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On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ
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on December 10, 2014
St. Maximus the Confessor, The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, translated by Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken (Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2003). Pp. 188. Paperback $16.00.

On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ has become one of my top favorite books because St. Maximus has a holistic view of salvation. In the American context - the one in which I live - the predominate view of salvation is that one "accepts" Jesus as Lord and is, consequently, saved. This view is based on an idea of original sin that declares us guilty in an imaginary courtroom, but if we submit ourselves Christ, his sacrificial crucifixion pays our debts and we are able to "go to heaven." This entire view, however, is foreign to ancient eastern Christianity and the Orthodox Church. St. Maximus's view is that salvation is about union with God; one which is so intimate that we aren't just "saved," but we actually participate in the life of God. I believe this is a much-needed corrective to the Christian American's view of salvation.

St. Maximus is, by no means, original. He stands on the shoulders of esteemed theologians who came before him, especially St. Gregory of Nazianzus. What he does do, is articulate theology in a very precise way, which includes using Greek philosophical argumentation; however, even this is borrowed from earlier Christian theologians - such as Origen - rather than directly from Greek philosophers. So, St. Maximus isn't even innovative in this way, but rather he clarifies misinterpretations.

St. Maximus argues that ideally we are born, have movement towards God through our lifetime, and then come to find rest in God (salvation, deification, theosis). However, instead of moving towards God (contemplating God), humanity turned to move away from God (contemplating material things, or the world) instead. At this point, St. Maximus has a very interesting understanding of death, pain, and suffering. He says God introduced them into the world to show us that our contemplation of material things was flawed and not life-giving. Our pain, suffering, and eventual death are to get our attention so that we would turn again to God, the only one who gives life.

However, our fall introduces a vicious cycle into human existence. Our contemplation of material things is a search for sensual pleasure (as opposed to spiritual pleasure), which includes sexual gratification. Of course, this sort of pleasure brings about a birth that can only end in death. It seems that St. Maximus envisions that had humanity not fallen in the garden, our birth would not come about through sexual pleasure; however, he doesn't elaborate on what a "spiritual" birth would have looked like in a pre-fallen world. Thus, pleasure, birth, and death become an unending cycle.

The solution and the plan for salvation is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. St. Maximus very clearly articulates that when Jesus became man, humanity was infused with divinity. This action recreates, or renews, our human nature. Because Christ was not born though sensual passion, he breaks the cycle of pleasure, birth, and death. Yet, because he does die, and this death is unjust, his death has the affect of triumphing over death. We, as Christians, are now given the opportunity to be reborn (baptism), and because this birth is also not the result of sensual pleasure, but rather spiritual contemplation, it unites us to Christ, and allows us to participate in the life of God. This is our second birth.

This union with God is salvation. Christ gives us the opportunity to turn our attention away from the contemplation of material things, and again towards the contemplation of God. In short, Christ shows us how to move towards God so that we can experience our third birth: resurrection. Thus, St. Maximus is able to say, "hence the whole man, as the object of divine action, is divinized by being made God by the grace of God who became man." In short, being saved is much more than submitting to a master (Lord); rather it's about synergistic union with God.

This book is one of the more, if not most, difficult books of the Popular Patristic series. However, it does include an excellent introduction that helps one pull St. Maximus's theology together. Though it can be difficult working your way through this volume, I believe the payoff is priceless. This is well worth the read.
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on October 28, 2009
The 'Popular Patristics Series' of St. Vladimir's Seminary Press presents this collection of critical writings by St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662). Translators Blowers and Wilken deliver modern and accessible texts that are not heavy on pedantry, excessive footnotes, or arcane disputes. Their translations achieve the aim of revealing how this master theologian unites cosmos and Christ.

Refractory heresies advancing a cosmos independent of faith in Christ, such as promoted by Origen and subsequent Gnostics, fold beneath Maximus's reasoned appeals and precise linguistic skills. Moreover, he promotes an apologetics of salvation as the mystical cooperative work of human beings with the Holy Trinity to redeem themselves and re-establish harmonious interaction with the creation.

The texts collected in this 188-page volume include significant portions of the 'Ambigua' and 'Questions to Thallasius,' as well as text number six from 'Short Theological and Polemical Works.' These excerpts have been attributed reliably to Maximus himself, yet still complementary with centuries on love and theology, large parts of which Pseudo-Dionysius might have compiled in the tenth century, attributed to Maximus, and made available in translation from 1981 (Faber & Faber, Ltd.) of the 18th-century Greek 'Philokalia.'

A 30-page Introduction covers brief overviews of each translated text according to four organizing themes: 1. "Cosmic 'first principles;'" 2. "The Adamic dilemma: The fall and the origin of the human passions;" 3. "Jesus Christ and the transformation of human possibility;" and 4. "New birth and the Christian's progress in virtue." The selection of these four organizing themes for introducing Maximus's theology supports the view of many that this book will anchor historic and ongoing debates for a popular audience.
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on September 7, 2009
For St Maximus the cosmic mystery of Jesus Christ is nothing less than the deification of the cosmos. St Maximus will develop this argument with the Logos/logoi construction. In other words, the principles of creation (e.g., logoi) find their arche, their unifying principle in the Person of Jesus Christ. They participate proportionally in God (54).

The larger argument of this work is a running commentary on St Gregory of Nazianzus. St Gregory is refuting neo-Origenists who posit a bodily pre-fall. While few people today worry about Origenism, and many of St Maximus' and St Gregory's arguments will seem academic, the arguments do provide an interesting snapshot of early Christian interpretation. Simply, St Maximus interprets St Gregory to say that Christian theology teaches BECOMING ' MOVEMENT ' REST. Thus, it is impossible for a creature who has reached beatitude (full rest) to fall.

At all times St Maximus remains doggedly committed to Chalcedonian orthodoxy. For him the whole mystery of Christ is the hypostatic union of humanity and divinity (123). Christ is the beginning, middle, and end of all creation. For him incarnation is salvation. It is the lens through which to interpret the beginning and goal of the universe (33).

At the end St Maximus deals with the monothelite controversy. Christ's prayer in the garden affirms both a human will and a divine will. Even though the human will seeks perfect concordance with the divine will, this no way negates the real human will of Christ. If Christ doesn't have a full human will, then Christ isn't fully man. If Christ isn't fully man, salvation was not achieved.

This is one of those great books that redefine reality. That is not a light claim. For the Incarnation has changed the very structure of reality. If everything is held together in Christ (Col. 1:16-20), and the Logos has assumed flesh/matter, then does this not suggest a dynamic interplay between reality and divine? (Of course, we reject pantheism and our comments in no way suggest that.) This is one of those books that needs to be read at least four or five times. The pressing scientific and theological issues cannot be really appreciated on the first three readings. Andrew Louth's introduction is world class and raises a number of pressing scientific and philosophical issues to the believer. The reader is encouraged to read and meditate on St Maximus' work while consulting the physics and alternative history of Joseph Farrell (who has also written on St Maximus) at the same time.
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on August 27, 2005
In the millennia-long conversation of Christian theology, St. Maximus (580-662) stands out as a profound, original contributor. For this reader, the most striking feature in this collection of his writings has to be his understanding of "deification.". Based on his reading of II Peter 1:3-4, deification (or divinization) stands at the very center of his thought concerning the redemption and transfiguration of the entire cosmos. According to Maximus this process occurs in a "blessed inversion":

"... the power that elevates man to God through his love for God and brings God down to man because of his love for man. By this blessed inversion, man is made God by divinization and God is made man by hominization." (Ambiguum 7)

So, while Western theology's development of man's reconciliation to God has emphasized the descent of God into the human, Maximus gives equal time to man's ascent into the divine. Perhaps the closest theological term in the Western tradition to Maximus' "deification" is sanctification, the process whereby the Christian becomes purified from the old, corrupt self and grows into the new, Christ-like self. Maximus, developing II Peter 1:3-4, seems to take things farther: while we in the West are used to the notion of becoming like Christ (as remote as that can seem from our day-to-day reality), Maximus insists that our being is transformed to share in the very nature of God.

In doing so, Maximus gives this reader a fuller picture of the wondrous union of God and man brought about by the grace of God in Christ - a union that removes all barriers to the realization of Eternal Love between Church and Christ, Bride and Bridegroom.

Maximus is not all sweetness and light, however. Sadly, in his diatribe against Jews in Ad Thalassium 64, he adds his two cents to a poisonous, persistent theme in the history of Christian discourse. Also, for present-day readers, his insistence that the act of conceiving a human life is sinful tends to undermine his explanation of the corruption inherited from Adam.

Yet given what a product of his times he is in on these issues, he (surprisingly) concedes a redemptive role to human emotions. The fires of passion are not simply condemned (as they are in many manifestations of Christianity), but refocused so that passion may find its greatest fulfillment: "[turning] desire into the appetitive movement of the mind's longing for divine things." This is a perspective developed most recently in Evangelical Christian circles by John Eldridge in his The Divine Romance and The Journey of Desire. From a psychological standpoint, we might say that Maximus represents a surprisingly healthy and compassionate approach to human emotion, especially for a church father writing in the 7th century! Yet this all flows logically from his overarching view of the cosmos: all is redeemable and will find deification in Christ.

Further, Maximus makes distinctions around passions and attachment that can seem uncannily Buddhist or Hindu to our ears: "Anything non-existent seems to exist merely by the presumption of mistaken judgment when actually it has no existential basis at all; indeed, mere fantasy deceives the mind and, through passion, causes vain attachment to objects that do not exist." His insights on the illusory nature of our attachments foreshadow Buddhist-influenced Christian discourse in the 20th century, for example in the meditations of Catholic writer, Anthony De Mello (The Way To Love).

All in all, for those already within the Christian faith, Maximus deepens the awe that comes over us in the light of "amazing grace." For those seekers of truth who are open to the idea of a universe where Spirit evolves us to higher consciousness and greater compassion, Maximus may open the possibility that Christianity lives in a bigger house that they had previously thought.
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on April 1, 2015
Tough to read, but excellent
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on October 20, 2016
There is very good introduction to the complex and nuanced theology of Maximus, and then the rest, i.e. most, of the book is a solid translation (I read ancient Greek) of some of Maximus's important works. The readings are diverse in that they are from different letters of Maximus.
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on April 1, 2009
The selections of this volume were made so as to coordinate and supplement, without duplication, with Maximus material already available in English translation. Thus widening our access to sources. The scholarly discussion of intro and footnotes gives good guidance and companionship to the reader.
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on January 12, 2014
The intro and selection of primary texts provide a good introduction to Maximus's thought. The translations are also reasonably accessible, especially given the dense Greek primary texts.
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on December 25, 2016
Tells what the traditional churches use as the basis for their teachings on Jesus Christ. A must read for Christians.
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on November 22, 2003
Great translation of the hero and confessor of the faith who defended the natures of Christ, wills of Christ and hypostatic union. Really he helped defend the core of the faith against those who taught that Jesus was not exactly like usand exactly of the nature of the Father. Great material.
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