Sunday, May 31, 2009

Rational Theology

What is the use of reasoning about the nature of grace if one does not experience its action in oneself? What is the use of declaiming about the light of Tabor if one does not dwell in it existentially? Is there any sense in splitting theological hairs over the nature of the Trinity if a man has not within himself the holy strength of the Father, the gentle love of the Son, the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost?

Dogmatic knowledge, understood as spiritual knowledge, is a gift of God, like all forms of real life in God, granted by God, and only possible through His coming. This knowledge has by no means always been expressed in speech or in writing. The soul does not aspire to expound her experience in rational concepts when God's grace descends on her. She needs no logical interpretations then, because she knows with a knowledge that cannot be demonstrated but which equally requires no proof that she lives through God. And were there strength left in her, she would aspire to greater fulness of Divine life, and when the action of God is beyond her strength, she swoons in blessed silence.

It is impossible to clothe spiritual experience in flawless verbal form. The human tongue has no words with which duly to express the life of the spirit -- what is logically incomprehensible and inexpressible must be comprehended existentially. God is made known by faith and living communion, whereas human speech with all its relativity and fluidity opens the way to endless misunderstandings and objections.

We may be sure that none of the Saints would have sought language in which to express their spiritual experiences. They would have dwelt in silence for evermore -- silence, the 'mystery of the world to come' -- had they not been faced with the task of teaching their fellows; had not love roused the hope that someone -- 'if only a single soul', as the Staretz wrote -- might hear the word and, repenting, be saved.
Some people take longer than others to assimilate grace. In general, the process is as follows: the initial experience of Divine visitation strikes man to the core and draws his whole being into the inner life of prayer and struggle against the passions. His heart is alive with feeling during this initial stage which abounds in such powerful experiences that the entire mind is drawn to take part in them. The subsequent period -- the loss of grace -- plunges him into great grief and a frenzied search for the cause of his loss, and the way in which it can be remedied. It is only after long years of these alternating spiritual states, after much wrestling with the passions, reading of the Scriptures and the works of the holy Fathers, and discussions with spiritual guides and other ascetics, that man discovers in himself the light of the knowledge of the ways of the spirit, which comes secretly and unobserved. This knowledge, which is called dogmatic consciousness, is the deep-set life of the spirit, having nothing to do with abstract gnosis.
The Staretz testified categorically that the Divinity of Jesus Christ is made known in the Holy Spirit. The knowledge of Christ's Divinity thus acquired through spiritual experience enables man to comprehend in Christ the unfused union of two natures and two wills. The uncreated nature of Divine Light and the other dogmas of our faith are likewise made known through inner experience in the Holy Spirit. But here it must be noted that the dogmatic consciousness that comes from experience of grace differs essentially from a dogmatic knowledge which outwardly resembles it but is the product of 'faith in things heard', of academic study or a philosophical conviction in the form of a series of ideal abstract conceptions.

It is one thing to believe in God, and another to know God, as the Staretz said.
The rationalist-theologian is concerned with a multitude of problems whose solution he seeks through philosophical speculation. His actual religious experience is not very wide. It proceeds mainly from the rational sphere of his being, not from a lively communion with God. He counts his scientific erudition and intellectual experience as spiritual riches, rating them so highly that all other knowledge takes second place.

For the really spiritual man seeking a lively communion with the living God, the ingenuousness of the rationalist leaps to the eye. He cannot understand how an intelligent man can be content with his own conjectures and abstract interpretations. Scholars, for instance, have wrestled down the centuries trying to relate grace and the freedom of man. They forget, as it were, that there is another route to the solution of these problems -- the way of existential knowledge of the reciprocity of Divine grace and human freedom. This was the road the Staretz took. It is the Church's route in general. The Church is strong and rich, not by her secular erudition but, above all, in her actual possession of the gifts of grace. The Church lives by the Holy Spirit, breathes through Him, and through the very fact of this communion with Him knows how He operates, knows, too, how and within what limits human freedom functions.
St. Silouan the Athonite -- Archimandrite Sophrony pp. 187-190

It is not safe to swim in one's clothes, nor should a slave of passion touch theology.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent -- St. John Climacus