Friday, October 25, 2013

Eastern Approach to God

Eastern Orthodoxy lays great stress on inwardness, the mysteriousness of God and His incomprehensible ways. The Cappadocian Fathers reveled in the paradoxical nature of the Trinity. For these men, the doctrine's truthfulness is ineffable, but salvific:

"When I think of any one of the three I think of him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that one so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light" Gregory Nazianzius).


Gregory of Nyssa writes: "Now if any one should ask for some interpretation, and description, and explanation of the Divine essence, we are not going to deny that in this kind of wisdom we are unlearned, acknowledging only so much as this, that it is not possible that that which is by nature infinite should be comprehended in any conception expressed by words" (Against Eunomius 3.5).

What are we to think about a view that focuses on inwardness to the almost total exclusion of exteriority? To illustrate what I'm pinpointing here, consider the example of Bernard of Clairvaux (a French abbot who was canonized in 1174 CE) and Peter Abelard (a philosopher-theologian of the Middle Ages). Both men were Trinitarians, but Abelard highly valued reason, whereas Bernard preferred a mystical approach to God--one that was primarily spiritualistic. The result was that Bernard viciously opposed Abelard, which evidently contributed to the latter's physical demise.

Karen Armstrong cites the painful lesson learned from this telling episode of religious history:

"Bernard, however, seemed afraid of the intellect and wanted to keep it separate from the more emotional, intuitive parts of the mind. This was dangerous: it could lead to an unhealthy disassociation of sensibility that was in its own way just as worrying as an arid rationalism" (A History of God, p. 203-204).

While I have no desire to worship at the altar of rationalism or evidentialism, I believe that rationality plays an important part in worship to God (Rom. 12:1, 2). For the aforementioned reasons, I have a problem with the Eastern approach to worshiping and serving God.


TJ said...

Hi Edgar. I think George Storrs had the right idea for the appropriate place for reason in the search for truth:

"There may be many truths that reason can never find out; hence the necessity of revelation; but revelation can contain nothing contrary to reason - that is impossible; for, I repeat it, it would be no revelation at all, but darkness and obscurity itself. Reason then occupies an important place. It is its province to judge of the truth of that which professes to be a revelation; if that professed revelation is clearly contrary to reason, no man can credit it but a rank fanatic: It is to confound truth and falsehood, and take away all power of discriminating between them."

Edgar Foster said...

Hi TJ,

I like the quote from Storrs. It's another keeper that reminds me of the words from John Locke:

"Nothing that is contrary to, and inconsistent with, the clear and self-evident dictates of reason, has a right to be urged or assented to as a matter of faith."

TJ said...

Great quote from Locke as well. :) That's probably why he too leaned Unitarian.

I think your point about the Eastern Orthodox approach to God is very relevant to modern Trinitarian apologists. Since the Trinity doctrine itself was primarily hammered out by Eastern Greek theologians, with the Latin West largely disinterested in the controversies over which particular Greek words would be accepted as orthodox and which would come to be heretical, the Trinity naturally took on the Eastern 'mystery'.

I'm sure you've seen just how totally jarring this background can be when a modern author will use empirical facts to defend the existence of a Creator, but then turn to a mystical rationale to reveal that Creator as a Trinity God. A more consistent use of reason would be better (though maybe not possible), in my opinion.