I’ve been reading through volume one of Dumitru Staniloae’s culmination of his life’s theological work, ‘Orthodox Dogmatic Theology: The Experience of God‘.
Let me first tell you about Dumitru Staniloae (1903-1993) because he is was a great man – one to be respected.
Staniloae grew up in a poor farming family in Romania and it was in this setting that Staniloae developed a love for the Bible at a young age. He later studied theology and taught theology throughout Europe. He laboured on translating into Romanian the Philokalia, the works of Symeon the New Theologian, and Palamas amongst others. Let me round out this little bio with some words that he used to describe his time in jail and a concentration camp during the Romanian communist period. He states these gracious words:
An experience like any other, only somewhat difficult for my family…To carry one’s cross is the normal condition of the Christian, and so there is no need to talk of it.
Amazing. With this in mind let’s move on.
The first topic that Staniloae looks at in his Orthodox Dogmatic Theology is revelation. In chapter 1 he begins with natural revelation, before moving on to supernatural revelation in chapter 2, and then in chapter 3 looking at the relationship between scripture and tradition.
This post is an exploration of the Staniloae’s conception of creation’s role in revealing God, or his doctrine of natural revelation.
When it comes to natural revelation Staniloae does not focus on creation as one might immediately think. His focus is the pinnacle of creation, namely humanity. After all, this is the aspect of creation that God described as very good, and that bears his image. More specifically, Staniloae narrows his focus on humanity’s rationality as the central component of natural revelation. Interesting, hey?
As the pinnacle of creation the world has been made for humanity and not the other way around. With regard to the characteristic of rationality, Staniloae would say that humanity lives within a context that is comprised of things (animals, plants and inanimate objects) that are irrational. Humanity is unique in this regard. But what does it mean to be rational?
Staniloae identifies rationality as the capacity to make sense of data. In this way, humanity is set apart from every other creation. Plants or ants, for example, do not seek to make meaning of their existence. Humans on the other hand strive to understand themselves in their world, and they use creation to come to this understanding. Staniloae states:
The destiny of the cosmos is found in man, not man’s destiny in the cosmos. This is shown not only by the fact that the cosmos is the object of human consciousness and knowledge (not the reverse), but also by the fact that the entire cosmos serves human existence in a practical way (p. 5).
Humanity is in a perpetual state of trying to make sense of the world. This desire for meaning is not merely a thought exercise, but a legitimate attempt to find purpose. Humans are by design meaning seekers and makers, which leads to all sorts of issues, not least the dilemma of not being able to find any meaning that makes sense of the world in which we live.
For our cruellest grief is the lack of meaning, that is, the lack of an eternal meaning to our life and deeds. The necessity of this meaning is intimately connected to our being (p. 10).
As designed rational beings, humans long for meaning, and when we do not find it, and he suggests here that all of humanity at some stage has not found it, we lose our sense of self and reason to live.
So what kind of meaning does Staniloae suggest we lack and therefore seek?
Eternal existence! In searching for meaning, humanity has an innate will to live forever. The basic premise is that humanity desires a life invested in meaning. Ridding meaning of life, renders meaning meaningless. In this sense meaning and life are a couplet. For this reason, the rational human desires meaning and a form of life that perpetuates the value of such meaning. Staniloae describes a life that is an eternal, meaningful existence within the reality where that meaning is found and based.
It is at this point that Staniloae turns to the creator.
So what is the basis of the eternal existence? I mean, what gives this existence meaning? Staniloae’s answer to this question is predictable (if you’re down with Orthodox theology) – communion with an eternal existent person.
The meaning that the rational being arrives at is not eternal if it is bound to the created experience, because the created experience is characterised by death, thus rendering meaning meaningless. Meaning must therefore be arrived at through an external and similarly rational source that transcends our earthly reality.
Underpinning the next phase of Staniloae’s natural revelation is the idea that objects of reason are the only kinds of being that are capable of interpersonal dialogue. Yes, dogs are a man’s best friend but Staniloae would argue (and I think we would agree) that dogs are not capable of the kind of relational dialogue that other rational beings are capable of. The creator, as the source of rationality, is capable of interpersonal dialogue – what’s more, eternal interpersonal dialogue. If the finite human being can somehow become a partaker in the eternal existence that the creator being enjoys, then there is hope for an eternal existence that has meaning.
Thus we find distant meaning – relationship with the ultimate rational reality. It is a reality that has not been attained, but one worth seeking out. We can also see that creation is incapable of outlining or providing a means for attaining it. The dilemma is stated and the answer is given, but the means is absent.
Staniloae gives a nice summary of his thoughts on his doctrine of natural revelation on page 12:
Through all things, God gives himself to man, and man to God. This is, in general, the content of faith asserted by the meaning of existence, a faith which compels recognition on the basis of the evidence of nature.
Now let me offer a few points worth thinking about:
1. Staniloae identifies the problem that humanity faces as not one of rejection of the creator as we read about in Roman 1:18-20, but rather of unfulfilled potential and lacking meaning as a result of being dislocated from the creator.
2. Connected with the first point is the idea that Staniloae does not bring to bear the consequences of rejecting the creator on humanity, namely the judgement that Paul talks about in Romans 1:18.
3. The issue that is raised by Staniloae that undergirds the human problem is stated in terms of the mind, a lack of meaning. Romans 2:15 speaks of the issue being one that involves the mind and also heart.
4. Staniloae’s use of humanity as the grounds for a doctrine of natural revelation is an interesting starting point. God has created humanity so that they contain his image. Surely, humanity should in some way point to God in a way that is as obvious(?) as a majestic sunset or awesome cloud formation or wave rolling in.