Excuse Me, You Are Not Rational

Words have a way of getting hijacked. Language refuses to stay unchanged and the result can be confusion, particularly when language is compared across the centuries. A common sentiment, written in one century, can be taken to mean something completely different in another. Such is the case with the word “rational.” The word was hijacked around the 18th century and has become a chief accomplice in the misdoings of the Modern Project. Among the most noble words ever applied to human life, its meaning has been changed and placed in service of the greatest reduction our humanity has ever faced. It is time to take back our rationality.

The use of reason in Christian tradition (from where it was hijacked) is quite interesting. It is ultimately an attempt to render the Greek term “nous” [νοῦς]. It is a technical word for an aspect of the soul, particularly that aspect that has to do with the unique human ability to know and commune with God. It is sometimes rendered as “heart.” Latin scholars, struggling to translate nous into Latin, rendered the word as intellectus. The contemporary meaning of “intellect” also shows the modern evolution and hijacking of a primitive word. For modern speakers, neither “intellect” nor “rational” carry any spiritual associations, but both have their origins precisely in the Christian doctrine of the human soul.

The change in meaning represents a radical shift in the understanding and definition of how human beings exist. It is purely a product of the modern project. The idea arose around the 17th century (and later), that human beings, using “reason,” which had now been equated with scientific inquiry, logical decisions based on observable phenomena in repeated experiments and the like, could make their lives better and free themselves from the constraints of tradition, convention and all that had gone before. In that intellectual and political movement that created our “modern” world, a powerful engine was unleashed. Technology enjoyed a great leap forward as it became a focal point of culture. But slowly, as traditions and customs were swept aside, something unforeseen came into existence: modern man with a misery and confusion unknown in all of human history. I will justify that statement shortly. Human beings are miserable and confused in our present world because they are not “rational” in the modern sense of the word, and they do not like being forced into that mold. We regularly rebel against its consequences but don’t know why. Our true humanity resists reduction – a fact not unrelated to our salvation itself.

No one can deny the power of “reason” as defined in the modern project. Careful observation, repeatable experimentation and measurement, certainly yield amazing results. As I have written before, there is an undeniable correlation between math and the observable universe. Difficulties begin to arise when that correlation is taken to be the sum total of our existence. The advent of computing machines has increasingly put pressure on human beings to explain how we are any different.

However human beings exist, we are not mathematical cyphers. We use math, but we are not math itself (or certainly no math known to human beings). Among the greatest of all myths of modernity is that the application of reason (meaning a math-driven control of all things) will actually yield a preferable result. The givenness of nature and the world around us have become a “tradition” that must be overthrown and managed in order to yield the greatest possible satisfaction. Doubtless, this idea has been stated in far more sophisticated and alluring forms, but it remains the underlying assumption of all modernity.

The 18th Century Mastery of Creation

What this management sometimes produces says volumes. The rationalized gardens of the Enlightenment have a wonderful beauty. Symmetry has an appeal to the human eye. But such gardens are also icons of human arrogance. Landscapes are forced into “unnatural” forms and shapes – things achievable only through violence and constant management. Growing things become the enemies that must be controlled. Such gardens are not about plants. The plants themselves disappear and become only a paint on the palette of modernity.

Far worse are the results we have seen in architecture. I offer the winner of the prestigious Mies Van der Pohe Prise, the  “home for the elderly” in Portugal. One can only pray that no real elderly have been confined to this antiseptic whiteness. It is so devoid of nature that death will doubtless come as a relief to its inmates. It is, in the gushing writings that accompany its description, something that is “peaceful.” It is indeed peaceful, like death is “peaceful.” It is also profoundly anti-human.

“House for the Elderly” – in Alcácer do Sal, Portugal (winner of Mies Van der Rohe Prize)
A room with a view in the “House for the Elderly”

No one denies the desirability of technology. Curing diseases and producing clean water have been an object of human interest throughout our history. But the success of such efforts do not justify a philosophy that falsely claims to be their progenitor. The curing of disease is not worth the cost of living in an antiseptic environment of sterile white lines and angles. It amounts to little more than swapping an organic disease for madness.

There has, however, been a number of historic rebellions against this mathematical treatment of reason. Very prominent among them has been a “turn towards the self” and the exaltation of a perceived inner set of needs as rationale for individuals. This meshed well with the growing field of psychology in the 20th century, and was quickly embraced by a burgeoning consumer culture that encouraged individuals to indulge and explore their various “needs” and desires. Individuals are now deeply in the throes of this consumerism while the technology of a distorted rationality creates ever more “pleasing” choices. Any “need” you can imagine quickly becomes a “right.”

True reason for Christians should be understood in its proper, classical sense. It is the nous. The nous is our capacity for knowing and perceiving God. It is also our capacity for perceiving all things in their true significance and meaning. The substitution of modern definitions for reason has deadened the human ability to perceive the nous itself. We have been taught to ask the wrong questions.

The thought process of modernity can be described as an abstraction that seeks to shape reality. The nous does not shape reality – it simply perceives it, and in so doing, even learns to perceive God.

God is not an abstraction, though modernity has taught us to think that He is. For modernity, if there is a God at all, then He is the Supreme Abstraction. That fallacy draws our attention away from the world as it is and towards our thoughts about the world. And every revelation of God-in-the-world is dismissed as mere psychology. We think our own mind is The Thing.

Our true reason (nous) belongs in this world and is ideally suited to do just what it is given to do within the Christian tradition. There is abundant evidence of this function in the Scriptures – evidence that we most often ignore or misinterpret.

But now ask the beasts, and they will teach you; And the birds of the air, and they will tell you. Or speak to the earth, and it will teach you; And the fish of the sea will explain to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this, in whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind? Does not the ear test words And the mouth taste its food? (Job 12:7-11)

This beautiful passage is quickly dismissed within our modern hearing as mere poetic license. The modern eye reads it and and says, “Think about animals. Think about birds. Think about the earth and consider your abstractions…What do you conclude?”

But this is not at all what is meant. It says, “Ask the beasts and the birds and they will tell you.” The nous includes our capacity to do this very thing. We hear the beasts and the birds today, but we fail to perceive them.

I recently stood with a group of believers at the edge of the French Broad River in the mountains of North Carolina. It was early morning and we were singing the Akathist hymn, “Glory to God for All Things.” There were rapids in the river that roared as we sang. The juxtaposition of the two made for a noetic event (if you knew how to listen). We sang, and the river sang. I do not say, “It was as though the river sang.” No. The river sang and this can be noetically perceived. It is the same sense by which we know Christ’s Body and Blood in the sacrament. The whole world is sacrament, and is noetically perceived.

One of the most devastating effects of the modern project has been to reduce human beings to a very narrow and selected set of experiences. Nothing actually stands between saying, “The river sang,” and “It was as if the river sang,” other than a set of rigid rules that forbids the former from being more than a metaphor. The result is a denial of fundamental human experience.

Christian tradition, when not reformed within a modern model, remembers the truth of human experience and directs our attention not towards attention itself, but towards the world and God and only towards ourselves within that relation. Modernity is an exercise in the estrangement of human beings from the world, and therefore from the truth of their humanity. And it is this that is experienced as misery and confusion. We have become lonely, lost in our thoughts and enslaved to our passions.

Within the fullness of the Christian Tradition, we can find our true life and recover ourselves within the context of this God-revealing world.

Does not the ear test words and the mouth taste its food?



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.



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54 responses to “Excuse Me, You Are Not Rational”

  1. Byron Avatar

    Quite beautiful, Father! Thank you for this!

    When I saw the title, this quote immediately came to mind: “You are not thinking, you are merely being logical.” (Niels Bohr).

    How best can one become noetic?

  2. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    One of the most devastating effects of the modern project has been to reduce human beings to a very narrow and selected set of experiences. Nothing actually stands between saying, “The river sang,” and “It was as if the river sang,” other than a set of rigid rules that forbids the former from being more than a metaphor. The result is a denial of fundamental human experience.
    This ties in nicely, Father, with your post about needing to be a poet to have faith. I can attest to rivers singing, grasses and trees sighing and to wind howling through the rigging of a sailing ship in a gale. Thank you for explaining the real meaning of rational. Now I understand many prayers for the rational soul in a whole new way.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    First, you are noetic. It is how God created us. We are His “noetic” sheep. There is a certain element of simple watchfulness (nepsis) involved. The example I gave is a useful. I’m sure that everyone gathered for the Akathist on Saturday was aware of the river and its sound and might even have thought about it. But for most (because of our modern formation), they would have restricted themselves to thought “about” the river and its sound. This is not at all the same thing as listening. My own experience was simply to let the river speak and to hear its voice united in our praise. The “attentiveness” was primarily in refusing to let the distance of modernity to creep in and rob the river of its voice.

    The same happens in the Liturgy. We “think” about Christ’s Body and Blood, but need to simply let it be there. And then eat and drink it.

    Many people “doubt” the existence of God – but they are doubting an abstraction. I’m not sure that believing in the abstraction is much different. It’s just another notion.

    I often practice being present to whatever is at hand, because it is the will of God and sustained moment by moment by His energies. And then whatever is at hand slowly begins to give up its knowledge of God and you can begin to perceive it.

    I’ll say more about this from time to time.

  4. Sharon Joy Avatar
    Sharon Joy

    Fr. Freeman –

    Thank you for your writing and thank you for responding to my previous questions – much appreciated. Apologies in advance for the quantity in this comment!

    The words and definitions are challenging here: would you say that the ‘nous’ is the equivalent of the “relational heart” – as in rightly perceiving relationships in Creation?

    And – is it not necessary for most of us to have this faculty – our nous – ‘healed’ from quite a bit of fear (which may be the result of trauma or abuse or just the inability to securely attach to God and others) before it can perceive the world aright? Little children are effortlessly noetic in this regard (if they have been cherished)…

    And finally – would it make sense that if we live from the nous then we may hear and perceive the world and our Lord in ways that may be characterized by the more “rational” among us as using our imagination (for those rationalists, a pejorative term)?

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sharon Joy,
    They will characterize it as many things, other than what it is. “It’s just your imagination” fits their psychological narrative very well. And in privately they will wistfully wish that you were right and such a thing were possible. But their own delusion holds them trapped in false perceptions.

    “relational heart” is a possible description. I’ll chew on it. It rightly perceives relationships, but also rightly perceives things for what they truly are.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In all of those prayers and hymns (“rational sheep”, etc.) the underlying Greek word is “noetic”. Rational has been stolen from us. I think sometimes it is simply best to translate it “noetic” and then teach its meaning, much like we do for the title “Theotokos.”

  7. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    You have my absolute agreement that we need to teach the meaning. I had a very long discussion with my Rector about not replacing the phrase “Noetic Altar” with “perfect altar in the Litany of Fervent Supplication. I only prevailed after showing him the Greek Lexicon to prove noetic does not mean perfect. I just never connected “rational” with “noetic” in the way you did. It makes the whole picture much clearer

  8. Aaron Avatar

    Father, thank you.

    I’m wondering what your take on the symbolic has in relation to the noetic experience you are talking about…
    It seems that the two are often at odds with each other (at least in modernity) because symbolism refers to a thing symbolized while experience is the apprehension of the thing itself. Your example of modern architecture and the river are what brought this to mind. Modern architecture and art has its beginnings in Dadaism, constructivism (appreciation of materials), and abstract painting (Kandinsky). In short modern aesthetic theory is based solely on the experience of the viewer with the object, so symbolism is out the window. Granted that modern architecture has been appropriated by totalitarian and clinical regimes it still is ment to create an experience rather than a reference. I understand that that’s what orthodox aesthetics tries to accomplish yet it (and contemporary art ) have been relegated to association prompters. Is there perhaps a very narrow road that must be tread where symbolism and experience are met? I imagine the obvious answer would be the philosophy of the icon yet that answer seems rather naive for it’s really a philosophy of symbolism and symbolism is “thinking about” rather than pure noetic experience. Have you looked up James Turrell’s artworks? I feel like you would appreciate them and understand what I’m trying get at or get beyond…

  9. Brandon Tucker Avatar
    Brandon Tucker

    “Modernity is an exercise in the estrangement of human beings from the world, and therefore from the truth of their humanity. And it is this that is experienced as misery and confusion. We have become lonely, lost in our thoughts and enslaved to our passions.”
    This rings so true and I can see it in myself. Great article Father.

  10. Mihai Avatar

    Greeting, Father Freeman,

    A bit off-topic, but you meantioned the akathist of Thanksgiving. I have heard it for the first time this year in my church, after the Vespers for the Meeting of Our Lord in the temple.

    Ever since I have been reading it every Sunday as thanksgiving for the week that ended, the week to come, the Liturgy and also the Sunday noon meal.

    I think that it is an akathist that perfectly captures the essence of the Orthodox life and of the living creation.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “Symbol” is another hijacked word. Originally it mean something that makes present what it symbolizes (sym-bole=to throw together). Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes carefully about the shift in meaning in his For the Life of the World. Today, in modernity, it means “something that stands for something else,” and is thus about absence. And the only connection is mental. This is the essence of Nominalism.

    Orthodoxy, myself included, has a very strong symbolic view of the world, but in the older, proper meaning of the word. So when we say, “the whole world is a sacrament,” we mean that it both references something else (the “logoi”) and makes them present. Noetic experience is not a form of thought. It is a form of direct knowledge. It participates in what it knows. This is the very heart of the term “mystical.” When it is said that Orthodox theology is “mystical” theology, it is the opposite of saying that it is abstract or simply in the head.

    Icons, incidentally, are not the occasion of thought. Indeed, if you “think” about an icon, you will never “see” it. St. Basil said, “The icon makes present what it represents.”

    The way modern people abstract their thoughts from things that are in some ways predicts the rise of television culture. If the thought is the thing, then tv is as good as being there.

    The fact that tv is not as good as being there, is more evidence of modernity’s errors. Everyone actually knows that it is not as good, but they can’t say why. Orthodoxy knows why. There is no noetic experience in the tv. If you had noetic experience of a tv, it would not be of what is pictured, but of the pixels, etc. that are actually there. Noetic knowledge is never imaginary. TV’s are entirely imaginary.

    The modern love of the mind is exceedingly narcissistic. Things have no value in themselves. The only thing that we value as moderns is what we ourselves think or feel about something. That is why we value sentiment about all else.

    This is also why we can never seem to get our thoughts to quit racing. Our culture has taught us that all that matters is thoughts and feelings. Learning how to quit this and actually be present is very difficult. But it is essential to noetic experience.

    There is a tree. There is me. I know the tree. Not by thinking about the tree – that is only knowing my thoughts about the tree. You actually have to give room, space and respect for the Other in order to be present, or for noetic experience.

  12. Sharon Joy Avatar
    Sharon Joy

    From what I can make of all of this – noetic experience is an inherently relational experience. I have found that honoring the other is one of the best ways to inhabit a relationship with any person, place or thing. We moderns don’t use the word “honor” very often which has perhaps saved the word – it brings to mind “bowing before”, “valuing” – even “royalty” the “court of the King”.

    If I honor a tree instead of merely experiencing it or seeing it or trying hard (“white knuckling”) to love it – I seem to be able to place it in its proper relationship to myself, God and others. Honoring a tree sounds pagan but it is a way of describing what it “feels” like to live from my nous. When I honor the other I am able to hear the voice of the other, unclouded by fear. I might even hear the voice of a tree.

    Clearly a tree won’t receive the honor due a person or God. It seems that my nous knows the proper amount of honor to accord to each while at the same time releasing me from my addiction to judgment.

    Honor may be hidden in my nous – information and fleeting negative emotions have no home there.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    These are good thoughts. Modernity’s most common attacks on Christian Tradition have been to label it “superstition” and such. I often tell people that if you actually engage a “One-Storey Universe” (which is actually being noetically present), it will, at first “feel” like superstition. That feeling is the noise of our culture in our head. We are not pantheists, either. But a noetic relationship with the world will also often feel pantheistic at first. This is because the modern habit is always to divorce God from everything. God-in-anything feels like pantheism to us. In this sense, pagans are much closer to Orthodoxy than moderns are.

    I once had a young college inquirer say to me, “I like Orthodoxy! It’s so pagan!” I accepted the compliment, understanding what she meant.

    Modern Christianity is mostly about the God-who-is-not-there and is therefore always teetering on the edge of atheism. The slightest wind that blows ill will make us wonder if there really is a God. We would do so much better if we learned to see God in the wind. 🙂 Trusting that all things come from God and are sent for our salvation is also a means of confessing that He is present in all things and can be known in them. Of course, modernity hears this as saying that the distant God causes these immediate things to happen to us. In that thought, He is still absent. It is rather that the good God is present in all that He does and all that He sends.

    We speak in Orthodoxy of knowing God “in His energies.” Moderns hear this and think of something like sun light or rays, etc. But the Greek term “energeia” simply means “actions.” What we do not understand is that God is utterly present in His actions. He is not one thing and His actions another. But this is noetically perceived.

  14. David W. Landrum Avatar
    David W. Landrum

    I loved this article. The over-rationalization of life has indeed devastated our imaginations and our abilities to see the world as charged with God’s beauty and grandeur. The other day, someone interviewed Neil deGrasse Tyson and asked him about God. Mr. Tyson gave a respectful reply, I would say, but went on to state that since God could not be proven rationally, he did not believe. Why is an astrophysicist called upon to make pronunciations about God? Mr. Tyson is brilliant, and he is certainly entitled to his personal opinion, but his great knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, and physics does not qualify him, particularly, to make pronouncements on the divine! So it is that rationality dominates, and impoverishes, our thinking about the world about us.

  15. SW Avatar

    Thank you, thank you for this post (and all posts). Much to digest, as usual. Your reference to architecture reminds me of a book I read years ago by Tom Wolfe entitled From Bauhaus to Our House. He wrote about the office workers who, after moving into one of the new modern skyscrapers, brought in potted plants and added curtains to the sterile (and sun blazing) environment. The architects ordered the nightly janitorial staff to tear the curtains down. Another book Wolfe wrote, about art, The Painted Word, is also interesting.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would add a correction. It is not our imagination that has been devastated. We have almost nothing but imagination in the modern world. It is our ability to truly perceive things that has been devastated. There is a difference.

  17. Dino Avatar


    Thanks. I never thought of it that way, and that is indeed most helpful…
    Honoring something or someone correctly does, undeniably, make us reference that something or someone to its First Cause – God. Living with this constant ‘referencing’ is a big part of ‘spiritual watchfulness’.
    It is a ‘bringing of grace’ to our ‘Nous’, even in the times of dark absence of its perception.
    Of course there is a strong “cross-fertilisation” between the (1) encountering of Christ in the Cup, (2) the encountering of Christ in the stillness of the night-time prayer and (3) seeing Him in everything, which then makes everything become what it was always meant to be but we never could see it.

  18. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    I worked in morgues that were cheerier than those rooms! Do the people who design such spaces actually like humanity? Talk about sensory deprivation! Maybe they’re designed to push humans to the edge of despondency so that they will ask to be terminated.

  19. Eric Avatar

    Thank you once more Father Stephen for your words

    This article seems to strike deep into condition of the dis-eased modern life, which in dealing in abstractions, is abstract in nature

    I rejoiced at the story about the river rejoicing with you as you sang the hymn. This last Pascha I was gathered with my congregation at the Cross, rehearsing the announcement of Christ as Lord of the whole created order, and the tree under which we stood instantaneously came alive with the song of hundreds of birds gathered for worship with us

    People were called from ‘it was as if’, to ‘it was’ in that deeply converting moment

    Glory to God

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There’s an interesting video on youtube about the color white and its use in modern art.


  21. Corey Avatar

    I suppose the ultimate issue I face is simply that I have no perception of my nous. I have the assurance that I have one, and the assurance that, with long practiced prayer, I can perceive my nous. But I am being asked to spend countless years and long toil in the pursuit of a faculty I have only promises even exists. It’s hard to step out on faith onto a difficult and painful path without being able to even glimpse or comprehend the rewards it might bring.

  22. Christopher Avatar

    Aaron says:

    ” In short modern aesthetic theory is based solely on the experience of the viewer with the object, so symbolism is out the window”

    Interesting. I have never made a study of “modern aesthetic theory” and “art” because I find it so repugnant. I find in your description here something redeeming however – it wants to get to something more core. Of course, that “experience” itself is the modern mind in hell, so it still comes out as hell “as art” – but at least it is trying. Obviously, it get “symbolism” wrong.

    The discussion about the meaning of “noetic”, “Theotokos”, “symbol”, “altar”, “imagination” to me leads to support of a “liturgical english” or at least a suspicion of the desire for “relevancy” in translation. IMO, one of the signs of the secularization (or lack there of) of the our churches is the quality and philosophy behind the language we use in liturgy.


    “The slightest wind that blows ill will make us wonder if there really is a God. We would do so much better if we learned to see God in the wind. 🙂 Trusting that all things come from God and are sent for our salvation is also a means of confessing that He is present in all things and can be known in them.”

    My experience (only with those whom I am intimate enough to have a real sense of their beliefs – mostly family) it is not whether God exists per se, but rather the problem of evil. In the end, they don’t believe in a “loving” God, because they can’t see past evil. They don’t believe a “loving God” and “all things sent” (because that has to include the existential fact of evil) can co-exist. Thus, God becomes “distant” in only a certain sense – and at the same time terrifyingly oppressive.

    I have been trying to think how to use the Fathers “ontological” explanation of evil (i.e. the fact that it is a negation, not a becoming and thus has “no existence of its own”) but in the end I can’t make it work. I think it is too Platonic – too much a philosophical defense of God. Senseless suffering, violence, the sword are all too real and this explanation of evil does not satisfy – it does not even satisfy me, and I believe in Love and God.

    Many modern people along with Dostoevsky’s Ivan (who as has been noted might have said all this best ‘poetically’) “It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket”. I was at the deathbed of a family member some years ago whose life (at least the part of her life I knew) was a life lived “returning the ticket”. I thought perhaps in her final moments a turning of some sort – it was not to be as far as I can tell. Say a little prayer for “Mimi” if you would…

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not sure that we have perception of our nous, so much as we learn let the nous perceive. As you have said, you already have a nous, but you aren’t sure of how to know that. It doesn’t take years. Sometimes it only takes a moment.

    Begin my just noticing things. Not in a fleeting manner, but with attention. Not by thinking about them. If possible, let the thoughts be quiet. People perceive things noetically all the time but dismiss it or immediately cover it over with something else.

    Don’t expect bells and whistles or light, etc. Just awareness. The more we learn to just be present the more aware we become. Archimandrite Meletios Webber writes in this way about the nous, which he terms “heart”:

    The heart is quiet rather than noisy, intuitive rather than deductive, lives entirely in the present, and is, at every moment, accepting of the reality God gives in that moment. Moreover, the heart does not seek to distance or dominate anything or anyone by labeling. Rather, it begins with an awareness of its relationship with the rest of creation (and everything and everyone in it), accepting rather than rejecting, finding similarity rather than alienation and likeness rather than difference. It knows no fear, experiences no desire, and never finds the need to defend or justify itself. Unlike the mind, the heart never seeks to impose itself. It is patient and undemanding. Little wonder, then, that the mind, always impatient and very demanding, manages to dominate it so thoroughly.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. I think that is a huge problem. It is worth noting that the Eastern Fathers have very few treatises on the question or problem of evil, and when they do it is always the same treatment – that He works through all things, etc. The problem is very, very modern. It might even be “the” modern problem.

    First, I think only grace can get someone past the evil, because it is, after all, the good God they need to see. I argued endlessly with my late Father-in-law when I was young over his absolutism regarding giving thanks always for all things. But there can be no peace without it. It might even be the very heart of belief in God.

    It does satisfy me, though I think I have personal reasons for it. I saw great evil when I was young. Both the frequent meltdowns of an alcoholic father, whom I knew loved me and whom I deeply loved. We also had a very brutal murder in my family of our dearest aunt when I was 10. That and some other similar things pushed the question to the fore when I was young and kept it on the front burner for many, many years. I have done countless deaths as a priest, serving 2 years as a hospice chaplain as well.

    The goodness of God is, in the end, noetically perceived. In some ways, I would say I paid attention to the evil until I perceived the goodness of God. It was essential for me that I knew others who had suffered far more than I did who perceived it as well…and I trusted them.

    For one, it requires getting rid of a lot of images of God that are simply untrue. The power of God, for example, is the Cross according to Scripture, which is quite different than thinking of God’s power as some sort of coercive thing. I suppose He could coerce, threaten, unmake the universe, etc., but it is not who He is. If you are attentive long enough to the evil, you will see the Crucified Christ in the midst of it, and seeing Him attentively, we can see His love. But only the Crucified shows us this. May the Crucified God have mercy on His handmaiden, Mimi…

  25. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Father, Christopher, this problem of evil overcome by love is our cross, methinks. Who said that if we really love God and others thousands will be saved? (sorry for paraphrasing)

    I’m not trying to trivialize or reduce the problem Christopher puts. It’s just that people don’t see God when His own children stand right in front of them, are married to them, are friends with them, have means to ease their mind, and so on. All of this is ours. I struggle to love people but the reward is great in those rare times when I do.

  26. Dino Avatar

    I often think that the martyrs show us the triumphal way of the loss which is a gain, the suffering which can spawn joy, the seeming senselessness that births eternal meaning, and we must constantly attach and re-attach our hearts to theirs…
    There is naught other than the Crucified and yet exalted-in-Crucifixion God that provides sense (‘logos’) to seemingly senseless suffering. But it is also true that where worldly reasoning perceives suffering, death, tragedy, the Church sees glorious martyrdom, heroic nobility and salvation; such a perception is perhaps impossible while in the throws of it all -without the greatest grace inebriating with its incessant, everlasting hope- but it is certainly, at least subsequently, attainable to eschatologically-centered believers. This “benefit of hindsight” can eventually inform our foresight to a degree, after many ups and downs, although, ultimately, it is God’s grace that truly has the power to transform and transcend all suffering. But we attract it through our love of the Cross. It even makes the alarm of seeing (with bereft of grace eyes) the shocking suffering of a martyr being tortured, into a flaming desire for the torture – like we see in St Ignatius the God-bearer for example, or even the very mothers of some martyrs who had the same yearning for their offspring’s martyrdom…! It is a holy folly for this mollycoddled world.

  27. Mitchell Bright Avatar
    Mitchell Bright

    Wonderful, Fr. Stephen,
    It reminded me of an evening not long ago that I spent with my autistic grandson and his mother.
    We had driven out to the country to escape the lights of the town to view a meteor shower. While Jack was gazing at the dark, deep sky full of stars, satellites and the occasional shooting star… we heard him mumble something to himself about looking for something. “What did you say Jack… what is it you are looking for? we said.
    “Clues,” he replied.

  28. Richard Avatar

    In light of this what are we to make of Anselm’s ontological project? Is this where the trouble all began? As an aside, I recall reading an essay that argued that we have mischaracterized Anselm’s argument. His contention was that it should be better understood as the argument from prayer since God gave him the argument through an answer to prayer. Does this change anything in light of what you have written in this article?

  29. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    I was just now reading Psalm 18 (19). “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (vs.1-4 RSV) Seems God’s creation is constantly sending forth the news of His glory, but on most its voice is not heard, and can only be “picked up” by a nous attuned to His Spirit. I’ve been attempting to enter noetically into prayer of the heart, as Dino mentioned, during the night hours when there are no distractions. So, I also needed the reminder to be attentive and really present to all that is around me; that God is present in all of His creation, in all of His actions, to allow my heart to see and perceive.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I don’t see Anselm in the mix at all. There’s always a tendency to overplay the “historical” card, as in “whose fault is it?” It is only marginally interesting. We can say, for example, that Nominalism is part of the modern mix, but actually only in a very watered-down, unsophisticated kitsch sort of way.

    There’s actually almost nothing at all profound to be found in Modernity. It’s a set of ideas that prove to be wrong repeatedly, and yet continue to be believed. They are ideas that are simply commonplace. For example, tonight I engaged in a conversation with a couple of Orthodox folks who were just fine with the notion of the “goals” of Orthodoxy viz. elimination of racism, etc. Those are just silly goals. There will never be an end of racism or greed or poverty, etc. Only modernists ever think such things and they never, never, never achieve such things. But they will attack anyone who doesn’t subscribe to such nonsense as not caring.

    There are no “goals” for the Church. We have commandments which we are called to obey. History belongs to God alone. Notions like goals are nothing but the front end of utilitarianism. And utilitarianism is the tool of the devil, pure and simple. But such ideas are so commonplace that people subscribe to them without ever examining them.

    We could point to certain historical causes, but mostly the cause is bad thought on a moment by moment basis. In America, we think and are taught to think anything that promotes consumerism.

  31. albert Avatar

    Dino, the problem I have with the “desire for torture” (i.e., extreme martyrdom–not just giving up one’s life but seeking, and almost envying, the worst possible pain) is not only that it seems prideful–not to mention mentally sick, to use a modern concept that does have some merit–but that Christ himself did not “desire” it. In fact he agonized over it ahead of time. He said we should follow him even to the cross bit he didn’t say to run ahead and try to outdo each other in suffering. That seems contradictory to the idea of a loving parent or caring companion. The “holy folly” of the cross surely doesn’t mean that the evil acts that resulted in Christ’s horrible death are good. Life includes suffering, and it can be transformative, but it is not good in itself. How could I ever convince my grandchildren, and why should I, that God might love their suffering. Or that eventually they might “get the chance” to show how much they love God by looking for bad people to kill thrm? It might be said that this is a special gift from God–the desire for martyrdom–but even that doesn’t fit with so much that we think we know about God. Of course, we don’t know. But at least we have a guide in Scripture: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt.”

  32. Mihai Avatar

    Father Stephen, here is a question.

    I always struggle with the patristic texts (and even with the ancient philosophical texts) when they talk about the use of reason.
    That’s because I clearly see that the meaning is very different from the modern concept and their use of reason usually implies a contemplative aspect as opposed to what is today called mere rationalism- mere discursive thought.

    The question is: do they use different words to describe these 2 different aspects: that is “logos” for reason considered in its wholeness and “dianoia” for its discursive aspect?

  33. Dino Avatar

    What I have Mihai, I guess you have too, noticed is that the more recent – sort of post-15th century – Fathers seem to differentiate more clearly between the apperceptive faculty of the ‘Nous’ and the discursive one of ‘dianoia’. More ancient ones however freely mix heart, nous, dianoia, although they differentiate sometimes on the action of grace, as well as the action of temptation upon these.
    There are also times when they need to be, and are very precise, and times when this is not needed and therefore a greater freedom of expression is employed by them…

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It varies somewhat, which is a bother for a modern reader. I am not at all sure that there is an ancient word for what we mean by reason in the modern period. One reason (no pun intended) for this is that the activity we call reason today is a distortion and truncated, lacking a wholeness and integration. We’re not at all aware of this. But, for example, we shut so much out of our consideration because of the habit of extreme focus that is a hallmark of the modern period. It can be laser-like in its attention to details, but historically has the weakness of forgetting that everything is in relation to something else. We forget the big picture.

    Logos is actually rarely used for reason. Generally, its a version of nous, such as dianoia, etc.

  35. Sharon Joy Avatar
    Sharon Joy

    For others like myself who may be trying to wrap our modern noggins around these definitional challenges – I found a brief book on Theosis written by Archimandrite George available online at


    that has a helpful glossary defining heart, logos, nous and psyche.

  36. Mr. Anon Avatar
    Mr. Anon

    Pitch perfect. My training is in mathematics and science – both wonderous to behold – but nothing has done more to harm mankind than a blind and exclusive feality to reductionist methods. Science provides *a* way to understand our world. But it does not provide *the* way to understand everything.

  37. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks for the links. Nothing, in the long run, substitutes in this for the simple experience of the nous itself. And that, of course, is difficult for us. We want to think about it and know it in a “non-noetic” manner, and that just will not do. But the first time (usually with help and “coaching”) we understand it, things begin to clarify.

  38. Christopher Avatar

    ” For example, tonight I engaged in a conversation with a couple of Orthodox folks who were just fine with the notion of the “goals” of Orthodoxy viz. elimination of racism, etc.”

    I think it is hard to overstate how this aspect of modernity is part of our thinking. This summer, the council of our small mission church was thinking about “outreach” and “growth” (as we always are). An “Orthodox lecture series” was suggested, with the idea that we would “speak to the community” about the issues of the day from an Orthodox point of view. The issues are predictable: poverty, domestic violence, and of course racism. I gently pushed back as best as I could (really – I am not quite the blowhard in person as I am on this board 😉 ), but everyone else thought this was “a wonderful idea” and quite frankly, they were genuinely perplexed that anyone would even question such an “outreach” – it is just an unexamined given that these “issues” are central to the Orthodox Christian life and speaking “to the community”.

    This “outreach” appears to be a failure in every way. I say “appears” because I recognize God works in unseen ways (but in this case, it is truly unseen 😉 ). Such things arise out of a certain anxiety in those who feel responsible for “growth” and the like, and of course an unconscious ‘modernity’ we all suffer from.

  39. […] The “will gone wild” is in no small part the result of our modern refusal to acknowledge the nature of reality and, more specifically, human nature: […]

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is one of our deepest modern beliefs. We believe we can change things and that it is our job. And that when we get to heaven God will ask us “what did you do about it?”

    And yet, there are no commandments of this sort at all.

    Yes, we share, we give, etc. But it’s not the same thing.

    People would be surprised to know that Fr. A. Schmemann identified the modern Church’s desire to “help” as among its most serious heresies. I’m not original. I’m not making this stuff up. This is true Orthodoxy.

    An example:

    But it is here that we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. Christianity quarrels with religion and secularism not because they offer “insufficient help,” but precisely because they “suffice,” because they “satisfy” the needs of men. If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed, better than Christianity. And secularism is about to produce men who will gladly and corporately die—and not just live—for the triumph of the Cause, whatever it may be.

    Schmemann, Alexander (2010-04-01). For the Life of the World (Kindle Locations 1444-1450). St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.

  41. Chris Avatar

    Reading this reminded my of the novel We by the Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin. We depicts a dystopian future society of utter mathematical precision, where every aspect of human life is calculated and serves some aspect of their utilitarian society.

  42. Robert Avatar


    Concern for growth, or concern Light is hidden under a bushel?

  43. Christopher Avatar


    If I am following (I might not) the “concern” has behind it the best of intentions, the Commandment(s) of God no less. It is only a concern however, it is only a part – a part separated from the whole (in a particularly “modern” way – there are other ways of course) and it is here (perhaps thought of as the movement from “concern” to “action” – but this is too narrow in that the concern is a part itself that has lost it’s meaning by its separation from the whole) that it becomes an attempt at “help” that does not have the Life of God, and thus it is not blessed in the way we would hope…

  44. Robert Avatar


    Not sure I am following.

    You suspect that some people may have misplaced intentions, or attempt to separate the faith from the whole (not sure what you mean by that!) – and this is the basis upon which you support the continued practice of hiding the light of the Gospel under a bushel, and ascribe the ills of an anxious modernity to fellow parishioners? How can that possibly be Orthodox?

  45. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    Thank you Father. A fascinating video which filled in a lot of blank spaces in my thoughts.
    Many years ago I read an article about modern submarines. I don’t recall why; I have no interest in armaments. Any way, the author noted that psychologists were consulted when trying to determine the color to paint the interiors because someone had the presence of mind to think that humans, confined to such a space for long periods of time might be effected by the color of the walls. The psychologists recommended a particular shade of blue as the most calming. I’m going to check out the “Blue” BBC video to see what light, if any, it sheds on that.
    A perfect example of this white, modernist style is exemplified in this church, ironically called “The Church of the Consolation”. More disturbing is the second photo on the page showing the ceiling.


    Equally disturbing is this statue of the Virgin Mary as shown in the second photo on this page:


    and the mural behind the altar in this church. At first it may appear to be more bad “art” but zooming in reveals something worse.


    Long ago I had an Orthodox video titled “Beauty Will Save the World”. I don’t know what happened to it but I wish I had it now.

  46. Christopher Avatar


    No offense intended, but if by standing with Fr. Schmemann in this sense:

    “…Christianity quarrels with religion and secularism not because they offer “insufficient help,” but precisely because they “suffice,” because they “satisfy” the needs of men…”

    And refusing to “help” in a way that (merely) suffices, instead trying to find a way that “helps” in the “one way that is needful”, then mark me down as guilty. The light of the Gospel is not “ending poverty” or “racism” or cancer or the sword or death, or even ending the senseless suffering of innocent children. The light shines on and through these things – our salvation is a Cross – the very image of death and torture.

    IF secular “christianity” is true, and “the light” is a way “to end poverty as we know it” (or in the meantime, as our little mission church tries to do, to “do our part and labor a little for a better world”), then woe unto us, because salvation is not in and through a Cross, but is exactly as secularism would have it – the “rational”, technocratic (and most of all violent) program of “making the world a better place”. Frankly if anyone believes that, then christianity as such as a distraction from the essence of the program. Really, we should grow up and get over our superstitions and get to work! This is exactly what secularism has done – it leaves the God of the Cross behind because He is no help at all, just no help at all.

    However, I am as sure this is in fact not the case as I am of anything – the whole world (the universe, life, death, everything) is a testimony against it – and refusing to listen to this testimony is THE vanity and delusion of modern man.

    Speaking for myself, my “goal” is to not fret like Martha over serving (even “mankind”, and all our very real troubles), but rather to sit at the feet the Lord and hear His word. That (and only that) IS “the light”…

  47. Robert Avatar


    I just don’t see how you got all of that ( i.e. ‘“ending poverty” or “racism” or cancer or the sword or death, or even ending the senseless suffering of innocent children”‘ and so forth) out of the suggestion by some in your parish to do a lecture series!

    Anyways, no sweat, at the end of the day we all do what we all want to do.

  48. Bruce Avatar

    Father Bless!!!

    This week, Father Alexis Trader, had a blog post on impulsivity that included some discussions about the nous which I find quite relevant and prescriptive regarding your challenging and enlightening post.
    Human beings are more than a bundle of desires, aggressive impulses, and rational thought. They also have a faculty that the fathers call the nous, that part of human beings that can touch God and be touched by Him. Some may refer to it as the spiritual heart, but the term nous is preferable, because it cannot be confused with feelings or even thoughts. In the spiritually healthy person, the nous in contact with God guides the whole person including the reason, the desires, and ambitions. Reason, desire, and perseverance are neither autonomous, nor compartmentalized, but are perfectly unified in pure, prayerful communication with God. In the impulsive, this unity is shattered and the desire lashes out in this direction and that, being unchecked by the reason that is left powerless without help from God present in the person who (whose nous) prays unceasingly with simplicity. All of this means that for the fathers, the personality changes needed to deal with impulsivity, or any other passion for that matter, are more drastic than just modifying a person’s thoughts or reaction to pleasurable or triggering stimuli. What needs to be changed is precisely one’s connection with God that can bring wholeness, harmony, and health to the soul including the desires of the heart.

    Thus, the patristic prescription for the treatment of the impulsive personality, or any passionate personality, is purification through the nous attending to watchfulness and prayer. The task at hand concerns the Pauline exhortation, “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God—and be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind [ἀνακαινώσει τοῦ νοὸς]” (Romans 12:2). On this matter, Hieromonk Damascene notes, “In Orthodox theology, the nous is the highest faculty or power of the human soul. It is the faculty that knows God directly; it is the seat of our personhood, which experiences the Person of God in a communion of love. St. Gregory Palamas and other Holy Fathers say that it most precisely defines what is the ‘image of God’ in us…When we practice watchfulness with the help of the Jesus Prayer, we make our soul open to receive the Grace of the Holy Spirit, which transforms us and deifies us. We are no longer repelling Grace, but attracting it. We are calling upon Christ to have mercy on our darkened souls, to dwell within us more fully, to fill us with His unending Life, with the Light of the Holy Spirit Whom He has sent from the Father (cf. John 15:26). Thus our darkened nous is illumined by the Light of the Uncreated Grace of God. ‘Only the Holy Spirit can purify the nous,’ writes St. Diadochos of Photiki in The Philokalia. ‘In every way, therefore, and especially through peace of soul, we must make ourselves a dwelling-place for the Holy Spirit. Then we shall have the lamp of spiritual knowledge burning always within us” (The Way of Spiritual Transformation).

    In practical terms, instead of the attention turning back and forth between me and my wants in the outside world, the attention turns cyclically inward towards God in connection to me as expressed by the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” In so doing, the outside objects from the environment lose their fierce, emotional pull becoming simple, dispassionate concepts in the mind, and the heart or nous becomes clear of emotionally charged concepts, good and bad. Then the nous can indeed oversee the reason, the desires, and the aggressive faculties of the soul and easily direct them in fulfilling the will of God. Father John Romanides defines the spiritual sickness at the root of all passions, including impulsivity, as the noetic energy “not functioning properly” with a “nous full of thoughts, not only bad thoughts, but good thoughts as well” (Patristic Theology, p.24), even though the nous is meant to be full of God and only the reason to be full of thoughts. By the prayer of the heart, one’s communion with God changes, the influence of the thoughts in the mind change, the desires change, the behavior changes, the person changes, for the One Who now sits on the throne of the heart says, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Revelations 21:5).

    The healing of the impulsive personality requires the intervention and assistance of Divine grace from the Holy Spirit. Our task is to watch over our thoughts, continuously and humbly asking Christ for His mercy with all the power of our attention, with all the power of our soul. And when a thought gets triggered from within or without, instead of chasing after it, we continue patiently to call out, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” And in the process we learn, in the words of Abba Poemen, how to “eat without eating, drink without drinking” (Apothegmata, 13); in other words, to keep our primary focus on God, whatever we do, whatever we see, whatever we think, whatever we feel. Then, all will be as it should be. The once impulsive personality is transformed by grace into the likeness of the divine person of Christ Himself so that he or she is able to exclaim with Saint Paul, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

  49. napoleonsays Avatar

    The critique of modern architecture resonates with me. For years, I have been bothered by Brutalism and other forms of architecture that followed it. I studied photography in undergrad, and while I don’t remember being specifically taught this, a big theme was that much of art post-1900 (or more specifically, Post-WW1) is that art & architecture are manifestations of philosophies. I suppose you can say that going backwards too, but there was something brooding after WW1 and in part, this is why you see such ugly art in the 20th century — Brutalism in particular was an outworking of the meaningless (Secular) outlook on life many had after the Great War.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Architecture has been “philosophical” for a very long time, maybe even always. It is almost impossible to understand architecture without a historical commentary. Of course, many things get built a certain way simply because it has become “the fashion.” But generally, the fashion began with a philosophical intention. This has certainly been the case sense the Reformation.

  51. Matt Avatar

    Bit of a tangent, but I was really hit by this piece which also happens to be a good example of “architecture as philosophy” going quite far back: http://orthognosia.blogspot.ca/2015/08/nature-and-city-in-greek-east.html

  52. Ann K Avatar
    Ann K

    Thank you, Father! The world would benefit greatly if your next book is “Orthodoxy and the Modern World: In, but Not Of,” or something similar.

    Also, those interested in an excellent and concise summary of the modern movement and Christianity are encouraged to read the Restless Heart of Darkness series by author John C. Wright at scifiwright.com.

  53. DNY Avatar

    Father bless!

    A beautiful mediation.

    I am a professional pure mathematician, and am given to criticizing both modernity and the Western theological/philosophical tradition out of which the “modern project” grew by telling almost anyone who will listen, “I make my living with discursive reason. Discursive reason will not save you. You cannot know God by means of discursive reason.”

  54. […] it this way (in a straight tone) also reminds me of the constant “hum” of creation’s real, ongoing praise of God to which I, fellow creature, join my own […]

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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