the Resurrection on the ground of something that has nothing to do with it. (p865-6.)

(Macrina believes we’ll be resurrected without sex or gender, but that’s an exciting topic for another day.)

The concept of the growth and decay of atoms is not inherent to who we are. Time will not effect the bodies we are resurrected with. She says that we do not truly know ourselves. And that this is why transfiguration in the resurrection will be both bodily us and yet changed. This helps us a little with our problem, at least in terms of expecting a time-bound consistency to the resurrected body.

To resolve our modern problem (modern because of our scientific understanding of the way that organic matter on entering the ground, not only decays but also becomes a part of of the lifecycles of other animals and eventually humans again), we need to look particularly at Macrina’s point about the timelessness of the resurrected body. In a recent book published on Maximus the Confessor and time, Sotiris Mitralexis describes the place and importance of ‘time’ within Maximus’ work. One of his most important points is that to partake in theosis, that is, to be gathered to God in final communion and to partake of God by grace, is to partake in timelessness, since God Himself is outside time. When we are talking about resurrected bodies partaking of the gift of theosis in the eschaton, we are talking about people existing outside of time. Of matter existing outside of time. Like Macrina’s point about conceiving of the human body in one of its periods of growth, so our question about our atoms existing in one of their moments in a body, becomes illogical. The logic of time, of progression, of the ‘lifecycle’ of the atom being chronological, becomes incomprehensible. As people who are made from matter that was existing in time, we either have to posit the annihilation of all but one incarnation of that matter, which hardly seems consistent with what we are told of the resurrection. Or we are to posit that atoms can exist simultaneously with other instances of themselves from different times, a bit like in most of our time-travel stories in film and literature. The apparent paradox of atoms existing in different people at the same time, is eliminated by the fact that in the General Resurrection (or at the very least, certainly in theosis) time no longer exists.

Two excellent fellows whose atoms are existing in the same place simultaneously and without regard for the laws of time.

Whilst discussion of the eschaton will always be a mysterious place more full of questions than answers, I for one am much more reassured by the idea that the principle problem in my understanding is that I don’t know how time travel works, rather than the worry that only the unshared fractions of my atomic make-up (if any at all) will form my body in the General Resurrection.


Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection.

(English: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series II Volume 5. P. Schaff (ed.))

(Greek: Patrologia Graeca 46, 11-160 )

Sotiris Mitralexis, Ever-Moving Repose: A Contemporary Reading of Maximus the Confessor’s Theory of Time. James Clarke & Co, 2018.


Darth Nihilus, Athanasius, & Evil as Non-Being

Darth Nihilus, Athanasius, & Evil as Non-Being

A few years ago I published an article on Non-being in Athanasius and Maximus, somewhat inspired by a blog post I wrote here. The main problem I was trying to resolve in the article concerned the way that Athanasius talks about evil as non-existence. For Athanasius, evil is not created or even a something, it is the choice to turn away from God who is Being. Thus evil only becomes a reality when chosen by humans. It represents not a something, but the absence of life and living (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, §4, p219).

The question I was trying to wrestle with was – if this is the case, why do we not all instantly disappear when we make evil decisions? Surely the moment we cut ourselves off from Being, we lapse into non-being (/evil/sin/nothingness)? In the article I offered a way of dealing with this theological difficulty by looking at Maximus the Confessor’s interpretation. I argued for non-being being the final product of evil choices in our life, and that Christ grants us an intercession period in this life (the one more year for the gardener to help the olive tree bear fruit, (Luke 13:6-9)). Only in the time of final judgement then, does the finality of evil become a total nothingness.

Today I want to offer a slightly different interpretation.

Whilst sitting in a beer hall in Munich last night discussing Star Wars and Byzantine theology, it came to my attention that the character Darth Nihilus does something very important for us with the concept of evil and non-being.

For those not versed in their extended Star Wars lore, Nihilus is a Sith Lord from the second Knights of the Old Republic game who is so consumed by his obsession with power and the dark side of the Force, that he is essentially a person-shaped black hole. The choices he has made have deprived him of true personhKOTOR2Nihilusood, and he has become so consumed by these choices, that he actually has no more free will and is instead more a force of (un-)nature than a human. Nihilus has no body, being only a mask and cloak and is continually bound to an all-consuming hunger that never fills him.

He is never-the-less a very active presence on his surroundings. People and objects around him disintegrate, entire worlds are subject to his insatiable hunger, and terrible things occur as a result of his choices.

What I think is useful from a theological position about Nihilus is the idea that evil can be a chosen, tangible reality, whilst simultaneously making us almost akin to non-persons. Whilst being a fictional character subject to the (fairly inconsistent) metaphysics of the Star Wars universe, Nihilus is also a believable parallel to people who have bound themselves so tightly to destructive evil choices, that they have almost ceased to be human and continually destroy the relationships and existences of those around them (Vividly, Nihilus travels in an impossible crumbling spaceship with holes blasted out of it, that is held together only by his power and will to continue consuming).


Darth Nihilus’ ship Ravager moves through space by power of his insatiable hunger alone.

Another way to answer the question that arises from Athansius then, is to ask, are we entirely sure that we’re still human, when we make evil choices? And actually, evil does have a destructive force to it that is very much real in its disintegrating ability. When chosen, it perpetually pulls those things around it into nothingness. And whilst Darth Nihilus is a vivid extreme of this, he is not such a difficult person to imagine. There does seem to be a metaphysical reality to evil choices we make in this life, even if it is only in the end that ravaging hunger is put to a stop and evil finally subsides into complete absence and total nothingness.

Images courtesy of Wookiepedia, from the game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords made by Obsidian Entertainment in 2004.


The Lonely Lives of Neoplatonists

(This post is full of somewhat spurious claims that I have since sharpened and published as chapter 13 in this book)

Whilst preparing a chapter on Maximus the Confessor and Neoplatonism on knowledge, I have been reading some Proclus. It has struck me that Neoplatonist metaphysics like Proclus’s have very lonely conceptions of the divine.

The picture Proclus paints us of the divine is something so transcendent that ultimately it is untouchable, removed from all beneath it, and can neither comprehend, nor be comprehended by more lowlier life forms.

Proclus begins his The Elements of Theology by explaining that the origin of all things must be greater than them all, not made up of lots of things, but simple and whole. If the One isn’t simple, for Proclus, then it must be made up of components that preceded it. So the true defining principle of the original creative thing, must be that it is One (hence the name).

Proclus tells us that the One (and all derived producing principles) produces things without moving and whilst remaining unchanged (Prop 26). This is because he wants to preserve the unchanging, timeless, simplicity of god(s). As Proclus tells us in his cooler, more sci-fi part of The Elements of Theology:

For if it is measured by time, it must have a temporal existence or activity, and a past and a future which are mutually distinct; since if its past and its future be numerically identical, it is unaffected by the passage of time, which always contains a distinguishable ‘earlier’ and ‘later’. If, then, its past and its future are distinct, it is something which becomes and never is, but moves with the movement of the time which measures it… (Prop 50, p49)

This means, if you exist outside of time, then you cannot be measured by time. To be unmeasured by time, your past and future must be identical – you are unchanging. And something that is changed or diminished (or even affected) by producing lesser beings, isn’t something unchanging and outside time, and isn’t a god.

We likewise see this when Proclus talks about providence (πρόνοια), which seems to refer to the way the divine provides for lesser beings. Unlike in a Christian context, this understanding of providence cannot be called care, and shouldn’t really even be considered to be directed towards lesser beings. Proclus says that “Thus in exercising providence they (divine beings) assume no relation to those for whom they provide, since it is in virtue of being what they are that they make all things good, and what acts in virtue of its being acts without relation” (Prop 122, p109). A divine being doesn’t mean to be good to us, it just radiates (ἐπιλάμπω) goodness because that’s in its nature as a good being. We get a picture of the act of creation and providential maintenance that is relationless, and necessarily produced as a by-product rather than by choice. It doesn’t change the divine, it’s not for the receiver, it’s just a part of who the divine is, that they emit these radiations. Lesser things, maybe like barnacles on a large whale, sort of feed off them whilst they go about their whale business (the metaphor doesn’t quite work, as even barnacles diminish a whale, but we never diminish a neoplatonic deity).


Photographer: Ken Balcomb Via: Wikimedia Commons

Proclus hurries to emphasise that these deities are definitely still providential, because they are ultimately good. He says that to do good is to bestow goodness on others. Although ethically speaking, I wonder how good we can really say a neoplatonic deity is? They give without cost to themselves, without being affected by the gift, without entering into relationship with who they give to, without even intending to give. They simply project their goodness. Is this what we characterise as the height of goodness? Is this what we aspire to be when we try to be good?

We’re also told in this same passage that lesser beings partake in the divine in so far as they can according to the limitations of their own nature. Which brings us onto an important point about the isolated domain of knowledge. Proclus tells us that divine beings know things according to their nature, and that inferior beings know things according to their inferior nature. A god knows beings like you and me, who are many and change, in a unitary and unchanging way. A god knows temporal things in a timeless way. And a god does not receive any knowledge from inferior beings themselves (Prop 124). In other words, a god knows about me, without ever looking at me, without communicating with me, without comprehension of how I change in time, without even understanding that human nature has specific instances – a person.

It sounds to me as if this god does not really know me at all. How could they, when my nature as a being affected by time, change, contingency, and individuality shapes who I am in a personal capacity?

And likewise, Proclus says, an inferior being like you and I, knows divine things according to our own nature. We perceive of the timeless in temporal ways. This is much more familiar to Christian thought (especially apophatic theology). God’s nature is beyond knowability. And yet in a metaphysics without Christ who brings divine and human nature together inside Himself, the Neoplatonist understanding of human knowledge is just as lonely and empty as the gods’ knowledge of inferior beings. In my mind, two beings sit looking at each other and reaching for each other, and yet are separated by an infinite distance. They are utterly unknowable to one another. Whatever it is they perceive of themselves in the other is a warped, false projection of their own experiences that is not reflective of who the other really is. I do not really understand timelessness, any more than a neoplatonic god can understand that who I am is perpetually shaped by time.

Image converted using ifftoany


The research I’m currently doing was inspired and is in response to a paper by Bathrellos, which is well worth reading if this topic interests you: D. Bathrellos, ‘Neo-platonism and Maximus the Confessor on the Knowledge of God’ in Studia Patristica Vol. LVIII Volume 6: Neoplatonism and Patristics. 117-126. Leuven: Peeters, 2013.

Proclus translations from E.R. Dodds, Proclus: The Elements of Theology. Oxford: Clarendon Paperbacks, 1963 (First ed. 1933).
(Jon is lending me his neoplatonist books so that I can write spurious things about them on our blog without him noticing)


Fiction Extract #3: Evil and Non-Being

Introduction on fictional extracts here

#3: Evil and Non-Being

So this one is much more in the works and is more a set of ideas. It’s from the final chapters of the novel which haven’t been written yet, so the odd style it’s written in will probably change. I wrote it when I was thinking about the nature of non-being and evil in Athanasius. I’m trying to do a paper on Athanasius and Maximus on non-being that was inspired by these thoughts. The idea was to create a devil-like figure but who is consistent with the idea that evil is non-being and ultimate absence. This devil-figure has been the long running antagonist in the story, but in fact is only made up of the evil choices that the protagonist characters in the novel have made. I may include a second post on this topic, because I had some interesting ideas on how such an antagonist would be ‘defeated’.

I talk a little about Athanasius’ understanding of evil here. The fantasy element here is the notion that the reality of evil could have personhood, but there has always been a confused indication that people like Athanasius and Maximus might in principle attribute a metaphorical personhood to evil. I haven’t done enough work on this to say so for certain, but I was more interested in bringing a traditional western view of the devil into contact with early Byzantine notions of non-being and evil. Also below is a reference to the logismoi, which are the ‘outside’ thoughts that fly to our mind and tempt us to evil. This is in Maximus, but I’m pretty sure is an already existing ascetic traditional term probably inherited from Evagrios of Pontos.

I was going to include a picture I drew of this figure but I realised its probably a bit disturbing. Its a six winged thing with a noh mask face for those who want a mental image.

He is nothing, but nothing is real because it has been chosen. And if there were no reality to those choices, then there would be no choice. So every choice must result in something, even if that something is nothing.

And he, or rather it, is that nothing. Nothing collated and made strong on the choices of millions to choose nothing. And in his strength he has extended himself beyond his own domain to course as whispers through the world and to blow seeds of himself into the minds of all. And ever the choice becomes more difficult with his temptations blowing where they will and his power to manipulate – never to force, only to tempt – becomes stronger and more cunning. His only desire is to be something, even though he is nothing. But he desires more and more real nothingness. The spread of chaos, the spread of death, the annihilation of all things, especially annihilation without purpose, all this feeds him and gives him strength. And he is the adversary of all things, because he is the absence of all things. He is their opposite and has no being and has no person, he is only present when chosen, he is only brought into existence through the will of others, and so is a slave to their choices, and above all desires to be a master of their choices, and to be a master of others.

And being nothing, he has many forms and shapes, but all are an illusion and behind them all is nothing. And he puts on natures as we put on clothes and gives himself limitations to appear as though he is one of those he craves. And he crafts for himself personalities and words and languages but all of them are hollow and can not stand up to anything but a surface scrutiny, and all too quickly his insatiable and only craving for all to be nothing becomes apparent. And at the same time he has no craving, because he is no one and he is dead to pleas, and dead to compassion, and dead to the lusts and loves of the world, because he has no kindred with them.

All his reality is bent on trying to remember what he is from moment to moment, much of his power is gone in trying to remain consistent from second to second. And it is already so difficult because he is the disparate choices of many and is their darkness in the world. And he is the manifestation of the many secrets that many keep and whilst he knows those things intimately, he has no comprehension of anything else and so does not understand their natures or whatever it is that they choose when they choose not him.

He has grown strong in this age, he has bound to himself servants and plied them with promises of power. They look upon his changing form and envy and he smiles with his stolen faces and plays the master, all the while he hates them even more passionately than any other, because they are close to him and have reality and form and nature which he does not. They bewail their solid form and being and look upon his insubstantial form with lust, and this of all things is an eternal mystery to him who must at every moment consciously recall what he has tried to make of himself for every fraction of a moment, lest his own reality of nothing lapse back into the void which he is.

He works through his servants which are much better at remaining consistent and convincing others, because they move and live in time and know the minds of others, and are familiar with those things which are utterly foreign to him, and so have a much greater advantage when it comes to manipulation. And in this age he has set up schools of deception and corruption and extends schemes and ploys far and wide, and wrapped himself in the history and subtleties of beings. Ever he desires to bring them to chaos and nothing and so to consume them into himself, and ever he is lonely, because as soon as he succeeds they are gone and they are him and they are nothing. And so his fury and rage is insatiable.

He has walked with princes and kings, with travellers and children. He has taught secrets of nothing to those who have used this knowledge to tarnish natures and bring them to the brink of non-existence. He has walked alone and unharmed in the smoke of dragonfire and stood upon the ice of the sea as it cracks and breaks from the cliffs of the world. He looks upon all with nothing in his heart which does not exist, and nothing in his eyes which do not exist, and nothing in his body which does not exist.


Fiction Extract #2: Magic

Introduction on fictional extracts here

#2: Magic

A young acolyte of the elvin people known as the mi’skei explains to her travel companion what magic is and how people interact with it.

The fictional concept of magic in this story was always meant to be an exploration of miracles and the supernatural. However, when I first began studying Byzantine theology I decided to incorporate panentheism, theoria physike, the place of the logoi and the grace of the Spirit into a fantasy language of magic. I intended to explore the idea that remarkable ‘miracle’ events only appear to be magic, and are in fact right relation with all around us. The concept of God is very quiet in the novel, so much of this right relation takes the form of relationships with others and the natural world (like many of the stories in the hagiographies of the celtic saints). ‘Using magic’ however is a petition directed to it (the Spirit), in which all nature might respond and come to the aid of the petitioner. The passage below focusses on magic (The Arcane Arts) as a complete way of seeing what is already present, and the role of the person as priest and mediator on behalf of the rest of the natural world.

“… The Arcane Arts is the term we use to describe the relation between us and the real world. The world in its completeness as both the physical world we see with eyes, and the immaterial world we must learn to see by maintaining right attitude to all things.”

She thought he might scoff at this, but he seemed rather to be in awe,

“And can you see it? This immaterial world?”

“Not exactly. And not in the way one sees with these.” She pointed at her eyes. “But one becomes more attuned to the reality of things as being whole, but existing in these two different ways. Like…” She thought for a moment, “… imagine a cube, but one you could only see from straight on. You can touch it, but you can only see one of its faces. One really only has a very limited idea of its true properties until one’s position changes, and the other dimensions of the cube become known. In this way, one has gained more true knowledge of the cube, one knows it more intimately for what it is. The Arcane Arts are when one calls or responds to those things which one has come to know more intimately.” Up until now, she had been enrapt in her explanation, at last coming into her own area of deep fascination. As she spoke this last sentence however, her face became more and more sad. “It is said that, in the days of old, the mi’skei did not only do as we do now, and catch the drifting insinuations of meanings and contemplations stirring in the world about, but did commune with all the creatures and natural world. All spoke freely in conversation and knew the purpose of one another. The mi’skei then were revered even by the stones and the earth and the sky, and all these and more besides would come to them, and ask of them such things as ‘sing a song for me in your chapels, where the lights and the shadows all dance as one’, or ‘come down beside my banks where I empty into the great lake, and say a blessing over my waters, which have travelled from the highest peaks in all Forsantica’. And a mi’skei would gladly do such things, and in return the trees would bend their branches together into mighty palaces like Ilindar, and the waters would cradle these homes and never run dry even in the hottest summers, and the wind would whisper lullabies to send the elvin young to sleep.” She stopped. Her gaze had once more been on the old blue mountains as she spoke all this in wistful sorrow. “But those times are gone now. The Arcane Arts are not what they were.”


Fiction Extract #1: Sketches

Whilst trying to write a PhD, I have inadvertently devoted a lot of time to writing a rambling theologically inspired fantasy atrocity. Given that it eats so much of my time, I thought I’d share a couple of the theological analogies that I made to help myself think more clearly about the theology I’m studying. I don’t know how many I’ll share, but I’ll include a brief preface to each explaining the fictional context and the Byzantine parallel it is roughly trying to depict.

 #1: Sketches

This is the most obviously explicit parallel to be found in my novel so far. In the novel it is an ancient fable that has been illustrated and is kept as a children’s fairytale.

I originally conceived of it whilst writing my Master’s thesis on Maximus’ logoi to help me think about the ‘preconceptions’ that Maximus and Dionysios talk about. These are the ideas for creation in God’s mind that are both united in Christ and yet form the unique idea according to which ever creature has been made. They also outline the hoped for trajectory of every creature. I found this metaphor useful, and still often refer to the logoi as sketches when explaining them.

There once was an artisan. He had plans to create beautiful things. He first took a pen and ink and parchment and sketched. He sketched many thousands upon thousands of sketches with his pen. Each was a plan for his creations and when he put the sketches side by side they appeared to him to make a beautiful picture. So he set about creating the things in his sketches and they were exactly as he imagined: beautiful and perfect. And the created things moved with a moving grace according to the sketches imagined for them. They were multitudinous and different, but because they were like those sketches, they formed all together one beautiful picture, which the artisan took great joy in looking upon.

But some chose not to be like those sketches so when they took up pens of their own, as many of the created things were want to do in honour of the artisan, they instead drew on their own faces and obscured their own beauty. Then they drew on the faces of their brothers and sisters and defaced the things about them until all were drawing and painting their own designs upon whatever they saw fit and thinking only of their own mastery over other things.

These are the terrible times where all is black with the ink of destruction. There is a dark one who delights in this picture and orchestrates the damage, but he is just as all the rest, defacing the beauty with shadows. There is still a place for those who would be true artisans but it is hard to paint things like those sketches through the screen of dark ink. But the sketches persist somewhere. It is said even the dark one has an archetype.


Eternal Progress: Where Spirituality Meets Ethics

Eternal Progress: Where Spirituality Meet Ethics

Gregory of Nyssa and Petyr Kropotkin Compared

They are both balding men with big beards. The end.

In a blog I wrote last year, I finished with a question wondering whether Gregory of Nyssa and Petyr Kropotkin could be friends. In this blog I answer that question: yes.

The theology of eternal progress, or epektasis, was worked out by Gregory of Nyssa, who drew on this passage by Paul:

Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before (ἔμπροσθεν ἐπεκτεινόμενος). (Philippians 3:13)

In The Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa interpreted Moses’ theophany of the pillar of cloud in light of this Philippians passage and the story of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:10-19). Gregory described Moses’ seeing God’s back as part of the understanding that even in encounter with God there will always be part of God that is unknowable. He wrote:

The soul rises ever higher and higher and will always make its flight yet higher – by its desire of the heavenly things straining ahead for what is still to come, as the Apostle says Made to desire and not to abandon the transcendent height by the things already attained, it makes its way upward without ceasing, ever through its prior accomplishments renewing its intensity for the flight… Once having set foot on the ladder which God set up (as Jacob says), he continually climber to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because he always found a step higher than the one he had attained.1

Gregory’s understanding of spirituality involves this perpetual reaching for what will ever remain elusive. Importantly, however, this is never a task performed in vain. The process of transformation, learning from, and overcoming errors may be eternal, but each step is a worthwhile one that brings us closer to holiness. There is always hiddenness in God, is Gregory’s point, but this may be something beautiful in our relationship with Him, rather than something alienating or frustrating.

I would like to draw some comparisons between Gregory’s spiritual account of the movement of the soul, and the vision Petyr Kropotkin has for human society. Kropotkin was a geographer, revolutionary and anarchist who lived in the latter half of the 19th Century. In his autobiography, he wrote:

this society will not be crystallised into certain unchangeable forms, but will continually modify its aspect, because it will be a living, continually evolving organism; no need of government will be felt, because free agreement and federation take its place in all those functions which governments consider as theirs at the present time, and because, the causes of conflict being reduced in number, those conflicts which may still arise can be submitted to arbitration.2

Following on from his evolutionary theory of mutual aid, Kropotkin believed that human societies should have the capacity to continually change, and to have a structure that facilitates this self-criticism. The best form of society, in his mind, was one that knew that it was not best, and had the ability to structure itself according to the fluctuating needs of its populace. Under Kropotkin’s analysis, he believes that this would result in the self-structuring of workplaces and, as a consequence, a more even distribution of resources to those in want.

The similarity between Gregory of Nyssa’s theology of epektasis and Petyr Kropotkin’s vision of an anarchist society is entirely coincidental. What is important is the way in which we, looking back at these figures in history, might choose to read their thoughts as complimentary. What Gregory is saying about ascetical holiness and what Kropotkin is saying about human society is that a propensity toward humility and passionate hope for better living are fundamental to our development as people. Who we are to become as individuals and within our communities is shaped by our ability to recognise the faults in ourselves and in what we perpetuate.

The similarity between Gregory and Kropotkin’s ideas is not merely methodological however, but also extends to what they wish to see. Gregory’s holy person and the example they create in human society, has much in common with the free association and organisation that Kropotkin envisaged. I have already reflected on the political implications of Gregory of Nyssa’s Sermons on the Beatitudes and the radical world they envisage. Let us remember for example, the passage when Gregory writes that living out mercy would create a community where:

Life would no longer be lived in diametrically opposite ways; man would no longer be distressed by want or humiliated by slavery, nor would dishonour sadden him. For all things would be common to all, and his life as a citizen would be marked by complete equality before the law, since the man who was responsible for the government would of his own free will be on a level with the rest.3

Gregory of Nyssa’s work is full of places where an intense and personal spirituality spills over into the communal ethics of the many. I’d like to think that that there’s nothing fundamentally different between those reflections and the anarchist principles in much of Kropotkin’s thinking. Both of them have that very important quality that is essential, I think, for any ethics; which is the ability to reflect very penetratingly on the injustices in the world, and the belief that perpetually working for better is always a worthwhile task.


1Gregory of Nyssa, life of Moses, ch 225, 227. 113-4.

2Kropotkin, Memoirs, 399.

3Gregory of Nyssa, Sermon 5 On Mercy, 134.


Gregory of Nyssa, ‘Life of Moses’ in Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, Malherbe, A.J & Ferguson, E. (trans.) New York: Paulist Press, 1978.

Gregory of Nyssa, ‘Sermon 5′ in Ancient Christian Writers: Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer and The Beatitudes, H.C. Graef (trans.) New York: Paulist Press, 1954.

Kropotkin, P. Memoirs of a Revolutionist.Dover Publications, 1971, (1st ed., 1899).


Max’s Metaphysical Ethics

This is unashamedly an excuse for me to try and think out what is going on in Maximus the Confessor’s metaphysics.

Here’s a diagram I’ve made to try and get to grips with it:


Being – Well-Being – Eternal Well-Being
This is Maximus’ triad from Amb. 7, and is the proper movement of all creatures, he believes. This is the way things should move naturally. Being and Eternal Well-being are gifts from God, and Well-Being is the choice we can make to live well. We are granted being, but must decide if we wish to live well, and naturally and with directivity toward God. The ability to reach for Well-Being is a capacity restored to humans through and in Christ. For Maximus, this is characterised by choosing to love. If we choose this, then we can lay hold of Eternal Well-Being. If we do not choose this, eventually we fall into non-being (this is because creatures are made from nothing, and perpetually preserved by God, if we choose to cut ourselves off from him, we fall into non-being. This is Maximus, but also Athanasius).

 Logos – Tropos
This is the distinction between the way in which God has created us to live (logos), and the way in which we choose to live (tropos). Logos is the potential purposeful existence of a creature, should it choose to follow the sketch created for it. Tropos is the actual movement of a creature – it is its mode of living. When our tropos is aligned with our logos, we live with directivity toward God and can reach for Well-Being.

 Nature – Hypostasis
Hypostasis is a particular instance of a universal nature. Nature (physis) has no reality aside from its manifestation in particulars. Similarly, a logos has no real ontological existence unless it is chosen by a particular hypostasis. Likewise, we can not talk of hypostasis as separate from nature. These two are simultaneous, but the distinction is useful to make, because those things we call ‘natural’ are those things which we have the capacity to do. Things pertaining to hypostasis are things we choose to do in a certain way. (Most of this is from the Disputation with Pyrrhus). For example: we have the natural capacity to walk, but this capacity remains inactive, unless we personally choose to go somewhere and move. We can ascribe the capacity to walk (generally speaking) to human nature, but particular activities and instances of this capacity in practice, belong to specific hypostases (people).

 Why do I care about this stuff?
Because in articulating this, Maximus explains how there can be divine care and maintenance at every level of existence, without ever threatening to take away human free will. It also means that he can talk about things being natural to us whilst also explaining how there can be so much particular diversity. For example, Maximus believes that virtue is natural to us. This is because naturally we move in accordance with our logos, and logos for Maximus is inseparable from the being, life and activity of Christ, who is The Logos. We follow Christ’s loving activity when we act in accordance with our logos and become like him. As I’ve discussed in other blogs, the virtues are also logoi in Christ, and naturally a part of who we are for Maximus. This makes a massive difference to our conception of metaphysical ethics, because it means that Christlike love is natural to us, and that the ability to love is like another sense or capacity that we take for granted. When we do not love, it is like we are choosing not to walk, not to see or not to smell. In not loving we are cutting ourselves off from our natural co-existence with others and with God.

6a0120a69a468c970c01a73db8ef6b970d Some natural co-existence with fellow partakers in universal human nature.


The Dualist tendencies of Iconoclasm

The Dualist tendencies of Iconoclasm

Throughout the 700s there were periods of militant iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire. Varying movements of varying fervour and for varying reasons propagated the destruction of icons and other depictions of Christ and the saints. On the whole, there are some reasonably sound theological reasons offered by the iconoclasts of this time to justify their positions. However, they were eventually shown to be unimaginative, thoughtless and heretical by writers such as John of Damascus, who pointed out the long term implications of the (by comparison) simplistic readings that the iconoclasts offered of Scripture.

IrenekirkenThe iconoclast cross in Hagia Eirene that was installed after the icon of Christ was torn down from the apse

In this blog post I’m going to present the main arguments of both the iconoclasts and John of Damascus (these are greatly redacted as both sides have extensive, more nuanced arguments, but most of them boil down to the two positions represented here). My main point however is to demonstrate that John of Damascus’ argument actually accuses the iconoclasts of a dualism not dissimilar to that of the early Gnostics. This in turn has big implications, I think, for later iconoclast positions in Christian history as well.

The iconoclast view relied on equating icons with idols that are being worshipped. In their eyes, icons were being revered as additional gods. They supported this condemnation with quotations from Scripture. Verses picked out in particular by the iconoclasts were: “The Lord our God, the Lord, is one” (Deut. 6:4); “You shall adore the Lord your God, and worship Him alone”; “You shall not have strange gods” (Deut. 6:13); “You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath” (Ex. 20:4); “All worshippers of images are put to shame, who make their boast in worthless idols.” (Ps. 97:7).

On this latter point, John of Damascus was more than happy to concede ground – it was indeed heretical to worship anything other than God, or to set up idols. Instead, however, John attacked the starting iconoclast presumption that an icon could be equated with an idol. John talks extensively of what we mean by the word ‘image’ and the way we define it in relation to a prototype or archetype: “An image is of like character with its prototype, but with a certain difference. It is not like its archetype in every way” [DI 1.9]. The word ‘image’ has a much more complex meaning than just referring to something that is drawn, John explains. The iconoclasts had already extended this word’s usage to include mosaics and statues, but why stop there, says John, “The Son is the living, essential, and precisely similar Image of the invisible God, bearing the entire Father within Himself, equal to Him in all things, except that He is begotten by Him, the Begetter” [DI 1.9].

Furthermore, John argues, we do not worship (latreia) an image, but rather we venerate or honour (proskinesis) it. The icon is not an idol for worship, but an image that reflects an archetype and therefore the veneration one gives to the image passes over to the depicted. John defends this argument by maintaining that the material world is not set apart from the spiritual, but is brought together in the one Christ, who brought together the created and uncreated and sanctified all matter. Christ Himself is God and yet was enfleshed – he became God incarnate. This then is John’s primary argument – that matter is sanctified by God through Christ. In the incarnation, matter was deemed worthy to become an icon of God above. In one of John’s most moving passages, he makes extensive poetic discourse on the importance of matter. “I do not worship matter;” John writes in one of these famous passages, “I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honouring the matter which wrought my salvation!” [DI 1.16]

So John links the iconoclast position to one that rejects matter. The iconoclast position becomes one that believes that matter has not been sanctified by God and in fact posits that matter can never have anything to do with God – since if it has not been made holy by the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, then how could it ever have anything to do with the divine? The primary accusation implied by John then is that to be an iconoclast and to reject the depiction of Christ is actually to be a dualist – it is to maintain that the incarnation was not enough and to reject matter as deplorable and beyond salvation. Put more simply, the iconoclast position relies on the idea that what is down here on earth is too lowly to depict anything that is up there in heaven. The material and spiritual are so far separated from one another that there can never be any relationship between the uncreated and the created. The point of councils like Chalcedon (451) was to say that the distinction between created and uncreated always remains preserved, but the original communion intended between these two has been renewed in Christ’s being fully God and fully human. Therefore, I suggest that, if one takes John of Damascus’ line of argument, iconoclasm actually falls into that dualism that the early Church dealt with in Gnosticism (where matter was considered to be evil and radically opposed to the divine).

This may seem like a somewhat extreme conclusion, given the well-meaning concerns of the eighth century iconoclasts. However as soon as one accepts the position that matter is not good enough to contain or depict God, when God Himself chose to become matter and sanctify the world, one directly challenges the extensiveness of the salvific power of Christ and the legitimacy of the incarnation. If matter has not been saved by Christ, then it is beyond consummation. In so far as one could call anything evil, then ‘that which is beyond consummation’ fits the bill.

If one reads John of Damascus’ Treatise on Divine Images, from which all the quotations in this blog come, one can see just how persuasive John’s argument is and consequently how problematic the iconoclast position is when it comes to the accusation of dualism. Of course, John is very careful to remove the veneration of icons from the sphere of idol worship, and would readily condemn anything that veered into this latter category. That said, the dualist tendencies of iconoclasm are not only very problematic but also very transferable to later Christian movements that sought to destroy images of Christ and the saints (John has a whole section devoted to how we also extend these arguments to images of the Mother of God and the saints). I am thinking particularly of the Protestant Reformation. I think perhaps the iconoclast riots of the 1500s have cemented a strong spiritual inclination toward dualism and the belief in the depravity of matter, and that those countries where riots took place are still feeling the effects of this today. This is a position that needs much more support in order to be made successfully, but I am inclined to believe that there is much underlying problematic dualism in my own home in Scotland that can be linked directly to the 1559 iconoclast riots that swept the country here.

Riot_against_Anglican_prayer_book_16371637 riot in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh