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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Existing in Relation - Trinitarian Thoughts from Gilson's Esprit de Philosophie Medievale

The purest form of phenomenal being, and therefore that which most closely approximates being qua being, is the rational - that which can be understood and not merely sensed; that which is most true (one of the transcendentals) and therefore closest to being (because being is also one of the transcendentals), and most true because least subject to illusion, misperception, or of course the mutability of qualia.  

One might even say, speaking strictly from a phenomenological or at least a Kantian view of being as the world presented to the mind, that the object of the intellect is being.  (Levinas and the whole critique of ontotheology throw a wrench into this; but one really must be an ontotheologian first in order to deconstruct ontotheology.  One cannot deconstruct what has not first been constructed, if only as a provisional yet still edifying approximation; this is a very basic principle in deconstruction emphasized over and over again by the likes of Derrida and Nancy.)

If God is identified as ipsum esse subsistens, as He must be within the framework of the classical theistic tradition (even if we situate this within a deeper grounding of Areopagitic meontology), then if the object of the intellect is being, the object of the intellect is God.  This is close to a fundamental insight that lay behind, and was harshly criticized by Rome in, the philosophy of immanentism and the theology of "Modernism" that grew out of it.  It was perhaps poorly phrased at the time, just as it is perhaps poorly phrased now, but no less worth pondering as a result.

One might plausibly wonder if this is a line of thought Aristotle was coming to when he thought of God (pure Being) as the pure act of thought thinking itself.  In this case "act" cannot mean the everyday use of the word to mean “to act on something else” (actus secundus or second actuality), for then it must exist first in order to act (as it must in the logical order of thought in everyday speech).  Bizarrely to our ears, actus primus or first actuality means the act of being itself, completely intrinsic to the acting being and completely identical with its existence.  The act/potency distinction (first actuality meaning "to be"; potency meaning "to be possible") remains one of the most jarring and strange concepts from the Thomistic tradition to my ears, though to the ancient and medieval world it came very naturally and congenially.  

A problem still remains that the concept of an "act" seems at a very fundamental level to be a relational concept, even if we accept the idea of the "act of being", the identity between being and actuality.  To act is to act on.  This is no problem for the world of creatures - all things come into being as a consequence of the actions of other beings, perdure through their existence in relation to other beings, and fall apart and turn into other beings through processes that involve other beings.  The Buddhist doctrine of "dependent origination" summarizes the fact quite neatly and concisely.  With due respect to the process theologians, whose faith in the face of a very easy atheist critique seems impressively unshakeable, God would not be God were He by His nature subject to the chain of dependent origination like all the other beings.  But if to act were to act on, God could not be act - and therefore not being.  (So far the negative theologians and deconstructionists are still nodding their head in agreement.)  God need not relate to things outside of Him as created things must  (by virtue mainly of causality, action, passion, space, and time) - though were God to create a universe there is nothing preventing such a Creator from relating to His creation either as something external to Him, or as something participating in His act of being.  Orthodox theology has always insisted on the gratuitous non-necessity of creation.  But orthodox theology has also insisted on calling God being, not in His relationship to us (his "energetic" mode of being, in Greek or Orthodox terms), but as He is in Himself (his ousia), His name.

And yet we cannot conceive of something existing without in some way having relation to something else, whether by being known, or knowing, or by location or by comparison, or by some other such standard.  Therefore, it follows that a part of existence means existing-in-relation, that implied in the term “to be” is how it relates to either itself or something else.

These meditations were written over a decade ago in high school - I neglected to find, polish and publish them until now - and I wrote them before encountering Metropolitan John Zizioulas' famous insistence on being-as-communion.  The general idea is similar, however, and the Trinitarian thrust evident in both places.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Saguna Brahman/Nirguna Brahman vs. Essence Energies: An Exchange in the comments bar

For reasons I'm not entirely sure the blog seems to be refusing to let me add comments to my own posts, or stay signed in as Seraphim, which is frustrating because somebody left a question I wanted to respond to on the post "Transcendental Idealism:  Brief Thoughts."  I am going instead to respond here.

My original post was indeed quite brief.  It read as follows:

Transcendental idealism in three sentences: I am I. I am not not-I. The non-I is given, and not derived from the self; the non-I is transcendentally constructed by and not known apart from the self.
Or in three words: identity, difference, act.

A poster named Christ wrote the following words last March, words which due to my family/work blogging absence I did not read until tonight:

Hi Seraphim,

I discovered your blog by way of the exchange that you had with the late Stratford Caldecott. It is oh so rare to find orthodox Christians who are genuinely familiar with the Traditionalist School of Guenon and Schuon.

I apologize for my presumption, but I hope that you'd be willing to give your opinion on a couple of things that have preoccupied me. I came (returned) to the faith of my childhood, Roman Catholicism, by way of the Perennialist point of view. Ever since then, I have immersed myself in the spiritual/intellectual tradition of the Roman Church, especially the Thomistic thinkers. I'm sure you wouldn't be surprised to hear that I have found it difficult to reconcile the "transcendent unity of religions" with the central tenets of traditional Christianity. The "Perennialist-Christian project" seems to rest on the applicability of the doctrine of maya in Divinis, of the distinction between Nirguna and Saguna Brahman. Christian Perennialists seem to make the claim that same teaching can be found in their tradition by way of the Essence-Energy distinction. Do you think that these are, in fact, the same? And, how can a western Christian view this position who don't admit of the essence-energy distinction in the first place?

I would like to respond in the comments, and hopefully will when the bug is fixed.  In the meantime, here goes:

Hi Chris,

Glory to Jesus Christ!

I apologize that I did not see your question until now.  I get notifications of comments on my email, which I have not checked in a very long time - a heavy work schedule and increasingly growing family life has set things like that, and my blog, on the back burner.  I'm about to quit teaching positions at two secular universities and move across the country to begin teaching at a small, orthodox Catholic liberal arts high school - named (appropriately enough for my background and interests, Chesterton Academy!) while finding that for the third time in the third year of our marriage we are once again pregnant.  A quick prayer or two on your part would be appreciated once you see this.

You raise a good point, and I think that the comparison made between the two distinctions (saguna vs. nirguna or "s/n" and essence vs energies or "e/e") is illuminating, that it increases our understanding of the problems, and often applicable, but that ultimately it doesn't work.  They're close, but not quite the same.

For one, the energetic mode of being God extends into the Trinity itself, and I don't believe that one can be an orthodox Christian and relegate the Trinity to saguna Brahman, as I suspect most "perennialist-Christians" or at least most Perennialists would do.  I also don't think that, despite the "Godhead" language he uses that appears to do this, Meister Eckhart actually intended to relegate the Trinity to a lower way of being God below the ineffable Godhead.  Meister Eckhart is of course the lens through which perennialism views Christianity - often in a manner which I believe is unbalanced and does not correctly reflect Eckhart's context within the Christian tradition.  Perhaps a better recovery of Eckhart and his context and setting would help make the reconciliation between perennialism and Christianity a little bit less difficult?

The divine "energies" *do* need to be applied to the Trinity for two reasons.  The first is that that is the Orthodox teaching concerning the procession of the Spirit - that the role of the Son in the Spirit's procession is energetic, not hypostatic.  Neither hardline Orthodox nor Roman Catholics will necessarily feel the need to make this distinction, but both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic communions on a magisterial level have shared that common understanding since the 14th century.

The second reason is that the Trinity is not only immanent but also economic - and therefore preeminently "energetic" in the latter case - and the two ways of being Trinity are nondual.  In Rahner's terms, "the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity, and the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity".

A second way in which the comparison breaks down is that in Hinduism, if I understand it correctly, Brahman actually refers not to God-as-He-exists-apart-from-any-consideration-of-our-existence, but rather quite directly and tangibly to the realization or experience of God; the word "Brahman" actually refers directly to the sacrificial Vedic prayers, and only by extension to the experience of God sought through those prayers.  (And of course, any other God-talk would be dismissed as misguided - atman is Brahman, which entails that ALL discussion of God is discussion of the experience of God.  Orthodox Christian theology must concur, acknowledging no avenue to God apart from the meeting-point between the human and divine natures in the Incarnation of Christ, and we remember Meister Eckhart's words about the threefold nativity of Christ in the eternal generation of the Logos in the cave of the Father, in the cave of Bethlehem, and in the cave of our heart - and these three are all one and the same.)

So saguna Brahman is the relationship of the devotee to his Lord, and nirguna Brahman is the nondual experience of God in the cloud of unknowing.  In either case, we experience God through His energies.  Theosis is energetic, which is simply another way of saying that we are God by grace and not by nature, that we are creatures who are becoming uncreated.  This is still true if we take the standpoint of other standard schools within Hinduism that view the same process in terms of shedding ignorance and realizing something which was always the reality to begin with - God is eternal and if we "become God" that does not mean that God has not always been God or that He experienced some change in time.

So I'd point out those two ways in which the s/n and e/e distinctions don't exactly map onto each other.  Nonetheless they're close to each other.  God as He is beyond manifestation and form (nirguna Brahman) is God as He exists beyond all knowing and reach (God's ineffable Essence).  God as manifested to us as Creator and Lord is God as known and loved and participated (God's uncreated Energies).

From a Latin Catholic POV, you'd want to talk about the analogy of Being and participation.  There simply is no e/e distinction because there is no adequate Latin translation of the word "energeia".  "Energeia" connotes the whole process of participated analogy of being which the mechanistic "operatio" misses.  And "Essentia" in Latin is the whole Being of God in which we participate, which I believe is a bit broader than the Greek "ousia" (the divine depths of God-in-Himself beyond all knowing and participation).

When viewing through an Eastern Christian view, one must be careful not to separate God into a knowable part and an unknowable part.  That destroys the paradox and mystery, which is that we know the unknowable God.  (The blog wars over the apparent contradiction between absolute divine simplicity ["ADS"] and e/e testify to this.  I plainly and simply believe the Thomists are right to affirm ADS.  I also do not believe that their development of the understanding of divine simplicity departs from that of Damascene, who very strongly affirms both divine simplicity and e/e together.)

When viewing from a Western Christian view, one must also be careful to maintain the paradox of knowing the unknowable God, rather than settling in for rationalizations which ultimately make God knowable, either in full (but only to Himself) or in part (as we know God through the Beatific Vision "partially" or "imperfectly").  God remains unknowable.  And we know the unknowable God.  And "knowledge" in this context is transformative, and transformation is deifying.  Duality is overcome - the creature becomes uncreated - and yet individuality and createdness somehow persist ["baqa" to the Sufis] through it all, even as the ego and everything which is strictly and precisely "I", isolated and distinguished from the Trinitarian communion of love in which alone we can find our identity, is extinguished.