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.







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.

15 Replies to “The Experience of God Volume 1, Chapter 1”

  1. Thank you, Fr Kevin, for your introduction to chap. 1.

    The element of this chapter that jumped out at me is Staniloae’s thesis that man is the consciousness of the world. Only man can apprehend the intelligibility of the world and by this apprehension bring the world into himself. Staniloae thus concludes that the world exists for man: “The fact that the world is understood within man and for man and through man shows that the world exists for man, not man for the world” (p. 3).

    Man needs the world, for it is through the conscious experiencing of the world that he comes to know himself, yet man’s superiority is demonstrated by the fact that the world is unaware of man’s need.

    I imagine that Staniloae will later develop this line of thought in terms of humanity’s priestly service to God.

    Initial response: given present ecological awareness, Staniloae’s presentation seems one-sided. There is no mention of man’s responsibilities to the world and his stewardship of the world. Perhaps he’ll talk about this in volume 2.

    1. Hello Fr. Aidan,
      Yes, I wondered about all of that, too. One of the questions I have about this chapter is the timing of it. I am not sure exactly when it was written, but I suspect that the ecological concerns you raised are more of a concern now than they were at the time he wrote this first volume.

      I was also surprised by his optimism about man’s relationship to the world. Sure, man can transform the world in good ways, but bad ways are also as evident in the world today. Here I think a strong emphasis on Orthodox anthropology is needed — man can transform the world but it must be done so in a synergistic manner that is always mindful of the One who created everything and is engaged in a dynamic and personal relationship with us.

  2. In this chapter Staniloae announces his personalist commitments. As far as I can tell, he does not tell us what “person” means (did I miss it?). I am tempted to say that a person is a conscious being who seeks meaning, but that only works for created beings.

    Any ideas?

  3. The role of nature, reasoning, and personhood in Staniloae’s first chapter are interesting for a few reasons to me. First, they resonate with the broader theological developments in the East and West (this chapter could be seen as something contributing to the debates around de Lubac, no?). He is also sounding somewhat like Zizioulas (I still havent read ALL of Zizi) – but his focus on Nature makes me see Staniloae in a different light.

    Is Zizioulas more Kantian and Staniloae more Hegelian? What do I mean? Zizioulas’ focus on personhood and ontology seem to vitiate discussions of what the connection between nature and person are. Am I off base here? (perhaps the Kantian nod is off base). Staniloae’s concern for history, development, etc. seems to be rooted in a bit of a different intellectual tradition than Zizioulas. Perhaps more Hegel / Marxist / Hermeneutics?

    Let me explain further. Zizioulas’ (Zizi) personalism seems divorced from the context of nature – he seems to pry personhood so far outside of nature (as transcending it) that it becomes void of a “nature”. I say Kant – because Kant’s project – as I understand it – is more idealist as opposed to Hegel’s philosophy of history. In other words, Kant is concerned with structures of knowing and the limits of knowing, while Hegel is concerned with the flow of history and how everything works together. Obviously this is a very contrived summary – but I do think the general tenor of difference can be seen. Hegel is concerned with freedom as mediated through institutions (family / government). Kant seems to option more for an unmediated freedom. (Please – anyone more well versed in these matters correct me).

    Staniloae’s concern for nature, human work, and such leads me to think that he has some incredibly insights to share that are currently not the topic of much discussion in Orthodox circles. We seem focused mostly on “mystical experience” and not as much on our life in the world (think about the popularity of Neo-Hesychasm or Neo-Palamite theology). This is not to say that Neo-Palamite theology is off base, as much as it is to say that it can become overwhelming for those who live in the world and not in monasteries.

    If I am wrong about the above – quite alright. I do want to mention those things because of the somewhat common desire to pit East vs. West. Unless Yannaras, Zizioulas, Staniloae, and others are all just modernist heretics – we’ve got to deal with their influences and what they’re reading. (This is just as true for the Slavophiles and others.)

    Second, Staniloae’s focus on these issues are ripe for setting the stage for dealing with the vast problems we face today. The issues Staniloae faced are not at all different from the ones we face. I would argue though that today we face them with a heightened degree of intensity. Those issues? Scientism, materialism, nihilism. Scientism has recently made a huge upsurge (though it does seem in the light of certain “postmodern” trends that scientism is either heightened or actually derailed due to contemporary disregard for “truth” “metanarrative” etc.). Materialism’s hold on our culture has certainly lead to the scientism and the overwhelming nihilism now prevalent.

    The search for meaning, the goodness of reality, and the meaningfulness of our life of struggle. Isn’t “personalism” just a new term for the reality of the human soul?

    It seems to me that today we live in a world just like the one Augustine lived in – think of the Confessions – he is raised by a Christian mother, yet he is convinced of materialism. He embraces a life of rhetoric – of flourishment, poise, and power. He embraces some form of decadence. It is only in encountering the life and words of St. Ambrose that he is exposed to something else. It seems to me that we need to be the St. Monica – longsuffering and prayerful. We also need to be St. Ambrose – studious, convincing, and astute.

    Something that I think I have found lacking in contemporary Orthodox theology is focusing on these root problems and converting them into a language which modern ears are desirous of hearing. It is not candy coating the truth, it is rather looking at the range of problems we face and articulating the truth of creation as seen in the face of Jesus Christ. Isn’t that good news? Isn’t this why we need now, perhaps more than ever, to delve into the spirit of St. Maximus, which Staniloae is channeling here, and articulate the love and providence of God for all of the cosmos?

    1. dear Daniel very good comment. Some further reflection. Zizioulas uses the dialectic nature vs personhood, downplaying nature even if recently try to be more balanced distinguishing between created and U created nature mire explicitly. On the other hand ther us a problem for me about the importance given to natural revelation. Doing orthodox theology one should strictly start from revelation in history. I think there is a problem there in staniloae and others

        1. I think the concern is that natural revelation should be secondary to supernatural revelation, that “implied” theological speculations would be secondary to empirical, observed, historical revelations. By putting natural revelation in the logically antecedent position in his dogmatics, he is giving it an implied priority. Is that correct?

          If so, I would only point out that Fr. Stăniloae is quick to point out that we really make no distinction between natural and supernatural revelation. I think that means you cannot conceive of the one without the other. So natural revelation has as its basis that which is the Source of it and also supernatural revelation. It’s why I included that movie reference. Natural revelation is seen as such only because, foundationally, we know what we are looking at.

          Daniel, to what are you referring when you mention nationalism?

          Thank you both for the comments. If I am confused, Nikolas, please help me better understand your comments.

  4. Hi,

    Could you unpack some of your thoughts a little more? For example, I am not sure what you mean about the discussions around de Lubac. What are these discussions and how does Fr. Staniloae fit into them?

    I wonder how Fr. Staniloae’s influences and his trajectories will come out as the book continues. There are some very interesting threads in what has been said in this chapter: the optimism of human interaction with the cosmos, the idea of revelation by analogy to name a few. Ultimately, I look forward to his engaging the west from a decidedly Orthodox point of view.

    1. Sure FrKevin – Henri de Lubac was a Roman Catholic theologian of the early-mid 20th century. He was the teacher of Hans urs von Balthasar (who we are hopefully going to be reading here) – and became embroiled in a debate within Catholic circles between the relationship between nature and grace. de Lubac argued that humans have a natural desire for God as opposed to the more structured scholastic form of Thomism dominate at the time which argued that there is not a link between nature and grace but that grace is added to nature in order to save humanity. Thats how I would briefly describe it.

      Staniloae, it would seem, would agree with de Lubac and argue that the entire cosmos is always already graced to some degree because God created it and is redeeming it.

      For further reading on de Lubac ( & ( If you want to go further (

      1. This link to the article about Yannaris, Staniloae, and Maximus is very interesting because, though I am not very steeped in Orthodox theology, I was sensing an engagement with Barth, Heidegger, and Yannaris.

        When Staniloae talks about God’s “divine act,” I hear Barth saying that God is only ever known in his act. What I have found particularly beautiful, and what was already mentioned, was the breaking down the divide between natural and supernatural revelation. From the first sentence of this work we set a wholly new course from the Bartian universe.

        Heidegger was obviously very influential to continental philosophers and theologians during this time and so when I read “as the only being in the world conscious of itself, we are, at the same time, the consciousness of the world” [3] I hear, as might Yannaris, Heidegger explaining how Dasein is the only being conscious of its beingness.

        While not well formulated, would this be an errant reading, here?

  5. I appreciate Staniloae’s recognition that there is such a thing as natural revelation (though it’s still unclear to me at this point what he means by this) and I appreciate his insistence upon the unity of natural and supernatural revelation. I wonder what he thought about Karl Barth’s rejection of natural theology and the analogy of being.

    I wonder if we might want to pull Thomas F. Torrance into this conversation. Torrance approved of Barth’s insistence upon the priority of divine revelation, but he also “corrected” Barth on this point:

    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)

  6. I know Staniloae was familiar with Barth. I am not sure that Staniloae was all that concerned with Barth’s dismissal of natural theology. I am not sure we should be all that concerned with Barth’s dismissal. That is one of the questions that we may want to answer.

    Analogia entis was one of the concerns that gave rise to this discussion group. There are others, but a healthy understanding of analogia entis (and not a tacit dismissal of same) might be stated as one of the goals of this group. I do think we will tackle Dr. Barth at some point.

    So what is natural revelation according to Fr. Staniloae? I would say that it is everything the God created, human or otherwise. Two people standing side by side can see the same thing, one seeing God everywhere, the other seeing God nowhere. How does the former person see God? Because through familiarity, through being introduced to supernatural revelation, through their own direct revelatory experience, they have learned what to look for. So I would argue that an awareness of supernatural revelation is beneficial (though maybe not necessary), because it trains the observer to know what to look for in terms of God’s action in the created world.

    I am not sure this answers your question, but I hope it does….

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