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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s