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A Protestant Examines Orthodoxy

The Western Enthronement and Eastern Distrust of Rationalism

by Daniel Clendenin


Following the legacy of the Enlightenment, the West has enthroned reason and logic as the final arbiters of all matters of truth, so much so that it is not uncommon for scholars to speak of the autocracy of reason in Western culture. In the West, all truth claims must pass the test of rational intelligibility that is administered at the bar of reason. Many trace this orientation back to the Christian philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and his two works Discourse on Method (1637 ) and Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), which attempted to ground all philosophic and religious thinking in a new and solid starting point. In those two works Descartes set forth his famous criterion of methodical doubt, insisting that he would accept nothing as true unless he perceived it as very clear and distinct, indubitable, or very certain. His philosophic conclusions, he claimed, would be even more certain than geometrical proofs. This tradition of Cartesian or Continental rationalism (which included Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Benedict Spinoza, and Christian von Wolff), then, exhibits supreme confidence in and optimism about the mind's capacity, and even obligation, to unravel any and all mysteries. Methodical doubt suspends all belief until the imprimatur of reason is duly obtained and acknowledged. Rationalism lives by the motto credo quia intelligo (I believe because I understand) and regards "absolute precision as necessary for the fulfillment of meaning.'' [1] Truth claims that cannot be justified by reason are rejected as false or even meaningless. Working from this presupposition, rationalists like Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Immanuel Kant conceive of God in ways very different from the Orthodox tradition. [2]

In contrast to its enthronement of logic, the rationalistic orientation has a positive distrust of, even a disdain for, concepts like myth and mystery. The rationalist mind-set is intolerant of, embarrassed by, and condescending toward the whole category of mystery. In his perceptive study of the differences between Eastern and Western ways of thinking, Anthony Ugolnik observes that our educational training actually teaches us to distrust and eliminate mystery. Citing the anthropologist and structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss as an example of this orientation, Ugolnik points out that rationalism's precondition for all belief, its "mission in modernity," is to expunge mystery, "to make the unknown known." Levi-Strauss acknowledged that myth functions as an organizing principle for the mind, but, Ugolnik notes, he did so only in a patronizing sense; what he gave with the right hand he took away with the left. "Myth," wrote Levi-Strauss, "gives man, very importantly, the illusion that he can understand the universe and does understand the universe. It is, of course, only an illusion." [3] This "devastating qualifier" that myth (i.e., mystery) is only an illusion, Ugolnik contends, symbolizes "both the arrogance and tragedy of modern rationalism." [4] Supremely confident in its own powers, convinced of its duty to explain the inscrutable, and intolerant of mystery, rationalism typifies the mentality of many, if not most, thinkers in the West.

Our theology in the West is not immune from this epistemological orientation; an identifiable tradition in theology enshrines human rationality as the decisive criterion of theological truth. Any number of examples could be given to illustrate this perspective. In his work The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) John Locke (1632-1704) insisted that all truths of biblical revelation must be proven by the ultimate criterion of reason before they can be accepted by faith. Theological statements that are contrary to reason and logic are to be rejected. Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752), a leading opponent of deism in his day, wrote in his influential work Analogy of Religion, "Let reason be kept to; and if any part of the Scripture account of the redemption of the world by Christ can be shown to be really contrary to it, let the Scripture, in the name of God, be given up." [5] According to contemporary writer Norman Geisler, the law of noncontradiction is inviolable; it must "reign sovereignly and universally over all thinking and speaking about God .... [Human logic] controls all our thoughts about reality all the time or we are left with some thoughts and statements about reality that are contradictory." [6] One of the most influential theologians writing today, Wolfhart Pannenberg of Munich, evinces a similar commitment to make theology conform to the canons of Enlightenment rationality. The truth of revelation must be proven to be reasonable. Religious statements, writes Pannenberg, "must positively prove themselves worthy of belief if they are to be able to claim universal acceptance." That is to say, "every theological statement must prove itself on the field of reason, and can no longer be argued on the basis of unquestioned presuppositions of faith." [7]

Eastern thinkers, by contrast, begin their thinking about God with a very different mind-set. As the examples of my students Vasily and Maxim show, Eastern thinkers typically exhibit a skepticism toward Western rationalism; some have even suggested that such distrust of rationalism is endemic to Orthodoxy. Conversely, Orthodoxy fosters a positive appreciation for mystery. [8] Any number of Orthodox thinkers could be cited to verify this characterization. An anti-Western posture is particularly strong in the so called Slavophile movement. Thinkers like Alexei Khomiakov (1804-60) and Lev Shestov (1866-1938) were sharply critical of Peter the Great's Westernizing program and the concomitant influence of rationalism in particular.

Shestov's rejection of rationalism was one of the most uncompromising and categorical to appear in Russian thought. He insisted that Kant's demand that theology justify itself before the bar of reason would inevitably lead to an "autocracy of reason"; reason would be the master, placing the cause of religion "in a bad way." [9] In Shestov's thought, biblical faith and philosophic reliance on logic were two very different and incompatible vantage points.

Khomiakov, the chief advocate of the Slavophile movement, sees Protestantism and Catholicism as two versions of the same incipient rationalism; both are completely incompatible with Eastern Orthodoxy. In Khomiakov's thought, these two Western expressions of Christianity are rooted in the soil of rationalism and do not even deserve the appellation of faith. Orthodoxy "stands on completely different soil" and must be vigilant lest the "ruinous legacy" of Western rationalism, which contains "the embryo of death," kill the spiritual life of Eastern Christianity. Rooted in this fundamentally different perspective regarding reason and faith, Khomiakov insists that "the difference [between East and West] is so great that it is hardly possible to find one point on which they might agree.'' [10]

It is important to note, however, that Eastern thinkers do not reject reason as a necessary component of human knowledge and experience. A reading of the Philokalia, the most important collection of Orthodox religious texts, will show the central role of the intellect in Eastern spirituality. Orthodoxy does not embrace a crass irrationalism that believes something because it is absurd (credo quia absurdum est). It was, after all, the Latin father Tertullian (c. 160-215) who made this extremist posture famous when he wrote that he believed in the death and resurrection of Christ precisely because they were absurd and impossible, [ll] and that the worlds of Athens and Jerusalem, the philosophic academy and the Christian church, had nothing whatsoever in common. [l2] Further, not all Eastern thinkers are as dogmatic as Shestov and Khomiakov, just as the four examples of Western theologians given above do not represent all theologians of the West. John Wesley, for example, has been shown to have a number of affinities with Eastern Orthodox thought. [l3]

While Eastern thinkers do not reject reason, they do reject what they see as the hubris of reason that now typifies Western culture. They resist any tendency that would allow or encourage reason to expunge theological mystery and appoint itself as the only criterion of truth. Ivan Kireevsky (180-56) is a case in point. Kireevsky, who according to Ugolnik coined the term secular humanism, laments the narrowness of analytic abstractions so common in the West, but he is careful not to fall into a triumphalist condemnation of reason per se. Instead, Kireevsky wants to moderate the Western impulse that views reason as the only mediator of truth: "If [Western rationalism] would only recognize its own limitations, and see that, in itself, it is only one of the instruments by means of which truth is known, and not the sole way to knowledge, then it would also view its conclusions as only conditional and relative to its point of view, and would expect other, supreme and most truthful conclusions from another supreme and most truthful mode of thinking." [14]

As seen from the Eastern perspective, Westerners need to move beyond their propensity to reductionistic rationalism and gain a positive appreciation for the categories of myth and mystery, categories which, the Orthodox are eager to remind us, inhere in our Christian profession and have been historically emphasized by Eastern Christendom. Ugolnik captures the essentially mysterious nature of Christianity and the West's tendency to avoid it rather than adore it:

We [Christians in the West] confess to doctrines profoundly mysterious by their nature--that a man should be God, that one God should be at the same time three persons, that we of corruptible flesh should also be temples of the living God. So we believe, but so we cannot comfortably think. For as "thoughts," these are in essence mystery. Mystery is what many contemporary minds are hungry for; it is what they seek far afield, in the non Christian realms and such Eastern, Asiatic sources as the Bhagavad-Gita and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. We Christians in the West have not shared what we possess. We have mystery in plenty, yet our discourse averts it, avoids it as if in embarrassment. For mystery is what we have been taught through our education to extinguish. [l5]

Eastern theology does not prescribe a leap into the irrational, but instead (1) a recognition of the radical limitations of human cognition and of conceptual language, and (2) celebration of the mystery so inherent in the story of Christianity. It points us to a way beyond the arid rationalism that threatens much of our Western secular culture and even some of our theologies.

Orthodoxy's attitude toward systematic theology, its historic credal statements of the Trinity and Christology, and its concept of God's self-revelation all illustrate the basic difference between Eastern and Western ways of theologizing. The history of theology in the East reveals a striking lacuna. Except for the monumentally important work Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (De fide orthodoxa) by John of Damascus (675-754), almost no Eastern theologians have written what we in the West have come to know as systematic theologies. In Eastern theology we find nothing at all that would compare with Aquinas's Summa theological, Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, or Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics. Even works that appear to be quite systematic, like the Treasury of Divine Knowledge and Twenty-four Discourses by Peter of Damascus (c. 1100), lack any coherent line of thought and contain many digressions and repetitions. But Peter's monastic readers were not seeking abstract intellections; they wanted practical spiritual counsel, and so the lack of systematization would have been of little concern to them.

Many of the conciliar statements and ecumenical creeds that are so important for Eastern Christianity are framed in negative language, telling us what God is not rather than trying to plumb the depths of his nature. The great mysteries of the faith are for the East matters of adoration rather than analysis. The creeds describe rather than dissect the great truths of Christianity, such as the nature of the Trinity (three persons in one essence) and the relationship between the divine and human natures in Christ.

In the East the doctrine of the Trinity has always been a matter for faith and practical experience rather than for abstract speculation by "unimaginative and pedestrian souls who are incapable of rising above rational concepts." [l6] The doctrine of the Trinity is inaccessible by rational demonstration; faith alone can "embrace these mysteries, for it is faith that makes real for us things beyond reason and intellect (Heb. 11: 1)." [17] Simple dogmatic description rather than philosophic solution typifies Eastern Trinitarian theology.

As for Christology, most instructive here is the Chalcedonian Creed of 451, which in describing the union of the divine and human natures of Christ employs a series of four negative words: the two natures of Christ exist "without confusion, change, division, or separation." In other words, the creed states the fact of the union of Christ's two natures in one person, and does so in such a way that we avoid theological error, but it resists any temptation to provide a rational explanation of how this can be. Eastern theology remains constantly aware of the conceptual inadequacies of human language, the severe limitations of the human mind, and the incomprehensibility of the very being of God--all of which means that Eastern theology is far removed from the theological abstractions common in the West. [l8] Adoration, contemplation, and vision, not rational intellection, characterize the Eastern tradition.

Eastern theology likewise tends toward a different conception of the nature of God's self-revelation. John Meyendorff acknowledges that Byzantine theology proposes a view of revelation that is substantially different from that in the West. In the West, theology is typically viewed as rational deductions from revealed premises or intellectual abstractions from cognitive propositions, while in the East theology and revelation are viewed much more experientially, as contemplation or vision. In this view, theologia and theoria (contemplation) are inseparable. In the Philokalia, for example, theology is a level of spiritual experience reached by only a precious few ascetics, not intellectual discourse. Rational deduction is not unimportant for the East, Meyendorff suggests, but it is clearly an inferior level of theology. Rather than separating reason and experience, theology and spirituality, cognition and mystery, Eastern theology joins the two realms together:

The really important implication of this attitude concerns the very important notion of Truth, which is conceived, by the Byzantines, not as a concept which can be expressed adequately in words or developed rationally, but as God Himself--personally present and met in the Church in His very personal identity. Not Scripture, not concilair definition, not theology can express Him fully; each can only point to some aspects of His existence, or exclude wrong interpretations of His beings or acts. No human language, however, is fully adequate to Truth itself, nor can it exhaust it ... This is the authentic message maintained most explicitly by the Byzantine "mystical" tradition of Maximus the Confessor, Symeon the New Theologian, and Gregory Palamas. [l9]

John Climacus (579 - 649) contrasts the experiential emphasis with a mere conceptual or linguistic view of God's revelation: "Do you imagine plain words can precisely or truly or appropriately describe the love of the Lord... and assurance of the heart? Do you imagine that talk of such matters will mean anything to someone who has never experienced them? If you think so, then you will be like a man who with words and examples tries to convey the sweetness of honey to people who have never tasted it. He talks uselessly. Indeed I would say he is simply prattling." [20] Similarly, Simeon the New Theologian (949-1022) objected strongly to theology that was little more than rational discourse. He urged a conscious awareness of the primacy of experience as confirmation of the power of the Holy Spirit. So too Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), who insisted that true theology is wedded to actual experience and not relegated solely to the intellect.

Thus, in the Eastern conception of revelation, theological rationalism does not dissect truth, much less attempt to explain its every concept; instead, in Eastern thought theology and mystery walk hand in hand as the closest of friends. In the history of theology Byzantine Christianity is heir to the apophatic tradition, in which contemplation and vision, not intellection and analysis, characterize the theological task. In this apophatic orientation the mystery of God leads to mystical union with him.

This is excerpted from Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective from Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI.

1. Donald Bloesch, A Theology of Word and Spirit (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity, 1992), 58, 103.

2. Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology: An Introduction (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1978), 19; .Jordan Bajis, Common Ground: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity for the American Christian (Minneapolis: Light and Life, l991),vi,6.

3. Claude Levi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning (New York: Schocken, 1979), 17.

4. Anthony Ugolnik, The Illuminating Icon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 144.

5. Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1858), 224.

6. Norman Geisler, "Avoid All Contradictions: A Surrejoinder to John Dahms," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22.2 (June 1979): 159, 155.

7. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Basic Questions in Theology , trans. George H. Kehm, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983),2: 102,54. The examples of Locke, Butler, Geisler, and Pannenberg come from Bloesch, Theology of Word . Bloesch also finds theological rationalism in B. B. Warfield, James Oliver Buswell, John Gerstner, R. C. Sproul, John Warwick Montgomery, and Gordon Clark (pp. 253-54). See also Nicholas Gier, God, Reason and the Evangelicals (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987). On Protestantism's confidence in the power of human reason to validate the claims of Christianity, see Jaroslav Pelikan, From Luther to Kierkegaard (St. Louis: Concordia, 1950), 49-75.

8. Frederick C. Copleston, Philosophy in Russia (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), 16; Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church , rev. ed. (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1988), chap. 11, "Orthodox Mysticism."

9. Lev Shestov, Speculation and Revelation , trans. Bernard Martin (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1982), 41, 21. On Shestov see Frederick C. Copleston, Russian Religious Philosophy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), chap. 6.

10. Alexei S. Khomiakov, "On the Western Confessions of Faith," in Alexander Schmemann, ed., Ultimate Questions: An Anthology of Modern Russian Religious Thought (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1977), 29-69.

11. Tertullian "On the Flesh of Christ," in The Ante-Nicene Fathers , ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 3:525.

12. Tertullian "Prescription against Heretics," in Ante-Nicene Fathers , 3:246.

13. Randy Maddox, "John Wesley and Eastern Orthodoxy: Influences, Convergences, and Differences," Asbury TheologicalJ ournal 45.2 (Fall 1990): 29-53; and Howard Snyder, "John Wesley and Macarius of Egypt," Asbury Theological Journal 45.2 (Fall 1990): 55-60.

14. Ivan Kireevsky, "Of the Necessity and Possibility of New Principles for Philosophy," in Polnoe sobranie sochinenii , vol. 2 (Moscow: Theological Academy, 1861), 318 (cited by Ugolnik, Illuminating Icon, 193). Cf. Vladimir Weidle, "Russia and the West," in Schmemann, Ulamate Questions , 11-27, who argues that the differences between Russia and the West have been exaggerated and that Europe as well as Byzantium has deeply influenced Russia.

15. Ugolnik, Illuminating Icon , 92.

16. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1976), 47.

17. Maximus the Confessor, Two Hundred Texts on Theology 2.36, and Various Texts on Theology 1.13, in Philokalia , trans. and ed. G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware, 3 vols. (London: Faber and Faber, 1979-90), 2:146, 167.

18. John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York: Fordham University Press, 1974), 4-5, 128, 180-81; Lossky, Mystical Theology , 143; Stanley Harakas, "Creed and Confession in the Orthodox Church," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 7.4 (1970): 783; and Carnegie S. Calian, Theology without Boundaries: Encounters of Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Tradition (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), 39.

19. Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology , l1; see also 9-13, 139-40; Calian, Theology without Boundaries , 51.

20. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (New York: Paulist, 1982), step 25, p. 218. see also Kallistos Ware's introduction to the text, 7-8.

Daniel B. Clendenin, a Protestant evangelical and a student of Eastern Orthodoxy, is serving as visiting professor of Christian studies at Moscow State University, with the International Institute for Christian Studies. He also has taught at other Eastern European universities, as well as in Africa and the Philippines. Clendenin is author of From the Coup to the Commonwealth: An Inside View of Life in Modern Russia and Theological Method in Jacques Ellul .

This article was originally published in The Christian Activist, Volume 6 (Spring 1995).

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