Resolving the Debate: Jonathan, St Maximus, Balthasar, JP

Jean-Philippe MarceauSymbolic World Icon
November 7, 2023
The following is a translated and transcribed version of a french podcast recorded in June 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. Today what I’d like to do is continue the debate we started two months ago, where Jonathan defended the idea that the world comes to exist through human consciousness, while I wasn’t so sure.

I’ve taken lots of time to think about this, I read a few things, and I have an idea of how to come closer to your position potentially. Ultimately, I think it’s mainly about making distinctions around what we mean by ‘consciousness’. In the end we may even agree. I even suspect that it’s totally possible to make those distinctions from within your usual metaphysics, but we just didn’t speak about them explicitly last time.

To start, what mainly I looked at, was how St Maximus and Hans Urs von Balthasar speak of the existence of the world in Christ. Both are able to do so using a methodology that immediately appears different from what we employed last time. They keep talking about love, charity, beauty. In contrast, we spoke quite technically last time. I think it also yielded a view of consciousness as itself more technical.

So, the first thing I’d like to clarify is the following. I’ve often heard you say that to perceive things, in general, you need purposes. A classic example is a chair. The chair only comes to exist as a chair through human consciousness, because we see the goal of the chair and, automatically, we judge it as a good object to sit on. We judge things towards a purpose and thereby make them real. Outside of that, a chair is just a quantum flux, or whatever, something fluid and undefined. But this flux jumps qualitative levels through human perception, which orients it towards the human-level goal of sitting.

So, when you say that the world exists through Christ’s consciousness, I imagine that you give a strong place to attention, to purpose. The attention of Christ towards the Father allows Him to orient all things towards the Father, their true purpose.

I could say more, but before I do I’d like to allow you to respond right away, if you want to.

Jonathan: Yeah, sure. I think the best way to understand it today is with Heidegger’s Dasein. The idea of “care”. The word “attention” doesn’t seem to imply direction and affection as much. If I don’t care about something, it won’t deploy itself to me.

The world deploys itself to me through the love I have for things…

One of the things people have criticized Christians for, and St Maximus in particular, is levelling the notion of love. There used to be many words for love: eros, philia, etc. In contrast, Christians moved towards a kind of levelling, where there’s just one word. But there’s something really powerful in having just one word. It becomes the thing that connects you. Love is what brings you towards the other in a way that preserves the other; it doesn’t make you fuse with the other.

So, that’s how I see attention. It can sound like a technical term, but it’s not a technical term. It’s that if I have the capacity to pay attention to something, that’s because that thing must necessarily exist in a hierarchy of value. And a hierarchy of value in which I move; this isn’t just a passive thing where I merely look at the world.

So when you speak of the attention of the Son for the Father, or of the Father for the Son in the Trinity, that attention is love, in the end.

And by the way, I’m reading a book I never thought I’d be reading, Meditations on the Tarot by Tomberg, and he says exactly that. He explains that the difference between Christianity and the non-dualism you see in Vedanta or others, is that Christians really posit multiplicity as part of the non-duality. That is, non-duality doesn’t negate multiplicity. We’re not fusing all things towards the One. Rather, the primary duality of Heaven and Earth is like the expression or participation in the One.

And I agree! Exactly!

JP: I’m happy you say that, because it’s also exactly where I was going. To better situate the place of love or attention in consciousness, an image I found really good is the child with his mother. Balthasar sees the consciousness of the child, his self-awareness, sense of the world, etc., as emerging through his love for his mother, and reciprocally through the love of his mother for him.1

So the child has this capacity, even before he has a full-blown consciousness, to attend. To recognize the beauty of his mother’s smile. There’s a kind of light there that is hard to flesh out technically, but this smile, this beauty, this light, this love, is what attracts the child from potentiality into actual consciousness. He no longer has only the faculty of attention, but a full-fledged consciousness.

So, at the summit of consciousness, what allows us to perceive things, ourselves, concepts, etc., all of that starts with our capacity to attend to beauty.

Jonathan: I totally agree.

And we must understand beauty in the right way, because nowadays we have deflated definitions of beauty. But beauty, in the way that John Vervaeke talks about it — which I think is the way Plato describes his three transcendentals — is the capacity of truth to reveal itself. The exteriorization of truth in the world appears as beauty. That’s what we see that attracts us to the thing. The conformity of a thing to its good, that appears as beauty.

Take a beautiful glass. In the beauty of the glass, you see the glass moving towards the beauty of its purpose, but also the beauty of its existence in a human world. So there will be other aspects of proportionality, how it fits in my hand, etc. There will be plenty of things that bring me to perceive it as beautiful.

JP: Yes.

Now, besides the metaphysics, there’s a big practical advantage I see to situating attention or love as the summit of consciousness. By giving such strong ontological weight to love, it’s much harder to see symbolism as a merely technical endeavour.

You’re far less likely to overvalue the kinds of symbolic, paranoia-inducing readings of history that René Guénon does for example. I checked, and in The Reign of Quantity, he only mentions love once — in a footnote — and not in the way we’ve been discussing it here. So I’m not surprised that some people really go off the rails by reading him.2

Jonathan: It’s interesting you say that, because I’ve been reading about this lately. In Tomberg’s book, he distinguished between a mysticism of Being and a mysticism of Love. It’s exactly what you’re pointing to. He explains that for the Christian mystic, Love is higher than Being. And he seems to want to join that with the idea of the Platonic Good. He sees a link between the Platonic Good and Love. And so, the idea is that what guides the world is above Being. You can understand that when we speak of the Platonic Good, that’s Love, in that it’s what attracts us.

So yeah, I think your strategy is good to avoid the problem of a cold, mechanical symbolism that could easily happen.

JP: And this really helps understand why St Maximus harps on so much about love and purification. He sees Man as a laboratory where the extremes of creation are unified. When speaking about the different syntheses that Man must do, he explains that we can only achieve them if we are purified and we love God. If we have purified our perception of things and our attention is directed to God first and foremost, we can then see the purpose of each thing, thereby bringing it to a human-level of existence, a higher level of actuality, in a good way. If we are not purified and do not pay attention to God first and foremost, our perception will in fact bring forth monsters.

That’s also why the ultimate synthesis is done in Christ. It’s almost funny when you read Maximus. When saying that Christ unifies Creator and Creation, he exclaims, in parentheses “Oh, the wonder of God’s love for mankind!”. What ultimately holds Creator and Creation together, or you could say God and Being, is the love of God for Being, for Creation.

Jonathan: Yeah that makes sense to me. The more I discover this kind of metaphysics, the more I think it solves tons of problems.

It solves the problem of non-duality we find in Buddhists or in Vedantists. At some point, it becomes very weird there. You always feel like you must escape from the world, that the world is illusion, etc. And they’ll say weird things like “maya is brahma”, as if the illusion also belongs to non-duality. But how does that work?

Rather, the idea of love as what makes the world exist reconciles everything.

It’s not so simple though. We can still perceive the scandal of distance. We perceive suffering, death, decomposition, etc., all the things that make us feel that there are things at work besides God’s love.

So that’s our challenge, as Christians. And the response is the the best response, but also the most difficult one. The response is that there’s a relationship between death and a kind of ekstasis. The multiplicity of death, and the explosion of identity in the Infinite. That’s what we see Christianity bring, but it’s difficult to take in. How does one flesh it out?

It’s not masochism, that’s not the idea, but it seems like the solution that God gives us in Christ, is not to escape from the world, but rather to transform suffering into Glory.

JP: And I think that to take that in, it’s more about attention to the Good than by technical arguments. It’s much more convincing to see a saint who sees the world this way; to see the beauty of that person, that attracts us and gives us a glimpse into the mystery you just mentioned.

I think that’s a nice illustration of what we were talking about.

And to come back to non-duality, I really like Balthasar’s image of the mother and her child. That image allows Balthasar to explain that God creates the world so as to make it as independent as possible, so that it would actually become as close to God as possible.

When a mother raises her child, she doesn’t want to consume or possess the child so as to stunt him. Ideally, she rather wants the child to grow into an autonomous person. To do that, she opens a space for the child where she displays goodness and beauty, in order to attract the child who can then grow by itself into goodness and beauty.

Similarly, God, as the Beautiful and the Good, allows Himself to be pursued by the world, which thereby grows somewhat independently. You can say that the world thereby somewhat causes itself, being in the image of God. The world can then be different from God and yet united to God.

Now, let’s come back to our original problem, of how the world can exist in the Incarnation. If we give such a strong place to love, to the orientation towards the ultimate Good, I’m much more comfortable accepting the idea that Creation happens on the Cross. As the event of ultimate Beauty, it’s what attracts all of Creation. It’s the purpose, the orientation towards which all things are driven to actualize themselves.

And I say that in a way that doesn’t threaten a fall into a merely technical kind of symbolic worldview. What matters most is clearly loving God, not technical symbolic analyses.

Jonathan: Yeah, I understand.

But for sure, once you understand the consequences of this position, it also brings many questions. And we see them bubbling up. From David Bentley Hart, for instance, in the last few years.

Understand that we are each a kind of stimulation towards existence for one another. If I see the image of God in you, it attracts me towards God. Then, you can better see the image of God in me, which then attracts you to God, and so on. It’s really the idea of synergy that we see in the Orthodox Fathers.

That means that all beings are connected. We don’t exist separately. I don’t exist just in myself. Part of me exists in you, because we’re kinds of mirrors of one another. You get lots of this when reading St John’s Gospel. It really looks like that’s what Christ is saying. We mirror one another in love. This mirroring then turns itself higher, between Christ and us, and then between Christ and the Father. So you really have this movement where all things exist in a unity of love and a multiplicity of love.

But what that implies is that, as David Bentley Hart says, we can never be totally separated. There can’t be eternal separation. That’s just technically impossible. So he goes very far with it!

And you can see Church Fathers who have grasped this, and try to deal with this problem. You see it in St Gregory of Nyssa, in St Ephrem the Syrian, in saying things like “the fires of hell are God’s love”. He says things like this to try to deal with the problem of this metaphysics.

I don’t know if you’ve thought about this before?

JP: A bit. I think you’ve read Balthasar’s book on Maximus, and I don’t know if you remember the ending, which is about this problem.3 He refers to what Maximus says about the trees of Paradise — I’m not sure about the details — but it’s about universalism. Balthasar cites Maximus, who says that he’s given a certain interpretation, but that there’s also a secret interpretation we should keep private. And that’s pretty much how the book ends!

But I think that makes sense within the metaphysics we’ve been talking about. For instance, there are things that the mother won’t do in order for her child to be able to grow up. There are things that God won’t do, won’t reveal now, so that Creation can grow the way it’s meant to.

I think that’s it. We shouldn’t be impatient. We shouldn’t try to force union too quickly.

Jonathan: You’re right, because we see it! I’ve said this often before, and I see that those who really embrace universalism go off the rails. They become relativistic, they question all structures, all authority.

In the face of this, you must simply say “no, that can’t be”. That’s clearly not the teaching that Christ gave. That’s not the teaching of the Church.

I know that Father Thomas Hopko, and many 20th century Orthodox priests, with Balthasar I think, say that they live in the hope of restoration. We can’t say anything more, but we can live in the hope of a final surprise.

JP: Alright, so now let’s make sure I know where we stand in our debate—which has become fairly cordial!

Jonathan: But the debate, in the end, is as follows. We understand that the world exists in the Incarnation, in the place where Man and God are joined. That is the point through which Creation is mirrored. This allows us to say things that can seem crazy, but that I hope people will understand by now, such as that the Incarnate Christ exists from all Eternity. The God Man created the world. That’s the mystery that the story of the Incarnation reveals: “Oh, that was the Beginning”.

Now, all of this has strength right now, to help us understand the problem of existence, of consciousness, things like panpsychism or complexity. But the danger, and this is a danger we’ve been seeing in the Symbolic World, is that if it’s not done well, people can see their own thoughts, the reflections within their own consciousness, as being objective, as having real correspondances in the world, while it’s really just fabulations or very marginal structures.

JP: And specifically, we think that a good way to avoid this problem is to speak more about the importance of attention, beauty and love in consciousness. It takes us out of our own heads and helps us to avoid thinking that what would give us a good symbolic grasp of the world would be merely technical. Really, it’s more about learning to follow things that are ultimately beautiful. It’s by purifying ourselves that we can orient ourselves well and see the proper orientation of things, which is God. It’s only through that that we can see the real patterns of things, rather than thinking that all patterns go only through us.

Jonathan: And also to keep in mind — and I need to be careful of this myself — , that the symbolic, analogical understanding of things, the capacity to see the mysteries in how things exist, all of this is supposed to accompany a personal transformation. It’s not just a mental thing. It’s meant to accompany a purification from sins. It’s tested by our love of others, by our capacity to intercede for others.

And I say this as a judgment against myself. Sometimes I can think that I’ve got it. There’s a danger of intellectual arrogance in thinking that it’s all a matter of mental comprehension.

JP: Yeah, I was recently speaking with our friend Cormac Jones, who wrote a few articles on the blog, including one about this problem.4

And by the way, it’s worth saying that I’ve been very blessed in the last few weeks. Many blog contributors have worked on this, speaking to me and sometimes writing very relevant articles. All of that really helped! And this point about love is really something that Cormac helped be about.

He mentioned a very interesting observation behind the success of your approach. In contrast, take Guénon. Plenty of people go crazy reading Guénon. Far more than people go crazy listening to you. Now, Cormac remarked on the fact that you did not create something systematic. You create short videos where you try to show a light that invites people towards a pattern, and then you explain a bit the pattern in their world. And then, if people want to know about your metaphysical system, they need to go through tons of videos.

Now, if people do get there, a kind of purification process takes place. This fosters people’s good intentions towards light.

Of course, you want people to be involved in a community where they cultivate the Good, but there’s already a natural barrier against merely technical thinking that you created. I don’t know if you were aware…

Jonathan: Absolutely not, it has more to do with the fact that I’m someone who jumps from one thing to another!

JP: And relatedly, I was wondering if the fact that we didn’t explicitly speak about beauty and love in our previous debate has to do with the fact that it may be implicit for you because you’re an artist? When you speak about consciousness, it may be obvious to you that beauty is of prime importance, because you spend your career cultivating beauty.

Jonathan: Well, I do try to bring it up from time to time. I did a few videos on Dante’s Divine Comedy to try to remind people that this is the motivation.5 When I speak about Heidegger, it also has to do with that; the Good and the movement towards the Good.

So, we can’t always talk about it, but it’s clear that for me it’s implicit. If you look at the first video I put on YouTube, in 2015, 2016 or thereabouts, I spoke about attention with love as the motivator.6 So yeah, it’s always in the back of my mind.

JP: And this means that if people go through your videos trying to technically grasp what you’re saying, at some point they’ll find those kinds of videos that should hopefully reorient them in the right direction.

Now, there’s another argument I’d like to bring into the mix. In addition to metaphysics and theology, I also looked at more practical ideas from Nassim Taleb, who is an economist and an author. I think he has a good argument relevant to evaluating symbolic frames.7

Like we’ve often said, Taleb notices that the world is too complex. It has an infinity of facts. This means we need frames to perceive the world. Taleb then mentions a few ways to safeguard us against poor frames. He mentions some tests we’ve already talked about, such as seeing whether it works in your own life. Can your frame survive empirical contact with the world if you try to stretch it?

But what’s very interesting for us today is that he also mentions time. We should seriously consider the frames that have lasted a long time, because, when one has, it’s gotta be pretty good. The longer something has survived, the longer it’s likely to survive. He notices that this applies to Christianity, which has existed for millennia. We can therefore take the Christian frame very seriously.

Then, looking at that frame, we can think of the place that symbolism has in there. We can even think about the place of technical accounts of symbolism in Christianity. Now, it’s clear that symbolism is embedded in the liturgy, in the architecture, etc. There’s even a place where symbolism is made explicit, almost technically, namely during the homily. It’ll happen often that the priest takes a pattern from the Bible and applies it to other layers of reality. Sometimes, it’s also very direct in the hymns.

Jonathan: Yeah, there’s midrash. That is, even in our hymns, in our stories, you’ll have the interpretation. You’ll see it in very direct analogies in the celebration. You’ll hear typological readings in the hymns. Well, that’s really a kind of symbolic interpretation.

JP: And the point is that this has survived in a liturgical frame. We don’t have many stories — in fact I think we don’t have any — of books that speak technically about symbolism and survive. It looks like a frame where explicit symbolism can survive long term is liturgical. It’s by embedding symbolism in love, in a pursuit of the Good.

So, I think that’s another argument to show that it’s possible to do symbolism well, and it’s by focusing on love.

Jonathan: And the typological approach, in theory, it’s a good approach. While there are simple typological approaches, like old vs new testament, there are also more sophisticated typological approaches. Say we have an intuition about a structure, we then try to find other examples of this structure.

For example, say I’m reading Sleeping Beauty and I have an intuition about a structure, then I can try to find other instances of this structure.

It’s easy to understand when this fails. I can give you a simple example that someone gave me. Someone I really respect, a very good person, who wrote me and asked me why, in icons, saints look disjointed, like their joints are not connected.

What do you answer to that? The answer is just “no”. You’re not correctly seeing what’s in the icon. You think that’s what you’re seeing, but that’s not what you’re seeing. The reason is that there’s no analogy with any other thing you can find. There are no examples of this. It’s connected to nothing. It’s a small perception you had, and in reality it’s something else.

Rather, bring what you see to something that would connect with the liturgy, with other images, etc. If you see 3-4 images where you think saints are disjointed, and you never see it anywhere else, then forget about it. That’s just the way it was painted. I’m not saying it’s totally arbitrary, but it’s not important enough to make it a pattern of meaning.

And that’s the kind of thing that happens all the time.

JP: Great, one last thing I want to make sure to cover is the following. Once we have the metaphysics of love we’ve been talking about, where things exist through our attention, and ultimately through the attention of Christ for the Father, and the Father for the Son, does that push you to say a bit more, maybe, that things exist independent of human consciousness.

Jonathan: The way to understand it would be saying that things exist in Christ. More precisely, in the Incarnate Christ. And in the measure that I become the image of Christ, I participate in the gathering of things in Christ. In me, too, but in the measure that I participate in Christ.

So, in the end, things exist objectively — they’re not “subjective” in the way that we may think. But, as Saint Maximus seems to say almost explicitly, the more I approach Christ, the more I have the real capacity to join, in me, the reasons of things. And the more I rise, the more I enter into God, the more it becomes vibrant and shining. Maximus says that we offer this to God. That’s the work of Man, like Adam naming the animals.

All of that is totally objective. All of these things have their real existence at their level. Like we have a real existence relative to God, despite not being outside of God, but rather ultimately in God. Love is what lets things exist at all layers.

That’s why there’s no contradiction to me, in saying that ultimately things exist in Man, and also that they have an objective, solid, existence at their own level.

JP: Exactly. Perfect. I’m super happy!

Jonathan: Well that’s good!

JP: We went through all the issues I had! I’m just happy now, I don’t have anything to add!

Jonathan: I hope people will have followed!

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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  1. For an introduction, see Marceau, Jean-Philippe. “Panpsychism and Neoplatonism: Re-Enchantment for Mathematicians and Physicists“, The Symbolic World Blog, May 2022.
  2. For an introduction, see Marceau, Jean-Philippe. “Guénon and the Solidification of the World“, The Symbolic World Blog, December 2020.
  3. Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor“, translated by Brian E. Daley, S.J. Communio Book Ignatius Press, 2003.
  4. Jones, Cormac. “On Lot’s Life After Sodom and the Dangers of Symbolic Thinking“, The Symbolic World Blog, May 2022.
  5. Pageau, Jonathan, “The Divine Comedy: Love in Heaven and in Hell (Kintore College talk + Q&A)“, YouTube, January 2022; Pageau, Jonathan, “Diving Into Dante’s Divine Comedy“, YouTube, December 2020.
  6. Pageau, Jonathan. “2- Jonathan Pageau at Resurrection of Logos in Toronto, March 2017“, YouTube, March 2017.
  7. For an introduction, see Marceau, Jean-Philippe. “Nassim Taleb’s Empirical Symbolism“, The Symbolic World Blog, April 2022.

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