Reflections on St. Gregory’s Dialogue III

[Previous reflections, including a brief historical context, are to be found here.]

These are the reflections of someone particularly ignorant about such deep matters, let alone of this specific Church Father. There are others who are much more knowledgeable than me. What I will attempt with these reflections is to bring together the deep theology they explicate and some thoughts of a more practical, hopefully somewhat ascetical, bent. That is to say, what I want to attempt is to reflect on these things as a way to better my living of the faith, and my prayers. I’m happy to be corrected by those who discern errors in my thoughts here.

I remember, when I was younger, probably not even yet ten years old, my maternal grandfather, himself a minister, illustrating to me the great mystery of God by asking me the unanswerable question: God can create a rock heavier than he can lift? My first instinct of course was to say yes, after all, God is the creator. But half-a-second later I realized that if I said yes, to affirm his attribute of creator, I must ultimately deny his omnipotence by affirming that there was something he could create that he could not lift (assuming of course that such an anthropomorphism even applies to God). Grandpa, with a smile and a wink, saw the thought processes working themselves out visibly in my facial expressions. We affirm, he said, that God is a creator, and that he is omnipotent. Beyond that, it’s a mystery.

I open with this illustration, not only because it has obviously influenced my thinking about God, but because there is another version of this question at play in the Protestant Christian world: Can God both foreknow the future and grant humans true freedom? Some Protestants, of course, answer no. And of those who do, some we call Reformed Calvinists. For those Reformed Calvinists who answer “no,” God’s foreknowledge must, if God is truly sovereign, determine every alternative possibility toward one end, namely, that end which is already foreknown by God. If God knows one particular reality, that knowledge must necessarily be true, which means that the future is already determined. And if the future is already determined, then humans are not free to choose or to do otherwise than that which God already foreknows.

Other Protestant Christians answer yes to the compatibility of foreknowledge and human freedom, and these we call Arminians. But the Reformed Calvinists have always felt that the Arminians were cheating, equivocating on terms or begging certain questions. And so, some Protestant Christians have developed the theology of “open theism” as a result. They want to affirm that human beings are truly free, but to do so they must acknowledge that God’s foreknowledge is limited by that which it is possible to know (God cannot know that which is not real). Since the future for humans is not yet real, therefore cannot yet be known, God does not truly foreknow the future. He might be able somehow to grasp all the pertinent possibilities of human choices and acts, but he does not, strictly speaking, know them until they come to be. God is, to be sure, above and beyond time, and there are some things which God wills to foreknow (certain Christological prophecies, say, or the eschatological realities of the Church), but if human beings are, indeed, truly free, God cannot foreknow the choices they have not yet made.

This summary of open theism, of course, does not do justice to it. And I examine open theism with a bit more detail in an earlier post. But this summary highlights the one problem many Western Christians have, and which St. Gregory addresses in his Dialogue: a confusion between God’s essence and his attributes (or energies), and, correlatively, a confusion between God’s nature and his Person.

The problem arises, of course, from a mistaken understanding of what is meant by God being simple. The simplicity of God is taken to mean that God has no parts, that is to say, that God cannot be divided up into his constituent characteristics. It would be a contradiction in terms that the infinite God was composed of finite parts: here his love leaves off and his judgment begins, neither encroaching upon the other. As a result, to avoid such a blasphemy, some proponents of divine simplicity went beyond the patristic consensus on God’s simplicity and employed a sort of platonic rationalism to the question. God’s simplicity became a definitional sort of simplicity, or, absolute simplicity. God, indeed, had no parts, he was utterly simple, and if God was the holy and invisible Creator, then creatures could have no access to his essential nature. If God’s simplicity meant that God was all essence, with no remainder, and if that essence was wholly inaccessible to us, then it further followed that we could have no participation in the divine.

But there is another related implication. If we can have no participation in the divine essence, then it remains to be explained how is it we can be saved? One answer is that the grace God extends to us is not his essence (for that would divide up God’s simplicity), but rather a created thing God gives us. This however, rather than preserving the divine simplicity, divides God into uncreated and created entities, a rather polytheistic conundrum for Trinitarians.

St. Gregory disputes this Barlaamite heresy as he discusses the unity and ineffable distinction between God’s essence and energies in his Dialogue:

Continue reading “Reflections on St. Gregory’s Dialogue III”

How Many Orthodox Are There in America?

According to this table of membership data, a lot less than some would have you believe. Apparently about 1.2 million. My own Antiochian Archdiocese is said to have about 206 parishes, 41,840 full members (defined as: “the persons older than 18, paying regularly annual Church membership fees and officially recorded as the members by the Church”), and 83,700 adherents (defined as: “all those baptized Orthodox, who are well known to the local parish and attend church services several times a year (at least by major celebrations such as Easter, etc.) and their children.”), or about 125,540 persons.

If you dig through some of the tables in this index page, though, there are some bright news items. Our own Antiochian Archdiocese is characterized as having “dynamic” growth (++) in the decade of 1990-2000, and that most of that growth was convert growth.

This was brought home today at the ordination of Father David Ellsworth at All Saints. Father David’s parish is a new mission in the western suburbs, and he and his new parish were chrismated into the Church at the first of last month. This week he was ordained to the diaconate, and, less than 48 hours later, to the priesthood. The Very Reverend Father Peter Gilquist was a guest with us today, as was His Grace, our Bishop Mark. Bishop Mark noted that it was 20 years ago, in 1987, that Father Gilquist and the Evangelical Orthodox Church was brought into the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, and there were at that time some 17 congregations who came in. In the last 20 years, the Antiochian Archdiocese has seen 102 new congregations, for nearly 120 new parishes in 20 years. That’s phenomenal, no matter how you slice it.

I certainly thank God for the vision and foresight of our archhierarch, His Eminence, Metropolitan Philip, from which vision has come our own parish of All Saints, which has made a huge difference in my life.

The Journey to Antioch (Part XIII)

It is probably solid evidence of my own narcissism that I take up again this series of reflections on my ongoing conversion to Orthodoxy (still underway, I hasten to add). But it has been about three years since I undertook this sort of an exercise. And as our chrismations and baptisms are closer now than they have been, I thought it would be helpful for my own growth in the catechumenate to reflect on some of the important influences and developments that have shaped me in the past three years. I do not think this exercise will be nearly as protracted as before. I anticipate only a handful of posts, and those grouped thematically rather than chronologically.

4. Encountering Living Orthodoxy, September 2003 to the Sunday of Orthodoxy (25 February 2007)

Blessed Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) of Platina

Three days after our first Sunday worshiping at All Saints together as a family, I received in the mail, my copy of the revised and updated Father Seraphim Rose biography: Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, by Hieromonk Damascene and published by St. Herman Press. I had already, by then, read twelve books written by, translated by or about Hieromonk Seraphim: The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church (January 03), [Tr] St. Seraphim of Sarov (Little Russian Philokalia v. 1) (January 03), Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future (February 03), [Tr] Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers (February 03), [Tr] On the Orthodox Veneration of Mary the Birthgiver of God (February 03), [Bio] Not of This World (October 02-March 03), [Tr] The Apocalypse in the Ancient Teachings of Christianity (May 03), Nihilism (July 03), [Tr] Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (July 03), [Tr] First-Created Man (July 03), Genesis, Creation and Early Man (August 03), and [Tr] Guidance Toward the Spiritual Life (September 03). Over the next few months I read the new biography ([Bio] Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works [September-December 03]), as well as a book of his letters (Letters from Father Seraphim [December 03]).

As I have indicated elsewhere, Father Seraphim has become a significant influence in the shaping of my faith and the practice of prayer and disciplines which I pursue. Indeed, about a year after I set my face toward Orthodoxy, I had come under the conviction that Father Seraphim had become one of my patron saints, in ways strikingly like St. Benedict had done some dozen or so years earlier. As the Lord has mercy, and my priest blesses, I will take the name Benedict Seraphim at my chrismation.

What is it about Father Seraphim that so strikes me and serves as an inspiration to my faith and life? It is difficult to articulate. I have, every years since the autumn of 2002, read his biography, either in the first version (Not of This World) or in the current edition. And every year, I devour it. It is not something I intentionally set out to do: Saying to myself, “Oh, it’s nearing September, I should begin reading Father Seraphim’s biography.” And yet, like some internal magnet, as his feast day approaches, I begin to turn my attention toward reading his life. This is not true of all of his writings. While I have read most of what has been published, and several of those items twice or more, I have not come back to everything again and again. But the account of his life speaks to me again and again.

There are superficial similarities between us: he was, in his academic career, a student of ancient philosophy (in his case Chinese philosophy, whereas my focus is Hellenistic). He chafed under the superficiality and vacuity that is ubiquitous within academia. He experienced the pain of the schism between the mind and the heart. In a much lesser way, I, too, have known these things. And I think, then, what he demonstrates to me is the integration of one’s person that Orthodoxy makes possible in a way I have found nowhere else. His were no superhuman ascetic feats. It was enough for him to simply follow the way of the life of the Church, fasting when she requires a fast, and fasting according to the guidelines she provides; praying as she requires us to pray, with the prayers she has given to us; giving to the poor as one poor himself. His life, though a monastic one, was an ordinary monastic one. And it speaks, in that ordinariness, of the normalcy that Orthodoxy establishes for a soul. Surely Father Seraphim was a thinker and a writer. And he certainly has had a very wide, multi-national influence. But his heart’s desire was simply to struggle, to work and to pray, in one place, his beloved mountain. And it is his influence, coupled with St. Benedict’s moderate Rule for laymen, which has probably shaped me the most, outside the worship of the Orthodox Church.

But Father Seraphim’s influence was a necessary foundation for the significant personal developments in my understanding, and more importantly practice, of the Orthodox Faith and way of life. In spring and summer 2005 I would experience some blessed formation and change in these things.

[Next: St. Maximos and Soteriology]