Partnering with the Divine Energies
By Robert D. Cornwall
Partnering with God through participation with God’s energies leads to union with God (theosis).
It makes sense that if you are in a relationship with God, you will be in some kind of partnership with God. But what does that look like? Our answers may depend on how we envision God’s nature. I will admit that when I approach this question, my own theology is a bit eclectic—embracing a variety of diverse traditions. That may be due in part to spending a good portion of my adult life as a pastor. Being a pastor requires a certain adaptivity since we face more questions than we have answers for. That likely leads to a bit of eclecticism. At the same time, I have been trained as a historical theologian, and when we study the history of theology, we tend to find ourselves in conversation with many different traditions. One of these traditions is known as being “Open and Relational,” and I find myself in this camp. However, I have a bit of the Reformed tradition in me (I like Barth and even find Calvin helpful at points), as well as some Liberationist influences, and more recently I’ve found myself drawn to aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy. So, what I have to say on matters of theology might lead the reader to think I’m a bit confused, but there is a method to my madness!
As I pondered the question of what partnership with God could look like from an Open and Relational perspective, I wondered whether there may be something of value to offer from dipping into the theological offerings of Eastern Christianity. It’s quite possible that in doing so I will be appropriating ideas in ways the original theologians would find problematic, but in the spirit of eclectic theology, it could be worth the effort. That’s because in doing so, we may find ways of engaging with theologians Western Christians tend to ignore.
In this essay, I’d like to draw on an idea that is linked to a medieval Byzantine monk and theologian named Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). I don’t know if Gregory would identify himself as an open and relational theologian, but he developed a way of understanding God’s nature that might fit well in an open and relational context. He came up with a theory that distinguished between God’s essence, which is unknowable, and God’s energies, which are knowable. As we encounter God’s energies, we participate in the life of God. Thus, we can partner with God. It’s important to note that these “divine energies” are not created, for they are expressions of God’s essence. By participating with these energies, we participate in God’s activities in the world.
One attraction, for me, regarding Eastern Orthodoxy (and Gregory’s vision of God) is that it emphasizes mystery. It’s not that Gregory and other theologians like him reject reason, but he understood that reason will not lead to union with God (theosis). Therefore, religious experience—mystical experience—is required if we are to participate or be in a relationship with God.
I discovered Gregory Palamas’s distinction between God’s unknowable essence and the knowable divine energies from reading Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (SVS Press, 2002). Lossky was a Russian Orthodox theologian who wrote during the first half of the twentieth century. In reading Lossky, I discovered that—according to Gregory—God’s essence is transcendent, indescribable, and therefore unknowable. Consequently, when we read in Scripture that Moses or Elijah saw God’s face, we’re not talking about God’s essence. But, according to Gregory and those who followed him, we can understand them experiencing or participating in God’s energies.
Gregory uses the imagery of the sun and its rays to describe this reality. Now, remember that Gregory is a medieval theologian—so we shouldn’t expect him to offer a scientific explanation. Nevertheless, he speaks of the warmth and light that comes to us through rays of the sun as an analogy for the relationship of the divine essence and the divine energies. We experience an expression of the sun’s essence, but not the essence of the sun itself. Because, if we experienced the sun’s essence, we would burn up. This may not be a perfect analogy, but I believe it can help us think about the ways in which we experience God’s presence without fully understanding God’s nature. There are some things we just can’t know, things we must take by faith.
For Gregory, who wrote in defense of a monastic movement known Hesychasm, participating in the divine energies came through a life of prayer. The goal was union with God. For the Hesychists, the best path to experiencing union with God came through the use of “The Jesus Prayer.” This prayer goes like this: “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He encouraged people to use this prayer as a kind of mantra. Repeating it over and over can lead to a mystical experience of the presence of God.
So, what does this have to do with partnering with God as understood in an open and relational context? Eastern Christians, like Vladimir Lossky and Gregory Palamas, speak of union with God (theosis) as being our ultimate destiny. This Greek term—theosis—might not be a word many of us use in our regular conversations, but it is a very intriguing word. That is because it connects participation in—or with—God’s energies with our experience of union with God. To experience union with God is to become like God. To be like God is to be in union with Christ. St. Athanasius, an important theologian who lived in the fourth century CE, emphasized the importance of Jesus being fully human and fully divine. The reason for this was that in Christ God became human so humans can become God. Now don’t let that go to your head! Athanasius didn’t mean that we’re destined to become the supreme governor of the universe. But, to experience union with God is to experience immortality.
I want to push this idea of participating in the divine energies just a bit. As I said, I’m an eclectic theologian. One part of my identity is Pentecostal or charismatic. That part of me embraces the idea that to be “in Christ,” as Paul put it, is to experience the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit empowers us and gifts us so we can partner with God in ministry. So, might we, by embracing the Spirit’s presence and giftedness, be participating with the divine energies?
The goal for Gregory and the Hesychastmovement was union with God, or theosis, which I find attractive. Nevertheless, someone could ask, “How does theosis connect with the theme of partnering with God?” I suggest it could involve something before we experience complete union with God. That is, might partnering with God in the work of God on earth—as understood openly and relationally—be a pathway to full union with God?
One of the attractions of Open and Relational theology, to me, is its recognition that while the future is open, we venture into the future in a relationship with God. To me, that means experiencing the mystery that is God and that is the future. Nevertheless, while the future is considered open, and we participate in creating that future, for us that future might also include union with God (theosis). Is that not a hopeful word for us as we partner with the divine energies?
Question: How might the idea of theosis, union with God, inform how you envision partnering with God in the work of God in the world?
Robert D. Cornwall served as Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, Michigan from 2008 until his retirement in June of 2021 and continues to serve as a chaplain for the Troy Police Department. He holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of numerous books and articles, his latest book being Called to Bless: Finding Hope by Reclaiming Our Spiritual Roots (Cascade Books, 2021).
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.