When talking about intellectual knowledge, people usually imply comprehension and a certain sense of ownership—a man spends a great deal of time with an object of study, until he understands it so well that he can articulate details about every aspect of that object, to such a degree that even uninitiated listeners gain a certain mental image of its properties, just by thinking logically about his description.
But the object of Orthodox theology is not an object at all. Rather, the aim of Orthodox
theology is knowledge of God Himself. God is not an object which can be grasped, comprehended, owned, defined, or encapsulated within the finite boundaries of human thought. In merely intellectual pursuits, man seeks to contain the object of study within his mind, and he speaks words in an attempt to describe what he comprehends.
In Orthodox theology—distinct from that intellectual approach—man seeks experience confirming the fact that he himself is contained by God, and he speaks words in an attempt to convey the fact that he cannot comprehend Him.
Even philosophical speculation cannot be equated to theology, since it begins with a finite experience of human words and concepts, attempting to point beyond itself to some being or concept which is conjectured to exist. Orthodox theology, on the other hand, begins with a personal experience of the transcendent One Himself, and then struggles to articulate words which suggest—but do not convey—the individual’s experience of God which is necessarily indescribable.
Phenomenological vs. Intellectual
“Phenomenology” is essentially “a study of that which appears”. This concept helps us articulate the incarnational aspect of Orthodox theology. The Incarnation of the Son of God is the starting point for true theology, not an ending point concluding a train of speculative reasoning. Merely intellectual pursuits, on the other hand, confine themselves to pure speculative philosophy, conjuring up a god which is either a “first cause” needed to justify a particular philosophical construct, or else is a mere bundle of philosophical “attributes”. As Lossky observes, “The God of Descartes is a mathematician’s God,” “For Leibnitz, God is necessary to justify the pre-established harmony between our perception and our reality,” “Kant … needs the idea of God in the moral sphere,” “The God of Bergson is a God of creative evolution,” and “the God of Aristotle is the unmoved mover” (Lossky, Orthodox Theology, p. 19). In the minds of each of these philosophers, God was a logical construct necessary as a precondition for their pet philosophical constructs. The Orthodox theological approach, on the other hand, begins with the Person of Jesus as the starting point for understanding God’s revelation of Himself. Many forms of Western christianity fall short at this very point. They start with some rarified philosophical construct regarding the nature of God, and then only afterwards begin to ask how such a God could have taken on flesh. But such an approach is entirely backwards. We do not speculate on God’s essence so that we can figure out who Jesus really is. Instead, we start by looking at Jesus, so that He can reveal to us who God really is. We do not start by “doing theology” so that we may conjure up a mental picture of God. Rather, God has already appeared to us in Christ, and after seeing Him, the Church attempts to piece together a verbal semblance of a description.
And while the Person of Christ is the ultimate revelation of the Father (cf. Heb. 1:1-4), He is not the sole locus for one’s experience of God in a phenomenological manner. Prior to His Incarnation, other theophanies have also appeared unto men, giving them a way to experience the energies of God directly, and to escape mere philosophical speculation. Examples include God’s appearance to Moses via the burning bush, to Moses via the darkness at the top of the mountain, to Israel via the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, and to Daniel via dreams and visions. None of these saints of old were speculative philosophers; God manifested Himself to them directly, and then they sought for words to describe their experiences.
Existential vs. Intellectual
Existential knowledge is that which is understood via experience rather than by mere reason. This sort of knowledge is gained empirically, rather than theoretically. This distinction may be likened to the difference between a man who embraces his wife within the context of a marital union, and a man who always sits alone reading books about romance. Both men may claim knowledge regarding marriage, but only the first man acquired his knowledge directly.
In the context of Orthodoxy, true theology consists in the experience of God, not in speculative reasoning about Him. As noted earlier, such experiences of God may involve the direct appearance of God via some sort of theophany. Of course, God also uses many other manifestations of His energies to grant people various experiences of His presence. God can show His mercy to someone via one of His priests, God can pour generosity upon someone via one of the faithful, and God can manifest His love to the world via mutual acts of love demonstrated within His Church. When a person encounters God’s energies flowing through His Church in these ways, he experiences God directly in a way which cannot happen through mere reading or reasoning. This is one of the reasons why apologetics exercises are often unfruitful, when not supplemented with loving friendship relationships. Apologetics exercises often confine the interlocutors to the realm of speculation and reason, whereas the non-orthodox person’s greatest need is to have a direct encounter with the presence of God.
Text-based apologetics is relatively easy, since it merely requires the creative combinations of words, concepts, and logic. Moving to existentially-based apologetics is much more difficult, because the character of the apologist suddenly becomes an issue, as does the relationship between the interlocutors. Speaking the truth is one thing. Living the truth is another.
Ontological vs. Intellectual
Ontology has to do with the intrinsic nature of a person or a thing, whereas merely intellectual descriptions consist of abstract philosophical mental constructs. A human’s organ of sense is best suited for a particular focus of study, according to how well it is attuned to the ontology of the being or object being studied. Flowers, for example, possess an ontology which renders them suitable for observation via the eyes and nose. Violins, on the other hand, are best appreciated by the ear. As for taste buds, they are best suited for investigating the ontology of cheesecakes. To the best of my knowledge, no great poetry has been written which praises the interaction of ear with flower. The ear may be in perfect working order, but it is not an organ which is suited for perceiving the pertinent aspects of flower-ness.
When we directly experience the energies of God, we perceive Him not via mere intellect, but rather through the process of noesis. Our nous, not our mind, is our spiritual organ which most directly perceives God’s energies. Seeking to know God strictly via our intellect may be likened to watching a televised symphony with the sound muted. While our eyes may be able to detect certain truths about the symphony—it’s size, location, conductor, etc.—we would still be missing out on the most important aspects of that symphony’s energies. We would be studying the symphony, but we would be doing so with the wrong sense-organ. So it is when we pursue God with our intellect alone.
Personal vs. Intellectual
When philosophers hypothesize God’s existence as being a necessary pre-condition for their impersonal philosophical constructs, it is unsurprising when the “God” they discover is himself impersonal. Indeed, rationalistic philosophy can reason backwards to a “first cause” who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. And these reasonings have at least a shadow of truth, as far as they go. But no amount of reasoning can ever inductively discover the heart of the matter . . . neither Plato, nor Aristotle, nor Descartes, nor Leibnitz, nor Kant was ever able to follow his reasoning all the way back to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Rationalistic philosophy may have experienced greater or lesser success in identifying certain descriptions which might be considered necessary aspects of divinity, but rationalism is utterly unable to discover the identity of those Divine Persons themselves.
I could study “humanity” until I was blue in the face, and that still would not give me any intimate knowledge of my own wife. I can learn some general things about her by studying “humanity”, but to truly know her, I must encounter her directly as a unique person. So it is with the three Persons of God. No matter how much I profess to know about the “attributes of God” from a rationalistic perspective, I still do not know God until I directly encounter the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Mystical vs. Intellectual
Mystical union with God is theosis . . . the ultimate goal of the Christian life. This divinization cannot be contained within the finite limits of the human intellect. Rather, the human intellect is itself contained by the experience. The intellect is a useful tool on the path to theosis, as long as we do not mistakenly think that intellectual satisfaction is itself the goal. Like a road sign with arrows, pointing out the great chasm that lies just ahead, the intellect serves as a guide, keeping our feet on the path toward theosis. But mentally appropriating the sign is not the same as experiencing the vast chasm itself. When we finally reach the chasm, and our stomach flutters as we lean ever-so-slightly over the edge, there is no room left for road signs. Our mouth is stopped in awe, and our intellect is dumbfounded, as our entire being is enraptured and swallowed up by something which is far beyond our power to either grasp or explain.
Methodological Progression Without Reduction to Philosophy
It is possible for Orthodox theology to develop its methodology without reducing itself to a simple philosophical system. It is possible, but it is not easy. The great risk lies in the fact that Orthodox theological writing—like Catholic & Protestant theological writing—is restricted to using words. And since mere words can easily be contained within the human mind, we are under the constant temptation to believe that our greatest books have somehow “boiled down theology” into a form which can be grasped by the intellect, and which can therefore be pitted directly against heretical theologies, via a contest of words alone.
But the word “rainbow” can have no meaning to a blind man. And a symphony is mere wind to the deaf. We must remember that our meager attempts to articulate the experience of God will similarly be incomprehensible to any person who has not personally experienced Him. It does no good to tell a person that his drink will taste like an orange, if that person has never tasted an orange before. Without having shared a similar past experience, the word “orange” can be nothing more than an arrangement of letters without meaning, a concept without content. So it is with “explaining” God.
To avoid the trap of speculative philosophy, we must refuse the urge to relegate Orthodox theology to mere books. Theologically oriented books should be written and read only within the context of the life of the Church. As proper preparation for reading Lossky, we should pray. Before forming our conclusions regarding Staniloae’s writing, we should attend a divine liturgy so that we may worship. The sacrament of confession should not only precede our participation in Holy Communion; it should also precede any attempts to write theological books. And in our dealings with others, we should remember that our conversations with those people about God are no more crucial than our conversations with God about those people. Above all, we must show kindness and love to them. We should not expect that anyone will be converted to Orthodoxy via mere words. Rather, we must give them an experience of God, as He works through us.