Thursday, January 26, 2012

Essence and Energies

Orthodoxy astounds me. I love the Lutheran Church - I grew up in it - but I never really knew much about what it meant to be Lutheran. To this day, I don't know the difference between the Protestant churches. Of no fault but my own, of course.

But I know what it means to be Orthdox. I love this Church which has existed since the Apostles founded it. In a world that seeks to make church more trendy and appealing, which isn't the point, it's refreshing to find a church that is what it is. And is what it's been for 2000 years. And has struggled for the sake of maintaining the integrity of the Church, protecting against heretical thought and the false prophets throughout history. That's biblical, no?

Anyway, the Orthodox Church seeks to know God while respecting His mysteries. Some of us try to explain everything, while others have given up any speculation. Neither of these things is wrong, but there's a balance. The Orthodox Church, though it has records of ecumenical councils and Tradition, isn't afraid to say, "We don't know; it's a mystery."


My husband and I are reading The Orthodox Way by Bishop Kallistos Ware. Most recently, we've read about how knowing God is explained. That sounds strange, yes, but there have always been conflicting ideas. God is huge. Ridiculously huge. How could human minds understand Him? Yet, we are meant to know Him, because what He wants is relationship with us. So how does it work if He's so seemingly and actually incomprehensible?

I'd like to share part of this section with you. Forgive the length. This is what happens when my mind is blown.

To indicate the two "poles" of God's relationship to us - unknown yet well known, hidden yet revealed - the Orthodox tradition draws a distinction between the essence, nature or inner being of God, on the one hand, and His energies, operations or acts of power, on the other.

"He is outside all things according to His essence," writes St. Athanasius, "but He is in all things through His acts of power." "We know the essence through the energy," St. Basil affirms. "No one has ever seen the essences of God, but we believe in the essence because we experience the energy." By the essence of God is meant His otherness, by the energies His nearness ...

... The essence, then, signifies the radical transcendence of God; the energies, His immanence and omnipresence. When Orthodox speak of the divine energies, they do not mean by this an emanation from God, an "intermediary" between God and man, or a "thing" or "gift" that God bestows. On the contrary, the energies are God Himself in His activity and self-manifestation. When a man knows or participates in the divine energies, he truly knows or participates in God Himself, so far as this is possible for a created being. But God is God, and we are human; and so, while He possesses us, we cannot in the same way possess Him.

... [I]t would be equally misleading to regard the energies as a "part" of God. The Godhead is simple and indivisible, and has no parts. The essence signifies the whole God as He is in Himself; the energies signify the whole God as He is in action. God in His entirety is completely present in each of His divine energies. Thus the essence-energies distinction is a way of stating simultaneously that the whole God is inaccessible, and that the whole God in His outgoing love has rendered Himself accessible to man.

By virtue of this distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies, we are able to affirm the possibility of a direct or mystical union between man and God - what the Greek Fathers term the theosis of man, his "deification" - but at the same time we exclude any pantheistic identification between the two: for man participates in the energies of God, not in the essence. There is union, but not fusion or confusion. Although "oned" with the divine, man still remains man; he is not swallowed up or annihilated, but between him and God there continues always to exist an "I-Thou" relationship of person to person.

Such, then, is our God: unknowable in His essence, yet known in His energies; beyond and above all that we can think or express, yet closer to us than our own heart. Through the apophatic way we smash in pieces all the idols or mental images that we form of Him, for we know that all are unworthy of His surpassing greatness. Yet at the same time, through our prayer and through our active service in the world, we discover at every moment His divine energies, His immediate presence in each person and each thing. Daily, hourly we touch Him. We are, as Francis Thompson said, "in no strange land." All around us is the "many splendored thing" ...

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