All In The Head

Some questions are so obvious we fail to ask them.

Is it all in the head?

The question is whether the sense of spiritual, refers to anything other than ourselves. Is there any connection between myself and others, between myself and God, between myself and nature, or is such a perception only a set of ideas in my head?

In classical theological/philosophical language, the question is between realism and nominalism. Nominalism, a philosophy that generally dates back to William of Ockham (1288-1348), holds that universals (ideas, concepts, etc.) only exist in the mind. Realism holds that universals have an existence outside the mind. These divisions, inside/outside, may be increasingly problematic in a post-Newtonian world.

For Christians this question is more than “angels dancing on the head of a pin.” At its heart, the question asks about the nature of sacraments and relationships. For many Protestant Christians, nominalism has become the default position. The sacraments are decidedly not real (in the philosophical sense). The bread and wine of the Eucharist are simply bread and wine. Their “spiritual reality” lies in the mind of the believer. Memorial theories of the Eucharist are quite clear about this: the Eucharist is only a remembrance (in the mental sense). Baptism is an obedience – nothing happens (except in the mind). Indeed, within this theological tradition, things spiritual are all in the head. Faith is a mental attitude. Love, kindness, forgiveness, etc., all find their existence as concepts within the mind. Christianity, within this tradition, is the adherence to a set of concepts.

Older Christian traditions, particularly Eastern Orthodoxy, are decidedly realist. The Eucharist is truly Christ’s Body and Blood; Baptism is a true union with Christ. All that exists does so as communion and participation. Everything we know, we know to some extent through participation. The inter-connectedness of all of creation is not a mental construct – it is a description of how things truly are.

There is a middle ground, fairly common within some Christian traditions. The general, nominalist view is accepted, but with exceptions for certain things such as the sacraments. I suspect that many “traditional” Christians find themselves within this view of the world. Modern culture is deeply nominalist. It assumes that things exist within themselves. All connections are merely mental associations. Such “two-storey” lives are stuck in a constant battle. The assumptions of nominalism feel “obvious” (as do most cultural assumptions). The reality of the sacraments runs counter to the obvious, constantly requiring a different set of assumptions (or the suspension of the obvious). This suspension is called “faith.”

It is important to note that this last view, the middle ground, does not have a sacramental view of the universe. It has a sacramental view of the sacraments – a tenuous set of temporary assumptions, at best.

These differences in world-view do much to explain the conversational difficulties between Orthodoxy and most other Christian traditions. Orthodoxy is decidedly realist. However, such realism requires some additional thought and understanding.

There is a view of realism (also quite ancient) which gives rise to magical and “superstitious” practices. If the interconnectedness of all things is understood in a manner similar to all things in nature (as just one more set of quasi-physical phenomena), then attempts to manipulate and control this interconnectedness becomes an obvious temptation. These attempts to control and manage take the form of magic and superstition. Various animist religions, some forms of paganism, and most efforts to influence “luck,” all have something of this world-view in common.

I have often thought that “good luck” is the most fundamental religious urge of all people. Modern notions of “prosperity gospel” and the like are simply semi-sophisticated versions of superstition. They have little or nothing to do with classical Christianity. Orthodoxy is by no means immune to magical practices. There are widespread abuses in much of the Orthodox world that are simply magical superstitions. These, too, have nothing to do with classical Christianity. No form of the Christian faith is without its temptations.

Orthodox Christianity holds to a realist view of the world – but does so out of regard to God as the Creator and Sustainer of all that is (“in Him we live, we move and have our being”). The universe is not established on abstract spiritual principles – inert laws of the “supernatural.” The universe is established by God and the principles of all things are rooted in God.

All of creation is a sacrament – but not of Plato’s forms or the ether of magic’s dreams. Creation is a multiform sacrament of God’s love, revealing itself to those who are God’s friends. The emptiness of modern man lies in his alienation from the world in which he lives. Even his primitive hunger for luck bears witness to his desperation for connection and meaning. The path to that connection and its communion lies through the Cross of Christ. In Him we find ourselves plunged into the uncreated life that sustains all things. And in that life sacrament and reality become one.

Where is reality to be found?

There are no criteria to which any Christian can appeal in order to win an argument. A world-view is an a priori assumption. Christians holding a classical understanding (such as the realism of Orthodox Christianity) have antiquity on their side. Nominalist views evolved at a period in time well-beyond the New Testament and early church era. Whatever nominalism is, it is not the view of ancient Christians.

But is the view of ancient Christianity true? Fr. John Romanides described Orthodox theology as “empirical dogmatics.” He did not mean an empiricism rooted in Enlightenment theories of objective reality. Rather, he meant that the teachings of the Orthodox faith are rooted in experience and borne out in the lives of its saints. Without embracing the entire body of Romanides teaching, it is easy to affirm his simple contention. The triumph of Hesychast teaching in the 14th century (a defense of monastic experience and its understanding of the knowledge of God) set Orthodoxy squarely in the middle of empirical dogma. “He who prays is a theologian, and a theologian is one who prays.” The truth of the classical Christian understanding is found in a life conformed to that understanding.

This empirical dogma is not an argument. It goes where no argument can follow. It is, like the gospel itself, an invitation. It can be proclaimed to the world, but like all things empirical, only experience will confirm its truth.

It is popularly said of Orthodoxy that it is not a set of beliefs, but a way of life. In many respects, this is simply a manner of saying that Orthodoxy is not a nominalist view of the world, but a revelation about the world itself.

Those who stand outside inquiring should ask themselves: did Christ come to assert a set of ideas, or did He come to reveal a way of living? If the latter – then it is not just inside the head.