Archive for July, 2010

Intellective Negations

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

The practical steps you have taken in an effort to master yourself make good sense. It is inevitable, however, that the new resolve and determination with which you are attempting to deal with your sins—and which, let me emphasize, I unreservedly applaud and encourage—will create their own tensions. Hence the anxiety, self-absorption, and “negative emotions” you speak of.

Something of a spiritual balancing act is going to be necessary: you must continue to exert your will and to work very hard to counter tempting thoughts with the Name, never letting down your guard, but at the same time you need to remember that the ego cannot finally defeat the ego. A prideful desire for perfection and a passionate desire for pleasure are two sides of one coin, and the first is considerably more dangerous than the second, as we can see of course in Christ’s condemnation of the Pharisees.

I am reminded of the following from Schuon:

“The great Gospel virtues—charity, humility, poverty, childlikeness—have their final end in the ‘Self’: they represent so many negations of that ontological tumescence which is the ego, negations that are not individualistic and thereby contradictory, but intellective, that is, taking their point of departure within the Self as such in conformity with the profound nature of things” (Gnosis: Divine Wisdom, p. 62).

Schuon inserts a footnote—and it is this I remembered—after the word “contradictory”:

“A guilt complex and a compulsion of humility are the commonest expressions of this contradiction. An attitude is false to the extent that it runs counter to truth; true humility, the kind that is most efficacious, is an impersonal ‘non-pride’, which remains independent of the alternative ‘humiliation-flattery’ and avoids all unhealthy preoccupation with the ‘I’. The fundamental virtues are centered in God, not in man.”

Cataphatic Apophaticism

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

You mention the distinction in the writings of St Gregory Palamas—and other Fathers—between God’s essence, His person (hypostasis), and His energies, and you propose that the essence should be treated apophatically since it is imparticipable while the energies are cataphatic inasmuch as the deified man is enabled to share in them. I think I would sort things out somewhat differently.

In the technical terminology of the Christian East, essence is an answer to the question “what?” or “what kind?” Hypostasis is an answer to the question “who?” or, in the case of inanimate objects, “which one?” And energy is an answer to the question “how?” or “in what way?”—that is, in what way does the person or thing in question act? It seems to me that God should be regarded a priori as radically different from us in all three of these respects—essentially, hypostatically, and energetically—which is tantamount to saying that the apophatic perspective must be applied in response to each of these questions and thus on each of these levels.

God’s essence, unlike ours, is distinguished by what the late Latin scholastics called aseitas, which means that He is “from Himself” alone, though even this is misleading, for in fact His essence is supra-essential and thus “beyond-even-being” (hyperousia), hence subject to no category or condition, even that of aseity. As for His tri-hypostatic “who-ness” or personhood, it too is utterly unlike our own: not only is it three-fold, though without being numerically multiple; it also serves as its own predicate: “I am that I am.” When asked, “Who is there?”, we can also say “I am”, of course, but in our case the “I” is the subjective modality of a particular nature, namely the nature of man: “I am … a rational animal, etc.” Finally, God’s energies are uncreated, whereas ours are created; we can (and must) act by continuously replenishing ourselves from a source outside us, whereas He contains in Himself an infinite and inexhaustible fountain.

On the other hand—and here we come to the central Mystery of the Gospel—what God is by nature we are meant to become by grace. “God became man that man might become God” (Saint Athanasius); “man is a creature under orders to be God” (Saint Basil the Great). It is worth noting that the Biblical locus classicus for the Orthodox doctrine of deification—2 Peter 1:4—does not say that we are to become “partakers” of the divine “energies” only, but of the divine “nature” as such. Needless to say, the Apostle had no pressing philosophical or theological need to spit as many hairs as the Hierarchical Hagiorite, and it would therefore be a mistake to make too much of a single word. Even so, you will surely agree that the “nature” (physis) of this passage is a good bit closer to “essence” (ousia) than to “energy” (energeia).

This being so, we are justified a posteriori (that is, “after” the non-temporal fact of Christ’s salvific work) in thinking that we are like God in all three respects—essentially, hypostatically, and energetically—which is tantamount to saying that the cataphatic perspective can be applied in response to each of the questions above and thus on each of the corresponding levels. In the final analysis, the only thing that truly is is the divine essence; whatever is not it is not, and this means that inasmuch as we are, we must share in that essence. Similarly, on the relatively absolute level of person, the only one who can truly say “I am …” is the One who can rightly add “… that I am”; insofar as I can legitimately claim to be a “who”, I therefore have no choice but to speak and act as God’s I. As for the energies, obviously anything worthy of being given this label must finally be uncreated, which is why Saint Gregory can say that the deified man, though made from “what is not”, “becomes uncreated” (The Triads).

This analysis—freely admitting that not all the i’s have been dotted nor all the t’s crossed—amounts to an Orthodox Christian application of the following metaphysical observation of Schuon’s:

“There are only two relationships to consider, that of transcendence and that of immanence: according to the first, the reality of Substance annihilates that of the accident; according to the second, the qualities of the accident—starting with their reality—cannot but be those of Substance. Exoterically speaking, the first point of view is absurd since things exist; and the second is impious—it is pantheism—since things cannot be God; esoterism fully accounts for the fact that things exist and that they are not God, but it adds a dimension of depth to these two initial observations, which contradicts their superficial and as it were planimetric exclusivism. Whereas exoterism is enclosed in the world of accidence and readily derives glory from this when it seeks to demonstrate its sense of reality in opposition to what appear to it shadows, esoterism is aware of the transparency of things and of the underlying Substance, whose manifestations are Revelation, the Logos-Man, the doctrinal and sacramental Symbol, and—in the human microcosm—Intellection, the Heart-Intellect, the lived Symbol. Now to ‘manifest’ is to ‘be’; the Name and the Named are mysteriously identical. The saint is a manifestation of Substance in accidence and on the other hand a reintegration of the accident in Substance” (Esoterism as Principle and as Way).