Thursday, May 12, 2016

Love the Fathers? Thank an academic.

Do you love getting to read the Church Fathers in a language you understand? Then you should thank an academic---or more likely multiple academics. Men (and women) of academia are the reason that almost anyone in America can have patristic theology as a hobby. Yet, it is almost always inevitably these very people who enjoy patristic theology as a kind of hobby who, at the least provocation, will pour contempt and scorn upon "academia", "academic theology", or the "liberal universities" (sometimes without any provocation at all).

Of course, this is not entirely unmerited when we do see some of the horrible things that come out of theology departments at modern universities. But to focus merely on those abuses and not on the immense gift that the modern universities have offered us is a immense sin of ingratitude to the people, the majority of whom are not Orthodox, who have made available to us the sources of our own theology.

We have to face the facts that unless we read patristic Greek (or Latin or Syriac) and have access to the manuscripts, our own ability to interact with the texts of the Fathers comes only by means of the blood, sweat, and toil of "western academia." But even this expression, "western academia" is too impersonal for me though. Our access to patristic theological works isn't the result of an impersonal process or institution called "academia." Access to the Fathers came at a very real cost--a human cost.

Yes, theological research has a human cost. We have access to the Fathers because innumerable young men and women decided they loved theology enough to give the best years of their life to sitting in University libraries, learning how to read upwards of five and six languages, learning the techniques required to produce good critical editions, all because they believed that the Fathers and other theological writers in the Christian tradition had something important to say to the contemporary Church today and to all of humanity. Especially today, when there is plenty of information available about how disastrous it can be to go into graduate studies in a liberal arts field, the fact that there are still a portion of people who would give up the "prime years of their life," almost certainly destroy their lifetime earning potential, sacrifice the time they could be spending on cultivating their relationships with their family and friends, all so they can produce good, printed editions of works that a rapidly secularizing world doesn't care two cents for, is an immense blessing and a testament to the power of the Christian theological tradition to continue to transform lives.

All that being said, this is why I find it nearly unpardonable that those who enjoy the fruits of the academy feel so free to pour scorn upon that same institution. That institution, without which, the possibility of them doing armchair theology would never have existed in the first place. I don't write this because I want to condemn anyone, but simply to remind us all: theological research has a human cost. And the next time you want to go and make carte-blanche condemnations of academic theology and the universities, remember that human cost. Remember that any volume of patristic writings is the product of years of work by philologists and theologians who likely gave up material comfort and much more to give you the privilege to access the texts of the Fathers in a language you understand.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

What is an "energy" of God?

It seems to me that translating the term ενέργεια as "energy" does more to obfuscate the meaning of Palamite distinction between God's essence and His activity than it does to clarify it. Eric Perl makes a similar observation when he writes in his article "Gregory Palamas and Metaphysics of Creation" that:

"If the divine energies are real but are not 'things,' what then are they? As their name suggests, they are the activities of God, God acting in and for creation. (It would indeed be desirable to replace the conventional translation 'energies' with 'activities' which more accurately conveys Palamas' meaning in English and makes the entire doctrine sound rather less exotic. I propose therefore to use the latter term henceforward.) This is why they do not introduce composition into God, for 'nothing is ever said to be compounded with its own activity.' To say that God's essence and activity make up two things would, St. Gregory argues, be like saying that a man has two minds because we speak of 'mind' and 'understanding.' Understanding is not another substance, or a part, but is what the mind does. Activity cannot be co-numerated or added to substance. To say that God 'has activities' is simply to say that he acts: 'As he who calls [God] voluntative makes clear that he has a will, so also he who calls him active (ενεργή) shows that he has activity.'" (p.112-113)(emphasis mine)

I'm not entirely sure what the motivation has been in the Orthodox world for translating this term or even framing the debate in the way it has been. Perhaps I am cynical but I fear that this may stem from a desire on the part of Orthodox scholars to differentiate themselves first of all from the Roman Catholic tradition of Thomism which also utilizes the Aristotelian terminology of activity but instead has come down to the English langauge by means of the Latin-derived terms such as activity, actuality, or even operation. Then we also have Orthodox scholars such as Metropolitan Ierotheos of Nafpaktos who, following Fr. John Romanides, are loath to admit that Orthodoxy has anything to do with the classical tradition of metaphysics at all, a tendency which has crept into the English speaking world. 

Theodor Tollefsen, who has written an excellent volume on this exact subject, seems to have less of a problem with this strange new translation but also points out the dangers inherent in it and chooses generally to  avoid these pitfalls altogether:

" and then one gets the impression that energy is a kind of quasi-material force almost flowing into the human recipient. Of course, the saying that divine power is somehow flowing into the recipient is often a quite adequate description of what is experienced. But one should not conceive of or think about this divine power as if it was some kind of material force or fluidum. This is not to deny that divine energy is manifested in the nature of material being, but one should beware of interpreting the divine power itself as a material force. Against the background of these considerations I choose to translate energeia as 'actuality, activity', or---now and then---'energy', depending on the context, and the trascribe dfrom of the Greek will be used as well." (p. 5 Activity and Participation in Late Antique and Early Christian Thought)

In general, I think this is an intelligent move that helps us to realize that St. Gregory Palamas is working within a long and well-established tradition of metaphysical realist discourse about participation and activity which fundamentally begins with Plato. By translating energeia as energy we obscure this connection unnecessarily and in the hands of many less capable metaphysicians, a rather gross, even materialistic conception of the divinity ends up being put forth.