Friday, June 7, 2013

6) Conclusion - Saving Knowledge

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The spiritual knowledge made possible by faith is not a secret or hidden knowledge. It is γνῶσις, but it is not Gnostic. An ultimate purpose of knowledge is soteriological, and God pursues the salvation of everyone, not only that of an elite few. The Lord God does not desire the death of the wicked, but rather that they repent and live (cf. Ezek 33:11). To live is to become one with him who is life. To this end, we must come to know God by experience. “Salvation itself begins by a divine act providing direct knowledge of God” (Meyendorff 13). For our salvation, it is necessary for us to come to know the real union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ. Such knowledge is accessible only to those who have faith.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

5) Knowledge of God according to Gregory Palamas

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Philosophical challenges to the possibility of apodictically knowing God by direct experience continued into the 14th century (and today), notably in the arguments of Barlaam, who maintained that we can only know God dialectically from “revealed premises.”[24] To the assertion of “certain people” (by which he means Barlaam) that “God is knowable only through the mediation of His creatures,” Gregory Palamas replies that he is “in no way convinced.”[25] Palamas maintained continuity with the teaching of Maximus on the direct vision and knowledge of God as a divine gift.[26] God, present in us, gratuitously makes “direct vision of God” and “direct knowledge of God” possible for his faithful people, independent of rational human knowledge.[27] Palamas says nothing against rational knowledge and in fact values it highly, but he recognizes that God has “hidden… things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes” (Matt 11:25). It is possible by God’s grace, which is abundantly present in our created and Christologically restored nature, for a person without rational knowledge and without knowledge of created beings nonetheless to know God spiritually and directly.

The unknowable God is made knowable to the saints by the transcending of their minds – “for the mind becomes supercelestial.”[28] That is, he who ascended into the heavens has spiritually taken with him all those who are united to him so that they may be “filled with all the immaterial knowledge of a higher light.”[29]  The human mind in Christ has ascended in glory, thus enabling human minds to contemplate that glory directly. Our capacity for ascending in and with Christ to contemplation and knowledge of God is inseparable from our salvation, which Christ accomplishes by uniting us to himself. Only in becoming one with God by grace can we truly know God.

Palamas writes, “God is not only beyond knowledge, but also beyond unknowing.”[30] Palamas then later deepens the complexity of this expression: “In reality there remains an unknowing which is beyond knowledge.”[31] This is the “knowledge that is beyond wisdom” regarded by the irreverent as “foolishness.”[32] No paradox is sufficient to express the experience of the presence God, but both the positive reality of that experience and its absolute ineffability must each be maintained without neglect of the other.

We must not mistake apophatic expressions to be descriptive of the experience of God. They create an absence in the mind in which God’s presence is experienced and known, but that absence is not his presence. His presence is not describable in the terms of absence any more than it is describable in any other terms.

Palamas introduced the concept of God’s essence and energies into the discussion of the knowledge of God, seeking to maintain both the knowability of God by grace and the unknowability of God by nature. Referencing Palamas, Jaroslav Pelikan states the case well, “Since the ousia of God ‘is altogether incomprehensible …, would we have any other means of knowing God truly' if deifying grace and light were not God himself?”[33] In his essence, God is unknowable. In his energies, God makes himself known. We become one with God in his energies and thus can know him directly. This knowledge is accessible to all people of faith.

Palamas also states the relationship of faith to the knowledge of God. He writes, “Faith… alone can attain to the truth that lies above reason”[34] Spiritual knowledge of God, as opposed to the knowledge of reason, is accessible only to faith. Without faith, there is no knowledge of God. Furthermore, without faith, there can be no deification and rational knowledge utterly fails to replace faith in this regard.[35] As for Maximus, faith for Palamas does not simply refer to an assent of the intellect to revealed propositions. Rather, it is only a faith lived that enables the believer to come to knowledge of God. “True faith,” in fact, only “comes about by the fulfilling of the commandments” and it “bestow[s] knowledge… through that uncreated light which is the glory of God.”[36] If we love God and keep his commandments, he will give us the gift of true faith, which is a true spiritual knowledge of God and an essential aspect of our salvation by union with God.

[24] Meyendorff, 6.
[25] Palamas, 25.
[26] “Palamas always remains basically faithful to the thought of St. Maximus who, together with Ps. Dionysius, is the patristic author most frequently quoted in the Triads” (Meyendorff, 13).
[27] Meyendorff, 12, 13.
[28] Palamas, 33.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid., 32.
[31] Ibid., 36.
[32] Ibid.  
[33] Jaroslav Pelikan. The Spirit of Eastern Christendom. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974. 269.; Gr. Pal. Against Akindynus. 3. 18.5 (Contos 215-16). 
[34] Palamas, 52.
[35] Ibid., 85.
[36] Ibid., 67.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

4) Knowledge of God according to Maximus the Confessor

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St. Maximus the Confessor 
The first sentence of the first century of Maximus the Confessor’s work, Chapters on Knowledge states that God is “incomprehensible” and “not discernable by any being on the basis of any natural representation.”[13] This begins a long apophatic listing of what God is not “insofar as it is possible for us to know” what he is not.[14] So then, Maximus understands knowledge of God to be possible.

How is it possible to know the unknowable God? Firstly, “no knowable object can compare in any way with [God].”[15] God is not like anything that exists. He is being and beyond being. Knowledge of created beings is demonstrable, but knowledge of God is both indemonstrable and “clearer than any demonstration.”[16] This knowledge is a divine gift.
God gives to those who are devout a proper faith and confession which are clearer than any demonstration. For faith is a true knowledge from undemonstrated principles, since it is the substance of realities which are beyond intelligence and reason.[17]
Maximus here identifies the divine source of the knowledge of God. Only God can make himself known, as he does in the person of his Son incarnate among us (cf. John 1:18). Faith is a freely given gift of God. Yet it is not a gift given to all, but only to those “who are devout.” This is the remarkable reality – to know God, we must live the faith devoutly, not merely profess it with our lips or assent to it with our rational minds. Having stepped out in faith and followed the Lord, he gives us no mere guesses, but certain assurance of his relational presence in our lives. Faith is the substance of reality, and it is not, as many suppose, whimsical and defiant belief.

MS 285 c. 1485
Armenian Patriarchate
Kaffa Monastery
In calling faith “the substance of realities,” Maximus clearly draws on Hebrews: “Now faith is the substance (ὑπόστασις) of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). It is not a far cry from this passage in Hebrews to understanding faith as “a true knowledge.” The term “substance” attests to the truth and essential reality of what one hopes for and believes in faith and the term “evidence” attests to the justification of that hoped for and believed in truth. Faith, then, is the justification of true belief. “Faith is a true knowledge.” Yet, faith as true knowledge does represent a development of the doctrine of the knowledge of God. “In speaking of faith as true knowledge, Maximus is clearly correcting Evagrius, who saw the two as different realities.”[18] 

Apparently, it was difficult for Evagrius to accept, just as it is difficult for many contemporary thinkers to accept, the full implication of Hebrews’ teaching on faith. Perhaps this is because so many limitedly understand faith as mere belief or strong opinion. There is a problem in English with the term “I believe,” which commonly translates πιστεύω. “I believe” carries multiple senses. It can mean either “I have faith” or “I have an opinion.” This range of meaning is not so wide with the Greek term, πιστεύω. Пιστεύω comes from πίστις, which means “faith.” Пιστεύω is usually translated “I believe,” but more literally it means, “I have faith” and cannot really mean, “I have an opinion.” Yet, there are semantic problems with this term in Greek as well. Belief is an act of human will, while faith is a gift of God. Yet, we humans must cooperate with God in receiving this gift and he has given us the freedom to resist it absolutely.

Maximus identifies two hindrances to the attainment of “the knowledge of divine contemplation.” Firstly, those who fail to find knowledge despite searching for it with toil “fail because of a lack of faith.”[19] Faith is the primary means of knowledge. Secondly, they fail because they are “foolishly in rivalry with those who have knowledge.”[20] Humility and asceticism are prerequisites, along with faith, for the attainment of knowledge of God.

It is not enough simply to believe the truth about God – believers must also live the faith. Only faith truly lived is true knowledge. “The one who seeks knowledge for the sake of display” will not succeed.[21] One who would attain knowledge must first prepare “by practice, first on the body, then on the soul.”[22] Significantly, the external and ascetic bodily practice of the virtues (πρακτική) precedes that action in the soul. This is “an indispensible prerequisite of contemplation,” which is, “the perception or vision of the intellect (νοῦς) through which one attains spiritual knowledge (γνῶσις)."[23] To come to the knowledge of God, it is first necessary to act according to the way of faith. Remarkably, here is an epistemology not entirely caught up in the life of the mind, as if reason and rationality were the sole things worthy of consideration when it comes to such an abstract notion as knowledge. Believers in Christ must truly live out their faith in all humility and love if they are to know anything of God. Mere philosophizing will attain to no true knowledge of God, who we can only truly know by authentic direct experience.

[13] Maximus Confessor. “Chapters on Knowledge.” Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1985. 1:1; 129.
[14] Ibid. 1:2; 129.
[15] Ibid. 1:8; 130.
[16] Ibid. 1:9; 130.
[17] Ibid. 1:9; 130.
[18] Berthold, George. “Notes.” Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1985. 171.
[19] Maximus. 1:19; 132.
[20] Ibid. 1:19; 132. 
[21] Ibid. 1:20; 132.
[22] Ibid. 1:20; 132.
 [23] G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. “Glossary.” The Philokalia. Vol. 2. London: Faber and Faber, 1981. 381.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

3) There are Two Kinds of Knowledge

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1) There is the knowledge of reason (διάνοια), which logically “draw[s] conclusions or formulate[s] concepts deriving from data provided either by revelation or spiritual knowledge or by sense observation.”[5] This kind of knowledge is the most recognized as knowledge by much of the contemporary world, especially with the rise of materialistic empiricism that considers sense observation to be the only reliable source of knowable data. Though this is a false premise, we must not allow this to motivate us to discount rational knowledge. “Even though what [rational knowledge] says about God may not be entirely adequate, it says nothing which is opposed to God.”[6] The fathers do not discount rational knowledge, but they insist that there is also another, deeper, truer kind of knowledge.

2) There is also spiritual knowledge,[7] which is
the knowledge of the intellect (νοῦς) as distinct from that of the reason (διάνοια). As such, it is knowledge inspired by God, and so linked with contemplation (θεωρία) and immediate spiritual perception.[8]
Spiritual knowledge directly apprehends or perceives “the inner essences or principles of created beings” and ultimately even “divine truth itself.”[9] Only by direct experience of God can one come to know God spiritually.

+ Fr. John Meyendorff
Mental concepts are utterly inadequate to the task of knowing divine truth. Yet, as St. Gregory Palamas writes, “the human mind… transcends itself,” making knowledge of God accessible by direct experience.[10] Knowledge of divine truth is necessarily ineffable and one can only begin to express such knowledge apophatically. Yet, as John Meyendorff writes,
apophatic theology is much more than a simple dialectical device to ascertain the transcendence of God in terms of human logic. It also describes a state, beyond the conceptual process, where God reveals himself positively to the “spiritual senses,” without losing anything of His transcendence.[11] 
Because of the inadequacy of words to describe the experience of the presence of God, negated terms more closely approximate the truth of God, but even these terms must be negated, for God transcends even their contradiction. Negative theology must not convey an absence of God nor agnosticism toward God, but rather his transcendentally knowable transcendent presence. “The mystical presence of God experienced through [apophatic knowledge] transcends the possibility of being defined in words.”[12] 

[5] G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. “Glossary.” The Philokalia. Vol. 2. London: Faber and Faber, 1981. 386.
[6] Staniloae, 95. 
[7] This is how the editors of The Philokalia translate γνῶσις, which is knowledge itself. 
[8] Palmer et al., 387.
[9] Ibid., 386.
[10] Gregory Palamas. Gregory Palamas: The Triads. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1983. 32.
[11] John Meyendorff. “Introduction.” Gregory Palamas: The Triads. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1983. 15.
[12] Staniloae, 95. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

2) Classical Philosophical Foundations of Patristic Epistemology

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The opening of Theaetetus
1578 Stephanus edition
Volume 1, Page 142
Before we can delve into the patristic understanding of the knowledge of God, it is first necessary to examine the nature of knowledge itself. The influence of classical philosophy on the thinking of the fathers of the Church can scarcely be overstated and the classical understanding of knowledge is discernable in their writings. According to the most prominent classical definition, foundationally explored by Plato in his dialogue Theaetetus, knowledge is justified true belief.

To know something or someone, it is first necessary to believe in it, or him or her. If a man does not believe something, it is nonsense to say that he knows it. It is always possible to disbelieve any truth, thus disabling knowledge of that truth. Belief is an act of the will. Perceiving it to be true, one can believe or disbelieve any true or false proposition. However, just believing something certainly does not mean knowing it.

If a proposition is false, it is not possible to know it. It is not possible to know something unless it is not only a belief but also a truth. For example, if a light is shining in a cave, it is possible to know that there is light in the cave but it is not possible to know that there is not light in the cave. All this is so even if the light is indemonstrable to those outside the cave. Those outside the cave can know of the light only by faith in the true witness of others who have been in the cave. However, they cannot “know” that there is no light in the cave, even if they honestly believe there is no light on the account of false witnesses.

Yet even a true belief may not be knowledge, if it is not also justified and accounted for. It is possible to believe a truth and still not know it. I suspect most beliefs are like this, in fact. In Theaetetus, after first rejecting the notion of knowledge as perception and then the notion of knowledge as true belief alone, Theaetetus says to Socrates, “Someone… said that true belief with the addition of an account (λόγος) was knowledge” (Theaet. 201d). One cannot know a thing without knowing that one knows it. True belief must also be justified for it to be knowledge. Socrates at first agrees with this suggestion, but later criticizes its weaknesses. Nonetheless, this understanding of knowledge as justified true belief became the most important epistemology for more than a thousand years.

At any rate, the divinely personal meaning of λόγος for Christians could give this understanding of knowledge an entirely new dimension. Not only is it possible for true belief to be justified, it can only be ultimately justified by the λόγος who is God (John 1:1), especially when it comes to knowledge of God. Only the λόγος makes the Father known.
And the λόγος became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father…. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known. (John 1:14, 18). 
St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain
The only possible absolute guarantor of any true belief is God. True knowledge of God is only accessible by faith in him who is word (λόγος) and truth. God alone inspires true spiritual knowledge.

Such was certainly the understanding of many of the hesychastic fathers between the fourth and the fifteenth centuries, whose writings were compiled in the eighteenth-century into The Philokalia by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth.[3] These fathers distinguish between two kinds of knowing. “According to patristic tradition, there is a rational or cataphatic knowledge of God, and an apophatic or ineffable knowledge.”[4]

[3] The editors (G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware) of the English language Faber and Faber edition of The Philokalia ably synthesized the hesychastic understanding of knowledge in their Glossary, drawing from the writings of many fathers including St. Maximus the Confessor (in volume two) and St. Gregory Palamas (in volume four). The fourth post in this series will consider Maximus and the fifth post will consider Palamas. 

[4] Dumitru Staniloae. The Experience of God. Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994. 95.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

1) "Faith is a True Knowledge"[1] - Introduction

Not only is it possible to know God, it is not possible to know without God. At least, without experience of God knowledge is not possible in the deepest and surest sense. There is more than one kind of knowing in patristic epistemology, and the next few posts will examine both kinds of knowledge. Ultimately, however, it is the experiential knowledge of God that matters most to our salvation. Our savior saves us by bringing us into union with himself. Our union with Christ is not contingent on knowing many things about him, but on following him in faith. Not only faith as an intellectual assent to authentic dogmatic propositions, but also faithfulness as a way of life, both of which are possible only by God’s grace, bring us into relationship with God, thus enabling us both to know him and to become one with him. As Fr. George Gallaro once said, “We might think that to know Jesus is to follow him… [but] it is the other way around, the more we follow Jesus, the more deeply we know him.”[2]

[1] Maximus the Confessor. “Chapters on Knowledge.” Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1985. 1:9; 130.

[2] Gallaro, George. “Sermon for the Feast of St. Mark.” Sermon. Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Ss. Cyril and Methodius, Pittsburgh. 25 April 2013.

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