I attended a semi-religious college – one affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention at the time. Though it had a reputation for being “liberal,” beneath it’s surface it still had something of the simple faith that had marked the settlers of upper South Carolina. I recall a debate about the nature of the resurrection body of Christ in one of my religion classes. My professor, who held two doctorates (the second one from Oxford), was making the point that the resurrection body of Christ was different in some manner from the body of any of us in the room. I cannot remember what argument I was having with him – for I certainly agree with him now. But I recall (how could I forget) his driving the point home. He grabbed me by the shoulders, lifted me from my seat and forced me up against the wall.
“Your body will not pass through this wall!” he shouted. “But Jesus had no such trouble.”
I remember ceding the point and never arguing against that piece of orthodox Christian dogma ever again.
There was plenty of rationalism to be found on that campus, and even within the department of religion, but there was also something else – a core experience that I knew was a shared experience. If you had asked me at the time I would have simply said that I knew this professor to be a Christian. By that, I would have meant that “he knew Christ.” I could not have said much more than that, for I had no words for what I knew.
I went directly from college to an Episcopal Seminary. I found a different experience there, and a different sort of rationalist. We had a mystic on the faculty (something of an Orthodox wannabe) with whom I found great friendship. Through him I met (then) Timothy Ware (now Metropolitan Kallistos Ware), Fr. Alexander Schmemann and several other notable Orthodox men. He let me read Orthodox writings and push my mental envelope as I sought to comprehend the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas (the great Hesychast Theologian).
But there were rationalist within the faculty, at least one of whom argued vociferously that God could only be known in a mediated manner (which is no knowledge at all). Such knowledge carries an objective quality and can be described as “revealed knowledge” (such as the Scriptures) but no direct encounter with God was allowed within his theology. We did not get along.
There were others whom I could not begin to describe, though most seemed to be more of the rationalist and less of the mystic. One was an extreme legalist, or so I experienced him. He did not believe that “Jesus was God,” (this puzzled me greatly and we argued bitterly) but he was also the most fastidious priest at the altar I had ever seen. (I could never figure why the crumbs seemed to matter to him. If Jesus isn’t God, then surely the bread is not His Body.)
I left that institution with my Master of Divinity and shortly thereafter was ordained. But I knew then that the question – “how do we know God?” – was the truly important question. If we do not know Him, then the rationalists are playing silly games. As St. Paul would say:
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.
I never abandoned the question. I discovered that the most reliable teaching (and witness) to the reality of our knowledge of God was to be found among the Orthodox. Long before I converted I knew that the truth was to be found among the Orthodox, if anywhere. Thus my conversion was simply a matter of time and circumstance, all of which, by the grace of God, came together while I still breathed the air of this world, for which I am forever grateful.
Thus words such as those found in St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony ring in my heart with a joyous ‘Amen’:
What is the use of reasoning about the nature of grace if one does not experience its action in oneself? What is the use of declaiming about the light of Tabor if one does not dwell in it existentially? Is there any sense in splitting theological hairs over the nature of the Trinity if a man has not within himself the holy strength of the Father, the gentle love of the Son, the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost?
There is no argument against such experience within Orthodoxy or its theologians. There is instead the necessary humility that recognizes that a peasant from Russia (St. Silouan) may know more than most of us regardless of his lack of education, and that Whom He knows is the entire point of knowing in the first place.
I have a high regard for theological learning, though I have found no Protestant theologian who knows even a portion of what many Orthodox theologians know (frequently in several languages). Neither have I found an Orthodox theologian arguing that God can only be known through some mediated experience or that Christ is not God.
If the life of something calling itself “Church” is rooted in anything other than the lived experience of communion with God, then it is certainly not the Church, regardless of what it may call itself. We were created for communion with God, Whom truly to know is eternal life (John 17:3). If one does not know that, he is surely to be pitied.