Monday, November 21, 2005

Edward Moore and the Eastern theology of freedom

The Eastern Orthodox theologian Edward Moore is an author about whom my opinion has vacillated. He is quite critical of St. Maximus Confessor, sometimes to a degree that I find unfair and/or inaccurate, but in re-examining his work of late, I have found that his criticism seems to be based in many of the same difficulties I have reached with Maximian anthropology. I don't think it is concidence that Moore's defense of Origen and re-evaluation of Origen's condemnation also invokes Christianized Stoicism in the theology of history and eschatology. Indeed, this Christianized Stoicism in the account of history appears to be the common thread that links a vast number of Church Fathers into a cohesive whole, and one wonders about the extent to which this orthodox belief has been (wrongly) condemned in a misguided quest to stamp out "Origenism" and the so-called "Origenist dialectic." At the root of Christian Stoicism is a radical concept of freedom, suggested by the Stoic principle of autarchy but given content by the Gospel, that conceives of a freedom existing beyond the simple metaphysical plurality of the objects of choice, something echoed in Moore's ideological homage to the Russian existentialist Nikolai Berdyaev.

I have maintained that this eschatological picture of history and human freedom is relatively common in the Western Fathers. Moore does not appear to deal with them much at all, more's the pity, except to join in Berdyaev's criticism of St. Augustine. Moore says, "[Origen] should be read far more often than Augustine, for example, who (as Berdyaev points out) was the most rigorous exponent of the doctrine of eternal damnation and suffering in hell - a concept that would later lead to so much scorn and mailce against Christians," but I would note that many Western historians (such as James Wetzel) have come to the same conclusion about Augustine's doctrine of reprobation without jetissoning what is worthwhile in his theology. Indeed, I would argue that Augustine's theology of grace is nothing other than the theology of time and memory that Moore seems to advocate, and I would further argue (and, IIRC, Pope Benedict XVI HAS argued) that Augustine's theology of original sin ought to be understood within this idea of radical situatedness within history, with the concepts of massa damnata and damnabilis and reprobation being speculative extensions that are entirely unnecessary to the basic idea.

ISTM that the Western idea is not (as Moore argues elsewhere with regard to the soul's ability to choose eternal oblivion) a fundamental pessimism about free choice, but is instead the most radical synergism of the self that is possible, i.e., involvement in one's own creation. This seems to be exactly what Origen unsuccessfully attempted to capture in his speculative notion of pre-existent souls "falling into" creation, an uneasy marriage of Stoicism and Neoplatonic cosmology that seems to partake directly of the absolutizing of subjects that Zubiri criticizes. I suspect that if Origen had had access to Zubiri's metaphysics of human beings as "relatively absolute," he might have done better (or even, as Moore argues in his dissertation, if he had access to Leontius of Byzantium's idea of enhypostasis, properly understood as the divine having individual human experience). Still, one can't criticize Origen for failing to anticipate centuries of development; the point is that Origen was trying to articulate a system in which souls freely participated in the act of their own creation, which is the same intuition that was gradually articulated in the Western theology of sin and grace.

Still, Moore does not miss the importance of the overall point, as exemplified by his contrast between Iamblichus and his Christian counterparts:

The understanding of history is paramount, for it is also the understanding of our universal personhood. In the philosophical theology of Origen of Alexandria, the historical becoming of the soul is said to continue even after salvation, as the intellect gradually becomes more accustomed to the perception of divine things. In Origen we find a dynamism in the eskhaton. Deification occurs, but it is not perfect assimilation of the soul to the Godhead; rather, it is a continual motion toward divinity. We find a similar idea in Gregory of Nyssa’s concept of diastêma, in which the soul is said to strive eternally for God, who remains forever aloof.

However, when considered in this way, how can history ever be, as Berdyaev declares, my history? My striving for God, for deification, becomes merely a function of a cosmos that must always exceed me – or, in the case of Maximus, of a deity of which my existence is a mere function. What distinguishes Iamblichus’ view from that of these three Church Fathers is the presence of an atemporal ontology, which tempers his brand of historical determinism (determination in history as opposed to determination by history).

It is that idea (i.e., that history is a forum for self-determination rather than a forum that determines the self) which underlies Augustine's Confessions and introduces itself into many other works under the influence of Tertullian's Stoicism. There is no hint of Pelagianism here; that would deny the experience of man's immersion in sinful reality every bit as much as failing to account for experience altogether. Instead, salvation is understood as a redemption of the entirety of human experience, the person as a whole, so that even the suffering experienced on account of sin or the detestation of one's own past sins ends up serving the goal of redemption, not based on some deterministic plan or purpose, but simply on account of the bare fact that we cannot exist apart from historical context. The eschaton is nothing other than the affirmation of who we have chosen to be, whether we have elected to render our own lives unintelligible and meaningless (lived the Trinitarian life aversively, as Zubiri puts it) or whether we have achieved the peace of self-knowledge that makes love of others possible.