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


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.

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