Volume 16, Number 1 (January 2020)
Author: John Iliopoulos
Any attempt to compare Baudrillard with Orthodox spirituality is faced with two major difficulties. First, how can Baudrillard, a postmodern nihilist, be compared with the dogma of Orthodox Christianity? The postmodern spirit is antithetical to reason and absolute truth, it is hostile to teleology, whereas the very core of Orthodox Christianity is the telos of all truth in the logos of Christ. Nihilism is an attitude of total mistrust towards values and meaning, while Orthodoxy seeks the consummation of meaning in the incarnation of God. Second, is it possible to draw parallels between Orthodox theology and Baudrillard’s Gnostic-Manichean views without appearing heretical to the Orthodox mind or eccentric to the Baudrillard scholar? Gnosticism has been one of the longest and most fierce rivals of Orthodoxy and Baudrillard seems tο defend the Gnostic perspective.
The only way to make such a comparison plausible is by casting skepticism on the validity of these commonly held assumptions and by attempting to revise their theoretical framework. Perhaps Baudrillard cannot be so readily identified with postmodernism and nihilism and perhaps he is not as gnostic as he himself has claimed to be. It could also be the case that Orthodox Christianity is closer to postmodernism, nihilism and Gnosticism than one might expect, provided that these terms are subjected to careful clarification and are closely examined as to their specific contexts.
This is exactly the examination that we shall attempt to perform here. We shall show how Baudrillard is in fact reacting to the dangers of (post)modernity, by employing an anthropological model opposed to the virtualization and automation of the human spirit, a model which appears nihilistic only insofar as it negates the moral and metaphysical illusions of techno-scientific globalization. Through recent studies in Orthodox patristics (Romanides, Zizioulas Florovsky, Loudovikos, Foucault), we can illustrate that this model essentially renews, revives and updates the fundamental problematic of early Christianity, a problematic which has remained active and alive throughout the history of Orthodoxy and which, in a postmodern and nihilistic way, has deeply undermined the sovereignty of the subject, has questioned the self-evidence of reality and has subverted moral codes. It is an anthropological model foreign to ideology or metaphysics, dealing instead with man’s transformation through limit experiences and a fundamental relationship with truth. One of our main tasks will be to downplay some of the gnostic and mystical overtones which do exist in Baudrillard’s work, in order to demonstrate the anthropological similarities between his oeuvre and Orthodox theory and practice. If that task is accomplished, Baudrillard’s work will be seen in a new spiritual light, while at same time, through its fertile dialogue with Baudrillard, the Orthodox tradition will be reassessed in all its critical force and spiritual value.
Which Baudrillard? Which Christianity?
Baudrillard follows the methodological path of the anthropology in order to develop his theological or religious views. In the narrower sense of the term, the anthropology consists in studying cultures other than the West, drawing comparisons, laying out oppositions and spotting similarities and differences between civilizations. This aspect of the anthropological enterprise is largely identical with ethnology and it can undoubtedly be traced in the background of Baudrillard’s abiding preoccupation with the study of primitive societies or other non-European mentalities. In its broader definition, however, the anthropology is an area of research dealing with the simple (and complex) question: what is man? It is a question first systematically posed in the West by Kant as part of a philosophical method reflecting on human finitude and the relationship of human knowledge with what lies beyond human comprehension: the inhuman. The anthropology is the only language, the language of reason, shared by science, philosophy and theology in their search for man’s relation with what is radically other — unreason, the inorganic, machines, animals, plants, God. Kant poses the fundamental question: how can human reason be reconciled with what by definition eludes its own powers? Given its inherent limitations, how can human rationality grasp the irrational forces of the mind, the brutishness of nature or the transcendence of God, without falling into illusion?
As I have attempted to show elsewhere, Baudrillard, like Foucault before him, follows the same problematic (Iliopoulos, 2013). His critique gravitates around the anthropological illusions embedded in man’s efforts to reconcile himself with alterity in all its forms. Crucially, Baudrillard shows how the anthropological illusion of modernity, that is modern man’s persistent effort to conquer nature, madness and death, has deep seated religious roots. It has been since the Death of God that human rationality has overstepped its legitimate boundaries and has become hegemonic and all-encompassing. Roughly since the nineteenth century, it has no longer been the case that, as Feuerbach’s thesis would have it, humans project their attributes to divinity. On the contrary, man has concentrated all of God’s qualities on himself. Now that the transcendental world is extinct, ‘The equivalent of the Kingdom of God — that is to say, the immanence of an entirely positive world (not the transcendence of an ideal world) — has to be brought about by technical means’ (Baudrillard, 2001: 13). Having eliminated the transcendental world, today’s cybernetic man considers himself capable of enacting all the age old religious ideals of a moral, security-orientated, fully realized and harmonized world. He has both the desire and the technological means to fulfill humanity’s hopes for an earthly paradise of happy coexistence, immortality, omnipotence and omniscience.
For Baudrillard, this anthropological integrism (Baudrillard, 2001: 16) is not the result of a pagan or atheist hubris. Exploring the origins of modernity, he traces its roots in the Christian West and more specifically in the Reformation and Counter-reformation (Baudrillard, 1987b: 64). First, he criticizes certain rationalist and moralist presuppositions of Catholicism and Protestantism. In an implicit yet clear reference to St Augustine, whose impact on Western Christianity has been immense since the fourth century, Baudrillard critiques the ‘moral anthropology, spanning from Christianity to Rousseau, of original sin to original innocence’ (Baudrillard, 1998a: 72) and its entire culture of perfection based on guilt, repentance and the denial of evil. Then, he targets the ‘the strict alliance of rationalism and moralism in Protestant culture’ (Baudrillard, 1987b: 64): which brought about the ‘political economy of individual salvation’ and the ‘morality of effort and merit, of labor and works’ (Baudrillard, 1975: 65). He then goes on to highlight the increasing secularization of Christianity in both the Jesuits who, with their ‘modern, worldly, missionary work’ prefigured the current forms of utopianism, discipline and happiness (Baudrillard, 1987b: 64 and Baudrillard, 1988b: 77) and in Protestant morality which gradually changed the objective of leading people to their salvation in the next world, to ensuring it in this world, through health, well-being and security. Elaborating on this morality, Baudrillard conducts a (Weberian) sociological analysis to show how it traverses current technocratic and consumerist reality. From the ‘deep puritanism of computer science, an intensely Calvinistic, Presbyterian discipline, which has inherited the universal and scientific rigidity of the techniques for achieving salvation by good works’, to the ‘intra-worldly’ asceticism of self-mortification, suffering, work and rational calculation for the sake of production and hygienic consumption (Baudrillard, 1988b: 42 and 1975:64), Baudrillard illustrates the religious overtones of the contemporary morality of performance and self-management (Baudrillard, 1998: 75-76, 141-142). This asceticism for the sake of well-being finds its fullest and clearest expression in ‘Anabaptist America’, where Protestantism has ushered in the ‘cult of the body’, the ‘secularization of consciousness’ and religion as ‘a way of life’, contributing to an aseptic, perfect, idyllic society, ‘a utopia achieved’, where negativity, illusion, risk and poverty are totally denied and eliminated (Baudrillard, 1988b: 35, 41, 75, 91).
The second level of Baudrillard’s criticism of Western Christianity concerns the loss of symbolic exchange. In primitive and pre-Christian societies, the whole economy of society, the very existence of the community, rested on the exchange of gifts, on rituals and sacrifices which ensured the social hypostasis of individuals, as well as their ‘antagonistic reciprocity’ with the gods (Baudrillard, 1975: 75); with Christianity, this economy is disrupted: ‘Christianity is thus on the hinge of a rupture of symbolic exchanges’ (Baudrillard, 1975: 64). It was ‘from the 13-14th century’, that a ‘rational and continuous scheme of value’ (Baudrillard, 1975: 53) was imposed by this new Christian, anthropocentric anthropology in which ‘God created man in his image and created nature for man’s use’ (Baudrillard, 1975: 63). Baudrillard speaks of a ‘Judeo-Christian anti-physis’ which can have no other origin than the rational foundations of scholasticism and the Protestant sacralization of nature through labor, leading to the contemporary ‘secular generalization of the Christian axiom about nature’ which identifies nature with law and necessity and considers man’s telos to be his deification through the rational and technical domination of the natural laws that bind him to the earth (Baudrillard, 1975: 65). This is why, as Baudrillard explains, ‘although science, technology, and material production subsequently enter into contradiction with the cultural order and dogmas of Christianity, nonetheless their condition of possibility remains the Christian postulate of man’s transcendence of nature’ (Baudrillard, 1975: 63-64).
With the rationalism of Descartes and the ‘Moral Philosophy of the Enlightenment’, the project of rational and moral theology which began in the Middle Ages and was fully developed in Protestantism, took the final shape with which we are familiar today. The ‘Christian and Cartesian metaphysics’ (Baudrillard, 2002a: 160) and its ‘fundamental attempt to rationalize the world’ (Baudrillard, 1993: 139), as well as the ‘anthropological sphere of use value described by Enlightenment rationality’ (Baudrillard, 1975: 56, 58), have completed the picture of an anthropocentric world where nature is subdued to man and rationality governs the universe of artificial transcendence.
It is this state of achieved utopia, of artificial light and transparency, of global harmony, security and technical perfection, which Baudrillard opposes with his Manichean concepts. Whenever the system of globalization promotes light and transparency, Baudrillard looks for darkness and secrecy; wherever there is an obsession with saturation and fullness, Baudrillard evokes the void and the creation of the world ex nihilo; wherever there is too much ecstasy and energy, Baudrillard looks for resistance through mass and inertia. Baudrillard responds to total positivity with the negative; he questions Descartes’ rationalism with a radically opposite principle which is ‘anterior to Descartes and fundamentally is irrational’, a principle ‘adopted by the ‘heretics all the way throughout the history of Christianity’ (Baudrillard, 1993: 139), undermining the superiority of reason and introducing the inhuman (Baudrillard, 2001: 15). This irrational principle is the evil demon of irreality and immorality, the underside of the moral law of ‘universal rationalization, of retotalization of the universe’ (Baudrillard, 2005: 186). It reverses the standards of a rational and moral theological order. It subverts the ‘logos and pathos of production’ and its ‘abstract, linear and reversible finality’ (Baudrillard, 1975: 56, 70) which leads to power and domination rather than the sacralization of nature and the deification of man.
Orthodox Christianity — Baudrillard and the Evagrian Tradition
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Mat. 5:8)
Orthodox Christianity appears nowhere in Baudrillard’s theological genealogy of modernity. Yet neither does it resemble Baudrillard’s gnostic-Manichean anthropology. Orthodox Patristic theology clearly differentiated itself from the Franco-Latin tradition, but at the same time it built its institutional edifice and gradually formulated its dogma as a reaction to the anthropological misconceptions of the mystical (Gnostic) movements of the antiquity1 . Thus, although Baudrillard and Orthodoxy share a common suspicion towards the rational and moral foundations of Western Christianity, they seem incompatible at the level of the anthropological solutions they propose.
However, a closer examination of some of Baudrillard’s concepts reveals a striking similarity with Orthodox patrology. In his scant references to Orthodoxy, we can already discern some of his most crucial notions: in his analysis of simulation and hyperreality, Baudrillard discusses the iconolaters of the Byzantium, those ‘modern and adventurous minds’ who questioned the rationalist interpretation of the sign and the image as representations of the metaphysical idea of God (Baudrillard, 1981: 5); in his critique of political economy, he mentions the Hippodrome and the ‘political incorrectness’ of the Byzantines who used equestrian competitions as a basis of their social and political life (Baudrillard, 1990b:152); Gregory of Nyssa appears in one of his late aphorisms on divine seduction(Baudrillard, 2006: 51). If we add to this Baudrillard’s growing suspicion towards Manichaeism in his late writings (‘It is merely the moral and metaphysical illusion of Manichaeism that it is possible to will evil, to do evil, or alternatively to denounce it and combat it. Evil has no objective reality’ (Baudrillard, 2005: 159), the similarities become more apparent. Our task in the rest of this study will be to bring them to the fore. We shall divide orthodox anthropology in two parts; in the first, which is permeated by the works of Evagrius of Pontus, we shall attempt an outline of the anthropology of purification of the Christian subject as a prerequisite for its transformation and its preparation for repentance (metanoia). During our analysis, we shall see how some of Baudrillard’s most important notions (hyperreality, seduction, reversibility and becoming-object) become central to the conceptualization of Orthodox ascesis. In the second part, we shall explore synergetic anthropology, a unique concept in Orthodox spirituality fully developed by Maximus the Confessor and St. Gregory Palamas, a concept related closely to some of Baudrillard’s most privileged domains of research: metamorphosis, attraction and symbolic exchange.
One of the basic teachings of the Orthodox fathers has been the distinction between the created and the uncreated. Prefiguring Kantian anthropology fourteen centuries before Kant, St. Gregory the Theologian declared that ‘It is impossible to express God and even more impossible to conceive Him’ (Vlachos, 2011: 118). There is absolutely no similarity between man and the ineffable, uncreated and unknowable God. Man can never grasp God through rational thought, language and knowledge, in so far as God is beyond reason and beyond knowledge. Any attempt to contemplate God intellectually or to come to mystical union with Him, is the source of anthropological illusion. Theology can only be negative and apophatic. However, God has created man in his image and Christ is the bridge between the created and the uncreated, therefore, the summit of Orthodox anthropology is man’s reconciliation with God through the mediation of the incarnated logos. The end goal of man’s spiritual struggle is deification. Deification is a positive experience, exemplified by the saints, the apostles and the martyrs, whose lives testify to a direct, lived experience of vision and communion with God. This experience is transcendental, but not artificial through rationality or abstract and moral through meritorious works. It is concrete, participatory, apocalyptic and secret and it presupposes the transformation of the subject through purification of its thoughts and preparation of its mind, body and soul (Vlachos, 2011: 265-267).
It is immediately obvious that rationalism and moralism have no place in Orthodox ethics. The intellectual contemplation of an archetypical idea of God and the construction of an asceticism based on a moral conception of perfection, are all considered by the Orthodox fathers as part of man’s reality principle and not paths to divine reality. They are hyperreal constructions from which man is to be freed if he wants to achieve perfection and knowledge of God. It is exactly this hyperreality which is the object of purification. If, as Baudrillard asserts, reality ‘is but a concept, or a principle… the whole system of values connected with this principle… a chain of causes and effects, a continuity and a rationality’ (Baudrillard, 2000: 63) then this reality, the rationality and the morality that it carries, as well as the world of egoism and self-deception that it entails, must be driven away in order for man to purify his mind and remain open to god. The entire work of ascesis focuses on the awareness of this hyperreality and the relentless battle against the forces of simulation and deception which sustain it.
One of the most influential spiritual trends which sought to introduce this type of ascesis was the monastic movement. Starting with St. Anthony and Pachomius in the 4th century and culminating in the Hesychast tradition and St. Gregory Palamas in the 14th century, the desert fathers did not advocate a Nietzscean ascetic ideal of pain and suffering in order to turn away from appearances and perform good works that would please God. On the contrary, the enemy of their ascetic ethos was hyperreality and vainglory. It was Evagrius of Pontus, a fourth-century (AD 345-399?)2 monk of the Egyptian desert, who set out to explain that, if the monk seeks solitude and emptiness, it is because the world and the self are overpopulated by meaning, images and thoughts which preoccupy the soul and divert it from God. In other words, unlike, for example, Buddhism for which the self is an illusion, for Evagrius ‘the self is much too real’ (Foucault, 1980: 183). Evagrius takes an innovating approach: he uses the term logismos, an ancient Greek term used to designate reasoning and argumentation, to denote the saturation of the mind with lasting images and illusory perceptions. Logismoi prevent divine contemplation as they produce idols and fantasies inside the mind, seducing it into thinking that they represent a higher reality. The aim of meditation is to mistrust these simulacra completely and never submit hastily to what they pretend to represent. As Baudrillard would proclaim more that fifteen centuries later, ‘The real is not something we must consent to. It has been to us as simulacrum, and the worst thing is to believe in it for want of anything else’ (Baudillard, 1996: 11). The logismoi are closely linked to empathē noēmata, passionate meanings which trap the mind into associating images with the earthly value and passionate significance of objects (envy, greed, pride and so on) (Tobon, 2010: 147-152). As a result, the mind forms passionate attachments with things, turning the subject away from God. No one is immune to this danger, it is just the forms of attachment that vary. Just as the layperson is in danger of indulging in the false pleasures of objects, so is the monk at risk of confusing worldly images with divine visions. As Evagrius characteristically puts it: ‘With seculars the demons prefer to struggle by using objects. But with monks, it is usually by using thoughts’ (Tobon, 2010: 91). The ideal end goal is to remain suspicious of all thoughts that might present themselves as innocent representations of consciousness.
How is this suspiciousness towards representations put into practice? John Cassian (AD? 360-435), one of the most influential figures of the Evagrian tradition, employs the term diakrisis, meaning discrimination (Foucault, 2014: 290-297). The contemplative function of the mind consists of discriminating between good and evil spirits. Comparing consciousness to a mill, or a moneychanger, distinguishing pure thoughts from impure ones, Cassian asserts that thought must discern those representations which bear the effigy of God, from those impure thoughts carrying selfish and egoistic intentions and desires (Foucault, 2014: 301-302). Like Evagrius, Cassian maintains that, through the attentiveness and watchfulness of reason (logos), consciousness can recognize the presence of the other (devil) inside the mind and is ready to perform the necessary acts (praxis: confession, ascesis, prayer) in order to keep the meditating process (theoria) pure. This does not mean that this faculty (logos) is employed as a rational principle of calculation and action (as ratio). Reason, in the system of Evagrius/Cassian is not a moral principle dictating which acts are moral and which immoral. It does not measure the representational value of images and the degree of their correspondence with reality (for example, the epistemological criteria specifying whether one has really seen God or not). On the contrary, reason takes meaning and representation to their limits, to hypothesize evil and simulation. Reason considers the possibility that a thought, an image, however divine its content, may have the exact opposite origin — the devil. Hence the concept of seduction and reversibility. Based on St. Paul’s premise that ‘Sometimes the devil transforms into an angel of light’, reason, in Cassian’s system, employs the hypothesis that the meditating subject may have been trapped, through satanic seduction, in the illusion of its unshakable, absolute truth. Even the most devout ascetic who stands firm on the path to deification, is always in danger of discovering that his most deeply mystical and apocalyptic experiences may be nothing but demonic hallucinations. The meditating subject must always be on guard, always attentive (what the fathers call nepsis) to the possibility that the divine emptiness which it seeks is only a diabolical void, that the devil may have fooled it into believing that it has achieved a state of perfection.
Seen in this light, some of Baudrillard’s essays and comments on technoscientific society, resemble Orthodox spiritual exercises. Echoing Evagrian spirituality, his analyses on cinema and photography are spiritual meditations, forms of a ‘technical asceticism of the gaze’ (Baudrillard, 2001: 141). In his Evagrian conception of the image — which nowadays seduces everyone, not just monks — Baudrillard explores the devilish properties of representation and meaningful connections in our technological, all-embracing world. It is the image, the epicenter of hyperreality, ‘our exorcism’ (Baudrillard, 2008b:145), which carries the power of satanic deception. Using the Cartesian notion of the evil demon, which, rather than denoting a Manichean principle of evil, designates the subject’s self-deception and total madness, Baudrillard notes that ‘it is precisely when it appears most truthful, most faithful and most in conformity to reality that the image is most diabolical’. Images ‘only seem to resemble things, to resemble reality, events, faces. Or rather, they really do conform, but their conformity itself is diabolical’ (Baudrillard, 2008: 84, 85). The more the image conforms to its preordained model and strives to depict reality most faithfully — cinema, documentaries, photojournalism, pornography, cgi — the more it confuses reality and imagination, truth and falsity. Meaning, morality and ideology only add further layers of diabolical simulation to the image. Importantly, it is the satanic property of the image to create a simulation of divine illumination; panopticism, omnipresence, telepathic activity and instantaneity only give the impression of transcendental unity to the subject which remains fragmented and dissociated, having no fixed points of reference other than the speed of light, which ‘is our referent and our God, and serves as a figure of the absolute for us’ (Baudrillard, 1990a: 18).
The solution that Baudrillard proposes against the devil’s simulation and seduction is astonishingly similar to that of the fathers: discrimination. For Baudrillard, nothing can be opposed to hyperreality, which is an all-encompassing system. Hyperreality is indifferent to ideology or to dialectical oppositions (good/evil, beautiful/ugly, true/false). Therefore, combatting its hegemony requires not ‘difference, which is always meaningful, but discrimination, which is the truly rigorous form of labeling…produced to prevent things and concepts from touching indiscriminately, to create discrimination, and remake emptiness, to re-distinguish what has been confused’ (Baudrillard, 1990a: 168, 178). Surprisingly for a thinker known for his irrationalism and nihilistic indifference, Baudrillard promotes ‘discrimination as the violent founding act of Reason’ (Baudrillard, 1987a: 37). This discrimination, in a quite Evagrian way, involves, not dialectical difference, but duality and reversibility. Reason does not look for relations of causality and meaningful connections but observes and records the phenomena of reversal occurring when meaning is taken to its extreme and the networks of causality and signification reach a saturation point. Thus, Baudriillard uses reason to set hyperreality against itself, demonstrating that our age of technological perfection with its fascination and its (orbital and not transcendental) ecstasy, is ‘truly an era of seduction’ (Baudrillard, 1990b:175). Baudrillard casts Evagrian suspicion on our state of ecstasy and ‘psychedelic giddiness’ (Baudrillard, 1990b: 162), on the perfection of three-dimensional representations supposedly displaying the highest fidelity to reality; he mistrusts the ideal world of communication, instantaneity, peaceful coexistence and collective morality. He considers the possibility that all these achievements are nothing but satanic simulations of what is taken to be true, real and humble. He shows how the limitless multiplicity of interpretations, the ecstatic disconnection between signs and reality, the mysticism of meaninglessness in the excess of information, throw our conception of reality into the void and transform the effort to communicate with otherness into an autistic short-circuit with the self and the same (Baudrillard, 1992: 109).
However, for the fathers, the power of discrimination cannot rely on reason alone. Reason is unable to undertake the task to judge autonomously, not because it is clouded by sense perception or because it is prejudiced by the passions, but because it is held hostage by man’s self-love, the mother of all passions, as St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662) stressed (Zizioulas, 2011: 145-156). Insofar as man exercises the discriminating power of reason autonomously, his self-love, his willpower over himself, will forever prevent him from recognizing the forces of seduction in him. The gnomic will is both the epistemological and ontological core of self-delusion; therefore, it must be mortified. As Baudrillard, in line with the desert fathers, points out, ‘The will is something we must not consent to. It has been given to us as the illusion of the autonomous subject’ (Baudrillard, 1996: 11). The mortification of the will requires a process, an ascesis in which the meditating subject undergoes a radical and universal transformation into its opposite: the object. Here we once again find ourselves in a familiar Baudrillardian territory. Baudrillard is highly critical of the ‘the metaphysics of the subject … beautiful only in its arrogant glory, in its caprice, in its inexhaustible will to power, in its transcendence as the subject of power, the subject of history, or in the dramaturgy of its alienation’ (Baudrillard, 1990a: 112). He recurrently questions the primacy of the subject, the illusion of its sovereignty and its autonomy, the fiction of its will and its desire, notions which have generated an illusory ‘equilibrium between a will and a world, a drive and an object, the balancing principle of the universe’ (Baudrillard, 1990a: 112). Instead, as Baudrillard argues, this conception of the subject has produced the enslavement to one’s will and vain representations and the contemporary forms of tutelage and self-delusion which this enslavement entails (Baudrillard, 2001: 48). The subject must not look for emancipation or autonomy, nor for the liberation of its unconscious, repressed side; it must acquire all the properties of the object, which has no illusions about its desires, it harbors no fantasies and exercises no will of its own. It is sovereign in its inertia and its silence.
Man must become pure mass. As a subject, man is captive to devil’s powers, he is in the position of a hostage, ‘neither dead nor alive … suspended by an incalculable outcome’ (Baudrillard, 1990a: 35), trapped in his own illusions about self-determination, self-sufficiency and security. But as object, man finds mortification, that is, death to sin, self-denial and self-sacrifice. Pure objectivity is the truly liberating condition of man: ‘changing species, transfiguring oneself into the animal, the vegetable, or even the mineral, the inanimate’ (Baudrillard, 1988a: 45).
This has been exactly the role of spiritual guidance in the history of Orthodox Christianity: to offer man a paradoxical liberation from self-delusion through total passivity and self-objectification. It was institutionalized with the intention of relieving the subject ‘from the servitude of living, truly free and exposed, not to his own delirium anymore, but only to the ritual or amorous intercession of the other’ (Baudrillard, 2008: 78). Confession was such a ritual, a bodily and verbal enactment of self-sacrifice and martyrdom centered on total dependence on the spiritual guide. It crowned obedience, that is, a state of permanent, unceasing attitude of passivity and submission, as the ultimate weapon in the uninterrupted and uncompromising battle against the power of the ego and the truth that sustains it. In the practice of obedience, the confessing subject placed ‘his desire, his will, in the hands of someone else’ (Baudrillard, 2002c: 165), and, through submitting to the most absurd order (‘it is to the challenge that people respond; it is the absurd that they obey (Baudrillard, 2008: 76), the subject’s will was humbly abandoned so as to achieve total selflessness. Obeying unconditionally, the confessing subject exercised the declination of its will (Baudrillard, 2002c: 164), the silence, inertia and the lack of personal objectives which cultivate the necessary apathy and abolition of fleshly, egotistical desires.
Once the will was trained to relinquish its autonomy, the other pole of spiritual guidance, the epistemological pole, sought to abolish those truth claims that justify the will and rekindle its pretensions. Here, every effort to victimization, every attitude of self-accusation, self-derision and self-depreciation, was treated as an expression of self-flattery and as an attempt on the part of the will to invoke its rights through guilt and misfortune. This was considered by the fathers as part of the evil genius of self-deception which traps the subject in its false humility and its autistic identity (‘The intelligence of evil begins with the hypothesis that our ills come to us from an evil genius that is our own. Let us be worthy of our ‘perversity’, of our evil genius, let us measure up to our tragic involvement in what happens to us, including good fortune’) (Baudrillard, 2005: 153). If truth is to fight the evil genius of deception, it must not affirm the sovereignty of the subject or establish its identity and its neurotic victimhood, but it must disempower the subject and expose it as other, dead and mad. Truth uses the logismoi against themselves; instead of reasoning in order to arrive at certain immutable, doctrinal truths, or in order to empower the will over the passions, truth’s reasoning issues a ‘counterchallenge to break the logic of power, or even better, to enclose it in a circular logic (Baudrillard, 1987a: 54). Once again, Cassian’s principle of reversibility is at work; this time, the emphasis is on the reversal of a thought’s meaning or truth value in relation to the self’s economy of willpower. If the power of the devil, and the subject’s willpower conspiring with it, lies in the proliferation of vain and empty images (Baudrillard, 2008: 95) — keno-doxia, according to the fathers — then the very epistemological core of confession is not to endow those images with a predetermined referent, but the extension of their meaning to its end, to its finality, so that, in the mind of the confessing subject, these same images will begin to represent the opposite — total powerlessness (Baudrillard, 1987a: 59). For example, submission to God and mortification of the flesh are not questioned as to their meaning and value as true paths to self-denial and vision of divine energy; if, however, they are interpreted by the subject as personal merits and marks of sovereign virtue, then they are rejected as sure signs of self-conceit and arrogance and their associated visions will be suspected as demonic.
Case study I: The Ascetic
Let us consider the ascetic, whom Baudrillard seems to regard as the prototype of martyrdom, mortification and objectification. In keeping with Orthodox monastic spirituality, Baudrillard notes that the dream of the mortified ascetic is to envisage God, so that God will give him the equivalence of his death ‘a hundred times over ‘in the form of prestige, of spiritual power, indeed of global hegemony’ (Baudrillard, 2002b: 38). Critiquing the official institutions, Baudrillard goes on to remark that the political status of the church treats this asceticism as a threat to its power, as a dangerous defiance of its authority to decide who will become a saint and who will go to heaven or hell, in accordance with its canonical rules and its liturgical norms. This is why, Baudrillard continues, the church has always been ready to condemn the ascetic as heretical in order to ‘preserve God from this symbolic face-to-face’ and to prevent the ascetic’s catastrophic confrontation with God, ‘catastrophic primarily for the church’, substituting it with ‘a rule-bound exchange of penitences and gratifications, the impresario of a system of equivalences between God and man’ (Baudrillard, 2002b: 38). For Orthodox spirituality, on the contrary, the church must assist this equivalence with God, by ensuring that the ascetic’s objectification remains free from the pretensions of the gnomic will. The role of spiritual guidance and confession is merely to spot the (satanic) danger which may lurk inside the ascetic in the disguised assertion of his subjectivity, in his secret will to ‘triumph over God, to become God himself’ (Baudrillard, 2002b: 38). The role of the church is to imbue the ascetic with the mentality of obedience and humility, even at the highest level of perfection. The ascetic’s power must never engage in the ‘superstitious belief in itself as substance; it dies as well when it fails to recognize itself as void, or as something reversible in death’ (Baudrillard, 1987a: 5). The ascetic must never believe that he can secure his own salvation — this can only lead to mysticism and fundamentalism. His power of self-management and autonomy must die, fall into the void, be deprived of its substance (kenosis, according to the fathers), relying only on the true power of glorification which can only come as a gift from God.
Toward a Synergetic Anthropology — Symbolic Exchange
‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’(John, 12:32)
‘For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building’ (1 Cor, 3:9)
It is not only the other, the spiritual guide, who must help the subject to purify its thoughts from satanic energies and train the gnomic will; the mind needs assistance from the Other, from God, who, through His energies illuminates the soul. Orthodox anthropology is synergetic. Speaking in terms of physics, in orthodox spirituality there is a well-balanced, harmonious relationship between mass and energy. If man must reach the state of mass, it is so that he can draw on the illuminating energies of God. St. Nilus the Ascetic recommended that the confessing subject must not ‘differ in any way from an inanimate body or from the raw material used by an artist’ in the hands of the spiritual guide, so that ‘when the angel of God comes to us, with his presence alone he puts an end to all adverse energy within the nous and makes its light energise without illusion’ (Hausherr, 1990: 197, Vlachos, 2012: 147). However, energy implies economy and Baudrillard wrote pages refuting the religious illusions of Marxist or liberal economy. Moreover, energy is generally associated with immateriality and disembodiment, which Baudrillard also regards as a religious prejudice of modern virtualization. How can the concept of synergetic (or syn-energetic) anthropology be reconciled with Baudrillard’s anthropology? In an interesting passage from The Transparency of Evil, Baudrillard seems to overcome his own (gnostic) conception of seduction and fatality as attributes of mass and matter, situating instead symbolic relations, relations of otherness, in the context of energy exchanges: ‘we live not on our own energy or according to our own will but rather thanks to the energy and the will that we subtly spirit away from others, from the world, from those whom we love or those whom we hate. We live on a surreptitiously obtained energy, a purloined energy, an energy seduced away from others’ (Baudrillard, 2002c: 168). For Orthodox spirituality, the Other par excellence is Christ, and it is through the Holy Spirit that man internalizes His existence-bestowing, creative, sustaining, providential and glorifying energy. Based on this comparison, let us explore some possible similarities.
How does God transfer His energies to man? The answer is quite Baudrillardean: seduction, symbolic exchange and attraction. Baudrillard is quite Orthodox in his remark that ‘Gods and men (are) not separated by the moral chasm of religion: they continuously (play) the game of mutual seduction; the symbolic equilibrium of the world is founded on these relations of seduction and playfulness’ (Baudrillard, 1988a: 59). Far from being identical to a Judeo-Christian rationality or the morality of the Enlightenment, in Orthodox spirituality logos is ana-logy, a mutual challenge and dia-logical reciprocity between man and God (Loudovikos, 2010: 195-206 and Loudovikos, 2014, Loudovikos, 2015). Since the pre-lapsarian age, God offered a life of constant dialogue with man, which man freely rejected. Ever since, God offers daily the same opportunity to man; by sending His only Son, He challenged man to respond by breaking the endless cycle of repulsion and attraction of the elements of the pagan cosmos. He unsettled the balance of the universe (‘If you take seduction in the Christian sense, then everything changes: seduction begins with Christianity’ (Baudrillard, 1990a: 104) and called upon man to repent, to abandon the world of decay and death and restore his lost dialogue with Him. Crucially, Christ’s seduction is not a form of provocation, drawing man into his area of strength — his intellectual powers — but a force of attraction drawing man ‘into his area of weakness, which is also (God’s) own area of weakness’. With the sacrifice of His own Son, God did not seduce man with His ‘strong signs or powers’, but with His ‘death, his vulnerability and with the void’ (Baudrillard, 1990b: 83). Had God manifested His power, His wrath or His vengeance, He would have merely imposed his love on man as a form of dictated otherness, with the irresistible force of an object or with the ineluctable form of destiny and fatality. He would have demanded a sentimental, mystical, psychological and narcissistic assimilation of man into His essence. But with His humble suffering and his sacrifice, God rejected a relationship of power and domination, sealing a covenant of love with man which ‘obeys no morality of exchange; it is based rather on the pact, the challenge and alliance’ (Baudrillard, 1990a: 101). Taking up all the sublime meanings of seduction, love is a dual, analogical relationship in which God and man remain in close proximity and insuperable distance, retaining their otherness but also their friendship.
Man ‘challenges God to exist’ in return (Baudrillard, 1990b: 142), completing the cycle of symbolic exchange. This does not mean that God needs to be challenged in order to prove His existence, or that He needs to be witnessed in order to manifest His glory3 , but that man will be finally healed from his delusions and will reach selfless love, once God has revealed His eternal Kingdom and His truth to him. Baudrillard was justly suspicious of the diabolical mobilization of created energies (nuclear, libidinal, electromagnetic) with which man vainly tries to master the laws of nature and challenge the powers of the divine. All he can achieve is the artificial enhancement of his own powers of perception and a disembodied, hallucinatory, immaterial and intellectual ecstasy with no connection with transcendence. It was St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), who, in his dispute with the philosophers, emphasized the fact that knowledge and vision of God cannot come through the energy of the intellect and the synergy among abstract, disembodied, rational beings — illusion and deception are sure to emerge. As he characteristically put it, ‘to cause the noetic energy (nous) to wander outside the body in order to seek intelligible visions is the source and root of Greek errors and all heresies, an invention of demons’ (Romanides, 1963-64: 4). Echoing Palamas, Baudrillard adds that ‘energy is also what tends to give our conception of man the sense of a dynamics of the will’, thus, when that dynamics produces the ‘industrial and technical dream’ of a liberated energy ‘as an irreversible process’ (Baudrillard, 2002c: 100-101) and of a synergy among wills and subjects, ‘allergy’ will be produced, reversible processes, catastrophes and delusions will surface, and, instead of consensus and universality, division and rejection will emerge (Baudrillard, 2002a: 93). True vision of God is possible only through the communion between man’s purified noetic energy, his prayer, his selfless love and inner illumination, with that of divine grace. This is why Palamas proposes that we begin thinking in opposite terms: it is because there is allergy (allo-ergo, the devil) in the world, that we should seek synergy. We should look for God’s energy (Christ) which shall be given to us as a gift only when we sacrifice our ‘strange pride to possess’ (Baudrillard, 2001:156), our fear of seduction (Baudrillard, 1990b: 119), our will to power, security, eudemonic and utilitarian love.
Two important consequences follow from the mutual challenge and dialogical reciprocity between man and God. First, it becomes obvious that the economy of orthodox spirituality rests entirely on the logic of gift exchange and therefore excludes any relationship of power and domination. As Baudrillard aptly observes, it is when symbolic exchange is interrupted that power emerges. When the free circulation of gifts (the gift, the counter-gift) is disrupted, wealth is accumulated, objects and commodities obtain value, inequality is created and power shifts to the side of those who control and dominate exchange (Baudrillard, 1975: 143). This phenomenon is strictly human and does not reflect God’s symbolic relationship with man. As Maximus the Confessor, as well as virtually all orthodox fathers have shown, God’s monarchy and sovereignty is far from the model of the hyper-celestial king who exercises unilateral power, who rewards, punishes or demands sacrifices. It is man who harbors this misconception and imagines himself as God by monopolizing gift exchange, considering power as equivalent to accumulation, value and control over life (Baudrillard, 2003: 101). God, on the contrary, freely gives to man and even sacrifices Himself in order to make man his partner, His adopted child. God sacrificed His own Son, not in order to impose an irredeemable debt on humanity, but so as to show to man the path of humility through the sacrifice of his egoism and his selfishness, which is the only way to respect mutual otherness and establish a symbolic relationship of peace and love. When man either destroys, takes life and sacrifices others in order to gain power, or, as is the case with today’s globalization, man dictates otherness and forbids sacrifice and martyrdom in the name of unconditional security and survival, reciprocity is interrupted, otherness is eliminated, and sacrifice becomes violent. As Baudrillard points out, apropos September 11, this may very well be the current predicament of Western culture:
Even God left room for sacrifice. In the traditional order, there is still the possibility of giving something back to God, to nature, or whatever it might be, in the form of sacrifice. This is what ensures the symbolic equilibrium between living beings and things. Today we no longer have anyone to whom we may give back, to whom we may repay the symbolic debt — and that is the curse of our culture (Baudrillard, 2003: 102).
In Orthodoxy, any reference to the economic logic of accumulation of life, to the balance of merits and faults (Baudrillard, 2002b: 145-146) or to the debt created by the sacrifice of the Son (Baudrillard, 2005:157), is foreign to the spirit of reciprocity. The Orthodox fathers, from St. Ignatius of Antioch, to St. Cyprian and St. Gregory the Theologian, fought consistently against the ‘political rationality of castes, priests’ and the power of the church ‘based on the management of the imaginary sphere of death’ (Baudrillard, 2002b: 144). St. Ignatius of Antioch, a first century martyr, envisaged a strongly symbolic function of the church centered on sacrifice and martyrdom: ‘if we are not in readiness to die into His passion, His life is not in us’ (Romanides, 1956: 2). In the third-fourth century, St. Cyprian introduced confession as the everyday practice of martyrdom for those who had denied Christ in the face of Roman persecution, gradually turning the church into a medical clinic, a training center for sacrifice (Foucault, 2014: 199-206). Likewise, St. Gregory the Theologian insisted on the therapeutic character of the relationship between the clergy and the believers, based on a mutual attitude of martyrdom and sacrificial reciprocity (Foucault, 2007: 171).
The second consequence is that this symbolic exchange overcomes the traditional dichotomy between soul/body, or the commonsensical differentiation between matter and spirit, and involves the transformation of man’s nature as a whole. Augustine’s notion of biologically inherited sin and guilt, a notion which spread much confusion among theologians, was partly responsible for the body of political economy (the body of labor power, scarcity and necessity), for the psychological body, the sexual body or the body of genetics which have come to dominate Western anthropology (Baudrillard, 1988a:49). For Orthodox patristic theology, all these variations are not explanatory grids of human embodiment, but expressions of the ‘flesh’, that is, the subjectified, mortal and selfish body which man uses for his own pleasure and self-understanding (Baudrillard, 1988a: 49). It is wrong to believe that this fleshly body can be improved medically, rectified psychologically, or modified genetically in order to achieve total immunity and artificial resurrection. This fantasy can only lead to a Christian morality of operational asceticism and performance (Baudrillard, 1988a: 51). For the Orthodox fathers, man is invited not to correct or overcome, but to transform his nature and to sacralize his existence (his body, his soul) and the rest of creation. Metamorphosis, a central theme in Baudrillard’s work, is once again a key notion. Man must become energy. The body is not the ‘sanctuary of psychic energy’ (Baudrillard, 1987a: 25), so it must not be mortified in order to release some form of libidinal or revolutionary potential. On the contrary, the psyche is bodily energy, it is a subtle and light-like (fotoeides) body, as Palamas asserted (Romanides, 1963-64: 4) and it becomes receptive to the Holy Spirit once its senses are trained for divine participation, its instincts turn away from self-preservation and survival and the flesh is spiritualized through asceticism and symbolic, initiatory rituals. Thus, in asceticism, as Niketas Stethatos (1005-1090) advised, each of the senses is trained to transform its function away from its utilitarian ends: sight with vigils, hearing with study, smell with prayer, taste with self-control, and touch with hesychia (Vlachos, 1990: 48-49). In the ritual of confession, as we have seen, the hegemony of the brain, of the imagination and of the gnomic will is overturned, in order to mobilize those spiritual functions of the body rendered useless by the artificial intelligence of hyperreality. In baptism, man renounces his fallen history, ‘necessarily an Oedipal one’ (Baudrillard, 1990a: 138) and rejects his former fleshly nature, not because his biological essence is evil, but because his new destiny, his unexpected call to salvation, is now determined by the battle of God and Satan over his soul, not by intellectual faculties secreted by the brain or the unconscious (Baudrillard, 2001: 47, 2005: 70). The Eucharist is not a ‘mechanical act of absorption’, or ‘the abstract form of the sacrament, using the general equivalence of bread and wine’; it is, as in primitive societies, ‘a duel mode, combining honor and reciprocity, perhaps even a challenge and a duel tout court’. The Eucharist is an ‘act of expenditure, consumption or consummation’, it enacts Christ’s second incarnation, the undivided division of His body among the community of believers, who become members of the organic unity of the Church through ‘the transmutation of the flesh into a symbolic relation, the transformation of the body in social exchange’ (Baudrillard, 2002b: 138, Vlachos, 2011; 346).
Case study II: The Church and the Masses
It would be interesting to compare the collective confessional and eucharistic experience of the church, to Baudrillard’s conceptualization of the masses. For Baudrillard, the masses display a mysterious solidarity, an inexplicable collectivity resistant to the statistical models and the systems of security and population control from which they have emerged. They constitute a force of defiance to the social and its norms, and, by their nature, they have never assumed the status of universal subjectivity. Crucially, for Baudrillard, the masses defy the very (Christian) rationalism and morality which permeate the structure of the social. They have ‘never been affected by the Idea of God’ and have ‘hardly retained anything but the image of him’. They refuse the ‘categorical imperative of morality and faith’ and follow the ethic of the ceremonial and the ritual. To the biopolitical logic of survival, they oppose an evasive, sacrificial logic which overturns the principles of security and control: they ‘don’t refuse to die for a faith, for a cause, for an idol’ (Baudrillard, 1983:7, 8). Considering the global logic of the social as inherent to the Christian heritage of the west, Baudrillard tends to conclude that the sacrificial attitude of the masses manifests their pagan (Ibid.: 7), nihilistic resistance to power enacted in catastrophic forms of symbolic exchange, in unscrupulous acts of subversion —passive defiance, hyperconformity, blind terrorism.
However, it seems that Christianity itself has proposed a conception of the masses which, while similar to Baudrillard’s, rests on a positive mode of symbolic exchange through the asceticism of truth and away from Manichean or irrational models of rejection. Since the early years of Christianity, the fathers have consistently appealed to the sacrificial and ritual logic of the anonymous and marginal masses of empires, in order to lift the burden of morality and dispel the illusions of the intellectual contemplation of an abstract God. Throughout the centuries, the fathers of the church have invited the masses to retain ‘the enchantment of the saints and the martyrs’ (Ibid.:7) who, far from being champions of morality, have the courage to put their moral ‘anguish over sin and personal salvation’ (Ibid.: 7) to the test of truth, limiting the excesses of their own asceticism. Repeating the Pentecostal experience of the apostles, the fathers have also questioned the impersonal and static representations of an abstract transcendence modelled on official doctrines and have consecrated the eucharist as the locus of a symbolic exchange between singular experiences, from the most respectable saint to the lowliest layperson, towards the mutual construction of a dynamic, yet catholic truth. The asceticism of the masses is thus not the ‘sublime exaction of religion’ (Ibid.: 8), but the kernel of martyrdom, the therapeutic and liturgical path to truth. It is the basis of ecclesial experience, without which the — personal and collective — relationship with God either becomes a fact of a mystical absorption trapped in its arbitrary truth regime, however subversive and groundbreaking, or a codified experience sanctioned by a pastoral authority. In either case, the symbolic economy of ‘giving and receiving’ (Ibid.: 143), and the collective participation in truth becomes unattainable, and we are back in the sphere of power and domination.
Baudrillard’s lack of a systematic study of religion or theology has left his theories open to various and diverse readings. He has been studied as the high priest of postmodernity (Best& Kellner, 1991: 111), as a gnostic-Manichean theorist (Smith, 2004) and as an orientalist (Almond, 2007: 156-175). In this study we have not sought to reveal a crypto-Orthodox Baudrillard, but to underline, through the Orthodox perspective, three major lines of Baudrillard’s thought with great value for religious or theological research. First, his anthropology. The anthropology is the anchoring point of Orthodox spirituality and Baudrillard recognizes it as the main terrain of an interdisciplinary and inter-faith dialogue which has already begun (see for example, Milbank, 1990, Hauerwas, 2001, Pabst & Schneider 2009). Second, his conception of evil. If, as Fr. Romanides stated, the true theologian is an expert in the workings of the devil (Vlachos, 2011: 130), then Baudrillard’s extensive studies on evil offer such theological expertise, compelling us to reconsider our notions of reality, morality and sin. His insightful descriptions of hyperreality paint an accurate picture of our spiritual and invisible war with evil, a war which, as St. John Climacus and Nicodemus the Hagiorite analyzed it, anticipating Baudrillard centuries before our ‘age of terror’, has never been open and ideological — it is terroristic and secret, since the devil’s insidious tactics have no respect for laws, rationality or morality (Vlachos, 1990: 219-231). Our sin, then, lies not in our immorality, our technological alienation or our false consciousness; on the contrary, the ‘Irony of Technology’ manifests more clearly than any intellectual analysis that the forces of evil are inherent to our anthropological integrism: ‘when the power of the negative fades, when the prohibitions, controls, inequalities and differences disappear one by one, the better to internalize themselves in the mental sphere, it is at this point that Evil, as undesirable alien, becomes ventriloquous’ (Baudrillard, 2009: 56-57, 1996:71-74). Finally, Baudrillard’s theory of symbolic exchange can shed light on the theanthropic anthropology of the Orthodox fathers, in which human reason transcends pre-rational primitivism, the pagan logos of wisdom and the global hegemony of Western rationality. Reason is a force of discrimination and dialogue, transforming the ‘Ceremony of the World’ (Baudrillard, 1990a: 166-180) into a theanthropic theater of exchanges based on Otherness and love.
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1 – As Foucault has shown, ‘the Christian pastorate was formed against a sort of intoxication of religious behavior, examples of which are found throughout the Middle East in the second, third and fourth centuries, and to which certain Gnostic sects in particular bear striking and indisputable testimony’. If the Cathars appeared as a heresy much later, in the Middle Ages, it was because they reacted to a judicial model imposed by the official Church (Foucault, 2007: 195, 204).
2 – It must be noted that Evagrius of Pontus was condemned as an Origenist at the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553). The condemnation was repeated by the next two Ecumenical Councils. Despite these condemnations, Evagrius’ influence had a strong effect on later ascetic writers, from John Cassian, as we show below, to St. Maximus the Confessor (Florovsky, 1987: 65)
3 – In the Illusion of the End, Baudrillard asks, ‘Why, if (God) exists, does he need our witness?’(Baudrillard, 1992: 92). The Orthodox response is that He does not, but He does will to be witnessed, so that man will heal his passions, transform his nature and participate in His selfless love.