Tonight I wish to sketch for you three different ways in which Christians have attempted to think philosophically about God. I have in mind not simply three different arguments or sets of beliefs about God, but three different styles of reasoning. Each has its own presuppositions, aims, and method. The first two were typical of western Europe during the Middle Ages. They survive today especially among Roman Catholics and others who highly value the Christian intellectual tradition. Their influence is not limited to those circles, however, for they helped form a certain conception of what a rational approach to the Christian faith should look like, and that conception is still the dominant one today among both Christians and nonbelievers. The third flourished primarily in the Byzantine Empire, and survives today among the Eastern Orthodox. It is the one that I especially wish to commend to you—partly because I am Orthodox, and partly because I think it is a way that the West today especially needs to recover. . . .
I have now described two ways in which Christians have attempted to think about God. One looks inward, to the soul; one looks outward, to the created world. It may seem that there is little left to say. Once we have looked both inward and outward, what is left?
In reply I will start from Scripture rather than from Plato. In Colossians 1:28-29, St. Paul speaks of Christ, “whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus: whereunto I also labour, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily.” The Greek translated “striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily” is agonizomenos kata ten energeian autou ten energoumenen en emoi en dunamei. Literally, it speaks of Paul striving according to the energeia of Christ that is “energizing” (acting or becoming actual) in him in power. What does this mean?
Energeia is a word invented by Aristotle. At the time of St. Paul, it generally meant the characteristic activity or operation of something. In speaking of God, it was also used to refer to special miracles or visitations of divine power. What is striking in the passage from Paul is that he speaks of the divine energeia being active within him. One might think–if one did not know Paul–that he is referring to a kind of divine possession, to God simply taking him over and using him to fulfill the divine will. But that is clearly not what he means. If we know anything about Paul, it is that he remained a unique and powerful personality throughout his career. The divine energeia does not submerge or override whatever it is that makes Paul who he is. In fact, in the passage quoted it seems that the divine energeia at work in Paul is also Paul’s own energeia. After all, it is Paul, not God, who is said to be “striving.”
So I take it that Paul is describing a kind of coalescence between his own activity and that of God. This has come about because of his submission to God’s will, and especially his care and service on behalf of his fellow believers. Now I suggest that of all the things you know, you know nothing so well as your own activity. You know it because you perform it; it is your life, not in the sense of something you passively experience, but in the sense of that which you actively work out with whatever care and toil you can muster. In light of that, please consider the following question. What if your activity were also that of someone else? What if it were that of God—as appears to be the case here with St. Paul? What would follow? It would follow that you would know God. Not in His essence, of course; you would not be able to define what God is. But you would know Him in His activity, through what He does, because what He does and what you do would be one and the same. You would be able to say with Paul, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20).
This is a third way in which there can be knowledge of God. It is not inward and meditative; nor is it outward and scientific, based on inference from effects to their cause. It is a way of knowing God by personally participating in the divine life. Precisely this sort of knowledge was the central preoccupation of the Greek Church Fathers. They spoke of it using the word that I have singled out in the passage from Colossians: energeia. For the Greek Fathers the goal of the Christian life is to “participate in the divine energeiai.” It is not possible here to trace out all the ramifications of this view. I will mention two which seem to me of particular philosophical interest, and which present a clear contrast to both Augustine and Aquinas.
The first is at the level of philosophical theology. I mentioned earlier, in discussing Aquinas, that for Aquinas God is His own esse. In fact Aquinas holds a similar view about all the divine attributes: God is His own power, His own goodness, His own wisdom, and so forth, for no distinctions can be drawn within the divine being. Each attribute of God is identical to the divine essence itself. This is the “doctrine of divine simplicity.” . . .
The Greek Fathers had a different view of what it means for God to be simple. Consider the following passage from St. Basil the Great.
We say that we know the greatness of God, His power, His wisdom, His goodness, His providence over us, and the justness of His judgment; but not His very essence (ousia) . . . . God, he [an opponent of Basil] says, is simple, and whatever attribute of Him you have reckoned as knowable is of His essence. The absurdities involved in this sophism are innumerable. When all these high attributes have been enumerated, are they all names of His essence? Is there the same mutual force in His awfulness and loving-kindness, His justice and creative power, His providence and foreknowledge, His bestowal of rewards and punishments? . . . . The operations (energeiai) are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His operations, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His operations come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach.
Whereas Augustine and Aquinas identify God’s essence with His attributes, St. Basil distinguishes them sharply. For St. Basil the attributes belong among the energeiai, which can be known because they “come down to us.” The divine essence remains strictly beyond our reach. This is not to say that Basil does not believe that God is simple. He thinks that the essence of God is simple, but that this simple essence manifests itself through a real plurality of energeiai.
This difference between the eastern and western approaches to divine simplicity has an important bearing on what I said earlier about knowing God by participating in the divine life. There are at least two preconditions for our being able to share in the divine energeiai in the way described by St. Paul. One is that the energeiai must be distinct from the divine essence—for otherwise, in participating in them, one would take on the essential attributes of God Himself. The other is that the energeiai must somehow be available to us, or “come down to us,” as St. Basil puts it. Both of these preconditions are satisfied by the way St. Basil describes the relationship between the single, unknowable divine essence and the multitude of divine energeiai. It is far from clear than anything similar can be said on the view of simplicity taken in the West. Augustine and Aquinas could not hold that the purpose of human life is to participate in the divine energeiai because their philosophical theology has no room for the divine energeiai as something distinct from the divine essence. The doctrine of divine simplicity prevents it.
The second point I wish to make is about how the Greek Fathers view nature. In order to understand this one must understand the concept of “ascetic struggle.” . . .
There is a close connection between ascetic struggle and the goal of participating in the divine energeiai. Fasting, prayer, almsgiving, soaking the mind in Scripture, guarding the thoughts, simply being with God in silence—all of these are good in themselves. They are forms of obedience to the divine commandments, and already, to that extent, a way of participating in the divine life. But they are also the particular form of obedience that has the greatest power to transform the soul. One might say that they are the way of sharing in the divine energeiai that penetrates most deeply into one’s very being. They have the power to make one who pursues them consistently the “new creature” spoken of by St. Paul—already a participant, in this present life, of the glory of the age to come. . . .
. . . We tend to think of nature as an autonomous system that can be understood largely in its own terms. It may need grace to complete or fulfill it, as Aquinas taught; nonetheless, as the very notion of “completion” shows, the starting point is nature. That is why Aquinas begins the Summa by discussing at length what can be known of God based on natural reason. I think it is fair to say–though I will not argue the point here–that this view of nature was a precondition for the rise of modern science. Historically its roots go back to the sharp dichotomy between nature and grace drawn by Augustine during the Pelagian controversy.
The view of Maximus is different. He does not think of nature as an autonomous system; it is more like a bush burning with divine fire, or a garment worn by God and shining with uncreated light. Another metaphor Maximus offers makes his view clearer. He says that physical things are to God as printed words are to their meanings. To study the physical world as an autonomous system would make as much sense as scrutinizing the marks on a piece of paper as if they were mere physical objects. The marks are not there to be studied in their own right, but to be read through, as it were, so as to discern the meaning behind them. If they seem to make no sense, then the solution is not to scrutinize them more and more closely; it is to learn the language in which they are written. The way one “learns the language,” however, is not by intellectual effort. It is by purifying oneself from the passions through ascetic struggle and obedience to the divine commandments. . . .
The Eastern Fathers sometimes adopt an idiom that is strikingly reminiscent of Plato. They speak, not only of discerning the single Logos within the created world, but also of discerning the individual logos of each creature. The individual logoi are the “meanings” of things, their significance within the mind of God. They are also the eternal exemplars in accordance with which things are created. They thus play a role similar to that of the Forms in the philosophy of Plato. The difference is that, for the Fathers, each individual logos is part of an ordered discourse. The many logoi are the single divine Logos passed through the prism of God’s creative act and broken into innumerable separate beams. Their collective meaning is simply the Logos Himself as He is manifested in creation. As St. Maximus puts it, “the one Logos is many logoi, and the many logoi are one Logos.” The logoi are thus personal in a way that the Forms are not. They are God’s declaration of who He is and His call to all creatures to return to Him.
I hasten to add that the vision of God in the natural world is not the highest kind of vision. . . . Maximus and the other Fathers who discuss this subject hold that the vision of the uncreated light is the highest and purest form of participation in the divine energeiai. In beholding God in this way one also beholds the logoi, the “meanings,” of created things, for all of creation may be seen in the Creator. Interestingly enough, this is precisely what Aquinas says about the vision of God enjoyed by the blessed in heaven. But whereas Aquinas holds that such a vision cannot be enjoyed in this present life, the Fathers insist that it can. It is the natural culmination of a life of ascetic struggle, obedience to the divine commandments, and participating in the divine activity. This does not mean that it necessarily follows from such practices, but only that God is more likely to grant it, freely and gratuitously, to those who have in this way been purified from the passions.
[The entire argument of the paper, including footnotes, can be read here (pdf file).]