My Orthodox Christian friend Frederica Mathewes-Green sent this to me as an e-mail response to yesterday’s thread about religion, thinking, and doing. It’s written casually, as an e-mail, not a polished, formal piece of writing, but I thought it was so interesting that I convinced Frederica to let me post it:
Rod, I noticed belatedly your post on this subject and it seemed too late to get in on the discussion. But it is something I’ve been thinking about lately because I feel like I don’t understand what people are talking about. I feel like it is so very different for me.
Primary, for me, is the experience of God’s presence. Right from the start, almost 40 yrs ago, that electrifying experience, that voice that “speaks with authority,” that’s absolutely primary.
And it is the experience of a person, not a spiritual shimmer or “oneness with the universe.” It has all the complexity and beauty of personality, though it’s clear that what I can encounter is only the very surface of the reality; it’s just, it’s all I can grasp. Anything further would explode me.
Secondary is community, by which I don’t mean my local church, as wonderful and essential as that is. I mean all the other people in the world and through all time who have experienced this same person. When I read their descriptions, I can tell it is the same person. We see different aspects, like someone who meets my dentist in the grocery store sees different aspects, but it is indisputably the same person. Again, that powerful authority, that essence of both life and love, beyond description, beyond comprehension, just resonates across the years. It’s the same person, and when I meet someone who saw him too, even if that person died a thousand years ago, even if that person is in a church with very different theology, I know I have found a brother or sister.
Third is the teaching of the Church. Here’s how I understand that. The Church is the safe place to be. I can safely believe everything the Church teaches. It will not harm me, and in fact it will equip me to grow and grow and have a better and better ability to experience that direct presence. I can see the evidence: others who have accepted the Church’s teachings and followed its ascetic practices grow and grow and grow! The light of Christ sometimes shines through them literally! That’s what I want to follow! It’s not, is the Church right about this or that; it’s, does itwork. The Church is a machine designed to do something. Does it work? Absolutely! Just look at all those saints! Let me in there!
So I don’t have to question the Church’s teachings; I’m not interested in questioning them. I think to myself, even if I found out in heaven that this is a little off target or not quite accurate, it’s not like believing it would harm me. It didn’t harm St. Seraphim… So its not dangerous, and if I just take it in stride and move on it will bring me more swiftly to my goal–which is more of the direct experience.
I know by experience that Jesus Christ is a very powerful spirit–I know by experience that he is probably the most powerful spirit in the universe. I know by experience he is not a mere human being. He is something beyond that. I see others around the world having the same experience and the same encounter, and their reports echo what I sense. But I can’t know by experience that Christ is the Son of God, or know by experience what the Trinity is.
I see the Church saying that Christ is the Only-Begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages, light of light, true God of true God, begotten, not made…And I think, OK! You know better than I do! I don’t even understand completely what some of those words mean. But I can wholeheartedly trust what the Church teaches, because it is the summary of the community of experience, and it shows the vast company of the saints as the results. The Church’s teaching isn’t an official statement, but the cumulative understanding of all the people who have loved and experienced Jesus through time. All of us is smarter than any of us. My belief in what the Church teaches is on the order of trust, rather than working-it-out-logically-and-concluding-it-is-sound.
Something about myself that kind of puzzles me, though, is that I have real antagonism toward that kind of rationality. I feel like trying to figure it out logically, and deciding whether this or that theological theory is right, is soooooo stupid. I have no respect for it. I feel like it’s delusional, actually. It’s just a children’s game, that they play with long faces and think it amounts to something. And still the universe rolls on and takes no notice.
If it were possible to think our way to theological truth, then all the smart people in the world would end up agreeing. If that kind of truth were available to our minds, then every sincere person who followed it all the way to the end would come to the same realization. But our minds are so much weaker and sillier than we realize.
If it were possible to deduce the essentials of Christianity by reading the Bible by yourself in an attic, then all the sincere people who read the Bible would agree. All of us is smarter than… You need to cling to the community of those who, like you, have had authentic experience of the Lord, not jsut now but through time and across cultures. You have to follow the thread of what Christians have believed consistently for the longest amount of time, what has been believed by the most people everywhere for the longest time (the Vincentian Canon), and I mean starting right from the Holy Land 2000 years ago. Who could understand the Bible better than those who wrote it? Accept nothing that contradicts the continuous faith that began there and rolls on through the world. What else could be safe? Being smart is such an illusion; we’re trying to draw the universe with a box of 16 crayons. Our brains just can’t do it.
And the practical problem is that there is no edifying failure, when it comes to theologizing; theories just stretch on and on like a rickety tinkertoy, reaching into space, never making contact with anything. And yet people think they’ve done something substantial and reliable. If it were possible to do something reliable that way, then everyone who put their hand to it would finally come to the same conclusion.
I think intellectualizing annoys me because it is the enemy of experience; you cannot experience the presence of God and analyze it at the same time. You can’t analyze anything and experience it simultaneously. So any time spent deliberately theologizing is saying to God, “Bye! I don’t need to be in touch with you for awhile!” And of course we need to be always in touch, always to pray, to pray constantly; the only real wisdom comes from that inner connection. And people who do have that connection–there is a huge overlap where they agree. Where they fall out of agreement is when they try to go a-theorizing, out a ways from the circle, and construct those tinkertoy assertions, and then get huffy and dramatic about them.
I think it’s destructive, too, because it is such a sticky flypaper for pride. People can be just as addicted to cleverness, and verbally humiliating opponents, as to alcohol. It’s an intense and thrilling game, intellectualizing. It presents many opportunities to mock and wound other people. Positive results? Almost nothing accurate, or useful. It’s poisonous.
Sometimes that theoretical, theological work has to be done, because diseased ideas have crept in and people are confused and troubled. Praise God for the Holy Spirit who leads and inspires theologians in such times, in the great Ecumenical Councils and other settings. But the fact that it has to be done at all is a sign something was going wrong.
Since I am founded so insistently on direct experience of God, its necessary to say that for safety’s sake you’ve got to stay within a structure of accountability–another aspect of community. Because there is a real devil, and he really does fake things and confuse us in subtle ways. It is absolutely necessary to be in a healthy community and under the prayer-covering and guidance of someone wiser about such things. History is littered with those who followed false experiences of God.
I could probably keep going. I don’t really know why I get so exercised about philosophizing and theologizing. I just feel like it’s a delusional and ultimately poisonous thing.