Today’s topic is “The
Limits of Reason.”
I’ve received many
excellent suggestions over the past few months, and today I would like to
address one of those. A listener wrote in wanting to know about the limits
of reason in the Orthodox life. In order to try and answer this question, we
need to break it down into more fundamental questions.
The first of these
questions is: “What is the object of our reason?” In other words, what is it
that we are trying to know? Let’s start out with four objects: a rock, a
man, an idea, and, finally, God. The second question is: “What do we mean by
reason?” The Fathers, for example, distinguish between the discursive
reason, or the theoria, and a more intuitive inelection which they
Let’s start with the first
question and then we will combine it with the second. Obviously, there are
significant differences between a rock, a man, an idea, and God. A rock is a
physical object. It takes up space and has certain properties that can be
analyzed using scientific equipment. All of which is to say that a rock can
be experienced empirically, using the physical senses, and that the
experience can be quantified.
A man is also a physical
object inasmuch as he is also a physical body. The ancient Greeks
disagreed, however, about whether there was anything more to man than his
body. The Atomists and the Epicureans insisted that the soul was made out of
matter, just like the body. The Platonists, on the other hand, believed that
the soul was an immaterial and immortal form imprisoned in the body. The
difference of opinion has persisted down to our own day, with the majority
now firmly in the materialist camp. Many forms of psychology and all of the
so-called social sciences presume that human life can be studied empirically
I don’t want to get into
this today. Perhaps it will make a topic for another episode. But let me
state, if only in passing, that one need not embrace a full blown Platonic
or Cartesian dualism in order to reject this materialistic reduction of man.
We are Christians, not Platonists, and for us the great ontic dividing line
is not between spirit and matter, but between creation and Creator.
Now to continue. An
idea—let’s say the idea of beauty, for example—is quite different from a
rock or a man in that it is not a physical thing. It is a mental concept.
Plato, of course, believed that ideas are more real than physical things.
Nominalists, on the other hand, believed that ideas are merely names, and
that the only things that exist are particular things. Many ancient Greeks
believed that beauty could be quantified—the Golden Ratio, for example. But
this is because they also believed that numbers were real and that the
cosmos was a fundamentally rational place.
Some modern psychologists
have also argued that beauty can be quantified, but for different reasons.
They argue that certain quantifiable, physical features—facial symmetry, for
example—register in the brain as being more pleasing than others. There is,
however, a disjunction here between all of these theories about what makes
something appear beautiful to us and the phenomenal experience of beauty.
Understanding the geometry of a beautiful painting or the mathematical
complexity of something like Mozart’s Recordare might enhance my
intellectual appreciation for the piece. But I seriously doubt that it adds
much of anything to the actual experience. To dissect art is to lose the
forest for the trees.
Modern man, by and large,
believes that he can study and understand man and beauty the same way he
studies a rock. That is, the scientific age is predicated upon one,
fundamental assumption—that absolutely everything is quantifiable and
therefore subject to the discursive reason.
This, of course, brings us
to the problem of knowing God. The Orthodox tradition holds and has always
held that God is not like a rock. Just as importantly, however, we also
believe that God is not a human being at large, a sort of super-celestial
ego. Mormons, by the way, believe that God used to be a human being and has
a physical body.
On the contrary, we
believe that God is radically unlike anything else that exists. That is the
point behind the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. This also means,
however, that God is not an idea or like an idea. For Plato, the Good
(that’s “good” with a capital “G”) was to the intelligible world what the
sun is to our world—the source of all light and knowledge. For him, God is
essentially the form of all forms.
But our God revealed
himself to Moses, not as an idea, but as the great “I AM”, the God who
delivered Israel from the bondage of Egypt and who was in Christ reconciling
the world unto himself. If this is the case, then how do we know God?
Outside of Orthodoxy, there are four fundamental approaches.
The first is that of the
secular materialist who rejects the existence of an independent creator and,
instead, interprets religion through psychology or the social sciences.
Feuerbach argued that when we talk about God we are really just talking
about ourselves, and most materialists would agree with that appraisal.
The second approach is
that of the pagan materialist who believes in a Higher Power, but one who
is, nonetheless, very much a part of the physical cosmos. Mormonism would be
an obvious example.
The third is that of the
religious Platonist who believes that, while God is not knowable through the
physical senses, he is knowable through the use of human reason. This view
is popular among some Catholics and Reformed thinkers.
The fourth is that of the
Pietist who believes that God can only be approached via some sort of
personal experience which is usually emotionally charged. God is not so much
known as felt. Most Charismatics would fall in this category.
The Orthodox approach to
this issue is quite different, however, and this is because we not only
insist on the absolute difference between creature and Creator, but also
because we differentiate between different types of human intellection. The
Greek word nous is usually translated as either “mind” or
“intellect”. During the Patristic Period, however, the Fathers began to use
the term in a specialized way, and they distinguished it from another word—theonia.
They used theonia to refer specifically to what we would call the
discursive reason. This is pretty much what we mean when we use the word
“reason” or the verb “to think”. To put it as simply as possible, whenever
we think in language, i.e., sentences, we are using the discursive reason or
Now some modern
philosophers have argued that we cannot think at all except in some kind of
language. In other words, all reason is discursive reason. Most of the
ancients would not have agreed with that, however, and certainly the Fathers
would not agree. They used the word nous to refer to the faculty of
In one sense, nous
can be thought of as the faculty of attention. But when you are writing a
check or reading a book, you are not simply doing the activity, you are
aware of yourself doing the activity. Now sometimes we get so wrapped
up in what we are doing, so focused, that we tune out everything around us.
In those rare cases, our nous is focused completely on the task at
At other times we find
ourselves distracted. I have, for example, given an entire lecture while
thinking about something else. And I’m sure you have driven somewhere only
to arrive and not remember a thing about your journey. This scattering of
attention is a product of the Fall. Not only is the nous scattered,
however, it is also disjoined from the core of our very self which the
Fathers call “the heart”.
I must stress at this
point that in biblical anthropology the “heart” is not the seat of the
emotions. Those are located in the “bowels”. The “heart”, rather, is the
psychosomatic center of man. When moderns talk about heart and head, they
usually mean the emotions and the intellect. But when the Fathers talk about
the separation of the heart from the mind, they mean that the nous
has somehow become stuck in the discursive reason, i.e., the brain.
This is why the Fathers
talk about the nous descending into the heart. They do not mean
that we need to get in touch with our emotions. They mean that our attention
needs to be drawn back inward to the core of our being where Christ dwells
through the Holy Spirit.
God is not a rock. We
cannot put him in a test tube. Nor is God an idea like an isosceles
triangle. We cannot figure him out. God is not like a human being
either, and yet God created us in his own image that we might know him. More
to the point, he has revealed himself to us most fully as a man, the God-man
The discursive reason is
all very fine. God gave it to us after all. But it has its limits. The road
to Zion is in our hearts, and if we are to find that road, we must cultivate
the nous and direct it inward. That is what the ascetical life of
the Church is all about. In this regard, by the way, I highly recommend the
works of Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos.
And now may our great God
and Savior, Jesus Christ, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of
Alaska and the blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov, have mercy upon us all and
grant us a rich entrance into his eternal kingdom.