Thursday, June 6, 2013

5) Knowledge of God according to Gregory Palamas

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Philosophical challenges to the possibility of apodictically knowing God by direct experience continued into the 14th century (and today), notably in the arguments of Barlaam, who maintained that we can only know God dialectically from “revealed premises.”[24] To the assertion of “certain people” (by which he means Barlaam) that “God is knowable only through the mediation of His creatures,” Gregory Palamas replies that he is “in no way convinced.”[25] Palamas maintained continuity with the teaching of Maximus on the direct vision and knowledge of God as a divine gift.[26] God, present in us, gratuitously makes “direct vision of God” and “direct knowledge of God” possible for his faithful people, independent of rational human knowledge.[27] Palamas says nothing against rational knowledge and in fact values it highly, but he recognizes that God has “hidden… things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes” (Matt 11:25). It is possible by God’s grace, which is abundantly present in our created and Christologically restored nature, for a person without rational knowledge and without knowledge of created beings nonetheless to know God spiritually and directly.

The unknowable God is made knowable to the saints by the transcending of their minds – “for the mind becomes supercelestial.”[28] That is, he who ascended into the heavens has spiritually taken with him all those who are united to him so that they may be “filled with all the immaterial knowledge of a higher light.”[29]  The human mind in Christ has ascended in glory, thus enabling human minds to contemplate that glory directly. Our capacity for ascending in and with Christ to contemplation and knowledge of God is inseparable from our salvation, which Christ accomplishes by uniting us to himself. Only in becoming one with God by grace can we truly know God.

Palamas writes, “God is not only beyond knowledge, but also beyond unknowing.”[30] Palamas then later deepens the complexity of this expression: “In reality there remains an unknowing which is beyond knowledge.”[31] This is the “knowledge that is beyond wisdom” regarded by the irreverent as “foolishness.”[32] No paradox is sufficient to express the experience of the presence God, but both the positive reality of that experience and its absolute ineffability must each be maintained without neglect of the other.

We must not mistake apophatic expressions to be descriptive of the experience of God. They create an absence in the mind in which God’s presence is experienced and known, but that absence is not his presence. His presence is not describable in the terms of absence any more than it is describable in any other terms.

Palamas introduced the concept of God’s essence and energies into the discussion of the knowledge of God, seeking to maintain both the knowability of God by grace and the unknowability of God by nature. Referencing Palamas, Jaroslav Pelikan states the case well, “Since the ousia of God ‘is altogether incomprehensible …, would we have any other means of knowing God truly' if deifying grace and light were not God himself?”[33] In his essence, God is unknowable. In his energies, God makes himself known. We become one with God in his energies and thus can know him directly. This knowledge is accessible to all people of faith.

Palamas also states the relationship of faith to the knowledge of God. He writes, “Faith… alone can attain to the truth that lies above reason”[34] Spiritual knowledge of God, as opposed to the knowledge of reason, is accessible only to faith. Without faith, there is no knowledge of God. Furthermore, without faith, there can be no deification and rational knowledge utterly fails to replace faith in this regard.[35] As for Maximus, faith for Palamas does not simply refer to an assent of the intellect to revealed propositions. Rather, it is only a faith lived that enables the believer to come to knowledge of God. “True faith,” in fact, only “comes about by the fulfilling of the commandments” and it “bestow[s] knowledge… through that uncreated light which is the glory of God.”[36] If we love God and keep his commandments, he will give us the gift of true faith, which is a true spiritual knowledge of God and an essential aspect of our salvation by union with God.

[24] Meyendorff, 6.
[25] Palamas, 25.
[26] “Palamas always remains basically faithful to the thought of St. Maximus who, together with Ps. Dionysius, is the patristic author most frequently quoted in the Triads” (Meyendorff, 13).
[27] Meyendorff, 12, 13.
[28] Palamas, 33.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid., 32.
[31] Ibid., 36.
[32] Ibid.  
[33] Jaroslav Pelikan. The Spirit of Eastern Christendom. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974. 269.; Gr. Pal. Against Akindynus. 3. 18.5 (Contos 215-16). 
[34] Palamas, 52.
[35] Ibid., 85.
[36] Ibid., 67.

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