Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Rough Jottings on Essence and Energies

Mike Liccione asked for a post on the distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies. I find that I actually don't have much to say about it. I'm a bit idiosyncratic in my view of the matter. As I've noted before on this weblog, I am, in at least a broad sense, a Palamist, so I agree that there is such a distinction. I'm also, in at least a broad sense, a Thomist, so I think God is wholly simple. There are occasionally attempts to hold that these two positions are mutually exclusive. This is fairly clearly not so. On Aquinas's account of divine simplicity, simplicity is noncomposition, where composition is union of two things as being in some way actual and (passively) potential. The particular cases he considers are:

1) quantitative parts (physical part & whole)
2) matter and form
3) nature and supposit
4) essence and esse
5) genus and difference
6) subject and accident

Aquinas is quite clear that he regards this as an exhaustive list. You will note that essence and energies are not on the list. This is scarcely surprising since the distinction between essence and energies is not -- and cannot be -- between two components one of which is actual and the other of which is potential. The essence is not actualized by the energies and the energies are not actualized by the essence. Further, one of the key points of simplicity understood in this way is that it is closely connected to immutability. Composition in terms of actual and passive potential means that the composite thing is, in principle, mutable; which no serious follower of Palamas or the Ecumenical Councils will concede.

Moreover, it is clear that (1) there is good reason to think that the distinction between essence and energies is really a distinction; and (2) there is good reason to think that the distinction is notional.

(1) The divine names are not synonymous. But denying the distinction between essence and energies in the sense Palamas makes it would commit us to saying that the divine names are, in fact, synonymous. One of Gregory's arguments for the distinction is that regarding 'nature' and 'things pertaining to nature' as the same leads to heretical confusions; we can't conflate nature, intellect, will, compassion, judgment, etc., because we make nonsense of Christian doctrine if we do. And he is exactly right. Nature and will are not logically equivalent, even in the divine case. But Aquinas's account of simplicity is not Descartes's; he does not make this confusion.

(2) However, what these terms refer to are not divided from each other in the Godhead. The divine nature is, as a whole, goodness; as a whole, wisdom; as a whole, justice; as a whole, power. And so forth. The terms are distinct, and necessarily so, but that to which they refer in God is one and the same. It's the unity that evades capture by human thought; we can obliquely refer to it, but we cannot understand it in itself, for refracting it into several non-synonymous conceptions, recognized not to be separable in the divine nature itself, is the only means we have of understanding such things. Thus they differ according to their mode of intelligibility; as does that in God which is incommunicable and that in God by which we participate in divinity.

But more to the real point, Aquinas himself insists that the gift of rapture is given to certain people; and that in this grace of rapture our light (the intellect) is strengthened with glory so that we become deiform so as to see divine light. He explicitly denies, for instance, that St. Paul when rapt to the third heaven, saw a merely created glory. He, glorified, saw God; in the rapture he was given a deifying gift. And God cannot be seen through any created means, but only through His own superabundant intelligibility. This is what is chiefly at stake in the dispute between the hesychasts and their critics, among which was the utterly confused and clueless Barlaam.

The point is not that Palamas and Aquinas agree on everything. It would be astonishing if they did. The point is that attempts to make the latter straightforwardly a contradiction of the former simply are showing confusions about Aquinas, and that, on the other side, the natural thing for a Thomist to do is to learn from Palamas. It can be done without ceasing to be Thomistic.

Of course, the point I really wish people would take away is that this is not a matter for polemics but for charitable doctrine. Say that I fail in my understanding of the account of the distinction between essence and energies, which is more than possible; it won't be conceded that the true account is less wonderful than the one I've suggested here. But the account I've suggested here, if true, suggests something so worthwhile that everyone ought to be told about it; no one should be attacked simply for not recognizing it as true, because that wastes precious moments that could be sent lovingly teaching them the truth. And if there is a better account, it is more worthy, not less, to be taught in such a way. For example, you can tell those Orthodox who truly believe the Palamite doctrine and those who merely uphold it through a party spirit. Those who truly believe it are excited about it; it charges them with love for their fellow man and an earnest desire that they, too, may know of this great and good truth, that God became man so that man might receive a deifying gift. They seek to convey it a thousand ways in the hope that those who do not understand might come to understand. Those who uphold it only out of party spirit conveniently forget that their acquaintance with it is not something they have due to their own intelligence or purity but simply and solely because God decided to bless them with the grace of being Orthodox. Because of this, they attack those who do not immediately recognize the doctrine as being stupid, or ignorant, or even corrupt. They spend far more time and effort criticizing other people for not believing it than they do teaching it; a sign of dangerous priorities. For the one the very doctrine is almost a prayer, and certainly a joy, itself; for the other, it is merely a line dividing the party of the Wise from that of the Foolish and the party of the Light from the party of the Dark. Here, as elsewhere, the true believers are marked out by a love for others and a concern for truth that the false believers lack. This is true even when the true believers criticize, which they sometimes do, and sometimes even do sharply. The difference from the mere partisans is palpable. Charity should rule all in all matters such as this.

Alas, it rarely does.

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