Understanding the Spirituality of Christian Epistemology

Posted on July 9, 2012


In Nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen. Suscipe, Sancte Pater.

He does not deserve the name of philosopher, seeing that he publicly criticizes what he does not understand…his object being to win the favour and applause of the deluded masses. If he lashes out at us without studying Christ’s teachings he is most unscrupulous and much worse than simple people, who as rule refrain from arguing and making false statements on subjects they know nothing about: if he has studied it and failed to understand its greatness, or has understood it but for fear of being suspected behaves in this shameful way, there is all the more reason to call him ignoble and unscrupulous, yielding as he does to ignorant and senseless prejudice and suspicion.

—St. Justin Martyr, referring to his pagan detractor Crescens, in his defense before the Emperor[1]

As I write my final reflection paper for the class “Opposition to Ecumenism,” it seems important to attempt to write about the basics of Christian epistemology. I write this not from a philosophical standpoint, but from the spiritual. Since all of the elements of humanity are connected—mind, heart, soul—there can be movement of the one without the other. Thus I will leave off the complicated philosophical questions that have troubled wise men for centuries, and confine myself to the spiritual methods and implications of a Christian’s attempt to know. For the Ecumenical struggle is very simple—to reconcile Christian brothers and sisters to other Christian brothers and sisters. This necessitates that we know and understand one another as we exist in reality, in order that our unity may be based on truth, and if we must divide, it will be from falsehood. My thesis is simply this: in order for any Christian to know anything or anyone, he must love Christ and crucify his self for His sake. Then his self will be only Christ, the new self (New Man), through which he can know anything or anyone.

It is very simple. You have no “self” in your self. Your self—that is, your being, your personhood, your identity—must be received solely from Christ. You must empty out every fiber of being that is you, and replace every single last fiber with only Christ. This is death. You cease to exist. Only Christ.

Only then can your self be truly a Self at all—for it will be completely identified with the person of Christ, and thus enter into the divine life of the Holy Trinity—where there can be no division between the essence and the personhood, but every person is perfectly united to other persons in perfect love. Your new self receives a new identity—“son,” “daughter”—a self whose very ontology is intrinsically linked to another. Then all of your being and will and all things that you are seek only to serve the will of that One you love. It is in doing the will of another, as St. Silouan taught, that love and being are perfectly manifested. Obedience.

Then and only then can a person truly love his neighbor. For since he has completely put to death his own self, and received the Self of God, he can now love his neighbor as his self. The abundance of God’s Self is such that now the Christian may be filled with the self of a neighbor—he assumes his neighbor’s self into his own, he identifies with his neighbor. In reality, however, since he is filled with the Self of God, he simply finds the Self of God in his neighbor, and loves it—loving God and his neighbor simultaneously and perichoretically.[2]  Therefore it is written: if a man love not his brother, he cannot love God.

Now: how does this relate to epistemology? Intellectual knowledge—understanding something in your head—is the basis (or at least the start) for all the actions of our will. Everything that we do comes from our knowledge. But if our will is the mode of obedience and of love, and our knowledge is the basis for these actions, then is not knowledge of the chief importance? Yes, and that is why our Christian forefathers were so vehement in findings the exact language and terms to use to explain God and to understand Him so that we may obey Him and love Him. Without an understanding of God, one cannot consciously love Him, for we would not know Him, and thus, being ignorant of His true character, we would not know what He wants.

The difficulty is that our minds are invisible and interior, and they cannot receive information directly like a computer can. God has created us so that we must receive invisible knowledge through invisible and visible sources. Most importantly, from our parents and other teachers through whom we receive knowledge and understanding. But when you are growing up, you do not have too much trouble receiving invisible knowledge from visible sources. This is because your soul still retains that thing our Lord commended when He said unless ye be converted and become like little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. When you are growing up you can receive knowledge very easily, because although your soul is not yet mature, it is more innocent—it is not haughty, prideful, or disobedient.[3] Therefore it listens to parents and receives the knowledge that is given.

But the role of the parents is not simply to give knowledge, but to make sure that the child learns. This means that he not only receives the invisible knowledge from the parent, but retains it independently of the parent and begins to delve more deeply into it himself. This is the innate sense of wonder and curiosity of a child—it is the first movement towards maturity. This is because it not only knows something, but attempts to exercise the mind on behalf of something further. This is an exercise which will serve later when the child is ready to love Christ (and his neighbor) in a mature way. It is of fundamental importance because without it, the child will not grow but stop receiving from outside himself. He will close in on himself, and unconsciously consider himself self-sufficient. This is the negation of all love because it prevents your self from being crucified and attaining the Self of God—instead you hold as tightly as possible to your self and so are bereaved of the Self of God (and therefore of your neighbor).

Thus the parent must teach the child to learn. Maturity means possessing the skill to learn. It means retaining—even until death—that childlikeness which is curious and innocently interested in the unknown, particularly people. For when we are older, we have no more parents and teachers over us, but we must put the ways of a child behind us and learn without the help of our parents. This is the crucial point which separates a child’s immaturity from an adult’s maturity—an adult is able to learn from others in a childlike way, and teach himself about reality without help from a teacher. This consists of listening to others (just like parents) and taking in their words deeply, like a child does, and then being curious and wondering more, in order to understand better. Thus an adult’s whole interest is in knowing someone else, not in expressing his own desires, thoughts, or needs. Love does not insist on its own way. He becomes fascinated with even one single other person—just for the sake of knowing them.

All of this is only possible through crucifying your self in order to receive the Self of Christ. We can only love our neighbor as our self once we have done this, for if we fill our whole mind and will with only our own self, there is no room for the Self of God and thus of our neighbor. The Self of God acts in a way as filling our self so that we can be empty of our self, and receive the self of our neighbor. Then we can see him as our self, and find our own new self—in Christ—offering our will to our neighbor out of love. Our own self is not destroyed, but rather healed in order to function properly.

People who are mature adults show the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, they are not jealous or boastful, they are not arrogant or rude, they do not insist on their own way, they are not irritable or resentful, they rejoice not in what is wrong, but rejoice in the truth. They bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. Why? For the sake of knowing and loving God and their neighbor.

But what are they enduring exactly? They are enduring their own crucifixion. Their self is being crucified—emptied out in order to receive the Self of God—and this is painful, because their self does not want to die. But an adult endures this because he loves God and does not want his own self but God’s Self only. And this is motivated by the purity of a child.

Christian Epistemology and the Division of the Church

Now, let us apply these ideas to the division of the Church. I begin with this very important quotation from Fr. Sergei Bulgakov:

We must not also lose sight of the fact that in addition to heresies of the mind there exist heresies of life, or one-sidedness. One can, while remaining an Orthodox, actually tend towards monophysitism in practice, by leaning either towards docetic spiritualism or Manicheism, or towards Nestorianism by separating the two natures in Christ, which leads in practice to the “secularization” of culture. And perhaps in this sense it will be found that we all are heretics in various ways.[4]

Every heresy is an attempt to destroy the rock of St. Peter: Tu es Christus, Filius Dei Vivi.[5]This rock is the confession that our Lord is human and divine in one person, and His human nature is perfectly submitted to His divine nature, doing the will of the Father through the cooperation of the Holy Spirit. If your knowledge about this is a heresy, you choose[6] only one of these things to believe in and act upon, and somehow avoid crucifying your self because it hurts so terribly. Thus if one is an Arian, he does not believe that Christ’s human nature is united to his divine, making him the Son of God, but that in someway He is less than God. Therefore my human nature need not unite fully in the Self of God by crucifixion, because Christ’s did not. And thus I need not love my neighbor to the point of crucifying my self for him, as Christ did. Therefore I will not love through and through, but only a little—only enough so I can feel good about my self. And thus I will be unable to know who my neighbor is, since I have renounced childlike curiosity for self-righteous autonomy.

But Fr. Sergei’s observation above is not only important to applying the spiritual implications of heresy, it also cuts at the root of the cunning deception of the Evil One. As is his way, he never tells a lie—only a half-truth, a heresy, a choice. Fr. Sergei points out how Orthodox Christians, while retaining an intellectual assent to Orthodox doctrine, in their souls in fact practice and propagate heresy. This happens when the mind is not working in unity with the heart and soul. If it were, a Christian would apply those doctrines to his soul and will and desire to practice them by crucifying his self like Christ and realizing the dogma in his life. This is the whole purpose of doctrine, but if a Christian refuses to do this, he is not really a Christian because he says Lord, Lord—mentally assenting to the truth of God’s authority—but he does not do the will of the Father, which is loving your neighbor as your self. No childlikeness remains. If a Christian acts this way, we know that a gentile who fears God and works righteousness is more acceptable to Him—since He serves God without knowing Him, but you who know Him refuse to serve Him.[7]

But if a heresy is easy to see—since it contains visible words—how can we detect the heresy of the heart and soul? The Lord said, by your fruits you shall know them. What fruits? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Thus if we do not see these fruits, we should not heed what this person says, for he has forsaken his childlike humility. We should pay close attention especially to his words. For if any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God, since in many words, sin is not absent and a fool’s mouth lashes out with pride. Our Lord Himself said by your words you will be condemned.

It is with this spirit that I approach any text about dogma, history, or ecumenical struggle. I pay close attention to the way the author characterizes opposing view points, and the people who hold these views. Having read multiple documents from both Catholic and Orthodox anti-ecumenists, I see the same approach being taken by both:

1. Vilifying opponents by the use of ad hominem and accusations of malice.

This pervades anti-ecumenist writing. The writers insist on calling their opponents by derogatory names which inherently judge their Christian character. The term “heretic,” for instance, means someone who obstinately opposes Church tradition (especially interpreted through a recent council) with his own opinion and divides the Church, being indifferent to anything or anyone but himself. Thus calling someone a “heretic” means judging his character and telling him he is prideful, arrogant, malicious, and false. But what if he is twenty generations removed from his heretical ancestor? Is he still showing such obstinacy? Can he even explain the technical dogmatics of the heresy he professes? Is he maliciously attacking the Church and being prideful? More often than not, “heretics” end up being ignorant of these things. Therefore, they are not culpable.

Another way in which anti-ecumenists seem to vilify the ecumenists is by accusing them of deception. They usually say that this or that point of the Ecumenical struggle is an intentional “deception,” “distortion,” and such things. Notice what this vilification does: it excuses the anti-ecumenist from crucifying his self and truly listening to the other out of love for him. Vilifying his brother allows him to distance himself from him in order to hold tightly to a self he wishes not to be crucified. Then he can condemn him without understanding him and claim that he is doing so out of love for him. But his scholarship seems to lack that understanding.

But we can also include ecumenists in this critique as well. For those who are deep inside the Ecumenical struggle often dismiss the anti-ecumenists and use ad hominem attacks against them—“fundamentalists,” “traditionalists,” “schismatics.”[8] They fail to see that those who critique ecumenism are often simply afraid that ecumenism is slipping into relativism—which, it should be admitted, is indeed pushed by many Christians as some kind of modernist solution to our division. Vilification on both sides allows someone to excuse their selves from feeling the pain of self-sacrificial love, forsaking their childhood humility for an arrogant, condescending attitude. But, any man who says to his brother “raka!” is in danger of hell-fire.

2. Condemning something you have not fully understand

Since he has attacked his neighbor and vilified him, he excuses his self from humbly understanding his neighbor. Therefore his analysis of his brother’s view point is invariably black-and-white, concentrating on the surface level of the words, and assuming that they cannot mean any other meaning than how the polemicist perceives them. Again this goes for both anti-ecumenists and ecumenists. The anti-ecumenists fail to see the motivation for the ecumenists ‘openness.’ For example, one author from the Society of St. Pius X writes with these absolutes:

The ecumenical practice of this Pontificate is entirely established upon the distinction between the Church of Christ and the Catholic Church...The ecumenism, could only be likened to the “Branch Theory” condemned by the Magisterium.[9]

First, notice the words “entirely” and “only.” They presuppose that the object of their criticism is wholly to be understood in one way or another, not deeper and more nuanced. To go deeper would entail crucifying your self, and would come from childlike curiosity and a desire to understand. Thinking in absolutes however is easier and allows you to put  cloak of piety over self-righteousness.

Similarly those who dismiss the anti-ecumenists label them and see their critiques in absolutes as “completely schismatic” or “hyper-conservative.” This can often not be the case at all, as many holy men have been anti-ecumenist. The reality of things is far more subtle, complex, and can only be attained through being crucified with Christ. “Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need.”[10]

3. Conflation of objective Truth with obstinate self-righteousness

 What this leads to is shallow polemics, pervaded with name-calling and caricatures, which stir up the sinful passions of wrath and pride. These obscure your reason and do not allow you to see clearly, since they prevent you from crucifying your self. Thus you end up thinking your perception of reality—which is actually a self-righteous attack against Christ—is objective truth, and you begin to defend this as if it were Orthodoxy. Then your “orthodoxy” becomes an altar to yourself so that you can “bring fervent sacrifices to the idols of your passions with eagerness.”[11] This is what horrifies them most of all—admitting they’re wrong. Is it in this spirit that the same document quoted above rejects the repentant attitude of the Catholic Church for its own role in Christian division?

The ecclesial note of holiness, so powerful to attract wandering souls to the unique fold, has been tarnished. These repentances are thus gravely imprudent, because they humiliate the Catholic Church and make haughty the dissidents.[12]

There a certain way in which this is true. But looking at the matter in an absolutist way precludes the possibility of seeing another angle. What I fear is that when someone fails to understand what he is condemning, and he is so wrapped up in his own views that he has lost any childlikeness, then anything to the contrary threatens his self-sufficiency and must be attacked with vehemence and violence.

This is demonic delusion, and it takes both ecumenist and anti-ecumenist alike, for broad is the way that leads to destruction. We must hug close to the narrow road of Christ our Lord, taking up our cross, and following Him. Otherwise we cannot be taught by him. For he who is a disciple is one who is being taught. Let us be crucified, brethren, for the sake of Christ and our brother. For the sake of the Church.

As Scripture attests, it is no lesser glory but rather more excellent to sustain martyrdom to keep the church from being torn by heresy than it is to be sacrificed for pulling down idols. For people endure persecution by the pagans for the sake of their own souls but suffer from heretics for the sake of the universal church.[13]

Placeat tibi, Sancta Trinitas.

[1] Defense, II.8; Qtd. in Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 4.16

[2] This last term is one used by Christian sages of the past in order to discribe the relationship between the Persons of the Trinity. It roughly translates as “mutual interpenetrative dance.” It refers to the ineffable bond of love.

[3] If a child does become this way—as a result of bad influences—it destroys his whole ability to love, since it is still developing. That is why our Lord said whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea. It is also why God commanded that a disobedient child be stoned to death, and the very first commandment in the Ten which speaks of other people is honor your father and mother.

[4] Bulgakov, By Jacob’s Well, 105

[5] “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God”

[6] The word “heresy” (Grk ἁιρεσις) comes from the verb ἀιρεισθαι which means “to choose.”

[7] As our Lord said at the Last Supper according to St. John, If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloke for their sin.

[8] I use the word “anti-ecumenists” to describe someone who is generally opposed to ecumenism and believes that the ecumenical struggle has produced more harm than good. I certainly don’t intend to use it in an ad hominem way, but I must confess I have been tempted to do so. If I have done so, please forgive me, a sinner.

[9] Menzingen, Ecumenism to Apostasy (Society of St. Pius X, 2004)17, 30

[10] Lauryn Hill

[11] The Way of the Pilgrim, trans. Helen Bacovcin (Image Books, 1978), 112

[12] Menzingen, 42

[13] St. Ouen of Ruen, Vita Sancti Eligii, 1.34