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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Introduction

Evil and the Nature of God

I picked up ‘The God I Don’t Understand’ by Chris J.H. Wright immediately after I finished my last post and the opening section on evil speaks directly regarding Gods’ personality, as I began speaking about then. This is based on the first section of that book, and my own responses.

If I, as most Christians, believe that there is one God, creator of all, who is good, loving and omnipotent (or sovereign, as Wright calls it – a similar concept, focusing on the fact that he is in control of all), then evil is a massive problem. Either God is omnipotent, so he could end all suffering and evil, but since he obviously chooses not to, he cannot be loving, or God is loving, but he cannot end all suffering and evil despite the fact that he would choose to, so he cannot be omnipotent.

I find that Wrights’ interpretation edges around this issue, as does the bible itself (although I’ll have to seek that out more). They ignore it, choosing instead to focus on it as a mystery. I’m happy with mysteries (Christianity is difficult to manage without tolerance for mystery), but when a mystery acts to conceals a part of the very nature of God himself, I don’t feel that dismissing a question as unanswerable is an acceptable solution.

To Wright, the bible affirms both that God is sovereign and that he is loving. More so, he separates evil into two broad categories: Moral (that caused by man and the sin of man) and Natural (the predation of animals and natural disasters).  I can agree that Genesis in chapter 3 and Job 24:1-12, and the bible as a whole, address Moral evil to an appropriate degree. More specifically, for God to do justice to all moral sin would do harm to all, as this evil is something that can be laid at the feet of man. I don’t find Moral evil problematic at all: This is the purpose of the cross (Wright attributes a summary of this to Acts 2:22-24 and 36-38).

Natural evil – evil without cause or reason – is Gods’ responsibility and therefore does pose a problem. Wright answers this initially with a comment that equates to “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, that is, he imagines God telling us how we can judge him for letting earthquakes occur when we allow, for example, people to starve while we feast.  But this edges around the issue as well – it’s not an answer to the theological problem, because if we were all sinless, this natural evil would still exist.  He then goes on to interpret the lack of an answer to this problem as Gods’ choice: “God has chosen not to explain the origin of evil, but rather wants to concentrate our attention on what he has done to defeat and destroy it.” True to the text, but an unsatisfactory answer to a mystery that speaks to the nature of God.

Wright addresses a few ways to answer the question of Natural evil: It could be a curse, related to the original fall, putting it in the same basket as moral evil. But it’s less of a stretch to interpret the text of Genesis as talking of our relationship to the earth, rather than the transformation of the earth itself into something evil. And God chose to curse us, therefore this just pushes the problem deeper into a set of theological matryoshkas. It could be Gods’ judgement. The bible shows God using nature in this way, but it does not follow that God uses all nature or every disaster as a judgement on somebody; John 9:1-3 speaks of this fallacy: “As he passed by, [Christ] saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned,this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” To think otherwise grants that God is a spiteful and vengeful creature, even as he asks us to forgive our enemies and their sins. There may be further possibilities here.

But to me the point is that there is no answer to this question, not with strong theological grounds. The Cross conquered evil, but it does not absolve God of evils’ existence in the first place.  I feel that the answer you have to this question is an intensely personal one, and one, as I said in a previous post, that you make well before you ever read the theology; the answer is a reflection of how you were brought up, your life, your choices, your culture. These things inform the God you want to worship.

Either you are a person who chooses to worship a God who loves, or you are a person who chooses to worship a God who is sovereign. 

Both of these are biblical, supportable, theologically sound views. I don’t think God would judge anyone for believing one or the other. But they have repercussions on every other belief in your system, and, to me at least, only one of them is a God I’d choose to believe in.

I choose love.

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Introduction

Who God Is

This post is going to need a lot  of revising, because it feels ridiculous to leave my last post without a follow up, but at this moment I want to briefly continue:

To me, I believe that Gods’ defining quality is love.

Other people disagree with me. I think that there is plenty of biblical and historical evidence that they are right and that I am wrong.

There is also plenty of biblical and historical evidence that I am right and they are wrong, and if there are two contradictory pieces of evidence, I choose to believe that Gods’ defining quality is love, not wrath, violence, discrimination, omnipotence, or whatever.

Therefore, Gods’ love is the context in which I choose to interpret my faith. This is important, because so much else for my faith depends on this, and so much of how I understand other peoples’ (at least Christians’) faiths rely on the principle that they choose to interpret their scripture, theology, history and policy in a different light.

This requires a lot of unpacking, and I don’t intend on unpacking it any time soon, because that wasn’t the plan with this project. I’ll come back to it, I promise.

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Introduction

Context

An important concept to me is context.

I’m chatting to a good friend Ben. He recently married a beautiful woman named Jenna, whom he loves very much, and he says, I could just kill Jenna, after telling me of how she repeatedly leaves dirty dishes around the house. Am I concerned for Jenna’s safety?

I’m chatting to Harry, someone I barely know, but I know from his case file that he has a history of domestic violence. He says about his wife, I could just kill Sarah, after telling me about the affair he thinks she’s been having. Am I concerned for Sarah’s safety?

I feel most of us would reply no to the first scenario, and yes to the second. We judge what they say, according to the personalities and histories of the men in question. This is context. If I found out that Ben had been accused of murdering Jenna, I would have serious doubts, because that act contradicts his history and personality.

The most important context to me for the purpose of my faith is Gods’ personality. We judge what we read in the bible, what we read in other theological texts, and what we see in the world, according to the personality and history of God.

This means that when reading these things, I both have to consider what they are telling me and also how that matches with Gods’ personality and history

Which means I need to have a clear concept of who God is.

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