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Religion Library: Eastern Orthodoxy

Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

Christian beliefs in divine or supernatural beings and the ultimate nature of reality are shared by Eastern Orthodox Christians. This article concerns some of the distinguishing characteristics of Eastern Orthodox belief in God, and in Mary, who is called Theotokos, or Mother of God.

Eastern Orthodoxy affirms the mystery of the Trinity and speaks of it using the language of love. When Eastern Orthodoxy speaks of God, the subject is not God the Father, but God the Trinity. According to the doctrine of the Trinity, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three divine Persons in One God, who exist within each other in a perpetual communion of love. There is a fundamental paradox in believing that 3=1, which is embraced by the Orthodox traditions as a path to transformation. Because the nature of God is mysterious, it can't be reduced to logic or words, and therefore must be experienced through repentance and revelation. It is possible to experience the mystery of God because God is also personal, a God whom the believer can approach directly and relationally. Personal experience of the divine mystery changes the believer in mind, heart, and feeling, opening the path to holiness.

The emphasis Eastern Orthodoxy places on mysticism, or the believer's personal experience of the mysteries of faith, is unmistakable. It has also led to some of Eastern Orthodoxy's most distinctive contributions to Christian theology. Orthodox thought fiercely guards the absolute transcendence of God from any idea that might dilute it. No one can claim to know God, because God is unknowable. Certain things can be known about God, such as God's goodness, or wisdom, or justice, but these attributes don't fully describe God's inner nature, which is transcendent and beyond knowing. Orthodox Christians therefore practice 'apophatic' theology, or the 'way of negation.' Orthodoxy avoids describing only what God is, focusing ultimately on what God is not. Any positive affirmation of God is just a way to improve our human, and therefore limited, understanding of the incomprehensible nature of God. So, for example, if we were to say, "God is love," the Orthodox would reply, "This is true, but God also surpasses everything we know about love."

However, God is also immanent, dwelling within all things. How is it possible for God to be both absolutely transcendent and immanent? Orthodoxy differentiates God's essence and God's energies. God's essence is unknowable, but God sends divine energies, which are also true God, to permeate creation and take action in concrete situations. In this way, Orthodoxy is consistent with its Jewish heritage in worshipping the God of history. Moreover, the believer experiences God through these divine energies, which are encountered as divine light and deifying grace.

 

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