Posted on: April 13th, 2020 Milbank on Theurgic Neoplatonsim

In the introduction to Gregory Shaw’s Theurgy and the Soul, John Milbank lays the foundation for his insistence—an insistence which is part and parcel of his genealogical method—on the distinction between the “Iamblichan/Proclan” stream of Neoplatonism versus that of Plotinus. I here want to rehearse his argument in my own words, and to articulate why it matters.

The Plotinian error which Milbank wants to rebuff (since orthodox Christian theology rebuffs it) is its denial that matter is able (in the terms of John of Damascus) to “work [one’s] salvation.” Milbank thinks that the ultimate source of this Plotinian error/denial is its view of (what I will call) “diminished emanation,” or the notion that as the emanations of the One exit and disperse themselves out into the material world, less and less of the divine is communicated as the series, or hierarchy, continues.

In contrast to this view of “diminished emanation,” the Iamblichan account of things sees the One as fully communicating itself to the lower level. Now, the One does this, in Milbank’s terms, “impossibly.” That is, there is something supremely paradoxical about this complete self-giving (which one can see in the Christian theological insistence that the son is ontologically equal with the Father): it assumes or implies absolutely no continuity between the first element (the Father/the One) and second (the Son/Nous). That is, it is totally discrete, totally “free.” Put it another way: the second element has no claim on the first; it (the second element) is completely “suspended” from the first. While in one sense (the level of grace?) the two elements are related by conjunction, in another sense (the level of nature?) they are related by total disjunction (contra Plotinus); they are totally discrete.

Why is this “giving” impossible? It is because of the “simple nature” of the first element. That the Father is “simple” means that it cannot share itself, “by nature.” (This is what Milbank means by “absolute reserve,” xvi.) It is, to use the neoplatonic terminology, “imparticipable.”

Yet the first element does give himself to the son, even though this giving is “impossible.” Good thing, too (the impossibility): otherwise, it would not be “the entire substance” which is communicated. In other words, if the giving is not impossible (due to simplicity), then the giving ends up being diminished. It is precisely because of this “impossible giving” that the Father is able to give himself completely to the Son.

Now, one corollary of this total discreteness, this radical disjunction (by nature) is that the second element is unable to “rebound” back to the first element. Unless. Unless it does so through a third element. It is this third element which participates (as in participans), rendering the second element participated. And yet, while this third element “rebounds” to the second, it also rebounds to the first. And since it is the whole “self” which the higher communicates to the lower, this means (to use Trinitarian language) that the Son does participate in the Father, but only through the Spirit, the gift of the Spirit.

The Father gives himself to the Son, impossibly. The Son gives himself to the Father, by giving himself to (and through) the Spirit.

The upshot of all this is that, for Milbank’s Iamblichus (and Auustine, and John Damascene) matter—the “bottom” or last of hte series—is able to “rebound”—as the Spirit does—back upward. It can, thus, work to bring about our salvation (since it, for the Damascene, “is filled with divine energy and grace”).

In sum, it is the paradox of the “impossible giving” which allows Christian theology (utterly biblical, also seen clearly in Denys) to affirm both “descent all the way down” and “participation all the way up.”

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Filed under: Dissertation, History / Genealogy, liturgical theology, philosophy, Radical Orthodoxy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on Milbank on Theurgic Neoplatonsim