“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.