Energies of the Spirit

“Its energy surrounds us, binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force flow around you.” Master Yoda

The idea of the “Energies of the Spirit” is an ancient Eastern Orthodox doctrine, which can help make sense of God in 21st Century Australia.

John of Damascus was one of the earliest writers to refer to energy as a way of understanding God. It is a metaphor which might still appeal.

John was firmly of the eastern tradition, which held that God was ultimately inaccessible to human inquiry. This belief in the incomprehensibility of God found further expression in the East in the absolute separation between God and his creation. The inner being of God, God’s very essence, could not be experienced, nor accessed by the creatures he had made.

And yet … the Christians, and the Jews before them, could not deny their experiences. Human beings were invited to participate in the divine nature, to be drawn into the very life of the divine. The experience of the people of God was profoundly life-giving and transcendent. The three disciples, who climbed the mountain-top and saw their Lord transfigured before them, experienced something of the eternity of God.

How then did this eastern writer make sense of these experiences, given his belief that creatures could not experience the very essence of the Creator? John wrote of the divine energies of God: uncreated energies which could be experienced directly, without compromising the distinction between the Creator and his creation.

In the 14th century, Gregory Palamas developed John’s idea, writing of the energies of God shining forth like rays of light from the Sun, opening the divine life to our participation.

When a sunbeam falls on a transparent substance, the substance itself becomes brilliant, and radiates life from itself. So too, the Spirit-bearing souls, illumined by him, finally become spiritual themselves, and their grace is sent forth to others.

Thus did the Eastern Church profoundly teach of the direct experience of the divine.

A forgotten treasure

Yet, over the ensuing centuries, as much of the Church in the East struggled under Ottoman Rule, the doctrine of the energies of God lay dormant, like a long-forgotten gem. 

The exodus of many of the Orthodox Church’s most brilliant minds from Stalin’s Russia to Paris (some of whom eventually ended up at St Vladimir’s Seminary, New York) led, somewhat ironically, to a golden era of theological exploration in the East in the mid 20th century.

In 1936 in his address to a gathering of Orthodox theologians in Athens, George Florovsky, pointed to the doctrine of energies as one that needed to be rediscovered by Orthodox theology. This task was taken up in turn by Vladimir Lossky, in his chapter on “uncreated energies” in his book The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. In it he argues that the energies of God are the energies of the Spirit and constitute the eternal glory of God.

The Spirit

In the West, meanwhile, the doctrine of energies was virtually unknown and the language of the Holy Spirit became the norm. The concepts, though, are almost indistinguishable. The conflict between eastern and western Christianity when discussing the Spirit is now, thankfully, consigned to history. Each tradition has much to teach the other.

However, in the late 19th and 20th century a different challenge emerged for Christians in both the East and the West, when talking about the activity of the Spirit. How does one make sense of the Spirit, given the explosion of scientific knowledge of the very beginnings of the Universe and the theory of the evolution of life on earth?

Denis Edwards describes a theological response as follows:

God’s Spirit has been breathing life into the processes of the evolving universe from the very first. The laws of nature and the initial conditions of the early universe exist only because of the empowering presence and action of the Creator Spirit.

In the history of the universe there are “threshold moments”, when something genuinely new emerges. These moments depend on Goldilocks conditions and, fundamentally, on enough time, which is perhaps the Spirit’s most important contribution to creation. The very creation of time is at the heart of all life. The emergence of the universe, of the Milky Way Galaxy, of our Sun as “one of a new generation of stars” in the galaxy, and of life on a blue/green planet, just the right distance from this perfect sun, may be seen as the work of the Spirit.

The Spirit “embraces the chanciness of random mutations and the chaotic conditions of open systems … This whirlwind wild Spirit is the boundless love at work in the processes of the universe.” (Edwards, 34).

It is this same Spirit, which can be experienced in the brightest music, the best art, and the most exquisite craftsmanship.

The energies of this Spirit surround us and bind us together. If we are open to it, we can feel the Spirit’s energy, strengthening us, giving us courage and the capacity to achieve extraordinary things.

In the end

The Spirit was present at the very beginning of everything, as Edwards writes:

The Spirit of God was the dynamic, energising presence that enabled the early universe to exist and evolve from the first part of the first second some 14 billion years ago (Edwards, 172).

The energies of the Spirit draw us into the divine life of the Trinity. The Spirit dwells in every creature, “enabling them to be and to become what is new” (Edwards, 118).

It is this same energy of the Spirit, which will draw us more fully into the divine life, when our time on Earth is over. We gain a foretaste of this in the mystical celebration of the Eucharist.

It is this same Spirit that will ultimately draw us back into the divine energy, allowing us to participate in the eternal dance of the triune God. This energy, which flows in us and around us, will enfold us in the divine family. A place at the table awaits us.

Bibliography

Denis Edwards, Breath of Life: A Theology of the Creator Spirit (Orbis Books: Maryknoll, New York, 2004)

Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, NY, 1976

Duncan Reid, Energies of the Spirit: Trinitarian Models in Eastern Orthodox and Western Theology (Scholars Press: Atlanta, Georgia, 1997)

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Theo McCall Written by:

Fr Theo is the Chaplain of St Peter's College, Adelaide, a position he has held since July 2010, following 15 years of parish ministry. He is also the Senior Chaplain for Anglican Schools in South Australia and an honorary lecturer at St Barnabas’ College. He enjoys cycling, singing and music, bushwalking, good food and red wine, and making connections between movies and theology.

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