Week Four: Wrenches Are Thrown

Today marks the beginning of my fifth week of research, and the past month or so has certainly gone quickly. I am thankful to have the time to be absorbed in such a fascinating study, obscure as it may seem to some. Indeed, the limited amount of work that has been done on the matter, especially that which is available in English, is encouraging. My work will ultimately not be a drop in a sea of similar works, but a contribution to a burgeoning topic, old as it is. In any case, I will, per usual, use this post to focus in on a particular issue or two. In this post, I will address two objections or uncertainties that are brought up in Jonas Eklud’s thesis on the twentieth-century reaction to the essence-energies distinction in God.

The first asks whether the essence of God includes His energies, a possible stance that would eliminate the distinction in all likelihood. The argument for such a position goes thusly: a God that lacks the predicates or attributes that are considered energetic would be no God at all, for He would lack power, as well as love, grace, and wisdom. If an essence is what makes a thing what it is, then all energies of God for which their removal would make God not God must be essential or parts of God’s essence. Now, Palamas does not deny that God’s being God entails that He have His energies. In fact, he believes that it is absurd to conceive of God without His energies. One reason to reject, however, that energies are essential, is that it would make God’s essence complex in defiance of the general view, held by Palamas, that God’s essence is simple. Furthermore, if we consider, as many proponents of the essence-energies distinction do, that the essence of God is like the human soul and that the energies are like the human will or power to act, it would seem a strange view that God’s essence, His soul, must include His energies, for this would be analogous to the energies of a human being part of a that human’s soul. Lastly, many of the attributes of God that are necessary in that they must be true of God are in fact activated only when creation occurs. God, for example, is necessarily the creator of the world; were He not this, He would not be God. However, it is not necessary for God to create the world. In this way, many necessary attributes of God are in fact contingent upon real circumstances. Finally, Eklud may be confusing the multiple meanings of ‘essence.’ It seems clear to me that Palamas and his followers use the term ‘essence’ or ‘substance’ to mean what Aristotle means when he speaks of the ‘primary substance’ in his Categories. In this meaning, the essence is not a formula or composed of information, but rather, it is the soul or subsisting part of a thing. Of course, Aristotle thinks of ‘form’ when he defines a primary substance here, but Palamas has something different in mind. His ‘essence’ is not informational or a matter of constraints on material arangment, for God has no body. Therefore, I do not find this objection very tenable.

Eklud also objects to the view that the unkowability of God’s essence is an aspect or attribute of the essence really or objectively. He argues that if this were the case, as opposed to the unkowability being a subjective, perspective-based property, then God could not know His own essence, for its unknowability would be applicable to all subjects, even the reflexive subject of God Himself. My response is twofold. Firstly, as Pseudo-Dionysius argues, knowledge as we know it can only be of things that have being, but God’s essence is beyond being, as well as beyond non-being. Therefore, although Pseudo-Dionysius is not an atheist, he argues that there is no knowledge to be had of God’s essence, since it is not in the class of things that knowledge can be gleaned from. It escapes, so to speak, that class in its transcendent nature. Secondly, it can be argued that God’s essence can have the objective property of being unknowable to creatures but knowable to God. This is analogous to a dog-whistle’s objective property of being audible to dogs but not humans. In fact, this is what constitutes a dog-whistle, but it would seem counter-intuitive to say that a dog-whistle’s very existence is a matter of perspective or subjective properties.

(This blog post drew from “Palamism in the Twentieth Century: An Examination of the Essence-Energies Distinction in Vladimir Lossky, Kallistos Ware, and Dumitru Staniloae” by Jonah Eklud and “The Divine Names” by Pseudo-Dionysius.)

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