Jonathan & St Maximus vs JP & St Thomas: Is Symbolism Dangerous?

Jean-Philippe MarceauSymbolic World Icon
November 7, 2023
The following is a translated and transcribed version of a french podcast recorded in April 2022 by Jonathan Pageau and Jean-Philippe Marceau.

JP: Welcome everyone to this new episode of the Symbolic Life with Jonathan Pageau and JP Marceau. This episode is going to be a bit special, because behind the scenes, Jonathan and I have been disagreeing about how best to approach symbolism. We’ve known that we approach symbolism differently for a long time, and our disagreements are obviously not major, since we’ve been able to record 20 episodes before they ever came up to the surface.

However, we’ve recently been seeing issues in the Symbolic World community that are related to what we disagree on. Currently, symbolism seems to be disconnecting some people and making them paranoid. We therefore decided to have a special debate episode! We don’t really expect to abandon our respective positions, but a debate will be useful to drill down into the problem and maybe adjust the way we explain things.

Jonathan: Great! I’m ready to fight! (laughs)

JP: (laughs) Yeah we’re both very agreeable people, I don’t think we could really have a fight!

Anyways, to start, I think I could summarize the argument you give for the symbolic worldview, to make sure I understand.

Jonathan: Okay!

JP: Your approach relies on phenomenology1. You use the argument that whenever we want to talk about something, we do so through human categories. That’s true even for scientific objects that most people typically want to grant independent existence to. Whenever I want to speak about something, I need to do so using human concepts. In other words, this means that it’s impossible to talk about some thing that would exist outside of human consciousness, because that thing would be outside of human concepts, and I therefore couldn’t talk about it.

So that’s a phenomenological argument that tries to situate the existence of all things through human consciousness. Now, this doesn’t mean that nothing exists outside of Man, but rather that, outside of Man, things exist in a state of potential. They’re not formed yet. There’s something there, outside of Man, but we can’t speak about it.

This phenomenological move is destabilizing and shocking to modern people. But then, the way I see you restabilize things is again via first-person conscious experience, more precisely in how we participate in higher consciousnesses. You notice how we can be informed by higher consciousnesses and thus find stability.

You often use the example of a sports team. When you’re in a team, you can perceive that you’re potential for the consciousness of the coach. When you speak to him, when he gives directions, exercises, etc., you can feel that you’re getting structured. You can feel your desires move towards what the coach desires, and conversely you can feel that you dislike what the coach dislikes. You’ll feel that you and the other players are aligning yourselves under the consciousness of the coach. That’s how you’ll find stability and how you’ll see things around you. The events unfolding in the game will be coloured, informed by the players’ consciousnesses, that are in turn informed by the coach’s consciousness. So you have a kind of hierarchy, where things outside of players are in a state of potential, and are brought up into actuality and intelligibility through the players. The way that a certain move is noticed, perceived as something, and as good or bad. Plus, this won’t be an idiosyncratic thing, because the consciousnesses of the different players are aligned under the consciousness of the coach.

And ultimately, you put all such hierarchies under the consciousness of Christ Himself, in the Incarnation. The story of the Incarnation is thus the ultimate story. Christ’s consciousness informs the consciousnesses of the apostles, and under them all human consciousnesses, and through human consciousnesses all things.

So you can imagine a mountain, where at the base, below man, you have things existing in a state of potential. Humans can draw actual things out of potential through their consciousnesses, which are ultimately all informed hierarchically under Christ’s consciousness, at the top of the mountain.

That’s why you can speak so well about symbolism. You take the source of all forms, all patterns, namely the Incarnate Christ. The patterns of His life are the patterns that make the world, which means that we can find them in lower scales in everything that exists. All forms, all intelligibility come from the Incarnation.

So that’s my summary of the position, and now it’s you turn to tell me whether I’m making sense!

Jonathan: I think that sounds good! The other thing is that because we live in structured hierarchies, we can think about Man, or about Adam, to see that our conceptual structures aren’t arbitrary. They’re drawn from two levels. One, bottom-up, in our coherence, our ability to recognize with another that what we see is true, and second, top-down, in that we accept the authority of a shared frame of reality.

So we can’t all just have our own concept of flower or some other thing. Because we live in an incarnate world, with goals and life, the images of reality that aren’t equal to the truth of the world won’t survive. You’ll be confronted with the fact that everyone thinks you’re crazy. Or, to give another example, if you think that a knife is an orange, you’ll die. Symbolism isn’t just fabulation from us or from the totality. There’s a real relation between the constraints and potentiality of the world. So if the name we give to reality is true, it’ll be recognized by others. That’s something that’ll take body. And so when better ways of understanding things appear, they ultimately win because they’re more coherent with the true structure of reality, even if they take time to do so.

It’s important to realize that because we live in community structures, this limits the risks of fabulation of meaning, where you imagine things or you think everything is meaningful or that the world speaks to you.

JP: Yes. And I think it’s worth taking some time to discuss an issue many people have with your view of the Incarnation. It looks like many things happened prior to the Incarnation. Even in the Bible you have tons of stories before the story of Christ. So how can you say that the Incarnation is what created the world? That’s not obvious.

A way to explain it that I’ve heard you and others, like Hans Urs von Balthasar, use2, is a theatre play. During most of the play there’s a series of events with a certain coherence and a certain direction, but you don’t really know what’s happening. Things are still in potential. And then at the end, a key event happens that shines light, all of a sudden, on everything that had happened. We see there that even if this key event was the last thing to happen temporally, it was in fact the origin of the play. Therefore, you can have something that is last temporally but first causally.

Jonathan: Yes, that’s a really good way of understanding it. You can see different Church Fathers speaking about this, trying to point to it in mysterious ways. They’ll say things that can seem a bit crazy, such as that when Christ was on the Cross, He was creating the world, or that certain events in Christ’s life happen in Eternity. They aren’t tied temporally. The Crucifixion and Resurrection are examples of events that are in fact eternal. They are the origin of the world even if they appear at the end. They reveal something that was hidden since the foundation of the world.

That’s the idea, for example, of the lamb sacrificed before the foundation of the world. Christ reveals that, and it’s the way the world really works. I’ve spoken about this elsewhere3, about how self-sacrifice is revealed as the way in which things hold together. Bottom-up, to participate in higher things, you need to give yourself to that thing. You need to sacrifice your particularity to participate. And top-down too, you need to be ready to compromise your identity to exist in the world. So it’s as if the culminating point of all hierarchies is always an act of self-negation, of self-sacrifice.

JP: Yes. That’s an example of symbolic analysis we can do in general to reinforce your position, to reinforce the idea that it’s specifically from the Incarnation that all meaning, all patterns come from. Because, if the Incarnation really is the origin of meaning, then it should shed light on all that happens in creation. All of it. So, for instance, what you just said helps us understand hierarchies, but the claim really is that we could do the same thing with everything. That’s why you can do symbolic analyses of so many things; you’re taking the key, namely the Incarnation, that unlocks everything.

So one can really find stability in Christ, after the destabilizing phenomenological move we talked about earlier. Especially for modern people, phenomenology is very destabilizing. But your project allows people to get back to stability and sanity of mind because it’s really possible to situate everything coherently around the story of the Incarnation.

Another mystery that is worth bringing up to reinforce your position comes from saint Maximus the confessor, who solved some very big philosophical problems by using the Incarnation and its dogmas as keys. Now, Maximus won’t speak about Christ’s consciousness, but he’ll rather speak in terms of Christ’s person (hypostasis). More precisely, he’ll end up saying that the world exists in the Incarnate Christ, in Christ’s hypostasis4.

So Maximus’ starting point is the Chalcedonian Christological dogmas. Maximus is a monk in Byzantium, a profoundly Christian world, though there were heresies! But nonetheless, Maximus could start his work from Christ and the Incarnation because that starting point was largely accepted. He could then go on to use that starting point to explain plenty of other things.

One puzzle he solved is the very old and difficult God-world relationship problem. It’s really difficult at first to understand how both could coexist. You can’t say that the world simply exists independently of God, because then the world would look like it somehow creates or sustains itself as a kind of separate deity. But on the other side, neither can you straightforwardly say that the world exists in God, because then you’d have some kind of panentheism where Creation would be more God than Creation. So how can we do better than those two responses?

Maximus answers using the Incarnation. Recall from Chalcedon that in Christ’s person, human and divine natures can unite without losing their infinite separateness. Created and uncreated natures really are different, but coexist in a person, not in a higher nature. So rather than speak about consciousness, like you do Jonathan, Maximus still says something very similar, namely that the world exists in Christ’s person. There can be an infinite distance between Creator and Creation because this difference is in the person of Christ.

So that’s another way we can use the Incarnation as a key to reveal the deepest workings of the Creation. That’s another argument for your thesis and I thought it was also worth mentioning to bring in Maximus’ authority on your side.

Jonathan: Yes. Well, now I think we’ve covered my side well. Do you now want me to try summarizing your position?

JP: Yeah, that would be great, please go ahead!

Jonathan: Alright, so the way I understand your position and your objection—and please listen carefully because I could be wrong—is that you would prefer placing the reality of forms in the world as existing outside of Man. As existing objectively, you could say. Man is an intelligent being capable of perceiving and participating in the existence of forms to a certain point. And while those forms culminate in God, you don’t necessarily hold that these forms culminate in Man, as an intermediate between them and God.

That’s a more Thomistic way of interpreting reality with its hierarchy of forms and what you see as the advantage is avoiding the danger of prelest, of falling into spiritual illusions. By bringing things into Man, like I do, a danger is a kind of solipsism where the world is made in the image of Man, and because everything is imbibed with human consciousness, you might feel like the entire world is speaking to you. You feel like all the meaning of the world is connected to you, and this turns into a kind of paranoia. The world speaks to you and you receive messages from here and there, and the world is trying to communicate certain things specifically related to you.

This can really create a paranoia, like Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory, where the person feels like they’re at the centre of connections. This can become outright oppressive for that person who feels invaded by meaning. Also, since meaning happens through Man, the person can’t distinguish between their own thoughts, emotions and problems, and the way the world presents itself to them.

And let’s be honest, the reason why I’m happy we’re speaking about this today is that we’ve been seeing this happen in the Symbolic World community, if we can call it a community. There are people interested in my work and Matthieu’s work, people looking into the Symbolic world, who seem to exhibit this kind of paranoia problem, who think that the world speaks to them. Sometimes it even goes so far as people saying they’ve had visions, angels who spoke to them. This can really lead them to psychological problems, where people get disconnected from reality by falling into spirals of meaning centered around them. They even end up isolating themselves, they see the world of meaning as a satanic oppression. They see all the signs that the world is falling apart as connected directly to them and their experience, becoming slaves of those signs.

JP: Yes, this ends up genuinely happening to them. If you spend lots of time learning how to perceive satanic patterns, you can come to see them in everyday life, because it’s true that they are, to a certain extent, present at lower scales very close to us. But if you start obsessing over those patterns and they occupy too much of your perception, they’ll really have a satanic impact on you. You’ll isolate and panic, victim to satanic attacks.

Alright, so the critique you’ve done of your own position is really close to what I was going to say. Now, about the way I approach symbolism, I would only add some subtleties.

Jonathan: Yeah for sure go ahead, that’s important.

JP: This will help better understand the differences between our positions. I’m also ready to say that there remains a lot of potentiality in things outside of Man, so that Man can bring them higher5.

We can take many examples, even material objects, like a cup. Outside of Man, the cup is really not the same as with Man. It’s a block of ceramics. If there were no humans in the universe, the cup exists insofar as it has atoms, molecules, etc., and there’s a certain form, a certain structure, that holds those molecules together, but it’s not fully a cup. You need human forms in relation with cups for drinking to be possible. There’s something more that happens through man, a new form emerges between Man and the cup that makes the cup fully a cup.

And more than that, Man can allow things to jump up levels of being. This will sound weird at first, but cups can almost have a vegetative soul through Man. Recall that in classical metaphysics, a vegetative soul is a form that is able to take from the outside to maintain itself. Well, we humans allow artifacts to do that. We allow cups to reproduce, to take external matter and turn it into cups. If a cup is good, I use it and I like it, well, I’m gonna create more. I allow concrete cups to reach towards heaven through my intellect, to the abstract form of the cup, and then the cup can come back down to matter to incarnate itself in some other ceramics through me.

I can do that with tons of things. Animals too. For example, dogs exist because humans have seen the potential in wolves and acted so as to make the dog form emerge from them. In general, Man is able to gather things in potential and bring them to higher levels. Or, to say it the other way, Man is able to take certain forms and make them incarnate in ways impossible without Man.

So for me, the capacity for Man to be a microcosm is a bit different from how you see it. I’m still able to say, like you, that Man can unite heaven and earth fully, that we can take potential and associate it with very abstract ideas, as in the example of the cup. But I want to say that those entities also exist outside of me somehow.

Another way to say it, and then I’ll let you respond. If I take the cup again, without Man, the cup exists at the level of a certain ceramics structure. With Man, the cup can exist in a drinkable form, and even as a vegetative form because it can reproduce itself. But if there was no human at all, I would still want to say that even the latter forms exist in the Logos, the Mind of God. They’re not realized in Creation without Man, but they still exist.

So I want to say that all of those forms exist, but it’s through Man that they can incarnate fully. So I can say, for example, that the scientific hierarchy exists outside Man. That’s something I really like being able to say in a modern, scientific world like ours today. All the science I learned in high school and college, about fields, particles, atoms, etc., I can say that all those things exist independently outside of me even if I can bring them up to higher levels than they can attain by themselves.

Jonathan: I think I for sure understand what you’re saying, and I don’t think that my position eliminates the fact that things exist independently of my personal existence; of my own little existence in the world. It’s in participating in Man with a capital ‘M’, in Christ, that these things cohere in Being.

An example I could give to speak about the problem of the existence of things outside of human consciousness is the problem of permeability of things. The relationship between permeability and hierarchy.

I don’t think that cups are a good example for your point, because cups are made by people. I think your point is stronger if you take things we find straight from nature, like molecules, fruits, trees. Things that have being let’s say.

So it’s a matter of zooming in and out. Let’s take a tree. In the periphery of the tree, there will necessarily be a kind of permeability with other beings. In the places where the tree is in contact with other beings, the things that constitute the tree will breathe. They need to take in air, to integrate carbon, through their leaves, and reject other things. There are insects on the tree. There are many things that are on the form, but we’re able to distinguish a kind of hierarchy in the being of the tree.

We can even conceive of certain parasites that exist on the tree that are necessary to the functioning of the tree but aren’t the tree. But there are also molecules or other beings that we’ll recognize as belonging intrinsically to the nature of the tree.

That’s why, for me, it takes a conscious being to bridge between the two. You can do that at all levels. A cell is the same; it’s permeable, constantly relating inside and outside with things coming in and out, things ingested and digested. Same for molecules. If you zoom in, it’s totally porous. Bodies aren’t hermetic. Bodies are in themselves fluid. The postmodern fluidity of things is real.

So it’s a kind of perceptive hierarchy, or participative hierarchy that makes it so that we’re able to see multiplicity in unity at all levels, or to see that there can be parasites on a body that aren’t part of the body.

For example, say there’s an insect on the tree that eats the wood of the tree. Now the wood of the tree is in the body of the insect. We don’t conceive of this wood as the tree anymore. But speaking of this at the level of things in the world, this is mumbo-jumbo. Why do we distinguish things like that? There are totally reasons, but for me those reasons are totally tied to human consciousness, to the capacity that humans have to participate in and see those hierarchies and distinctions.

JP: I agree that scientifically, at the level of the tree, it’s very difficult to say what’s the form of the tree. For things lower in the hierarchy, however, we can do it I think. We can say, for example, what’s the form of an electron or what’s the form of a given molecule. I think we can circumscribe those well. So I would really want to say that those forms exist in atoms, molecules, etc., outside of Man, but because I’m confident we can do this at this level I’m willing to extend it higher in principle.

We don’t yet have a satisfying definition right now about where the tree begins and ends. In cognitive science, there are also many debates about where a human starts and ends, because we’re so deeply tied with what happens around us, and with other people especially, that it’s very difficult to make clear distinctions. But in the same way that I’m confident enough to say that forms exist in atoms, molecules, etc., outside of human consciousness, I would do the same with higher entities like trees, even if we’re not able to precisely define their forms at the moment. And I don’t really see why you…

Jonathan: What I’m trying to point to is that you need a principle of incarnation. For the tree to exist, you need a principle of incarnation, a reason or a goal that makes all of these phenomena cohere together, but in the phenomenon there’s a kind of hierarchy that ends in its non-being. It goes towards a kind of fluidity and permeability at the edges. There are monsters at the margins of all phenomena.

What I’m trying to bring you to see is that for all things to exist, you need a principle of incarnation in the thing itself.

Think of the relationship between Christ at the summit of the world, at the right hand of the Father, and Christ on the Cross descending into Hell. This structure is the structure of everything that exists.

That’s why I differ from Plato. And even Aristotle, when he says that things have an essence and accidents, that’s not how I see things. I really see a hierarchy from the essential to the accident. Where, in the accidents, you can’t even see on which side they fall. That’s the nature of things; at some point they fall into water and you can’t tell. But it doesn’t matter because it’s the telos that holds all things together. And that’s why I say that the Incarnation is nested in all phenomena.

But the only way it can be nested in all phenomena is through our relationship with them. That is, the ability to interact with hierarchies in the world, that’s Man, in a way, because he’s at the summit of Creation. He gathers forms from above and connects them below.

So if, in addition to that, we have the idea that reality has a fractal nature, a fractal manifestation, for me this keeps bringing back the Incarnation.

I don’t know if that makes sense.

JP: I think so. I’ll try something to see if we can maybe end up meeting here. Maybe we have two approaches to get to say the same thing.

The way I get to the point of the Incarnation is slower maybe6. I start from Creation, and I try to say that there is actual contingency in Creation. Like the example of the play I mentioned earlier. We don’t fully understand in the beginning. But I want to say that those created things, those events really exist nonetheless. But then I’ll follow the hierarchy up to the Incarnation, and then, when I get there, that’s where I situate the finality and origin of all things. As in the play, I can say “oh well, that was why all things were created this way. That’s where all forms were headed.” Retroactively, I can say that things were created for and by this origin, as when we spoke of final causality earlier.

So, it’s like I go at this bottom-up. I start from the scientific hierarchy, from particles to human, let’s say. Then, I add the entities I need to fix problems in that hierarchy. So, for example, you need to include forms in your scientific hierarchy, or otherwise you’re negating the reality of the forms you’re using to do science, so you undercut yourself.

After forms, I’ll eventually bring in God as their ground and finality. I just make classic metaphysical moves you can find in Aristotle, for example.

But then, looking at the Incarnation, I can see this as the event that gathers all forms and orders them to God, the origin and finality of all things. So once I’m there, I can say like you that this is the point of Eternity. The point that is in and outside of Creation.

So it’s like I get there bottom-up, but maybe I’m seeing you get there top-down?

Jonathan: Well, what I would say is that what happens in the Incarnation is the revelation that the Incarnation was hidden in all phenomena. The Incarnation was hidden in the world. It was always true but wasn’t revealed until Christ came to cohere everything together and show us the way the world works.

But we need to think about why that makes a difference. Why do you think that the way you present it could avoid the problem we’re seeing in the Symbolic World? (laughs) There’s a real problem, I’m seeing it and I need a solution.

JP: I think that for most people today, if you start either with phenomenology like you or with dogma like Maximus, for better and for worse, that’s gonna be a jump. Dropping the scientific hierarchy as existing outside of Man and going to something else, if we do it in a single step with either phenomenology or Christological dogma, that’s a big jump. And if we authorize ourselves to make this kind of jump in reasoning, we have higher changes of authorizing ourselves to make this kind of jump elsewhere.

In contrast, the path I’m proposing requires small and gentle jumps. Adding forms, explaining how Man can bring things higher, and ultimately how the Incarnation brings everything to God. I’m doing this step by step.

On the other side, if you do something brutal like the phenomenological turn, which is very destabilizing initially, then you have a higher likelihood of leaving people in an unstable place, from where they see patterns where they shouldn’t.

Jonathan: So what you’re saying is that if you start with scientific structures as a kind of base of phenomena, and then you build on that, the odds are lower that listeners see themselves as the centre of the world and the place where all messages go.

But the difficulty I have with scientific forms is always that they seem to hide a kind of lie as they present themselves. They make it seem like emergence is automatic. It’s taken for granted. And because of that, I feel like it encourages a nominalist kind of thinking. People don’t realize that there’s a kind of magic happening when multiplicity becomes one. There’s a kind of change in level of consciousness. It’s really an ontological jump.

That’s why I feel that phenomenology gives more possibilities for people to understand ontological jumps. We can see ontological jumps in our experience. At the human level, I can easily perceive that my family is constituted of several members and at the same time I conceive of it as a unit. Same with a city.

After that move, then I apply the same idea lower. The reality of things jumping up ontological layers in atoms, molecules, etc., is of the same nature.

But maybe you’re right that it carries a danger.

For my part though, the danger I’m trying to avoid is people thinking they grasp the nature of symbolism when they don’t really understand the power of what happens between ontological layers. But as you say, maybe I sacrifice something else, with the risk of solipsism; that everything revolves around you and your personal story. Especially in a world where people are very selfish and self-centered, with social media and all, bringing in symbolism can create religious delirium. People who are in an asylum and think that the world is full of meaning for them.

JP: Yeah, and we’ve seen this mainly from people who try to do symbolism alone. People who aren’t in a community with people who can tell them when they’re going off the rails. This goes with the age of isolation in which we are.

But I agree with the problem you’re seeing in my position. The danger of nominalism or reductionism. It’s always been a temptation in the sciences. Science even started essentially because people decided to try reductionism. Let’s pretend that it’s fundamentally small, mechanical things that exist, and let’s see what we can predict. And then of course, not too long afterwards, we reached a point where tons of people thought that only small mechanical things exists. It’s easy to make that kind of mistake.

The way I see people get out of materialism, reductionism and nominalism, in the cognitive sciences, is when dealing with the human mind. Materialism fails when confronted with human consciousness and rationality. At that point, it’s true that certain people will go straight to phenomenology like you, but I also see people like John Vervaeke who will become neoplatonists, adding irreducible forms to the scientific hierarchy. After speaking of emergence and emanation for the human mind, they end up talking about emergence and emanation at all layers of the scientific hierarchy. This is a kind of re-enchantment of the scientific hierarchy you could say.

But for sure there’s a danger of staying there. The odds are low that you’ll fall into solipsistic conspiracy theories, but you may also not go higher than this neoplatonic scientific ontology. That’s the danger of my approach.

Jonathan: It’s interesting that you say this because in my last conversation with John7, for those who haven’t heard it, when trying to speak about higher consciousnesses, he introduced an hypothetical situation, where Chinese people try to map brain activity by raising up 1s and 0s for activity vs non-activity. John claimed that if you do that, you couldn’t create consciousness. But for me, even just the ability to propose that as a counter-example to what I was saying was an example of not understanding the real transfer between ontological levels. That is, the way that phenomena join together into beings above man is simply appropriate to their level. It’s misunderstanding the way that even we become conscious. It’s not just electric shocks in the brain that make us conscious. There’s a real ontological jump between brain activity and your irreducible experience of the world. All that is to say that this example showed that it seemed to me completely impossible for John to make the jump.

I feel like the solution is suggested by what you said earlier, namely to nest ourselves in those hierarchies. Being ourselves in structures of coherence. Not merely mental, but communal coherence. People can act as checks for what you live, as limits to your possibilities to go off the rails. They can align you towards reality, because as I said, reality isn’t just you. Participating physically with others, even in playing sports, in having children, in buying and selling, etc., in all of these worldly things, the world becomes coherent and we participate in shared identities and we can coherently identify things in the world.

So I think this could be the solution. And doing what I’m doing on the internet is maybe the problem! (laughs)

JP: It carries that danger, let’s say.

Jonathan: I’m sending this into the world. Since there are 100s of hours of videos of me, it’s possible for someone who is alone, who doesn’t go to church and doesn’t have friends, to just watch videos of Jonathan for 100s of hours. Something like that would be very dangerous! (laughs) I don’t know if this has happened, but it’s a possibility because of the internet and the possibility of isolation.

JP: That’s why you always remind people to go to church. You feel and you know that it’s the solution. When I introduced your position, I mentioned that it starts with a phenomenological destabilization and it is then restabilized by meaning from above. You’re restabilized in a place where you’re checked by people besides you in shared meaning. Phenomenology by itself is too destabilizing.

Jonathan: It’s good that we speak about it, because I’m supposed to write a book for a more popular audience, and if I do that I really need to pay attention. There are certain thinkers, especially in the occult world, who take symbolism in a way that really looks like what you said. It’s sort of living in your own dreams, which become reality. A kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, as in the idea of The Secret, where you say what you want to reality and then reality conforms to what you said and so on. So I can understand that there could be a danger in what I say, if it’s not clear enough, to lead to that world. And that would be the worst thing; I would have a bad impact on reality.

JP: Globally I think you’re having a good impact but I’m thinking a lot about it because we’re seeing people having problems.

Let’s try to approach the instability another way. We talked a lot about the scientific hierarchy so far, but there’s also the fact that by not authorizing discussions about what happens outside of Man, your phenomenological approach can have very counterintuitive consequences. The fact that we can’t speak about what happened before Man or what would happen if all humans died tomorrow. What would happen to the world then? You seem to leave big open questions like that in the periphery.

Jonathan: Yeah I admit that I don’t touch those questions. The question about what would happen tomorrow if humans stopped existing is an impossible question for me. That’s a question that tries to look at the impossible and to formulate the impossible. I don’t think you can see that world. You can see it as the end of the world, at the limit, maybe. I don’t know.

For me, someone who tries to think about what the world is like if there isn’t human consciousness in it, that’s someone who thinks they’re imagining that, because they’re not really imagining that. You imagine you’re thinking about that, but you can’t… well, there is something in us that thinks the impossible. Jacques Derrida talked a lot about that, namely the possibility of the impossible, the category of impossible itself. We have a category of impossible, a certain way of thinking the impossible. That’s how I would…

JP: Do you do that with the past too? Let’s say, in Genesis, it’s written that God creates the heavens and the earth, plants, animals and then comes Man. What about those days before Man? Or, to put it in a more modern way, what was the world like 500 000 years ago? Do you just not authorize yourself to think about that?

Jonathan: Yeah you can think about it, but you do so through Man. Even in Genesis 2, you see the idea that Man was there from the start, before the creation of other things. There’s also this in the tradition of the universal Man from the Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria. I think that the idea of the Incarnate Christ preceding Creation is a way of taking that up. Man is at the source. Even at the scientific level. I’ve talked about this in my conference with Jordan Peterson on Genesis8. The world is born in consciousness in a certain way.

The origin of the world is consciousness, and therefore the past too is born in consciousness. The linearity of time itself is wrapped in the contingency of consciousness. Even the way we conceive the Big Bang and the difference between the sizes of things, the distances between things, their relations in space, all of those things. We could say something as crazy as: without consciousness, there’s no difference in the world before or after the Big Bang. What are we talking about in terms of sizes and distances? In a universe of supposedly infinite size, there’s no difference between the point and the expansion. What are we talking about when speaking of compression into a single point and total expansion? Without consciousness, there’s no difference between the two. The beginning and the end… all of those notions are tied up with consciousness.

Now, people will think I’m crazy as I say this. It’s maybe difficult to formulate. But that’s why I think that even the past in born in Man.

JP: I think I see what you mean, but it’s very destabilizing.

Jonathan: Yeah I understand! (laughs)

JP: I’ve been speaking about this with you for a while so I feel comfortable exploring it, but it’s still destabilizing. I often feel like I have my feet planted on two positions. On the one hand, I know the classical position of Augustine and Aquinas that is mainstream in my tradition and that I use most of the time. But on the other hand, I think I also have a decent grasp of your position and I feel tempted towards it, but I feel like I’m not ready for it or maybe I would even need to be a monk to really live it without losing my mind. Though maybe it has to do with my orderly personality…

Jonathan: Have you yourself felt this pulling on the thread of your stability? When you let yourself be tempted by my worldview, let’s say, do you feel stretched?

JP: Yes, I feel like I’m being stretched, and then what I need to be careful about is discerning whether it’s stretching me in a good or a bad direction.

On the positive side, it has often happened in studying you and St Maximus that when I would go to Mass, I would be much more fervent. I would really feel that as I approached the Eucharist I was drawing closer to Eternity, to the origin, to the stability and finality of Creation.

But there were also moments where I would look at the city through my apartment window and I would just see the book of Enoch. I would just see the Fall and be very negative.

All that is to say that I think your worldview is very powerful and full of meaning, but it takes a lot of discernment to make sure that I’m growing in charity, in love of God and neighbour, rather than just retreating into my own little world from where I judge the city.

Jonathan: Yeah I see what you mean, and I know what when you had read Guénon you told me that it had really been bad for you. Especially The Reign of Quantity9. It’s so negative, and for 350 pages… I see how it could do what you’re saying.

For my part, I have in me both tendencies. I try to show the colour, the light. But I also have the tendency to show that things are destabilized and are going towards chaos.

And I can live with both without going crazy, I think. I’m not sure why. I can’t totally explain why. Maybe it’s because I make things. Objects, artworks. For my part, I have in my practice the luminous side of Cain, I think. So because of that I don’t feel in danger. When I speak I have the tendency to emphasize the negative side of Cain and the city, but I know that in my practice I participate in their transformative aspect. Maybe that’s why I’m not breaking myself.

I know also from when I went to Édouard-Montpetit college and I did a conference about Enoch and the environmental crisis. To be honest with you, when I finished my conference and I looked at the eyes of the people in the room, I thought “oh”! (laughs) I felt bad because I really slapped them around, but I didn’t even realize it. I was just speaking and explaining. When I finished, Frederic, the teacher who had invited me, who’s great and very nice, told me everything was OK, but I saw that he was like “well… do you have something positive to tell us? Some positive message for the end?” (laughs)

But I take what you’re saying as a lesson. That is, to be attentive to the dangerous aspect and to find ways to formulate what I’m saying in a way that mitigates the risks.

JP: It’s really powerful as I said. I’m much more fervent on one side, but it can also be dangerous.

In contrast, the danger of my more classical approach isn’t paranoia. I don’t know anyone who became paranoid reading Augustine or Aquinas. But I know many people who won’t go far enough. It’s easy to become legalistic or dualistic.

Jonathan: Or to have theologies that seem arbitrary. I’ve seen people use theological terms that fit in a system but that don’t clearly connect across levels of reality. I saw this in the people I met who were very Thomistic. You’re not that Thomistic, but when meeting very Thomistic people I can see what they’re saying but I don’t see it landing in different layers of reality.

JP: That’s why for both approaches, as far as I see, the way to move forward productively is love. It sounds trite, but as St Paul said, even if you have all the wisdom in the world and the ability to see the future, but you don’t have charity, then you have nothing.

To avoid madness when exploring your approach, I need to periodically make sure that I’m growing in charity. I need to ask myself whether I am loving God and neighbour more and more. With that I think it’s possible to safely dive progressively deeper into your worldview.

And it’s the same to avoid the shortcomings of my approach, when I’m in my more classical and Thomistic days. If I see that I’m getting stuck in a strict, dualistic or even arbitrary system, not elevated enough let’s say, that isn’t helping me love God and the people around me more, well, that’s a bad sign. Something’s missing and I need to reach outside of my system.

Aquinas himself wept every Mass he said and his life culminated towards a powerful mystical experience that made him compare his writings to straw. Clearly he was doing things correctly and not getting stuck in an arbitrary and overly rigid system. And of course St Maximus was also doing things correctly, so I think it’s obviously possible for both approaches to meet.

So both approaches carry dangers. We critiqued mainly your approach today…

Jonathan: I really think that’s great. I think it’s important to always be attentive. Especially since we naturally tend to surround ourselves with people who think the same way as us, which can create parasitic systems where meaning is going in circles. So I really appreciate your presence in our Symbolic World community, if we can call it that, and I appreciate the fact that you’re even willing to think critically about what I’m saying.

JP: Thanks a lot Jonathan.

This conveniently brings us to the end of the conversation, especially since you have another meeting in two minutes! Thanks a lot for taking the time Jonathan, and thanks everyone for taking the time to be with us. See you again in a few weeks for the next episode.

Jonathan: Bye everyone.

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  1. For a thorough introduction, see Pageau, Jonathan. “The Symbolic World | A Lecture by Jonathan Pageau“. YouTube, November 2021.
  2. Pageau, Jonathan; Vanderklay, Paul and Vervaeke, John. “Emergence and Narrative” as 1:38:55. YouTube, August 2020. Schindler, D.C. “Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Dramatic Structure of Truth” at 17 and following. Fordham University Press, 2004.
  3. For example, see Pageau, Jonathan and Marceau, Jean-Philippe. “Emergence and Levels of Being“, YouTube, December 2019, or Pageau, Jonathan and Peterson, Tammy. “The Importance of Suffering” at 30:55, YouTube, April 2022.
  4. Wood, Jordan Daniel. “That Creation is Incarnation in Maximus Confessor.” Boston College, September 2018. See also his upcoming book: Wood, Jordan Daniel. “The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor”. University of Notre Dame Press, October 2022
  5. Marceau, Jean-Philippe. “Through Adam: Creation and Return”. The Symbolic World Blog, March, 2022.
  6. Marceau, Jean-Philippe, “Investigating Miracles with Lewis and Vervaeke”, The Symbolic World Blog, October 2020.
  7. Vervaeke, John and Pageau, Jonathan. “Angels in Scientific Terms, pt.2” YouTube, March 2022
  8. Pageau, Jonathan. “The Symbolic World | A Lecture by Jonathan Pageau“. YouTube, Novembre 2021.
  9. Marceau, Jean-Philippe. “Guénon and the Solidification of the World“. The Symbolic World Blog. December 2020.
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