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.

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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.

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