I have mentioned in earlier posts the new work by Aristotle Papanikolaou Being with God. It is not an easy read but brings its rewards. Papanikolaou offers the first comprehensive study of the works of Met. John Zizioulas and Vladimir Lossky, two of the 20th century’s most important Orthodox theologians, and offers a very helpful analysis and comparison. I was struck by his initial summary of the common assumption of both Zizioulas and Lossky:
The two theologians identify as the heart and center of all theological discourse the realism of divine-human communion, which is often understood in terms of the familiar Orthodox concept of theosis, or divinization.
In simpler terms, both theologians, along with the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, assumes that the center of our Christian faith, and all the language of the faith, is the fact of a real, true communion between God and man. As Christ stated it in the New Testament:
And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent (Jn. 17:3).
Why such an assumption should not seem obvious to all is itself part of the larger story of theological history. But “knowing” God is not at all as universal among Christians or theologians as one might think. In the late 70’s, studying in an Anglican seminary, I could not approach this subject successfully in the classroom. It was assumed that such knowledge was always “mediated,” meaning you only know God through something else and therefore you never know God.
That, of course, was a liberal theological seminary. But you can find similar objections in some conservative Protestant settings, where knowledge of God is confined solely to the pages of Scripture. Scripture, of course, is held in high regard in Orthodoxy, but it is not seen as a substitute for God. Christ did not promise that we would know about God, but that we would know God. There is a vast difference between the two. In some circles, the essence of salvation is that a person have “faith” (believe the fact) that Christ died on the Cross for their sins. This shrinking of the faith to an “act of faith” can have the effect of eliminating the blatant statement of Christ quoted above. Of course, if you “know God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent,” you will also know and trust in the saving work of Christ on the Cross – these two things are not mutually exclusive. But nothing should be substituted for the greatest and most central promise of the faith, that we may have communion (true union) with God through Christ. Without the reality of true communion, Christian theology always becomes just words about God (and words about God are not the same thing as true communion).
Alhough Orthodoxy is a rich Tradition, with 2,000 years of “babies and bathwater that have never been thrown out,” it is, nonetheless, still centered and summarized in the simplicity of the belief that real, true communion between man and God is not only possible, but is, in fact, the actual content of salvation. Thus, although Orthodoxy is a rich Tradition, it exists as a Tradition whose sole purpose is make known and accurately communicate the reality of that true communion.
Orthodoxy is not a distraction from knowing God, it is the Traditional Way to know God as given in the living Christian Tradition. In this sense it is always about “keeping it real.”
This fact should serve as a very simple test for Orthodox Christians. If one’s activities (particularly religious activities) are not ultimately centered on knowing God, then there is every likelihood that those activities are delusional. It is possible to become an expert on certain finer points of Patristic theology, but if your knowledge of Patristic theology is not intimately involved in knowing God, then it is a substitute of rationality for true theology. For the Fathers themselves sought not knowledge about God, but God Himself. Thus to follow in the path of the Fathers is to seek God, not the Fathers (or the Canons, etc.). It is important to know the Fathers (particularly if you are called to teach) and to know the Canons (if you are called to teach or have a ministry of governance in the Church) but if knowledge of these things is not centered in the true and real communion of God and man, then neither will be correctly understood or applied. That which is basic is always basic.
My prayer for us all (myself included) is not only to “keep it real,” but that the reality we are kept in and by should be none other than the true and living God, to Whom be glory.