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

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.