St Thomas: Faith and Seeing

Origen reminds his readers that doubting Thomas is not the only model of faith in the Scriptures. Faith is more than believing what was not seen with the eyes. Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Happy are your eyes for they see and your ears for they hear‘ (Matt. 13:16). His saying suggests that those who have seen with the eyes are happy, not just those who believed without seeing. Was not Simeon happy, asks Origen, when he saw the Christ child and “held God’s salvation in his arms.” Did he not say, ‘Lord, now let your servant depart in peace for my eyes have seen your salvation’ (Luke 2:29-30). Origen concludes that ‘faith complemented by vision is far superior to faith through a mirror.’ The disciples who saw Jesus alive after his death knew him by faith even though they could see him with their eyes.”  (Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, p. 179)

“The physical evidence that Thomas is invited to inspect is only a beginning, but, in human terms, perhaps an essential beginning for many on the road to faith. St. John the Theologian begins his first epistle by restating this evidence and its ultimate purpose: ‘That which was from the beginning, which we heard, which we saw with our eyes, which we observed, and which our hands touched, concerning the Word of Life…what we saw and heard we announced to you so that you might have fellowship with us as we have fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ’ (I Jn. 1.1-3), author’s translation).

The faith of Thomas was not born from a purely objective examination of empirical evidence. It could only emerge from the interface between a conscious acknowledgement of the evidence and an interaction between persons made initially possible through the senses. For the faith spoken so eloquently in Thomas’s declaration to Christ is not the affirmation of an idea or a fact, but a commitment of absolute trust in a Person. It is the necessary element, the sine qua non, for the journey toward union with the unknowable God, who yet through a relationship with his incarnate Word can be known.” (Daniel B. Hinshaw, Touch and the Healing of the World, p. 111)

Seeing With the Eyes of the Heart

“Lord, purge our eyes to see

within the seed a tree

Within the glowing egg a bird,

Within the shroud a butterfly.

Till, taught by such we see . . .

Beyond all creatures, Thee.” 

(Christina Rosssetti, p 57)

Christina Rosssetti is a favorite poet of mine because she helps us see through and beyond what is right before us to that other reality, namely God, that we believe in.  As we read in the Prophet Isaiah:  “Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?”  (Isaiah 40:26)  We can see what the Creator created, but Isaiah implies we should be able to see WHO created them!  We can see with our eyes beyond what is right in front of us to Who made these things, and so we can know that Creator.

“By virtue of the Creation and, still more, of the Incarnation, nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) (p 1)

When our eyes are opened, we see goodness and beauty and God the Creator in the created, material things of this world.

Moses himself pointed out that it was the failure to see beyond the ‘what’ to the WHO which was Israel’s failure.

And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: “You have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, the great trials which your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders; but to this day the LORD has not given you a mind to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear. (Deuteronomy 29:2-4)

It is a gift to be able to see what is in front of us, and not everyone is so gifted.  But to the potential in things, to see goodness in things, to see the meaning of things, to see the Creator of the things in front of us, is a special talent indeed.   This ability to see not only what is  visible to us but through and beyond the visible to all else that is revealed by the visible is one theme we encounter in  Christine Valters Paintner’s book,  EYES OF THE HEART: PHOTOGRAPHY AS A CHRISTIAN CONTEMPLATIVE PRACTICE.  She writes about photography as a spiritual exercise to open the eyes of one’s heart.

We do well just to see what physically is right in front of us, and yet as Paintner points out: “God’s presence is always before us.”  (p 16)   If we are willing, we can see not just what God has done but the Doer of these divine and holy things.

“Just as the bodily eyes see all things distinctly, so also to the souls of the saints the beauties of the Godhead are manifested and seen.  Christians are absorbed in contemplating them and they ponder over them.  But to bodily eyes that glory is hidden, while to the believing soul it is distinctly revealed.”  (Psuedo-Macarius, THE FIFTY HOMILIES, p 203)

But why is it that God remains invisible to most of us and most of the time?  Paintner offers one possible reason:

“The technology, speed, and busyness so prized by our Western culture foster a habit of blindness.  For all the bustle, a dreary sameness comes to mark the places where we live.  We forget that there is a vast depth beneath the apparent surfaces of things.”  (p 13)

We are in such a hurry to get to our goals, to produce our results that we cannot see the road we are on or the time we are in.  The process or journey become for us  nothing more than that which comes between us and our goal; it is nothing more than the barrier preventing us from seeing our destination.  As one current car commercial has it, while a flight may be the fastest way to reach a destination, we miss all the sights, all the activity, all of the beauty and wonder which we can only see along the road.

“We live in a product-oriented culture, where much of what we do is focused on an end goal or product to share.  When we approach art in this way, we become distracted by trying to produce a beautiful image.  When we focus on the process of art-making, rather than the product, we can immerse ourselves in the creative journey and discover the ways God is moving through our lives and how we are being invited to respond.  We release our own plans and expectations and pay attention to  what is actually unfolding within us.”  (p 3)

Her comment seems so apropos not only to photography, but says something about our captivity to capitalism.  In capitalism we see the earth and its resources as nothing more than a means to our ends, not a gift which reveals the Creator.   We fail to appreciate the art of living and want only results that produce financial gain.  If we focus only on product, we care little about the cost and waste of the process.  We are willing to denude the earth of natural resources at any cost and create mounds of toxic waste because we only care about the identified “product.”  We blind ourselves to all else that results from the beloved product.  And we think, as long as the products I want are still available, why should I worry about what the process does, especially if I don’t have to see the collateral damage and all the destructive waste?

And as a personal confession, I will also admit that whereas I was enthralled with Paintner’s introduction, I quickly lost interest in the process she was describing!  I wasn’t interested in her process, but loved the idea she presented.

She rightfully points out that which we who celebrate the Divine Liturgy already know – that time itself can be experienced in such a way as to reveal the Kingdom of God to us.

Kairos refers to the fullness of a given moment,a moment when something special happens, something unexpected.” (pp 3-4)

Photography can help us to see the world in a new way, to pay attention to detail but also to see larger patterns as well as the bigger picture, to see the Creator who made all things.  This enhanced vision, seeing with the heart, is a goal of the spiritual life.

May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened (Ephesians 1:18)

 

 

Rab – ½ R gab = Tab

As I was walking down the street one day
A man came up to me and asked me what the time was that was on my watch, yeah
And I said

Does anybody really know what time it is
Does anybody really care
If so I can’t imagine why
We’ve all got time enough to cry

(“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” by Chicago)

I occasionally read science texts though I’m not a scientist.  I appreciate the sense of discovering truth through science, and the recognition by science that the truth it proclaims today may be only an approximation of the universe as it really is.  Future discoveries can show that what science at one time believed (even dogmatically!) to be true, can at a later date be shown to be incomplete or completely wrong.  So as I just finished reading a couple of books about the nature of time (Carlo Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics  and The Order of Time), I realize how little I know about the world I live in.

as Hans Reichenbach suggests in one of the most lucid books on the nature of time, The Direction of Time, that it was in order to escape from the anxiety time causes us that Parmenides wanted to deny its existence, that Plato imagined a world of ideas that exist outside of it, and that Hegel speaks of the moment in which the Spirit transcends temporality and knows itself in its plenitude. It is in order to escape this anxiety that we have imagined the existence of “eternity,” a strange world outside of time that we would like to be inhabited by gods, by a God, or by immortal souls.* Our deeply emotional attitude toward time has contributed more to the construction of cathedrals of philosophy than has logic or reason. The opposite emotional attitude, the veneration of time—Heraclitus or Bergson—has given rise to just as many philosophies, without getting us any nearer to understanding what time is. Physics helps us to penetrate layers of the mystery. It shows how the temporal structure of the world is different from our perception of it. It gives us the hope of being able to study the nature of time free from the fog caused by our emotions. But in our search for time, advancing increasingly away from ourselves, we have ended up by discovering something about ourselves, perhaps—just as Copernicus, by studying the movements of the heavens, ended up understanding how the Earth moved beneath his feet. Perhaps, ultimately, the emotional dimension of time is not the film of mist that prevents us from apprehending the nature of time objectively.   (Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Kindle Location 1746-1758)

Science moved us from a faith-based way of thinking to one which was based in evidence.  Science replaced the older idea of philosophy that truth could be found purely through reason.  Science showed that reason can be faulty because it might not have all the facts – there are many things hidden from our observational point of view – or the facts actually fit together in a way previously not imagined.  But science has also discovered that observation alone can also be misleading as it too might not have the complete picture of what is going on.  By observation people concluded that the earth was flat, the earth was not moving, or that the sun orbited the earth, or that the sun was the center of the universe (Copernicus proposed a heliocentric universe as versus an earth centered one, but his model was also not a correct description of the universe).  All these observations turned out to be wrong as we gained new information about our world and the universe.

During the great period of German idealism, Schelling could think that man represented the summit of nature, the highest point where reality becomes conscious of itself. Today, from the point of view provided by our current knowledge of the natural world, this idea raises a smile. If we are special, we are only special in the way that everyone feels themselves to be, like every mother is for her child. Certainly not for the rest of nature. Within the immense ocean of galaxies and stars we are in a remote corner; amid the infinite arabesques of forms that constitute reality, we are merely a flourish among innumerably many such flourishes.  (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 562-567)

Mathematics kept showing our version of reality just didn’t add up.   We still have the signs of these old beliefs in our language – for example, the sun rises and sets whereas now we now it is as the earth turns on its axis that we experience dawn and dusk.

Science thus keeps challenging the truths it proclaims.  Truth in science is not absolute but only as good as the data we collect and what we can observe.  Science recognizes there may be aspects of reality which we cannot know – some might say yet, but quantum physics has shown there are things we cannot know ever.

Aiden Hart recently wrote (FAITH & SCIENCE: YOKEFELLOWS OR ANTAGONISTS?) about the risks of trying to base one’s religious faith on scientific truth:

First, the danger of relating a “scientific truth” with one’s faith is that, while the tenets of faith are unchanging, the scientific theory of today might be replaced by another tomorrow. The scientific community is continually challenging its theories and trying to perfect them. Reality about the universe is not always the same as current scientific explanations about that reality. There is a saying: “The religion that marries the science of today will be a widow tomorrow.”

Hart calls science and religion “neighbors” in terms of truth, and one has to admit that as neighbors they don’t always share the same grounds for establishing truth.  There are property boundaries which neighbors have to respect and realize the limits of their properties.  On the other hand, Hart holds some hope that maybe with the physics of relativity and quantum mechanics that maybe Trinitarian theology will be able to give science some insight into a theory of everything.

Not sure I share his optimism on this, but I appreciated his article and would recommend it to any person of faith who wonders what the relationship of science is to Christianity.  Hart writes as a Christian iconographer.   At the same time that I read Hart’s article, I also finished reading two books by physicist Carlo Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics   and The Order of Time.    Both books are accessible to people not trained in science but who find science fascinating.  Speaking about the Theory of Relativity, Rovelli says:

The world described by the theory is thus further distanced from the one with which we are familiar. There is no longer space that “contains” the world, and there is no longer time “in which” events occur. There are only elementary processes wherein quanta of space and matter continually interact with one another. The illusion of space and time that continues around us is a blurred vision of this swarming of elementary processes…   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 374-377)

Hubble Telescope Photo

We are like an only child who in growing up realizes that the world does not revolve only around himself, as he thought when little. He must learn to be one among others. Mirrored by others, and by other things, we learn who we are.   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 560-562)

Rovelli manages to show that time and space in the new physics are not quite what we commonly think about when we use those words.  Relativity has shown us that even something like time which we commonly experience is relative, and known only in relationships with other things.  Time is not a constant throughout the universe but experienced differently throughout the vast universe relative to where one is and what one is doing.

… an extraordinary idea occurred to him [Einstein], a stroke of pure genius: the gravitational field is not diffused through space; the gravitational field is that space itself. This is the idea of the general theory of relativity. Newton’s “space,” through which things move, and the “gravitational field” are one and the same thing.   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 92-95)

space and gravitational field are the same thing. And of a simple equation that I cannot resist giving here, even though you will almost certainly not be able to decipher it. Perhaps anyone reading this will still be able to appreciate its wonderful simplicity: Rab – ½ R gab = Tab That’s it.   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 131-135)

The truth about the universe summed up in one formula!  Who would have guessed the universe could be so readily described or reduced to a formula?

Next:  Time: For the Lord to Act

Math, God and Man

“God made the natural numbers,” the nineteenth-century algebraist Leopold Kronecker famously said, “and all the rest is the work of man.”  (Jordan Ellenberg,  How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, p 104)

Mathematics is one way that we can approach the universe around us – a way to know reality.  It is also an interpretation of reality – for math says reality can be known and predicted and described by formulas.  Math says there are patterns to be recognized everywhere in the cosmos, and that the entire cosmos can even be understood as a relationship of numbers and formulas.

We recognize the truth about mathematics and science in the Akathist Hymn, “Glory to God for All Things.”  There we sing:

In the wondrous blending of sounds, it is your call we hear. In the harmony of many voices, in the sublime beauty of music, in the glory of the works of great composers, you lead us to the threshold of paradise to come, and to the choirs of angels. All true beauty has the power to draw the soul towards you and make it sing in ecstasy: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!  

 The breath of your Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets, scientists.  The power of your supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of your laws, who reveal the depths of your creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of you. How great are you in your creation! How great are you in man!

Glory to You, showing your unsurpassable power in the laws of the universe.

Glory to You, for all nature is filled with your laws.

Glory to You for what you have revealed to us in your mercy.

Glory to You for what you have hidden from us in your wisdom.

Glory to You for the inventiveness of the human mind.

Glory to You for the dignity of man’s labor.

Glory to You for the tongues of fire that bring inspiration.

Glory to You, O God, from age to age.

Music is another part of the universe which is very mathematical.  Anything with patterns is mathematical as well.  That is why beauty is said to be mathematical – what we see or hear as beautiful is often patterned and thus can be described by mathematics.  The patterns and order of the universe are all describable by math.  And in Orthodoxy we recognize God the Trinity as the Creator of all the order in the universe.

Reflecting on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Making of Man (I)

St. Basil the Great wrote an extensive commentary on the six days of creation as found in Genesis 1-2 (Basil read both chapters together as one story). His commentary is called the Hexaemeron.  Though it contains comments about the creation of humans, Basil’s brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, was concerned that Basil had not written enough about the creation of human beings and so Gregory composed an addendum known as ON THE MAKING OF MAN.   His goal was to complete the picture which he felt Basil hadn’t done and also to answer some of Basil’s critics as well as some of the questions raised by heretics about Basil’s commentary on the creation of the world.

Reading through St. Gregory’s work on the creation of humans caused me to think about how we today might describe what it is to be human.  Orthodox theology says Jesus Christ is fully human.  Modern science has defined a human in terms of our genetic structure – a science which no one in the 4th Century even remotely imagined.  So it raises questions for us today – if we say Christ is fully human, do we mean that Christ has a fully human genetic makeup – 23 chromosomes and all the biological and genetic markers of every human being?  If so, then we might find ourselves having to rethink some of the concerns of the Christian theologians of the Patristic era.  For they certainly were not thinking genetics when they wrote about what it is to be human or what it means that Jesus, God incarnate is fully and perfectly human.

The Patristic theologians were concerned with creating a synthesis between Scripture and Platonism (I am including neo-Platonism in this) as well as with ideas from the Stoics and Aristotle.  That was the “science” of their day, and they did accept these philosophers as espousing scientific truth – truths that are not  debatable.   Several Patristic writers, Gregory of Nyssa among them, held to assumptions that  sexual desire and gender were not part of God’s original creation of or plan for humans.  These were provisional things which God used as a result of human rebellion against God’s plan.  The Patristic writers worked very hard to create a synthesis in which they incorporated the prevalent ideas of the Greek philosophical “science” (which were regarded as non-negotiable truth) with the witness of Scripture.  The ideas from philosophy were so much a part of the thinking of their day that they knew they had to reconcile the Scriptures to the truth assumptions of the great philosophers if they were ever to get Christianity a hearing among the educated people of their day.  Many of the Patristic writers were well trained in the writings of the great philosophers, and even if they weren’t their society values were permeated by these teachings.   It is not some artificial synthesis the Patristic writers were attempting to force, they were simply incorporating the background assumptions of their culture with the claims of Scripture.  Truth is one, and so they believed they needed to discern how to hold science, philosophy and Scripture together.

So, for example St. Gregory writes:

“While two natures – the Divine and incorporeal nature, and the irrational life of brutes – are separated from each other as extremes, human nature is the mean between them: for in the compound nature of man we may behold a part of each of the natures I have mentioned – of the Divine, the rational and intelligent element, which does not admit the distinction of male and female; of the irrational, our bodily form and structure, divided into male and female . . . For he says first that God created man in the image of God (showing by these words, as the Apostle says, that in such a being there is no male or female): then he adds the peculiar attributes of human nature, male and female created He them (Gen 1:27).”  (pp 78-79)

In St. Gregory’s reading, the first humans did not have gender – gender is added to the humans in the “second” creation of humans which occurs after the Fall of Adam and Eve.  Some of his ideas about sex and gender were common to the Greek philosophers who were influential in his world.  Gregory attempts to harmonize the ideals of this philosophy about how humans are “higher” than mere animals with what he read in Scripture.

Gregory finds support for this idea in his reading of Genesis 1:27, which in our English Bibles usually gets translated as :

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

St. Gregory, however adds punctuation to the text, making it into two clearly distinct acts.  [His adding punctuation, by the way, is legitimate in the sense that the original texts lacked any punctuation – our English translations with their punctuation are no more correct than Gregory’s].   Gregory’s reading is like this:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him.

Male and female He created them.

Gregory treats these as two separate sentences, two separate acts of God.  First God creates humans.  Only later does God make them into male and female.  In the first action, humans are created in God’s image – and since God has no gender, neither do humans in their God-created natural state.  Gender becomes part of human existence only after the Fall when humans choose to be more like all the other animals.  So for St. Gregory as for many Patristic writers, gender and sexual reproduction belong solely to the world of the Fall and are not a natural part of what it is to be human.

“… but as brute life first entered into the world, and man, for the reason already mentioned, took something of their nature (I mean the mode of generation) . . . (p 88)

Sexual reproduction (Gregory’s “the mode of generation“) becomes part of the human condition only after the Fall.  If this is Orthodox anthropology, it raises interesting questions about what it is to be human and what it means to be fully human.  This has implications for Christ Himself whether he is male, or as a “perfect” human is He genderless as Adam and Eve were thought to have been.  Does Orthodox anthropology require that Christ have 23 chromosomes?  If only that which is assumed is saved, does Christ take on our entire genetic nature, or is our genetic nature not part of what Christ unites to God?

St. Gregory continues:

These attributes, then human nature took to itself from the side of the brutes; for those qualities with which brute life was armed for self-preservation, when transferred to human life, became passions; for the carnivorous animals are preserved by their anger, and those which breed largely by their love of pleasure; cowardice preserves the weak, fear that which is easily taken by more powerful animals, and greediness those of great bulk; and to miss anything that tends to pleasure is for the brutes as matter of pain.  All these and the like affections entered man’s composition by reason of the animal mode of generation.” (pp 88-89)

We can even see in the passage above that St. Gregory is really describing survival of the species – animals have traits good for self-preservation.  Gregory accepts a certain anthropomorphic interpretation of animals – their behavior is seen as reflecting virtues and vices.  Carnivores attack because they are angry, and animals engage in sex because they love pleasure.  These “animal traits” became part of human behavior when humans fell from grace and came to live by animals senses and sexual reproduction.  Pain became part of human experience once we chose to live for pleasure – this is how God punished us for rebelling against him.

Modern science more sees us as more projecting human emotions, virtues and vices on animals, rather than animals possessing such traits.  Gregory sees us as receiving emotions, virtue and the desire for pleasure from the animal nature we took on in choosing to share the animal life.  Whether we could in any way reconcile Patristic “science” with modern science is the challenge we face in the modern world.  Scientific reasoning is as all pervasive today as was Platonism in the age of the Fathers.  The ancient Christians assumed the need to reconcile these truths and created a synthesis that did just that.  We have to consider whether we can do the same and thus follow the mind of the Fathers.

St. Gregory, like many of the Eastern Patristic writers, holds to ideas that seem similar to the notions of “original sin” in the West.  Gregory sees our love of pleasure as stemming from the animal nature we now inherit.  His writing rejects the Platonic ideas that Origin more readily accepted, but still we see in them a more Christianized version of a notion that our physical nature is not really part of what God intended for us.  Humans indeed have animal traits and share an animal nature but that is really only the result of sin.  Modern science on the contrary would say humans evolved from other animal forms over a long history, and any animal characteristics in us are because of our genetic relationship to other animals.

“Thus our love of pleasure took its beginning from our being made like to the irrational creation, and was increased by the transgressions of men, becoming the parent of so many varieties of sins arising from pleasure as we cannot find among the irrational animals.  Thus the rising of anger in us is indeed akin to the impulse of brutes; but it grows by the alliance of thought: for thence come malignity, envy, deceit, conspiracy, hypocrisy; all these are the result of the evil husbandry of the mind; for if the passion were divested of the aid it receives from thought, the anger that is left behind is short-lived and not sustained, like a bubble, perishing straightway as soon as it come into being.  Thus the greediness of swine introduces covetousness, and the high spirit of the horse becomes the origin of pride; and all the particular forms that proceed from the want of reason in brute nature become vice by the evil use of the mind.”  (pp 89-90)

Gregory sees the animal nature (love of pleasure, vices, passions) as actually being made even worse by human free will and rationality.  Swine are greedy but humans turn that into an art of covetousness.  Carnivores are angry but humans add to this ill will, envy, deceit, conspiracy and hypocrisy.  It is our human minds, the very thing God bestowed on us humans to distinguish us from all other animals, which change animal behaviors into sin.  Animals act the way they do because of their nature, humans imitate their bad behavior by choice, according to Gregory.

St. Gregory’s acceptance of the “science” of his day raises many interesting questions.  He does not reject the science of his day.  He accepts it as factually true and thus Scripture also being true should easily reconcile with science.  He is neither afraid of the pagan science nor does he see any need to assume that science and the Bible are presenting opposing ideas.  Gregory works to create a synthesis of what he believes to be true, regardless of the source.   If he held to these same principles today, it would suggest that Gregory might have been willing to work to create a synthesis between modern science and the Bible.  Truth is truth for him, and it is we who have to work to reconcile truths if they appear to be in opposition to each other.

St. Gregory of Nyssa is not alone in his thinking on these issues among Patristic writers.  We can see many of the same assumptions about sexual reproduction and gender in St. Maximos the Confessor who writes more than 200 years after Gregory.   The great theological synthesis they were creating incorporated the science of their day, a science they saw no need to refute.

Next:  Reflecting on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Making of Man (II)

 

Science and Experience

“It is one of the laws of life that new meaning must be lived before it can be known, and in some mysterious way modern man knows so much that he is the prisoner of his knowledge. The old dynamic conception of the human spirit as something living always on the frontiers of human knowledge has gone. We hide behind what we know. And there is an extraordinarily angry and aggressive quality in the knowledge of modern man; he is angry with what he does not know; he hates and rejects it. He has lost the sense of wonder about the unknown and he treats it as an enemy. The experience which is before knowing, which would enflame his life with new meaning, is cut off from him.

Curiously enough, it has never been studied more closely. People have measured the mechanics of it, and the rhythm, but somehow they do not experience it.”  (Sir Laurens Van der Post, found in Stephen Muse’s When Hearts Become Flame, p. 75)

Faith and Reason

Though opposing faith against reason seems to be a modern issue resulting from a scientific mindset opposing faith, the difference between faith and reason has been long understood in the Church, centuries before the modern scientific age.   St. Isaac the Syrian for example sees faith as greater than reason/knowledge because knowledge really deals only with the things of this world while faith deals with things beyond this world.  Knowledge is thus limited to the study of nature, but then there exists the world beyond nature – divinity, spiritual beings, heaven, the soul.  The natural world has its edges and limits, and thus knowledge is bound and limited.  The life beyond nature is an existence which might be boundless, and thus is greater than nature itself.

“For knowledge is opposed to faith; but faith, in all that pertains to it, demolishes laws of knowledge—we do not, however, speak here of spiritual knowledge. For this is the  definition of knowledge: that without investigation and examination it has no authority to do anything, but must investigate whether that which it considers and desires is possible… but faith requires a mode of thinking that is single, limpidly pure, and simple, far removed from any deviousness. See how faith and knowledge are opposed to one another! The home of faith is a childlike thought and a simple heart… But knowledge conspires against and opposes both these qualities. Knowledge in all its paths keeps within the boundaries of nature. But faith makes its journey above nature.”  (The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, page 257)

Faith is to Be Happy

“…Faith in the trust that forms friendship, hope in the vision of a future where God will finally prevail, and love in the forgiveness that is a human possibility only because it is first a divine reality. Working together to complete and perfect the classical virtues, these new virtues enable us to ‘become partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4). When St. Paul declares that ‘[h]e who through faith is righteous shall live’ (Rom. 1:17) and that ‘by grace you have been saved by faith’ (Eph. 2:8), he is not speaking of an abstract doctrine that we are called to affirm as a bare intellectual proposition. To have faith is not to credit a set of ideas that await either proof or disproof. Certainly it is true that faith has real cognitive content – namely, the articles of belief set forth in the various creeds and confessions. Summarily stated, these statements of faith affirm that the triune God has acted in Israel and Christ to create his unique people called the church and, through it, to redeem the world.

Even so, faith is not the same thing as knowledge. Nor is faith something that we are required morally to do – to perform meritorious acts, for example, that win the favor of God. Surely Christian faith issues in a distinctive way of life; indeed, it is a set of habits and practices – of worship and devotion, of preaching and the sacraments. Faith is always made active and complete in good works, says the Epistle of James; in fact, ‘faith apart from works is dead’ (Jas. 2:22,26). Yet faith is not first of all to be understood as exemplary action. At its root and core, faith is always an act of trust if it is to possess true knowledge and to produce true works. People having simple minds and accomplishing small deeds can have profound faith. Whether old or young, bright or dim, mighty or weak, we are all called to be childlike before God. Faith is the total entrustment of ourselves to the God who has trustworthily revealed himself in Israel and Christ. It is the confidence that this true God will dispose of our lives graciously, whereas we ourselves would make wretchedly ill use of them. This means that faith entails a radical risk, for God both commands and grants faith without offering material threat of punishment or earthly promise of reward. To be sure, the life of disobedience incurs divine wrath, just as the life of faith springs from divine mercy. The right relation between God’s anger and pity is defined in the fine phrase of Jeremy Taylor, a seventeenth-century Anglican divine: ‘God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy.’ To have faith is to have the life of true felicity already within us, as we learn gladly to participate in God’s own Trinitarian life of trusting self-surrender. Because God’s communal life centers upon the perfect and unconditional self-giving of each person of the Trinity to the other, so does the life of faith entail the complete offering of ourselves to God and our neighbors. Such an astounding act could never be a human achievement: it is a miraculous divine gift. There is nothing within our human abilities that could produce faith. On the contrary, it is our free and trusting response to the desire for God that God himself has planted within us.

LordofRingsGod is utterly unlike Melkor and Sauron because he never coerces. We are never forced but always drawn to faith, as God grants us freedom from sin’s compulsion. We are invited and persuaded to this act of total entrustment through the witness to the Gospel made by the church. Even when faith is an act of knee-bent confession alone in one’s own room, it is not a solitary and individual and private thing: faith is both enabled and sustained by the body of Christ called the church, the community of God’s own people.” (Ralph C. Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien, pp 117-119)

Evangelism, Skepticism and Miracles

Plato & Aristotle
Plato & Aristotle

One way that the modern world differs from the ancients – the ancients often felt that a great teacher is to be believed simply by their reputation.  Moderns rely more on a scientific method of evaluation – test and verify.  It is not the reputation of the claimant that determines the validity of the truth, test the truth itself.  Thus ancients tended to accept Aristotle’s science largely based on his reputation and repeated his ideas for many centuries, apparently disregarding observation at times because the evidence didn’t agree with Aristotle’s thinking.

Similarly, we also see the Patristic authors accepting, for example, the wisdom of Solomon based on Solomon’s reputation in tradition and the scriptures.  Because he was viewed as the wisest of men based on the claims of Scripture, Solomon’s writings were given added weight, accepted as irrefutable truth.  If Solomon said something, it must be true, though we might have to discover in what way is it true.    St. Basil the Great writing in the 4th Century says:

“After all, when a teacher has a trustworthy reputation, it makes his lessons easier to accept and his students more attentive.”  (ON CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE AND PRACTICES, p 54)

EinsteinObviously, on one level St. Basil’s words are as true today as they were 1600 years ago: if a person has an established reputation we do take their words more seriously and give them added weight (think  Albert Einstein, for example).  But, today the reputation itself is built upon the person’s ideas being tested and proven true.  And for us, the test is based on a scientific method where a person’s ideas can actually be proven false and only if they survive rigorous testing are they held to be true.  Again one can think of Albert Einstein’s theories – despite his great reputation and a great track recorded of his ideas being upheld by scientific scrutiny, 100 years after his ideas were expressed, they are still being tested against the known evidence and not accepted until proven true, or at least as long as the evidence doesn’t prove them wrong.

St. Basil writes about the evidence that would convince him ideas are to be accepted.  So he says of the wisdom literature of Solomon:

“Now the very fact that a king wrote this book greatly contributes to the acceptance of its exhortations.  For if kingship is a legitimate authority, it is clear that the counsels given by a king – at least if he is truly worthy of this designation – have great legal force…” (ON CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE AND PRACTICES, p 55)

For St. Basil the fact that Solomon was a king adds weight to what he says – a king has a special authority and his words are more trustworthy than others because of the office he holds.  This sense that by virtue of one’s office, one’s words are more trustworthy is also an idea held more by ancients than modern people.   Today, there is a great amount of distrust of political authority, so much so that we have popular wisdom which says: “How can you tell if a politician is lying? . . .   If his mouth his moving.”

reaganJust think of the words of President Ronald Reagan:  “Trust but verify.”  That certainly is the more modern attitude.  We are much more skeptical of ideas, even if they come from kings because scientific thinking enshrines skepticism as wisdom.  Just because a king or even a saint says something doesn’t necessarily make it true – the ideas have to be tested against the evidence to be verified.  Great thinkers of the past may be well known, but their ideas are given regard only if they are proven to be true.  Aristotle is of great historic interest but he is no longer read or taught as offering real science.

This skepticism is part of what makes trusting religion so difficult for many modern people.  It is why modern believers if desiring to witness to the truth to non-believers must be so careful in what we say or do.  Every word and action of ours will be examined and efforts will be made to verify them.  If they can’t be verified that will lead to even more skepticism and disbelief.  We would be wise to remember the words of Christ: “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37)

Thus it doesn’t help our cause in witnessing to the world to make dubious claims, or to point to miracles, real or imagined, as they won’t necessarily convince the skeptic.  At best they may cause them to seek verifying evidence, but more likely it will cause further skepticism and even distrust of Christians.  In an age of skepticism, witnessing to the truth comes to mean something different than it did for ancients who might more readily appeal to the reputation of saints and kings as proof of the claimed truths.  Probably our best witness is the lives we live,  not the miracles we claim.

If, therefore, the whole church assembles and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.  (1 Corinthians 14:20-25)

 

 

Christ is Born in Us

“The providence of God does not conform itself to our desires. He works, as we have seen, through the scandals.

So it is not by sight, but by faith that we live (cf. 2 Cor. 5:7),  faith that God is indeed still at work in the same manner: in and through the virgin Church – not the institution that would like to avoid scandal by having everything in good order – but the virgin Church who is a scandal to others because she remains true to Christ, the one marginalized by society, persecuted and looked upon with scorn and derision, the one who in this way still manifests in this world the transforming presence of the broken body of Christ, the one who still gives birth to Christ, to sons of God. We can therefore take heart from what we have heard today.

For if we believe what we have said about how God does indeed rule creation and its history, arranging everything providentially for the manifestation of his Christ, then taking our stand upon the same firm rock of Christ, we will be able to affirm that, despite all the chaos in which we find ourselves, everything – every aspect of our lives – is held within his providence, as a way of leading us to him. But we will not see this if we approach him on our terms, with our expectations, desires, and presuppositions; only if we approach him on his terms, the one who said that his strength is made perfect in weakness, will we begin to understand, and indeed see, how God is ruling all creation, arranging everything for the revelation of the sons of God.

Let us pray, then, that we may have faith to know that God is unexpectedly at work even now in unsuspected ways, that we may respond to the work of God, and become the vessels of his mighty power, so that Christ may truly be born in us.” (John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, pp 114-115)