My PhD

My project is described below. But before reading that, feel free to check out my profiles at a few academic web pages, where you can explore some of my contributions:

Also check out this page from the Centre for Catholic Studies (CCS) at Durham University. The CCS has funded part of my degree.

My PhD thesis was submitted on 11th May 2021 and defended at the viva on 9th September 2021, after which I was awarded the PhD without corrections. The title of the thesis is: Liturgy, Theurgy, and Active Participation: On Theurgic Participation in God. The project can be downloaded either from Durham e-Theses or directly from this blog. Below is some information on the proposed project and how it developed, starting with the working title: Participatio actuosa and participatio Christi: A dogmatic, ecumenical and contemporary discussion of the notion of active participation in the liturgy, with emphasis on the relation between divine and human agency.

This project has explored active participation as metaphysical participation in the divine, asking asking these questions: What do we mean when we speak of participation in the liturgy, and how should we understand the relation there between human and divine agency? If God is the supreme agent of the liturgical act, how do we understand human participation in the same? How is it even possible to speak of human agency in this context, and why is it even necessary?

In this project I am continuing my previous work, including a peer reviewed article published in Studia Theologica, a very prestigious Nordic journal of Theology, discussing the relation between liturgical participation and participation in God. Past and current research on the liturgies and reforms tend to focus on history and concrete practices, particularly practical involvement,[1] instead of its metaphysical underpinnings, though there are exceptions.[2]

My primary supervisor was Simon Oliver, who has worked extensively on the metaphysics of participation and sacramental theology. I was also associated with the Centre for Catholic Studies (CCS), and this provided me with an excellent environment for an ecumenical study of the liturgy, because of the expertise of those who are connected to it and its interdisciplinary and ecumenical nature. I think I provided expertise in Eucharistic theology and Lutheran theology, and its relation to other traditions. My experience as a parish priest (2014-2018) also provided a grounded theological contribution, as theology always starts with concrete ecclesial practices.

This project engages the limits of liturgical reform and the relationship between dogma, theology, and liturgy. The relation between divine and human agency and between liturgical participation and participation in God has not been particularly in focus in studies of the later reforms (even to the point of being downplayed),[3] and I believe my project makes a contribution not only to the scholarly field but also to those working with reforms in the various churches. I do also believe that, as we come to understand better what it means to participate, and what it means to participate in Church, we can also grow in our understanding of what it means to participate in society at large, and how we can better engage people not just liturgically but also culturally and politically. And in order to obtain a deeper understanding of the liturgical act we also need a deeper understanding of its actor(s).

I propose in this thesis that liturgical theology, in order to provide a coherent account of this participation, should embrace a theurgic approach, where human acts are consummated by the divine. The central figure of this tradition, on the Pagan side, is Iamblichus.[4] In his main work, De mysteriis (On the Mysteries), he notes that a purely theoretical philosophical approach is inadequate to achieve oneness with the divine, as human souls are completely descended and in need of divine help. According to Iamblichus, “it is not pure thought that unites theurgists to the gods” but theurgy:

[I]t is the accomplishment of acts not to be divulged and beyond all conception, and the power of the unutterable symbols, understood solely by the gods, which establishes theurgic union. Hence, we do not bring about these things by intellection alone; for thus their efficacy would be intellectual, and dependent upon us. But neither assumption is true. For even when we are not engaged in intellection, the symbols themselves, by themselves, perform their appropriate work, and the ineffable power of the gods, to whom these symbols relate, itself recognises the proper images of itself, not through being aroused by our thought. For it is not in the nature of things containing to be aroused by those contained in them, nor of things perfect by things imperfect, nor even of wholes by parts. Hence it is not even chiefly through our intellection that divine causes are called into actuality; but it is necessary for these and all the best conditions of the soul and our ritual purity to pre-exist as auxiliary causes; but the things which properly arouse the divine will are the actual divine symbols. And so the attention of the gods is awakened by themselves, receiving from no inferior being any principle for themselves of their characteristic activity.[5]

Theurgy, which means a divine act, is principally an act of the divine into which we are drawn, as noted by Peter Struck, commenting on the Iamblichean notion of theurgy: “Theurgy is a divine act, a θεῖον ἔργον, insofar as it is action, established by gods, put into use by humans, whose effect is to bring the material world (including that part of the celebrant which is material) into harmony with the divine order.”[6] This thesis, providing a metaphysical grounding for liturgical participation, argues that ‘active participation’ in the liturgy must be understood principally as our participation in God’s act and particularly in the act of Christ and only secondarily as our ritual involvement. Engaging Thomas Aquinas, Joseph Ratzinger, and Catherine Pickstock, as well as Neoplatonist philosophy, both Pagan and Christian, this thesis proposes that this should be understood in terms of theurgy, which is the human participation in divine action, which finds its consummation in the Incarnation. This thesis proposes that the only way to allow theurgy to be a real participation is through the Incarnation. In other words, the real theurgist is Jesus Christ and we can only become theurgists in and through Him, something we see in the work of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who made use of theurgic Neoplatonic metaphysics to explicate the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, as a participation in God through Christ.[7] This thesis argues that without the Incarnation, all acts will remain extrinsic and imposed but that acts can become real and intrinsic precisely because the Incarnation makes possible true union with the divine, a metaphysical union-in-distinction, without confusion, because this union is not extrinsic. It is rooted in one person or suppositum, the incarnate Logos. Through union with Christ, as the one common focus of the divine-human relation, we can have true union with God and may offer true worship. In order to make sense of active participation, then, we need to understand theology in theurgic terms, where theurgy is understood not as a mechanical ‘coercion’ of God but as a participation in His act, in creation and through Christ as the true theurgist, the ‘master theurgist,’ whose work transforms our act and the liturgy.

Doing so, we find a theological and philosophical basis of how we may participate in the liturgy as a divine work, without either ‘collapsing’ into God, and consequently denying their real and substantial, though derived, integrity, or divorcing our works from their divine source. This thesis, therefore, explores, liturgically, the relation between grace and nature, noting that in order to obtain a deeper understanding of the liturgical act, we also need a deeper understanding of its ground in God.


[1] Anne Haugland Balsnes, Solveig Christensen, Jan Terje Christoffersen and Hallvard Olavson Mosdøl, eds., Gudstjeneste á la carte: Liturgireformen i Den norske kirke (Oslo: Verbum akademisk, 2015), 155–172, 210–229, 287–292; Anscar J. Chupungco, “The Implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium,” in T&T Clark Companion to Liturgy, ed., Alcuin Reid (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 279–295 (esp. 283–288, 292–294); Anscar J. Chupungco, “The Vision of the Constitution on the Liturgy,” in T&T Clark Companion to Liturgy, ed., Alcuin Reid, 261–277 (esp. 265–274); Gudsteneste med rettleiingar (Stavanger: Eide, 2020); Martin Modéus, Menneskelig gudstjeneste: Om gudstjenesten som relation og ritual, trans. and comm. Anita Hansen Engdahl (København: Alfa, 2011); Jorunn Raddum, Variety is the Spice of Life? Forandring fryder? The Church of Norway 2011 liturgical reform: A study of the concept of contextuality in Nord-Gudbrandsdal (Master’s Thesis in Practical Theology, MF Norwegian School of Theology, Oslo, 2015).

[2] Bård Norheim, Practicing Baptism: Christian Practices and the Presence of Christ (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014); Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).

[3] Chupungco, “Vision,” 265–267; Modéus, Menneskelig gudstjeneste.

[4] See Eugene Afonasin, John Dillon, and John F. Finamore, eds., Iamblichus and the Foundations of Late Platonism (Leiden: Brill, 2012); Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, 2nd ed. with foreword by John Milbank and Aaron Riches (Kettering: Angelico Press/Sophia Perennis, 2014). For some other central works of theurgy, from a more Pagan perspective, see Crystal Addey, Divination and Theurgy in Neoplatonism: Oracles of the Gods (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016); R. M. van den Berg, Proclus’ Hymns: Essays, Translations, Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2001); Sergei Mariev and Wiebke-Marie Stock, eds., Aesthetics and Theurgy in Byzantium (Berlin/Boston, MS: de Gruyter, 2013); Peter T. Struck, “Pagan and Christian Theurgies: Iamblichus, Pseudo-Dionysius, Religion and Magic in Late Antiquity” (Ancient World 32:2, 2001), 25-38; Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler, Theurgy in Late Antiquity: The Invention of a Ritual Tradition (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013); Algis Uždavinys, Philosophy and Theurgy in Late Antiquity, with foreword by John F. Finamore (Kettering: Angelico Press/Sophia Perennis, 2014).

[5] Iamblichus, De mysteriis, Greek and English, intro. and trans. Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon, and Jackson P. Hershbell (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), II, 11.

[6] Struck, “Pagan and Christian Theurgies,” 30.

[7] See Alan Philip Darley, “Ritual as erotic anagogy in Pseudo-Dionysius: a Reformed critique” (International Journal of Philosophy and Theology 79:3, 2018), 261-278; Andrew Louth, “Pagan Theurgy and Christian Sacramentalism in Denys the Areopagite” (The Journal of Theological Studies, new series, 27:2, 1986), 432-438; Panagiotis G. Pavlos, “Theurgy in Dionysius the Areopagite,” in Platonism and Christian Thought in Late Antiquity, eds., Panagiotis G. Pavlos, Lars Fredrik Janby, Eyjólfur Kjalar Emilsson, and Torstein Theodor Tollefsen (London: Routledge, 2019), 151-180; Gregory Shaw, “Neoplatonic Theurgy and Dionysius the Areopagite” (Journal of Early Christian Studies 7:4, 1999), 573-599; Charles M. Stang, Apophasis and Pseudonymity in Dionysius the Areopagite: “No Longer I” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Charles M. Stang, “Dionysius, Paul and the Significance of the Pseudonym” (Modern Theology 24:4, 2008), 541-555; Struck, “Pagan and Christian Theurgies”; Sarah Klitenic Wear and John Dillon, Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neoplatonist Tradition: Despoiling the Hellenes (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).