I recently discovered that I’m more Greek Orthodox than I ever imagined. Maybe not quite ready for the black cowl, the beard and that strikingly tall signature hat, but thinking like one nonetheless.
I have a friend from high school who became a Greek Orthodox priest. He appeared like an apparition one day on the pages of my social media feed with two other former classmates, standing between them dressed in full Orthodox regalia and totally unrecognizable. That got me curious. Why Greek Orthodox? I set about investigating that branch of Christianity to find out what had gotten into him.
My readings from a theologian of this tradition not only showed his life choice to be anything but ridiculous but also connected to my life in unexpected ways. Having grown up in the church, I have a natural orientation to the teachings of Jesus as a source of guidance and life wisdom. Over time I fell away from regular church attendance but never disconnected from the core Christian message of “seek justice, and love mercy”.
To attempt to speak of ineffable experience is our human condition. It is an insistent impossibility.
I had some vague notions about the eastern church being more mystically oriented but never looked into it more than that. Mystics like Meister Eckhardt appealed because they seemed to fit with my inclinations about a largeness in Christianity that was clearly curtailed by the specifics of salvation formulas. And my moments of clarity were coming more from a place of silence than of chatter.
To attempt to speak of ineffable experience is our human condition. It is an insistent impossibility. That might suggest an attitude of “why bother?”. But to avoid any effort at all cheapens existence and turns this dynamic and prismatic life experience into some kind of mundane transaction. So… what to do? There were tantalizing hints in my reading from an Eastern Orthodox theologian that the problem occurs with our fixation on descriptive language and our insistence that knowledge of God is the same as knowing, say, that there is furniture in the room.
We encounter an elevated experience that we associate with something beyond us. We try to translate that into communication because the experience is just too darn big and important not to share.
The language appropriate to the task is not demonstrative and exhaustive, but evocative and poetic. It is the language of story. It involves paradox because it inevitably re-enters our analytical world. The contradictions facing our evaluative brain in the face of paradox serves to point us towards a resolution that our analytical brains can’t handle. It is why we turn to art, poetry, literature, and… scripture.
In a sense, a paradox very much like that sparked the entire business of theology. We encounter an elevated experience that we associate with something beyond us. We try to translate that into communication because the experience is just too darn big and important not to share. Then that communication falls prey to a charge of being inadequate to the task.
That’s the nature of the beast. We continue to do it anyway. We will continue to speak about ineffable experience. And fail. And try again.
“Suddenly, there comes a point where religion is laughable.‘Then you decide that you are nevertheless religious.”
The Eastern Orthodox church puts a good deal of effort into elucidating how the human brain relates to God. Where the western tradition seems to assume that the content of religious revelation is just like any other experience requiring descriptive and evaluative language, the Eastern Orthodox see it as a very different thing. Their ideas about this immediately caught my attention because I recognized my own search in their way.
The preference in this theology (and the big reason the great schism with Roman Catholicism happened) is the way in which they approach the knowability of God. The Eastern Church prefers to leave God untouched by even the possibility of human knowledge. They posit no direct access of normal human cognition to the divine. Instead, the idea is that we know God only through divine energies. Or said in other terms, by the manifestation of God through human experience.
The Roman Church wanted to go another way. They leaned towards a continuity of the rational with the transcendentally divine being. This culminated in the notion mostly associated with Thomas Aquinas that our rational investigation of nature is of the same character as God because God clearly laid out nature as sensible and discernible (natural theology). While this mindset has proven enormously productive in our exploitation of nature through scientific understanding it has also provided consequences that are devastating to our souls and to our planet.
The theologian I referenced above who shed considerable light on this subject is Christos Yannaras, an Eastern Orthodox theologian and scholar. He, in turn, introduced me to the second source; the philosopher Dionysios the Areopagite.
Yannaras makes extensive use of that ancient Greek’s insight that God is not a “first cause” (and as such, a rational extension of our understanding of all cause and effect) but entirely outside of our capability to know.
So, how does that notion differ from atheism or nihilism? Great question. And one that Yannaras goes after with abandon. For him, nihilism is the acute perception of the absence or non-existence of God. The “nothingness” that concerns Yannaras is related to the unknowability of God while still affirming divine existence. So God is not a being in any sense but wholly beyond being. As a Christian, Yannaras confesses to the place of Christ as the one crucial hinge point where the divine is revealed.
The Christian concept of the Trinity seems so improbable. In light of their mystical bent I was somewhat surprised to find the eastern church was Trinitarian. The idea of “three in one” is irrational. But in light of my earlier assertion that we speak of the ineffable in a different kind of language, this might be intentional. Kind of a Christian version of a Zen koan.
Yannaras starts his discussion of the Trinity by reaffirming the distinction made by the Greek Fathers between the principle of nature and the mode of existence. The principle of nature is concerned with distinctions and definitions that describe the world around us. The mode of existence is relational. The Holy Trinity concept is modeled on this idea of relationship; the Son begotten by the Father, The Spirit preceding the Father.
This in turn relates to another distinction, that between “individual” and “person”. The Greek word for person is “prosopon” “pros-” (towards) “ -opon” (the eye). So, a “person” is one who comes “face to face” with another, it implies encounter, relationship. This as opposed to “self” which is monological and atomized.
There is quite a bit more in Yannaras’ work to plumb. His breadth of knowledge regarding the interplay of philosophic currents is mind-boggling. He draws on Heidegger to support being (ontology) over knowing (epistemology).
He knits together Heidegger and Nietzsche to characterize the “Death of God” as the inevitable outcome of the western church’s reliance on rationalizing the divine. Both of these great thinkers were atheists who nevertheless allowed for the possibility of ecstatic communion with the divine.
It makes us into unique persons that reflect upon each other to gain insight into who we are and what our proper place is in the world.
You knew I would save the best for last. Because now we get to learn from Yannaras about how this relates to knowledge of God. The only knowledge possible is actually not related to accumulation of information but to participation in the communion. It requires revelation on behalf of both parties, a divine (or divinely inspired) communication and mutual response through vulnerability.
The term used here is “apophatic”. It focuses on ideas of what God is not as opposed to more western emphasis on the “cataphatic”, or positive affirmations of what God is. While apophatic theology is typically thought of as referring to the unknowability of God it is probably more accurate to describe it as a different kind of knowing.
Apophatic knowledge is inexhaustible because it does not rely on data points or proofs but explores an experiential moment that moves us out of the ordinary (sometimes the term “ecstasis” is used). It puts us properly back into relationship with each other and the world by refocusing our attention on love and compassion rather than an analytical problem to be solved.
Whatever the nature of this “ knowledge” might be, it is crucially dependent on relationship with each other and on a personal relationship with God (recall “pros- opon”; “towards the eye”). Shifting the focus to relationship gets us outside of our heads and out of our reliance on rational analysis. It makes us into unique persons that reflect upon each other to gain insight into who we are and what our proper place is in the world.
Maybe this sounds like Greek to you. My apologies then. It’s only because I’m starting to sound more Greek to myself.