St. Maximus the Confessor, Greek, and Love

Lately I’ve come across several citations of an ancient work, “The Four Centuries on Love.” It means four series of one hundred meditations upon love. The work is by a St. Maximus the Confessor. He is a favorite theologian among the Greek Orthodox. He lived from 580-662 ad. who wrote on various topics: Christology, a devotional guide to the life of Mary, love, Biblical interpretation, and answers to difficult questions.

I’ve wanted to read his stuff for over a year but never wanted to buy it (its old enough to be public domain I say!), but nobody ever took the time to translate it until recently so the translations are not public domain. Anyhow, I found it online in Greek last night. I have feebly attempted at translating the first two meditations for your mystical consumption:

α΄. Ἀγάπη μέν ἐστιν, διάθεσις ψυχῆς ἀγαθή, καθ᾿ ἥν οὐδέν τῶν ὄντων, τῆς τοῦ Θεοῦ γνώσεως προτιμᾷ. Ἀδύνατον δέ εἰς ἕξιν ἐλθεῖν ταύτης τῆς ἀγάπης, τόν πρός τι τῶν ἐπιγείων ἔχοντα προσπάθειαν.

1. Love is, on the one hand, a well ordering of the soul, according to which nothing is more precious than the knowledge of God. On the other hand, it is impossible to go to maturity in this love for the one who remains attached to possessing earthly things.

β΄. Ἀγάπην μέν τίκτει ἀπάθεια· ἀπάθειαν δέ, ἡ εἰς Θεόν ἐλπίς· τήν δέ ἐλπίδα, ὑπομονή καί μακροθυμία· ταῦτας δέ, ἡ περιεκτική ἐγκράτεια· ἐγκράτειαν δέ, ὁ τοῦ Θεοῦ φόβος· τόν δέ φόβον, ἡ εἰς τόν Κύριον πίστις.

2. Now, detachment [presumably to material possessions or sinful habits] gives birth to love, and hope toward God births attachment and hope births endurance and patience. These are born from complete self-control, the fear of God gives birth to self-control, and faithfulness to the Lord gives birth to fear.

There it is 2 down, 398 to go.
Maximus is trying to help people come to know love as the ground of being so to speak. So, material things are, he would affirm, good. But as material things they are impermanent and themselves gifts from an immaterial, enduring, and transcendent reality: God. So, to overcome sin and learn to love as one ought, one must think through the arguments for God’s existence: Everything begins, everything ends, yet the universe exists. The precondition for the present chain of contingencies is a necessary being (a being who by definition must exist, a feature which the universe as a chain of causes cannot possess). This being is being itself or God. Since God, in Christian revelation is revealed not only as goodness itself, but as love, we must not only receive the bounty material world as a gift from God, utterly gratuitious as it is, but we must also learn to not be attached or obsessed with them. In learning to think thus, through the material world, to the immaterial God (who nevertheless took on flesh) we can learn to love because we will no longer have to grasp or obsess over the things we have/want/need because they are gifts, not ultimately, the giver.

Also, if you want to learn to love learn detachment (self-denial really), hope in God, faith in Christ, fear of God, patience, endurance, and self-control (probably of the tongue, the thoughts, and the bodily habits). If you can learn these things then love will come from them as naturally (and perhaps as painfully) as children come from romance.

David Bentley Hart, Rene Descartes, and my own Cartesian Intuitions

In his new book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, David Bentley Hart notes that during the medieval era almost nobody thought that “the relation of soul and body was anything like a relation between two wholly independent kinds of substance: the ghost and its machine (which for what it is worth, was not really Descartes understanding of the relation either). (p. 168)” This is interesting to me because one of the chief critiques I had heard of Descartes is that he posited that humans are primarily “thinking things” and the mind interacts with the body almost incidentally. But I had always been intrigued when I read Descartes third meditation he notes this, “For since I am nothing but a thinking thing, or at least, since I am now dealing simply and precisely with the part of me that is a thinking thing, if such a power were in me [the power to create oneself from nothing], then I would surely be aware of it. (Third Meditation paragraph 49)”

I had always wondered, and never had anybody to talk to about it, if Descartes contention that we are merely thinking things who happen to be unfortunately embodied, is actually not his position but his assumption for the sake of argument. He’s going solely from what he knows, like in his problem solving methodology. He’s saying, “If I’m merely a thinking thing (the only thing I can know for sure starting from a radically skeptical position), then here are the logical results.” Anyhow, I’m glad Hart sees this too, he’s a thinker who probably knows Descartes better than me and teaches at universities with the requisite libraries to read good books on the topic.  

Learning to Solve Problems like a Truck (or Rene Descartes)

One of my favorite diversions, when I’m in a good frame of mind, is to read philosophy. One of my favorite guys to revisit is Rene Descartes. I don’t know if it is his love for mathematics or his self-deprecating nature. He noted in Discourse on Method:  

“For myself, I have never fancied my mind to be in any respect more perfect than those of the generality; on the contrary, I have often wished that I were equal to some others in promptitude of thought, or in clearness and distinctness of imagination, or in fullness and readiness of memory…I will not hesitate, however, to avow my belief that it has been my singular good fortune to have very early in life fallen in with certain tracks which have conducted me to considerations and maxims, of which I have formed a method that gives me the means, as I think, of gradually augmenting my knowledge, and of raising it by little and little to the highest point which the mediocrity of my talents and the brief duration of my life will permit me to reach.”

So, though he felt less clever than many others, he was able, by his estimation to increase in knowledge and mental ability over time because of a method of thinking which he came upon at a young age. Let’s not fool ourselves though, his IQ has apparently been estimated to be around 162. He made important contributions to philosophy, intellectual method, (for better or for worse) to anthropology with his dualism, and to theological proofs. Even Hume claimed to be convinced by Descartes’ proofs of God’s existence.

How did a man who felt slow witted end up so brilliant? Partly genetics. But I’m more interested in his problem solving methodology. Many people find themselves confronted by a difficulty in life. A relationship problem, a philosophical quandary, a research paper, or some other such issue and they freeze. But I think old Rene had a better method:

The first [rule] was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgement than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.


The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.


The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.


And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.1


So, did you get that? Here’s my summary:

  1. Start with what you know. Ask these questions, “What do I know? What can I figure out? What is the problem I am facing? What facts are present? What knowledge do I have that is less certain?”
  2. Break the problem down into smaller pieces. For example, when trying to solve a relationship problem find answers to questions like, “How do I feel? Is this feeling based on selfishness or a genuine offense? Do I need to apologize for anything? Who wronged me? What did they do?” In a mathematics problem break the problem down into smaller steps. For instance discern which equations apply, find out precisely which unknowns you must discover, look at mathematical expressions in terms of discrete steps like in the classical order of operations (PEMDAS). 
  3. Then start solving it from the simplest and easiest steps to the hardest and most complex synthesized answers. Just because you do not know the solution to a problem does not mean that it is not available. 
  4. Finally, take notes. Write everything down, the human mind is fallible, forgetful, and is jogged quickly by lists, diagrams, and graphical representations. Write what you know, write the smaller problems, write the solutions to them and the steps, then finally bring it all to a conclusion. 

Why is this important? Because everybody ignores philosophy as though it were for ne’er do wells, effete academicians with no life, and intractably lazy individuals who snort at those who don’t have loft interests. In reality, good philosophy, is largely the art of asking and answering the biggest and smallest questions of our existence. 


1Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, (Electronic Edition), 2.7

The Middle Ages, Theology, and Science.

Several months ago I wrote a review of the book Superstition. Thinking back to numerous of its claims one in particular came back to mind. Park stated often that when Christians believe in God in prevents them from doing science because they already know that God made it, therefore nobody has to ask any questions. I rarely make claims to know what people believe without asking them, I also rarely make attempts to clarify physics for physicists (though I’ve discovered that with a bit of reading I can do a lot of physics). But I am trained to study ancient texts and history, something Park couldn’t do. 
Christians today may really think that science is dangerous to Christianity. But in the medieval era (an era you’ll recall was not really the Dark Ages) science was considered a gold mine of important data about the world. Etienne Gilson note in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy:

In every one of his actions man is a living witness to finality in the universe, and if it would be a very naive piece of anthropomorphism to regard all natural events as the work of a hidden supermen, it would be no less naive to hold itself to take no notice of it [finality] even where it exists. The discovery of the why does not absolve us from looking for the how, but, if anyone looks only for the how can he be surprised if he fails to find the why?…on this point Christian thought has never wavered [during the Medieval era]. pp 105

In other word, man makes decisions with goals in mind. The universe seems to have an aim too. It was this aim-ed-ness that led the Medievals to pursue questions of about “how things came to be in the first place.” They did this because, believing God made it for a purpose, the steps backward and forward, in fits and starts, could be discerned. The universe, ultimately, was a communication of God’s “beatitude along with His intelligibility.” 

Because humans were a part of nature and they had aims and experienced causality, the rest of nature could be perceived the same way. This Greco-Roman belief along with the belief in God’s intelligibility impelled people to pursue scientific questions. Modern Christians may not see it that way and that is sad, but it is wrong to say that Christianity, in general, makes people averse to science. In my experience university politics sometimes makes scientists averse to science but few scientists call for an exodus from the universities. 

Anyhow, in the medieval era theology and science were, at least conceptually, sort of like a joint endeavor not a battle. How this worked in practice varied as other medievalists will tell you, but the general stance of the day was that studying the physical world for answers to how questions was a good thing. 

Why not read Barth?

Based on a link posted in the comments at Jim’s blog I found a supposed source for Barth-less pride. 

The apparent source of people not wanting to read Karl Barth a post by Janice Reese at this blog. People who used her post to excuse intentional ignorance misunderstood her point. She notes, with all the sincerity I can tell from the internet, that she suffers from hypocrisy. I do too. So we have something in common, so I hope that my counter-point can be taken humbly. 

She states her reasons for not reading Barth, which I summarize for you here with brief quotes:

  1. …It was clear time and time again that many around me felt a failure to consult Barth in numerous areas of doctrinal debate was a failure to engage in serious scholarship. I felt (and still feel) that it was not only legitimate to, but also that I had to, resist this…
  2. …Feminists have been silenced and ignored by these tactics for decades. Of course there are feminist Barthians, and there are minoritised scholars working with various forms of Barthian theology. However, nearly every time I have read Barthian scholarship and glanced over the footnotes I have seen been struck by how (obviously) this culture of systematic theology supports white men talking about what other white men have said…
  3. …When I attend conferences in America it is the Barthians who stand out, who have the large crowds, who have the ‘big names’. What stands out is in fact the white man’s club.  It is like watching the powerful movement of Patriarchy – striding confidently with long able legs while wearing leather patched tweed jackets…

I would understand if she were protesting Barth because he evidently cheated on his wife or something (but is it wrong to be baptized or educated by a sinner, St Augustine?), but the main reasons are apparently that “everybody reads Barth” and “patriarchy.” 

I think what she ends up doing by accident is playing a combination hipster card and what I call “the feminist opt out card.”


“Reading Barth is too common.” Really? That’s tantamount to saying, “I’m a Christian theologian…but I think the Bible is overdone, I want to read and preach on a less privileged text like Das Capital.” Why not read both (Barth and minority scholars)? Oh yeah, because Barth is privileged. He’s also dead, people aren’t reading him because he’s a rich white guy who is leading some charade designed to undervalue women. They might be reading him because he’s helpful, because they wanted the challenge, or because they like fitting in. 


Her reasoning about patriarchy is similar to when this lady (whose internet name may offend some of my readers) quoted a comment directed to this other lady

My feminist activism involves privileging women’s voices over men’s voices. I now only read books written by women. I try to get my main news from women’s news sites and women journalists like Soraya Chemaly, Samira Ahmed, Bidisha, Helen Lewis, Bim Adewunmi, and Sarah Smith. I follow only women journalists on Twitter and Facebook. I support organisations which are placing women’s experiences at the centre of public debate: Women Under Siege, The Everyday Sexism Project, and The Women’s Room UK.

In other words, “Barth is categorically not worth reading because he is a male.” I suppose utilizing Alternating Current in the electric grid is similar (thanks Tesla).
Tesla was a male-stream inventor…therefore it is supporting patriarchy to use his inventions. Q.E.D.

In case the analogy between Reese and the commenter quoted above is not apparent Reese opts out of reading Barth because people who read Barth don’t read other voices (which I can’t speak on out of my own experience which I’ll get to*). So, “Barth (who is dead) is used as an excuse to silence others, therefore I won’t read him regardless of what legitimate insights he offers into the gospel.” It is in effect silencing Barth’s voice (as it remains upon the page and is only heard by those who take up and read) in lament of those who allegedly silence others.** Simply saying, “I don’t care to read Barth” wouldn’t be silencing him but rather ignoring him. That seems more polite.


Thankfully we are not actually trapped in a world of bizarre logical dilemmas like the this: I can read Barth and be a sycophant to males who abuse power or I can resist in an admittedly measly fashion.

Here are other logical possibilities (not practical or true possibilities necessarily, I’m just stating other logical possibilities):

  1. Admit that you don’t want to read Barth because you want to read other things. Then it is pure honesty, not measly protest. I haven’t read Barth lately because I’m writing a paper on Matthew’s gospel, I’m teaching 8 classes at a private high school, I’m busy at my church, and my wife is more fun to spend time with than Karl Barth is. 
  2. Read Barth and critique Barth rather than rail against his followers. In other words, utilize dialectic (in the Aristotelian sense of careful argument). Understand Barth and the Barthians better than they understand their own arguments (which many of them never appear to make…they do just use a frightful amount of jargon). If you want to end the charade be the first to prove that the Emperor is Naked. 
  3. Protest in a bigger way than that. Hold a Barth-Free conference. I recommend against this though, it would be like refusing to be defined by sexuality by constantly referencing your sexual activities. Maybe hold a conference about post-colonial theology and only have one Barth session.
  4. Change majors at the last minute to New Testament. Barth was simply wrong about Romans and though he deserves to be read he can easily be marginalized at that point. 

* Here is note on my own experience with Barth and minority voices. I never finished the Dogmatics, though I’ve read three of the volumes and portions of the rest. I’ve also read most of Barth’s smaller books which are in English. But I’ve also read James Cone, Elizabeth Johnson, Elisabeth Fiorenza, Athanasius, Naomi Wolf, Gustavo Gutierrez, etc. Shoot, I’ve read stuff by atheists, Muslims, men, women, and mathematicians. One of my diversions is mathematics. The beauty of it is that your gender, socio-economic status, skin color, or religion hardly factor into things. If your a neo-nazi nobody can reject your conjecture if it is proven rigorously. You can even be a woman and do good math and people have to listen. I rarely meet people at theology or ministry conferences who are particularly good at mathematics or Greek syntax but that does not mean they do not appreciate the need for those things. Though I’m a theology major, I presented a piece on expertise, mathematics pedagogy, and Sherlock Holmes a year or so ago. My presence there did not mean that I do not care about the literacy, linguistics, and rhetoric meetings down the hall. I just didn’t present in those forums that day. I wasn’t asked to. Similarly, I imagine that people in the Barth session still read and have interest in the other topics or other authors on the same topics.

**I’m not sure how many published Western feminist theology professors qualify as silenced. I know people who are silenced. My friend Ryan and his wife Amanda are pastors of a church called the Station. The members who go there for the ministry of the Word and for food have been beaten, ignored, spit upon, arrested, mistreated by police, and judged by everybody else. Nobody cares about their opinion except for their pastors and our Lord. They’ve been silenced. Feminists with dissertations, published books, and tenure haven’t been silenced. Women are systematically silenced in places like Iran, Afghanistan, the Congo, and Peru (I’ve been there wife beating is ubiquitous). The rhetoric of women being silenced in Western Universities (Australia is in the east but you get the point) is tired and simply not comparable to the realities where that language has real social referents. I understand that sometimes it is hard to get a job with a theology degree, but that’s our fault for getting theology degrees (note how I mentioned I’m a math teacher), but that’s not necessarily because of gender.