There are aspects of the Orthodox faith that require that we reach beyond what we think we know and dig more deeply into the writings of the Fathers. This is particularly the case when Orthodoxy uses similar language to Western theological models. We see a word (in this case, “providence,”) and think we know what it means, supplying that meaning from our inherited Western theological/cultural vocabulary. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to correct such meanings. So – I’m going to dig a bit into the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, a major touchstone in Orthodox thought and, interestingly, important for certain writers in the West as well. My primary source in this article will be the work, Mystagogy: A Monastic Reading of Dionysius Areopagita, by Archbishop Alexander Golitzin. I do not know of a better work on Dionysius.
Here is the passage I want to explore (be patient and keep reading):
But still, Dionysius asks, how is it possible for us to ascribe names to God given the impossibility of conceiving the Trinity? It is possible, he answers a few chapters later, precisely because it is not the divine essence that is in question, but “the divine names revelatory of Providence,” of “Providence the creator of good that has revealed itself,” and is therefore justly celebrated as “the cause of all good things.” Providence, God in extension, is God as revealed, and God as revealed is revealed as “the reality of goodness, the cause of everything which is;” therefore, “one must celebrate the Providence of God as source of good in all its effects.” Cause and ground of all, Providence embraces everything, and everything may therefore be seen as in some sense expressive of it. God may thus be called by any of the names of his creation. His name is every name and no name. [from Golitzin]
Ok, it’s a thick read. But, before giving up on this article, think through this next paragraph with me.
In popular theological thought, when the word “providence” is used, people assume it means “God somehow guiding history to make things turn out right.” This way of thinking is filled with problems. Most people think of history as a series of cause-and-effect events. We were taught to write history papers like this: “Describe and discuss the causes of the War of the Roses…” When this is our notion of history, then we have a very difficult time figuring out where God fits in to things. Does He work by making this king think and do one thing, and another king think and do another (multiply it out to include everybody and everything in the whole world and you come close to seeing God as a giant puppet master)? If you have fled from puppet master theology – you have done well.
A somewhat sneaky way of saying the same thing is found in the mouths of many modern thinkers (including a number of the Orthodox). It goes like this: God is utterly committed to working in and through history. He has done this in choosing Abraham and creating the chosen people, and from the chosen people, taking a pure virgin, and from her He becomes man and dwells among us. Then He gave us the Church which is now God’s means of acting in history, and the Church is now “building the Kingdom of God in this world.” Any challenge to this is sometimes attacked as a denial of the Incarnation. You can get labeled a Gnostic (been there, got labeled).
So what is it? We turn to Dionysius.
Abp. Alexander describes Providence as “God in extension.” In Dionysius, Providence is the primary manner in which the Divine Energies interact with all of creation. Dionysius worked with many major categories and terms from Greek philosophy, something that was already part of the Orthodox theological tradition. However, his work “Christianized” those categories and terms and gave us perhaps the most mature presentation of the faith up to that time. A strong theme in his work is our “going forth” from God and our “return.” God’s intentions for us existed “in Him” from before our creation (think of Jeremiah the Prophet – “before I formed you in the womb I knew you”). Those intentions continue with us and in us – they are the “Divine Energies” that uphold, sustain, and work within all of creation. Those energies are “God in extension.”
This is in no way a form of pantheism. The divine energies are, indeed, God Himself. That is Orthodox dogma. But the divine energies are not the divine essence. We may know and participate in the life of God in His energies, but we do not know nor participate in God in His essence. There is both immanence and transcendence.
Dionysius explores much of this in his treatise, On the Divine Names. We see (and know in varying measures) the names of God – Goodness, Being, Truth, Beauty, Kindness, Mercy, etc. We would quickly have to say (as regarding God’s essence) that He is Goodness beyond Goodness, Being beyond Being, Truth beyond Truth, Beauty beyond Beauty, etc. This kind of language is heard repeatedly in the liturgical life of the Church. It reflects the reality both of God’s unknowableness together with the mystery of His energies, everywhere present, filling all things, and making Him known.
All of this “God in extension” is summed up in the word “Providence.” Our story is not primarily historical – it is eternal. The existence of this historical universe shimmers with the brilliance of the eternal Providence of God that makes it possible. Its purpose is not defined by its history, as such, but by the will of God: “…that He might gather into one all things in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 1:10) What we experience and call history is the movement of the goodwill of God, the love of God, unrelentingly creating and drawing all things towards Him. That is our daily drama and the proper focus of our attention.
The secularization of Christian thought begins primarily through the shift towards a self-contained history in which God is limited in His relationship to us by certain chosen actors. He becomes a player among players. But this is not the God who is everywhere present and filling all things. One of the many lies of modernity is to center our existence in the historical process, and then to focus on that process as “that which can be discussed on the news cycle.” The Church becomes captive to the political process through the fetish of history (and then brag that you’re focusing on the Incarnation).
To say this is not to diminish the Incarnation. Indeed, the fetishization of history reduces the Incarnation to an event among events – God’s horse in the race – but only one horse among many. What is often missed in this diminishment is the extravagant and overwhelming greatness of God Incarnate. The One from whom all things come, the source of being, goodness, beauty, truth, became a creature among creatures. It is the promise and foretaste of our union with God. He is the revelation of Providence and Image that directs our attention to see the world properly (and to give Him thanks and worship).
Our cultural masters seek to direct our attention to the petty narratives of their faux history. It is like looking in a toilet bowl trying to discern the mystery of existence.
History – whatever the term might mean – is seen best and rightly through the lens of Providence. St. Paul says:
“whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are noble, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
Christ is true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous and praiseworthy. In God’s Providence, the Incarnation is seen reflected in all such things – the “names” of all good things. “For He is every name and no name.” He is above every name and everything receives its name in Him.
Glory to God for all things!
P.S. I look forward to our conversations about this.