Thursday, April 14, 2016

To Know and Taste the Truth

Someone who has actually tasted truth is not contentious for truth. Someone who is considered by people to be zealous for truth has not yet learnt what truth is really like; once he has truly learnt it, he will cease from zealousness on its behalf. (Kephalaia IV.77; The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian, translated by Sebastian Brock)

Last time I studied what St. Isaac was not saying in this passage, how he is not rejecting the positive biblical language about "zeal" for God or "contending" for the truth. This time I'll try to delve into the profundity of what he is saying as I have been exploring it for the last few weeks. Here is where some research into what more qualified writers have made of St. Isaac's words is in order.

Polemics and passions

Fr. Gregory Jensen, an Orthodox priest and chaplain, wrote in 2008 on Orthodox-Catholic relations and why they tend to degenerate into polemics, offering some helpful insights on healthy conversation that eventually intersect with St. Isaac's words. Using the example of how "Jesus increased in wisdom and stature" (Luke 2:52), he argues that mental health, "the integrity of the person's cognitive, emotional and social functions", is not something automatically conferred by an encounter with God, but something we must learn and grow in, a natural part of human development. Summarizing his professor, he explains, "to live a constant human life means that we remain open in awe, trust, and gratitude to the Mystery of Being (God) and becoming (human life as a life of dynamic openness)." He incisively applies this to Catholic/Orthodox conversations (and inter-traditional dialogue in general):
We often talk as if the Catholic/Orthodox dialog is a conversation is between two different, even competing, traditions. In fact these conversations are always conversations between human beings who in their conversations with each other, make selective appeals to their own understanding of the past, both their own and the other's. Traditions, to state the painfully obvious, do not have conversations—only human beings can speak, can enter into a conversations. Tradition, as Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) has pointed out in Being in Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church, only exist enhypostatically, that is, by way of the person. 
Too often conversations between Eastern and Western Christians are not understood as human encounters. In fact, I would suggest that the reason that our conversations are so often polemical, is because we imagine that there is nothing of ourselves in our talks with each other. Let me go even further, we are so often polemical because we are striving not to encounter one another. We do not wish to know the other, because not only do we do not wish to be know by the other, we do not know, or even wish to know, ourselves personally. Any human encounter is necessarily one that demands from me both self-knowledge and change. To refuse one or the other of these is to refuse the encounter, the gift of the other person and so to refuse to receive my own life as a gift from God. 
For too many of us, our attachment to our religious tradition is an escape, a refusal, of the dynamic and gratuitous quality of our own lives. We do not wish to grow, to change. Our conversations are polemical because more often than not, our thinking about ourselves is static and rigid. Catholic/Orthodox polemics—at least as we see them in contemporary practice—are only accidentally theological. In the main (and I will address this more in another post) our polemics reflect our own lack of wholeness, of balance, of our own lack of virtue. Or, to borrow from psychology, our encounters so often go wrong because of we are neurotic.
According to Fr. Gregory, our polemics, our defense of and contentions for "the truth" as we perceive it, are in fact a way of refusing authentic knowledge of ourselves and each other, of resisting needed change and growth by drawing doctrinal lines in the sand and refusing to see, much less step beyond them. But by shutting out others, by refusing to let ourselves encounter them as fellow humans (or even living icons of the Almighty) rather than just representatives of enemy traditions and threats to the "truth", we do the same to God. (cf. Matthew 25:31-46)

I am reminded here of how Andrew Louth wrote that truth-as-mystery, the really vital, weighty truth we encounter in the humanities and especially in religion, is of a sort that makes personal demands of you, that cannot be engaged with in a merely "objective", detached sort of way. Theological conversations are not simply abstract debates between rival systems of truth to determine which has the epistemological upper hand; they are human encounters like any other, and to treat them as less than this does not do justice to God, our neighbor, or ourselves.

Fr. Gregory continues in a follow-up post by applying John Zizioulas' description of tradition as existing "enhypostatically" to the subject of inter-traditional conversations:
Let me suggest that if the tradition only exists by way of the person, then tradition is not simply, or even primarily, an objective content. Rather tradition is a virtue and virtues wax and wane. In other words, a tradition is only more or less revealed by how I live my life. Complicating this further, is that I do not live or embody only one tradition. Rather each human life is lived as the intersection of multiple traditions.
Tradition is not merely a body or system of teachings; it is a way, a life, or (in the case of other "traditions", like where we live, where we go to school, or experiences that have shaped our lives) at least a part of how we live. All of these things contribute to how I, as an individual, come to experience and embody the Orthodox tradition. They also add considerable complexity, depth, and need for sensitivity to what we may be tempted to suppose is a simple, straightforward conversation between two rival forms of Christianity (or other traditions).

Add to this the fact that none of us are flawless representatives of our tradition. All too easily we can end up representing instead our own egos, our insecurities, the desire for pleasure and avoidance of pain that Orthodox call the "passions". Fr. Gregory warns that "unless we are well formed in the spiritual life, and psychologically sound, what we are mostly likely to give voice to is not the tradition of the Orthodox Church or the tradition of the Catholic Church, but our own passions. And this, I would suggest, is true regardless of the objective validity of any given statement that we might make." Speaking truly requires more than getting the facts right—again echoing how Louth wrote that holistic truth is not merely objective. Gregory gives an illustration:
The example I use with my own spiritual children is this, it may in fact be objectively the case that I am stupid and my mother dresses me funny, but it is unlikely that telling me this truth is sufficient to change my life. Still less is telling me this likely to encourage me to trust you and give you a place of authority in my life. And let us make no mistake here, in any conversation I have, I only listen to the views of those who I see as authoritative—I might or might not trust [their] authority, but I still must see them as an authority for me.
The great danger of polemics, he warns, is that in our rush to defend "the truth" it is all too easy to become oppositional and hostile, to cease acting and treating others in accordance with that truth.
Whatever the reason, sharp disagreements are inevitable when we are looking together at what divides us. Polemics, however, seem to me to begin with that sharp disagreement. In so doing, they are intellectually unchaste embodying as they do an underlying lack of respect for the limitations of both self and others. In our polemical attitude we are freed from any consideration of our own passions in the pursuit of the Truth. The fact that we often say things which are true does not remove from us the burden of intellectual dishonesty.

Truth as appetite

If we treat dialogue as merely an exchange and weighing of "objective" truths for which the persons involved are merely vehicles, we leave the personal dimension (which is closer to the level on which Truth actually exists) of the "rational" conversation to be governed by our sinful passions. University of Alberta professor David Goa, beginning with the quote by St. Isaac, describes more precisely how this happens. He sums up relativism and zealousness for the truth as two sides of the same coin, two related ways of "misunderstanding our deep desire for a firm truth. ... In both we see this human desire [for truth] turned into an appetite." What follows is a deep diagnosis of the polemical attitude:
Whatever we come to look at and care about is then forced into conformity with the idea, image, or ritual that we have erected as absolute. We begin to hang all our hopes and dreams on the truth of our chosen framework, our precious absolutes (including the relativists’ precious absolute that there is nothing of ultimate value). Our longing is captured by an absolute of our own making. It follows, almost without saying, that once we hang all our hopes and dreams on something that we claim as absolute, it is a short step to hanging all our fears on it as well. In this moment the holy longing of the human heart and mind that lies behind the search for absolutes becomes polluted. Zealousness for the truth frames how we see and understand and reshapes our response to the fragility of the life of the world.
It is this passion, this disease, that St. Isaac says we are freed from when we learn what truth is really like. But we are only open to learn what truth is like when our understanding of truth itself is transformed.
For the relativist, this transformation involves letting go of the rejection of absolutes. But his description of the one who is zealous for truth sounds uncomfortably like me:
The zealous, often religious men and women, have yet to walk through the valley of shattered absolutes. They erect elaborate temples of truth, statement-by-statement, fact-by-fact, temples that have turrets strategically located, each well armed and poised to fire at a moment’s notice. Both the relativist and the zealous are spiritual adolescents at best, and in our fragile world, where the news media often shape the public discourse, they have bonded with each other to divert attention away from serious encounter with “what truth is really like.”
Using public discourse about Islam as an example, Goa goes on to describe how parties (for example, political parties) that are diametrically at odds with one another can unwittingly work together to "contribute with equal passion to the emotional landscape that traps the human spirit somewhere between indignation, despair and cynicism." Both parties antagonistically use the pressure and the perceived threat posed by each other "to reduce complex issues and themes to what they have come to understand in their zeal." For the positions of the religious right and secular left, "truth has become coterminous with a selected set of facts, real or imagined." He then seeks to apply the line of thought offered by St. Isaac to this standoff:
For St. Isaac, zeal for truth is itself a symptom of a spiritual disease. Or, perhaps, it is a condition that tends to develop at a certain stage in the spiritual life and is itself simply a marker of that stage. It is the spiritual equivalent of adolescence where the young try out all sorts of ideas and actions with the conviction that no one else has ever had these thoughts or feelings and they are exploring them for the first time. How can it be that no one else has ever seen just how important and ultimate these thoughts and feelings are?
Recall what Fr. Gregory wrote about "mental health" as the the integrity and functioning of our natural faculties, something in which we should develop over the course of our lives. Zealousness for truth occurs when this growth is arrested by our stubbornly clinging to a certain set of facts as "the truth". And so, "one is stuck in the adolescent stage of the spiritual life."
Better than most wings of the Christian tradition, Orthodoxy has understood that the concern for truth and the question of truth are not anchored or bounded either by philosophical concepts or principles or by historical fact. Fact is not truth nor is truth merely fact. Truth is far beyond the reach of fact. That either philosophical ideas or historical facts are cast in the language of the Christian teaching does not make them any more a matter of truth. You can dress them up all you like, but they remain exposed for what they are, simulacrums for truth. They all indicate that one has not “tasted of truth.”
Goa is exploring the implications of what I glimpsed as I was investigating Orthodoxy, that Truth is not merely "that which corresponds to reality", but reality itself—the supreme Reality, God in three Persons. Statements of fact, while they may soundly describe this Reality, are not the Reality Himself. When we make something less than this Reality the "absolute truth" around which we orient ourselves, no matter how correctly it describes reality, we have replaced the Truth with something less than ultimately true. And this substitution, this idolatry, is the basis for "zealousness for truth".
We want the comfort of our truth statements, of our elevated theologically clothed philosophical doctrines. And we want them because we are addicted to the spiritual adrenalin we feel at the sudden rush of winning, at least in our own minds and hearts, the argument for truth. We want to be defender of the faith, the kind of person who knows he is right and takes pride in staking a claim to what is true no matter what the cost.
Orthodox are no strangers to this phenomenon, especially converts to the faith, who go through what is known as "conversion sickness" (as useful a reference as my lengthy series on becoming Orthodox is, I was probably in the throes of conversion sickness when I wrote it). Calvinists apparently go through it as well, calling it the "cage stage" (the word-picture implying that these zealous new converts need to be temporarily locked in a cage until they calm down to avoid hurting themselves or others). The remedy St. Isaac offers for this zealousness is to "taste the truth". Goa concludes:
We are called to better. We are called to better precisely because in Him who is “the truth and the life” we are freed from the habit of taking refuge in abstract notions of truth. If we taste of truth at every Eucharist we know better. If we taste of truth every time we, like the disciples, find ourselves in Emmaus breaking bread with someone we didn’t know we knew, we know better. We know better every time our hearts are moved with compassion.
No wonder St. Isaac says that when we learn what truth really is we will cease being zealous for truth, cease responding as if it were our place to defend and protect truth. If the history of religions teaches us anything, and I think it teaches us much, it teaches us that one of the most serious religious diseases is zealousness. It was a deep concern to Jesus as he walked the valley of the Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem. And he finally healed us of its bondage when he spoke from the throne of the cross to those who were contentious for truth, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Fr. Gregory, in his last post on the subject, finally cites both St. Isaac and Goa. After summarizing Goa, he concludes with his earlier point that
polemics, a zealous approach to the truth has a strangle hold on us because we do not wish to grow, to change. Our conversations are polemical because more often than not, our thinking about ourselves is static and rigid. Catholic/Orthodox polemics—at least as we see them in contemporary practice—are only accidentally theological. In the main (and I will address this more in another post) our polemics reflect our own lack of wholeness, of balance, of our own lack of virtue. We are, as I said earlier, neurotic.

To know the Truth

Drawing from multiple commentators, I hope I've painted a fairly clear picture of what he meant by "zealous" or "contentious" for truth. In contrast to the good, more metaphorical uses of these terms in the Bible to denote religious fervor and discipline, "zealousness for the truth" is, as Goa says, an appetite for certainty, our disordered passions—pride, insecurity, fear—hijacking our natural will's desire to know the Truth. We erect the system of our own perception of "truth" like a fortress, pledging to defend it against any and all threats, satisfying our appetite by zealously vindicating "the truth" as we see it over against the falsehoods that others have come to stand for in our eyes. In 1 Corinthians 11:16 the word translated into "contentious" is is philoneikos, literally "victory-loving"—a telling construction. Safe and secure in our fortress of facts, we don't authentically encounter God, ourselves, or others, but only the thrill and agony projected by our passions onto the contentious interplay of "truths" being lobbed across the great divide.

Implicit in Isaac's statement is that the truth we are zealous for is something less than the real Truth, which the "zealous" have not yet tasted. Zealousness for truth, as I have been describing it, entails the substitution of a rigid, constructed system of "truth" for openness to encountering and being changed by the Truth that exceeds all of our attempts to define and circumscribe it. When we move from reality to statements corresponding to reality, however correct the correspondence may be, we are removed a step from tasting the truth. This step back is the basis of the "human tradition" that Jesus (Mark 7:8) and the Reformers rightly deplored. Holy Tradition, if it is to be any different, must be the Church's Spirit-guided ascent towards, and life within, the divine Reality, never stopping to accept any lesser construction as ultimate. (Apophatic theology, "theology of negation", is one way of realizing this)

Our need to always be open to and growing is why an inherently parsimonious of minimal approach to truth, such as the Enlightenment ideal of questioning everything and basing one's beliefs only on what can be demonstrated by reason, is inappropriate for us. For if we refuse to accept anything that we cannot fit into our established system of truth, that cannot pass by the gatekeeper of our judgment, we make it impossible to grow in the truth, to be changed by it. We become "closed-minded". There is a similar danger to insisting on only "objectively knowing" the truth at the expense of subjectively engaging with it.

In the Orthodox tradition Truth is, most "truly", the person of Christ (Jhn 14:6), the "one who is", the ultimate Reality and the ground of all being. To know this Truth is to participate in him, to be known by him. Christ is the reality towards which all of our statements and doctrines are directed; they call us forward, to actually taste the Truth, to push past all lesser substitutes. (This is why no one is simply argued into believing, because belief is so much more than the acceptance of certain facts) Thus truth does exist "out there", independently of ourselves, as apologists for "absolute truth" are so quick to assert, but it does not exist independently of persons; rather, the Truth is a Person. The Truth objectively exists (in fact, he exists much more objectively than we do), but cannot be truly known objectively. To know God is to love God. (1 John 4:7-8) Relationships, intercommunion or sharing of life between persons, are much closer to the "natural language" of the Truth than mere words or propositions.

If this really is the case, then it is obvious that the Truth does not need our help, in contrast to systems of truth constructed by us. We need the Truth, he does not need us. And so it is that "tasting the truth" frees us from needing to be zealous on its behalf. Once we have actually tasted truth, our assurance and experience of truth is no longer based on a system that we construct in our minds and need to defend, but on reality, on living experience which is not in any way endangered by what others are saying; we know better. In Orthodox thought, knowledge is indistinguishable from participation. Tasting the truth, partaking in the truth, frees us from the neurotic doubt that drives us to zealously defend truth. The real problem is not the truth itself being somehow threatened, but simply people refusing it, preferring darkness to light, and we respond not by treating them as enemies to be polemically defeated, but by inviting them in.

Tasting the Truth

St. Isaac's words come as an answer to the intense concern I felt for the "unity of the church" and divisions among Christians during my period of doubt. I was grieved by the polemics, the doctrinal disagreements, and the schisms I saw among Christians, and not just because they made it impossible for me to find "true" teaching concerning my doubts without arbitrarily choosing the version I wanted to accept. I sensed that the state of division I felt immersed in was not the way things were supposed to be. While I no longer believe that the mystical body of Christ is divided in this way (praise God for this), this study of polemics has allowed me to see more clearly what was going on, and why theological debates are so intractable: one or more parties have made truth into a sinful appetite, substituted their own perception for reality, and dug into polemical trenches, ready to defend "the truth" against all threats.

The real kicker is that this can happen regardless of the "truth" of the position being defended, how well it expresses reality. Belief that you are in the right, no matter how well-substantiated, does not justify "zealousness for the truth", but rather is undermined by it. Humility, admission of our own weakness, removal of the plank in our eye are just as essential in discussions of traditions and truth as everywhere else. Faith in the Truth can invisibly slip into faith in ourselves as its designated defenders. Zeal for a "false" belief isn't just a matter of ignorance, illogic, bias, or faulty reasoning; it is a symptom of sin, a sickness of the soul. Proving a zealous person wrong, even if you somehow manage to do it, won't cure them of their zeal. Instead we must confront zealousness with patience, grace, and compassion, not contentiousness in kind, like any other sin.

Zealousness for the truth, the mirror image of postmodern pluralism and relativism, pervades our society (especially in election years). It characterizes a fair amount of the dialogue between Christians, especially those belonging to disparate traditions, as well as the constant skirmishes of the "culture wars". But reflecting on St. Isaac's words, I see the pattern he describes nowhere so clearly as in myself—as I feel threatened and angered by opposing viewpoints, build "temples [of truth] that have turrets strategically located, each well armed and poised to fire at a moment’s notice", or leap at opportunities to represent and defend all the treasure I have found in the Orthodox tradition.

Especially now, I am glad that St. Isaac did not speak of "tasting" the truth merely metaphorically, but concretely and intentionally. For in just three days, I will be received into the Orthodox Church by the sacrament of chrismation and finally, after a year and a half of visiting, partake in the mysteries of the body and blood of Christ. On that day, I pray that St. Isaac's words will be fulfilled in me as I taste the Word who gave himself for my sake.

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