Gregory Palamas’ defence of the heychasts begins with the statement that philosophy does not save. His point here against Barlaam is that knowledge of natural, created things does not lead to a conception of God worthy of God. Palamas says it this way, “By examining the nature of sensible things, these people [those who proceed from and by Hellenistic philosophy in their theological reflections] have arrived at a certain concept of God, but not at a conception of God truly worthy of Him and appropriate to his blessed nature.” To get to that conception of God one must empty themselves of their mental activities though the via negativa and come to union with God through contemplation. All of this, Palamas says, is possible through the flesh and mind because God was incarnated through the person of Jesus Christ.
All of this is, in some ways, fine. I want to ask some questions that may put some doubt on this Orthodox theologians works that may have some things more generally to say about thinking about nature. Firstly, I have to wonder in what way we’re supposed to receive revelation. Palamas’ defence of contemplation suggests that we simply empty ourselves of ourselves and God unifies with us, but is that really unity? Is unity one-sided in this way such that everything which we are is gone or is that not a complete destruction of the human person (which, I want to say, is not the same thing as identity)? Contemplation is clearly something natural, as Palamas would be hard pressed to say in the light of his defence of the body, and preparing for it through apophatic thinking is also surely natural. To the chagrin of many we are also able to see that during contemplation things happen in the brain, material and physical things. That isn’t to denigrate contemplation, for that would assume a denigration of matter to “mere stuff” (as if stuff was mere), but does serve to suggest that contemplation is still within the realm of human action rather than pure receptivity. The theology that Palamas develops from mystical experience and from revelation also appears to remain within the natural realm. After all he uses notions like “energy” in order to talk about God in a way that some have seen as going beyond Latin theology’s obsession with God’s effects. Even if this energy comes under the austere limits of apophaticism that doesn’t mean it says less than our non-Divine understanding of energy and, following Bergson’s critique of nothingness, we could say it says more! We posit energy as we understand it and negate it, but this only adds more in terms of thought and understanding even if this understanding is not able to be translated into quantitative language.
Aquinas’ theology of nature suggests that nature is already still graced in some way, that the fall of creation was not complete. In this way the human person has some dignity, but so does the rest of creation. What Palamas may add to this is a rejection of hierarchy that has been theology’s obsession when thinking about the natural world since Pseudo-Dionysus’ work. For Palamas Christ’s incarnation destroys any sense of hierarchical mediation, whether through angels of sensible objects (natural objects), instead Christ mediates directly to the human person. What stops the theologian from combining these two notions? Is there some check that orthodoxy would require them to put on such a synthesis? It seems that Sergius Bulagkov has attempted a synthesis in this way, though it is unlikely he would understand it in that way considering his antipathy towards Aquinas. I’m thinking specifically of his work on the Holy Grail where he understands the Holy Grail to be, not some carpenter’s cup, but something even more lowly and impoverished – the earth itself. Christ’s spirit and blood prior to his resurrection are not glorified and it is this blood and spirit that is poured out on the earth as Holy Grail and in this way mediates salvation to all of creation directly, though not glorification or theosis, which in the Christian tradition is a properly eschatological event. From there could we not have an Eastern understanding of nature that allows for a revelatory nature, rather than a nature denigrated by revelation (and here I am thinking of the rather violent sense of “inbreaking” that may be all too common in humanity’s relations with the rest of nature)? An Eastern understanding that integrates some of Aquinas’ notions of natural theology, but that suspends the primacy of analogy in order to allow nature to be immanently holy, in-itself, so to speak, but where in-itself is understood in a relational sense (things are relations)?
Philosophy does not save, that much we all know since plenty of philosophers have told us so, but neither does theology. Both philosophy and theology are created for the earth (human and non-human nature), the earth has not been created for philosophy and theology.