Eternity and the Rationalists

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.

23 Responses to “Eternity and the Rationalists”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    Picture: Mikhail Nesterov’s, The Soul of the Russian People

  2. Robert Says:

    “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.”

    Whom, yes indeed. But we must not leave out the “what”. God seeks those who worship Him in spirit and truth. This peasant had his mind changed by revealed knowledge, we must not forget.

  3. Carl Says:

    Go Paladins? (I think we may be alumni of the same university.)

  4. Mrs. Mutton Says:

    I wondered what that painting was — I *love* Nesterov’s work! Thanks for noting it!

    More to the point, something that has continually grieved me is the number of Western Christians I know who truly think that a relationship with God is impossible. I think of that wonderful scene in Genesis where God goes looking for Adam “in the cool of the evening” — that is, the time when we naturally relax after the day and get together with family and friends — and I wish I could think of some way to convince these impoverished people otherwise. But in the end, it comes down to my prayer and God’s timing.

  5. Kyle Says:

    I would assert that the “what” is merely a check to make sure that we have the whom correctly in mind.

    I think this sort of experiential knowledge you are talking about is why it always seems to me that there is a stronger connection between Pentecostal churches and Orthodoxy than seems reasonable to expect.

    On the other hand, I’m not quite ready to give up my Protestantism. My experience, from a charismatic background hasn’t been as bleak and rationalist as the one you describe.

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Robert,

    The “Dogmatic Consciousness” which I have described and the statements quoted from Sophrony’s work are their statements. I agree that St. Silouan’s mind is effected in the revelation of God, but still it must operate in communion with the living God and not apart. He would have said that such a renewed mind apart from communion with God would still be utter darkness. All things in communion, reason included. The grace of God allows us to reason rightly. But it takes time as does all the work of Grace.

    In the Orthodox liturgy we begin the Creed with the invitiation: “Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided.”

    It is presumed in this that unless we love one another and confess with one mind, then we will not truly confess the Creed. They become words, more to our condemnation than salvation because we utter them with true understanding.

    Brother, forgive me if I’m stating all this poorly, and pray for me if I’m failing to see something I should.

  7. Matt Says:

    “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.”

    That reminds me of what I’ve read about Barlaam, the monk who opposed Hesychasm. IIRC, he, also, denied the possibility of an unmediated encounter with God.

    In the context of this discussion, I find it interesting that, according to OrthodoxWiki, after being anathematized as a heretic, Barlaam went back to his homeland and became a Roman Catholic Bishop.

  8. Fr. James Early Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    It’s great to have you “back in the saddle!” I have greatly enjoyed your posts this week (as always).

  9. Karen C Says:

    Dear Father, as usual a great post! In reflection on the comments above, Orthodox dogma comes from Orthodox experience of God. But also for us reflection on Orthodox dogma/doctrine (revealed truth) serves to create a hunger and a hope to truly experience God for oneself, even a taste, in the way the Saints have done. At least that is my experience. It also opens up our eyes to ways in which God in His mercy has been at work in our lives all along and we didn’t realize it (Genesis 28:16).

  10. fatherstephen Says:

    Karen,

    If I could use a comparison, it’s much like praying with written prayers. They teach us to pray, and indeed we can pray quite effectively with them, but ultimately they are teaching the heart how to pray. Extemporaneous prayer is not at all discouraged in Orthodoxy, though we generally begin with written prayers for the training of the heart.

    The same is true of revealed dogma. It’s helpful to know, and guards us.

    In the case of St. Silouan, he perceived the whole of Trinitarian dogma in a single vision of the risen Lord. He perceived it in an effable manner. He knew the words of the services, but not until this encounter did the words come filled with meaning.

  11. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    This is a very interesting and thought-provoking post, Father. Thank you.
    I’d like to make 2 points in response:

    Speaking as a Philosophy teacher, Rationalism seems less of a threat to the biblical worldview than Empiricism. Rationalists at least allow for innate (a priori) knowledge and intuition. There have been many Rationalists who were also Christians: Francis Bacon, Descartes, and Pascal, to name 3 memorable thinkers.

    It seems to me that the main difference between the mystical theology of the East and the intellectual theology of the West has to do with Reality. In the West there is a tendency to regard Reality as a construct of the mind or the organizing capacity of the intellect as evidenced in language. This permits many views of Reality. In the East, God’s Self-revelation is Reality and fills all things. This is the “Pleroma” of which St. Paul speaks and there is only one Reality.

  12. The Scylding Says:

    Your professor certainly was memorable! I love it when people solves philosophical impasse by a little down-to-earth demonstration – or like St Nicholas, who socked an arian at the council of Nicea. Sometimes a bit of physical feeling overcomes a lot of philosophical hubris….

  13. Robert Says:

    Father Bless,

    Perhaps this is my turn to be picky; but even so, it is important enough to me that again I must take exception.

    “The same is true of revealed dogma. It’s helpful to know, and guards us”

    To say that revealed dogma is “helpful to know”, sounds to me like it plays a secondary role. But we *must* know revealed dogma. Without revealed knowledge an encounter is as good as any other.

    “The same is true of revealed dogma. It is a must to know, and guards us”

    I believe we are in agreement. I hope you see my perspective, the need for clarification. (I am a convert from agnosticism, perhaps this is why this is so important to me).

  14. Karen C Says:

    Father Stephen, your response reminds me that it is in the doing of dogma rather than in the rationalizing about it (except insofar as this is a necessary part of figuring out what to begin to do) that we come to experience its Meaning. Indeed.

    Alice, very thoughtful comments. They make a lot of sense to me. I will look forward to hearing what Fr. Stephen has to say.

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    Robert,

    I agree, we must know revealed dogma. It truly guards and keeps us. What I am saying is that it properly guards and protects the living experience of communion with God which is always the goal of the human life (according to revealed dogma).

    I do not mean to disparage the role of dogma in the Church in the least. At its highest, it, too, is a gateway to true knowledge of God. Fr. Georges Florovsky referred to doctrine as a “verbal icon of Christ.” Like Scripture, it carries within it the Divine Energy. How we approach revealed dogma and Scripture, for instance, has much to do with whether they will yield their treasures to us. I do believe we are in agreement. It is certainly true that certain perspectives are of more value to one than another depending on where you start. Having spent years trying to defend the possibility of a true encounter with the Living God, Orthodoxy’s defense and teaching of this is vitally important to me. May God keep us both and immerse us in the Truth that is Christ. Many blessings!

  16. Sophocles Says:

    Father bless,

    In my own life and in my very inadequate attempt to live the Life in Christ, I have often found myself trapped in the outer “forms” of religion and finding myself unable to penetrate into the communion I had been so starving for, the Person of our Lord as He Himself is found within the living communion with the Father and The Holy Spirit.

    The awareness that I indeed was attempting the penetration into Person, transcending the “forms” of this world has come about very slowly for me. Indeed, the awareness comes when I seek it not and in one sense it is not the fruit of the spiritual life, not that which I must prize above all else, but the awareness of Presence comes about as The Lord allows and discloses.

    Another realization I am coming to in my own attempt to defend a system, whether it be Orthodoxy par excellence, unswerving and dogmatically exact is that absent Love, it is crass and an idol. A horrible idol because it is that which I must hold as dogma in exactness of truth and yet lacks Love, Him, because I wield it according to my own fears and prejudices.

    I am afraid of Love.

    Jesus, in the washing of the disciples feet, did something of which I am terrified. He touched them, handled them and when Saint Peter attempted to prevent Him, was rebuked and told that if not handled by Him, he, Peter, was not His.

    When He returns to judge the World, I fear this sentence, of Him not knowing me because I would not allow myself to be handled by Him. And this because I am afraid of Love. Because I relive what our first parents in the Garden did, that having sinned and breaking communion with Him, with His Life creating warm fragrant Presence, rather than repent and come into Him, to be handled by Him, I enclose myself within myself ever the tighter, defending rationally and experientially the system which I construct and which cocoons me within myself ever more snugly and I become cold and hell bound, experiencing the Love of God as a distressful thing, a bother which takes away from my own Self from Self radiating Universe and the true God is left without.

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    Sophocles,

    Be sure to say these things when you pray and all will be well, I indeed believe. This is to stand in the heart.

  18. Robert Says:

    Thank you Father for your response and blessing. Yes, may we be immersed in Christ more and more each day!

    “In Christianity truth is not a philosophical concept nor is it a theory, a teaching, or a system, but rather, it is the living theanthropic hypostasis – the historical Jesus Christ (John 14:6).  Before Christ men could only conjecture about the Truth since they did not possess it. With Christ as the incarnate divine Logos the eternally complete divine Truth enters into the world. For this reason the Gospel says: “Truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). 

    St. Justin Popovich 

  19. Tracy Says:

    Karen said, “But also for us reflection on Orthodox dogma/doctrine (revealed truth) serves to create a hunger and a hope to truly experience God for oneself, even a taste, in the way the Saints have done.”

    Alice said, “the main difference … has to do with Reality. In the West there is a tendency to regard Reality as a construct of the mind or the organizing capacity of the intellect … This permits many views of Reality. In the East, God’s Self-revelation is Reality…”

    Well said. The good kind of reason, then, is good precisely when it has tapped into the One Reality — the real One — and precisely when it is sufficiently clear and persuasive to make us desire to know that Reality. Good reason, even when we have not experienced God (yet), can and should be an attractive and strong guiding force. The whole value of it, though, is that it does point beyond itself, and that it points accurately.

    Hence, the need for good, solid, orthodox dogma, and for paying attention to it.

    But it is iconic. It must be true, alluring, and a window.

  20. Margaret Says:

    I thank you, Sophocles, for your remarks as they speak what is on my heart and I cannot express in words.

    I thank you, Fr. Stephen, for your response to Sophocles, because as these things expressed are with my heart, it is heavy and weighs me down as I try to pray for my children, realizing how “wanting” I am myself.

    You have encouraged me.

  21. fatherstephen Says:

    It is very good to pray. We can’t pray too much – even if it draws us into a kind of grief. Christ’s prayer in the Garden is full of such grief, thus He is no stranger to us when we pray in such a manner, but instead, united to us as He is, Christ Himself prays as well in us.

  22. Perry Robinson Says:

    Fr Stephen,

    You wrote in part noting what others professed

    “that God can only be known through some mediated experience or that Christ is not God.”

    These aren’t different as I am sure you are aware. Arius couldn’t stand a God that died, so he required a lesser intermediary that could.

  23. fatherstephen Says:

    Indeed, Perry,

    Of course there was a distinct lack of cogency in the many heresies professed by faculty members. Consistency was mostly marked by being somewhere off the mark. A very disturbing three years in my life. I remember being quite taken aback when the NT professor, while we were translating St. Ignatius in an advanced Greek class, became visibly upset at St. Ignatius’ phrase describing the Eucharist as the “Body and Blood of God.” He explained that he did not think Jesus is God. I responded, “How about very God of very God?” The discussion did not get very far that day.

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