Staniloae, Dumitru. The Experience of God, Vol 1: Revelation and Knowledge of the Triune God. Reprint, Brookline, Massachusetts: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998.
“Goodness, friendship, noble aspirations, the hope for the immortality of the person—all these have remained like the rays of a sun that can never be totally covered over by the fleeting and ultimately rather insubstantial clouds of evil” — Dumitru Staniloae
“God’s grace has been withdrawn … the image of God in man has been weakened. Yet, this image in the human being has not been destroyed totally.” — Dumitru Staniloae
The Primordial State
Staniloae refers to the primordial state of the human. During the primordial state man, after first being created, had to choose to obey God and thereby progress toward deification, or else regress into a state of spiritual weakness. The primordial state of man was the initial state of our first created parents. During this state our first parents were innocent, yet during this time of innocence it was incumbent upon them to choose between good and evil. It appears, then, from Staniloae’s description, that during this primordial state, humans were neutral, having chosen neither good nor evil. Yet neutrality could not last forever, because choosing was inevitable. God breathed “spirit” into man that included a certain “potency” to act by free will (178).
The Tree of Knowledge
A great deal of this chapter revolves around interpreting the meaning of the trees in the Genesis story, especially the forbidden tree, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” in the creation account (175). Staniloae calls the latter the “tree of consciousness” (178). The Genesis account reads:
The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. The Lord God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. … Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying “From any tree of the garden you man eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die. Then the Lord God said, “it is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” –Genesis 2:7-9, 15-18 (NASB)
What is this tree of knowledge? A significant portion of Staniloae’s chapter on the Fall consists of a recounting the interpretation of the Fathers, interweaved with his own comments. It is therefore difficult at times to discern whether Staniloae is summarizing the fathers or adding his own color commentary on the patristic tradition.
St. Maximus the Confessor understood the forbidden tree to represent “the creation of visible things” (175). The dual imagery underscores the dual power of creation—it can either nourish the mind if used for spiritual purposes, or become a teacher of passions by enticing the senses. But if it had such great possibilities for good, why did God forbid it? According to St. Maximus, God desired simply to “postpone” man’s partaking of it until he was able to commune with it enough in grace to habituate himself into a spiritual state where his mind and senses could be “transfigured” and his will free from the passions, a state of deification. Given Staniloae’s quotation of St. Maximus’ interpretation, however, it is hard to understand how God could have postponed his partaking of the visible world on the one hand, while in the mean time Adam “communed” with it by grace. In other words, how is communing with the visible world itself not a “partaking” of the visible world? This same question could be raised of every other interpretation that sees the forbidden tree as the visible world. How could God “postpone” a physical creatures partaking of the physical world?
Nicetas Stethatos thought the tree of knowledge was “sensation applied to the sensible world or to the body” (176). For Stethatos, the danger of becoming unspiritual is avoided so long as man’s senses were guided by the mind. Thus, God wanted his partaking of the tree delayed long enough for man’s faculties to come under the direction of a mind that had become spiritual.
St. Gregory Palamas is “even more precise” according to Staniloae. God wanted to protect the first humans from things pleasant to the senses because they were volitionally vulnerable, “easily displaced toward good or its opposite” (176).
Offering a complementary interpretation of both trees in the Genesis account (the forbidden tree and the tree of life), Gregory of Nyssa understood the tree of life as every experience that advances man toward good, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil as representing every experience that leads man astray by causing him to believe something evil is actually good (179). The forbidden tree is a “mixed tree,” according to Gregory of Nyssa, because in and of itself creation is not evil. Only when creation is crassly enjoyed only by the senses does the human person become passionately inflamed for sensible beauty and pleasure (180). The tree is “mixed,” in other words, because it is a good experienced in a bad way when encountered by the sense-dominated human. It is also mixed because evil always shrouds its true nature by cloaking itself in “some good by which it lures those who are deceived into desiring it” (180). It makes evil seem good by virtue of some good aspect, for nothing is evil in an absolute sense, according to Gregory of Nyssa, but has some good aspect to recommend it (180).
Because the human still has “an indelible remnant of the good within himself,” he “must deceive himself by thinking that the sin he is committing has some justification through good” (181). Yet such justification forces the human to become dishonest with his own conscience and therefore willingly deceived (181). This dishonest justification Staniloae calls “a flimsy bridge” that allows evil to get into a person.
According to Staniloae, evil offers an initial pleasure that has subtle but destructive consequences. This initial pleasure, however, is enough to entice people to become willingly deceived. Evil entices all on its own without the devil, yet the devil’s role is to calm the human soul about the inevitable consequences of evil—“You surely will not die! … You will be like God” (Gen 3:4-5, NASB).
In Staniloae’s synthetic summary, the Fathers understood the “tree of life” and the “tree of knowledge” as referring to “one and the same world” (179).
Viewed through a mind moved by spirit, that world is the tree of life that puts us in relationship with God; but viewed and made use of through a consciousness that has been detached from the mind moved by spirit, it represents the tree of the knowledge of good and evil which severs man from God. (179).
The tree of life and the tree of knowledge are located at the “same central point” (189).
The meaning might be that one and the same world, when grasped exclusively by means of the senses and by reason placed at the service of the senses, is the source of the good that is not good; whereas, when grasped in its real significance by a reason that sees more deeply and instead places the senses in its own service, it becomes a source of life. (189).
St. Maximus the Confessor understood the forbidden tree to represent “the creation of visible things,” but if this is the interpretation, why would St. Maximus (or any other Father) say that God wanted to “postpone” the forbidden tree?
Causes of the Fall
St. Basil the Great also spoke of the primordial state and emphasized that mankind was not created “intrinsically evil,” but rather chose evil. God created man with free will, for he wanted the human to be strengthened in good “through his own cooperation,” rather than of necessity (177). Staniloae infers that the primordial state must have been abrupt. It didn’t have to be that way, however. If our first parents were simply obedient over a period of time, “they would have begun to be habituated to good” (176). Even then, however, the Fall would not have been impossible, but only “more difficult” (176).
It is important to remember that the human choice of evil was not brought about by any necessity, but by imprudence and lack of effort on the part of the human. Basil blamed the human’s first choice of evil largely on what he called aboulia [lack of wisdom or laziness of the will]. Human complacency was caused by a kind of anthropological spoil: humans had everything readily available to them without first growing spiritually by their efforts to win them. Our first parents preferred to choose the easy enjoyments that required little effort, rather than putting forth the effort to grasp the deeper spiritual enjoyments of the good. They were lazy. Staniloae’s summary here of Basil implies that humans failed to properly prioritize their enjoyments by preferring what was effortlessly at hand over the pursuit of a deeper and deeper enjoyment of the good, an enjoyment that would grow their spiritual strength. As Basil put it, they placed a full belly above spiritual enjoyments. This choice for evil was not of necessity, but rooted in aboulia [lack of wisdom or laziness of the will].
Results of the Fall
Before sin, “no separation existed between creation and the world of the divine energies” (187). Through sin, man was severed from God and introduced into “a state of sin” (192). The Spirit has “withdrawn both from the world and from the human person” (186). We might call this a pneumatological abandonment or divine withdrawal. Sickness and death are something like organic consequences to the withdrawal of the Spirit (191). Corruption of nature and death are brought about by “the impoverishment of the spirit” (197). Thus, the spiritual tragedy of the Fall (moral evil) and the material tragedy of the Fall (evils associated with natural evil) go hand in hand.
As a result of choosing evil the human being experienced interior detachment from God, affirming his autonomy to do as he wishes. This also results in the human’s “selfish confinement within himself” whereby he, presuming to become his own lord, in reality became his own slave (178-179). Staniloae here offers a peculiar way to think about human freedom:
The human person is free only if he is free also from himself for the sake of others, in love, and if he is free for God who is the source of freedom because he is the source of love. (179)
This change is a change of “motion.” Had Adam not sinned but obeyed God, he would have progressed in an ever-increasing motion towards love for God and neighbor where creation would become deified by being “overwhelmed by the divine Spirit” (185). This might be called a pneumatic momentum rooted in the movement of the Spirit. Instead, however, when our first parents chose evil, they set in motion a “decomposition” of creation (185). We might call this a hamartiological momentum rooted in the movement of man’s will toward sin and therefore away from God. Such a destructive momentum would only be reversed by the second Adam, Christ Jesus. Thus, “The return of the human being to communion with God delivers him from eternal death” (187).
As a result of the Fall, humans are now plagued with teleological opacity and epistemological reduction. They have a hard time seeing the ultimate meaning of existence, and their “restricted image of the world” leads to a “restricted knowledge,” for the human person becomes familiar exclusively with the bodily and sensible enjoyments of the world and therefore views the visible world as an “ultimate object possessed of no transparence or mystery that transcends it” (184). This teleological opacity “veils what is most essential in creation” and obtains only a “narrowly rational knowledge of nature and of his fellow humans” (184, 188). This is an epistemological perversion in which man comes to think of the world in almost “exclusively rational” terms (188).
Furthermore, man reduces the world to being “an object of the lower appetites” (191). This tragic reductionism is a basic way of understanding the nature of sin and the state of mankind after the Fall. Living under these conditions is a life lived in a “pseudo-reality” (191). Staniloae links this pseudo-reality with the doctrine of hell. “According to the Christian faith,” claims Staniloae, “the sinners in hell exist in the darkness that lies outside the real world” (190). The sinner becomes so obsessed with herself that she forgets about the rest of the world.
In the state of sin our very being can advance to such a condition of self-centeredness that it almost no longer knows whether creation really exists. Eternal death is the rendering of this state permanent (192).
Not only do humans become alienated from others and the world, but also from themselves:
The conscious creature could no longer understand even himself apart from his blind impulse toward biological satisfactions and began to look upon the spirit within himself as a curiosity, something disruptive of life and contrary to nature, an unnatural excrescence he did not have to take much into account. (198)
Through sin the soul becomes possessed by the lower passions and looses its sensitivity of conscience and also looses its transparency before God and others.
Staniloae is determined to make sure his readers understand that although death and corruption of nature are results of sin, they are not punishments from God. Suffering and death were “in no way” punishments from God to Adam (201).
Adam’s slavery is the natural consequence of his being vanquished; his suffering is the physiological result of the trauma he himself sustained when he turned aside from his path, and death follows upon alienation from God. To regard God as the cause of suffering and death is an essential error, a real affront offered to him. (201).
He considers such a notion “heretical” for it strips the cross of its glorious ring of victory and turns it into “a simple instrument of suffering and of the placating of God’s ‘wrath’” (202). “Neither corruptibility nor death, therefore, are punishments from God; they are instead consequences of our alienation from the source of life” (202). But it does seem, however, that our alienation from the source of life was divinely initiated or results from divine causality because of sin: “God’s grace has been withdrawn” (204). God’s chooses to withdraw his grace because of sin.
The Good in Man and in the World
It is also important that one notice that the Fathers attempted to maintain a certain kind of balance in their post-Fall anthropological outlook, seeing the human as neither fundamentally bad nor wholly good, but in a state of ambivalence. Staniloae stresses that the imago Dei [image of God] was overshadowed by sin, but not “totally erased” (200 cf. 204).
By himself the human person will certainly not be able to conquer the evil that was introduced within him, but neither will the evil do away entirely with the good in the human person. The human person will remain in an ambivalent state. (182).
This state of ambivalence could be thought of as a contradiction of anthropological tendencies. On the one hand, because man is created as spiritual, there is still a natural tendency toward good which evil must deceptively suppress. On the other hand, humans have an opposite tendency toward evil.
Although the world, along with its sensible pleasures, is seen myopically from a sensible perspective, nevertheless, God has ordered creation in such a way that it is capable of being the medium through which he speaks to human persons and initiates a “dialogue” between God and man designed to help man see the higher purpose of the visible world, thereby breaking out of his deficient worldview and uniting reason with love. Through their own efforts and their link with the divine energy, a minority of human beings can even overcome “natural causality itself” (186).
Further complementing this point, St. Basil the Great offers another perspective on the Fall of humanity that Staniloae argues is complementary to St. Gregory of Nyssa’s. Basil stressed that although the fall itself is evil, it brings about good, for evil awakened our first parents to repentance and led them to take action in curbing their fleshly impulses (182). God placed within man the “impulse” to fight against Satan (Gen 3:15). Staniloae also argues that work was given to man as a tool for healing (195). Suffering helps the spiritual development of man “to an even greater extent” (195).
Although man is no longer “completely” in the imago dei due to dark shadow cast by sin, “goodness, friendship, noble aspirations, the hope for the immortality of the person—all these have remained like the rays of a sun that can never be totally covered over by the fleeting and ultimately rather insubstantial clouds of evil” (200). Thus, in spite of the Fall, it appears that Staniloae has a rather optimistic view of human possibilities and considers the evil in the world relatively “insubstantial.” Even suffering and death has become God’s divine pedagogy to grow the spirit of man (202-203). “They are not meant to last forever, but God changes their role so that they become means of healing evil” (202). Staniloae’s comments here make more clear why Eastern theology has always tended to hold open the possibility for inevitable universal salvation.
Knowledge of the Good and Human Communion
There is a heavy polemic on intellectual autonomy and individualism in Staniloae’s discussion of the good. Essentially, Adam wanted to decide for himself what was the good. We might call this a tragic epistemological hubris of autonomy that severed the harmony between man and God by a breach of trust. The good was then accommodated to selfish and sinful interests and pleasures rather than being pursued in loving relationship with others. This propels the human into immense sadness rather than fulfilling her being. “In communion evil is overcome, for communion is a fulfillment of being” (193).
The good, then, has to do with a continual exercise of man’s responsibility toward his fellow humans (193). “Christian faith says that if I take my orientation from my reason only when I am deciding what is good for the other and for myself, then I am using my reason arrogantly and selfishly and am departing from both the true and the good” (193). Love is the source of good and love alone serves what is genuinely good. “The isolated decision made according to a rational norm established by the individual cannot do this,” warns Staniloae (194). In other words, Staniloae sees a connection between love and consulting the reason of others.
I must consult his reason also, for each one sets out from different concrete circumstances and needs, and in any case, the ultimate good is brought to light through dialogue with the other. … I must submit self-centered reason to the good, or to the higher reason found in the communion that grows from love. I must submit reason to love. (194)
The good also consists in meeting one’s duties and responsibilities to nature, not just looking at nature as an object to use for profit. The latter is a “good of a lower kind, fleshly and egoistic” (194). We also must be careful not to base our morality upon the way nature is, for “the good is what ought to be done, not simply what is” (195, italics added). “The good comes to be known only in loving dialogue with other persons, in the curbing of selfishness and pride” (195). In a subject who has become good, the good radiates outwards as a power. It is manifested as love for other persons. But the good shines forth most brightly from the “supreme Personal reality” (195). Through love of God a human becomes like God and humbles himself to love others and consult their reason rather than relying on his isolated insight.
“Meanings are real and man cannot live without them”
“The Orthodox Church makes no separation between natural and supernatural revelation.”
Dumitru Staniloae’s Neo-Patristic approach to theology is exemplified in his first chapter on natural revelation. He basically attempts to explore and elucidate what he understands to be the position of St. Maximus. Maximus believed that supernatural/biblical revelation was not essentially different than natural revelation, but only embodied it in historical persons and actions. Staniloae’s task is to explain what he understands this position to entail, and explain the facets of its truth. Ultimately, Staniloae appears to soften Maximus’s stark way of putting it. “This affirmation of Maximos must probably be taken more in the sense that the two revelations are not divorced from one another. Supernatural revelation unfolds and brings forth its fruit within the framework of natural revelation” (1). Confirming this interpretation of Staniloae, in his chapter on Supernatural Revelation, he concedes that without the light of supernatural revelation to accompany natural revelation, “serious obscurities of natural faith in God have occurred” (17).
In his patristic exegesis on natural revelation, although Staniloae quotes most often from St. Maximus, he also quotes from other Fathers of the church. For example, to illustrate St. Maximus’s point that man was made for God as his beginning and goal, he quotes from St. Augustine, who says “Inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te [our heart is restless until it rests in you]” (13). He also quotes Saint Isaak the Syrian who says “faith is higher than knowledge” (13).
Staniloae’s emphasis throughout his treatment of natural revelation is in stark contrast to Protestant theologies that tend to jealously guard a sharp distinction between natural and supernatural revelation while downplaying the former as insufficient for salvation. The point of this comparison is usually to show that natural revelation does not have the same value as supernatural revelation. Maximus said just the opposite. Therefore, Staniloae’s emphasis is on all the ways natural revelation and supernatural revelation overlap and have the same conclusion—that God is our ultimate end, and union with God is our ultimate meaning. Yet in spite of this, Staniloae still concedes that “faith based on natural revelation must be completed by the faith granted us through supernatural revelation” (13). Therefore, although the emphasis in his treatment of natural revelation is very un-Protestant, many of the affirmations of his chapter are nevertheless compatible with Protestant (and Catholic) beliefs about natural revelation.
The content of natural revelation has to do with man and the cosmos. Staniloae sees the cosmos as rational, and therefore “destined to be known” by man (2). This rational cosmos is understood to be the product of a rational creator being that also sustains its being. The cosmos was created precisely in order that man might come to know it, and that God might carry on a dialogue with man “through its mediation. This fact constitutes the content of natural revelation” (2). It is through natural revelation that God “makes himself known by the very fact that he created the world and man, and stamped on them certain meanings” (12). For Staniloae, natural revelation goes beyond a mere idea of a powerful creator because one of the “meanings” of natural revelation is that “the world has its highest point in the human person who moves toward union with supreme Person as towards his final goal” (12).
There is a certain mutual transformation between the cosmos and man, although the cosmos plays more of a passive role. By intentionally transforming the world to our own advantage, man also transforms himself. The more we know the world, the more we understand ourselves. Yet the world never comes to a point of consciousness of itself—only man. This means the world was created for man, not man for the world.
The inferior chemical, mineral, and organic levels of existence, although they have a rationality, have no purpose within themselves. Their purpose consists in constituting the material condition of man’s existence, and they have no consciousness of this goal of theirs. Within man, however, the order of certain conscious goals is disclosed. … He can project, like a great arch over them all, an ultimate and supreme meaning to existence. In contrast with the levels below him, man does not fulfil the goal of his own existence by serving another level above himself, for in the world no such level as this exists. (5)
The world is intended to be “humanized” and bear man’s “stamp” everywhere (4). If death is the definitive end of a human being, it would appear to Staniloae that humans would only be a “means within an unconscious process of nature” (7). Unless man is seen as the “final eternal purpose” of the cosmos, the world would seem “in its monotony, absurd” (6, 4, italics added). “Human life ended definitively by death destroys any meaning and, therefore, any value of the rationality existing in the world and, indeed, of the world itself” (10).
If man is the purpose of the cosmos, what is the purpose of man? For Staniloae, human consciousness implies a “search for the meaning of our existence,” and the human will desires to live forever (5). We desire most deeply to love and be loved, and we do not wish our quest for this to ever come to an end. These anthropological facets testify to the ultimate teleological function of man—to be in loving relation with an infinite, eternal, conscious Person, or better yet, “a communion of Persons” (6). This kind of relationship fulfills man’s deepest meanings because it provides “the means of an infinite progress in love and knowledge” (6). Man’s meaning must be higher than the monotonous repetition found in nature. “We do not aspire to being swallowed up within some impersonal plan which lies, for a while, at our limited disposal but only so that afterwards we may disappear into it” (8).
Our cruelest grief is the lack of meaning, that is, the lack of an eternal meaning to our life and deeds. The necessity of this meaning is intimately connected to our being. The dogmas of faith respond to this necessity that our being have some sense. Thus they affirm the complete rationality of existence. (10)
Although some would say this order of meanings is merely the product of the human psyche, Staniloae argues that “this order imposes itself on us without our willing it,” instilling these aspirations within us. Without these meanings, the universe is absurd and the rationality of the universe, irrational (11). Without a rationality higher than the rationality of the cosmos, Staniloae argues, rationality itself has no purpose (11).
Much like man is aware of the orders of meaning in the world, so God is aware of “the meaning of existence as a whole” (9). God is the “supreme Personal reality” (9). God created man as a free and conscious person, and does not suppress these facets of man, but rather fosters them. The communion between the human person and this supreme Person, therefore, must be something that still preserves the freedom of the human person.
Only when the rationality of the universe is considered to have its source in a rational person who “makes it serve an eternal dialogue of love with other persons” does rationality acquire its “full meaning” (11). Only through this communion (which is characterized by happiness) can a person’s ultimate “meaning” be “fulfilled,” and this is how deification takes place (11). Man “participates immediately in everything God possess” while nevertheless remaining a creature (11-12). This is a “meaning towards which our being tends” (12). Love between two persons requires that each move toward the other. Thus, in this communion of love between God and man, man moves toward God and God also “descends to be with us” (12). This “development” is eternal, in accord with man’s aspirations (12).
Staniloae makes a distinction between natural revelation and science:
But the meanings of existence, including its final sense, however evident they seem, do not compel the recognition of science in the way that natural phenomena do, for the latter occur in the same fashion repeatedly and can be subjected to experimentation. That is why the firm acceptance of these meaning has the character of faith. (13).
There is a certain paradox here. On the one hand, this is natural revelation that is “self evident,” yet on the other hand, it must be accepted by the human will. Acceptance of the truths of natural revelation, then, presupposes faith (13). The paradox lies in the fact that although acceptance of them depends on an act of faith, the truths themselves are self evident. This is why Saint Isaak the Syrian says “faith is higher than knowledge,” because it involves the domain of human freedom and human spirit.