Thursday, October 5, 2017

Why: A Pastoral Prolegomena to Theodicy

When tragedy strikes and suffering raises its ugly head, a common response that a person may have is the question: “Why?” This question often ranges along such lines as: Why did this happen to me? Why did this happen to my loved one(s)? Why did this happen to my community, my home, my health, my life? Why does this keep happening to me? And so on.

In seeking to answer such questions, people will often attempt all manner of responses, from the physical to the metaphysical. People will invoke causes of all sorts, or ends of all sorts, whether it be God or man or nature. One thing worth lingering on, however, and prior to any physical or metaphysical explanation, is this phenomenon of asking Why.

What does the question of Why tell us about ourselves, and what does this impulse to ask the question tell us about our suffering? It would seem that within the human psyche is this instinct to ask Why. The question Why, however, is peculiar, for its nature is to cause a person to look beyond the immediate, sensory situation. This is significant because it means that within the human make-up there is a natural instinct to look beyond the immediate environment and to inquire into causes and ends, and it seems that suffering’s peculiarity is especially found in that it drives us to ask Why with existential urgency.

Suffering, of course, is not the only thing to cause us to ask Why, but suffering charges the Why with an energy which mere curiosity or fascination do not typically cause. For example, curiosity and fascination often do not cause a person to ask Why because the enjoyment of some curious or fascinating object is often sufficient to cause the mind to become entrained and so remain with the object rather than seek to inquire into its Why. Suffering, however, apparently because of its unpleasantness, drives the mind to look away from the immediate situation and so look to some other thing, typically a search for a causal explanation or solution. In this way suffering itself is what gives to the Why a decisive and compelling force.

In light of the foregoing, suffering is that which naturally impels a person to meditate and to reflect upon that which transcends one’s immediate environment. Thus suffering uniquely provides to the psyche an opportunity to exercise its innate ability to look into the nature of events and circumstances, whether this be at the level of physical causation or metaphysical causation. The mind intuitively senses that there are deeper causes and meanings to the events of our lives, and so, prior to any answer, the question Why tells us something very meaningful about ourselves.

In conclusion, suffering plays a positive role in the development of wisdom and, it could be said that, without suffering the search for wisdom becomes highly unlikely. Although suffering is unpleasant, its very unpleasantness plays a vital and decisive role in human development, both personally and communally. By providing a compelling energy to the question of Why, the sense of suffering naturally drives our mind to look beyond our immediate, tragic environment so as to look into a larger and more meaningful existence.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Mind is Fractured: Reflections on Suffering and the Jesus Prayer

Stillness and watchfulness, which is to say hesychia and nepsis, are together a profound science of healing given by the Church to all of her children, “a way that is wonderful and most scientific” (St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite, Proem to the Philokalia). What, then, does it heal, and how does it do so? The present discussion will attempt to answer these two questions.

The mind is fractured by egotism, desire, and anger along a million subtle faultlines, and it is this inward fracturing that is bound up with all of our suffering. In this context, suffering refers specifically to the mental and emotional anguish caused by the passions, the darkening energies or inner movements which swirl about within us, clouding our vision and stirring up our will to depart from Goodness and from Life. The mind (nous) is darkened, and because the soul is not compartmentalized, this wounding darkness insinuates itself into all that we think, feel, say, and do. Rather than being filled with joy and love, contentment and calm, thanking God for His mercy and providence, we become rather proud and ungrateful, confused and dull, and so our darkened mind looks upon and interprets all that befalls according to the contours of our vanity and egotism, the million subtle faultlines of our passions.

With this darkened mind, then, the faultlines of pride produce faulty vision, a false interpretation, if you will, of oneself, others, and the world, a mode of seeing which comes to control or poison our life, a mode which then becomes the delivery system of our suffering; for all suffering requires interpretation in order to exist as suffering, which is to say mental and emotional anguish. In this sense, suffering is an interpretive act. Even natural physical pain, for example, is not automatically or unconditionally experienced as mental and emotional anguish, as many exercise enthusiasts will affirm, for when the exercise is such that it produces soreness, the exerciser interprets the soreness to “mean” that he or she is getting stronger, thus causing happiness instead of anguish. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is a post-pain, post-sensation interpretation born of a mindset that preceded any given experience of suffering.

Suffering is equivocal, for it can either refer to pain considered in and of itself, or to the anguish produced by the passions in reaction to sensory events, and it is in this second sense that the assigned meaning of sensation becomes determinative of whether or not the experience is one of “suffering.” For example, St. Paul teaches that “Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy (χαρά, chara) set before Him endured (ὑπομένω, hypomenō) the cross, despising (καταφρονέω, kataphroneō) the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Since the Cross involved not only physical pain but also anguish, St. Paul teaches that there was a superior meaning or purpose given to the Cross which enabled Christ to not only endure it but even to understand the cursed shame of it to be as it were nothing (καταφρονέω, kataphroneō) in comparison. In this sense, the passion or suffering of Christ was not the defining characteristic of His Cross, but the joy which was set before Him. In other words, the joyful reality which transcends the Cross completely redefined the experience of His crucifixion such that we can even glory (καυχάομαι, kauchaomai) in the Cross (Galatians 6:14).

And not only in Christ’s suffering can we glory, St. Paul teaches likewise of ourselves in Romans: “And not only this, but we also exult (glory, boast, from καυχάομαι, kauchaomai) in our tribulations (pressure, pressing together, from θλῖψις, thlipsis), knowing that tribulation brings about (accomplishes, achieves, from κατεργάζομαι, katergazomai) perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). In other words, suffering is eclipsed and brought into subservience to a greater reality.

Likewise, St. James: “Consider it all joy (χαρά, chara), my brethren, when you encounter various trials (afflictions, adversities, from πειρασμός, peirasmos), knowing that the testing (proving, from δοκίμιον, dokimion) of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).

In short, suffering is not a brute fact of sensation like, say, the color red or the hardness of stone. Suffering, from πάσχω (paschō), means to be acted upon, affected, to have a sensible experience, as by an extra-subjective source acting upon the senses, and thus all suffering requires interpretation, for suffering is an interpretation. But as seeing red or feeling a stone is to interpret color and hardness at the level of the five physical senses, in the case of mental and emotional suffering there is an additional dimension, that of the meaning assigned to the sensation. The eye senses or sees the color red, but the mind interprets this, say, as red blood. Seeing the movement of red blood, then, the mind can interpret this as bleeding, and whether this is an injury, a surgery, an accident, a crime, or an emergency or not would have to be built from other interpreted percepts.
This, then, brings up the all-important issue of the mind (nous), for if the mind, the principle interpretive instrument of the soul, is that which in a manner of speaking creates suffering through its being fractured, then the mind is also that which can transcend suffering through its coming into wholeness. This is why the fractured mind is such a real problem, for everyone wants to relieve their suffering, but merely wanting to relieve it cannot accomplish anything because the mind will continue to remain fractured for as long as the necessary steps are not taken in order to unify it. Suffering, however, is not merely an issue of misinterpretation or misperception, but since instances of suffering are built of an interpretation borne of the mind’s fractured vision, without addressing this root fracture there is no possibility of addressing suffering at the depth level. Since the mind (nous), as noted above, touches if not comprises the whole being, and not only the intellect (dianoia), its fracture necessarily includes also that of the will and the emotions.

Therefore, the unification of the mind is the most important possible subject and work for a human being to engage in. This, moreover, being an outgrowth and consequence of faith, is an essential component of the Orthodox spiritual path, because the spiritual path is one of unification, union, and communion. Unless one actively, intentionally, decisively, and persistently engages with this path of making whole the fractured mind, then quite simply it will never happen. Therefore, upon the foundation of faith it is of utmost importance that one begin, and begin with knowledge, for without know-how nothing can be accomplished, not even accidentally. It is the path we must follow if we are to be free of the endless, repetitive cycles of pain we experience as a result of our impassioned, fractured minds.

The essential practice is simply to focus the mind ceaselessly on the highest possible unifying object, which ultimately is the Name of Truth, which is to say the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the “one essential work, to pray unceasingly in the heart” (St. Nicodemos, Proem). Now, the substance of the Name is the Named, which is to say the Person Himself, and so by focusing increasingly and ceaselessly on the Name of Truth, the Lord Jesus Christ, He Himself comes to be “formed” within the soul (Galatians 4:19), and “Christ be formed in your hearts by faith” (Ephesians 3:17). Over time, one’s mind and body, as a psychosomatic unity otherwise confused and enmeshed with sensory life, “our excessive attachment to visible things” (St. Nicodemos, Proem), converts more and more of its resources to this intentional act of focusing on the transcendental Christ, until deeper and deeper layers of the enmeshed psyche are slowly but surely liberated and motivated to join in the act of communing with Him: “Christ [who] is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

His presence in the soul will itself effect the healing, for “through the warmth and energy that arise in the heart by means of the invocation of the All-holy name of Christ, the passions are consumed” (St. Nicodemos, Proem). This then heals the fractures of the psyche such that “the mind and the heart are gradually purified and are united with one another,” becoming whole and unified in Him, “God, the Blessed Nature, the Transcendent Perfection, the Creative Principle of all good and beautiful things, Transcendently Good and Beautiful” (St. Nicodemos, Proem). And more than ourselves, “This union is the final goal towards which are directed the creation of the world and the Dispensation of the Logos of God for our well-being, both temporal and eternal” (St. Nicodemos, Proem).

The state of the unified mind is indescribable, but it is characterized by calm joy, serene inner freedom, boundless compassion, and humble sobriety, and in the words of St. Paul, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-3). In order to attain this, one must work and work until the energy of the ego is completely converted to the task of intentionally, decisively, and persistently focusing itself on the Lord, with the guarding of the mind from alien thoughts and passions, on the one hand, and pure, undistracted, and concentrated prayer, on the other: “For without the unceasing remembrance of the Lord, and purity of the heart and mind from everything evil - a purity generated by this practice - it is impossible to bear fruit” (St. Nicodemos, Proem).

This complete conversion of the energy of the ego to the ceaseless flow of attention to the Lord is the crucification of the ego, the death by means of which the soul enters into Life, and Life into the soul, for the Lord is the Life of the soul. This is the Way of healing the fractured mind, which is also the Lord, for the Lord is Life and also Way. No other solution will work. If one is not connected to faith, which is the energy of the Lord working within the soul, the energy which connects the soul to, and also sustains it on, this path, then run, do not walk, to the exit. Enter immediately onto the Way. There is no point spending another minute of your life on something that will ultimately not solve your basic existential problem. The way to begin is to ceaselessly focus the mind on the All-holy Name: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” and so "let the Jesus Prayer be your breath" (St. Nicodemos).

In conclusion, practice, practice, practice, for this is "the science of sciences and the art of arts," and let the thirst for remembrance of the Lord grow such that it conquers all of your other thirsts, and slowly your mind will unify in the experience of complete inner harmony through the presence of the Indwelling Christ. By absorbing oneself in the Lord, one will together with Him transcend all suffering for the greater joy that has been laid before you, "For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3).

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Epistemology of Faith: Evidence and Atheism

In a previous article was stated:

“We can measure gravity, share love, live in peace, receive justice, know truth, give mercy, and celebrate beauty, when none of these things are in themselves strictly reducible to the empirical; and the means by which we engage with these invisible realities is embedded in the epistemological process termed faith. Despite being manifest through evidence, they transcend the evidence, and so it is said that we have faith in something, say love, and then point to the visible evidences of it.

In particular I would like to draw attention to the last sentence, because it provides a point which connects with a peculiarity present in the notion of proof, for despite being manifest through evidence, the objects of faith cannot be reduced to the empirical evidence. The objects of faith express themselves through the evidence, but the evidences considered in themselves are not an identity with the object of faith, therefore the evidence does not and cannot prove the object of faith, merely express it to those who “have eyes to see.”

The question many atheists ask is: “Can you prove that God exists?” And many well-meaning theists will attempt to oblige, but no matter what is said nothing can come of it. The atheist seems impervious to any sort of explanation, whether it be a point related to the meaning of a term, or to larger issues such as the complex and interrelated nature of the universe, and any number of things between. The frustrated theist reflects, reviews, and ruminates over what other approaches could have been taken, but none of them could have worked, and here’s why.

Epistemologically, no matter how obvious and true it is, nothing about empirical evidence proves an object of faith. Thus, the proofs of God cannot force a person to believe in God, and the reason has to do with the peculiar and non-empirical nature of the objects of faith, whether it be love, truth, justice, or whatever. Faith is not designed to force one’s hand. Faith implies trust, and so if there is force, even force of logic, then there is no trust, no faith.

Hearkening to the quote above, the empirical aspect of something is not the foundation or ground of the object of faith, say love, for the empirical is the vehicle of transmission or communication of the non-empirical. While the non-empirical exists independently from the empirical, it is transmitted empirically in a way which is necessarily unproveable on the basis of the empirical act considered in itself. Faith is the means by which the non-empirical object, say love, is communicated and connected with, but the object of faith, love, is not thereby proved.

For example, taking again the example of a mother giving her child a hot chocolate, the empirical act is not an identity with the love, for a hateful barista could give the same drink. The love is given through the drink, but it is not found in the drink or in the physical act of giving. By examining the mere empirical act of handing over a hot chocolate, there is nothing intrinsic to the empirical act that “proves” there is love. The love can only be perceived by faith, either in giving or in receiving, and thus the hot chocolate becomes evidence, but it is not proof.

It would be absurd for the mom to state that she just proved she loved the child by giving them a hot chocolate, for obviously one can give a drink without love. Likewise, one cannot prove the existence of gravity by examining the particular object that falls. One could take the object and put it under a microscope, but gravity will never be discovered that way. Gravity, like love, must be perceived through an act of mind which is distinct from the merely empirical percept.

In short, by looking merely at the empirical, there is nothing necessitating that one believe that there is also love, or hate, or gravity, or peace, or justice, etc. Therefore, the atheist is not compelled through the giving of evidence to believe in that which by nature transcends the evidence. No matter how many hot chocolates he is given by his loving mother, he is not compelled to believe his mother actually loves him. Technically, he can always doubt. Of course, his pleas of doubt are as completely unconvincing as a color blind man’s disputing of color, although to his own ears the atheist is bound to sound clever and technical.

He can doubt that a peaceful person has any peace, that a loving person has any love, that a beautiful sky has any beauty, that a court of law has any justice, etc., because doubt is a process, not a content. He can go on and on and on. Thus, when a theist tries to convince an atheist of the existence of God, even by giving mountains of evidence of exceeding perspicuity and logic, God is just one more item that can technically be subjected to doubt. Evidence does not bind him to believe, and since objects of faith cannot be reduced to their means of expression, their evidence, no amount of said evidence will prove the case. The hundredth cup of hot chocolate will not prove there is love, the gentle smile and warm handshake will not prove there is kindness, and in principle nothing can prove God to them. God can only be touched through faith.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Hermeneutic Impossibility of Sola Scriptura

One of the key problems with sola Scriptura is its failure to be able to provide, in principle, a sustainably authoritative hermeneutic, for at no point does the fallible reader of Scripture ascend beyond fallibility. Certainty, beyond a mere willfulness, must remain elusive. To attempt to counter this problem, one of the principle supports of sola Scriptura is the doctrine of the clarity or “perspicuity” of Scripture, that, according to the Westminster Confession, states (Chapter 1:7):

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

In other words, the essentials of salvation, such as the full divinity and humanity of Christ, the Trinity, the nature and scope of the Atonement, Justification by Faith, the relationship of Faith and Works, of Law and Grace, and all the basic doctrines necessary to salvation, are so abundantly clear from Scripture that no extraordinary means are necessary to understand them (though perhaps not to a “saving understanding,” as the section prior to that which was quoted could be said to imply). A careful look at this doctrine, however, is that it is not merely a claim about the clarity of Scripture, but about the reading and understanding of Scripture; it is about fallen man’s ability to read and understand the sacred truths of Scripture without any extraordinary support.

As will be argued, the problem with Sola Scriptura is thus not centered on the authority of the Scriptures, but the authority of any given interpretation of the Scriptures, for (1:10)

The Supreme Judge, by whom all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

In other words, all being submitted to Scripture, no decree of council, no Church Father (“ancient writer”), no doctrine formulated by men, can have any authority, intrinsic or bestowed, but only the Holy Spirit “speaking in the Scripture,” which is inexorably to mean: as read, interpreted, and understood by fallible man. Careful observation will note that, since according to Reformed dogma all individual readers are in principle fallible, the assertion of the Bible’s unequaled authority is emptied of its force, and the Holy Spirit’s right guidance unverifiable, for fallible man cannot be removed from the interpretive equation. The question thus remains: Which fallible man is doing the examining and determining, and by what principle should he or his cohorts be trusted to be interpreting truly and on behalf of the Holy Spirit? What principle cause for trust can be given to any one his readings? In other words, by what principle ought someone believe, say, Athanasius or Augustine, Luther or Calvin, Sammy or Johnny? What guarantees their trustworthiness? Or proves their untrustworthiness? Since man is fallible, and even “the purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error” (25.5), then what guarantees that the Holy Spirit is really guiding any of them aright?

One could argue that Luther and Calvin are Scriptural, but this answer brings one right back to the dilemma of, “Says who?” Who, other than fallible readers, declares that they are Scriptural? Why should one believe the report that they are Scriptural? On what basis is the appeal being made? If fallible readers state that they are Scriptural, and then points at Scripture in order to prove it, then the same holds for Arians and Unitarians, for they also argue for their position by pointing to Scripture. The appeal then collapses back onto the assertion of some fallible individual interpreter, where the individual interpreter is consequently made the arbiter of authority and of orthodoxy, the discerner of the Holy Spirit.

Other than oneself, no one else can be hermeneutically trusted, and even self is considered suspect. According to this view, the hermeneutic authority doesn't rest in the Church, and is in principle denied because Reformed thinking paradigmatically and dogmatically stands upon Scripture Alone. For example, no reference to the Church Fathers could carry any type of binding authority, and the extreme conditional acceptance of any other person's reading of Scripture is always filtered through the “isolated” and individual arbiter of truth: “Do I agree that they are Scriptural? Am I persuaded?” Thus the notion of perspicuity fails, for nothing is finally clear because no one is clearly trustable, and appeals to the Holy Spirit's infallible guiding of fallible readers does not overcome the trust problem. Persuasion is all that is left, and since the interpreting individual is inextricably bound up with the trust problem at all points, even if hypothetically he were correct, in principle no one could ever be sure. What is more, the historic and complex debates regarding Christian doctrine have demonstrated amply that core doctrines regarding the essentials of salvation - such as the divinity and humanity of Christ, the three co-equal Persons of the Trinity, to name only two issues - have been anything but easy to resolve.

For example, if two men, say a Reformed and an Orthodox Christian, both present a reading of Scripture or some theological proposition, then a third man must ask, “Why ought, or how can, I trust either of you?” Since according to his paradigm Tradition carries no real authority, the Reformed Christian will begin pointing to Scripture, and seek to persuade based on his ability to synthesize targeted Scriptural verses, and thus appeal to the third man's feelings and intellect, so as to convince him that his reading is the right one. This situation, however, describes a closed loop between the two men and Scripture. The appeal is founded on that individual Reformed Christian's personal skill with handling Scripture, and in principle no adding to the number of fallible Reformed Christians in this scenario will help because at each point the appeal is to the persuasive skill of the person pointing to the Scripture. Since neither Church nor Tradition can in principle be trusted, nothing beyond individual persuasion and personal conviction can in principle be had. The question, “Why should I believe you?” therefore cannot be answered except by appealing to the limited and admittedly fallible skill of the Reformed expert and the impressibility of the one being persuaded. Considering how many are converted to various heretical movements, whether by intellectual, emotional, or mystical persuasion, the notion of trusting that one is in the true Church is not securely founded beyond the personal persuadedness.
The Orthodox Christian, on the other hand, appeals to something much broader than his own personal skill at reading and synthesizing Scripture. He appeals to the whole Church’s reading together with her unbroken, historic, and living Tradition. In short, the Church has a hermeneutic authority that is impossible to the Reformed Christian. The fallible man is compensated for by the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. It is therefore the collective witness of Christ’s Orthodox Church, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15), that is the source of appeal, and so her wisdom is transpersonal and rooted in Christ Himself who founded it and promised that the gates of hell shall not prevail over it (Matthew 16:18).

If one cannot trust the Church, one cannot yet then trust the Reformed Christian, for at no point does his hermeneutic have any authority beyond his personality. If he is outside the Church (however he might conceive of it) then he is of course no Christian, but even if he is in the Church, then it makes no difference for him as regards his hermeneutic, because as a member of a fallible Church he still has no personal hermeneutic authority. His reading can never escape the gravity well of his personality. Between the two, the Reformed and the Orthodox, it is therefore the untrustworthiness of the Reformed position that ultimately defeats him. It is unsustainable to simply keep pointing to the Scripture when the finger doing the pointing appeals only to his own skill at pointing. The pointing finger becomes the elephant in the room. That is why, in order to escape the bounds of the fallible ego, the Church’s hermeneutic authority must be presupposed in all Christian inquiry and persuasion, because the Scriptures themselves demand the presence of the Church as, together, having synergistic authority. In short, the Church is an epistemic precondition of the hermeneutic act, and consequently of authoritative, orthodox theology.

Thus, with the foregoing in mind, it is noteworthy that regarding the Orthodox position it is not a Council qua Council that is authoritative in the Church, but the Church itself speaking in a council. There have been false councils, and so the appeal to a Council's decision is not to the Council per se, but to the voice of the Holy Spirit rooted infallibly in the ontology of the Church, within which the Council was made to happen and through which He came to speak. It is therefore the Church, considered mystically since as Bride she is ontologically rooted in Christ Himself and thus cannot be a merely human institution, that must and does have the hermeneutic authority to rightly divide Scripture. Thus the appeal of the Orthodox Christian is to the very Bride of Christ. She is the proper interpreter of Scripture, and speaking as the Body, whether through Councils or approved Fathers of the Church, she defeats the individualistic appeals of the Reformed communities who paradigmatically stand in constant judgment of the Church, Christ's Bride, and so outside of her. Since to stand in judgment of something is to stand outside of it, the Reformed communities are in very principle outside the Church considered as such, placing themselves outside of her, for she is ever put in the dock.

An authoritative text requires an authoritative mechanism of transmission in order to be delivered with any certainty. This step is missing in the doctrine of sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura simply posits a perfect text, but hermeneutically speaking it is rendered impossible to approach authoritatively, for one can never really trust, in a philosophical sense, that one either has the proper text or that one has the right reading of it. The text becomes isolated behind a wall of untouchable perfection - for everything else is reduced to human opinion. The problem with this is that the claim that it is a perfect and authoritative text ends up becoming mere opinion, for there is no personal or ecclesial authority lending anything to the claim that Scripture is authoritative. Yes, the text is perfect and authoritative, but without the Church one cannot claim its perfection with any certain authority. There might be any number of Christians who share that opinion, but the fact that, according to sola Scriptura, authority is not implicitly granted to the Church therefore renders the claim’s ascendency beyond opinion impossible in very principle, no matter how many people may agree with the opinion that it is perfect and authoritative.

The Church, however, being the pillar and ground of the truth (1Timothy 3:15), is the authoritative delivery mechanism for the Scriptures, bringing them to the people of God. The impossibility of the contrary leaves no real option, for otherwise the text of Scripture is doomed to all manner of division and heresy as there is only vying opinions about a so-called infallible text. But who gives the authoritative text? God, yes. But who does God give it to? The Church. And the Church receives it and passes it down, which is to say “traditions” it. Without the Church’s authority, what comprises the right interpretation of Scripture is constantly and irresolvably open to debate, division, and subdivision. God, however, does not deposit His Scripture in an unworthy vessel. Just as Christ is a “scandal of particularity,” so the Church is a grace-protected extension of this “scandal,” one which extends itself through history via disciplic apostolic succession, which is to say an unbroken organic continuity of Orthodox Christians throughout history. If Christians can affirm that Christ really did die and rise again, that He created the world out of nothing, then it is no stretch to affirm the historical reality of the unbroken and historically contiguous Orthodox Church.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Faith in the Unseen: Atheism and Special Pleading

Common among many atheist arguments is the presupposition that the act of “faith” is something that, if done, is done instead of relying on evidence, perhaps even in opposition to relying on evidence. According to this view, faith is something exclusively reserved for religion, and science is proffered as an alternative to faith, relying as it does on empiricism, which is to say reliance on direct, testable observation. Of course, the very notion of relying on evidence implies that one is performing an act of faith in evidence, for faith, coming from the Greek term pistis (πίστις), means to trust in or to rely on, to have conviction of the truth of something, from peithō (πείθω), which means to be persuaded, as in by argument or demonstration, and not only as regards transcendental matters but mundane also.

A certain problem thus immediately arises for the atheist, a problem which ought to be raised, because to restrict faith to such a narrow, religious range of meaning is to stack the deck against religion in order to isolate acts of faith from acts of reason, and through the fallacy of special pleading exclude the many acts of faith that atheists commit each day. For example, an atheist will say that it is not “true” that God exists, but within that statement is presupposed some notion of truth.

Now, truth is invisible. Truth cannot be seen or heard, but must be abstracted from what is seen and heard. One may see many true things, but the things themselves are not truth. Truth is being claimed about some aspect of those things, but the truth itself is not those things. And yet, atheists typically affirm that they believe in truth.

Likewise, logic is unseen. One can see evidence for it in various types of statements, but logic itself is not empirical, and transcends the instances in which it is discerned. What is more, concepts are not empirical, one may see ink on a page, but the word written there is only mentally perceived, and certainly the concept which is expressed by the word is in itself non-empirical. And yet, atheists purport to rely on logic.

Again, love is concealed from the naked eye. One may observe many acts of love, but love itself remains hidden from view. For example, a mother may provide her child some hot chocolate on a cold winter day, and through this act one might perceive that there is love present. On another cold day, a person could order a hot chocolate from a coffee shop, and perceive in this act no love is present. Of course, the situation could be reversed and the mom be said to have no love, and the barista to be most loving. The point at hand, however, is that love is not an identity with the act of giving hot chocolate. The love itself is invisible, and the mere act of giving a drink is insufficient to determine whether or not love is there. And yet, atheists will often extol the real value of love, basing claims of accusation against religionists on a perceived lack of love.

What is more, peace is invisible. Peace is not simply the visible act of not fighting, or the visible act of sitting still. Even if one were to identify an act of peace, one must yet have an abstract criteria which transcends the act and which enables the act to be described as peaceful. One does not “see” peace, one perceives the invisible peace via empirical percepts.

Yet again, gravity itself is invisible. People see things fall all the time, but seeing something fall is not seeing gravity itself. One can test for the effects gravity may have on an object, but gravity itself is out of empirical view. In fact, many scientific realities are not directly verifiable empirically, only the effects they have on the things that are being measured.

In sum, there are many invisible, non-empirical “things” that most atheists would grant are in some sense real, especially in cases such as gravity. The question remains, how does this relate to faith, especially to “religious” faith?

St. Paul describes the nature of faith: “Now faith is the substance [ὑπόστασις, hypostasis] of things hoped for, the evidence [ἔλεγχος, elegchos] of things not seen. … By faith we understand [νοέω, noeō] that the worlds have been framed by the word of God, so that what is seen hath not been made out of things which appear [φαίνω, phainō]” (Hebrews 11:1, 3).

In other words, faith is the intellectual substance or substructure of what is not immediately present to the senses. Faith is that act which perceives what is only mediately present through phenomena (φαίνω, phainō). Faith is the organ, so to speak, by which one understands (νοέω, noeō) and interacts with that which undergirds phenomena, what ties together the disparate experiences of the senses into a rational construct or hypostasis. Faith is the mind’s noetic substantiation of invisible, non-empirical realities, including such things as truth, logic, love, and gravity. For example, love produces many effects, but the effects of love cannot be a mere identity with love, otherwise a hateful barista’s giving of a hot chocolate would be indistinguishable from the act of love of the tender mother giving her child the same type of drink on a wintry day. Faith is thus the mind’s transempirical perception of such things as love, and also the means by which one performs empirical acts of love.

Moreover, St. Paul does not describe faith as: “faith is in the substance of things hoped for.” Neither does he define faith as: “faith is… in the evidence of things not seen.” Rather, faith is itself the substance and evidence or proof of things distant and invisible, i.e. that which is not known by the senses but discerned by the mind. Faith is thus something much more substantial and epistemological, for it is that by which we understand (νοέω, noeō) the invisible things or causes in which phenomena are rooted. In other words, an object’s visible falling is rooted in the invisible thing or force called gravity, and faith is the operation of the human mind by which one can perceive or understand that gravitational force which gives rise to the empirical falling.

Since gravity itself is not sensed, only its effects on various objects, faith is the epistemological process by which we connect the effects on those various objects to the source of those effects, i.e. gravity. In short, even though gravity is invisible, we have faith that there is such a thing called gravity because we understand the evidence, i.e. its effects, and perceive these effects as unified in a thing called gravity. Likewise, we have faith that our mother loves us because the various actions she performs visibly can be hypostatically unified in what is understood as love.

In this sense, faith is understood as the normal process of understanding from sensory experience that which is not itself reducible to sensory experience, and as such bears a resemblance to the cognitive process of abstraction, though in the case of faith it also includes that by which one can perform acts of or from that noetically perceived hypostasis, for example acts of love. It is also that by which we can receive these realities through their effects, as in, say, receiving acts of love as acts of love. Faith is, as such, not only that by which we understand these things, but also that by which we connect with, enact, and receive them. In other words, we can measure gravity, share love, live in peace, receive justice, know truth, give mercy, and celebrate beauty, when none of these things are in themselves strictly reducible to the empirical; and the means by which we engage with these invisible realities is embedded in the epistemological process termed faith. Despite being manifest through evidence, they transcend the evidence, and so it is said that we have faith in something, say love, and then point to the visible evidences of it.

Just as a hand is what enables us to grasp a ball, faith is what enables us to noetically “grasp” love, truth, logic, peace, etc. Moreover, just as one sees by means of eyes, it is likewise by means of faith that one perceives love, truth, logic, peace, etc. On the basis of its perception, faith is what opens the possibility of giving and receiving love, having the perception and conviction of truth, using and assessing logic, seeking and pursuing peace, etc. Just as the eye enables the mind to perceive physical forms or objects, so faith enables the mind to "see" or perceive the aforementioned noetic forms or “objects.” Faith is, in this sense, the eye of the mind; it is, as it were, the life or activity of the soul.

And so, when an atheist says they don’t rely on faith, or believe in invisible realities, but only empirical data, we can point out that this is untrue. Simply believing that there is some truth is itself the evidence in their belief in the invisible reality called truth, and their reliance on (i.e. faith in) it in acts of reliance on (i.e. acts of faith in) empirical data. Of course, God is truth, and insofar as an atheist relies on truth, he relies on God. Likewise, God is love, and insofar as an atheist advocates love, he advocates God. God is also pure being, and insofar as an atheist believes things have being, he is pointing to the hypostatic reality of God. God, although He is much more, is also the principle of order, the Logos, and so as much as an atheist declares order in the universe, he declares the principle of order, which is God. The atheist is unable to work out the balance of all these attributes or unify them in the single concept called God, mostly because of an excessive reliance on the empirical and a deep misunderstanding of the God concept, and also because of bad behavior by religionists. Nonetheless, the atheist performs acts of faith in non-empirical realities, and must in order to function as a human being, for faith is among the most typical of human activities. Only through the fallacy of special pleading can he deny this.