Christian TraditionsEastern Orthodox

Unique Characteristics of Eastern Orthodox Spirituality (Part I)

When I first discovered Eastern Orthodox Christianity, I intuitively recognized a different “spirituality” from what I had experienced as an Evangelical Christian. Over the years, and especially since “spirituality” has become a buzzword within our culture, I have tried to identify the primary characteristic and distinctive features of Eastern Christian spirituality and to contrast them with where I came from. I did this first for the purpose of better understanding our Eastern Christian spiritual tradition for my own edification, and second to be better able to articulate our spiritual ethos to Western inquirers and critics. I do not think you will necessarily read anything entirely new and surprising here, but I have found the process of identification helpful and hope you will too!

First: what does “spirituality” mean? It means many different things in our North American and Western European cultures – everything, it seems, from awareness of something greater than oneself (regardless of who or what that refers to), to being compassionate, mindful, advocating animal and nature rights (even) to being a vegetarian!!! More specifically for the Eastern Christian, “spirituality” refers to the ways man experiences union with God in the Holy Spirit, by which the man of flesh is made spiritual.

While what has come to be known as “Western” and “Eastern” Christian theology do not exclusively dictate how the respective “spiritualities” of these traditions have been formed, I find that the very different conclusions in these theological traditions – about how God communicates with humanity, and how we know and apprehend God – have (in fact) significantly shaped their (respective) spiritualities.

According to one of our great contemporary theologians, Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, “…a Saint is he who partakes, in varying degrees, in the uncreated grace of God, and especially the deifying energy of God.” Now the Western Christian would not argue with most of this statement except for perhaps one or two words! I want to focus on the word “uncreated” (as in ‘the uncreated grace of God’) here, and “deifying” (as in ‘the deifying energy of God’) later, because these words mark key – and I think important – differences in Western and Eastern Christian approaches that I believe have impacted their ‘spiritualities’.

In classic Western Christian theological thought, the nature of God is generally understood as absolute, transcendent and indivisible (that is, not divided into parts). This is the doctrine called “divine simplicity” or “divine unity”. As explained by Western Evangelical theologian William Lane Craig, this means, “God is an absolutely undifferentiated unity Who has no distinct attributes, stands in no real relations, Whose essence is not distinct from His existence, and Who just is the pure act of being/subsisting.” The doctrine of divine simplicity is associated with the classical theism of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas and their adherents. God is understood as devoid of any complexity or composition, whether physical or metaphysical. His essential nature cannot be experienced directly by his creatures. God in his essence (then) is understood to be beyond human apprehension and comprehension. As an example, God warns Moses in Exodus 33, that no man can see God in his essence and live.

Following this theological premise, Western theologians in the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed traditions have concluded that since God is radically transcendent, God’s relations with humans – in order to protect God’s transcendence and indivisibility – can (then) only be experienced through created entities or means (through intermediaries like angels, an image, or a symbol, which signifies God but are not God). According to the Western classic view of “divine simplicity”, God cannot be apprehended or experienced directly, otherwise this would mean that God does share His essential nature with his creation, which would infer pantheism. According to the classic Western view, therefore, even “grace” itself – God’s action within the soul – is a “created” effect of God – (and) is not God working in the soul directly.

Given the radical distinction between God and created being, the Western Christian spiritual tradition affirms that there are (then) essentially only two ways to know God: one, by the light of natural human reason and inference; and two, by God’s self-disclosure and revelation in the Bible. This is important to keep in mind: in the Western Christian Tradition, the seat of the image of God (imago Dei) is the reasoning part of man.

Here is a quote from the Roman Catholic Catechism that makes this very point: “Our holy mother, the Church, holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason. Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God’s revelation….”1

Martin Luther goes further by asserting that we cannot “know” God directly – even by means of reason and that we must essentially accept God by a “leap of faith” alone: “In God there is sheer Deity, and the essence of God is His transcendent wisdom and omnipotent power. [God’s] attributes are altogether beyond the grasp of reason…God did not want to give us an insight into it in this life.”2

John Calvin, consistent in this regard, writes, that God’s “essence is incomprehensible; hence, his divineness far escapes all human perception.”3

They are speaking about God in His essence and in the West there is no distinction made between God in essence and his attributes or what the East calls “energies”. In the Western Christian Tradition, both are beyond human experience and apprehension.

While Roman Catholic mystics like like Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint John of the Cross seemed to cross the boundaries of the intellect to the supra-rational, to direct apprehension or experience of God, quoting from the Catholic Catechism, “Throughout the ages, there have been so-called private revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith.”4

Thus, in formal Western Christian thought there is really no theological ground for direct encounter with God in this life, except through (created) “intermediaries” or “entities” – like angelic beings, or through God’s revelation in Scripture. Catholics traditionally reject (with Protestantism following its lead) any direct epistemological possibility of a direct connection between God and man, whereby man might “behold” God directly.

In the East, by contrast, the theological spirit takes a decidedly different approach. The seat of the Image of God is not thought to be in the reasoning or intellective faculty of the human being, but rather in the “Nous”, sometimes translated incorrectly as “Mind”, but in the East understood as “heart.” This is not necessarily the physical “heart” but at the center of man’s being.

Orthodox spirituality is built – not upon theological speculation or philosophy – but upon the experiences of those who have known God, and the purpose of Eastern Christian spirituality is to lead each baptized soul to such experience for him or herself. As theologian and historian John S. Romanides wrote: “In the Orthodox…tradition, genuine spiritual experience is the foundation of dogmatic formulations…” Christian doctrine developed in response to spiritual experience. One of the biblical texts which has powerfully shaped Eastern Christian spirituality (and, interestingly, is rarely quoted in the West) is 2 Peter 1:3:

“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”

The Greek fathers agree that God is transcendent and indivisible. So how then can humans in fact experience the divine nature directly? First, a “participation in the divine nature” does not represent a relapse into pagan pantheism or “absorption” of the creature in the Creator, as some critics of Eastern Christianity have charged. To avoid this pantheistic heresy, the Greek fathers offer the well-known distinction between the “essence” and “energies” of God. God’s “essence” is indivisible and entirely beyond us (i.e. unknowable). We do not have in Eastern Christianity a “mysticism” of the divine essence; but God’s energies – as we pray to the Holy Spirit – are “everywhere present and fill all things.”

Saint Basil writes: “The energies are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know…God from His energies, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His energies come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach.” The metaphor often used to describe the distinction between “essence” and “energies” is the sun (Essence) and its rays (Energies). They are one and the same; the sun’s rays are not derivative, not a symbol, nor are they distinct from the sun. When you experience the sun’s rays as heat, you experience the sun directly. Likewise the whole of God is present in each of his energies and those who participate in them participate in the whole of God. Saint Gregory the Nazianzen calls the “energies” of God – in reference to what Moses was able to experience of God on Mount Sinai – as “the back parts of God, which He leaves behind Him as tokens of Himself like the shadows and reflections of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes because we cannot look at the sun itself.” Thus, the Eastern spiritual tradition teaches, it is through God’s deifying “energies” – especially through the energies present in the holy mysteries – that we have direct experience of God, without blurring the lines between Creator and creature, or violating the principle of indivisibility.

As I have mentioned, the Western theological tradition does not traditionally and specifically make such a distinction between God’s “essence” and “energies” (although I have heard Catholics accept the Palamite distinction in the newer catechism but I have not confirmed this). Traditionally, Western theologians have argued the “essence/energies” distinction is a denial of “divine unity”, or (even) that it creates a fourth person (hypostasis) of the Trinity!

Carrying this line of thinking forward to its logical conclusion, the West has rejected as an authentic experience of God the Uncreated Light or Vision of God (theoria) of our hesychast, contemplative tradition in Eastern Christianity. Catholics have a teaching called the “Beatific Vision” – where the object of vision is the Essence of God – but this is generally understood to occur only in the next life.

Now all this is not to say that Western Christians do not or cannot “know” God. They may although this is despite their formal theological tradition. Many – perhaps most – Western Christians do not know their tradition’s foundational theology of “divine simplicity” or of its spiritual implications. My point is merely that the theological and epistemological emphasis in the West, formed a spirituality that is largely based on intellectual reasoning and faith alone (sola fide).

To summarize then, in the West – especially since the medieval scholasticism of Aquinas and the Western Enlightenment – by which Luther and Calvin were very influenced – Western Christian spirituality has focused on knowing about God, through reasoning or contemplation of God’s word. On the other hand, the praxis and spiritual ethos of the Eastern Christian spiritual tradition is focused on knowing God experientially, beyond mere reasoning, through an ascetic and ecstatic ‘transformation of the senses’. This quote from Saint Dionysius encapsulates/summarizes this Eastern spiritual approach well:

“Lay aside the faculties of the senses and reach up, so far as possible, without the use of discursive reasoning to union with him who transcends all being and knowledge. For shedding all things, you will, by a wholly unqualified and absolute ecstasy that detaches you from all things, be lifted up to the ray of the divine…”5

I find that in Western Christianity because of the approaches we have been discussing, there tends to be a dichotomy between the realm of God and the realm of man. It tends to set-up, as Father Stephen Freeman puts it, a “two-storey universe”: God and the spiritual realm “up there, and us down here”.6 There are, of course, counter-movements to this dominant impulse in Western Christianity. These include the holiness, Pentecostal, and contemporary Charismatic movements. These movements have tried to bridge the spiritual gap between “knowing God” and “knowing about God” through hyper-emotionalism, and neo-Gnostic experiences. But Metropolitan Nafpaktos argues they still exist very much in the “abstract, emotional and psychological realm”, rather than the divine realm.


Kevin Allen

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  • TJ Humphrey

    Forgive me, but I wonder if you are being a bit too dismissive of Western Christianity in some ways. Granted, as one comes into a new tradition, they have to figure out what it is not while they also strive to figure out what it is. I have done this as well, and I have done it in a few of my articles for this site even. So, I get it. However, the Western flavor that you are dismissing is a bit too neat and tidy. What about folks like the Quakers, or the Wesleyan’s? The Puritans? Do they not have contemplative aspects (or whatever other synonym you want to use) as well? You mention Anglicanism, but the Anglo-Catholic branch of Anglicanism is quite different from the Western stereotype being promoted here. There was a contemplative movement going on in England during the same era that St. Gregory Pajamas lived, and that moment was just as transformative for English spirituality as the Palamite movement was for Eastern spirituality. I am grateful, though, for your explanation of the Eastern take on spirituality. I learned some new things from you. But, I guess, I am saying that the chasm between Western and Eastern spirituality may not be as deep or as wide as it is often made out to be. People in the West, too, have experienced the Uncreated Light of God. People like Julian of Norwich taught that prayer was the chief means whereby the soul is transformed. There is a strong apophatic tradition in the West as well (The Cloud of Unknowing, Walter Hilton, etc.).

  • George Aldhizer

    Maybe we need some more polemics in these parts. I’m cool with that. Thanks for the piece, glad that there are multiple parts to this reflection. I’m sort of sitting back with my popcorn hoping that this will spark debate with people who are more knowledgeable than I am. I think my main question would be to ask what the utility of splitting East and West is within these debates, it seems to unify the Western church artificially, I’m skeptical that your wide-sweeping analysis applies (or applies to the same degree) to each “Western” tradition.

    My initial reaction would be to ask on your intellectual reasoning (West)/experience of God (East) dichotomy. This seems to make Orthodoxy an odd bedfellow with Pentecostalism, two traditions that I thought could not be further from one another. What would your take be on Pentecostalism’s emphasis on the experience of God as it relates to Orthodoxy’s emphasis? Would you say that Pentecostalism is closer to Orthodoxy than say, any high church Western tradition on this question?

    • Kevin Allen

      George, thanks for the comment! The only generalization of the “West” I was making was that of one theological principle – that is, the principle of divine simplicity and how I believe it has had an affect on Western Christian spirituality. This is not a black-white issue, as St Gregory for example says that reason is the “highest faculty”of the human being and the mark of the image of God and the Cappadocian Fathers (ST Basil, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Gregory of Nazianzus) were defenders of rationality as much as they were guardians against its excesses. So there is not a dogmatic dichotomy between reason and experience in Orthodoxy. Rather there is balance between them. As for comparisons between Orthodoxy and Pentecostalism it could be argued that there is an essential consensus that God is to be “experienced”; however, there are many differences!

  • Benjamin Winter

    I don’t understand why you feel that you need to assault Western theology in order to make your points about the experiential spirituality of the East. Could you please explain why you chose this method?

    I also have a few corrections to what you have said. You stated that “in the West there is no distinction made between God in essence and his attributes.” Saint Anselm, in his Proslogion, does exactly this by speaking of God as “that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-conceived,” and then reflecting on God’s attributes throughout the remainder of the text. If you have not read it, I would highly recommend doing so (it’s only about 35 pages).

    Second, you said: “According to the classic Western view, therefore, even ‘grace’ itself – God’s action within the soul – is a ‘created’ effect of God – (and) is not God working in the soul directly.” This statement is not fair to the Catholic teachings on grace. For example, CCC 1099: “The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification: ‘Therefore if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.'” Infusion is God working in the soul directly.

    Finally, I don’t think it’s appropriate to treat the entire West all at once as you do, because you at times conflate the doctrines of different ecclesial communions with those of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church acknowledges that the patriarchates of the East are valid and apostolic communions, and we share the same seven sacraments. One would not think this were the case from reading your article. I can tell you that as a “Western” Christian and a Catholic, I felt dismissed and unfairly generalized throughout. If this is the case, how can the animating principle behind your article be “to stimulate meaningful dialog across Christian traditions?”

    ps Have you read Saint Bonaventure? Perhaps his Itinerarium will challenge you to rethink the uniform criticism of scholasticism in the West, as it ends with mystical death in order to directly experience God.

    • Kevin Allen

      Benjamin, I’m sorry you took the piece as an “assault”.It was not meant to denigrate the RCC for which I have respect. It was meant to identify a widely recognized theological distinction between traditions that even many Eastern Catholics acknowledge differs from the “Latin Rite” (“divine simplicity”). I realize the RCC defines “grace” as a gift; however this gift is considered a created grace. I also do not believe Anselm defines God’s “attributes” as the East does. God clearly has attributes; however given the theological principle of divine simplicity, these attributes are not God. So this piece was not meant to be a put-down of Catholicism. It was meant to show how the traditions in the East perhaps developed the different approaches to their spirituality. I also thought I made it clear that I was not saying Christians in western traditions could not know God despite thre “divide” created by this theological principle.

      • Benjamin Winter

        Kevin, thank you for this charitable reply. You have alleviated some of my concerns about the piece, although it’s hard to not to feel assaulted by the statement that Westerners MAY know God, “although this is despite their formal theological tradition.” :/ As a person studying theology (and many of us have on this site), this cuts to the core–especially since I try not to separate abstract beliefs from their lived expression and practice. So saying these things about the failure of divine simplicity to foster a healthy spirituality is a serious accusation to make, and I’m not convinced that the division between West and East that you draw is accurate.

        Take some of your comments on Basil. The metaphor of the sun and its rays limps, because experiencing rays is not the exact same thing as experiencing the sun directly. Despite this, a paradox is maintained. That paradox is that “the whole of God [sun] is present in each of his energies [rays].” Acknowledging this as a paradox, there must always be a sense in which it is true, AND a sense in which it is not true.

        Exactly how this is held to be true may indeed be a difference between East and West, for there are times where we speak differently about theosis or participation in the divine life (although Catholic beliefs as I understand them in no way oppose those of the Eastern communions). But back to the paradox of how the whole of God is present in his energies, we must also hold this statement to be “not true.” For this we need only look to your own quotation of Basil: “the essence [is] simple … do not undertake to approach near to His essence … His essence remains beyond our reach.” To me, the doctrine of divine simplicity, properly expressed, upholds this critical distinction. Historically, it was the Cappadocians who insisted on the ontological gap between God and creation (against Eunomianism). So I’m just not buying that divine simplicity in the West is the theological barrier you are making it out to be.

        I also maintain my critique about the practice of lumping together the various Christian communities of the West. Even further and more fundamentally, I am perennially concerned about rhetoric that upholds unequivocal division between “West” and “East.” There are many historical problems with doing this, not the least of which being when the divide started in the first place. Further, the dichotomy fails to capture the truly diverse beliefs of great saints and theologians on both “sides,” and eschews the influence of ideas that “traveled across” (I’m thinking, for example, of the influence of Pseudo-Dionysius on Scholasticism, particularly on Bonaventure and Aquinas).

        So I think George is right to question the “West reasoning / East experiencing” idea that you endorse as a summary of your article. When my wife and I were discerning whether we should join the Roman Catholic or the Orthodox communion, we made this difficult decision with the clear intention that, wherever we ended up, we would not see ourselves as a Catholic or Orthodox “over against” the other. One of the factors that weighed in on our decision was the attitude that the West has “gone wrong” at some undetermined point, and therefore is tainted in some way (whether in theology or spirituality, culture or politics, etc.). This is a very dangerous route to take, because 1) who are we to cast the first stone? there are many problems on each side, and 2) it is not productive for a community to build itself up by tearing another community down. On that last point, I would challenge you to rethink some of your criticisms of the West. It’s certainly fine and helpful to point out differences, but wouldn’t it be better to first show what beauty your own tradition has, and then make suggestions as to how this could be better understood by the other side? Without this sort of intellectual charity, old divisions will never be healed. Thanks for listening, peace be with you.

        • Kevin Allen

          Benjamin, thanks for your reply.

          I think you are reacting to this piece as if I am saying “My religion is better than your religion”. That’s not what I am saying. This piece was actually for Orthodox catechumens in a section where we talked about differences in Christian faith traditions. Ben Cabe one of the editors of this site decided to pick it up.

          As I said I am not anti-Catholic. St. Padre Pio is one of my favorite contemporary saints. In fact I started my journey towards Christianity (after having had an encounter with the Person of Christ in a Hindu ashram) as a RC catechumen at the parish near Columbia University in NYC where Thomas Merton (‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ and other books) was baptized (Corpus Christi parish).

          Coming from a non-Christian tradition, I thought this might be the place for me to integrate into the “institutional” Church. I was catechized personally by the priest (as there was no formal class then). I mentioned to him my interest in “mysticism” and he responded by saying: “Mysticism begins in mist and ends in schism”. His approach was dogmatic and not experiential in its emphasis, and he taught that God is unknowable except through “grace”. When I asked him how grace “gets” from God to believers, he said it is transmitted sacramentally. I am not sure he represented the “Catholic position” on that but I felt this approach was not for me so I never was baptized as a Catholic.

          I am not saying either that the “West has gone wrong at some point”, although I would argue that the Scholastic period in the Church, the Enlightenment period, etc influenced Western culture and Christianity in ways that are distinctive and different from how Eastern Christianity and its cultures developed.

          I fully agree that there are different ways of expressing a similar theological point. But I have never heard Catholics speak much about “theosis”, or of “partaking of the divine nature” (2nd Peter) because (again) I would have to say there is a dogmatic difference that has colored their spiritualities (but I freely admit I could be wrong). Recall the dogmatic debate between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam the Calabrian (the Greek Catholic) where Barlaam rejected the essence-energies distinction as well as hesychasm (contemplative practice) and called the Greek monk hesychasts “navel gazers”.

          So my point was and is simply to point out some of the differences in emphasis as I perceive them (and as always I could be wrong); and this is not an anti-West or Catholic piece. BTW you mentioned you take offense at the statement that “Westerners MAY know God, “although this is despite their formal theological tradition.” This could equally be said about Orthodox, who have a tradition of contemplation, and mysticism is integrated into our very theology (“The Mystical Theology of the Orthodox Church; Vladimir Lossky). So this may have come off as “Orthodox triumphalism” but if you knew me, you’d know that I am very much aware of the OC’s strengths and weaknesses!


          • Benjamin Winter

            Dear Kevin,

            Thank you for clarifying and for being willing to dialog with me on this. Conversations like these make me very happy to be a participant on this website!

            Further Comments: 1) Had I known the context of this article, I would have looked at it in a totally different light. It certainly would have been helpful if the editors had put that context in a footnote! 2) I am sorry to hear about the priest who said those things about mysticism. The Catholic Church’s appreciation of mysticism was, for myself and for my wife, fundamental in our decision to join! One of my teachers at Villanova, Fr. Martin Laird, has written some excellent work on contemplative prayer (link below). Also, partaking of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) is heavily emphasized in Catholicism. That verse is cited six times in the Catechism (460, 1129, 1265, 1692, 1712, and 1812). Deification is the ultimate purpose of the Incarnation–it is final on the list of four reasons why God became man (the first three are reconciliation of humanity with God, full revelation of God’s love, and perfect model of holiness–see CCC 460). We had an excellent roundtable discussion on the Incarnation, see another link ,below!

            Thank you again, and God’s blessings to you as well.



            • Kevin Allen

              Thanks…good to know…about 2nd Peter and theosis in the new catechism. I’ll check it out!

  • Thanks Kevin for this great post! I have enjoyed your podcast “The Illumined Heart” on Ancient Faith Radio too.