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.

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