In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
I was asked recently to comment on the following premise: Orthodox theology on knowledge of God is not merely an intellectual question, but is described as phenomenological, existential, ontological, personal and mystical. In so doing, I have been blessed with the opportunity to deliver a sermon on a key point of divergence, or at least emphasis, between Eastern and Western thought – namely transformative, redemptive, restorative theology – a theology of change. Dove-tailing with this, I was asked how Orthodox theology could develop its methodology without reducing itself to a simple philosophical system. I should also like to mention briefly some thoughts on this second point today.
I am hard pressed to consider the phenomenological, existential (experiential), ontological (a state of being), personal and mystical (and as such, changing) reality of the Orthodox quest for knowledge of God, indeed of Truth, without calling to mind my own patron, St. Seraphim of Sarov. I briefly digress to remind us that our Christian name itself reminds us of a change – indeed the old man is in a sense dead and a new man emerges at Baptism (or Chrismation) – for, as we know “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ”! Back to St. Seraphim: We learn from this holy man of God that the aim of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. Such a notion, such a truth, cannot but render one changed, and mystically so. This truth is consumed in the idea of restorative theology, for as we know, Christ came to restore unto us that which has been lost. He came to literally set us aright by His grace, by the Holy Spirit. As Origen so eloquently reminds us, “human nature is utterly incompetent to seek God and find Him without the aid of Him who is sought”. Man thus needed not another set of ideas, not another philosophical system, but rather the grace of God necessary to meet Him face to face, to know Him and become like Him – to become deified. Where else is this made more obvious than in the words of St. Athanasius, “God became man so that man might become god”?
What we find in the Person of Christ then is He who came to meet us because we were unable to meet Him of our own accord. We find in Christ a restoration of that which we once had, but lost at the Fall; namely, the spontaneity of movement toward God acting from within rather than from without. The notion of seeking God because this is how we were designed was, and is, God’s will for us. Not because of external ideas or philosophies, but as a result of Him working within us. Such movement of course requires reciprocity on the part of the believer, but it is ultimately God who does the transforming. For anything less is not transformation at all, but rather transient and wholly insufficient. I would thus argue that the only way to preserve the Truths of Christ’s Holy Orthodox Church is to uncompromisingly deliver them as they are; as truths, not as philosophy; as experience, not as banter; as restorative, not as juridical; as boundaries, not as rules. I chuckle to myself as I even utter such words, knowing full well that the Church has, and will, survive in Her rendering Truth regardless of any way that I think it should be! The Church need merely exist as She was intended, without falling victim to becoming a social, ethnic or utopian club. As a result, those who hear will hear and those who see will see. In my estimation, it is in the unwavering doctrine of restorative theology that this has occurred.
The instruction of St. Seraphim is densely packed with this fundamental premise of true Christian thought. Thrusting forward from his teaching on acquisition of the Holy Spirit, we recall his words, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved”. In these most deeply profound words, we can appreciate the mystical, and even personal, application of Orthodox theology. Yet these words are even more mystical than perhaps they seem as first blush. What St. Seraphim intends within them is not a superficial knowledge of “salvific” theology that brings others unto salvation by virtue of words or rhetoric, but rather the acquisition of a truly transformative Spirit that mystically allows one to participate in the redemption of the cosmos! He speaks here of a deified state that cannot help but transform those, and all, with which this state is encountered. What is perhaps striking here to our Western minds is that St. Seraphim does not afterward dive into an exposition of who is or who isn’t saved. He does not begin a theological discourse on how to win people for Christ, but rather describes an organic process by which they can by won by the existential, the experience, of those who have already been transformed by Him! He implies that the Church, by being the Church, and the believer, by reciprocating with the grace that She delivers via Her leader, Christ, will transform not only the individual, but also those around him. We see here how the idea of salvation moves from a realm of concepts to an experience, that of the existential, the Kingdom here and now! For those who encounter the deified can identify that of which the heart longs and indeed experience it – salvation, the Kingdom. As Blessed Seraphim Rose rightly notes, “God has called us, not to the modern heaven of repose and sleep, but to the full and deifying glory of the sons of God”. In such is the essence of Orthodox gnosiology.
As Vladimir Lossky elaborates, knowledge of God involves illuminating grace, whereby the faith of believer in the true presence of God in his life reciprocates with the Living God Who ultimately reveals Himself. This reciprocity results in encounter, not philosophy, not ideology. The encounter, by virtue of the grace of God is necessarily transformative. Such is the gift of the Savior, the Word Incarnate, Who “has no other goal than to lead us to the Father, in the Spirit”. Lossky further instructs that such an encounter begins to instill in the believer a new mode of thought, thought that is directed and captured by grace. Though theological study may thrust one toward such encounter, the knowledge gained is insufficient. Rather, such knowledge is replaced by gnosis – a silent, contemplative, existence, which experiences the Living God rather than simply think about Him. In Lossky’s words, theological thought can intoxicate with that which is ultimately empty unless it be replaced by “the mystery lived in silence”. In such replacement, theological thought becomes relationship, indeed an ontological relationship between man and his Creator.
As such, mere theology becomes replaced by, or perhaps more appropriately, transformed into, sophia, or wisdom. Such wisdom organically recognizes the intellect and intuition as inadequate and begins to revolve around revelation. What we thus experience, as Lossky beautifully states, is “the internal reconstruction of our faculties of knowing, conditioned by the presence in us of the Holy Spirit”. We, by grace, can thus begin to abandon empty words and, God grant it, shallow debates about Him, and adhere to a life of stillness, a life of transformation, indeed a life of communion. In such a way, we no longer require proof of word, sight, and scientific or historical analysis, but walk by “interior evidence of truth in the Spirit, on the teaching of truth by the Truth itself”! Such is not a mere act of faith, but rather a natural, and even promised, result of faith acknowledging and reciprocating with this promise of grace. This is the promise fulfilled in the Person of Christ, God Himself indeed revealed to man in the Incarnation. In Him, we are restored, changed, transformed through an encounter with the grace he promises: The grace that fully reveals Him unto us, the grace by which we commune with the divine, the grace by which we are deified!
The path to this beautiful journey necessitates not only faith in the promise, but at some point, recognition that our own efforts toward union are fruitless. Such recognition is indeed mystical in that even it somehow escapes an intellectual decision because it comes by virtue of experience. Such experience is not that of emotion and thought, but rather quite personal, perhaps known only to God Himself. Even attempts at describing in print such an experience remain grossly inadequate to the point that this inadequacy is palpable within me as I write. Perhaps it is best to draw on examples, examples wherein we see the journey of the faithful culminate in a realization that their own efforts, however far they may have taken them, are simply not enough. During a recent lecture I was blessed to appreciate and even feel the poignancy of such moments that I have otherwise too often taken for granted – Adam and Eve lamenting outside the gates of Paradise, Abraham being sent in doubt from his home, Isaac bound for sacrifice, Jonah crying out in the belly of a whale, Moses ascending in clouds of darkness, the Israelites wondering in the dessert, the three youth walking in the fiery furnace, Joseph in his confusion and doubt at the Nativity of Christ. Here we name but a few experiences of man reaching the crucial point of “I no longer know God, but You do”! It is in such places where life becomes transformed, where thought becomes reconstructed, where man meets God face to face.
The role of the Church is this endeavor is to simply remain that which She is and to adhere to the restorative mission of Her Leader and Savior. Everything about the universal Church is restorative. Everything about the universal Church must, and naturally will, appeal to the heart of man. For the heart of man organically seeks God. The heart of man rests in nothing less than God. The heart of man senses that something was lost and has been regained. Such truth only need be reinforced. The heart of man rightly wants to believe that God is bigger than ideas or philosophy or politics or science. The heart of man craves a Truth that is bigger than these fragmented particles of existence. The heart desires that which unites them and redeems them. And though the notion of participation in that redemption is quite literally beyond our comprehension, the heart believes it is there. The heart believes God is capable of such joy. And in fact He is capable by way of revealed Truth, by way of the Holy Spirit working to set our faculties aright. In our weakness Christ’s strength is revealed. In our brokenness, our weakness becomes the strongest remnant of our greatest strength – the grace and courage to call out to our Father and be restored. May God grant that the confusion resulting from the fragmented realms of emotion, intellect and will – which are imbalanced at best in our current state – be restored unto unity as we, by His grace, commune with Him.
Reflecting on such Truth, I should like to close with the words of St. Irenaeus, “If because we have the ‘first installment’ (that which dwells in us and makes us even now spiritual) we cry ‘Abba, Father’, what will happen when on rising we see Him face to face? What will be the effect of the whole grace of the Spirit, which will be given to men by God? It will make us like Him and will perfect in us the Father’s will; for it will make man in the image and likeness of God”!
O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, for the sake of the prayers of Thy Most-Pure Mother and of all the Saints, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.