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.
1 Catechism of the Catholic Church 1.1.36.
2 Martin Luther. Commentary on Genesis 6:5-6. LW 2.46-7 [WA 42.294-5].
3 John Calvin. Institutes of Christian Religion 1.5.1.
4 Catechism of the Catholic Church 1.2.67.
5 Dionysius the Areopagite, The Divine Names
6 Father Stephen Freeman, “Unbelief and the Two-Storey Universe”, Ancient Faith Radio.
Photo courtesy of Matt Shalvatis.