Mixture and Distinction in Metaphysics

For several hundred (if not thousand) years society’s most probing and thoughtful, truth-seeking minds studied and wrote about religion. In an era where literacy was scarce, I greatly appreciate the time, effort, and rigorous application of logic to difficult paradoxes or questions posed by theology. At the same time, there’s a real risk that debating subtle points of metaphysics takes us out of the world, substituting the work of analysis and argument for the work of Tikkun Olam, of right thinking for right acting. I read a few works by early church fathers, and found the exercise beneficial both for engaging with primary sources and for thinking about my own beliefs. Both authors worried about whether the divine and mortal elements could be “fused” or “mixed.” This could appear to simply be navel-gazing, but it has important implications for one’s world-view: if the divine and the corporeal can be blended, then they exist on a continuum, rather than having a bright-line distinction, an impermeable separation. By analogy, philosophically one could be correct in some views (i.e., divine, perfect) and incorrect (i.e., mortal, fallible).

Theodoret of Cyrus’ Eranistes rejects mixture in a lengthy argument (though it is commendable for thinking through an idea to its conclusions). Theodoret was a 5th-century priest who argued that the Word (Divine Nature) in Jesus could never have been “mixed” in his mortal body, because divine perfection must be absolute and therefore immutable. Following from those two elements, the Word could not have been crucified or suffered. It’s a carefully laid-out argument, and clearly a reaction to the “Monophysite heresy.” Theodoret is not only convinced that his interpretation is correct, but that those who believe wrongly are damned, and therefore doomed. I have a really hard time with that leap. I can follow it logically: beliefs are either correct or incorrect, and if worshiping a false god removes a person from God’s blessings and grace, then misunderstanding the nature of God is also incorrect and has the same consequences. Nevertheless, this feels problematic and unjust in two ways (even trying to take contemporary pluralism out of the equation). Firstly, these particular interpretations are not transparent in the text. It’s hard for me to believe that a crucial element of belief would be left subject to ambiguity and that worshippers would be punished for misinterpreting that ambiguous element, particularly when it’s not clear to me how a person would change his/her behavior as a result. Claiming that the Word was blended with flesh in the person of Jesus could perhaps be viewed as disrespectful, in implying that God could be killed/mortified by humans, but I can’t fathom how it merits damnation. Secondly, it means that Theodoret has arrogated to himself authority (while leaning on other church fathers) to determine the validity of a fundamentally un-knowable metaphysical question. Perhaps it is my own lack of confidence, but I am skeptical of any mortal’s ability to discern divine truth. This may be more about tone than content and overly reflects the lawyer in me, but positing a theory feels distinct from stating a fact. Theodoret is squarely in the latter camp, and I wonder whence he draws such certainty.

If Theodoret’s arguments were abstract, those in Dionysius the Areopagite on the Divine Names and Mystical Theology are downright mystifying. He articulates the He spends an enormous amount of energy trying to reconcile the divine and the worldly elements of Christ, and resolves the paradox of the Trinity (how can a monotheistic religion worship multiple beings?) by describing the trinity as “emanations” of a “Super-Eternal” god who is all things combined (but not fused). Dionysius emphasizes the distinction between combination and fusion far more than I would have felt is necessary, but, like Theodoret, this probably stems from the particular concern that Monophysites were “fusing” (i.e., diluting) the divine nature. In places, this borders on pantheism; it also leads him to deny the existence of evil in the world. This is probably a reaction to the Manicheans, but in turn leads him to define evil as “the failed opportunity to do good.” I’m not sure how he would interpret theft/murder in those lines; defining positive crimes as “a failed opportunity to not murder” feels a little awkward, though I suppose it’s not inherently illogical.

Reading Dionysius also fortified my belief in this project. My wife asked me “when is reading that ever going to be relevant to you?” A few months later, when reading an extensive book on the Reformation (discussion to follow eventually), the author discussed Protestant efforts to trace their philosophical lineage back to the time of Jesus in order to claim precedence as “the true church.” One of their sources was none other than Dionysius (or pseudo-Dionysius, since the author wrote the book in the 5th century, but posed as an Athenian converted directly by Paul the Apostle). I hope to continue to read more, but am looking forward to writing about something a little more accessible next.

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