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.
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.
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.