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.

Memory Eternal!

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 5.11.51 PMThere is a group that I chat with frequently.  It consists of several priests and a layperson, three intellectuals and one wannabe (that would be me).  We talk about topics far-ranging and fascinating, from patristics to theology to musical tastes to some of the best poetry known to man (I admit, they lose me there…).  Last Friday, after the rest of the gang went off to bed, a discussion was continued between two of us about the need to revisit the Orthodox funeral service.  I’m not going to get into details, but the main point was that there should be less emphasis on being food for worms and a greater emphasis on resurrection, and the new heaven and the new earth – the major points of emphasis found in the New Testament, but not so clear in the Orthodox funeral service.

My partner in conversation was Fr. Matthew Baker.  How sadly ironic that eight days after our discussion that service will be said for him.

I had only known Fr. Matthew for half a year.  He and I were introduced through mutual friends and through a mutual interest in many things: Maximos the Confessor, T. F. Torrance, Kate Bush and beer to name a few.  Intellectually, I was nowhere near his equal.  He pushed me, but I never felt that he was condescending.  And as soon as we were introduced, every conversation was full-bore.  We were friends, brothers, and concelebrants.  He asked me to read a particularly challenging chapter of his dissertation, which I did but honestly quickly found myself wondering if I was going to be able to help him in any way.  His thoughts were complicated, his thesis rather groundbreaking.  Yet I did what I could to be of aid, making a few comments that were really more surface-level rather than anything more incisive.  We both promised to revisit that chapter in the near future.

He asked me to come visit him when I was going to be in Boston for our National Convention in July, maybe serve a liturgy together.  I asked him to come to Pittsburgh and visit us for whatever reason he could think up.  I dearly wanted him to come to Pittsburgh and talk to us, the Orthodox clergy and laity.  We needed to hear what he had to say.  But honestly all I wanted to do is have a beer and hang out with a friend.

Our last conversation included a request to exchange phone numbers so that we could talk as opposed to being locked behind a keyboard.  I valued his intellect, his enthusiasm, his compassion so much, he respected my years of experience as a parish priest and my ways of ministering to the flock with which I was entrusted.  Yes, that very last conversation actually said we need to converse more.  Some forty hours later he was gone.

It is still hard to come to terms with his passing.  It will be made real when I’m up at midnight or so and looking for a conversation partner to spend some time in conversation.  Then the silence will serve to remind me.

Yet out of this tragedy some good appears, like a crocus poking though a late spring snow.  The generosity shown to the Baker clan though this site and now this one shows the depth of compassion of their Internet “family” and also the depth of love and friendship people have for Father Matthew and for his family.  Thank God.

And then there are those of us who, with strengthened purpose, wish to carry on his legacy.  His concerns will now become part of our own.  His love of the faith and his scholarship will become a part of the work that we do, and may we be worthy inheritors of the same.

Memory eternal, the Presbyter Matthew:  my friend, my brother and my concelebrant.

Memory Eternal Fr. Matthew Baker

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The loss of Fr Matthew Baker to our small Fellowship is inestimable. He was for me, personally, one of the great hopes for articulating the theological vision that we try to articulate here at the Fellowship. He was also one of my closest friends. His scholarship, priesthood, and friendship will be missed by us. More importantly he will be missed by his wonderful widow and his incredible children. Our Church has suffered greatly in losing this incredible man.

Please join us in mourning him and praying for the repose of his soul.

Please if you can help his family with a monetary donation.

Who Fr Matthew was has been captured very well in Fr. Andrew’s post here, “We need more Spiritual Brothers” and by Heirodeacon Herman here, “The Life of Fr. Matthew Baker is a Triumph of Orthodoxy“.

We have an incredible inheritance to live up to in the work that Fr. Matthew left for us. Let us be found worthy of this calling.