Orthodox Distinctions

It is common to answer the question “What makes Orthodox Christianity different?” by giving a list of particulars:

  1. We have bishops, but not a pope
  2. Our priests are married
  3. We are the Church that gave you the Bible

However, I find that such lists are not as useful as looking at the assumptions behind these issues.  Orthodox do not necessarily have different assumptions, but the emphasis is often placed differently.  For example, all churches struggle with how physical reality relates to spiritual reality, especially when it comes to sacraments.  Are these realms totally separated with God being “up there” and we exist “down here”, or do we inter-penetrate as a single reality?  Are sacraments merely a sign that ‘points to’ something in another reality, or does the spiritual replaces the physical in all but appearance (transubstantiation), or something else?  Do the sacraments spiritually lift us up to heaven, or does Christ come down to be present in the Eucharist?  All of these are ways we struggle to understand the relation of spirit and matter, and discussions about icons, miracles, relics and sacraments are based on our underlying assumptions even if we are not consciously aware of making these assumptions.

Taking this approach, I see two main areas where Eastern Orthodox tend to be diverge  from other more Western Christians:

  1. How we “do” theology
  2. How we understand salvation

Before getting into details, I first want to stress that this is not an absolute difference; the same theological issues are found in almost all Christian thinking, but Orthodox tend to emphasis different perspectives.

Doing Theology

In the East, theology is an attempt to explain experience; it is not a philosophical exercise through which truth is reasoned.  It is less like philosophy and more like science where experience is modeled (theologized) and understanding of the model is validated against experience.  The East follows the Patristic Fathers who have a continuity with the prophets and apostles in sharing the same experience of God.  A person opens themselves to the experience of God by purifying oneself from the passions (freeing oneself from vices and acquiring virtues), then experiencing illumination and enlightenment – encountering the uncreated light of God.  The Patristic Fathers differ from each other in using the the language of their particular time to express a common experience.  For all of them, it is this process of sanctification and purification of the ‘nous’ that makes one a theologian.

After the 7th Ecumenical Council (787) the West started departing from Patristic theology and moved toward scholastic theology (particularly after the founding of the University of Paris around 1208).  The scholastic methodology believed in the rational – human wisdom was sufficient to explore the natural world (physics), and the same methodology was extended to God (meta-physics).  This methodology dominated Western theology till the time of the reformation; and even then the basic questions did not change (though there were different answers.  It was not till Kierkegaard that the West started asking new theological questions (but this was limited to the more liberal streams of theology).

This difference in methodologies can be seen in atonement theology (why Christ died for our sins).  Gregory of Nazianzis in the East understands that the normal definition of ‘ransom’ means a payment to someone, but he cannot reason how Christ’s death is a payment to anyone (Matthew 20:28);  either to Satan or to God the Father.  While he develops a ‘rescue’ model of redemption, it is not penal substitution; ultimately he sees it as a mystery which cannot be fathomed.  This is much different from the later Western scholastics like Anselm of Canterbury who envisions God as a middle-ages king who’s dignity has been offended (by our sin) and requires ‘satisfaction’ in order to be appeased , and works out how this transaction is transacted. A significant shift has taken place here, between theology constrained by the experience of God’s love and leaving what is not understood to mystery; and a theology that wants everything in its logical place.

This difference is at the root of the controversy between Gregory of Palamas and Barlam.  Palamas is defending the illiterate monks on Mt Athos who claim an imminent knowledge God (even though they cannot explain it); and Barlam who takes an Aristotilian approach and claims no one cannot directly know the transcendent God, as the highest anyone can achieve is the contemplation of the intellectual concepts about God (a position held by Aristotle), in addition to which these monks are too illiterate to understand the concepts.  While these monks may not have been able to explain what they were doing (‘doing theology’), they were achieving the goal of knowing God.

Theology in this sense is more of a scientific process than philosophy.  This is the creating of mental models to abstract and explain a phenomena.  The models help to explore and understand new areas of study.  The danger is to confuse the model with reality, or to trust the model without verification; which will lead one into error or heresy.  The history of science has many such examples: for a long time there was a search for ‘aether‘, the substance in space that propagated light waves.  Since light exhibited the characteristics of waves, and waves needed some medium through which they could move; therefore there had to be  medium in space (other than vacuum) in order for light from the sun and stars to be seen on earth.  It was only when light was understood as photons that science realized light could travel in a vacuum, and there was no need for aether.  This is what we find in the early Ecumenical Councils, the heresies were logical truths; but taken to the extreme of denying other truths – ie. if there is one God, then Jesus cannot be fully god, along with the Father.  The theology of the councils was not accepted because it was logical, but because the theology match the experience of knowing God.

When the Church Fathers talk about God being ‘trinity’ and are describing the distinctions between God’s essence and personhood,  they are not saying this is what God ‘is’ but what God is ‘like’; they are giving us a model.  They are trying to make sense of Judeao-Christian monotheism, while also experiencing Jesus (and the Spirit) as claiming divine prerogatives.  They are pointing toward something that is beyond full comprehension, but capable of being faithfully (but not exhaustively) modeled.  The model is accurate but limited; hence why all the negative language in theology (apophatic theology): one God but not three Gods.  They are giving their logical understanding, and also what must not be logically concluded.  The end result is not a philosophical understanding but worship and mystery.

Different Emphasis

East and West both agree that the creator God made a good creation, but somehow (something having to do with Adam, Eve, Satan and some fruit) things went terribly wrong.  Both East and West agree theologically that there was a Fall, but we have different views regarding the consequences, particularly the nature of death.  Augustine interpreted Genesis 2:17 as “on the day that you eat of it I will kill you”.  Death was not a direct consequences of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, but a judicial punishment dispensed by God.  This interpretation, that death is a punishment from God became the dominant understanding in the West (“original sin”), as witnessed by both the Presbyterian Westminster Confession (question 28) and by the Catholic Baltimore Catechism (question 253).

There is an older view, still held by the Eastern Church, that death and corruption were ‘natural’ consequences of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, they cut themselves off from the source of life; and if permanent, Satan would have succeeded in destroying God’s creation.  God’s declaration “you will die” was a statement of fact, like saying “If you hit your thumb with a hammer, it will hurt”; rather than a declaration of what God would do.

These two different interpretations represent two different major paradigms about the fall and salvation: one forensic or legal, and the other medical.  There are many paradigms about salvation (washing, adoption, faith, lost and found, light and dark), but these two are the predominant themes.  To not understand which frame of reference someone is using can (and has) lead to major confusion.  To mix legal and medical paradigms is like asking a lawyer for an injunction against a viral illness, or to ask a doctor for medication to cure a law suite; the statement is not wrong, but it doesn’t make logical sense.  Understanding the paradigms is important, and they influence patterns of thinking and behavior.

Both East and West agree that Jesus’s suffering, death and resurrection are the means of our salvation (primarily defined as forgiveness); but there is significant difference in understanding how this is brought about, and the emphasis on which of these actions is most significant.  The Scholastics in the West used feudal society as their primary model, with a hierarchy of Kings, Barons and peasants.  The emphasis was on the class hierarchy, with the worst ‘sin’ being to offend the king by stepping out of one’s place (see Lucifer’s sin in Isaiah 14:12..).  In a legal paradigm, the focus of change is with the court (judge), the judge is the one who declares guilt or innocence; the accused party is basically a passive by-stander to the process.  If God (or his justice, honor or dignity) has been offended and invoked the punishment, then it is God who needs to change to withdraw the punishment and forgive us.  This assumption frames the major discussions about salvation, whether we can do anything to influence God’s decision (salvation by ‘works’) or whether Christ alone is able to ‘satisfy’ God and we passively receive the benefit (salvation by ‘faith’).  Both Catholics and Protestants agree that Jesus satisfied God the Father, but they have different emphasis of what this is.  Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ illustrates the classic Catholic position that it is the suffering of Christ that appeases the wrath of God.  The Reformed position focuses more on Christ’s death, that he is the sacrificial lamb who atones for our sins and satisfies God’s justice.  In both cases there is an external righteousness (how God perceives us), and no actual change to us.  The resurrection is little more than a footnote, it barely appears in Mel Gibson’s movie, and some evangelicals consider the resurrection little more than an apologetic that demonstrated God the Father was satisfied with Jesus’ sacrifice.

The Eastern approach is primarily medical, with God being a loving Father or loving physician.  We are ‘sick unto death’ and in need of a cure which will restore us to life.  God is not a judge who is in opposition to us, but a loving physician who seeks our healing.  Though God has to change (incarnation, death and resurrection) there is never a change in God’s attitude – he is always and only loving and caring for us.  The problem is within us, we are sick with death and in need of a cure and healing.  Christ dies to enter into death (hades) so that the immortal God can destroy death once and for all by means of the resurrection.  This is most clearly heard in the Eastern Paschal (Easter) service, where over and over the phrase is shouted out: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death; and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life.”  We are the ones who are fundamentally changed, receiving resurrection, and in need of uniting ourselves with Christ to have his life in us.

In this medical paradigm, the discussion of ‘faith’ vs ‘works’ has no place; there is no need to persuade God to change his attitude, and no one thinks that we can overcome death by our actions.  Justification (the receiving of spiritual life) can only be an act of faith, accepting the cure that Christ has accomplished.  The medical paradigm has further consequences though, the goal is not simply ‘life’ but a full restoration to ‘health’ (theosis, or becoming like God).  Just as someone who has had a major illness needs strengthening and recovery after the disease has been wiped out, so too we need ‘therapy’ after death has been cured – this is the role of sanctification and the spiritual life.  Ascetical efforts (prayer, fasting, vigils, charity) are the ‘physical therapy’  by which we overcome our hypochondriacal tendencies to live a sick lifestyle and learn to become like Christ.  This is the setting aside of vices (pride, greed, anger, ..) and acquiring virtues (humility, charity, patience and love).  The sacraments (especially the Eucharistic body and blood of Christ) are the spiritual food that sustains us and infuses us with Christ.  These ascetical practices are to change ourselves, it is only when mistakenly placed in the context of a legal paradigm that  they are thought of as ‘works righteousness’ or attempts to appease God.

The East agrees with Evangelicals that justification is by faith, though they often forget this.  Three times in the baptismal service the candidate is asked “Do you believe in Christ?” (to which the affirmative is expected), and three times it is declared “You have been justified in Christ”.  Because  most Orthodox are baptized as infants, they spend their lives focusing on sanctification and forget that they have received justification.  Orthodox would also say that ‘faith without works is dead’ (James 2:26) and that we are saved by faith and works; but this is because Eastern Orthodox think of salvation as including both justification and sanctification (and often don’t make a distinction between the two).

There are more similarities between the East and West than differences, but the different approach to theology, and the difference of paradigms means that we ask different questions with different outcomes.


Science and Religion

Whether you follow Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson or the fundamentalist creationists; the debate of science and religion still goes on, though most people seem to believe we have gotten beyond it (and science won).  If so, I believe it is a Pyrrhic victory.  I am not sure how much religion needs science, but I believe science is philosophically dependent on Christianity.  Even so, there are major problems reconciling science and religion, to which I think the best option is to suspend judgment.

Having said that science needs a Judaeo-Christian world view, I do not deny the scientific discoveries made by the Arabs, Chinese and other cultures, or the modern advancements of science made by people who deny religion; but I believe scientific discoveries are dependent on some basic philosophical assumptions that are unique to the Judaeo-Christian world view.  Among these assumptions are that there is a physical universe (it is not a dream or illusion), it has meaning and purpose (else why explore it?) and we have free will so we can reason.

Conflict of Science and Scripture

There is clearly a difficulty with reconciling the early books of the Bible with the discoveries of fossils, DNA studies and astronomy.  The long timeline that these scientific discoveries need seems to not fit with short chronology of Scripture.  Working back through the Old Testament genealogies show no break, and there is no literary evidence that the later people like David and Solomon are ‘history’, while the earlier people like Noah or Adam are ‘mythology’; Jesus himself seems to affirm their historicity, as also does Paul.  While the genealogies are a difficulty, I do not see them as the real problem, the is no need to follow Bishop Ussher and insist on a recent creation (6 pm on 22 October 4004) even some Church Fathers like St. Basil did not insist on literal ‘days’ for the creation.

If we are going to pick problems between science and religion, I think there is an even bigger one: Death.  First, I am not sure there is a clear definition/understanding of exactly what death means.  How could Adam and Eve eat plants without the plants dying (Genesis 1:29), and how can the same happen after the resurrection (Revelation 22:2)?  It does seem that there is a rather common meaning most of the time where the genealogies state “and he died” (Genesis 5), implying the ceasing of bodily function and decay; but it is difficult to consistently apply this to plants (which have similar cellular function at this level) if they are consumed both before the fall and after the resurrection.  I feel that something significant is missing here.  Death is the real Biblical problem of the Fall, somehow the whole creation underwent a radical change at a historical point in time in Adam’s life. On the other hand, evolution is founded on death; if organisms don’t die then there is no “survival of the fittest” (to reference an old paradigm); evolution is based on the premise that death is ‘natural’ and has always been a part of life.

The Self-destructiveness of Science

If religion has problems with science, I find that science has problems with itself; if followed to its conclusion, it destroys meaning, freedom and values.   Without meaning, science is pointless, without freedom science is irrational and impossible, without values science can do anything (or nothing).

Loss of Meaning

Current cosmology predicts that the cosmos will either continue to expand till all the stars burn out and leave nothing but cold cinders floating in space, or collapse into a giant black hole.  Whatever we do in the meantime is insignificant as to changing this fate.  Without significance, we have no meaning.

As one person put it after a cosmology lecture: “I just need to keep short term goals”.  If we cannot get off of this planet and to another solar system, at some point the sun will expand, then burn up and consume the earth.  Longer term prospects are no beter.  If there is not eternal significant to our actions; and everything is just time, chance and matter, then we are all just playing rather absurd games.  Whether it is the game of ‘saving whales’, ‘stopping global warming’ or making a billion dollars, it is no different than striving to win a Monopoly game or Pokemon Go.  These are all in the technical sense just ‘games’ with a set of artificial goals and rules that we play for the enjoyment of playing, because the game has no larger purpose.  Whether I develop nuclear energy, create a nuclear holocaust or oppose nuclear development; it is all just a game that has no effect on the final end.  In this context, Albert Camus is right, the only real philosophical issue is suicide.

Loss of Freedom

If we do not have freedom, we cannot make choices based on reason, and hence we cannot logically work through scientific problems.  If our thinking is genetically or psychologically determined then we can never reason our way to ‘truth’.  Watson and Crick, the early pioneers of discovering DNA saw genetics as leading to determinism; the psychologist B.F. Skinner argued that we are psychologically determined; and more recently Steven Wolfram (A New Kind of Science) sees the mathematics behind everything as being fundamentally deterministic.  These are well written arguments, but it is rather amusing that they are trying to use logical persuasion to convince us that we are not ultimately logical or reasonable, since we have no freedom.  I believe these people have not discovered a truth about reality (it is all deterministic), but a truth about science; when we are left with only mathematics and particulars, determinism is the only logical conclusion.

Loss of Values

If the universe is a product of time, chance and the impersonal; then what we have now is what we have always had.  Any discussion of what ‘should be’ or ‘ought to be’ implies that there is a goal or purpose to the universe (and it is not chance), or that the universe at some point has changed and is no longer what it ‘should be’.  Without a historical fall (a change from what it ‘should’ be) we cannot say that something is right (‘should’ be) or wrong (should not be), at most we are left with the Marquis de Sade‘s statement “what is, is right” (or more properly “what is, is”).  We may not emotionally like the Marquis’ conclusions, but logically they are hard to argue if we accept his assumptions.  Dostoevsky understood the Marquis when he said “if god does not exist, everything is permitted”.

The pursuit of science is the pursuit of paradigms, and the paradigm questions people ask are driven by the values (goals) that are pursued.  Does one study a virus to learn how to cure it or turn it into a biological weapon?  Without values, science does not stop, but it can do anything.  It will however be eroded.  If one is pursuing a scientific career, then it is permitted to lie, cheat and falsify data to get ahead; there is no commitment to scientific integrity if everything is permitted and personal career goals are more important than the ‘advancement’ of science.

Suspended Judgment

One of the points I like about Thomas Kuhn’s The Nature of Scientific Revolution is the need to both be logical and keep grounded in facts, while at the same time being willing to suspend judgment and ignore certain facts.  This is necessary because every paradigm (at least in its early stages) has facts and arguments that seem to falsify it.  Ultimately paradigms require a degree of faith.  Paradigms are also not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but more or less useful.  The bigger paradigms the bigger the challenge.

I retired working at Monsanto, a company steeped in genetics research; most of the work required assuming genetic evolution.  I found myself trusting the paradigms of evolution in order to understand the development of corn and how the plant we know today likely came from a Mexican grass.  When I first started at Monsanto I read up on genetics; I clearly remember a book saying that each gene produces one protean, and that chromosomes are full of ‘junk DNA’, DNA sequences between genes that were evolutionary byproducts with no purpose.  In a few years it was found that most creatures have more proteins than genes, and the ‘junk DNA’ functioned as regulators and modifiers.  The discovery of the ‘Round-Up ready gene’ was a fluke (equivalent of winning the lottery), but the paradigm assumptions were that genetics was fairly simple and it would not take long to find another controlling gene (drought tolerance, increased yield, …) that would be the next break-through (and stock enhancer).  Biases (desire for quick stock returns) prejudice looking for simple solutions and avoiding harder, more complicated solutions (ie expensive fundamental research).  I learned that paradigms usually end up being more (much more) complicated than what anyone originally imagined.  Sometimes a ‘wrong’ paradigm like Newton’s physics can trigger a long run of development (the Industrial Revolution), but at other times the simple solution has a short life.

Working with paradigms (especially scientific ones) requires a split mind, a willingness to be optimistic enough to trust the paradigm to produce results; but enough doubt to follow the facts that may show it wrong.  Most scientists recognize that the ‘standard model’ is incomplete and doesn’t reconcile with gravity.  They know it is flawed, but it is still useful enough to achieve significant results.  It is such a split mind, and suspension of judgment (certainty of truth and falsehood) that is needed for holding science and religion together.  For scripture, I can trust the major paradigms (decisions of the Ecumenical Councils) as they are backed up by spiritual experience (knowing God), without having to be equally dogmatic about other issues, like the chronological history of early Genesis.  I can believe ‘that’ there are meaning and values (a Fall and Resurrection) without knowing the details of ‘how’.  This gives me the foundation for pursuing science where I can use evolution as a working paradigm without having to work out the details of origins.  Most modern scientists recognize that Most scientific research is in such small, restricted specializations that the large paradigms have little consequence; as evidenced by how little impact changes to ‘string theory’, ‘dark matter’ and the like have to the advancement of computers, genetics and the building of bridges.

This stance of a split mind requires a suspension of judgment, an admission of not knowing it all, and a willingness to affirm things that for all practical purposes seem to contradict each other, and not asking questions that are interesting but irrelevant (“did Adam name the dinosaurs?”).  It is the rush to judgment, and a lack of faith and humility, that leads to the conflict of science and religion – an insistence that one side has all the right ‘facts’ and a final judgment can be declared.

I may be able to get buy without science as a monk caught up in hesychia in a quiet cell, but it is difficult to be a scientist without meaning, freedom and values.


Philosophy and Reason

In Indian mythology, the Hindu god Vishnu lies asleep in a dream state on the serpent Adisesha Ananta (who is time without beginning or end).  This substance of this dream is what we think of as creation, the universe; all exists within the dream, and when Vishnu wakes up, one cycle of the creation will cease to exist.  What we think of as ‘reality’ is only illusory and undirected, and will in time evaporate as a dream does when one awakes.

This story represents a basic philosophy of reality, how we know things and know what is ‘real’.  While we may not formally think through our philosophies (or world views), or even be aware that we have one, our frameworks direct the basic ways that we think and live.  From a Hindu perspective it is an error to get caught up thinking that the substance of the dream is real, or that struggling with suffering (or joy) in the dream has any significance.  If this really is just a dream, then the best that we can do is to stop the spontaneous activity of the mind and achieve a state of stillness; then we will realize we are only a part of the calmly dreaming Vishnu, and no longer be caught up in the illusions of the dream, which are neither logical nor rational.

While Hindu philosophy represents one philosophy, there are two other systems that are more familiar to us, one comes out of a Hebrew mindset, and still characterizes the Eastern Christian Church, while the other comes from the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and through blending with the Hebrew ideas has influenced most Western thinking (both Christian and secular).

Christianity is not derived from philosophy, but Christian theology has been called the Queen of Philosophy.  They both share a common interest in fundamental problem like: how do we know (epistemology), problems of good and evil, the meaning of life (beyond 42).  The Church has always been willing to engage philosophy (ie Paul at the Aeropagus) and will often use philosophical frameworks to express Christian thought, but it has been less willing to embrace philosophical systems as being Christian (Thomas Aquinas’ use of Aristotle being a counter example).

These  issues of philosophy are important.  If we only exist as part of a dream, they why be concerned about what will happen: ecology, economics, social justice, ….?  At some point the dreamer will wake up, and all of ‘this’ will disappear. On the other hand, if this is a real existence, then these issues may be of vital concern.

Before getting into the details of Eastern Christian thinking, I first want to digress a bit into Western thought, with which many people will find themselves more familiar.

Western Philosophy

Western thinking is grounded in the ideas of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle.  While they disagreed about some points (particularly the emphasis on universals verses particulars), they had the same basic set of assumptions:

  • The goal of philosophy is to create a unified field of knowledge: physics (the physical universe), math and meta-physics (values and meaning) can logically be placed together into a unified system.
  • Human reason is sufficient to achieve this goal.  Through logical thinking and observing it is possible to create an ‘encyclopedia’ of all knowledge.
  • A fundamental rule of logic is non-contradiction: A does not equal -A (its opposite).
  • They both agreed on ‘Aristotilian realism’, the assumption that there is something ‘out there’ and we do not exist within our mind or in someone’s dream (or computer memory as in The Matrix).

These four assumptions generally held up until the time of Kant and Hagel (18th century).  While skeptics would at times question the existence of ‘reality’, this was usually considered a philosophical ‘dead end’.  Kant changed the nature of philosophy, believing it was impossible to reconcile physics (particulars) and meta-physics (universals).  He introduced the idea that meaning and values were irrational, and thus one could only logically reason over physics (particulars).  Hagel in turn abandoned the rule of non-contradiction and introduced the logic of ‘synthesis’; a thesis (A) and an antithesis (-A) come together to form a new thesis.

All main line philosophy since this time follow these new assumptions.  This is seen in Marx where the bourgeoisie (capitalists) and proletariat (working class) come together (in revolution) to form the classless society.  Similar lines of thinking are behind the philosophies of Freud and Nietzsche.

Christianity has been willing to engage with philosophy (both classical and modern) because there is a sharing of the goals (unified knowledge), and at least a partial sharing of many of the assumptions.  We believe in reason and thinking. The Fathers refer to mankind as ‘reason endowed sheep’.  God calls us to reason (Isaiah 1:18), and Jesus in the parables assumes we reason through issues (Luke 14:28).  In addition, engaging in philosophy has been  a way to speak to the culture (ie Paul at the Aeropagus, Acts 17)

Limits of Philosophy (and Reason)

While Christianity has engaged philosophy, there seems to have always been a boundary to it; though defining that boundary has not always been easy.  In the West, Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics used Aristotle as a foundation for theological thinking; assuming that human reason was not fallen and that ‘natural theology’ would allow a person to reason all the truths of God apart from revelation.  Meanwhile, in the East, the proclamation read in Orthodox Churches on the Sunday of Orthodoxy actually condemns Greek philosophy.

From a Christian perspective, there are four problems with relying upon reason:

  1. Reason is quantitatively limited by the available facts
  2. Reason is qualitatively limited
  3. We understand things via paradigms, not just facts and reason
  4. Our reasoning is “fallen”

Quantitative Limits:

We cannot know everything.  As God says to Job (Job 4) Where were you on the day that I made the universe?.  Without all the facts we are prone to make the wrong starting assumptions, which will lead our reasoning astray.

Qualitative Limits:

Most of our knowledge comes through analogy and abstraction.  Since apart from revelation we are limited to the created universe, we cannot use analogy and abstraction of the created universe to make conclusions about the uncreated God.  While we call God ‘Father’, and there are some analogical similarities between human fathers and God; though it is safe to say that human fathers are (should be) analogous to God, we can easily get into trouble when anthropomorphizing God.  This was the problem of Anselm of Canterbury, he assumed that God was like a middle ages king who took offense at being slighted and demanded satisfaction in return (thus the theology of ‘satisfaction’ atonement).


Science, and most of our decisions are not a matter of facts and reason; it is a more complex process of paradigms and models (see The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), facts are important, but there are commitments and biases and many other factors.  The disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13) had the facts, “we thought (past tense) this was the messiah”, and it is the third day and the women say they have seen Jesus; but like any rational Roman or Jew of that time knew – a dead messiah was a failed messiah.  Jesus does not dispute the facts with them, but gives them a new paradigm – “beginning with the scriptures (which the disciples knew) … this must come to pass”.  They were ready for a messiah who would destroy Rome, who would restore Israel and a god whose glory would return to the Temple; but they had not conceived a paradigm where a messiah would destroy the power behind Rome and the problems of Israel – who would destroy death itself.

Effects of the Fall:

Knowing which facts to follow, and figuring out the right paradigm (model) is difficult enough when we are clear headed in our thinking; but the Fathers maintain that few, if any of us, are clear headed.  We are suppose to be a unity of will, desire and reason; but instead we are fragmented and conflicted.  Our desires and passions cloud our thinking, leading us down false lines of logic, or causing us to give up on logic.  We see this playing out at the trial of Jesus (Luke 23): Pilate, who claims that he represents the authority and power of Ceaser cowers to the will of the mob; and the Jews who claim to be faithful to Moses (who defied Egypt) cower to Rome in saying that they “have no king but Ceaser”.  They are still thinking reasonably, but their logic is driven by fear.

Toward an Alternative Approach

Gregory Nazianzus is willing to to limit the use of reason and live with mystery – those things which are trans-rational (not irrational).  To deny a philosophy of rationalism is not to deny reason, but to see a need to contextualize it more closely.  It is similar to replacing Newtonian physics with relativity and quantum mechanics.  On a pure theoretical level, Newtonian physics are wrong; but people still use it for everyday mechanics where motions are much slower than the speed of light, it is only at very small scales (sub atomic) and very large scales (astrophysics) that the flaws in the theory become evident.  So to with reason; for much of our daily activity reason is useful and necessary, but when we push reason to deal with God, and his interactions with the creation, we are beyond the scope of reason’s ability.

Need for Healing

From John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent, to the more modern writings of Hierotheo Vlachos,  there has been a consistent teaching in the East on the need to sanctify the whole person, to re-integrate the mind, desires and will into a unified “nous”.  It is only then that the ‘eye of the soul’ can see clearly and potentially know God.

Rooted in Mystery

Christian thinking must start with mystery: Trinity, Incarnation and sacraments.  These are things that are paradoxes which fundamentally transcend reason; things that appear to almost be contradictory thesis and antithesis (A and -A) must both be affirmed as true: God is one essence and at the same time three people; Christ is fully God and fully man; the Eucharist is wine and the body of Christ.  If we understand this, we see that most critical issues are rooted in paradox and involve multiple lines of reason that can appear to be contradictory.  We are to feed the poor and hungry, but also hold people accountable and responsible.  We are to be just, but also forgiving.

Logic, even when done properly, cannot lead us to truth because it will often lead us to multiple (contradictory) truths.  This was the tension between Plato and Aristotle, they both needed universals and particulars, but reached logically contradictory views on which should be the starting point.l  We need to reason through our decisions: social, economic and political; but realize that there is rarely a single logical conclusion.  Logic can point us to multiple ‘correct’ results, but cannot tell us which one to choose.  Such an approach means that at any given moment any decision will likely be a compromise between conflicting positions – finding a consensus on what is the most loving and faithful action at this moment (which may be different a moment from now).  Paul in one letter tells the Corinthian church expel an immoral member, and in the next letter tells them to embrace him (I & II Corinthians).

Need for Revelation

From the previous two points, this means that ultimately reason will fail us at one level or another.  If we cannot depend upon ourselves, then we must look for revelation – guidance from outside, from the Holy Spirit.  This too can be complex and difficult.  At times this is the “being of one mind” where we talk over and work through issues as a group, trusting that the Holy Spirit is working through us; at times it is trusting that God is working through the hierarchy of bishops and priests; and at times it is God giving direct revelation, either through events and thoughts or at times by propositional statements of angels, saints or God himself.

We see this coming together in the saints, at times with quite opposite manifestations.  It can all come together in someone like Gregory Palamas, who lived the ascetic life and purified his heart, and knew God; who then went on to use his intellect to govern the Church as a bishop and articulate the theology of this experience.  At other times it is expressed in the “fools for Christ” who teach theology through their lives, abandoning all semblance of worldly reason and to follow the will of God.


Christianity agrees with the main philosophical assumptions, but with qualifications.

We seek a unified understanding of physics and meta-physics, but this is rooted in the assumption that the Triune God is unified within himself (God is both universal and particular), and that his creation reflects his nature, it was made orderly and with design.  Because we have a fundamentally good creation, we can exploring creation is as appropriate way of knowing and understanding God (the creator).

While reason is a tool, facts and reason are not sufficient for knowledge and discovery; they require a process of model building and paradigms.  Even model building will often lead us to contradictory ‘right’ conclusions.  In part Hagel was right, we must ultimately give up the logic of non-contradiction; but unlike Hagel, we don’t abandon non-contradiction, but move beyond it.  The ultimate need is not for new logic, but a move beyond logic.  As we come nearer to God (whom we are always in the presence of) language and reason cease to function.  Choices need to be made based on love, as well as being revealed by the Holy Spirit.  We thus find two non-rational modes of being in the presence of God: the language of worship, or the silence of the ascetics.

Because we believe in the Creator God, we believe that there is a real, fundamentally good, creation that is apart from God.  It is neither an emanation  of his being, nor an illusion or dream; but has direction and purpose.  To a degree we agree with Aristotilian realism, but we differ in that the cosmos does not exist on its own, but only in dependence and in the larger context of God.  Unlike Aristotle, we do not believe the creation can be understood  in isolation, by itself.  Humanity is in the image of God and thus cannot be reduced to being ‘merely human’, what can be reduced to science and numbers; what is ‘merely human’ is less than human’.

1) For an interesting critique of the cycles of philosophy, see Barry Smith and what he says about Franz Brentano (whom he translated into English).

2) Francis Schaeffer gives a simple intro to the history of philosophy in Escape from Reason; it is rather broad brush and critical, but I think he has a good framework.

We are all Universalists

In another post I wrote on the traditional understanding of Universalism – that everyone is eventually reconciled to God, but there is another definition of universalism that I do not hear spoken of (at least in these terms) which I am convinced that all Christians believe. From my reformed seminary instruction, I was taught that salvation consisted of three things:

  • Justification
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

There is however a fourth category that has been left out – Resurrection.  Everyone will experience a bodily resurrection and have eternal existence.   While we know the body dies, we must remember that the soul is not eternal, in and of itself, we are not Platonists who believe in a self-existing immortal soul.  Without the resurrection we would cease to exist.  Resurrection needs to seriously be considered a part of salvation; not just human salvation, but all creation (of which we are a part) rejoices at the liberation from corruption (Romans 8:21).

Cosmically, resurrection precedes the above three parts; with Christ’s death and his resurrection he had destroyed death and brought eternal life to all (Acts 24:15).  Personally this comes to us as glorification, when after death we are reunited with our bodies.

The critical issue is not whether someone will have eternal life (existence), but the state of their relationship with God in that existence.  Augustine considered salvation in terms of ‘eudomia’, the idea that everyone seeks their highest pleasure, with the ultimate pleasure being the presence of God.  Inversely, he saw the worst suffering to be separation from God. This line of reasoning developed into the common thinking that salvation is an issue of geography – ‘going to heaven’ and automatically being happy in the presence of God, and the absence of salvation is suffering in hell apart from God.  The Eastern Church has an allowable alternative understanding: the possibility that hell does not exist as geography, but as a state of being.  In this view all people (as a consequence of the resurrection) are in the presence of God.  The presence of God, who is a loving consuming fire, is experienced differently by different people; those who are found in Christ and indwelt by the Spirit will enjoy the love of God to the degree that they have purified themselves and conformed to the loving image of God, and those who have rejected God’s love will find the very love of God to be the ultimate torment.