Doubt and Modern Belief

balancing_on_the_edgeWhy 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.

71 comments:

  1. Father Bless!

    Interesting article on a number of levels, and one I will have to think on more.

    I do have a thought/question on the matter upon reading. Christianity is a revelatory faith, one that says God came in the flesh to reveal himself to us. That is, there is a man that came, died, and rose from the grave, and still lives now (He was taken up in the flesh). These are historical facts, and without these facts Christianity is unfounded. Surely the Fathers realized how important it was to show that this is true, this is presumably part of the reason why the Gospels were written, to have accounts of all that was witnessed.

    Anyway,I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter. As much as a I see the reasoning behind the post, I also think historicity plays an important role in the things we believe. Otherwise we see things like people saying Jesus’ rising from the grave was some kind of elegant allegory or metaphor, and didn’t REALLY happen.

  2. Marcus, you raise a pertinent question but your approach to the question still assumes “facts” as the dominant approach.

    Facts, to the extent that they ate important at all, are always secondary to the faith that underlies them and the context in which they are considered.

    Facts are contingent and illustrative.

    They prove or did prove nothing in and of themselves.

    I began to learn this as I studied history and entered more deeply into the life of the Church.

    It was hammered home to me as I watched the early seasons of CSI in which the lead forensic investigator repeatedly stressed to his less experienced team: “Facts without context are meaningless.”

  3. Thank you, Fr Stephen, for this insightful post. I think it is much needed at this time.

    I do wonder about Fr Alexander’s quote, “Sacraments do not make things to be different. They reveal things to be what they truly are.”

    When I first heard you mention that in my journey into Orthodoxy I thought that was quite beautiful. However, in my readings of the fathers I have never come across anything that supports that sort of understanding. In fact, everything from the scriptures to liturgical music/prayers, and the fathers I have read seem to oppose that idea. Do you know of any fathers that teach it?

    I’m certainly not trying to be combative, just trying to understand your perspective on this.

    It seems like it is not a far stretch from the Protestant way of “spiritualizing” everything. In that regard, someone would not have to recognize that the gifts have changed at all; it is their understanding of the bread and wine on the altar that changes; therefore the faith can potentially become intellectual.

    It seems to me what follows is that all bread and wine is truly the body and blood of Christ and that an unbeliever taking communion in an Orthodox Church is no different from him having some bread and wine at home. The logical conclusion to that is there would be no reason to have a closed communion table since everyone is partaking in the Eucharist anyway. Also, the priest does not serve in the changing of the elements, he is simply the officiator of ceremony that helps to open people’s eyes to what has been there all along.

  4. Marcus and Michael,
    why not go further and admit that ‘facts without Grace are meaningless’? Without some measure of that wonder brought about through God’s energy on the genuinely keen soul, witnessing even the facts of the Ressurection can turn you into a Pharisee instead of a disciple.

  5. Father Stephen, I believe Marcus raises an important question, one not adequately answered by Mr. Bauman. Can it be possible to press too much the equivalence of history and allegory? Most of the scriptural exegetes among the Fathers, taking their lead from Origen, make a very clear distinction between the “literal” level of interpreting the scriptural text, and (among others levels) the “allegorical.” The two manners of understanding may be equally valid and significant and, indeed, “true,” but they are not to be confused. And the Fathers did take pains to show the plausibility of the historical accounts found in Scripture as, for example, when St. Chrysostom harmonizes the Nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke, or when Origen explains that the bottom deck of the ark was for all the dung produced by the animals during their long voyage, a factoid which he doesn’t even try to tease any spiritual or allegorical meaning out of, but simply mentions as an exigency of real life. Even allegorical interpretation itself presumes facts: you cannot have a type without an antitype.

  6. “Sacraments do not make things to be different. They reveal things to be what they truly are.” I told my mother the other day that I felt as if a housewife had to be a chemist to cook dinner these days…with all the calorie counting, chemical identifying, and nutrient investigation. It takes a college education to shop at the grocery store these days. So scientific, so factual… However, the women I grew up with understood that food was not just good due to the sum of its nutrients, or bad because it contained trace amounts of chemical. It was both/and. It was sacramental. I am struggling with the new “science in the kitchen” approach to vitality. And this post says what I feel about modern life on all levels…it’s all about facts. It’s about ideas and ideologies based on pseudoscience and statistics. Gone are the days when the table was set and the family communed. It has always been my observation that how people eat speaks very deeply about how we believe. Great post…thank you.

  7. Jeremiah,
    I do not see it that way myself. Fr Alexander’s quote, “Sacraments do not make things to be different. They reveal things to be what they truly are” seems well supported in the Fathers and even in scripture. The pure see. The famous encounter of Motovilov and St Seraphim of Sarov revealed to Motovilov who truly ‘entered the sacrament in the Uncreated Light’, things to be what they truly are, no?

  8. Jeremiah,

    But Saint Maximus is the Father par excellence who treats this most clearly when discussing the ‘Logoi’ of things, their ‘raison d’ etre’… His words are sometimes shockingly precise, compared to the more general statements of the mystical Fathers.
    He explains how the ‘sacramental structure’ of the universe (and the effect of each divine sacrament) is founded on the relationship between created and uncreated, and therefore Sacraments are the realized manifestation of the unity of created and uncreated…
    Outside this key relationship there is no sacramental power nor knowledge of divine energy.
    He emphasizes that without the “natural theory” of the ‘logoi’ one cannot comprehend sacramental fullness.

    Every revelation of God in creation, is a further ‘completion’ of creation through Uncreated divine presence, and always occurs on the base – the “infrastructure” – of the divine ‘logoi’ with which beings are endowed.

    The ‘energy’ of every Sacrament is nothing other than a further advancement and completion of the ‘divine logoi’ of creation.

  9. Michael/Marcus,

    Although context determines meaning, I caution against a primary/secondary approach to facts: it seems to me that whether we deem them primary (as do ‘literalists’) or secondary (as do “liberals’) such an understanding remains deeply modern and ultimately misleading because things, facts, history – these are integral (indeed necessary) to sacraments.

    Fr Schmemann’s maxim can be applied to history:

    “Sacraments do not make history to be different. They reveal history to be what it truly is.”

    And facts:

    “Sacraments do not make facts to be different. They reveal facts to be what they truly are.”

    The Fathers without exception uphold the importance of history, things, and facts for the mystery of salvation. The Incarnation, after all, required such.

  10. So is someone working on a follow-up to the “One Storey Universe” book?

    Wonderful article and a good explanation of the difficulty of a modern mindset to really grasp the truth presented by God’s Church.

  11. Well.
    I was quite careful in the article to state that history (and the facts) are important. Nor do I mean to make allegory necessarily equivalent to history. But you fail to see my point (which is my point to a great extent). The Fathers see differently. For allegory to be true at all in a manner that is anything other than pure mental association, is a radical departure from the assumptions of pure historicity, in the manner of how we as moderns see history.

    I utterly agree that the facticity of the faith is essential, and the article does not infer otherwise. But pure modern historicity has no room for the true place of allegory and typology.

    To the point of the sacraments. Schmemann’s dictum is best explained (and defended) in his small article, “Sacrament and Symbol,” appended to the end of For the Life of the World. I highly recommend the article – it’s worth the price of the book. I think it is the single most important work of Schmemann. That’s saying a lot for an article.

    It gets technical and not all will follow it. It is rooted in the right understanding of symbol, something the Fathers did not have to write about, since it was a commonly shared understanding until it was later perverted. A symbol, in its proper meaning, indicates the presence of two things, not the absence of one with the other standing for it. Schmemann’s understanding is the only correct way to understand the language of St. Basil in his Liturgy, “And show this bread to be…” Indeed a change happens. But the change is also a revelation, a showing forth.

    All bread is obviously not the Eucharistic bread, though all bread has a eucharistic dignity and only modern hubris thinks all bread to just be stuff. It is this discontinuity (bread has nothing in common with Christ’s Body) that is at the heart of the modern destruction of the truly Symbolic character of all reality.

    I stood at the bank of the Jordan River with Met. Kallistos Ware some years back, as he prayed the prayers for the blessing of the waters (the same as the blessing of the Baptismal waters). In it, we prayed that God would “send the blessing of the Jordan,” on the waters. We prayed for the waters of the Jordan to be the waters of the Jordan!

    I understand that what I am saying raises questions. But push past the easy (and false) views of modernity. Ask yourself “how can these things be true Symbols”? Read Schmemann. Don’t just toy with the quote. Read it and try to digest what is being said. If my blog article doesn’t draw someone to that, then it’s a waste of time.

    Now the gospels. No, the gospels are not written in order to provide historical accounts of what was written. If that were so, then they failed miserably. There is plenty of history there, but the Fathers said that “Icons do with color what the Scriptures do with words.” Icons are not pure historical depictions – rather they depict in the same manner as the gospels.

    The gospels shape the historical narrative in an iconic manner – to be sure that in reading them we can see what we are supposed to see. If I could show you a movie, a video tape of the Last Week (Holy Week) in Christ’s ministry, our historical consciousness would imagine it to be the “perfect” gospel. How could it not be? But the disciples who were eyewitnesses saw all of Holy Week, and did not understand at all. Indeed, they misunderstood. That is their witness.

    But the gospels are not books of misunderstanding – but books written that we might understand. They are not just the record – because the record alone is not enough. There is something more that is there and the something more is utterly necessary. And the something more is more than mere history, in the modern sense. We call them gospels and not history books.

    Christ’s rising from the grave is not an allegory. Yes, of course it really happened. But His Baptism in the Jordan is also His rising from the grave – so we must ask – how is that possible? How does Christ’s resurrection from the dead coinhere in His rising from the waters (and in the parting of the Red Sea, etc.)?

    History in its modern sense says something, but it does not say enough. I am not shrinking the witness of the faith but begging you to be enlarged.

  12. A key in understanding all this is found in St Maximus, who talks of God the Logos Himself, as the unifying force that draws the two dimensions of corporeal and incorporeal and of “Logoi” and “Types”. So all of the intelligible/ incorporeal world is mystically “written” and “printed” with symbolic types (as he explains) in the corporeal; and all the corporeal “inherently exists” and “noetically recognized” in the incorporeal world of the divine ‘logoi’.

    The ‘logoi’ (or divine principles) as components of the incorporeal world, and as “eschatological destinations” have their basis in the divine will, yet, can be discerned in the corporeal world; while ‘types’ and ‘symbols’ manifests the incorporeal divine presence in the corporeal world.

  13. Dino,
    Yes. And it is the relationship between the divine logoi and creation that make symbols possible. Bread has always had a eucharistic reality (even when it is not the Eucharist). This is very important for rightly understanding the Christian gospel. We were created in the image and likeness of God – from the beginning. As such, humanity always had a “Christic” (don’t like the word but don’t have another) reality. Christ not only becomes human, but in doing so He also reveals humanity for what it truly is. The Incarnation does not damage or change to our humanity. It unites it to His divinity- but it doesn’t become something other than human.

    And this is true of all things. Jesus never turns a bird into a flower. What Father would give you a stone if you asked for bread? But we must have the True Bread. And He makes bread to be the True Bread. But He doesn’t make apples to be the True Bread (etc.).

    What I have heard in these responses is the voice of modernity (as I predicted in the article). It is the voice of believers, but of a belief that needs to stretch and become the fullness of Orthodox faith. We not only believe certain facts, but we must learn to believe them in an Orthodox manner. Many Orthodox in the modern world do not know or understand what this means and cannot do more than teach an Orthodox “set of facts.” This will be our death if it is not reversed (and it will be reversed in some manner and to some extent).

  14. Perhaps you could write even more Father about the “relationship between the divine logoi and creation that make symbols possible”… Especially on how the potent ‘reality’ of creation becomes ‘completed’ reality in Sacrament and how this relationship between ‘symbolicity’ and ‘logicity’ is not of unreal and real as modernity would have it misinterpreting the term symbol.
    Saying all this, I understand in new light Elder Aimilianos’ and Elder Sophrony’s experiential expression that upon personally encountering God the only truly existent One, all else seems as inexistent in comparison.

  15. Thank you for your explanations, Fr Stephen (and Dino). I think I am beginning to understand. St Nikolai’s the Universe As Signs and Symbols seemed to be getting at a very similar point. I have Fr Alexander’s book sitting on my shelf. I will read that article in the back.

    Dino, thank you for tying it into St Maximo’s teachings. I tend to shy away from many modern books and mostly read things written by those canonized as saints, which is why I asked for support from the fathers for something so important.

  16. Jeremiah,
    As someone born into the modern period, however, you (and I) will have been formed in a modern consciousness. The mind inevitably distorts the Fathers unless it has guidance. It’s nothing that we should ever despair about, but good guides (I include Fr. Schmemann among them) help direct our understanding towards a transformed mind (which is ultimately the work of the Spirit).

    Part of what I try to do in my writing is to urge people towards an openness to that transformation. When I point out how the Fathers saw things (as more than just the historical facts in the modern manner), this is what I’m about.

    The Orthodox faith includes a very different way of seeing things (at the very least). The Westernization of the Church is also the modernization of the Church. And a modernized Church will not resist the modern heresies (which are so numerous). Or just as bad, we will distort the truth and defend it for the wrong reasons. This latter end is quite common, frankly.

  17. In his pre-Christian days, one summed up this issue so well by asking, perhaps prophetically for us moderns – “What is truth?”

    Perhaps, too, the problem of facts, history and meaning is not as ‘modern’ as we may think it is.

  18. Those reasons you gave, Fr Stephen, are part of why I don’t read modern authors very often. I hear criticism of virtually everyone that is a modern writer that I figured my best bet would be to stick with the saints (and lots of prayer!) to build a solid foundation before moving to more modern authors. Many modern people are thoroughly westernized, myself included. It is hard to know who to trust. But I do appreciate your work here. It played a part in my becoming Orthodox.

  19. Dino, re: facts. I was intending to make the point you made better. It takes grace, especially the grace of an encounter with Jesus to even begin to recognize the facts of salvation, let alone accepting the interpretation of those facts as revealed in the Church.

    Facts are important, sorta like a skeleton. However without a knowledge and understanding of anatomy it is impossible to but them in the correct order or even to recognize if a certain bone is human or not.

    The criticism that without facts it is easy to spirituslize reality is well founded. But facts never speak for themselves.

  20. Father, much of what your write about, and perhaps this post above all, calls to mind for me Charles Taylor’s argument in ‘A Secular Age’ that religious faith in modernity is always colored by the possibility (in principle) of atheism. I don’t recall you mentioning Taylor or his big book but wonder if you believe that your approach (i.e. the Church’s approach) is responsive to it. It feels to me very much that it is but I would love to read your thoughts.

  21. A similar realization–aided by your blog–has been hugely helpful to this history student. It was so liberating to escape the feeling that I had to make everything line up literally with established historical fact or I was believing in nonsense. It has also helped and been helped by my reading of the Church Fathers.

    I’m aware, however, that nontheists would consider this the latest step in a kind of shell-game… dodging falsification once again. And that troubles and saddens me. The nontheists I know are mostly deconverts who have seen and been frustrated by Christians’ elaborate mental structures to dodge challenges to their faith. They concluded the faith was one big nothing surrounded by a haze of apologetics. In part this is because most Christians are content with the weakest evidences, those which are most self-affirming and easiest to understand, but at the same time, it is only more and more difficult for me to articulate to nontheists the “why” of Christianity. The language of symbols is meaningless to them. I don’t know where I’m going with this….

  22. Peter,
    I’m very familiar with Taylor’s work, and have been since the late 80’s. It’s certainly played an important role within some of my thoughts. Schmemann is due the largest credit. He described Secularism as the greatest heresy in today’s world. And his theological analysis, as I’ve cited here, is deeply rooted not in any political analysis, but in a shift in worldview. The ability to see the world as somehow separate from God is the heart of the matter. He traced this in the West (and he speaks of a “Western Captivity” of Orthodoxy in a manner similar to Florovsky) back to the breakdown of the proper understanding of symbol, and the abandonment of a true patristic understanding. Here is a quote (it’s a bit thick) in which we explains “the crux of the matter.”

    To simplify our task we can take as the starting point of this study the long and well-known debate which dominates from beginning to end the development in the West of sacramental and, more especially, eucharistic theology. It is the debate on the real presence. Nowhere indeed is better revealed the line dividing from one another the two approaches to the sacrament, as well as the reasons which led to the transformation of one into another. Within the context of that debate the term “real” clearly implies the possibility of another type of presence which therefore is not real. The term for that other presence in the Western intellectual and theological idiom is, we know, symbolical. We need not go here into the very complex and in many ways confused history of that term in Western thought.6 It is clear that in the common theological language as it takes shape between the Carolingian renaissance and the Reformation, and in spite of all controversies between rival theological schools, the “incompatibility between symbol and reality,” between “figura et veritas”7 is consistently affirmed and accepted. “To the ‘mystice, non vere’ corresponds not less exclusively ‘vere, non mystice.’ “8 The Fathers and the whole early tradition, however—and we reach here the crux of the matter—not only do not know this distinction and opposition, but to them symbolism is the essential dimension of the sacrament, the proper key to its understanding. St. Maximus the Confessor, the sacramental theologian par excellence of the patristic age, calls the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist symbols (“symbola”), images (“apeikonismata”) and mysteries (“mysteria”).9 “Symbolical” here is not only not opposed to “real,” but embodies it as its very expression and mode of manifestation. Historians of theology, in their ardent desire to maintain the myth of theological continuity and orderly “evolution,” here again find their explanation in the “imprecision” of patristic terminology. They do not seem to realize that the Fathers’ use of “symbolon” (and related terms) is not “vague” or “imprecise” but simply different from that of the later theologians, and that the subsequent transformation of these terms constitutes indeed the source of one of the greatest theological tragedies.

    I would not be incorrect to say that my entire book is nothing more than an excursus on this paragraph…

  23. Fr. Stephen,

    Do you think the term “symbol” (and it’s permutations) is recoverable?

    I want to say it is not, that something new is needed to mean what you and Schmemann (and the Fathers) are pointing to here…

  24. When I was being catechized my priest told me to remember to say the blessing and thanksgiving whenever I eat, because “ordinary eating derives its character from the Eucharist.” Of course a sandwich and a cup of tea are not the Eucharist, but they are also to be received in thanksgiving as one’s life is offered to God.

    I think my priest’s quote can also be inverted to say why the Eucharist is important: because it’s the “realest” food there is.

  25. Corvus,
    What you say about non-theists is very true. But I think that (post-Renaissance especially, though not exclusively) ‘scholastic rationalization’ of everything has created the need and the grounds –fertile for such misunderstandings- for these apologetics they discount as mental acrobatics which they certainly aren’t.
    In fact, a simple soul who does not suffer from this disproportionately overdeveloped rationality – at the expense of all other insight – has little problem in comprehending the proper notion of ‘symbol’.
    Meg Photini’s example on Eucharistic everyday eating as an aid to be lead to this insight is a case in point… The actualization of [‘symbolic’] creation (such as ordinary bread, or ‘ordinary man) into ‘new creation’ based on its inherent ‘logoi’ (bread into Eucharist, man into ‘christ’ – a repetition of Christ Himself) is easier understood by one who does not suffer from the constant need for answering the mind’s rational stream of skepticism.

  26. Thank you for such clarity ! I was always a mystical person who experienced meaning laden reality. Becoming Orthodox was coming home. Metropolitan Bloom said that Christians live in an additional dimension other than the ones other people live in . So we are immersed in meanings and connections that others don’t experience. Naturally then ,others think us crazy; even crazy enough to die for what we believe. “Those who do not hear the music, think the dancers mad”
    It is a fault of the modern mind to expect people throughout the ages to see things just as we do, and to criticize them for not having our logical views and values and for not acting as we would (supposedly) act. And this view through history blinds we modern people to the beauty and depth and existential richness of ancient expression, let alone religious sacramental life. I prefer not to live in Ken Wilber’s ‘flatland’ or in impoverished modern rationality. One of Eckhart’s lovely images is that God is a golden net which contains all creatures, or creation ,was it? Either way !

  27. Reply,
    I do not know that it is recoverable for the culture at large – but it must be recovered in Orthodox usage. The word is already there prominently in the Fathers. It is even the correct meaning of the word Sym-Bole – to “bring two things together.” It’s opposite is Dia-bole. And it is truly diabolic what has been done with the word.

    What is lost, though, is not the meaning of the word, but the “feel” for the meaning of the word. It is the modern loss of the sense that there is even anything there (behind and beneath) that is the difficulty. Words mean things – people invent them in order to express something that they need to express. That symbol could have been so perverted was and is a symptom that something was lost – they no longer needed the word to do its original job.

    Schmeman pushes this back in the Medieval West. If that is correct (and historical analysis is always difficult), then there was a shift in consciousness in the West much earlier than the modern period.

    Orthodoxy does not drive the culture (or its language) outside of its native lands. Becoming Orthodox does indeed mean learning a new language (not Greek or Russian) – but new meanings in many cases. This must be the case because Orthodoxy is not a theory that is merely laid over the already existing facts. It is also a way of perceiving (“We have seen the true light”) that is a gift from God. We will have to learn to speak the language of what we see.

    It is also true that without the language, we sometimes remain blind.

    I will note in closing that the not infrequent charges of “Platonism” repeated in the West in describing Orthodoxy are precisely about this very topic.

  28. Fr. Stephen : Thank you for the excellent article ! I noticed something similar to what St. Paul wrote about this subject. How does one describe meat to one who has only had milk ? Ken

  29. Ken,
    This has been a very key part of my own life. Reading in the Fathers (including the contemporary fathers) and getting the clear sense that they saw (see) something that was not visible to me. I think the transformation of the nous (our mind/consciousness) is slow indeed. It is also a transformation that is impeded by ignorance. Christ’s statement that the pure in heart shall see God is foundational – particularly for prayer, fasting and repentance.

  30. “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”

    Matt 4:4 Deut 8:3

    Yes, and Christ is the Word of God giving existence to words. We are words of God too, because we are in His image. So, to give us life He feeds us of Himself.

  31. There is one trend in (believe it or not)theoretical physics, which is moving towards the mindset of the church fathers as to how reality works. I recently watched closer to truth interview with theoretical physicist Fotini Markopoulou. She’s one of the leading physicist who are developing a quantum theory of gravity. one of the interesting things that she said was that they are looking for ways to describe the world in terms that exclude the notion of space and even possibly time. Fotini said that they are using different language to describe space. instead of describing distance in terms of how close or far away an object is to another, they use the language of a network. How connected something is to another. The fundamentals (space and time) of a materialists model of reality aren’t really fundamental. This means that quiet possibly, that the world in which we encounter is quite literally symbolic; pointing beyond itself towards something fundamental.

    link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-Q4m5T7knM&list=PLaPWgTCFh2ORjX8oNJL1e-0yxz5divQ2r

    interesting video if one is interested in more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NsbZT9bJ1s4&list=PLaPWgTCFh2ORjX8oNJL1e-0yxz5divQ2r&index=1

  32. Father,
    I really appreciate your comments here and the extra clarifications provided.

    Corvus,
    Modern rationality has an inherent analytical “dia-bolical” (in the sense of ‘separating’ explained above by Father) penchant that impairs the unitive principle of sacramentality. Allow me to paraphrase Fr Alexander Schmemann…
    Sacrament holds together [let’s bring to mind again the original definition of “sym-bole” – ‘συμ-βάλει’- as that which brings together] the three dimensions or levels of the Christian vision of reality: those of the Church, the world, and the Kingdom. And “holding” them together it made them known –in the deepest patristic sense of the word ‘knowledge’- as both understanding and participation. Having its beginning, content and ending in Christ, ‘which is, and which was, and which is to come’ (Rev 1:8), sacrament reveals Christ as the beginning, the content and the end of all which exists, as its Creator, Redeemer, and fulfillment. Sacraments are catholic acts of the Church fulfilling herself, ‘symbols’ (in the patristic understanding of this term) in “this world” of “the world to come,” of the consummation in God of all things. Christ, the Symbol of all symbols stated most emphatically that one who sees Him sees the Father, the one who is in Him has the communion of the Holy Spirit, the one who believes in Him has already –here and now- eternal life.
    The key in all this however, is not to simply grasp it mentally – thanks to one’s great intellectual, conceptual powers (although this helps too)-, but to enter the struggle for purity in earnest, which is what puts us on the path that naturally leads to illumination and the ontological revelation, and ‘living’ these truths inside our heart.

  33. To Pentecostals, demons are real. To the Reformed, they mostly aren’t, except inasmuch as the more conservative among them have to believe in them because the Bible discusses them. When I went from a Pentecostal church to a Reformed church some decades ago, I got involved in their Boy Scout troop. I was asked by the boys to tell a scary story at a campfire, and somehow was able to come up with a real bone-rattler. It dealt with an isolated Amazonian tribe and their ongoing relationship with the great bat Ooo-nue-weh who dwelt in a cave on the border of the tribe’s territory . Ooo-nue-weh was believed to speak during thunderstorms and to make children sick with his breath.

    The story was a little too good. Before long my tent was full of trembling boys who wanted to know more about Ooo-nue-weh. I introduced a Christian missionary into the story and brought him to the lip of the bat-demon’s cave with the elders of the tribe behind him, their knees knocking together with fear.

    “So, what do you think the missionary did?” I asked the boys. I was not prepared for the answer one of them gave me;

    “He told the chiefs to go back to their tents and not to worry because Ooo-nue-weh didn’t exist. It was just the howling of the wind and the sound of the rain that scared them.”

    Looking at the pallid shivering faces of the boys in my tent, I knew this was not a satisfactory answer. I told them the missionary rebuked Ooo-nue-weh in the name of Jesus Christ, and spent the rest of his life there teaching them how Jesus died on the cross to make them free from entities like Ooo-nue-weh.

    My story was not well received by the synod, and I am no longer Reformed.

    I don’t know if there is a point to all of this. It is hard for me to see the products of a pre-scientific mind as anything except wrong. Science is the most powerful explanatory tool yet devised by the human mind, but it does flatten things so terribly. Yet, at the same time I don’t know that I would want to go back to a pre-scientific mindset to try to recover what has been lost, and I don’t know that the Fathers can be read productively by anyone with his head all full of the furniture of early 21st century without a lot of “un-programming”.

  34. Orthodoxy would have made the story even more dramatic – possibly with a visible show down between the two, or perhaps an aided pitched battle with St. Michael the Archangel, etc. Children know many things. They know there’s a boogie-man, and that some people are simply bad and must be avoided. They know that some places are not good, etc. What a truly modern response your scouts had, “There’s no such thing…” They were like Eustace in Narnia.

  35. One does not have to go back to a pre-scientific mind. One had to go forward, upward and across time to understand a greater reality made possible to us by the Incarnation.

    Because God became man and took our nature and our body with Him we are no longer bound by time or linear cause and effect as much as we were and, for the most part, scientists are still mostly comfortable with.

    That unfortunately reduces the findings of science to far less than they might otherwise become.

    “There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in your philosophy…”

    To be fully human is to be in full union with our God.

  36. Father,

    I have been thinking hard over this post since I read it early yesterday; have kept coming back to follow the comments and wanted to say something, but found that my response would not stay still. I finally just wrote the whole thing out in a blog post of my own (here). You will see that it was much, much too long for a blog comment. No assumption that you will respond, but I wanted to thank you –& other commenters– for (as always) so very much to think and meditate upon.

  37. Thank you, Dino. I am aware of this tendency of modern rationality, which arguably has become even more aggravated in postmodern thought (representing a further and even more headstrong descent from synthesis). As someone currently considering a plunge back into academe, I hope to learn to see in purity such that these truths will not be dimmed to me by the modern mental mess.

    I think of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s belief that if we can learn, in detachment, to “see deeper” into reality, we will gain an awareness of the metaphysical depth and hidden connections that undergird the universe. However, I myself am painfully far from achieving this awareness…. How then can I expect, say, my Charismatic-deconvert/atheist relative who is, I believe, earnestly seeking truth, to open his mind to what he probably sees as just another Christian “mind-trick”? He’s tangling with scientism, of course, having grown totally disillusioned with the supernatural claims of his religious heritage.

    Perhaps this is the wrong question to ask, given that this subject is not really open to the whole modern rationalist mindset. But this is something I wonder about a lot as I grow in my own understanding of the faith.

  38. Fr Freeman, I am not Orthodox, but an Anglican on a journey (I have attended Divine Liturgy a few times over the last few months, loved it, and am further curious). I have appreciated listening to your talks on the two-story universe on AFR. However, as an ancient history major and a soon-to-be seminarian in Biblical Theology, I was wondering your take on biblical theology. The works of NT Wright, Gordon Fee, and Richard Hays have been foundational for me in the way I study the Scripture academically. Would you say that attempting to reconstruct Paul’s historical context (first century Judaism and the wider Hellenstic world) and placing his texts within that situated time and place is irrelevant accademically or even spiritaully? In my mind, words (as symbols) are culturally embedded. When they become disembedded from the culture that they came from, they are in danger of losing the meaning that was originally intended by the initial speaker (who was highly embedded in that context with various words, symbols, and praxis all evoking differing ideas, emotions and concepts). I am nto so much speaking about miracles and such, but the theology of Paul or Jesus or Peter or John. What they believed about their world and how they negotiated the happenings of the resurrection, the impending destruction of Jerusalem, and the newly reconfigured people of God (identified by their Messiah as opposed to Torah and Temple).
    I personally have found much benefit in my spirituality from studying history and using Historical Realism (as outlined in NT Wright’s “New Testament and the People of God”). However, I fear that, as a history major, I am disqualified from Orthodoxy based on my love for history and the methods used when academically studying the bible. I do not presume the historical critical method to be the end-all-be-all (Paul seemingly believed that a veil was taken away when a believer read the OT as opposed to an unbeliever). Nor do I believe in some fantastical notion of 18th century objectivity when reading scripture in context. However, I do think that there is a usefulness in re-embedding Jesus, Paul, and the Church fathers in their historical context (a reconstructed context of course) and attempting to read their message and overall language against the backdrop of 1st century Judaism and what we currently know about it. This is the only way that I would know how to be faithful to what Chrysostom wrote: “We must consider the intention of the writer. And unless we follow this methodology in our own discussions, and look into the mind of the speaker, we will make many enemies, and everything will be thrown into confusion.”
    I hope that I have no succumb to the modern heresies that have been spoken about on this thread. If I have, I pray that God would save me. But as of right now, I do not know if history is as bad as what is spoken about on this blog (since Thucydides, Polybius, Josephus, Livy, and Eusebius all wrote histories of certain time periods… long before the enlightenment).

  39. Corvus,
    pray for me please. I am sure you are aware that (an erudite, academic especially) an amenable, poised Christian who manifests unceasing joy, and joyful ascesis testifies to something incontestable without the need for words…
    But your earnestly seeking relative is ultimately God’s matter.

  40. Anglican Friend,
    I was trained in the historical method (and you never really shake it off). Frankly, it can be useful in many ways. Literalism (a blanket refusal and rejection of the historical method) is actually just as Modern as the sort of critical approach that imagines itself to be dismantling belief. I think that what I am describing is something of a “third way.” That third way is to recognize that the texts are not correctly seen as purely historical. The point of the gospels in particular is not historical. They are liturgical and iconic in character. I think we can say that we strongly recognize the hand of the author in the shape of the stories (and that will always raise unanswerable historical questions). But that is like recognizing the hand of the iconographer. It is a form which actually carries the reality to which it refers. “Icons make present what they represent.”

    Biblical studies have generally failed to do justice to the texts in their proper mode. But I think that is work that remains to be done by someone. Read Behr’s The Mystery of Christ if you haven’t already. I would recommend reading a lot about icons and thinking about them as well.

    This doesn’t quite apply to St. Paul, of course. There’s good historical work to be done, and plenty can and should be done by believers – even Orthodox believers.

  41. @Anglican Friend:
    As a fellow Anglican, (albeit in America), and a non-academic on the fringes of academe, I pretty strongly resonate with your question. I cannot of course speak for Orthodoxy, but the attempts to enter into an informed sense of the theology of Paul or any of the early church are, it seems to me, crucial (for certain purposes) — though not sufficient. Doubtless we have to “start where we are,” and that means in Modernity (also, alas, in sin) — and not stay there. The assertion that “the Fathers see things differently,” for instance, is itself a historical claim. It is not just that. A strong sense of history does not have to lock us into historicism (which,as you know, in some circles has already turned into the dead-end of declaring the inaccessibility of “fact”); it can also — if it is open, flexible, and willing to encounter the genuine possibility of not just facts, but their eternal significance. (This is a small aspect of what I was getting at in the blog post referenced above).

  42. Regarding this change of consciousness that we need to be able to see what the fathers saw, it sounds like we’ve lost the ability Jesus referred to when He said “therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old.” (Matt. 13:52) There’s a flexibility and continuity there we no longer seem to have.

  43. Skholiast and Anglicanfriend,
    I’m working on an article with some reflections on the notion of a past consciousness. It is very common in the modern period to describe something as being “out of the Middle Ages,” and in so doing somehow remove it from the Modern World as if it did not belong. This, of course, removes the Modern World from responsibility for stuff it doesn’t like.

    In truth, the mind of the fathers is quite present tense. It is embodied in the liturgical life and practice of Orthodoxy (for example). And so, I would probably write more accurately if I spoke of acquiring an “Orthodox consciousness.” And it’s probably misleading for me to write of a “modern consciousness.” It’s not the “when,” it’s the “how.” It has been an extremely successful rhetoric device for Modernity (or the intellectual movements that constitute what is meant by “Modernity”) to disparage anything else as “out of date,” and blame it for all the woes of the present world. But that is a false rhetorical move.

    Orthodoxy does not and should not champion a return to the past. It is very present tense, and, someday, will be the only tense!

  44. This historical problem is less an issue for ancient historians themselves who look at ancient genres and narratives in the context of their culture and society (in which it’s language and meaning it interlinked inseparably with) and how they understood history or any other genre. All biographies and histories were desired to be from or centred in involved in those events and so gave the understanding of what they or their subject meant, outside of that full realibity and understanding was not possible and understanding through legendary forms connected to ritual, praxis and ceremony revealed that meaning and understanding and reality where more so involved eyewitness tradition could not be related.

    Where there was such involved testimony it was their responsibility ideally or the historians if he wasn’t an involved party to weave that into a narrative or portrait and to make full use of literary allusions and devices to allow the audience to understand the truth of the people and events, they didn’t function like journalist articles or more modern histories but were meant to be narratives, stories and portraits to be told in an oral cultures (until printing this was always how most writing functioned, to be read allowed and work in oral societies and tradition and memory). The kind of accuracy we look for in historical accounts are often just not there at least in the same way and are not intended to be read as journalistic, sequentially accurate account but rather a narrative that lets us understand the truth and meaning of what happened from those involved and the greater purpose and meaning of it for the hearers.

    So at one level what could be said of the Gospels could be said of all ancient histories, unless just bald chronicles, oral societies understood that putting an event into a narrative and story was only way to understand and really witness to it, and so other histories include the same type of literature flourishes and motifs and functioned in societies that hadn’t divorced the use of imagination and what might be termed metaphor and allegory devices, not uncontrolled or unrelated to the events but directly tied by those involved into relating the concrete truth of what happened and revealing the meaning to be understood. To an extent we still do when we relate our own events and histories in our families and have family stories and involving their own understood symbolism and conventions already understood and and communicated in the stories, in a way they sit at the heart of communication. But we lack the depth and expertise of oral societies in which the depth and understanding of this communication came naturally and hadn’t divided this communication and memory from relating history, that is a modern post printing understanding.

    Ancient historians are more comfortable with at least dealing with the texts of ancient and medieval history or archaeological inscriptions, having learnt to read them but outside we have lost that understanding and knack, apart from our informal stories and jokes but without the professionalism and depth of ancient societies.

    This doesn’t seem from my reading seem to be an awareness shared by many biblical scholars at least not enough. Only NT Wright seems to fully incorporate the historians’ method and craft into his interpretations and also Richard Bauckman to a large extent. I have also been impressed by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev in the writing he has done in relating understand writings from within the context, tradition and perspective they were written in and apart of.

    Though I would still say it is important that biblical investigation and historical inquiry has an important purpose, the Lord Jesus of worship is the same as He that walked the shores of Galilee, the Word became flesh, therefore the Jesus is the same Jesus who was with the disciples, who gave hope to Matthew Levi or Peter, He is a full human and is historical as we are, someone who lowered Himself to be vulnerable and spat w, sharing our full humanity finally our death, we don’t need to retreat or divorce the two or fear honest inquiry even son misuse it, we must not try do what He forbade the Apostles from doing, to seek to keep Him from attack or scrutiny and vulnerability, as there the power of God and His glory is revealed
    . We need the Gospels of the Tradition given by the Apostles to understand events, of the Eucharist and the life of the Church to understand and interpret Gospel, to live it, but historical inquiry I believe still has a vitally important place properly understood.

  45. This wasn’t mentioned earlier but is most germane indeed Father:

    Orthodoxy does not and should not champion a return to the past. It is very present tense, and, someday, will be the only tense!

    St Paul’s vantage point for instance, is this ‘eternal present, grounded in the eschata’; this is the ‘context’ one needs to understand him. Seeing this vantage point is “seeing the fulfilment of the symboles,” (Ode 4 Paschal canon) which we sing on the night of the Resurrection.

  46. “I will note in closing that the not infrequent charges of “Platonism” repeated in the West in describing Orthodoxy are precisely about this very topic.”

    It is easy to see why. Of course, the reverse charge of a crude “Aristotelian” character to western dialectical theology (i.e. Scholasticism and the subsequent secularism) is easily leveled at the West – and in so many ways is true. Fr. Stephen, you mentioned the “modern consciousness” above being somewhat misleading. Perhaps “secular consciousness” is better. I just finished the essay of Schmemann’s that comes right before the one you recommended: “Worship in a secular age”. I do see the influence in so much of what you write. Now, perhaps my 6 month old will allow me to finish “Sacrament and Symbol” soon 😉 I see in a new light the threat of the secular to our true Humanity – not that I doubted it before. Question: Schememann seems to have been sensitive to accusations of “modernism” to his thesis? Where did these come from (he does not name names 😉 )?

    DimBulb,

    You say:

    “It is hard for me to see the products of a pre-scientific mind as anything except wrong. Science is the most powerful explanatory tool yet devised by the human mind”

    I grew up as a Unitarian and what you say here ticks so many boxes. It is no doubt part of the Doxology of the modern/secular belief. The thing is, it is not true in any important way. I suppose similar to the misuse of “symbol”, one has to really change and limit the meaning of “explanation” (to a secularized definition) to agree that science explains anything significant. The important questions (questions of love, meaning, virtue, and even the “cosmos” properly defined – let alone the question of God and our/cosmos relation to Him) are not touched by science and can not be. This is not to say that there are not several idealism’s floating around that purport to be “science” (and are forms of scientism) and supply the secular mind with meaning. Of course the hollowness of these idealism’s are evident for all to see…

  47. People today frequently do not understand the context of the criticisms leveled at Schmemann. I grieve deeply when I run across little Orthodox newbies who repeat these things and really know nothing of what they are saying. That period was a time in which there was great tension within Orthodoxy – particularly between Moscow, the OCA, and ROCOR. The tensions were, of course, first born in the fire of the Bolshevik revolution and the responses to it. Moscow was decimated, ROCOR was in exile, and the OCA (then called the Metropolia) was struggling to survive. For a time, there was a great alliance between ROCOR and the OCA, they were even one group in the US. But tensions flared and the split became bitter. They were not in communion with each other, or with Moscow, and ROCOR was out of communion with everyone other than Serbia as I recall.

    This is my take on things:

    Schmemann was part of a Russian exile intelligensia that had settled in Paris. They were well-educated, including in Western Universities. They conversed easily with Western scholars. And they did incredible work.

    ROCOR had more roots in Russian monasticism and was distrustful of the intelligentsia.

    And here is the great irony. Schmemann, Florovsky and some others, Russian intellectuals, were themselves highly critical of what they called the “Western Captivity” of Orthodoxy – accurately describing the undue influence of various Protestant (mostly Lutheran) and Catholic scholastic theologies. It was less about content and more about method. Young people today have no historical understanding of this. But through the 19th century (and earlier), theology had come to be highly categorized, organized and systematized in what are called the “Manuals of Theology.” They were often little more than glorified catechisms. They were not true instructions in method or understanding. They were formulaic. A good current example is Pomozansky’s Orthodox Theology. His is better than many others – but it’s more or less the same style. It was translated by Seraphim Rose.

    Rose attacked Schmemann and others. It’s who he’s aiming at when he inveighs against the “Parisians.” There is plenty of room to have criticized S. Bulgakov (of Paris) but not to confuse Lossky, Schmemann or Florovsky with his work. They opposed Bulgakov.

    What is ironic is that those who would have thought themselves the most “traditional” were defending a very Westernized tradition and were fearful of what was coming out of Paris. I’m glad that those days are passed. The memory is not gone, however. But in time, I think even that will be dimmed.

    I recently read a wonderful interview with Sister Vassa (she of the Coffee fame). She did her doctorate under the Catholic Scholar Robert Taft, S.J. Some in ROCOR, following these old patterns, have been critical of such. She makes a wonderful defense of her work and that kind of work in the interview. What she is doing, and what Fr. Schmemann did, are similar in their methods. We need genuine scholarship, not just people who say, “The Fathers say…”

    As I’ve noted in these articles, acquiring the mind of the Fathers cannot be had simply by reading them. The reason is that there is a different consciousness that wrote their work. A modern consciousness can read the Fathers and even quote them, but will use them in the wrong way and to the wrong end. The acquire their consciousness is a different thing. It’s not exactly a scholarly effort, but it does require repenting of our own modern assumptions – and that requires a certain element of critical thought.

    I personally think that this consciousness is primarily acquired through ascesis and immersion in the liturgical life of the Church. That ascesis includes learning to throw out a lot of assumptions. Sometimes we have to be willing to stand at the edge of the abyss – including the abyss of not knowing at all what we think we know.

    I have occasionally told catechumens in my parish, “I might have to make you an atheist before I can make you Orthodox.” Same thing. I hope that wasn’t too much information.

  48. I too am a fan of Schmemann. In fact, it is through reading him that I chose my own speciality. Your post is spot-on as usual and a great pleasure to read. In fact, reading it from my standpoint, I would call it very, very Catholic. However, I do think that there is a tendency to make Catholicism a part of an Orthodox myth:

    “The Westernization of the Church is also the modernization of the Church. And a modernized Church will not resist the modern heresies (which are so numerous).”

    Like the myth of cowboys and indians, that has strong roots in history but is not balanced history and is rather unfair to the Indians, so the Orthodox myth about Catholicism is an over-simplification and gives a distorted view of Catholicism.

    I know you like and approve of G.K. Chesterton, Tolkien and Lewis. All three are Western Christians, two very convinced Catholics and an Anglican who was content in his Anglicanism. I know Catholics have said that Lewis was really a Catholic, and Orthodox that he was. deep down, an Orthodox; but the truth is that he was an Anglican at its best and this tells us something about Anglicanism, even if we disagree with much that belongs to that Church. Tolkien and Chesterton tell you much about the Catholic Church. Moreover, I would say that Gerald Manley Hopkins was a fine poet of a single-storey universe, J-P de Caussade was a good spiritual director with his “sacrament of the present moment” in a single-storey universe, and Teilhard de Chardin took a single-storey universe for granted in his scientific-religious theorising. Let me tell you a story:

    Once upon a time there were two groups of theologians who lived in France: one Orthodox and the other Catholic. They were both under a cloud in their respective churches, the Orthodox because they lived in the West and were, therefore, under the influence of Papist theology or were about to fall under that influence at any moment, and the Catholics were suspected of modernism and were mostly forbidden to publish by the Vatican. The Orthodox believed that the Orthodox Church is the one, true Church, and that the Catholic Church is in schism, and the Catholics believed that the Catholic Church is the one, true Church and that the Orthodox Church is in schism. Moreover, when they looked back in history, the Orthodox saw mainly the Eastern fathers up to St Gregory Palamas, and the Catholics looked to St Augustine and St Ambrose, up to St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure. If either side had been radically dissatisfied with their own allegience, there would have been no surprise, no opening up of minds. In spite of being under suspicion in their own churches, the Orthodox were satisfied being Orthodox, and the Catholics were satisfied being Catholics: hence the surprise!!

    Both groups were dissatisfied with the prevalent theology in their own churches. However, they discovered that they had the same enemy, neo-Thomist scholasticism. The Orthodox saw it as a Western disease contaminating the purity of Orthodoxy. The Catholics saw it as a distortion of Catholic (western) tradition with grave consequences for Catholic life. Both sides identified their main focus of criticism as a too sharp distinction between natural and supernatural that did not sufficiently take account of the Incarnation and the fact that humankind was designed by God with the Incarnation in mind. Both sides disagreed with a two-storey universe. Both sides discovered they had the same solution: to go back in Tradition to the time when church life was unaffected by the contamination and build from there. The Orthodox went back to the Fathers and to Saint Gregory Palamas. The Catholics went back to St Augustine, St Ambrose, the western monastic tradition and a new reading of St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure.

    It is important to emphasise that the two sides were not trying to achieve anything dramatic. Neither could claim to represent their churches, nor did they publicise their meetings. People like Lossky continued to attack neo-scholasticism as a western disease without saying that there were Catholic allies who agreed while being faithful to western tradition. Georges Florovsky said that the Eastern and Western traditions were not two traditions but different versions of the one Tradition that belong to one another in spite of having become out of harmony. That does not mean that he believed we are all the same: both sides continued to hold their doctrinal pre-suppositions; but that idea of the traditions of East and West belonging to one another, both being the result of the synergy between the Holy Spirit and the Church is the basis of Orthodox -Catholic dialogue.

    Perhaps nothing would have come of this except for Vatican II when the theologians of the Nouvelle Theologie were joined by the Archbishop of Cracow and Fr Joseph Ratzinger and some largely Benedictine liturgists and scholars. They wrote most of the documents of the Council. Now, words like “theosis” & “synergy”, as well as eucharistic ecclesiology are commonplace in western Catholic theology, thanks to a dialogue which, at the beginning, didn’t look that it was going anywhere or had any other purpose than the pleasure that two theologians enjoy when they get together to discuss their favourite topic.

    For all that “Glory to God for All Things” is still my favourite blog, apart from my own, of course. The more you write the more I learn.

    God Bless,

    David

  49. No, thank you for the detail. Helps put in context some things I have heard. As Lossky’s “Mystical Theology…” was so rich (and important to me when I first discovered the Church), I never bought into the simplistic “modernist” accusations. It’s interesting what you say about Pomozansky’s “Dogmatic Theology” – I have used it as a reference , but usually have to move on to another more detailed source and it does read exactly as you describe.

    Moving to the contemporary, what do you think of the Paris/Oxford “school”, that is if there is a school (it does seem to be an interdependence there)? The Saint Nina’s quarterly/WO folks seem to get much of their inspiration from the more contemporary figures like Oliver Clement (although perhaps due to his association with Pat Bartholomew I am guilty of “guilting him by association”) , Behr-Segil, Met. Kallistos, even Met Bloom who I appreciate for other reasons (but whom I understand is “the bishop” that convinced Fr. Hopko to re-write his earlier confident essay about WO into the more “hand wringing” one in his second edition of “Women and the Priesthood”). Even putting WO aside, there does seem to be an emphasis on the “social” coming from these figures (ecology, etc.) and unconvincing support of “traditional” moral concerns (e.g. ‘condemnations’ of abortion that are awful reluctant/qualified and always bracketed with much concern about global warming and for the “poor” that borrows language/ideas from the secular sphere). Recent events tempted me to go looking into some of these figures for their take on homosexualism but I was honestly afraid at what I might find because there does seem to be a “modernist” influence there if that is the best word for it.

    However, I realize I am probably lumping disparate figures and concerns together and I admit that I have never follow these folks that closely as my first impression (and re-impressions) have not given me confidence in them…

  50. David Bird speaks of (or is it accuses?) an ill defined “Orthodox myth”, and then goes on to outline some school within RC that rejects scholasticism (strangely somehow Aquinas is not part of this). I have no idea if this school exists in RC at all, but his “two traditions/same Church” story seems to be the RC “two lungs” ecclesiology – which itself seems to be “myth”, or something…Anyways this all got me thinking about Fr. Stephen’s lengthy quote of Schmemann above where he mentions the breakdown in the west as far as patristic understanding occurring after “Carolingian renaissance”. I know Fr. Romanides points to this time as well. I have been wanting to look more into this – is Fr. Romanides work a good place to start? If not, where else?

  51. Fr Romanides’ work is often sublime and sometimes reads as blatantly and wholeheartedly polemical of the entire West, but, as a Greek, I can fully understand what he is saying (his roots in Asia Minor were from the ‘most Orthodox’ peoples I can think of – elder Paisios, elder Aimilianos, and many others have this Capadocian background too, a background providing an experience of a life that has become impossible in the modern world, yet can aid massively in reading the Fathers). More than anybody else he must be credited for fanning the flames of the much needed revolt against the western-captivity of Greek lay theology – a captivity that had started to even enter some monastic settings.

  52. Christopher,
    You are correct about the weakness viz. Women’s ordination in the Paris/Oxford axis. I’ve watched this, and known some of the principals for a good number of years. I think that the “weakness” was more of a blip on the screen in the 70’s-80’s. This “school” has the upside of genuinely engaging thought and wrestling things towards a deeper understanding. It’s safer not to do that. With the exception of Behr-Sigel and Met Bloom, I don’t think any of the others did more than wring their hands. Women’s ordination has gone on to be such a disaster (particularly among the Anglicans) that I think there really are no more hands being wrung. Fr. John Behr, for example, is quite clear on the matter.

    Hopko’s book on sexuality is spot on as far as I can see. There is certainly an element out there who are spot off (if you will). And, of course, they would always be champions of Paris/Oxford. But Paris/Oxford is not the cause of their failings in this matter. It’s the cultural influence. We’re really only just beginning to face the tsunami on sexual issues. It will get much worse, I think, and will sweep some things away. Orthodoxy will stand its ground, I daresay. But some feathers will hit the fan first, and perhaps more than feathers.

    Hopko, for example, is simply no modernist. He’s not much of a culture critic, but his critiques are strong when he makes them. As I outlined, the debates were more or less old Russian debates that carried deep into the 20th century. But they were largely internal debates, with the culture swirling around on the outside.

    The reunion of Moscow and ROCOR, as well as the renaissance of Moscow have brought a decided conservatism to world-wide Orthodoxy whose influence will be quite strong in years to come. Note that Met. Hilarion Alfeyev, the number 2 man in Moscow, is an Oxford product. St. Vladimir’s seminary has been cementing institutional ties with world Orthodoxy at a very brisk clip.

    What is dying, actually, is liberalism. The culture has gone past liberalism and is becoming radicalized while conservatives are bracing themselves. It’s the old-line liberalism that could entertain gradualism and accommodationism that no longer has a place. And there will be no place in Orthodoxy for cultural radicalism.

    That’s sort of my take and probably more than I’ve ever committed to text. 🙂

  53. Christopher,
    Romanides is worth knowing, but you have to “divide by three” when you read him just to tone it down a bit. As an Anglo I’ve often joked about this when it comes to Greek writings (forgive me Dino). Anglo culture tends to mute everything. Greek culture does just the opposite. I like Romanides/3

  54. Father says above:

    As I’ve noted in these articles, acquiring the mind of the Fathers cannot be had simply by reading them. The reason is that there is a different consciousness that wrote their work. A modern consciousness can read the Fathers and even quote them, but will use them in the wrong way and to the wrong end. The acquire their consciousness is a different thing. It’s not exactly a scholarly effort, but it does require repenting of our own modern assumptions – and that requires a certain element of critical thought.

    That sounds very much like Fr. Seraphim Rose. It is also of note that Fr. Seraphim and Fr. Alexander made peace before Fr. Seraphim reposed. I think they realized there was no essential conflict between them. The controversy surrounding them both will fade. What is of God in their lives and work will become more obvious.

    As Fr. Seraphim matured in his Orthodoxy, he became less and less of a critic. Yet his early work, before he was even Orthodox: Nihilism: The Roots of the Revolution of the Modern Age does an excellent job of describing the modern mind and what it is rooted in.

    To me the enduring witness of Fr. Seraphim Rose is that he faced in his struggle and journey what we, as people of the West, face as well. He seemed to embody all of the dilemmas and temptations that are common in the West. Through the grace of Jesus Christ, he overcame. Not perfectly to be sure but in a manner that provides great hope. At least to me.

    I thank God for both men.

  55. I thought I would share this quote that reminded me of the conversation we had on here earlier, Fr Stephen:

    After all that he had seen in the Shadow-church, his own room and its Shadows were yet more wonderful and unintelligible than those.

    This made it the more likely that he had seen a true vision; for a instead of making common things look commonplace, as a false vision would have done, it had made common things disclose the wonderful that was in them.

    “The same applies to all arts as well,” thought Ralph Rinkelmann.

    George MacDonald – The Shadows

  56. Father, bless!

    Since Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s work has been referenced in your last few posts, I want to give my own perspective on his writings (for whatever my perspective may be worth).

    I am about your age, and I was raised in a lukewarm mainline Protestant household in the South. I only attended church irregularly. I was surrounded by Southern Baptists, and, frankly, I found that creed repulsive, even as a boy. I turned my back on Protestantism at the age of 15 and never looked back. I only discovered Orthodoxy after being essentially unchurched for over 20 years. As an inquirer, my main sources of information were the writings of Fr. John Romanides, Metr. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, and Fr. Seraphim Rose. As a catechumen, I studied and chanted from the service books, and read the lives of saints. I only encountered Schmemann’s books after I was baptised. His writings had no influence over my decision to enter the Orthodox Church.

    Having read a few of his works, I believe that Fr. Alexander’s primary audience were people with strong Protestant upbringings (such as yourself). He does, indeed, answer the kinds of objections that strong, low-church Protestants tend to raise against Orthodoxy. I think that is why he has been so influential in the U.S. In Russia, his works are evidently regarded with suspicion. I think that may be, because Schmemann is anwering questions which no one in Russia has ever needed to ask, making him seem “not quite Russian.”

    I worship and serve in a Serbian parish. We get a fair number of Anglo inquirers and catechumens, and my priest (a Serb from Belgrade) asks me to assist him in catechesis. If an Anglo inquirer has no religious upbringing, I generally start by assigning basic catechetical works, and do not refer him to Schmemann until much later (if at all). However, if he/she has a strong Protestant background, then I recommend Schmemann early on, to help “deprogram” the person from Protestant assumptions.

    Thus, my own answer to those who object to Fr. Alexander’s writings, is that they need to consider the cultural context in which they were written, and their intended audience. For those with strong Protetant upbringings, Schmemann is essential reading. For others, his writings may be confusing, in that they answer questions which they (the inquirers/catechumens) are not asking in the first place.

    If you think my perspective is wide of the mark, please feel free to explain why. Catechesis (even if only as an assistant) is a big responsibility, and if I am missing anything of fundamental importance, you are most welcome to let me know.

  57. Michael,
    I disagree on your observations. Fr. Alexander was broadcast regularly into the Soviet Union. He was the first person Solzhenitsyn asked to see when we was exiled. Schmemann was flown to Switzerland for that historic meeting.

    The difficulties some Russians have with him are, ironically, on account of the popularity of Seraphim Rose who published his works and saw them widely disseminated in Russia. The veneration of monks led many uneducated and ill-formed Russians to adopt his suspicions. His charges viz Schmemann, dealt with at the end of his life, have done lasting harm. May God forgive him.

    I have a close Russian friend who is very devoted to the writings of Fr. Schmemann. I find Fr. Schmemann useful for all sorts. I never recommend Fr. Seraphim Rose.

  58. Thanks for the reply, Father. It is quite helpful. I will discuss your thoughts on Schmemann with my priest, and see what he thinks.

    As for Fr. Seraphim Rose, I generally only discuss him with inquirers and catachumens if they ask about him (as many do). Although his writings did help bring me into the Church, I tend to avoid most of his larger books, nowadays. His early book on Nihilism is, in my opinion, one of his best works, and several of the talks and lectures he gave on the practical side of Orthodox living in contemporary life are still quite useful, even today. Rose was at his best when he was “down to Earth,” talking about day-to-day Orthopraxis. As a struggling monk himself, he had a lot of very useful things to say. His big theological works, I find inadequate. Lossky, Florovsky, and even Pomazansky, are much better choices.

    For what it is worth, here is the usual course of reading I tend to prescribe. For inquirers who know little or nothing about the church, I always start off with The Orthodox Church by Metr. Kallistos Ware. That covers most of the “factual” bases. If inquirers decide to become catachumens, I will then recommend either The Law of God by Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy, or Pomazansky’s Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, which (as you have said) is basically a glorified catechism anyway.

    For many people, that amount of reading is sufficient. However, if that is not enough, then the next stop is Lossky, Florovsky, Romanides or Metr. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos.

    As a general rule, my priest and I try to get people to establish a basic prayer rule and start living the Church calendar of fasts and feasts as quickly as possible. We also encourage people to get into the habit of regular spiritual readings. The Prologue from Ochrid is always a safe choice. I also encourage as many catachumens as possible to get The Explanation of the Gospel by Bl. Theophylact, so they can learn to interpret the Scriptures as the Church understands them. Alternatively, they can go to the Calvin College website, and start reading the Gospel and Epistle commentaries of St. John Chrysostom (that is what I often do, myself).

    Beyond that, further readings depend on the individual needs of the catechumen. We are flexible about this. The main point, is to get people to start living the life if the Church, on a day-to-day basis, as soon as possible.

  59. Michael, I appreciate your comments on catechisis. When I came into the Church about 30 years ago I had little formal catechisis. It is nice to see the thought and the care you put into it. Thank you.

  60. Michael,

    I also would like to compliment you on your efforts. My thoughts:

    While I like Met. Kallistos “Orthodox Church” for those truly on “step 1”, I find Clark Carlton’s “The Faith” to be a better catechetical work, particularly for those with protestant or any other Christian background and our already familiar with basic Christian belief (and thus have a few wrong ideas from their background) and are thus really past step 1. Most recently my sister (who currently attends a non denominational “mega church” but is starting to be restless) found it very helpful, particularly in a way where Kallistos’s detail about history and the like would not.

    I also hesitate a bit about the Prologue. As Fr. Stephen has pointed to here in so many of his writings, modern Christians have great difficulty with the “physicality” of the saints and their miracles and the sometimes “fantastic” events surrounding their lives and witness . I know I tried to read the saints lives after becoming Orthodox but I simply found I was spending too much time “questioning” and “doubting”, so I put them down for a few years until I acquired a better Orthodox ethos and mindset. Perhaps others have thoughts on this.

    As far as Schmemann I remember “O Death…” having an impact on me as a catechumen. I have “For the Life of the World” and when I picked it up the other night to read the essay’s Fr. Stephen recommend I see that I had underlined some paragraphs from the earlier part of the book but it looks like I put it down. I did underline some choice things though! 😉 I also noticed that I picked up his journals that his wife published along the way but again I put that down someway through it. Don’t know why this is, but Schmemann appears to not have been that big a part of my formation. During this time, I remember Chrysostom, Lossky, and certain (living) friends, priests, and mentors being the most important source of witness for me.

  61. It seems that what is used depends in part who is coming, what their background is and what their questions are. My parish has a nine month very structured catechesis. Although it can be entered at any point it covers everything about Church life from the mundane to the fundamentals of spiritual practice. There is a cadre of fine teachers, clerical and lay. Few books are used although many are recommended along the way. Plus Eighth Day Books( the best bookstore in the wotld) is right in town and the owner teaches the section on Church History.

    The majority of the time is spent on Orthodox Spirituality and Orthodox Worship.

    I got to go through it with my wife as she came to the Church. It was great after 25 years to finally have a catechesis. Learned a lot, reinforced a lot. Occasionally some of our young people, born to Orthodox parents attend too.

    It is the center of our ongoing Orthofox education program. Being a Cathedral, our Bishop wants us to set the standard for the whole diocese. It is always under refinement.

  62. @Michael Bauman: “My parish has a nine month very structured catechesis. Although it can be entered at any point it covers everything about Church life from the mundane to the fundamentals of spiritual practice.”

    Bravo! We are not anything like that structured, but (God willing!) we will get there someday. This is precisely why I welcome the feedback I am getting. It helps us do our jobs better.

  63. Fr. Stephen,

    Back on the original topic of historical fact vs. allegory……..

    I tend to see things best in pictures, examples and analogies. With this discussion I think it is far too easy to fall into an either/or mindset, everything always being in competition. In our part of the world at least (North America) the mental process of analysis often involves setting two things side-by-side with the unspoken rule that we will champion the winner and discount the loser of the comparison. This is a method that is valuable only in the right context.

    In this situation I believe that the two ways of looking at history have a different relationship. Allegory is the 3D view of something and the dry facts are the 2D version. Neither are incorrect; allegory is simply the filling out and the completion of the literal facts.

    Grant above made a very germane comment about we still do a light version of the allegorical view when we tell personal stories about our friends and family. Imagine if you will that I was telling someone an anecdote about a funny thing my daughter did last week. Further imagine how rude I would take it if the person listening would continually interrupt me to check historical facts. To be honest it would ruin the whole story!

    In fact I get irritated even when someone interrupts themselves to decide if their tale happened on Wednesday or the night before. That’s not the point! It won’t make ANY difference to me what day it happened on; just tell me the story already!

    That is why the gospels aren’t primarily historical accounts. God is the Great Storyteller and those books tell us about THE story. In His ministry Jesus doesn’t seem disposed to go around proving anything to doubters. He share God wherever He goes. If someone opposes goodness, He moves on.

    Anyway, allegory is the 3D version. And what you said about symbol also rings quite true. But we suffer from a 2D version of the facts, believing only what we can physically perceive, thus blinding ourselves to what is there. For now we see as in a mirror dimly. A loaf of bread is so much more than we imagine. But our senses have been pounded with the secular image of it.

    Bread is made in a factory, the old stuff casually tossed into the garbage, anybody being able to buy it for cheap and stuff themselves into extinction if they choose. We own it. Our freedom to do what we wants trumps everything. Bread is no longer a gift – and a symbol that makes the body of Christ real – and nourishment to our body – and (on and on). We’ve been taught that the loaf is only what we see before us and nothing more.

    It’s no wonder that many of us look toward the altar and see empty ritual. We have been forced into the mindset of the dwarves in the dirty stable. The glow, the 3D vision of everything has been squished flat and we’re just holding our breath until we somehow miraculously escape to a 3D world once again. Some of us; the rest have forgotten that the 3D truly still exists.

    Sorry for the rant, drewster

  64. The post is very insightful. It is interesting to me that you wrote about the transformation or conversion of the modern mind as one of the tasks for Orthodoxy.
    The way how I was taught to think about the relationship between faith and facts is radically different from the Orthodox mindset, with facts being the foundation on which faith rests from which feelings follow (i.e., the triad of facts, faith, and feelings with facts as the first and primary layer). Now I see it as a simplistic way to rationalize faith and as a reflection of the modern mindset with its rational approach to faith and Christian life. The concept of icons and sacraments revealing how things truly are is challenging, yet very profound. As you said, “the fact of their existence is not the fullness of their existence.”

  65. My priest tried to straighten me out on the true use of the word “symbol” a couple of years ago, and I just kept his words to ponder without understanding them. It is now making a bit more sense after these posts and comments. So, thanks!

    This discussion of symbolism reminds me of the Ecumenical councils that met to discuss icons and their usage. Didn’t it have to be proven to the Iconoclasts that the veneration of the icons did not halt on the surface of the wood, but the veneration was received by the prototype because of their coinherence? St Theodore the Studite’s “On the Holy Icons” which was written in the 800’s addressed this issue and tied it in with the mystery of the hypostatic union. It seems to me that some were already then having trouble understanding “symbol.”

  66. What you have written here and your idea of the “one-story universe” is absolutely fascinating.

    Many authors and scholars have written about the fundamental breach in both civilization and the human psyche that emerged in the Enlightenment (though it had its origins in the Scholastics with the triumph of Nominalism over Realism).

    A friend of mine introduced me to a book called “The Crisis of the Modern World” by Rene Guenon. He isn’t an Orthodox author, but I think he gets at the essence of what has happened to us in the modern West.

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