Sunday, November 20, 2016

Athanasius, Arius, and the Role of Dialectics

In a previous post, I wrote about the mediated nature of experiencing God. In reflection, I think my major point was sound, but I don't think I understood why as well. This post is an attempt to readjust my point.

In that last post, I critiqued Augustine and Thomas through Chauvet's work. The criticism was valid, but I misunderstood where their work stood in terms of historical theology. Augustine (Thomas merely as an heir to the underlying problem) sought to follow Nicaea's fundamental teaching about the full integration of the Godhead, one which could say that Christ was indeed true God of true God. He fully understood the battle, but did not take the right path in combating it. Hence, he finds things like language and mediated realities as creaturely problems, helpful roadblocks, on the path to a Beatific vision of glory everlasting.

But I begged the question: why did Augustine find mediating such a problem? Augustine was Platonic, but he, like Origen, were Christians trying to escape and/or reevaluate Plato. This includes the problem of experience and communication. If God is mediated, this comes through a being(s) that are beneath Him, but stand somewhere in between God and the creature being communicated to. For Platonism, this was the doctrine of the Chain of Being, Emanations, involving a creation/eschaton that follows the exitus/reditus pattern. This is the fatal flaw that is at the heart of the Arian controversy.

Arius sought to fall on one side of this problem. If Christians are to talk about relating to God at all, it only makes sense along this diagram. The resultant feature is that Christ becomes a creature, though the highest and most resultant being on the Chain. In Platonic metaphysics, this was the Nous, the Soul/Mind, emanating out of the One, who alone is perfect and without beginning. Eventually, paradise is the ultimate return, where all the emanations fold back into the One, where eternal bliss awaits.

Obviously, this Platonic metaphysic didn't go away with Arius. Augustine didn't deny this, as much as he did a better job squaring the theology. For him, the One still remains such, but Christ and the Holy Spirit are included into this configuration. Hence Augustine's defense of the Trinity, where the three Persons exists as God's relationships to Himself. Augustine includes Christ into the metaphysic without the same heretical conclusions of Arius.

But this doesn't solve the problem of mediators, and the implication that a mediator implies the grades along a chain of Being. This is where discomfort over mediatorship comes from, trying to make sense of real communion with God without degrading God. Along this scale, direct experience is truly heretical as it is akin to saying that one cannot ever experience God or that such experience is literally erasing. Hence, Platonic Salvation can often sound like the experience of dying, an absorption back into the One.

But Athanasius' attack upon Arius did not depend on Platonic metaphysics, but on a strange metaphysic derived from his reading of the Bible. Athanasius insisted that the Son was fully God, but that God was not bound to the dialectics of the Chain of Being. God is beyond both affirmation and negation, which, in the Platonic metaphysics, is to say that God is beyond Being. God may make this, He may even make things along a chain of being, things that possess a greater or lesser share of glory. But God Himself does not belong along this. God is not equivocal with Being (ens), and things to don't exist in a merely analogical way to God.

The root is in the simple, and radical, doctrine of Creation from Nothing (creatio ex nihilo). God can make the World, and yet it is not an extension of Himself, an Emanation. Yet it is also not alien to God either, for to deny such is to affirm, functionally, a kind of deism or atheism. If Creation was framed according to the Wisdom of God, that is to say Christ, then it somehow belongs to God. This was later developed along the lines of the logoi of God, eternal ideas that reflect God, and yet do not constitute God. This is to say that God made the World, and yet it was not necessary. God is truly free, and yet He is truly in relation to all of His creation.

What this does is undermine the entire problem of mediated presence. God can be fully present in any of the things He made without it collapsing the distinction between the thing and God. Nothing is alien to God, and hence direct experience of God is possible without annihilation. Paradise is not the void. Athanasius saves us this sweet truth in his battle with Arius. Sadly, the way Athanasius fought was not as important as the victory he secured. Affirming Christ, and the Holy Spirit, as God is not enough. We have to understand why this is true, not merely that it is true.

Most people do not consider the Chain of Being any more, but, then again, neither do most people consider a Creator. In fact, I'd wager most people, even many Christians functionally, are either deists or pantheists. Either the Universe is God, whether as the sum of the parts or in a more Platonic way, or God is somehow irrelevant to the functions of this ticking clock. But Athanasius explains the deep intuition that many Christians who've been soaked in their Bible sense: God is present, even though is not any of the things that surround us. They might not be able to explain it well, but it's the haunting supposition in the Scripture. God manifests Himself in many things, and yet those things still retain their integrity as things. The Burning Bush does not cease to be a bush even as the Glory of God burns and speaks to Moses.

Therefore, I must admit that philosophic sophistication can at times lead astray, even if it truly can be useful and helpful. May God truly be with you, readers, in the radiate glory of His kindness and mercy.

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