The question of how the Mysteries (sacraments) ‘work’ is necessarily and closely related to the question of the nature of God. If we want to know something about the work of the Holy Spirit, then we need first to know something about the Holy Spirit Himself. But can we ever really understand God? In the West, the Enlightenment was a time when the human mind seemed unstoppable. So many ancient questions were finally resolved, so many dark corners that seemed for centuries to be impenetrable had the light of human intellect flood into them, that it seemed that there was nothing we could not understand. Including perhaps, even God. It is a characteristic of modern Western theology that it sometimes seeks to explain what we of the East accept as inexplicable. Not just unexplained, mind you – in the sense that we just don’t know enough, but one day we might – but genuinely and forever beyond the reach of our human understanding.
But not all the great minds of the Enlightenment were so confident. Seventeenth century French philosopher Rene Descartes famously applied the ‘method of doubt’ to everything in his world and concluded that we cannot be certain that anything truly exists except ourselves (thus was born his famous phrase, cogito ergo sum, roughly translated, “I think, therefore, I am”). While most people rightly consider Descartes’ scepticism impractical, it is important for anyone who really cares about truth to be cautious about what they accept as truth.
In modern times, belief in God has been questioned for many reasons. One of these reasons is that theologians can sometimes overstep the mark and say things about God with far too much certainty. The pattern oft repeated in the West goes something like this: “God is X, Y and Z” becomes doctrine. But when thoughtful people apply careful sincere thought to the doctrine, they find serious holes in it. So they reject the doctrine of God being X, Y and Z, and the concept of a God along with it, since those who should know God best, the theologians, seem to have an indefensible concept of God. For a thoughtful Christian who has come to this point, the result is one of three things: either she will insist on holding on to a doctrine of God that she knows is indefensible; or she will lose interest in theology altogether; or she will lose her faith in the existence of God altogether.
Orthodox Christianity is more humble in its approach. It prefers what is technically called apophatic theology to try to understand God. Cataphatic theology is the approach preferred in the West that tries to say definite things about the nature of God: God is good; God is loving; God exists; and so on. This is quite consistent with the tenor of the Enlightenment (although it precedes it historically), which is characterised by an almost unlimited optimism about what the human mind can understand. This is all well and good most of the time in the sciences, but when it comes to trying to understand God, this optimism must surely be unfounded.
How can the limited understand the Unlimited? How can the mind bound by time understand That which created time and exists outside of time? There is an old story about St Anthony the founder of monasticism that says he was wandering by the seashore one day lost in contemplation of the wisdom of God, trying to unravel why God does what He does. He meets a little boy trying to fill a hole in the sand with seawater, which overflows and trickles back to the sea. “What are you doing?” asks the monk. “I am putting the sea into my hole in the sand,” answers the boy. “Do you not know that is impossible?” asks the exasperated monk. “No more impossible than you, old man, who thinks he can fit the infinite wisdom of God into his little head!” Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, writing towards the end of the sixth century, says this about the Creator and Source of all the exists:
“On the other hand, ascending, we say, that It is neither soul, nor mind, nor has imagination, or opinion, or reason, or conception; neither is expressed, nor conceived; neither is number, nor order, nor greatness, nor littleness; nor equality, nor inequality; nor similarity, nor dissimilarity; neither is standing, nor moving; nor at rest; neither has power, nor is power, nor light; neither lives, nor is life; neither is essence nor eternity, nor time; neither is Its touch intelligible, neither is It science, nor truth; nor kingdom, nor wisdom; neither one, nor oneness; neither Deity, nor Goodness; nor is It Spirit according to our understanding; nor Sonship, nor Paternity; nor any other thing of those known to us, or to any other existing being; neither is It any of non-existing nor of existing things, nor do things existing know It, as It is; nor does It know existing things, qua existing; neither is there expression of It, nor name, nor knowledge; neither is It darkness, nor light; nor error, nor truth; neither is there any definition at all of It, nor any abstraction. But when making the predications and abstractions of things after It, we neither predicate, nor abstract from It; since the all-perfect and uniform Cause of all is both above every definition and the pre-eminence of Him, Who is absolutely freed from all, and beyond the whole, is also above every abstraction.” (Mystical Theology, 5)
That’s quite a mouthful. Simply put, I think it says: “nothing we say about God can be the whole truth; the best we can hope for is to use limited human language to try to get some tiny glimpse of that which is far beyond language”. Orthodox theologians, therefore, have instead preferred the ‘way of negation’, trying to understand God not by saying what He is, but by excluding what He isn’t. Thus you find passages like the following from the Liturgy of St Gregory, used on certain feast days by the Coptic Orthodox Church:
“… You, the one, the only true God, the Lover of Mankind, ineffable, invisible, infinite, without beginning, everlasting, timeless, immeasurable, incomprehensible, unchangeable…”
Woody Allen used to say that he would never want to belong to any club that would accept him as a member. In the same way, I would never worship any God that I could fully understand. Such a God would simply be too close to my own level to be the kind of transcendent God we Christians think of. If God is the Creator of all, then He must be not only utterly ‘above’ all (whatever that may mean) but also utterly unique and utterly outside our experience in His own nature (whatever that may mean). The pagan gods of the Greeks were really little more than glorified human beings with all the very understandable jealousies, tempers and passions that afflict normal human beings. But the Christian concept of God is utterly different. If He is the kind of God we think he must be, then we can never be able to understand Him completely, although we may hope for some poor intimation of His true nature reflected in our limited language.
I sometimes use the analogy of Cuthbert the Cockroach to illustrate this point (one kind lady actually bought me a box of plastic roaches to use as a visual aid). Imagine little Cuthbert the Cockroach who has been adopted by a kindly elderly Albert Einstein. He sits Cuthbert on the palm of his hand and says to him, “Now Cussbert” (note the authentic accent) “I vish to teach you about zee relativitee. But first, I need to teach you some massematics. Zo, repeat after me: vun plus vun eqvals two.” But sadly, no matter how hard Albert tries, the only thing Cuthbert can understand is that attractive scent of biscuit that afternoon tea left on Albert’s fingertips. For Cuthbert, that is as much as he will ever be able to understand of Albert’s brilliant mind. Now the difference between Einstein and Cuthbert is nothing compared to the difference that must exist between Einstein and God. So to think that we puny humans could ever really understand God is really vanity of the most dangerous kind.
So also to think that anything we say about God is ‘true’ in the sense of being exhaustive or adequately defining God is to be grossly and sadly mistaken. Some have gone so far as to say that nothing we say about God is true in this sense. They do not mean untrue in the sense that it is false, but untrue in the sense that it is bewilderingly inadequate. Even when we say something as profound and important as “God is love”, we are still using limited human language to describe a limited human concept of what ‘love’ means, when the reality is as far beyond our understanding as relativity is beyond poor Cuthbert.
The Orthodox Christian therefore simply and humbly accepts that we shall be forever ignorant about the complete and infinite reality of God, in this world at least. What we shall be able to know in the next world we shall have to wait and see, although the Bible does hint that it will be an awful lot more than what we know here. But this sense of ‘God the Unknowable’, this sense of mystery, can also be profoundly satisfying. It teaches us to accept the truth about our existence, to know who we really are before God. In the Old Testament, Job claims confidently that he is innocent and cries out for God to give him the chance to plead his case before Him. But the instant he finds himself in the presence of the Divine, all his confidence melts away and he says, “I am a worm and no man!”
In humility and dedication to truth, the early Church also tolerated a variety of sometimes conflicting views on topics that we simply do not know enough about to be certain. Questions like, what happens to babies who die before being baptised, or even exactly what happens to the human spirit after death (do angels and demons fight over it, for example?) leave some leeway for speculation, for we have not been told in detail the answers to these questions by God. The Eastern Orthodox make a very useful distinction here, between what they call dogma and theolegoumena. Dogma is the clear and universal teaching or faith of the Church on things of which we can be certain, such as the divinity and humanity of Christ or that Christ is the Saviour of the world. Theolegoumena, on the other hand, are the opinions of the Teachers of the Church on those questions we cannot be sure of. While they may be helpful, it is permitted to disagree with or argue over a theolegoumena, but to disagree with dogma means you are no longer holding the true Christian faith.
This humility is actually quite liberating, in the same way that truth is liberating. Reality has a way of doing that! It frees us from our pretensions of greatness and allows us to just accept the generous grace and limitless love of the God who deigns to consort with worms like us. There is, for some strange reason, a part of our brains and emotions that revels in such humility. Psychological studies have shown over and over again that one of the chief ingredients to a happy and fulfilled life is that a person ‘belong to something bigger than himself’, to use the modern secular terminology. That’s right, even the atheist cannot live a fulfilling life without belonging to something bigger, albeit a local charity or a hobbyists’ club. We seem to be designed for humility; without it we languish, yet with it we flourish.
Humility also protects us from fanaticism. Extreme fanatics like the Westboro Baptists in the USA illustrate the ugly side of being overconfident about one’s faith. They crassly and publicly condemn various groups of society to hell, anyone pretty much who does not subscribe to their particular extreme brand of Calvinist Protestant theology. Young Earth Creationist organisations practice a much milder form of selective blindness to truth. This kind of fanaticism has its attractions. Human nature craves security and certainty, so much so that we are tempted to find it even when it is not justified. One can easily live a life of complacent self-confidence, built upon a worldview that is mistaken: just ignore the mistakes and anyone or anything that exposes those mistakes. Better still, don’t ignore them; attack them, condemn them and bluster at them (you have the right to do that because they’re wrong and you’re right).
But it is hard to see how avoiding truth can lead you to the One who called Himself “the way, the truth and the life”, and insisted that those who worship God must do so “in spirit and truth”. The harsh reality is that if you really desire truth undiluted, then you must accept a life of constant mystery, of impenetrable barriers and grey areas, of subtlety and nuances. The truth is this: we cannot understand everything. Once you accept this, you find it impossible to be fanatical in the sense of extreme religious fanaticism (you can still be enthusiastic about your faith – but with humility). In the interests of honesty, I need to say that there are fanatics in the Orthodox Church. But I believe they are not being true to the Orthodox attitude to approaching the transcendent truth of God. It is this joyful embracing of the sense of the mystery of God that for me distinguishes the Orthodox approach to Christianity from many Western approaches, and seems so much more appropriate and effective in developing a real relationship with God. That’s not to say that there is no sense of mystery in Western theology. There are strands of it that do employ apophatic methods in their approach to God. The difference between East and West here is more one of emphasis than a mutually exclusive dichotomy.
I need to make a final clarification. This acceptance of mystery does not mean that the Christian is an irrational person. Accepting truths you can’t explain is not necessarily irrational – in fact we do it every day. I do it even now as I type on a device I most certainly could not explain! But I have rational reasons for believing it to be capable of producing the words I desire. And in the same way, the Orthodox Christian also has rational reasons for believing in a God she cannot understand. Orthodoxy takes the middle way: neither to rely exclusively on rationality and logic, nor to discard them or refuse their conclusions outright. We simply know the limits of human rationality and accordingly, we live within our means.
We find this approach very clearly applied in one particular part of the history of the Coptic (and wider Christian) Church – the ancient Christian School of Alexandria. Here we find a creative melding of divine mystery and human rationality that shaped Christian thought forever. In the next post, I hope to delve into those brilliant minds and see what we can learn from them.