Orthodox gnosiology is not merely an intellectual question, but is described as phenomenological, existential, ontological, personal, and mystical. What follows is my attempt to explain how Orthodox theology develops its methodology without reducing itself to a simple philosophical system?
It is precisely at the time that we become partakers of the Divine Nature that we truly can have knowledge of God. This knowledge that is spoken of in the Orthodox Tradition is that which is achieved through a communion with Him. It is at this level that gnosis can be described as phenomenological, existential, ontological, personal, and mystical. It would be impossible to have this relationship apart from one of these elements. In looking at Lossky we read, “Gnosis is inseparable from Charisma; gnosis implies encounter, reciprocity.” (Orthodox Theology, p. 13)
In understanding this relationship, one can take a quick look at the method of achieving this while describing the terms and relationships along the way. In order to decipher how Orthodoxy develops its method without reducing itself to a ‘simple philosophical system’, it is necessary to compare theology and philosophy at some level. Philosophy is simply a Greek word meaning the love of knowledge. So, how does this knowledge differ from that of the Orthodox?
Language is an integral part of the philosophical method. Logic (logos), meaning rational arguments, or reason, is one of the key elements of ideas. In the Platonic dialogues, we read of how Socrates told Meno and Euthyphro that they could not understand virtue or piety until they knew what the words meant. What he didn’t want was a list of synonyms, but the essence of what the words embodied.
Conversely, the Divine Logos is the integral part of the Christian method. It is because God became the Word that we can speak of Him in language. It was the Divine Logos that indeed elevated the power of the spoken word. It is this Incarnation of the Word of God then that is the central and key element of Orthodox gnosiology. (Orthodox Theology, p. 13)
Using St. Gregory Palamas as our guide, we can see the variations in the two epistemologies. First, Orthodoxy refers to theology as mystical because it is something that is not attained by using the reason of the human intellect. The mystical experience is when the nous, the intellect of the soul, is purified and brought to a vision of God known as theoria. Simply put, “When a person rises from bodily knowledge to the soul’s knowledge and from that to spiritual knowledge, then he sees God and possesses knowledge of God, which is his salvation.” (Orthodox Psychotherapy, p. 347) This is ontological because it is a salvific process into which one is mystically drawn. This communion of God is eternal, ontological.
This process is personal as it is up to the individual to purify one’s own heart and have a personal communion with one’s creator. Paradoxically, this cannot be done without the Church; the community of believers in Christ led by the Spirit. One’s relationship can be personal only in as much as it is communal in the liturgical aspect. Purification cannot take place outside the sacramental and communal relationship of Christ and His Church. It is through the sacramental process of both liturgical and individual prayer that one can understand St. Matthew, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8).
This purification of the heart is also known as purifying the nous. St. John of Damascus uses nous in its definition as the eye of the soul. St. Gregory Palamas goes one more step to say that it indeed is the purest part and the power of the soul. It is this element that one purifies through prayer and communion with God. It is by realizing that Orthodox epistemology differs from its philosophic counterpart in this understanding. In Plato’s “Republic”, the highest knowledge occurs when one passes beyond the self and forms a higher level of thinking of complex ideas, forms, and abstractions.
St. Gregory came to many of his epistemological definitions as a response to the philosopher Barlaam. Barlaam believed that there was a god, but that one came to know him through the philosophic method just mentioned. The philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were greater than the Apostles to Barlaam, because they were able to come to the highest level of philosophical thinking, wisdom. According to Barlaam, the Uncreated Light was a sensory perception, which is inferior to ‘true understanding’ of philosophy.
It is interesting to note that as the history of philosophy unfolded, John Locke challenged the Platonic epistemology of how one came to complex and abstract ideas. Locke proposed that the progression of simple ideas to those more abstract required sensory information. This empirical epistemology was considered inferior to Plato, but it was hard for many to overcome Locke’s theory of Tabula Raza: that one would have no thoughts if senses were erased. To use modern language, it is the senses that stimulate the brain and allow it the opportunity to take those stimuli to a higher level of thinking. But, without the senses, the brain would have no stimulus with which to begin. If one takes Barlaam’s idea that sensory ideas are inferior, as did Plato, and pose Locke’s theory having the senses as the origin of ideas, then philosophy is itself reduced to sensory perception.
Palamas argues that the Uncreated Light is not known through the senses as Barlaam thought, but is known communally through deification with God. Deification makes one worthy of seeing God, theoria. Further, man does not see god through his exterior senses, but through his inner senses. Man communes with God at this state with his spiritual eyes and hears him through his spiritual ears. (Orthodox Psychotherapy, p. 348)
The following teaching by St. Gregory Palamas is indispensable in regard to the present topic:
“One who has cleared his soul of all connection with things of this world, who has detached himself from everything by keeping the commandments and by the dispassion that this brings, and who has passed beyond all cognitive activity through continuous, sincere and immaterial prayer, and who has abundantly illuminated by the inaccessible light in an inconceivable union, he alone, becoming light, contemplating by the light and beholding the light, in the vision and enjoyment of this light recognizes truly that God is transcendently radiant and beyond comprehension; he glorifies God not only beyond his nous’ human power of understanding, for many created things are beyond that, but even beyond that marvelous union which is the only means by which the nous is united with what is beyond intelligible things, imitating divinely the supracelestial nouses.” (Orthodox Psychotherapy, p. 349)
If existentialism is that which emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one’s acts, than this can certainly be seen in the above teaching by St. Gregory.
Philosophy commonly regards three types of discussions, those traditional, those analytical, and those existential. St. Gregory Palamas showed that the Uncreated Light is not seen through the senses, thus the Orthodox Method differs from the traditional method of empirical reasoning in proving the existence of God.
Analytical philosophy, usually associated with Socrates, would require one’s knowledge of God before one can understand Him. This was shown in the short discussion of the words (logos) of philosophy versus the Word (Logos) of God.
Finally, the existentialist would ask, ‘how does that affect you’. The answer to that is simple. The process of the philosopher is that of logic or reason, while that of the Christian is the heavenly, ontological world of Union with God, which is salvation. Not only is the end different then, but also so is the means to the end, the method.
The Orthodox method is not that of forms and ideas, but that of personal relationship with the Creator. The God of the Christians transcends the world of ideas and forms, even as much as they themselves may transcend time. Ideas may be able to transcend dimensions of the material order, but they are still a product of created humanity. The idea itself is limited to the fallen nature of the one begetting the idea. Knowledge of God leads to life, relationship, and communion.
Finally, purification of the nous is not a simple interiorization of the human self in order to make a more perfect person, which comes into full use of the intellect. It is a personal existential relationship with the intellectually unknowable and transcendent God who reveals Himself in theoria with the one who achieves deification.
In closing, the prayer of St. Isaac the Syrian sums up this teaching with the process, culmination, and manifestation of the fruits of the knowledge of God:
“Make me worthy, O Lord, to know and love Thee, not with knowledge from the exercise of a scattered nous; but make me worthy of that knowledge whereby, beholding Thee, the nous glorifies Thy nature, in divine vision which robs the mind of awareness of the world. Account me worthy to be lifted above my will’s wandering eye, which begets imaginings, and to behold Thee in the constraint of the Cross’s bond, on the second part of the crucifixion of the nous, which willingly ceases from its conceptual imagings to abide in Thy continuous vision that surpasses nature. Implant in my heart an increase of Thy love, that it may be drawn back from this world by fervent love for Thee. Awake in me understanding of Thy humility, wherewith Thou didst sojourn in the world in the covering of the flesh which Thou didst bear from our members by the mediation of the Holy Virgin, that with this continual and unfailing recollection I may accept the humility of my nature with delight.” (St. Isaac the Syrian Homily 16, excerpted from Orthodox Psychotherapy p. 356)
Lossky, Vladimir “In the Image and Likeness of God” (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985)
Vlachos, Metropolitan Hierotheos “Orthodox Psychotherapy” (Lavadia: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1994)
Vlachos, Metropolitan Hierotheos “The Mind of the Orthodox Church” (Lavadia: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1998)
Lossky, Vladimir “Orthodox Theology” (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989