Saturday, 15 December 2012


“It's Not for You to Know”

The Orthodox Church believes in the baptism of children and accepts them into full membership of the Church, including the taking of Holy Communion, from the very beginning. I shall be discussing some of the implications of this in a later blog but it also has relevance to the question of doubt and agnosticism. Children are full members of the Church and yet how can a three-year-old be expected to understand the Holy Trinity? It follows, then, that it cannot be necessary for our salvation that we understand every aspect of Orthodox theology. As we grow older, of course, we understand more but even the greatest intellects among us remain mere infants from the perspective of eternity. This is not to say that we shouldn't use our God-given brains to seek to make sense of the world but we should never forget that we are still 'looking through a glass darkly.'

As I have explored the rich landscape of Orthodox thought, I have sometimes been  surprised to find that the 'uncertainty principle' is actually at the heart of much mainstream Orthodox belief. Some of the greatest Orthodox theologians have argued that we can never understand what God is and can only attempt to define Him by what He is not. Others maintain that even this is beyond human understanding and we can only know God through Christ. Well, that's all a bit deep and I certainly don't intend to go into details about this 'apophatic' theology; if this interests you, 'The Orthodox Way' by Metropolitan Kallistos contains  a reasonably accessible approach to the subject, as does Vladimir Lossky's 'The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.' However, even in the basic beliefs we all profess, Orthodoxy accepts that many ‘details’ of Christian faith are better left unexplored. The Church maintains an attitude of reverent and agnostic reticence towards such beliefs as the Assumption of the Virgin Mary or exactly what happens after death. The former, as Metropolitan Kallistos writes, “is not so much an object of faith as a foundation of our hope, a fruit of faith, ripened in Tradition. Let us therefore keep silence, and let us not try to dogmatize about the supreme glory of the Mother of God.”

C.S. Lewis argues that even what exactly happened at the Crucifixion cannot be (and perhaps should not be) the object of too much detailed analysis. “We believe that the death of Christ is just that point in history at which something absolutely unimaginable from outside shows through into our own world. And if we cannot picture even the atoms of which our own world is built, of course we are not going to be able to picture this. Indeed, if we found that we could fully understand it, that very fact would show it was not what it professes to be – the inconceivable, the uncreated, the thing beyond nature, striking down into nature like lightning. You may ask what good it will be to us if we do not understand it. But that is easily answered. A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works.”

In “The Orthodox Church,” Metropolitan Kallistos cites a timely reminder of how we should beware of probing too deeply: “When St. Antony of Egypt was once worrying about divine providence, a voice came to him, saying: ‘Antony, attend to yourself; for these are the judgements of God, and it is not for you to know them.’” I'm not saying that speculation, study, theology and analysis of one's faith is wrong. I do it all the time. It should, however, be kept in perspective. Whatever our natural desire for clear answers and certainty, maybe it's better, as Christmas approaches, to consider the shepherds of Bethlehem. It's unlikely that any of them understood the concepts of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation or the Virgin Birth; they just went and saw and “returned rejoicing and glorifying God.”
Next week: Looking at my programme for future blogs, I notice that the next one due is on the theme of the Last Judgement!! Perhaps this might be a bit gloomy for the week before Christmas so, in the words of TV cooks everywhere, next week I will be presenting “one I prepared earlier.” On the other hand, if the predictions of the end of the world on Friday come true, my original posting might have been very appropriate, if a touch late!

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