The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church

Gods’ Image and The Church

Two concepts in Chapter Six of Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church:

Firstly, that the image of God can be considered one of two things: As liberty, or free will, which cannot be destroyed by sin; Or as communion with God. St Gregory of Nyssa speaks of this first consideration: ‘he is freed from necessity, and not subject to the domination of nature, but able freely to follow his own judgement. For virtue is independent and her own mistress.’, and freedom is a necessity for the attainment of perfect cooperation with God.  This concept of the image of God as free will ties into the concepts in the previous chapter.

Secondly, that this image of God applies to the whole of humanity,  not to a single person, much in the same way that the God is the whole of God, not  each person of the Trinity. The divine image is applied to the whole of mankind; it is one common nature to all men, parceled out to each of us, split up, imperfect. Unity between men, therefore, is necessary for us to be remade in Gods’ image: Hence why the church is considered a body. We have one nature, but many persons.

I find this difficult; not in concept, but in practice. I feel strongly that God created us in diversity, so in which sense our divine image is only in unity, and in which sense our individuality is something created and to be considered a portion of that image, I find difficult. Lossky specifically speaks of ‘the person who asserts himself as an individual, and shuts himself up in the limits of his particular nature, far from realising himself fully becomes impoverished. It is only in renouncing its own possession and giving itself freely, in ceasing to exist for itself that the person finds full expression in the one nature common to all.’

I know the key here is ‘in ceasing to exist for itself’, but at what point does ones god given passions, skills and desires need be subsumed in this cessation of selfish living? Consider the theologian, God-gifted with intellect and a passion for deeper thought: These things are natural to him – should they be subsumed in the pursuit of unity?

I don’t know the answer. But I think the concept of a shared nature between all men is a unique argument for the body of the Church.

The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church

Creation and Purpose

The fifth chapter of Lossky’s ‘Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church’ takes a sharp turn now, to the topic of cosmology. More specifically, an initially dry chapter on the nature of creation ex nihilo (interestingly noting that the first mention of creation ex nihilo is in 2 Maccabees 7:28, an apocryphal book), turns into a fascinating one on the nature of humanity, and it’s relation to ecclesiology.

The first interesting point, is on the nothingness of creation, and in particular those very special created, humanity:

“All creatures are balanced upon the creative word of God, as if upon a bridge of diamond; above them is the abyss of the divine infinitude, below them that of their own nothingness.”

As we were created from nothing, we are stretched between two extremes; the overwhelming allness of God, and the nothingness from which we came. A humbling concept indeed. But how were we created? The Eastern Church has a concept, ‘thought-will’, to describe what exactly God does to create us: We are more than just the imagination (a thought) of God, but are intention. And these intentions, these ideas, are no the same thing as our selves: In the same way the image of a work in a craftsmans’ mind is not the same as the work itself, even though the work is a physical manifestation of that image. There is ourselves. And God’s idea of ourselves.

We are called therefore to cooperate with God in finishing his creation (us); a agreement between our wills and the thought-will of God. One could say that creation is an uncompleted perfection, and our cooperation with God is necessary for its completion. Whilst Lossky does not go on to speak of our role in ‘finishing Gods’ creation’ outside of ourselves – our role in stewardship of the universe, creation of art, etc. – I feel like this too, is part of our cooperation with God necessary for the completion of creation.

A problem them: What is the will of God? Incomprehensible, that’s what. (We’re reading  a book that is about the mystical theology of the Eastern Church) However, a working definition is that whatever that will is, it is the point of contact between the infinite (God) and the finite (us); and every created thing has a point of contact – a relationship, a will or an intention – with God; and these intentions are all contained within the Logos, the first principle and final end of all things.

All of this means that any distinctions we try to make between first states (of creation as a whole, or of our personal experiences) and what is conferred upon us by an ever increasing participation in Gods’ intention is somewhat fictitious: That intention is our point of contact with God, and it is present from beginning to end. It is only the conversation between our will and Gods’ that matters. That conversation was the entire point of our creation; it is what brings creation to completeness.

The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church

Trinity and theosis

The problem is that, if I was to achieve theosis, unity with God, at the moment I was united with God, participating in His essence and nature, God would no longer be Trinity, but rather a God of as many hypostases as people participating in his essence?

So, if I were to believe both doctrines of  theosis and Trinity, I would have to recognise that in God there are further distinctions apart from between the Trinity; there is that part of God which is accessible to us, and that part of God which is inaccessible. That with which we can have union, and that with which we cannot. 

Lossky in his fourth chapter of Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, turns to this conundrum, and separates God into his essence and persons, which are ‘totally inaccessible, unknowable, and incommunicable’, and his energies, through which he ‘manifests, communicates, and gives of Himself’. To break it down:

  1. The Energies are ineffably distinct from the Essence.
  2. This distinction is how the Trinity can remain incommunicable but at the same time come and dwell within us.
  3.  The union to which we are called is neither hypostatic (as in Christs’ human nature) or in the sharing of substance (as in the Trinity), but through His energies, and therefore without our essence becoming thereby the essence of God.
  4. Hence, in deification we are (by grace or in the divine energies) all that God is by nature, save by his substance (His identity of nature).

Why must God remain inaccessible, or incommunicable? Well, Etienne Gilson expresses the principle: “Lower even if only for an instant and at a single point, the barrier between God and man which is created by the contingency of being, and you have deprived the Christian mystic of his God, and thus of his mysticism itself.” That is to say, to allow God to be accessible or communicable, would be to allow a God that could be understood and accessed by our own minds and our knowledge; for us to surpass that, to become deified, requires a goal (and a God) that is beyond our understanding.

It is important also to identify the barrier Gilson mentions as created by the contingency of being, as opposed to the revelation I’ve discussed previously: The barrier is between the created and the creator, and definitive, rather than between the revealer and the revealed, and intentional. 

So to finish, a summary by St Maximus, less thorough, but more poetic: “God has created us in order that we may become partakers of the divine nature, in order that we may enter into eternity, and that we may appear like unto Him, being deified by that grace out of which all things exist have come, and which brings into existence everything that before had no existence.”

The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church

Is revelation an intentional barrier?

In Chapter Three of The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Lossky says this:

“Revelation sets an abyss between the truth which it declares and the truths which can be discovered by philosophical speculation. If human thought guided by the instinct for truth – which is faith, though confused and uncertain – could, apart form Christianity, grope its way towards certain notions that approximated to the Trinity, the mystery of God in Trinity remains inscrutable to it.”

I haven’t spend much time on the concept of revelation; I will have to come back to this. However, this seems to put intention in the barrier between God and mankind. 

I find this difficult. Now, perhaps he is saying that without mystical intention I could not approach the mystery of the Trinity, however, I do not understand why any human, set apart from all others, could not, guided by the instinct for truth, grope its way to the mystery of God in Trinity.

And if it is a question of revelation – if God has set a barrier between us and our understanding of his mysteries, and only he can part this veil, what is the purpose of mystical theology? A gesture? Unless my understanding of revelation is different (and, as I said, I have no theology of revelation) than that of Lossky, this paragraph is insurmountable.

To me this is an intentional gnostic barrier between God and man. We should need no special knowledge to see across this abyss.

The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church

A little on the Trinity

I’m continuing to work through Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Chapter three focuses on the Trinity. This is a long chapter, it goes on tangents regarding the filioque, and it reiterates what seems to me to be the same themes quite strongly. The basic concepts:

  1. God is both unity and trinity.
  2. This is important because it is the most perfect and true example of how God is incomprehensible.
  3. A perfect understanding of this mystery can be found only mystically and not in understanding
  4. Understanding this mystery is a section (or perhaps the whole, and all else is a section) of the path leading to theosis.

Some of this is basic trinitarian concepts: God is both unity and trinity, and the differences between the three persons are only in their origin (that is, procession, begotten, unbegotten), and that none of this is supposed to make sense. Even the difference of the filioque is of definition of this – the East believe that each person has its own origin, where the que would contradict this, giving Son and Holy Spirit an inferior position to the Father, which, as Nazanzien suggests, “the lowering of those who are from him is no glory to the source”.

The Trinity, to Lossky, is the ‘unshakable foundation of all religious thought, of all piety, of all spiritual life, of all experience’, for in seeking the Trinity, we are seeking something that we do not understand and that we cannot understand with our own minds; it is the driver of Christians from a speculative theology to a mystical theology. In this way, he suggests that the Trinity is a cross for human thought, where we sacrifice our understanding before God; the apophatic ascent is hence in his mind a type of ascension up Calvary to the Cross.

This is obviously a simplification of something very complex and well defended. In its most complex form (as I feel about most complex forms), I find these concepts hypocritical and obtuse. At their simplest, I find them appealing, hence why I bullet-pointed them above. There is enough contradiction in the Good Book, in the Church Fathers, in the theologies of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and in reality, that mystery as a central dogma of the church – the solution, rather than a problem,is something that I feel is necessary in a true understanding of the message of Christianity.

The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church

The impossibility of knowledge of God

This week I’m reading Vladimir Lossky’s ‘The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church’. It’s very dense, and Eastern theology is very different and difficult to summarise. I’ll do my best. I’ve read the first two chapters so far, but had to let the percolate and then had to re-read them. These first two chapters are about how theology works and to a greater extent a continuation on the topic of the nature of God.

Unlike gnostic theology (considered a heresy), which makes the object of Christianity knowledge of God, for Christians, theology is a means and not an end. In eastern Christianity, it’s specifically Theosis or union with God. As Athanasius said, “God became Man so that men might become gods”. Christian theory hence should have an immediate practical significance – it shouldn’t simply be added to the storehouse of what you understand and can explain. Each nugget of theology should raise the question, ‘why does this matter?’

Deification is not something familiar to western Christians, and it can be considered a proud and idolatrous belief. I disagree, however – I think it brings an intimacy to Christianity often lacking. We were made in the image of God, and the purpose of Gods’ actions is to bring us back to that: gods with a lowercase c.

What kind of knowledge has brings this practical significance? Lossky turns to apophatic or negative theology.

Positive theology is the method we use to build our understanding of God: God is loving. God is omnipotent. God is righteous. God is good. But these are all human qualities and relationships. But God is defined in this theology as incomprehensible. Any description we make of him will by its very nature be insufficient and inferior to him. It will give us an imperfect knowledge of him. And so, the labels we ascribe to God are but aspects and energies that approach us but do not draw us closer to him. “The only name by which the divine nature can be expressed is the wonder which seizes the soul when it thinks of God.”

To achieve union with him – theosis – we can still contemplate God: By describing what he is not, and through this, being drawn closer to what he is. This is a mystical theology, not a intellectual one. An attitude of the mind which refuses to form concepts about God, exluding all abstract intellectual theology that would adapt our image of God to the shape of human thought.

This type of theology never works through concepts, but instead is contemplative, raising the mind to realities that surpass all understanding. This divine darkness, this focus on things outside our own comprehension, is our goal. “He made darkness his secret place” and it is our goal to enter into it.