The Material God


In my previous article I used the example of kinesthetic knowledge (as in riding a bicycle) as a means of describing noetic experience, the means of knowing God through communion with Him. It is worth noting that the example is quite material and mundane. It is not an esoteric, exotic meditation or technique. It is so simple that we know it without knowing that we know it. As I type this article, my fingers “know” how to spell words. I discovered recently as I was sitting down with a pencil to write something (a rare method for me now), I was having trouble spelling certain words. At the same time, I realized that I could accurately type the same words without difficulty. My fingers know and remember things that my conscious mind struggles with.

My family is at the exciting moment of watching my newest grandson learn to walk. Everyday, it seems, another video is sent to me by his parents, as another skill is gained by his brain and muscles. He is learning without “being taught.” He will acquire language in the same manner, mastering most of the complex rules of grammar by age five or six without being able to describe the rules at all. At some point in school, perhaps, a teacher will “teach” him what he already knows.

The knowledge of God, the noetic experience, is quite similar. For Christians, this should come as no surprise since we proclaim boldly that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The God whom we worship became a material being, the God/Man, Jesus Christ. Strangely, however, we frequently abstract God, even the incarnate Christ, into an idea. For many, Christ is a word that represents an idea about a certain individual who did certain things on account of which I may now, by believing those certain things, be saved. It is little different than proclaiming that Julius Caesar has crossed the Rubicon and that all who believe that he did, will be saved. At least, the mechanism of salvation would be quite the same.

But this is not at all what the gospel teaches, nor is it consistent with the faith of classical Christianity. The gospel says that eternal life is “to know God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent” (Jn. 17:3). It does not say that eternal life is to think or believe certain things about Christ, but to actually know Him. And as I described in my previous article, such knowledge must be understood as an actual act of communion.

Anyone who has ever chased a thought (or been chased by a thought) knows that thinking is among the most frustrating things that we experience. Everything from an “ear worm” (those little songs that you can’t get out of your head) to obsessive thoughts that haunt us moment by moment, proclaim that thinking is a lousy way of doing most things. Thank God that almost everything we have to do in a reliable manner is done “kinesthetically” rather than rationally. I do not want to be on the road with anyone who has to think about driving a car. Only when their body knows how to drive are they at all safe. Even the most fundamental elements of math, such as addition and multiplication, are built on a form of memorization that is far more kinesthetic than rational. I do not think that six times seven is forty-two, I know it.

In the life of the Church this knowledge of God is largely given in the form of sacrament. Christ’s promise regarding the Eucharist is straightforward: “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me and I in him.” He does not say “Whosoever thinks correctly about the Eucharistic elements…” The knowing, if you will, comes by eating and drinking, not by thinking. We might well reflect on that knowing experience, but the reflection is secondary.

Of course, we do not eat and drink as an isolated event. The eating and drinking occur in the midst of the believing Church in the context of the Liturgy. The Liturgy itself takes place within a still larger context. Eating and drinking Christ’s Body and Blood is only the most immediate form of a greater set of practices. But our modern psychologization of belief tends to discount physical actions as contributing very little to our spiritual lives. We frequently describe them as representing something other than themselves – and that something is usually some abstraction.

The simple act of making the sign of the Cross is often explained in ways that make the action the very least and most insignificant portion of what is taking place. And yet, the sign of the Cross is itself the greater thing. Its value is not created by what I think when I do it, or some phrase I might say silently. Its value lies in the fact that it is the Cross. The Cross is itself powerful and we physically/spiritually apply that power to ourselves in making the sign of the Cross.

St. Paul describes a physical aspect of salvation, combined with the noetic:

“The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart ” (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. (Rom 10:8-10)

Here we should remember St. Paul’s use of heart (kardia) in a manner interchangeable with the nous. There is a two-fold aspect: the noetic and the physical. The act of speaking is essential to the noetic form of knowledge. The physicality of Orthodox worship and practice is grounded in this understanding. It is how we truly come to know.

The most common activity of children (until the advent of the digital age) is play. It is instinctive and does not have to be taught. Children will do it unless they are interfered with. But the nature of their play is itself one of their primary modes of learning. They acquire skills by playing them. They act out what they need to know. This form of learning is not restricted to childhood – it is simply the most effective and common form of learning, though often called by other names.

A pilot of a 747 learns his skill by “playing” in a simulator. He needs to crash a few times, without consequence, in order to learn not to crash in reality. Soldiers learn to kill by playing war games.

He makes my feet like the feet of deer, And sets me on my high places.
He teaches my hands to make war, So that my arms can bend a bow of bronze. (Psa 18:33-34)

We teach the hands of a child to make the sign of the Cross, for it will be a primary weapon when he enters spiritual warfare. The very actions that have been vilified now for centuries (cf. “empty ritual”) are, in fact, essential to the Christian life. For if you do not engage in these holy forms of “play,” then the other games of your life, those of the Spirit of the Age, will teach your hands another form of warfare against Christ and His children. Ritual is not optional in the human life. Those of the marketplace and the entertainment world are quickly forming and shaping generations for something other than God. You cannot live such a life of cultural conformity and then wonder why you see no evidence for God.

This habit of denigrating the physical is the constant companion of most people in our culture. We bring it to our Orthodoxy as well, constantly looking for God in all the wrong places (our rational and emotional experience) rather than where He has deigned to meet us (the “Word become flesh”). The incarnate God gave us an incarnate faith. The life of the sacraments and the actions that surround them, exist to teach our hearts to know God.

Most of the actions and rituals of the Orthodox life are quite simple. It requires approaching “things” as gifts from God. Everything in all of creation is icon and sacrament, a gift that bears the revelation of Christ, through Whom all things were made. We have become “users” who see and judge things for what they are worth or for how they might benefit us. This is what consumers do. A consumer’s mind only sees things that may be consumed. We become like a cancer to the planet (and to ourselves).

The proper ritual of our lives begins and is grounded in thanksgiving for all things, and not simply for how they may serve us. Everything in God’s creation is created good and is thus a cause for giving thanks for its very existence. When anything is received as a gift, it carries with it the presence and remembrance of the Giver. All things become a means of communion, a knowing of God.



  1. I’m a new follower of your blog Father. I’m a Mormon, with a desire for wisdom; for good and inspiring things in my life. Reading your words and contemplating your insights has already been a blessing. Thank you!

  2. You can say that again! :

    “You cannot live a life of cultural conformity and then wonder why you see no evidence for God.”

  3. Father,

    This was funny. I had to say “six times seven” in Polish to get the answer – it came right away (as did “7×7” and “8X7”) . But when I tried “nine times seven”, there was no answer…. This is because my grandfather taught me to look at my hands for all the “nine” multiplications (and I never memorized the nines, instead I am always embarrassed by looking at my hands for the answers….).

    I bent the ring finger on my right hand to verify how you got “sixty three”. I guess one tenth of my most basic math comes directly from kinesthetic knowledge 🙂

  4. Thank you Father, Your posts make great Evangelism tools to share with folks who think a cerebral faith is the solution.

  5. Thank you Father Stephen, for this wonderful article and its accompanied article on the nous. Again your article brings to the fore memories.

    When I first was introduced to the term of the nous, I had no idea what it was all about, but eventually came to realize that I had likely used it for a significant portion of my work in chemistry, albeit accidentally (and by the grace of God). The physicality of it makes so much sense to me that (likely due to my concrete way of thinking) I can only reflect on my experience of it in a kind of physical way.

    There are cultural antecedents to what we experience and see, as you mention here. The cultural environment I had at home as a kid encouraged me to speak with my hands and mouth. The motions I was taught to make with my hands accompanied speech. Then later in school a teacher attempted to break this “habit” and held my hands and told me to speak, and initially I couldn’t. To this day the way I talk seems to some people as though English is not my first language. I can have trouble saying words, sometimes very simple words.

    More reflection: In those early years I was taught arithmetic by ‘rote’ memorization in a non-kinesthetic way. About a month ago I was speaking to someone and said 3 x 3 is 12. In that moment I knew something was wrong by the expression on the person’s face, but not by what I had heard myself say. In that moment of mutual befuddlement, my husband interjected into the conversation and said “don’t worry, she’s got a PhD in physical chemistry”. Need I say there was an even deeper look of horror on that person’s face.

    Need I say I cross myself a lot? Glory be to God for all things!

  6. Over on Christian News Service is an article about a woman being instantly converted from an atheist to a Christian in a Byzantine Catholic Church in Italy by praying to God in front of an icon to make Himself known if He were real.

    A “presence” descended that she recognized and she knew she was a Christian.

  7. Father, I have lots of contact with people who are Pro Life and question me about our beliefs. Sharing your blog is a very good way to get them to read and think about what you have said. It is less “in the face” than if I were to tell them and the written word seems to have more authority, especially these days. They seem to argue less with writing than with people.

  8. On the inspiration of what both Michael and Nicholas have said above, I wish to say a few words about life and the work of science. This topic is something I struggle with, and often find myself groping in darkness.

    As a kid I hungered to understand how the world works. As Father mentions, the play of children teaches them about the world. And I had a tendency to take things apart as a means to explore and understand, and this play was a process of love and curiosity rather than destruction. Although, I admit I broke some stuff. And when I did break stuff I sometimes cried if it happened to be a favorite toy. All of this experience teaches.

    My parents would not replace broken toys. I had to either fixed it or lived with my broken toy. The broken toy was no longer what it was although I might have still loved it, and this was an important lesson in my early life. To take care. To be attentive as much as possible to what one does, because much cannot be undone, only forgiven.

    It is said that science is non-partisan, and unbiased, but we know that in all endeavors we are imperfect though we attempt unbiased work, we bring to it all of our history, our baggage, our strengths and weaknesses. For this reason we need a community and more, we need to understand the meaning of communion, by living it. It is only through this communion in God’s grace, that we might hope to have some understanding of what it is to be a person in God’s creation, or a person who is also a scientist in God’s creation.

    As an infant in the faith I cannot discern what it is that the woman in Michael’s comment experienced. As a scientist, I would not have called it “proof”. And if such an experience had happened to me, I might have considered myself ‘nuts’, or I would have held so much doubt that I would not have been open to the experience as “proof”.

    I have mentioned in this blog in previous articles an experience of seeing Death and Resurrection in data. Before coming into Orthodoxy I had already lived and worked and communed with nature through data, engaging with it in the way Orthodox do, with icons. I was engaging with data as it were icons of the unknown. Although Orthodoxy and iconography and their meanings were quite foreign to me at that time.

    That’s the best that I can describe it so far. Since that time of that first experience, I have desired to describe it, particularly for the people I love. To the best of my understanding as an infant in the Orthodox faith, Life itself cannot be so easily described. A legal and a scientific definition is insufficient. Life permeates in the throes of death. It was space, that which we would call nothing at all, that suggested to me Death and Resurrection. And there is no proof. It just Is.

  9. The language of “proof” is problematic. It tends to presume a kind of objectivity about knowledge that is inappropriate for many things (such as the noetic experience that I’ve described). In proving something, we somehow stand outside it and point to it.

    In knowing something, in a true noetic manner, I “know” it because it is now a part of me. If I stood apart from it, I would no longer know it.

  10. Fr. your point is even more important because we cannot truly stand apart from anything. It literally impossible to be objective in the way it is usually meant. Our bias is present in everything we do and think and feel.

    In some instances it is important to both explicitly recognize our bias and minimize it to the extent we can. Quality scientific experiment does that. In the writing of history the best historians are explicit in their bias so that others may correct for it. Politicians and ideologs tend to live on the exploitation of bias.

    However nothing is known except in communion. Nothing has life apart from communion.

    As my parents taught me, one a contemporary dancer and artist, the other a cowboy and medical doctor, the life of the world is both known and expressed in the interrelationships of which we are a part.

    We are neither autonomous nor alone.

    Glory to God.

  11. I don’t do this anymore, but when challenged (usually not in a nice way) about making the sign of the cross as “empty ritual” of “inherently meaningless” hand gestures, I converted them by raising my middle finger.
    Funny how “inherently meaningful” hand gestures suddenly became…
    (I must confess, there’s a little devious part of me that REALLY misses doing that…)

  12. Dear Father, I am very sad. For a long time now your blog has been such a source of learning, of understanding and inspiration for me. But now it seems like you have started a kind of war on “Thinking” and I feel very lost. I really do not see why you must denigrate “Thinking” so. After all, that is what this blog is – thinking. Your Thinking. Your *thoughts* on things. It is not communion with me, or you and I sharing anything, it’s just me, reading your thoughts that you have written down. I know that thinking about things are not the same as the things in themselves, but if “Thinking” was such a low and useless exercise then why do we listen to and read homilies? Why read anything at all? It is after all just one person’s thinking on a subject.

    I am afraid that in this article the intuitive play that you have described is not the way that *all* people learn. For me, it is *thinking*. I watch and think. I do something, and think. I mentally work out the cause and effect relationships between things. In this way I understand the underlying working of a thing, and therefore how to effect cause, the cause I desire. Personally, I watch and learn.

    Also it is not your body that “knows” how to drive. If it were, alcohol in your brain would not impair your driving ability. Nor would brain damage. It is the function of Proprioception, which has just as much to do with your brain as your body.

    I feel like you have fallen completely for Robert Epstein’s article and the Embodied cognition theory. Which I would like to point out is a theory – i.e. thinking about how thinking works. I also suggest you read some critique Embodied Cognition theory:

    I do understand that much of the faith and theology is mystery and paradox that no amount of thinking can ever unravel. I am fine with that. I also understand the place and role and importance of communion and experience, where again “Thinking” is not required. But I don’t think that any of these things mean that thinking about them or anything else is a kind of “lower”, useless activity.

    I understand St. Gregory Palamas’ refutation of Barlaam. I don’t hold to “I think therefore I am”. Certainly man is not a mind inside a machine. Certainly we do not need to understand God in order to have faith or communion with Him.

    We are not our thoughts, but our thoughts are part of us. We are our minds and our movements, our body and our souls. We are a complex organism, somehow more than the sum of our parts – we are made in the image of God. I just feel that trumping up one part of our complex system against another is not helpful. One of the aspects of Orthodoxy I have come to love so much is how all things are so beautifully harmonised and balanced. We are in all our parts, our thinking parts included, changed and sanctified in Christ. At least, that is how I always understood it.

    Dear Father, I am sorry to write such a negative comment about you and your work, especially considering the incredibly high regard I hold for you and your insights. But I feel confused and disappointed.

    Yours respectfully,

  13. Beth,
    Sorry for the disappointment. I have never read Robert Epstein nor am I at all familiar with embodied cognition theory. Obviously “thinking” has a role in our lives. There is so very much to be said about the many kinds of knowledge and the role thinking and other activities have in it. I am not at “war” against thinking. But the understanding of noetic perception, so key in the fathers and so poorly understood in our culture, requires a bit of hammering, I think, to make clear what it is not.

    Part of that hammering, of course, requires thinking. But the thinking includes an observation, internally, of other kinds of cognition – such as communion.

    We do not just want to think about God. We want to know Him and know Him through communion. Finding ways to explain and teach that so that others can understand is what these present articles have as their goal. Indeed, from the very first articles on the blog 10 years ago, I have made it clear that knowing God is the single goal of my writing.

    There is a form of “thinking” called “theoria” that will come up for some exposition in a bit. If I hammer on something, I have my purpose. When I identify something in writing, I tend to write a series of articles in which I keep exploring the point until I’m done. No war is intended, but a careful treatment over a series.

    Perhaps it would be well to ask what specifically I mean by “thinking” when I am critiquing it. Perhaps I can tend to that question in a bit.

    I have noted that you cannot know God by “thinking” (dianoia). Rationality cannot reach Him. It can do a lot, but it can only do so much. I emphasize this, because many people, who are bogged down in unbelief, are bogged down because they expect something from rationality that it cannot give them. It doesn’t mean it has no use. Indeed, it can be of great use when it considers other things. But in and of itself, it is insufficient.

    Stay with me. Perhaps it will all fall into place (my writing, that is).

  14. In his book Giving You Shall Receive, Father Nicolae Steinhardt (who I had the privilege to meet) tells a story of a man who sought entry into a monastery, although he didn’t feel qualified. The man approached the abbot and confessed: “Know, Father, that I have neither faith, nor light, nor essence, nor courage, nor trust in myself, and I cannot be of any help to myself, much less to any others; I have nothing. How could such a man be accepted into a monastery, one might think? But the abbot replies: “What does that have to do with anything? You have no faith, have no light, giving them to others you will have them, too. Searching them for another, you will gain them for yourself. Your brother, your neighbor and fellow man, him you are duty bound to help with what you do not have…Giving another that which you do not have – faith, love, confidence, hope – you will acquire them, as well. “
    That being said, I could add that I am not a confident driver, but I do drive people around and I pray a lot that I could get them safely to their destination. I am not a confident cook, but I do cook for large crowds, and I’m amazed that they believe I’m a great cook. I am not smart, but somehow I manage to fool people that I’m not stupid, either. I am not a great mom, but I’ve been blessed (and I count disappoints as great blessings, too). I have learned through being taught, and through imitation and example, but nothing changed me like giving from what I do not have, and thank God the emptier I feel, the more I could get filled.
    Pray for me, Father Stephen!

  15. Beth,
    There is an old saying: “You get more stinkin’ from thinkin’ than you do from drinkin'”

    This applies to one particular type of thinking.

    While there are moments of this type of thinking here, that is not all that goes on.

    There are for me moments of communion too.

  16. Fr Stephen, I have a slightly random question based off your last couple posts.

    Is it fair to say that we can have knowledge -about- God through faculties of the mind (like philosophy), but can’t have direct knowledge -of- God apart from noetic experience? Kind of like how you can learn the physics behind how a bike stays balanced when you are riding it but can’t actually balance it yourself unless you try and fall down a few times. Knowing the physics might help but isn’t necessary and certainly of itself can’t teach you how to ride a bike.

  17. Adam,
    Yes. That is well said. There is much to be gained by studying the physics of a bicycle, but it won’t gain you the knowledge of how to ride. The same is true of what is essentially speculative knowledge (even if the speculation is based on the data given in the revealed teaching of the Church). The frank teaching of the Scripture and the Tradition is that noetic experience is true saving knowledge of God. The nous is that faculty by which we know God. The healing of the nous is essential. Mind you, nous and heart are quite interchangeable in such statements. But “heart” does not mean emotion or gut-feeling. It means “nous.”

    Thus the fathers say, “One who prays is a theologian and a theologian is one who prays.” Even the most simple (including those with mental handicaps) are fully capable of noetic experience of God. Those of us who enjoy intellectual training and competency should be humbled by this. We have to become like a child to enter the Kingdom.

  18. Thank you Father for your last words to Adam, “We have to become like a child to enter the Kingdom”.

    Please forgive me for returning back to science, there is a theological reason I do this. If I understand correctly, the nous is part of our basic human nature. We might cloud it and our surrounding culture may help us to cloud it, but all of us have a nous whether we know it or not. (At least this is my feeble understanding as an infant in the faith.)

    I suspect that a reason that I might have accidentally avoided the pitfalls of the surrounding modern culture to cloud this faculty, is because of my native american early upbringing. (Parents died when I was a teen). My mother coached me to keep my heritage a secret from prying questions from teachers in school. I knew early on that whatever perceptions or understandings or experiences I had that differed from others should be kept to myself as much as possible. We are taught to commune with nature when we walk in the woods and really in all aspects of our life.

    Early on that manner of being and walking saved both my brother and I from being bitten by a rattle snake when another child in our proximity who was not introduced to this way of life was bitten. To the outside world this was simple coincidence. To my brother and I it was not a coincidence and we both held in awe what we had been given, and yet I wish to say further, how we were taught was not in the manner of discursive structure.

    Beth’s questions to you Father, sincerely touched me. I wish to think about these things too. To ponder them. As a result, I fear that I may have had more noetic capacity before I came into Orthodoxy. Having identified the nous in conversation and to think about it now that I’m an infant in the faith, seems to have diminished it. I am no longer “there” somehow. To regain my footing sometimes I need to think of my mother being present, she taught us how to walk before. And I lean heavily on the hands of the saints as well, specifically my patron saint. But I admit I’m not so ready to tell a scientist this.

  19. Dee,
    Our culture, particularly modern culture, took a profound turn away from noetic experience and it not only becomes clouded, it is often discounted even when it is experienced. I think you’re correct in pointing to the Native American experience. Many pre-modern, non-modern cultures are far more “child-like” and noetic in their perception of the world. The gospel, particularly in the fullness of it Orthodox form, is relatively easy to preach in such settings. It is also a reason why Orthodoxy traditionally is quite gentle with these cultures and treasures as much as possible.

    When I am critical of “thinking,” it is not of thinking, per se, but of thinking as it has been diminished and truncated in modern culture. Properly, the nous is the Queen of the senses. When it reigns in proper fashion, then thinking is also clarified and able to function properly. However, because this is not so, in our current world, we are largely governed by various passions, clouding both reason and noetic experience. We are more like animals – and able to be “herded” in the same manner.

    “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light!” This is a call to the awakening of the nous, by which we perceive the Divine Light. And then “In, Thy Light we shall see light.” This allows reason to properly function.

  20. Beth – I appreciated your comment.
    Fr. Stephen – I appreciated your response.

    I found myself getting distracted by the bicycle analogy, to the point that it made it difficult for me to continue with the post. “Knowing” how to ride a bicycle or type or drive a car is a sort of implicit (or unconscious) memory known as procedural memory.

    It is true that we often become confused if interrupted or asked to explain in steps something that we have stored in implicit memory. This used to plague me when I had to play memorized songs in piano recitals as a child. If I lost my place, I was doomed! I couldn’t “think” about the piece and pick up where I left off.

    While a fascinating phenomenon, it has little to do with knowing God through communion.

    However, I can understand, Fr. Stephen, why you drew the analogy because we experience knowing of God as a “knowing” without use of the tools of our conscious minds typical employs.

    Yet I believe it is a totally different kind of knowing than that involved in the implicit or explicit memory tasks of the human brain. The latter may help us learn tenets of the faith or ritual gestures – but not with the experiential *knowing* of God.

    I don’t mean this to minimize ritual gestures, such as the sign of the cross. But we could not learn them without certain parts of our brains working. Can we *know* God without specific parts of our brains working?

    I believe we can. If we cannot, then the death of the brain would be the end of our knowing of God. Certainly our faith teaches that our relationship with God does not end there. (There is also some “evidence” – as far as such evidence can go – that people in near-death situations have experienced God while their brains were too physically impaired to have processed what they reported experiencing.)

    Fr. Stephen, I know you are not making war on psychology anymore than you are making war on thinking. But sometimes it can sound as though you consider psychology the source of all modern evils. Like any tool or body of knowledge, it can be used for the glory of God – or it can be used for evil.

    Forgive me. I will go back and read the article again, less distracted by my prideful thoughts. I look forward to the “coming together” of the point that I know you are hammering out.

  21. Dee:
    As someone who is part Cherokee myself, I’ve got a couple questions you might be able to help me with. If you wish, you can email me at: email hidden; JavaScript is required , put “DEE” in the subject line (in case it migrates into my spam box).

  22. Father, is your opposition to “thinking” really an opposition to an understanding and use of our cognitive, rational abilities to define our being and limit our ability to relate to each other, the rest of the creation and God Himself?

    In other words an oppisition to the Cartesian dictum: “I think therefore I am.”

    It seems to me the Biblical and Patristic understanding is: God loves, therefore I am.

    mary benton, I see no opposition to psychology from Fr. Stephen, quite the opposite. His opposition is to the application of psychology in a manner that limits our nature in such a way as to exclude deeper realities including our ability to know God, one another and the rest of creation. Using it in a manner that is analogous to looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

  23. Dee, your foundation in Native American culture explains quite a lot I think.

    My mother had a deep connection to Native American culture through the dances (she was a dancer) that began when she lived in Taos in the 1920’s. It was there that she began to experience the wholeness and the wonder of creation and our connections to it all.

    In much the same way, my father growing up in eastern New Mexico in the 1910’s, contending with the immediacy of surviving with his homesteading family, came to understand the one storey nature of creation and our interdependence on God and each other. He, too, grew to know our connected wholeness.

    They traditioned their experiential understanding to my brother and me. That is the foundational reason my brother and I are Orthodox. The Church is the only place we could complete and live the gift our parents gave us.

    Also perhaps why I resonate with your description of your own journey and why it excites me as it does.

    IMO there are two wells of experience in the United States that the Church needs to accept and, by the grace of God, transform and complete. Those two are the slave experience and the Native American. The Appalachian may be a third.

    That work is going on, largely hidden, but it is going on. It is here that we will find our connection to this land and cease being a “foreign” and disjointed church.

    Thank you so much for what you share here.

    God is good.

  24. Michael,

    What I am referring to, which I have acknowledged is not truly a “war on psychology”, is much use of the word “psychology” as though it were something negative or in opposition to the spiritual – or noetic knowing.

    The reality is that we cannot know ourselves apart from the psychological anymore than we can know ourselves apart from our bodies. Our minds are wonderful, complex gifts from God – and the study, understanding (and sometimes healing) of them is not in any way limiting to the spiritual path.

    As any branch of science can be perverted to “compete” with understanding God, so can psychology. But we also know that the wonders science reveals to us can bring us closer to God – in the heart that is open to doing so.

    I intend no criticism of Fr. Stephen here. I admit that my distraction is likely rooted in my own weakness and pride. Yet I shared the thought above on the possibility that it might be clarifying for others who might experience the tension as I do when reading the text.

    I am a sinner, no font of wisdom.

  25. Fr. Stephen, Dee, Justin, and Michael, the thread of exploring the Native American understanding is one I would like very much to pursue at some point. My own journey in becoming Christian has involved a deep relearning of my relationship with the material.

    One of the deep pitfalls of modern thinking is that we often perceive ourselves as incorporeal beings. Orthodoxy and it’s relentless use of the physical in the work of our salvation is restoring my relationship to God’s Creation.

    As I understand it, Native American’s viewed themselves as within creation, not ‘over’ it. This perception is essential to acting as priests and mediators of God’s love for His Creation. Christ’s self-emptying love in His Incarnation declares this emphatically to me. That fact in history constantly reminds me that thinking apart from acting can not save.

    Thank you all for this very edifying discussion.

  26. Father Stephen, you said:

    “Mind you, nous and heart are quite interchangeable in such statements. But “heart” does not mean emotion or gut-feeling. It means “nous.””

    I’m wondering how intuition fits in.

    Thank you.

  27. Mary,
    I working on an article to explain a bit more what I mean by “thinking,” etc. Actually, I have no beef with psychology, other than the fact that a number of aspects of it, particularly in the popular imagination, are often grounded in false assumptions. That said, I readily refer people to therapists when needed – generally preferring cognitive behavioral therapists. There are many techniques that are very helpful. However, what is often a problem, are the various assumptions or explanations of the techniques or of the mind or thought that are, in fact, little more than imaginary models. Freud and Jung certainly observed many things, but their theories were bogus and made up whole-cloth. Admittedly, we have to use theories in order to think, but some of those theories can not only be wrong, they can be quite harmful. The APA has repeatedly shown that its definitions of what is or is not a mental disorder is often as much of a social/political construct than it is clinical. In that aspect, it is often revealed to be a pseudo-science.

    Again, that doesn’t mean that the therapeutic techniques that are used are of no benefit. But the claims about the mind are extremely fluid and constantly changing. Simply the fact that there are so many “schools” of therapy and explanation points to something that is more ideological than scientific. However, it uses the mantle of “science” at the drop of a hat. These problems have been well-documented and discussed by people in your own profession. They are not me bashing psychology – only me telling the truth.

    But there is a place that “psychology,” including “pop psychology”, holds in our culture that is deeply flawed and worthy of withering critique. A great deal of my writing includes a culture critique, from the point of view of classical Christian thought. The foibles and mistaken notions that are part of our mass culture, including its false notions viz. the human mind, are worthy of comment and discernment. It’s not a war. But it is what it is.

    You described the knowledge of riding a bicycle as a “memory” task of the brain, as if we all know what that means. We do not. I think you are understating how apt the analogy is to the nous. We say things like “muscle memory” or “performance memory,” but continue to have very “spooky” images of what all that means. It, in fact, means almost nothing without much further commentary.

    Lastly, you use the word “psychology” as if it were one thing. It is not. It is almost as varied as the forms of Protestantism (and for much the same reason).

    The sign of the Cross, ritual gestures, many of the “practices” of the Christian faith, have far more to do with learning and living the faith than the various things we describe as “belief.” This is, ultimately, a theological point – one about the nature of our material existence. I would suggest, on the grounds of good science, that our learning of almost anything is far more physical than what psychology would call mental. The acquisition of knowledge actually changes the brain in physical ways, and this is more important and essential to a sacramental understanding of the world than is generally credited.

    I have written, in various ways, suggesting that this isn’t just an Orthodox way of understanding – it is simply a description of the truth. Everyone learns in this way. Either we are being transformed and conformed to our faith through our practices, or we are being conformed and transformed into something else by our practices. I would also suggest that practices will, in the long run, always overwhelm ideas. It is the reason that the Church holds that “Lex orandi, lex credendi.” How we pray (including the ritual practices) is how we will believe.

    The Orthodox critique of other Christians was (and is) first and foremost a critique of wrong practices. Orthodoxy meaning Ortho doxa – “Right glory” or “Right worship.” The earliest arguments with Rome, for example, were about leavened versus unleavened bread in the Eucharist – an argument that modern nominalism would think as silly and absurd. But they didn’t. Understanding why this is so is to understand a different way of seeing the world – a way of seeing that is of a piece with the “mind of the fathers.”

    I am strongly suggesting that the “nous” is far more “physical” than any modern person would imagine. Indeed, the fathers actually identified, quite frequently, with the heart organ – a scandalous thought for a modern. If I succeed in helping some think more carefully about all of this – then it has been useful.

  28. Intuition is quite interesting. First, it’s worth thinking carefully about what it is. Often it seems like a knowing or a guess that we cannot quite account for. There could be any number of explanations for it. But intuition is not the nous or noetic communion. It is certainly part of the range of our mind’s experience that is difficult to describe – which probably says more about how poor our modern descriptions of the mind are. What we experience as intuition is, I think, often a catch-word for what is, in fact, a number of things, making it all the more difficult to understand.

  29. Deacon James, as I have been taught you are correct. They have a truly sacramental approach. Their dances are liturgical prayers and many tribes give thanks to the animals whom they kill for food for giving up their lives so that the tribe could be fed.

    When my mother taught the dances she always emphasized that the steps came up from the earth rather than, as we westerner’s, down into it or just on too of it.

    Of course the drum in the SW tribes mimics the beat of the human heart. Studies have shown that as the dancers dance awhile their heart beats start synchronizing with the drum and each other as do the hearts of those watching.

    They use a cedar/sage bundle that is a purifying incense.

    Due to unusual circumstances I married my current wife in her church at the time an American Indian Methodist mission. After the normal Protestant marriage ceremony there was a private blessing using an eagle feather and burning cedar/sage. It was quite like our Chrismation. It is designed to seal our marriage against any outside interference from our past, in our present and going forward.

    I cherish that moment and always will.

    They also had a “Two Spirits Council” a ministry to those who are troubled by same sex attraction which emphasized the division in such folks. It was led by a man who had left his family for another man, but returned within the blessings of his family and community.

    Very open and healing community. Small enough and close enough for the most part to know each other’s struggles and to support and pray for each other.

    Not going “noble savage” here though. Sin is there as well.

    They lack the fullness.

  30. Father, not to muddy the situation much further but what of empathy? Not mere sentimental connection BTW.

    I have witnessed my wife, for instance, talking to people. She is talking a mile-a-minute while listening really intently with every once of attention. At times I can “see” the exchange going on. She is aware of the information she is receiving consciously at a level that does not take what we would describe as thought. She adjusts her conversation accordingly responding to them as needed to enhance communication. It is fascinating.

    If she were a lesser person she could easily manipulate people.

    She also has a deeper level in which she seems to genuinely share another person’s inner most responses to both traumatic and joyous events.

    As I say there is a physical reality to these exchanges. They are not just vague commonality but often quite specific. Where does that fit in?

    The only word I have for it is empathy.

  31. Michael, I sincerely appreciate what you share as well. Your words and those of Deacon James comforted me. I experience a lot of anxiety when I write these things.

  32. Well, Dee if you are ever in Wichita for a Sunday come worship with us at St. George and my wife and I will take you out to lunch afterward.

  33. Michael:
    I’d like to bounce the same couple questions off you as well as Dee, due to the Native American connection – if you wish, you can Email me at email hidden; JavaScript is required and write “MICHAEL” in the subject line (in case it ends up in the spam box).

  34. Michael,

    Thank you for sharing your deep culture and how you are allowing it to be baptized into Christ. The history of Orthodoxy’s encounters with native American life is very different than that of Western Christianity.

    Though I have yet to make my pilgrimage to Alaska I have always been deeply affected by the presence of spirit houses on the graves for the souls of the departed. It physically speaks to the traumatic rending that the body and soul experience at death. Thank you for again for helping me weave some more connections together in my own life.

    I carry no Native American DNA in my body, but do have a deep sense of connectedness to the Celtic experience of submitting culture to the life of Christ. As I continue to parse my deeply western protestant cultural sentencing, reflecting on other cultures helps me a lot to separate wheat from chaff.

  35. Fr Stephen,

    You mentioned some thoughts on psychology in a response above. It was my college major all those many moons ago, but I am still randomly discovering infected pores in my thought process. Could you recommend some reading that directly addresses the errors of the various schools of psychology from a solid Classical Christian foundation? To me it seems good to start with a correct understanding of how God fashioned us. I read Theophan the Recluse early in my Orthodox journey which helped alot.

  36. I have no Native American DNA either but my wife does. A bunch of Celtic though.

    In one sense, that does not matter. We are all human. Deep calls to deep.

  37. A fascinating little book that expresses the impact of Western culture on Native American is “The End of Indian Kansas”. Among other things the authors explicated what they see as the “capitalization of nature” as the driving force that overwhelmed Native culture.

    Sacred space, action and thought are difficult to maintain in the face of such ruthless disregard of the inter-connectedness of life and hostility toward the sacred.

    Everything must be monetized and used or it has no value. Nothing has value in and of itself including human life. That is progress.

    It is playing out again at Standing Rock, it seems, as it did in Alaska after the US took over.

    Lord forgive me.

  38. One of the authors of The End of Indian Kansas, H. Craig Minor, is THE historian of the State of Kansas.

    He wrote many good books that do an excellent job of examining the frontier experience in Kansas. They are always good reads written with intelligence and love for this land and her peoples.

  39. Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen.
    I regularly frequent a homeschooling forum which tends to have some pretty philosophical discussions about education. One thing that often comes up is an idea that right thinking leads to right acting (thus our main responsibility as educators ought to be too teach right thinking). I have found myself again and again disagreeing with this point of view, but have never been able to articulate why as well as I’ve wanted to. I know, without doubt, that right action can lead to right thought, but since the majority of other posters on the forum are protestants they can’t seem to fathom how this could possibly be true. Your post here is a great help to me and gives me some idea of how i might be able to explain myself a bit better. Right thought is important, no doubt, but it does not give the whole picture.

  40. Deacon James,
    Have you ever read any of Fr. Alexis Trader’s articles, or his Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds? He is an American Athonite monk (we have corresponded some). He has a PhD in Psychology.

    Obviously, there’s lots of stuff in psychology that’s useful and true. There’s also stuff, particularly in the theoretical realm, that is less than helpful. The classical Freudian, Jungian, etc. models tend to just be models – sort of notions without any real basis. Jung, indeed, is a flat out Gnostic, of sorts. But, like everything, observational work is always useful. I like CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) primarily because it tries to deal with what is (thoughts, etc.) without getting into a whole lot of background speculation. What Fr. Alexis does is good reading.

    My critique is primarily of the “psychologized culture,” which probably has as much to do with real psychology as pop religion has to do with Orthodoxy. So, I should be more careful to say that.

    I’ve been working on a follow-up article. One thing that seems of note is the goal or use of psychology versus the goal of Orthodox asceticism. Generally, our culture uses therapy to maximize pleasure and avoid pain – with a goal of some form of “normalcy.” Asceticism has the single goal of knowing God in true communion.

    Quite problematic for us as clergy are the frequent demands people have (pastorally) that are really seeking nothing more than normalcy. They want to be moderately religious, “if it helps.” But they are unwilling to take up the struggle to actually know God, particularly if it hurts.

    At one point in my life, well, actually two points, I almost went crazy in my search for God. They were two of the most painful episodes in my life. I wouldn’t easily do them again, but I’m glad I did.

    The “psychologization” of ministry, makes us into one of the “helping professions.” We help people get along. Fr. Schmemann railed against the Church as “helper” (For the Life of the World). It forgets Christ’s sayings such as “you must hate your father and mother,” and “I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” And “the Kingdom of God suffers violence, and it is the violent who enter it.” etc.

    Think of the life of a fool for Christ. How would a psychologist view it?

    But, none of that negates many of the observations of psychology, only its practice, which can be all over the place.

    I remember, years ago, a man who was talking with me about stewardship, giving money to God and the poor. He said, “You make it sound like I could buy my way into the Kingdom.” I told him, “Oh, you can indeed. But it might take everything you have!” I still think that is true, and faithful to the gospel.

    The enemy certainly isn’t psychology. The enemy is normalcy. I’m not certain that anyone normal can enter the Kingdom.

  41. Lisa,
    Your instinct is correct. Indeed, take the mind of children all you want. Give me their practices. The practices will win every time. It’s why we are all losing our children (lots of times). Their culture, which is a set of practices, is far more engaging than the things we tell them. If we took this seriously, we would raise children quite differently. I applaud your homeschooling. I’m not certain how well our children will do in the public school context. I am encountering increasing alienation from very important parts of the faith on the part of younger and younger kids. Middle School is the worst. I tend to describe Middle School as one large pit of shame. All the children experience shame, (how I feel about who I am, not what i’ve done), because they are still in the stages of becoming “who they are.” And they never get it right at that age. It’s an identity crisis. Thus, they hide in groups, in fashions, in fads, in opinions, etc., all in a protective rush to avoid the shameful danger of inherent vulnerability.

    In public Middle School, children are barely influenced by adults at all. Instead, they pay attention to each other, and they can learn almost nothing useful whatsoever from each other. Since they are at a stage when they need to be learning how to be adults, they need to be surrounded by adults, not other kids.

    In earlier cultures, children at that age were “apprenticed” to adults. That is an advantage of homeschooling – the intensive interaction on a daily basis with primarily adult behavior. It doesn’t have to be a parent – but it should be very small groups of students – perhaps of the same sex.

    Sorry for my late night rambling. Blessings!

  42. Fr Stephen’s above 2 comments are spot on.
    I once had a very frustrating conversation with an (ahem) “Christian” Psychologist who was attempting to convince me in what a horribly unhealthy state of denial I existed for failing to be wroth with those who had severely abused me. I felt increasingly as one attempting to explain color to a blind man. As I walked away, I began to chuckle at a vision which intruded itself upon my awareness – the man standing at the foot of the Cross, attempting to explain to the Man in what a sad, unhealthy state of denial he existed for failing to be irate with His abusers. And then it struck me – my model of the healthy human being was Christ. His model was something else.
    The first time I had Church History in Seminary, my professor, a “Christian” Psychologist, had anything but Christ as her model. The ironic part is, while claiming to have as her goal encouraging everyone to follow Christ and the things He said, she always blasted anyone who actually had (ie, the Saints). They were extreme, unhealthy, imbalanced, etc. Monks weren’t close to God or being opposed by the dark forces who oppose Him, nay, they were suffering the effects of delusion caused by extreme isolation. She oft cited Anthony the Great as a prime example.
    I found the observation regarding Middle School children requiring primarily adult company quite astute. I was homeschooled during my Middle School years – Everywhere we went, folks would comment to my parents how I was “mature beyond my years.” I must confess, I thought they were just being polite until I entered a private High School (reputed for it’s high quality of education). I was shocked and amazed at the rife immaturity – even the Seniors were little more than overgrown toddlers. (I know, I shouldn’t offend toddlers like that). And that’s not even Public school – that’s an “excellent” private school.
    My friends who attended Public Middle School seemed to have gotten “stuck” at that stage of life: Middle aged males, happily dwelling in their parent’s basement/garage, vainly endeavoring to persuade anyone unfortunate enough to become mired in conversation that their prowess with the fairer sex rivals their competency with a video game console.
    And there’s my “late night ramblings.”

  43. Can a normal person enter the Kingdom of Heaven? What a fascinating question.

    If one assumes normal as “whole” as I do, then the answer is yes.

    If one assumes the answer to be “within the statistical norms of culturally approved behavior”, then probably not, but God’s grace makes all things possible.

    This question actually sheds light on the internal conflict that experienced before and to some extent after being received into the Church.

    The statistical definition leads down the road to a horrible mixture of self-righteousness and self-doubt because ones thoughts, feelings and actions are always based on comparison to others who are busy doing the same thing within an unstable constantly changing matrix of confusion, denial, fear and guilt.

    The “whole” definition allows us the freedom to have God as our only reference.

  44. The bad news is that homeschooling does not prevent shame. It can make it more managably. The Good News is that God can and does heal shame and the effects of shame.

    He will even lead you to a place where it is possible to recognize one’s own shame. At times through a time of troubles and a recognition that everything tried of one’s own will and the ways of the world don’t work.

    There is one thing needful in teaching our children which must be modeled as well: seek and honor the truth especially when it is personally painful.

  45. Fools for Christ? This psychologist aspires to be one. 😉

    I encounter them occasionally. Perhaps not in such outwardly shocking ways as with those we read about. But they are out there. And I love them.

    The goal of therapy is to be healthy. Being healthy does not mean to be without suffering – but rather to be able to cope with what is or what comes in a way that is non-destructive to self and others. It is to learn to be oneself fully and truly, unhampered by toxic emotions, behaviors or memories.

    Health in this sense enables one to be free – to forgive (or sometimes, to allow Christ within me to forgive when I cannot), – and to love. Many people are too damaged to love or have never been loved and their attempts to “be loved” are dysfunctional. Health is having or developing a “self” strong enough to be shared with others (and later surrendered to God).

    Surely people come to therapy saying, “I just want to be happy” or “I just want to be normal!” Such laments are understandable when one is suffering from depression, anxiety or crippling mental illness. For some, “normal” may mean being able to hold a job or to go into a grocery store and buy food for their family. There are a whole host of “normal” behaviors that many of us take for granted but are beyond the reach of others.

    Justin, I am always saddened when I hear of people having such awful experiences with psychologists. And I know what you mean about those who think they know what you should feel – and insist you must be in denial if you don’t feel it. Yet I also know that working through feelings is not at odds with forgiveness. I have encountered Christians who have forgiven murder of loved ones on the spot. I have also encountered very holy people who, in their mind opted to forgive those who hurt them in unimaginable ways, but later realized that their physical or emotional symptoms were linked to a need to acknowledge at deeper levels the emotional impact of what had been done to them. In rushing to forgive, they had disowned a part of themselves. I am not saying any of this is true of you. I’m just noting it for the sake of all reading this that the healing of trauma and hurt follows different paths in different people.

    Forgive me. I’ve rambled on too long (again).

  46. Mary,
    I agree viz. goal is to be healthy. Of course, the culture can indeed have a different view of that. I recall once having a couple come for marriage counseling. I told them, “I’m a priest. I’m committed to the sacraments. You need to understand that I’m willing to make you miserable in order to save your marriage.” When I do pre-marital counseling, I’m pretty up front about the same thing. My article of a couple of years’ back, “Marriage Is A Lifetime of Suffering,” said it pretty much. It is a sacrament that requires laying down your life. Priesthood is a sacrament that means taking up the Cross, not “being fulfilled.” That’s why people complaining about who can and cannot be ordained is absurd. Thank God if you don’t have to bear this Cross!

    My experience with therapists is actually quite good. Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled, is an extremely forthright treatment of the requirement of suffering in order to be whole. I know that it’s “pop” psychology, but it’s still a very good read.

    It is probably just as difficult to do “good” therapy in our consumerist culture as it is to do good spiritual direction. Human beings cannot be whole and live the life of consumption.

  47. mary benton, I too have had a good experience with counseling.

    I think it has a lot to do with expectations. And the match. As Justin found out just because someone calls themselves “Christian” does not mean much. I have a dear friend and fellow parishioner who is certified as a family counselor but I could not recommend her to any one.

    It is not psychology per se but it’s politicization and the fact that for many it has become an ideology.

    That is a misuse of the discipline that Rob’s it of its therapeutic benefit.

    The profession needs more like you.

  48. Thanks Fr Stephen for your thoughts and recommendations. Also thanks to the others of you who commented. Psychology has traveled a way down the road since the late 1960’s when I was immersed in it. I pretty much parted ways with it when I met the teachings of the Fathers of the Church and have not delved into trying to see the areas of harmony that exist between the two. My revisiting is to help give me some reference points when talking with others. Thank you again.

    I would also like to say a big amen to the comments regarding middle school youth. It is more complex than this observation, but I wonder how many of our current societal issues with delayed maturity connect back to an imprinting on self referencing role models at middle school age rather than adult mentors from outside their peer group.

  49. I will always remember a former bishop of mine commenting on home-schooling in the context of a question that is often raised when the topic is discussed: “But how will a child be properly socialized?”

    He replied, “We are not training them to be children. We are preparing them to be godly adults.”

  50. Mary:
    I have also had some very good experiences with Psychologists, counselors, etc. Our culture certainly doesn’t make it easy on the good ones. In certain fields (law, psychology, etc) when things go awry, they tend to go SPECTACULARLY awry, which makes you guys easy targets for the parade of stereotypes. But there are plenty of good ones out there.

  51. “Priesthood is a sacrament that means taking up the Cross, not ‘being fulfilled.'”

    Below from Hopko’s Word of the Cross:

    “If we are called be divine, we can skip over a whole bunch of stuff and end by saying: Therefore, we are called to be crucified, because if God ultimately reveals himself in this world on the Cross, that’s where we reveal ourselves, too. If God fulfills himself on the Cross, that’s where we fulfill ourselves, too. If God is doing the ultimate act that shows his God-ness, his divinity, what he really is and what he really does, if that takes place on the Cross in the broken body and the spilled blood of Christ, then that’s where it has to take place in our life, too. ”

  52. Father Stephen,

    Please forgive me for deflecting attention from your text (which is one of your best essays), but I must thank you for placing the Coptic Nativity icon at the head of it. It is glorious.

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