I am not trying to be cute in the title of this post – but I wanted something that might interest browsers in reading. I have stated a number times across my writings that we cannot be argued into the Kingdom of God, nor, indeed is argumentation part of the salvation process. Argument can be preparatory – reason is not without value – but argumentation is quite often devoid of reason.
I offer a short quote from St. Gregory Palamas:
Do you now understand that in place of the intellect, the eyes and ears, they [the hesychasts] acquire the incomprehensible Spirit and by Him hear, see and comprehend? For if all their intellectual activity has stopped, how could the angels and angelic men see God except by the power of the Spirit? This is why their vision is not a sensation, since they do not receive it through the senses; nor is it intellection, since they do not find it through thought or the knowledge that comes thereby, but after the cessation of all mental activity. It is not, therefore, the product of either imagination or reason; it is neither an opinion nor a conclusion reached by syllogistic argument (Triads, 35).
St. Gregory was speaking most particularly about the monks of Mt. Athos (the Hesychasts), but also about what is and must be normative for the Orthodox Christian life. His point was that what it means to be a Christian is to actually know God to one degree or another – not as an idea or an opinion – but inwardly, truly, hypostatically (I use this in place of “personally” for the moment).
The great debate which drew St. Gregory from his seclusion on Mt. Athos was the contention by Barlaam the Calabrian that all knowledge of God was through Scripture and reason – that ultimately we were only able to affirm by faith the teaching of the Church.
St. Gregory was not only a giant of the spiritual life, but also well accomplished in philosophy. He was able to refute Barlaam through the Fathers as well as the experience of the Church. For St. Gregory, the teaching on the knowing of the unknowable God, is the very heart of the Christian life.
Gregory appeals to the one experience that is real: “’the complete and unadulterated existence in us of Jesus.’” Meyendorff (the late John Meyendorff of St. Vladimir’s) states, “The presence of God in us is therefore a personal existence and it excludes all definition of the divine Being in the context of an essentialist philosophy.” (From Meyendorff’s A Study of Gregory Palamas).
The goal of the Christian life is union with God, or in the technical language of the Church, divinization. All that we do as Christians has this goal before it.
It is not without significance that when St. Gregory was canonized (less than 10 years after his death), his feast day was established, a day to remember him as saint, but also the Second Sunday of Great Lent was declared as the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, placing that feast just after the Sunday of Orthodoxy, in which the Orthodox faith as found in the Councils is proclaimed (Gregory’s teachings were included in the “Tomos of Orthodoxy,” the official proclamation of Orthodox belief).
Setting the Feast in Lent also emphasizes the purpose for the ascetical activities we undertake doing the Lenten season. Our fasting, our prayer, our giving of alms, are all directed towards the true knowledge of God – a knowledge that, though transcendent, nevertheless carries us with it into the transcendent life of the true God.
In today’s Christian atmosphere, this places the Orthodox at something of a disadvantage. Other Christians offer teachings that are systems of reason, and engage in techniques honed from the fine art of modern marketing. Orthodoxy must proclaim these things as deviations from the true faith. Fideism, the belief that we can only know God by faith is a serious distortion of the Scriptural teaching on faith. Faith is not a subset of intellection, but, in the words of Vladimir Lossky, an “organ of perception.” To “walk by faith and not by sight” is not to walk about as if our eyes were closed. It is to live life in such a way that the remembrance of God is constantly before us, and the world as we know it in Him takes precedence over all else.
The gospel as proclaimed by the Orthodox Church is that the risen Christ may indeed be known and may be known to dwell in us. Every Liturgy, every prayer of the Church, every sacrament, exists only to be the place where we know God. Thus the Scriptures refer to the Church as the Body of Christ, the Fulness of Him that filleth all in all, the Pillar and Ground of Truth.
Such titles sound outrageously boastful to the ears of most Christians. The ignorance inherent in fideism relativizes every claim to truth. Such Christians are inherently ecumenical because they do not think anyone knows any more than anyone else.
Orthodoxy, in its refusal to participate in such ecumenical exercises, appears aloof and arrogant, when in fact it is only seeking to preserve the treasure that was given to it and preserved faithfully for two millennia.
The task for Orthodox Christians throughout Great Lent and at all times is quite simple and straightforward: know God.