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Chapter I -- 11

Let us continue. For reasons evidently known to him, St Gregory changes the subject:

This very thing, I said, how might it become undoubted to those who speak in opposition, that all things are from God and that all things are maintained by him, or even, in short, that there exists something Divine lying over the nature of existent things?

She said: In regard to such persons, it would be more appropriate to keep silence and not to deem the foolish and impious propositions worthy of an answer, since one of the Holy Scriptures forbids [it, commanding us] not to answer a fool in his folly. And, at all events, the fool, according to the Prophet, is he who says that God is not. Since, however, it is necessary to say this too, I am going to tell you a word, not mine, neither that of some other man—for such a word would be small as much as it would be—but the very word that the creation of things which exist relates in detail by means of the wonders which are in it, of which the audience becomes the eye, the wise and skilful word reverberating in the heart by means of those things which appear.

The creation cries out openly the Maker, the very Heavens, according to the Prophet, in unutterable voices narrating the glory of God. Who, seeing the harmony of all things, of the Heavenly and terrestrial wonders, how the elements, being opposed to each other according to their natures, are woven together towards exactly the same goal by some unspeakable communion, each element contributing the power which is found in it to the continuance of the whole; and neither do the elements which are unmixed and uncommuning according to the property of their qualities depart from each other; neither are they destroyed in each other, being mixed with each other in the opposed qualities; but even those elements whose nature it is to rise up are brought down, the heat of the sun flowing down through the rays and the heavy bodies are made light, being made fine by means of the vapours, as also water despite its own nature becomes light, being carried through the air by the winds; and the ethereal fire comes down to the earth, so that the deep is not without participation in its warmth; the moisture being poured out on the earth from the rains, being one in nature, engenders countless varieties of vegetation, being implanted appropriately in every way in the substratum; the most quick rotation of the Pole and the backwards movement within the Circles, the runnings under and the conjunctions and the harmonious distances of the stars—he who sees these things with the intellectual eye of the soul: is he not manifestly taught from those things which are seen that a Divine Power artful and wise, appearing in those things which exist and penetrating through all things, both harmonizes the parts to the whole and completes the whole in the parts, and with a certain single power the whole is maintained, that whole remaining in itself and moving round itself and neither having an end of its motion, neither being displaced to another place besides the one in which it is?

We have left this very fine expression of faith in the providential presence of God in his creation untouched. Let us now make some comments.

As should be clear, this statement is a return by St Macrina to her earlier statement that one can recognize the Weaver from the garment, a statement that we identified with St Paul’s passage in Romans:

…[B]ecause what can be known concerning God is manifest among them, for God has manifested [it] to them. Those things which are invisible and apprehended by thought concerning him from the creation of the world, his eternal power and Divinity, are seen clearly in those things which have been made…[1]

This argument for the existence of God is not a rationalistic propositional argument of the sort that philosophers have come to expect in philosophy. It is, in modern philosophical language, an intuitionist argument. St Macrina is clear: ‘the wise and skilful word reverberating in the heart by means of those things which appear’. This ‘word’ we will learn from Evagrius to be the wisdom of God, the main mode of his presence in creation; and we will learn to contemplate the ‘words (logoi)’ which in the wisdom of God are the essences of created things, the things which have come to be.

St Paul says ‘those things invisible and apprehended by thought’, namely ‘his eternal power and Divinity’. First let us look at ‘those things invisible and apprehended by thought’. The Revised Standard Version (RSV), a standard Protestant translation, has:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.[2]

What interests us is the fate in the RSV of the words that we have translated ‘those things invisible and apprehended by thought’. On the one hand, the plural word we have translated ‘invisible things’ has become the singular, ‘invisible nature’. On the other hand, the word, a participle (again a plural), we have translated ‘apprehended by thought’, seems to have disappeared. In fact, it seems to have been assimilated into the verb we have translated ‘are seen clearly’, so that that verb has become ‘has been clearly perceived’, singular to accommodate the change from ‘invisible things’ to ‘invisible nature’.

Why are we saying these things? The RSV translation marks a shift of perspective that obscures the point that St Macrina is making: ‘those things invisible and apprehended by thought concerning him’ are not sensibly perceived but intelligibly apprehended. Moreover, an even more subtle analysis would question the substitution of ‘those things invisible and apprehended by thought concerning him’ by ‘his invisible nature’. For as is well known to every Orthodox Christian, the nature of God cannot be apprehended, only his operations (energeies); in the present context it might be better to say, his properties or attributes. For it is clear that St Paul means ‘those things invisible and apprehended by thought concerning him from the creation of the world’ to be precisely ‘his eternal power and Divinity’. God’s eternal power is not his nature but a property or attribute of his nature. The same is true, as odd as it might seem to say it, of his Divinity.

We therefore have two aspects of this argument for the existence of God which must interest us greatly for our development of the psychology of mental prayer in the heart: this argument for the existence of God is on the one hand intuitionist; on the other hand, it depends on apprehending intelligibly, not sensibly, the presence of God in his creation. The psychology of contemplation in the practice of mental prayer in the heart depends on this twofold aspect. For contemplation itself will be found to be intuitionist and dependent on intelligible rather than sensible apprehension of the object of contemplation, one object of which is the presence of God in his creation as the wisdom that is the form of that creation. Now this intelligible apprehension is not a matter of propositional reasoning, since it is intuitionist; it is a matter of an intelligible intuition, by means of a mental or spiritual faculty or sense.

We are well aware that at this time this might be incomprehensible to our reader. We hope that by the end of Volume III our reader will have an expert knowledge of the matter.

We might also say that when this intuitionist argument is transformed into a method of contemplation, then what we have called an ‘intuitionist’ argument will become an ‘experimental’ argument: one encounters God in his wisdom in contemplation by proceeding experimentally in faith—with the proper prior preparation and with the grace of God.

Let us now turn to St Macrina’s description of the actual weaving of the elements. St Macrina emphasizes, first, the contrast between the harmony of the result and the intrinsically opposed qualities of the elements. As we have already remarked, St Macrina is using the chemistry and physics of her day, which comprised four elements that were considered to have contrary qualities. That is not so far from a modern understanding of chemistry and physics: it is well-known that when some elementary particles collide they are each annihilated with the release of a quantity of radiation; that other elementary particles, for example those with the same electrical charge, cannot easily approach each other. What St Macrina says is that each element contributes its particular properties to the whole—to the one goal—despite its different and opposing qualities, and that without departing from the other, opposed elements or being annihilated. What effects this is precisely the divine power which upholds creation: we saw this already in brief in St Maximos the Confessor. Moreover, under the constraint of the divine power, the elements sometimes act contrary to their nature, as when the heat of the sun descends and makes heavy things to ascend. Here it must be remarked that the doctrine of the natural tendency of some elements to rise (such as the heat of the sun) and of other elements to sink down (such as earth) is found in Aristotle’s Physics,[3] as is the doctrine that things generally have a natural motion which they follow unless they are constrained. Hence, St Macrina is making use of Aristotle here. However, we do not think that the doctrine that the divine power constrains the elements in the weaving of creation can be traced to Aristotle: his very famous doctrine of the unmoved mover places God outside the cosmos: the unmoved mover moves only the first-moved mover, which itself moves with a rotational movement and which, itself moving, commences the chain of motion in the cosmos. St Macrina’s doctrine is quite different and we do not know where to assign it. It may, indeed, be a particularly Christian doctrine, this immediate intervention of God through his divine power in creation to uphold the interweaving into a harmonious whole of elements opposed in their qualities.

As we remarked earlier, this immediate intervention of God through his divine power to uphold the interweaving of the elements with their opposed qualities does not abrogate natural law, but allows it to operate—we might even say that it founds natural law.

The ‘ethereal fire’ seems to refer to the fifth element that Aristotle posited, that which was to be found only in the heavens among the stars. It is not clear to us whether St Macrina means the heat of the sun as a particular instance of this ethereal fire, or whether she has a broader idea of the descent of the ethereal fire to warm the bowels of the earth.

Something that may not be immediately apparent is that St Macrina emphasizes the oneness of the nature of the moisture that engenders the countless varieties of vegetation when that moisture penetrates into the substratum, the soil. A modern scientist might similarly marvel at the countless varieties of life forms that are produced from four nucleotides on the DNA and from a genetic code that comprises instructions for a quite limited number of amino acids. We might go even further: the absolute intricacy of the chemical mechanisms in the nucleus of the living cell for the molecular genetics of life is utterly astonishing.

St Macrina then turns to astronomy. Aristotle, again, has a discussion in the Physics of the rotation of the heavens round the Pole; he even has a discussion of which Pole is up, the North or the South. Even today, when in astronomy the dominant model of St Macrina’s time has been superseded, who is not astonished when he sees telescope photographs of constellations resolved into galaxies and clusters of galaxies, with counts of stars and distances which exceed the human imagination? Who, today, proceeding further into theoretical discussions of the forces holding together the galaxies—

with the intellectual eye of the soul, is … not manifestly taught from those things which are seen that a Divine Power artful and wise, appearing in those things which exist and penetrating through all things, both harmonizes the parts to the whole and completes the whole in the parts, and with a certain single power the whole is maintained, that whole remaining in itself and moving round itself and neither having an end of its motion, neither being displaced to another place besides the one in which it is?

The last part of this quotation seems also to derive from Aristotle’s Physics; it is reminiscent of Aristotle’s description of the first-moved mover, although, here, St Macrina is applying the description to the whole universe.

The Nineteenth Century translator of On the Soul and the Resurrection, Moore, has ‘eclipses and conjunctions and measured intervals of the planets’,[4] although our text refers to ‘stars’.[5] These indeed might be technical terms in Classical astronomy, but we ourselves rather see here Aristotle’s description, in his presentation of astronomy in the Physics, of the Spheres, some of which Spheres according to him indeed have a retrograde motion—precisely those of the planets.

Certainly the details of astronomy have been refined through the observation and reflection of men over the years. But: ‘The Heavens narrate the glory of God and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands.’[6]

We have emphasized here, in our commentary on this passage of St Macrina, on the one hand the astonishment at both the intricacy and the grandeur of creation that the contemplation[7] of creation engenders in the person and, on the other hand, the entering into theoretical discussions[8] of the forces holding together the universe. It should be understood, however, that the intelligible intuition of the wisdom of God is neither raw astonishment, although that may be the beginning or even the result of contemplation in the mystical sense, nor scientific model-building, although that also might be a beginning of the raising of the mind to spiritual contemplation. The intelligible intuition is sui generis.

What is the ‘intellectual eye of the soul’ to which St Macrina is referring? It is the mind or nous. We will encounter two terms, translated ‘mind’ and ‘intellect’: nous and dianoia. We will discuss at length what these terms refer to. But let us at least point out at this time that what is seen by the ‘intellectual eye of the soul’ is not something sensible but something intelligible.

This whole piece, as we have indicated, bears the stamp of Aristotle. Aristotle himself was a religious man even if a pagan—something that is usually ignored—and it is clear that the cosmology that he defines in the Physics[9] and in On Generation and Corruption[10] is at least in part dictated by his own religious convictions. The one aspect, as we have pointed out, that we do not know to be from Aristotle is the notion—repeated by St Maximos the Confessor in his Mystagogia—that the elements would naturally fly apart from each other or even annihilate each other, and the compounds disintegrate, without a divine power which held them together against their nature. We have already remarked on the analogous role that could be granted to the soul in regard to the living body: in the living body, the soul would constrain the elements to remain together, thus making possible the biochemistry of the body.

Is this valid today, this idea of St Macrina of a divine power upholding all creation?

While particle physics can hardly be considered to be a finished business, one is struck by the order and regularity postulated to exist and by the powers concealed in the elementary particles. It takes a certain amount of labour to release those powers. Once released, however, they are uncontrollable. Hence, the notion of a divine power harmoniously keeping the elementary particles in their places is not on the face of it absurd.

Certainly the geocentric universe is gone in physics. In religion, however, we remain centred on the earth.

But perhaps the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics is the materialistic reply to St Macrina?

Niels Bohr (1885–1962) and Werner Heisenberg (1901–1976) devised the Copenhagen Interpretation partly on the basis of the interpretation by Max Born (1882–1970), a resolute atheist, of the Schrödinger (1887–1961) wave functions as probability functions.[11] This interpretation of the wave functions produces a probabilistic universe. Such a probabilistic universe does not foresee a divine power upholding all creation. Such a universe has a completely different ontology.

Is the Copenhagen Interpretation valid? The wave functions work. Their interpretation, however, is a matter of just that—interpretation. And here we have a fundamental problem: we design a mathematical formalism that gives a good fit to observations over a certain range; and either we interpret that mathematical formalism in a certain fashion, or, in the first place, we were motivated by a certain understanding of nature to construct the formalism in the way that we did.[12] But what we find is that the formalism is not always valid over all possible ranges of observations; and that another formalism, with a different interpretation, is valid where the first formalism is not. Moreover, the two formalisms may not agree over their common domains. This is well known to be the case with Newtonian mechanics and the special theory of relativity. The second is not a mathematical extension of the first, nor are the interpretations or motivations of the two consistent, nor do the two give the same answers.[13]

This makes basing your faith on man-made theories a chancy affair. Sometimes you’re right; sometimes you’re not.

We wonder, in 500 years will the Copenhagen Interpretation be remembered? Or will another mathematical formalism replace quantum mechanics, to be accompanied by another man-made interpretation and understanding of nature? We do not doubt that the wave functions that led to the invention of, say, the tunnel microscope were quantum-mechanical. But it is the mathematical formalism, not the interpretation, which provides the functions. Indeed, in their daily work, most working physicists do not occupy themselves with questions of the interpretation of quantum mechanics. They do not need to. However, there certainly remain open philosophical questions in quantum mechanics concerning the interpretation of the mathematical formalism.

We wonder, then, whether any of these theories has an absolute character such that it cannot be displaced by another theory tomorrow, together with its different interpretation or philosophy of nature.

Moreover, the two great theories of Twentieth Century physics, the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, do not have consistent philosophies of nature and have not yet been integrated the one into the other even at the level of the mathematical formalism. That is why the deviser of the first theory, Albert Einstein, to his dying day never accepted the validity of the second theory, quantum mechanics, or of the Copenhagen Interpretation.

The notion that the moisture, being one, is implanted in the substratum appropriately in every way deserves further comment. We will see in Volume II, when we discuss Evagrius’ Treatise on the Practical Life, a reference by Evagrius to Didymus the Blind where Didymus (c.313–c.399) says much the same thing about virtue: that the nature of virtue is one but that it expresses itself differently in different parts of the soul. Hence, we might take St Macrina’s remark to be a hint of a doctrine of Grace: that it is one, and that it implants itself in every way appropriately in those substrata (whether human or animate or inanimate) in which it takes its abode. Moreover, we find in Chapters 108 and 109 of On Those Who Think They are Justified by Works by St Mark the Ascetic (2nd half of 4th C.–p.431) an explicit doctrine that the grace of the Holy Spirit is one and that it operates in each person in accordance with his virtues and his need, just as the rain falling on the earth provides the quality appropriate to each plant.[14] The similarity to our text is so striking that we wonder whether St Mark the Ascetic had read St Gregory of Nyssa, or whether this was just a common simile of the epoch.

In general, the divine Power, artful and wise, which penetrates all things and which harmonizes the parts to the whole and completes the whole in its parts, is none other than the Holy Spirit.

How valid is this intuitionist argument for the existence of God? For that is what St Gregory has requested of his sister, an argument for the existence of God. This argument from the garment of creation to the Weaver has never been refuted. It cannot be. It is God’s self-revelation to each person in his soul. It is the very stamp of being created by God. For that reason, we feel one with nature and not different. God speaks in the soul of each of his creatures: ‘I have created you.’ Even the animals know; even the plants; even the rocks; even the stars. God himself has spoken and speaks.

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[1] Rom. 1, 19–20.

[2] RSV Rom. 1, 19–20.

[3] Arist–Physics.

[4] In NF 2, V.

[5] Soul G.

[6] Ps. 18, 1.

[7] In the common acceptation.

[8] In the scientific model-building sense.

[9] Arist–Physics.

[10] Arist–Gen.

[11] The Schrödinger wave functions (or, equations) describe the world-line (path) of a particle such as an electron. They are at the very heart of quantum mechanics.

[12] There is in fact a very complex process of interaction between formalism and interpretation in the development of any physical theory.

[13] The answers are close when the velocity of the object being considered is low with respect to the frame of reference of the observer.

[14] Mark Volume I, pp. 160–2.


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