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.


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