Perfectly Ideal

I am not a friend of philosophical answers – primarily because I think they run the risk of being nothing more than ideas. The same holds true for problems – philosophical problems are often just that – philosophical and little more. For a variety of reasons, God seems to be an easy subject for philosophical speculation, both as answer and as problem.

I have yet to meet a human being who lived life in general. God did not become man – as St. Theodore the Studite famously put it, “God became a man.” And in this lies all the difference. In St. Theodore’s case it was the reason he said we could make an icon of Christ. You cannot make an icon of man in general (there is no such thing), but it belongs to the characteristic of a man, that you may make a portrait of him. It’s another way of say that Christ is truly human. But I stray slightly from my intended subject.

I believe that it is the nature of things (I hope this does not count as a philosophical statement) that there is nothing “in general.” All generalizations (like this one) are ideas and not truly existent items or persons of interest.

It is interesting to me that Christ never said, “Be loving,” or “Love everyone.” He was quite specific, “Love thy neighbor as Thyself,” and when asked, “Who is my neighbor,” brought the question down to specifics with a very particular story.

There is no teaching of Christ (unlike that of St. Francis) in which poverty is idealized, for there is no ideal poverty, just as there is no ideal prosperity. Economies, like many things we deal with in the aggregate are notorious discussed in the abstract. One hundred thousand people lose their jobs in a particular action and it is reported along with the Dow Jones Industrial Average and Cattle Futures. But of course, one hundred thousand people don’t do anything. Things that are done happen one person at a time, regardless of what they may share in common with others. The effect in their lives is specific – just as specific as if it had happened only to them.

I grew up in one of the “Miracle Cities” of the South. In 1964, the Air Force base that had been the foundation of a large part of the economy in the south end of the county was closed. It was not the only base closed that year – it was part of a larger decision. My father’s auto repair business consisted almost entirely of Air Force personnel. Like all civilians in that end of the county, things became very hard. It is a vivid memory for me.

Of course the city fathers correctly predicted a comeback. Twenty-five years later the city was in the midst of a renaissance and an economic boom. Of course, twenty-five years may seem like nothing in the years of a city. For a man in his 40’s, twenty-five years is the rest of his working life. My father never recovered economically from the “general” decision or the “general recovery.”

I think about this every time I hear general stories on the news. That there are no general stories, only people who now face great difficulties or even overwhelming situations. I have thoughts of what this might mean for those who have responsibilities for others – though we now live in an age when responsibility to others usually means stock-holders or “the public good” or other things. I will readily admit the difficulty of making decisions that inevitably effect many people.

Where I come down (as a non-philosopher) is to recognize the specificity of every human situation and of everything in all creation. There is no communion in general, no general confession. There are souls, loved of God and for whom Christ died – not as an aggregate but as unique, unrepeatable images of God. It sets the parameters on love as close as they can be. I know that by God’s grace it is possible to extend those parameters outwards, not by generalization, but through “personalization” if I may use the word in this way. We extend ourselves outwards by specifically reaching out to others, not in general, but in particular. This is the wonder of the great saint. Such a one may be said to “love all of us,” but, like God, he loves each of us, and therein lies all the difference.

I was asked a question in a post as to why we cannot serve God and mammon. Or what is wrong with prosperity? There is nothing wrong with posterity, but you cannot serve mammon, because it is a god, and we may have no other God but One. According to St. Clement of Alexandria, we may indeed be rich (prosperous) but its reason is for us to serve others from the abundance which we have been given. “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee.”

And the questions become quite clear when they become particular and removed from generalities. I am able to be where I am today only through the generosity of others. My education, my work, much of everything I own, my wife and children, are all gifts to me – not the product of my work. I know that I have an occupation that does not “make money.” Priests live from the offerings of others. But so do we all. Without kindness and generosity there is only the bargaining of starving men.

The world is not perfectly ideal. God is perfectly God but I do not think I would dare call Him “ideal.” He’s more real than that and commands us to become real in the same manner. May God give us all grace to love in particular all those around us, and the abundant grace to extend that love beyond the boundaries that are most easily seen. Glory to God.

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.





35 responses to “Perfectly Ideal”

  1. Stacey Derbinshire Avatar

    Nice writing style. I look forward to reading more in the future.

  2. ConfesSword Avatar


    Doxa to Theo.

  3. Peter Avatar

    There’s a lot that could be said about this. I guess one thought that keeps coming back to me is that we almost have to deal in generalities when it comes to our typical American outlook. Just starting with that in itself–“America” is much too big a concept to envision as anything but a generality. Add into the mix things like various Federal programs to help “the poor” or even nationwide private or religious charities, and we quickly lose love for our neighbor under a faceless pile of humanity. Our scale needs to be smaller, so that we actually deal with our neighbors. That’s the beauty of Christianity in its traditional form. You live and breathe at the parish level, with living, breathing neighbors. But this same catholic Church manifests itself in every city, town, and countryside, and spiritually it knows no bounds. It is *both* universal and local, without needless abstraction.

  4. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Hi Fr. Stephen,

    How does what you are saying here relate to the way the Bible talks of Israel, a nation, as if it were a man?

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    That’s a very good question – one which Abraham posed to God when He had come to judge Sodom. Apparently for want of 2 more righteous men and there would be a Sodom on the map today.

    And it does seem that God hold Israel collectively responsible in any number of places. Though I think we see that very much refined in the direction of which I spoke in the NT through which the OT must be read.

  6. Stephen W. Avatar
    Stephen W.

    I’m not sure if this is a question or a statement but I was thinking of the idea of the Church being a place where individuals unite to become one in prayer. This seems to be somewhat coorporate and somewhat general? It seems that we retain our individuality but also become something larger than ourselves at the same time, in a mystery. How does being “one in Christ” through worship differ from the general? Well I guess it turned out to be a question after all, possibly two…

  7. canicus Avatar

    Father, forgive me, but I think you have just denied the foce of the Nicene Creed. It’s not that I think we should speak in generalizations over specifics (God knows, there is a place and necessity for both). You do this, because you said we do not speak about things in general in the faith, but about specific things. What I have to wonder is: why do we even need to make the distinction? It is impossible to speak about either one without speaking about the other.

    To the Nicene Creed, we confess that Christ is of the same essence (homoousia) as the Father. This refers only to the question “Well, what is He?” “Well, He carries the specific nature of deity.” That was the purpose of the word’s inclusion. Of course, it was made specific in the person of Christ, but the question would be impossible if we could not generally speak of what an ousia is.

    Many fathers, ironically including the same St. Clement of Alexandria you quoted, were extremely philosophical without losing sight of the faith. I know it’s a common cultural past time now to slam on philosophy or anything whose study puts your head in the clouds, but that doesn’t mean that it’s sound. I don’t know the context of St. Theodore’s comment and thus cannot speak on it, but the principle you developed denies the force of the term homoousia.

    Generalization without any anchor in the real world is, indeed, a very bad pursuit, but so is an opposition to our philosophical ability. Your post was philosophical. Philosophy is the use of reason to ascertain the truths of reality. It is done by the use of syllogisms, inferences, and the other tools of reason. Consequently, you cannot oppose philosophy without using philosophy, as Aristotle so aptly pointed out. Likewise, your post began with a specific quote and a generalization. You spoke about philosophical speculation, in general, and proceeded from there to discuss things about administrative decisions in specific, which you probably wouldn’t classify as philosophical. I know the double-speak isn’t intentional, but it is nonetheless, and it cannot help but have unintended side-effects.

  8. shevaberakhot Avatar

    Father Stephen says:

    “There is nothing wrong with posterity, (I assume Fr. S. meant prosperity) but you cannot serve mammon, because it is a god, and we may have no other God but One”.

    Yes, yes, yes and yes. And why? Because God is the source of everything and everything He made was good.

    It follows too, that there is no ‘evil’ in prosperity, philosophy or iconography because evil is the rejection of good, and only God is good.

    Jesus’ body and blood offering speaks out on our behalf precisely because Jesus Christ IS in perfect communion with God.

    So, there is only one who is righteous (and only one Israel and one God).

  9. Dale Avatar

    Maybe it is just me but I think people are confused needlessly. By the particular, I am certain Father Stephen was not suggestiong that we are merely individual.

    The Trinity is not a general union but a particular union between three particualrs. Sodom is not a general city but a particular group of people unified by proximity and real life occurences. Israel being referred to as a man also is merely a particular group of individuals united as Sodom was but on a different scale. When Sodom was destroyed it was not a general destruction but one that involved particular people and buildings. I believe that is why Lot was allowed to flee. God had mercy on the particular people He chose to have mercy on (for reasons of righteousness). Imagine if we thought on that level. Maybe Instead of the indescriminate approach to war we take we ought to consider who it actually is we are killing. (as opposed to the acceptance of collaterol casualties)
    I can’t imagine our forces liking that suggestion.

    The point being made is that while we may spend much time thinking and acting according to generalizations, they do not exist. Maybe this is why government policy, which so often uses generalizations to prevent paralysis due to complexity, rarely has the outcome expected.

  10. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    It does seem to me that scripture speaks using “types” rather than generalities. Take the children in the furnace. The statement that “we” have not obeyed the commandments of the Lord was arguably a generality not true of those faithful three. Yet they took the type upon themselves gladly.

  11. shevaberakhot Avatar

    The word of God speaks not to generalities (and by this I assume you mean “the other” but to hearts and minds, of men and of women).

    And because it speaks, it does so with power (else we are dead in our sin and separated from God who is life).

    Government policy does not enter the equation of God. Ditto paralysis, collateral damage and IEDs to boot.

  12. Joseph Hromy Avatar
    Joseph Hromy

    Very nice posting Father I think you know how to be a real Christian.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar


    Of course if you define philosophical speech broadly enough, no one says anything that is not philosophical.

    We do not arrive at truths by philosophy.

    Except something we’ve agreed to call truth.

    Christ is the Truth, and is not reached by philosophy. Everything that is true is grounded in Him and known in Him. This is not a philosophical statement – but a statement from the revelation of Scripture and the teachings of the Fathers.

    Philosophy is fine, but it cannot get you to God or reality.

    My answer given above needs some balance. Philosophy has its place (sometimes called a “handmaid to theology”), and reason is not useless. I do hold with the fathers that reason must be purified, just as everything within us. Nonetheless, God is a sovereign God and uses all sorts of things to bring us to the knowledge of Him. I do not mean to disparage what has clearly been an important point in the Incarnation of Christ, that He has taken up our broken human form, and forged it into a means of our salvation. Blessed be God for all things, and may he forgive a sick old man sometimes who writes poorly and with too much haste.

  14. shevaberakhot Avatar

    Sometimes you just have to grab the beast by the horns. In the unity of Christ Jesus, we can do anything. To God be the glory.

  15. Visibilium Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I agree. Reality resides in the particular, not the general. Our God is a God of engagement, not floating abstractions. Jacob wrestled with the angel. Moses argued with God–and made God back down. The Apostles sometimes made poor decisions, but they persisted.

    Our moral lives have become abstract. We want to delegate. We want formulas. We don’t want hassles. We want the State to take care of the poor and elderly. We want teachers to make our children behave. We want the courts, police, and politicians to make others get along with us. We want the State to guarantee our financial solvency and good health. We want Father and Matushka to perform all of the parish’s chores.

    Freedom and prosperity give us the time and the resources to make good choices, but we seek to delegate, not engage.

  16. William Avatar

    Some of the earlier church fathers, saints among them, who were eager to use philosophy in their discourses did not necessarily err by doing so, but some of their statements had to be clarified and adjusted by later fathers. I’m thinking in particular of Justin and Clement, with their logos speculations.

  17. fatherstephen Avatar


    Those particular fathers did not use philosophy because they admired its great utility, but as a device of apologetics because it was so well admired by their adversaries.

    Our goal, as Orthodox Christians, is to know God, to participate in His life, just as Christ took our life on Himself. There’s no way to get there philosophically. Philosophy has it place, but it cannot unite you with God. And if we do not live in union with God, then all talk of religion is just talk, vanity.

  18. William Avatar

    Oops. I should have been more clear. I did not mean to take issue with you in asserting the need for a greater place for philosophy in Christian discourse. Rather, I meant to point out that when philosophy has been employed or when some Church Fathers have attempted to adapt revealed theology into the terms of philosophy (for whatever reason), it has tended toward delineations of revelation that, while perhaps approximating the truth at times, usually needed some kind of correction by those who came later because of the development of thought that followed the original adaptations. I most certainly agree that philosophy has its place but that it cannot unite you with God.

  19. shevaberakhot Avatar

    William, how true how true. Between speculation and the authentic experience of God lies the abyss, which, by definition ceases to be the abyss in the light of God revealed.

    Father Stephen is also right when he says that talk of religion is just talk if we do not live in union with God.

    Think John 1:1 — In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God.

    John seems obscure, speculative and distant, to man the agnostic and to the poet he waxes lyrical.

    But John is speaking with a prophetic voice. He is speaking of things to come as much as of things that were.

  20. Andrew Avatar

    Father, could you find the exact quote for St. Theodore Studite’s quotation?

  21. canicus Avatar


    I’m sorry to read a “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” response. I am simply going to make one last comment much as I do when I discuss subjects like this with fundamentalists, whether over philosophy, the use of images, or any other such thing that they deny God can be known in:

    The eternal Logos became a Man. He didn’t become a man, only half-way. He assumed a body. He assumed emotions. He assumed a human spirit. This means He also assumed a human mind. He redeemed all aspects of humanity, all our forms of relating to ourselves and the world. This includes our minds.

    Philosophy is the disciplined use of our mind to arrive at truths. It cannot be “fine” if it doesn’t find truth. It is inherently deceptive and misleading, and we should abandon it and oppose it, since that is the stated goal of all such enterprises. Philosophy, in all its forms, must go, and that includes a lot. There is no need to learn things or concentrate on them, because Christ has not redeemed the mind and cannot be known through it.

    The Fathers would then be fools to use philosophy for its utility in apologetics (and they went far beyond that in a number of cases). How can you defend Christ with something that cannot make Him known? As you pointed out, from Scripture, all truth is true by participation in Truth. The sole purpose of apologetics is to oppose error and expose people to Truth. If philosophy, even in apologetics, cannot do this, then it is futile in all its forms. Even using it in this manner means that it could make Christ known.

    I know that it can make Christ known from personal experience. This is how I came to the Christian faith. It is how I came to Orthodoxy. It may not fit with the box you have built for God, but it is true: God is big. He can use whatever He wants to be known and is not limited just because we want Him to be limited somewhere.

    If we start with the Incarnation, then we cannot avoid this point. God took every effort to know men. He assumed all aspects of our lives. By assuming them, He redeems them and divinizes them. If the human mind may be redeemed and brought into union with God, then it may be used for that purpose just as the body may be used for theosis. We chastise our bodies with fasting. We venerate the relics of bygone saints. We train it with exercises. There are numerous other good uses for the body. We can make images of it.

    St. John of Damascus opposed the iconoclasts with the argument that if Christ is not present in icons, then He cannot be in anything else, even the Scripture. The challenge holds true here. You have expressed rather strongly that Orthodoxy must be productive of culture where it takes root. It must incarnate Christ into the people. If Christ cannot be incarnated and known by something as central to our lives as our minds, then He cannot be known at all and did not assume a human mind. If He can be known by the mind, then He can be known by the discipline of the mind: philosophy.

    When you start with the Incarnation and not popular modern cultural conceptions, then this is the conclusion you must arrive at. To be useful in apologetics, it must be able to make Christ known. It must be able to discern truths precisely because it participates in Truth. Anything less is sophistry and nothing but empty words.

    Those philosophical saints did not all consider philosophy useful only for utility. They considered it a useful share of human life. St. Justin Martyr never stopped wearing the philosopher’s garb. He merged it wholly with his Christianity. Our dress reveals a lot of how we view the world, much as the fact that after the Emperor Constantine was baptized he never left his baptismal robes as a sign of his repentance. Decisions like these are conscious decisions to express oneself. Likewise the Fathers who deemed Christianity the “true philosophy” had a very positive view of it. St. John of Damascus in his catechism, not just in his apologia, made extensive use of philosophical statements and explanations.

    These fathers didn’t treat it merely as utility for apologetics. It is true some of them did (such as St. Gregory of Nyssa). The Fathers were not unanimous on this, and part of this may well be that they defined the word in a variety of ways. Philosophy in the ancient world, after all, was a religious discipline more like Buddhism than our dry academia; some of them even claiming to have had experiences with the “One” that were quite mystical. Many times they may well have been condemning this religious aspect in the same manner we condemn Buddhism (though it is the only surviving ancient philosophical religion I know of, so we can’t make ready use of the polemic against their contradictions).

    It is true that many of these great men made great errors, but I can say for my part that I have made my fair share. To condemn their paths simply because they made mistakes would be to condemn all paths Christians have ever taken, for we have all made them. Imagine how invalid the written Gospels themselves would be if we did this. We would have to jettison Mark. It was based on a man who denied Christ thrice, never mind the contradictions between them, obvious errors. Yet Christ is bigger than these, and He can redeem even us sinful men.

    Simply put: Philosophy is the disciplined use of reason, the faculty of the mind. It was assumed by Christ, and in assuming it, He redeemed it. It may then become divine by participation in Him. Its use may then be used to know Christ, and this is the very concept that validates its use in apologetics. There is no reason, though, that it may not be valid in other spheres as well (the mind, after all, originally had a positive and good use in creation). Philosophy can lead to truth precisely because it may participate in Truth, because Christ the eternal Logos took on a human logos.

    I do believe everything I have said is based firmly on patristic and biblical revelation. When you start with the Incarnation philosophy can have a real and valid role, and we don’t need to explain it away to fit our own preconceptions. I can say from both experience and knowledge of the Incarnation that philosophy can lead to Christ.

    I won’t bother you again with this subject, but I wanted to say one last word, because I feel the subject is very important. Everytime we take an iconoclastic approach to some aspect of human life, we suffer for it. The English-speaking world has never recovered from the bout with Puritanism. As general as my definition of philosophy may have seemed, and I admit I should have included the term “disciplined”, it is far preferable to define the term so vaguely that one can use the plasticity to condemn it in any fashion one desires.

    I posed my problems with what you said earlier. However your “This is not a philosophical statement – but a statement from the revelation of Scripture and the teachings of the Fathers” approach can work just as well with what I have just written. I’m sorry if I was offensive. I had no intention of being, and as I said, I’ll let you alone. I do believe that what I said in my first post is true, and you have only convinced me of this more firmly, and you’ve made me very uneasy about other things because of it. Had I been in error, you would have explained it to me rather than the “God said it. I believe it. That settles it” response; you seem to be a very kind man overall as evidenced in most of your posts. I apologize for my rudeness. Nonetheless, I will part in strong disagreement with you. Philosophy can lead men to God, it can be used by God to know truth, there is a proper place for it, and this belief is firmly rooted also in the revelation of the fathers and the Scripture.

  22. Shevaberakhot Avatar


    What the saints are saying is “God has spoken, who is listening?”

    This is very different to “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

  23. Stephen W. Avatar
    Stephen W.

    Often times when we become educated in a particular subject matter, be it History, Science, Theology or Philosophy, there seems to be a desire to fit everything into the categories that we have learned. While doing this it can be easy to miss the point of a particular conversation or writing. I went back and read what Fr. Stephen wrote and I did not see anything about condemning Philosophy, only caution towards it’s benefit to answer the particulars in our lives. We should move from the speculative to the particular person of Jesus Christ, in our particular lives. If this is the goal then we will all eventually come to the same conclusions. If Philosophy can move us towards this union then great but if we get stuck in ideas and they do not transform our lives, then we are missing something. It seems that Philosophy in itself is good but we need to move beyond Philosophy into a relationship or union with God. I believe that the point is to move beyond the need for Philosophy, Theology and even Icons. They may all be aids and point towards Christ but our no substitute for a living communion with Him. I am by no means advocating for abandoning any of these things but I have read of Saints and Elders that had no need for these categories because they radiated the Divine Light. I for one need every tool I can get, that can help me to see the truth of our savior Jesus Christ.

  24. Justinian Avatar

    Frankly, it seems to me that philosophy for philosophy’s sake–sola philosophy–is as likely to lead you to Nietzche as to Christ. What Fr. Stephen is saying is that even that great philosopher Saint, Justin Martyr, was Christian first, philosopher second. I have a great respect for philosophy, having once had the aspiration to be a teacher of the subject–but I can say, honestly, that the revelation of Truth in the person of Christ, who IS Truth, supersedes anything that philosophy have given to us of itself. Rather than being a weakness, I see that as a great strength. Philosophy might give you the tools to recognize Truth when you see it, but only if you are looking for Truth, and not just what you’d like to be true. And in the end, a man who rejects Christ but engages in philosophy will never find God, because he has already rejected God.

  25. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Hi Father Stephen,

    A while back I wrote an essay called The Condemnation of Philosophy which I think mirrors some of your concerns. Here’s a relevant bit:

    Take the first ten chapters of Genesis. Here we have a story of God hovering over chaos, making the world, and filling it with life. He makes man to be his stamp on creation, to love him, walk with him, wrestle with him, and represent him to the rest of the world. He becomes angry with man, curses his creation, and prepares to destroy it with a burning anger that only an artist can understand for a work gone bad. He then sees a glimpse of what the work was meant to be in one of his human creatures, and decides to salvage the work after all. He soberly assesses the damage in man, and decides to hold uphold the creation while he begins a great effort to bring man to glory.

    Now, an impatient philosopher, armed with his omnimax cannon, can blow the above picture to bits. God is perfect – how can he make something that goes wrong? How can he hover over chaos – he is everywhere? How can man interact with God except as a total puppet, when man is finite? How can man adequately represent God, who is infinite? Why would a perfect God curse his creation – wouldn’t he know ahead of time it would go wrong? Why would a perfect artist ever have to be frustrated with his work? Why would God ever change his mind – how could omniscience see new information? How can an immutable God be angry one minute and sober the next? How is it that an impassive God lets man get under his skin?

    The questions seem logically decisive, and yet I can’t hep but make a qualitative objection. The details may clash with these grandiose terms, and yet the scriptural picture is far grander than my philosophical one. The subject is infinite, and yet the finite model of the scripture comes far closer than the vapid model I receive from the philosopher. For “something” is as many times greater than “nothing” as infinity is greater than “something”. We worship a God who is.

    There’s a serious danger of falling into sophistry in the philosophical approach to God. And the best philosophical theologians (like Aquinas) knew this quite well.

  26. Dale Avatar

    I think acknowledgement of the role of the Spirit may be the missing piece of the discussion. If the Spirit is what truly leads us to Christ then that is it. The path used by the Spiirit is likely dependent on the particular person in question. To some the road of philosophy, others science, yet others relationships and others art. The road used however is not what truly moves us along the journey. Regardless of the road it remains that it is Christ or the Spirit that drives us down that road. In human perception it is easy to look and see the road and say science or philosphy etc brought us to Christ and at one level it is not false but it was merely the tool used and has no power in and of itself. If the Spirit doesn’t move you could be the greatest philosopher or scientist ever and be more lost than the simpleton.
    Glory to God for His mercy on us and His love that is specific for each one of us!

  27. fatherstephen Avatar


    Let’s not misunderstand each other. I am not a fundamentalist, indeed, far from it. My contention with philosophy is not a contention with rationality much less with the Logos in whose image we are created. And I realize the use of philosophy by great saints (though in the East that use is largely for apologetic purposes) or in a refined way to search for terms to express what could not have been found by philosophy (as in changing the meaning of homoousious, etc.).

    I argued, however, for the need for a purified rationality. This is the teaching of the Fathers in terms of ascetic theology, that without victory over the passions, rationality will be ruled by the passions and unable to arrive at correct conclusions.

    I rarely see such philosophy (if ever). It certainly can be used and used to great benefit, but in that it is not purified at does not arrive properly at the Logos, but distortions (thus reason unpurified has frequently yielded heresy).

    My concern isn’t generally with a true philosophical method (if one is pursuing it properly) but with the simple thing people call “reason” and don’t seem to get very far. The goal of all we do is true communion with God, not just thinking about issues or theological or philosophical matters.

    My writing here is pretty much always directed towards proper union with God. This is Orthodox Tradition. Hesychasm and its triumph in the Hesychast Councils of the 14th century clearly set forth a proper relationship between communion with God and the limits of philosophy. I don’t mean to say more than those councils have said, and if I have done so, I’ll gladly stand corrected, and ask forgiveness of my readers.

    It’s difficult to write well and I beg forgiveness for my shortcomings. Reason is good, we must have it. But reason must be healed, it is wounded. God alone can heal us as we pray, confess, study, fast, and engage in obedience to His commandments.

    May God give us peace and help us to rightly understand each other. Also forgive me if you hear an iconoclasm within my statements on reason. They are not intended to be so understood. God bless you for your concern for the wholeness of humanity and right believing.

  28. fatherstephen Avatar

    I will add that Canicus’ has some extremely important things worth considering on the implications of the incarnation. I hope he will continue the conversation, we will all benefit.

  29. Isaac the Syrian Avatar
    Isaac the Syrian

    Not sure if you have read it Father, but Fr. Seraphim Rose touches on this theme as well in his “Letter to Thomas Merton.”

  30. William Avatar


    Indeed, philosophy can be practiced in a redeemed way, is something vital (and unavoidable) for all of us, and is able to be properly wielded for a Christian only in light of revelation. Revelation is not irrational, but reason alone cannot know the ways and plans of God, whose transcendence makes him beyond the limits of our capabilities. Philosophy, or more simply reason, by itself never could have unveiled the Gospel, which was “foolishness to the Greeks.” The philosophy practiced/used by certain fathers was certainly a disciplined use of human reason, but they, at least in their public statements, simply did not question the Church’s canon of truth: that there is one God, in one Lord Jesus Christ, the son of God, and in the Holy Spirit. Philosophy did very well conceiving of various notions of monism, but it’s hard to imagine how philosophy unaided by revelation would have arrived at any definite, unquestionable notion of a personal God, much less the Trinitarian God.

    A Christian such as St. Justin Martyr certainly made use of philosophy and cannot be faulted for doing so, but his concept of the Son of God as the preincarnate Logos who moved and acted through history before taking flesh as Jesus Christ led down the road to ideas of Christ that had to be corrected by later fathers and councils, who had in mind Jesus Christ, “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” St Irenaus provided a corrective for Christian discourse in and around Rome by speaking less in speculative terms and more in scriptural terms, and he is one of the most reliable of the early Church Fathers for this very reason. To learn more about this, read “The Road to Nicaea” by Fr John Behr. A Christian such as St Gregory the Theologian (and the other Cappadocians) certainly appreciated the value of philosophy but recommended its use more in terms of “taking what is good” from philosophy (and literature, science, etc.) rather than recommending it as the ideal means for arriving at the truth of Christ.

    It seems to me that the very reason philosophy has any possibility of leading a person to Christ, to God, is because God in Christ has first made himself knowable. I think you have acknowledged this in your own comments. But philosophy by itself is an uncertain means to Christ. You are an example of one who came to Christ through philosophy, but there are so many reasonable philosophers and nonphilosophers, who do practice disciplined thinking but do not accept the revelation of Jesus Christ. Without Christ first, without revelation, and without personal encounter, philosophy would always be groping in metaphysical matters (at least inasmuch as the Gospel is truth), as it still does when it is not enlightened by the grace of the Spirit.

    And philosophy only takes one so far. It is the realm of concepts and ideas, which are important within their limits. Prayer, according to saints who know much more than I do, goes beyond the disciplined use of the mind into the experience of union with God.

  31. William Avatar

    Correction: Fr. John Behr’s book is “The Way to Nicaea”

  32. ochlophobist Avatar


    You raise many good points, points which raise several thoughts.

    Can a person with severe a mental handicap fully encounter Christ?

    Since, “He redeemed all aspects of humanity, all our forms of relating to ourselves and the world,” including our minds, am I also able to encounter Christ via human aspects not of the mind? If “Philosophy can lead men to God” because our minds have been redeemed, then can sexuality lead men to God because our sex organs have been redeemed? Can gasto-intestinal function lead men to God because our bowels have been redeemed?

    You suggest that because the human mind has been redeemed, a maximalist approach to mental operation and technique should be the paradigm for the Christian. But following this logic, why does the Church then not call us to a maximalist function of our other human aspects? Why are we not called to a maximalist use of our senses, of our culinary experiences, of our sexuality, all within a “disciplined” environment? Why does the Church not call married Christians to have a much chaste sex as possible, and to master sexual technique, in order that we might more fully express redeemed humanity? Indeed, if anything, the Church seems to do just the opposite.

    We humans redeemed by Christ are called to a recapitulation of Christ’s life in us which involves reservation and restraint in all aspects of our humanity. The Church teaches that the principle means through which we come to know God is in this context of ascesis. Why would our minds not be called to the same norms of ascesis that the rest of our human aspects are called to?

    Of course, by this I do not mean that we do not use our minds. We use our minds, just as we use the rest of our human aspects. But we use them in a manner that is circumspect, reserved, careful, always aware of our finitude and limitation, etc.

    Furthermore, the Incarnation does not mean that we theologize from the human up to God, this is not the motion of the Incarnation. Our Christian anthropology should not inform our Trinitarian thought. But nor does our Trinitarian thought lead us to any easy generalizations concerning humanity. While Homoousios, which you cite earlier, may be a general term, it is used in a very particular instance here, and one which is different than other uses of general terms. I may say that “my mother, generally, has a glass of gin before bed each night,” and from this infer all sorts of things about her and about humans who drink gin, go to bed, etc. The use of Homoousios with regard to the Holy Trinity, however, does not allow me anything like these sorts of inferences. If anything, it is a term which restricts thought far more than it provokes speculation. But, of course, we are here getting into issues of absolute divine simplicity and analogia entis, and this blog is not the place to debate such matters.

    That the fathers made use of philosophical terms and philosophical methods no reasonable person denies. They did use their minds, and often with such terms and methods. But this does not mean that there is a necesssary relationship between the Church and any philosophical system. It seems to me that when philosophical terms are employed by the Church, the terms themselves undergo something of a recapitulation. For all of the Damascene’s use of Aristotle, Louth in his masterful book on the Damascene notes St. John’s reservations concerning philosophy, which is expressed even in how the Damascene order and edits Aristotle in his cutting and pasting, and, if anything, Louth seems to suggest that St. John’s use of Aristotle was for the sake of utility. There is nothing wrong with utility so long as utility is kept within its rightly humble parameters. The Church may use a philosophical term or method, but it needs no philosophical school or ideology. The Church will use generalized expressions of speech, but it has no necessary relationship to a form of abstraction, per se. An example, if you will – the Church prays for “our armed forces” and our political “leaders” and “those who travel,” etc., and these are general terms, but what the Church means by these is the aggregate of forces, leaders, and travellers, that is, these particulars are blessed through a term that for the sake of utility mentions them as a whole, but it is the particulars that are blessed, not some abstract notion of the whole which does not really exist. We are not blessing some type of human, but actual particular humans. In such prayers the Church makes use of general terms, but has no necessary relationship to an abstraction.

    I apologize for my too many words here.

  33. canicus Avatar


    Thank you for your kind response. I guess I will continue, and there is quite a bit written here. I cannot hope to speak to all of it.

    The edited response and second response is something far less drastic. This is quite true. Our mind is indeed diseased, and I would not dream of saying that philosophy alone or for its own sake is something we ought to aim for. Everything you said about “art for art’s sake” in an earlier blog post would apply here as well. It has a role, and it must be placed within it. If not, then our passions will indeed take over and delude us. We need only look at modern politics’ use of “reason” or the atheist apologists like Richard Dawkins to see how readily this can happen. There is absolutely nothing I could object to in the amended response. I apologize for any remarks I made over the line; it is very easy to overlook the frailties and limitations of others on the internet, and it can be a hazerdous medium. I have made this mistake often.

    There is a lot of posts. I cannot address them all. I must, as a consequence, use a shotgun approach. Perhaps by the grace of God, and inspiration from good tea, I will say something useful.

    I would never dream of arguing for philosophy for philosophy’s sake. What Fr. Stephen said about the passions is very powerful and true. One need look at our politics, with all sides basing their beliefs on “reason” to see this. Some of the most destructive philosophers were often equally destructive in their lives and relationships. These unbridled passions have led many men astray, but this is equally true in other realms. Art, for instance, has led many men into debauchery or even idolatry. It is not the medium, but the heart of the man that inevitably makes a difference, and we must always be careful of this.

    I would not say philosophy is safe. To the contrary, it is fraught with dangers and hurdles, but then, so is blogging, so is commenting, so is painting a picture, so is being an actor, so is focusing on and learning any given skill. They all inflate and puff us up. For this reason, every caution about philosophy being good and useful but being equally capable of producing Nietzsche as St. Justin Martyr, is a caution I can agree with and affirm. The only caveat that we must have: We cannot blame some endeavor that often produces good as well as evil for what happens when it goes bad. Rather, something else is amiss in the man in question (or right), and I cannot say what that is (if it is even the same thing in all men). We are all mysteries. We cannot know what other things were happening in their lives. As often as not, philosophy will not so much be the cause as an expression of what already lies within.

    Having said that, I cannot say more about differing paths than Dale. We are all different, and what he says is wholely true.

    William, when you cite this history (I haven’t read that book, but I am familiar with the role St. Justin played in prepping things for Arius), can you fault a man for making a mistake or being shortsighted? If your writings were to be influential and preserved for hundreds of years, would all their effects be good? We have the benefit of two millinea of history behind us. St. Justin did not. We know about Arius, St. Justin did not. I believe that there are desert fathers who say that the best way is silence, but none of us are practicing this here. Any of us could say something that, as it interacted with other ideas for hundreds of years, could lead to disaster, philosophical or not. Let us not judge these great men too harshly for things they were not corrected for, and in some cases for things they never even lived to see lest we condemn ourselves and our own activities in the process.

    Both William and the Ochlophobist have reversed my points on philosophy. The sole reason I believe it to be valid is because God became one of us and divinized it. All truth we know, we know only because He actualized it. It is true by participation in Him. It is only in this, and this is decidedly revelation, can any knowledge of truth, philosophical or not, can have validity. This is not moving from man to God but reverses that order. I am sorry if I was not clear on that.

    Ochlophobist, you raise several good points as well.

    I did not say all men may know God only by philosophy (God forbid!), nor would I dare to assert that it is always or even usually the road people are called by. I simply assert that it is valid, and like all our avenues in life, fully capable of being divinized. With that as a presupposition, why shouldn’t a person with a severe mental handicap not be able to? The same question could be raised to any discussion of the Jesus Prayer: Could a deaf and mute man fully encounter Christ though unable to pray in this manner? Of course it would be absurd to say such a thing. No single faculty makes us what we are, and more so, Christ is not limited by our limitations. Indeed, He thrives on surpassing them and using those very limitations. The mentally handicapped will likely be in a better position than I.

    I did not mean to say that we must max out philosophy in all people, or that all our activities msut be pushed to their bounderies and experienced as often as possible. I never intended a sentiment like that to even be taken, not even in the least. I simply wanted to state that by Christ’s redeeming activity, philosophy is able to be redeemed as well, and that it can reveal Christ. I did not say it always reveals Christ, nor did I say all men should practice it, nor even that for those who do that it should be the sole guiding principle in their life used as often as possible. I was responding to what read very much like a condemnation of it as a whole. I’m sorry if it came off that way.

    I also apologize that you seem to misunderstand the term “disciplined”. I meant it in the sense of being systematic and ordered thought, because not all philosophy would conform to Christian norms. Yet, for us, ascesis is one more aspect of discipline we could add to it. It is, after all, discipline. I am sorry that you understood what I was saying to mean that the mind should “not be called to the same norms of ascesis that the rest of our human aspects are called to”. My point was to defend its use. I never intended it to be at all exceptive. To the contrary, I was responding to something I thought did just that. I had read the post to say “Philosophy is bad, and generalization is always bad” and then a response of “Philosophy cannot lead to knowing God or even truth in any way”. In that context, I was calling precisely for it to be placed within the other norms of our bodies and selves: it has a role, and it most certainly *can* be used to know God and truth.

    These points, along with your view that I was arguing a man up to God approach, seem to indicate that you have taken what I said to have the exact opposite meaning of what I intended. That is most likely my fault. It probably originates from the fact that I initially spoke about a linguistic and psychological point: specifically that we cannot separate speaking about generalities from particularities. If we do, then we render all human communication to be nonsense. I selected the Nicene Creed specifically because we presuppose what a man is so much that it lacked the necessary force to point out what I desired to point out. If, however, the Creed is rendered meaningless. It had less to do with discussing divine simplicity than of saying “We have to discuss a thing in general before we can start discussing a particular occasion of it, and thus philosophical answers and inquiry must also take place”. I then defended the use of philosophy in the second post, because I had read his response to be a “It’s nice, but it really cannot help you at all with God or teach anything”. I was shocked, and on account of my own personal experiences, rather defensive. I then switched from discussing “This is how we say things and must use philosophy to do this; there is a role for it” to “Christ redeemed the whole of humanity; there is a redeemed role for philosophy in the life of Christianity beyond mere reaction”. In retrospect your confusion of my points probably is caused by the connecting second half of the two posts. I apologize for the confusion.

    This post, however, is too long. Please forgive my verbosity. There was a lot to respond to in these posts since Fr. Stephen asked me to continue despite my brutish behavior.

  34. William Avatar


    Thank you for your further thoughts and for not bowing out of the conversation. I appreciate your comments. I probably should read them a second time before responding, but I do want to emphasize that I never meant to presume to criticize or *blame* someone like St Justin for what was developed by others who came after him. I didn’t point him out to fault him, and certainly the Church has not faulted him, either, even if certain of his ideas, particularly the (certainly unintended) temporalizing of the eternal Logos, did not withstand the scrutiny of the Church and had to be abandoned in the end. This is true of any number of particular ideas held by various saints and saintly thinkers of the Church, for how can any human being be expected to be flawless in all his or her statements? But I pointed out St Justin because he specifically adapted Greek philosophical ideas in an attempt to express Christian truths, and those ideas were not quite capable of containing those truths. But in so many other ways, he paved the way for good, solid Christian thinking in the centuries to come. St Justin, pray to God for us!

    Of course, this is not an argument against the use of philosophy, just a call to remember the limits of conceptualizing, particularly when the concepts regard God. The Church has had to emphasize the apophatic way precisely because human words and philosophy, redeemed as they might be, cannot contain God. Human persons, yes, but their words, not so much. This is because words and thoughts do not commune with God. They can describe communion and guide one toward communion, but communion is not found in them. God is not apprehended in thought, as Evagrius suggested, using his notion of nous that took its cues from Platonism, but rather God is apprehended in love and the nous is less to be identified with the reason and more to be identified with the heart, as St Maximus (echoing so many others) pointed out in his adjustment of Evagrius’ doctrine, which was by and large very worthy and insightful.

    I’m not sure how much we really might disagree on this, but I suppose I can’t help but question or dissect the idea that philosophy can reveal Christ. At issue is what we mean by “reveal.” Certainly, philosophy does play a role in explaining Christ and in explaining the implications of who Christ is and what he has done, using revelation as the starting point. Philosophy can be employed to demonstrate how it is reasonable to trust in Christ, and it can be employed to give approximate words to the largely unexpressible and immediate experience of communion with the ineffable God. If by “reveal” we mean the offering of words, concepts and ideas to make somewhat understandable the mystery of immediate experience of Christ (our own and that of others), then certainly we can say that philosophy reveals Christ in some way. And inasmuch as all truth is rooted in Christ, philosophy that uncovers truth reveals Christ. The same is true if we’re speaking of philosophy’s potential to guide one in the direction of Christ through its expressions. But we must be careful not to give the impression that philosophy, its concepts and explanations and thoughts about God are the same thing as the experience of God in communion. So in any discussion about the role of philosophy for a Christian with a philosophical bent, I’d feel obliged to emphasize the difference between the knowledge conveyed in philosophical thought (which, roughly speaking, could be called knowledge about God) with actually knowing God in the knowledge of direct experience of and presence with God through ascesis and prayer. Such knowing operates on a level untouched by concepts, ideas, words, etc. Certainly, words can and are formulated to describe the immediate knowledge of God, but the grasp of such words is not to be equated with such knowledge.

    In any case, I suspect you agree with all or much of this, perhaps knowing a much better way to state it than I am able. You yourself wrote that “philosophy will not so much be the cause as an expression of what already lies within.” I think that with this statement you have provided the key to this entire discussion.

    It’s my turn to ask forgiveness for my verbosity. And forgive me if my writing tone comes across as confrontational. It’s not my intention. God be with you.

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