The Benefits of Ignorance

donkeyOf course, I have to begin this post with the acknowledgement that I am an ignorant man.

Having gotten that out of the way, I want to spend just a few moments on the benefits of ignorance. This past November I was blessed to have a conversation with Fr. Thomas Hopko while we waited in line to greet the new Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America. Fr. Thomas is the retired Professor of Dogmatic Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, NY.  He has taught a generation of priests.

Our conversation turned to writing. My comment came from my reflection on the experience of writing this blog. I noted that the more I write, the less I seem to know. Part of this realization flows from the fact that I try to restrict my writing to those topics of which I have some knowledge (experience). His smiling response came immediately: “Someday you won’t know anything and then you’ll be holy!”

It was not entirely spoken in jest. There are many forms of knowledge – or many kinds of knowing which our limited language describes as “knowledge.” For Christians the most dangerous form of knowledge is that which we simply acquire through reading and study. It is largely just information. Of course, if you have enough information you can manage the illusion of actual knowledge.

I know a lot of numbers, but I am not a mathematician. I have met mathematicians. Most of what they know is not about numbers – strangely.

There is no great sin in ignorance – or at least there is far less sin in ignorance than in knowledge. The simple truth is that we will not know anything of value until we first know that we do not know. In the competitive world of American Christianity, this is hard. It is not hard for ignorant people to argue – but it is very hard to argue while at the same time admitting that you are ignorant.

This ignorant man has spent a lot of years acquiring “knowledge” (falsely so-called). Knowledge of the sort that is readily available is not at all the same thing as knowing God – the only knowledge that has worth (though every true form of knowledge flows from that single knowledge). Somewhere in the course of my life I came to the place of spiritual exhaustion – I wanted to know God badly enough that I didn’t want to know something else in His place. So I became an ignorant man.

Today I know very few things. And though I write almost every day – if you go back and read what I have written you will see that I know very little. I say many of the same things to different questions, for they are the answers I know.

Thus when I wrote recently that I had never seen a case of righteous anger – I did not mean to say there was no such thing, only that I’ve not seen it in 55 years of life. I have seen anger that would seem well justified (the anger a husband has over the senseless murder of his wife). But I have seen the same anger kill the man who bore it.

I was born into an angry world. “Jim Crow” South was full of anger. Whites were angry at Blacks and Blacks were angry at Whites. We were angry at Communism. We were angry about the Civil War. We were angry at poverty (especially our own). Others were angry at those who were angry and the injustice of the entire system.

I remember an Abbot, a friend now deceased, who said that after the Vietnam War many young people came to the monastery – “They were so angry about peace,” he observed.

I served as an Anglican priest while the Episcopal Church inexorably jettisoned its traditional doctrine. I was consumed with anger. My anger did not save that Church and did me (and likely many others) great harm.

It is not just anger that works in such a fashion. Any of the passions could be chosen. An ignorant man is frequently on the losing end of battles with the passions. It is therefore important for an ignorant man to be aware of his ignorance. Can such an ignorant man argue theology? Not to any benefit.

The great good news is that Christ came to save ignorant men. We are easier to save if we admit our ignorance up front. Our opinions are so much dead weight. I know very little of God. I know that He is good – beyond any grasp of my knowing. I know that He loves in the unfathomable measure of the good God entering Hell in order to bring us out.

I have been in several versions of hell and rescued numerous times. Ignorant men are always getting themselves into stupid, dark places.

That God is good, that He loves us without measure, that He will go to any lengths to rescue us – I know a little about these things, though even of these things I am mostly ignorant. But I will not tire of speaking this good news. Ignorant men everywhere may be glad to hear it.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


46 responses to “The Benefits of Ignorance”

  1. Marsha Avatar

    “That God is good, that He loves us without measure, that He will go to any lengths to rescue us – I know a little about these things, though even of these things I am mostly ignorant. But I will not tire of speaking this good news. Ignorant men everywhere may be glad to hear it.”

    And so we are.

    Thank you, Father.

  2. Bruce Avatar

    Thank you…Father
    I think you’re addressing a very important topic. As I die to self; I must also die to ‘my knowledge’ which is so self serving and often designed to seperate me from Him and others.

    Knowledge, true knowledge of what is Eternal not temporary, requires me to have faith in Christ. Steadfast faith reveals this knowledge as I stay on the path of his commandments. I can have lots of knowledge about what is temporary but why do I spend my time on what so quickly passes away when the Teacher is patiently waiting for me? I’m ready for his lesson when I discover Faith as my gateway which reveals:
    I know but a little and I’m finding ways to know less and less. Thus, I have more room for Him.
    Everyday can be new and full of discovery especially when I don’t get what I want and therefor have an opportunity to discover the Teacher in my circumstance.
    I’m not qualified to be judge and I have no way to pronounce a sentence or condemnation. I begin to realize, with His help, how much of what I know is simply a barrier to truly knowing Him.

    Page 87 Archimandrite Sophrony “We Shall See Him As He Is”
    Our way to knowledge of God lies not through books but through faith in Christ’s word. This faith brings our mind down into our heart, consumed by the flame of the love for Christ. We descend into the bottomless ocean which is the heart of man. We know the ardousnes of this immersion, the weight of suffering that it entails. There in the depths the Divine arms embrace us tenderly and lift us to heaven.

  3. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    That good news is good news indeed. Thank you for this, Father; I need the reminder. I must need it more than usual today, as another blogger I read regularly put up this quote from Karl Rahner (about whom I am otherwise ignorant):

    “Knowledge seems more like a kind of pain-killing drug that I have to take repeatedly against the boredom and desolation of my heart. And no matter how faithful I may be to it, it can never really cure me. All it can give me is words and concepts, which perform the middleman’s service of expressing and interpreting reality to me, but can never still my heart’s craving for the reality itself, for true life and true possession. I shall never be cured until all reality comes streaming like an ecstatic, intoxicating melody into my heart.”


  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    That’s excellent!

  5. Fr. Christian Mathis Avatar

    Thank you for this post Father. I too can say that I know very little and continue to fall again and again. Fortunately we have loving God who is forever patient with us. I hope that you are well.

  6. kay Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for this post! I read it with tears in my eyes. Thanks also to Dana for your post.

  7. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Thank you, Father! 30 years of Evangelicalism fostered the deceit of knowledge, and now by God’s grace, (a convert of 2 years) I am finding a new humility and freedom in ignorance! All glory to Jesus, Christ!

  8. Ryan Avatar

    Being honest with myself I would say I am not even sure how to approach God except through knowlegde. I often feel so frustrated that I know so much and do so much and yet feel like I have not really been transformed or healed by God even in a small way. Why does God so often feel hidden when He is every place?

    I know I would not withstand meeting God. I know only the saints will be healed in this life, which no one confuses me for one. But like the gentile woman I would love to beg for crumbs under the table. Where are the crumbs?

    Why is the path so narrow I feel I can’t find it in the mess of this life?

  9. fatherstephen Avatar


    A lot of good questions and understand how personal it all is. I can only speak as one ignorant man to another. One suggestion is to do very little – literally – the spiritual life is often best approached with one single thing – not everything. Matthew the poor says we can any one commandmentment and pursue it as though it were the only commandment and find in it the kingdom of God. There are any number of possibilities: mercy (radically merciful); generosity; kindness; telling the truth (not in a way to hurt another; a very small prayer; or even embracing failure as a way to the kingdom. This last one sounds the strangest, and yet is profound. Most saints that I’ve ever read about have little or no awareness of what God has done in the. They don’t care about themselves – they just want God. St. Silouan spent 15 years in which he experience hell continuously – which has got to be better than my failure or yours. Imagine 15 years.

    The crumbs are all around us – but they are very small. An act of kindness, a prayer actually said from the heart, a tear shed for the sins of the world, and on and on. Knowledge will keep making God seem further away, when He is closer than your own heartbeat. Make a good confession and go to communion, only don’t think much about it. Pray for someone else while you’re there – that God have mercy on them. Offer your tiredness and your effort as part of the bread and the wine. Become the Eucharist. But don’t think or analyze it. Just do it.

    Some random thoughts from my ignorance. These kind of things work for me sometimes. I appreciate the honesty of your note. May God have mercy on us both.

  10. geekywife Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen, for posting this.

    I seem to go through periods of my life when “I know everything; I know what’s best for everyone” followed by “I know nothing; I am ignorant” followed by a middle stage.

    I’m glad that I found your blog recently. I think today that I’m in that undefined middle stage.

    I just started blogging myself so I added you to my blog roll (I hope you don’t mind).

    G.W. of

  11. Fellow Sojourner Avatar
    Fellow Sojourner

    Fr. Bless!

    Finally, two subjects I know enough about to leave a comment – ignorance and anger. 🙂 I read your blog often but rarely comment.

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen for your blog. It has played no small part in my journey to Orthodoxy. It took me a while – two years – partly because of my ignorance and in large part due to some anger that I needed to get over from my evangelical past (being fired from a mega-church that I had long out-grown anyway). It was the kick in the pants I needed to move toward Orthodoxy but I was still very angry about it. Long story short, we (me, my wife, six kids) were received into the Orthodox church on November 30, 2008. Just wanted to share that with you and your blogging community.

    “Knowledge seems more like a kind of pain-killing drug that I have to take repeatedly against the boredom and desolation of my heart. And no matter how faithful I may be to it, it can never really cure me. All it can give me is words and concepts, which perform the middleman’s service of expressing and interpreting reality to me, but can never still my heart’s craving for the reality itself, for true life and true possession. I shall never be cured until all reality comes streaming like an ecstatic, intoxicating melody into my heart.”

    Thank you, Dana, for this quote. I almost wept.

  12. Sean Avatar

    The problem with ignorance is that most ignorant people will not acknowledge the fact that they are, indeed, ignorant. It takes a great deal of struggle for real knowledge for one to eventually admit that the do not know anything. Or, as a great philosopher once put it: “I know one thing, that I know nothing”. The path to this wise acknowledgement goes through the vital curiosity of the spirit. A bishop once told me “Ask as much as you need, and about anything. But do not expect answers…”.

  13. Philippa Avatar

    This is probably the best post I’ve ever read.

    For half a century I have fought to “be right at least once” with my Dad. That desire fanned the flame of anger, to the point that it literally made me physically ill.

    Confession, anointing, confession, prayer, the Holy Mysteries, and confession – 4 years worth – have begun the healing. Now it no longer matters. The Church has what is needed for healing. Thanks be to God.

    The more I say, the less I realize I have to say.

    By your dear prayers Father Stephen.

  14. Mark in Baton Rouge Avatar
    Mark in Baton Rouge

    “I served as an Anglican priest while the Episcopal Church inexorably jettisoned its traditional doctrine. I was consumed with anger. My anger did not save that Church and did me (and likely many others) great harm.”

    Devastating and true.

    Lord have mercy!

  15. Meskerem Avatar

    Thankyou Father for this this is huge. Here is the part that hit me most.

    “There is no great sin in ignorance – or at least there is far less sin in ignorance than in knowledge. The simple truth is that we will not know anything of value until we first know that we do not know.”


  16. Chris Avatar

    Does all this mean we should abondon the pursuit of knowledge?

    How does this fit in to the understanding of a person’s vocational calling? I understand that our true calling is to live and grow in communion with God, but I also believe that we are each called by God to fulfill certain roles and perform certain duties in this world for the benefit of His Kingdom. If this is the case, aren’t we obliged to pursue such things whole-heartedly and become as proficient/efficient in them as we can? Of course we realize that we will never know everything there is to know (and sometimes that can be overwhelming), but that doesn’t mean we should stop learning and improving. And the gain of that knowledge should be accompanied by a confidence (not arrogance) that allows a person to fulfill their calling efficiently and gives others the confidence in them. Imagine a surgeon trying to do his/her job with a lack of knowledge and confidence in his/her abilities. This is probably an obvious example, but I’m sure the idea translates to other vocations on various levels.

    I guess what I’m asking is wheter or not this understanding of a “pursuit” of calling is in agreement with what you are talking about here. I ask because I think alot (maybe too much) about my calling in this world and what the proper way to pursue/execute it is.

    If my question completely lacks relevance to the discussion you have put forth, I apologize for the tangent.

    I am an Orthhodox catechumen.

  17. Victor Avatar

    Fr. Bless,
    Thank you for this. I was made to think of John Ch. 9, after Jesus heals the blind man He says:

    “For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind.” 40 And some of the Pharisees which were with him heard these words, and said to him, “Are we blind also?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you should have no sin: but now you say, “We see”; therefore your sin remains.”

    Repentance and ignorance are deeply linked. May we all be blessed with a return to that proper state before wanting to decide for ourselves about good, evil and everything else.

    Forgive me, poor, blind, naked and ignorant.

  18. Lucy Avatar

    Of the many posts of yours that I have loved, I think is now my favorite. Thank you. 🙂

  19. Barbara Avatar


    Your questions are very familiar to me and this is what I am learning through the counsel of my spiritual father. God does not depend on me for anything! God allows me to participate in his Kingdom because He loves me. His plan for me is that I become more and more like Christ – and that’s it! My work is play. (This was a tough one for me because I like to think that my work is really, really important!)

    These words of wisdom have been incredibly life giving and have helped to heal my protestant work ethic (which was very entangled with my pride). I am trying to approach my work with faithfulness, humility and joy, as well as, gratitude that God has given me something so worthwhile to do. A significant indicator of being off track in this regard is the presence or absence of peace in my heart.

    Oh that I could be at peace and thousands around me be saved. St. Seraphim

  20. handmaidleah Avatar

    Chris – congrats on your catechumenate(sic); you write: “I understand that our true calling is to live and grow in communion with God, but I also believe that we are each called by God to fulfill certain roles and perform certain duties in this world for the benefit of His Kingdom.” and I would add “for our salvation.” The kingdom of God is now.
    My job is wife and mother. I am woefully inadequate at both but God has put me here – my cell is our home and my desert – the plains of eastern Colorado. Within this framework, I seek my salvation everyday as an Orthodox Christian. God has been far better to me than I deserve, I feel Him in my heart and it hurts to know that I could be even closer but I am not because of my sloth, my unwillingness to do what ever it would take to be with Him.
    Thank you father for post, as always thoughtful and timely.
    In Christ,
    the handmaid Leah

  21. fatherstephen Avatar


    There are, of course, certain forms of knowledge that everyone needs to know, or knowledge need for a task, etc. I have to know certain things about the liturgy, doctrine, etc., but there is a knowledge, call it “inward knowledge,” that we have of God that is only given through Grace as we seek God for Himself. Without this, all of our tasks done in the “name of the Church” will be largely useless. I know priests who are not very knowledgeable on liturgics, etc., but are deeply holy and know God. And I know others.

    The Greeks used the word “technos” for the kind of knowledge we need to do a task. “Gnosis” and “Epignosis” were reserved for a deeper knowledge (its also the root for the heresy known as gnosticism – which pursued a false knowledge). Technos is necessary to life. Gnosis is necessary to salvation (and thus saves technos as well).

  22. Lewis Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    This blog, “The Benefits of Ignorance,” is timely, I think, for our nation and for me personally. Most of us Americans are proud of our knowledge, skills and ingenuity, but they have failed us. Our economic collapse is plain to see, brought on in part by those who “knew better”. We outsmarted ourselves. Now we really look ignorant.

    For the past few months, I have become increasingly aware of the limits of my knowledge as if knowledge was collapsing in upon my ignorance. Thank you for this enlightenment of my ignorance.

  23. Robert Avatar

    “informed ignorance is orthodoxically oxymoronic” 😀

    Great post. May we all learn to live in this humility.

  24. Bill M Avatar
    Bill M

    Thank you, Father, for the clarification you have posted here, on the difference between “technos” and “gnosis” (and “epignosis”). Without that distinction, the repeated claim that “I am an ignorant man” can sound false, and falsely humble. On it’s face, for any of us to say “I am ignorant” or “I know nothing” is simply not true. You are an insightful teacher, a competent priest (I’m assuming, there). You are good with words, as are many of the commentators here. But as you have emphasized here, technos without true knowledge of God is empty.

  25. Mark A. Hershberger Avatar

    “My work is play” — I love my work. Sometimes I fear I make an idol of my work. In the past year I started working with a non-profit that does things around the world that seems much more important and “world-changing” than anything I have previously done.

    “My work is play” — such a helpful reminder of my own significance.

    And I come from a protestant background that was very focused on finding “God’s Will” for my life. The longer I’m Orthodox, though, the more I realize that “His plan for me is that I become more and more like Christ – and that’s it!”

  26. jim Avatar

    I think people, at the risk of sounding arrogant ,that we are getting a little carried away here. There is nothing new or extravagant here,this idea that we are ignorant. Of course we are ignorant in many things,it is the human condition. But this does not mean that we know nothing at all. Socrates was wrong,Sean,when he said: I know only one thing and that is that I know nothing at all. I think that he got a little carried away there also,otherwise why would he continue in his philosophical musings. I think that it was only because he was so ahead of his times that he realized how very little they did know in his time.
    But certainly they did strive to shed their ignorance, they had a yearning for the knowledge of things. Democrates it was who first understood that the world was made of atoms. Since that time we have come to realize that atoms are made of even smaller particles (electrons and protons)and eventually we learned that even these are made of even smaller constituents of matter called quarks. I am not sure why we even infer that ignorance in and of itself is a sin, after all infants are completely ignorant, and akin to the depiction of Adam when first created,I think that we would say that they are the the furthest thing from sinners. As a matter of fact Jesus when pointing at the little children exclaimed : In such as these is the kingdom of heaven!
    But that is the story of children. Unfortunately or not, Adam as well as the rest of us naturally must needs grow up to bare the slings and arrows of reality. When Jesus says that we must be born again, I for one do not believe that he means for us to reclaim the ignorance of a child,but only that we should remember and recognize the beautiful child that is still within us as adults,and to strive to continue on as adults while realizing that we do KNOW the things of life. It is not natural to stick ones head in the sand and pretend that you are ignorant while striving to live properly.
    There is one place though where I can recommend Ignorance and that is in the practice of meditation, for to strive to empty ones mind in this practice by whatever method you choose,I think could be described as a temporary and judicious form of ignorance.

    Peace ; Jim

  27. William Avatar


    I’m afraid that you are being too literal. Nobody here (I’m guessing) is claiming total ignorance. I would imagine that several people here are quite knowledgeable in their fields, but even many of them might be likely to have an awareness that there is so much yet to be learned. This is what Socrates meant when he said that he knew nothing. He knew the vast potential of knowledge and the comparatively small grasp he had on that.

    The claim of ignorance in a Christian context is particularly a theological claim that no matter how much we know of God, there is infinitely more to be known. When you know any limited amount of something infinite, you know nothing. The claim to ignorance also helps to act as an antidote against the assumption that we with our many words are able to explain God and his ways.

    And a third point: I don’t see where you picked up the idea that Christians describe ignorance is a sin. The Christian vision does not describe ignorance as a sin. That would be a gnostic notion.

  28. fatherstephen Avatar

    The sin comes in not acknowledging how little you know. Orthodox are not literalists. Certainly ignorance brings possibilities of sin, but for the Orthodox, all sin is understood as rooted in our broken communion with God. It’s not a legal category.

  29. jim Avatar


    Someone once said that if you wish to have a conversation with me,then define your terms. Spinosa defined sin itself as simple ignorance. So I guess we need to understand what the father means when he says that there is no great sin in ignorance. What do you mean father? I am sure you do not mean that there is no great ignorance in ignorance or at least that there is less ignorance in ignorance than there is ignorance in knowledge. Of course we can all see that this statement makes no sense. eureka! I believe it just came to me. I think what you may mean father is that there is no great fault in ignorance at least less so than there is fault in knowledge. Now I think that I am making some headway here, it now seems to make more sense. It seems that you are saying that it is better to be ignorant (without fault) than it is to be knowledgeable (with fault). Is this close to what you mean father? If this is your meaning, then I can understand where you are coming from.I would think that in some ways it would be better to be ignorant,to be innocent and without fault than it would be to be laden with faulty knowledge. Now I understand father and William that you are speaking here of a spiritual or as you say theological ( excuse me if I don’t understand what that means) idea of ignorance. Well then,the bible I believe is considered inherently spiritual and I these thoughts in their writing have lead me once again to the first story: genesis! Adam and Eve living in a virtual paradise in there blissful ignorance with no knowledge of right or wrong. Wait, on second thought they did have knowledge, they had knowledge of God. Would you say that this was a complete knowledge or as you would say William an infinite knowledge, or was it a finite knowledge. I am not sure, I am only trying to work this out as I go here. If they had an infinite knowledge of God then their knowledge would necessaraly be( without fault) in which case infinite knowledge can be equated with ignorance (without fault). Now what if their knowledge of God was a finite knowledge which if we follow the logic they would be( with fault)? Well it seems that the former case holds sway over the later, for the bible says that they were without fault and yet they did have knowledge of God so once again the logical conclusion is that Adam and Eve in their ignorance had Infinite knowledge of God. And so if we continue on this path it would seem as though father stephen is correct in his assertion that there is no great fault in ignorance and that it is better to be ignorant than to have knowledge,at least in this biblical way of looking at it. But I will have to follow up on this topic later to see if this conclusion is a final one for myself.

    Thank you father for this subject matter,I find it very interesting.

  30. William Avatar

    I don’t think it would be correct to say Adam and Eve, or any of us finite human beings, ever had, have or will have infinite knowledge. St. Gregory of Nyssa describes a Christian’s destiny as being one in which the fullness of glory is known and yet there will always be infinitely more to know. There will never be satiation.

    Yes, defining our terms would be helpful. It is clear that we are working with different notions of knowledge. Mine has more to do with encounter and experience and communion. Yours appears to have more to do with cognition and the ability to delineate rationally.

    But when speaking of knowledge in terms of the contents of our brains, I don’t think the matter is really about ignorance being preferable to knowledge. I think it’s really a matter of acknowledging that whatever we know is vastly small when compared with what we don’t know, and it’s healthy for us to be aware of this fact. Without such awareness, we are liable to imagine our knowledge to be more sufficient than it is.

  31. jim Avatar


    I will warn you in advance that I do not usually stop and think things thru before I sit down here to respond to a comment. My method for better or worse is usually to attempt to work thru a problem as I am writing.
    I believe though that we may not be as far apart in our thinking as it seems to be. I say this because as you point out I am one who only knows how to work things out from a rational and logical standpoint which seems a difficult way to go when the problem to be understood is of a different nature.
    As you can see I used this rational step by step method in my last comments, and though I believe that I came to a rational conclusion, something just did not feel right about it. I could understand Adam and Eve having had a world newly created for them and then being thrust into it, being ignorant,having no knowledge, but even though it worked out logically, I could not quite fathom how it could be that,as you say finite beings could have infinite knowledge of God. Perhaps this Infinite knowledge that I gave to Adam and Eve and coming to me from a logical standpoint is somehow akin to your more spiritual notions of knowledge having to do with as you put it, encounter,experience and communion, which cannot it seems in any way be communicated or understood it seems from a rational standpoint.
    This leads me now to the idea that maybe Adam and Eves knowledge of God may not have been of the logical kind, but may indeed have been of that incommunicable type of which you speak; encounter,experience or communion. Although I have come to this possibility of a truth expressed by others who claim to have experienced it, there seems to be no other way of proof of this possibility except through first hand experience which to myself at least remains a dilemma for I know that throughout time this world has been replete with charlatons and maniacs who for whatever maniacal reasons purport to have experienced a wide array of shall we say paranormal states. I
    In any event I thank you for your input,it is certainly an interesting subject and one that I will continue to ponder and your comments have thus far aided my thoughts.

    Thanks again

  32. fatherstephen Avatar

    Rationality also brought us mass murders and the world to the very brink of destruction in the last century. We humans suffer from something that rationality does not seem to adequately address. No one is more concerned with religious charlatans than Orthodox Christians.

  33. jim Avatar

    Father stephen

    I am sorry father but once again we seem to be at loggerheads. I cannot agree with your statement that rationality has brought us mass murders or the world to the brink of destruction. Certainly there have been terrible atrocities committed throughout human history and I agree also that the world itself is not a very pretty sight right now nor has it ever been wherever humans were concerned. I do not believe though that we can lay the blame for this on rationality,but rather irrationality. This goes back again to the discussion about knowledge and human beings lack thereof or ignorance. Men thinking that they are being rational,do what they believe to be in their best interest only to learn after the fact (sometimes they learn) that they were wrong. This is what Spinosa deciphered to be meant by the term Sin or ignorance. To point the finger at rationality for the wrongs that men do or for the condition we find the world in now is as they say, like throwing the baby out with the bath water. There have as I am sure you are aware of been many horrible atrocities throughout history committed in the name of religion as well, but we cannot blame this on the religion but on the irrational men who wielded its power. Terrorist’s who blow themselves up while killing many innocent people I do not believe you would say are acting rationally and yet they believe that they are acting perfectly rational. Why, because that was the kind of false knowledge that (as Shakespeare would say) was poured into the porches of their ears since they were children. So father It is my belief that religion too is a byproduct of rationality, or mans way of trying to make sense of life and of keeping order in a chaotic world, it is (rationality) the rock upon which the church was built.
    As for my own frail attempt at rationalization yesterday or saturday I think that I may have come up with at least an idea that could give credence to, at least the possibility of what you would call communion. Please tell me what you think of this idea. In the Genesis story Adam is said to be without knowledge in the beginning and he was in paradise. Newborn infants are also without knowledge and though none of us seem to remember this stage in our lives I would wager to guess that it must be a bit like paradise to have nothing at all on ones mind. Also,this seems to equate with the idea behind meditation and is probably behind the idea of that which you say the Orthodox do, saying the jesus prayer over and over again thousands of times in order to keep all thoughts from entering your mind. The two former being the natural state of infancy,a state of ignorance if you will, and the latter seems to me to be an attempt, maybe, to reenter that state of well being. Does this make any sense to you,could this be an explaination for the kind of experience of which you speak?

  34. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Jim, Father Stephen is simply saying that we can’t count on rationality for the salvation of humanity. He is (I take it) referring to the technological, ideological and organizational achievements of the 20th century that made things like the Manhatten Project and the Holocaust possible. These were done by man at his most focused, organized, educated, and sophisticated. The ideologies that drove these things were well thought-out and consistent. But the things were unprecedented evil nonetheless. That is the point, and I think it may very well be the most important lesson of the 20th century.

  35. David Avatar

    At the core, knowledge is probably best described as a tool. In theory and in most circumstances it gives us more power to act, and if our knowledge is disproportionate to others, we can dominate them (I’ll leave it to you to decide if there’s noble domination, but I can’t see it).

    But the tool (like is so often said of Guns… that don’t kill people) is wielded by people who are more or less freed from their passions. I think the reason why knowledge so often more dramatically causes harm is that so many who are freed from their passions don’t particular need to fill themselves with knowledge to gain power over those who are governed by their passions.

    Knowledge therefore tends to empower the passions over the community the passionate people live in. This is ultimately destructive. To the extent it isn’t it’s because power exists (in traditionalist terms) in social structures, organizations, laws, and institutions which counterbalance the power of individuals who are corrupted by passions.

    The modern project not only tends toward power-madness, but also a short of iconoclastic/revolutionary destruction of those limits on how they can excersize that power (thus they burn churches, purge schools for ideological purity or command legal force to exterminate the relevance of traditional counterbalances in the public sphere).

    OK, this got too broad, but you can see that knowledge is largely pursued for the sake of power and the indulgence of the passions or at least that those who would use it for such ill purposes seem disproportionately engaged than the dispassionate among us.

  36. David Avatar

    Wow, that post of mine is almost incomprehensible. Note to self, no reading/posting on Fr Stephen’s blog after taking NyQuil late at night.

    Forgive me, clearly, a partially intoxicated, sinner.

  37. jim Avatar

    Wonders for Oyarsa

    If we cannot count on rationality what is it do you suppose that we can count on? God and religion I suppose is your answer. Well all of the world for all of time has been religious, with all people having there particular Gods and that does not seem to have worked out very well either if you look at the history. People,no matter what their belief system, will at times act irrationally it is the natural imperfection of man. We are able to take the right path or we can take the wrong path. We are able to create a good world or we can create an ugly world, but it is only with this rational attribute that we are endowed with that we able to decide the matter. If indeed it was God who created us and endowed us with this attribute, why do you suppose he did it, other than for our own salvation? This reminds me of the song about a girl who is driving down the road and is about to crash, so she throws her hands up in the air and says Jesus take the wheel,I cant do this on my own. well maybe she could have if she did let go of her rationality. So which option do you suppose she should have chosen, whom do you suppose she should have counted on for her salvation?

  38. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    You do a lot of supposing there, Jim. 😉

    I don’t have an “answer” as if there is a silver bullet that never gets corrupted. But, if forced to choose between the good and the rational, I recommend choosing the good. Rationality is a tool that enables us to achieve more, but if we are pursuing evil ends, rationality actually enables far greater evil than we could achieve otherwise.

  39. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Jim, first I want to respond to your tendency to lump an Orthodox Christian belief with belief in gods and religions in general. I think that is to confuse the matter. While there are some superficial commonalities between various religions (as viewed from an anthropological perspective), in fact the precepts of one religion and its conception of “god” may be diametrically opposed to that of another which inevitably leads to a much different world view and radically different criteria for deciding between what is “good” and what is “evil.” The question to ask is what does an Orthodox Christian who practices his faith in a genuine and faithful way look like? For that we would point to any number of Orthodox Saints. What is God like according to the Orthodox faith? For that, we point to Jesus Christ as He is revealed in the Gospels and in the Church in her Saints. Would you want to know such a God? Does the Person of Christ in the Gospels attract you at all? If He doesn’t, you are probably just wasting your time at this site. If you genuinely want to know Him, as a living Person He is perfectly capable of making Himself known to you (at least in the limited experiential way that we “know” anyone). That is the only claim an Orthodox Christian would be making here. We would also point you to prayer (that is, directing your heart toward this God), not endless discussion with yourself or other mere humans, as a means to this end.

    Second, with regard to prayer/meditation in relation to ignorance, I would not equate the ignorance of which Fr. Stephen speaks with the simple ignorance of infancy and childhood, still less the blank openness of an Eastern transcendental meditative state. Genuine Christian spirituality calls us ultimately to be childlike in terms of our acquaintance with evil and in terms of our personal trust in Jesus Christ. This is a call to humility and purity of heart and also a willingness to trust not in ourselves alone, but in the Other, in Christ Who has been revealed to us in the Church and in the Gospels. But the Christian gospel is also a call to to full maturity as regards the good; it is a call to take on the fullness of the likeness of Jesus Christ, Who is our God. Orthodox prayer; therefore, cannot be compared to Eastern meditation. Its method and goal are different. The Jesus Prayer is a means not to emptiness, but rather by dispelling all distractions, to a focus on the Presence of God, of this particular God, Who alone genuinely IS God (wherein is the fullness that we seek). The absence of such distraction is a form of stillness wherein we can genuinely sense the Presence of God and where we can hear Him speak (I’m not talking about audible voices here, just the settled and steady convictions that form over time in the heart as a result of resting in this Presence).

    Fr. Sophrony, a Russian monk of the last century whom Fr. Stephen quotes from time to time at this site, in his youth turned away for a time from his Orthodox roots and pursued for many years Eastern religious practice. Later as an Orthodox monk he contrasted Eastern meditation with Orthodox prayer. In Eastern meditation he said one could come to contemplate the glory of his own human nature and that this glory is often mistaken by the Eastern practitioner for the glory of God, which leads to a prideful, deluded state of mind. He said the vision of the fullness of God’s glory in the face of Christ is only possible through faith in Jesus Christ as the unique, fully Divine, fully human Son of God, and Second Person of the Trinity, and through the process of repentance from sin that necessarily results from such a faith if it is genuine. I hope this is helpful clarification.

  40. jim Avatar

    Karen C

    Thank you for this heart felt and thought provoking response. I have found it seems someone here who though steadfast in their beliefs, do not fear the questions and doubts of others,as it seems others do, and whom without fear attempts to answer these in a calm and thoughtful way.
    In regards to what you call the superficial commonalities that I link the historical and the mythological religions together though, I need to ask you why you call them superficial? Although as you say they may be diametrically opposed in their overall world view,what I am concerned with is the very common structure by which they are fashioned. I can certainly understand the belief in One God, the creator off all things, as well as the sound reasoning for having faith in such a God. What I can not quite come to grips with is how it could be that this historical religion and its God could have so many commonalities, superficial or not, with those mythologies that not long before preceded it. Perhaps you could help to explain to me why this would be so? This idea that both religions have a father in the heavens and a son on earth, a death and resurrection of the son,a hell or an underworld for sinners as well as a lord of this underworld or satan and of course there are demons and angels in the cast as well. In other words,not unlike the mythologies it is a structure not of just one God but a pantheon. In what other ways can we understand this other than that these ideas were passed down or evolved from the one to the other? If you feel that you have any ideas on this I would appreciate it.

    thanks Jim

  41. Karen Avatar

    Jim, those are good questions. From my perspective, the commonalities in the various human religions, such as a conception of a Creator God, the presence of angels/demons, coupled with various expressions of a desire to relate to God that are common to so many religions reflect common spiritual intuitions and needs of our humanity. As an Orthodox Christian, I have no problem affirming what is good and what is true in another’s faith, nor am I surprised to find echoes of Christian truth even in considerably distorted form in other belief systems. Because I believe all human beings are created in the image of the God, I expect to see evidence of that wherever humanity expresses itself. On the other hand, I also affirm that only in Jesus Christ do we see the fullness of the likeness of God and what human beings, created in that image, are called to become. If you ever get a chance to read it, you might be interested in the book “Eternity in their Hearts” by missionary Don Richardson, which documents many of these common intuitions from actual field research among many diverse cultures. Many of the suppositions of the theories of the evolution of religion derived from application of Darwinian theory in the 19th century to anthropology and religion were blown out of the water by the actual findings of the many missionaries that went to the field and had actual contact with many diverse cultures in the wake of the missionary movements of the modern era. I think you would probably find any of Don Richardson’s books intriguing, but this one especially comes to mind. The title is drawn from the preaching of the Apostle Paul in Acts 17:26-27. If you look at the context of these verses in that chapter, it might also suggest an answer to some of your questions and observations. That there are similarities between mythologies of ancient religions and Christian teaching is partially explained by the above. A key part of the Christian account of our world, however, is the presence of evil and evil beings. The presence of beings whose goal is to oppose the good plans and the truth of God is the only explanation that makes sense to me of the proliferation of confusing and conflicting accounts of the ultimate nature and purpose of our existence that is the legacy of our collective religious history as a race. I have at this point in my life (I’m nearly 50) encountered many alternative explanations of our world to that of Orthodox Christianity. I have never found any that so resonated with my actual experiences, nor that satisfied both my head and my heart, as that of the Orthodox Christian gospel. I find the Orthodox faith a reasonable one, but one that would never be arrived at solely on the basis of rational deduction.

  42. jim Avatar

    Karen C

    Wow! Unlike myself it is obvious that you are very well read and do not take these things lightly. I will certainly try to find the books to which you refer.
    It is though, i think, a distortion to say that the echos of christian truth are found in the mythologies, because the main problem I have is that it is the other way around, that being that the echos of the mythologies which are pre-historic are found in the historic christianity. Also to say that this reflects the common spiritual intuition and needs of our humanity seems to agree with my own idea that the biblical stories though not altogether literally true they are or seem to be fashioned together with the same underlying structure as those of the preceding myths.Or if I can make it clearer, the structure within the history of christianity seems to be woven with the thread of myth . I guess I am repeating myself here again, trying to find a clear way to ask this, but why does the actual structure of the history of christianity follow so closely that of the structure of myth? Once again I am sorry for being repetitive. I am glad to here that you have a need to satisfy your head as well as your heart, as this is a condition for which I am often criticized. I also agree with you that one can not find god on the basis of rational deduction, problem being I don’t really see any other way either.

    Thanks again: Jim

  43. NeoChalcedonian Avatar

    Satan’s knowledge of creation and Scripture exceeds that of us all.

  44. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Jim, I think the only way to resolve the mythology question is through actual study of the primary sources. Read the actual, original Osiris myths for instance (rather than characterizations by people wanting to paint a comparative picture), and see if it really is so similar that the Gospel writers must have been aping it. I find a lot of nonsense is said by people making these comparisons that a little education will resolve rather quickly.

    For instance, I’ve heard people suggest that the 12 apostles were based on the 12 signs of the Zodiac. Obvious pagan origins, right? Oh wait…perhaps Jesus, as a Jew, was trying to make a statement that he was reconstituting Israel around himself…and took 12 apostles because there were 12 tribes of Israel! Most of these so-called pagan origin claims really are this sloppy. Take the virgin birth – look at the story of Mary, and compare it to that of Zeus taking some girl. Now compare the story of Mary to that of Sarah, Menoah’s wife, and Hannah. Yes, Mary happens to be a virgin, rather than barren, but besides that the story is far FAR more Jewish in character than pagan.

    I’ve heard claims that the religion of Israel is all veiled solar mythology. This, besides the presence of such passages in the Old Testament:

    And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.

    If there is found among you, within any of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing his covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, and it is told you and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abomination has been done in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones.

    And he deposed the priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained to make offerings in the high places at the cities of Judah and around Jerusalem; those also who burned incense to Baal, to the sun and the moon and the constellations and all the host of the heavens.

    if I have looked at the sun when it shone,
    or the moon moving in splendor,
    and my heart has been secretly enticed,
    and my mouth has kissed my hand,
    this also would be an iniquity to be punished by the judges,
    for I would have been false to God above.

    Praise the Lord!
    Praise the Lord from the heavens;
    praise him in the heights!
    Praise him, all his angels;
    praise him, all his hosts!
    Praise him, sun and moon,
    praise him, all you shining stars!
    Praise him, you highest heavens,
    and you waters above the heavens!

    Then the moon will be confounded and the sun ashamed, for the Lord of hosts reigns on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and his glory will be before his elders.

    The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give you light; but the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.

    Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the Lord of hosts is his name.

    The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.

    If this is the text of “solar mythology”, then so is ballroom dancing. It’s hard to parody some of these claims.

    Again, I suggest that, before taking a claim like this on board, you read the primary sources. It’s the best way to be sure you’re not getting swindled.

  45. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Father forgive. I greatly appreciate your blog, and have no illusions about it being a private chat room. I’m happy to follow whatever ground rules you give, and hope I can contribute to fruitful discussion as I learn from everyone here.

  46. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless!

    Jim, I was able to get a copy of Don Richardson’s book through my local library. I do like to read, but I am not as well read as many others who comment at this site, nor as Fr. Stephen. I think all of us who are Christians can relate to your struggle. It is a spiritual battle, and there is a being who has a vested interest in your not finding God. But he is no match for Christ for the one who truly longs for the Truth. If I am reading your response to my comment above correctly, you are seeing my view of the coincidence between some earlier myths and Christian teaching as a historical anachronism. I said what I did; however, because I believe Christ in the Gospels and in the Church is the fullness of the expression of a spiritual Reality that completely transcends and enfolds all of chronological and temporal history and yet has been revealed and intersected history at many points in partial ways and ultimately fully in Christ. Again, my reference is the teaching in Acts 17 (and Hebrews 1). It is also the teachings of the Greek Church Fathers, who saw in Greek philosophy a sort of preparation of their gentile world for the fullness of Christian revelation, just as OT revelation was preparation for the Jews. Thus we see them adopting and adjusting terms from Greek philosophy such as the “logos” to help explain Who Christ was in His Divinity.

    As Wonders has pointed out as well, the differences between the myths are not insignificant. A common structure may reflect a common humanity, but vastly different world views (which reflect the nature of ultimate reality or which may in fact deny it), are more important in determining their significance to us than common structures. I’m trying to think of a simple analogy that explains what I mean. Here’s a thought. Those who speak English use the same basic vocabulary, syntax and sentence structures to communicate. However, the content of what is being communicated may be far different depending on the source. Mother Teresa and Howard Stern may use the same language to address an English speaking audience, but the content of their messages and the impact of that meaning is going to be quite different, to put it mildly. Also, even though they can be fantastic, all human mythology has to draw in some way on real human experiences (which we all have in common) or it will be completely meaningless. We cannot deny similarities between some mythologies and Christian teaching, but we shouldn’t make more of these commonalities than is warranted. Ultimately, the approach Wonders suggests is a good one. Do an experiment. Read the Gospels and try to live according to the teaching you find there–even if you have to pray to God “as You know Yourself to be,” pray for insight. Then read a few of those myths from the actual primary sources and observe the inner state that results in your own heart. How do the experiences compare? It seems to me worth some effort to try to put feet on our faith (whatever it is) and see if it is actually workable, but there is a great temptation to get stuck in our abstract argumentation and never put anything to the test. May God help us all.

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