Knowledge and the Uncreated Light

I’ve been dialoging with some Roman Catholics on the Eseence / Energies distinction, and mostly spinning my wheels.   I’m not really trying to persuade anyone, I’m trying to listen and respond with a clear Orthodox voice.  Not only am I (still) working on distinguishing Orthodox metaphysics from Western metaphysics, but more importantly I am trying to get a clearer picture of the Orthodox ethos contrasted with that of my RC friends.

One of the points of departure is the role of knowledge in salvation.  For the Roman Catholic the paramount experience of the Christian life takes place post-mortum in the Beatific Vision.  This vision is repeatedly described in terms of knowledge: it is “an immediate knowledge of God” (Catholic Encyclopedia).  Of course because the subject of this knowledge is God, it is does not follow that the knowledge of the BV is the same as knowledge of created things.  Yet the emphasis on knowledge has influence.

Add on top of this assertions from Latin theologians, like Thomas Aquinas.  In the Summa Theologica (I Q12.A4) Thomas states that man’s intellectual, rational self finds its complete terminus in this direct knowledge.

By the name of beatitude is understood the ultimate perfection of rational or of intellectual nature; and hence it is that it is naturally desired, since everything naturally desires its ultimate perfection. Now there is a twofold ultimate perfection of rational or of intellectual nature. The first is one which it can procure of its own natural power; and this is in a measure called beatitude or happiness. Hence Aristotle (Ethic. x) says that man’s ultimate happiness consists in his most perfect contemplation, whereby in this life he can behold the best intelligible object; and that is God. Above this happiness there is still another, which we look forward to in the future, whereby “we shall see God as He is.”

Knowledge of things – anything – and the perfection of the rational and intellectual “nature” then is the best prepartation for the fulfillment of the Christian life – or so at least it seems.  It can make a great deal of sense that one coming from this tradition (and Protestants are not immune from this) see intellectual power and insight as the closest thing to blessedness.  This sensibility should be compared to several of St. Paul’s comments about human perfection and human wisdom, especially those in 1 Corinthians chapter 1.

Broadly speaking the Orthodox view of what human reason is, and the role it plays in the incarnate human being, is at odds with this picture.  Orthodoxy stresses that when St. Paul says “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” the word for mind is nous, which does not mean “rational”, “calculating”, or even “intellectual”.  It is the seat of human intellection, which is served by the functions of calculating, discoursive reasoning, etc.  The nous is what apprehends things, and it is potentially capable of apprehending God.

This apprehension does not require knowledge.

What we apprehend of God are his actions, or energies, and they are truly God.  The pure vision sees them as Uncreated Light: the light that Moses saw, Peter, James, and John saw, and St. Stephen saw at his martyrdom.  It is powerful, transformative, and ineffible.

And according to St. Gregory Palamas it is “invisibly seen and ignorantly known”.  What does it take to see God?  Our Lord Jesus Christ told us it is the “pure of heart” who shall see him.

You claim that the mind can see God only when purified not only of the passions but of ignorance as well: well the saints make no mention of the latter.  They purify themselves of evil passions and transcend all knowledge by uninterrupted and immaterial prayer, and it is then that they begin to see God…For they never cease to keep watch over themselves, not wasting time to find out if someone else – a Scythian perhaps, a Persian, or an Egyptian – claims such-and-such knowledge, not bothering about this “purification from ignorance”.  They know perfectly well that ignorance of this kind in no way hinders the vision of God.

For if the fulfillment of the commandments has no other result than the purification of the passions; and if, according to God’s promises, only this keeping of the commandments will procure the presence, the indwelling and manifestation of God, is it not a flagarent error to speak in addition about this further purification from ignorance…a “purification” which, as we have shown, in fact causes knowledge to vanish?

St. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians that knowledge will pass away, and the Orthodox faith has not strayed from this teaching.  God who reveals freely loves and makes blessed those who seek after him, regardless of the power of their intelligence.

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One thought on “Knowledge and the Uncreated Light

  1. Jesse,

    Orthodoxy stresses that when St. Paul says “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” the word for mind is nous, which does not mean “rational”, “calculating”, or even “intellectual”. It is the seat of human intellection, which is served by the functions of calculating, discoursive reasoning, etc. The nous is what apprehends things, and it is potentially capable of apprehending God.

    Aquinas doesn’t disagree with this at all. So, you seem to be setting up a straw man, using modern conceptions of knowledge as though that must be what Aquinas held. Even the angels, for Aquinas, do not think discursively. They apprehend God by the divine light.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

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