[July 27, 2013] This was an email to my friend Rod Dreher, which he posted on his blog at The American Conservative. It drew many comments, and my response to them is here as well.
After further conversation with Rod I understood better what I was trying to say. (In practice, try to do those two steps in the opposite order.) I see that my objection is to the custom of purely intellectual theologizing, separated from communion with God. It’s not a particularly original point, for many Orthodox have reflected on the negative effects of Western over-intellectualizing of theology (often pointing to St. Thomas Aquinas as a turning point.) Ongoing intellectualizing of theology is, I believe, less objective and accurate than participants suppose, and much more affected by peer pressure. (I’ll tell a story about that below, at the end.)
But I’m not making a blanket objection to theology. Something like the Nicene Creed, won at great cost, is of great value, not because it’s objectively true (even though it is that), but because it undergirds and nurtures prayer and direct experience of God. All theology should pass that test.
1. Rod, I noticed belatedly your post on this subject and it seemed too late to get in on the discussion. But it is something I’ve been thinking about lately because I feel like I don’t understand what people are talking about. I feel like it is so very different for me.
Primary, for me, is the experience of God’s presence. Right from the start, almost 40 years ago, that electrifying experience, that voice that “speaks with authority,” that’s absolutely primary.
And it is the experience of a person, not a spiritual shimmer or “oneness with the universe.” It has all the complexity and beauty of personality, though it’s clear that what I can encounter is only the very surface of the reality; it’s just, it’s all I can grasp. Anything further would explode me.
Secondary is community, by which I don’t mean my local church, as wonderful and essential as that is. I mean all the other people in the world and through all time who have experienced this same person. When I read their descriptions, I can tell it is the same person. We see different aspects, like someone who meets my dentist in the grocery store sees different aspects, but it is indisputably the same person. Again, that powerful authority, that essence of both life and love, beyond description, beyond comprehension, just resonates across the years. It’s the same person, and when I meet someone who saw him too, even if that person died a thousand years ago, even if that person is in a church with very different theology, I know I have found a brother or sister.
Third is the teaching of the Church. Here’s how I understand that. The Church is the safe place to be. I can safely believe everything the Church teaches. It will not harm me, and in fact it will equip me to grow and grow and have a better and better ability to experience that direct presence. I can see the evidence: others who have accepted the Church’s teachings and followed its ascetic practices grow and grow and grow! The light of Christ sometimes shines through them literally! That’s what I want to follow! It’s not, is the Church right about this or that; it’s, does it work. The Church is a machine designed to do something. Does it work? Absolutely! Just look at all those saints! Let me in there!
So I don’t have to question the Church’s teachings; I’m not interested in questioning them. I think to myself, even if I found out in heaven that this is a little off target or not quite accurate, it’s not like believing it would harm me. It didn’t harm St. Seraphim… So it’s not dangerous, and if I just take it in stride and move on it will bring me more swiftly to my goal—which is more of the direct experience.
I know by experience that Jesus Christ is a very powerful spirit—I know by experience that he is probably the most powerful spirit in the universe. I know by experience he is not a mere human being. He is something beyond that. I see others around the world having the same experience and the same encounter, and their reports echo what I sense. But I can’t know by experience that Christ is the Son of God, or know by experience what the Trinity is.
I see the Church saying that Christ is the Only-Begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages, light of light, true God of true God, begotten, not made…And I think, OK! You know better than I do! I don’t even understand completely what some of those words mean. But I can wholeheartedly trust what the Church teaches, because it is the summary of the community of experience, and it shows the vast company of the saints as the results. The Church’s teaching isn’t an official statement, but the cumulative understanding of all the people who have loved and experienced Jesus through time. All of us is smarter than any of us. My belief in what the Church teaches is on the order of trust, rather than working-it-out-logically-and-concluding-it-is-sound.
Something about myself that kind of puzzles me, though, is that I have real antagonism toward that kind of rationality. I feel like trying to figure it out logically, and deciding whether this or that theological theory is right, is soooooo stupid. I have no respect for it. I feel like it’s delusional, actually. It’s just a children’s game, that they play with long faces and think it amounts to something. And still the universe rolls on and takes no notice.
If it were possible to think our way to theological truth, then all the smart people in the world would end up agreeing. If that kind of truth were available to our minds, then every sincere person who followed it all the way to the end would come to the same realization. But our minds are so much weaker and sillier than we realize.
If it were possible to deduce the essentials of Christianity by reading the Bible by yourself in an attic, then all the sincere people who read the Bible would agree. All of us is smarter than… You need to cling to the community of those who, like you, have had authentic experience of the Lord, not just now but through time and across cultures. You have to follow the thread of what Christians have believed consistently for the longest amount of time, what has been believed by the most people everywhere for the longest time (the Vincentian Canon), and I mean starting right from the Holy Land 2000 years ago. Who could understand the Bible better than those who wrote it? Accept nothing that contradicts the continuous faith that began there and rolls on through the world. What else could be safe? Being smart is such an illusion; we’re trying to draw the universe with a box of 16 crayons. Our brains just can’t do it.
And the practical problem is that there is no edifying failure, when it comes to theologizing; theories just stretch on and on like a rickety tinkertoy, reaching into space, never making contact with reality. And yet people think they’ve done something substantial and reliable. If it were possible to do something reliable that way, then everyone who put their hand to it would finally come to the same conclusion.
I think intellectualizing annoys me because it is the enemy of experience; you cannot experience the presence of God and analyze it at the same time. You can’t analyze anything and experience it simultaneously. So any time spent deliberately theologizing is saying to God, “Bye! I don’t need to be in touch with you for awhile!” And of course we need to be always in touch, always to pray, to pray constantly; the only real wisdom comes from that inner connection. And people who do have that connection—there is a huge overlap where they agree. Where they fall out of agreement is when they try to go a-theorizing, out a ways from the circle, and construct those tinkertoy assertions, and then get huffy and dramatic about them.
I think it’s destructive, too, because it is such a sticky flypaper for pride. People can be just as addicted to cleverness, and verbally humiliating opponents, as to alcohol. It’s an intense and thrilling game, intellectualizing. It presents many opportunities to mock and wound other people. Positive results? Almost nothing accurate, or useful. It’s poisonous.
Sometimes that theoretical, theological work has to be done, because diseased ideas have crept in and people are confused and troubled. Praise God for the Holy Spirit who leads and inspires theologians in such times, in the great Ecumenical Councils and other settings. But the fact that it has to be done at all is a sign something was going wrong.
Since I am founded so insistently on direct experience of God, it’s necessary to say that for safety’s sake you’ve got to stay within a structure of accountability—another aspect of community. Because there is a real devil, and he really does fake things and confuse us in subtle ways. It is absolutely necessary to be in a healthy community and under the prayer-covering and guidance of someone wiser about such things. History is littered with those who followed false experiences of God.
I could probably keep going. I don’t really know why I get so exercised about philosophizing and theologizing. I just feel like it’s a delusional and ultimately poisonous thing.
2. I appreciate the gentleness of responses to the hasty email I sent Rod yesterday morning, which was more intemperate and ranty than measured and precise. Given more time I would have acknowledged many of the objections raised here. (And if you want to continue a conversation, you can email me at email@example.com.)
It began with an attempt to explain why I’m not troubled by doubts, either about my faith or my Church. I hear people talk about doubt all the time, and the exchange on this blog was poignant. But for me doubts come in, and go out the other window. I can see that I’m very different from most people in this, and was thinking out loud, trying to express it; maybe it would help somebody.
After that I got into something else, a life-long irritation I’ve had toward abstractionism. I really don’t know why I feel this way, but I always have, even when I wasn’t a Christian. I was blurting some of that out, but not very coherently; I don’t yet understand why I feel this way. This was an “engage the mind before putting the mouth in gear” situation.
About the Church, I should say that it is not so much a machine (a harsh word choice) as a hospital. It is designed to do something, to make people well. We are not just guilty of sin, we are sick with sin. The Church is where the wisdom and science of healing is found.
The more we’re healed, the more we are filled with Christ. The more we’re filled with Christ, the more love we have for others. The more that love overflows, the more they sense the love of Christ calling them too.
But the Church as an earthly institution is certainly prey to every kind of failing that afflicts mankind. Power, especially, brings temptation. The earthly leadership of the Church is like the administration of that hospital; you hope they are well-chosen and honest, but even a completely corrupt administration could not damage medical science itself.
The Church is many things besides a hospital, it’s many-faceted. It is the Bride of Christ. But we can’t claim to know what that means; St. Paul likened that relationship to marital sex, surprisingly enough, and called it “a great mystery.”
It’s things like that, or what it means to speak of the Father and the Son, that I think we are best off accepting in a simple way, in a childlike way. The further we go in trying to pin exactly what it means, the more likely we are to be wandering, unknowing, in trackless mental wastes.
Funny, but I seem to be making both an apophatic and a kataphatic point at the same time. Kataphatic: Accept it like a child, as simply as you can. Apophatic: Beware of theorizing, because nothing in our worldly experience, of fathers and sons, say, corresponds accurately and sufficiently to the Father and the Son.
(BTW I am not “simple,” but the opposite of “simple” is not “intellectual” but “complicated, crooked, devious, crafty” etc. Which is why I need forgiveness, and healing.)
What we think we know, and the pleasure of expanding such knowledge, can get in the way of deeper comprehension. The only way to know God is directly, but it’s tempting to go tinkering in our mental workshops instead. Because there’s something about just gazing at him and drinking in that presence that we actually don’t look forward to, even after we’ve experienced its sweetness. When you’re there, you never want to leave; when you’ve left, you kinda don’t want to go back. It’s just so different from the way our busy minds usually function, and enjoy functioning. I forget which Church Father said that the things of this world overwhelm us with desire, but we are quickly filled and sated. The things of God do not attract at first, but when experienced are so compelling and intoxicating that they continuously draw us; we are never satisfied.
This science of healing is practical and visibly effective, and not merely “spiritual.” I think this is one reason Eastern Christianity (Orthodoxy) has not been through the theological upheaval and division of Western Christianity. Because it’s expected that the faith has practical application; it’s not simply a contest of ideas. There’s an expectation that faith will do something, and it does it. It’s a regimen of healing, and it works; it doesn’t disappoint, doesn’t frustrate, doesn’t bore. It’s challenging—we’re fasting (keeping a vegan diet) more than half the days of the year. Services are long and, traditionally, we worship standing. But you can actually see the results. That makes a big difference. (The story of St. Seraphim of Sarov and Motovilov is a common example: http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/47867.htm .)
This science works for anyone, regardless of whether you consider yourself a rational or emotional person. It has nothing to do with your cogitating mind or your emotions, but your perception. Your awareness. A prophet who hears the voice of God does so not by thinking or emoting but by listening. This science, preserved and transmitted by the Church, can teach anyone how to get better at such listening. It teaches us how to discipline the mind, quiet the tumult of desires and fears that keep us running all our lives. It’s a gradual process, but steady and continuous.
(This aware and receptive mind, rather than the cogitating and discursive mind, is what the New Testament Greek word “nous” refers to, and quite alters how we understand Scriptures like “He opened their nous to understand the Scriptures” [Luke 24:45], “We have the nous of Christ” [1 Corinthians 2:16], “Be transformed by the renewal of your nous” [Romans 12:2].)
This is what the Orthodox Church means by “salvation:” restored union with God, becoming radiant with his life like a lump of coal (or a Burning Bush) touched by his fire.
I don’t think we know more about theology now than the first Christians did, unlike other sciences. Well, what does theology mean—ideas about God, or this science of prayer, healing, union with God? Orthodox Christians believe that the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, already in the first century mastered this science of prayer. After that, centuries of practice, across multiple cultures, further defined it. That accumulated knowledge provides much guidance, and accountability keeps us safe.
Theology in the more abstract sense has to meet the practical test of whether it’s compatible with increasing holiness. I don’t think we can make the case that our own generation is the most theologically accurate generation that ever lived. If we were, we would all be walking on water. The test of theology is holiness, and we’re just not that much noticeably holier than the martyrs of the early centuries, to pick an example.
The question of how people of other religions fit in is a frequent one. I think where we get confused is in imaging “other religions” as a series of clouds: a Muslim cloud, a Buddhist cloud, etc. In reality, there are only people—people who believe and follow Islam, Buddhism, and so forth. Every one an individual person, created and known by God. Every one in a direct personal relationship with God already, whether they know it or not; a connection deeper than their own knowledge of themselves, a connection of a sort possible only to their Creator. Every one of them beloved and of eternal value.
When they pray to God, their prayers are heard by Jesus, because he (the Trinity) is the only God there is. And he loves them. “He wills all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4).
This means coming to Christ, who is “the truth.” Jesus said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).
To what extent that relationship advances in any individual’s lifetime is not something God has asked me to have an opinion about. I can’t even judge my own progress (1 Corinthians 4:3), much less someone else’s. He assigned me to be a witness (Acts 1:8), not a judge (Matthew 7:1). But he did call us to be witnesses, and to present Christ “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). If he has a plan to save people apart from their accepting Christ as Lord, he hasn’t told us about it. Apparently he’s told us all a servant needs to know.
I come back to—it’s not about ideas, but about a relationship. I met a Christian evangelical missionary to Muslims once and said I thought it would be very hard to present the Christian faith in that context. She said that’s not how conversions happen anyway; 75% of the time, when a Muslim becomes a Christian, it is the result of a dream or a vision. God leaps right over a wall (Psalm 18:29).
A couple of people mentioned St. Thomas Aquinas. Oddly enough, he had an experience at the end of his life that caused him to reevaluate his life’s work. At a liturgy on December 6, 1273, he had an experience of Christ—an overwhelming experience, it seems, but he never described it to anyone.
After that, he stopped writing. His assistant begged him to, but he refused. He said, “I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me.” He died three months later.
Finally, I don’t know what to say about, or to, those who long to experience God’s presence, but never have. I don’t know why it’s easier for some than others. In my case, I was a recent college grad, comfortably contemptuous of Christianity and dabbling in Hinduism, when the undeniable presence of Jesus knocked me flat.
Why me and not someone else? I don’t know. It doesn’t seem fair. I expect it helps, as Jesus said, to ask, seek, and knock—but I wasn’t doing any of those things. I thought Christianity was embarrassing, not lofty and exotic like other religions. Well, he just knocked me flat.
I have so much admiration for those who keep on trying, though their bowl remains empty. I can’t imagine what that is like—what fortitude, what faithfulness, that entails. It’s suffering, isn’t it? Desiring this contact with God, and not receiving it, is suffering.
All I can think is that you must already be experiencing some hint of it, in some way you don’t immediately identify. Think about what people are like who don’t care about God; there are plenty of people like that. If this question haunts you, and you keep returning to the night sky that seems so empty—I believe you are already sensing something, or you wouldn’t keep seeking it. You wouldn’t desire it, if you hadn’t caught a whiff of that intoxicating fragrance. Something is already there. I pray it will get stronger.
Maybe God knows I wouldn’t keep following him if he didn’t keep sprinkling M & Ms on the path. Maybe he knows you have a stronger, deeper heart than mine. My prayer for you is that God will make clearer to you that “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12), provide some manna in your wilderness, and reward your noble, persevering heart.
Funny, when I began writing (very suddenly, in 1989), it was all about social issues. I thought the place to be was the public square, crafting language that could call people to justice. It seemed so urgent and important, and now I see how strangely ineffective most of that was. I begin to think it’s really all about bearing witness—that the only really useful thing I can do (getting back to my preference for practicality) is to tell what happened to me.
Awhile back I had an experience that confirmed my suspicion of theologizing-for-its-own-sake in a way that was almost comical. I was participating in an ecumenical academic conference. When invited to such things I usually tell the host that I’m not an academic and can recommend someone better, but often they still want me.
So I was participating in a panel, when another member, a very old Catholic scholar, said, “What you said in your book, it’s not true.” I wondered what I’d said in which book; from his comments, it was apparently something about the Great Schism and the filioque…but as he went along he was covering a lot of things I actually agreed with, and things I’d never written about, and not coming to any particular point. (He even said something about the filioque that was harsher than anything I’d *ever* written, referring to the “unilateral ecclesiastical arrogance that Rome could introduce a word into a conciliar text”.)
I was racking my brain to figure out which book he was talking about, and what I might have said there, as the most likely books were over ten years old. I kept jotting notes on what he was saying, hoping to piece it together later. I took what he said seriously. I never want to give offense unintentionally. If I’m going to have to give offense, I want it to be well thought through.
He ended by fixing me with a bold stare and pronouncing, “History is not confessional propaganda masquerading as history.” And the room burst into applause. I looked up, shocked. A portion of the audience composed of Catholic seminarians were laughing and clapping with delight.
I talked to the event host later, and he explained that they like to see this aged professor really zing somebody; they like to egg him on. But, I said, what he’d said didn’t actually make sense. It didn’t correspond to anything I’d written, and it didn’t even hang together as a series of thoughts. Over the phone I heard a shrug.
So that’s why I say it confirmed my lack of enthusiasm for pure-theory theology. Those audience members weren’t applauding the old professor’s intellectual insight or rigor. They were rewarding the sizzle of confrontation. It’s the fight that’s thrilling, not the logical purity. This is what happens when theology gets too far disconnected from prayer, and becomes a sport in its own right. People don’t even realize how spiritually unhealthy it is.