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The Ontological Realism of our Hopes Hereafter: Conclusions from St Maximus the

Confessors Brief References


Christos Yannaras
Maximus the Confessor did not write a dedicated treatise or homily or epistle or any
other systematic reference on the subject of the continuation of mans existence after
death. However, there are, scattered through his works, hints on the subject, which
could perhaps form a sufficient basis for us to understand his perspective. His brief
references usually convey an ontological approach that is valuable for the empirical
character which is required for the realism of the ecclesial testimony.
Two clarifications would be useful to correctly understand Maximus approach on the
afterlife:
First of all, we should clarify, what is the role and the authority of the patristic texts and
of Scripture itself in the life of the Church. And to be more specific: is it the Church that
gives birth to Scripture and Tradition; do Scripture and Tradition record the testimony
of the ecclesial experience? Or is it Tradition and Scripture that give birth to the
Church, that act as the sources of the ecclesial truth (just as Marxs texts gave birth to
Marxism or Freuds texts to Freudianism)? In the first case, the Churchs truth is an
event, a mode of existence incarnate in a specific body of human coexistence. This
mode, this way of existence iconizes (that is, pursues and potentially realizes freedom
from all necessity and from all restrictions of time, space, deterioration, and death): the
mode of existence of the uncreated triune Causal Principle of existence. The experience
of the ecclesial body is recorded and testified in the texts of the Scripture, in the
liturgical texts, in the texts of the Fathers. The texts themselves are a record of this
experience; they do not substitute the experience; the experience itself (the mode of
existence) is the truth; texts can only show us its limits at best. We will not come to
know the triunity of God by reading the Scripture or synodal decrees, but we will come
to know it by participating (perhaps over a long time) in the mode of existence that
constitutes the Church.
In the second case, if Scripture and Tradition give birth to the Church and are the
sources of her truth, then the truth of the Church is percieved as an objective fact
each person can individually possess it (with the help of his intellect, his emotions, or
any other individual quality). The truth can be his individual possession, privilege, and
armor of his ego. The objectified sources of truth, the texts, are recognized and
sanctified in themselves, like idols, and the individual fidelity to the letter of biblical,
patristic or of liturgical texts alienates the faith: from an event and athlema of
confidence and self-givingness it is turned into individual beliefs. And the idolized
correctness of these individual beliefs is turned into measurable earned merit and
egocentric self-hedonism.
Here is the second clarification, so that we can understand Maximus the Confessors
hints on the continuation of mans life after death:
It is exactly because the truth of the Church is a how and not a what (it is the mode
of the formation and function of her eucharistic body, a mode that is the athlema of
iconizing the trinitarian fullness of being) that the apposition of theses that claim to
answer any human question on meta-physics does not precede the Church.
As a rule, the Church expressed the testimony of her experience using the language of
the time of her historical birth, the religious language that was then understood by
everyone for every subject pertaining to meta-physics (the language that was also used
by the Hebrews to express the unveiling of God in their history). That is why, in the texts
of the New Testament, the division of the transcendental existence in numbered
heavens is treated as a self-evident fact; or the presence of God is stated as fire,
earthquake, and a flying bird; or the angelology and daemonology common in almost all
pagan religions of the Middle East prevails, etc.
The Church intervened only in cases where her empirical truth was falsified or
formulated in a language too susceptible to significant deviations from the ecclesial
mode of existence. She intervened in councils, in synods, to express and formulate in
words through the testimony of her bishops the experience of the whole catholic
Church. And in these instances the language used by the Church to express herself
was the universal language formed by the Greeks to express the ontological problem
with claims of consistent (that is, wholly communicable) empiricism, for the first time in
human history: the problem of the distinction of the real and the imaginary or the
conceived, of the actually existing and of the transient and ephemeral, the problem of
the meaning (of the cause and the purpose) of existence.
The Church, thus, defined her faith in and experience of the triunity of God and of
the Incarnation of the Son and Logos with the language of the ontological concern of the
Greeks, along with the realism and catholicity of this language. The Church also defined
the distinction between the icon and the idol, the distinction between the icon and the
decorative painting and pleasing to the individuals senses. There was no ecumenical
and synodal decree concerning our hopes hereafter, an illumination of the ecclesial
hopes ontological content.
Maximus the Confessor imports some ontological clarifications in the brief hints on the
subject scattered through his works. However, he avoids completing a systematic
ontological approach which could be understood as a hermeneutic thesis. Let us not
forget that is seems impossible to express, to signify a reality to which we dont have
sensory access through our language. Apostle Paul describes the experience of
existence beyond the senses as something literally indescribable: [ He] heard things so
astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to
utter. (2 Cor 12: 4) no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what
God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2: 9).
However, the ecclesial testimony has achieved to express the experience of the reality
of the created world as well as that of the uncreated with the help of the Greek
philosophical language of ontology (with the categories: essence-nature [ - ],
person-hypostasis [ - ], energies of nature [ ],
hypostatic properties [ ], otherness [ ], freedom
[ ], relation [ ], etc.). This is done while being always conscious of the
apophatic character of the formulations in language, of the fact that the understanding
of the signifiers is not identical with the knowledge of the signified, of the fact that truth
is not limited to its formulations in language. Such an effort to express and signify the
reality of our hopes hereafter with the language of consistent ontological questioning
has not taken place in the Churchs history.
Didnt the request for such an effort appear? Has the need for it not manifested? Was it
impossible to convene an Ecumenical Council from some point in history onwards?
The fact remains that the Church prays and speaks about the hereafter, until today, with
the juridical and psychological language of the ancient Middle Eastern religions,
interspersed with fragments of revealing ontological expressions that remain
unconnected, if not inconsistent, with the rest of the religious teaching.
Saint Maximus introduces ontological designations that could become a starting point
for a search for a more consistently ecclesial (as opposed to religious) expression of our
hope hereafter. The first valuable interpretative clarification that we owe to him is his
position that after death the existence of the human person is realized not by nature,
but by Grace. 1
We term person ( ) the logical (i.e., pertaining to Logos) hypostasis of each
man in the image of God, each hypostatic realization of human nature. The human
person exists by hypostasizing (constituting as hypostasis) the created energies of the
created human nature; it hypostasizes them with individual properties, that is both with
morphic (distinctive) otherness and with active (free from predeterminations) otherness.
And the question arises: after the physical death, after the complete shutting down of
the created human natures created energies, which energies does the human
hypostasis hypostasize so that it can constitute an existing person, an actually existing
being? Saint Maximus answers: after our death, the hypostasis hypostasizes not the
created nature any more, but the uncreated Grace. Man exists not by nature but by
Grace; his existence is realized not through the created energies of a created nature,
but with the energies of an existence given as a present by God, with the uncreated
energies of divine Grace.
Maximus creates with his ontological interpretative proposal the possibility for an
ontological interpretation of hell as well, which is usually understood by religious
standards, that is with juridical and psychological ones. In Maximus perspective, God
does neither create or impose hell as a punishment. God is only love, and He gives
himself to every human being getting united with him towards the eternity, towards
immortality. If mans freedom has developed in him a quality of disposition (
) capable of responding to the Grace of his union with God, then the union
will be for the one uniting with God an inconceivable pleasure ( ). If
man receives this life-giving Grace but cannot respond to it, hasnt acquired the
preparedness and responsiveness for it, then his union with God will be unspeakable
suffering ( ), hell.
Everyones quality of disposition ( ),
which will judge the union of man with God after death as an inconceivable pleasure or
as an unspeakable suffering, is a second ontological perspective by Saint Maximus
that is crucial for our hopes. He does not analyze the content of this quality that will
determine the disposition and by disposition he means here our willingness to
devote and give ourselves, the freedom we have to give positive or negative response
and self-offering to the union with God that is offered by Him.
However, this quality may not be translated into a logistical numbering and
contradistinction of good deeds and sins; this juridical understanding screams of its
religious (and not ecclesial) roots. An ecclesial approach would perhaps be to see in this
quality of disposition a preparedness that does not come through observation (Luke
17: 20) and probably finds its most characteristic illustration in the thiefs remember
me shortly before his last breath. The thiefs quality of disposition turns him into a
partaker of paradise on the same day, without requiring the slightest merits.
A third ontological clarification by Maximus concerns the existential fullness we expect
after death, when [man] joins the Providence in all immediacy, without mediation. 2
How could we come to understand this direct joining, this participation in the fullness of
being by Grace, in terms of a mode of existence? In the funeral service of todays
Orthodox Churches, which is formulated in a purely religious language, supplications
for the eternal rest of the deceased and for the forgiveness (of sins, of faults, of
crimes) that this rest presupposes are continuously repeated. However, for the man
who has tasted in his earthly life the joyous adventure of research, of creating, of a
knowledge that remains always unlimited, of the vast diversity of beauty, of the
astonishment of love and of child-bearing, of the expressive abilities of Art, for this
person an eternal rest (that is, a perhaps voluptuous but surely stagnant inactivity,
some kind of retirement without an end through death) would be a complete nightmare.
Saint Maximus sees that the becoming of existence presupposes movement as a
necessity: the perpetual motion of the created world until the end of the Aeons is
realized in its returning movement towards its existential Cause, a Cause that is
essentially inaccessible. 3 Therefore, when the human hypostasis will hypostasize the
uncreated Grace and not the created nature, there will be no movement and motion just
as there will be no dimension (space and time). Maximus, in his attempt to signify this
reality of participating in the ineffable mode of the Uncreated with the language of the
created, joins contradictory concepts together: he says that the human existence will
acquire an ever-moving repose and a stationary movement. 4 He wishes to signify the
existential freedom from every necessity of motion or repose, the realization of
existence as relation, the freedom of love as the mode of the fullness of existence.
Only relation can include the rapture of motion-quest-pursuance and the fullness of
repose as an existential event perhaps this is what Paul indicates with his words: We
all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lords glory, are being transformed into his
image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:
18), For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face (1
Cor 13: 12).
Even while existing within the confines of createdness, the human person is
experiencing a part of the fascinating experience of relation and relationship, of the
unlimited cognitive dynamics of relation, of its always incomplete fullness the human
person is experiencing in its interpersonal relationships some, perhaps only a few but
nonetheless revealing, instances of a freedom from time, space, deterioration.
There are also other ontological approaches about our hopes hereafter that can be
found in the texts of St Maximus, both direct and indirect approaches. For example, the
possibility that what we term in our language as hell could refer to mans free choice
not to exist. If the foundation of existing is the relationship with God, and the logical
relationship (which, to be logical-personal, must be free) constitutes the logical-personal
existence, then this relationship-existence can be either accepted or even rejected,
leading to nonexistence.
Hell, says Maximus, is the negation to participate in the and in the
and the 5: the free self-exclusion from existence, from relation-
participation in being, the negation of the relationship and as such the negation of
existing, of existence. And this voluntary nonexistence as a deprivation and loss of the
gift of deification can perhaps only be signified symbolically in language with the image
of endless torture, of suffering and weeping.
Thereby is the unbearable scandal dispelled, that a God who is love preserves His
deniers eternally in existence only to see them suffer hopelessly.
More generally, Maximus ontological perspective on the restoration ( ) of
the whole of nature in the freedom of the glory of Gods children, the difference
between his perspective and one of Origen or of Gregory or Nyssa, is one of the most
exciting challenges for an ontological clarification of the ecclesial testimony. A brief
conference paper does not suffice but merely remind us of pendencies that might be
worth the attention of systematic research. St Maximus example allows us to conclude
that the ecclesial experiences testimony was not finitely completed in a glorious past,
but is perpetually realized with the dynamics of gradually fuller expressive capabilities,
especially in the field of ontological hermeneutics language.
It is very likely that criteria and prerequisites for an illumination of crucial hermeneutic
pendencies concerning our hopes hereafter can be drawn from St Maximus work.
Completing this presentation, I would like to indicatively cite some of these pendencies:
1. If by the term person ( ) we define existence as an at least relative
freedom of self-determination, then how can we accept that there is no repentance
after death? Can there be a personal being without the capability of constituting relation
or of negating relation? Does man cease to be a person after death, is he turned into an
impersonal, brutish being of monomodal predetermination?
1. Should we perhaps understand our condition after death as a freedom from the
existential preconditions of createdness, a freedom from the existential dilemmas of
the necessities that govern created nature? That is, a freedom from repentance or
non-repentance, non-repentance, a freedom of transition from glory to glory?
3. If we answer affirmatively to the previous question, how can we interpret ontologically
the ecclesial angelology and daemonology? Are angels and demons personal
beings? If so, how can the unchangeable character of their nature be interpreted?
Are they of a created or an uncreated nature? If they are created, which existential
restrictions of createdness govern their nature and how can these restrictions be
withdrawn in the case of angels, without the angelic nature ever having been
assimilated by God?
4. If motion and time are withdrawn after death, why does judgement reside in the
future, and why is the resurrection of the dead expected? Why should the
semantics of our hopes be limited to the logic of the constrains of the created world?
What indications does the ecclesial testimony allow for an ontological interpretation of
the hope within us, judging from the behavior of Christs physical body after his
Resurrection and on the event of his Ascension? These are articulated with a brevity
that does not exclude risk.
Footnotes:
1 See Myst. PG 91, 696. Cap. theol. PG 90 1312 C. Christos Yannaras, The Effable
and the Ineffable (T ), Chapter 19, . 17, 2-2.5.1.
2 QThal. PG 90, 760.
3 Amb. PG 91, 1304D. -1308 . Lars Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator, Lund
1965 p. 147ff.
4 See footnote 2 and Christos Yannaras, Person and Eros 33. Relational Ontology
20.3.4.
5 Amb. PG 91, 1325 . Also see: John Zizioulas, Eschatology and Existence
( ), Synaxis n. 121/ 2012, p. 48.