Essence Beyond Existence

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This installment of my paraphrases of the early church fathers comes from St. John of Damascus, also known as St. John Damascene or The Damascene.

John was born in Damascus around AD 676 to Mansur, a Christian who was the chief financial officer of the caliph in Damascus. John’s father wished for him to have an excellent education, and secured the release of a Christian captive named Cosmas who undertook John’s education. John was an eager student, and showed immense capability in many areas, including mathematics, astronomy, theology and music.

Following Mansur’s death, John was appointed the chief councilor of Damascus. During this time, so his biographer relates, some of his enemies forged some documents purporting to have been written by him, offering to help overthrow Damascus, which caused the caliph to order John’s writing hand to be severed. Evidently his hand was miraculously restored, and the caliph became convinced of his innocence. Civic and political life, however, was not his calling in life, and near AD 700 he joined a monastery near Jerusalem.

John took an active part in the Iconoclasm controversy which wreaked havoc in the church in the 8th century. He was one of the first to draw out the distinction between latreia (worship) and proskynesis (veneration) at it related to God and icons. For John,

We see that as a result of the Incarnation, matter is seen to have become divine, is seen as a habitation of God. It is a new vision of the world and of material reality. God became flesh, and flesh truly became the habitation of God, whose glory shines in the human Face of Christ. Thus, the arguments of the Doctor of the East are still extremely relevant today, considering the very great dignity that matter has acquired through the Incarnation, capable of becoming, through faith, a sign and a sacrament, efficacious in the meeting of man with God.[1. Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers and Teachers: From Saint Leo the Great to Peter Lombard, p.101]

John died sometime between 754 and 787, and was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1890.

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This selection comes from the fourth chapter of John’s Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. In the previous chapter he has dealt with proofs for God’s existence, and moves on to describe that although the knowledge that God exists is possible, knowledge of God’s essence- that which makes God God– is something beyond our ability to intellectually grasp. Like many of the church fathers, John details a mode of knowledge by means of the via negativa. Essentially, God is described by means of what he is not, since God is beyond description and beyond knowing.

However, despite many of the church fathers’ predilection for apophatic theology, most did not end there, content only to speak of God in terms of negative abstraction. For John, when we describe God as good or as just, while it is clear that these conceptualizations have no absolute descriptive power of God’s essence, neither are they altogether inappropriate. That is, they are neither univocal nor equivocal. Rather, there is an inherent tension that exists by way of analogy– the things we predicate of God (especially the things predicated of God in the scriptures) have an analogical relation to the divine essence. They cannot go beyond analogy, but neither do they stop at mere equivocation or negation. Earlier in Chapter II John states:

It is necessary, therefore, that one who wishes to speak or to hear of God should understand clearly that alike in the doctrine of Deity and in that of the Incarnation , neither are all things unutterable nor all utterable; neither all unknowable nor all knowable. But the knowable belongs to one order, and the utterable to another; just as it is one thing to speak and another thing to know. Many of the things relating to God, therefore, that are dimly understood cannot be put into fitting terms, but on things above us we cannot do else than express ourselves according to our limited capacity; as, for instance, when we speak of God we use the terms sleep, and wrath, and regardlessness, hands, too, and feet, and such like expressions.

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That God exists is obvious to all. But just to know that he exists tells us nothing about what he is. The very nature and essence of God eludes the grasp of our minds, for God’s what-ness is beyond knowing, beyond comprehension.

The slightest thought reveals God to have no body, for how could that which bursts through the bounds of space and time be confined to a place? How could the infinite be captured in any moment? How could you touch that which is intangible, perceive that which has no form? How could the part-ness of a body be found in the one-ness and simplicity of the undivided nature of the divine?

Place and moment belong to the measurable, but God cannot be circumscribed, for his boundaries do not exist. Change belongs to the multiplicity in being, writhing about amidst an ocean of the temporal and impermanent. Combination begins the war against itself, this conflict divides and leads eventually to nothingness, which is completely alien to God.

Even to say that God is not begotten sheds no light on his being, for we are merely evading the issue by talking about everything else as it relates to God. Instead of saying something interesting about God and what he is, we end up only being able to say what he is not.

But we cannot stop here in hopelessness, for saying what something is not is far too easy, and gets you no further than when you started. It is inevitable, we cannot truly say more of God than what he is not. But in this position we must realize that when we say anything about God, we must distinguish what we say of him from what we say of others things.

After all, God is not an existing thing like we are. That does not mean he does not exist, but rather that he rises so far above all existing things- even existence itself- that the difference is as great as that between that which exists and that which does not. And since everything we can know about is that which exists, it follows that if God is above knowledge, he is also above existence, and visa-versa.

Since God is infinite and incomprehensible, the only thing that is comprehensible is his infinity and incompressibility. Yet even in this way of knowing we say nothing about his what-ness, but only about things that relate to his what-ness. Goodness and justice and wisdom cannot even scratch the surface, but traverse the same orbit. For even when we say that God is darkness, we mean that he is so far above light as to be incomparable with light, and when we say God is light, we mean he is not darkness.

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Jason Watson

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