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Communion With The Infinite


I think a useful distinction between progressive and traditionalist religionists and their approach to religious truth is as follows. Progressives think that religious truth is indefinite and subjective, and can change according to the perceived needs of people in a given time and place. Traditionalists believe that religious truth is definite and objective, and can be known with some degree of certainty.

Put another way, progressives tend to think that religious truth claims are statements of an individual’s thoughts and emotional state; trads tend to think that religious truth claims are statements about metaphysical reality.

Rod is right to put it in this other way, as there is something potentially very misleading in speaking in terms of subjectivity and objectivity. In Orthodox theology, and most specifically in the modern Orthodox neo-patristic theology of Lossky drawing on the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas, knowledge of God is experiential. Truth claims about God arise out of real experience (“he that saw it bare record, and his record is true”), which the faithful verify through their life in the Church and whose verification they also find in the written and unwritten Tradition of the Church and the lives of the saints. Indeed, if we had to choose between defining our knowledge of God as subjective or objective, we should probably prefer to say that it is subjective (or as some our colleagues might put it, intersubjective), but neither part of this opposition states things correctly. At least for man, objectivity is a myth, and objectivity here presupposes a weak or non-existent personal relationship man and God. God is radically Other in nature, but He is self-revealing and desires communion with His creatures, and His inner Life is characterized by communion and a relationship of perfect unity, which tells us that He is not an Object to be perceived, but a Person to be known and loved.

There is another difficulty here. Truth is not definite, because ultimately God is the Truth, and He is incomprehensible and ineffable. Our statements about God, both positive and negative, are definite because of the finite capacity of our mind and our language to conceive and to express the truths that God has revealed to us in a manner befitting our understanding. Doctrinal definitions are true and meaningful, and they point accurately to reality, but they are necessarily inadequate to express the fullness of Divine Life. The certainty of the faithful, or the certainty that the faithful can find in the teachings of the Church, is the certainty that the Spirit of Truth (Jn. 15:26) continues to guide and instruct the Church, and it is the certainty that these teachings derive from the real experience of members of the Church recorded in Scripture and explained by the generations of the faithful who have handed down the Faith in practice and devotion to us.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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