Goodness, God and Insights from Maximus the Confessor and Pseudo-Dionysius

*This post was first published in my newsletter.

A little while ago I was sitting on campus with my friend George.  We were playing a game he had picked up at the Renaissance Faire while talking, as we often do, about God.  George and I disagree on some pretty basic things.  I believe the ultimate reality in our cosmos is the infinite Being we call God.  George does not believe this, he is an agnostic atheist.  In his words, this means he doesn’t believe in God but he cannot prove there is no God.

George is a good guy and I always enjoy hanging out with him.  When our discussion moves to other social and political topics, we discover we agree on quite a lot.  These agreements, though welcome, can be bothersome.  I mean, if George does not have God in his life, shouldn’t he be some sort of immoral person?  Why is it that he has a moral compass that is equal to, if not greater than, many Christians I’ve met?

This is not a new question for me, nor for any Christian who is friends with people who do not share their faith.  Why are people who live with no faith in Jesus Christ living lives filled with goodness and kindness.  Why are so many who claim faith in Jesus often jerks?  I will save that latter question for another time.  It is the former question I want to think about today.  There are lots of way to look at this question with some being more helpful than others.  The big point I want to focus in on is that as Christians believe God is Good then all goodness is from God.  When anything does something “good” they are participating in God.  In other words, even in the broken and sinful world we live in, there is no human being who is “good without God” because all humans still possess inherent goodness as all are created in God’s image.

Wisdom from Maximus the Confessor

There have been many Christians who have said things similar to this.  We see it in scripture (Romans 1:17, for example), the early church (Justin Martyr* and Clement of Alexandria*, among others, who comment that the truth of the philosophers was God’s word to the Greeks) down to the likes of CS Lewis* (commenting in Mere Christianity that anywhere he finds truth he can affirm it, as a Christian).  I recently came across the idea again as I was reading Maximus the Confessor.  

Maximus lived from 580-662.  Little is known of his early life.  Later in life he took part in theological controversies happening in the Eastern Roman Empire during the 630s.  The controversy, by the way, was over whether each of Jesus’ two natures (divine and human) had their own will or if together they had one will (Monothelitism = your word of the day!)).  Maximus argued for two wills that worked in harmony.  Unfortunately for him, the emperor in Constantinople supported the other side.  Maximus went to Rome in exile, but eventually was arrested and sent back east.  Eventually he was tried as a heretic and in 662 he was tortured, having his tongue cut out and his right hand removed (so he could no longer speak or right).  Later on he was vindicated, as the Eastern Orthodox Church accepted that the one person Jesus possessed two natures, each with its own will.

I’ve been reading Maximus lately because I love the theological depth and spiritual truth he gives.  Over the summer I read his 400 Texts on Love (Don’t be impressed, the “texts” are really just paragraphs).  Then I picked up his On the Difficulties in the Church Fathers (The Ambigua), in which he quotes confusing passages from previous writers and explains them.  Chapter 7 of The Ambigua is worth the price of the whole book as he discusses our understanding of God, Jesus, what it means to be human, virtue and more.  What is relevant for my topic here is this:

The essence in every virtue is the one Logos of God – and this can hardly be doubted since the essence of all the virtues is our Lord Jesus Christ, as it is written: God made Him our wisdom, our righteousness, our holiness, and our redemption” (103)

What he is saying here is that virtue (i.e. goodness, wisdom, etc.) are rooted in the Jesus Christ, who Christians believe is fully God and fully human.  It is impossible to separate virtue or goodness so that there is some virtue or goodness which is separate from God.  Like the rainstorm that gets everyone wet, any goodness you experience comes from God.  Maximus goes on:

Anyone who through fixed habit participates in virtue, unquestionably participates in God, who is the substance of the virtues. For such a person freely and unfeignedly chooses to cultivate the natural seed of the Good” (103).

When anyone does good, they are cultivating the seeds of goodness God has implanted in them.  God is the beginning and end of the entire cosmos, and of each person.  Each person is created in God’s image, possessing inherent worth, value and goodness.  Yes, there is also then the reality that each person is broken by sin.  But when any person aims for the good or does good, this person orients themselves towards the end for which they were created: to become like God, the Good.

Wisdom from the Pseudo-Dionysius. 

After finishing The Ambigua, I began reading Pseudo-Dionysius’ On the Divine Names.  The writer of this text is named as Dionysius, a convert of Paul in Acts 17:34.  Yet he actually lived in the 400s and early 500s.  Maximus quotes Pseudo-Dionysius frequently, and his writings were hugely influential throughout the medieval era.  On The Divine Names is all about what it means to speak about God. How can our finite language apply to an infinite being? 

What does it mean to say God is Good?  Does God adhere to some moral law above God? But then that moral law would be ultimate.  Is God arbitrary, creating and naming things good while, theoretically, other things could have been good?  No and no.  Pseudo-Dionysius, in line with the best Christian thinking of the ages, argues that God is Goodness itself. 

“The Good returns all things to itself and gathers together whatever may be scattered, for it is the divine Source and unifier of the sum total of things…All things desire it: Everything with mind and reason seeks to know it, everything sentient yearns to perceive it, everything lacking perception has a living and instinctive longing for it, and everything lifeless and merely existent turns, in its own fashion, for a share of it” (On the Divine Names, ch. 4).

Again, the point is that God has created everything Good and thus everything desires good.  The reality of sin has broken this, but not destroyed it. 

Taking Ancient Wisdom to a Practical Level

My friend George may not see it or believe it, but I believe this explains his motivation to be a moral and virtuous person.  As a person who believes in honesty, I tell George this.  I tell him I believe he strives to good due to God’s creation of him.  When he yearns for and does Good, he is participating in the God he does not believe in.  Like me, he was created in God’s image and thus possesses a moral compass.  And, like me, the brokenness that results from sin means we often stagger towards the good, mucking things up along the way. 

It is conversations like these which make me feel alive: discussing whether God exists, arguing what it means to be good and where it comes from, finding common ground and to praying that we can come to a deeper understanding of the God revealed in Jesus.

What I find fascinating (or unsettling) is that what is good is not always obvious.  Christians certainly do not have the market cornered on what is good.  Our arrogance, us vs. them mentality turns people off.  How do we see people who differ from us?  Rather than seeing them as projects to fix, may we recall Jesus calling his followers to take the plank out of our own eyes before looking to others (Matthew 7:1-3).  May we listen to wisdom wherever we find it.  Sometimes I suspect Jesus’ words are true of us when he spoke of outsiders (tax collectors and prostitutes) entering the kingdom ahead of those who thought they had the first place in line (Matthew 21:3).  What I’ve learned, from talking to people like George, is that even people created in God’s image who do not acknowledge God may speak truth that points to God. 

That is forever humbling.

For Further Thought…

How do you treat the people in your life who appear to be “good without God”?  In what ways do good and moral skeptics challenge your faith?  In what ways might you challenge them?

Growing up, I always felt pressure to evangelize which meant to get people to buy into Jesus ASAP!  But often evangelism seemed so weird, like I had to be a used car salesman.  Over the years I’ve learned its better to talk about what I love then force myself to talk about what I feel I am supposed to.  I’ve learned I can’t really change anyone’s mind and any real change in any of us does not happen when pressured into any sort of decision.  What are your thoughts on evangelism?  If I play games and argue with George for two years (or ten years) and he never becomes a theist (let alone a Christian) am I a failure?  


1. Justin Martyr, Second Apology 10, Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 1.5, C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, chapter 1.

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