The Spiritual Attributes of God: notes on mind-bending chapter nine

Watersplash

The attributes discussed last chapter — infinity, eternity, supraspatiality, omnipotence — were formal “structural” attributes that could be experienced “externally.” They could be observed in what is commonly called “general revelation.”

But the attributes discussed in this chapter (omniscience, justice and mercy, holiness and love) are experienced “internally,” through the spirit of man. They are the manifestations of what God is in His essence, in which the “self-sacrifice” of the Three Persons is absolutely complete, so that there is no movement to cover any interval, but there is, instead, a “stability.”

Frequently, Staniloae is not at all shy about saying that God “cannot” do something. When he says that God “cannot” do something — like “he cannot make them to be as he himself is, that is uncreated and sources of existence” (p216) — we misinterpret “cannot” as a limitation, and as a contradictory constraint upon God’s infinity. Actually, however, the “cannot” refers to the infinitely transcendent gulf between the created and the Creator, and so the “cannot” — far from being a contradiction of the infinite — is actually an enlarging indicator of the infinite.

The spiritual attributes which “bridge” this gulf between Creator and the immediacy of souls are rooted in this perfectly and infinitely complete stability (i.e., “perichoresis”) work “from within” the soul, in what Staniloae calls “interiority.” In each of these cases — omniscience, justice, holiness and love — God is essentially unknown, but He is experienced in these energies.

But He is experienced personally. This is true of all the energies of the Holy Trinity, but it is especially true of the “spiritual attributes.” The personal character of these energies are the main reason why the energies are called “Names.” To understand these attributes as impersonal forces is to utterly distort them, and to cause grave theological errors all the way down into practical understanding.

OMNISCIENCE AND WISDOM

Nowhere is the importance of the personal character of spiritual attributes so essential as it is with Omniscience. God knows everything — and for Him to be God as Absolute (as every theist must admit), He must be omniscient — extending to all space and time, past, present and future.

But some theists go so far as to say that His foreknowledge is the same as pre-destination — and to suggest this means that divine knowledge is understood as impersonal force or static field.

God does not think or know as we do, as these are names appropriate only for creatures and not the Creator. But He is the cause of these “activities of the creature” (p199). He is the transcendent source of all knowledge: that is, when something or, better, someone is truly known, then the energy of knowledge, based upon the spiritual attribute of omniscience, has been participated in.

Staniloae emphatically dismisses any attempt to separate knowledge into the Western dichotomies of “God’s knowledge of Himself,” and “God’s knowledge of created things.” He takes Karl Barth especially to task for maintaining that God’s knowledge of Himself is infinite, but His knowledge of creatures is finite.

Against this division, Dionysios the Areopagite prohibits any such separation: “Consequently, God does not possess a private knowledge of himself and a separate knowledge of all the creatures in common. The universal Cause, by knowing itself, can hardly be ignorant of the things which proceed from it and of which it is the source.” (The Divine Names 7.2, quoted in Staniloae, p200).

In His Omniscience, God knows all the logoi of all created things, and so because God knows Himself absolutely, He knows all things already, and always.

If there is any division between divine knowledge — or rather, from our standpoint , “knowledge of God” — and knowledge of things, it is certainly true in creaturely experience. This is a natural division that was intended at the outset to be traversed: but it became an unnatural alienation after the Fall.

But this division is meant to be surmounted as we unite these two knowledges in our spiritual growth. We God as Cause of things, and we begin to know things fully because we start to recognize not only their “creatureliness,” but also their present reality and their destiny in the eschatological transfiguration of all things.

Until that perfection, however, not only do we fail to know God, but we also fail to know created things in their reality. We will only know reality when “… we are completely united with him and he is wholly within the whole of us” (p201, citing St Maximos the Confessor, in The Ambigua).

This possibility of knowledge is not deferred until some moment that is separate from the present. Here is one of the many places that Staniloae highlights the difference between the Eastern patristic tradition (including Maximos) and the later Western philosophical schools. The possibility of God as Supreme Person (i.e., the Trinity as personal) communing wholly and completely with us is a present possibility, mainly because the single undivided Knowledge is a personal possibility.

Knowledge — that is, full knowledge — “is the full union between the one who knows and the one who is known, just as ignorance causes separation or is the effect of separation” (p201). For Staniloae, epistemology is an interpersonal event, not just an academic and therefore static field.

Moreover, it is just because knowledge is interpersonal that there is now the possibility of the approach of humanity toward God. The union of God with man is not and really cannot be one-sided: love requires mutuality of persons … and no matter how far man has descended into dissolution and dereliction, he remains potentially able to do the part required.

It might be said here that the analogy of being is neither eclipsed by God’s utter transcendence, nor is it vitiated. God’s transcendence does not mean an utter discontinuity: to say so is to suggest that there is no infinitely constant movement of God toward His creation, whether or not that movement is accepted and met with an analogical movement by the creature.

In this context, unsurprisingly, Staniloae refers to Hans Urs von Balthasar approvingly: the knowledge of God “cannot be equated with the conception that God is beyond all possibility of approach within a totally inaccessible transcendence” (p201). More to the point, he uses the term “analogy” in a later paragraph: “God can be known from all things through analogy with all things and through his presence in all things as the one who is their cause” (p206).

It is interesting, to say the least, that von Balthasar is approved just one page after Barth is rebutted.

Humans are called to assume the character of the Supreme Person’s self-sacrifice (i.e., kenosis) and are only then able to “re-interpret” time as a path toward eternity and union with God in love. They thus progress in the knowledge of God and creatures until “they are fully known within the full union and love that are identical with ‘eternal life’ (John 3.16)” (p202).

Staniloae lists three critical implications of knowledge defined as “union of transcendent Person to person-as-creature without confusion.”

First of all, knowledge presumes a “going out” from self toward the other, in which existence is held in common. This is the “oneness” that two persons share in love. I wonder, too, if there is some deep structural linkage between this interpersonal sense of knowledge and the old Hebrew meaning of the term for knowing: yade, which possesses an intimate, nuptial meaning. Is the true meaning of nuptial intercourse but a symbol that not only represents the deeper interpersonal knowledge, but also participates in it?

In this nuptial context, too, is indicated the indivisible linkage between the main Greek terms for “love”: eros, and agape. Staniloae strongly asserts that St Dionysios (cf p244), for one, knows no difference in meaning between these terms, as opposed to the clear Reformed distinction between creaturely eros and strictly divine agape (e.g., Anders Nygren). I mention this in particular, as I was very much a fan of C. S. Lewis’ Four Loves, which was itself an extended meditation upon Nygren’s differentiation between eros and agape.

(For what it’s worth, I am glad that Pope Benedict XVI corrected this modern separation of eros and agape in his letter, Deus caritas est.)

The second implication of knowledge-as-communion is that if it is true that personal distance and total solitude both preclude complete knowledge, then it must be that for God to have complete knowledge of Himself, then He must be a community of Three Persons.

In other words, divine knowledge, at base, must be trinitarian in essence and is trinitarian in form. All knowledge is “a loving reference of one subject to another subject” (p202), and thus, “Nothing is understood apart from the holy Trinity” (p203). This has to do with the fundamental motive for knowledge rooted in interpersonal love, which proceeds the Holy Trinity itself.

For humans, even self-knowledge is derived from reference to relationship with others. I cannot think of a more profound difference from modern epistemology than this affirmation: that ego is known only in terms of the other. “We are conscious of ourselves only in relationship with the other and, in the final analysis, before God” (p204).

The third implication is teleological. All creation is destined for glorification in the universal transfiguration on the Last Day, the Parousia. All knowledge is in tension in anticipation of the Last Day, when persons will be known, and will know, Supreme Person completely: “Though now we see through a glass darkly, then we shall see face to face.”

So crucial is this teleological sense of knowledge that it prompts Staniloae to make this arresting statement: “[God] does not know [all creatures] within the process of actualizing their potential image, nor does he see them in the end of this process” (p206).

Staniloae suggests that there are two ways in which Scripture describes God “knowing” His creatures. The first is the sense of omniscience, in which God knows all things. But the second is the deeper of sense of the perfect of this knowledge as full communion, in which persons “co-inhere” with each other. And in this second sense, it is clear that those who refuse to participate in deification will indeed be in a state where they do not know God, obviously, but it is also true that God will not know — in the deepest sense of the word — them.

Orthodox Holy Tradition has always separated the complete foreknowledge of God from predestination. The conflation of these two terms is due to a denial of freedom given to spiritual creatures on one hand, and on the other, a failure to recognize knowledge as a personal (as well as infinite) spiritual attribute. All creatures are destined to participate in the universal transfiguration at the end: and this is true especially of spiritual creatures (i.e., humans and angels), who are predestined to enter into theosis where, in the eschaton, God will be known completely in His condescension, and God will know human persons in their ascension through Christ.

This “pre-destination knowledge” of God is from His knowledge of all creatures as their Cause. But the fact remains that deification in love requires free will, and there are some who refuse the gift of deification. Staniloae states here, about God’s foreknowledge of those who refuse: “The foreknowledge of God in regard to those who will go to eternal punishment consists only in the fact that he does not see them in their final unity with himself, a unity which for him is present even before it comes about in reality” (p208).

Obviously, this perfected and complete knowledge of God by man, and knowledge of man by God, occurs in Christ. The infinity of the divine nature “shines” through the finitude of human nature, as Christ’s humanity is utterly transparent to “the abyss of divine existence” (p210). Humans, then, can grow in the infinite knowledge of God through their solidarity with Christ, whose “hypostasis is open to all,” and thus “all can love and know each other as themselves” (p210).

What of wisdom? Is there a separation between the term “wisdom” and “knowledge”? In a word: no. Staniloae contends that the Fathers do not make a distinction between the terms, clearly using the term “wisdom” when applied to God far more often than “knowledge.” It is interesting that “wisdom” is used as a noun, and “knowledge” — for God — is used to describe an act.

Neither is there any separation between God’s “theoretical” and “practical” knowledge. We can know nothing of God’s knowledge of Himself as distinct from His relationship to the world: this would be knowledge of His essence, about which it is impossible for creatures to know. Thus, in Orthodoxy, there is no scholastic distinction between God’s “knowledge” as a theoretical occupation and His “wisdom” as pertaining to a practical occupation. All of knowledge and wisdom that pertains to God is “economic,” and “practical.”

Staniloae reserves a special sense of the word “wisdom” to describe the “plan of God regarding the world” for its salvation. This, it seems to me, is Staniloae’s meditation upon the corpus of wisdom literature in Scripture, and, by extension, to the tradition of dogmatic theology in the Christian Church that stems from the Gospel kerygma of the apostles.

It may also be — and here, I only speculate — Staniloae’s implicit response to the sophia trend within Russian theology (i.e., Solovyov, Bulgakov, Florensky et al) that may have isolated wisdom from its real context of salvation.

True wisdom is meaningful only in terms of salvation, the economy of the Trinity with regard to the world. Wisdom perceives the goodness of God in creating and sustaining a harmony of creation:

“God’s wisdom is not only his coming down to the world, to everyone and everything within it; it is also a totality of actions adequate to raise the world up continuously to a common and harmonious participation in the divine life and happiness” (p213)

God’s wisdom will often seem “at odds” with the wisdom of the world — a sharp distinction that St Paul draws in 1 Corinthians. God’s wisdom hardly contradicts the order of the world, because it not only founds it, but restores and completes the world’s wisdom. But because it corrects the fallen state (and the wisdom that is based upon that fallenness), God’s wisdom will often seem opposed to worldly wisdom.

Against the atomistic, reductionistic and materialistic wisdom of the world, God’s wisdom “reestablishes the human being with the higher and complex order of normal interpersonal relations sustained by the dialogue with God, a dialogue of endless exactingness, subtlety, and complexity, a dialogue that can shape even the order of nature in a higher direction” (p213).

I conclude this section with this long rhapsodic quote from Staniloae about God’s wisdom:

“What an abyss of wisdom is hidden in the incarnation of the Son of God as man, the one who opens up the prospect of an eternally deified life, an eternal and unutterable glory for the human being! Saint Paul the Apostle prays that the spirit of this wisdom may be given to the Christians of Ephesus so they might understand “what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ep 1.18). What an abyss of wisdom is hidden in the fact that through the incarnation, one and the same person is both God and man at the same time, bearing in himself, as in all of us as well, the spiritual life of the human being and deepening it to the very measure of the divine infinity! What an abyss of wisdom is hidden in the cross and in the suffering that the very Son of God takes on himself for us, to make of it in our case too — through the renunciation of himself and the patience implied in it — the condition of our higher life, that is, of the relations between ourselves and God! What an abyss of wisdom is found in the prospect of eternal life, the prospect of resurrection thrown open and bestowed on us in Christ’s resurrection! What endless depths of blessed meaning does the wisdom shown in the economy of Christ give to the order of the world, a world that by itself would remain fragmented in meaning and lead us nowhere! Within what limitless growth of meaning is God revealed to us as Person or Trinity of persons and as one who enters through the warmth of the endless communion of which he is capable into a relationship of love with us as persons, especially when compared with the simplistic, monotonous and life ‘god’ conceived according to the type of nature!

“In the kenosis of love which only God as person can assume there is revealed to us, if we let ourselves be conquered by this love, what Saint Paul says: ‘that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with the fulness of God’ (Ep 3.17-19).

“Wisdom in this sense can have no other basis than the perfection of the Trinitarian communion. Through wisdom God wants to lead all things toward the perfection that radiates from that communion. Among us wisdom itself radiates from the intertrinitarian communion. The ‘One,’ in the abstract sense proper to some philosophies [e.g., Plotinus], cannot be wise. Where there is no interpersonal relationship, there is no balance and measure but exaggerating tendencies on one side and exclusivism. It is only life together that implies or demands the efforts made to achieve wisdom.

“What we come to know in the course of our earthly life on the basis of the order of nature, and what we come to understand from the order of human spiritual life and even from the divine saving acts in our regard are only obscure rays from the knowledge and wisdom we can have here, a knowledge and a wisdom that guide us towards their full appropriation in our future union with God” (pp213-214).

JUSTICE AND MERCY

It is just like Staniloae to combine two seemingly opposite qualities — justice and mercy — into an inseparable bond.

Justice, on one hand, is founded upon “the equality of the Trinitarian persons” (p215). It is from this essential equality that God expects that “all men might be equal among themselves” (p215). Mercy, on the other hand, cannot not be separated from divine justice — and thus it cannot be “forced” upon someone who does not want it. At that same time, however, God’s justice is never divorced from His mercy: divine love is at the base of justice, and thus any image of God as “impartial judge” in a juridical setting is a rhetorical image and may not be extrapolated into actual doctrine.

Justice is not an abstract idea, or a “standard” separate from or abstracted away from God Himself — to the point, one might presume, toward which God might have to work so perfectly that Hs is God because He is perfectly just. Quite the contrary, Staniloae states that “God does not begin from an idea of justice but from the reality of justice in himself” (p215).

Justice is an energy of God, and as such, it is experienced by man. It is for this simple reason that man not only feels — despite the distortions and occlusions of the Fall — justice as a “deep conviction” in his relationship to God and to his fellow man. Justice is also a reality in which man must participate. Man is not passive in the meting out of God’s justice and mercy: because justice is a “personal energy” — and because of this, it is properly called a “Name” — then all interchange is really relationship, which itself denies the possibility of complete passivity in either role of the relationship, even when one is infinitesimally less than the Other.

In other words, there is no discontinuous, abjectly “alien” presence of the energy of God. God’s justice, based upon and sustained by the equality of the Three Persons, is extended universally and omnipotently to all Creation, and works personally through the spirituality of each person. Thus there is no possibility for concepts like “irresistible grace” or “predetermined history.”

Staniloae is clear that justice is fundamentally based upon equality of God, and thus, as an energy, equality of man. The spiritual aspect of equality remains always essential, as the “most precious goods are spiritual goods and it is on these that his salvation depends, not on the material ones” (p217). But repeatedly, he emphasizes that “Man can demand justice, especially from his neighbors, for himself and for others … and in doing this he can take his stand on the fact that God created all men with the right to enjoy equally the goods that he gave them through creation, goods which can be increased through their own efforts” (pp216-217).

Here, especially, Staniloae establishes human ethics and politics as firmly inseparable from theology — even to the point of the perichoretic relations within the Trinity!

Justice is crucially and climactically centered on Christ — as true God become true Man (i.e., the “Son of Man,” a term, I think, which means exactly that). So Christ as Man has succeeded in experiencing and appropriating the perfection of this divine energy within the contours of human nature. As this human perfection, which is transparent of the divine nature in beautiful glory, human communicants can participate in this perfect justice in their existence through inclusion and voluntary (via their own kenosis) in the Body of Christ.

HOLINESS AND PURITY

Holiness is an energy that, more than all the other “names,” manifests in creation the utter transcendence of the Creator. This manifestation is experienced as an almost empirical “proof” of the existence of a transcendent order. In Staniloae’s discussion of this experience of transcendence, we hear echoes of Mircea Eliade’s “wholly Other” and Rudolf Otto’s “numinous,” or mysterium tremendum). The numinous, Staniloae says, “is to be experienced nowhere more directly than in the holiness which envelops God’s revealing of himself … In [holiness] there is concentrated all that distinguishes God from the world” (pp222-223).

But after this often-terrifying experience, which constitutes the “fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom,” there follows upon that experience of happiness, freedom, and a greater desire for purity and a deeper communion with God.

Again, such a desire after terror (e.g., think of the Prophet Isaiah’s experience in the Temple in Isaiah 6) that is so powerful is possible only if holiness were the presence of Person, Supreme though the Trinity is. Only Person could attract such powerful desire.

Accordingly, this line is particularly appealing: “Man is captivated by the charm of his true being” (p223). Nowhere have I read such a bon mot with regard to holiness. Usually, holiness is denatured into a tiresome discussion of legalistic (and privatistic) social mores. Or, it is reframed into an analysis within the rubrics of a philosophy of religion.

But to hear about holiness as not only numinous but also personal energy, in terms of an I-Thou relationship as realized in the agency of a hypostasized Third — that is to hear something new in contemporary dogmatics. No less a figure than Bishop Kallistos Ware, writing in the foreword, noted that most dogmatic texts (Pomozansky, for one) gloss over the Palamite emphasis upon the distinction of God’s essence from His energies. I would add, too, that Romanides and, perhaps, Vlachos treat Palamas with much more priority, but do not extend this dogma to its logical and enormous existential implications. Staniloae does, and does so in particular in this discussion of holiness.

After the Cross and Resurrection (and really, the Incarnation as a whole), the experience of holiness is no longer confined to a location or a particular fragment of human history. It is now thrown open wide as a real possibility for all humanity. Harvey Cox (Harvard theologian, in The Secular City) asserted that the “sacred” had been abolished at the Cross, and Christians were now to enter the secular realm (imaged as the modern city) as the only existential possibility.

Contrary to this notion, Staniloae says that instead of “universal secularization,” it is the possibility of holiness that is open to all. All Christians are described by St Paul as “saints,” especially “… if they preserve their consciousness of the fact that, at baptism, Christ too up his dwelling with them and if, with the help of the grace of baptism and of the other sacraments, they struggle for purification” (p225).

Insofar as Christians participate in the Holy Spirit’s energy of holiness can they recover their natural state as “subject” in their own existence. Man is restored through God’s holiness by entering into a great likeness of man with God. The passions are purified, and are displaced by the adoption of virtues — all of which (i.e., the virtues) culminate in love (p226). This “likeness” (which is recognized, ultimately, as “theosis”) “… means a radiation of the presence of God from within man.”

Staniloae continues this theme of theosis as interpersonal communion between man-as-creature and the God transcendent, but also God as analogically-experienced Creator: “In those who love one another and are found with a reciprocal interiority, the face of the one is stamped with the fatures of the other and these features shine forth actively from within him. Now inasmuch as these divine features are growing and foreshadowing the full degree in which they will overwhelm the human features, the faces of the saints even on earth have something of the eschatological plane of eternity in their appearance, that plane through which God’s features will be fully reflected and his energies will radiate” (p226).

In that age to come, all creation will become utterly transparent to the beauty that is the glory of the Holy Trinity. The saints — and sacraments — are bearing that eschatological glory even now. Why are some people saints, and thus bearing that glory, and other people are not? It is strictly because they respond to the holiness of God, accepting it and working with it freely in purification and in the free acts of loving self-donation.

And, in the final analysis, a saint is a saint because she or he is willing to make their existence entirely consonant with their essence: in other words, they become fully human, and therefore free.

But all this comes at a price of self-donation, or — as Staniloae puts it — transcendence of ego. This is the true meaning of sacrifice. It is not the sacrifice of pagans, which was always a violent exchange of capital for the benefit of stemming, temporarily, the tide of dark chaos outside the city.

In a poignant meditation upon St Cyril of Alexandria’s relatively overlooked treatise, Adoration and Worship in Spirit and in Truth, Staniloae insists that holiness assumes sacrifice: whoever passes through sacrifice pass into the state of holiness. “By the very fact that Christians,” he writes, “give themselves to God or sacrifice themselves to him — meaning their complete self-offering as subjects to the divine subject — they become saints, are enveloped in the holiness or self-giving purity of God and open themselves to it.” But Staniloae emphasizes the centrality of Christ in holiness: “But they are able to sacrifice themselves in a manner that is pure or entire only if they partake of the pure or entire sacrifice of Christ who, by sacrificing or offering himself as man to the Father in total purity, has consecrated himself so that we too may be consecrated through our union with him in a state of sacrifice” (p229).

There is, then, no Christianity without holiness, since all Christians are called to sainthood. And there is no holiness without sacrifice and self-transcendence. But holiness as desire — which is a radically Christian thought — is possible only in terms of “surrender to absolute Person.”

This “surrender to absolute Person is a sanctifying self-sacrifice, for it is a transcending of self which goes beyond all that is relative. Any human being who is lifted up beyond himself towards supreme Person and offers himself to him, thereby renounces himself and tramples under foot all that is selfish or mean, all that is merely narrow interest or appetite directed passionately towards finite things, and thus he is consecrated and enters through that Person into a fully unlimited condition and complete freedom. He is consecrated because he forgets himself and is raised beyond himself in his own genuinely free communication with absolute Person and on the basis of the power of this absolute Person which comes from his side to meet him in the encounter. But since in this way the person realizes his own self in the most authentic manner, holiness — from our point of view — can be said to the the most fitting realization of the human, the discovery and valuing of its most intimate sanctuary” (p231).

And because he is lifted up above the narrow confines of fallen ego-centricity, the saint now radiates holiness into his own world:

“God wants the whole world to be filled with saints; he wants the whole world to be sanctified so that his holiness may be seen and glorified everywhere in the world and the world become a new heaven and a new earth where justice — that is, fidelity, openness, holiness — abides because it has been extended into the world from the Holy Trinity” (p238).

GOODNESS AND LOVE

It may be obvious, by now, that all the energies are inseparable, and are not known except with reference to the others. This note is truest with love, which is the culmination of all energies, and is the highest “name.” Holiness, justice, omniscience are known most immediately as love, and then too, the super-essential formal attributes comprise the lineaments or contours of love.

So love as an attribute — remembering that for Staniloae (following Dionysios and Maximus especially), “love” and “goodness” are synonymous — is the summary of all the energies.

Love is always most personal.

And perhaps, it could be said that God is most personal in love.

This might become clear when Staniloae suggests that goodness is best understood in the context of eros, or desire. He reminds us that Dionysios knew no difference between eros, agape and goodness: for him, it was all one: “The sacred writers lift up a hymn of praise to this Good. They call it beautiful, beauty, love and beloved” (The Divine Names, 4.7, cited in Staniloae, p239).

“What is signified,” Dionysios continues, “is a capacity to effect a unity, an alliance, and a particular commingling in the Beautiful and the Good” (The Divine Names, 4.7).

Breath-taking, that.

Staniloae explains: “The unifying force of good, or of love, or of eros lies in the fact that the divine yearning (eros) ‘brings ecstasy so that the lover belongs not to self but to the beloved’ (The Divine Names, 4.13). This tendency, whether it is called good or agape or eros, does not merely urge the creature toward God, but also God towards the creature” (p239).

Again, this is a re-narration of Dionysios, and also Maximos, in a new modern elaboration. Love has not been so described in modernity: this is a dogmatic rhetoric of love, in the rubrics of the “neo-patristic synthesis”:

“In [the] reciprocal, total, and hence stable going out of the divine persons the possibility is given of their common movement towards persons creatures, while love is realized as the going out of each towards the other. God desires to reach the created person, or his union with him, not only through his ecstasy towards the person, but also through the person’s ecstasy towards him. Although the creature by its nature exists in God, because of its inadequate love it remains at a distance form him, and for this reason he empties himself by coming down to the creature and by accepting that the creature has its place at a certain distance from himself, and that to the overcoming of this distance the person should also make a willing contribution [i.e., of his own totality of his experience, his own world]. For in order to bring about a love with created being too, God brought into existence not only a world of objects, but also a world of subjects who exist before his face at a distance which they can make either smaller or larger.

“God’s wish is that the interval (diastasis) between himself and these persons be overcome not only through his movement, but also through their own free movement towards him” (p241).

Colligite quae superaverunt fragmenta ne perean.

Infinity, Eternity, Supraspatiality and Omnipotence: Staniloae on the Super-Essential Attributes of God

Neagoe_basarab

Neagoe Basarab and his wife, Milica Despina;
Below (from the left to the right): Petru, Ioan, Teodosie, Angelina, Ruxandra and Stana, their children.
The worthy Voivode Neagoe will be, toward the end,
cited with less than unbridled  enthusiasm.

(reflections on the 8th chapter of Staniloae’s The Experience of God)

Salvation is the only reason for theological thinking. Theology cannot be an activity without this being the ultimate concern. If theology were only a series of facts, or even propositions, then it would be information, but not theology.

On the other hand, theology is, in its widest sense, salvation itself. Knowing God — that is, detaching our attention from lesser things, recognizing His beauty in all creation and finally entering into complete communion with the Holy Trinity — comprises spirituality. In turn, spirituality is the experience of, and is aimed at, nothing less than the deification of the the soul, and with it the body: only in this sense can we say, with confidence, that salvation is deification, and deification is salvation through the Cross.

Fr Dumitru Staniloae, mainly following St Maximos the Confessor, puts salvation at the very center of his dogmatic theology. But salvation is presented here in terms of a completely realized communion of Persons.

What does such a “communion” mean? Here, Fr Dumitru describes “love” as the “indwelling” of one person with the other. Within the Trinity, the communion of one Divine Person with the others is infinitely full and complete — and that very communion is the essence that is unknown and infinitely transcendent of creaturely experience and knowledge (human and angelic).

For the Trinity, this infinitely complete indwelling is called “perichoresis,” or “co-inherence.” It is the foundational reality upon which all creaturely reality is based, relies upon in the present, and is destined towards in the future.

For creatures who are spiritual (i.e., “noetic”, and therefore includes angelic and human beings), they too experience an indwelling with the God as “Supreme Person” or with other creaturely persons. This indwelling is real, and can surmount the distances of time and space. In such an indwelling that is love, it is spiritually real (a surmounting of time) that persons can be present with each other, despite their spatial separation.

It is for complete indwelling between God and His spiritual creatures (and, by extension, all of creation, even the non-spiritual) that God’s “attributes” both form and inform creation. One of Staniloae’s great achievements is his central emphasis upon deification as the first, formal and final cause of all creation. It is because of salvation, in other words, that time and space exist.

Here we arrive at a difficult distinction between what Staniloae calls the “super-essential attributes of God,” and the “spiritual attributes of God” (which will be taken up in the following chapter). Staniloae associates the spiritual attributes of God with the divine essence, which is the source and sustenance of knowledge, justice, purity and — especially — love.

Staniloae differentiates these “spiritual” attributes from those attributes which proceed from God’s uncreated energy. Such an attribute is what he describes as a “formal attribute of his existence” (p199).

The formal attributes are also less apophatic than the spiritual ones. They can be “conceived from a formal point of view … freed from the aspect of insufficiency and from the formal development that [creatures] possess” (p198). These formal attributes are the summary names of those operations that create, sustain and perfect the world.

I assume here, then, that the super-essential attributes of God are more perceivable through what we usually call “general revelation” — and here we should probably call to mind Staniloae’s insistence upon the providential character of all revelation and all knowledge.

These “formal” attributes, listed in order, are Infinity, Eternity, Supraspatiality and Omnipotence. In each attribute, Staniloae pursues a common theme: God creates distance for love, sustains distance for love, and calls the creature to the surmounting of all distance for love. And in each attribute, Staniloae describes how the form of creaturely existence is utterly contingent upon the divine formal attribute — beyond which God is utterly transcendent — and how the telos — or destiny — in each form becomes the real moral choice, or work, of life.

Divine Infinity is the reason and source and goal of all “finitude” — a term that applies to all creatureliness. In infinity all intervals collapse: thus, “there is no time in infinity. Everything is possessed in a continuous present” (p142).

God in Three Persons infinitely indwell each other in perfect communion: and so in the Trinity, there is no distance. In His complete freedom, God creates other “finite” persons with a desire for the infinite that cannot be disregarded, since that very desire is rooted in the image of God. Every human essentially desires infinity, and this desire should  move them through the experience of the finite order.

It is only the free and willing achievement of this desire God, through the process of deification and attainment of theosis, that even the human — even in his materiality — can experience the infinite. It is of course only because God called the finite to the infinite that the spiritual creature proceeds, and journeys through these temporal and spatial phenomena.

Infinity itself is not God — for to say so would be to say that God is essentially infinite. God, however, transcends all His attributes. Staniloae writes this lovely line: “Infinity is God’s ambiance and through it he makes himself accessible or communicates himself to creatures which have reached union with him as supreme subject” (p143).

It is at the Resurrection that the human nature of Christ was raised to “the supreme participation in the divine infinity; it understood the Godhead that is beyond understanding and fully enjoyed the divine energies imprinted on its human energies. And in union with Christ all those who believe are raised to this same participation in the divine infinity” (p144).

For Staniloae, the meaning of infinity is salvation. And because of salvation — the desire of God for full communion with His creation — the operation of infinity upon creation produces finiteness. Even so, the operation of eternity produces the intervals of time, which is experienced by angels and humans. The operation of supraspatiality produces space, which is experienced by humans and the rest of the material universe. And finally, the operation of omnipotence produces self-donation, or kenosis.

It is interesting here, in the context of infinity, that Staniloae discusses the “simplicity” of God, and treats the philosophical issue of “the one and the many.” He establishes a remarkable link between the essential simplicity of the Person, and the ultimate simplicity of Creation. It is through the intervals of time and space that Creation is brought — through the mediation of defied humanity — from its primordial distance into the union of simplicity, without any destruction of difference. Even though Staniloae himself does not say this, it is the peculiar Christian message that only in Christ can there be “difference without negative distance” — “negative distance,” that is, a difference in isolation, alienation, absence.

The opposite of simplicity is complexity. And in Staniloae’s thought, complexity is not only the Aristotelian admixture of different elements, but more importantly a fragmentation, a retrogressive disregard of the unity of the Trinity and an opposite exile into “divisions and rents within fallen human nature.” “This complexity is false because it moves with the same essential monotony as that of the passions which thereby reveal a dissatisfaction with what is finite, or what might be better called an ‘infinity’ of the finite” (p149).

It almost seems as though Staniloae were portraying an extrusion of hell into present life as he reflects on the psycho-linguistic regression of complexity:

“And all of this [infinity of the finite] inside a labyrinth whose infinite twisting paths turn back in the same limitation and give rise to a language which is more and more complicated, nuanced, and diverse, but complicated and nuanced within the confines of a dead end, projecting no light from beyond itself. This is that hell which is closed within monotonous composition and deepens this composition into splintering divisions and ‘infinite’ complexity. It resembles a body that is, on the one hand, indestructible, but is being macerated ad infinitum on the other” (p167).

This chapter is remarkable: even in the context of this remarkable book. In the space of these pages is a modern re-narration of St Maximos into the framework of modernist questions: What is space and time? What is power and infinity? Where did these realities come from? Where are they going? How do they relate to the person, and to his consciousness?

It is all the more remarkable because I do not know if Fr Dumitru was aware of the anthropocentric theories of astrophysics and quantum mechanics, where the place of the human consciousness has been observed to occupy a critical centrality in existence, as scientifically observed.

And I suspect that Fr Dumitru, if he were told this, would aver quietly that St Maximus was there all along.

For my part, I harbor some reservations about this chapter. In his discussion about time and eternity, the author poignantly describes the Father, as depicted in the parable of the Prodigal Son, as the One Who waits in expectation for humanity to ascend in deification to His embrace. And from that expectation is the fact that the Cross is the unavoidable threshold of human existence moving from the infernal regression of yesterday into the only true existence of deification.

This I rejoice in. But I wonder why the author is so emphatic about the continued suffering of the Son (albeit in His passable human nature?) until the Last Day. He quotes approvingly, claiming the support of St John Chrysostom and St Maximus, the intriguing formulation of Blaise Pascal: “Jésus sera en agonie jusqu’à la fin du monde” (i.e., “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world”). That may or may not have patristic support, but it seems to this writer that the Cross is the End (and summation) of all violence and suffering.

Also, in his discussion about spatiality, the author describes the inferno astutely, going beyond the usual (and tiresome) platitudes of juridical punishment. However, he emphasizes hell as a somewhat crowded place (p179, especially) where the unrepentant soul is tortured by the presence of demons and enemies. He cites approvingly an old 16th century Wallachian noble (Neagoe Basarab), who writes to his son Theodosius that while Heaven will consist of looking upon the face of Christ, Hell will consist of looking upon the face of Satan.

Frankly, this view of perdition — even by Staniloae — gives off more than a whiff of dualism.

But Staniloae is certainly no dualist. His own discussion of Omnipotence at the end of the chapter confirms this. God is Absolute, but He is absolutely Good. He is identified primarily as “Father” in the Creed, immediately after the faithful confess their belief in God.

So deeply linked are God’s being and God’s goodness, that it is impossible to suggest an arbitrary possibility where God could ever act otherwise. If one is ever troubled by the clever, and sophomoric, paradoxical trick question “If God is all-powerful, then whatever He does is good by definition, then can He make someone be good (or evil), even against their will?” …

… then he can answer simply, “No.” Actually, there are many things that God cannot do — as many as there are persons whose freedom God chooses — kenotically — not to violate.

God will always love and will always call His creation to enter into full communion with Him. However, God will always respect the spiritual freedom of His creature to accept that Divine condescension and to rise in Grace, or to reject the Gift and to descend, infinitely, into meaningless individuality, into an increasingly fractured division toward nothing but never actually getting there.

Hell will not be gazing upon the face of Satan, because he is the first inventor of the hell of self-regard, and doesn’t give a damn about anyone else. Hell will be no one else’s face, but only a mirror.

Heaven will be — or rather is, and always is — the joyous gaze of person upon Supreme Person, in the beautiful analogy of the co-inherent fellowship of the Trinity.

The Operations of God (chapter 7 of Staniloae’s “Experience of God”)

creation_icon

The next few chapters of The Experience of God are Staniloae’s extended commentary and refining of the essential points made in the sixth chapter. In chapter seven Staniloae addresses the particular claims of the Orthodox tradition’s insistence upon the distinction between the essence and energies of God. Thankfully the English translator employs the word “operation” instead of “energy” (this may just be a peculiarity of Staniloae’s own Romanian?). I have found it difficult expressing the gist of this infamous doctrine when using the word “energy”. The word alone seems to imply powers residing within the infinite Godhead, or to be somewhat cartoonish, to imply that God is enveloped by some sort of “energy field”. I believe in employing the word “operation” there is an allowance for an English speaker to understand the dynamic nature of the energies of God and their specific relationship to the created world. God’s operations are God’s dynamic and unceasing work of sustaining and guiding His creation towards union with Himself. This cosmological and eschatological point of view seems to me to be the difference between Staniloae and other modern Orthodox interpreter’s of the operations of God.

Staniloae is not specifically affixed to the issues of existential knowledge vs. rationalistic knowledge being the point of the doctrine concerning operations of God – at least not in this chapter. I mention this fact because this point is what I perceive to be what many modern Orthodox thinkers argue is the crux of the doctrine and therefore a definitive difference with the Western theological tradition. Staniloae’s presentation here is a refreshing approach to understanding how God maintains God’s freedom and transcendence from the world all the while being actively sustaining and working within the world to bring it and humanity into communion with God. Typical to Staniloae’s treatment of the primary doctrines of the Orthodox Church, Staniloae has refracted this doctrine through his specific concern with the created order and its telos in God. Unlike Lossky and other modern interpreters of Palamas there is not in Staniloae a supreme focus on epistemological issues. Rather the focus of Staniloae is trained on seeing the doctrine of the essence and operations of God within the structures of “theosis” – the graced cosmos, the sacraments, and the myriad nature of human experience.

In another source Staniloae insists “Christianity must emphasize today the value and the mystery of man and the world in a special way, in order to save man from a grave moral decadence and a remarkable egoism in interhuman relations; and to save the world from total catastrophe”.[1] In discussing this chapter I want to point to two interrelated points brought out within this specific chapter and how the doctrine of the essence and energies/operations of God figures into Staniloae’s theological vision. Those two points are God’s meaningful and rationally structured creation and humanity’s place within it and the importance of Divine and human personhood and freedom. These two points reiterate Staniloae’s insistence upon what Christians must emphasize in our modern context. Let us first turn to the mystery of man and the world.

God’s attributes can be categorized in various ways. God is “good”, “just”, or “merciful”. We do not experience these attributes as abstract ideas. Rather, we experience these attributes in a myriad of ways throughout our life. We experience the “pressure” of God through various occurrences and people who are providential supplied to us. In other words, we experience God’s operations within the world as a continuous symphony – not in a single ravishing transcendent experience. Staniloae states: “Through his attributes God makes something of his being evident to us, but this something is made specific within one vast and uninterrupted symphony of continually new acts that guide creation and each element of it separately towards the final goal of full union with him” (128). The operations of God we experience are fully God, yet God is infinitely beyond our experience. I say “beyond” because we do experience God through his operations in the world, however words fail in “capturing” God. “[T]he mystery of the personal reality of God is experience, properly speaking, through the renunciation of all the words that point to the attributes and operations of God directed toward us” (129).

God stands above creation. The triune God is super-essential – existing in a superior mode to creation. God does not rely on anything, is not encompassed by a system of references, or need to participate in anything in order to exist. God’s triune life is “act or power” and he possesses all of his own attributes unaided by created reality. It may be helpful to consider this through an analogy. The operations of God in the world are like a ladder. We experience God’s goodness in varied degrees throughout our life and it is through these experiences that we taste God’s goodness. We have not “grasped” God within our own machinations or experiences. Rather our experiences have provided us with a sign that points us towards the person of God. What Staniloae has done to help me understand this doctrine is to put God’s governance into the framework of the operations of God. It is not an abstract discussion of God’s specific names or attributes that we may meditate on and by grace or will sling ourselves up towards the transcendent. It is out of the over-abundant love of God that He governs and leads our lives through various levels of communication with us. He operates or communicates to us through the encouragement of others, through the testament of Scripture, through the lives of the Saints, or as in the case of St. Poryphorios, even in the song of a nightingale. This is so because God has in creating us not abandoned us, but continues to sustain, guide, and communicate to us through the created symbolic order that is the cosmos in which we live, move, and have our very being.

The transcendence of God is key for Staniloae for two reasons. The first reason is the reality of monotheism, God is beyond the created order and this is a good for creation. All of reality flows from the will of the Triune God, not out of necessity but out of God’s freely chosen act of creating, sustaining, and ultimately redeeming reality. This grounds Staniloae’s “apophatic personhood”. What grounds reality is the fact of the divine persons of the Godhead have created not out of necessity but out of love. If it were otherwise meaning and difference would collapse. Divine super-essential persons sustain reality. Second, this transcendence is actually extremely important for humanity. Being made in the image of God we participate in the mystery of personhood, specifically the gift of freedom. In fact, for Staniloae it is the reality of the transcendence of the divine Personal reality that “assures the existence of human persons who are not totally enclosed within nature’s system of references (once God secures for them this liberty). Otherwise everything would fall under the rule of the meaningless laws of nature and death” (138). The transcendent reality of the essence of God has become for Staniloae the lynchpin in securing human freedom and therefore morality. The world is meaningful because it flows out of the Divine community of love. The world is going somewhere and for a real purpose, namely, personal communion with God.

Staniloae’s weaving of the doctrine about the operations and essence of God has been tuned to the contemporary issues of scientism, nihilism, and utilitarianism. We must affirm the transcendence of the Creator in order to secure the freedom of the human being. This affirmation is an affirmation of moral and cosmic significance. In fact, to separate the cosmic from the moral is to make a serious error. We experience God through the “pressure” of every day existence. It is in and through our varied experiences we are able to experience God’s guidance of the cosmos into communion with Himself.

[1] Charles Miller, Gift of the World: An Introduction to the Theology of Dumitru Staniloae, 55.

The Knowledge of God (chapter 6 of Staniloae’s “Experience of God”)

dionysios converting the pagan philosophers

 

“… it is not the same to say something about God as it is to gain and see God.” So St Gregory Palamas said to Barlaam (The Experience of God, p115).

Here is Fr Staniloae’s central note about the Knowledge of God — that at its highest point and most essential depth, it is beyond experience and inexpressible, that it is a “trans-apophaticism” that extends even beyond via negativa, and finally and climactically, it is the ineffable experience of God as Person (only, of course, in the extent of God’s energy, never His essence).

In the most valuable accessible survey of the patristic tradition of the Knowledge of God, Fr Staniloae moves from Gregory the Theologian to Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysios the Areopagite, Symeon the New Theologian and Gregory Palamas (referring to Maximus the Confessor along the way). His discussion of the Areopagite in particular, if for no other part of this chapter, is a most helpful corrective to the contemporary Orthodox discussion of knowledge (especially in the shadow of a “Western captivity” of Orthodox academia).

As in any other Orthodox discussion of the Knowledge of God, Fr Staniloae contrasts the two different strains of the knowledge of God: the rational or “cataphatic” knowledge on one hand, and the ineffable or “apophatic” on the other. And, along with everyone else, the author clearly states that the apophatic is superior to the rational, because it completes it.

Here, though, is where he parts company from the rest: from this point, Fr Staniloae discusses the Knowledge of God in ways that at least “sounds” different from other Orthodox presentations. In the first part of his discussion, the author focuses on the relationship between these two kinds of knowledge of God. The very fact that he makes the relationship a subject of consideration distinguishes him from the usual Orthodox treatment. Instead of positing a sharp differentiation, if not chiasmus, between “cataphaticism” and “apophaticism,” Fr Staniloae rather “nests” the former within the latter. After all, the latter is superior because of the fact that it substantiates the completion of the former. If that is true, then it makes little sense, if any, to isolate these two terms in opposition to each other.

Contrary to the common notion that cataphatic knowledge is positive and apophatic knowledge is negative, Fr Staniloae emphasizes that cataphasis as “rational knowledge” includes not only “positive” knowledge, but also “negative” knowledge. This latter is the “via negativa” of both East and West, in which long intellectual tradition there is a constant and honest dissatisfaction with any philosophical term that describes God, because there is, at the root of all knowledge, a certainty that God as Person must infinitely exceed all creaturely definition.

So the renunciation of philosophical terms (and the resulting and unending discursive dialectic) about God is actually part of the rational, cataphatic tradition of Knowledge. Here, the author contrasts the Eastern tradition from the West: this intellectual renunciation of terms — i.e., the via negativa — is not part of apophatic knowledge. The renunciative tradition is really propositional. It consists of “statements about” rather than the “ineffable experience” that exceeds any attempt to confine in cognitive expression. The apophatic experience of divinity — especially, in its most ineffable, the experience of God as Person — lies not only beyond philosophical proposition, but also beyond the possibility of internal language, or thought. That is, it is “trans-rational” — surely a better term than “irrational.”

“Rationality” is never denounced in patristic tradition. How can it be, Staniloae asks, when the Logos upon which rationality is predicated (see Justin Martyr’s revision of the Stoic doctrine of the logos spermatikos) is Christ Himself, through Whom and form Whom all things were made?

Here, Fr Staniloae emphasizes the validity and necessity of cataphatic knowledge, nesting it (or framing it) as he does within the exponentially larger apophatic experience. He quotes Dionysios at this critical passage — an “apophatic” spiritual writer who is finally and correctly identified as one who “harmonizes” the two knowledges of God:

Since it is the Cause of all beings, we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings, and, more appropriately, we should negate all these affirmations, since it surpasses all being. Now we should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations, but rather that the cause of all is considerably prior to this, beyond privations, beyond every denial, beyond every assertion. (Mystical Theology, I.2, quoted by Staniloae, p111).

Both kinds of this knowledge of God can be known, at least partly, by any human — whether positive and negative in cataphasis, or the trans-rational ineffable experience of God as Person in apophasis. The natural revelation of God as Creator, immanent to and transcendent of His Creation as absolute, with Creation (i.e., all space-time and eternity) in utter contingency upon Him is always “shot-through” with supernatural revelation.

But this raises an ambiguity in Staniloae himself that is probably true of the general Orthodox thinking about the Knowledge of God: is the apophatic experience given only to those who “believe,” who are “Christian,” who participate in the Body of Christ in a decisive manner?

It is true that the apophatic experience grows and becomes more known (though always ineffably) as a “man progresses in the spiritual life, the intellectual knowledge about God — as creator of the world and source of its providential care — which comes to man from the world, is imbued with the direct and richer contemplation of him, that is, with apophatic knowledge” (p97).

But is a non-baptized human being excluded from apophasis? It does not seem so in this sixth chapter of The Experience of God. That said, a non-baptized person cannot experience the continued perfecting process of apophasis. Neither, it is strongly insinuated, can an Orthodox person — even, and especially, an intellectual academic — who does not participate in purification.

Here we are drawn to one of the oddest features of Fr Staniloae’s essay on the Knowledge of God. After his distinctive comparison of cataphasis and apophasis (which is helpfully summarized on pages 116-117), and his note that the Orthodox ethos is characterized by apophasis (at this point he returns to familiar Orthodox language about apophasis), the author makes an abrupt jump into a “practical life” discussion of apophatic knowledge.

In this undeniably “existential” dimension of the subject of apophasis, Fr Staniloae returns to the powerful legacy of St Maximus the Confessor — that is, his famous insistence upon the conversion from “philautia” (i.e., “self-love”) to the essentially Christ-like love for others. It is in this practice of love that the human creature is drawn into the fundamentally Trinitarian “form” of existence — which is “goodness” itself:

In this knowledge I no longer see God only as the creator and the providential guide of all things, or as the mystery which makes himself visible to all, filling all with a joy which is to a greater or lesser extent the same in all cases; but I know him in his special care in regard to me, in his intimate relations with me, in his plan whereby, through the particular suffering, demands, and direction that he addresses to me in life, he leads me in a special way to the common goal (p118).

It is distinctive of Staniloae that he sets this existential, practical participation in love (and Trinitarian life) squarely in the province of apophasis!

And that, I would suggest, is what makes Orthodoxy truly Orthodox.

Anyways, it should be noted that all knowledge, for Staniloae (who stands squarely in the old patristic tradition), utterly relational. Every true concept is a “sentence” addressed by “Infinite Person” to man.

In summary, what does Fr Staniloae not set out to do in this chapter on Knowledge of God?

He does not dismiss intellectual knowledge in favor of apophatic knowledge, neither does he draw a rigid distinction between them.

He does not equate cataphatic knowledge with positive theology, and apophatic knowledge with irrationality. In fact, rationality embraces both positive and negative terms.

He does not conflate apophasis with “religious knowledge” or “theology.” Neither does he associate cataphasis with “natural revelation” and apophasis with “supernatural revelation.”

He does not sequester the knowledge of God away from “secular” knowledge, reason or philosophy.

He does not denounce analogy, or even analogia entis.

There are a lot of things that Fr Staniloae does not do, that a lot of other people (even Orthodox people), in fact, do.

Finally, there are many dichotomies identified in Fr Staniloae’s chapter on the Knowledge of God: immanence vs transcendence; created vs uncreated (which itself is a categorized comprising energy vs essence, person vs nature); time-space vs eternity (and above that is everlasting, or absolute/infinite).

But the very prettiest thing in this chapter is that knowledge is divine communication. In which beauty always traverses these dichotomies.

And the most beautiful expression — and form — is the Word Himself.

Chapter 5 – Theology as Ecclesial Service

Dogmas, the truths of the faith necessary for salvation (p. 59), must have their endless content continually disclosed. This process of disclosure is the task of theology (p. 79). Theological inquiry informs all aspects of church life, from preaching to pastoral care, to sanctification (ibid). It is shaped and inspired by the Holy Scriptures and the Apostolic Tradition of the Church.

Theology is tasked with the mission of taking dogmatic truths and conveying them in a way that aids the faithful in understanding the various aspects of the Christian faith. Therefore, it cannot remain stagnant or inflexible. While the dogmas themselves are true, timeless and unchanging, the theological interpretations of these truths need to be able to communicate with the time and place in which the interpretation occurs.

This is not to say that theology, thus understood, deviates from the dogmatic truths to which they point. Fr. Staniloae makes this clear in his discussion of the relationship between dogma and theologoumena. If theologoumena is to be understood as theological examinations which have not been adopted as official ecclesiastical formulations, then implied in this is an assertion that there are root-level agreements between theologoumena and the dogmas to which they refer. Otherwise, they are not even to be considered theologoumena. Moreover, they will simply become obsolete over time, because they do not reference the dogmatic truths of the Church, nor do they aid in the salvific work of the Church. Ultimately they will be abandoned (p. 83).

In the Orthodox context, “[t]heology is done in the Church through the personal thinking of her members (p. 85).” There is no separation between Church and theology as exists in the Catholic Church (ibid.). The inerrancy of the Church and its theological work is assured because the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit and because the Church preserves the dogmas it was given through experience and represented in the synods of bishops (ibid.). “All members of the Church are part of this body and all do theology to a greater or lesser extent.”

While each member of the Church can theologize, the temptation towards individualism can be circumvented in a couple of ways. The first is that the individual works to make sure that the theology that is derived is in harmony with the teaching that has been received. Also, quoting Evagrios Pontos, “If you are a theologian you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian (p. 86).”

Remembering that theology is the work of presenting dogmatic truths, it is important to emphasize that the theologian needs to be an active participant in the life of the Church. “The theologian will never know God [God from the experience of His saving activity among men]f he does not enter into a personal relationship with God and with the faithful through prayer (p. 87).

As time progresses, and as new problems arise, it is the task of theology to bring those issue to bear over and against the dogmatic truths of the faith. For while the truths are unchangeable, to present them in a way that is rigid and insensitive to the matters of the age would be both inadequate and damaging (p. 88). However, in bringing theology to bear on current events, three conditions should be held: 1) fidelity to the dogmas which are held and knowable through the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church; 2) responsibility to the faithful who are contemporary to the theology being done and 3) openness to the eschatological future, the future of deification, that awaits the faithful. A theology that neglects the tradition of the past is damaging, just as is a theology that fails to be relevant to the challenges of the present, just as is a theology which fails to prepare the faithful for a future that is understood to be an eternity in the presence of God, out theosis.

All of these concerns should be held in balance, should be equally considered. An overemphasis on any one or two, to the detriment of those remaining, would produce a deficient theology which at best would be innocuous or irrelevant and ultimately cast aside, and at worst it would be destructive or even corrosive to the soul.

While theology is meant to take all of these aspects into account, it must be understood that it will never explain in toto the One to whom the dogmas of the faith refer. Theology does not supplant dogma. Neither does theology exhaust all of the dogmatic truths that concern God. This is the very basis for the emphasis on apophaticism that is central to Orthodox thought. Citing Lossky, the Church is not a school of philosophy debating abstract coincepts, it is “essentially a communion with the living God (p. 92; cf. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. (London, 1957) p. 42).”

Theology thus continues to advance our understanding of God through its re-presenting of the dogmas of the faith. Remaining faithful to the teachings of the past, relevant to the concerns of the present, and humbly open to the challenges of the future, theology continues to nourish and sustain the faithful of the Church.

Staniloae concludes this chapter with yet another incisive comment from our father among the saints, Maximos: “Theology will be effective if it stands always before God and helps the faithful to do the same in their every act: to see God through the formulae of the past, to express him through the explanations of the present, to hope and to call for the advancement towards full union with him in the life to come (p. 93).

Forgive me.

Chapter 4: The Church as the Instrument for Preserving Revelation

As Bishop BASIL (Essey) introduced Fr. Zacharias to his clergy during one of their retreats, he made mention of the idea of paradosis (παρὰδοσις, the Greek word we usually translate as “tradition”).  Not so much like links in a chain but strands in a tapestry, is the way in which the tradition of the Church is passed from person to person, from group to group, from generation to generation.

An icon written on a woven piece of cloth.

It is with this in mind that we move on into chapter four of Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Dogmatics.  “Tradition”, Fr. Staniloae states, “cannot exist without the Church (p. 53).”  The Church, it must be understood, is the community that came into existence at the time of the Apostles, and continues — being formed by tradition, and also forming tradition:  “The Church begins with tradition, tradition begins with the Church (p. 53).”

The Church is also bears the work of the Holy Spirit, which means that God’s action (as evidenced in natural and supernatural revelation)  is also an integral part of tradition (p.53).  God acts, and the community continually works to reflect in better ways the manner in which God is acting.

There is a mutually dependent connection between the Church, tradition, and it’s subset, Scripture.  The Church is the agency through which Scripture is “activated”.  Tradition is the lens through which Scripture is comprehensible.

Fr. Stanlioae notes with particular emphasis that the Protestant Church’s rejection of the Church has resulted in a loss of παρὰδοσις, the handing off of the faith from one person to another, which is an integral part of the continuity of tradition. Also, the rejection of the Church means that whenever Scripture is interpreted in the Protestant world, it is done without the fullness of tradition, which by extension means that the depths of the Scriptures themselves are not fully understood or plumbed.

This obviously stands in direct opposition to any notion of Sola Scriptura, the foundation of many of the disparate Protestant denominations.  Scripture is understood as self-interpreting, or the interpretation of Scripture is left up to the individual.  The Church is not necessary for correct interpretation to occur.  Paraphrasing Luther, a layman with the Scriptures is superior to any Pope without them.

Some, like the Methodists and their notion of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” (which was not Wesley’s at all), expand the sources of authority to include not only Scripture and tradition, but reason and experience as well.  Putting the four on an equal footing shows the same diminution of the Church and the tradition of the Church, because experience can be either individual or corporate, and reason can be intra or extra ecclesial.  Quoting Stanley Hauerwas, “I was raised a Methodist. That means before I was twelve I had already had all the experience I could take…. Methodists should not be allowed to use the word ‘experience’ because they usually mean by that salvation consists in having the right feelings at the right time and in the right place. Rather than our confrontation with God being an occasion for challenging our endemic narcissism, the emphasis on experience thus only underwrites our fatal narcissism [cf. Michael Cartwright, “Afterward: Stanley Hauerwas’s Essays in Theological Ethics: A Reader’s Guide”, in John Berkman and Michael Cartwright, eds., The Hauerwas Reader (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), pp. 650-51.].” The problem then is that a person left on their own to determine the meaning of existence can easily fall prey to self-deception. An Orthodox (or Catholic – note that Fr. Staniloae is only criticising Protestantism at this point) vision of Church as Staniloae presents it, defining and being defined by tradition, providing context and meaning for revelatory experience, enables a person to narrate (Hauerwas’s word) one’s own experiences truthfully.

Ultimately, the plan of salvation and deification is found in tradition, Scripture, and the Church and is the reason why they are of any importance anyway.  Dogmas are the points at which salvation and deification are preserved within tradition.  Dogmas are revealed either naturally or supernaturally.  These revelations occur between two actors who are open to one another, through a tangible relationship.  This openness implies a certain degree of vulnerability: defenses are dropped, so if trust is not a part of the relationship, a person can get hurt.  The trust is brought about by faith, that the relationship will lead to theosis, rather than to destruction.  Faith and revelation are mutually dependent.

Dogmas themselves have been the focal point of a great deal of derision over the last several centuries.

The examples of this are legion. From David Hume, whose theological convictions were vague at best, to Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, adherence to the dogmas spelled out in the Ecumenical Councils hold little weight. Dogmas are seen as restrictive or outdated/outmoded. A classic example of this is found in Charles Ketcham’s A Theology of Encounter (University Park, PA and London: Penn St. University Press, 1978) where he argues that classical philosophical categories found in Plato and Aristotle are no longer relevant or sufficient and that what is needed is a re-presentation of concepts like revelation, justification and salvation based on new philosophical approaches (Buber, Heidegger and Husserl) are required.  While this book itself is somewhat obscure (he was my first religion professor), the opinions expressed are much more far-reaching.

Properly understood, dogma is neither restrictive nor constraining, but rather dogma preserves the capacity for spiritual development within human beings (p. 65). Dogma is not limiting, it is freeing.  It presents the opportunity for human beings to be in communion with God the Person.  So while dogma presents the domain of faith (and therefore it circumscribes certain aspects of the faith) it also places Christians in a position where they can be in direct relationship with the Supreme and Divine Person, which in itself is the epitome of freedom (ibid).

Dogmas in the Christian context are not just a set of teachings, constrained by a person’s sitz im leben.  Rather, they provide the context or the framework for the divine-human relationship.  Dogmas are the interpretation of Christ’s reality as this reality is being extended in human lives…. Christ is the living dogma, universally comprehensive and at work to bring about the whole of salvation (p.67, emphasis mine).”

The content of Christian dogma centers on the Holy Trinity.  In that the Son reveals the Father and the Spirit, the Holy Trinity is the perfection of communion.  Thus, through the divine community of the Holy Trinity, humanity is raised up into eternal and divine communion.

This communion is dialogical and interpersonal.  Fr. Staniloae notes that this dogmatic understanding is unique when compared to faiths apart from Christianity.  Pagan beliefs in a god hold that the persons of gods ultimately dissolve into an impersonal essence.  Judaism and Islam maintain that God is so closed up in Himself that for man no communication with God is possible.

So far it’s been established that in the Christian dogmatic sense man’s relationship with God is interpersonal and dialogic.  In the dogma of the Holy Trinity, “God is a Trinity of persons who have all in common, that is, their entire being, yet are not confused with one another as persons. This implies perfect love (p. 68).”  This also means perfect community and perfect relationship, and the ultimate end for humanity as well, when man and God will be united in perfect community as well.

The dogma of the Incarnation is another crucial matter.  God is not merely united with a man (p.69).  Were this to be so, Christ, as man, would not be in the full communion with the Holy Trinity.   So the two natures – divine and human – are united in one hypostasis, one Person.  “The hypostasis of Christ is the basis of this highest union between two different natures just as a common nature is the bridge that unites persons of the same nature (p. 69).”

So Christ does not become a new species.  He is fully Divine, He is fully human.   As such He becomes the real mediator of our communion with God (ibid), bringing our humanity to Divinity and Divinity to our humanity.  Through Him, then, we experience the fulfilment of our yearning for ultimate meaning (p. 70).

This eternal communion is our because of the resurrection of our Lord.  The resurrection along with the Holy Trinity are what Saint Cyril of Alexandria calls the fundamental dogmas of our faith.  The Father raised the Son, not because the Son was unable to raise Himself, but because whatever the Son does out of love for the Father and obedience to His will  (p. 72).

Fr. Staniloae’s discussion of St. Cyril is worth noting, because he shifts the emphasis found in him and elsewhere within the patristic corpus from incorruptibility to perfected communion: “Living as they did in a period when the ideas of person and of interpersonal communion were still not very well developed, the Fathers, in their treatment of the resurrection, placed greater emphasis on the share that human nature had in the incorruptible divine life. (p. 73)”

This is a very interesting comment, since a great deal of modern or  neo-patristic thought has returned to this emphasis on incorruptibility at the deficit of perfect communion.

The remainder of the chapter is an emphasis on the perfection of communion that comes from union with God, the need for the human body to be perfected in order to participate in the divine communion and the hell that awaits those who do not live in communion with God, a resurrection of eternal solitude (p. 75).

So in this chapter, Fr. Staniloae creates his framework for the need for the Church to be the locus of the tradition of the faith, how it both forms and and is informed by tradition as it progresses.  Moreover, he emphasizes the  central role of natural and supernatural dogma as it helps to set the framework for humanity to progress along the road to theosis and perfect communion with the Divine Person.  This Person, of course, is the Holy Trinity, the ultimate expression of perfect community.  Humanity has access to this participation in divine community through the completely human, completely divine Christ, the Son of the Father, the 2nd person of the Holy Trinity.  Through the resurrection,  which is the complete work of the entire Trinity, perfection is then communicated to the whole human race.

The Experience of God vol 1, chapter 3: Scripture and Tradition

Icon_Philip

There are probably too many essays already that refute (or at least attempt to refute) the Protestant tradition of sola scriptura. The third chapter of Staniloae’s Experience of God – “Scripture and Tradition” – never explicitly names this most important of the Protestant “five solae,” but he certainly answers it, as he responds to its parallel (and, in a morose note, consequential) tradition of scriptural disregard.

Many of us who are products of a Protestant and particularly Evangelical upbringing can remember the old motto “Scripture interpreting Scripture.” This motto attempts to surmount the obvious problem raised by the Reformers (i.e., Luther et al) – if Holy Tradition (or the Magisterium in the West) is to be discarded as an interpretative framework of Scripture, then what should take its place?

The Reformed answer is that Scripture interprets itself, and thus there is no need for a human intermediary. The familiar explanation is that the Holy Spirit Himself is the sole agent of interpretation. This concept of “sole divine agency” is what unifies all five “solae” of the Reformation, in which “sola scriptura” (exclusion of Tradition, especially in human history after the writing of the “original autographs”) is joined by “sola fidei” (exclusion of the necessity of human work); “sola gratia” (exclusion of synergia); “solus Christus” (exclusion of human priesthood and, most likely, the possibility of sacrament); and “soli Deo gloria” (exclusion of veneration to the Theotokos, saints and angels).

Generally, the refutations of sola scriptura focus upon the inconsistencies, if not outright impossibilities, that accrue to the Protestant history of interpretation. It is difficult to proceed under the hermeneutical rubric of “Scripture interpreting Scripture” without at least implicitly referring to some external reference. Some times, that external reference is to an artifact of doctrinal Tradition, which is often referred to as “small o orthodoxy.” This “orthodox” reference accounts for the persistence in Protestantism of doctrines like the Trinity, the Person and work of Christ, and the canonical arrangement of the New Testament. Other times, however, that external reference involves (perhaps unwittingly) the inclusion of a contemporary cultural trend that is contrary to Tradition. Fr John Romanides famously discerned a patterned reference that involved “Frankish” dominance, which seems to account for everything wrong with the West.[i] Other critiques have discerned external references that presently involve an increasing identification with the dominant materialistic worldview.[ii]

But Staniloae responds to the deeper claim of “sole divine agency,” a claim that lies at the heart of the heterodox rejection of the Church and her Tradition. While everything in the Church’s existence (including Scripture) relies upon the complete sufficiency of God, human participation is necessary — both in the writing of Scripture form the Tradition of the Apostles, and in its Apostolic interpretation. There is never a “sole divine agency” in Economy, in which the human is a passive object. There is always a person who says, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1.28).

Christ is always the Revealer, through the “radiation of the Holy Spirit”:

The Word and the Holy Spirit are the two persons who together accomplish and jointly bring to fulfillment the whole of revelation and of its efficacy until the end of the world … Between the Word and the Holy Spirit exists a continuous reciprocity of revelation and both bring about a common revelation of the Father, and a common spiritualization of creation.[iii]

Here it is plain that revelation – both natural and supernatural – continues to be active. In fact, Staniloae’s tone suggests that revelation can only gain in force and depth as it continues through the space-time inaugurated at Creation. Any revelation – especially the written supernatural revelation that is Scripture – cannot be objectified and rendered static in examination. Just at the Epistle to the Hebrews says: For the word of God is living and effectual, and more piercing than any two edged sword; and reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4.12 Douay-Rheims)

But not only is revelation active, it is also personal. Revelation is never an impersonal dynamic or force: neither is it a phenomena framed by a historic narrative and imposed violently upon its members; nor is it an esoteric gnosis reserved for those pre-determined before birth. Revelation is nothing less, and nothing anything else, than a personal work of Christ that is “irradiated” by the Spirit in the Church.

Revelation is given only through communion – and Staniloae has made it very clear that only persons can commune. In natural revelation, the communion between the Creator and His creatures is indirect. But what distinguishes supernatural revelation is that the communication is direct (e.g., I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you – John 15.15 KJV).

Language is the rational memory of communion: and here is the haunting semantic coincidence whereas Christ is known principally as the “Word” of God. He can only be the Father’s revelatory initiative to us. So he penetrates into our consciousness, and reveals God in experience and is remembered in thoughts.

And those thoughts are written in human art. Again, this is the synergistic communion of persons: on one the infinitely transcendent side is God, and on the other is the creature, Man. God reveals personally: Man personally remembers and writes. The significance and necessity of the written word should not be surprising: written language is a relatively unchanging solidification of commonly held memory through history. And Scripture is the written memory of special revelation that is fulfilled and closed in Christ.

As Staniloae puts it: Sacred Scripture is the Son and Word of God who translated himself into words in his work of drawing close to men so that he might raise them up to himself, until the time of his incarnation, resurrection, and ascension as man. Through these words by which he is translated, Christ words upon us to bring us also to that state which he has reached.[iv]

That last statement marks the third characteristic of the agency of the Church in interpreting Scripture: the written narrative of the supernatural revelation of Christ not only reveals the identity of Christ, but also clearly describes His intentions for humanity and all creation. Salvation can be nothing less and nothing other than deification: it is Staniloae’s considerable genius to define revelation in terms not only of Cyrillian Christology, but also of theosis.

In effect, the special revelation that is narrated in the written text of Scripture can only be expressed as a whole by the ecclesial culture of deification – that is, the community that preserves Tradition. Staniloae contends that the Church and Tradition were inaugurated simultaneously, one sustaining the other: in concert, Scripture is interpreted and made meaningful to contemporaneity through the Church’s rhetoric of peace and beauty.

Staniloae suggests, in this chapter, that there is a double peril that results from the fact that Christ is the “active Revealer” of Himself (through the Spirit) in Scripture, in the Church. First: a Christ that is not expressed (i.e., through Tradition and Scripture) does not manifest his effectiveness. And second: the Church is alone capable of understanding and interpreting Scripture effectively.

This not only rules out the possibility of sola scriptura and the idea of “sole divine agency” behind it, but it makes uncertain the ecclesial identity of any community that does not express Him.

Now to the final point: what is the genealogy of Scriptural disregard? That is, the failure to “express Him”? Is it possible that this disregard could have occurred only after the disregard of Tradition?

It seems so. One could take, prima facie at least (a “plain reading of the text”), such a lesson from the story of the Ethiopian eunuch and Philip in Acts 8.30-31: So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him (NKJV). Someone had to elucidate the meaning, and Philip did so allegorically, but only within the parameters of a community that had been infused with revelation, natural and supernatural.

Had it been otherwise, that this community would have ever discarded the oral tradition of the Apostles, there would have been no written tradition to speak of.

______________________________________

 

[i] An interesting exemplary quote from Fr Romanides: The attitudes of the West and East Franks toward the Papacy and the Filioque were different, the first being mild, and the second fanatically hard. One of the important reasons for this is that, after 920, the new reform movements gained enough momentum to shape the policies of the East German Franks who took over the Papacy. When the Romans lost the Papacy, the Filioque was introduced into Rome for the first time in either 1009, or at latest by 1014. In the light of the above, we do not have the situation usually presented by European, American, and Russian historians in which the Filioque is an integral part of so-called “Latin” Christendom with a “Greek” Christendom in opposition on the pretext of its introduction into the Creed. (The addition to the Creed was supposedly opposed by the popes not doctrinally, but only as addition in order not to offend the “Greeks.”) What we do have is a united West and East Roman nation in opposition to an upstart group of Germanic races who began teaching the Romans before they really learned anything themselves. Of course, German teachers could be very convincing on question of dogma, only by holding a knife to the throat. Otherwise, especially in the time of imposing the Filioque, the theologians of the new Germanic theology were better than their noble peers, only because they could read and write and had, perhaps, memorized Augustine.

— from Franks, Romans, Feudalism, and Doctrine, part 3 (“The Filioque”), from http://www.romanity.org/htm/rom.03.en.franks_romans_feudalism_and_doctrine.03.htm#s16 (retrieved 7/15/2014)

[ii] Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” (preface by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger). Presented on March 18, 1994. Retrieved 7/15/2014 at http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/pbcinter.htm. This is a superior descriptive catalog of various and current hermeneutical approaches to Scripture.

[iii] Staniloae, Experience of God, p30.

[iv] Ibid., p40.

THE EXPERIENCE OF GOD VOLUME 1, CHAPTER 2

Creation-Icon

Staniloae’s theological universe seems drastically opposed to his Swiss contemporary Karl Barth. As we have found in chapter 2, Staniloae’s world is alive with the signs of God. This is no mere romanticism, where we find the infinite in the awesome expanses of landscapes or in the flowering of the inner recesses of the heart. No, Staniloae is representative of an older theological age – the ordered and empowered universe of the Fathers. The universe is meaningful because its creator, sustainer, and consummation is the Triune God. The infinite is bound up in every instance and in every thing.

sta_barth

My understanding of natural revelation has been bound my theological heritage, Western and flowing from two trajectories: Augustine/Aquinas & Barth and Post-Barth. Staniloae’s critique of Western theology I think is spot on. “Western theology has accustomed us to hold, that in natural revelation man is the only active agent. This separation of God from nature, a nature through which God speaks and works…has easily led to various kinds of conceptions that have sought to explain the world exclusively on the basis of an immanent reality” (21). I believe what Staniloae is pointing to when he characterizes Western theology as seeing man as the only active agent in natural revelation is the extreme rationalism found in “natural theology” in the West. (Not that these types of theology have not arisen in the East and/or thrive there) For example, think of the post-Cartesian search for indubitably true proofs for the existence of God. Or, think of anything like Josh McDowell and the evangelical or fundamentalist desire for truth claims based solely in amassing data or driven by an apologetics that creates an iron fortress of “t”ruth around faith. It seems to me that Staniloae sees in this a denial of the graced nature of reality. This brings us to the second half of the quote above. The natural theology that I believe Staniloae is pointing to is a theology that is purely logos and no theos.

Revelation is not something completely alien to humanity. We swim in a world alive with the glory of God. It is either the hardening of our hearts through an over attachment to the lust of the eyes and flesh (which I would argue is not just due to individuals but also emanates in cultures), or the separation of God from the world through the intellect (again, also a cultural emanation as well). Staniloae’s whole cosmology is then quite different than many modern conceptions. There is no supreme gulf between humanity and God – in fact, in Staniloae’s understanding God is constantly present to us, it is the fault of our darkened hearts and weakened wills that we are unable to commune with him personally. We know this because we feel the pangs of regret (18) in our conscience and because we innately pursue meaning (15). We learn a lot about God through natural revelation but it is only through supernatural revelation that the truth of God and our end within Him is clear.

Staniloae’s characterization of Western theology as making natural theology bereft of God may seem odd to those on this side of the 20th century – but if we are aware of the nature and grace debates within Roman Catholic circles and of certain aspects of Lutheran and Reformed theology this characterization stands. I began with mentioning Karl Barth because of his notoriety for rejecting natural theology and the tone that this set for later 20th century theology (Protestant & Catholic (Von Balthasar). Staniloae is not afraid of natural theology because he does not see “natural theology” in the way that Barth and others do. Staniloae is aware of these debates and comes to them from a serious immersion in the fathers of East. Especially important here is St. Maximos the Confessor, who is mentioned multiple times within the second chapter. St. Maximus’s Christo-centric cosmology takes to heart the Pauline and Johannine ideas of Christ as Logos and Mediator and systematizes them in a magnificent way. The salvific economy of Jesus Christ is to come into the world and to raise it back into communion with the Triune God. As the Spirit rests upon the Son in eternity so the Spirit rests upon the Son in His actions for our salvation. The Son has plunged fully into the material world in taking upon himself human nature and has therefore, through the power of the Holy Spirit, confirmed and fully revealed the meaning of creation (35). Nature is not at odds with God but is the very material through which God communicates and communes. Let us not think of “nature” as those with the low-fi vision of scientism do. Rather, nature is creation – not inert matter ready to be poked, prodded and organized. Instead, it is ultimately to be consecrated, elevated, and consumed as our eucharist. Reality now has meaning, not plagued by death or fatigued by an abyss of meaninglessness, but is an eternal communion of love between humanity and God.

How could we dispense with natural theology if this is a key way in which God brings us up in the ways of our Lord? “…the revealed Christ remains and goes on working within creation, that is, he makes the entire revelation perpetually effective to lead believers towards union with himself and towards deification” (36).

On another front – I find it extremely interesting that Staniloae begins his dogmatics by discussing revelation. This fact seems to indicate that Staniloae is quite aware of modernity’s challenges while at the same time not capitulating to modernity’s terms. I mean specifically the modern desire to place an incredible weight on epistemology – how we know what we know – without addressing other issues – e.g. ontology – what is. Again, to bring Barth back into the conversation, we find in Barth’s theological trajectory an intense focus on God revealing God’s self in the face of historicism and modern skepticism. Barth’s move is to abdicate the world of any of God’s presence (at least the earlier Romerbrief Barth). It would then become necessary for T.F. Torrance (referencing Fr Aidan’s comment on Chapter 1) to bridge Barth’s lacunae. Let me quote it here:

I do not deny that there is a proper place for rational argumentation in what is traditionally known as ‘natural theology’, for I find it contradictory to operate with a deistic disjunction between God and the universe, which presupposes belief in the existence of God but assumes at the same time that he is utterly detached and unknowable. Genuine argumentation must take place within the active interrelation between God and the universe, and is argumentation in which theoretical and empirical components in knowledge operate inseparably together, much as they do in the indissoluble fusion of geometry and physics in a ‘relativistic’ understanding of the universe. This demands of us, doubtless, a proper natural theology in which form and content, method and subject-matter, are not torn apart–that is, not a ‘natural theology’ as an independent conceptual system, antecedent to actual or empirical knowledge of God upon which it is then imposed, quite unscientifically, as a set of necessary epistemological presuppositions! (Space, Time and Resurrection, p. 1)

It would also be the impetus as to why Sarah Coakley would argue that if Barth lived now he would not have rejected natural theology.

For Orthodox theology it would be impossible to be faithful to the faith of the Fathers and put aside some form of natural theology. Because of the challenge of scientism, atheism, nihilism, and our generally materialistic society Staniloae’s work is essential for modern Orthodox to engage with in order for us to be able to adequately engage with our challenges now. Or so it seems to me.

 

 

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Chapter four of Theology and the Church by Staniloae entitled “Revelation Through Acts, Words and Images” would be quite beneficial to read alongside these chapters on revelation here in the first volume of the dogmatics. 

The Experience of God Volume 1, Chapter 1

In the rather frenetic initial scenes of Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, Holmes holds Watson back from attacking Lord Blackwood, not so much for kindness to Blackwood but because of the glass spike protruding out from Blackwood’s hands that would have seriously hurt Watson if he had moved in any closer.  “Observe,” says Holmes as the spike comes into focus.  “How did you see that?” asks Watson.  Holmes responds, “Because I was looking for it.”

In a sense, this is similar to how Fr. Dimitru Stăniloae understands the idea of natural revelation.1  The imprint of God, who is the creator of the cosmos and the world in which we live (and us as well), is evident in all things.  As an Orthodox Christian whose understanding is that there really is no separation between natural and supernatural (or biblical) revelation, God’s creative act is everywhere revealed.  We see it because we know to look for it. [p. 1]

Fr. Stăniloae presents natural revelation in a sort of hierarchy.  First there is the cosmos and all within it, including the world in which we live.  It is rational (meaning, as I understand it, able to be understood and adapted), because it created by the conscious Reason, and so naturally it bears the marks of the One that created it.  Alongside the cosmos there is humanity, which, like the cosmos is rational.  Unlike the cosmos, however, humanity is able to know its own nature.  This means that humanity is superior to, or at a higher level than, the cosmos. [p. 3-4]

Both the cosmos and humanity are at a lower level, however, than the One who created both.  A hierarchy is presented then, where the cosmos are at the lowest level, then man, then God.

As Fr. Stăniloae presents the Orthodox understanding of natural revelation, humanity is tasked with the responsibility of transforming the world — adapting it and learning about it, because in discovering more about the world, man learns more about himself.  Ultimately, however, this brings about the question of meaning: what’s the point of all of this and what is humanity’s ultimate destination?  Learning more about self, learning more about the world, would be rather pointless, circular and dead-ended if that’s all there was.  Questions about meaning and reason inevitably lead to questions about eternity and also to the One who created everything.  And this is where exploration and understanding of the Personal Reality (the One who created everything) moves beyond the simple discovery or uncovering of the effects of His creative act to a much more personal and relational association between God and His creation, man.

In this world, man embarks on a continuous quest for meaning, never really reaching any kind of satisfactory conclusion.  This lack of conclusion creates a yearning in man, a desire in his heart for ultimate meaning.   This quest for meaning is only fulfilled when man participates fully and eternally in the infinity of the supreme Personal reality (God – the eternal participation we would call theosis.) [cf. p. 11].

Evident throughout this chapter is the dominance of the thought of Saint Maximos the Confessor, especially in several passages of the  Ambigua.  Many references with respect the relationship between God and His creation, and the revelation of God by analogy within the creation can be found there.2

Ultimately, this chapter can be summarized thus: God created man and the cosmos.  The cosmos is intelligible and can be transformed by man.  Man has the same rationality but also is endowed with freedom, conscience and reason, putting him at a higher level than the cosmos.  Man is on a quest for meaning, and God’s creative act is detectable in both the cosmos and man himself.  Man’s quest for meaning leads to ultimate questions of eternity and the One who exists beyond (at a higher level than) either the cosmos or man.  This then leads to a yearning for the eternal relationship with God, who is Personal Reality.  Ending with the beginning, God is so evident in the cosmos and man that there is really no distinguishing between what is naturally revealed and what is supernaturally revealed.

 

 

 

 

 


ENDNOTES

1 Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae, The Experience of God, Volume 1. (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994).  All references will be quoted in the text of this study.

2 An excursus on the text found in the Ambigua of St. Maximos will be forthcoming and linked here.  Likewise, some thoughts on the idea of Analogia Entis, unless someone beats me to it.

Dumitru Stăniloae

dsThere are few Orthodox scholars who match the level of respect, the breadth of perspective or the intellectual depth of Romanian priest, scholar and theologian Dumitru Stăniloae.  His life stands out because like many Romanian priests and scholars, he was persecuted to the point of imprisonment, intimidation and physical abuse.  Yet despite the abuses endured, he was a prolific writer, authoring commentaries, many periodical articles, a highly augmented rendering of the Philokalia in Romanian, and, key to our concerns at present, an Orthodox “dogmatic theology” (Teologia dogmatică ortodoxă).

Fr. Dumitru, though thoroughly Orthodox in his theology and fully patristic in his approach, did not limit the scope of his studies to only Orthodox writers, or only writers from the first seven or eight centuries of the Church.  He read Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner and Hans Küng.  Likewise he was familiar with earlier “western” saints like Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine and St. Vincent of Lérins, as well as the modern Orthodox thinkers like Lossky, Evdokimov and Yannaris.

What better a starting place, then, for a collection of people seeking points of commonality between eastern and western Christianity than a man who arguably is the preeminent Orthodox scholar of the 20th century?  a man who earned the respect of both east and west?

With all of this in mind, let the journey begin.