An Eastern Reply to the Enlightenment?

On the drive to/from New Jersey (Pennington) from Chicago one of the books I had to read was this:

At the heart of this book is (as the title suggests) the theological insights of St. Gregory Palamas (a 14th) century heiromonk who had some interesting things to say. St Gregory put together a theological understanding of a long standing practice of the Eastern Church called hesychasm. This came about from an argument put forth by an Italian monastic intellectual named Barlaam. This argument has a great deal of relevance today with the liberal movements in the church as well as the larger secular atheist apologetics … or at least those I’ve seen and my understanding of them. Exploring hesychasm itself is one of the main reasons for my ongoing denominational change from West (ECUSA/Episcopalian) to the East (Orthodox/OCA).

Barlaam, as told by Meyendorff:

based his position on two postulates:

  1. The Aristotelian postulate that all knowledge, including knowledge of God, is derived from perception of sense “experience”.
  2. A Neoplatonic postulate, based also on Christian writers, especially the Pseudo-Dionysius, according to which God is beyond sense experience and therefore unknowable. Barlaam held that all knowledge of God must be indirect, passing always “through beings” perceptible to sense. Therefore mystical knowledge itself can only have a “symbolic” reality.

The whole controversy centered on these Barlaamite postulates derived from Greek philosophy.

St. Gregory had a reply to this objection, which I will attempt to discuss … below the fold.

These two Barlaamite postulates based on the early Italian surging Renaissance translate well to the modern post-Enlightenment influenced world. As I mentioned above, atheist apologetics take those two postulates to reason that therefore God cannot exist (or be only symbolic and therefore an unnecessary complication which, ala William of Ockham, might therefore be removed). On the other hand, Catholic and non-Charismatic Protestant thought holds that direct experience of the divine will occur after death or the eschaton (whichever comes first).

Hesychasm represented an affront to this practice. The monks following this practicing yearned for, sought, and sometimes obtained (by God’s Grace) experience of the Divine. While most patristic writers didn’t describe their experiences in detail, centuries earlier, St. Symeon the New Theologian did so and attempted to put to pen a description of his experiences. It might be noted, quite possibly to the surprise of the modern readers, that from the early 4th century onward the monastic tradition was wise enough to reject what would be seen by many modern Christians today as valid revelatory experience.

Watch with care and intelligence, you lover of God. When, while at work, you see within or without you a light, or a flame, or an image — of Christ for example, or of an angel, or of someone else — do not accept it lest you suffer harm. And do not yourself create fantasies, nor pay attention to those that create them, nor allow your mind to take their impression. For all those things, being impressed and imagined from without, aim at seducing your soul. The true beginning of prayer is warmth of the heart, which scorches passions, fills the heart with joy and delight of unshakable love and strengthens it with true conviction.

[from the Philokalia … and the writings of Gregory of Sinai contained within]. The Heyschast sought (and many found) the “Taborite light”, which term refers to a perception of an inner spiritual light, which called such after the mount Tabor on which the Transfiguration occurred. (as an aside, I wonder what Mr Smith, founder of the LDS, and perhaps the founder of the Witnesses might think of that last bit)

St. Gregory’s (and the Eastern) response to the Barlaamite argument was in essence simple. Just as God united his Hypostasis to our nature (manifesting himself as man in Jesus) likewise he can manifest himself to human hypostasis. Just as God became flesh allowing “sense” to appreciate God, can our human natures likewise be made aware of God’s presence. This theological solution also demonstrated why the Eastern mysticism, unlike the Islamic or Hindu mysticism, never “deteriorated” into a individualistic and subjective mysticism. For this theology tied Orthodox hesychasm to ecclesiastical sacramentalism, that is to baptism and eucharist.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to be reading the Triads (St. Gregory’s writings contra Barlaam) myself in more detail.

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