Archive for June 19th, 2008

Eternity and the Rationalists

June 19, 2008

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.

True Knowledge of God

June 19, 2008

The Elder Sophrony made a strong distinction between the knowledge we gain by rational speculation and the knowledge of God that comes as a gift of grace. He used the term “dogmatic consciousness” to express the knowledge of God as found in the lives of the saints and great ascetics. It is not a contradiction of the dogma of the Church, but an existential encounter with God that ineffably confirms the teaching of the Church. As a side note, it is interesting that he thinks there is a time extending better than fifteen years between the knowledge gained in such an encounter and its verbal expression. It takes time to properly assimilate such knowledge and yet more time to find words.

The dogmatic consciousness I have here in mind is the fruit of spiritual experience, independent of the logical brain’s activity. The writings in which the Saints reported their experience were not cast in the form of scholastic dissertations. They were revelations of the soul. Discourse on God and on life in God comes about simply, without cogitation, born spontaneously in the soul.

Dogmatic consciousness where asceticism is concerned is not a rational analysis of an inward experience – it is not ‘psychoanalysis’. Ascetics avoid this rational speculation because it only weakens the intensity of their contemplation of the Light but, indeed, interrupts it, with the result that the soul sinks into darkness, left as she is with a merely abstract rational knowledge devoid of all vitality.

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?

Dogmatic knowledge, understood as spiritual knowledge, is a gift of God, like all forms of real life in God, granted by God, and only possible through His coming. This knowledge has by no means always been expressed in speech or in writing. The soul does not aspire to expound her experience in rational concepts when God’s grace descends on her. She needs no logical interpretations then, because she knows with a knowledge that cannot be demonstrated but which equally requires no proof that she lives through the true God….

…God is made known by faith and living communion, whereas human speech with all its relativity and fluidity opens the way to endless misunderstandings and objections. (From St. Silouan the Athonite).

 This short passage itself expresses the faith of the Orthodox Church as expressed in its life and councils. Though the study of dogma or doctrine is certainly part of every priest’s education and in some form part of every catechumen’s training, it is never enough by itself. It is the deeper and truer expression of the ancient formula, lex orandi lex credendi (“the law of praying is the law of believing”). For many in our modern context, this ancient formula has been interpreted to mean that the texts of the Church’s liturgical worship should be the basis for the Church’s dogmatic expressions. In many ways this is true. The liturgical language of the Church gives a very full expression to the Church’s faith. But in another sense, implied by Father Sophrony, we may say that the actual participation in the liturgical life of the Church, our existential encounter with God in the worshipping context, is the proper meaning of the ancient formula. For without the knowledge that is known “by faith and living communion” words fall flat and fail to say the little that can be said.

The dogmatic expressions of the Church, though providing a grammar for worship, are not the proper object of worship itself. They provide a grammar but direct us to the worship of the True and Living God, knowledge of Whom is eternal life.

As one contemporary American Orthodox theologian has said recently, “After all, it’s really all about God.” Indeed.

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?