The following quote is taken from a letter by Mother Thekla (sometime Abbess of the Monastery of the Assumption in Normanby, England) to a young man who was entering the Orthodox faith. Some of her comments drew my attention.
Are you prepared, in all humility, to understand that you will never, in this life, know beyond Faith; that Faith means accepting the Truth without proof? Faith and knowledge are the ultimate contradiction –and the ultimate absorption into each other. Living Orthodoxy is based on paradox, which is carried on into worship – private or public. We know because we believe and we believe because we know.
Above all, are you prepared to accept all things as from God?
These are tough questions for a young convert. It is as if someone preparing to enter the waters of Baptism were asked if they were ready to be martyred. But such tough questions are precisely the sort of things that Christ said to His disciples. And like many things He said, they are hard to hear.
I have often stumbled over the relationship between faith and knowledge. Over the years I’ve come to have less and less regard for “proof.” The knowledge that I can prove often seems no more valuable than the faith I cannot prove. A more searching question for me is: what knowledge (by proof or faith) are you willing to act on? The answer to this question, it seems to me, sets the parameters of my life’s spiritual struggle.
Abbess Thekla well describes the mystery between faith and knowledge – they stand in paradox and contradiction – but, she adds – they ultimately end with an “absorption” into each other.
The paradox and contradiction are never resolved on the level of thought, but on the level of a life lived. Our lives, regardless of how committed someone might be to rationality and consistency, are full of contradictions and paradox. To a large extent, I believe this to be part of the “irreducible” character of reality. Rationality and “provable” knowledge are mental constructs that have limits. Much (perhaps most) of the reality we experience stands beyond our ability to reason or prove. And yet it remains. We ultimately agree to live and allow the presence of contradiction and engage the unprovable, or we diminish our lives to the insanity of our own reason.
I once knew a man who suffered with a severe bi-polar disorder. He would engage religious questions with a violence of purpose that I’ve rarely seen anywhere else. But after a short engagement, he would inevitably come up against contradiction and paradox. These irreducible elements always defeated his need to comprehend. They were torments within his life.
The most frightful and irreducible paradox of faith is contained in the question: “Are you prepared to accept all things as from God?” No one has stated the objections to this question better than Dostoevsky. The character, Ivan Karamazov, examines the problem of the suffering of innocent children – and in the face of such a grave contradiction to the love of God, states, “I refuse the ticket.” He refuses the contradiction, regardless of the explanation offered.
Such a refusal must be respected, for it is an existential cliff that cannot be negotiated. Abbess Thekla is fearless in posing such a problem to a new convert. Old monks tremble in the face of such things.
I believe that the question of innocent suffering and the existence of God may be the most significant and essential question of our time. The explosion of knowledge in our world has made an awareness of innocent suffering more apparent than at any time in history. At the same time, people seem not to be crippled by this knowledge. Most live with the contradiction posed by their own happiness and the suffering of others quite comfortably. We change the channel, or wait for the news cycle to shift. The war and suffering that were daily front page stories three months ago, are now no more than a column inch on page four. The suffering has not changed – but our attention has shifted.
Elsewhere in her letter, Mother Thekla notes that the contradiction presented by the cross demands vigilance.
Are you prepared, whatever happens, to believe that somewhere, somehow, it must make sense? That does not mean passive endurance, but it means constant vigilance, listening, for what is demanded…
This is the vigilance of living, for the suffering and contradiction make a demand. They cannot and must not be passively endured.
Belief in God, the crucified God, is not a proclamation that we have solved the paradox. Rightly lived and believed, it is the living of the paradox – a living that truly embraces the whole of life, without reduction. In the end, it turns out to be love. Just love.