All In The Head

Some questions are so obvious we fail to ask them.

Is it all in the head?

The question is whether the sense of spiritual, refers to anything other than ourselves. Is there any connection between myself and others, between myself and God, between myself and nature, or is such a perception only a set of ideas in my head?

In classical theological/philosophical language, the question is between realism and nominalism. Nominalism, a philosophy that generally dates back to William of Ockham (1288-1348), holds that universals (ideas, concepts, etc.) only exist in the mind. Realism holds that universals have an existence outside the mind. These divisions, inside/outside, may be increasingly problematic in a post-Newtonian world.

For Christians this question is more than “angels dancing on the head of a pin.” At its heart, the question asks about the nature of sacraments and relationships. For many Protestant Christians, nominalism has become the default position. The sacraments are decidedly not real (in the philosophical sense). The bread and wine of the Eucharist are simply bread and wine. Their “spiritual reality” lies in the mind of the believer. Memorial theories of the Eucharist are quite clear about this: the Eucharist is only a remembrance (in the mental sense). Baptism is an obedience – nothing happens (except in the mind). Indeed, within this theological tradition, things spiritual are all in the head. Faith is a mental attitude. Love, kindness, forgiveness, etc., all find their existence as concepts within the mind. Christianity, within this tradition, is the adherence to a set of concepts.

Older Christian traditions, particularly Eastern Orthodoxy, are decidedly realist. The Eucharist is truly Christ’s Body and Blood; Baptism is a true union with Christ. All that exists does so as communion and participation. Everything we know, we know to some extent through participation. The inter-connectedness of all of creation is not a mental construct – it is a description of how things truly are.

There is a middle ground, fairly common within some Christian traditions. The general, nominalist view is accepted, but with exceptions for certain things such as the sacraments. I suspect that many “traditional” Christians find themselves within this view of the world. Modern culture is deeply nominalist. It assumes that things exist within themselves. All connections are merely mental associations. Such “two-storey” lives are stuck in a constant battle. The assumptions of nominalism feel “obvious” (as do most cultural assumptions). The reality of the sacraments runs counter to the obvious, constantly requiring a different set of assumptions (or the suspension of the obvious). This suspension is called “faith.”

It is important to note that this last view, the middle ground, does not have a sacramental view of the universe. It has a sacramental view of the sacraments – a tenuous set of temporary assumptions, at best.

These differences in world-view do much to explain the conversational difficulties between Orthodoxy and most other Christian traditions. Orthodoxy is decidedly realist. However, such realism requires some additional thought and understanding.

There is a view of realism (also quite ancient) which gives rise to magical and “superstitious” practices. If the interconnectedness of all things is understood in a manner similar to all things in nature (as just one more set of quasi-physical phenomena), then attempts to manipulate and control this interconnectedness becomes an obvious temptation. These attempts to control and manage take the form of magic and superstition. Various animist religions, some forms of paganism, and most efforts to influence “luck,” all have something of this world-view in common.

I have often thought that “good luck” is the most fundamental religious urge of all people. Modern notions of “prosperity gospel” and the like are simply semi-sophisticated versions of superstition. They have little or nothing to do with classical Christianity. Orthodoxy is by no means immune to magical practices. There are widespread abuses in much of the Orthodox world that are simply magical superstitions. These, too, have nothing to do with classical Christianity. No form of the Christian faith is without its temptations.

Orthodox Christianity holds to a realist view of the world – but does so out of regard to God as the Creator and Sustainer of all that is (“in Him we live, we move and have our being”). The universe is not established on abstract spiritual principles – inert laws of the “supernatural.” The universe is established by God and the principles of all things are rooted in God.

All of creation is a sacrament – but not of Plato’s forms or the ether of magic’s dreams. Creation is a multiform sacrament of God’s love, revealing itself to those who are God’s friends. The emptiness of modern man lies in his alienation from the world in which he lives. Even his primitive hunger for luck bears witness to his desperation for connection and meaning. The path to that connection and its communion lies through the Cross of Christ. In Him we find ourselves plunged into the uncreated life that sustains all things. And in that life sacrament and reality become one.

Where is reality to be found?

There are no criteria to which any Christian can appeal in order to win an argument. A world-view is an a priori assumption. Christians holding a classical understanding (such as the realism of Orthodox Christianity) have antiquity on their side. Nominalist views evolved at a period in time well-beyond the New Testament and early church era. Whatever nominalism is, it is not the view of ancient Christians.

But is the view of ancient Christianity true? Fr. John Romanides described Orthodox theology as “empirical dogmatics.” He did not mean an empiricism rooted in Enlightenment theories of objective reality. Rather, he meant that the teachings of the Orthodox faith are rooted in experience and borne out in the lives of its saints. Without embracing the entire body of Romanides teaching, it is easy to affirm his simple contention. The triumph of Hesychast teaching in the 14th century (a defense of monastic experience and its understanding of the knowledge of God) set Orthodoxy squarely in the middle of empirical dogma. “He who prays is a theologian, and a theologian is one who prays.” The truth of the classical Christian understanding is found in a life conformed to that understanding.

This empirical dogma is not an argument. It goes where no argument can follow. It is, like the gospel itself, an invitation. It can be proclaimed to the world, but like all things empirical, only experience will confirm its truth.

It is popularly said of Orthodoxy that it is not a set of beliefs, but a way of life. In many respects, this is simply a manner of saying that Orthodoxy is not a nominalist view of the world, but a revelation about the world itself.

Those who stand outside inquiring should ask themselves: did Christ come to assert a set of ideas, or did He come to reveal a way of living? If the latter – then it is not just inside the head.

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.





48 responses to “All In The Head”

  1. […] last month, AFTER HE CONCEDED THE NOMINATION. Not bad.Syndicated by Atom ☆ ☆ ☆ 6) All In The Head fatherstephen on Tuesday, Jun 19th […]

  2. the waffle eater Avatar
    the waffle eater

    i have some questions about your religon father Stephen were can I ask them

  3. Andrew Avatar


    You put this so well.

    Yes, the answer to our prayers (literally our “asking”) is necessarily a matter of both heart and mind. The interesting thing is what happens when the halves are joined — the unintended and utterly sublime consequence of Pascha.

    Please forgive me for offering an answer if none were requested.

  4. PJ Avatar


    This resonated with my today. A prominent atheist blogger at Patheos converted to Catholicism yesterday (at least, she announced her conversion yesterday).

    I’ve been reading the responses of her once fellow atheists — many of them violently acerbic — and shaking my head in sorrow and frustration. So much anger and hatred…

    Many of their blogs read like the diaries of angry and isolated teenagers. I do not understand the downright FEROCIOUS loathing for Christianity. Their is even a whiff of bloodlust about them.

    Their derision stems from a sense of epistemic superiority. They have primarily encountered this nominalistic Christianity and they know it for what it is: the vanity of the imagination. They laugh at it. And in their pride and prejudice, they are unwilling to taste the fruit of real communion with God. It reduces me almost to tears.

    Ah well…Pray, pray. Pray for the whole world.

  5. PJ Avatar

    Then again, I suppose, to an extent, we Christians deserve this scorn. We have earned it by our sins, our failure to live the Gospel of Christ. We have walked upon others rather than allowing ourselves to be walked upon. We have judged others while ignoring the chip in our own eyes. We have preened before others and trumpeted our own righteousness. We have not loved our enemies but condemned them. We are our own worst enemies.

  6. markbasil Avatar

    Thank you Philip Jude for your heartfelt and poingnant connection between ‘Christian nominalism’ and the suffering and seething of so many neo-atheists.
    God help us all.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    “They know it for what it is: the vanity of the imagination.” Yes, and well said. I think that modern Christianity is a major source for modern Atheism. And the more militant modern Christianity becomes in its self-defense, the more virulent becomes its opposition. Where the spiral ends is not a pleasant thought.

    This nominalistic Christianity is, for me, another way of describing secular Christianity (as I’ve posted about previously) or two-storey Christianity as I’ve published about. It’s all the same problem. I think that two-storey Christianity is fairly empty intellectually, and bereft of any sacramental understanding of reality. It is a devolved form of the faith, and will probably end up on the “ash heap of history.” The damage it will have done before then is incalculable.

    Coming out of bondage to such deformities of the faith – sacramental Christianity has a great struggle ahead.

  8. dinoship Avatar

    I really empathise with what you just said, having had many similar experiences myself…
    On a dialectic/discussion level any contact with this nominalist/atheist world can be extremely painful…
    I know that, (yet rarely -if ever- do I conform to this knowledge like I should), it is only me I have any power over. What I mean to say is that only personal, deep, total repentance has the power to change anyone (both me and others)…
    These seething neo-athesists in particular cannot be argued with or persuaded for any lasting time, but they are often genuinely and deeply impressed by a living saint’s joy, peace, love, nobility, integrity (all fruits of true repentance)

    I am reminded of a saying (by Bullgakov I think, repeated by Elder Raphael Noika): “True Orthodoxy does not convince, it charms”

  9. PJ Avatar

    I typically avoid discussions with such people. Is there anything more painful to see than a person unaware of his own immortal and God-beloved soul? It is like a perfectly healthy person who believes he is paralyzed and refuses to so much as lift a finger.

    Unfortunately, I was caught up in a few back-and-forths. I kept pointing them toward the saints. One interlocutor responded:

    “I know that I am just flesh and blood. I also believe that all human beings are just ordinary flesh or blood. No matter what religion they belong to, no matter how exalted or despised, none are more holy than me, and *none are one whit more profane*. I can be humble in the sense of recognizing my own ignorance and finiteness. I *will not* be “humble” in the false sense, that of placing myself in submission to another ordinary human being for no other reason than because he asks me to, or his followers ask me to. If he has some special property, some special insight or power or moral knowledge, let him *show* that first. Otherwise, I can only regard him as probably another one of the thousands of leaders of false religions that plague the earth.”

    He was sure I was “talking down” to him. This is a typical response. I was probably a little prickly, which I apologized for. But people don’t like to hear that they can only know something through experience. They believe it is either accessible via rational, discursive investigation — or it doesn’t exist.

    I don’t know … I am genuinely depressed from the whole experience. It made me realize my own lack of charity and holiness and the general spiritual malaise of our society. God bless him, me, and everyone else.

  10. Gene B Avatar
    Gene B

    I have found over the years that discourse between atheists (or radical fundamentalist protestants) is largely fruitless, and more damaging to my own soul.I think in our age we need to focus more on strengthening our own base of believers, and make more of an effort to catch people when they are open to looking. People firm in their belief will only turn when they themselves perceive something is missing or not right. That happens on God’s time, not ours, and certainly not through an argument.

    In my opinion, a weakness of us Orthodox in America is the unwillingness or inability to be “in your face” about how different our worldview and lifestyle is. Perhaps with the One Storey / Two Storey Universe analogies we are starting to find a way to communicate this fundamental difference in a way that is easier to get across. Maybe we ourselves are afraid to be clear about it because we’re afraid of turning our own on-the-fence believers away. True Christianity is too radical now.

    When I look around, there seems to be very few that genuinely get the vastness of the gulf that separates the two world views, even in our own Church. Over the years I have collected a large amount of end-time prophecies of our saints. These used to be reviewed and discussed – along with expectations of the end times – much more frequently in sermons in years passed. Now we are afraid to talk about them – but you can see them unfold quite clearly.

    The rampant secularism is the delusion of the devil, that has only accelerated over the years as the world eliminated its Christian civil power structure (its monarchies). The Orthodox Monarch’s first responsibility was to ensure the salvation of their subject’s souls, a responsibility promised to be upheld during the Rite of Anointing (of a King). The Catholics had this also. But we the people eliminated this from the world, and we the people are living with the result. What did we expect?

    So yes, sacramental Christianity does have a huge struggle ahead, mostly to reverse the delusion among our own people – for if they can’t see the delusion themselves, call it for what it is and live their lives as examples through true prayer and faith, they will not be able to live as examples for anyone else. The faith will be reduced to arguments and no one will see.

  11. dinoship Avatar

    A consoling thought is that many of these militants have their time too… even if only on their death-bed, God finds a way which we don’t see at this present moment.
    This faith in His providence for them at a much later stage, is one of the first steps that gives you a magnetic confidence (not of your position) but of their extremely fragile belief (in their unbelief) that can be both perplexing and attractive to them when springing from humble love, faith and that liberating aristocratic nobility a truly free Christian can only posses. It is often manifested as an apparent lack of interest in them wanting to change whatsoever (…)
    However, what is far more important of course for us – for me – is to cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean…

  12. Merry Bauman Avatar
    Merry Bauman

    We are in this world but not of this world – right? We “walk in two worlds” as my Native heritage would describe it. I too cannot adequately describe to non-believers what it is to be Orthodox – not just go to an Orthodox church but truly BE Orthodox. It is not a religion so much as it is simply a way of living – it touches every aspect of who we are and how we interact with others – every day.

  13. Karen Avatar

    PJ, I think most pious believers have had your experience–if not in the flesh with someone, then at least in our own heads when we hear or read the arguments of unbelievers. I think 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 is especially pertinent. The gospel cannot be proved by argument: it must be demonstrated . . . with Christ’s Self-giving love in humility and meekness leading the way.

  14. Joel Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I greatly appreciate what you wrote and it has me extremely interested in the Orthodox perspective on metaphysics (or a perspective beyond metaphysics). What I’ve gathered from the Fathers is implicit in their writings, with exception to St. John of Damascus (there isn’t a question in the world he hasn’t answered). I’m curious where you would direct me so I can read about the Eastern perspective on this matter as I’ve come from a heavily Western influence.

    And as much as I hate to link to my own stuff, I only do so to see your thoughts and to see how far off I am from an Eastern perspective:

    Universals vs. Particulars

    Realism, Nominalism, and the Marriage Debate

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thanks for the articles. One of the difficulties in finding material on the realism vs. nominalism in the Orthodox fathers, is that, writing before the rise of nominalism, it isn’t a possible topic. That leaves us reading and gleaning in general their thoughts in the matter. One of the better writers worth getting to know in this regard is Andrew Louth in Britain. His works, Discerning the Mystery, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, (and his other stuff as well), are excellent. They tend to be on the expensive side – but they are “magisterial” in their content and an excellent addition to a library. They’re certainly intended for the serious scholar and are not light reading. He is an outstanding patristics scholar.

    The book on the origins of the Christian mystical tradition is quite excellent. I wish everyone who invoked the charge of “neo-platonism” against the Christian fathers of the East would read it (perhaps it should be required 🙂 ). The fathers were clearly somewhere in the realm of “Platonism,” in that they were realists. If you are a realist, then you will be some form of Platonist, or that is where others will see you. However, even the New Testament seems to share most of these same assumptions (as does the Old, for that matter). And, of course, it’s not that the OT is Platonists – but it shares something of a world-view when it comes to realism, despite the cultural divide between Semitic and Hellenic thought. I’m not sure that I’m aware of an ancient culture that is not realist, for that matter.

    A place for thought in the matter for me personally, has been in the realm of Quantum Mechanics (though I’m no physicist). Nominalism tends to demand something like a Newtonian view of the universe. Though nominalism predates Newton, it lays the groundwork for the Newtonian imagination. The difficulty for the modern imagination is that it tries to conceive of realism in Newtonian terms, having to posit some rather odd ideas (with sort of “free-floating” universals and the like). The imagination of Quantum thought (and this is where my own use would be) thoroughly dismisses the need for most of the Newtonian assumptions and at least lets us entertain the possibilities of realism.

    I look forward to reading your articles and getting back to you. Good to meet you.

    Electronically yours,
    Fr. Stephen

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    A quick note on Schaeffer. You find that I use the 2-storey universe image as well. A critical difference (and a problem with Schaeffer, I think), is that he simply grants the reality of a two-storey universe and sees the problem as how to link the two storeys. Thus, his need for absolutes, and infallible Bible, etc. It is “reason” that he wants to save. I argue that there is only One-Storey and that the second storey is a dangerous fiction. I would also suggest that the craving for absolutes and the guarantees of reason are anxieties created by the two-storey universe in the first place. I would strongly support a more “Platonic” model of knowledge, based in participation (communion). This is the Biblical and patristic model of knowledge. It certainly presumes realism. Schaeffer would seem to want the certainty of a kind of realism, but the world imagined by nominalism. Schaeffer’s only true “realism” is the Scriptures (it seems to me) – which is quite problematic. He would have a fairly rational hermeneutic (necessitated by his desire for a reliable reason). I think the Scriptures can only be read in the context of the life and community of the One Church. Their meaning is for that community and can be proclaimed by that community, but cannot be independently verified from outside that community. The gospel is an invitation to the life of union with Christ, which is His Body, the Pillar and Ground of Truth.

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’ve been enjoying your articles. I have some initial thoughts:

    As a Christian Realist, I’m not sure I would use “universals,” as a necessary concept. How things exist, and how we know them, does not necessarily require universals within a Realist understanding. I would quickly note that God cannot be a universal, for He cannot be a concept, or an item within a metaphysic. He is God and is unlike anything else.

    There is, for instance, the fact that we only know God in a particular manner. When He reveals Himself to the Patriarchs, it is never simply as God (El). It is always, “God Most High,” “God My Deliverer,” etc. Moses encounter on Mt. Sinai is the closest thing to a Universal, but there it is an encounter with The Name – so utterly particular that language cannot quite grasp it. I would contend that we only know God, through the God/Man Christ Jesus. Even as Trinity, we know Him as Trinity, because Christ has so revealed Him as Trinity. We cannot “get behind” Christ to speak about God. This is a great problem in much Christian speech. Moderns have a “historical habit” and want to start with the OT and work their way forward. The fathers (in the East) always begin with Christ and work their way out from there. The God made known to us in the OT, is the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word of God. Shadows of the Trinity are certainly present and the Spirit is referred to. In Orthodox iconography, the OT manifestations of God (burning bush, etc.), are always labeled as Christ, just as Christ is labeled as the “Ho On” (the Name revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai).

    But in Christian realism, even knowing of a particular is done in a manner of communion (koinonia) rather than in a nominalist (rational) manner. This is the most significant distinction (the manner of knowing) in Christian realism. In a way, what you have done in your use of metaphysics, is to posit certain universals (I’m not certain how these universals are known – perhaps Schaeffer’s Bible?) and then to reason based on those universals.

    Christian Realism is not the enemy of reason – human beings reason – but it uses reason in a very relativized sense. It’s useful when its useful, but it is not a necessary category of understanding or truth. There are many things we know and perceive that transcend reason.

    Something is true because it is real – and to be real it need not be a universal.

    Ultimately God is the ground of reality. Things, people, etc., have reality because they are given their existence by God. That which was and is not given its existence by God is not real. Some concepts, statements, actions, etc., are not “real” in the sense that they are not true and deviate from the existence which is given by God. We are created with a direction and movement. That movement is towards union with God. To move away from that proper direction is “sin” (“to miss the mark”). Thus to sin is to move away from true existence and towards non-existence. This is why the Devil is called a “murderer” and the “father of lies.” He hates true existence (even his own) but he does not have the power to “unmake” anything, only to encourage things to move away from their proper direction. Repentance is a movement back towards the proper direction.

    In moral questions we may ask: is this action a movement towards our proper direction? So, in same-sex marriage, we can ask, “Is this a movement towards the proper direction for humanity?” Without belaboring the point, I would say, “No.” It has some similarities (as its advocates argue) to marriage, but its particulars are distorted in some fundamental ways. How those particulars became distorted is not insignificant (genetics, environment, etc.). But as an act, it does not move people towards the end of union with God in Christ.

    On the level of culture, we will likely lose this battle (over the understanding of marriage). American thought sees marriage as a contract rather than a participation in God. It is ultimately hard to argue that people cannot enter into a desired contract. What is flawed is the American concept of marriage. Some of that flaw is already manifest in the prevalence and easy acceptance of divorce. Divorce doesn’t matter (in our culture) because marriage doesn’t matter. Suddenly Christians want to act like marriage matters…where were we when marriage was being deconstructed?

    Certain things are certainly described in a manner similar to universals in the fathers. Beauty and Truth, for instance. But these are always identified with Christ Himself. Christ is beautiful. Christ is the Truth. Thus the beauty and truth of all things are relative to Christ.

    Beauty has a huge place in Orthodox thought. I’m not sure that any other group of Christians has a similar place and regard for beauty. To a certain extent, Orthodoxy holds beauty to be a proper and necessary requirement of our movement towards God. The beauty of Orthodox Churches and worship is legendary (though lack of resources or practices of asceticism restrict this sometimes). Every “universal” (if we use the term) finds its place in Christ, or it has no existence whatsoever. Christ is the Logos, and the logoi of all things are created through Him. These logoi constitute to truth of everything that exists. The fathers teach that the logoi of created things can be known by man, but only through the union of the mind with the heart and the “purification” of the nous. The man who is governed by the “passions” (ungoverned thoughts and desires) cannot possibly perceive the logoi of things and remains ignorant. This is why “reason” is always insufficient. True reason (logos) is true perception of the logoi. We are so darkened in our minds by the passions that do not rightly perceive anything.

    This is a wonderful area for reflection and reading. I encourage you to keep it up!

  18. PJ Avatar


    AncientFaith Radio should have had you debate David Dunn on “Orthodoxy Today.” The priest they selected rattled off trite and rather Protestant responses to Dunn’s heterodox assertions.

    By the way, I was frustrated to learn from Dunn that Fr. Hopko supports civil unions for gay and lesbian couples (which lead inevitably to same sex marriages) because it is the “loving” thing to do. I don’t see how encouraging destructive behavior and a relationship that leads one away from theosis is “loving.” Perhaps he misrepresented Fr. Hopko, or perhaps I misunderstood Dunn.

  19. Jeremiah Avatar

    Reblogged this on Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog… Now He's Eastern Orthodox? and commented:
    In connection with his last blog post on the lives of the saints, as it relates to the general communal nature of salvation and even our identity as humans, this post talks about life as more than knowledge and concepts. His final couple of sentences hit me the most. There is enough in these two posts to keep me occupied for some time.

  20. Joel Avatar


    I have to say that your responses are exactly what I was looking for and I deeply appreciate them. I’ll look up the books and head back to the Fathers (where I knew their view of reality was implicit, just not explicit).

    To tip my hand, my attempt in my essay is to show the Logos as the ground of all reality. William Lane Craig (the famous Protestant philosopher/apologist) recently embraced nominalism, which has many others starting to embrace it as well. Since I’m still technically Protestant (though quickly moving East) I figured it’d be worthwhile to re-introduce realism to the West.

    It was something in Pavel Florensky’s writings that really sparked it too, specifically his idea of the Logos as the pillar of all things and the Spirit as the power behind all truth.

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    Not sure of Fr. Hopko’s position, but that sounds correct. I don’t think he would be an advocate of CU’s so much as think it should be allowed. I differ with him on this – but I think we probably have very different assumptions viz. the place of the state and the Church. This is a matter that would likely have a wide variation of thought within Orthodoxy (relation with the state).

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    Your thoughts and journey sound very interesting. Florensky’s writings are very thick – and fascinating. You’ll like Louth. His book on Discerning the Mystery would be the place to start.

  23. guy Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    i’m very confused by this post. Either i was incorrectly taught what philosophical nominalism was in school, or else you’re using it in a sense different from the reading i did as a philosophy grad student. i don’t see why philosophical nominalists would claim that belief in sacraments entails commitment to philosophical realism. i don’t see why the kinds of claims made by Orthodoxy about the Eucharist or baptism would count as universals in the sense used by metaphysicians. i thought universals in that debate refers to something more akin to Plato’s forms–there exists a form of “horse-ness” which is the universal of all particular horses.

    What am i missing here? Is there literature you’re referring to with which i’m unfamiliar?


  24. Mary Avatar

    Rather than being the “gound of realtiy,” isn’t God Himself Reality (with a capital “R”). Whatever our worldview, our humanness distorts Reality to some degree, for God’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. We can only draw near, and nearness is not achieved by adopting principles but through obedience. Obedience always comes before enlightenment, does it not?

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    You can use nominalism in the sense of no universals (as in Plato’s forms), but you can also use nominalism in the sense that everything that exists has a discrete existence, only having connection with anything else by mental analogy or association. It is in this latter sense that I note that nominalism would entail a rejection of the sacraments as classically understood. It might allow for the “middle ground” that I described. This, I think is the more common Roman Catholic position (at least it used to be). In this example, the sacrament is a distinct “miraculous” instance that has no relationship with anything else – i.e. it is not illustrative of anything else. Thus, a statement like that of Patriarch Bartholomew, “The whole world is a sacrament,” (a very Orthodox thought), would not make sense.
    Orthodoxy would contend (in a form of realism) that reality is indeed “connected.” Everything that exists, does so as “symbol,” in the strongest sense of that word (it makes present that which it signifies). What is therefore unique about the bread and wine of the Eucharist is what they make present, but not that they make present.

    Schmemann’s For the Life of the World is an example of this use of Orthodox understanding of realism. In my book, Everywhere Present, the chapter on the Shape of the Universe, treats this at some length. What? You don’t have a copy? Use the link quickly and get one! 🙂

    The Baptist denial of Real Presence makes complete sense to me within a nominalist position. How could it be otherwise. The middle of the road position, of course, is a sort of “special pleading.” Everything can be anything with special pleading.

  26. Carol webb Avatar
    Carol webb

    Thank you!

  27. Joel Watson+ Avatar
    Joel Watson+

    Again with this post, and its comments, Joy! Glory! Bless you and your commenters.

  28. Joel Watson+ Avatar
    Joel Watson+

    I must stop reading your excellent most recent posts this evening. Thirty minutes ago I purchased a book you spoke of in your previous post and thought,I wish Father Stephen would write a book. Two minutes ago I just purchased your “Everywhere Present.” gotta stop reading for tonight, being on a limited income I cannot afford to read more tonight! Bless you, and thank you.

  29. Ryan David Avatar

    In my opinion, one of your very best posts. What a wonderful conclusion at its end too.

  30. guy Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Thanks for the reply. Who (as in philosophers) uses “nominalism” in the sense you’re describing?

    Also, can you point me to any Orthodox writings on how the crucifixion of Christ does its atoning work? i realize that Orthodoxy rejects the forensic or juridical models–like the satisfaction theory introduced by Anselm. But when i was talking to the deacon who’s teaching my intro to Orthodoxy class last night, he acknowledged that Orthodoxy rejects the forensic and penal satisfaction schemes, but he wouldn’t ever say what position Orthodoxy does endorse (even when i asked him point blank if Orthodoxy endorses a Christus Victor view). Is there any literature on this?


  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    Guy, I read very little philosophy – thus, I don’t know. It is a use I’ve made of the term for a number of years. It might be an idiosyncrasy.

    On atonement. Very few books. The topic becomes a “separate” topic only in conversation with the West. It was not controversial in the East and is thus quite integral (typical of many Orthodox matters).

    Within the fathers, St. Athanasius On the Incarnation is fundamental. Gabriel’s book The Ancestral Sin (sometimes hard to find) is also good.

    There are several articles of mine worth noting. They are here, here, and here.

  32. rivercocytus Avatar

    Father, are you familiar with the work of Michael Polanyi, particularly the book ‘Meaning’? He is moving towards a realist conception through what is called in his words, ‘tacit knowledge’ – things which are known by extension or participation primarily, and not via reasoning about concepts.

    I think the book is important reading partly because he discusses the difference between archaic and modern minds – and explains pretty well how and why there is a difference, but that the difference is often not what we think – i.e. superstition versus rational thinking, etc.

  33. fatherstephen Avatar

    rivercocytus, I’ve read him before – but not this. Sounds worthwhile and interesting – thanks for the head’s up!

  34. Linda Avatar

    Can you help me understand the distinction between baptism with Christ in His death and church baptism? If union with Christ in His death occurred at the cross, then it is “real” prior to an individual’s baptism in the church, yes? Is church baptism then an acknowledgment of and participation in a prior reality? My apologies if this is an uninformed or illogical question.

  35. Sean Avatar

    PJ–As someone else who’s been following the posts at Leah’s blog today, I’d mention that the comments you’ve posted there are being read not only by atheists whose worldview may render them deaf to the point, but also by Christians. Your words may or may not change any atheists’ hearts, but other readers may be more ready to read and understand. I, for one, have really appreciated what you’ve contributed to that discussion.

    And, Father, I appreciate this post immensely!

  36. PJ Avatar

    Like battling dragons with a fly swatter. 😉 I appreciate the kind words, though. At very least, we Christian readers have exposed some of the atheist readers’ gross fallacies.

  37. PJ Avatar

    “the distinction between baptism with Christ in His death and church baptism”

    They’re one and the same, no?

  38. rivercocytus Avatar

    I think the distinction is that Christ’s death and resurrection affects the nature, so the nature participates, but in the baptism the hypostasis – the concrete person – participates. So while no description is sufficient to completely explain it, you could say that in Christ the redemption becomes available, in Baptism it becomes potential, and in the Saints it is actual.

  39. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would not divide it too neatly. Becomes slightly too rational…

  40. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick

    There will be a time when we will have hindsight from the kingdom where our baptisms into the death of Christ will be fulfilled in all respects because we will be alive with Him and like Him. Until then, before and after aspects of our participation in Christ and His cross will always confuse the mind. The heart, however, is not confused. It can embrace mysteries of the church as family members embrace mysteries of participation in the family. In both cases we are bound in the present to something that conveys us toward an unspeakable hope – God’s own glory. The church and the kingdom are, in truth, the only lasting realities for creatures made in His image. Everything else is either a potential for this kind of life or a negation of it leading to death. Our cross and baptism are one because both graces have one purpose; they join us to Christ in whom there is no separation of anything good from all things good.

    Forgive my rambling. I think you addressed this to Fr. Stephen but I couldn’t help myself.

  41. Seraphim Avatar

    Where is the church in the photo?

  42. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is St. Nicholas Church somewhere in Northern Greece

  43. Devin Avatar

    Sorry, realize I’m chiming in a bit late here. I read this just the other day, and today stumbles across another really good article that address the whole nominalism/realism thing. Thought I’d pass it along in case anyone was interested:

  44. […] freundlicher Genehmigung übernommen von: »All In The Head«, Father Stephen Freeman. Übersetzt von René Malgo. – Was Vater Stephen über die Orthodoxie schreibt, entspricht dem […]

  45. […] Read more … […]

  46. Justin Avatar

    This is a beautiful piece of writing and enlightening. Thank you for writing it.

  47. Justin Avatar

    To me, this is fundamental to the difference between Orthodoxy and the Evangelical world in which many of us in the West (really, I’m in the South) live. I am an Inquirer, and this, to me, is more fundamental than anything about particulars of ritual or particulars of doctrine.

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