I Lost Faith in Myself . . . Now I Have Hope

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It occurred to me the other day that Nietzsche is right.  The only thing I could possibly have faith in, if God is dead, is me.  This thought, I must confess, is rather unsettling (namely, because I know myself far too well).  But, if there are no transcendent values, if there is no meaning, what else is there to put my faith in?

I suppose I could put my faith in “science” or in some abstract notion like “humanity” or “the universe”—but these things are only meaningful, in a world devoid of intrinsic value, if I consider them meaningful.  In such a world, I, the subjective knower, am the arbiter of truth, meaning, and value.  It is clear, therefore, that, in actuality, “I” (and not some objective reality outside of myself) am what I truly have faith in.  I have faith in my beliefs, my intentions, and my desires (e.g., my affection for science is the source of my trust in science; for science in and of itself has no objective meaning or value).

This, however, is truly a miserable, and hopeless, state of affairs.  I am finite; I am mortal; I can be (and will be) destroyed.  My existence is a temporary blip—a shifting shadow like the shadows on Plato’s cave wall.  I am merely the byproduct of cold, impersonal, meaningless, physical processes which blindly, and uncaringly, march on without direction until the final death and collapse of the universe.  In such a world, I am not a subject; but, merely, an object—a passive object.  All of my thoughts, longings, desires, and emotions, as well as my ability to reason, are merely physical happenings—unimportant, undirected, predetermined, events.  Thus we see the sickening irony of the situation: there is no “I”—at least, not in any traditional sense of the term.

To make matters worse, I am unreliable.   I fail to understand or to comprehend or to communicate effectively.  I am forgetful and can easily be deceived.  I fail to keep my promises.  I tell lies and cheat and steal and have pity parties.  I lack self confidence and lack the power to change anything about the laws of nature which completely hold sway over my fate.

As I ponder these things I realize that, in the absence of God, there is no hope; because I am my only hope . . . and I have no delusions of grandeur.

When we recognize that placing total faith in ourselves is utterly useless and ultimately futile, we are finally in a position to understand the paradox that Truth presents us with:  “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).

“I” is an absurdity—a meaningless illusory object—operating under the delusion that the world has value.  Life is hopeless; the universe is impersonal; I will end; I can’t save myself.  This is because I live in a fallen world disconnected from Truth and estranged from the Giver of Life.  I remain in this despairing state so long as I worship “self”; so long as I pin my hopes on a temporal, finite, feeble, dying blip in the universe.  This is why Truth tells us to deny ourselves and to follow Him.  Only He can give us life; only He can restore meaning and value.  Apart from Him, we remain in the void, in the darkness, and held captive by death.

An Ecclesiastical Experience . . .

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As most of you already know, my family and I recently joined the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church!  I come from a devout Protestant family: my father has been a pastor for over thirty years, my sister is a missionary in Southeast Asia, and I, too, pastored for several years.  As you can imagine, our decision to join the Church was not easy.  Our journey was filled with years of angst, hours upon hours of discussion and introspection, mountains of books, and, intensive prayer.  While all of these activities played a role in our conversion it was our first hand experience of the Church that had the most lasting impact on us.  The great Russian philosopher Pavel Florensky once said, “Only by relying on immediate experience can one survey the spiritual treasures of the Church and come to see their value.”  This was certainly true in our case.

I still remember the first night my wife Rosie and I secretly attended vespers at an Eastern church near my parents house.  Up to that point, we had only rationalized about “the Church.”  We had loads of objective information, from piles of books,  rattling around our heads–but no subjective experience.  We were like blind beggars crying out on the side of the road–our first encounter with eastern liturgy was like the miracle of experiencing sight for the first time.

One day I will share the whole story with you; until then, please enjoy these beautiful photos.  Perhaps they will give you a taste of the beauty and richness of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; perhaps they will stir your soul and fill you with an intense desire to experience ecclesiality for yourself . . .

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Understanding Apophatic Theology (Part Two)

/  Apophaticism  (i.e. “negative theology” or “the way of negation”) is an essential feature of Eastern Catholic theology but is often misunderstood by Western theologians and thinkers.  This is part two of a series of articles designed to introduce apophatic theology to those who are unfamiliar with it . . . It should also prove useful for those who have a negative aversion to negative theology.   /

Another way to characterize apophaticism is in terms of the impersonal versus the personal.  In contrast to Plato’s heavenly realm of the forms and enigmatic Demiurge, or Aristotle’s reduction of form to that of particular instantiations of essences and his impersonal notion of the Unmoved Mover, early Christian apologists and theologians grounded the forms in the mind of God.  For unlike the Greek philosophers, Christians, following a biblical ontology, understood Ultimate Reality was a dynamic, self-determined, active Existence who lovingly created (out of nothing) and maintained the world.  Identifying the forms with the mind of God, however, necessarily leads to apophatic conclusions.  Why?  Because no one can know the mind of God.

Dionysius declares that we, “must not dare to apply words or conceptions to this hidden transcendent God [outside of what He Himself has revealed],” because, “the divinity is not only invisible and incomprehensible, but also “unsearchable and inscrutable,” since there is not a trace for anyone who would reach through into the hidden depths of this infinity.”

These statements make all the more sense when we recognize that the transcendent God is personal.  There is always an element of profound mystery attached to human personhood; especially in terms of  communicating our personhood to other persons.  No matter how ardently we attempt to communicate our interior life to the outside world the human soul remains a “black box” to those who remain forever distinct from us.  No matter how intimate the relationship there forever remains something private and unseen between even the closest friends.   If this is true of the human heart and mind, how much more so when it comes to the Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity?  As Judith states, “You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or understand the workings of the human mind; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his thought?” (Judith 8:14).

In this, apophaticism offers an epistemological advantage when compared to other ontologies; namely, it grounds our discovery of the Good, of Truth, of Ultimate Reality, in love.  For it is out of love that God makes Himself known (in as much as He can be known) and it is out of love that we seek to know Him.  According to apophaticism, seeking Truth–seeking to understand Existence–is ultimately the pursuit of a person (whether the pursuer realizes this or not).

Thus we are faced with a paradox.  Apophaticism teaches that the Divine Nature is completely inaccessible to us, and that He is actively seeking to make Himself known to us (which is why apophaticism, rightly understood, acknowledges that we can make positive statements about God).  To understand this, we must now turn our inquiry to the distinction between God’s essence and His energies.

God’s Active Presence and Self-Revelation

While it is impossible for us to comprehend the essence of God, it is possible for us both to know and experience Him.  How?  By participating in His energies.  Because God is love (1 John 4:8) He desires to be known and to be in communion with His creation.  His active presence and self-revelation in the world is what apophatic theology refers to as God’s uncreated energies.  God’s foreknowledge, His providence, His will, His goodness, His love, His justice, Hist power–all of these attributes are discovered through participation in God’s energies.  These works of God are, according to St. Gregory Palamas, “manifestly unoriginate and pretemporal.”

Which is simply to say, they are uncreated and, hence, not something ontologically grounded outside of God’s being.  St. Palamas explains:  “Neither the uncreated goodness, nor the eternal glory, nor the divine life nor things akin to these are simply the superessential essence of God, for God transcends them all as Cause.  But we say He is life, goodness and so forth, and give Him these names, because of the revelatory energies and powers of the Superessential.”

Thus, while God’s energies dynamically flow out of His essence, his energies are not to be mistaken as being His essence.  To understand this, St. Palamas provides a very simple illustration:

The divine essence that transcends all names, also surpasses energy, to the extent that the subject of an action surpasses its object; and He Who is beyond every name transcends what is named according to the same measure.  But this is in no way opposed to the veneration of a unique God and unique divinity, since the fact of calling the ray “sun” in no way prevents us from thinking of a unique sun and a unique light.

So, as it would be mistaken to confuse the act of eating with the person eating it would be mistaken to confuse God’s foreknowledge with the One who knows future contingents.  Likewise, we would be mistaken to separate God’s providence from His essence as we would be mistaken to separate rays of light from the sun; nevertheless, we are able to recognize the rays as being unique in relation to the sun as we are able to recognize that God’s providence is unique in relation to His essence.

It must be stressed, however, that the things we learn about God through participating in His energies are still restricted by the confines of our finite language and limited noetic capacities.  Thus, while we can affirm positively that, for example, God is good–because He is creator and sustainer, always keeps His promises, brings about our salvation, etc.–we must remember that such a positive affirmation is still analogical, and does not provide us with information about the Divine Nature.  For, as Dionysius states, “we use whatever appropriate symbols we can for the things of God.  With these analogies we are raised upward toward the truth of the mind’s vision, a truth which is simple and one.”  Likewise, St. John of Damascus explains that, “many of those things about God which are not clearly perceived cannot be fittingly described, so that we are obliged to express in human terms things which transcend the human order.  Thus, for example, in speaking about God we attribute to Him sleep, anger, indifference, hands and feet, and the alike.”

Apophaticism, therefore, maintains God’s complete transcendence–His otherness–and his nearness and familiarity without falling into contradiction.

Understanding Apophatic Theology (Part One)

/  Apophaticism  (i.e. “negative theology” or “the way of negation”) is an essential feature of Eastern Catholic theology but is often misunderstood by Western theologians and thinkers.  This is the first of a series of articles designed to introduce apophatic theology to those who are unfamiliar with it . . . It should also prove useful for those who have a negative aversion to negative theology (pun intended).   /   

Apophatic theology is founded, first and foremost, upon the Incarnation.  For it is the incarnation of the Word that highlights the paradox of God’s nearness and immeasurable distance from creation.  In the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar :

The “I” of Jesus Christ is the measure of God’s distance from and nearness to man, that unimaginable nearness of him who is, and remains, even more unimaginably sublime above everything in the world (in similitudine major dissimilitudo)–and both things are equally true.  We shall never be in a position to encapsulate the mystery of this “I”, with its nearness and its distance, in a concept or a formula, for at its heart lies the mystery of the relationship between God, the Absolute, and man, the relative.

This antinomy is most clearly expressed in the first chapter of St. John’s gospel which proclaims that, “No one has seen God at any time.  The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:18); and affirmed also by St. Paul who states that Christ is, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1: 15).  Thus, the Incarnation is at once God’s ultimate and most intimate revelation of Himself to His creation and a fixed reminder of the mysterious and ineffable nature of the God who remains unseen and invisible.

As we shall see apophaticism is not synonymous to agnosticism; it is not an attempt to eradicate positive statements about God or deny our personal experience of God (as some believe).  Aristotle Papanikolaou explains that, “there is always a gap between our language about God and what God is.  In an apophatic approach, theology, attempts to stretch language in order to express the central antinomy revealed in the Incarnation–God’s transcendence and immanence.”  Apophaticism is, therefore, an acknowledgment of the complete transcendence and utter incomprehensibility of the Divine Nature and the humble admission that human beings lack the noetic capacities and linguistic tools needed to grasp or properly communicate the infinite, eternal, Godhead.  Furthermore, it is the acknowledgment that God loves His creation and condescends to make Himself known in spite of our limited capacities.

This fact–the radical ontological distinction between the creature and the Creator, the unknowability of God’s essence, and God’s desire to make Himself known–is vividly portrayed in the account of Moses on Mount Sinai in the Old Testament.  Scripture tells us that:

On the third day in the morning, there were thunderings and lightnings and a dark cloud on Mount Sinai; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, and all the people in the camp trembled.  And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  Now Mount Sinai was completely enveloped in smoke, because God descended upon it in fire.  Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the people were exceedingly amazed . . . and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.  Then God spoke to Moses, “Go down and solemnly charge the people, lest they break through to gaze at God, and many of them perish” (Exodus 19:16-21).*

In this passage we see that God, in his unfailing love and desire for communion–and in order to initiate a covenant with Israel–manifested His presence in a physically provocative way; thus condescending to our human nature.  Yet what God is, His essence, is symbolized by the impenetrable cloud of darkness, thick smoke, and fire; for God is invisible and His nature a mystery.  His presence, if directly beheld by man, is so overwhelming that God warns Moses not to let the people ascend the mountain lest they gaze directly upon Him and die.

The complete inadequacy of creaturely language–with regard to its ability to describe God–becomes even more obvious as we read Moses’ own account of his experience on the mountain in the presence of God in chapter thirty-three:

But He [God] said, “You cannot see My face; for no man can see My face and live.”  Moreover, the Lord said, “Here is a place by Me you shall stand on the rock.  So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by.  Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:20-23).*

For surely the Divine Nature is not a body–possessing hands and a face–but is incorporeal.  Our language is simply unable to explain that which transcends all creaturely categories; thus, Moses, writing metaphorically, speaks of God having a ‘face’ and ‘hands’ and a ‘back.’  For as the Lord Himself declares in this passage, “no man can see My face and live”–which is to say that no man can peer into the very essence of God; this knowledge is too great for us.  Yet, mysteriously, God allows Moses to experience Him indirectly; allowing him to see His “back.”  This, itself, is unhelpful for those who seek to understand what God is because there is know way for us to understand what it means to gaze upon the Lord’s back.  Here, again, human language fails us; Moses’ own experience was virtually indescribable (even to himself).

The stark contrast that we find in these passages and, throughout the Bible, between the creature and the Creator, are exactly what led the earliest Christian theologians to promote apophaticism.  For the Greek philosophers (namely those in the stream of Platonic and Aristotelian thought) believed that being or existence could be grasped by the human intellect and explained using purely human categories.  Christians, however, embracing the ontology of Scripture, recognized that Existence Himself, the great “I AM,” stood outside of all creaturely thought.  As Fr. John D. Zizioulas explains:

The message of apophatic theology was precisely that the closed Greek ontology had to be broken and transcended, since we are unable to use concepts of the human mind or of creation, for signifying God–the truth.  The absolute otherness of God’s being which is found at the heart of biblical theology is affirmed in such a manner that the biblical approach to God contrasts acutely with that of the Greeks.  Apophaticism rejects the Greek view of truth, emphasizing that what we know about being–about creation, that is–must not be ontologically identified with God.

Plato’s famous analogy of the cave makes the difference between Greek and Christian thought explicit.  For in Plato’s account truth can be grasped when we stop looking at the mere shadow of being on the wall–i.e., the imperfect copies of eternal forms–climb out of the cave, and fix our gaze directly on the sun–the good;  the immaterial and immutable realm of the forms; the, “cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything”  In Plato’s ontology, gazing directly at the good is possible through purely human intellectual effort.  In contrast, Christian theology teaches that the Good transcends all human distinctions and categories; the Good is completely other and, hence, unknowable by means of purely human effort.  For the Good says, “no man can see My face and live” (Exodus 33:20).*

Such considerations are what spurred Pseudo-Dionysius, that great champion of apophatic theology (and whose icon can be found at the top of this article), to proclaim:

Indeed the inscrutable One is out of the reach of every rational process.  Nor can any words come up to the inexpressible Good, this One, this Source of all unity, this supra-existent Being.  Mind beyond mind, word beyond speech, it is gathered up by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name.  It is and it is as no other being is.  Cause of all existence, and therefore itself transcending existence, it alone could give an authoritative account of what it really is.

 

*All Scripture quotations are taken from the Orthodox Study Bible which utilizes the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible).  Therefore, the chapter and verse numbering might not correspond to those found in translations, e.g., ESV, NIV, KJV, etc., which utilize the oldest available Hebrew and Aramaic texts.