Keeping It Real


I have mentioned in earlier posts the new work by Aristotle Papanikolaou Being with God. It is not an easy read but brings its rewards. Papanikolaou offers the first comprehensive study of the works of Met. John Zizioulas and Vladimir Lossky, two of the 20th century’s most important Orthodox theologians, and offers a very helpful analysis and comparison. I was struck by his initial summary of the common assumption of both Zizioulas and Lossky:

The two theologians identify as the heart and center of all theological discourse the realism of divine-human communion, which is often understood in terms of the familiar Orthodox concept of theosis, or divinization.

In simpler terms, both theologians, along with the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, assumes that the center of our Christian faith, and all the language of the faith, is the fact of a real, true communion between God and man. As Christ stated it in the New Testament:

And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent (Jn. 17:3).

Why such an assumption should not seem obvious to all is itself part of the larger story of theological history. But “knowing” God is not at all as universal among Christians or theologians as one might think. In the late 70’s, studying in an Anglican seminary, I could not approach this subject successfully in the classroom. It was assumed that such knowledge was always “mediated,” meaning you only know God through something else and therefore you never know God.

That, of course, was a liberal theological seminary. But you can find similar objections in some conservative Protestant settings, where knowledge of God is confined solely to the pages of Scripture. Scripture, of course, is held in high regard in Orthodoxy, but it is not seen as a substitute for God. Christ did not promise that we would know about God, but that we would know God. There is a vast difference between the two. In some circles, the essence of salvation is that a person have “faith” (believe the fact) that Christ died on the Cross for their sins. This shrinking of the faith to an “act of faith” can have the effect of eliminating the blatant statement of Christ quoted above. Of course, if you “know God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent,” you will also know and trust in the saving work of Christ on the Cross – these two things are not mutually exclusive. But nothing should be substituted for the greatest and most central promise of the faith, that we may have communion (true union) with God through Christ. Without the reality of true communion, Christian theology always becomes just words about God (and words about God are not the same thing as true communion).

Alhough Orthodoxy is a rich Tradition, with 2,000 years of “babies and bathwater that have never been thrown out,” it is, nonetheless, still centered and summarized in the simplicity of the belief that real, true communion between man and God is not only possible, but is, in fact, the actual content of salvation. Thus, although Orthodoxy is a rich Tradition, it exists as a Tradition whose sole purpose is make known and accurately communicate the reality of that true communion.

Orthodoxy is not a distraction from knowing God, it is the Traditional Way to know God as given in the living Christian Tradition. In this sense it is always about “keeping it real.”

This fact should serve as a very simple test for Orthodox Christians. If one’s activities (particularly religious activities) are not ultimately centered on knowing God, then there is every likelihood that those activities are delusional. It is possible to become an expert on certain finer points of Patristic theology, but if your knowledge of Patristic theology is not intimately involved in knowing God, then it is a substitute of rationality for true theology. For the Fathers themselves sought not knowledge about God, but God Himself. Thus to follow in the path of the Fathers is to seek God, not the Fathers (or the Canons, etc.). It is important to know the Fathers (particularly if you are called to teach) and to know the Canons (if you are called to teach or have a ministry of governance in the Church) but if knowledge of these things is not centered in the true and real communion of God and man, then neither will be correctly understood or applied. That which is basic is always basic.

My prayer for us all (myself included) is not only to “keep it real,” but that the reality we are kept in and by should be none other than the true and living God, to Whom be glory.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


16 responses to “Keeping It Real”

  1. bríde Avatar

    Not to be crass, Father, but I wonder whether the kind of “knowing” meant is akin to that knowing by which the sexual union is described in places such as Genesis 4. After all, we are talking about union with God, and the husband-wife relationship is used numerous times to describe the Christ-Church relationship. Arguably, there’s even a whole book of the Old Testament that is about this!

    At the very least, I do not think knowing God is the kind of “justified true belief” knowledge that many people take it to be.

    Does that analogy seem like a good place to start when thinking about knowing God?

  2. Maximus Avatar

    I remember the day when, by the help of Karl Barth, I finally realized that God is God and Scriptures are a witness to the Word. It was a hard transition, but a most liberating one. For now God was not as distant as I had once thought or felt.

    Maybe this has something to do with that in my background (Church of Christ) there was an equation between the Holy Spirit and the actual words on the page.

    thank you Father!

    Dr. Papanikolaou is a great and amiable guy as well!

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    Indeed, that is the more proper place to start. When Paul speaks of the “knowledge” of God, he frequently uses the term, “epignosis” rather than simple “gnosis” which adds an intensifier that stresses the intimate character of the knowledge he is describing.

    The “communion” character the word “to know” or “knowledge” in St. John’s gospel is pretty consistent throughout his work. It is among his favorite words for our relationship with God.

    To interpret it in the since of “justified true belief” is a travesty of translation, I agree.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar


    I know the teaching of which you speak – and it would seem to me (though perhaps it is unwitting on their part) to be heretical to make such an equation. But the Protestant lack of balance on Scripture (it was, after all, a reactionary movement) led to occasional extremes.

    Oddly, though I had difficulty in getting a professor to allow for knowledge as communion when I was in an Anglican seminary, the classical Anglican Communion text is absolutely full of such language. At one time there was a lively conversation between Anglicanism and Orthodoxy that found common ground in such language.

    But in the current mainline Anglican usage, “experience,” can frequently be equated with “cultural experience,” and used to debase the text and to politicize theology. Been there, seen it done.

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Bride, I would say the analogy between union with God and the marriage union is only crass if we allow ourselves to look at the union from the perspective of falleness rather than looking at marriage from the perspective of God’s kenotic gift on the Cross.

    Such phrases as “the indwelling of the Holy Spirit” indicate to me that the Holy Trinity interpenetrates our being. We are in God and God is in us—closer than hands and feet. It is the ultimate mystery of being.

    The Incarnation changed everything. It allows us to know God because He reveals Himself to us. It is also why we sing at the beginning of Holy Week: “I behold the bridal chamber, richly adorned for my Savior, but I have no wedding garment to worthily enter. Make radiant the garment of my soul, O giver of Light and save me!”

    Father Stephen, it is the essential distortion of the Christian faith by the west (and unfortunately not absent from the east) that God can only be thought about, not communed with. For some reason I do not fathom, it began quite early in western theology. Platonism and the dualistic cults such as Gnosticism and Manicheanism had their effects, but that alone is not enough to explain the phenomenon. It seems to be yet another result of the two-story idea–a pernicious comfort to us in our falleness and difficult to overcome.

    BTW I’ve been reading a book on the history of the Ecumenical Councils. It has given me an entirely different and far more hopeful perspective on the current OCA mess. The kind of corruption, power politics and down right murder that went on amongst the bishops during the time of the Councils make our current state of affairs seem so incredibly minor. More important it is a reminder to not get discouraged by the appearance of sin. God will use even the worst of our behavior to reveal His grace to those who seek Him. The Gates of Hell will not prevail….

    Blessed Nativity to all.

  6. Phil Avatar

    Father, thank you for this. In some ways, this post alone is the fulfillment of your catechesis project.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar


    Thanks. It’s certainly true that without this grounding in the “reality” of communion, all the catechesis in the world would be worthless. I haven’t had the time to work on the catechesis project that I thought I would when I started it – but it isn’t going away.

  8. nichole3 Avatar

    I recently learned of your blog through my friends at Ft. Campbell, Ky. My husband and I live in Ky but travel to Murfreesboro, Tn to attend St. Elizabeth the New Martyr parish. As a new convert–it is so easy to get wrapped up in trying to get “mentally” going on learning all about the church fathers etc. I’ve just had to lay that aside and learn to grow from my heart. I can’t get caught up in trying to compete with others for intellectual understanding of the Orthodox faith. I’m glad you are writing these blogs because I consider it a part of my growing in Christ. You have helped me on a daily basis. Thanks!

  9. David Withun Avatar

    I’d like to join Phil in thanking you for this posting.
    The centrality of theosis in Orthodoxy is what drew me to the Church in the first place. Until I discovered that such a teaching existed, and that it held such an important place in the early church and even until now in the Orthodox Church, the idea of salvation seemed a very shallow to me. Perhaps this is why so many people in the West turn to Eastern religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) and to Islam. These religions put at the forefront of their philosophy an offer to “experience” the Divine, not just read or hear about it. (And I do not mean by this to in any way state that the experiences or doctrines of Eastern religions are equal to those of Orthodox Christianity.) Western Christianity, in Protestantism, on the other hand, only seems to offer knowledge “about” God through reading the Scripture and listening to sermons. In Roman Catholicism, I felt as if my only way to “experience” God were through my own imagination, and the means by which to attain those “experiences,” such as the Rosary, were in no way central or essential to the Church. I was definitely heading down the path of abandoning Christianity for what I saw as a more “full” spiritual experience in Eastern philosophy. Until I found the Orthodox Church. I’m certainly very happy that I did.

  10. Steve Avatar

    I’ve always thought that some traditions see faith as the propositions in one’s head and God checks to see if those are present between your ears before you get into heaven. In the same way they seem to view the soul as my bar code so that God knows who/what to resurrect at the end of the age.


  11. Robb Avatar

    I find it amazing how thoughts in a day are sometimes so closely linked that it’s undeniable the Lord is speaking and moving today. Thanks for your post, it’s ties in and sums up a days worth of conversations at the coffee shop. 🙂

    “True love is content. It has its reward in what it loves. For if you seem to love something, but really love it for the sake of something else, you actually love what you are pursuing as your real end, not that which is a means to it. ” -Bernard of Clairvaux

  12. Petra Avatar

    Steve, what you said is so true that it made me laugh…but, of course, it is sad.

    Father, your last paragraph is very convicting. It is still so easy for me to get caught up in doing things for the sake of doing them, learning for the sake of learning etc rather than keeping my eyes focused on God and doing only that which brings me closer to Him.

  13. William Avatar

    This is an excellent reminder about not getting hung up on knowledge that is not *knowledge.* Thank you.

  14. Andreas Avatar

    Father Stephen

    You wrote that metropolitan John and Lossky are two of the most important Orthodox theologians of the 20th century. There is a distinction, though, between academic theologians and the Saints, whose theology is not academic, yet is far more authentic than anything said by University professors. I think keeping in mind that distinction is crucial. Listening to the fathers and listening to someone talking about the fathers is not the same thing.

  15. doc Avatar

    Test your faith. Read entire link. You may never believe in God again.

  16. Dino Avatar

    Ha ha! Sounds like a condensed “TLO”… 🙂
    (Sorry TLO, I do not mean this as a critisism to you personally – I was simply reminded of some of our previous discussions through this) but I would like to point out that it clearly all has been addressed here before (especially in our back and forth comments here with “TLO” / JS ), of course some of it is quite simplistic and Dawkins-like, obviously talking about a god and an understanding of the bible and the world and their history that has little to do with Orthodoxy…
    We know this stuff (some of us) very well indeed, and also know that God (the Christian Orthodox God) exists “more than all that exists”

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