Reflections on St. Gregory’s Dialogue VIII

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

On the Divine Simplicity

L. . . . B[arlaamite]. Why is God not composed when He has both an eternal essence and an eternal activity?
O[rthodox]. . . . the divine is one and simple in its essence; and that “one” is, in an appropriate way, a whole in relation to all the things which we properly think about it, and not divided in relation to each individual part of them. For it is, as a whole, goodness, and, as a whole, wisdom, and, as a whole, justice, and, as a whole, power in our thoughts. Not because it becomes such, not even when it is thought, but because it is such from eternity and because it manifests itself through His works to us who are born later. For we have come to understand that He has been moved to produce the universe by His goodness, and also that He accomplished it completely since He has the power, and that He composed it in wisdom, and holds it together and rules it with foresight. But that that “one” is according to His essence and what genuine name can get, in accordance with that essence, that which produces and arranges the universe in unspeakable wisdom and power and goodness—no one has understood that yet to this very day.
–St. Gregory Palamas, Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite which Invalidates in Detail the Barlaamite Error, L (Global Publications/CEMERS, n.d.; tr. Rein Ferwerda).

We must begin here, on this topic of the divine simplicity with a saying often attributed to Fr. Thomas Hopko, “One cannot know God . . . but one has to know him to know that.” That is to say, we begin with a paradox, and we will struggle mightily all the way through to keep these things in tension. In a simple, perhaps simplistic way, we are speaking of God’s transcendence and his immanence, about the God who is wholly other and who comes near.

Now let us highlight one of the problems which immediately confronts us in this discussion: the problem of discursive reasoning regarding the suprarational. Reason and knowledge are distinct, though related things. And here let me clarify that by reason in this context we are usually referring to discursive thinking, the connection of thought with thought to form inferences and conclusions. Reason can lead one to knowledge, but reason is not itself knowledge. Reason’s tools are conceptualization, definition and categorization, discursive connections of propositions (such as syllogistics) and so forth. But reason, discursive thinking, itself is not the only form of thinking, or activities of the mind (or intellect). Aristotle, for example, recognized various other forms of thought: that which organizes data into coherent bodies of knowledge (i.e., episteme, or scientific thinking), that which grasps wholes (such as concepts or principles) apart from discursive thought (i.e., what we might think of as intuitive thought, though I hesitate to use this term since such a term has been bastardized into feelings via popular media), that which determines how to transform raw materials into finished products (i.e., techne, or craft), that which determines which among competing alternatives is the more excellent choice (i.e., phronesis, or what we might call pragmatic reasoning), and that thinking activity which is something of a combination of other forms of thought which grasps wholes and which determines the most excellent manner of living (i.e., sophia, or wisdom). And of course it goes without saying, that in identifying these noble activities of the mind, Aristotle is not presenting an exhaustive list, but touchstones of various ways of describing the activities of the mind which make for human flourishing.

And given these multiplicitous activities of the human mind, there is correspondingly different kinds of knowledge. Techne yields the sort of knowledge that figures out how best to produce composite products. Episteme yields the sort of knowledge that sees the relations between bodies of information, in the way, say that a librarian might categorize a library. Phronesis yields the sort of knowledge that enables one to make moral and virtuous decisions. And so it goes.

Now, Aristotle did not list dianoia, what I am calling here “discursive reasoning” (or, as one translator renders it “thinking things through”), among his virtues of thought (in book six of the Ethics). There is, however, a passage in the de Anima in which this form of thinking takes center stage (he is explaining how mere reasoning, dianoia can never move the soul to action, but it takes desire to provide that motive energy). So dianoia if it is not a distinctive virtue of thinking activities—I can see how Aristotle may have seen discursive thinking as something that would be a part of all the virtues of thought—is nonetheless an important one.

Why am I making such a point about this? Because in our day I believe that we have lost sight of the fact that what can be called knowledge is the end product of many more forms of thinking than discursive reasoning. Why I believe this failure is germane to our discussion will become clearly quickly.

Since about the seventeenth century (with Descartes), philosophy and theology began to part ways as the emphasis of rationality (broadly speaking) took precedence over experience (though this is often categorized simplistically as the war between reason and authority). This was not a new tension or development (one can see it very clearly in Plato, as well as in Aristotle), but how it played out definitely brought new paradigms to the fore. What counted was whether various claims of knowledge could be founded narrowly on concepts, definitions, discursive arguments, and so forth. If one could not adequately conceptualize or define a concept, then it could not be analyzed or rendered into discursive thinking. Inadequate conceptualization or definition led to equivocation. Such words and phrases were deemed incomprehensible (to dianoia) and therefore not the stuff with which reason could dwell.

Thus, philosophy began to move away from universals, from Plato’s ideai, and to begin to take, that “linguistic turn.” Theology, since it still dealt with those incomprehensible concepts was relegated to secondary, lesser status. The move was to encompass religion within the bounds of reason alone.

That said, this elevation of discursive reason is not without its own recognized problems. As early as the classical and late antique periods Academicians and Skeptics began to realize that reason was no basis for certainty. The Agrippan modes of Sextus Empiricus, especially the triad of dogmatism, circularity and infinite regress, put the kibosh, as it were, on such pretensions. Even one Herr Kant recognized that though the existence of God, the soul and human freedom could not be proven within the strictures of pure reason, they were necessary for reason itself to do its work. A rather telling admission.

This is a simplistic sketch, to be sure, but it highlights I believe the moves in modernist thought. And, if I may, how there is nothing new under the sun. For this sort of technique of placing discursive reason as the arbiter of what was and what was not knowledge of God lay at the heart of the debate between St Gregory Palamas and Barlaam the Calabrian.

On the one hand is the use of reason, discursive thinking, to determine what does and doesn’t count as knowledge of God. On the other hand is the use of reason as a tool among many modes of thinking and human experience, but not necessarily even the most privileged tool among the bunch. The cries of “Fideism” were as rife in the fourteenth century as they have been in the modernist era (though not, as we noted above, without a certain measure of hypocrisy).

So, to our task at hand. What about this attempt to assert both that God is essentially simple and that God’s essential simplicity is wholly present in his activities (or, attributes if you will, though that is a problematic term)? How can we rationally comprehend, and therefore discuss such a thing? And if we cannot comprehend it, how can we say anything about it?

Perhaps an analogy or metaphor may be helpful. A husband may claim to know his wife. He may be able to list various specific items of information, data, to back up this claim. Perhaps data known to no one else. He may even be able to connect such disparate points of information to explain certain statements or actions of his wife. Indeed, he may even be able to reasonably predict choices or courses of actions his wife may pursue in given circumstances. No one would deny him his claims to knowledge of these things. But if such a man were to rather boldly claim to comprehend his wife, we would cast him a glance of pity and call him the fool. And we might take odds as to how soon it would be till such pride resulted in a fall.

That is to say, while such a husband does well and truly have knowledge of his wife through her activities (of speech and action), he does not and can never have knowledge of who she is in her essence. This will remain for him eternally a mystery beyond his comprehension. (One may note that this truth is true for all persons qua persons.)

This is where Barlaam, and those adherents of absolute or definitional divine simplicity go astray: the approach God as concept, or set of concepts, instead of realizing that God is fundamentally a Person (or Trinity of Persons). Therefore one can have experience of such a God, through his activities of speech and action, but one can never comprehend him in his essence.

And as a Person, since his pure simplicity is not conceptual or definitional, it can have no parts. To speak with a very cumbersome metaphor: my finger is wholly mine and I am no less me for the loss of that finger, nor is that finger less me for its “partioning.” That is to say, that finger is not of a ratio (as a part) less me than my entire hand. Nor my hand less me, for its size, than my arm or torso. Such metrics do not work with the entity that is a person. In this way, God’s words and activities do not “add up” to God, nor is their consideration as one aspect of God less wholly God than what we think of as God’s essence. In ways far more true than the consideration of human body parts, God’s love is no less God than God’s essence. The whole is contained wholly in the parts (to speak in ways not strictly applicable to God).

But, while a finger or a hand or an arm is as much wholly me as any other attribute or part, it is nonetheless distinguishable from the whole of me. No one would mistake my right hand for the entire being that is Clifton. Similarly, while God’s love is wholly God, it is distinguishable from God’s essence. (Here, admittedly, we begin treading into incomprehensibles, for love is an energy of God that is so emphasized and so identified with God in his Trinitarian Personhood that it is difficult not to think of love as that which is God’s essence.)

So, having come to this point then, the question becomes, if discursive reason is such a poor tool for deriving knowledge of God, then how does one come to know God? Here, we return to the saying attributed to Father Thomas: one can only come to know God by virtue of personal relationship, as person to Person. Just as husband could never come to know his wife via syllogisms and definitions, so the human person can never come to know God in this way. The only way to know God (or any person) is through love.

And the mind is not the organ by which we engage God. God can only be engaged with the heart. Not the weak and useless “heart” of Romanticism and pop culture, but the heart that is the center of the person, which houses the will, the intellect, the emotions. We bring God into the heart, through personal encounter. And we bring the mind into the heart to begin to come to some understanding of him.

Philosophy and discursive reasoning cannot do that. Only love and prayer.

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