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.

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