Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Lectures 1961 – 1962. Lecture 3

Theme: The Holy Trinity, The Incarnation, The Holy Spirit   Place:    Period: 1961-1965   Genre: Talk

I have obtained notes that Lossky had compiled when he talked at the Theological school. The introduction he made to doctrinal theo­logy is concerned with the problem of monotheism, that is our faith in one God and the problems connected with it. God, he says, is not the object of a science and theology is radically different from the thought of the philosophers. In this I think he comes in sharp opposition with the beginning of a book on doctrinal theology written in its time by C.B. Moss who starts his coarse by saying that theology is the science of God as ornithology is the science of birds. Well I think that is just absolutely untrue. You can consider anything in the world as an extraneous outside to yourself and yourself as an outside to anything that surrounds you; you can know things by a purely outer knowledge, things which surround you have shape, volume, smell, colour etc. and you can perceive them without participating at all in the nature of the things which you consider. This is untrue for God. Theology indeed is profoundly different from scientific thought and from philosophical thought, because the theologian does not seek for his object, he does not approach an object which he was before that able to discern and he does not gradually study it in greater and greater detail. In the case of theology what happens is the opposite: God comes to us and takes hold of us. The starting point of theology is an act of God by which God makes Himself known and the theologian does not move in quest of God, he is himself seized, taken hold of and begins to understand first of all what has happened to him in terms of experi­ence, and then who is the one who has introduced him to this new experience. It is because he has been discovered, found by God, because words of Isaiah repeated by St. Paul, he had had the dread experience of falling into the hands of the living God, because God has gone all the way towards him and revealed Himself that the theologian — and theologian does not mean a specialist, but anyone who knows God, theology is the knowledge of God but not a school knowledge of God — can speak of Him. And the fact that theology is based first of all on a direct experience means that it begins with experience and it evolves into the knowledge of the One who is the origin of the experience. This explains why so many writings that refer to God are in terms of experience and make use of a terminology which is of this earth, which can be used for any experience of the same kind and why they are so misleading; this also explains why the Church does not use mystical terminology and the writings of the mystics to guide and to explain as much as she uses ascetical advice and doctrinal formulations. The theology of the living God is a theology which can be termed as Martin Buber has done it about the Bible in general, as a relationship of “I and Thou”, the moment God becomes “it”, becomes an object of knowledge for the theologian, it is no longer theology, it is no longer the living God, it is merely human thought a propos of the real God. And the living God who is ours, the living God of the Bible, however absolute He is, however unknowable He is or transcendental, is a personal God who enters into a relationship with us. He can be spoken to and we know Him only because He reveals Himself. Outside the biblical tradition which is the Jewish and the Christian tradition and also up to a point the Islamic tradition, the relationship of “I and Thou” between the believer and a personal God can be found. In the pagan world there is a dialogue between the gods in the plural and the believer, but there something different occurs from the biblical revelation. The gods are personal but the gods are not transcendental, they have not this quality of absoluteness; the gods of the pagan world are something intermediary between human beings and something which is greater than themselves. In Greek thought for instance they were all subject to necessity, to fate, there was something of the impersonal quality which was beyond and above the personal gods, because only the impersonal could have this quality of absoluteness. In other cases like in some religions of India the personal and the impersonal appear to be two aspects of the same reality of god and the personal is an inferior reality, the impersonal is the only one which can have the dimension of absoluteness. But the moment the impersonal appears, the dialogue disappears, there can be no relationship in terms of “I and Thou” between the believer and the impersonal god, and this leads both in certain of the eastern religions and in certain of the early gnostics or neo platonists on the Christian side, to a mysticism which begins with a personal believer face to face with a God whose personality, in a way is to be transcendent, and ends with the disappearance of the personal believer also, because the summit, the last term of the religious experience is ecstasy and union between God and the believer. And in this fusion of the two there is no knowledge anymore because there is neither object nor subject for knowledge.

Face to face with the great majority of the pagan religions and those metaphysical conceptions where the personal relationship in terms of “I and Thou” disappear the moment one comes to what is proper to the divinity, the Bible affirms the fact that God is both absolute and personal, but at that moment we have got to discern several successive steps in this knowledge of God. When we read the Bible we see that the God of the Hebrews reveals Himself as someone, but He remains unknowable, He remains mysterious. He manifests Himself as a Creator, as a Lawgiver, He is there with all the weight of His authority, but even His Name is too sacred to be pronounced and only the high Priest knows this Name and pronounces it in the services. He is surrounded with light but even this light is not the light of Revelation, it is the dread shining of divine light into which a human being cannot enter. Man cannot see God and live and so there is no reciprocal relationship, there is no real standing face to face, because for a man the only way of standing face to face with this God, is to stand veiled or lie prostrated. On the one hand there is God on the other hand there is the created world. This is underst­andable if we take for reality the biblical explanation of it, which we do, that the fall is the cause for this inability of man to know God, to know God by communion, by participation in a reciprocal relation­ship; before the fall we read that God walks in the garden which means that He was there present in the midst of His people, known to the people in a relationship with them. There is a dialogue even immediately after the fall. Later on, this ability to meet God on the same ground disappears and this is the tragedy of the whole Bible which St. John the Divine defines in his Gospel by saying that the Holy Spirit was not in the world because Christ had not yet ascended. There was a gap and this gap could not be bridged on the side of man.

The Word of God, the commandment of God came from God alone, on the side of man there was blind obedience and faith, which as defined by St. Paul, is the certainty of things unseen. And theology as understood by the Fathers, that is as the knowledge of God and not as knowledge
about God did not exist. One could know the will of God and fulfill it, one could draw conclusions from what one saw, one can guess and believe, but the words of Christ: “I do no longer call you servants but friends… because I told you all things’ (St John XV 15) are inapplicable in this situation. These words on the contrary define the new situation, the Christian situation, and so outside of Christendom we see two opposite attitudes. In the Hebrew world and, beginning with a certain moment in Islam, because of its roots in Abraham, we find monotheism which affirms the personal character of God, — God is someone — but which knows nothing of His nature; the Bible knows the living God, not life divine, because life divine can be known only in the process of participating in this life and not as an outside reality. As a reality outside it appears as darkness or as blinding light. In the ancient world and in the pagan world of to-day there is a certain perception by means of mystical experience of something which is beyond the ordinary human nature, which leads to some sort of metaphysical conception of what divine life is, but which never meets with the real personal God. In Israel this conception of the one God evolved in the course of time; the words used are characteristic when God is spoken of in the profession of faith, “Listen Israel, thy God is the one God”, the word used is a word of unity; later on, the commentaries of the early pre-Christian writers understood certain passages as referring to a God who was one, yet in whom there was a mysterious complexity. It is only after Christ, when the doctrine of the Trinity had become the centre of the Christian faith, that this notion of God, one and yet complex, was completely banished in favour of the conception of God one and unique, a monad, a One. And so as a result of these various attitudes we find on the one hand, in the pagan world which is in need of the absolute to speak of God, faith in a God which is impersonal and as a result, an effort, a striving towards a mystical experience which is absorption into the impersonal God, which is the identification of the believer, the faithful and his God, and at the same time the disappearance of the very possibility of theological knowledge because the God with whom you become identical can be known only while you are away from Him, but then He is unknowable and when you come into communion with Him in ecstasy or in final absorption there is no distinction between the subject and the object of your knowledge and there is no knowledge there is only experience. On the other hand, in the Hebrew, and to a lesser degree in the Moslem world, the one God is unknowable ultimately because there is no communion and this object of knowledge remains an outer object, which because of its very nature cannot be known from the outside. This we must realise if we wish to have a right judgement concerning the Hebrew approach to God and what Israel has got to say about God. It is not because of any failure of faithfulness to God, but it is because in the very nature of the situation God can be known not otherwise than by His revelation and by communion to His life; and this explains why the Christian writers of old insisted on the fact that the only means of discovery of God, the only means by which one could know God, were the Sacraments; outside the Sacraments there cannot be genuine knowledge of God and full knowledge of God because it is only in the Sacraments that God communicates His life to us and therefore becomes knowable to us.

There is all that Christ is and does which bridges the gap between God unknowable because of human sin, and us. And then there is another moment, when once this gap is bridged: God remains unknowable to us not because of sin, but because of His absoluteness, of His transcendental quality. But this gap is bridged by a new mystery, a new action of God: the gift of Communion. I am not speaking of sacramental communion in the particular sense. And this again is why the Church is basically sacramental, this is also why the Church and Christ are inseparable although they are not identical and this is why the Church is both the place and the means of this discovery of God and also the very reality which makes it possible. These affirmations, as St. Paul puts it, are scandal for the Jews, folly for the Greeks. For the Old Testament, how can the One, the transcendental, the God who has no common measure with man, be more than one? Can He have a son who is both man and God? How can He remain God in humiliation, in crucifixion and death? For the Greeks how can the impersonal absolute becomes a person, how can the one who is beyond matter become incarnate? How can eternity which is absolutely stable and immobile enter into time and become a moving reality? How can God become a person without degradation, the very thing one has got to transcend if one wishes to reach out to God? Here are the two aspects of the scandal of the Incarnation, and of Christianity was metaphysics, if it was a world-conception it could not stand either of the two criticisms. But whatever the attitude of the Greeks or of the Jews to the Christian affirmation, our faith is based on the fact of one incarnation and not the other way round. We begin with an event in history whether we understand it or not, whether we can account for it or not and this event of history brings us proofs of itself, because we discover the truth of it in the sacramental experience, we rediscover Christ as a historical reality when we become members of His body. Yet the experience in itself is not always sufficient because an experience must be conveyed, and the effort of theological thinking, or theological apprehension must aim at making these realities which are within the experience of the one, perceptible somehow to those who are still outsiders. And this is where theology from the knowledge of God becomes knowledge about God, and this is the moment where theology stands between something which is completely secure: God revealing Himself in all reality and something which is constantly changing and insecure, the outer world to which this must be spoken. This is why there is a profound difference between whatever we say about God and the fact that Christ said that He is the Truth; no amount of theological truth can encompass the whole mystery which we know or which we can know. That explains why one of the greatest theologians of Orthodoxy St. Simeon says that what we say about God may be — if it is — the truth for the earth, but it is never the full truth as far as God is concerned; it may be the best approximation which we can have, it is never God’s truth as things are, and that leads us both to be extremely clear and affirmative, and yet extremely careful about the value which we can attach to any affirmation or any negation which we make. It has resulted in two streams of theology, the positive and the negative which are comple­mentary and which secure even in theological thinking the sense of mystery, but it also leads us to remembering that far beyond anything that can be said of God, theology begins, as St Gregory of Nazianzis has put it, where words cease and silence reigns.

Listen to audio: no Watch video: no