Friday, September 10, 2010

Epistemology and Reason

Earlier today via email I had a discussion with an acquaintance about a statement I made that theology comes after repentance, understanding and knowledge (illumination) comes after communion. It is not the other way around, i.e. theology first and then repentance, or communion with God after understanding God. Theology is a gift from God, it is indeed communion with God. This clashes with our modern, western accepted modes of thinking about how we come to know what we know.

It is an important distinction, for often it would seem to us that indeed it is the other way around - first I know, then I believe; out of theologizing comes communion with God. Evidence for this, or so the argument goes, is that some sort of knowledge (the existence and love of God for instance) is needed to believe in God. And this is certainly so, but my argument is that this "knowledge" is but a very general knowledge at best, often nothing more than mere intuition. Such as we can see with the Ethopian who did not understand the scriptures and had to be instructed - truly what knowledge did he have? This common knowledge may be a vague intuition, a draw of the heart towards God, a whisper of a calling to turn towards God, a desire for closeness with God. So I hold that repentance comes before illumination and that right belief comes from right communion. The Ethopian communed with the Apostle, and illumination followed. We see this time and again in other examples. Moses meets God and receives understanding after his separation and ascend on Mt. Sinai. Saul of Tarsus receives his sight after repentance; communion with God precedes illumination, Saul becomes Paul the theologizer par excellence. (as an aside, we can see an ontological change in these individuals - they have been truly changed)

From a western, protestant perspective (such as from which I came), it is very difficult to come to terms with this. We like to figure all of it out first, and then give our consent if God meets our requirements (whatever those may be). Such are not the ways of God.

Since we have inherited this western approach to truth (to life, to meaning, to salvation etc.), I think it is important to make this clarification. I know many people who are struggling with this. Sure we should study and reason, but who do we commune with, whose authority will we accept? What is a sure foundation to be the basis for knowledge, and how are we to acquire it? Is the experience of God a possibility?


Anonymous said...

Do you see 'repentance' as the price of admission?

Where does purity fit...'if you love me obey my commands'

How do you see 'sacrifice'....maybe a 'sacrifice of praise' and 'obedience' fitting in?

Apophatically Speaking said...


I don't see repentance as the price of admission as if to say there is a debt for us to pay (assuming it were even possible for us to pay God, or that He demands payment). Repentance is the only appropriate response befitting our position in life - recall for instance the Prodigal Son who only after a change of heart is restored. We also hear this in Christ's words in regards to who is blind and sick: if we maintain we have sight we are blind, and the Healer comes only for the sick. If it is at all appropriate to speak of a "price", I would say that the price we pay is our lives, as we pick up our cross and follow Christ (in repentance), offering up ourselves as a living sacrifice unto God who transfigures us into His likeness.

Indeed purity goes hand in hand with repentance, as it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. The same can be said about praise, obedience and sacrifice (along with theologizing): these are gifts of God resulting from an active life of communion with God, as we fulfill the Gospel commandments.

However if purity, sacrifice, praise and obedience alone were sufficient to restore us, we would have no need for Christ. The law then would have been sufficient. On the contrary - in the Incarnation we see the uniting of heaven and earth, the restoration of God's creation in Christ. In Him and through Him our participation in the Divine Life is made possible. Glory be to God!

Anonymous said...

Thanks...good response. I agree that 'grace' from God is the 'secret sauce' but it only gets activated when we (and our actions) are willing to cooperate. For me, this cooperation begins with the simple 'change of mind' (repentence) which is willing to accept that there is no life without God. I love the Prodigal Son as the way to see our estrangement from God....our self imposed exile....not his punishment...and his open arms when our 'change of mind' is that we want to go back to our True Home. Thanks

Apophatically Speaking said...

Secret Sauce - I like that! LOL

Thanks for your comments as well. Much appreciated. Indeed the parable of the Prodigal provides us an amazing "icon in words" of God's love towards us.

The understanding of our cooperation with God has occupied a very prominent role in Eastern Orthodox theology since the birth of the church. This cooperation is a true synergy (from greek "sunergia" - "sun": with, and "energia": work or operation) between God and mankind. This very real cooperation and synergy is also part and parcel of the Church's teaching about "participation" - our participation in the Divine Nature.

Cooperation and participation touch on some deep theological issues such as the free will of man in relation to God's will; the possibility and nature of the "created" to partake of the Creator; the essence-energy distinction; the nature of our salvation; and other related issues. Depending on how these are approached and answered, one can end up with vastly different and often contradictory results. Consequently they are very important for us to examine. I hope to discuss these issues in future posts to come.