The Distance Between Us is The Closer We Become

In Church Fathers, Philosophy, Theology
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Love, which is the highest level of union, only takes root in the growing independence of the lovers; the union between God and the world reveals, in the very nearness it creates between these two poles of being, the ever greater difference between created being and the essentially incomparable God.[1. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor, p. 64]

The Council of Chalcedon declared that Christ was “to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God, the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ…” This confession was the result of a protracted and tumultuous period of theological reflection, if the term reflection can include bitter invective and fierce confrontation, both intellectually and physically. The Confession of the Chaceldon, while bringing one chapter of Christological controversy to a close, in that it clarified some things about the relation of the divine nature to the human nature in the person of Jesus Christ, also opened the floodgates of schism. After all, when certain ideas and beliefs are not definitively articulated, there is a much wider berth granted towards what one can theologically hold. In respect to the union of the divine and human natures in Christ at least, Chalcedon allowed no one to sit on the fence.

From the vantage point of being centuries removed from Chalcedon, it is tempting for the modern person to perceive such a council as the theological squabblings of bishops with nothing better to do with their time. However, it is surely an anachronism for us to take such an approach. For those who participated in Chalcedon and who subsequently followed it and attempted to sort out its meaning and extrapolate its effects, it wasn’t just a minor theological point to be added or subtracted from an already adequate worldview at leisure; rather, the understanding of Christ as the unconfused union of the divine and human natures lay at the heart of understanding the relation of beings among other beings, what a person actually was, and the relation between God and creation.

For St. Maximus the Confessor especially, the ramifications of Chalcedon were not an ad hoc philosophical declaration in which Christ was the one unique instantiation of being in which the rules were bent to accommodate a theological premise; rather, Christ as fully human and fully God, yet completely and unconfusedly united in the hypostatic union, formed the basis for understanding the rest of the order of being. Christ was unique, to be sure, but not as an anomaly; rather as an archetype. In theology the understanding of personhood, relation and its concomitant realities more fully made themselves an object of rational inquiry; for Maximus, Christ sets the metaphysical stage for the universe not only as it is, but, even more importantly, for how it is supposed to be.

In Maximus’ thought, Jesus becomes the model upon which the entire cosmos is framed. Thus, for Maximus it is essential that the world of beings in all their multiplicity are not subsumed under a neo-Platonic emanation of diminishing being, but that the world of beings are complete in themselves, whole and substantial as they are regarded as themselves.

Every whole- especially every whole that is formed from the synthesis of various elements- even as it preserves its own individual identity in a consistent way, also continues to bear in itself the unmixed difference of the parts that make it up, including even the essential, authentic character and role of each member in its relation to the others. On the other hand, the parts- for all their undiminished continuity in their own natural role within the synthetic relationship- preserve the the unitary identity of the whole, which gives them a hypostatic condition of complete indivisibility.[2. St. Maximus, Epistle 12]

Thus, the multiplicity of beings within the realm of existence are not merely ever diminishing images of the divine nature, but have a certain perfection in and of themselves as they are distinct from other things. That is, a chair as a being (in the sense of something that is) is not a lesser or more imperfect being because it is not a man or an angel or whatever mode of being one might designate to be higher than chair; rather, it is in its difference and distinction from all other things as a chair that it is complete and, one might even say, good. For the multiplicity of being in the created order points to fundamental unity, for all is being, and thus has a primordial source: God. It is thus within this unity that the distinctiveness of beings are fully realized, as Von Balthasar elaborates:

If the members of a synthesis differ from each other only within unity, then God himself is, in the end, the highest synthesis, in which differences are both formed and resolved…If the members [of a synthesis] only have contact with each other through the unity of the whole that arches over all of them, creatures, as such, can only be open to each other through their transcendental identity in the unity of God.[3. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor, p. 68]

As it relates to Christology, if Christ is not fully human, there can be no openness of humanity to God; in fact, there can be no openness of the world of created being to God. The neo-platonists envisioned an ever-descending scale of being to find a point of contact, but in the end it was dissolved in a likeness to God- the Nous- which was still immeasurably removed from the utter transcendency of God.

Chalcedon marks the ultimate irreconcilability of emanation with Christianity. Humanity, as being within the order of created being, in its distinction from all other created things in the world has, because of this metaphysical distance, an essential and irrevocable openness to it. As aforementioned, this openness is mediated precisely in the distance of distinction, as multiplicity belies the fundamental unity of all being originating in God. Christ is declared to be fully human in all that pertains to what makes a human a human. Humanity in Chalcedon is not conceived of an imperfect circle of emanation from the divine Nous but rather as a complete being which finds its perfection, metaphysically speaking, in being what it is. By virtue of the divine nature becoming united to the human nature in the person of the Word, the openness of being to that which is distinct from itself is joined to the divine nature; the Incarnation, as Von Balthasar states, becomes a theodicy for the created world, a justification for its existence.[4. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor, p. 66] In the Incarnation, the maxim of Christology- that which is not assumed is not healed– finds its full expression. Maximus goes on to state:

God created all things with his limitless power, brought them into being, hold them there and gathers them together and sets boundaries to them; in his providence, he links them all- intellectual beings as well as sensible- to each other as he does to himself. In his might, God draws up all the things that are naturally distinct from each other and binds them to himself as their cause, their origin and goal; and through the power of this relationship to him as source, he lets them also be drawn toward each other. This is the power through which every being is brought to its own indestructible, unconfused identity, both in activity and in being. No being can permanently isolate itself through its own particularity or through the the drive of its nature toward some other end; rather, everything remains, in its very being, bound without confusion to everything else, through the single, enduring relationship of all to their one and only source.[5. St. Maximus, Mystagogia]

The implications for Christology are clear: if the Word has fully assumed the nature of a human being, fully assumed the nature of created being, then all created being, by virtue of its openness as a consequence of its completeness-in-distinctiveness, shares in the effects of the Incarnation. That is, Christ was manifested in the flesh not merely to redeem the human race, but to redeem all of creation. As creation shared in the effects of sin, so creation will share in the effects of redemption.

Thus, the created things are good not by virtue of how far down the ladder of being they happen to be, but because in this multiplicity of beings they are complete wholes. We can begin to see in Christology how this distance of distinction binds the world together more deeply than if it was a singular whole. Distinction demonstrates the perfection in being. As a person in distinction from another person, I find that the completeness of myself as a whole and integrally and independently subsistent being is realized. In view of this, I become open that which is not me, that which is distinct from me. Rather than the dissolving the union between us, this distance brings us all the more together.

For example, to be married is to embrace the other, that which is not me. For human beings, this distance is not merely the instantiation of two individuals, but is also realized biologically through gender. Only within this difference, within this distance is the union of married love possible, only within this distance is the fecundity of love possible. As stated at the beginning, love is the highest union, and it can only take root in the growing independence of the lovers. Only in the union of distinction, in this distance of other is being brought back to itself through openness to that which is other. The more you come to know each other, the more you come to realize how other one’s spouse is, yet it is within this deepening distance of distinction that love unfolds all the more. Inverted, to fail to love is to place my needs before my spouse, to not fully appreciate them as a complete person. Rather, in this sort of approach I essentially propose to reduce my spouse to a version of myself, where my needs/wants/desires become paramount, as if everything about my spouse needs to be directed towards me, essentially dissolving their unique distinctiveness into a weak and shriveled version of myself. The music group Keane captures this dynamic well in their song Spiraling:

I fashioned you from jewels and stone
I made you in the image of myself
I gave you everything you wanted
So you would never know anything else

But every time I reach for you, you slip through my fingers
Into cold sunlight, laughing at the things that I had planned
The map of my world gets smaller as I sit here
Pulling at the loose threads

Now we’re tumbling down
We’re spiralling
Tied up to the ground
We’re spiralling
When we fall in love
We’re just falling
In love with ourselves

We’re spiralling[6. Keane, “Spiraling”]

Sin dissolves this openness; it turns the gaze of being inward onto itself. For a created being, this results in an ever-diminishing field of view. In the garden narrative, Adam and Eve are tempted to become like God. This attempt to rend themselves as complete beings from the field of derived being and to become the source of being unto themselves could only end in disaster. It promised an expanding horizon, but ended in a shrinking room. Rather than being open to the distance of distinction and the full realization of themselves as already being complete in and of themselves as human beings, they redirected their gaze to dissolve everything into one: the self.

We struggle to operate within the relational distance of being to this day. In our relationships we are often blind to the other, our eyes affixed fully on ourselves, until everything is subsumed under the indistinguishable mess that we attempt to project out of ourselves in a perverse attempt at ex nihilo creation. The Incarnation shows us that God is the source of all the multitude of things, and that they are perfected in being as much as they retain the openness that aptly pertains to all created things. By assuming the human nature in all its fullness, the fundamental metaphysic of the universe has begun to be revealed. God is not closed in on himself, but is, in his fundamental nature, openness itself. The Trinity shows us that, in the symphony of love, distinction points the way to ever-expanding vistas of unity. It is tempting to think of the persons of the Trinity, being found in relation, as an ad hoc positing of distinction that has no true reality. However, as the distinction in persons is found in relation, in the perichoresis (or inter-penetration) the distance is wonderfully found to return unto itself in unity. Through this openness and toward-ness is found the underlying reality of who God is, within the inexpressible union of divine love.

How appropriate then, that, within a world God has already declared to be good, God should declare that it is not good for man to be alone. We are not made simply to be for ourselves. The cosmos in all its vast array of stars and planets and rocks and trees is a portrait of goodness that expresses itself by reference to something other than itself. In a grand paradox, one can only come to know oneself to be good and complete because of the other. This distance that is created in relation engenders a deepening unity. In Christ, the union of God and man was not a hybrid to make a mythological creature. Rather, each nature retained what was proper to it, and by doing so, the distinction between created and divine was sharpened to its furthest extent, while at the same time solidifying the union beyond all conception. As we achieve greater union with God, our deepening contemplation of who God is reveals the immeasurable gulf between us. It is, at the same time, the cause of our unity. Eternity will be the never-ending dance of unity, in which we become more like God while more and more aware of our other-ness to God. In this distance is where find ourselves to be complete. And in the end, we arrive back where it all starts, with the Incarnation, for in Jesus we find the hinge point of everything.

Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.[7. John 15:4-8 NIV]

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