The Two Kinds of Knowledge: Divine and Human

Last Sunday we celebrated the triumph of Orthodoxy over the iconoclasts, who have been called the reformers of the Orthodox Church, the “purists” who wanted to deprive Orthodoxy of its glory and beauty, of the tangible signs of her faith and her very image in the world, her precious icons. Today, in a way, we have the continuation of that victory, over another insidious enemy, the emerging rationalism and humanism of the West in the 14th century. Proof of the continuation of the feast of the Sunday of Orthodoxy to today’s feast, honoring St. Gregory Palamas, is provided by the Synodikon, the document proclaiming the victory of Orthodoxy over the iconoclasts. On this Synodikon, to the decisions of the 7th Ecumenical Council was added the Oros of faith of the synod convened in Constantinople in the year 1351, which, according to eminent Orthodox theologians, is considered as the 9th Ecumenical Council, together with the previous two Synods of 1341 and 1347 (cf. Vlahos, Ekklesia kai Ecclesiastiko Phronema, p. 260, where Metrop. Athanasios Yeftich is quoted as one of its proponents. Cf. also Orthodoxē Psychotherapeia, p. 306). We would like to offer a few thoughts today on the Orthodox understanding of our knowledge of God and of knowledge in general, which are supposed to serve as guides for us in our everyday life.

  • How many “truths” are there?
  • How many kinds of knowledge?
  • How do we learn about God?
  • How do we know God and His mysteries?
  • Can we know God?—not about God, but God Himself?
  • If we want to learn physics we study physics; if chemistry, we study chemistry. If we want to study theology what do we do?
  • Do we study and learn the holy scriptures, the dogmas of faith, the history of the Church, the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, the writings and the lives of the Fathers of the Church?

If we do all this (which we must do, to the extent of our capabilities, and depending upon our role in the Church), will we be theologians?–just as when we would have completed the pertinent studies we would be physicists and physicians?

(More questions, to keep you in suspense)

  • Is our approach to knowing God and His mysteries the same as it is to acquiring any other knowledge?
  • How important and how pertinent is this question to us? Quite pertinent! Obviously it is important. Knowing God is the purpose of our life: “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3).

But how do we get to know God? Wouldn’t you say that this is a quite important and vital question?–nothing else is more important. And it is also pertinent for us today, in our time and culture, because we might get the wrong answers to our question. What does our holy Orthodox Church teach in this regard?

Our Church gave a definitive answer to this question back in the 14th century. In those days a monk from Calabria, Italy, by the name of Barlaam, was teaching that there is one truth, given to us by God, through the prophets and through the philosophers. So whether revealed by God through His prophets or arrived at through the intellectual faculties that God implanted in us, the truth is one and the same. As we talk about health and we know that there is no difference between the health that is obtained through a miracle and one that is obtained though medicine, in the same way, argued Barlaam, knowledge, truth, wisdom, is one and the same, no matter how it is acquired.

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Yet, St. Gregory Palamas, whose name became synonymous with Orthodoxy, perceived a great danger in this position and its teaching, which was altering fundamentally the doctrine of the Church. The Saint argued strenuously that there are two kinds of truths, two kinds of wisdoms, two kinds of knowledge. There is the wisdom and knowledge of this world, the human wisdom, the wisdom obtained through our faculties and intellectual abilities; and then there is the wisdom and knowledge obtained through revelation, through the infusion of the Holy Spirit, through a process of cleansing and purification of the mind, soul, heart, faculties, through a life of obedience to God’s commandments, the practicing of the virtues, the abandonment to His will, a life of commitment, dedication and offering to God, a life of love toward Him and, through Him, toward our fellow human being.

If there were one kind of knowledge to be acquired through our intellectual faculties, then the philosophers should know God better than anyone else. Our models would be Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Instead, our Lord calls John the Baptist the greatest of all men born of a woman, although his school was the desert. The unschooled fishermen are called “all-wise.” St. Anthony is “Professor of the desert”, although he was totally illiterate. The holy Virgin Theotokos did not go to any school, yet she was deemed worthy to bear in her immaculate womb and become mother of Wisdom Himself. According to St. Gregory Palamas, a true philosopher is he “who seeks and does God’s will.” Wise is he who has the grace of the Holy Spirit indwelling in him. “The education,” teaches the Saint, “begins with the fear of God, from which is born continuous prayer to God in contrition and in the observance of the evangelical precepts. When through these means a man lives his reconciliation with God, then the fear is transformed into love and the pain of prayer is changed into pleasure, and then it rises the flower of illumination, from which illumination is offered to man the knowledge of the mysteries of God” (Metropolitan Hierotheos Vhahos, Kairos tou Poiēsai, 174). Wisdom is our journey from that which is “according to God’s image” to that which is “according to His likeness,” that is to theosis.

It would be good for us to keep the following clear distinction in our minds: Human knowledge leads us to human wisdom; but the way to God is that of repentance, of renunciation, of denial, of “dispassion,” of sacrifice, and sacrificial love.

We therefore can conclude that true theologians are the Saints. They are the living theology, the living tradition, the living Church. They learned the depths of the mysteries of God not by reading many books, but by becoming vessels of God’s grace. St. Basil teaches that sin is deception, darkness, death, apostasy from God, loss of the divine grace, sickness of the human nature, rebellion against God’s love for man. Repentance is the illumination of the mind, the beginning of the true knowledge, correction of the evil thoughts, words and deeds, medicine and remedy for spiritual sickness, and cure. Only after the mind and heart are cleansed from every passion through askesis (ascetical training), does the human being attain to union with God and can “theologize” securely, with divine inspiration.

“Unfortunately,” Metropolitan Ierotheos Vlahos reflects, “the Western way of life has influenced our own way of life, so that it is being said to alter the Orthodox Tradition” (Orthodox Psychotherapy, p. 310). “The atmosphere that prevails today is more the atmosphere of Barlaam than than of St. Gregory Palamas” (Ibid., p. 311). We too believe, as Barlaam did, that “we can attain to the knowledge of God with philosophy” (Ibid., 325-6), that is with our intellect and reasoning faculties, whereas “what offers the existential knowledge of God in man are vision, theosis and union with God” (Ibid., 328-9). Clearly theognosia, [knowledge of God,] according to the Neptic Fathers, lies beyond human knowledge. The vision of the uncreated light lies beyond every intellectual activity, it takes place “beyond our visual powers and knowledge” (Ibid., p. 329).

It would be good for us to keep the following clear distinction in our minds: Human knowledge leads us to human wisdom; but the way to God is that of repentance, of renunciation, of denial, of “dispassion,” of sacrifice, and sacrificial love. Whoever desires to find God, “let him deny himself” (Mk. 8:34, Mt. 16:24). These methods are not particularly popular in our age of activism. “The modern world is not the world of prayer and quietude, but of activism and agony,” writes Professor George Mantzarides (quoted in Orthodox Psychotherapy, p. 311). Our age is hedonistic, seeking pleasure and self-satisfaction, which are hardly in harmony with the arduous climb of Orthodox spirituality.

To summarize this teaching, with St. Gregory Palamas we say that knowledge of God is not obtained through study, but through a participation of the entire human being in the divine life. May we all attain to it, my brothers and sisters in Christ. Amen.

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