Know God or No God

saint_gregory_palamasI am not trying to be cute in the title of this post – but I wanted something that might interest browsers in reading. I have stated a number times across my writings that we cannot be argued into the Kingdom of God, nor, indeed is argumentation  part of the salvation process. Argument can be preparatory – reason is not without value – but argumentation is quite often devoid of reason.

I offer a short quote from St. Gregory Palamas:

Do you now understand that in place of the intellect, the eyes and ears, they [the hesychasts] acquire the incomprehensible Spirit and by Him hear, see and comprehend?  For if all their intellectual activity has stopped, how could the angels and angelic men see God except by the power of the Spirit?  This is why their vision is not a sensation, since they do not receive it through the senses; nor is it intellection, since they do not find it through thought or the knowledge that comes thereby, but after the cessation of all mental activity.  It is not, therefore, the product of either imagination or reason; it is neither an opinion nor a conclusion reached by syllogistic argument (Triads, 35).

St. Gregory was speaking most particularly about the monks of Mt. Athos (the Hesychasts), but also about what is and must be normative for the Orthodox Christian life. His point was that what it means to be a Christian is to actually know God to one degree or another – not as an idea or an opinion – but inwardly, truly, hypostatically (I use this in place of “personally” for the moment).

The great debate which drew St. Gregory from his seclusion on Mt. Athos was the contention by Barlaam the Calabrian that all knowledge of God was through Scripture and reason – that ultimately we were only able to affirm by faith the teaching of the Church.

St. Gregory was not only a giant of the spiritual life, but also well accomplished in philosophy. He was able to refute Barlaam through the Fathers as well as the experience of the Church. For St. Gregory, the teaching on the knowing of the unknowable God, is the very heart of the Christian life.

Gregory appeals to the one experience that is real: “’the complete and unadulterated existence in us of Jesus.’”  Meyendorff (the late John Meyendorff of St. Vladimir’s) states, “The presence of God in us is therefore a personal existence and it excludes all definition of the divine Being in the context of an essentialist philosophy.” (From Meyendorff’s A Study of  Gregory Palamas).

The goal of the Christian life is union with God, or in the technical language of the Church, divinization. All that we do as Christians has this goal before it. 

It is not without significance that when St. Gregory was canonized (less than 10 years after his death), his feast day was established, a day to remember him as saint, but also the Second Sunday of Great Lent was declared as the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, placing that feast just after the Sunday of Orthodoxy, in which the Orthodox faith as found in the Councils is proclaimed (Gregory’s teachings were included in the “Tomos of Orthodoxy,” the official proclamation of Orthodox belief).

Setting the Feast in Lent also emphasizes the purpose for the ascetical activities we undertake doing the Lenten season. Our fasting, our prayer, our giving of alms, are all directed towards the true knowledge of God – a knowledge that, though transcendent, nevertheless carries us with it into the transcendent life of the true God.

In today’s Christian atmosphere, this places the Orthodox at something of a disadvantage. Other Christians offer teachings that are systems of reason, and engage in techniques honed from the fine art of modern marketing. Orthodoxy must proclaim these things as deviations from the true faith. Fideism, the belief that we can only know God by faith is a serious distortion of the Scriptural teaching on faith. Faith is not a subset of intellection, but, in the words of Vladimir Lossky, an “organ of perception.” To “walk by faith and not by sight” is not to walk about as if our eyes were closed. It is to live life in such a way that the remembrance of God is constantly before us, and the world as we know it in Him takes precedence over all else. 

The gospel as proclaimed by the Orthodox Church is that the risen Christ may indeed be known and may be known to dwell in us. Every Liturgy, every prayer of the Church, every sacrament, exists only to be the place where we know God. Thus the Scriptures refer to the Church as the Body of Christ, the Fulness of Him that filleth all in all, the Pillar and Ground of Truth. 

Such titles sound outrageously boastful to the ears of most Christians. The ignorance inherent in fideism relativizes every claim to truth. Such Christians are inherently ecumenical because they do not think anyone knows any more than anyone else.

Orthodoxy, in its refusal to participate in such ecumenical exercises, appears aloof and arrogant, when in fact it is only seeking to preserve the treasure that was given to it and preserved faithfully for two millennia. 

The task for Orthodox Christians throughout Great Lent and at all times is quite simple and straightforward: know 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.






15 responses to “Know God or No God”

  1. Carl Avatar

    Very interesting. You present us with an awesome (in the old sense of the word) challenge Father!

    This is a bit off topic, but speaking of fideism, does anyone know why Kierkegaard picked up the pseudonym John of the Ladder (Johannes Climacus)? Was he familiar with the Orthodox interpretation of that Church Father, or was he trying to reinterpret John of the Ladder’s work through the Lutheran lens of “solo fide”?

  2. Marcus Avatar

    From what I know of Kierkegaard, his ideas were very Orthodox but he himself hated “Christendom” as he called it. Not Christianity per se, but the religion as he saw it in his time.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    I do not know much about him apart from his being an “existentialist.”

    I am deeply committed to the challenge set by this posting. There is much Christianity that is simply not Christianity when measured by an Orthodox understanding. The Orthodox also need to understand what is the true nature of their faith and get on with their prayer. It is all really about God, to quote Fr. Thomas Hopko.

  4. Joseph Hromy Avatar
    Joseph Hromy

    Nice posting on one of the greatest Fathers! Saint Gregory’s understanding of grace is what finalley led me to become Orthodox. Father I do not think even Rome will accept this doctrine of hesychasim because it is above reason and no human heart can fully understand God’s energies!

  5. katia Avatar

    Fr. Stephen

    Glory to God! Very nice posting indeed.

    ” Let that which calms my mind and my heart be committed to writing that i may return to constant peace of heart amidst the cares of life. What is it? It is this saying, full of trust and power: ‘ The Lord is everything to me’ . This is the priceless treasure, which if we possess we can be calm in every estate, rich in poverty, generous and kind to others in the time of wealth, and not losing hope even after having sinned.”

    “The Lord is everything to you, and you must be everything to the Lord. As all your treasure is in your heart and your will, and God asks of your heart, saying, ‘My son, give me thine heart’, therefore, in order to fulfil God’s perfect will, renounce your own corrupt, wayward, plausible will, and know it not; know only God’s will. ‘ Not my will, but thine be done’.

    Our prayers are necessary precisely to strengthen our faith, through which alone we can be saved: ‘By grace are ye saved through faith’. And: ‘ O woman, great is thy faith’. For this reason the Lord made the woman pray earnestly, in order to awaken her faith and strengthen it.
    St. John of Kronstadt

  6. Guy Avatar

    Father bless;
    Where (reference) is it that Lossky said “Faith is not a subset of intellection, but, in the words of Vladimir Lossky, an “organ of perception.” “? I must say, I have read this 3 times over and it makes my head hurt. I guess, perhaps I am confused whether “faith” is something to be obtained (as I was taught as a Protestant, I am now Orthodox) or something that is as Lossky states, something inherent (an organ) within each human. If this is the case, then how do we discern what is spoken of in Rom 10:17: ἄρα ἡ πίστις ἐξ ἀκοῆς, ἡ δὲ ἀκοὴ διὰ ῥήματος Θεοῦ. where faith ” ἡ πίστις” is spoke of as something to be obtained by hearing and the “speaking or Word” of God ” ἡ δὲ ἀκοὴ διὰ ῥήματος Θεοῦ”?
    Does faith=belief? An interesting verse which came to mind as I was reading was Mark 9:24…”…Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” Where the greek word for faith and belief are the same except one is a noun (πιστις) and the other a verb (πιστευω).
    Your statement “the belief that we can only know God by faith is a serious distortion of the Scriptural teaching on faith.” makes my mind swirl. It is my active and free will which allows me to “believe” and thus struggle with my Orthodox path toward theosis right? I must be careful not to allow my intellect to get in the way here… it is a bane at times. To rid oneself of rationality is a constant task after being immersed in it for over 30 years as a Protestant…

    Kissing your right hand
    -a sinner

  7. katia Avatar

    “What is Faith? Sureness of spiritual truth, of that which is, or of,God. To believe means to be as sure of the reality of the spiritual world as of the material world.”

    “Faith gives rest and joy; unbelief troubles and wounds.”

    St. John of Kronstadt

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Guy, the matters of faith as “fideism” in which we simply accept something because we’re told it (though we may need to begin many things this way) rather than because it is spiritually perceived by us to be true, is a clear teaching of St. Gregory Palamas and part of the Orthodox faith. When I say that faith is not a form of intellection (intellectual acceptance) but as Lossky said “an organ of perception” I am quoting from an article in his little book Introduction to Orthodox Theology. I wrote a paper on his statement when I was at Duke (that’s been back in the late 80’s). I did not look it up again, so I’ll have to dig a bit.

    What I understand him to mean, is that faith is a means of perception by the Nous, our spiritual understanding. And is something that can be built up through exercising it, through purification (blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God), prayer, etc. But this is different than the mere intellection that Protestants often describe. In the debates that Palamas was involved in, his detractor held that some things (such as the filioque) could simply not be known but had to be held purely by faith. But since they could not be known, they should not be a reason for schism. Thus his fideism became a form of ecumenism, just as it is among Protestants today. Almost everything is “adiaphora” for them “makes no difference.”

    In Hebrews, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Mere intellection or intellectual assent, or even just an exercise of the will, do not rise to the level of “evidence.” I think the will has to play a role in all this – but not the only role. Our nous needs to be purified. Our hearing the Word of God, has to be the “hearing” of which Christ spoke. We hear and it echoes in our heart (a good heart) and we are able to receive it, perceive its truth, and to do it. I hope some of these thoughts are helpful. Feel free to ask more if not.

    I’ve just skimmed his article “Faith and Theology.” The phrase I quoted from memory was not in that article, although the sense of it was quite prominent. It’s a good read.

  9. Guy Avatar

    Father bless;
    Yes this does help. Although I must ponder what you have said as it raises even more questions, especially on Nous. I wish I could spend more time just now writing more but I am a busy Library IT Systems director.. alas.
    More later! I am so thankful for your blog, I have learned so much. PS.. I work at a research library and will look up Lossky’s work…

    Kissing your right hand
    -a sinner

  10. Aaron Haney Avatar

    I would highly recommend Metropolitan Hierotheos’ “Orthodox Psychotherapy” for its teaching on the Nous. It is the one book I can remember that helped me understand it most clearly.

  11. jamesk Avatar

    This post reminds me of the Athonite monk that said at one time he no longer prayed (in any kind of pre thought) the Holy Spirit did it for him. I think he was saying his nature (nous?) was in automatic mode. He no longer had to discern prayer, thought or action. He had obtained the likeness of Christ (deification). He no longer had to contemplate faith or what Christ would do, it came natural. He also confirmed, it wasn’t a one time and done state because he said he lost it. This also confirms,as you state,to know God one must be built up through exercising it, through purification (blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God), prayer, etc.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    A quick way to lose it is to tell anyone other than your confessor about it.

  13. Andrew K. D. Smith Avatar

    Brilliant post. Before I was Orthodox, I used to have a conception of humans as being heads with cumbersome transportation devices (i.e. bodies) – it took me a long time to come to terms with a cohesive human, and to come to terms with the fact that all of our selves are involved in prayer and such.

  14. Yudi Kris Avatar

    Wonderful article, Father Stephen. The quotes from St. Gregory Palamas and also your explanation do answer my confusion of the struggle between fidelism and ‘intellectualism’ of faith. Now, this has given me a snapshot of the position of the Orthodoxy.

    Bless me, Father


  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The results of the Scholastic heresy and the humanism which followed it can be clearly seen in Guy’s internal struggle to become fully human. It is a struggle which we all face. The healing and integration of the human being promised and proclaimed in St. Gregory’s teaching (nothing new, just a Spirit inspired articulation of the Truth) was crucial in my desire to join the Church. After 20 years, it is still a struggle.

    Fr. Stephen’s posts on the Two Storey universe reflect our bifurcated consciousness. The spirit of separation is what led to the fall and death. God chose to heal the separation by becoming one of us, dying and then rising again without leaving his assumed human nature behind.

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