As Iron Sharpens Iron

An ongoing and online discussion between: an Orthodox informed Ecumaniac without a denominational home, an ordained Baptist youth pastor with an open mind, a Calvinist worship leader/seminarian with a staggering vocabulary and ability to make a point, and a cradle Catholic with a love/hate relationship to Rome.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Cappadocian Fathers and Immanuel Kant

Anyone who tries to describe the ineffable Light in language is truly a liar – not because he hates the truth but because of the inadequacy of his description.
- St. Gregory of Nyssa (c.330 – c.395)

Some of our discussions have made me think of two topics. The first is Apophatic Theology and the second is Experiential Theology. They are both related, so I'll write about each.

Apophatic Theology is the process of not saying what God is, but rather, what He is not. Likewise, those attributes that He is are known to be beyond our understanding. Ultimately, we can't know God in His fullness. The quote above touches on that, as does this excerpt from the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston:
The Eastern Church approaches God from an apophatic point of view…a negation that describes what God is not. In other words, while the West says “God is love, good, holy, etc”, the East says, “Yes, God is love, good, holy, etc.; yet He is beyond love, good, holiness, etc. as we comprehend these terms.” God is beyond our imagination, beyond our scope of understanding, beyond any manner of human description. God understands us; we do not understand Him. But through His love, mercy, compassion and grace, He allows the Holy Spirit to work in us and to allow us a miniscule taste of the experience of His Holy Presence.
Here is where I get stuck, and where my dialogue with Edwin has been difficult. Adam and Eve did walk in the Garden in a state of purity and innocence. St. Gregory of Nyssa said that, despite that, they had not achieved the fullness of what God wanted for them. The Incarnation would have occurred regardless to take us to the next level, the one where we have union with God in greater fullness. This fullness is sometimes believed to have been witnessed at the Transfiguration when Moses and Elijah were with Christ, each shining with such holiness that the disciples had to shield their eyes. This was post-Incarnation.

But this also happened pre-Incarnation with Moses when he saw the back of God and spoke with Him. His face glowed such that he had to veil it. I could explain this away by saying that the Incarnation went into effect as soon as man fell, but I'm not sure. But here's the key to each of these. This is not a super "understanding" of God in the gnostic sense, but an experiential walking with God which rendered them glorified.

Back to philosophy, and something I've written about before. Immanuel Kant wrote about Ding an Sich or Things in Themselves. We don't know a quarter in itself. It looks silver, but we receive that by our senses and, thus, don't truly know its color. We think it round, but our vision can be distorted, thus, we do not know its true shape. We know the quarter AS WE EXPERIENCE IT, but not AS IT IS. It is the same with God. We know Him as we experience Him, but not as He is.

The Cappadocian Fathers; Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa; addressed the question of how it is possible for humans to have knowledge of a transcendent and unknowable God. They (especially Nyssa) drew a distinction between knowing God in His essence (Greek ousia) and knowing God in His energies (Greek energeiai), although workings or activities is probably a more appropriate English translation, since it avoids the esoteric connotations the word energies has acquired today. They maintained the orthodox doctrine that it remains impossible to know God in His essence (to know who God is in and of Himself), but possible to know God in His energies (to know what God does, and who He is in relation to the creation and to man), as God reveals himself to humanity.

So the Orthodox (again, I apologize for blithely expressing this in terms of West and East) don't seek the Scholastic "understanding" of God, but the "experience" of God. Here's the thing that I find somehwat paradoxical in Orthodox theology. They insist on unity of Faith in much more depth than, it seems, any other Christian branch in order to be considered part of the Body. In that sense, it must be known and believed in a corporate manner. Yet, in its most full expression, Orthodox theology is about a very personal, inexpressible, walking with God which changes the walker in a way that cannot be known corporately. This is evidenced by Western and Eastern understanding of the word theology. Western theology, as popularly concieved, is an almost academic undertaking. An atheist can know Western theology as well as a Christian. Yet, in the East, this is not possible as theology entails the understanding that comes from the relationship, something that cannnot be shared. A quote from the later Cloud of Unknowing, influenced by St. Denis (whose works Aaron knows well) expressed this nicely:
Our intense need to understand will always be a powerful stumbling block to our attempts to reach God in simple love, and must always be overcome. For if you do not overcome this need to understand, it will undermine your quest. It will replace the darkness which you have pierced to reach God with clear images of something which, however good, however beautiful, however Godlike, is not God. And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.
In an entirely different thread, let me know how you fare on these tests:

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Blogger fra edwin said...

You seem to be neglecting the entire mystic theology of the West. Rather than write a book on it, let me bring out the most telling example: Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas is still considered one of the greatest of the scholastic theologians. He used Greek logic in the service of the Church with the presupposition that the truth cannot contradict itself. He created the whole of the Summa Theologica: a RATIONAL treatese. If this was the only thing he had to say, everything you say would apply to him. But it isn't.

St. Thomas, towards the end of his life was gifted with what he always sought: a mystic understanding of God. This understanding made "reasoned" understanding seem like "so much straw." This is a common theme in Western Theology.

Most Westerners cannot deal easily with the Cloud of Unknowing. We cannot easily deal with mysticism. We want answers we can be comfortable with. Reasoned theology gives us those answers, but they are always lacking without the actual touch of the divine.

What you say about being an atheist theologian is quite true. One can study the bible from cover to cover and be able to express its meaning and structure without ever understanding a word of it. But such an interpretation is hollow, like clanging gongs, without love. And truly, Spirit driven love is the meat of any true theology. Reason is "as straw."

The West has always accepted this. Indeed, when Abelard and other humanists of the Renaissance tried to supplant revealed truth with reasoned truth they were rightfully silenced by the Church. Philosophy, dialetic, logic and reason all serve their mistress, Dame Theology. She is never their servant. This is the position of the Western Church.

7:19 PM  
Blogger The Poor Blogger said...

St. Thomas is an excellent example. His Summa is, as I recall, the offical philosophy of the RC, yet he called all his works straw when he had his mystical experience. That's kind of my point.

9:38 AM  
Blogger fra edwin said...

No. The Summa Theologica is not a philosophy at all. It is a rational description of the truth of the faith - in so far as the rational mind can explain it. Sadly, it is no longer emphasised in Seminaries. It is excellent MENTAL discipline and example. However, as he himself confirms, it is straw compared to the actual experience of God. The Summa Theologica was a way for the rational part of man to approach God.

To state that "Western Theology" is simply rational thought is bunk. However, Western theology does not reject rational thought as a means by which man, a rational being, can be brought to God. Western Theology always puts the mind at the service of the soul not in pre-eminience. Love and Faith, put forth in Actions (some would say "works") is the backbone of Roman Catholic tradition.

6:21 PM  
Blogger The Poor Blogger said...

First, in the post do I not include "The Cloud of Unknowing" which comes from the West? Second, I contrast the Summa because, it seems to me (as I researched Catholicism when I was a seeker) that it, next to the Catechism, was the most important and respected document in the RCC. Finally, I kind of thought rational description of anything was philosophy.

7:02 PM  
Blogger fra edwin said...

For information on the Cloud of Unknowing, preached by Dionysius the Areopagite see:


The reason I mentioned the Cloud of Unknowing is that it has had a deep impact upon the development of the totality of Western Theology. This work and his "Celestial Hierarchy" inspired the use of stained glass in the great Gothic Cathedrals.

Mystical Theology is difficult for Westerners to identify with. Yet it has had a great impact on Western Theology. The Summa Theologica has also had a great influence on Western Theological understanding. The point I tried to make is that "The West" cannot be nailed catagorically to the "Rationalist" post. It is as diverse and rich as the East.

Lastly, Philosophy need not be a rational description of anything. Rationality is simply one philosophical current. Philosophy is "the pursuit of Wisdom," and rationality has its limits.

6:26 PM  
Blogger The Poor Blogger said...

I didn't know it was attributed to him. I thought it was written in the West, although influenced by Dionysius. Regardless, I included a quote from it in my original blog specifically to show that the mystic tradition in the West reflects the Orthodox conception of theology. Which is to say, I totally agree that Western theology cannot be pinned down as one or the other.

7:03 PM  
Blogger fra edwin said...

I was in error. I should have said that they were written by Dionysius the PSEUDO-Areopagite. This Dennis was a Syrian monk who was mistakenly identified with the Dennis who was the student of St. Mark. Because of this mis-identification, his works were treated with great respect.

He described the ineffable God who can only be realized by our humanity through his emminations, much like the sun as seen through stained glass.

This particular mis-identification was one of the direct inspirations for the "Gothic" Cathedrals.

4:55 AM  
Blogger The Poor Blogger said...

I knew who you meant. Thanks for the clarification, though.

8:10 AM  

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