Cyril O’Regan on the (anti-Dionysian) historical origins of process theology

I have been working through Cyril O’Regan’s old Heterodox Hegel recently, and have been absolutely mesmerized by O’Regan’s ability to situate Hegel within Western theological tradition in all sorts of ways that are simultaneously tremendously significant and tremendously precise. In particular, I found one genealogy O’Regan offers in the book especially striking and worth sharing, by which he traces the roots of Hegelian ‘process theology’ all the way back to fifth century Neoplatonism.

O’Regan begins this genealogy with Proclus, for whom God is to be principally understood as the absolutely transcendent, ineffable, and singular One. It is true that God is ‘differentiated’ triadically into lower orders of reality, but these differentiations possess an ontologically derivative status to God as He is in Himself: God qua the One is in some sense ‘above’ or ‘prior to’ God in his outgoing differentiations.

Roughly one century later, Pseudo-Dionysius transposes Proclus’ theology into a decisively trinitarian key. Dionysius is happy to employ Proclus’ ‘triadic’ language in the service of Christian trinitarianism, but objects to the way Proclus subordinates the divine triads to the One. For the thoroughly orthodox Dionysius, God in Godself is a Trinity of distinct persons; and so, even in apophatic terms, there cannot be a divine One lurking ‘behind’ or ‘above’ the differentiations of Father, Son, and Spirit. To the contrary, God’s transcendent life consists in these very differentiations. While there is room for a conceptual distinction between the Trinity in its economic “processions” and the Trinity in what Dionysius calls its “transcendent hiddenness,” there is surely no room for a divine unity that somehow precedes the trinitarian relations themselves.

According to O’Regan, it is Meister Eckhart who effectively undoes Dionysius’ trinitarian revision of Proclean Neoplatonism. For Eckhart, God as Trinity (Gott) is, in a real sense, distinct from the singular Godhead (Gottheit). Whereas Gott is relational and differential, Gottheit is utterly ineffable, transcendent, and — most importantly — singular. Like the Proclean One, Gottheit transcends all distinctions, differentiations, and cataphatic descriptions (even those of trinitarian dogma). Thus, Gottheit can be understood as the ontological foundation of the trinitarian Gott, which is itself an ‘economic’ manifestation of Gottheit toward, in, and through creation.

In the nineteenth century, Hegel takes Eckhart’s anti-Dionysianism a step further. Hegel operates within Eckhart’s Gott/Gottheit distinction, but dismisses Gottheit as an unintelligible, unnecessary, apophatic fiction. But if Hegel abandons Gottheit, his theology is left with only Gott: that is, with God in his self-manifestation in, through, and to the world. For Hegel, God is thus defined in terms of the world; God in Godself no longer exists.

It is at this point that the Hegelian tendency toward ‘process theology’ begins to rear its head: if there is no ‘God behind His self-manifestation,’ God’s self-manifestation is also always His self-actualization. Every act of God’s in human history is existentially necessary and selfconstituting for God, and the only real sense in which God can be said to exist ‘apart from’ our world is as what O’Regan calls the world’s “narrative prolepsis.” We, our world, and our history are what constitute God’s own life; indeed, phrased more radically, we are God Himself in the process of His journey toward self-discovery and -actualization.

As others have demonstrated, attempts by Hegel and his inheritors to understand God in terms of ‘process’ all too frequently yield theologically incoherent and morally monstrous results. If O’Regan’s genealogy is correct, though, it appears that such theologies may never have been logically or historically necessary in the first place, and could even perhaps have been avoided but for the tradition’s sad, minority neglect of Dionysius’ theology.

Bulgakov and the problem of speculation in modern Orthodoxy

One of the most prominent and (I think) unfortunate characteristics of contemporary Orthodoxy is its zealous opposition to all things ‘speculative.’ Practically speaking, ‘speculative’ functions in this context as a kind of catch-all term, used by Orthodox to dismiss any theological claim not already made by ‘the fathers’ and ratified by ‘Tradition.’ This refusal is especially characteristic of — but certainly not limited to — the online Orthodox community (a community comprised largely of “converts from Evangelicalism who,” much to David Hart’s frustration,”bristle at the thought that Orthodox tradition might be more diverse, indeterminate, and speculatively daring than what they signed on for”).

The problem with this anti-speculative attitude is that it could hardly be less faithful to the fathers themselves, who never suggested — in either word or deed — that the task of theology is limited to the regurgitation of established truths and formulae. On the contrary, the best of the Greek fathers understood ecclesial dogma as the foundation by which the Christian is enabled to explore new speculative terrain without fear.

When Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, offered various “conjectures and similitudes” regarding the relation of the Fall to human gender in De opificio hominis, he was bequeathing to tradition not merely a set of interesting conjectures, but also — far more importantly — an example for later Christians to follow in their own theologizing. And follow it they did: Maximus and John Damascene, to use just two prominent examples, were both emboldened by De opificio hominis to speculate about the Fall and its consequences in even more daring and conjectural ways than Gregory had (in Ambiguum 8 and De fide orthodoxa 2.30, respectively).

But my point here is not simply that saints like Maximus and John felt themselves allowed to speculate on theological matters due to Gregory’s example. Much more radically, they understood themselves to be following Gregory most authentically by speculating in directions he himself had not. Balthasar thus expresses a quite genuinely patristic sentiment when he writes that

Being faithful to tradition most definitely does not consist … of a literal repetition and transmission of the philosophical and theological theses that one imagines lie hidden in time and in the contingencies of history. Rather, being faithful to tradition consists much more of imitating our Fathers in the faith with respect to their attitude of intimation reflection and their effort of audacious creation, which are the necessary preludes to true spiritual fidelity.

And perhaps no modern Orthodox theologian better exemplifies following the fathers in their “effort of audacious creation” than Sergei Bulgakov. Whatever one ultimately makes of his sophiology — whether one finds it veracious or not — there is really no questioning that it is a authentic, 20th-century expression of patristic and Orthodox tradition. It is a carefully (and prayerfully) worked out theological system, offered to the Church by a man of renowned personal sanctity and grounded in the dogmatic formulae of the Councils, the wisdom literature of the Septuagint, the iconographic tradition of the Church, and the writings of the fathers.

Which is to say: in his mature sophiological writings, Bulgakov is doing precisely what Gregory was doing in De opificio hominis, and what Maximus was doing in the Ambigua, and what Dionysius was doing in The Celestial Hierarchy (and so on and so forth). He is speculating, yes, but in a manner wholly licensed by tradition and modeled by the saints.

(For more on all this, and for an introduction to the basic claims of Bulgakovian sophiology, here is a term paper I recently completed on Bulgakov and Byzantine tradition.)