On Orthodox Panentheism, Part 3: St Gregory Palamas and his Platonic Inheritance

(This is the third and final installment of a paper in progress on “Orthodox panentheism”. Part 1 is here, and part 2 is here.)

4. In the previous post, I laid out some of the prima facie evidence that the picture of the God-world relation we find in the Eastern church fathers especially warrants the label “panentheism.” I also mentioned the primary problem with locating panentheism as a distinctive view, namely, the difficulty in spelling out exactly what it means for God to be “in” creation while still transcending it. Finally, I claimed that we get something approaching a solution to this problem in the work of the 14th century saint Gregory Palamas.

To begin understanding St. Gregory’s conception of the God-world relation, it is helpful to place his picture in the context of the Platonism to which he and much of early Christianity was the heir.[1]  Plato famously believed that the world of everyday appearance is in a way less than fully real, that it lacks true being, and that what being it has it has through participation in what is truly real, the realm of forms or ideas.  So a red thing, for example, or a beautiful thing, has its being as red or as beautiful only because of the relation it has to the form of Redness or Beauty.

 This hierarchical and participatory metaphysics did explanatory work as well as provided a holistic worldview, complete with implications in epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics.  But it came with its own problems or puzzles, many of which Plato himself recognized and raised in his dialogue Parmenides.  The problem it helps to solve is the problem of the one and the many, how it is that, say, all the many beautiful things can have one thing in common to varying degrees, namely, beauty.  The being of the many is explained by their relation to the one. 

But how exactly should we think of this relationship?  Is Beauty somehow divvied up, so that each beautiful thing gets a part of it? But then it would itself be many, and, worse, there would be no one thing truly shared by all beautiful things.  So the Form must somehow be fully present in each beautiful thing.  But won’t this make it many as well?  The same problems arise for the realm of the Forms as a whole.  Insofar as they make up true Being, they must be unified in some way, must be one.  Yet insofar as they are the formal (and, at least in Neoplatonism, efficient) causes of particular things, they must be in some sense multiple.

 Thus, pressures which arise from any metaphysics of participation push toward thinking of Being as, in the words of Plotinus, “One-Many.” As the formal cause of beings, it must be multiple, but as Being itself it must have a principle of absolute unity.  How is it possible to reconcile these demands?  The Neoplatonic answer is to make an ontological distinction between the First Cause, the One, which is beyond being and intelligibility, completely simple, and the first multiplicity, Intellect, which is an intermediary between it and the world of particular beings.  The Forms are identified with the Intellect, though they are derived in some way (which we need not get into) from the primordial unity of the One.

 Though the early Christians absorbed much of this Platonic background, and though they might look kindly on identifying the Forms with the objects of divine intellect, they could not accept the division between the First Cause and Intellect, with the latter as subordinate in nature or perfection, or any intermediary creator between the Supreme God and the world. Rather, the Christian form of response to the metaphysical pressures of participation took two main forms in the late medieval period, diverging between Latin west and Greek east. 

Much earlier, Christians had taken the rather obvious move of connecting the Forms (or “Ideas”) with the divine Intellect in general, and in particular with the Word or Logos.  But this raises its own problems.  In particular, what would it mean for a creature to have its form or essence in God’s mind or the Logos through participation?

The Aristotelian west took the position, for the most part, that, since divine simplicity implied that all in God is essence, seeing divine ideas (and thus essence) as the actual forms of creatures would lead to an objectionable pantheism.[2]  Thus, Aquinas and others came to reject the view that God is the formal cause of creatures.  Rather, the divine ideas are merely exemplary causes, and creaturely perfections are not true ontological participations in God, but “a certain similitude to the divine being.”[3]

 Palamas, on the other hand, as a culmination of the Greek-speaking tradition in theology, took a different route.  He held onto the idea that God is the formal cause of creatures, and instead denied that divine simplicity required that all in God is identical to the essence.  He claimed that in God there is both essence, which is beyond being and participation, and energy (or activity), energeia, which is participable, and through which we have knowledge of God.  It is through God’s creative activity (or energy) that he is truly present as “the Being of all beings, the Form that is present in all forms.”

On the one hand, Palamas can appeal for the consistency of this distinction with divine simplicity to the doctrine of the Trinity.  Just as we can say that each of the three Persons is fully and completely the one God, without introducing any division into parts, we can say that God is fully and completely present in each energeia and in all things without any division into parts.  On the other, although there seems something antinomic or essentially mysterious about the claim (as in the case of the Trinity), it is exactly the sort of thing that seems capable of meeting the “one-many” requirement of Being on any metaphysics of participation.  The energies are many, at least insofar as they are participated in by creatures, but this multiplicity is but the manifestation of the one eternal creative will of God. And unlike in other Neoplatonists, there is no ontological distinction between the One beyond being and the Forms that are the Being of beings.  There is just the one God who is both beyond being and beyond form or intelligibility in his essence, and Being itself and Form itself in his creative and sustaining activity.

5. To jump back go present-day concerns,  it seems to me that St. Gregory’s view also goes beyond the vague claim that Owen Thomas, quoted above, sees as plaguing recent panentheism, that God is merely “in some sense” or other in God.  Rather, it gives at least a somewhat determinate account, heir to a philosophical history, of both the way in which God transcends creation—in his essence—and the way in which God is fully present within creation—in his energies.  Both the fact that something has being – its existence – and what sort of being it is – its essence – are had by it only as it participates in God’s sustaining energeiaWhat a creature is and that it is consists in God’s being fully present to it and in it.  Which is also to say that to be a creature is to be one aspect of God’s self-manifesting activity. And insofar as it retains the (Neo)Platonic view that the forms/energies are the true formal causes of beings, it has a better claim to being panentheistic than the classical theism of the medieval Aristotelians mentioned by Davies.

This is not, of course, to say that the account, as it stands, is completely clear or free from doubts or objections.  My main goal in the brief sketch given has just been to show that there is a philosophically interesting account of the God-world relation here, and that the account is panentheistic in at least a broad sense–that among other broadly orthodox understandings of God, it provides a particularly strong understanding of both the absolute transcendence and absolute immanence of God.  It strikes me as a very attractive picture, and it is, at any rate, worthy of more attention and investigation, especially given the current popularity of panentheism.

[1] I have been most helped in my understanding of St. Gregory’s philosophical background by Eric Perl’s “St. Gregory Palamas and the Metaphysics of Creation”, Dionysius, Vol. XIV, Dec. 1990, pp. 105-130.  See also, for a detailed treatment, David Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West (Cambridge, 2000).

[2]If, therefore, the divine being were the formal being of all things, all things would have to be absolutely one” SCG I.26.3.

[3] Thus, Gregory Doolan summarizes a conclusion in his book-length treatment of exemplary causation: “Inasmuch as the divine ideas are the causes of things that God creates, they are exemplars; inasmuch as they are exemplars, they are the similitudes of both the essences and accidents of finite beings. But even though both essences and accidents share a likeness to their respective exemplar ideas, neither actually participates in those ideas: Socrates is indeed exemplified by the divine idea of Socrates, but he is who he is through his very essence, not through participation” (Aquinas on the Divine Ideas as Exemplar Causes (2008), The Catholic University of America Press, p. 242).

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