The Clasp of the Catena; The Circle and Diameter, or, How to Make our Eschatology Clear

Chris Hackett,
University of Virginia


In his brief essay, Jamie Smith responds to Peter Ochs’s “prophetic call” to “nurture philosophy otherwise” than being in the (illusory) self-founded and self-transparent rationality of secular reasoning. [1] It is hard to see his response as anything more than a polite gesture and a light critique. Smith fundamentally sees Ochs and Scriptural Reasoning (SR) as an ally in that work which he and Radical Orthodoxy (RO) also perform, a return of philosophy to its roots ( radix ) and thus a reordering of thinking so that it self-consciously stems again from its more primordial religious ground. The merit of Ochs’s project, according to Smith, is not merely that Ochs’s “postliberalism” is a postfoundationalist “philosophical investigation of religious themes,” but further, that it attempts to articulate modes of reasoning not merely based in “the particularity of confessional tradition,” but rather, ab fontibus , from the sources of our traditions, the Scriptures. [2] Yet, for Smith, though Ochs and SR rightly locate the necessity of a change of habits for religious thinking, “repair” fails to offer a sufficiently complete overcoming of modernity and liberalism, and therefore tends to retain implicit elements of that which it seeks to overcome. [3] In short, Smith’s criticism is founded on a perception that Ochs (and SR) is “not radical enough” (as John Milbank would say). In order to adequately understand Smith’s essay, which—no fault of its own—functions completely on the surface, we must turn over some earth in order to expose the root.


In the following sketch I will not make further inquiry into Jamie Smith’s basic critique of Peter Ochs’s proposal for liturgical transformation of modern subjectivity, viz., that it still harbors that which it seeks to overcome—a lingering modern rationalism—by privileging judgment and cognition in its conception of the human person. Neither will I explore the logic of Ochs’s concise response to Smith, viz. (as I interpret it), that his essay on Morning Prayer as a means of “alternative nurturance” for a religious thinker seeking to escape the grip of Cartesian rationalism is not a mode of ‘repair’ modeled on protestant reformation, but rather a subtle, deeper practice of learning a habitus of a deepening spiritual discipline, and as such is merely the first steps out of the spirituality of Cartesianism to the logic of Scripture. [4] Ochs’s model, one could observe, is more akin to spiritual direction—and thus not Heideggerian Destruktion —built on Jesus’s logic of the mustard plant, not the “cedars of Lebanon” (cf. Mark 4:30-4 and its prophetic background, Ez. 31 and esp. Ps. 29:5) or again, more akin to St. Paul’s remedy of “milk, not solid food” for the particular problems that beset the Corinthian community (cf. 1Cor. 3:1-4). I will leave it to the reader to develop further the lineaments of this debate and to draw his own conclusions. Rather, it seems necessary to me first to take a step back and seek to discern what animates Smith’s approach as it emerges out of the ‘sense’ or logic of Christianity (bracketing judgments of veracity) in the most general terms possible. We must dig with as little violence as possible in order to leave the transcendental root intact. To that end, via a sort of phenomenological viewing, I would simply like to develop a set of orienting observations, with special reference to RO, regarding the historical sense of Christian thinking as it stems from its root in the eschatological dimension of the New Testament, and what this logic means for Christian engagement in SR.

I. Analectic and Antinomic: The Eschatological Transcendental

Eschatology as Root

Let me begin, then, by proposing a thesis: that the transcendental conditions proper to Christian thought are irreducibly eschatological , and that these primary eschatological conditions require, for Christianity, a unique metaphysical possibility, which, for our purposes here, requires a positive distinction between universal truth claims and universal, absolute truth claims. These eschatological conditions are transcendental because they are the original and sufficient root from which springs the logic of (apostolic) exegesis, (patristic) dogma and (medieval) theology. I will investigate whether, and in what way, this metaphysical possibility and positive distinction aid us in perceiving precisely what is at stake between SR and RO. This, I presume, would expose the transcendental conditions behind RO as a Christian theology (though, again, the validity of RO’s positive expression of these transcendental conditions will not be assessed). In what follows I will elucidate this thesis through a sort of transcendental deduction that proffers a catena of five interrelated links that, to my mind, articulate critical dimensions of the logic of the New Testament for Christian theology, what I will risk calling its eschato-logic .

Eschatology and Christology

I address the end first. Christianity’s triadic thought form, according to St. Augustine, first involves an historical Person, the divine Logic made flesh. This simple commitment to an incarnate Logos is inseparably tied to the exegetical distinction between letter and spirit that Augustine inherits (from St. Paul), and the mode of theological reasoning that develops from it, all of which has first an eschatological provenance. Christ, for Augustine, is the true and final ‘referent’ of all Scripture and performs the mediate unity between the literal and spiritual senses as well. That is to say, Christ bridges this exegetical distinction in himself precisely and only because, as the incarnate Word, he bridges the eschatological distinction between the “already” and “not-yet” of the Civitatis Dei . Thus for Augustine the referent of the text is incarnate in the sense of the text. However, this distinction, fundamental to Christian exegesis, is not collapsed precisely because it is the eschatological distinction which founds it (but much more on this below). Paradoxically, it is only from this fixed, absolute point of the Word, not merely as Idea, but in the flesh , that its irreducibly triadic, that is, hermeneutic and mediatory character, derives. [5]

Thus to abstract from or minimize the full brunt of the historical and dogmatic character of the Incarnation would be in fact to lose Christianity’s mediational quality, what we may call its hermeneutical openness . Let me explain this stark paradox by articulating what we may first call the universal doubling that emerges from the heart of Christianity. The universal and absolute claim of the resurrection is the context alone within which Christianity makes sense, and, simultaneously, this universal and absolute claim is the condition without which —according to Christian logic—other universal claims cannot exist. What this rather bizarre situation means is that the Incarnation is the point where the Universal Absolute becomes universally and absolutely manifest, precisely because he becomes manifest under the most absolute historical and particular conditions possible (a human person). Yet it is precisely these very radical particularities of the Incarnation—inclusive, that is to say, of its central eschatological and thus narrative dimensions—which set the irreparable conditions for Christians by which other universal claims can, and indeed do, exist. Yet absolute truth demands absolute commitment to its universality: this is, one could say, the radicality of orthodoxy…the catholicity of Christianity. Christianity is the eschatological religion and is, as such, universal and absolute. Yet the possibility of mediation occurs, the reader may now see, precisely at this very point of actuality of absolute radicality: though inaugurated , definitively, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the eschaton is not-yet consummated . There is a “Christological parenthesis” to this time of overlap between the ages that holds together creation and apocalypse, disclosing their final meaning. [6] Thus in terms of Christology: the radical particularity of the Incarnation, its very historicity, creates the possibility for the presence of other universals, in this time between the ages, to co-exist with it. At this time of continuation of the inaugurated Kingdom ( kairos ) the eschaton proleptically advances from the future as the telos of the past: the old order of things ( aeon ) and the new order of things overlap, the former, quite visibly, and the latter, primarily through the sacramental economy of the Church (visible and invisible).

How these universals may co-exist, for Christianity, is just as important as realizing their original possibility in eschatology. Thus the particular mode of New Testament eschatology temporally displaces the absoluticity of Christian universalism, even as it eternally instaurates it: the Christian confession about Jesus Christ is that in him the final meaning of human existence has arrived, and is now present, but not-yet in its fullness. History continues although the eschaton has arrived, although its end has been made apparent ( apokalypsis ); or, in the language of the Gospels, the Kingdom is inaugurated, humanity (and all creation) has entered into the New Creation in the Resurrected (and Jewish, I might add) Flesh of Christ: yet, we participate in this New Creation in the present only through the three-fold mode of faith, hope and love (1 Cor. 13). The mystery of this eschatological paradox is at the heart of the Christian religion, providing the very form of its practices and the origin of the logic of its thought. In other words, the triunity of God is a thoroughly eschatological idea, as is the means through which we attain awareness of it, Christology (as is, also, the logic of which is first made manifest, the Liturgy).

So, a first pause with the Christological concentration of Christian logic brings to light the fundamental contours of the eschatological transcendentalism of the New Testament. We may continue by noting that there is a radical humility attached to Christian absolute universalism which is unique. The Kingdom of God is present—really present among us!—but only in a hidden way, seen by faith. Now the danger of Christian absolutism , or the political ramifications of an “over-realized eschatology” cannot be eradicated by denying its universalism; on the contrary, it can only properly be refused by strict fidelity to the eschatological situation, by thinking according to revelation. The situation of Christian faith is only composite: without absoluticity, no proper humility ; without humility, no proper absoluticity . These are one in a virtually unbearable tension. And it is this straddling the ages that is the origin of distinctly Christian practices. For example, this eschato-logic is the reason why religious pluralism is, strangely, a thoroughly Christian phenomenon; and, simultaneously, so also is the universal Christian mission. Reduction of this eschatological antinomicity would seem to be either fundamentalism (or fideism), on the one side, or liberalism (or rationalism), on the other (exposing, therefore, their common logic).

However, according to this same logic, the co-existence of multiple universal claims that marks the Christological parenthesis is neither homogenizable or univocalizable: the claims are not also absolute insofar as they do not self-consciously revolve around the Word made flesh, that is, are not eschatological. Yet, according to the absolute character of the Christian Universal—or shall I say the Universal-Particular who is the Universal-Absolute—it must be seen that the other universal truth claims are valid insofar as they are relative to Christ. That is to say, the Christian sees Christ submerged in the depths of other universal religious systems; he, the Absolute, is in fact that which makes them universal. He is there, as their hidden center, their ultimate condition of possibility. One recent theologian articulated it this way: “The knowing of the truth of everything that is true is known ultimately and actually alone through Christ, and in the Spirit.”[7] That is to say: not that truth is not known or articulated by other religions or philosophies, but rather that their truth is finally the truth of Christ, that Christ is the truth of their truth. For Christian theology this topology of truth is unique to the eschatological situation of the world. This venerable notion of the logos spermatikos of the Church Fathers, according to which, insofar as the God made manifest within the finite conditions of space and time is also the Creator of all things—insofar as this is true—all truth is eschatologically relative to the Word made flesh: “Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of Christians.” [8] Attached to this incredible hubris is a just as incredible humility: the Christian martyr does not fight. Forgive me, valued reader, but I must speak directly! Further, eschatology is also why the only “theocracy” Christians believe in is the Kingdom of God and thus why Christians believe in (some kind of) “separation” of Church and State.

So, as a result of the ancient Christian confession of Verbum caro factum est (“the Word was made flesh”), that is, that the Word, as the divine origin of all philosophical and religious truth, both has (historically) and is (trans-historically) self-performing the mediation of all dyadic antinomic truths through the self-manifestation of his own Person, we have a distinction, deriving from this inseparable relation of eschatology and Christology, of universal, absolute truth claims (which derive from the disclosure of the Word in the flesh at the end of time) and universal, relative truth claims (which are disclosed in the Word at the end of time). The Christian confession means that all things, without exception, are ordered to God through Christ (in the flesh).

Eschatology and Exegesis

Maintaining our methodological bracketing of veridical judgment of these claims, I continue to my second point, concomitant with this first, primary point. Christianity’s unique displaced eschatology is its ground for the fundamental exegetical distinction between letter and spirit that marks its exegesis. Said another way, the condition for the possibility for figurative interpretation in Christianity is the doubled eschatological modality of revelation.

According to the logic of Christianity, the last things are always first. Thus eschatology is both historical and trans-historical at the same time. This is the case because heaven and earth are created for each other, though displaced by sin, and they are re-joined definitively in the person of Christ and, biblically speaking, where he reigns. Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, are events, then, that participate in this union, proleptically bearing the future consummation in the present. The fundamental hermeneutic of the Fathers of the Church (bishop-theologians who transmitted and developed the teaching of the Apostles) is grounded first in a recognition of the significance of events in history. This approach centers directly on a phrase from the prophets: “in the latter days.” [9] The Fathers, following indications in the New Testament (Acts 2; Heb. 1:1; 9:26), understood this phrase of the prophets to be talking about the events of Christ and his apostles in the New Testament in continuity with the events of their own day. That is to say, they understood themselves to be living “in the latter days.” These “latter days” began with the teachings and events of Christ’s life, and continue in the reverberations of those events through time and space in the present, all of which will be fulfilled and consummated at his return. Christ himself is in this way (as I have noted above) the “parenthesis” of the “latter days.” For the whole of redemptive history he is also the ellipsis: without him (as final referent) the grammatical structure of time and space, the intelligibility of the cosmos and cult, lacks sense. That is, the teleological order of both cosmic (philosophical) and cultic (religious, of which ancient Israel occupies central place) signification is proleptically “finished” in Christ. Its final meaning has been—is being—disclosed “in the latter days.” Thus, one could say, in this exegetical approach to history, the Fathers were only following the basic orientation of the authors of the New Testament themselves. [10] Finally, according to this account, we too live in the “latter days” until the return of Christ, when he inherits the New Creation as heir of all the promises to David (Heb. 7; cf. Ps. 110:4). Permit me to cite the conclusion of an essay by patristics scholar Robert Wilken that articulates the shape, much better than I can, of this patristic exegetical distinction:

Early Christian interpreters did not impose an evanescent superstructure on the text without root in history or experience. Most Christian exegetes repudiated a literal or historical reading of the prophets, not because they preferred allegory or anagogy to history, but because they were attentive to a new set of historical events. If Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, as the Scriptures taught, the prophecies about the messianic age had already been fulfilled, and it was the task of biblical interpreters to discover what the scriptural promises meant in light of this new fact. Paradoxically, in the language of early Christian exegesis, the spiritual sense was the historical sense. [11]

I will return to this second link of the catena below, but only after further clarification through my third and fourth.

Eschatology and Dogma

The third link in this catena is that Christianity’s insistence on the necessity of dogma is a condition sine qua non for Christianity’s self-identity. That is to say, the Christian distinction between letter and spirit and the eschatological situation out of which it springs, demands positive, concrete, dogmatic assertion. Dogma is not first tied to a conception of recordable historical events, for the modern (e.g., Lessing) and now postmodern (e.g., “Wittgenstein”) critiques of historical facticity or positivity—right though these are to critique an extrinsicist, flattened, “naturalistic” efficient causality, borrowed from the natural sciences, as adequate for describing the process of history—have in any way reached a valid critique of universal-absolutistic and positive dogmatic statements such as are found at the heart of Christianity. On the contrary, dogma is deduced from within eschatology, of which (teleological) “history” is only one polar node of the whole. Thus the patristic and medieval insistence on a certain priority of the literal sense is another way of saying that there is no spirit without the letter; the spiritual meaning is always incarnate in the letter of the text and therefore un-detachable from the literal sense (historical-critical insights are no exception).

The “postfoundationalist” and “postliberal” though quite modern view that arrives at a hermeneutical conception of one spirit, many different letters (i.e., traditions), one final referent, many different adequate historical significations, is, from the vantage of the eschatological-transcendental at least, actually the epitome of binarism, since through it the dualism of a transcendence locked over-against creaturely immanence is fundamentally manifested (and thus strictly fulfills the requirements of an “onto-theology”), as well as has no adequate conception of the telos of history: God is definitely refused, from the creaturely vantage, the capacity to finally reveal himself as he is in himself—a problem only delayed but more perniciously re-founded by appealing to the positive dimensions of this claim, namely, that it attributes to God a greater alterity since he cannot be known in himself. Yet what I am attempting to make clear is that this particular model of delay does not accord with the basic logic of New Testament eschatology as I have presented it. The “between” of the eschatological parenthesis—the “delay” of the parousia —positively avoids binarity in and through its dogmatic formulae. As I have suggested, for Christianity, the epistemic delay—or the transcendental conditions—is united with the eschatological paradox in which the delay of the eschaton is only intelligible as connected with the eschaton’s real inauguration in the concrete, historical earthly life of Christ. The epistemic paradox of theology is generated from within this situation which is, again, both historical and trans-historical at once.

To put this in the narrative language of the New Testament, governed by what we may now call the “eschatological distinction”: the Kingdom of God has, in Christ, already and definitively arrived though not-yet in its fullness. The universal hope of the prophetic vision is here now, but it is being fulfilled in this particular way. The New Testament should be first understood as a thoroughly Jewish document—insofar as it is rooted in the ministry of the Apostles: an attempt to make intelligible to Jews and Gentiles alike—that this activity of Messiah Jesus and the Holy Spirit is the particular way in which the “great Day of the Lord” (Zeph. 1; Heb. 10) is happening .

What does this mean for dogma? It means that the apostolic witness of Scripture, emerging from this delay (the New Testament could in a fundamental way be understood as generated, according to its Sitz im Leben , as a variegated response to this particular situation), communicated to the Church a new way of thinking, a way only intensified through the early dogmatic Councils, which was developed with its greatest clarity only in counter-point with heresy, orthodoxy’s intimate “other.” [12] Dogma, as a logic, is triadic, and is most fully such when believed to be dogma in the strongest sense. For the sake of illustration, let me quickly offer two examples.

St. Cyril of Alexandria championed the paradoxical ascription of Theotokos to the Mother of God over-against the rigid philosophical rationalism of Nestorius, who could not allow the divinity such kenotic disgrace as a human birth. The paradox of a God who “suffers unsufferingly” ( etaithen apathos ) in his flesh, of a Logos who so unites himself to human nature as to be only properly described as “one incarnate nature of the Word” ( mia physis tou theou logou sesarkomene ), is the origin of a faith which provides human reason an infinite goal toward which to strive, grounding an antinomic logical structure for theology. [13]

Likewise, St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his struggle with Eunomianism, demanded that theology begin with a conception of God beyond conceiving. [14] He proposed the paradox of the unknowable God who reveals himself precisely as unknowable (whose nature is “infinite”), over-against Eunomius, who purported to know the essence of God as “unbegotten.” It is particularly through St. Gregory that the biblical idea of divine, positive infinity conquered the Greek aversion to it and was injected into the transformed philosophical consciousness at its root: in Christian dogma. Now ultimately, this double-structure of revelation was, in the West, codified explicitly in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council, which articulated the true logic of Christian theology over-against the over-realized eschatology of Joachim of Flore, who collapsed the eschatological distinction and sought the Kingdom of God within history and as the object of human action: The Council decreed that, in harmony with the patristic dogmatic tradition, any likeness (already) between creature and Creator must always be predicated within an “ever-greater” ascription of un-likeness (not-yet)—thus strictly according to the apostolic logic of parousiac delay. Dogma as ever-greater “symbol” links two worlds and only thus “gives rise to thought”:

The fact that the horizons of the love given to us always lie above and before us, and that the disparity can never be eliminated in this life, at the same time justifies everything presented as the ‘dogmatic’ aspect of faith: if love, which is truth, always remains infinitely more than we can achieve—not as a non-existent idea, but rather as complete reality…then our self-gift in faith to an ever-greater love is always necessarily at the same time a self-gift of faith to its ever-greater truth. By the same token, because it is pure love, we are unable to achieve ‘insight’ into it in a Gnostic manner with the resources of our own reason; an encounter with pure love and its gift for us remains the pure, inconceivable miracle. The individual ‘mysteries’, which are ‘presented as things to be believed’, are nothing more than conditions of possibility for the perception of love in Christ. [15]

Eschatology and Theology

This observation leads to the fourth ring of our catenate chain: Christian theology derives its conditions and methods directly from this eschatological dogmatics. Analogy, for example, is a fundamental logic of Christian theology. Thus one can say that analogy is therefore one basic way by which Christian theology transforms rationalist binarism. The second way it is against such reductivity is more familiar: dialectics, which, as an epektastic (an ever-greater distention of the human capacity to receive God) movement into the Infinite (in its authentic form) resists resting on any final interpretant, but which, as we have seen, requires a certain unapologetic absoluticity that actually serves to ground its epistemic restrictions (as in the formulation of the 4th Lateran Council): in the eschatological situation of the present it is only through the darkness of faith that the divine light is encountered.

From this vantage, it is critical to understand that Christianity transcends civilizational boundaries and that this transcendence is intrinsic to the meaning of Western Christianity. That is to say, globally speaking, “Christendom,” in its origin, has two halves, the Western, European dimension, the Latin tradition, which primarily concerns us here, and the Eastern, Greek tradition, without which one cannot comprehend Christianity’s full logic, including the logic intrinsic to the Latinate tradition itself. Both the synthesis of analogy, central to the Eastern logic, centered on the Pseudo-Dionysius, and the dialectic of polarity, centered on Augustine, co-exist as the two original modes of Christian logic, as bequeathed by the patristic age. [16] The dialectic of polarity is a movement between binaries and depends on the explication of a hidden logical continuity between them, what is often misleadingly called “proof.” An over-inflated modality of this reasoning came to dominate Western thought—a propensity always present—with Peter Abelard and has continued through High Scholasticism and into the modern period, fundamentally shaping the logic of Cartesianism and postmodernisms. (Tangentially, its Augustinian provenance is why one cannot completely blame the medieval recovery of Aristotle for the ills of modernity) The recovery, within Western theology of the analogic of the East is a critical element of truly postmodern Christian thought. The synthesis of analogy is a logic centered on the experience of a deepening encounter with transcendence through initiation in liturgical and cosmic symbols, and through this experience depends on the simultaneous grasping of divine alterity through the “similar dissimilarities” of the symbol. [17] In this vision, the cosmos is seen as a vast objective order of hierarchical mediations saturated with theophanic symbols at every level. The human being, connatural with both matter and spirit, paradoxically has to move through the mediation of the material world (objectively theophanic, that is, in its nature) in order to rise to God. Thus the natural capacity of the great chain of cosmic symbols to manifest the divine deemphasizes the role of the contingencies of history in that manifestation. By contrast, the Western Augustinian dialectic of the sign emphasizes history as a drama of divine unveiling in the form of an intelligible sacred narrative. With this concern for history as the realm of dramatic encounter with God, the emphasis on plurivocity of meanings in the biblical text is tied to the role of conventionality in the way things disclose meaning. Put another way, Augustine’s primarily psychological concern in revelation, that is, the centrality of the angst-ridden epistemic question (How can I truly know God?) affords radical primacy to the interior, subjective relation, the drama of the soul with God, understanding the signs of Scripture and the liturgy primarily as aids to, or indeed, instruments for, this interior relation of faith. Here meaning resides primarily in the soul. For Augustine it is especially in the interior relation of faith where the eschatological kingdom is proleptically realized, though this is always teleologically mediated by the Church as it moves through history.

The analogical logic of the symbol and the dialectical logic of the sign both seek to negotiate the creature’s relation to God in compatible though irreducible ways. They both merge together in the sacramental semiotics of the liturgy, which is quite rich in both narrative and cosmic symbolisms, holding them together only in the eschatological tension that the liturgy enacts. These two modes, basic to Christianity, were, it is commonly argued, (critically though in an unsustainable way) balanced for the West (and in a distinctly Western manner) momentarily in the synthesis of neo-Platonic and Aristotelian sources, along with Scripture, in St. Thomas Aquinas, whose two basic theological sources were, of course, Augustine and Pseudo-Denys.

Let me illustrate this quickly. An important aspect of Augustine’s new classification of signs—his augmentation of signs to include both words and things ( De Trin. 15.9.15)—is an insight rooted primarily in the exegetical practice he inherited from the tradition. That is to say, as I suggested above, it is out of this practice of reading Scripture that the distinction and inclusion comes, for it is the patristic conception of history, seen eschatologically as a typological reality, from which the distinction between letter and spirit emerges. In the typology of Augustine’s exegesis the types are always events and persons—not words themselves—which are fulfilled in the new order of things toward which the words of the New Testament are a witness. [18] This distinction is why, to press the point, in the New Testament “signs” are always eschatological: whether (pseudo-)signs of the anti-Christ or signs of the Kingdom, signs, usually associated with miraculous events and performative actions, denote the fact that the “latter days” are now present. The literal events of history are primarily given shape by a narrative of continuity in which the “latter days” are full of events which are in the act of bringing to completion words proclaimed long ago, words that refer to events and persons and things. Christianity privileges signs as things because of the allegorical unity of Scripture, which eschatologically discloses history.

Aquinas essentially follows Augustine in maintaining this distinction, applying it in the Summa to the doctrine of God (ST Ia. 13.3). [19] For Aquinas’ participatory grammar of the knowledge of God, one must make a distinction between the mode of signification ( modus significandi ) and the thing signified ( res significata ). This distinction develops Thomas’ unique conscription of the tradition of Greek mystical theology rooted in the works of the Pseudo-Denys. For Aquinas, the mode of negation functions primarily at the level of words. One must recognize the limitations of speech (as signum ) in order to surpass speech toward the res ipsum , the thing itself. There thus remains a cataphatic element beyond the apophatic, as its proper terminus, which may be called the hyper-cataphatic—a triadic-because-eschatological mode of completion beyond the dyadic relation of sign-referent ( signum-res ) or affirmation-negation. This is what Aquinas calls the via emenentia : the eschatological transcendental is neither merely cataphatic nor merely apophatic; rather, it is beyond both, holding them together, each as the mode of signification of the other. Only together, in analogical tension, can they possibly signify the divine res , which they do in an incomplete manner (according, ultimately, to the eschatological distinction already/not-yet). One can see most clearly here the parallels of Thomas’ “science of God” with the basic distinction of exegesis he inherits from the tradition, that between letter and spirit. Because the thing ( res ) is gratuitiously given in revelation, the signum may truly bear it to the creature. It is therefore not simply left behind as an empty shell, but is rather carried up by the negation into the higher mode, just as the literal remains as the bearer of the incarnate spiritual sense.

We may note that these two basic logical traditions of Christian thought, hastily sketched above, are already present in pre-Christian, Hellenistic thought, so it is in no way simply the case the one is the logic of Jerusalem over-against the other as logic of Athens. [20] Stated more fully, the classical metaphysics of the Augustinian tradition, Deus ipsum esse , and the Dionysian tradition of the God beyond being, theos epekeina tes ousias , concurrently run together through the Christian tradition, uniquely expressing their common origin in the dogmatic apophaticism as it was forged in the patristic age, namely, of the “positive potential” of eschatological transcendentalism inherent within apophatic discourse, grounded in the realization that both the apophatics of difference and the metaphysics of unity are themselves grounded in the trinitarian logic of absolute love, beyond the binary of difference and unity, the one and the many. [21] Thus the particular logic of Christianity cannot be reduced to its otherwise fundamental affirmation of a creational monotheism (though nevertheless inseparable from it: this is where philosophy achieves its terminus), for it is precisely through the re-forging of Greek metaphysical concepts in the crucible of the development of Christological and Trinitarian dogma that the overcoming of binarism definitively—and so perennially—takes place in Christian thought.

Eschatology and Scripture

Now permit me a return to my second link, with a few further remarks on the hermeneutic of Scripture, deriving from the account I have now given. The literal sense of Scripture is not “literal” in the modern sense, as over-against the figural dimension of language. This is an important dimension of the letter to notice. The literal sense of Scripture includes all various kinds of figural and rhetorical device, as well as various genres, from poetry, to aphorism, to prophecy, apocalyptic, metaphor, metonymy, pleonastic extension etc. There is therefore a certain depth and mystery already to the letter itself. This depth is essential, for it is here that we are most reminded that the letter is literal insofar as it opens beyond itself—insofar, ultimately, as it “says something else” (allegory). The words of the human authors open to the words of the divine author. Signs open up to things ( res ) in an eschatological manner. Here we can see the most important dimension of Scripture’s literal sense, viz., the comprehensive narrative of salvation which holds it together. Scripture, at its most basic level, purports to be a history (in no way like a modern history at all, but with its own presuppositions on the nature of history); it purports to be the story of events, the true history of the world. Insofar as these events of Scripture are history (though again, not reduced to a deracinated history of ‘facts’), they are a uniquely privileged site of divine speech. The events, things and people of Scripture are God’s words, of which the human words of the prophets and apostles and servants of God are witnesses. It is only in this narrative dimension (being both teleological and proleptic), the real events towards which Scripture leads us, that the move from the literal to the spiritual dimensions of Scripture is possible. The Fathers, as we have already seen, knew this, forging this essential distinction by the recognition of the presence of the eschatological realities in Jesus, the apostles and in the Church (especially in the liturgy). The kairos , in other words, the awareness that we really are now in the “latter days” of the prophets, means that we must now receive from Scripture the deeper realities toward which it has always been stretching and thereby in which it has been proleptically participating. The patristic philosophy of history, in other words, stretches from the literal sense deep into the spiritual. Therefore, ultimately, allegory and tropology are also historical, according to the biblical conception of history—which could be defined as a rushing and an opening toward the eschaton , and thus the anagogical sense. Insofar as the eschaton is present—in whatever unique manner—it is the proper terminus of all interpretation. The depths of events are opened in allegory. Tropology consummates allegory by opening toward anagogy. [22] This occurs in a particular way: Tropology interprets the ‘thing’ discovered in allegory as an anagogical sign, as a sign of the presence of the eschaton . Because allegorical presence is non-parousiac (or only proleptically so), tropology ‘turns’ the thing into sign. What is most important to observe here is that tropology has only this relation with the anagogical dimension of Scripture: it cannot convert what has become the anagogical sign into the thing; moral action cannot simply make the eschaton arrive. To the degree that the consummation has not arrived, therefore, anagogy deals only with signs. History’s end is only found deep into anagogy at an invisible point, for history and eschaton ‘co-exist’ if in a still esoteric manner, for as we have already seen, the eschaton , as history’s end, is also now, according to the New Testament, embedded in history’s depths as the true res that it never ceases to disclose. The events of revelation re-structure “history” around themselves; it is in this way that interpretation could never finish plumbing the ever-greater depths of these events. All this flows from the recognition that, as such an astute phenomenologist of literature, Erich Auerbach, pointed out so long ago, the proper mode of signification in Christian exegesis is the typology of events and persons. [23]

Just as the literal unity of Scripture rests on the Kingdom, the allegorical unity of Scripture centers on Christ (who is, as Origen first said, the autobasileia , the Kingdom in person). Yet allegory is no less historical than the literal. As already noted, as an incarnation, the deeper senses rest upon the literal sense itself. Allegory is therefore only ever-more historical. This is why allegory is a non-violent mode of interpretation: The literal sense becomes new, bursting with significance. The “latter-days” refigure the whole according to their own proper events, of which The Event is the resurrection of Christ (from which first the very meaning of “history” is made manifest). The Law and the Prophets, therefore, present themselves in a new way after The Event : the letter opens to the Spirit; history suddenly ripens. Its mode of unfolding is typological. We have already seen above that because of these specific literal and allegorical modes of unity of Scripture—which wholly interpenetrate—Christianity, as Augustine clearly saw, privileges signs as things over signs in words. Because Scripture is only fully and properly read liturgically, liturgy is the central act of reading Scripture. The “work of the people” is the work of converting words into things, receiving and remembering their eschatological signification. The sacramental events open us to the fundamental realities that finally structure history. The words of Scripture, then, are only an act of reading the events of revelation; the text is not at all limited to the book. The sacred page is only the privileged site of manifestation of the divine Word. It is regulative in this way. “Merely the page” denies the true meaning of history, and finally collapses the senses of Scripture, dissolving the spirit into the reified letter. The “dead letter” is the “old order of things” thought in itself ( per impossibile ), that is, history without eschaton , without the living presence of The Events, and without, finally, the signification of these events toward the consummation, the new creation. This is why the Christian tradition, starting with St. Paul (2 Cor. 3), has said that to deny the eschatalogical reality of the signification of the “letter” is ultimately to deny the “letter” itself. This approach to Scripture—to reduce the text to the page—would be to erase Christ from the text, and reduce the events to mere words.

Perhaps it could be said now that allegory is that transcendent and objective reality, ‘res’, which passes through the text, reorienting the reader on a new path (tropology) towards their fulfillment (anagogy). Here the allegorical, the invisible ‘call’ becomes visible in the constructive response. The allegorical is transformed into the anagogical through the tropological-ethical. Yet this hermeneutical transformation is really a transformation of the reader who comes to see the teleology of all things in which he takes a part. This is now what we mean by interpretation. Its condition of possibility is grace (allegory) and eschatology (anagogy). The text doesn’t simply interpret the reader, but becomes a passage through which the reader passes. This new historical perspective shows the limits of the “phenomenology of hermeneutics,” revealing it to be only a bastardized Joachimism, and also shows its proper conditions: hermeneutics only arises between history and eschatology, earth and heaven, letter and spirit. It shows something further: eschatology is invisible without dogma.

Eschatological transcendentalism, therefore, does not allow us to give up the historical dimension, simply because ‘modernity’ has a monopoly on ontological meaning of history. In this sense, one is tempted to say, a mere postliberalism without eschato-logic refuses access to ‘objective’ revelation in an a priori manner, and is, in this sense at least, still liberal, for it is self-delimited to the subjective sphere, over-against an objective, real world of history that it ‘brackets’, albeit a subjective sphere that is expanded considerably. Augustine and the tradition of interpretation after him, by contrast, do not presuppose a radical dualism between history and text. Rather, for them, history is refigured according to a thick ontological description that includes but is not limited to the mediation of the subjective sphere that does not have direct access to God’s revelatory acts in the old Suàrezian sense (propositional revelation) but through its own transcendent participation in them, which it receives from divine action (in ‘history’) and it illuminates through its own response to it (in the pragmatist sense). [24] The meaning of history is first understood from its eschatological origin in the resurrection of Christ. Therefore typology understood in its historical eschatological sense—as an ontology of history and a method of reading only secondarily—would open up history and historical persons simultaneously. This, in sum, sets our sights on the Christian meaning of history, and especially refuses, what is, from the vantage of the eschatological-transcendental, the postliberal temptation of continued abstraction from it. Even so, it is also vital to realize that a postliberal Scriptural practice provides resources for a renewed eschatological transcendentalism that includes this new/old sense of the historical. Thus the paradox of the possibility of multiple historical-narrative universal accounts, as well as the very existence of the modern conception of history itself, emerges first from the absolute particularity of the Incarnation and the absolute universalism that accompanies Christian eschatology:

[H]istory, that is to say, not only linear, nonrepetitive temporality, which innovates continually by determining irremediable facts forever, but also a temporality free from any fate, where every individual or collective action makes manifest the will of its actor, who thus judges him- or herself in the face of his or her time, the future, and God. Understood in this way, one can venture to say that history is born as a concept through St. Augustine, who discovers a history in the non-Christian world that until then had been ignored by philosophy and was unthought as such by starting from the history of salvation of Christian revelation. [25]

Therefore I ask: would not what I propose here be closer to a trinitarian semiotics that is always progressing and refuses to shut down into a presupposed binary?

From here we may mention the place of ‘human response’ (in the sense of Wirkungsgeschichte ) as integral to the textual meaning. One has, so to speak, two polar nodes, of ‘history’ that provide at least something to what the pragmatists call the “logic of vagueness”: first, there is the history beyond the text, in the past and the very same history beyond the text in the future (as history-of-reception). But also this helps us think the eschatological-teleological dimension that is just as integral to this complex event, since both nodes are circumscribed by eschatology, from which, for Christianity, they derive their unity precisely as history. Thus it is fundamentally the eschatological, rightly understood, that contributes critically to the logic of vagueness, since it simultaneously displaces and grounds the reader-response, which so easily becomes reductive: We must emphasize the already and the not-yet at once. This makes the “absolute commitment” of faithful witness ( martyrion ) requisite as well as humility. Eschatology radicalizes everything, including the historicity of events. It even judges the community of interpretation (reader-response). Tradition, on this view, is more like an infinite task of interpretation than anything else and it is from the gift of this infinite task (from the eschatological future) that its authority derives. Eschatology, that is, may allow history to judge the tradition of interpretation, which may otherwise remain floating above everything and thus remain too much like the modern subject and thus eschatologically ‘overrealized’.

Eschatology and Philosophy

Briefly, the last link of our catena. Fifthly, philosophy is possible because of the split eschatology that is finally grounded in the two natures of the one Person of the Incarnate Logos (and his actions in and beyond the world teaching, life, death, resurrection, ascension, reign in heaven, and return, etc., which are the first interpretation of his identity). Philosophy has a theological base, for its perennial object, truth, is ultimately one with theology. Without theology, then, philosophy does not properly exist: philosophy is implicitly theology (as the search for truth) and theology is explicitly philosophy (as the love of Wisdom). [26] Philosophy may potentially play two roles then. First, as metaphysics (rightly conceived), it grows in awareness of the ever-greater enigma of existence and ecstatically surpasses itself before the ever-dawning mystery of the Absolute as its origin and end. Second, as phenomenology, it receives from religion new phenomena and ever-new ways of seeing. [27] Thus philosophy is both realized through its completion in theology and also, in a transfigured mode, follows upon it. Philosophy does not search for certainty with which to begin, but rather it ends ( telos ), eschatologically, in certainty. Certainty, resting in truth, is what drives it forward. Philosophy, therefore, moves from doubt ( epoche ) to a position of post-doubt: already after doubt but not-yet fully certain. It participates in the theological virtue of hope, therefore, in a protological way. This positional mode of certainty is what may be called rest in mystery . It is neither “foundationalist”—for its ground is only transcendentally (eschatologically) emerging, nor is it “intuitionist”—for the same reason: the truth is always, as already present though not-yet in fullness, mediate and indirect. Therefore, philosophy, and analogously, politics, economics etc., are not a-theological but rather given room by theology to develop within their own logical spheres. The conditions of the possibility of religious pluralism and fundamental human rights likewise derive directly from the account of New Testament eschatology. Historically speaking, these, and other non-negotiables of modern Western civilization could only develop out of a Christian, and therefore Jewish, as well as Greek, heritage. They must therefore remain rooted in Christianity in order to accomplish their intrinsic telos.


What I have solely attempted to articulate above are the transcendental conditions of Christian thinking, as they are rooted in New Testament eschatology-Christology. These conditions, from the start, avoid what has been called an “initial anthropological determination of the criterion of revelation.” [28] Neither is this transcendentalism a deduction from the conditions of the possibility of revelation. Rather, it is eschatology—the logical form of revelation—that provides the conditions for thought. I have attempted to illustrate this logic through a deduction of the five-fold catena as it moves from the apostolic age, which, in the New Testament, articulates the eschatological situation, through the patristic age of hermeneutical orientation and dogmatic ‘definition’, which crystallizes the formal and existential thought-structures, to the medieval age, which articulates the two-fold tradition of cosmic analogic of the East (Pseudo-Denys to Gregory Palamas) and the dialectical semiotic of the West (Augustine to Aquinas). Our five links of the chain, eschatology, Scripture, dogma, theology, philosophy, are integrated intentionalities emerging from the same root, and unfold semi-historically according to the three ages of Christianity. Christology—not as abstract logic, but as incarnate and resurrected Word—properly pervades them all, and is therefore the origin and end of the whole, the first and last link of the chain, its “clasp” (Alpha–Omega). Christ is absolute sign. This fundamental tripartite structure (already/not-yet/Christ; letter/spirit/Christ; humanity/divinity/Person and Father/Son/Spirit; theology/philosophy/Christ) of the catena demonstrates the logic of mediation. One could argue, then, from this vantage, that the Enlightenment and everything that has come after it, has in no way truly eclipsed the fundamental modes of thought that the medieval period has bequeathed us. [29] We are still medieval, as it were: the Trinitarian logic of Christian eschato-logic is both analectic and antinomic. [30] The cosmic-analogic and dialectical-semiotic traditions express a logic which the modern period has only rejected on the surface—through an explicit reductive and binarist dialectic (which reaches its end in Derrida), but subterraneanly wholly functions within—for it requires the religious ‘Third’ to escape its empty foundationalism and its idolatry of the Law of Identity (which the politics of “difference” only negates ). A recovery of the Christian eschatological element, then, makes sense of the modern antinomies, and ‘resolves’ them only by properly radicalizing them—by witnessing to the Word made flesh (not merely an Idea but one that is eschatologically embodied )—thus opening them up to their infinite origin in a manner both infinite and particular at once. Thus the circle closes only where it is perpetually opening (?). Integration of antinomies, letting them refer beyond themselves to an eschatological resolution that is both already and not-yet. In Christianity is disclosed the eschatological truth that the final order of (the conditions for the possibility of) the ‘sense’ of worldly universal truth claims ( ad extra ) is only found in its (Christologically mediated) ‘reference’ to God’s very life ( ad intra ): this expresses directly the logic of an eschatological (and therefore universal-absolute) faith.

II. SR and RO: Dialectic along the Diameter

Between “intuitionism” and “liberalism”

Out of the catena sketched here, we are ready to imagine an encounter between SR and RO, out of which derive not only radical differences but also points of contact.

According to the logic of Christian eschatology, dogma and theology (that is, its biblical, patristic and medieval developments), RO is correct: Christianity must not, in the face of the pressures of modern secularism, prevaricate on its universal, absolute truth claims. For these are not only central to the intelligibility of the New Testament narrative, but also to integral Christian self-understanding in the present. On this account, RO is right to be rather pugnacious. Or, at the very least, this account allows us to make sense of its approach. Behind RO, I suggest, is this eschato-logic which provides the form of reasoning that made modern possibilities actual and, indeed, modern transcendentalism possible since it already has this mediational, triadic and transcendental character grounded in it from the beginning—since the mode of actualization of the eschaton , being both already and not-yet, creates the conditions for the possibility of possibility —already in and through its affirmation of the coincidence of history and revelation (in the eschatological event), its account of the positivity of dogma and in its practice of theology. [31] This is necessarily neither triumphalist nor romantic, but does ask to be understood as a bold attempt at clear, religious self-understanding that should not be brushed away lightly or castigated as “backwards” or “regressive” or “anachronistic.” For this is to miss the point. RO, then, can be most charitably and deeply understood as an attempt of renewed fidelity to the logic of the eschatological event at the founding of Christianity. A (participatory) analogy with the Eucharist: a seemingly crass literalism is irreparably tied to symbolic events of the altar: sine qua non –already/not-yet.

We may begin to assess the basic tension between RO and SR in this way: both are nexuses of discourse on different, but overlapping, planes. SR endeavors to be a place of encounter, a metaphysical space in which irreducibly different religious traditions (of thought and practice) may co-exist, and develop through exchange (as they always have); RO is (despite its consistent public modality of critique) a constructive theology, articulating an ‘engraced metaphysics’, whose practice is that liturgical dwelling in the world of historical, orthodox Christianity. Both SR and RO, however, seek to respond to a similarly conceived problematic of modernity. SR considers the universalism of modernity to be the problem—as does RO—yet RO sees the repair to be in returning to the pre-modern or traditional universalism that made Western civilization as “Christendom” a reality, the traditional universalism that the modern universalism of (truncated) reason sought to replace (which is not necessarily “Romantic,” the reader may now see, because of the eschatological reasoning at its root). SR sees the repair as a refusal of a concrete universalism, which it equates with binarism, in the place of which it puts the empty space of eschatological possibility . This empty space can be filled with the content of any Abrahamic faith tradition. RO refuses this refiguration as final since RO is Christian theology and is an attempt to authentically embody a living faith tradition and therefore must think from the starting point of a partially actualized eschatology. And here is the rub. Both attempt to be a ‘solution’ of sorts to the contemporary crisis of western and global culture by recovering religion as the irreparable root of human culture. Both realize the failure of modern ‘secularism’ and its false binaries. Both indeed respond with a ‘triadic’ or ‘trinitarian’ logic or metaphysics, a working conception for lived faith in the postmodern world. But here precisely is the problem: One believes, in an eschatologically induced way, in the metaphysical as a description of God’s very being; the other refuses that judgment as universally binding, rather seeing its form as a certain meta-logic of potentiality undergirding diverse modes of actuality, and not incompatible with alternative (Abrahamic) conceptions of the divine. Many in SR would presumably actually see the triadic logic inherent to Christianity as demanding such a refusal of the equation of the form with Christian metaphysical content. The latter, SR, is, in this particular portrayal of the limits of human reasoning, quite modern, and in fact, quite Kantian. [32] Yet, on the other hand, again, this limitation is also an opportunity for SR—a radical negative theology that is also an opening to divine possibility (hence, radical). In this way in particular, one could argue, SR seeks to encapsulate the Christian universal narrative within a greater narrative of possibility, a narrative which refuses final positive judgment, a narrative that in a certain way radicalizes the ‘eschatological ante’ as it were, towards a universalism of universalisms, grounded in an eschatology with no absolute, Christological “already.” From a different vantage, one critical difference we may observe is that SR is inter-religious; RO is not. SR is not “home territory” for a Christian theologian; he must enter into a topological space mapped out by another discourse, a discourse that is not theologically or metaphysically neutral . Thus RO, attempting persistent fidelity to its origin, refuses the ante, since for it Christianity as a concrete practice is the eschatological universalism, a fulfillment of that very universalism intrinsic to ancient Hebrew prophets; its conception of the radicalization is precisely this: the eschatological event has in fact begun in the resurrection of Jesus. In the Christian universal RO sees a metaphysics which cannot be surpassed, since it may absorb any attempt to “out-narrate” it, for it is Christian dogma (Incarnation; Trinity) that is the original (and proleptically final) explosion of binarism; that is to say, the refusal of binarism is inscribed in its very absolutism, the universal in its very particular, the eschatological future proleptically in the historical present. So, it seems, that in the end we in fact have a ‘competition’ of two fundamental narratives, both irreducible to the other. Is this dilemma a binarism itself? No, not necessarily, since both seek to absorb the other in a greater, final, logic. Only eschatology, the final third, can solve this one. According to Christianity, however, this solution has begun. Until its consummation, of course, the pain of this tension must indeed continue.

In sum, then: SR is grounded in a religious philosophy that presupposes a theological metaphysics; RO is a theology that is a metaphysics. Thus, it may be right to suspect that all this comes down to the different eschatologies of different (sister) religious traditions. Is it right to think that SR’s primary metaphysics is finally shaped by a different religious eschatology (though, no doubt, related ‘by blood’ to Christianity), Rabbinic Judaism, that, in the end, promotes a universalism that is finally incompatible with the eschatological transcendentalism of Christianity?

One recommendation, based on this account, is that SR rethink its equation of positive dogmatic universalism with the intuitionism at the heart of modernity, or in other words its equation of any absolute universalism with Cartesian logic. Of course, this rethinking is not necessarily requisite for Christian engagement in SR, as long as Christian self-understanding is clear, since according to its intrinsic eschato-logic, universally binding absolutes are indeed possible, and indeed, ultimately necessary. This last point is not the same as saying that these absolutes are absolutely graspable from within the perspective of a finite tradition, although it may be participated in—to greater and lesser degrees—by one perspective and by many. This account of modernity from within the logic of Christianity suggests that the SR assessment of the possibility of universalism itself is subject to its own critique, since it restricts its possibility from the outset—a thoroughly modern reduction exemplifying what to RO is the heart of (Christian) liberalism: reason demands that revelation be fit into its (reason’s) own categories, delineated in an a priori fashion—a collapsing of the eschatological distinction. Yet attempting to keep the form of eschato-logic without the act of faith in its content is precisely what dissolves the eschatological distinction out of which the logic first emerges. Typically, there is an attempt at teleological maintenance and an eschewing of the proleptical, which indirectly separates the spiritual and literal modalities and disincarnates the Logos .

What we have constructed so far helps us understand RO’s critical attitude toward SR. Before looking closer at this critique, we may note that the sketch of RO above, as a stem of the eschatological-transcendental root, would allow us to interrogate RO in the following way: Does RO collapse, or tend to collapse the eschatological distinction at the heart of Christianity’s transcendental? That is, is there any truth at all to the accusation of RO as implicitly holding a modern “intuitionism” claiming de jure a strangely Cartesian-like foundationalism? Does RO tend toward an overrealized eschatology? The only way, it would seem, to answer the question would be to ask: Does the vine bear fruit? The answer could only possibly be assessed from within the eschatological-transcendental itself (1 Cor. 3:13).

Ochs defines the project of SR in the following way: “Scriptural reading as a pragmatic response to crises in human communities.” [33] SR attempts to respond to epoche (in the classical sense of the word: existential and philosophical doubt) by rethinking modern, Western self-understanding from the origin. This description gives us warrant to ask: Is this project a “return to the sources” or a circumscription of revelation for the sake of an extrinsically defined “common good?” Ochs defines “Cartesianism” as a search for philosophical foundations, yet authentic philosophy, one could argue, finds no foundations—only radical contingency, the givenness of a an ever-greater mystery, the existential idea of “creation,” i.e., being-before-the-Absolute.The question, then, that RO is set to pose to SR, is whether or not SR, in attempting an evasion of the anxieties of Cartesianism, is only finally further entangled in it by an a priori conception of the good that fundamentally circumscribes “religion” or “revelation” from the beginning. A “Cartesian anxiety” would run much deeper than at first supposed.

Now the critical element that is the steam behind the construction of RO is the liberation of religion from its modern “Babylonian captivity,” i.e., religion considered as its fundamental role in the services it must bring to society. This essentially modern perspective, continued even in those postmodern modes which only radicalize this model by recognizing the failure of secularism and the ineradicability of religion, considers religion and society or religion and culture as extrinsically related. Rather, for RO, religion is, as such, society’s central good. On this intrinsicist understanding, religion is, first, the central means of articulating, envisioning and practicing the good and, second, the primary mode of a society’s self-understanding, as a result. Thus, insofar as any “postliberalism” maintains the modern, extrinsicist account of religion, to that degree, according to RO, that postliberalism is still a fundamental liberalism bearing the heavy chains of secular fundamentalism. One could quote Steven Kepnes, from his Jewish Liturgical Reasoning , on this score: “In our present context of religious revival and enthusiasm, the question for cultural observers and critics is no longer ‘Is religion real?’ but ‘Can the reality of religion be mined for sources of healing, and can the power of religion be marshaled for good and for peace?'” [34] The idea of religion articulated in this way and understood from the perspective of RO is problematical to say the least. For RO, one could say, society without religion at its center is empty (“nihilism”), and religion without society is blind (Gnosticism).

Bracketing, again, the question of the final veracity of this interpretation, it nevertheless helps us understand, for example, Milbank’s sharply critical comments regarding SR in a recent essay. [35] He suggests that “all attempts to identify a common rational core between different religious faiths, or even to try to isolate a shared method of reading texts and shared criteria for authentic religious practice, to serve the basis of dialogue, paradoxically foment fundamentalisms.” [36] This paradox is rooted in the observation that SR is primarily concerned with discovering and articulating the bare rational and transcendental structure undergirding the different manifestations of the Abrahamic faiths. Thus, while gesturing towards differences, these faiths are in the end relegated to lower worth in the hierarchical structure of religious value. If this is true then it would be hard to see why it is not the case that the standard is applied from outside, being offered a priori by the very structure of SR practice. Now whether or not this would actually foment fundamentalisms is less clear than whether it repeats certain quasi-absolutist problematics of liberalism which it seeks to avoid.

Interestingly, Milbank advocates replacing this liberalistic “natural theology” with a renewal of the ancient understanding of “philosophy itself” as “rooted in rational reflection on religious commitments.” Calling on Augustine and making reference to Greek Christian as well as certain Islamic mystics, Milbank describes the origin of this recovery of religious philosophy in the recognition that “revelation does not basically provide us with new information, but is rather a reflection on events in performance and in utterance that we are deemed to reconfigure our perception of transcendental being as such.” [37] The question is indeed whether SR would describe itself in precisely the terms that Milbank wants to replace it with. But this is not yet clear.

Milbank’s recent critique of SR proposes a valid question: What is SR doing? For one could read SR in either of these two ways that Milbank has sketched. One would probably find that there are different practitioners of SR who advocate either one of these positions. Perhaps what I have introduced above is a third option: a triadic metaphysics of potentialities actualized historically in distinct ways, rooted in a purely teleological transcendentalism. But is this any different than the first “rational core” thesis? In any event, SR can work, at least immediately, on either model. What does this mean? Does SR in the long run, even if it is undergirded by the third option, tend toward Milbank’s first definition? For Christian practitioners, does this mean that there is a danger of veiling over their own scriptural eschatological conditions apart from which they are cut off from their roots? If so, then both Milbank and Smith’s critiques merit further investigation. The test, then, that I offer here is whether SR can allow the eschatological transcendentalism of Christianity room to fully be itself at the fellowship of the table (for Christianity, at least, this eschatology is in fact the condition of such ‘table fellowship’).

Christians at the Table

Hopefully, in this short exercise of “making our deep reasoning public” what I have attempted to adumbrate above about the eschatological origins of the logic of Christian thought leads to more questions than it could ever possibly attend to, but that it does so in an intelligible way . [38] In short, the eschatology of the New Testament makes possible the Christian approach to the SR table, but also, at the same time, its distinctive primary characteristics (i.e., its way of sitting; its mode of fellowship), which must not be obscured. If I have performed this task sufficiently, let me conclude by synthesizing all that I have said as it relates to the conditions by which Christians may engage in SR.

Eschatological transcendentalism, as a mode of proleptic reasoning , is distinct from the transcendentalisms of both Kant (propositions or categories describing the functional structure of the human mind) and Peirce (abductive potentialities actualized and tested via experimentation). According to its logic, to think according to either of these modalities would be to refuse, for Christian theology, its eschatological roots, and thereby to allow an abstracted ‘philosophy’ to obscure the resources that are already clearly present in the tradition. For these reasons, reasoning back is a reasoning forwards—it is to receive the reasons ( logoi ) of the eschatological future in the present of the Word ( Logos ), the Word of the historical past, the liturgical present and the eternal future.

The proposal outlined in these pages merits further investigation perhaps in the sense that it bears a new likeness to medieval transcendentalism and may therefore open the possibility of a renewed (and properly eschatological) synthesis for Christian theology, a truly postmodern medievalism (i.e., both medieval and modern). The recovery of a conception of the transcendental which, in the discovery of the possibility of our knowing through defining its limitations—much like the premodern metaphysics of sacral symbols —understands these limitations primarily as saturated horizons of plenitude, the act of disclosure of an a priori , ever-greater inexhaustibility of meaning. Otherwise said, eschatology (thinking at once from the origin and to the end through the possibility of the diagonalistic ‘between’) teaches us that the formal conditions of knowing are only truly such as anticipations of an infinite (I know of no other way to say it) gratuity.

In the particular transcendentalism described here, indeed, according to the eschatological distinction, the “transcendental unity of apperception” would in fact be not merely the Word, but the Word incarnate and resurrected , and thus the categorical forms for knowing this world, the formal conditions of its intelligibility, would finally be the “Jerusalem above,” the heavenly kingdom, “the root intelligibility to all the paradoxes of the order of the real.” [39] Already/not-yet: the Resurrected Christ (the symbol par excellence ) joins two worlds. Here there would be a multiplicity at the very heart of unity. But all this is far beyond us here. Or perhaps not so far…

At any rate, what I have attempted above is an illustration of the eschato-logic via a sort of genetic ressourcement , through which we have seen how the basic framework of Christian eschatology, provided by patristic reflection upon and medieval development of the apostolic witness, proffers the building blocks of such an integrationist-analectic mode of reasoning. I have attempted to explicate the original formal possibility that eschatology creates, viz., 1) it provides the conditions for understanding the co-existence of universal truth claims, as well as, at the same time 2) the conditions for articulating Christianity’s own non-negotiable universal absolute truth claim. First, in order to do this I have tried to show how the logic of the dogmatic tradition of Christianity, central to its understanding of history, as well as that of the double-stream of theological reflection, East and West, both derive ultimately from the inaugurated eschatology of the New Testament. Within this eschatological, dogmatic, ecclesial and theological context, I sought to intervene in a perceived point of conflict between SR and RO. Thus in order to get at the root of Jamie Smith’s critique of Peter Ochs (that which originally gave rise to this essay to begin with) and therefore that which animates the critical spirit of RO I suggested that the eschatological conditions proffered by the New Testament engender a transcendentalism (a mode of reasoning from the ‘conditions of possibility’) concomitant with faith in the Incarnation. This eschatological transcendentalism may be very much like the incarnate logic of the symbol : revelation—not bastardized as “propositions” but as divine self-communication—gives to thought an ever-greater horizon teleologically ordered from the already and proleptically opening to the not-yet (the Fathers called the creed both symbolon and horos —boundary, threshold). The symbol joins two worlds.

The transcendental deduction of central elements of Christianity that followed the eschatological distinction was precipitated by the observation that this particular ‘eschatological transcendentalism’ of Christian reasoning demands a distinction between universal, absolute truth claims and universal, relative truth claims. I illustrated this logic as it develops according to its apostolic, patristic and medieval modalities, that is, as it emerges from the New Testament, is defined in dogma (Trinity, Christology) and is finally codified, for the West, in the Middle Ages with the notion of what we may call dialectic-inscribed-within-analogy (eschatological-transcendental triadic logic) as fundamental theological mode. I articulated this quasi-historical chain by a catena of five interlocked links (a catena, specifically, because it recalls the mode of reasoning from the Christian tradition exemplified through the gathering of texts across the tradition made possible only by an ever-present perception, by faith, of the eschatological future that transcends mere historicity): eschatology, exegesis, dogma, theology, philosophy. Christology is the “clasp” that holds this logical catena together ( ? and ? ). Second, I brought this eschatological transcendentalism to bear on issues related to Christian engagement in SR, through an analysis of its relation with one Christian engagement (RO). Thus, finally, RO’s critical attitude toward SR is rooted in the transcendental conditions stemming from an inaugurated eschatology and, as such, raises legitimate questions from a valid Christian perspective that should be clarified by SR.

Perhaps, then, the five branches of the eschatological root beneath RO’s critical horizon that I unfolded in catenate form above stretch the length of Christian history. But this would mean that the line of eschatology measures the diameter of a catenate, and ever-greater triadic circle (?) that Christically embraces all (analectic, proleptic, the “already”) and in a supra-rational manner (antinomic, teleological, the “not-yet”), to be resolved only in the eternal and face-to-face vision.

From the perspective of eschatological transcendentalism, I conclude, then, that SR and RO are themselves dialectically ordered along the eschatological line of this ? . The “virtuous circle of reason,” that is, the logic of the symbol, “gives rise to thought.” [40] This means, finally, that their own transcendental conditions for reasoning should be properly taken into account by Christian participants whose job alone it is to make these clear—according to their proper (eschatological) vagueness—to their valued Abrahamic colleagues at the SR table. [41]


[1] James K. A. Smith, “How Religions Practices Matter: Peter Ochs’ ‘Alternative Nurturance’ of Philosophy of Religion” Modern Theology 24:3 July 2008, 469-78.

[2] Cf. Ibid., 470.

[3] Cf. Ibid., 472-5 and note 15, p. 477: “My concern is that ‘repair’-talk can end up reformist when what might be needed is revolution” etc.

[4] Cf. Peter Ochs, “Response: Reflections on Binarism” Modern Theology 24:3 July 2008; “Morning Prayer as Redemptive Thinking” Liturgy, Time and Politics of Redemption , Radical Traditions, eds. Randi Rashkover and C. C. Pecknold (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 50-87.

[5] I would like at this point to “compare notes” with the observations summarized here and Ochs’s account of Augustine’s semiotics in both “Response: Reflections on Binarism” ( Modern Theology 24: July 2008, 487-97), and more fully in “Reparative Reasoning: From Peirce’s Pragmatism to Augustine’s Scriptural Semiotic” ( Modern Theology 25:2 April 2009, cf. esp. 187-211). It would seem to me that the account I report here would make better sense of the antinomies Ochs chronicles through the development of Augustine’s semiotics from the Confessions to On Christian Doctrine to On the Trinity (cf. “Reparative Reasoning,” 199-211) without attempting to collapse them, as well as the notable differences between patristic and rabbinic modes of exegesis (cf. “Response: Reflections on Binarism,” 494). It may be that Ochs’ account of Augustine’s semiotics fails to take account of the origin of Augustine’s semiotic theory in biblical exegesis (and eschatology for Christian exegesis more generally). This may be rooted in Ochs’ use of primarily philosophical sources to interpret the African saint’s thought, as well as, of course, his distinctive rabbinic approach to textuality in general. Peirce, perhaps, primarily through the influence mostly of German idealism on his thought (Hegel, Schelling) especially as it concerns that which it shares with medieval transcendentalism (dialectic being a sort of extension of the medieval transcendental in the modern age) recovers the first, teleological pole of the eschatological transcendental—at this point Christian and Jewish transcendental reasonings are strikingly similar—but he lacks the second proleptic pole, and thus the possibility of the integration in the polar (incarnate) union between them (a logicity of incarnate unity in difference analogous to that of letter and spirit in exegesis and the already/not-yet of eschatology), which gives birth to a distinctly and fully Christian mode of transcendental reasoning, which I would call eschatological or christic.

[6] For this idea of “Christological parenthesis” cf. Cyril O’Regan’s description of Balthasar’s account of time in his Theo-Drama in “I Am not What I Am Because of…” in How Balthasar Changed my Mind , eds. Rodney A. Howsare and Larry S. Chapp (NY: Crossroad, 2008), 166. I will quote O’Regan and add a few comments for it may help clarify further what I am saying here: “Time and history can be conceived equally meaningfully as framed by the brackets of creation and apocalypse, with the incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of Christ serving as the hinge moment, or as an enactment within the Christological parenthesis of Christ’s having come and the expectation of the second coming. The christological parenthesis is flexible enough to distend backwards to creation.” I would only add to this, in light of what we are saying here, that the distention equally moves forward to apocalypse, and most importantly, distends both directions because it is the “influx” of both into the present precisely as the disclosure of the event of their unity in the Kingdom of God, the renewal of all creation through final participation in God’s triune life. The role of tradition (as O’Regan describes it in Balthasarian terms) can be seen most clearly in this light: “Ultimately [that is, in light of the last things] traditio means gift. By regressive analysis from the gift of the church, through the gift of Christ as the compelling aesthetic object that provokes the response that constitutes the church and the gift of the Spirit that enables and formats the response, one arrives at the font of gift itself—that is, the triune life in which the church participates.”

[7] Laurence Paul Hemming, Worship as a Revelation: The Past, Present and Future of Catholic Liturgy (NY: Burns and Oates, 2008), 111. This is precisely Karl Barth’s sentiment in his little book on St. Anselm: Anselm : Fides Quaerens Intellectum: Anselm’s Proof of the Existence of God in the Context of his Theological Scheme , transl. Ian Robrtson (London: SCM, 1960).

[8] St. Justin Martyr’s Second Apology, to the Roman Senate Ch. 13. Cf. also Ch. 10: “For whatever either lawgivers or philosophers uttered well, they elaborated by finding and contemplating some part of the Word.”

[9] Isaiah 2:1-3; cf. Micah 4:1.

[10] A further example: Saint Paul exhibits a strikingly similar approach in his use of the phrase “But now” in his Epistle to the Romans: ” But now (,i>nuvi de) the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe…” (Ro. 3:21-2; cf. 6:22; 7:6). Cp. Is 43:1; 44:1; 49:5; 64:8. Paul understands the present eschatological situation as a fulfillment of the law and prophets.

[11] In novissimis diebus : Biblical Promises, Jewish Hopes and Early Christian Exegesis” Journal of Early Christian Studies 1:1 (1993), 1-19. Cf. also Robert Wilken, “St Cyril of Alexandria: The Mystery of Christ in the Bible” Pro Ecclesia 4 (1995): In the New Testament “the use of the phrase indicates that with the coming of Christ the ‘last days’ had begun. Hence Christian commentators drew the conclusion that one must interpret the oracles of the prophets in light of the new things that had happened in the last days, the birth of Christ, his baptism and temptation, his preaching and miracles, his suffering and death, and most important of all, his Resurrection…the key to the interpretation of the Bible” (458-9).

[12] So Henri de Lubac: “The proclamation of the Gospel in the power of the Spirit brought about a spiritual revolution which created a new mental structure deep within humanity, and by an interpretive logic, this latter, despite some hesitations, had to clear a way to express itself.” De Lubac, Christian Faith: An Essay on the Structure of the Apostle’s Creed (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986); quoted in David Grumett, De Lubac: A Guide for the Perplexed , 126.

[13] For Cyril, the duality is preserved in a greater unity in a similar way as to the relation of soul and body in the one human nature (cf. his Letter to Eulogius , Epistle 44, PG 77, 224-28). Thus the ascription of “two natures” is an abstraction from the phenomenon of the one concrete person of Jesus Christ. (cf. on this Cyril’s Letter to Eulogius and the first and second letters To Succensus [Epistles 45-6, PG, 228-37; 237-45]) It is therefore true only from the perspective of theological reflection on the event but also potentially misleading, as Nestorius’ Christology of “concurrence” or “conjunction” amply demonstrated. All of this is summarized in the second letter To Succensus (cf. John McGuckin, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy [NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004, pp. 359-63): “They [the Antiochene party] want to show that the idea [i.e., of Christ suffering in our nature] is foolishness and so they keep on arguing at every turn that the two natures endured [i.e., after the incarnation]. They have forgotten, however, that it is only those things that are usually distinguished at more than a merely theoretical level which split apart from one another in differentiated separateness and radical distinction. Let us once more take the example of an ordinary man. We recognize two natures in him; for there is one nature of the soul and another of the body, but we divide them only at a theoretical level, and by subtle speculation, or rather we accept the distinction only in our mental intuitions, and we do not set the natures apart nor do we grant that they have a radical separateness, but we understand them to belong to one man. This is why the two are no longer two, but through both of them the one living creature is rendered complete. And so, even if one attributes the nature of manhood and the Godhead to the Emmanuel, still the manhood has become the personal property of the Word and we understand there is One Son together with it” (363).

[14] Thus in Against Eunomius , Bk. I (NPNF): “So likewise, as regards the meaning of our terms, though there may be, so far as words go, some likeness between man and the eternal, yet the gulf between these worlds is the real measure of the separation of meanings…there is a similarity of names between things human and things divine, revealing nevertheless underneath this sameness a wide difference of meanings. …And, then, each one of these names has a human sound, but not a human meaning, so also that of Father, while applying equally to life divine and human, hides a distinction between the uttered meanings exactly proportionate to the difference existing between the subjects of this title” (93).

[15] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible , trans. D. C. Schindler (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 105. Later in the same text: “Dogmatic theology is the articulation of the conditions of possibility of Christian action in the light of revelation” (111). This is in no way the “dogmatism” castigated by Kant.

[16] Philosophically speaking, both have a common heritage in neo-Platonism, Augustine in the more classical Porphyry and Valentinus; Pseudo-Denys in the mystical theurgical mode of Iamblichus and Proclus. My generalizations here are necessary to communicate something of these two streams as fundamental tendencies in the Christian tradition. For an analysis of these tendencies and their complex intertwinings in the Latin Middle Ages, cf. Marie-Dominique Chenu, “The Symbolist Mentality” in Nature, Man and Society in the 12th Century: Essays on New Theological Perspectives in the Latin West , trans. Jerome Taylor and Lester K. Little (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1997). Cf. also Andrew Louth, Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys , 2nd edition (NY: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[17] This is originally Proclus’ phrase, appropriated by the Pseudo-Denys. Cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, for a renewed attempt to appropriate this analogic for the Latin tradition. Cf., for a start, The Glory of the Lord, Vol. IV: The Realm of Metaphysics in Antiquity , trans. Brian McNeil et al. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 232-41, as well as the second volume of his Theo-Logic, Truth of God , trans. Adrian J. Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 108-10.

[18] Typical approaches to Augustine for contemporary semiotics tend to neglect this basic point.

[19] This distinction, also, for Aquinas, has its roots in exegetical practice.  David Burrell makes this observation in his essay “Aquinas and Islamic and Jewish Thinkers” in the Cambridge Companion to Thomas Aquinas , ed. Norman Kretzmann and Eleonore Stump (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993), 78.

[20] Cf. G. E. R. Lloyd, Polarity and Analogy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), who argues that analogy and dialectic were the two basic competing modes of logic in pre-Socratic thought.

[21] Cf. William Franke’s two-volume masterpiece On What Cannot Be Said: Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature and the Arts (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), especially the introductory essays to each volume, which offer a convincing reading of the Western tradition as a whole through the lens of this common apophatic positivity I adumbrate here.

[22] Ryan McDermott, in “‘ Beatus…qui..verba vertit opera ‘: Langland’s Ethical Invention and Tropological Sense” 2008 (Unpublished Manuscript), illustrates this point in a study of the use of tropology in Piers Plowman , situating the ethical within the mystical contemplation of texts.

[23] “Figura” trans. Ralph Manheim. Scenes from the Drama of European Literature (Gloucester, Mass: Meridian Books, 1973), 11-78.

[24] Just a note: the modern conception of revelation, from which Descartes fundamentally derives his philosophical propositionalism and to which so much of contemporary theology is still reacting, is rooted in the extrinsicist propositionalism of revelation as exemplified in the scholastic treatises of Francisco Suárez. It is indeed the case that Suárez’ propositionalism is post-Tridentine and therefore self-defined over-against Protestantism. This radically polemical situation within Latin Christianity after the Reformation led to the over-scholasticization of dogmatic definitions on both sides of the debate. Suárez’ conception of revelation is also connected to an extrinsicist account of the relation between nature and grace as exemplified especially in the work of the baroque Cardinal Cajetan. Much of this account is probably already familiar to the reader. Yet I bring it up in order to make a genealogical point: the central role of ecclesial division—again, but this time wholly intrinsic to Western Christianity—at the heart of the problematic. This pragmatic dimension is often missed by genealogists of modernity for a whole host of reasons, yet what is important here is the way in which its recognition helps adequately assess the mode of Christian repair, for which ecumenism will be central.

[25] Jean-Luc Marion, “Christian Philosophy: Hermeneutic or Heuristic?” The Visible and the Revealed, trans. Christina M. Gschwandtner et al. (NY: Fordham, 2008), 75.

[26] Cf. for example, David Ford, Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[27] Cf. Jean-Luc Marion, op. cit. , 78: “Christian philosophy is done by introducing concepts and discovering phenomena that come from charity, inasmuch as charity comes from revelation but inscribes itself in creation.”

[28] Hans Urs von Balthasar, op. cit. , 40.

[29] Cf. Peter Ochs, “Reparative Reasonings,” op. cit. , and Peirce, Pragmatism and the Logic of Scripture (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998); John Deely, New Beginnings: Early Modern Philosophy and Postmodern Thought (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994); John Milbank, The Suspended Middle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005) and, with Catherine Pickstock, Truth in Aquinas (NY: Routledge, 2001). In the context of French phenomenology, I have tried to sketch out some of the implications of this view in “To Be Called Again: On the Call and On Interpretation” Alea: Revista Internacional de Fenomenología y Hermenéutica 6 (2008), 127-156.

[30] For modern developments of these Greek-Eastern and Latin-Western traditions, cf. respectively, Pavel Florensky, e.g., his Pillar and Ground of the Truth , trans. Boris Jakim (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004) and C. S. Peirce, e.g., his “On a New List of Categories” (1868), on; and “The Seven Systems of Metaphysics” (Harvard Lecture IV) in The Essential Peirce , vol. 2, ed. The Peirce Edition Project (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998), 179-195.

[31] This perspective on RO bears a certain analogy in Judaism with Herman Cohen’s Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Modern Judaism .

[32] This perspective is confirmed in Peter Ochs’s most recent essay cited above: “Reparative Reasoning: From Peirce’s Pragmatism to Augustine’s Scriptural Semiotic.”

[33] Peirce, Pragmatism and the Logic of Scripture , 18.

[34] (NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 194.

[35] “Only Theology Saves Metaphysics: On the Modalities of Terror” Belief and Metaphysics , Veritas, eds. Peter Candler and Conor Cunningham (London: SCM Press, 2007), 452-500.

[36] Ibid., 476.

[37] Ibid., 477. Milbank means to say here, I think, not that revelation is literally our reflection, but that it is mediated by, and includes within it, our reflection upon it. It would not be hard to trace back this mediational account of revelation to our catena and its first link in New Testament eschatology.

[38] Cf. Nicholas Adams, “Making Deep Reasonings Public” Modern Theology 22:3 July 2006, 385-401.

[39] As Robert Slesinki puts it, referring to Pavel Florensky’s early “sophiological” transcendentalism (of sorts). Cf. his preface to Victor Bychkov, The Aesthetic Face of Being: Art in the Theology of Pavel Florensky , trans. Richard Peavar and Larissa Volokhonsky (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), 8.

[40] For “virtuous circle of reason” cf. Angela Ales Bello, The Divine in Husserl and Other Explorations , of the Analecta Husserliana XCVIII (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2009), 144. For “the symbol gives rise to thought” cf. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil , trans. Emerson Buchanan (NY: Harper and Row, 1967).

[41] I would like to thank Jason Byassee, Jacob Goodson, Peter Kang, Ryan McDermott, and Peter Ochs for their comments on various aspects of this essay.

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