What is a Noetic Life?

noetic life

by Fr. Stephen Freeman

Eskimos really do have over 50 words for snow. In total, there are around 180 words for snow and ice. There is “aqilokoq” for “softly falling snow” and “piegnartoq” for “the snow [that is] good for driving a sled.” There is also “utuqaq,” which means, “ice that lasts year after year” and “siguliaksraq,” the patchwork layer of crystals that forms as the sea begins to freeze; and “auniq,” ice that is filled with holes, like Swiss cheese. The reason, of course, is simple. If the information about snow and ice are a matter of survival, human beings develop a vocabulary sufficient to cover their need. They also develop a keen eye for snow and ice. They do not see better or different than anyone else, but they pay attention to certain things that others would ignore.

This simple reality can also be applied to the words of our spiritual life. Modern language can make a distinction between high-definition television and ultra-high definition, or even super ultra-high definition (this latter being so extreme in its resolution that an Eskimo could use it to classify snow). We even have words for sub-atomic particles. But modern language is extremely impoverished in its spiritual vocabulary. The culture has been overwhelmed by the ideas and concepts of psychology, pushing aside an entire vocabulary of human experience. Some of the words of classical Christian experience disappeared long before the modern period (and that is a different story).

Where words are absent, the ability to perceive is reduced. Language and perception work together. There are many things you cannot see until you are taught to see them. Having words for such things is part of the process of learning to see.

A key word from classical Christianity is the Greek term “nous,” and its adjectival form, “noetic.” Western translators early on translated the term as intellectus, which in its English forms is simply incorrect. Modern translators vary in translating it as either “mind” or “heart.” Neither of these is accurate, and both can be misleading in the extreme. Increasingly, some writers are simply choosing to use the word in its original form (my preference).

All of this is by way of introduction. The fact that our modern vocabulary doesn’t have an actual word for what the Fathers meant when they wrote about noetic perception, or when they said that the “nous should descend into the heart” (very important and common phrases), does not mean that what they are describing is closed to us, but does indicate that it is a reality which we largely ignore, like the incredible variety within snow and ice. It’s there, but we fail to see it.

Our culture champions the mind. We think of ourselves as far more brilliant than those who lived in the past and certainly more aware and understanding of the processes and realities of the world around us. In short, we think we’re the smartest people who have ever lived. In point of fact, we have narrowed the focus of our attention and are probably among the least aware human beings to have ever lived.

Our narrowed focus is largely confined to two aspects: the critical faculty and emotions. The critical faculty mostly studies for facts, compares, judges, measures, and so forth. Emotions run through the varieties of pleasure and pain, largely pairing with the critical faculty to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. This way of experiencing the world is largely the result of living in a consumerist culture. We not only consume things – we are constantly under a barrage of information geared solely towards consumption. We consume everything. Information is more than information – it is information for the purpose of consumption. Even religious notions are governed by consumption. We “like” or “don’t like” Church. We find it useful, or of no interest. People are even known to “shop” for Churches.

The nous is not a faculty of consumption. It is a faculty of perception, particularly of spiritual perception. The modern struggle to experience God often fails because it is carried out by consumers. God, the true and living God, cannot be consumed, nor can He be known by the tools of consumption. Consumerist Christianity peddles experience and ideas about God. It has little or nothing to do with God Himself.

I occasionally use kinesthetic experiences to describe the nous. The knowledge we have of riding a bicycle is not critical knowledge. You cannot think your way into the knowledge of riding. Playing the piano is a similar experience. My reason for citing these forms of knowledge is to point to the fact that we already have some experience of non-consuming knowledge. Interestingly, kinesthetic knowledge is not solely in the head. My fingers “know” how to play the piano. My whole body rides a bicycle.

The Fathers often locate the nous in the heart – the physical heart. By this we should understand that the knowledge of noetic experience extends beyond the brain and rests more generally in the very center of our body, in every fiber of our being. Most importantly, it is not a part of the critical faculty. It is a means of perception and knowledge, but not the means of judging, weighing, measuring, comparing, etc. It is much closer to observation (though most modern people only engage in consumer observation).

Vladimir Lossky, the great 20th century Russian theologian, says:

Knowledge is given to us by faith, that is to say, by our participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself. Faith is therefore not a psychological attitude, a mere fidelity. It is an ontological relationship between man and God, an internally objective relationship…

“Participatory adherence” is the key phrase in this description. It is a noetic awareness that does not stand outside what it observes. It is a sympathetic observation in which we ourselves are open and vulnerable to what we perceive.

An example.

You meet a stranger. The most common approach is to immediately engage the critical faculty. We make observations and judgments almost instantly. Emotional triggers may encourage us to make immediate decisions. We may react in such a way as to be guarded or skeptical, or attracted, or even disinterested. In many ways, we are “consuming” the stranger.

Imagine, instead, that you meet a stranger and completely suspend judgment. You do not compare them, categorize them, or measure them in any way. You refrain as much as possible from engaging emotional reactions. Rather, you are simply attentive, observing them with an awareness that does not judge. Imagine at the same time that you not only observe them in such a manner, but that you fully engage your own willingness to see them sympathetically while being willing to allow them into your own life. This is something of what Lossky means by a “participatory adherence.”

But how is this practiced with regard to God?

God is not a static object. He is personal and therefore acts in freedom. We can know or perceive Him because He makes Himself known. By and large, people in our culture are looking for a God who can be experienced by the critical faculty. In short, we want a God whom we can consume. Do I like Him? Do I want Him? Will I give Him my life? Do I choose Him? This is largely accomplished by substituting the idea of God for God Himself.

I knew a woman who was a self-professed non-believer, though she was willing to believe. Her husband began bringing her to my parish. She attended faithfully for a period of time. One day she asked to meet with me and told me her story. With tears she said she had been in the Church during a service. She was looking at the icon of Christ on the iconostasis. “Why do I not know you?” she asked quietly. “And then I did,” she said. There was no argument, no promise of experience. There was, however, a “participatory adherence.” She was there and she was there repeatedly. Her question was not a critical examination. If anything, it was a cry of love though she had little hope of an answer.

The tradition uses two other words that are important in this perception. One is hesychia, translated “silence” or “stillness.” The second is nepsis (adjective, neptic), often translated “sobriety,” or “attentiveness.” These are noetic expressions, describing the stillness and attention that are generally required for the nous to perceive what is around it. That stillness is not quite the same thing as peace and quiet. It also indicates refraining from our various agendas. Nepsis is an attentiveness that avoids the distractions of the various passions (anger, lust, greed, envy, etc.).

We can know God because He wills to make Himself known. But noetic living is not a technique, per se. It simply describes the proper grounding for the spiritual life. Thus, whether reading Scripture, praying, attending a service, or simply being still, we actively and quietly offer ourselves to God. We should not expect this to automatically produce some wonderful result (it’s not a technique). But as we engage in these activities with the right mind (noetically, neptically, hesychastically) we do indeed learn to perceive God. We learn to be aware of what our nous perceives.

This is, of course, much more successfully learned with good guidance (such as from a priest or monk, or someone who has knowledge of these things – and not all priests or monks do). Many people simple stumble into this and never have words to describe it. It is a perfectly natural thing.

If there were anything that a Christian could practice that would help nurture this aspect of their life, it would be refraining as much as possible from the consumerism of our culture. It teaches us habits that are very destructive to our souls. Instead, we should practice generosity and kindness, and give ourselves over to the care of God rather than the spirit of shopping. You cannot serve God and mammon.

In the Orthodox service, those attending frequently hear the priest or deacon intone: “Wisdom! Let us attend!”

Let us attend. Indeed.


I offer an afterthought. One means of practicing “participatory adherence” is to say “yes.” And, another word for “participatory adherence” might be “love.”




What is the Human Nous?


by Fr, John Romanides

The chief concern of the Orthodox Church is the healing of the human soul. The Church has always considered the soul as the part of the human being that needs healing because She has seen from Hebrew tradition, from Christ Himself, and from the Apostles that in the region of the physical heart there functions something that the Fathers called the nous. In other words, the Fathers took the traditional term nous, which means both intellect (dianoia) and speech or reason (logos), and gave it a different meaning.

They used nous to refer to this noetic energy that functions in the heart of every spiritually healthy person. We do not know when this change in meaning took place, because we know that some Fathers used the same word nous to refer to reason as well as to this noetic energy that descends and functions in the region of the heart.

So from this perspective, noetic activity is an activity essential to the soul. It functions in the brain as the reason; it simultaneously functions in the heart as the nous. In other words, the same organ, the nous, prays ceaselessly in the heart and simultaneously thinks about mathematical problems, for example, or anything else in the brain.

We should point out that there is a difference in terminology between St. Paul and the Fathers. What St. Paul calls the nous is the same as what the Fathers call dianoia. When the Apostle Paul says,

“I will pray with the spirit,”[1]

he means what the Fathers mean when they say,

“I will pray with the nous.”

And when he says,

“I will pray with the nous,”

he means

“I will pray with the intellect (dianoia).”

When the Fathers use the word nous, the Apostle Paul uses the word “spirit.” When he says

“I will pray with the nous, I will pray with the spirit”

or when he says

“I will chant with the nous, I will chant with the spirit,”

and when he says

“the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit,”[2]

he uses the word “spirit” to mean what the Fathers refer to as the nous. And by the word nous, he means the intellect or reason.

In his phrase,

“the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit,”

St. Paul speaks about two spirits: the Spirit of God and the human spirit. By some strange turn of events, what St. Paul meant by the human spirit later reappeared during the time of St. Makarios the Egyptian with the name nous, and only the words logos and dianoia continued to refer to man”s rational ability. This is how the nous came to be identified with spirit, that is, with the heart, since according to St. Paul, the heart is the place of man”s spirit.[3]

Thus, for the Apostle Paul reasonable or logical worship takes place by means of the nous (i.e., the reason or the intellect) while noetic prayer occurs through the spirit and is spiritual prayer or prayer of the heart.[4] So when the Apostle Paul says,

“I prefer to say five words with my nous in order to instruct others rather than a thousand with my tongue,”[5]

he means that he prefers to say five words, in other words to speak a bit, for the instruction of others rather than pray noetically. Some monks interpret what St. Paul says here as a reference to the Prayer of Jesus, which consists of five words,[6] but at this point the Apostle is speaking here about the words he used in instructing others.[7] For how can catechism take place with noetic prayer, since noetic prayer is a person”s inward prayer, and others around him do not hear anything? Catechism, however, takes place with teaching and worship that are cogent and reasonable. We teach and speak by using the reason, which is the usual way that people communicate with each other.[8]

Those who have noetic prayer in their hearts do, however, communicate with one another. In other words, they have the ability to sit together, and communicate with each other noetically, without speaking. That is, they are able to communicate spiritually. Of course, this also occurs even when such people are far apart. They also have the gifts of clairvoyance and foreknowledge. Through clairvoyance, they can sense both other people”s sins and thoughts (logismoi), while foreknowledge enables them to see and talk about subjects, deeds, and events in the future. Such charismatic people really do exist. If you go to them for confession, they know everything that you have done in your life before you open your mouth to tell them.


  1. 1 Corinthians 14:5.
  2. Romans 8:16.
  3. This means that the Spirit of God speaks to our spirit. In other words, God speaks within our heart by the grace of the Holy Spirit. St. Gregory Palamas in his second discourse from “In Behalf of the Sacred Hesychasts” notes that “the heart rules over the whole human organism”. For the nous and all the thoughts (logismoi) of the soul are located there.” From the context of grace-filled prayer, it is clear that the term “heart” does not refer to the physical heart, but to the deep heart, while the term nous does not refer to the intellect (dianoia), but to the energy/activity of the heart, the noetic activity which wells forth from the essence of the nous (i.e., the heart). For this reason, St. Gregory adds that it is necessary for the hesychasts “to bring their nous back and enclose it within their body and particularly within that innermost body, within the body that we call the heart.” The term “spirit” is also identical with the terms nous and “heart.” Philokalia, vol. IV (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p, 334.
  4. Cf. Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, who notes: “Man has two centers of knowing: the nous which is the appropriate organ for receiving the revelation of God that is later put into words through the reason and the reason which knows the sensible world around us.” The Person in Orthodox Tradition, trans. Effie Mavromichali (Levadia: Monastery of the Birth of the Theotokos, 1994), p. 24.
  5. 1 Corinthians 14:19.
  6. In Greek, the Prayer of Jesus consists of exactly five words in its simplest form, which in English is translated as “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” “TRANS.
  7. “Thus as Saint John of Damascus puts it, we are led as though up a ladder to the thinking of good thoughts”. Saint Paul also indicates this when he says: “I had rather speak five words with my nous“.” St. Peter of Damascus, “The Third Stage of Contemplation,” in Philokalia, 3, page 42 [my translation: cf. also English Philokalia, vol. XXX, p. 120] and St. Nikitas Stithatos, as cited below.
  8. With respect to this, Venerable Nikitas Stithatos writes, “If when you pray and psalmodize you speak in a tongue to God in private you edify yourself, as Saint Paul says. ” If it is not in order to edify his flock that the shepherd seeks to be richly endowed with the grace of teaching and the knowledge of the Spirit, he lacks fervor in his quest for God”s gifts. By merely praying and psalmodizing inwardly with your tongue, that is, by praying in the soul ” you edify yourself, but your nous is unproductive [cf. I Corinthians 14:14], for you do not prophesy with the language of sacred teaching or edify God”s Church. If Paul, who of all men was the most closely united with God through prayer, would have rather spoken from his fertile nous five words in the church for the instruction of others than ten thousand words of psalmody in private with a tongue [cf., I Corinthians 14:19], surely those who have responsibility for others have strayed from the path of love if they limit the shepherd”s ministry solely to psalmody and reading.” St. Nikitas Stithatos, “On Spiritual Knowledge,” in The Philokalia, vol. 4, pp. 169-170.






What is the Nous, and How is it Distinct from the Soul?

nous soulby Fr. John Whiteford

More excellent work from “Stump the Priest”

Question: “What do we mean by the “nous,” how is it distinct from the soul, and are the Orthodox the only ones who speak about the “nous”?”

This question is complicated by the fact that the word “nous” (which is usually translated into English as “mind” has been used in different senses, at different times. The best discussion on this topic I have come across is found in Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos)’s book “Orthodox Psychotherapy: The science of the Fathers” (pp. 118-156 (the title might lead you to think that this is a book about psychiatry, but it is about the healing of the soul, which is what “psychotherapy” literally means)). A shorter summary of the question can be found in an excerpt from the book “Patristic Theology,” by Fr. John Romanides, which is available online:

“What is the Human Nous?”

Fr. John Romanides says in part:

“The chief concern of the Orthodox Church is the healing of the human soul. The Church has always considered the soul as the part of the human being that needs healing because She has seen from Hebrew tradition, from Christ Himself, and from the Apostles that in the region of the physical heart there functions something that the Fathers called the nous. In other words, the Fathers took the traditional term nous, which means both intellect (dianoia) and speech or reason (logos), and gave it a different meaning. They used nous to refer to this noetic energy that functions in the heart of every spiritually healthy person. We do not know when this change in meaning took place, because we know that some Fathers used the same word nous to refer to reason as well as to this noetic energy that descends and functions in the region of the heart.

So from this perspective, noetic activity is an activity essential to the soul. It functions in the brain as the reason; it simultaneously functions in the heart as the nous. In other words, the same organ, the nous, prays ceaselessly in the heart and simultaneously thinks about mathematical problems, for example, or anything else in the brain.

We should point out that there is a difference in terminology between St. Paul and the Fathers. What St. Paul calls the nous is the same as what the Fathers call dianoia. When the Apostle Paul says,

“I will pray with the spirit,”[1 Corinthians 14:5.] he means what the Fathers mean when they say, “I will pray with the nous.”

And when he says, “I will pray with the nous,” he means “I will pray with the intellect (dianoia).”

When the Fathers use the word nous, the Apostle Paul uses the word “spirit.” When he says “I will pray with the nous, I will pray with the spirit”  or when he says  “I will chant with the nous, I will chant with the spirit,”  and when he says  “the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit,”[Romans 8:16]  he uses the word “spirit” to mean what the Fathers refer to as the nous. And by the word nous, he means the intellect or reason.”

A few other points that Metropolitan Hierotheos makes on this subject:

  • Many Fathers use the words “nous” and “soul” interchangeably.
  • St. John of Damascus says that the nous is the purest part of the soul.
  • St. Gregory Palamas uses the word “nous” in two senses: as the whole soul, and also as the power of the soul.
  • In Scripture and in many of the Fathers there is an identification of the nous with the heart, and the terms are used interchangeably.

Other Fathers use the term “nous” to refer to refer to “attention” as opposed to reasoning. And so for example, when we pray, we may be reading our prayers with our intellect, but our attention wanders. And so when one achieves the prayer of the heart, our attention (the nous) returns to the heart, and we truly pray.

Contemporary Protestants will typically only talk about the “nous” to the extent that they find references to it in in Scripture, and they generally would not spend a lot of time (if any) trying to understand what the Fathers had to say about those passages. Being influence by American pragmatism, they would also tend to see spending time focusing on the nuances of the mind, heart, and soul of a person to be of little use to the bottom line questions of how one is saved, and how we should live our lives, which they tend to see in far more simple terms, and look for far more simple answers.

If you were an Eskimo, you would speak about various forms of frozen water with subtle distinctions that would be lost on tribesmen who live near the equator, because those people don’t often encounter frozen water, and so hail, snow, sleet, etc, would be seen as being pretty much the same thing. Whereas for you, ice, snow, sleet, and all the subtle variations one encounters of those things would be a pervasive reality that would never be far from your thoughts. The saints of the Church spent their lives waging spiritual warfare, and so speak about the aspects of the soul in very subtle ways, compared to those who think that if you say a prayer and ask Christ into your heart, that you are saved, and couldn’t lose your salvation if you tried.




What is the Nous, and How is it Distinct from the Soul?

Nous: The Concord of Gnosis, Theoria & Theosis

by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo

This article reminded me of a statement by C.S. Lewis,

“You don’t have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body.”

The Western Understanding of Nous.

According to the 18th century German Philosopher, Emmanuel Kant, reality is divided between phenomena and noumena, that is, the realm of time, space and matter and its relation, if any, to the unknown realm of the spirit. All knowledge is rational, the result of the synthesis of a priori concepts of the reason (Erkenntnis) and “the manifold of sense perception” or “experience.”

“In the order of time,” he declared, “we have no knowledge antecedent to experience, and with experience all our knowledge begins” (“De Zeit nach geht also keine Erkenntnis in uns vor der Erfahrung vorher, und mit dieser fangt alle”) (1).

For Kant, the apex of modern philosophy, the quest for “knowledge” is the quest for theoretical or rational certainty. Ironically, his enterprise was initiated by the very thing he undertook to analyze — reason (Vernunft). He commenced the examination of this “problem” without a “critique” of the principles of ratiocination inherited from the history of Western philosophy, and without resorting to the Biblical God, the Christ of Faith, and the wisdom of the Church fathers.

Nevertheless, Kant, as so many of his contemporaries, understood that the philosophical study of knowledge was insufficient to assure happiness and hope. He therefore posited God (the source and assurance of them), immortality of the soul (the reward for virtue), and free will (the ability to make decisions concerning the others). For Kant, the moral order depended on the existence of God, an idea which he may have learned from Voltaire’s proclamation,

“If there is no God we will need to invent one.”

His book, The Critique of Practical Reason, was a serious attempt to provide a moral law contingent upon subjective principles.

If nothing else, Kant led European intellectuals to the conclusion that if there was truth it was not to be found (if it was to be found at all) in phenomena, but in the self, that is, confidence in feeling and intuition. Beauty inspired the introspection that led to apprehension of truth — not only philosophy, but music, art and poetry. The Romantics had deceived themselves, thinking their subjectivism was the antidote to Kantian Idealism. The Romantics were as much the servants of logic as the rationalists they ostensibly despised.

Whatever label is applied to modern thinkers, it is certain that their mind-set prevented them from appreciating the fact that acquisition of truth depends on the nature and condition of man which, according to the Scriptures and Fathers is fallen; and that his recovery — including his “mind” (2) — is impossible without grace and faith. Human nature needs to be “reborn,” something modernity has never understood. Among some philosophers and psychologists, there was flirtation with the idea of “noetic knowledge,” but it came to nothing. They never understood it.

Thus, in 1902, the American thinker, William James, sought to define it — as is the way of the post-patristic West. He clumsily described it as “states of insight into the depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. There are illuminations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain, and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority.” He could not help presenting Nous in familiar conventions of thought.

Kant and the Western theological and philosophical tradition were right about the noetic sphere, but not for the right reason. A false concept of God and crypto-Greek anthropology accounts for their ignorance. The Nous or intellectus are not anti-rational, but supra-rational, the highest faculty of the soul whose very purpose is to communicate with God and spiritual things. The Nous is not the function of the soul which formulates abstract concepts by which to reach a conclusion achieved by deductive thinking; rather Nous is able to comprehend spiritual or noetical realities on account of the soul’s reconstitution and its relationship to God in Christ (2).

Moreover, the “mind” has its own form of cognition — Gnosis, that is, the intuitive or immediate apprehension of things spiritual and divine. Gnoseology is not epistemology which is concerned with the nature and scope of human knowledge; nor with the metaphysics it presupposes. Gnosis is the “knowledge” of the “greater mysteries” of existence, divine and human. It is the action of the dispassionate Nous in the state of meditating on spiritual truths, especially God Himself (Theoria). It a practice resulting from prayer, fasting and worship, involving a culture of “watchfulness” (nepsis) or “guarding the mind” or “heart” against the malignancy of sensual images and illusions — always under the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The contemplative achieves success only in a state of “quiet” (hesychia) whether within himself or the world around him. In this practice the mind also has the assistance of reason; it acts as the sentinel against the invading sensory and illusory images. The end of this spiritual process is complete transformation of human nature, that is, deification (theosis) or salvation.

The Scriptural Concept of Nous

Let us see what the Scriptures say about the Nous (mind) (3) — or what is the same thing — the pneuma (spirit) or kardia (heart) — sometimes rendered into English as “understanding.” They are synonyms. In Deuteronomy 6: 6, God commands the Israelites to keep what He has taught them

“with all their kardia…”

Let us not forget Psalm 50:10,

“Create a clean kardian within me, O God, and renew a right pneuma in my inward parts.”

We recall, too, the allusion to the inner man mentioned in Mark 2:8,

“And immediately when Jesus perceived in his pneuma that they reasoned within themselves. Why do you reason these things in your kardias? ”

Luke tells us that Mary exclaimed,

“my pneuma has rejoiced in God my Saviour (Lk.1:47).

The Lord described the unbelievers or “fools” to be

“slow of kardias” (Lk.24: 24);

and others He was able to

“opened their ton noun” (Lk.24:25).

Saint Paul warns the Romans that they will escape the world only by the renewing of their Nous (Rm.12:2). In 1Cor.1:10, he urged Christians

“to be joined together in the same noi;”

or, in the words of Saint Ignatios of Antioch,

“an undivided Nous” (Epistle to the. Ephesians, 20).

In that way, the Apostle observes, the believer’s Nous becomes “fruitful” (1Cor.14:14). God, he admonishes them,

“shall judge the secrets of your kardias” (14:25).

It shall be worse for him if he ignores his election in order to

“walk in the vanity of the noos as the Gentiles do.”

To the Philippians, the Apostle writes,

“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, shall keep your kardias and thoughts (noemata) through Christ Jesus” (Phl.4:7), etc.

Christians must always be aware that they are not ordinary men and women, but rather “commendations” to the world, an “epistle,” so to speak, not written with ink, but with the Holy Spirit who writes “on the fleshy tables of the kardia” (2Cor.3:3). Consequently, they have a Nous access to spiritual (noetical) realities not available to the “natural man” who cannot receive the things of the Spirit. As a member of the Church, the believer has the Spirit and therefore “the noun of Christ” (1Cor.2:16);

Patristic Understanding of Nous

Because all human beings have been created in the image of God, they likewise possess a soul with the faculties of Nous (heart, spirit), will, and reason. According to Pseudo-Makarios, “mind” or “heart” is

“the eye of the soul” (Spiritual Homilies 6: 8).


“the heart governs and reigns over the whole bodily organism, and when grace possesses the ranges of the heart, it reigns over all its members and its thoughts. For there, in the heart, is the mind and all the faculties of the soul” (15:20).

Elsewhere, he draws on a Platonic metaphor to identify

“the mind as charioteer, harnessing the chariot of the soul as it holds the reigns of its thoughts” (40: 5).

In Paradise, the Nous of Adam was able to ascend to the Theoria of God by exercise of his pristine will, illumined by divine grace. We shall never know how close he might have come to the unapproachable God. Obedient first parents would have been deified and, if we may believe the 14th century Byzantine writer, Kallistos Angelikoudi, the range of the sinless soul would have been unlimited, infinite. Put another way, deification is the result of “illuminating energy” which is everlasting (4).

Saint Gregory of Nyssa says that deification also involves endless learning. The greater the nearness of the soul (hence, the Nous) to God, the more profound and full is its knowledge (Gnosis).

It is this process of infinite growth to which the Christian seeks to revive. The major obstacle to salvation is the condition of the Nous. The

“mind was at first pure and saw its Master, being in honour,” wrote Pseudo-Makarios, “but, now, because of its banishment (from Paradise), is clothed with shame, the eyes of the heart being blinded, that it may not behold the glory, which our father, Adam, beheld before his disobedience” (Spiritual Homilies, 45: 1).

Then, Christ came and they, who follow Him, have cleansed their souls and body and received their sight (ib., 3). He is the “noetic Moses” who has delivered us, the new Israel, from

“the bondage of darkness, for the Egyptian spirits” (ib., 47:7).

When the mind is completely freed from the passions, writes Saint Maximus the Confessor,

“its journey is straight ahead to the contemplation of created things and from there to the knowledge of the Holy Trinity” (5).

There can be no progress where the heart is impure, that is, dominated by the passions. The degree of advance depends on the extent to which the passions have retreated. Victory for the soul relies upon “guarding the mind” or “inner watchfulness” (nepsis), declares Saint Philotheos of Sinai in his Forty Texts of Watchfulness (6).


“noetic work is the true philosophy.”

He cites Proverbs 4:23,

“Guard your heart (kardian) with utmost diligence, for on this depends the outcome of life” (ib., 9).

He urges the struggler (“initiated mind”) keep away from sensual pleasures and to acquire virtues (ib., 27) (7).

If the mind or heart is to be protected from or purged of the passions, watchfulness demands “purest prayer” and “tears” before it may receive “warmth of heart,” “illumination and the vision of heavenly things” (8).

Saint Peter of Damascus adds that

“the counsel of the holy fathers is that during prayer,”

we must keep the mind free from all shapes or colours and concentrate on the words uttered.” Furthermore, part of the “noetic work” is hope in the Lord, a hope that separates from the love of material things. They bring evil and evil darkens the mind (9). He also reminds us that, along with watchfulness, the remembrance of death protects the mind against the influences of the devil.

Saint Peter advises that “every bodily activity — by which I mean fasting, vigils, psalmody, spiritual reading, stillness (hesychia) — is directed towards the purification of the mind (Nous).” But purification can never be achieved without “inward grief” (10).

Within the struggle for purity of the mind comes the power of Gnosis, the knowledge about which the holy Fathers, Scriptures and Gospels speak. With Gnosis the mind outlaws forgetfulness and ignorance. This knowledge reminds it of the difference between the soul’s goal and diabolic pitfalls that await the unwatchful mind and its faculty of reason.

Dispassion (by which the mind has emerged from the realm of matter and material things and the tranquil encounter of noetic realities), Gnosis brings to the mind purification of the mind, that is, contemplation (Theoria), the anticipation of union with God in the heavenly Kingdom.

Here is the true meaning of theology. It is not a science, the systematizing of religious ideas, a rational explication of revelation, but rather to make the mind divine — as far as that is possible — a transcendent state where God Himself might instruct it. In other words, contemplative, therefore, wholly “mystical” (11).

The theologian must be pure of heart under which he receives the Gnosis by which he may contemplate the Divine. He is, according to Saint John Cassian,

“a man seized with the urge to have knowledge of God and to be pure in mind devotes all his gathered energy to this one task. While they still live in the corruption of the flesh, they give themselves to that service in which they will persevere when that corruption has been laid aside. And already they come in sight of what the Lord and Saviour held out when He said, `Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God’.” (12).

Thus, theology is finally the work of the Nous, not reason.


1. Kritik der Reinen Vernunft. Leipzig, 1920, Einleitung, 35.

2.. What Saint Ilias the Presbyter calls the “initiated” (epoptes), Gnomic Anthology, 63 (Philokalia, vol. 3). As Saint Gregory the Theologians has it, “to philosophize about God” is not for all men, but only those “who have been previously examined, and are past masters of contemplation and who have been previously purified in soul and body, or, at the very least, are being purified…free from all external outward defilement…unconfused by vexatious or erring images…and who discerns the straight road to the Divine” (First Theological Oration. 3).
3. In Latin, intellectus (commonly, understanding) is the equivalent of Nous. So it is rendered in Philokalia (London, 1979- ), the G.E.H Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware translation. It is a dimension of the anima (soul) which is sometimes a synonym for heart (cor), spirit (spiritus), mind (mens). For example, custodiat corda vestra et intelligentsia vestras in Christo Iesu (Phil.4:7). Among the Greek Fathers, some prefer Nous, some kardia, others pneuma. Whichever their choice, the meaning is virtually the same: the action of inner man, the human spiritual centre, the force within the soul determines his understanding, man’s contact with noetic reality, and with grace (uncreated energy) of the Holy Spirit, the instrument of his ontological regeneration, body and soul. It is always supra-rational. The word “noetic” or “noetical” is the adjective of Nous.

4. On Union with God and the Life Theoria, 3 (www.greekorthodoxchurch.org).

5. The Four Hundred Chapters on Love I, 86 (in Saint Maximus the Confessor, Selected Writings. Trans. by G.C. Berthold. New York, 1985).

6. Philokalia (vol. 3). He cites Proverbs 4:23, “Guard your heart (kardian) with utmost diligence, for on this depends the outcome of life” (ib., 9).

7. In his Gnomic Anthology, Ilyas the Presbyter states that reason assists the mind in its combat with the passions; but if its warnings are ignored, reason becomes a “thorn in the flesh” (Philokalia, vol. 3), 50.

8. Theophanes the Monk, Ladder of Divine Graces, p. 67 (Philokalia [vol. 3]).

9. A Treasury of Divine Knowledge, pp. 88, 102 (Philokalia, vo.3).

10. Ib., p. 119.

11. The theologian is a mystes (initiated) who is alone worthy to contemplate God and spiritual things. Theology is mystikos.

12. Conference I, 10 (John Cassian: Conferences. Trans. by C. Luibhed. New York, 1985.

*It should be noted that St Makarios of Egypt did not write the Spiritual Homilies, and so far as we know, he never wrote anything. The “Saying of St. Makarios” were known not to be authentic.


The Concept of Divine Energies

by David Bradshaw, University of Kentucky

Anyone familiar with the history of western philosophy is aware of how large a role has been played within it by theology. This is true not only of the Middle Ages, when philosophy was the handmaiden of theology, but as recently as Hegel and Kierkegaard, or arguably even Heidegger and Wittgenstein. For almost two millennia philosophers have drawn on theology to help them grapple with issues including, obviously, the existence of God and the relationship of faith and reason, but also such fundamental questions as the objectivity of morality, the meaning of our existence, and the nature of being itself. Naturally borrowings have gone in the other direction as well, and often what philosophers have found in theology is something that theology herself had drawn from philosophy centuries before.

Despite this long and intimate association, in recent centuries the trajectory of philosophy has unquestionably been in the direction of secularization. It would be fair to say that most contemporary philosophers, if not embarrassed by philosophy’s theological past, are at least glad that it is behind us, and prefer to think of their discipline as now relatively autonomous. Accompanying this attitude is a tacit assumption that, whatever philosophy may have drawn from theology in the past, today the theological well has more or less run dry. To think that philosophy might find in theology today a revolutionary inspiration is, on this view, mere nostalgia.

When one turns from the history of philosophy to that of theology, however, one finds grounds to question these prevailing views. I do not have in mind any deep insights about the nature of theology or the superiority of its methods over those of philosophy. Rather, I have in mind a simple historical fact: the bifurcation of the Christian theological tradition into two streams during the early Middle Ages, and the limitation of western philosophy to only one of those two streams. How this came about is, I trust, a relatively familiar story. Sometime around the late fourth century the elites of the Roman Empire largely ceased to be bilingual, with those of the West increasingly reading and speaking only Latin, and those of the East reading and speaking only Greek.

The change is illustrated by the career of Augustine, who tells us in the Confessions how much he detested Greek as a boy and how glad he was to put it behind him. His entire theological formation seems to have taken place without reference to the enormous body of Greek theological writing which was at that time the main repository of Christian thought. Although this absence no doubt aided the flowering of Augustine’s originality, it meant that the legacy he bestowed on the western church was remarkably disconnected from the earlier tradition.

Meanwhile the Greek tradition continued along its own path, almost wholly oblivious to the enormous importance that Augustine had attained in the West. No works of Augustine were translated into Greek until the thirteenth century, while only a few of the later Greek works—most famously, the Dionysian Corpus and the De Fide Orthodoxa of St. John of Damascus—were translated into Latin. Since these were read outside of their original context, however, they were often misunderstood, particularly at points where they are at odds with Augustine.

Thus the theology which influenced western philosophy was primarily that of Augustine and his Latin successors. One might think that with the recovery of Greek learning in the Renaissance this imbalance would have been corrected. By that time, however, a long succession of councils and popes had made it clear that western Christianity was and must remain fundamentally Augustinian.

The Protestant reformers, far from challenging this result, drew on Augustine for their own understandings of predestination and salvation by faith alone. From the point of view of both camps, the Byzantine Christians were schismatics and heretics. So far as philosophy was concerned, the effect of these hard doctrinal lines was that the way of thinking about God typical of Latin scholasticism—as First Cause, actus purus, eternal, unchanging, perfectly simple, and so on, with all of these attributes knowable through “natural reason” alone—remained the starting point of philosophical reflection. Philosophers quarreled over it, tinkered with its details, and in growing numbers wholly rejected it. However, that something like this God is, as it were, the philosophical shape of Biblical religion remained unquestioned, save for a few isolated and eccentric figures such as Kierkegaard.

My goal in this paper is two-fold.

First I wish to show that a sharply different way of thinking about God was present within the Christian tradition from an early point, that is, prior to Augustine. Second, I wish to show that this alternative conception is of live philosophical interest. Although I shall be discussing primarily Christian sources, I by no means believe that what I have to say should be of interest only to Christians. The question of what God is like, if there is a God, is of universal human importance. What ought to interest us in any answer is not what religious label it comes under, but whether it is true.

The concept I will focus on is that of the divine energies. In a sense, the notion that God is energy is thoroughly traditional. The term ‘energy’ comes from the Greek energeia, a term coined by Aristotle. Aristotle’s earliest works use it to mean the active exercise of a capacity, such as that for sight or thought, as distinct from the mere possession of the capacity. It is easy to see how from this beginning it came to be used in two otherwise unrelated ways, for activity and for actuality. (Its correlative term dynamis likewise has two meanings, capacity and potentiality.) These two senses, which seem to us quite distinct, sometimes reconverge.

In Metaphysics ix.6 Aristotle distinguishes energeia from motion or change (kinesis) on the grounds that a motion or change is ordered toward some extrinsic end—as housebuilding aims at a house—whereas an energeia is its own end. The examples he gives are seeing, thinking, understanding, living well, and flourishing. Plainly these are activities, but they are activities that are fully actual in the sense that they contain their own end and thus are fully complete at each moment of their existence, rather than requiring a stretch of time. Aristotle illustrates this difference with the so-called “tense test,” namely that at each moment that one sees (or thinks, or so on) one also has seen, whereas at each moment that one builds a house one has not also built a house.

The most interesting application of energeia in this sense is in Aristotle’s theory of the Prime Mover. The Prime Mover is a being whose substance (ousia) is energeia (Met. xii.6 1071b20), in three distinct but related senses.

First, since the Prime Mover is posited to explain motion it cannot itself be subject to motion, and thus it has no potentiality to change or be acted upon. Second, because it must be eternally and unchangingly active it can have no unrealized capacities to act; everything it can do it already does, all at once and as a whole. The first point raises the question of how the Prime Mover can move without being moved. Aristotle answers this question with his famous theory that the Prime Mover is self-thinking thought, a being whose

“thought is a thinking of thinking” (xii.9 1075b34).

This means that there is yet a third sense in which its substance is energeia, this time in the sense of activity rather than actuality: namely, its substance is nothing other than the self-subsistent activity of thought.

In saying this I do not wish to imply that the Prime Mover thinks of nothing but itself and thus has a rather impoverished mind. Aristotle is quite clear that the Prime Mover’s thinking embraces all possible intelligible content; after all, if it did not, there would be a kind of thinking in which it could engage but does not, and it would in that respect fail to be fully actual. In saying that the Prime Mover “thinks itself,” what he means is that, precisely because its act of thinking is fully actual, this act is identical to its object, for there is nothing other than the object—no unrealized potency—constituting the act as what it is. (One might compare Hume’s view that the self is a bundle of impressions and ideas. Aristotle would in general say that our selves are distinct from our actual thought because they include a vast range of unrealized potencies; in the case of the Prime Mover, however, that distinction disappears.) Given the identity of the Prime Mover’s thought with its object, a remarkable result follows: the Prime Mover not only thinks all possible intelligible content, it is all possible intelligible content, existing all at once as a single eternal and fully actual substance.

Aristotle does not draw this conclusion explicitly, but later commentators, beginning with Alexander of Aphrodisias, did so, and it became a fundamental ingredient in the synthesis of Plato and Aristotle executed by the Neoplatonists.

My interest here is not in the Prime Mover as such, but in what all this implies about the meaning of energeia. In the Prime Mover we have a being which both thinks and is all possible intelligible content, existing as a single eternal and unchanging whole. The intelligible structure of things, however, is what makes them what they are. (This is the familiar doctrine that form is substance, articulated particularly in Metaphysics vii.17.) Thus one could equally say that the Prime Mover is present in all things, imparting—or rather, constituting—their intelligible structure, and thus their being. In light of all this, when we say that the Prime Mover is pure energeia, how ought we to translate that term? Activity? Actuality? Plainly the answer is both—and therefore neither. It seems to me that the closest we can come in English is to say that it is pure energy.

Specifically, I have in mind the sense given in the American Heritage Dictionary as “power exercised with vigor and determination,” and illustrated with the phrase, “devote one’s energies to a worthy cause.” But of course no illustration drawn from ordinary objects will be adequate to the notion of a being that is pure energy, an energy that constitutes the being of other things.

At the same time, let us note that Aristotle assumes that one can sensibly speak of what it is like to be the Prime Mover. For example, he states that its way of life is

“such as the best which we enjoy . . . , since its energy (energeia) is also pleasure,”

and he goes on to add that it

“is always in that good state in which we sometimes are” (xii.7 1072b14-25).

Lest we think of the identification of the Prime Mover with energy as a sort of physicalistic reduction, we must remember that it is a being with mental states in some sense analogous to our own. That there is such an analogy is presupposed in the identification of its activity as thought (no?sis), for thinking is something in which we too engage, although in an incomparably more partial and limited way.

Now I wish to fast-forward about four centuries to the Apostle Paul. During the intervening period the metaphysical associations that Aristotle gave to energeia were largely ignored. In popular usage energeia simply meant activity. However, even in this sense it is natural to speak of the energeia of God or the gods, and one finds such references among Hellenistic historians and within Alexandrian Judaism. This raises the question of how the divine energeia relates to our own.

  • What happens when a god wishes to perform something through a human being?
  • Does the divine energeia simply overpower the human?
  • Or is there instead some sort cooperation or synthesis, and if so how are we to conceive it?

An answer to these questions is implied in the writings of St. Paul. I do not wish to suggest that Paul explicitly addressed the divine energeia as a theological topic, but only that he uses the term often enough, and in a sufficient variety of contexts, that we can determine what his answer to these questions would have been. For example, Paul refers to himself as

“striving according to Christ’s working (or energy, energeia), which is being made effective (or actualized, energoumen?n) in me” (Col. 1:29).

Here it would seem that the divine energy serves two distinct functions. It is at work within Paul, transforming him, so that from this standpoint he is the object of God’s activity; at the same time it finds expression in Paul’s own activity, so that he may also be seen as the agent or conduit through whom God is working. Yet nothing in such external direction prevents his actions from remaining his own. It would be possible to fill out in detail the events in Paul’s life that this passage alludes to, for he has left us some vivid descriptions of his various trials and exertions. Not only do they exhibit full engagement and self-control, they do so more than did his actions prior to his conversion. As the story is told in Acts, Saul was trapped in self-deception until God set him free on the road to Damascus. Now the divine energy that works in him is also his own, more truly than anything he did was his own before he ceased to

“kick against the pricks” (Acts 9:5).

The belief that God is active in human beings is, of course, deeply rooted in the Old Testament. There it is usually God’s Word or Spirit that is the vehicle of divine indwelling, ways of speaking that tend to suggest control from without. Paul’s use of energeia and related terms, such as sunergein (to cooperate) and sunergos (co-worker), shifts the emphasis from one of external control to one of cooperation. However, the term ‘cooperation’ can be misleading if it suggests that there are here two equal agents who simply choose to work together. In the present case, since one is the Creator and the other a creature, the action of the latter depends for its reality upon the active support of the former. I take it that Paul interprets this notion in light of the common experience of feeling that one’s actions were not truly one’s own while one was mired in sin and self-deception.

On his view, synergy, the cooperation of God and man, is neither a symmetrical relation nor one in which the divine overpowers and replaces the human. It is rather one in which the human becomes fully human by embracing the divine. This is not a radically new idea; something like it can be found in the Old Testament, as well as in other religious traditions. What is new is the use of the vocabulary of energeia to express it.

The last stage preparatory to the thought of the Greek Fathers was pagan Neoplatonism. Let us return to the philosophical tradition to ask precisely how the Neoplatonists attempted to synthesize the thought of Plato and Aristotle. One criticism which might be raised against Aristotle’s theology is that it has no room for a proper sense of the mystery of the divine. After all, if the Prime Mover is the summation of all intelligible content, what he is can in principle be grasped by the act of thinking (no?sis), however far our own thinking falls short of that ideal.

In Plato there are hints of a sharply different picture. The famous depiction of the Good in the Republic as “beyond being” could be taken—and was taken by the Neoplatonists—as meaning that the Good is beyond no?sis as well, notwithstanding that Plato himself seems to regard it as an intelligible object. This development was spurred by the association of the Good with the One of the First Hypothesis of the Parmenides. In this section of the dialogue, Parmenides gives the strictest possible interpretation to the notion of unity. He concludes that the One has no limits or shape, is neither at rest nor in motion, is neither like nor unlike anything else, and finally that it does not partake of being, has no name, and is not an object of knowledge, perception, or opinion (Parm. 137c-142a).

To think that the Good of the Republic should be identified with this wholly unnamable and unknowable no-thing is certainly a remarkable idea. However, it is worth remembering that in his unwritten doctrines Plato posited a One which (in conjunction with the Indefinite Dyad) is the source of the Forms. Aristotle tells us that some in the Academy, perhaps including Plato himself, identified this One with the Good (Met. xiv.4). Later interpreters, putting these various fragments together, concluded that the One of the unwritten doctrines, the One of the Parmenides, and the Good of the Republic, are all one and the same.

Here we have, then, a first principle sharply different from that of Aristotle: unknowable, unnamable, the source of being for other things, while itself “beyond being.” Yet because it is also the Good, all things in some inchoate way seek it. The philosopher who saw a way to harmonize this Platonic conception of the first principle with that of Aristotle was Plotinus. Plotinus identified the One (or Good) as the ultimate first principle, and Aristotle’s Prime Mover he rechristened as Intellect (nous), the first hypostasis after the One. The One is no-thing, not any particular being because it is the source of all particular being. In the overflow of its goodness it gives rise to Intellect, which is all things inasmuch as it is present in all as their being, intelligibility, life, and other perfections.

The object of Intellect’s thought is in a sense the One, but since Intellect cannot apprehend the One in its unity it instead refracts it into a vast array of separate intelligibles (noeta), which are the Forms. By relating the One and Intellect in this way, Plotinus established a careful balance between the apophatic—that is, the denial to God of all predicates—and the kataphatic—that is, the ascription to God of all predicates.

The most striking point for our purposes is the use that Plotinus made of the concept of energeia. I argued earlier that the Prime Mover is pure energy, an energy that constitutes the being of other things. It is natural to ask whether this conception is truly coherent; that is, whether an energy that is not the energy of something, some active agent that is not itself simply identical with the energy, actually makes sense. Plotinus answers this question with what is known as the “theory of two acts.” Intellect comes forth from the One precisely as its external act or energy, what Plotinus refers to as its energeia ek tes ousias, the energy that comes forth from the substance.

So far, then, the answer is that Intellect as an energy is dependent upon the One.

However, Plotinus is too deeply steeped in Aristotle to think that substance is not itself a kind of energeia (a point emphasized in Metaphysics viii.2). Hence he also posits an energeia t?s ousias, an internal act or energy constituting the substance, of which the external act is a kind of image. His favorite illustration of this is fire, which has an internal heat that constitutes its substance and an external heat that it gives forth into the world, but the distinction is meant to be perfectly general. Ultimately it turns out that the internal act of all things is some form of contemplation, for all things are what they are by contemplating their prior in the chain of emanation.

We now have enough background in hand to see what use the Greek Fathers made of these ideas. The provocation that caused them to develop a more or less philosophical doctrine of God was the Arianism of Eunomius around the mid-fourth century. Eunomius had a simple argument that the Son is not God. It was that God is ingenerate or unbegotten, and furthermore this is not merely a privative attribute or human conception, but the divine substance or essence (ousia) itself. Plainly such an ousia cannot be shared with another by begetting. Hence the Son, who is begotten of the Father, cannot be of one essence (homoousion) with the Father.

As for terms such as ‘life,’ ‘light,’ and ‘power,’ which in the New Testament are used of both the Father and the Son, Eunomius argued that they must be taken differently in the two cases. Since the divine essence is utterly simple, “every word used to signify the essence of the Father is equivalent in force of meaning to ‘the unbegotten’ (to agenneton).”

The task of replying to Eunomius fell to St. Basil of Caesarea. Basil objected both to the assumption that the divine ousia can be known and to assumption that, because of divine simplicity, all non-privative terms said of God are identical in meaning. He writes:

“We say that we know the greatness of God, His power, His wisdom, His goodness, His providence over us, and the justness of His judgment, but not His very essence (ousia) . . . But God, he [Eunomius] says, is simple, and whatever attribute of Him you have reckoned as knowable is of His essence. The absurdities involved in this sophism are innumerable. When all these high attributes have been enumerated, are they all names of one essence? And is there the same mutual force in His awfulness and His loving-kindness, His justice and His creative power, His foreknowledge and His requital, His majesty and His providence? In mentioning any of these, do we declare His essence?”

The question, then, is how to characterize the distinction between that in God which cannot be known (the divine ousia) and that which can be known, such as the divine power, wisdom, and goodness. Basil’s answer emerges in the continuation of the passage:

“The energies are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His energies, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His energies come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach.”

As I understand him, Basil is here applying to the Christian God the distinction between ousia and energeia found in the philosophical tradition, and particularly in Plotinus.

His doing so raises at least two distinct questions. One is that of the ontological relationship between the essence and the energies. In Plotinus the external act of the One comes forth as the distinct hypostasis of Intellect. Is something similar true here in Basil? The other question is that of divine freedom, or, more precisely, the capacity to do otherwise. In Plotinus the One could not do otherwise than produce Intellect. Of course Plotinus sees this fact as not an impairment but rather an expression of the One’s freedom, since nothing other than the One’s own nature determines it to act as it does. By contrast, in the Christian tradition God is thought of as sufficiently like a person that in at least some cases, such as the creation of the world, he could do otherwise. Should we say, then, that his energies could be different than they are?

Let us begin with the first question. Plainly for Basil the energies are not a separate hypostasis, or series of hypostases. Rather, they are acts which God performs. Many scholars would in fact prefer to translate energeia in the passage that I have quoted as ‘operation,’ and to take Basil as saying only that God’s operations come down to us. I believe that the history of the distinction between the divine ousia and energeia, as I have sketched it here, argues against such a view. I find support at this point in an interesting semantic argument presented by Basil’s brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, who defended Basil against a reply by Eunomius.

Gregory adopts the view, which was widespread in antiquity, that a name is in some way indicative of the form or intrinsic characteristics of the thing named. Since God has no form, he has no name in the proper sense. Instead terms such as ‘god’ (theos) name the divine energeia of oversight or governance. (Gregory derives theos from theaomai, behold.) Now it is plain that by energeia here Gregory has in mind an operation. However, it cannot be only an operation, for then in speaking of God we would be speaking of an operation of God—that is, an operation of an operation, and so on in an infinite regress. Somehow by energeia Gregory and Basil would appear to understand both that which God is, and that which God performs.

I believe that this is perfectly intelligible in light of the history that we have traced. From the time of its introduction by Aristotle, energeia always indicated the energy which God both is and does. Plotinus refined this picture by distinguishing between internal and external act, but he did not overthrow it. Basil and Gregory in their turn revise Plotinus by rejecting the distinction of hypostasis between Intellect and the One. For them the relevant distinction is rather that between God as he exists within himself and is known only to himself, and God as he manifests himself to others. The former is the divine ousia, the latter the divine energies. It is important to note that both are God, but differently conceived: God as unknowable and as knowable, as wholly beyond us and as within our reach.

To put the distinction this way, however, could be misleading if it suggests something like a fixed and permanent boundary. The Cappadocians—Basil, Gregory, and their colleague, St. Gregory Nazianzen—think instead of that which is unknowable in God as a kind of receding horizon. Precisely the fact that we cannot know God as he knows himself draws us forward to seek to know him ever more deeply. Gregory Nazianzen expresses vividly this sense of a longing that is always both being satisfied and seeking satisfaction:

In Himself [God] sums up and contains all being, having neither beginning in the past nor end in the future; like some great sea of being, limitless and unbounded, transcending all conception of time and nature, only adumbrated by the mind, and that very dimly and scantily—not from the things directly concerning Him, but from the things around Him; one image being got from one source and another from another, and combined into some sort of presentation of the truth, which escapes us when we have caught it, and takes to flight when we have conceived it, blazing forth upon our master-part, even when that is cleansed, as the lightning flash which will not stay its course does upon our sight—in order as I conceive by that part of it which we can comprehend to draw us to itself . . . and by that part of it which we cannot comprehend to move our wonder, and as an object of wonder to become more an object of desire, and being desired to purify, and by purifying to make us like God.

The “things around God” are, I take it, another name for the divine energies. Two points are here especially worth noting. One is the necessity for the play of images, “one image being got from one source and another from another,” in order to form anything like an adequate conception of God. Here we find the underlying philosophical rationale for the immense variety of liturgical poetry and iconographic expression within the eastern Christian tradition. The other point is the sequence leading from wonder, to desire, to purification, and finally to likeness to God.

A philosophical reader cannot help but notice here the echoes of Plato and Aristotle, as for instance of the famous statement of Aristotle that philosophy begins with a sense of wonder, and of the Platonic emphasis on the need for purification of the soul, and of the theme found in both authors that the human telos is achieving a likeness to God.

Nonetheless, the fundamental distinction between God as He is known to Himself and as He is known to us was derived by the Cappadocians not from philosophical sources, but from Biblical revelation. Most obviously, it was inspired by the encounter of Moses with God on Mount Sinai in Exodus 33. There God warns Moses that

“thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.”

Nonetheless he continues:

“it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen” (33:22-23).

Gregory Nazianzen takes this passage as a model for understanding his own experience. In doing so he draws a distinction much like that we have seen in Basil between God as he is known to himself and as he “reaches to us”:

“What is this that has happened to me, O friends and initiates and fellow lovers of the truth? I was running up to lay hold on God, and thus I went up into the mount, and drew aside the curtain of the cloud, and entered away from matter and material things, and as far as I could I withdrew within myself. And then when I looked up I scarce saw the back parts of God, although I was sheltered by the rock, the Word that was made flesh for us. And when I looked a little closer I saw, not the first and unmingled nature, known to itself—to the Trinity, I mean; not that which abides within the first veil and is hidden by the Cherubim, but only that nature which at last even reaches to us. And that is, so far as I can tell, the majesty, or as holy David calls it, the glory which is manifested among the creatures, which it has produced and governs. For these [i.e., the majesty and glory] are the back parts of God, which He leaves behind Him as tokens of Himself like the shadows and reflections of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes because we cannot look at the sun itself.”

More broadly, the Cappadocians took all the Biblical theophanies—including, most famously, the burning bush of Exodus 3—as pointing to a similar distinction. In such events God is known precisely as unknowable; it is the very extremity of his condescension in appearing and making himself known which underscores the deep chasm between his mode of being and our own.

In light of this Biblical background, the notion of the?sis or deification may seem like a foreign importation. It is at this point that the Pauline usage of the concept of energeia becomes crucially important.

An especially important passage was I Corinthians 12. There Paul speaks of the “gifts of the Spirit” as including both miraculous powers such as prophecy, speaking in tongues, and the discernment of spirits, and enduring states of soul such as faith and wisdom. Significantly, he describes these gifts as energmata (works performed) of the Spirit, and the Spirit as “working” (energon) them. Basil in his work On the Holy Spirit develops this notion to understand such gifts as a form of divine energy. He writes:

“As is the power of seeing in the healthy eye, so is the energy (energeia) of the Spirit in the purified soul . . . And as the skill in him who has acquired it, so is the grace of the Spirit ever present in the recipient, though not continuously active (energousa). For as the skill is potentially in the artisan, but only in operation when he is working in accordance with it, so also the Spirit is present with those who are worthy, but works (energei) as need requires, in prophecies, or in healings, or in some other carrying into effect (energmasin) of His powers.”

This passage is almost Aristotelian in its distinction between an enduring state of the soul (in Aristotelian terms, first actuality) and its active expression (second actuality). However, for Basil these are two different forms of energy, the one latent and the other active. Thus Basil understands participation in the divine energy as an ongoing state of the soul that finds expression, as need be, in particular acts. This is what is meant by deification in the Greek patristic tradition: an ongoing and progressively growing participation in the divine energies.

It is worth noting how this understanding of participation in the divine avoids a certain cul-de-sac present in pagan Neoplatonism. For Plotinus we do not so much participate in Intellect—much less the One—as rediscover our true identity as Intellect. We are each in our truest core an unfallen intellect (nous) which shares in the unity-in-multiplicity of Intellect, much as the light of each lamp in a room shares in the room’s light, or each theorem of a science shares in the integral meaning of the whole. In rediscovering our true identity as nous, we leave behind the accidents of memory and personality that individuate us here below in order to merge into the pristine clarity of perfect noetic activity. Later Neoplatonists such as Iamblichus and Proclus were dissatisfied by this starkly impersonal conception of our relationship to the divine, and attempted in various ways to change it.

For the Cappadocians, however, such a problem does not even arise. The distinction of essence and energy enables them to understand human-divine communion as taking place within the sphere of joint personal activity.

In coming to be deified we share progressively in God’s activity, but without losing our distinct identity. Indeed, much like St. Paul, they believe that we only fully achieve our own identity when we make our own activity that of God. Such synergy is, in their view, a way of knowing God that is neither inferential, nor noetic in the Aristotelian sense, nor a matter simply of feeling or intuition. It is the knowledge that comes through sharing actively in the work of another, and thereby coming to know him as the author of that work.

From all of this it is clear how the second of our two questions, that of whether the divine energies could be different than they are, is to be answered. If they are the sphere of personal action in the way that I have described, then at least some of them could be different; otherwise they would be a kind of emanation rather than the free acts of a free Creator. However, the same constraint means that there are limits to the ways that they could be different. The range of acts that would constitute a legitimate expression of my character is quite large, yet I trust that at least some acts, such as murder, adultery, or treason, fall beyond it. In the same way, if the divine energies are to manifest the divine ousia, then although they can vary enormously they must fall within the range that is properly related to the divine ousia (whatever the ousia might be!) as expression to source. For example, God need not have created, and given that he did create he might have created the world differently than he did; furthermore, even given that he created this world he might act within it differently, for example, by distributing different spiritual gifts.

Thus many of the divine energies, including those of creation, providence, and foreknowledge, as well as the gifts of the Spirit, could be different or could not exist at all. On the other hand, if he acts at all his action cannot fail to be good. Hence if there are any energies at all, goodness is among them. The same would seem to be true of wisdom, being, power, life, love, holiness, beauty, virtue, immortality, eternity, infinity, and simplicity, all of which the Cappadocians (or other Fathers after them) list among the divine energies.

To know whether these energies are necessary, then, we must ask whether it is possible that God not act at all—that is, whether he could be wholly without energy (anenerg?ton). So far as I know this question was not raised in such terms. However, a question very close to it—that of whether there would be divine energies even apart from creation—was at the center of a celebrated controversy in the fourteenth century. Certain monks known as hesychasts claimed to have been granted a vision of what they called the uncreated light. Whether it is possible that there be such a light, and if so what is its nature, became the focus of an intense debate. Ultimately it was decided that there is an uncreated light and that it is simply the visible form of the divine energy. This means that the divine energy is present in some form with the godhead from all eternity, quite independently of the act of creation.

That in turn implies that the divine energy is not (as one might otherwise be tempted to suppose) simply the way in which God manifests himself to creatures. It is that, to be sure, but even without creatures there would still be an eternal self-manifestation within the godhead. Within a Christian context it is natural to understand this as the mutual love and self-revelation of the persons of the Trinity. There are hints of such a view among the earlier Greek Fathers, beginning with Gregory of Nyssa, but unfortunately the debate over the divine energies in the fourteenth century failed to make these connections explicit. The end of Byzantine civilization not long thereafter prevented any final clarification.

Where does all of this leave us? It seems to me that the Greek patristic conception of God has a number of advantages over that found in Augustine and his successors. In the first place, it succeeds in incorporating the apophatic approach to God in a way that western theology does not.

The divine ousia is beyond any act of naming or conceptual thought, known only by actively sharing in its energetic expression. Such a view is in keeping with both the Biblical theophanies and the New Testament concept of synergy. It is also philosophically well grounded, for as Plotinus saw, if God is the source of form he must himself possess no form. Yet if he is the source of form he must also be present in things as their form, the intelligible structure which makes them what they are. Whereas Plotinus separates these two functions into distinct hypostases, the Greek Fathers consider them two ways of understanding the one God.

One might expect that Augustine, with his knowledge of Plotinus, would have followed a similar path. In fact he did not. Augustine characteristically thinks of God as Truth itself, the Truth that is present to our minds enabling us to know. In line with the classical identification of thinking and being, he also describes God as ipsum esse, being itself. In essence this is the Plotinian understanding of Intellect. Augustine has no use for the other side of Plotinus, the understanding of God as beyond being and beyond intellect. Granted, he acknowledges that in this life we cannot know the divine essence, but that is a limitation of our present bodily existence.

Moses and St. Paul are for Augustine paradigms of persons who for a brief time were taken out of their bodies into a state of rapture, enjoying a direct vision of the divine essence. The blessed in heaven, being finally removed from this life, will enjoy such a vision for all eternity. Aquinas adopts this idea and integrates it within his own Aristotelian framework. He argues that as pure act God must be intrinsically intelligible, however much our present limitations prevent us from understanding him. Drawing on Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, as well as Augustine, he identifies the telos of human existence as the intellectual apprehension of the divine essence.

These differences regarding apophaticism point to a second major area of difference, the roles that the two traditions assign to personal activity. I have pointed out how the Greek Fathers drew on the Pauline concept of synergy to see the human telos as an ever deepening participation in the divine energies. Such participation begins in this present life and engages the body as much as the soul. On this view, our present acts of obedience to God, seeking him in prayer, and sharing in his life through worship and the sacraments are the sort of thing that is ultimately constitutive of our final beatitude. Our final state will be purer and richer, of course, but it will be recognizably in continuity with these present ways of knowing God.

On the Augustinian-Thomistic view, by contrast, prayer, obedience, and the sacraments are related to the human end instrumentally rather than constitutively. According to Aquinas, in the afterlife God will infuse the blessed with the lumen gloriae, the “light of glory” that will enable them to apprehend the divine essence. All of our present acts are designed to bring us to that point. The body has no real role in the beatific vision, and indeed Aquinas states explicitly that the resurrection of the body is not necessary for beatitude and does nothing to increase its intensity. So far as I can see, the same is true of our memory and other personal characteristics. Since the beatific vision is strictly an act of intellect, it is no more a personal act than is the Aristotelian theoria upon which it is modeled.

Finally I will touch briefly on a third area of difference, one that is large and deserves more careful exploration than I can give it here. Much of traditional natural theology is built around the concept of divine simplicity. Augustine and Aquinas have different ways of reaching this point, but they agree that all non-relational and non-privative predicates said of God are different ways of signifying the divine essence. Part of what this implies is that God’s will is identical to his essence. Of the many difficulties to which such a view gives rise, I will mention two. The first pertains to divine freedom.

If God is free in the way traditionally assumed in Christianity, he could will differently than he does. Does this mean that in such a case his essence would be different? And if so, how different could it be? Assuming that there is at least some aspect of the essence that could never be different—say, divine goodness—then there must be a distinction within the essence between that which could be different and that which could not. Surely, however, if anything is contrary to divine simplicity, it is the presence of such a distinction within the divine essence!

The second difficulty pertains to reciprocity between God and creatures. If the divine will is identical to the divine essence, it would seem that the divine will cannot in any way be a response to creatures’ own initiative, for in that case creatures would contribute to determining the divine essence. Aquinas recognizes this problem, if it is one, and bites the bullet: his position is that God’s will is not in any way a response to creatures but is determined solely by God. It is hard to see how most traditional religious practice, including petitionary prayer, sacrifice, and even simply the desire to please God, can make sense on such a view. Indeed, as Aquinas recognizes, on this view the Augustinian interpretation of predestination is not only true but is necessarily true, since God could not create creatures who are capable in any way of affecting his judgments regarding salvation and damnation. Yet the Augustinian position began precisely as the attempt to exalt the divine will over all necessity. Such are the tangles one is led to by divine simplicity.

It is problems such as these that led Pascal to exclaim that the God of the philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Augustinian-Thomistic God, who is perfectly simple and fully actual, seems to be locked within a box from which he cannot escape in order to interact in any meaningful way with his creatures. Plainly there needs to be some other way of understanding divine simplicity, one that does not involve these unacceptable limitations. Such a way is provided by the distinction of the divine essence and energies. The Greek Fathers think of simplicity as itself a divine energy, one of the ways in which God manifests himself in his activity. As with any energy, God is both simplicity itself and beyond simplicity as its source.

Just as the sun is simple and yet possesses an indefinite multitude of rays, so nothing about divine simplicity prevents God from possessing an indefinite multitude of energies. Likewise nothing prevents these energies from being affected by creatures. The energies are precisely the realm of reciprocity, that in which God shares himself with creatures and summons them to offer themselves to him.

Undoubtedly many questions remain to be answered. I hope I have said enough, however, to make good on my original claims that we have here a way of thinking about God that is both deeply traditional and worthy of serious philosophical attention.

In closing I will only say that it seems to me that the long movement of philosophy away from God has been, for the most part, a movement away from the God of Augustine and western theology. Will we find that all the while that we have been fleeing from the God of the West we have in fact been approaching the God of the East? That is a question that I invite you to ponder.

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