Several years ago my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting England. The beginning of the trip was terrifying – we had decided to rent a car. Our modest little Fiat fit well among the many toy cars that fill British highways. But there was a problem. Everything on English roads is backwards. You sit on the wrong side of the car; you drive on the wrong side of the road; you shift gears (yes, it was a manual) with the wrong hand. I felt that I had just gotten out of the dentist’ office and the entire left side of my car was “numb.” It was terribly awkward. I curbed the wheels on the left side three times before I got out of the parking lot. And then we burst immediately onto the highway, a monstrous multi-laned beast with high-speed toy cars and trucks flying along (on the wrong side).
I know how to drive a car. Indeed, I consider myself a good driver. However, my English experience demonstrated a fundamental flaw: driving is not an activity for thinking. When you are in the midst of flying objects, multiple lanes, with foot-work (I hadn’t driven a manual in years), and gear-shift all operating at various moments, in the dyslexic world of high-speed English traffic-flow, the one thing you do not have is the time to think about any of them. Friends do not let friends think and drive.
I managed not to kill us or anyone else, though I doubt anyone has logged more prayer-time in a single week on the roads of England than myself. But the basic lesson is worth noting: we do not drive by thinking. You may rationally reflect on what has happened, but you cannot rationally reflect on what you are doing while you are in the midst of doing it. We drive by feel (or something similar).
The Christian life, the life of faith, is much the same. Rationality is not the primary mode of believing. Faith is not simply what you believe, it is equally how you believe.
When confronted with a challenging and uncomfortable situation, the human body generally responds with a burst of adrenalin. It’s useful – people have been known to perform super-human feats (lifting a car or a piano) in extremely dangerous situations. But this same safety mechanism, triggered by fear or danger, can be paralyzing in the wrong setting. It is the physical mechanism behind what are called “panic attacks.” The mind tells the body there’s a saber-toothed tiger in the cave and the body responds with the instincts of “fight or flight.” If, however, the task at hand is driving a car in an unfamiliar setting, or simply sitting down to take a math test, the adrenalin is not only unnecessary, it is crippling.
Strangely, how we believe works in a similar manner. Our culture has reduced Christian believing to a set of rational propositions. The various doctrines can be described, defined, repeated, even rendered in Latin. But almost nowhere do we bother to think about how we believe those propositions. We can answer the question, “Do you believe in the Incarnation?” But we never bother to ask, “What does it look like to believe the Incarnation?” This disconnect leads to tragic, even paralyzing versions of Christianity.
When I was in high school, my adolescent Christianity was strongly committed to a pacifist position. The country was in the midst of the Vietnam War and passions surrounding the war ran at a very high pitch. We had a Catholic priest visit our school once for a “discussion” of the war. He was a well-known pacifist and very articulate. Our principal, who articulated the opposing view, was a decorated pilot from World War II. During the open discussion following their talks, my passions burned bright.
Afterward, the priest spoke to me. I was expecting some sort of congratulations since I thought I had spoken well for his position. “Stephen,” he said, “There is more than one way to do violence to a man. You use pacifism like a weapon.”
Truth always has a double edge. The Word of God is a “two-edged sword,” we are told. We generally know better than to let children play with sharp objects.
My previous articles describing noetic perception and the importance of a neptic life, are not meant to be obscure tropes about interesting Greek words. The kind of sober perception to which they refer are the essential requirements in the labor of salvation. We are not saved by correct ideas, if the ideas are not held correctly.
This reality lies at the heart of all communion devotion in the Orthodox Church. The truth of Christ’s Body and Blood are nowhere questioned, nor even pondered. All of the attention within the prayers surrounding the sacrament are directed towards the heart and lips that receive it.
Behold: I draw near to the Divine Communion. Burn me not as I partake, O Creator, For Thou art a Fire which burns the unworthy. Rather, cleanse me of all defilement.
The Gifts of the Holy Eucharist are not approached by mere doctrine or correct thoughts. However salutary such things might be, they fall short of the truth of our soul and being. It is entirely possible to confess the whole of the Orthodox faith, perfect in every letter, and yet lack the state of soul that receives without being consumed in the fire.
Rightness of heart is what a true noetic understanding and sobriety (nepsis) of spirit are about. I have had more than a few conversations with people who hold the faith with great “precision” and are yet a danger to themselves and to those around them. The “truth” of the faith, if divested of noetic insight and held in the grip of the passions, may be the deadliest form of delusion (prelest) known within the Church. St. James identifies this with devastating accuracy:
You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe– and tremble! (Jam 2:19)
The demons are perfectly “Orthodox.” Indeed, the demons recognized and confessed Jesus as the Christ long before human beings. In the fathers, fasting without prayer is called the “fast of demons,” for demons never eat anything, but neither do they pray.
Christ invites us into a wholeness of being. We are given the right faith, but the right faith must rest in a right heart. Over the years, it has been my observation that the right facts are easy. Any compendium of doctrine or collection of patristic quotes can summarize the faith we hold. But no compendium can easily describe how we hold the faith. Of course, this is very frustrating for many. The facts make for an easy argument. The rational mind champions argument and judgment (it was always meant to measure, weigh and compare). But the rational mind was never intended to be the seat of the soul. That belongs to the nous. And it is only in the sobriety of noetic comprehension that the truth of the faith yields itself up as the life-giving Word of God. Only the sobriety of noetic perception is able to wield the fiery coal of the Divine revelation in such a way that it heals and doesn’t destroy.
And so we pray. And we tremble.
“Burn me not as I partake.”
Without realizing it, this has been my quest:
The right faith
The right heart.
Thanks for articulating it for me.
The first time I approached to take the Eucharist, I was afraid. My mind always kicks into science mode. This is a very old habit. Coming up to the Cup for the first time was very much like entering into traffic on the “wrong side of the road” with a car set up for right side driving. I feared a ‘soul crash’.
I had to laugh when I read your post here, Father Stephen. Like you in traffic on the British highways, I was praying right up to the cup that I might somehow hold myself and brain properly and experience the receiving of the Body and Blood in the way the Lord asks of us. It was almost like I was trying to drive with my eyes closed. I knew my brain was crippled, and then to deal with that I was attempting to harness my will, but not being capable of doing that, it was though I was trying to drive on the right side with my eyes closed. All mayhem and running amok was my brain, Be still, Be calm! As you say here, one cannot ‘think’ the experience of the Body and Blood. In my last steps to the Eucharist I prayed that my mind wouldn’t take this experience away from me. “Help me O Lord”.
Glory be to God’s saving grace that my sins of my analytical mind (“what am I doing?”) didn’t take the experience away from me. Despite the brain of “the old man” , the grace of Christ did not desert me. I received the Body and the Blood.
And as the saints say, it is a mystical experience. Despite all my fears, my ‘science brain’ didn’t take it away from me. My imagination was fraught with fears and questions as I walked to the Cup, but all was silenced when my lips touched the Eucharist. The experience was a miracle. No soul crash.
Christ is Risen, Indeed He is Risen. Glory to God for All Things.
“You use pacifism like a weapon.”
I must confess I used Orthodoxy like a weapon soon after converting. I was immediately off to the races, letting everyone (who hadn’t asked) know who was a heretic, who needed to get baptised, etc.
I had a juvenile understanding of Orthodoxy then that, in your words, Father Stephen, would be absolutely rational, un-noetic faith.
The good news (a lot of that in Orthodoxy!) is that Orthodox Christianity “works,” and God is able to soften even the hardest of hearts if we allow Him.
I often tell people that when I look back, I “had no idea what I was getting myself into” when I was baptised, and it’s true. I assumed I’d get baptised, start going to Confession and taking Communion, wear a cross and tell everyone I was Orthodox, and otherwise nothing would change.
It’s only after having been in the Church for years that I now begin to perceive how little I understood about what I was doing while simultaneously, on some nonrational level I wasn’t aware of at the time, being absolutely certain I had to do it.
Thank God we are able, through God’s grace, to listen to that “still small voice,” even when we don’t ‘understand” it! And it’s funny how God can use even our pride and lack of understanding for good!
And thank you, Father!
As I read, I had a picture of the faith being held as the Holy Theotokos held her Son and presented Him as salvation to the world. It is life changing to know the love with which she attends us to bring us to Him. May we bring such love to others. Glory to God. Many thanks for this, Father.
Words are indeed limited and limiting. Forgive me as I make this explicit. I received the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, our Living Savior and Son of God. Glory be to God for All things.
Thank you Father. I often tell people our faith is not something that we have as an intellectual object, but something we do. It drives the way we think, feel and act. It determines how we see the world. None of these things are a result of a moment to moment logical decision but as a natural flow out of our very character.
Your example of driving in England is a perfect example of how trying to live life by rational decision is spot on. BTW, I was stationed in England for four years and after my first experience or two of being confused by left hand driving, I grew to love it. I think we are supposed to be on that side. I had both a Yank Tank and a sweet Mini which made for some comical moments. I sometimes had to drive the Yank Tank and I was forever getting into the car on the wrong side. Talk about feeling foolish when I looked up and noticed I did not have a steering wheel.
On the flip side, I think of met plenty of people who seem live the Gospel without acknowledging it; people who seem to have that “muscle memory” as you’re describing, but are secular in their rational thinking (or at least purport to be). When I first became a Christian it was a stumbling block for me. Now I praise God that He can draw people unto Himself even if they want nothing to do with the Church.
Great article, Father. I would add that, just as problematic as reducing faith to rationalization and ideas is reducing it to emotions and sentimentality. In my encounter with Evangelical Christianity, at least, this seems to be the greater issue.
Yes. In the article, this would be all that is under the heading of the “passions.”
Father, bless! This article speaks very deeply to me – like Matvey above, I’ve struggled a lot and still struggle much with hyper-focusing on the ‘what’ and yet knowing within me that something’s wrong – it is the ‘how’ of the Spirit that is paramount. Makes me think of St. Paul’s “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” – not that the letter is unimportant, but without the Spirit it only brings violence. You put all of this in clear perspective for me, for which I’m quite grateful to our Lord.
When the scripture is read “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[a] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” – those of us who grew up in families where abuse or neglect were the rule have no idea where to begin. We end up reading books about love and consequently, love turns into yet another object for the rational mind to study.
I have taught courses on human growth and development and I am appreciative of how the Church has the traditions/structures in place to nurture the love that a person like myself needed (and still needs). The Church has the ancient tradition of God parents – literally a mom and dad who tell you who you are in Christ – not by words but ideally via the experience of a secure attachment. An experience of secure attachment is essential for the development of an identity that is based on love and grace (rather than fear).
Think of the best moms you know – and think of the skills they demonstrate in relating to their infants. They have the ability to make deep eye contact, to attune, to synchronize, to quiet themselves, to quiet interactively – they know when to disengage in order not to overwhelm, to remain acting like themselves in the face of distressing emotions etc. Children raised by parents with secure attachment styles are oblivious to the amazing gift they were given. It’s just muscle memory for them.
I’m not saying that the great mystery of love can be reduced to a set of skills – however, what we moderns call “skills” are simply those virtues that define love in 1 Corinthians 13.
I am one of the fortunate ones who found a person outside of my family who understood what I was missing and had experienced earning a secure attachment herself and consequently also had the relational skill and patience to literally love me back to Life – I can’t help imagine how vibrant and just humming with vitality a community of believers would be where the majority of people had a similar experience. And I can’t help but to feel sad at Church when I see people who neither understand nor value secure attachment as essential to the development of an identity in Christ that is based on love and grace and not on fear.
So the body abides in our nous, so to speak, as does our thoughts and emotions, bringing them all together into a whole.
When trying to envision this I think of my grandfather. He was born in 1926 and raised on a farm with 12 siblings, with no electricity, a horse for a plow, and an outhouse for a bathroom. It was rustic and rough. He was a hard working farmer all his life, even after leaving the farm for a factory job and raising a family of his own. Even when playing with his grandkids, out in the dirt, telling us stories. He was a farmer. It was in the gruff of his voice, and the gait of his walk. It was in the shape of his jaw and the curve of his legs. It was in the way he held your hand, and sat you on his knee. The farm engulfed his entire body. It gave birth to his thoughts and emotions. He grew in it’s womb and became himself. And wherever he was, the farm was there. Not just figuratively, but in reality. You were aware of it whenever he was near by.
If our nous is the throne where we meet God, gathering our parts together to fashion us into a whole and particular person, then this is the best analogy I can think of.
Thank you for sharing your experiences.
“What does it look like to believe the Incarnation?”
In a sense is this not the very heart of our faith – for faith must itself be enfleshed, that we become that which we believe on – theosis?
By the way, driving in England can be pretty hard for we native brits if we’ve been away for a long time in areas where the speed and density of the traffic is considerably less. I had enough trouble recently on a visit to my homeland and found the driving immensely tiring. Learning faith should perhaps also bring with it a degree of fatigue
Father, thank you for teaching us about the danger of fasting without prayer. I have been quite guilty of that over the past year.
I have noticed whenever I think about parallel parking during the process I mess up very badly and have to start again or continue on a search for a much bigger spot. When I force myself not to think the results are much better.
In a similar way over these past two years I have found myself facing challenging interactions and trying to pep talk myself with faith related quotes or begging for grace beforehand. The interactions have typically gone just terrible following this.
I have started to think the pep talks were just like banging pots around inside myself.
Is being still and trusting God part of our serving God? In the Liturgy I love the line “a mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.” This line helps me understand that praising God is my calling and the gift I can give to Him. If possible, please help me with the phrase ‘a mercy of peace.’
In attempting to share the Good News of Orthodoxy with my sick, elderly Hindu dad he once replied to my description of Christ as the source of life with ‘I’ve got no problem with it.’
This was a moment of total deflation but got me to think about what the real goal is….do I think salvation is simply agreeing with a set of ideas? These articles and comments have helped me to greater understanding of God’s love.
Very apt analogy. It made me think of my father the auto mechanic. I think there is the German word “gestalt” is meant to describe this.
It seems to me that the concepts you are putting forward are far more concrete than abstract which I enjoy. It puts flesh and substance to our faith. On a personal level the article really was convicting. It reminds me of our Lord’s parable of soils. Origen makes this observation about the seeds of faith that fall upon the rocky ground
“A hard and stony heart, we should answer that even this does not happen without the arrangement of Divine Providence; inasmuch as, but for this, it would have not be known what condemnation was incurred by rashness in hearing and indifference in investigation nor, certainly, what benefit was derived from being training in an orderly manner. And hence it happens that the soul comes to know its defects, and to cast the blame upon itself, and consistently with this to reserve and submit itself to training, i.e., in order that it may see that its faults must first be removed, and that then it must come to receive the instruction of wisdom. As, therefore, souls are innumerable, so also are their manners, and purposes, and movements, and appetencies, and incitements different, the variety of which can by no means be grasped by the HUMAN MIND; and therefore to God alone must be left the art, and the knowledge, and the power of an arrangement of this kind, as He alone can know both the remedies for each individual soul, and measure out the time of its cure.”
Such a profound observation by Origen and I see a interrelation with your article. Rationality is not the soil that our faith is grounded in nor tested by. But it is the grace of Christ and the light of his love that lifts the hardened rocky soil from our hearts and reveals the darkness that is within them. This article showed me a lot a rocky soil. Thanks Father
Like your driving where thinking can be an obstacle, it’s just so with learning a language. If you are always thinking about how you should say something, it actually inhibits speaking. After a while you have to get rid of the affective filter and just “let her fly!” And after some initial missteps it can be exhilarating. With prayer we have to also rid ourselves of the “affective filter “of our thinking and lower the mind into the heart in trust. Both “letting her fly” and prayer of the heart can be “risky” but the two bring real dividends, earthly and eternal.
Really liked that.
Bishop Tom Wright also says something similar about virtue. He cites the pilot who brought the plane safely down in the river near New York when the engines failed. The pilot reacted automatically because what had been conscious became in training unconscious, part of himself.
One of the better “virtue” theologians is Stanley Hauerwas. It’s an especially important category in theology rooted in Aristotle/Aquinas. The primary question is to ask, “What kind of person does this or that?” Thus in the “moral” life, we are not concentrating on simple isolated individual actions, but are struggling to become a certain kind of person. For a Christian, Christ Himself is that “kind” of person.
Just curious, would you still describe yourself as a pacifist? Could you talk more about the subject of pacifism within orthodoxy?
Also, could you talk about the difference between Orthodox noetic faith and the (more typically evangelical) “sentimental faith.” This is a great struggle for me in my conversion.
Hello Seraphim. Father wrote a couple of posts on the Noetic life (first one is https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2016/08/28/a-noetic-life/) that may be helpful if you have not read them yet.
I am an Orthodox Christian. I try not to make ideological commitments that are defined as somehow outside or independent of the faith. I believe that killing is a sin. That is the canon law of the Church. Canon Law also differentiates in how it treats killing, but in every case it treats it as a sin, a wound of the soul that must be healed. Interestingly, even the accidental taking of a human life is also a sin, though it clearly has no forensic meaning (sin is not a legal problem). But even that needs to be healed and forgiven. Pacificism, in such a case, falls short as simply another forensic, legal position.
Self-defense of cities, nations, has long been an Orthodox practice, and one for which we seek divine assistance and protection. If, for example, you decide not to practice self-defense against invading Tartars, then they will kill everyone in the city, etc.
But even an action that is forensically justified – still has the spiritual character of sin. You cannot shed human blood and walk away without a stain and wound on the soul that needs to be forgiven and healed. King David was not allowed to build the Temple in Jerusalem because he was a man of war, not because he had been an adulterer. His wars were clearly under God’s command – but the shedding of blood has a spiritual consequence.
The problem with classical pacifism is its purely forensic character. It fails to account for the inherent tragedy of human existence in this world. Killing is sin – even accidental killing. The Church is here, not as a “judge or lawgiver,” but as a healer and reconciler. It is the physician of our souls. Don’t kill. And if you do kill, get healing. The healing, in some cases, may take an entire lifetime of penance.
There are modern Orthodox pacifists, but I find them to be mixing a non-Orthodox approach to the question into Orthodoxy (in some cases). I prefer to wrestle with the canons and the tradition – and let the canons and tradition wrestle me to the ground until I yield.
It’s a very good question: faith and noetic faith. I’ll give it some thought and write an article for you. I was wondering what the next article was…
Is defense as divorce allowed due to the hardness of our hearts?
I’ve noticed a deep reticence to acknowledging tragedy in our culture. Is this because it hints at a wound that is far too big for us to heal ourselves? The band-aid we put over the wound maybe is the concept of liability- for every action, some one some where is responsible and can be held liable.
I’ve noticed a deep reticence to acknowledging tragedy in our culture. Is this because it hints at a wound that is far too big for us to heal ourselves? The band-aid we put over the wound maybe is the concept of liability- for every action, some one some where is responsible and can be held liable.
I think there is a heavy Protestant mindset in our society that says “there’s a plan”–whether that is of God or of kharma or whatever. People subscribe to the idea that there is control somewhere that will make this make sense. It is usually only a vague notion they keep for comfort; it helps them to make the tragedy smaller, more under control. I personally believe it is a reflection of the Calvinism that is so strongly rooted in our society.
You are correct in your statement of a heavy influence of Protestantism of thinking God has a plan. I see it posted on Face Book every day. I have heard it taught and preached not just by Calvinists, but Evangelicals as well. We are admonished by many to discover God’s plan for our life and then cooperate with it. This idea is used specifically to minimize tragedy and place the cause on God in that He is working His plan for each of us. None of my Evangelical acquaintances seem to see that this makes God the doer of evil deeds in many cases.
Not only a mindset but an actual legal apparatus, with sanctions and penalties enforced by the state.
Jordon, I don’t understand your comment.
I’m referring to liability as a legal concept. Medical malpractice is an example. The concept itself is not bad, but I think there is a gross misuse of it that reflects a culture that everything that happens is always under someone’s responsibility. No accidents, no tragedies.
OK, I get that. Especially as I am in the insurance business. It is good example of a forensic approach to a human problem. It is exacerbated by the consumerist/marketing approach to medical care.
To get bodies in the door promises of perfect outcomes are made all the time.
Studies have shown that when doctors take the time and effort to personally interact with their patients the incidence of lawsuits goes down.
With the government getting more involved there will be even less chance for a human approach to medical liability issues.
Franz Kafka was prophetic. We live in a schizoid world.
When a tragedy occurs in an Evangelist’s life they simply don’t know what to do with it. They are subconsciously aware that God allowed it to happen. No angels were sent to avert the deadly car accident, no miracles occurred to bring back the heartbeat. So, they immediately compensate their confusion by declaring the mystery of “God’s plan.” Why? What are they so confused about? Well, because in their book they are already “saved” in total -the work has already been done. God took care of that long ago, there is nothing left to do, and certianly not on their part. They are essentially just waiting around till death transports them into their perfect Christ-like state on the other side, enjoying the quirks of this life in the meantime, just waiting it out. Thus, God allowing the tragedy has no meaning for their salvation. Repentance and subsequent salvation has already happened for them; they already possess it via God’s will thay the Holy Spirit be continually present in their heart. No work to be done on their part. Therefore, this tragedy cannot be a means for working towards something they already possess, and thus it get pushed into the “mysterious plan” bin, where only God knows it’s secret purpose. No bother though, because once they cross over to the other side of the grave it’s meaning will be revealed, and they will have an, “Ah ha!” moment that satisfies them.
In a tragic world like ours, our Protestant culture has a LOT of compensating to do to save God from unjust accusations. Because if salvation is 100% a once and done event that is entirely riding on God’s will to power, then all this needless tragedy is entirely God’s fault. Hence, this aspect of our Protestant culture is actually responsible for much of the atheism that has sprung up, since their paradigm has created the unjust God they rail against. All the “God has a plan” talk is just an attempt to save face, whether they are conscious of it or not.
Thank you for describing this so well. Being a cradle Orthodox, I really have little understanding of the Protestant views of salvation (I really like Orthodox analogy to a diamond – we look at it from all sorts of angles and directions, and it’s always beautiful and mysterious). Your description is very helpful. I have been having a gentle conversation about it with a friend lately, and one post from this blog was very interesting and helpful, to see where this thinking came from…..
September 10, 2012 at 11:43 am
Consider, for instance, the radical determinism of the reformed churches: Martin Luther said that “all things happen by absolute necessity,” yet he was rather libertarian compared to Jean Calvin.
Luther and Calvin, but especially Calvin, were influenced, via the late medieval Nominalists, by the Islamic doctrine that God is pure will, infinitely beyond reason and love, justice and mercy.
Orthodox Islam makes clear that Allah is not even restrained by his own word: Mohammad ridiculed the Jews for believing in the constancy of the Lord. Allah will do what Allah will do, for he is not bound by rationality or tenderness. Will simply wills, you see. Thus the fascination with the “99 Names.” These do not describe the nature of God, but merely his “economic” actions, to borrow a Christian term.
Indeed, the likes of al-Ghazzali took the sovereignty of Allah to absurd heights, denying any causality apart from the direct application of the Divine Will. Thus, to this day, universities in the Muslim world teach “fire does not burn cotton; Allah does.” Even the most basic and pragmatic scientific enterprises, such as meteorology, are viewed with skepticism or even hostility because the laws of physics supposedly do violence to Allah’s absolute freedom and unconditional power.
This madness bled into Christian thought gradually, revealing itself finally in the centerpiece of reformed thought: double predestination. The non-Protestant Christian churches avoided the Islamic influence to greater or lesser extents.”
We are admonished by many to discover God’s plan for our life and then cooperate with it. This idea is used specifically to minimize tragedy and place the cause on God in that He is working His plan for each of us. None of my Evangelical acquaintances seem to see that this makes God the doer of evil deeds in many cases.
Nicholas, this idea of “discovering God’s plan for our life and then cooperating with it” plays into another focus of the Protestant world: the individual. They push the idea of God having a plan for me and so lose the fullness of the communion of the Church in the working out of salvation/theosis.
“Every man his own pope” is rooted much deeper in our society than, I believe, we tend to think. It is like a vine that grows along a chain link fence; it is almost impossible to get rid of because it entangles everything.
You speak truth, the end game is always about the “me.” It is an utterly opposite of the concept of dying to Self. In my tenure as a Low Church Pastor I heard all sorts of claims about how God was required to serve the “me.” This is part of why I began to look elsewhere for Truth.