Daniel J. Nodes

title.none: Papademetriou, Maimonides and Palamas on God (Nodes)

identifier.other: baj9928.9708.004 97.08.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Daniel J. Nodes , Hamline University, St. Paul, Minnesota

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Papademetriou, George C. Maimonides and Palamas on God. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994. Pp. 127. ISBN: ISBN 0-916-58668-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.08.04

Papademetriou, George C. Maimonides and Palamas on God. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994. Pp. 127. ISBN: ISBN 0-916-58668-5.

Reviewed by:

Daniel J. Nodes
Hamline University, St. Paul, Minnesota

"When we continually see an object, however sublime it may be, our regard for that object will be lessened and the impression we have received of it will be weakened." So writes Maimonides in The Guide for the Perplexed. By that proposition institutional representations of God and formulas about God would surely lead to a weakened impression. But does it mean that the same lessening of regard would occur even if God were seen directly? The issue is moot, for there is little concern about excessive familiarity with God in his essence in Moses Maimonides (1135-1204). There is even less concern about this in the Late Byzantine theologian paired with him for this study, Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). The paradox is that their search for God, limitations notwithstanding, was not without deep rewards. The search for God consumed their intellectual energies, embroiled them in controversies within themselves and with the religious establishment. Yet they succeeded in making progress, beyond the institutional representations and formulas, beyond complacency, through a blending of intellect, faith, work, and meditation, toward that knowing ignorance and dazzling darkness of the mystical theology tradition. We know also of their successes in reconciling the mutual demands of allegiance to a faith system and to the principles of rational inquiry that form so significant a part of their legacy.

Prof. George C. Papademetriou gives a glimpse of this history in his monograph, a reissue of the work he did for his Ph.D. thesis at Temple University. The work is in four brief chapters: an introduction, a chapter each outlining the doctrine of God in Maimonides and Palamas, and a comparison of those teachings. The purpose is "to show the close affinity between the two traditions [Jewish and Orthodox Christian] regarding the understanding of God by comparing the thought of two representative thinkers of the Middle Ages" (p.3).

Maimonides is representative of medieval efforts to synthesize the products of Greek philosophy and biblical revelation, Palamas of the philosophical defense of contemplative practices and the distinction between the unknowable essence and knowable energies of God. Both men were preeminent theologians in their respective traditions. Both were controversial. Both used a comparable methodology for discourse and reflection on God, which becomes the common denominator of this study. The via negativa reflects the recognition of language's inadequacy to define God through any categories or by any analogy. It also reflects a commitment on the part of people of faith not to remain silent in the face of mystery and despite the limitations of words. It is a creative way partly to resolve tensions between the concepts of divine transcendence and immanence, human knowledge and faith, reason and mysticism. Prof. Papademetriou considers this methodology the "fundamental character" of early Christian theology and of Judaism as evidenced in the writings of Maimonides and Palamas. He sees the reason for this common methodology as depending on "biblical faith and a philosophical approach," as both writers sought a way to avoid polytheism and pantheism. Both also wanted to express the reality of divine presence in the world. The book's premise, as that of both medieval writers, is that the question of God can be approached philosophically although the mystery of God does not yield to philosophical analysis. It seeks to point out that both writers found comparable ways to use philosophical reasoning and an effective way to talk about God. The book thus notes repeatedly that Maimonides and Palamas both maintain that God is absolutely unknowable in his essence while agreeing that God's actions are knowable.

The mutual use of the via negativa, however, was not without different emphases stemming from divergent perspectives: "Palamas is considered above all a man of faith; to him the sum of truth resided in the patristic writings on liturgy and scripture" (pp. 50-51). He limits philosophy to created being, "leaving scripture alone to speak authoritatively for religious truth." Maimonides is called a man of reason. "He sought, if possible, to prove in The Guide (a) that faith was not incompatible with reason, (b) that proof of the existence of God was not tied to the theory of eternalism, and (c) that scripture held a subtle and figurative meaning for the learned and a literal and obvious meaning for the simple." As a way to explain their different emphases, Fr. Papademetriou sees an irony, saying (p. 70) that Maimonides was the more "Greek" and Palamas more "Hebrew," in the sense that (p. 81), "philosophic knowledge," for Maimonides, was a prerequisite to a higher knowledge and a good per se. For Palamas, philosophy had only "relational or instrumental value."

A study of such limited scope cannot discuss the complex history of the via negativa or the celebration of divine mystery, but it must set the appropriate context by reference to important predecessors and theories in the tradition. Prof. Papademetriou mentions the teachings of important forerunners, particularly Philo and John Damascene. Occasionally, the lack of adequate reference to exegetical traditions may mislead readers, as when fundamental analogies and motifs are cited as though they were creations of the late Middle Ages. For example, Palamas' use (p. 34) of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, such as the burning bush, the column of fire, and the transfiguration of Jesus to defend the idea of divine light as revelation of divine energies are part of an exegetical tradition well developed by the time of Gregory of Nyssa (4th c.). Similarly, Maimonides' use of the analogy of appropriate food for infants and adults as equivalent to levels of meaning in Scripture is mentioned (p. 65) and it would be easy to relate this to a rich Judeo-Christian tradition found in principal earlier authors such as Origen.

The book's main efforts go to describing the two writers' doctrines and methodologies culminating in their emphasis on the via negativa. Both thinkers were deeply affected by a sense of the veiled language of Scripture. As such they participated in a long exegetical tradition of figurative and allegorical reading that cautioned against taking literally the Bible's many anthropomorphic descriptions of God and the spiritual realm. A guiding principle of medieval exegetes, including Maimonides and Palamas, was that the Bible's anthropomorphic language was appropriate for the mass of people, who could only understand concepts that were grounded in physical objects. Enlightened minds capable of abstraction, however, knew that such physical analogies actually moved away from God as spirit.

The book's main value lies in its discussion of negation "as a method," giving a careful summary of this "non-concept." The discussion (pp. 51-52) contains a useful distinction among three related concepts related to negation as applied to knowledge of God: negation (apophasis), privation (steresis), and abstraction (aphairesis). In time the three came to stand for different ways to keep the idea of God from all limitation due to language.

Thinly treated in this examination of the negative method is the influence of ancient rhetoric on negative theology. Both Maimonides and Palamas are heirs to rich literary traditions in Judaism and Hellenism that contain a legacy of antithetical speech. Fr. Papademetriou only alludes to this influence when he says that the tendency to attribute negative attributes to God "is rooted in the nature of language" (p. 23).

Does the book achieve its purpose of revealing a close affinity between Jewish and Greek doctrines of God as exemplified in these two men? The evidence offered, hinging on the practice of the via negativa, is successful in the sense that here is a significant nexus point in the history of the interrelation of the Bible and philosophy. As is said, however, "the devil is in the details;" and it will be clear to readers that equal energy is spent on differentiating Maimonides' rationalism from Palamas' "psychology of the heart." Some of the examples of differentiation, may be unnecessary, such as the claim (p. 84) that, unlike Palamas, Maimonides opposed asceticism as a path to God. The problem is not so much the truth or falsity of the claim, as so much depends on the definition. But the passage from The Guide 3.8 that is referred to in support, but not quoted, speaks eloquently of controlling the passions. In that chapter Maimonides writes, "Intelligent persons must, as much as possible, reduce these wants, guard against them, feel grieved when satisfying them, abstain from speaking of them, discussing them, and attending to them in company with others. . . Such men are always with God, and of them it is said, "Ye are princes, and all of you are children of the Most High" (Ps. lxxxii. 6).

In its present form the book may be found useful by students who have some acquaintance with negative theology, medieval philosophy, and the history of biblical exegesis but who are not familiar with the contributions of the two writers featured here. As is said in the book's forward, there is also a readership familiar with one or the other of them, but seldom both. They too stand to benefit from this book. Students coming new to these subjects, however, will feel the lack of adequate historical background, and scholars will feel the need for more discussion of primary sources. The presentation of the printed text is very poor, with numerous misspellings, typographical errors and errors of transcription.

We are still to be grateful to Prof. Papademetriou for opening another small passageway into a vast and difficult territory. His study invites us to take up the works of Maimonides and Palamas in their own right as well as other recent studies of their thought.