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

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.