by Fr Jonathan Tobias
“It is not the same to say something about God as it is to gain and see God”—so St Gregory Palamas said to Barlaam (quoted in The Experience of God, p. 115).
Here is Fr Dumitru Staniloae’s central note about the Knowledge of God, as presented in chapter 6 of the first volume of his dogmatics—that at its highest point and most essential depth, it is beyond experience and inexpressible, that it is a “trans-apophaticism” that extends even beyond via negativa, and finally and climactically, it is the ineffable experience of God as Person (only, of course, in the extent of God’s energy, never His essence).
In the most valuable accessible survey of the patristic tradition of the Knowledge of God, Fr Staniloae moves from Gregory the Theologian to Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysios the Areopagite, Symeon the New Theologian and Gregory Palamas (referring to Maximus the Confessor along the way). His discussion of the Areopagite in particular is a most helpful corrective to the contemporary Orthodox discussion of knowledge (especially in the shadow of a “Western captivity” of Orthodox academia).
As in any other Orthodox discussion of the Knowledge of God, Fr Staniloae contrasts the two different strains of the knowledge of God: the rational or “cataphatic” knowledge on one hand, and the ineffable or “apophatic” on the other. And, along with everyone else, the author clearly states that the apophatic is superior to the rational, because it completes it.
Here, though, is where he parts company from the rest: from this point, Fr Staniloae discusses the Knowledge of God in ways that at least “sounds” different from other Orthodox presentations. In the first part of his discussion, the author focuses on the relationship between these two kinds of knowledge of God. The very fact that he makes the relationship a subject of consideration distinguishes him from the usual Orthodox treatment. Instead of positing a sharp differentiation, if not chiasmus, between cataphaticism and apophaticism, Fr Staniloae rather nests the former within the latter. After all, the latter is superior because of the fact that it substantiates the completion of the former. If that is true, then it makes little sense, if any, to isolate these two terms in opposition to each other.
Contrary to the common notion that cataphatic knowledge is positive and apophatic knowledge is negative, Fr Staniloae emphasizes that cataphasis as “rational knowledge” includes not only “positive” knowledge, but also “negative” knowledge. This latter is the via negativa of both East and West, in which long intellectual tradition there is a constant and honest dissatisfaction with any philosophical term that describes God, because there is, at the root of all knowledge, a certainty that God as Person must infinitely exceed all creaturely definition.
So the renunciation of philosophical terms (and the resulting and unending discursive dialectic) about God is actually part of the rational, cataphatic tradition of Knowledge. Here, the author contrasts the Eastern tradition from the West: this intellectual renunciation of terms—i.e., the via negativa—is not part of apophatic knowledge. The renunciative tradition is really propositional. It consists of “statements about” rather than the “ineffable experience” that exceeds any attempt to confine in cognitive expression. The apophatic experience of divinity—especially, in its most ineffable, the experience of God as Person—lies not only beyond philosophical proposition, but also beyond the possibility of internal language, or thought. That is, it is “trans-rational”—surely a better term than “irrational.”
“Rationality” is never denounced in patristic tradition. How can it be, Staniloae asks, when the Logos upon which rationality is predicated (see Justin Martyr’s revision of the Stoic doctrine of the logos spermatikos) is Christ Himself, through Whom and form Whom all things were made?
Here, Fr Staniloae emphasizes the validity and necessity of cataphatic knowledge, nesting it (or framing it) as he does within the exponentially larger apophatic experience. He quotes Dionysios at this critical passage—an apophatic spiritual writer who is finally and correctly identified as one who harmonizes the two knowledges of God:
Since it is the Cause of all beings, we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings, and, more appropriately, we should negate all these affirmations, since it surpasses all being. Now we should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations, but rather that the cause of all is considerably prior to this, beyond privations, beyond every denial, beyond every assertion. (Mystical Theology I.2; quoted by Staniloae, p. 111).
Both kinds of this knowledge of God can be known, at least partly, by any human—whether positive and negative in cataphasis, or the trans-rational ineffable experience of God as Person in apophasis. The natural revelation of God as Creator, immanent to and transcendent of His Creation as absolute, with Creation (i.e., all space-time and eternity) in utter contingency upon Him is always “shot-through” with supernatural revelation.
But this raises an ambiguity in Staniloae himself that is probably true of the general Orthodox thinking about the Knowledge of God: is the apophatic experience given only to those who “believe,” who are “Christian,” who participate in the Body of Christ in a decisive manner?
It is true that the apophatic experience grows and becomes more known (though always ineffably) as a “man progresses in the spiritual life, the intellectual knowledge about God—as creator of the world and source of its providential care—which comes to man from the world, is imbued with the direct and richer contemplation of him, that is, with apophatic knowledge” (p. 97).
But is a non-baptized human being excluded from apophasis? It does not seem so in this sixth chapter of The Experience of God. That said, a non-baptized person cannot experience the continued perfecting process of apophasis. Neither, it is strongly insinuated, can an Orthodox person—even, and especially, an intellectual academic—who does not participate in purification.
Here we are drawn to one of the oddest features of Fr Staniloae’s essay on the Knowledge of God. After his distinctive comparison of cataphasis and apophasis (which is helpfully summarized on pages 116-117), and his note that the Orthodox ethos is characterized by apophasis (at this point he returns to familiar Orthodox language about apophasis), the author makes an abrupt jump into a “practical life” discussion of apophatic knowledge.
In this undeniably “existential” dimension of the subject of apophasis, Fr Staniloae returns to the powerful legacy of St Maximus the Confessor—that is, his famous insistence upon the conversion from philautia (i.e., “self-love”) to the essentially Christ-like love for others. It is in this practice of love that the human creature is drawn into the fundamentally Trinitarian “form” of existence—which is “goodness” itself:
In this knowledge I no longer see God only as the creator and the providential guide of all things, or as the mystery which makes himself visible to all, filling all with a joy which is to a greater or lesser extent the same in all cases; but I know him in his special care in regard to me, in his intimate relations with me, in his plan whereby, through the particular suffering, demands, and direction that he addresses to me in life, he leads me in a special way to the common goal. (p. 118)
It is distinctive of Staniloae that he sets this existential, practical participation in love (and Trinitarian life) squarely in the province of apophasis!
And that, I would suggest, is what makes Orthodoxy truly Orthodox.
Anyways, it should be noted that all knowledge, for Staniloae (who stands squarely in the old patristic tradition), utterly relational. Every true concept is a “sentence” addressed by “Infinite Person” to man.
In summary, what does Fr Staniloae not set out to do in this chapter on Knowledge of God?
He does not dismiss intellectual knowledge in favor of apophatic knowledge, neither does he draw a rigid distinction between them.
He does not equate cataphatic knowledge with positive theology, and apophatic knowledge with irrationality. In fact, rationality embraces both positive and negative terms.
He does not conflate apophasis with “religious knowledge” or “theology.” Neither does he associate cataphasis with “natural revelation” and apophasis with “supernatural revelation.” There is no possibility of a natura pura, or a realm of knowledge that is not predicated upon grace. Staniloae stands in contrast to Reformation epistemologies, as he associates all knowledge with faith and grace, which are primordial and not new conditions inaugurated by the Cross.
He does not sequester the knowledge of God away from “secular” knowledge, reason or philosophy.
He does not denounce analogy, or even analogia entis. Neither does he predicate the knowledge of God upon a “real” distinction between the essence and energy of God.
Neither does he denounce the sophiological emphasis of Bulgakov (though he become more critical of Bulgakov later in life).
There are a lot of things that Fr Staniloae does not do, that a lot of other people (even Orthodox people), in fact, do.
Finally, there are many dichotomies identified in Fr Staniloae’s chapter on the Knowledge of God: immanence vs transcendence; created vs uncreated; time-space vs eternity (and above that is everlasting, or absolute/infinite).
But the very prettiest thing in this chapter is that knowledge is divine communication. In which beauty always traverses these dichotomies.
And the most beautiful expression—and form—is the Word Himself.
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Fr Jonathan Tobias is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Christ the Saviour Seminary in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.