True Knowledge of God

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?

13 Responses to “True Knowledge of God”

  1. Robert Says:

    Yes and Amen Lord Jesus! May your light shine ever brighter through us.

  2. MuleChewingBriars Says:

    We know more than we can say

    Michael Polanyi

    Never forget: We are alive within mysteries.

    Wendell Berry

  3. Audra Wooten Says:

    Father,

    Where is this beautiful picture from?

  4. fatherstephen Says:

    The Painting is entitled: In Church and is by Nikolai Bogdanov-Belsky, mostly 19th century Russian artist. A short article on him can be found at wikipedia. I have a small folder of Russian art in my photos. They were a gift from a kind reader.

  5. Tracy Says:

    Elder Sophrony writes, “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.”

    This sounds stronger than that rational speculation is rather useless and pointless if it has no real experience to base its speculations on.

    I do not understand very well what happens in worship, but I do know that sometimes, when I leave Divine Liturgy, I want so very badly to hold on to that experience and feeling of joy and well-being. It always fades, sooner or later. Trying to rationalize it, understand it, hold on by mental effort, does NOT help. Where the joy comes from is a wondrous mystery to me; where it fades and goes away to is a very sad one.

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Tracy,

    Your experience, it seems to me, is right on target. The best way to “hold” on to the experience, is to remain in our heart, praying, “Lord, have mercy, etc.”

    It’s become sort of notorious in my parish that I don’t eat after a liturgy. I often don’t want to eat until around 3 in the afternoon. It’s as if there is no hunger, or that eating would distract from the liturgy itself and the communion of the sacrament. Fortunately, there is another liturgy coming, if we live so long, and an even better liturgy if we don’t!

  7. Visibilium Says:

    Rational speculation always involves the chopping up of experiences. Conceptualization necessitates focusing on the relevant and excluding the irrelevant. Encapsulation and prioritization are appropriate for the created world, the world of becoming, since our existence here is sustained by purposeful behavior in the face of physical necessity.

    When we enter into eternity, which the Church kindly seeks to facilitate for us, we have no need of such utilitarian aids. Usefulness is simply irrelevant.

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    But eternity is entered into at every liturgy, when we pray, etc. the Kingdom of God, though not in its fullness, is eternity touching us now. It seems that the Elder Sophrony and St. Silouan are suggesting that saving knowledge is not something we can gain by rational speculation.

    No one should disparage the use of reason for legitimate purposes, as you have noted. But there is only so far it can take us. In the life of Communion with God, theology, as frequently done in the academy, is not a substitute for true knowledge of God (which it is not). As is always stated in Orthodoxy, a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.

  9. Robert Says:

    Father Bless!

    Thank you for your time Fr. Stephen.

    I must take a strong exception to the last paragraph of your response above (and perhaps with the entire post).

    It appears a tension is proposed between reason and true knowledge of God. I must reject this. I suggest, based on yesterday’s dialogue, that no such tension exist – but rather a communion. In Christ the Logos of God, reason and Spirit unite.

    If a tension between reason and true knowledge exists, then we must not be in a one-storey universe, my dear Father.

    If perhaps it is suggested that worldly knowledge -unaided by God’s self revelation in the Faith of the Apostles- if it is suggested that such reason is to be rejected, then I must agree.

    If one who prays is a theologian and reason somehow takes second place (which I hold it does not), then theology is undefined and orthodoxy does not exist.

    True knowledge of God is experienced in spirit, body *and* mind. God has redeemed and restored it all.

    “Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship….God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth.” John 4:22-24

  10. Tracy Says:

    But what kind of reason?

    I was trying to think yesterday about when/where reason might go wrong. If you look at it historically, there is a Scriptural mind (with Semitic categories and patterns of thought), there is a Hellenistic or “western” mind (as in the “Greek foundations of western civilization”), there is a medieval or scholastic mind (“western” in a post-schism sense), there is a “modern” mind (materialistic, secular, scientific), a “post-modern” mind (maybe), and so on. Which of these minds is compatible with, or helpful to go along with, an experience of God? Conversely, which of them seek to substitute themselves for reality — or construct their own versions of reality — in place of God? Fallen human reason easily becomes virulently idolatrous.

    I agree, we are whole creatures, with bodies, minds, souls, hearts, strengths. We have to love with our whole selves. But we are fallen creatures, too. Reason is not neutral here, or exempt from the general state of our human condition. We can’t look to it, supposedly objective and “higher,” to help us rise above.

    And yet, the Fathers make strong claims for reason. They often look to it to help us rise above — or at least, to bridle the passions. But I’m not sure they know the same kind of reason that we do today. They are talking about something else, or a different application.

    So again, what kind of reason?

    Coming from our modern perspective, I guess we need some more analysis (historical or conceptual) to tease out what we’re talking about. Too bad we don’t have a desert father on hand to tell us a parable. A brother came to Abba and asked him, “My mind is always chopping things up into bits and pieces. What should I do?”🙂

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    I do not mean to disparage reason. It has its place. However the reference to “mind” in the Scriptures is not to reason, but the Nous, which is something other than reason, per se.

    Christ is the Logos, but even if translated “reason” then it’s still not quite what we mean in the modern use of the term. There is order, meaning, purpose, etc., and yet it cannot be grasped by reason, per se, at least as we define it in modern terms.

    Reason indeed can and should be redeemed, though, as yet, I rarely encounter a reason that has so been redeemed and healed.

    I’m not sure what the John 4 reference should mean. The use of Spirit and Truth there, as elsewhere in John, are Trinitarian.

    Orthodoxy does use reason and words to express and define doctrine, but those words come at great cost and are the final expression given to years of knowledge and communion and are not arrived at purely by a rational process.

    I do not suggest a tension between reason and knowledge – simply that God comes first and that He must renew all things. I think that we’re probably more in agreement than not. In reason, as I’ve used it, I do mean “worldly knowledge unaided by God’s self revelation” or merely unaided reasoning manipulating ideas (whether they are those of the apostles or Fathers, etc.).

  12. Robert Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    My point is simply this: just as reason can run astray, so can spirituality.

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    Robert,

    Indeed this is so. There are probably more Orthodox texts on spiritual delusion than I could begin to count. And the formal dogma of the Church always remains a fence and a bulwark against which any experience must be measured. I agree wholeheartedly.

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