Vladimir Lossky, “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church” (1944)

trinityIcon of the Trinity.

Fallen Leaves wishes its readers, whoever they may be, a happy Orthodox Easter.

Religion speaks to the heart first. The fervent prayers of St. Isaac of Syria are far more likely to bring the reader to Christ than the most learned work of academic theology. But the latter also has a place in the order of things. Theology helps to identify and concisely articulate certain principles that consistently reoccur throughout Patristic sources spanning hundreds of years. To that end, we might look at The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, a landmark in 20th-century Orthodox theology, originally written in French by a Russian exile of the same generation, but a rather different spiritual outlook, than our longtime antihero Nabokov.

mysticaltheologyPage numbers from the 1976 edition
by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Mystical Theology is a kind of Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith for the modern age. Its main theme is the role of human individuality in the relationship between man and God. Lossky affirmed the value of the individual in the age of collectivist ideology; now, in an age that denies the value of any form of human existence, whether collective or individual, his work has arguably become even more important. It draws heavily on classical Orthodox sources, such as St. Gregory the Theologian, St. John Climacus, St. Isaac of Syria, and St. Gregory Palamas; little of Lossky’s own was needed. But the central theme helps to arrange these various voices so that one may more clearly understand that they are speaking in unison — and, maybe, begin to hear the same voice within oneself.

In the process, Lossky also gives a concise statement of concepts whose original wording may have been somewhat obscure and spread out over a large number of texts. The second chapter, “The Divine Darkness,” begins by explaining the origins of Chalcedonian theology (both Orthodox and Roman Catholic), as well as its purpose:

The problem of the knowledge of God has been stated in its fundamentals in a short treatise whose very title — Concerning Mystical Theology — is significant. This remarkable book, the importance of which for the whole history of Christian thought cannot be exaggerated, is the work of the unknown author of the so-called Areopagitic writings: a person whom widespread opinion over a very long period of time has sought to identify with a disciple of St. Paul — Dionysius the Areopagite. The defenders of this attribution, however, have had to take into account a disturbing fact: complete silence reigns for nearly five centuries in regard to these Areopagitic works. They were neither quoted nor referred to by any ecclesiastical writer before the beginning of the sixth century, and it was the heterodox monophysites who, in seeking to lean upon their authority, first made them known. St. Maximus the Confessor wrested this weapon from the hands of the heretics during the course of the following century by demonstrating in his commentaries (or scholia) the orthodox meaning of the Dionysian writings. From that time onwards these works have enjoyed an undisputed authority in the theological tradition of the East, as well as in that of the West.
Modern critics, so far from agreeing as to the identity of the ‘Pseudo Dionysius’ and as to the date of the composition of his works, wander amidst the most diverse hypotheses. The way in which the critical researches waver between dates as far apart as the third and sixth centuries shows how small a measure of agreement has as yet been reached in regard to the origins of this mysterious work. But whatever the results of all this research may be, they can in no way diminish the theological value of the Areopagitica. From this point of view it matters little who their author was. What is important is the Church’s judgement on the contents of the work and the use which she has made of it…
Dionysius distinguishes two possible theological ways. One — that of cataphatic or positive theology — proceeds by affirmations; the other — apophatic or negative theology — by negations. The first leads us to some knowledge of God, but is an imperfect way. The perfect way, the only way which is fitting in regard to God, who is of His very nature unknowable, is the second — which leads us finally to total ignorance. All knowledge has as its object that which is. Now God is beyond all that exists. In order to approach Him it is necessary to deny all that is inferior to Him, that is to say, all that which is. If in seeing God one can know what one sees, then one has not seen God in Himself but something intelligible, something which is inferior to Him. It is by unknowing that one may know Him who is above every possible object of knowledge. Proceeding by negations one ascends from the inferior degrees of being to the highest, by progressively setting aside all that can be known, in order to draw near to the Unknown in the darkness of absolute ignorance. For even as light, and especially abundance of light, renders darkness invisible; even so the knowledge of created things, and especially excess of knowledge, destroys the ignorance which is the only way by which one can attain to God in Himself.

(Lossky, 23-25)

One of the first temptations (fortunately, one of the easiest to overcome) that one encounters when beginning to study Orthodox tradition is the question of “authenticity” — the paucity of documentary evidence, from outside the tradition, to corroborate what the tradition says about the authorship and chronology of various Patristic texts. If you, dear reader, ever find yourself in this position, it may help you to remember Lossky’s elegant refutation. Whether the Areopagitic corpus was in fact written by St. Dionysius, or by someone else centuries later, is just not very important, and in no way diminishes the significance of these texts for the development of Christian thought, or the truth that they contain. While we are at it, along the same lines, in the Byzantine Empire, the Lives of Saints were not only a theological but also a literary genre: while Western Europeans entertained themselves with the adventures of knights in armor, the Byzantines enjoyed hearing about St. Alexis, the man of God, or St. Simeon Stylites. What implications does the obviously literary quality of these texts have for the phenomenon of sainthood? None. The question of their veracity is not very important, because we have much more recent examples before our eyes, and the works of St. John of Shanghai also serve as retroactive support for the works of the Byzantine saints. If such things can happen now, then why not then?

Much more important is the content of the Areopagitic corpus, where the concept of “apophatic theology” was formulated for the first time. When we are able to say something for certain about God, most of the time it has to do with what God is not, rather than what God is. Even positive statements about God are often accompanied by a negative comparison: “This then is the message which we have heard of Him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” Christ is both man and God, but the coexistence of these two natures can only be understood apophatically:

Such is the meaning of the Christological dogma formulated by the Council of Chalcedon: ‘In conformity with the tradition of the Fathers, we unanimously proclaim that we should confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, perfect in deity and perfect in humanity, true God and true man, composed of a reasonable soul and body, being consubstantial with the Father through the Divinity and consubstantial with us through the humanity, alike to us in all, save sin, born of the Father before all the worlds in His deity, born in these last times of Mary the Virgin, Mother of God, in His humanity, for us and for our salvation; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-Begotten, who was made known in two natures without being mingled, without change, indivisibly, inseparably, in such a way that the union does not destroy the difference of the two natures, but on the contrary the properties of each nature only remain the more firm since they are found united in one person or hypostasis which is neither separated nor divided into two persons, being the one and the same person of the Son, only-Begotten, God and Word, Lord Jesus Christ.’ What strikes one about this formula is its apophatic character; in fact the union of the two natures is expressed by four negative definitions… We know the fact of the union of the two natures in one person, but the ‘how’ of this union remains for us a mystery based on the incomprehensible distinction-identity of the nature and of the person.”

(Lossky, 143-144)

transfigurationIcon of the Transfiguration,
when the presence of the Divine Nature was revealed.

St. Dionysius’ emphasis on apophatic theology contains an implicit, preemptive refutation of Western scholasticism. Formal logic quickly reaches its limit when attempting to understand what is fundamentally incomprehensible. It is not scholarship that is needed, but personal transformation; the philosopher has to acknowledge that his own flawed, finite nature draws boundaries which his mind cannot cross. If this does not happen, one can even try to direct philosophical logic into an “apophatic” direction, but it will do no good. In that regard, it is instructive to compare Areopagitic apophatism with the neo-Platonic version (especially since secular historians like to conflate the two):

There have been many attempts to make a neoplatonist of Dionysius. Indeed, if we compare the Dionysian ecstasy with that which we find described at the close of the Sixth Ennead of Plotinus we are bound to record some striking resemblances. To approach the One it is necessary, according to Plotinus, ‘to reach out towards what is first, to detach oneself from sensible objects, which are the last things, and to be freed from all evil because one is eager for the good; to go back to the beginning within oneself, and to become one instead of many in contemplation of the beginning and of the One.’ It is the first step in the ascent, where we find ourselves freed from things of sense and recollected in the intelligence. But it is necessary to go beyond the intelligence since the attainment of an object which is superior thereto is in question. ‘It is not something, but before everything; neither is it being, for that which is being has the form of its being; but this is formless, lacking even intelligible form. For since the nature of the One procreates all things, it does not itself form part of them.’ To this nature are applied negative definitions which recall those of the Mystical Theology of Dionysius: ‘it is not something, neither is it of any kind or degree; it is not mind, it is not soul; it is not moved, nor again does it remain still; it is neither in space nor in time; it is in itself, of one kind, or, rather, without kind, being before all kind, before movement, before stillness, for all these things concern being, and make it many.’
Here there appears an idea which one never finds in Dionysius, and which draws a line of demarcation between Christian mysticism and the mystical philosophy of the neo-platonists. If Plotinus rejects the attributes proper to being in seeking to attain to God, it is not, as with Dionysius, on account of the absolute unknowability of God: an unknowability obscured by all which can be known in creatures. It is because the realm of being, even at its highest levels, is necessary multiple: it has not the absolute simplicity of the One. The God of Plotinus is not incomprehensible by nature. If we can neither comprehend the One by discursive reason nor by intellectual intuition, it is because the soul, when it grasps an object by reason, falls away from unity and is not absolutely one… What is discarded in the negative way of Plotinus is multiplicity, and we arrive at the perfect unity which is beyond being — since being is linked with multiplicity and is subsequent to the One.”

(Lossky, 29-30)

Plotinus’ One is not alive and, ultimately, does not exist, as Plotinus subscribes to Plato’s view that (if we remove all extraneous details) nonexistence is superior to existence. Plotinus requires “negative definitions” because rejecting all attributes of existence is the only way that the philosopher’s mind can comprehend nonexistence. But throughout the entirety of this process, there is only one conscious will, that of the philosopher. The One is a passive object of study to be mastered. It provides no answers; a true philosopher needs none. He seeks only to disappear deep inside himself. In a certain sense, that really is a form of nonbeing.

God, however, is not only alive but conscious of His own life. The first cataphatic knowledge of theology, the first article of faith, is the Personhood of God. Creation is an act of deliberate, conscious, individual will: “There is, in fact, nothing in the divine nature which could be the necessary cause of the production of creatures: creation might just as well not exist. God could equally well not have created; creation is a free act of His will, and this free act is the sole foundation of the existence of all beings.” (93) Creation does not contain the fullness of God; if it did, it would be indistinguishable from God Himself, but on the contrary, it is inherently separate: “Yet creation ex nihilo does mean just such an act producing something which is ‘outside of God’ — the production of an entirely new subject, with no origin of any kind either in the divine nature or in any matter or potentially of being external to God. We might say that by creation ex nihilo God ‘makes room’ for something which is wholly outside of Himself; that, indeed, He sets up the ‘outside’ or nothingness alongside of His plenitude. The result is a subject which is entirely ‘other,’ infinitely removed from Him, ‘not by place but by nature,’ as it is expressed by St. John Damascene.” (92-93) But at the same time, because God’s will is the sole cause of creation, the latter becomes sanctified. This is what gives the universe value. No longer can we dismiss physical existence as mere shadows on the walls of the cave: “The created universe is thus not seen, as in platonic or platonizing thought, under the pale and attenuated aspect of a poor replica of the Godhead; rather it appears as an entirely new being, as creation fresh from the hands of the God of Genesis ‘who saw that it was good,’ a created universe willed by God and the joy of His Wisdom, ‘a harmonious ordinance,’ ‘a marvellously composed hymn to the power of the Almighty,’ as St. Gregory of Nyssa says.” (95) One might say that creation is God’s work of art.

adamAdam’s naming of the animals.
Fresco in the Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas, Meteora.

Only man, however, is said to have been created in God’s image. There is no single, fully satisfactory explanation of what this means: “Sometimes the image of God is sought in the sovereign dignity of man, in his lordship over the terrestrial world; sometimes it is sought in his spiritual nature, in the soul, or in the principle, ruling part of his being, in the mind, in the higher faculties such as the intellect, the reason, or in the freedom proper to man, the faculty of inner determination, by virtue of which man is the true author of his actions.” (115) One might also add the ability to create art. In fact, apophatic theology suggests that it is inherently impossible to give a precise definition. The presence of God’s image makes it impossible to fully understand man: “The image of God in man, in so far as it is perfect, is necessarily unknowable, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa; for as it reflects the fullness of its archetype, it must also possess the unknowable character of the divine Being. This is the reason why it is impossible to define what constitutes the divine image in man.” (118) Nonetheless, according to St. Macarius of Egypt, the image of God within man manifests itself in two ways: “First it is the formal condition of liberty, free will, the faculty of choice which cannot be destroyed by sin; secondly, it is the ‘heavenly image,’ the positive content of the image, which is that communion with God, whereby before the fall man was clothed with the Word and the Holy Spirit.” (115-116) In other words, man’s resemblance to God consists of his personhood, which is fully analogous (but not identical) to the Personhood of God, and of the ability to communicate with God. Man is not, and never was perfect, but he has the ability to improve himself, to reach out beyond his limitations and make contact with God.

It is here that we reach the central thought in Mystical Theology. Lossky makes a distinction between “personhood” and “individuality,” though he admits that it is quite difficult to see the difference: “We commonly use the words ‘persons’ or ‘personal’ to mean individuals, or individual. We are in the habit of thinking of these two terms, person and individual, almost as though they were synonyms. We employ them indifferently to express the same thing,” and I must say that I generally do just that. However, whether one chooses to use these particular words or something different, the intended distinction is that “the word individual [expresses] a certain mixture of the person with elements which belong to the common nature, while person, on the other hand, means that which distinguishes it from nature. In our present condition we know persons only through individuals, and as individuals. When we wish to define, ‘to characterize’ a person, we gather together individual characteristics, ‘traits of character’ which are to be met with elsewhere in other individuals, and which because they belong to nature are never absolutely ‘personal.’ Finally, we admit that what is most dear to us in someone, what makes him himself, remains indefinable, for there is nothing in nature which properly pertains to the person, which is always unique and incomparable.” (121) One could say that Lossky identifies two notions of individuality. The first of these assembles an “individual” from standard, factory-made building blocks; the “individual” quality comes only from the particular configuration into which the blocks are arranged, but the blocks themselves can be found, in the same form, in many other individuals. The second notion consists of the indescribable part of the individual, the part that cannot be reduced to a set of pre-made categories. This is the part in which God’s image is contained.

One sense of individuality is completely circumscribed by its own limitations; the other tries to reach beyond them to what is greater than itself. One is inwardly, the other outwardly directed. The same dilemma plays out in the contrast between philosophy and religion. The philosopher reaches deep inside himself, perhaps drawn by the image of God that is always present in man. As a result of his contemplation, his individual consciousness develops, to the point where it becomes difficult for him to function in the outside world because he now feels such a strong distinction between it and himself. But the longer this continues, the less rewarding it becomes. As one loses the ability to make meaningful contact with anything outside oneself, that self also begins to attenuate. Life becomes drained of colour; the well dries up; the joy of awakening turns into the misery of loneliness. The shadows on the wall of the cave never actually lead to the pure world of ideas. And what about people who have no philosophical inclinations? The only “individuality” presented to them is an assortment of generic attributes — “identity” is constructed by accumulating various arbitrary preferences, which actually have no bearing whatsoever on one’s personhood. Because this approach can never be successful, it will never end. One is forced to pile up ever more fanciful attributes, and to lash out in rage at those who do not share them (which, by design, is everyone). On the other hand, religion does not offer a comforting feeling of “individuality,” but it should not attempt to trade that feeling for some communal sense of “belonging,” either. “Man now has a double character: as an individual nature, he is a part of a whole, one of the elements which make up the universe; but as a person, he is in no sense a part: he contains all in himself.” (123) Being “part of a whole,” according to Lossky, also pertains to the category that he calls “individuality,” a false illusion of “personhood.” Religion does not aim to make one “part of a whole” — rather, the person “expands infinitely, and is enriched by everything which belongs to all,” (124) as does every other person.

stgregorythetheologianSt. Gregory the Theologian.

One may look at the Personhood of God, to the extent that it is revealed in Orthodox dogmata, as a model for the personhood of man — after all, that is the quality that man and God share. But the one God exists in three Persons. The detailed theology of the Trinity developed over several centuries, with St. Gregory the Theologian being a central figure in this process: “[It is the] name which unites things united by nature, and never allows those which are inseparable to be scattered by a number which separates… When I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Ghost; for Godhead is neither diffused beyond these, so as to introduce a multitude of gods, nor yet bounded by a smaller compass than these, so as to condemn us for a poverty-stricken conception of deity[.]” (47) To fully reconcile the Trinity of Persons with the Unity of God is beyond the power of human reason; it has to be believed, and this belief is so important as to be the focus of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. I find it helpful to make an analogy (on whose canonicity I do not insist) to thought, word, and breath as three aspects of existence of a single living being. Thought is invisible, and cannot be known or even perceived if it is not willfully expressed; word is born of thought; and breath indicates the presence of life. One might then think of the Father as the Thought of God, the Son as the Word that is begotten by the Thought, and the Holy Spirit as the Breath of God. But for our discussion here, the most significant detail is that the concept of the Trinity conveys a kind of harmony within God. The Three Persons have a “common will [that] belongs to the divine nature and operates according to the determination of thought. St. John Damascene calls this ‘the eternal and unchanging Counsel of God.’ In the book of Genesis God is represented to us as saying: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,’ as if the Trinity consulted within Itself before creating.” (94) The Trinity is a “God who is personal and who is not a person confined in his own self.” (48)

Likewise, the personhood of man should not be confined within his self. The individual human being is a kind of hypostasis of humanity, just as each of the Three hypostases of God contains the entirety of the Divine Nature and yet is distinct from the others. “The human person is not a part of humanity, any more than the persons of the Trinity are parts of God. That is why the character of the image of God does not belong to any one part of the human make-up, but refers to the whole man in his entirety.” (120) The will of God is not to be alone in the universe, but to make contact, first between the Three Persons of the Trinity, and then with what is “entirely ‘other,’” which He deliberately created for that very purpose. The calling of man is to make contact, both with the other persons that make up humanity, and then with what is “entirely ‘other’” to man, i.e., with God Himself. Whether he fulfills that calling or not, however, he will remain a distinct person: “Even when he removes himself as far as possible from God, and becomes unlike Him in His nature, he remains a person. The image of God in man is indestructible. In the same way, he remains a personal being when he fulfils the will of God and in his nature realizes perfect likeness with Him.” (124) The individual consciousness can neither be “absorbed” into God nor destroyed.

Orthodoxy views asceticism as a way toward “true” personhood. “[F]or us it is easier to envisage the person as willing, asserting and imposing himself through his will. However, the idea of the person implies freedom vis-à-vis the nature. The person is free from its nature, is not determined by it. The human hypostasis can only realize itself by the renunciation of its own will, of all that governs us, and makes us subject to natural necessity… This is the root principle of asceticism; a free renunciation of one’s own will, of the mere simulacrum of individual liberty, in order to recover the true liberty, that of the person which is the image of God in each one.” (122) But again, this is not a “trial” that is imposed exclusively on man — the monastic life is a kind of human approximation of the example shown by the Divine Personhood. God freely subjected Himself to what is called kenosis, or “self-depletion,” confining His infiniteness in finite human form and experiencing every limitation of physical existence, including death. “His body experienced hunger or thirst, His soul loved, grieved (at the death of Lazarus), and was indignant; His human spirit had recourse to prayer, the nourishment of all created spirit… The prayer of Gethsemane was an expression of horror in face of death, a reaction proper to all human nature, especially to an incorrupt nature which should not submit to death, and for whom death could only be a voluntary rending contrary to nature.” (147) Just as the monk renounces his human will to achieve the fullness of the human person, “Christ’s saying, ‘the Father is greater than I,’ expresses this kenotic renunciation of His own will… Thus the outpouring, self-emptying of Himself only produces the greater manifestation of the deity of the Son to all those who are able to recognize greatness in abasement, wealth in spoliation, liberty in obedience.” (145) The monk sacrifices himself to make contact with God, because God sacrificed Himself to make contact with man. God does not ask from anyone anything that He did not do Himself.

In closing, we should also remember the time when Mystical Theology was written — during World War II, a time that seemed apocalyptic not only to Christians. And to Orthodox Christians in particular, it was also a time of religious persecution and revolutionary destruction; no doubt many wondered if the Orthodox Church would survive at all. But the tone of Mystical Theology is remarkably confident. But Lossky continues to speak of the goodness and plenitude of God, Who “overflows His essence, manifests Himself beyond it, and, being incommunicable by nature, communicates Himself,” (240) as if it were the golden age of the Byzantine Empire and he had just come back from a sermon by St. John Chrysostom in Constantinople. “How many people pass by the Church without recognizing the splendour of the eternal glory beneath the outward aspect of humiliation and weakness? Yet, how many recognized in ‘the man of sorrows’ the eternal Son of God?” (245)

blagoveschenskyХристос воскресе из мертвых, смертию смерть поправ,
и сущим во гробех живот даровав!

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