Thursday, June 2, 2005

Light to light, East to West

[Apolonio Latar has posted some thoughts and questions about the East-West energies-essence debate and has asked for input. I am obliging him.]

Hi Apolonio, always a pleasure interacting with you. Let me preface all this by saying I *highly respect* the Tradition of the East. A great deal of Palamism, including his life, inspires and humbles me. In no way do I mean to denigrate or caricature the light of the East. I want Palamism to work! Hence, any negative comments I have to make are genuine, fundamental reservations about Palamism, not, I hope, nit-picky complaints or theological xenophobia (“Unnghh...Eastern...different...stupid...bad...grunt...snort...”).

Let me throw up one more very important hedge: I am unworthy to believe in, let alone debate, the mystery of the Holy One, the Three-in-One, our Living God.

Have mercy on me, O Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as I dare tread on the mystery of Who you have shown yourself to be. May we not read, write or ponder your glory without fear and trembling and love. As your servant, Philoxenus of Mabbug, says, "[Keep] silence, trembling before the inexplicable, uncommunicable mysteries of the Godhead." Pardon my foray out of silence, O Lord. I ponder by grace what the heathen has not even enough light to reject. Te Deum.

Apolonio, since you are addressing the issue of predication so acutely, I will try to stick to that point and, therefore, my biggest reservation towards energy-theology. To wit: claiming God is his energies AND his essence seems to bifurcate the being of God. In response to the Eastern claim, “The Energies of God are God,” I take the meat of your post to be this:

If we are to say it [the above claim – EBB] is literal, then does not it mean that we are saying that the energies of God are of the same essence as that of God? When we say things like, "The computer is an apple," what we mean is that the computer is of the same essence as that of an apple if we are going to take the statement literally. This I believe is the problem we run into when we come into Eastern Christian theology.

The Eastern may say that there must be distinctions between God's energies and His energies just as we make distinctions with His essence and His Persons. The problem, however, is that when we speak of the Persons in the Trinity, we do identify them with essence. ... However, when we say "The Energies are God," aren't we saying that the energies of God is [sic] of the same essence as that of God, the predicate used in that statement?

It's agreed on all sides (I think!) God is God by and in his essence. That is, God “has” the God-essence, unlike anything else, and is therefore who is he is, and no one else. That which lacks the essence of God is and cannot be God. Fine so far ... unless I’m mistaken, in which highly probably case I welcome correction (as with all else I say here).

The hard question (which arises in the essence-energies debate) is whether God is God ONLY in and by his essence, or if he has some other "dimension" or "faculty" (or whatever) that equally and fully expresses his true being. I suspect some of the draw towards this view is – apart from its impressive Byzantine pedigree as awesome riches of the Eastern Tradition – how it seems to solve the Heraclitean flux problem. An apple is an apple because it has the essence of an apple. But what is that apple changes? It’s still an apple, but it’s a different sort of apple. How could this change in the same apple occur without making a new apple? Presumably (I think), the apple’s energies, in their ontological “freedom” towards multiple goods and changes, equally express the apple in the midst of changes while also somehow “protecting” the apple essence. Likewise, God’s energies are meant to help us understand how God can do so much so freely without ceasing to be the one, unchanging God. Hence, Palamism. (This is, by the way, one of the cool things I like about Palamism! The light of Tabor is really rad too!)

Nevertheless, despite its radness, my worry is that Palamism ultimately gains us little metaphysical ground over the “stiff,” “boring” Scholastic view that God is his essence in and by his essence alone. Further, as I said, “claiming God is his energies AND his essence seems to bifurcate the being of God.” So, I agree with how you closed your post: “What I want to show is that the East have their own problems too.”

You raise a key question or two here and so I will follow you. If the essence of God is to be his essence AND energies then are his energies – AS GOD – also equally comprised of the divine essence … and thus of other energies? If God’s energies are God, but not his essence, then are they not essentially God (and by essentially I don’t mean necessarily)? If they are not essentially (*in essentia*) God, then they are not God. I fail to see how such a basic claim – a metaphysical axiom, in fact – is open to dispute. God is essentially God; if his energies are also essentially (or in *their* essence) God, then his energies share the same divine essence; thus, his essentially divine energies really just collapse back into the essence of God, and God, in turn, “collapses” back into his being-as-pure-essence.

If, however, his energies are not *essentially* God, but somehow metaphysically distinct from his essence – “God = essence + (or x?) energies” – then they lack the *essence* of divinity and are therefore not God. If there is a strictly and technically *essential* difference between what the energies of God are and what his essence is, then they fail to co-inhere in the same being (ie., God). His essence has not “trouble” being God; it is God by essence. His energies, however, seem to be in an awkward position. In, so to speak, separating themselves (in our Palamite schema) from God’s essence, they stand in great need being identified. If they are not his essence, then what really are they? If they are (or share) his essence, then how can we even begin to claim are distinct from his essence? Whatever they may *be*, if the energies are not, in essentia, God, then they are not God, and Palamism is a sham. If they are, however, God *in essentia*, then, well, God is his essence through and through, regardless how diaphanously and dynamically his essence may move through his energies.

A further problem I have with energies-theology, in all my benighted glory, is the supposed “leverage” they give us towards the necessity-of-creation issue. Fr. Georges Florovsky writes:

The ultimate purpose of the Palamite distinction between the "essence" and "energy" in God was exactly to safeguard the Divine freedom and aseity. Denial of this difference seems to imply that the whole "economy" of God is but His "natural" act, i.e. to say "necessary," or constitutive of His own being, as it were, imposed upon Him. The difference between "Generation" and "creation" would be then obscured, the one and the other being equally acts of the essence or nature. Again, the difference between the ουσια and the θελυσις of God would be obscured also. There would be no clear distinction between the Divine Prescience and the actual Creation: would not the actual creation itself become eternal or sempiternal? Briefly, the Freedom of God will be dangerously compromised....

If I may: I fail to see how “wedging”, as it were, energies between the intra-Trinitarian necessity of Generation and the extra-Trinitarian contingency of Procession (and Creation) really solves anything. If God necessarily, and by essence, exists in his energies, then what determines *which* energies, and thus which actions, God manifests? ‘Tis to say, if God necessarily generates energies X, Y and Z (pardon the hamminess) which themselves produce actions P, Q and R, then it all really is just an essential manifestation of P, Q and R, albeit as mediated through X, Y and Z.

As I said in an earlier post on this same topic:

What's necessary for the Thomist goose is necessary for the Palamite gander. The energies seem to me just as necessary in Palamism as creation allegedly is in Thomism. Certainly, creation is not God Himself in the way the energies are described to be God Himself. Nonetheless, one of the key points about the energies is that they are necessary to God's being. God is not God without them. Further, they allegedly free God from any (Thomistic) necessity based on His essence. On account of his "enhypostatic" energies, God is not bound by His own essence but can *freely* extend Himself in creation and in man. The Palamite claim is that Thomism forces God to create (or to redeem) since His action and will co-inhere in one absolutely simple essence.

The fundamental problem for Palamism is that the energies are, like creation and redemption, inherently exterior acts of God -- they are "God for us" -- yet they also derive directly from God’s pure essence. How then, after all, are they and their effects so free from the necessity of essence? Indeed, I’ve had a leading proponent of Palamism admit this is a huge bugbear of a problem, so decisive in fact that he says it would discredit all of Christian theology. That being the case (in his eyes) I think he and any other Palamist needs to cool his jets while the work of ecumenism continues this side of the eschaton.

The objection to this is, of course, that in considering his manifold, omnibeneficent energies (his will) and his self-sufficient Goodness as the Trinitarian God, God was free to choose among his energies, whereas the God of St. Thomas necessarily had to act according to his essence ,since that is all he is. As Florovsky says (op. cit.),

We cannot say that God created the world with the same "necessity" with which He loves Himself. The Love of God, His blessed goodness, cannot be augmented by the contemplation of all the finite existences which can be brought out of nothingness to participate in the Divine grace. No more can the superabundant beatitude of God be limited by the absence of these existences, or even by the absence of the idea of their essence. God is supremely αυταρκης. ... There is no cause weighing down His will. God is eminently free in regard even to the very possibility of creatures. There is then a clear distinction between the necessity of the Divine nature and the absolute freedom of His beneficent will. Or else, there is a distinction between His being and His will.

But assuming God, in the perfect sufficiency of his essence, views himself in his perfectly free energies and considers in his eternal wisdom how they may or may not manifest themselves, what is it that decides among all those energies how they operate? If it is the energies themselves that determine which manifests itself how (and which “lose out” in the jamboree of Trinitarian freedom), then whatever their essences are, they operate necessarily, according to their own essences. If, on the other hand, God’s essence decides among the energies, then how can it not do so necessarily and, *as* pure essence, *by essence*? My point is that Palamism seems to be stuck with the same dilemma of necessary creation, only less obviously so and only after a lot more “energetic” more dialectical turns.

Does this problem bother me? No. Not to be trite, but for me this all comes down to faith. Does either the East or the West deny the freedom of God in creation and redemption? No. Do both affirm God’s radical freedom? Yes. Beyond that, at a doctrinal level, we have no good reason to keep fighting at such abstract heights in a divided house (so much to better to fight under one roof!) The theological details between us all about *how* we can say this -- "God is free" --are just that, theological details. At the end of the day, both East and West are left holding empty hands, proclaiming in faith God, in his essence and in his many modes/energies of being, owes us nothing, but has freely and fully offered himself to us in Christ.


SyrianCatholic said...

Does the term "Un-created energies" used by Palamite Orthodox, simply mean action of the Holy Trinity outside of the Holy Trinity?

the Cogitator said...

Hi Syriancatholic,

Technically, no, the term "uncreated energies" is not merely about the Holy Spirit's actions ad extra (i.e., in connection with the world outside the inner mystery of the Trinity). The term refers to the Palamite distinction between the complete nature of God and his pure essence. So, in a non-technical sense, you're right that uncreated energies are about how the Holy Spirit connects with us ad extra. But the energies are not just proper to the Holy Spirit; they are a fundamental characteristic of the three divine persons. Even before (in eternity) there was an "outside" to which the energies of God could relate, God's nature was both His essence and His energies. That, at least, is how I understand the rudiments of Palamite theology. But I might be wrong.