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

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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.

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.

THE EXPERIENCE OF GOD VOLUME 1, CHAPTER 2

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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.

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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.