A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO RELIGIOUS DOUBTS Pt. 4

SPIRITUAL KNOWLEDGE:  Part 1.  Virtue.

The Fathers tell us that the cure for ignorance is spiritual knowledge.  However, we must first clear up the Patristic concept of virtue before we can even approach spiritual knowledge.

St. Maximus says that “virtue may be defined as the conscious union of human weakness with divine strength.”1  This union requires us to make an “effort to transcend the weakness of human nature.”2  These rather vague remarks are brought into sharp focus by his comment that “the soul . . . acquires the virtues by keeping the commandments.”3  If this is so, then the commandments are not legalistic requirements.  Neither are they a list of duties we must keep only because God told us to.  Instead, they have a substantial and practical value to us.  As St. Paisios the Athonite says, “by observing the commandments of God we cultivate virtue and acquire health of soul.”

Which commandments?

One of the interesting differences between Orthodoxy and the Western churches is their understanding of the commandments.  At least in the English-speaking West, most people think the commandments are the Ten Commandments.  However, when the Fathers talk about the commandments, they mean the commandments of Christ.  For example, when St. Peter of Damascus writes about the commandments, he does not write about the Ten Commandments but the Seven Commandments—i.e., the Beatitudes.5  St. Macarius of Egypt takes a broader view:  “the abode and resting-place of the Holy Spirit is humility, love, gentleness and the other holy commandments of Christ.”6

So how do we know which of these commandments to keep in the course of our daily lives?  How do we know what God wants of us?

St. Theophan the Recluse replies that “we certainly know this from the commandments he has given us.  Is someone seeking help?  Help him.  Has someone offended you?  Forgive him.  Have you offended somebody?  Rush to ask forgiveness and make peace.  Did somebody praise you?  Don’t be proud.  Did somebody scold you?  Do not be angry.  Is it time to pray?  Pray.  Is it time to work?  Work.  Etc. etc. etc.”7  It is clear from St. Theophan’s words that it is “the individual events with which each of us meets” which inform us of which commandments to keep.8

Another way of looking at the commandments is provided by St. Paisios.  When a nun asked him how she could be saved, he replied decisively, “with love and humility.”9  They are, he adds, “the easiest means to salvation; they are what we will be judged for.”10  So not only are love and humility the only questions on the final exam, so to speak, but they are the easiest ones we could ask for.  Every final should be so easy.

To sum up, any virtue is the union of divine strength with human weakness.  If we read the New Testament closely and live our lives attentively, we will know which commandments to keep and thereby acquire the virtues proper for us.  St. Paisius emphasizes love and humility; if we humbly keep the two great commandments, we will naturally want to glorify God and intercede for our fellow men.

Now we may answer the question of how spiritual knowledge is the cure for ignorance.

 

ENDNOTES

  1. The Philokalia, tr. G.E H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, vols. 1-4 (London: Faber & Faber, 1979-1995; reprint, New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983), 3: 230.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., p. 129.
  4. The Rev. Fr. Peter Chamberas, trans., Saint Paisios of Mount Athos: Spiritual Counsels (Souroti, Thessaloniki, Greece:  Holy Hesychasterion, 2006), vol. 5, Passions and Virtues, p. 157.
  5. Philokalia, 3: 93-100.
  6. Ibid., 346.
  7. St. Theophan the Recluse, The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It, tran. Alexandra Dockham, 3rd ed. (Safford, Arizona: St. Paisios Serbian Orthodox Monastery, 2003), p. 74.
  8. Ibid., p. 75.
  9. Passions, p. 212.
  10. Ibid., p. 213.

 

A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO RELIGIOUS DOUBTS Pt. 3

Interruption:  On the Fathers and the Elders

I mentioned the Fathers in my last post without explaining who they are and why they are important, especially to this blog, so let’s do that now.

Anyone who reads early church history will find that a select group of men are constantly referred to as “the Fathers.”  At the very sketchiest, we may say that they are the movers and shakers of the Orthodox faith.

Less sketchily, the Fathers are those men who “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3).  On one front, they defend the faith against heretical tampering and so “guard the deposit” (I Tim. 6:20); on another front, they “make money” (Luke 19:13), i.e., define or amplify the deposit.  Many were bishops, others were respected for their learning and piety.  This definition is by no means airtight, but it captures most of the men who are so called.

The Fathers often had to maintain or define the faith against emperors and bishops; a lot of the Fathers were therefore persecuted in some way.  For example, if we look at three famous fathers, we find that St. Athanasius (a bishop) was exiled several times, St. John Chrysostom (another bishop) was walked to death in exile, dying finally in central Asia and St. Maximus the Confessor (a learned monk) was tortured, and had his right hand and tongue amputated.

One amazing thing about the Fathers is that their writings rise so easily above the controversies and details of their day.  For example, I have seen people with no academic training bowled over by St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letters.  They responded immediately because he, like most Fathers, speaks directly to the reader and only about the essentials of the faith.  This is largely because the Fathers knew what was important (defending or explaining the faith) and wasted no time with what the learned pagans of their day valued (showing off their learning, observing the socio-literary conventions of the day, making inside jokes), so when we read them centuries later, they are as accessible and vivid as they were when the ink was wet.

A broader use of the expression “the Fathers” is often used to include men and women who were simply influential in the church, often monastics who did not enjoy learning.  The Desert Fathers are the prime example.  Many of them only survive in sayings recorded in the various collections, like the Anonymous or Alphabetical collections.

The Elders of medieval and modern times are the heirs of the Desert Fathers.  The authors of their lives often refer to the wastelands they typically sought out for solitude as “deserts,” their log cabins as “cells” and so forth.  The Elders of, say, Russia and Greece, are rarely illiterate; many of them (like St. Theophan the Recluse) wrote books or letters, but others (like St. Leonid of Optina) survive like the Desert Fathers in the testimonies of their disciples or admirers.  Elders typically do not weigh in on dogmatic or political issues; they console, instruct, correct or enlighten their pilgrims.  I say typically, since St. Seraphim of Sarov’s conversations with Motovilov are nothing if not an amplification of the faith, and his letter to Tsar-Martyr Nicholas counts as political involvement.

Whereas the Fathers weigh in on dogmatic issues and the application of the faith, the Elders take dogma for granted and focus on how to apply the faith.  Therefore, for many people it is easier to start by reading the Elders.  Of course, the lives of the saints are for most of us more important than anything else.

An important role played by the Fathers and Elders is that they define the Orthodox unity of faith.  People can read the Bible and walk away with the most amazing variety of opinions, so the Bible is no guarantee of the unity of faith.  The unity of faith can only come from the Holy Spirit, not the Bible.  If the Bible were sufficient for the unity of faith, Christ would have not talked about the Holy Spirit leading us into all truth (Jo. 16:13); he would have said the Scriptures would lead us instead.  Anyone who reads the Fathers is guided toward that unity of faith; if we are guided by the Fathers, we enjoy the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The purpose of this blog is to help believers understand and set aside their doubts about the faith.  My conviction is that what we find in the Fathers and Elders is enough to do this; I hope that my readers will eventually realize that they do not need to read a blog as badly as they need to read the Fathers.

Nevertheless, like the Fathers I will also refer to philosophy—mostly logic—when that seems to be the shortest path to the truth.  I do this because logic is the faculty God gives us to make sense of things and ultimately to survive.  “Facts,” said C. S. Peirce, “are hard things which do not consist in my thinking so and so, but stand unmoved by whatever you or I or any man or generations of men may opine about them.  It is those facts that I want to know, so that I may avoid disappointments and disasters.  Since they are bound to press upon me at last, let me know them as soon as possible, and prepare for them.  That is, in the last analysis, my whole motive in reasoning.”1

However, logic does not help us by telling us what to think; it can only tell us how to think once we have settled on what we think.  When Louise Jefferson asked Mr. Bentley why he as an interpreter couldn’t straighten out the world at the United Nations, he might have been describing logic when he responded, “I can’t tell them what to do; I can only tell them what they’ve said.”

To round off this discussion, the reader deserves to know how I select which Fathers, which Elders and which philosophers to guide my thoughts.  The only possible answer is given by Charles P. Curtis, Jr., and Ferris Greenslet, the editors of that remarkable book, The Practical Cogitator.  Against the charge that they have depended too heavily on “some few” authors for their anthology, they say, “It is not for us to be more egalitarian than the uneven bounty of nature.”2  I have been reading the authors cited in this blog since junior high; if I find more plunder in Aquinas or more treasure in St. Maximus the Confessor, it is due to just this “uneven bounty.”

At the end of the day, if the reader finds fault with my choices, he may console himself that I, like the aforesaid editors, work “on the firm basis of personal choice.”3

ENDNOTES

  1. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, ed., The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, NY:  1931; 3rd printing, 1974), vol. II, Elements of Logic, p. 173.
  2. Charles P. Curtis, Jr. and Ferris Greenslet, ed., The Practical Cogitator: The Thinker’s Anthology, 3rd ed.; rev. and enlarged with an introduction by John H. Finley, Jr. (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962), p. xxi.
  3. Ibid.

A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO RELIGIOUS DOUBTS Pt. 2

2.  STATES SHORT OF CERTITUDE:  IGNORANCE

What states of mind fall short of certitude?

According to Rickaby, the first is sheer ignorance.1  The only question about ignorance is, as Rickaby observes, culpability:  “A surgeon need not know what the eccentric of a steam engine is, but he ought to know what a tourniquet is.”2  Rickaby’s example implies that blameworthy ignorance depends on whether something is relevant to us.  Therefore, if our doubts about the faith are due to ignorance, we must know things that are relevant to our faith.  But relevance itself depends on purpose, so we must first ask what the purpose of the Christian life is.

There are many Fathers to whom we could turn for this purpose.  I happen to like St. Theophan the Recluse, who says that our purpose in life is to attain to the “blessed life beyond the grave.”3  It follows that we must use every means necessary to secure it.  “The means are the works [done] according to the commandments.”4  How do we select these works?  They are presented to us “by each instance of life.”5  St. Theophan sternly admonishes us that “it is a great error to think that you must undertake important and great labors.”6  He goes on to say that “everything that you do here, no matter what it is, will be a work; and if you do it with the consciousness that such a work is according to the commandments and that God wants such a thing, then the work will be pleasing to God.  So it is with every small thing.”7  How small?  “Each step, each word, even each movement and glance—everything may direct one to walk in God’s will and consequently to move each moment toward the ultimate goal.”8

If the purpose of the Christian life is to attain to Heaven, then what we must know at all costs is the means which will serve our purpose.  There is no shortage of opportunities, as St. Theophan says, so why do more people not go to Heaven?  The answer is ignorance of the commandments that turn our daily chores and random circumstances into God-pleasing labors.  Because we do not understand how to look at our daily routine, not realizing that (in the words of Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron Monastery) we can “in a single moment . . . find eternity.”9

Therefore, we can well believe St. Mark the Ascetic when he ranks ignorance as “the first among all evils”10 and “the mother and nurse of every vice.”11  In his most vivid language, he says that “Hell is ignorance, for both are dark.”12  For if we do not know that it is life beyond the grave that matters, how will we avoid wasting all the time of this life?  If we do not know that “every small thing” is important to God and to our salvation, how will we avoid squandering innumerable opportunities for our salvation and for the salvation of those around us?  How many people hate their jobs because they would rather be at church, not knowing that, as Fr. Vasileios says, “the effort that [they] put into making a living . . . is in itself a prayer”?13

In short, we want to cure the ignorance which makes Christians indistinguishable from nihilists and atheists.  What is its cure?

 

ENDNOTES

  1. John Rickaby, The First Principles of Knowledge, 4th ed. (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1901), p. 43 f.
  2. Ibid.
  3. St. Theophan the Recluse, The Spiritual Life and How To Be Attuned To It, 3rd ed., tr. Alexandra Dockham (Safford, Arizona: St. Paisius Serbian Orthodox Monastery, 2003), p. 74.  Three caveats follow.  First, St. Theophan is not the only Father whom I could have cited; my choice is to some degree arbitrary.  Second, the letters which I have quoted contain a good deal of information not here noted but which I urge the reader to read carefully to get a fuller picture.  Finally, St. Theophan is not a pietist; he tacitly assumes on the part of his correspondent dogmatic agreement.  Later on, he reminds his correspondent that “the entire order of Christian life is thus:  believe in God, in the worshipful Trinity that saves us in the Lord Jesus Christ through the benevolence of the Holy Spirit; receive beneficial powers through the Divine Mysteries of the Holy Church; live according to the commandments of the Gospel, being inspired with the hope that God, for the smallest, feasible labor of ours, for the sake of faith in the Lord Savior and obedience to him, will not deprive us of heavenly blessings.”
  4. Ibid., p. 75.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., p. 74.
  7. Ibid., p. 77. Here as everywhere else in the Fathers, the commandments are short for the commandments of Christ.  The prominence of the Ten Commandments in Orthodox confession manuals seems to be due to modern reliance on Catholic sources.
  8. Ibid., p. 79. Cf. Archimandrite Vasileios, who described an old monk at work in his garden thus:  “His digging was a prayer.  Each step, everything he was doing was a prayer.  The dirt—everything—was a prayer” (Archimandrite Vasileios, p. 167).
  9. Archimandrite Vasileios, “Everything Is Prayer,” The Orthodox Word 279 (July-August 2011), p. 164.
  10. The Philokalia, tr. G.E H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, vols. 1-4 (London: Faber & Faber, 1979-1995; reprint, New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983), 1:133.  But ignorance does not act alone.  In St. Mark’s view, ignorance, forgetfulness and laziness are the “three powerful and mighty giants of the Philistines, upon whom depends the whole hostile army of the demonic Holofernes” (1:158 f.)  The three giants are mutually reinforcing, but laziness “supports and strengthens the other two” (1:159).
  11. Ibid., p. 157.
  12. Ibid., p. 114.
  13. Archimandrite Vasileios, p. 171.

A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO RELIGIOUS DOUBTS Pt. 1

INTRODUCTION TO RELIGIOUS DOUBTS

The purpose of this strand of the blog is to explore religious doubts.  Experience suggests that people have a number of ways of dealing with religious doubts.  The more high-brow read up on apologetics to look for arguments that will rationally squelch them.  The more squeamish may sweep them under the rug and pretend they are not there.  Others try to drown their doubts in raw emotions at revivals.  Finally, some resort to anti-intellectualism and so regard thought itself as an occasion for sin.

All these very different ways of handling doubts have one thing in common:  none of them look at the doubts themselves very closely.  What would we learn if we looked at the doubts themselves?  This blog will explore the different types of doubts which have been brought to my attention by fellow believers, so that others may learn how to deal with their own doubts.

Doubts are so troublesome because people tend to regard all of them as some kind of moral defect.  We will examine some doubts that qualify as defects, but there are other kinds of doubts.  It is not enough to say that doubts form a class, though.  We must also see them against their proper backdrop—certitude.

We first affirm (with Thomas Aquinas) that the intellect seeks truth.1  When the intellect is assured of its possession of truth, it experiences certitude.2  The mind with certitude assents to something for reasons which do not allow any “solid, reasonable misgivings.”3

How does certitude work?

One example is the distance of my home from work.  I have used the odometer to find the distance.  I have measured the distance more than once.  I have no “solid or reasonable misgivings” about the odometer itself; the readings are consistent.  I am sure that if I used any number of other cars, the distance would be the same.  In short, I enjoy the assured possession of the truth that my home is a certain number of miles from work.

Another example is taken from what used to be called the Laws of Thought.  One of these is the Principle of Contradiction, which Richard F. Clarke, S.J. defines as “nothing can at the same time exist and not exist.”4  I enjoy certitude about this principle because there is no way to corroborate simultaneous existence and non-existence.

To illustrate, suppose I have one cat, and I see it go into the laundry room, which conveniently has no exit.  I can verify that the cat is there by seeing it.  Again, if I have one cat and I see it leave the laundry room, I can go in there and verify that the cat is no longer there.  So far, so good.

But if I am told by someone that the cat is in the laundry room and is not in the laundry room, how can I assure myself that the cat is there and is not there at the same time?  Not only can I not imagine the violation of the Principle of Contradiction, but I also cannot imagine a way to prove its violation without resorting to underhanded, verbal tricks.  Therefore, I have perfect confidence in the Principle of Contradiction.

Now, as Rickaby observes, we do not and probably cannot know all things with certitude, yet certitude is the ideal.  If the intellect seeks truth, then its proper function includes acquiring the greatest number of truths.  This it must do without forgetting that some opinions may necessarily remain undecidable, so that we must also experience states of mind which fall short of certitude.  Without this range of states leading up to certitude, we are liable to err either by demanding that all opinions and knowledge produce certitude (dogmatism) or by rejecting certitude out of hand (skepticism).

Our next step is to discuss just those states of mind which fall short of certitude, which will bring us to doubt.

END NOTES

  1. Aquinas Summa Theologiae I, Q. 16, Art. 1.  Aquinas follows Aristotle in defining intellect as a power of the soul and not its essence (see Q. 79, Art. 1).   Aristotle decribes the intellect (nous) the power by which the soul thinks and understands (De anima, bk. III, ch. 4).
  2. John Rickaby, The First Principles of Knowledge, 4th ed. (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1901), p. 42.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Richard F. Clarke, Logic, 4th ed. (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1897), p. 33.