The Renunciation of Reason

florenskyI grew up in a house of contradictions. We loved each other and we fought. I had a brother who was five years my senior, and we somehow developed a style of contradiction. If he said white, I said black. If I said red, he said blue. Or after either of us made a perfectly reasonable statement, whatever exceptions might exist, the other was sure to note them. It came to be that in any discussion, the last one talking won. Our conversations still have something of this flavor. (I can hear him saying, “No they don’t”).

Our exchanges point to an inescapable aspect of reality: it is filled with contradictions or at least something that we perceive as contradictions. Reason, as it is commonly used, is quite abstract. Syllogisms step back from reality and speak in terms that are actually quite removed. If two people are discussing a tree, there are many agreeable, scientific observations that can be made. However, none of the observations is the tree itself, and a contradiction rests in that very fact.

Orthodox worship not only notes various contradictions, it raises them to the level of wonder. The teaching of the Fathers frequently hovers over various juxtapositions of opposites. Christ is the God/Man. Mary is the Mother of God. The Trinity is three, yet one. God dies. The Uncontainable is contained. There is an instinct within Orthodox thought that the truth is most profoundly known precisely in the form of contradiction.

One Russian theologian who gave voice to this was Pavel Florensky. Born in 1882, he combined a brilliant scientific/mathematical mind with a profound theological soul. His greatest work, The Pillar and Ground of Truth, was written as his master’s thesis in 1908, and published in 1914. It is particularly remarkable as a theological work by one so young. Florensky was executed by the NKVD in 1937.

He gives an entire section of his thesis to the theme of contradiction. In it, he says, “Love is the renunciation of reason.” This is not a disparaging of reason as a useful tool, but the recognition that the nature of reality always contains contradictions:

We can, however, only express the Truth if we foresee the extreme expression of all the contradictions inherent in it, from which it follows that Truth itself encompasses the ultimate projection of all its invalidations, is antonymic and cannot be otherwise.

The contradictions are resolved in the ascetic life, according to Florensky, a life which he followed with great energy, throughout his time as a student, married man, scientist, engineer, and martyr. And in this, he was fully Orthodox. It is also difficult to describe.

Christ points to this when He tells us that the “pure in heart shall see God.” There is always the great risk in reason in that it becomes the primary tool in the hands of those who care nothing for the purity of heart. The modern world has harnessed reason to great effect, but has, as often as not, used it to create weapons of mass destruction and to monitor and control its own citizens (and in this I think as much about the tools of consumerism as anything). We have become possessors of a “reasonable” truth but do not have the purity of heart to live with its contradictions.

The ascetic life is, at its heart, one of voluntary self-denial and suffering. It is not the embracing of needless pain, nor is it masochistic in the least. Rather, it is a recognition that the desires and passions that rage within us cloud our understanding, darken our motives, and obscure the truth. Contradiction itself can be seen as a form of suffering. It is the “push-back” of reality that refuses to be mastered and controlled. The universe remains stubbornly opaque. More than this, God hides Himself within the opacity of contradiction, in the “Cloud of Unknowing.”

Florensky grasped the true heart of asceticism. He said, “Love is the renunciation of reason.” By this, he does not mean that we embrace the chaos and anarchy of irrationality. Rather, we recognize and accept the limits of reason, and offer ourselves to the contradiction of the reality around us. Every human being stands as a contradiction. They are always more than we think they are, and whatever we think or imagine them to be, they are also something else as well. The refusal to acknowledge the “something else” (the contradiction), is the refusal to renounce reason and, instead, to place reason where love alone belongs.

St. Paul notes that “faith works through love” (Gal. 5:6). This describes the very heart of the ascetic life. Only love extends itself in the self-emptying struggle against the passions without becoming lost in the solipsism of asceticism for its own sake. It is love that endures the contradictions of reality without turning away or reducing them. And it is love that finally comprehends the reality hidden within the contradictions that confront us.

49 comments:

  1. Father, have you read Fr Stephen Muse’s book “When Hearts Become Flame”? Highly recommend. This post reminded me of it.

  2. An old acquaintance of mine used to say that the devil us the most reasonable if creatures. By this he meant that the devil is unable to comprehend truth and the antinomical reality of life.

  3. Ephesians 3:18-19 NRSVCE I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

  4. Beautiful, thank you Father for reminding us of contradiction or paradox. Though dying we live, being poor we are rich, though suffering we rejoice, in losing we are winning, being hated, we love, when we receive evil, we do good. Our faith is full of contradictions and opposites, it was apophaticisim that help bring me to Orthodoxy!!

  5. Thank you Father, this is what I’ve been needing to hear. I’ve often thought I am too intelligent for my own good – now I can better put it (without pride) that I am too logical/’reasonable’ for my own good!

    My observation is that mental-spiritual unwellness tends to correlate with rigorous, precise thinking. Paradox doesn’t sit well with many of us who obsess and lust after a deductive, mathematical-type certainty about the deep nature of reality.

  6. Fr. Stephen,

    This is why, in my reading, the whole of Crime and Punishment hangs upon the final realization of Raskolnikov under the influence of Sonia’s dispassionate love that “life replaced logic.” In fact, he suffers without hope under the weight of his reason and logic until he comes to this realization.

    Thank you for your lovely words!

  7. My spiritual father said that asceticism is nothing other than choosing love always. (this reminds me of Isaiah’s word on true fast being care for the poor).
    He and the monks with him grew as much of their own food, and made as much of their own clothing, etc., for this very reason: they see sin in our modern consumerism, and respond by changing their lifestyle (as much as they are able). They are a great inspiration for me, that we are to learn from the ascetic tools in Orthodoxy to indeed make our whole life ascetic: to “deepen and broaden the fast” as another friend was counselled by this same monk.
    It is so hard to do as individuals! I truly hope small communities of Orthodox will come together to make a greater ascetic renunciation of our consumer way of life more possible. It is a prophetic path and I hope the time is ripe for it.

    Father thank you for referencing our consumer way of life. I have great difficulty also as an Orthodox, with reconciling our reverence for the Eucharist (we are saved through what we eat) and our fasting rules, with the Industrial Food system that we participate in.

    I would be interested to see someone competently flesh out an Orthodox response to our modern Industrial Food system. If you or anyone here knows of such an analysis, please let me know.

    Love;
    -Mark Basil

  8. Mark Basil,
    I’m certain there are better ways to live, eat, consume, etc. I will caution that our American mindset (which is deeply modernized) always wants to think of ways to solve or fix things. I’m very doubtful about the Orthodox having any ability to change much in our culture. We are a tiny minority. We need to learn how to live more “lightly,” perhaps less enmeshed. That comes primarily through consuming less, sharing more, slowing down, and quit worrying about succeeding.

  9. Thank you. This has made a personal impulse more clear to me. Surely, love is the resolution of everything, for God is love.

  10. Thank you again Father. Seeming contradictions are the basis of true Faith. We would not need faith if reason could solve the issues of life and explain it all to us. Unfortunately for Reason, it falls short. Only Faith suffices.

  11. Thank you Fr Stephen.
    I dont look for us Orthodox to change the culture (American-derivative-‘Canadian’ in my case). But I do hope we can do just as you said- make these changes in our own lives for love of Christ.
    I still hope that there can be some grass roots consolidation into communities to share the burden of living “upstream” in the flash flood of Modernity. What do you think of Orthodox making an intentional effort to live a bit more communally and thus more lightly, Father? Perhaps sharing a garden or some chickens, etc.?

    The line (incorrectly) attributed to Gandhi says it well: Be the change you wish to see in the world.
    Gandhi’s inspiration however- Jesus Christ- was this perfectly.

    Love;
    -MB

  12. It’s interesting you’re talking about this Father. With all that I’ve been through lately, I keep telling myself, “When I die I wouldn’t be surprised to find that God doesn’t exist, but I would be shocked.”

  13. Tom Robbins was a popular author back in my college days. I have read several of his books. This quote from “Still Life With Woodpecker” is my favorite.

    “When the mystery of the connection goes, love goes. It’s that simple. This suggests that it isn’t love that is so important to us but the mystery itself. The love connection may be merely a device to put us in contact with the mystery, and we long for love to last so that the ecstacy of being near the mystery will last. It is contrary to the nature of mystery to stand still. Yet it’s always there, somewhere, a world on the other side of the mirror (or the Camel pack), a promise in the next pair of eyes that smile at us. We glimpse it when we stand still.
    The romance of new love, the romance of solitude, the romance of objecthood, the romance of ancient pyramids and distant stars are means of making contact with the mystery. When it comes to perpetuating it, however, I got no advice. But I can and will remind you of two of the most important facts I know:
    1. Everything is part of it.
    2. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”
    ― Tom Robbins

  14. Mark Basil, I think one of the things we have to jettison is the idea that we can change anything even ourselves. We can through the practice of prayer, thanksgiving/worship alms, repentance, forgiveness, and fasting allow the Holy Spirit to transform us and save us. Then, as St. Seraphim pointed out thousands will be saved around us.

    We are to dress and keep the earth where we can. I am not responsible for you all I can do is help bear your burden and the burdens of everyone else as you help bear mine.

    That is the nature of love and God’s being in which we live and move.

    Being in community in and of itself does not help much unless it is ruled by love. That is hard work as anyone who has tried it will tell you.

  15. Mark Basil, I recently read an article describing life in one intentional community for foster families that unites them with a group of able-bodied seniors as a means of adding stability and support for foster children and their parents and seniors alike. I really like your thoughts sbout grassroots consolidation.

    I knew of the strong influence of the teachings of Christ on Gandhi and of the quote attributed to him. Do you know who actually said it or where it comes from?

  16. Well written, Fr. Stephen.

    On my journey into Orthodoxy by way of learning about the history of the Christianity, I began to see a trend among those who introduced heresy into the Church: they often could not deal with the paradoxes, contradictions, and seeming impossibilities within Christianity (Trinity, Christology, Theotokos, etc.) and thus sought to modify doctrine and belief into something more “reasonable”. Seeing this trend also revealed to me how I, too, fall into the same error of making my own neat and tidy form of Christianity for myself. Lord have mercy on me, a reasoning sinner!

    Isaiah 55:8-9 (RSV)

    ” For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
    For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

    P.S. What a lovely painting of Adrien Brody and Liam Neeson.

  17. Fr Stephen,
    Again this is a timely article. I’ve been asked recently to give a talk to scientists. Part of the talk will be about the models we choose to express our experiences while conducting explorations. My plan is to talk about how it is that one model that seems reasonable to the mind of one scientist to understand ‘unseen’ phenomena might not seem intuitively reasonable to another because knowledge is itself embedded in life experiences.

    My interpretation of what Fr Florensky did in his life is that he had the courage to speak in terms that ‘belong to’ science, theology and faith in a way that encouraged a ‘desegregation’ of these pursuits. Hopefully I’m understanding this appropriately. I’m paying attention to his approach and I’m in the process of following up on reading his work. My goal is not only to understand the content of his writing, but the approach he uses to demonstrate in his writings what has been set by our culture as ‘separate’ worlds into the whole that it is. My sense is that it begins with the heart, the courage to observe the created world with the tools of science and with the love of Christ. If I understand his life work correctly, I pray that I might be able to speak and write in this way also.

    P.S. Paddy you cracked me up

  18. With all respect, Father, I’m quoting you. But I think you might need an edit, unless I’m just confused. You write:

    “The refusal to acknowledge the “something else” (the contradiction), is the refusal to renounce reason and to substitute it for love.”

    I think you mean to substitute *for it* love (not substitute it – reason – for love)

  19. .. or with love, whatever… (yes, I can’t help being a rational sheep, even if I do think I know what you mean here!)

  20. Janine, that wording was a bit difficult to follow, but it seems to me Fr. Stephen’s wording is the correct one (though you may have the same idea in mind): meaning to enthrone reason (as logic barring all contradictions, a.k.a. logical certainties) over love as the basis of faith is to substitute reason for love.

  21. well, sorry to drag this out, but you don’t want to “substitute it *for* love” – you want to renounce reason and substitute it with love. I do this all the time, but logically I think there are two thoughts here: one is that we renounce reason and put love in its place; the other is that we refuse to renounce reason and by doing so fail to put love in reason’s place. Just to confuse everyone a little bit more (ha). Of course the mind in the heart probably sums up the image too I guess.

  22. Oh my. I’ve been busy with many things today. But I’ve returned and addressed the confusion. My correction reads: “The refusal to acknowledge the “something else” (the contradiction), is the refusal to renounce reason and, instead, to place reason where love alone belongs.”

  23. My correction reads: “The refusal to acknowledge the “something else” (the contradiction), is the refusal to renounce reason and, instead, to place reason where love alone belongs.”

    Fr. Freeman,

    I hope you will follow up with a post (if this is a series) on the ancient notion of the “rational soul” or illumined Christ-like “reason” as it is presented in the Desert Fathers / Church Fathers as distinct from “bare knowledge” or discursive logic (i.e. reason and rationality as the West began to define it) In this way…perhaps we can start to reclaim the language or “reason” as God’s gift of Love in us which illumines and draw the line of demarcation between the modern use of the word “reason” and the a truly Orthodox use of the word.

    We renounce reason in order to become truly reasonable. We deny rationality in order to become “truly rational.”

  24. I love your idea, Onesimus. Christians like to quote the Lord from Isaiah, “Come let us reason together,…” in support of using the syllogistic logical analyses that often define “reason” in the West. All they have to do to discover their mistake is read the whole passage that follows! The real meaning of “reason” in this passage seems to be more along the lines of “talk about something meaningful”.

  25. I have a friend who is a Philologist who says English is a shop keepers language designed to make people think they are getting a good deal when they are being cheated. Myself, I find English imprecise and easily twisted. We can make a direct statement and then say we were speaking hypothetically.

  26. In our prayers book we called “reason endowed” sheep. I see a strand in modern Orthodoxy that can be quite fundamentalist/rigoristic. Sometimes Orthodox start quoting the Fathers as if there was usually a theological consensus among them. So many times there simply was not. We quote the Fathers in some sort of regurgitation as if that alone gives life. Isn’t this something that St. Paul fought to root out in the Church? It is the Spirit that gives life. It is the letter that kills. Heck, just read Galatians.

    To live a life in the spirit will always be a challenge, because it’s never a formula or “the letter.” Our liturgy starts with “blessed is the kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The kingdom has been inaugurated. We are there. This is who we are as well (by becoming). This is why St. Paul can say things that “make no sense.” Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the (Very) evidence of things not seen (Heb 11:1). There is a substance to the spiritual life, a tangibility that St. Paul knew, for he experienced this. If it’s not now it’s not the Kingdom.

    Eye has not seen, nor ear heard… but he has revealed those things to us by his Spirit…

    In light of all this, “what makes sense is that this does not make sense.” This is way more than something that is merely counter intuitive. This is something that is “wholly other.”

    Dee, I love to see that you’re digging through Florensky. Personally I really enjoy those brilliant minds that the Church has been gifted with that dig so deeply, fearlessly pushing boundaries. These are gifts that are commonly misunderstood. At some point you may want to look at another theologian that does this well too; Sergei Bulgakov. Holy Grail and the Eucharist may be a place to start. It is a real eye opener. Btw, it has absolutely Nothing to do with the Western treatment of the holy grail.

  27. Thank you Pete for your recommendation about Sergei Bulgakov’s writings. I’ve seen his name connected with Florensky’s and was curious but didn’t pursue information about his work in any detail. The brief description about the content of this book that I found online is very interesting. I appreciate your suggestion and I’m adding his ‘Holy Grail and the Eucharist’ book to my reading list!

  28. “Renunciation of reason” needs to be read within the context of patristic anthropology which consistently refers to the mind / rationality as among the noblest of human capacities. There is no absolute dichotomy, though there is indeed a distinction, between intellect and will, and so, as St. Gregory the Dialogist suggests, “amor ipse notita est.”

    Regarding asceticism and the mind, too much modern Orthodox pop-theology lapses into a kind of monophysite gnosomachy that is just a warmed-over Kantian pietism; as if true knowledge requires not only a *renunciation* of the mind but downright mutilation thereof. Florensky does not do this; I wish he was more widely read for this very reason. But I can think of a few contemporary theologians who do. . . they typically use “scholasticism” as a watchword wherewith to browbeat alleged Barlaamites. It’s really quite the Nietzchean inversion.

    I think if we’d all repent of our Cartesian concept of “mind” there’d be much more concord in how the words reason / rationality are understood in theological discourse.

  29. Well said, Pete. Part of why I came into Orthodoxy was the (naive) assumption that I’d be getting away from that rigorist, proof-texting and systematizing methodology…saddened, I was, to find it in many places online. I thank God for this blog and for commentators like yourself who help reaffirm that such is not the truly Orthodox way.

  30. Reader Maximus: to the point and quite correct, but is not the Catesean concept of mind and the blasphemy that goes with it exactly the core of modernity? That and our Epicurean distaste for anything approaching pain?

  31. Rdr. Maximus,

    I think you are correct…and yet one must speak into the culture. Because the sickness of intellectualism is so rampant and foundational to our culture…and because we speak largely in simplistic terms…it is quite necessary to reveal a dichotomy in definitional terms (even if this is somewhat artificial) in order to approach a more healthy view. A form of initial pedagogy is necessary, especially when one is approaching individuals who deny – or otherwise mutilate the Patristic witness by anachronistically imposing Enlightenment concepts onto Patristic terms.

    It is in my opinion not much unlike a patient seeing a doctor. A patient with significant heart disease caused by improper diet is put on a quite restrictive and nearly dichotomous diet…whereas another patient with heart issues of a lesser degree is approached with a degree a latitude. The level of sickness determines the treatment. For some (indeed many)…the treatment may require a definitive break with previous lifestyles and ways of thought. In respect to modernity…I think the sickness is deep and pervasive enough that individuals must be confronted with a dichotomy (even an artificial pedagogical one) in order to then be able to then receive a well rounded diet once a modicum of health has been restored.

    In this regard, the words of Saint Gregory the Great are significant.

  32. Agata, thank you for that link. I have printed it off and started reading it. I’m hopeful.
    -MB

  33. Michael Bauman,

    I sympathize in considering the Cartesian notion blasphemous, mainly because it terminates in an Apollinarian christology. However, the via moderna antedates Descartes by centuries and, so it seems to me, is a result of the radical rupture between faith and reason in Western Europe following the golden age of Latin scholasticism. Hence I think drawing too sharp a distinction between faith and reason is the hallmark of modernism. This often manifests itself in Orthodox theology by an extreme emphasis on person that errs toward voluntarism, and an utter surrender of nature/ontology to the abyss of the nihilistic categories of existentialism. In a way we have yet to really draw out the full implications of the Nicene-Chalcedonian dialectic between hypostasis/ousia. These terms are not as static in their subsequent usage as neopatristic scholarship would have us think.

    Fr. Dumitru Staniloae opened a new chapter in Orthodox theological reflection by writing a volume in his dogmatics on Creation – I suspect the continued relevance of Orthodox theology will hinge on being able to engage with and build upon the work he began. As ultimately I don’t see modernism as an anthropological, but rather a cosmological, heresy. I also think we’ll have to figure out how to make dogmatic sense of the vocabulary of Bulgakov, controversial as he may be, much as our Fathers were shaped by the “whetstone” of Origen.

    Forgive my pontificating. I really don’t have many outlets for sharing these kind of thoughts!

  34. Byron,
    Let me know what you find out. I bought a “first draft” of this book through the author of the lecture (great Lenten recipes), but I think his daughter might have stayed at the monastery which she was visiting at that time, and never finished the book! 🙂

  35. Hey guys! What do you think of the book “Cloud of Unknowing” written by an obscure Western monk? Does it possess the Orthodox phronema? I think its quite similar to St Gregory of Nyssa’s teachings on the hiddenness of God and renouncing reason.

  36. Reader, yes of course, DeCartes was proceeded by centuries of similar thought, but his dictum has become the cornerstone for rationalists and empiricists. The propaganda bumper sticker.

    Application of that dictum has lead to all sorts of evil utilitarian philosophies that under gird both abortion and euthanasia. It has continued to morph into “I feel therefore I am”

    Could you expand further on modernity being a cosmological heresy rather than an anthropological one. Don’t they intersect?

  37. Mark Basil and Byron,
    (this is regarding my post on June 14, 2016 at 5:22 pm above)

    I just wanted to share with you (and others who may be interested) that Mary Granger has created a series of videos on the subject of remembering God in our lives, especially in the area of eating… I asked her if I can share this here, as this is a most wonderful group of readers, who will very likely appreciate her message. I hope Father Stephen does not mind…. Her lovely and unexpected email with this news was very well timed for my life….

    From Mary’s email:

    Many of us struggle, and often fail, to remember God in our lives. We want to see God everywhere and in all things, but can’t make Him out from all the particulars and distractions.

    Traditional cultures that have God as their focus in science, music, architecture, clothing -in everything – think about food, too, as extensions or echoes of their sacred meals. This is still true in the Mediterranean where I grew up and in Japan where John and I lived for four years. We studied with Japanese teachers in the US for three years to learn this theocentric perspective on food and cooking, and we’ve been sharing it with friends and my cooking clients for thirty years now.

    I’ve been asked repeatedly by friends, my own children, by students, and those who have heard John’s talks on the Way of Communion, to share what I know online. And I have made a start!

    If you want to hear about a way of thinking about food that fosters remembrance of God and our life in Him, not only at meals but throughout the day, please follow the link below. It will take you to a page where you can enter your email address in order to receive the three free classes I’m filming with downloadable transcripts and menus with recipes. You can, of course, unsubscribe any time you like. (Videos 2 and 3 are not yet available, but if you’ve subscribed, you’ll receive an email when the other videos are available for viewing.)

    I’m excited at last to be able to share with you the traditional ideas about food that turned my life inside out, and I hope right-side-up. Our meals are one aspect and, I think, a critical part, of our spiritual life. While these ideas might be difficult to understand at first, I can tell you from my own experience that cooking and eating become far more enjoyable and less complicated once you’ve absorbed these ideas and put them in practice in your kitchen and in your daily life.

    Thank you in advance for watching the first video and letting me know what you think!

    Gratefully,
    Mary

    Many of us struggle, and often fail, to remember God in our lives. We want to see God everywhere and in all things, but can’t make Him out from all the particulars and distractions.

    Traditional cultures that have God as their focus in science, music, architecture, clothing -in everything – think about food, too, as extensions or echoes of their sacred meals. This is still true in the Mediterranean where I grew up and in Japan where John and I lived for four years. We studied with Japanese teachers in the US for three years to learn this theocentric perspective on food and cooking, and we’ve been sharing it with friends and my cooking clients for thirty years now.

    I’ve been asked repeatedly by friends, my own children, by students, and those who have heard John’s talks on the Way of Communion, to share what I know online. And I have made a start!

    If you want to hear about a way of thinking about food that fosters remembrance of God and our life in Him, not only at meals but throughout the day, please follow the link below. It will take you to a page where you can enter your email address in order to receive the three free classes I’m filming with downloadable transcripts and menus with recipes. You can, of course, unsubscribe any time you like. (Videos 2 and 3 are not yet available, but if you’ve subscribed, you’ll receive an email when the other videos are available for viewing.)

    I’m excited at last to be able to share with you the traditional ideas about food that turned my life inside out, and I hope right-side-up. Our meals are one aspect and, I think, a critical part, of our spiritual life. While these ideas might be difficult to understand at first, I can tell you from my own experience that cooking and eating become far more enjoyable and less complicated once you’ve absorbed these ideas and put them in practice in your kitchen and in your daily life.

    Thank you in advance for watching the first video and letting me know what you think!

    Gratefully,
    Mary

    https://lifeinchristcooking.leadpages.co/landing-page-cooking-plf-video/

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