Why do people in the modern world find belief so difficult? Obviously, many find ways to believe in God and do so with great zeal, but others, even those who describe themselves as believers, admit either to doubts about God or about many traditional teachings of the faith.
The more “miraculous” teachings, the Divinity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, Walking on the Water, Rising from the Dead, etc. present difficulties for most modern people on one level or another. For the Orthodox this becomes even more problematic, for there are feasts in the Church for which there is scant historical evidence at all (such as the recently commemorated Entry of the Child Mary into the Temple). Are the Orthodox being expected to believe even more miraculous information about history than Protestants? Or is there something about belief itself that has changed through the centuries? Is the modern problem of doubt a false problem?
It is obvious that some form of doubt has always existed. The example in the New Testament of St. Thomas is evidence enough. But is there something peculiar about modern doubt that makes it so prevalent?
Modern doubt seems to primarily circle around the problem of history. The question of faith in contemporary society is a matter of fact – do I think this event actually happened? It is around this single point that believers seem to arrange themselves. The more miraculous the events one accepts as fact, the more “traditional” or “conservative” the belief. The fewer facts accepted, the more “liberal” the belief. One group thinks the other is deeply flawed – either unwilling to “face facts” or “jettisoning the faith,” etc. Both groups are victims of their own modernity.
The rise of the modern period brought a number of new assumptions including new claims regarding history. The Protestant Reformation was more than an argument about the nature of Scripture – it was also an argument about the nature and place of history. The assault on the authority of the Church required (and still requires) a substitute. By what authority is the Church to be judged defective? By what authority (greater than the Bishops’ and the Pope’s) can it be reformed?
Scripture is one obvious answer – with the lingering question of authoritative interpretation. And it was at this point that history, as something of a rational science, had its foundations.
For if authority was to take on something of an argumentative character, then there had to be a basis for the argument. The meaning of Scripture had to be loosed from its place within tradition, and sheltered under the guise of an independent fact. This is the birth of history as a collection of facts.
If the historical (as fact) can be independently ascertained (through reason and evidence) then its facts “speak for themselves.” “The Scriptures say,” came to mean, “These are the facts.” Unnoticed at the time was the subtle movement of authority from the Scriptures themselves to history as fact. There was being put in place a means of not only challenging the authority of tradition and the Church, but a means of challenging the Scriptures themselves.
The full force of that movement was not felt for over 200 years. Only with the Enlightenment and the increasing role of reason would the same arguments once used by the Reformers against Rome be turned against their successors in the Protestant Churches. The late 18th century witnessed the birth of the Unitarians (among others) and the rational criticism of the Scriptures themselves. All of tradition was placed under the historical microscope – and has remained there ever since.
Most important in all of this has been a shift in “historical consciousness,” if you will. It is quite clear that people have always valued whether something actually happened or not – but not in the manner of the modern mind. In our time this factualized sense of history has become the sole locus of reality, authority, etc. We have become thoroughly “historicized.”
Any attempt to loosen the grip of this historicized consciousness is often seen as a nefarious working of the “liberal” mind, just one more effort to undermine the “factual” basis of the faith. This reaction is itself largely the result of the modern period. It will be observed by many that the kind of analysis of the modern historical consciousness that I offer here cannot be found in the Fathers (and therefore it will be questioned). But the Fathers could not analyze something that did not yet exist. What we can see, however, is that the same historical consciousness was not present in the Fathers in the manner it is present in us.
A first key illustration of this can be found in the abundant use of allegory within the historical thought of the Fathers. I am using “allegory” here not in its most restrictive meaning, but in its broadest, following Fr. Andrew Louth (Discerning the Mystery). The frequent assertion of images and types within the Scriptures runs deeply counter to the modern mind. That the Mother of God is also the Ark, the Candlestand, the Jar of Manna, the Rod of Aaron, etc. is not a mere exercise in literary games. The Fathers (and the hymns of the Church) treat such assertions in a manner that carries as much weight as our modern sense of historical facts. They feel about such things the way we feel about our beloved concrete, provable, verifiable events. And that such assertions cannot be provable, or verifiable in a manner that would satisfy us, troubles them not in the least.
The Fathers simply do not think or feel in the manner in which we most commonly think or feel. Their perception of things is not the same as ours. Those who read the Fathers without acknowledging this are engaging in deeply flawed anachronisms – assuming that people everywhere have always thought in the same manner as we now think.
What kind of consciousness is as comfortable speaking of Mary as the Ark of the Covenant as it is in describing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem? This is the same consciousness that gives us the sacraments, whose historical “facticity” has dogged many Christians of the modern world (and so they find ways to nuance or even deny their real character).
I have no single word to describe this older ecclesiastical consciousness. I have called it a “one-storey universe,” in an effort to explain it. But it is a difference that will not easily disappear.
My own belief is that the Fathers see something to which we are largely blind – that our historicized view of the world is extremely limiting and skews everything in our minds. One way that I have pressed this question has been to ask, “If the bread and wine of the Eucharist truly become the Body and Blood of Christ, what kind of world do we live in?” What is unique in this question is my assumption that it tells us something about how the world is.
This is a key point in the sacramental teaching of the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann. He carefully critiqued the traditional Roman Catholic approach to the sacraments as positing an “addition” to reality as we know it, whereas, he contended, in Orthodoxy, sacraments reveal something that is always true of reality. He said famously, “Sacraments do not make things to be different. They reveal things to be what they truly are.”
This has been perhaps the most foundational understanding of my Orthodox life and undergirds all of the writing that I have done. The Fathers perceive something that is true when they write of allegories or typologies. The Ark is indeed the Theotokos in a manner that is more than mental. That there is a kind or mode of being other than material facts and mental constructs is profoundly non-modern, but it is an absolutely fundamental assertion of the classical Christianity of the East (though not necessarily in the West, as witnessed by Fr. Schmemann’s critique).
All of this brings me back to the original questions concerning history. History as a collection of “facts” is not a primary category of Orthodox thought – certainly not in the manner that modern thought holds it to be. We must have an understanding in which the “facts” of an event are understood to be true, but no more so than the realities found in the Church’s allegories and types. Such realities are spiritually discerned and will never be apparent to the non-believer, or the believer who lives outside the Tradition. What is required by such an understanding is obviously nothing less than a transformation of the consciousness.
The modern believer struggles with doubts because he struggles within a false consciousness. The character of salvation does not fit the model of the modern consciousness. The Church, for example, teaches Christ’s descent into Hades in a manner that is completely comparable to Christ’s crucifixion, though it can in no way be described or discerned in the manner of a historical fact. But it is just as essential to the faith.
The gospels themselves are far less driven by historical considerations than a modern narrative and historical questions cannot be asked of them in a satisfactory manner. They were not produced by a modern historical consciousness. They are far more like icons than modern narratives. Icons play very loosely with time and historical “facts” in order to reveal the truth of things.
Modern consciousness becomes quite anxious when such things are said, in that it falsely assumes that truth and historical facticity are one and the same thing. But the conversion of the modern consciousness is, properly, one of the major tasks for contemporary Orthodoxy. Modern man lives in a flat world, a world reduced to an assemblage of cardboard cutouts. At least this is its appearance when compared to the richness and depth of the classical Christian mind.
Just as the Ark of the Covenant truly is the Mother of God, so many other things in this world are more than what they appear to be: the fact of their existence is not the fullness of their existence. Those who reject the “non-historical” character of stories such as the Virgin’s Entrance into the Temple, also reject the depth of many other things in their daily lives – and struggle with a cardboard faith, riddled by the doubts of a false consciousness.
The Tradition of the Church may be viewed critically, should someone feel driven to such. But the result will not be salvation – only the emptiness that is the inherent life of modern consciousness. For the modern mind has no place for union, or communion, or participation, or coinherence. All symbols are reduced to mind games and mere ideas. In the flatness of such lives doubting God and the whole work of salvation is inevitable. It is the natural mode of modern consciousness.