Contradiction and Paradox

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.

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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.

Comments

  1. dinoship says

    “A more searching question for me is: what knowledge (by proof or faith) are you willing to act on?”

    and:

    “The paradox and contradiction are never resolved on the level of thought, but on the level of a life lived. “

    Absolutely excellent post, essential reading!

  2. Karen says

    Most live with the contradiction posed by their own happiness and the suffering of others quite comfortably.

    And this, it seems to me, is exactly why suffering continues. If we all became like Christ, fully entering into the suffering of others and co-suffering with them, giving our all to end that suffering, the consummation of the Kingdom would be at hand and suffering would cease to be.

  3. Dominic Albanese says

    da boat was leaking I have the knoledge to fix it but I sure needed the faith to get it back to shore. A lot like life what I know sometimes is right sometimes is wrong. What I have Faith in never changes

  4. m e emberson says

    By love of God do you in anyway include devotion to him? I don’t know Him ,as He is unknowable ,but I’m devoted to His service if He helps me to be and do and say what He wants in any circumstance which presents itself . If I remember to ask Him, that is and don’t go off at a tangent.

  5. TLO says

    Faith means accepting the Truth without proof

    Say rather that “Faith means declaring something to be the Truth without proof” and I think you will be correct.

  6. PJ says

    The Apostle tells us that faith is itself evidence of things unseen. How does that factor into this?

  7. fatherstephen says

    TLO,
    I understand the thought, but it would not be the same thing at all. Nor would “declaring something to be the Truth,” and “accepting something” be the same thing. There’s too much “declaring” and not enough “accepting.” The is a very deep spiritual and psychological difference between the two and they yield very different fruit.

  8. fatherstephen says

    PJ,
    It’s a difficult verse (both to translate and to understand). In the illustrations that follow the verse, the actions of the saints involved clearly illustrate that they were willing to act on their trust (faith and faithfulness) that what God said or asked is true. Thus the action of their lives becomes visible evidence of the invisible truth. That visible evidence becomes knowledge of a sort. But there is something stronger in the faith aspect. I act on certain forms of knowledge all the time and there is no particular virtue found in it. But the actions that the writer of Hebrews describes, actions taken on faith/trust require a great deal of virtue: courage, trust, love, etc.

    To live a life in which I trust that other people are in fact created in the image of God is a virtuous life. To treat others as I would want to be treated (which even an atheist can do) still has virtue – the virtue rooted in a belief that such action will make for a better world, etc. But there is a certain element of faith even there (it is an “unseen” result that the world will in fact be a better place). There might be an even more immediate reason than I have thought of in such an instance.

  9. Kathy Erickson says

    Fr. Stephen: This got very long. Please edit or delete it as you see fit.

    I read a comment on a prior blog, that “Fr. M. Tate,” said, “God was kicked out of the schools.” The comment came from someone asking “where was God” when the children at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut were killed. The question implies, “Why didn’t God stop this from happening?” On first reading, Fr. Matthew’s remark seems harsh and even incorrect. (I know Fr. Matthew very well. He is my parish priest.) Isn’t God everywhere present? Of course He is and of course Fr. Matthew knows this. I think Fr. Matthew was saying that God does not cause the evil in this world, but rather it is we who, by abandoning Him, i.e., by “kicking Him out,” allow evil to enter the world and then events like this happen. It is our separation from God that allows evil; we cannot blame God for not being there and by implication, for not intervening.

    For years I argued with God in an effort to convince Him that He made a mistake creating a world where evil was allowed to happen. I knew the theology of free will and understood how arrogant it is for the creature to question the creator, but I couldn’t help myself. I read Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov decades ago and again this past year. The passage where Ivan rejects God based on Ivan’s perception that is is wrong to allow the suffering of innocents is compelling. To our rational mind, it IS wrong. How then do we understand a God who allows it, who created a world knowing evil would enter it, and still believe Him to be love, not just loving, but to actually be love?

    What I have come to understand is that God sees life, the world, the cosmos, all creation in a different manner than I do and that He treasures that creation beyond all measure. Each human life, even each sparrow as scripture says, has unquantified value and is held dear. He does not see the suffering of the innocent as senseless. He loves this world in an incomprehensible way and because of His love, He neither abandons the suffering one, nor devalues a world where evil exists. He chose to go ahead with creation already knowing the outcome.

    Does not a parent make the same choice? Each time a new human being is purposefully brought into this world, it is an act of faith – faith that this world and this life is worth it. We know our children will suffer. We hope they will not suffer over much, but it will happen. It is inevitable and yet, at least in our Orthodox faith, children are a blessing, a happiness bestowed on us, and brought into this world as the fruit of our love. It is not just the faith which is paradoxical, but we ourselves. We lament the pain in this world, but we rejoice with each new human life brought into it. Insofar as we embrace this life, we are our Father’s children. We too love this world and see its value regardless of the evil that exists, even if it doesn’t quite make sense to us to do so.

    I have come to understand that Love sees things differently. It is not rational, but as I try to learn to love God and strive to come closer to Him, I no longer wonder “where was He,” or “how could He allow this to happen.” I have come to agree with Him that the world is worth it, that all the suffering is worth it, that this world is beautiful and glorious and as Sam tells Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, “There is some good in this world and it’s worth fighting for.” It was not the troubled young man who alone killed those children in Connecticut, for we do not fight against flesh. It was the work of the devil and his minions, and it is the prince of this world who is trying to “kick God out.” This is a battle and a battle to the death.

    The biggest paradox in our faith is that we must die in order to live, for as Christ conquered death by His death, so we also conquer by entering into that death. In the writings of St. Ignatius, he says he is seeking to become a human being by laying down his life for Christ. God as Love offers up, not only the material of the world, but Himself as well. He did not abandon us. He did not recoil at us in our evil. He became one of us.

    Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps the biggest paradox is the person of the God-Man Jesus Christ. He joined Himself inextricably to our humanity that through Him we might become truly human. Whether we live or die, suffer or celebrate, understand or lack understanding, in whatever state we find ourselves, God is with us and somehow that makes everything alright.

  10. susan says

    thank you for this post. I struggle every day with the paradox of suffering for lack in most of the world, and the suffering of over abundance in the rest. the world has enough, but too few have too much, and too many have too little. there is a direct correlation that is hard to ignore. with regards to the question of why does God allow suffering, i offer this word from Mother Theresa … i cant find the verbatim but it was in response to a question from a reporter, who argued that a good God wouldnt allow so many children to die in India for lack of love, food and care. Mother Theresa responded that ‘when a child dies alone in a back alley in Calcutta, God was with that child, suffering with that child and ready to receive that child. The real question (mother Theresa asked the reporter) is WHERE WERE YOU?

  11. dinoship says

    Susan & Kathy,
    beautiful comments…
    The Parable of the Prodigal Son from the beginning of the narrative reveals the answer to our question here…
    That’s because the Father accepts that His son has the right to behave like his Father is dead. The son can ask for his share of inheritance as if his Father is already deceased… This means that Man has been given from his very creation this scandalous freedom, a perfect and absolute freedom in this respect: to behave as if his “Begetter” is non-existent.
    God has left Man free to treat him like He did not exist, as if He, the Creator, is dead.
    In this respect the creation of man contains the Cross within it. And a human person would never be able to become a true human person without this dangerous liberty…
    That is why a Saint is truly great in his voluntary and free union with God! (because a Saint is someone who CAN sin, yet doesn’t, no matter how compelling or ‘enslaving’ the temptation, -he is not someone who lacks this potential to sin).
    To re-cap:
    The creation of man by God, as an act of emptying of self, includes the death of God on the Cross from before the foundation of time…

  12. simmmo says

    Wow… Amen to that! The ending to the piece is the best summary. “In the end it turns out to be love. Just love.” To love self-sacrificially is really all that matters. This is the hardest thing for us to hear. God help us.

  13. Eirenikos says

    Simmmo if I may, to complete the circle, Fr. Stephan’s “just love” is the cause of freedom.

  14. simmmo says

    Just another thought on this post. The seemingly unending quest for “consistency” really is a kind of idolatry. You see this principle applied rigidly in legal studies, science and, alas, protestant biblical studies (as if the holy scriptures had to be somehow “internally consistent” in every detail). You are right, rigid adherence to “rationality” and “consistency” are tremendously limiting. I prefer strawberry ice cream to chocolate and vanilla over strawberry. Does this mean that we can infer that I will always prefer vanilla to chocolate? Of course not. Would it be irrational and inconsistent of me if I did choose vanilla over chocolate? Perhaps. But who cares. Life is far more complex and interesting without trying to limit our experiences in such ways. And for what purpose? Merely for the sake of consistency? This is a kind of idolatry I think.

  15. says

    Love IS rational; but itg has a rationality, a logic, all its own.

    Would it help understand St. Paul’s definition if we said reality is what we can experience, while truth is as much of that as we can think? In that case, faith concerns our experience, and truth concerns the proclamation of it?

  16. fatherstephen says

    Anastasia,
    I would agree that love is “rational” if we understand rational as being “logikos” (the Greek word for it). Logikos is so much larger than the English “rational”. It means, it conforms to the Logos, that is, Christ. Rational only means that something obeys certain so-called laws of human reason – too narrowly defined. Thus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is not “rational” but it is “logikos.” And I would not describe truth as being identified with what we can think. Truth is beyond us and we can occasionally perceive it – but truth is the reality of things – what things truly are and how they truly work. More than we can think, I think.

  17. Peyton says

    Somewhat off-topic, Father, but your explanation of “logikos” has opened to me better insight into Romans 12:1-2 — “which is your [reasonable?/spiritual?/logical?] service.” Not that it makes the “presenting” any easier; it just drives home the conclusion of Chapter 11!

    Thank you.

  18. fatherstephen says

    Peyton,
    Thanks. The abuse of the English word “reason” and “reasonable” is rampant among modern Protestants. My favorite Orthodox phrase (I’ve written on it) is describing believers as God’s “rational sheep.” You find the linked article interesting.

  19. Matthew the Wayfarer says

    A sad story but one has to remember that England has a small Orthodox population and calling among Orthodox women is probably negligible. Don’t know what the article means about about the Monastery of the Assumption in Normanby, England being the only ‘strict’ one left in the country. Are the ‘strict’ Anglican (if there are any left) and Roman Catholic women’s Orders growing? Here in the USA the Catholic ones are. Don’t know about the Orthodox ones though. Also, I am surprised they haven’t asked the Greek Church to send a small group of younger nuns to help.

  20. Doreen says

    “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….Are you prepared, whatever happens, to believe that somewhere, somehow, it must make sense?”
    WOW! This blog spoke volumes to me as I read it over and over yesterday, and shared with many—who had the same reaction. Thank you for sharing Mother Thekla’s words, Fr. Stephen.

  21. mary benton says

    Another wonderful post… One could take a lifetime pondering Mother Thekla’s words.

    I’d like to add an image, to Father Stephen’s comment to TLO:

    “TLO,
    I understand the thought, but it would not be the same thing at all. Nor would “declaring something to be the Truth,” and “accepting something” be the same thing. There’s too much “declaring” and not enough “accepting.” The is a very deep spiritual and psychological difference between the two and they yield very different fruit.”

    I knew a minister once who made the distinction between belief and faith (which I am relating to “declaring” and “accepting”). He said that believing is like saying to someone, “Yes, I believe that you can push that wheelbarrow over that tightrope.” Faith is getting in the wheelbarrow and letting him push you across.

    An odd image but one that has stuck with me for over 30 years. Quite a difference indeed.

  22. drewster2000 says

    Mother Thekla’s questions are indeed tough. I completely believe them from her mouth, but I’ve heard the same sentiment from less credible sources. How is one supposed to discern truth? The way is dark and few seem to know it. I am ALMOST reminded of this Lord of the Rings quote:

    “The way is shut. It was made by those who are Dead, and the Dead keep it, until the time comes. The way is shut.”

    But Fr. Stephen answered it well: You don’t. You rely on that very God to lead you. You can’t follow Him if you don’t trust Him, and you can’t trust Him if you can’t follow Him.

  23. TLO says

    Hi Mary and Fr. Stephen – I have been reading and re-reading this and the only sense I get is that this satisfies a need to have some kind of an answer. Humans are very uncomfortable with admitting an inability to understand things. So for those things that are not understood, the only mental relief is to invoke “Faith.”

    I must not be wired the same as most of the rest of humanity. I have no problem whatsoever with living life knowing what I am able to understand while simultaneously leaving all those things in the ethereal realm inside Pandora’s Box without opening it.

    From my perspective, Faith is based in fear. One must be fearful, at the core, to even want to delve into that which simply cannot be known. I think it is that core fear that is at the root of all the conflict we see.

    What is so difficult about admitting some things simply cannot be known and then just leave them alone?

    The obsession with religious ideas which are disputed and debated for thousands of years with no real resolution just seems strange to me. (I feel precisely the same way about politics.)

  24. fatherstephen says

    TLO,
    If I wanted to reduce my worldview to yours, it would be a fine solution. Of course, perhaps you don’t understand me and things are not as you think. Your account is very reductionistic to me – if it works for you – that’s fine. But it doesn’t work for you – or you wouldn’t be reading this.

  25. mary benton says

    Hi TLO,

    You wrote: “From my perspective, Faith is based in fear. One must be fearful, at the core, to even want to delve into that which simply cannot be known.”

    It is hard for me to imagine that a bright person like you really believes this… But, perhaps the only “faith” you have experienced WAS based on fear – and therefore correctly rejected.

    Remember Puddleglum’s speech. Hardly based on fear. (I know, you’re going to say “that’s fiction”, but CS Lewis was writing something much grander than a fairy tale.) There are many, many real life examples that reflect the same thing. St. Maximillian Kolbe is one who comes to mind…

    I don’t mean to insult you, but I am getting this sense of you chanting “The dwarfs are for the dwarfs.” Is there a reason you feel safer in the dark? (A rhetorical question – of course there is.)

    Continuing to wish you blessings on your journey…

  26. Lynne says

    I don’t know why God allows suffering. It almost has never seemed important to me to ask why. He’s so much more than I am. The question feels like a waste of time. All I know is that if I let go of my grip on Him during times of suffering, I would cease to exist. Suffering, as terrible as it is, keeps Christ’s image ever before my eyes, as does the beauty of God’s creation and the many blessings I have undeservedly received. Suffering is often the string, bridge, road, to the God who constantly forgives and graces me. Without it, I may very well find faith in God completely implausible.

  27. dinoship says

    TLO, Drewster,
    there is a fabulous exposition of Saint Isaac he Syrian concerning Faith and Knowledge in his ascetical homilies.
    I will worn you though, it is obvious that his exposition of “Faith”, obviously shows someone talking with first hand experience of those ‘proofs’ you can only enjoy once you have taken the same plunge as him.
    Let me give an example: science might have proved that we can go on for so many days without water, food, sleep, sitting down, etc. yet he (Saint Isaac for instance) has caught himself (engrossed in God) having gone for many times that length of time against what Science has proven…! The resulting knowledge is ofcourse not exactly “rational” yet also cannot be called irrational as it has an experiential proof, even though it was Faith that got him there in the first place. Rationality would have cowered away long ago…

  28. dinoship says

    St Isaac the Syrian on the
Three Degrees of Knowledge (Homily 52)

    On the First Degree of Knowledge

    When knowledge cleaves to the love of the body, it gathers up the following provisions: wealth, vainglory, honour, adornment, rest of the body, special means to guard the body’s nature from adversities, assiduity in rational wisdom, such as is suitable for the governance of the world and which gushes forth the novelties of inventions, the arts, sciences, doctrines, and all other things which crown the body in this visible world. Among the properties of this knowledge belong those that are opposed to faith, which we have stated and enumerated above. This is called shallow knowledge, for it is naked of all concern for God. And because it is dominated by the body, it introduces into the mind an irrational impotence, and its concern is totally for this world. This measure of knowledge does not reckon that there is any noetic power and hidden steersman over a man, nor any Divine care that shelters and takes concern for him. It takes no account of God’s providential governance; but on the contrary, it attributes to a man’s diligence and his methods every good thing in him, his rescue from what harms him, and his natural ability to avert the plights and many adversities that secretly and manifestly accompany our nature. This degree of knowledge presumes that all things are by its own providence, like those men who assert that there is no Divine governance of visible things. Nevertheless, it cannot be without continual cares and fear for the body. Therefore it is a prey to faintheartedness, sorrow, despair, fear of the demons, trepidation before men, the rumour of thieves and the report of murders, anxiety over illnesses, concern over want and the lack of necessities, fear of death, fear of sufferings, of wild beasts, and of other similar things that make this knowledge like a sea made turbulent by great waves at every hour of the night and day. For knowledge does not know how to cast its care upon God through the confident trust of faith in Him; wherefore in all things that concern it, it is constantly engaged in devising devices and clever contrivances. But when in some instance the modes of its contrivances prove fruitless, it strives with men as though they hindered and opposed it, since it does not see in this the mystical hand of providence.
    The tree of knowledge of good and evil, the tree that uproots love, is implanted in this very knowledge. It investigates the small faults of other men and the causes thereof, and their weaknesses; and it arms a man for stubbornly upholding his opinion, for disputation, and aids him in cunningly employing devices and crafty contrivances and other means which dishonour a man. In this knowledge are produced and are found presumption and pride, for it attributes every good thing to itself, and does not refer it to God.
    Faith, however, attributes its works to grace. For this reason it cannot be lifted up with pride, as it is written: “I can do all things through Christ Which strengtheneth me”; and again, “Not I, but the grace of God which is in me”; and also “Knowledge puffeth up”; which the blessed Apostle said of this same knowledge, since it is not mingled with faith and hope in God, but he said it not concerning true knowledge, far be it!
    By humility true knowledge makes perfect the soul of those who have acquired it, like Moses, David, Esaias, Peter, Paul, and the rest of the saints who have been accounted worthy of this perfect knowledge to the degree possible for human nature. And by diverse theorias and divine revelations, by the lofty vision of spiritual things and by ineffable mysteries and the like, their knowledge is swallowed up at all times, and in their own eyes they reckon their soul to be dust and ashes. But that other knowledge is puffed up, even as is meet, since it walks in darkness and values that which belongs to it by comparison with things of earth, and it does not know that there is something better than itself. And so all who cling to such knowledge are seized by the uplifting of pride, because they measure their discipline according to the standard of the earth and the flesh, they rely upon their works, and their intellects do not enter into incomprehensible matters. But as many as reflect upon the waves of the glorious splendour of the Godhead, and whose labour is on high, their minds do not turn aside with inventions and vain thoughts. For those who walk in the light cannot go astray, and for this reason all those who have strayed from the light of the knowledge of the Son of God, and have turned away from the truth, journey in these pathways just mentioned. This is the first degree of knowledge; in it a man follows the desire of the flesh. We find this knowledge blameworthy and declare it to be opposed not only to faith, but to every working of virtue.

    On the Second Degree of Knowledge

    But when a man renounces the first degree and turns toward deep reflections and the love of the soul, then he practises the aforementioned good deeds with the help of his soul’s understanding, in co-operation with the senses of his body, and in the light of his soul’s nature. These deeds are: fasting, prayer, mercy, reading of the divine Scripture, the modes of virtue, battle with the passions, and the rest. For all these good things, all the various excellences seen in the soul and the wondrous means that are employed for serving in Christ’s court in this second degree of knowledge, are made perfect by the Holy Spirit through the action of its power. This knowledge makes straight the pathways in the heart which lead to faith, wherewith we gather supplies for our journey to the true age. But even so, this knowledge is still corporeal and composite; and although it is the road that leads us and speeds us on our way toward faith, yet there remains a degree of knowledge still higher than it. If it goes forward, it will find itself raised up by faith with the help of Christ, that is, when it has laid the foundation of its action on seclusion from men, reading the Scriptures, prayer, and the other good works by which the second degree of knowledge is made perfect. It is by this knowledge that all that is excellent is performed; indeed, it is called the knowledge of actions, because by concrete actions, through the senses of the body, it accomplishes its work on the external level.

    On the Third Degree of Knowledge,
    which is the Degree of Perfection

    Hear now how knowledge becomes more refined, acquires that which is of the Spirit, and comes to resemble the life of the unseen hosts which perform their liturgy not by the palpable activity of works, but through the activity accomplished in the intellect’s meditation. When knowledge is raised above earthly things and the cares of earthly activities, and its thoughts begin to gain experience in inward matters which are hidden from the eyes; and when in part it scorns the recollections of things (whence the perverseness of the passions arises), and when it stretches itself upward and follows faith in its solicitude for the future age, in its desire for what has been promised us, and in searching deeply into hidden mysteries: then faith itself swallows up knowledge, converts it, and begets it anew, so that it becomes wholly and completely spirit.
    Then it can soar on wings in the realms of the bodiless and touch the depths of the unfathomable sea, musing upon the wondrous and divine workings of God’s governance of noetic and corporeal creatures. It searches out spiritual mysteries that are perceived by the simple and subtle intellect. Then the inner senses awaken for spiritual doing, according to the order that will be in the immortal and incorruptible life. For even from now it has received, as it were in a mystery, the noetic resurrection as a true witness of the universal renewal of all things.
    These are the three degrees of knowledge wherein is brought together a man’s whole course in the body, in the soul, and in the spirit. From the time when a man begins to distinguish between good and evil until he takes leave of this world, his soul’s knowledge journeys in these stages. The fullness of all wrong and impiety, and the fullness of righteousness, and the probing of the depths of all the mysteries of the Spirit are wrought by one knowledge in the aforementioned three stages; and in it is contained the intellect’s every movement, whether the intellect ascends or descends in good or in evil or in things midway between the two. The Fathers call these stages: natural, supranatural, and contranatural. These are the three directions in which the memory of a rational soul travels up or down, as has been said: when the soul works righteousness in the confines of nature, or when through her recollection she is caught away to a state higher than nature in the divine vision of God, or when she recedes from her nature to heard swine, as did that young man who squandered the wealth of his discretion and laboured for a troop of demons.

  29. dinoship says

    I am sorry for the mistaken post. I wish I could make some corrections at a slightly later stage…

  30. TLO says

    Fr. Stephen:

    But it doesn’t work for you – or you wouldn’t be reading this.

    I suppose that there is no hope of ever escaping 40+ years of indoctrination. And I am here more because my social outlets are quite limited. I do very poorly in a room full of people or even one-on-one but in this medium I find that I am able to communicate clearly. I could hang out on exchristian_dot_net and other such sites but I find very little value in hanging out with people who all agree with me. That’s no way to grow.

    To be candid, I just flat out like you guys and appreciate you putting up with me.

    I don’t know about “reductionist” though. It’s hard to peel through many layers and get to the core of matters but this is what I try to do. It’s the only way I can make sense of things. I’ve had a lifetime of peels with very little core. I have found it interesting, though, that any time you try to name a thing, it is like touching a nerve. People want to talk around a subject. No one wants to just get to the essentials (I don’t mean about Christianity per se but also in politics and philosophy).

    I was strongly moved by George MacDonald’s treatment of protestant thought in which he said that the foundation of it is Hell and therefore the first line of their creed is “I believe in hell.” Most protestants will immediately recoil from this statement and protest loudly. To me, though, it struck a chord of truth and (though it hurt at the time) I had to give it its due consideration (this was many years ago). I don’t know many humans who are willing to do that when it comes to their beliefs. I know no Mormons who are not able to refute anything that an Orthodox Christian might say about their faith. I know very few people of any faith who are willing to even try to be objective about what they hold to be true. (Again, it’s one of the reasons I like you guys. You haven’t abdicated your brains.)

    Which circles back to “I don’t know.” Early on in my journey, Father Rusty Matheny said to me, “I believe it. That’s it. I have no other explanation to offer that would help you.” I have always revered him for this.

    You have stated before that Christ’s victory is over death. It seems to me that death (and the fear thereof) is at or near the center of Judeo-Christian or Muslim faith. Remove death from the equation and I don’t think you have the same faith. Please correct me if I err.

    It has been a strange part of my journey; assuming that there is nothing after death I have less reason to fear it. Having lost that fear, I find that I have also lost interest in diving into the mysteries as I did in the past. It is no longer a critical question to answer and the mysteries no longer have a hold on my emotions. Rather,I am interested in understanding as a sort of forensic examination. Much of my querying is in a further attempt to understand the human animal. But I would also welcome comprehending the faith (which I cannot, if this article is any guide). Failing to be able to understand the Faith, I am left to observe the idea of faith as its own area of study.

    Humans fascinate me. I am very uncomfortable being around them, by and large, but I am intrigued by them. I would dearly love to understand why people gravitate toward faith and why there is so much disagreement between them. We see the same reality but how we interpret it is so wildly varied. How then can anyone hope to arrive at any objective truth?

  31. fatherstephen says

    TLO,
    Sorry. My jab was a bit of a “low blow,” even I get a bit testy now and again.

    That said, I really understand your plight – and have great sympathy for it (not pity). I’m not sure that I’m much of a philosopher – but to the greater extent, I don’t believe in “objective” constructs. I think that there are “plausible” things – but that the nature of many things simply does not admit of “objectivity.” I tend to think of it as a sort of modern “bugaboo.”

    On death. I am very, very familiar with death – perhaps more than I would like to be. I knew it as a child (there were 2 murders in my family and many, many other deaths in a large extended Southern family). By age 10 I was already at a Dostoevskian juncture – in which either there was a God (god) or things didn’t mean much. It’s young to consider the atheist option.

    I only began to consider the God option when I was 15, in a liturgical setting. The mystery and beauty of it suggested possibilities. I suppose I ultimately made a wager on the existence of God. I’ve not been disappointed – though I’ve had to push the limits and dig much deeper – and risk many things to get to where I am now.

    I spent 3 years as a hospice chaplain, with patients from every walk of religious life and none. I was with over 300 deaths in that time. I’ve been with around 200 over the years as a parish priest. I’ve buried my parents and my in-laws, etc.

    I’m not afraid of death – though I have a great respect for it. It is a very great mystery. What I think about death and life after death would probably frighten many people (perhaps more than death itself). That has to do with how the fathers understand the nature of Person and the Self – quite distinct from the ego. Much that most people want to see beyond death, I do not expect.

    I do not think there is anything “natural” in life after death – no inherent continuity such that it could ever be proved. God will either sustain me in an existence that has no basis other than the fact that He sustains it, or I will cease to be. It’s as simple as that. As Socrates noted, to cease to be is not really a frightening thing.

    But I have seen much and perceived much in the course of my lifetime that make me a devoted Orthodox believer. But “believer” does not mean anything like “adhering to a set of propositions” so much as I am committed to a way of life that I think leads me towards union with God. There have been many, many things that confirm me in that way of life, and I am far from alone. It’s not always other Orthodox Christians that sustain me – though I’m glad of them. Sometimes the Orthodox can be as “objective” and annoying as any Protestant.

    But it has more to do with the saints and the inner life of the Church that only opens itself with time. I see a universe (as well as the one you see) that is transfiguring beauty. It is beauty and grace and love that come unexpectedly and unexplainably that draw me towards God and deeper into the life of His Church.

    If all that God gave me was to live this life in the heart of such beauty and wonder – it would have been enough. I’ll take more – if He gives it to me.

    In some ways, to think about “life after death” would be to take my “eyes from the prize.” It’s not heaven I want. It’s God – here and now. It’s enough.

  32. TLO says

    Hi fr Stephen – I didn’t consider it a “low blow.” Unless you insult my mother, there’s not a whole lot that I’ll get offended over. I actually appreciate your candor and perspective.

    It’s not heaven I want. It’s God – here and now.

    Ah. If only. That’d be nice, IMHO (provided one is talking about a good god).

    The more I read from neurotheologians, though, the less likely god seems to me. Rephrased; all of our realities are experienced neurologically. Those who experience god may be having real experiences. How could one tell the difference? The same areas of the brain light up when one talks to an invisible person as when one talks to a physical person. So the experience is real to that person. For me, those synapses just don’t seem to be firing. Whether that is because god isn’t interacting with me or I simply am unable to get those neurons working, who knows? Perhaps this is also why I have trouble relating to people. In short, I may very well be brain damaged.

    I was in nursing for 11 years. I’m fairly familiar with pain, suffering and death as well. My AIDS and Cancer patients were the most troubling. I tend to agree with Tolkien when he said that death is Illuvitar’s gift to men.

  33. susan says

    to Dinoship ~ thank you so much for posting above the 3 degrees of knowledge. it is going to take me a while to get through it and absorb it, but I am very much drawn to read and understand it as best as I can. I really appreciate it.

    To TLO – as someone who was raised Roman Catholic, and then left the church at 16 (as so many of us do) and lived a very secular life until I was 48; I think the world indoctrinated me thoroughly in its ways. When several years ago, I found myself (at first, unwillingly i admit) drawn back to faith, I had reached a point in life where i was going to drown, or learn to swim. And in the years since I had this persistent urging to try to make sense of ‘faith’ I have struggled in many of the ways that you describe. I also have found it difficult to understand ‘the human being’.

    from my perspective, from my experience, your need for understanding and … faith … is a gift from God. There is a great deal of grace involved in leading people away from the world and onto the seekers path. I am not a theologian, I am not a bible scholar, I don’t have learned discussions with Christians, Catholics or secular – but I do believe that when God chooses people to ‘call out’ of the world, the ones he finds most receptive to the call are often those who are for one reason or another ‘invisible’ to the world, or in moral / ethical or spiritual conflict with the world as it presents today. I don’t have close friendships with secular, nor Catholic. I am still invisible in many ways, but I am now visible to God. My life is still a fairly solitary one, but i am no longer dependent on how MY will, will get me through the turbulence of life, I rely on God to get me through everything.

    Everyday I wake up and pick up my faith journey again as I make my way in the world. Which brings me back to the beginning of this blog …

    “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?”

    I can choose to reject the above statement, and try to negotiate and make sense of my life and the world with my limited human understanding, or I can choose to see my life through eyes of trust and faith – not needing to understand as much as just needing to accept, learn patience, humility, take my mind off ‘myself’ and see things as they are, and not how I would like them to be. Of course, I want to ‘understand’ as well, I always will, but I find that my conflicts are often resolved with Gods help whenever I ask. I am led through scripture, through writings of others, and through my children, my family, the words of strangers … to the level of understanding i need to find some peace and resolution. One of the most important verses in the bible for me has been … Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you … these are not words, they are the beginnings of a supernatural journey with God.

    I choose God, I choose the Son of God. I choose Faith. Without it, I am adrift in the seas of life, with no compass, no deck, no anchor and no land in sight.

    And yes Father, your last words are what I seek … to think about “life after death” would be to take my “eyes from the prize.” It’s not heaven I want. It’s God – here and now.

    I know my writing is clumsy, and I know the words I choose are ‘mine’, and often I don’t clarify my meaning or intent very well, but I wanted so much to respond to TLO, because my spirit said to.

  34. fatherstephen says

    TLO,
    Couple of centuries or so ago, there was the English philosopher, Berkeley. He held to the problems of proving anything existed outside the mind. It’s similar to the neuro stuff. But I think there are flaws in some of its assumptions. Wish I could writ more. I’m laid up tonight with a lousy fever – could be flu or flu-like.

  35. susan says

    all of our realities are experienced neurologically

    :-)

    and how did our neurology be designed in such a way as to prompt all living beings towards a greater reality, and a yearning for the divine :-)

    One thing I love about the sciences, is that the more you look, the more you see; the more you see, the further there is to look, the less you know (for sure) … there is something infinite about the scientific quest for greater understanding ! Quantum science to me, is our most profound science for the existence of a God that supersedes all states, all dimensions and is in fact the very ‘field’ on which our human experience is written. Many many distinguished and dedicated scientists, have found themselves confronting the inevitability, after a long career in their fields, of the existence of a Creator.

  36. mary benton says

    TLO –

    I can appreciate your dilemma with the neurology of spirituality (so to speak). One of the things I find challenging is trying to comprehend that I might exist after my brain is dead. Who am “I” apart from my brain/body? Since I have no (remembered) experience of such existence, it doesn’t seem possible.

    Because there are mysteries like this that I know I cannot know (at least not yet), there is that “leap of faith” thing that is essentially a choice. As Fr Stephen and some others related, I too experienced my first “existential crisis” early in life, wondering if life had meaning and if I could bear to keep living if I concluded it did not.

    I struggled for quite some years with this, not wanting to believe in God just to relieve that fear of meaninglessness. I believe I have had many experiences of God that have bolstered my believing – but, as I wrote elsewhere, I accept that I could be deluding myself. But I can think of no better way to live. And so, in the face of doubts (that will always resurface), I make a choice – along with Puddleglum.

    “Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” (The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis)

  37. dinoship says

    Extremely well said Mary Benton. I agree with you – and with CS Lewis.
    :-)

    TLO,
    concerning the neurology of faith (a classic “logismos” -temptation, if you like), especially when one is confronted with the fact that

    “you will never, in this life, know beyond Faith”

    I know the “difference” well.
    although I do not feel comfortable talking from personal experiences (disclosing them here I mean), I do indeed know that there is a difference, even though a person is always in danger of forgetting even his knowledge from first-hand experience – it is the nature of humanity. It is also why death from a Christian’s perspective is simply ‘the ticket to permanence’, to the immutability of the life in God he experiences here and now
    Concerning “neurophysiological explanations”:
    One can experience (1) a delusional/”demonic” Heaven and Hell, (2) a “natural” Heaven and Hell, as well as (3) a Heaven and a Hades through the action of God. They all have neurological consequences… Only the “natural” one is a consequence of neurology itself however, the others are vice versa! The fact that many people have had psychological ‘replica’ experiences of the real thing does not mean the real thing does not exist. The existence of the real thing (whether you have experienced it or not yourself), is totally incontestable. (For those that have the experience that is – others can always try to explain away even the most miraculous signs such as resurrections, it is part of the ‘freedom of choice’ that we have been granted in the matter of faith).
    Take the martyrdom of Saint George for example: a great multitude of the opposition was converted (including his torturers) through the incontestable signs over the many days of his unbelievable tortures and re-vivifications to the point that Diocletian would explain “this guy will simply NOT die!”. However, Diocletian would rather believe that St. George must be using some kind of ‘Magic’ rather than be converted to the Truth…
    There is nothing that anyone can do to make someone else believe if that person does not want to take the “plunge.”
    Concerning the “fear of death” you mentioned, it is not that difficult to sweep that under the carpet, it is surprisingly effective in our culture. We are often like the irrationally confident, ignorant child who wants to jump in the swimming-pool without his dad or arm-bands, despite any warnings on the contrary.
    However, someone who is granted the, (admittedly “extreme beyond extreme”) vision of eternal death (a rare occasion perhaps) knows that Man’s only problem is that he is designed for eternal life in God, yet is in constant danger of voluntarily opting for death, ignoring the seriousness of the matter…

  38. Margaret says

    I’m currently re-reading the science fiction trilogy by CS Lewis and I’m on the second book, “Perelandra”. This conversation in the comments section here is reminding me a lot of the subject addressed in that book in particular, as well as addressed by the trilogy total. Just a thought and a recommendation for extra reading!

  39. PJ says

    John,

    “Humans are very uncomfortable with admitting an inability to understand things. So for those things that are not understood, the only mental relief is to invoke “Faith.””

    I feel that I admit my ignorance more as a theist than I ever did as an atheist-leaning agnostic.

    “From my perspective, Faith is based in fear. One must be fearful, at the core, to even want to delve into that which simply cannot be known. I think it is that core fear that is at the root of all the conflict we see.”

    I agree that, at least initially and in part, the search for God is driven by fear, specifically fear of death. But so what? It is a natural enough fear, given that our souls are configured for communion with the Eternal One, and that separation from Him is eternal death. In a similar way, the search for food is driven by fear of starvation. Yet hunger is not in and of itself bad, nor is starvation imaginary. In fact, the existence of the appetite necessarily implies the existence of its object.

    “What is so difficult about admitting some things simply cannot be known and then just leave them alone?”

    Because not everyone finds agnosticism reasonable and convincing…?

    “The obsession with religious ideas which are disputed and debated for thousands of years with no real resolution just seems strange to me.”

    But you are part of the dispute, John. This is what I find so frustrating about agnostics in particular: They posture as though they are somehow external to the theistic debate. Yet they are most definitely not. They advance a very specific set of ideas based upon certain premises. They have a stake in the argument. Their position is also vulnerable to psychological and emotional explanation.

  40. PJ says

    “To be candid, I just flat out like you guys and appreciate you putting up with me.”

    Eh, you ain’t so bad yourself, kid. ;-)

    But seriously, it’s good to have you around, John. Despite all of your protestations, I believe that the flame of Christ still burns within you: I pray that it does not die!

  41. PJ says

    Father,

    “I’m not afraid of death – though I have a great respect for it. It is a very great mystery. What I think about death and life after death would probably frighten many people (perhaps more than death itself). That has to do with how the fathers understand the nature of Person and the Self – quite distinct from the ego. Much that most people want to see beyond death, I do not expect.”

    Forgive me if I misunderstand you, Father, but this seems a bit … nontraditional. Considering that both Mary and Elijah (and perhaps Enoch) were assumed bodily into heaven, I have to assume that there is quite a bit more “continuity” than you seem to be willing to grant. Clearly, heaven ultimately defies our reason, but tradition and Scripture both appear — to my naive eyes at least — to affirm a realm in which our “personalities” persist. Many saints have communicated from heaven to those still in this world, and they are substantially the same. The fathers, by my reading, have a strong “theory” of the immaterial soul and its ability to exist apart from the body.

    As I said, I may be misunderstanding you, and if so, I apologize.

  42. PJ says

    “The more I read from neurotheologians, though, the less likely god seems to me. Rephrased; all of our realities are experienced neurologically. ”

    The brain can tell us nothing, or next to nothing, about the existence or nonexistence of God, John. None of the sciences can. By definition, the sciences are incapable of theological application. If you think that science can “prove” or “disprove” God, or even tilt the argument one way or the other in any significant way, then you still don’t understand what we believe, you still aren’t hearing us.

  43. drewster2000 says

    TLO,

    It is actually because of your protestations that you are good to have around. To the best of your ability, you are speaking the truth in love. You are bringing forward objections from your reality – but with no malice or rancor. You have a keen desire for the truth. And for one so ambivalent about death, you have a real zest for life in these conversations.

    You are more than good to have around. Thanks for being here.

  44. Margaret says

    The first chapter of the book, Bread & Water, Wine & Oil by Archimandrite Meletios Webber gives an excellent description and examination of the way the mind works and the way that we are created by a loving God to live in communion with Him here in this life and throughout eternity. Fr. Webber has a doctorate in psychological counseling and he is very “read-able”.

    The first chapter is titled “The Mind, the Heart and the Mystery.” I have found this very comforting and an absolute foundation to put under the very true comment that Mary Benton makes above in citing Puddleglum.

  45. Marjaana says

    Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is also good reading, and amusing, since he is the master of one-liners, as is Lewis’s Surprised by Joy.

  46. dinoship says

    The brain can tell us nothing, or next to nothing, about the existence or nonexistence of God, John. None of the sciences can. By definition, the sciences are incapable of theological application. If you think that science can “prove” or “disprove” God, or even tilt the argument one way or the other in any significant way, then you still don’t understand what we believe, you still aren’t hearing us.

    Indeed. This is the classic stumbling block of some modern ‘science’… It keeps deluding itself that it can explain everything, not realising that it has a defined sector all to itself.