"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Not talking about God

For reasons well-known to my vast readership, one of the blogs I read often is Energetic Procession, the most academic in the Orthodox blogosphere. It is authored primarily by Daniel "Photios" Jones and Perry Robinson, graduate students in theology and philosophy respectively, with whom I have had regular interaction both here and at Fr. Al Kimel's Pontifications, where I am an occasional contributor. Recently, Fr. Al banned what he termed "Orthodox polemicists" from his site, including Perry (and, I take it, Daniel). So I checked EP to see what reaction, if any, there had been to that move. I observed quite a reaction—enough to convince me that no good purpose could be served by my adding to it. But I also noticed that my name came up several times in more directly theological discussions. That was well, as I had been wondering why, despite having shown a modicum of interest in the earlier parts of the series, Photios and Perry had registered zero reaction to my latest filioque article. Now I know.

In Perry's words:

No model that Liccione or anyone else in the literature has even mapped onto the Orthodox view either in terms of the essence energies distinction, which they FINALLY admit is not the private opinion of some Orthodox but the teaching of the Church or in terms of God as not being pure being. Nor has there been any significant advance on the Filioque since everything Liccone [sic] has done ignores or subverts the Nicene and Cappadocian teaching that God is not being and so necessity is not predicable of God at intra [sic], not to mention the idea of persons as relations in the first place. Here he and others are inventing theology rather than preserving it.

So, Perry believes that my proposal is a non-starter.

His last charge above I shall leave aside for the time being. Those who have contributed, or strive to contribute, to authentic development of doctrine are always charged with innovation or invention—i.e., with trying to add to the deposit of faith—by people who deny there is such a thing as authentic development of doctrine; and Perry is one of those people. But that is a different debate, to which I've contributed before and soon will again. Nor shall I here discuss the "idea of persons as relations," an Augustinian-Thomistic idea which was not mentioned in my articles and does no heavy lifting in them.

The assertion that the essence/energies distinction (EED) is "the teaching of the Church" is more interesting but too vague to be of much use. Clearly, the Palamite councils affirmed EED; and the affirmation appears in the Synodikon of Orthodoxy, even if that section of it is not often used liturgically. But that is not in dispute. The operative question for the present purpose is which particular construal of EED, if any, is binding on all Orthodox on pain of heresy, and whether that construal, whatever it may be, is logically incompatible with the filioque on the sort of construal of that doctrine I've been advocating. The answer is far from clear or uncontroversial, and one doesn't even have to examine my argument at all to see that. For instance, many Orthodox reject this or that canon of the 1672 Council of Jerusalem, whose acta also appear in the Synodikon. That council seems to have at least the same level of authority as the Palamite councils, yet Orthodox who insist on swallowing the latter whole don't do the same with the former. To an extent, the question what is not a matter of opinion seems to be a matter of opinion.

As I've argued before, a Catholic as such can readily affirm EED if 'divine essence' be taken to mean what-God-is-irrespective-of-what-he does, which is an abstraction from reality. But none of that, of course, satisfies Perry and like-minded Orthodox. They seem to believe that EED must be construed in a sense incompatible with Catholic dogma, and that sense of EED is taken to be that of St. Gregory Palamas, which he developed out of the Cappadocian—specifically, St. Basil's—in the heat of the hesychast controversy. Now, since I'm not Orthodox at all, much less an Orthodox bishop, I have no standing to say whether that particular construal of EED is normative and binding for Orthodoxy. But the way it looks to me, the dispute is primarily scholarly and permits a certain range of permissible opinions. I find no reason to believe that Orthodox believers as such must affirm EED in a sense logically incompatible with Catholic dogma, such as the filioque (or, more directly, absolute divine simplicity). Nor do Perry and like-minded Orthodox theologians have the authority to settle such a question. Hence, to hold that it's settled all the same is just "party spirit."

What most intrigues me about Perry's comment, and what I shall focus on, is that he plainly considers it a defect that I "ignore" the "Nicene and Cappadocian teaching that "God is not being." And if indeed it is a consequence of the teaching thus denominated that necessity is not "predicable of God ad intra," then I can indeed be said to "subvert" that teaching too. But there's a lot less than meets the eye in such charges.

In the first place, it is at best unclear what Perry means by calling said teaching "Nicene." It does not appear in the documents of the first Council of Nicaea, a gathering most famous for confessing that the Son is homoousios (of the same substance as) the Father; and nothing that council did say logically entails the proposition that "God is not being" ('GNB' for short). Indeed, if the Greek term being translated as 'being' in GNB were ousia, which is sometimes translated as 'being', then the homoousios can be taken as logically entailing that God is being. Moreover, the Cappadocian Fathers (i.e., Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa) didn't even begin writing until well after that council. Of course, by the time one gets to Constantinople I (381), it's a somewhat different story. Influenced by the Cappadocians, at least one of whom took part in it, that council adopted a creed that came to be used in East and West as "the" Ecumenical Creed. An expanded version of the Creed of Nicaea, the Creed of 381 included a verbatim quotation of the words of Jesus as recorded in John 15:26: the Holy Spirit "proceeds" (ekporeuetai) "from the Father." But having read several scholarly histories of early Christian doctrine, I detect in the decrees of Constantinople I neither explicit affirmation of GNB nor anything which would logically entail such an affirmation.

The case that the Cappadocians as a class held GNB is of course stronger. But here as elsewhere, the problem is one of interpretation. Specifically, the challenge for Perry and his like-minded friends is coming up with a construal of GNB that is clearly ascribable to the Cappadocians, binding on Orthodox, and in the final analysis incompatible with the treatment of the filioque I've been developing. I am not in the least convinced the challenge can be met. Here I shall give just a few reasons why.

In discussing Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Moses, for example, Orthodox philosopher David Bradshaw says: "Gregory identifies God with true Being, yet denies that God as Being is an object of conceptual knowledge." In context, Bradshaw makes clear what he means by 'true Being' and 'conceptual knowledge', and I have no problem either with his exegesis of Gregory or with Gregory's actual claim. When it is said that God as true Being is beyond conceptual knowledge, it is not being asserted that God as true Being falls under no concept; otherwise, one could not say without self-refutation that what-God-is is somehow manifested in his energies. Rather, it is being said that God as true Being vastly outstrips our concepts and is thus incomprehensible. Aquinas and other Catholics giants would, and did, happily agree, while at the same time affirming an analogia entis. So we don't yet have a relevant construal of GNB.

There are of course passages, in the Cappadocians and in later Eastern fathers, where God is said to be "beyond being." And if God is beyond being, then of course he is not being. But what is the relevant sense of 'being'? The phrase 'beyond being' originates in Plato, who used it to refer to "the Form of the Good" as source of all being. But the Cappadocians can hardly be considered uncritical Platonists; and even if they were, the term 'being' in the present sense is being used to refer to the meta-class of particulars, not to just whatever can be said to exist. That God is not identical with the meta-class of particulars goes without saying; that God is not being among others is also granted all around, including by Aquinas and other influential Latin theologians. So we still don't have a relevant construal of GNB.

Patristic exegesis or no, I can't think of a relevant construal of GNB that would make the slightest bit of sense. In one sense of 'being', a being is whatever can be truly said to exist, in the sense of the existential quantifier; that is why Quine said: "To be is to be the value of a variable." Thus for some x, x is God, and in that sense God is a being. It would be nonsense to deny that. But there, we're talking logical existence, not Being in some metaphysical sense yet to be clarified. So 'being' in this sense does not supply a relevant construal of GNB.

What Robinson et al, including Bradshaw, really object to is the Thomistic version of absolute divine simplicity (ADS), according to which God's "being" or esse, the divine actuality, is somehow identical with God's essence. ADS has many consequences for the rest of theology, including triadology. But I've addressed that topic before; indeed, my very first interaction with Perry online, two years ago, was about what he alleged to be one of its deleterious consequences. But just as, back then, I don't think he showed what he thought he'd shown, here I don't think he's even established the relevance of his main point to what I've been attempting. My use of modal notions in triadology cannot be said to "subvert" a doctrine whose relevant sense, never mind whose normativity, hasn't even been established.
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