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.

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