Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings

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.

The emphasis on apophatic theology and the distinction between the essence and energies of God are special characteristics of Orthodox thought. Orthodox beliefs regarding the Trinity and God's incarnation as Jesus are the same as the overwhelming majority of Christian traditions. However, there remains a disagreement between eastern and western churches on the addition of the Filioque to the Nicene Creed. The Filioque, or the phrase that professes that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, was added to the creed in 589 by a council of western bishops, and never adopted by the eastern churches. The arguments are largely technical in nature, and there are roughly two schools of thought about it within Eastern Orthodoxy. One school, taking a harder stance, argues that when the western churches profess belief that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son," they are fundamentally distorting the doctrine of the Trinity by subordinating the Holy Spirit to the Son, thus diluting the equality between the divine persons. The other school, taking a more conciliatory stance, argues that while the Roman Church's unilateral insertion of the Filioque into the Nicene Creed is to be lamented, it can still be interpreted in a manner consistent with Orthodox theology.

Eastern Orthodoxy shows deep affection and devotion for Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is called the Theotokos, translated as God-bearer, or Mother of God. She received this title at the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431. Mary is honored because of the Incarnation, in which God became human. Orthodox Christians believe that a certain attitude of awe and reverence is due to the woman who was chosen to be the means of such a great mystery. They also honor Mary's willing consent to participate in this mystery, as she is believed to have said, "I am the Lord's servant; may it be to me as you have said" (Lk. 1:38). While Eastern Orthodoxy does not consider the doctrines of Immaculate Conception and Bodily Assumption to be church dogma, it teaches that Mary was resurrected after her physical death and her tomb left empty, and doesn't object if individual believers hold that Mary was conceived without original sin.

Eastern Orthodoxy specifically distinguishes the veneration (Greek, dulia) of Mary from the worship (Greek, latreia) of God. While Orthodox believers might express reverence for Mary, worship is given to God alone.

Study Questions:
1.     How do Eastern Orthodox believers understand the Trinity?
2.     What is apophatic theology, and why is this important in Orthodoxy?
3.     What is the Filioque? Why might it be controversial to other Christian traditions?
4.     Who is the Theotokos? Why is she honored?

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