Missions Musings 17: Reaching the churched

Good-News-Art-F1-600x300Many of us who live and work in foreign contexts are working with the churched.

When I say churched I am speaking about those people who have been enculturated within a society where the institutional church looms large.

In such contexts the Church’s function is often to dispense salvation.  The church is the one-stop-shop that’s attended twice per year to get what is needed for eternity.  More often than not the churched know of God in a vague abstract sense.  They know about Jesus and his death in as much detail as you or I know about Joan of Arc and her death.  Yep, we’ve seen the movie:)

How does one reach these people?  That is, how does one communicate the life-giving truth of the gospel to those who have not heard it yet?  Here are a few things that have become a part of the way that I do it:

1.  Know their theology

If we do not know what they believe how can we with good conscience rip them away from the church through which they think they are being saved?  We need to be very diligent in understanding what they believe and why so that we can be sure that our actions and message is not in fact dividing the body of Christ.

What should we get to know?  Understand the role of their church in salvation.  Get know what they mean by salvation.  Clearly understand  the place of the sacraments and the role they play in salvation.  Work out what authority they attribute to the Bible and also to tradition.  These points in particular are crucial.

2.  Understand their theological language

This is distinct though closely related to the first point.  Just because you hear the same words being used does not mean that you are talking about the same thing.   So for example, when an Eastern Orthodox believer states that they are saved by faith, we protestants should on face value heartily agree.  Yet if someone was to probe a little deeper the disparity between what the EO christian believes and what a protestant believes becomes apparent.  Ask questions to understand what they mean when they use theological terms.

3.  Use common points of agreement for discussion and study.

It’s a no-brainer, but rarely done.  What normally happens is that we jump to the differences, like icons, candles, papal authority, etc.  Engaging with commonality was Paul’s method at the Areopagus that day in Acts 17.  This is a good starting point because there is often commonality to be found in the person and work of Jesus.  Well, great!  Why don’t we start with Jesus.

Avoid the contentious issues and begin with Jesus.  In Colossians this is how Paul worked.  The church is struggling because fine-sounding arguments have permeate the church which has displaced the gospel.  What does he do?  He doesn’t tackle the apparent error head on until he has prepared the foundation.  Paul firstly explains who Jesus is and then he goes on to explain the gospel.  Only then does he get stuck into the issue at hand.

4.  Don’t treat them like a non-Christian

This is an interesting point that taps into our need to be sensitive.  The churched consider themsleves to be Christians, and they often assume to know everything (don’t we all!) that they need to know.  Therefore to come at them with all the answers and the ‘truth’ is a fast track to causing offense and shutting down any opportunities for good discussion.  Be careful with how they perceive your take on their Christianity.

5.  Use the Bible

Once again it sounds like a no-brainer, but so often the Bible is often sidelined in favour of topical and spaghetti style discussions.  Get the Bible out and establish what the Bible has to say about the common points of interest.  Avoid saying things like, ‘God said…’  and ‘The Bible says…’ and ‘Jesus said….  Unhelpful!  Demonstrate the authority of the Bible in your own faith by using it properly in discussion, taking into account the context of the passage and its place in the Bible’s big picture.  Use the Bible to deal with the issues, but also model its importance and how to use it.

5.  Be open to learning from them

In my study of Eastern Orthodoxy over the past 4 years I have come to appreciate some of their theology.  Let’s give credit where it is due.  Let’s show humility by genuinely wanting to understand what they believe.  It is poor form indeed to merely want to reach them without giving them the opportunity to convince you of their ideas and beliefs.  If we ourselves are seeking the truth then there is no need to be scared of genuinely weighing up what they will present.

6.  Don’t discount the idea that the churched might be in our own (protestant) churches

Don’t assume the gospel, teach it.


A little bit of anathema never hurt anybody

Let him be anathema!

Two weeks ago I was sitting in a cafe talking about Jesus to a young aspiring school leaver who was heading to a Bulgarian Orthodox seminary.  I forget the exact details of the discussion, but the gist stays with me.  He was telling me that God, who is wholly other, is unknowable – classic EO line.  When I probed a little further about who Jesus was and what he revealed of God he said it… Jesus could not reveal God as God.

Needless to say we had a hearty discussion.

Interestingly, today I was reading up on some Karl Rahner (RC theologian and priest) and he observed that most Christians (RCs? Although I think his observation would apply to the protestant side too) struggle to capture an orthodox understanding of Jesus’ humanity and divinity.  He asserts that the majority of Christians would subscribe to a Docetic Jesus where God’s divinity inhabits the fleshly vessel.  God in human clothes made of skin.  Jesus was not fully human, just kind of.

Then you would know about the Elephant Room saga, where Mark Driscoll questioned T. D. Jakes on his view of the doctrine of God, in particular his views on the doctrine of Oneness.  The Oneness doctrine rejects the concept of the Trinity and instead subscribes to a modal view of God.  The entire discussion did little to clarify the situation, but what we do know is that Jakes subscribes to a doctrine of God that uses the terminology of ‘manifestations’ as opposed to persons.

How did the church in times gone by deal with these theological bents?  Simple, ‘Let him be anathema!’

The best example of the ‘Let him be anathema!’ cry is found in Cyril of Alexandria’s work called the Twelve Anathemas.  He was not dealing with a Docetist, but the father of Nestorianism, Nestorius himself.  I don’t intend to go into the content of the letter to Nestorius but Cyril’s view was clear.  Nestorius believed that Jesus had two separate and autonomous natures.  According to Cyril (eventually), Nestorius needed to adopt the position that Christ had two natures but that these were without division or separation.  Cyril’s letter outlines in no uncertain terms how Nestorius could go about working towards reforming his position.  Each of the twelve points ended with ‘Let him be anathema!’  A sure sign that Cyril meant business.

The point?  You get stuff wrong you get the anathema line.

But what was Cyril saying?  My way or the highway?  Are the Twelve Anathemas the sharp words of just another arrogant bigoted fundamentalist?  An intolerant absolutist?

In Cyril’s day, despite Ehrman’s current commentary to the contrary, there was one Lord, one faith, one church, one orthodoxy.  In the 5th century this was defined for the most part by the c. 325 Council of Nicaea, as well as the collective works of the fathers in the 200 odd years prior to it.  Orthodoxy was not some ambiguous thing that any one individual could trump up and it was for this reason that the powers that be could compare an individual’s theology with that of the orthodox tradition.  If someone fell outside of the bounds they were met with the severe response: Let him be anathema!

The point is that in those times messing up your doctrine of God was serious business with serious, potentially eternal, repercussions.  The church new this and the proponents of the heterodox views knew this also.

What has changed?  A lot and nothing.

Nothing has changed in that the issues are just as serious.  Fiddling with orthodox views of the divinity and humanity of Christ and the Trinity, for example, is not to be done flippantly as though it were a choice of strawberry or chocolate.  What we see in the first millennium and a half is an urgency coupled with a holy fear to be faithful to how the great theological minds throughout history conceptualised God in Scripture.  Surely our attitude should be the same!  We have the privileged of enjoying the longevity of these views – you know the old line, standing on the shoulders of giants.

Furthermore,  nothing has changed in that Arianism is still as heretical as it was in the 3rd and 4th centuries.  Docetism is still errant.  Nestorianism 1500 years on has not become any more faithful to the text of Scripture then it was in the 5th century.  History for the believer is not simply about dates, times and events.

History plays a role in what we believe, but also importantly in what and why we don’t believe.

We also see that nothing has changed with regard to the very specific use of anathema in the Bible.  Here are two apt usages:

  • Gal. 1:8-9But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed (anathema). 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed (anathema).
  • 1 Cor. 16:22,  If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed. Maranatha.

But something has changed!

One can openly deny the doctrine of the Trinity and hold to Oneness views of God and still be counted as a part of the church.  One can grow up in a church and hold to Docetic views of Christ unchallenged.  We no longer here the damning cry, ”Let him be anathema!’

I wonder why?

Well, it probably doesn’t surprise you, but I have some suggestions:

  1. Perhaps it’s a mark of our age of tolerance.  You can believe what you want over there and I’ll be over here believing what I want.
  2. Worse, perhaps it reflects our age’s characteristic pervasive interpretive pluralism.
  3. Perhaps it points to our poor theological training systems.  I mean, where do people learn that historically damned views can be considered as viable orthodox theology?
  4. Maybe, as we observe in many of our denominations, the little or no doctrinal accountability  has come back to bite us.  Ok, you can try to win me over on any form of church governance, but it is clear that the NT teachers submitted to the top dogs when it came to theology.  When they were in error they (and we) knew about it.
  5. Or could it be as elementary as not knowing our church history.

Time to bring it back – ‘Let him be anathema!’ for God’s sake!

Atheism: Looking for meaning

I love it when thoughts collide, revealing more than you bargained for.

A while back I blogged about an article called God is Dead.  Now What?  It was written by an atheist, which I found on the ABC Religion and Ethics website (You can find the original article here and my post on it here).

The basic gist of his argument is that a secular society can take hold of the result of the Christian life, in particular the community of faith, without the trappings of Jesus and the associated palava.

This quote gets to the heart of it:

Secular religion needs to be more than just a list of dry principles. It needs to appeal to more than reason. It needs to engage, inspire and give insight, and build itself into a cultural institution that people can do more than just believe in, they need to be able to participate in it.

Who wouldn’t want the (earthly) icing on the cake.

Today I listened to a debate on Unbelievable between Alain de Botton and James Orr.  de Botton is a self-confessed soft atheist and is the author of a soon to be released book called, Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion.  For the record I have not yet read the book.

From the debate it appears that de Botton is raising a similar issue to what we read about in the article, God is Dead Now What?

If one recognises, as soft atheists often do, that atheism is a negative belief system, what does one do with the great swath of questions about meaning that remain?  A hard atheist like Dawkins presents no real response to this dilemma.  de Botton, and others like him, want to deal with these questions because it is a pointless exercise to strip the ontological guts out of society without reconstituting it with something that gives purpose, meaning and reason for existence.

In the debate de Bottton looked to Christianity for some answers.  In an attempt to develop meaning in society, he identifies, for example, church buildings as a model that communicate ideas by their structure and form.  de Botton desires to see places, buildings, and structures that consecrate particular values, attitudes, concepts, and states of mind like the church.  He says, ‘What is the secular equivalent of the church?’

I had two reactions to this thought provoking question.

Firstly, de Botton follows inline with our ABC commentator in misunderstanding Christianity.  Why is it that he looks to Christianity to find ways of developing meaning through form and structure?

A magnificent Eastern Orthodox church, for example, is the result of one’s belief in God and a desire to build something that somehow reflects that belief in God.  We might look back to Maximus the Confessor (6/7th century) and his understanding of how architecture reflected his view of God and his operation in this world.  In The Confessor’s eyes the building reflects the economy of God in some way.  The building form reflects Eastern Orthodox doctrines of God, church and salvation.  This richness of meaning (right or wrong) defines the building.

However, is this principle not what we see around us?  Is de Botton looking for something that he already has?

We have buildings that indeed represent a principle, an attitude and a concept.  Money.  Investment.  Return.  These are the prevailing and dominant ideas around us and this is reflected in the style and quality of the buildings that we see.

The Taj Mahal, The Blue Mosque, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Cathedral, St Peter’s Basilica, to name but a few iconic value laden buildings, reflect so much more than bang-for-buck, or beauty for beauty’s sake, or creativity for creativity’s sake.  They were built with a richness of meaning that saturated every building block that was laid.  The lives lost in building these were lives well spent, in some people’s eyes.

de Botton already has his icing.  It’s just that he doesn’t like the flavour.  A dearth of meaningful meaning will be reflected around us in many ways, perhaps even in architecture.  His issue is the meaning.

Secondly, it brings me back to my roots – art.  I studied fine art at university for a few years before I realised how much of a dead end it was.  It is sad that the expression of Christianity’s rich meaning through building structures, sculptures, paintings, etches, prints, sketches, busts, etc have faded into near oblivion.  There is some good stuff out there but you need to be on the ball to find it.

The beauty that the church captured and preserved for us reflects, still, the manifold beauty and awesomeness of God.  This does not take the place of Jesus and his work, but it gives creative life to the rich meaning that we find in Christ.

I find it interesting that I am reminded of this by an atheist who is looking to inject some meaning into his life. Perhaps, our church cultures reflect the secular culture more than we think.

We can learn a lot from history and atheists.

Dumitru Staniloae and Knowing God

I’ve been reading through volume one of Dumitru Staniloae’s culmination of his life’s theological work, ‘Orthodox Dogmatic Theology: The Experience of God‘.  

Let me first tell you about   Dumitru Staniloae (1903-1993) because he is was a great man – one to be respected.

Staniloae grew up in a poor farming family in Romania and it was in this setting that Staniloae developed a love for the Bible at a young age.  He later studied theology and taught theology throughout Europe.  He laboured on translating into Romanian the Philokalia, the works of Symeon the New Theologian, and Palamas amongst others.  Let me round out this little bio with some words that he used to describe his time in jail and a concentration camp during the Romanian communist period.  He states these gracious words:

An experience like any other, only somewhat difficult for my family…To carry one’s cross is the normal condition of the Christian, and so there is no need to talk of it.

Amazing.  With this in mind let’s move on.

The first topic that Staniloae looks at in his Orthodox Dogmatic Theology is revelation.  In chapter 1 he begins with natural revelation, before moving on to supernatural revelation in chapter 2, and then in chapter 3 looking at the relationship between scripture and tradition.

This post is an exploration of the Staniloae’s conception of creation’s role in revealing God, or his doctrine of natural revelation.

When it comes to natural revelation Staniloae does not focus on creation as one might immediately think.  His focus is the pinnacle of creation, namely humanity.  After all, this is the aspect of creation that God described as very good, and that bears his image.  More specifically, Staniloae narrows his focus on humanity’s rationality as the central component of natural revelation.  Interesting, hey?

As the pinnacle of creation the world has been made for humanity and not the other way around.  With regard to the characteristic of rationality, Staniloae would say that humanity lives within a context that is comprised of things (animals, plants and inanimate objects) that are irrational.  Humanity is unique in this regard.  But what does it mean to be rational?

Staniloae identifies rationality as the capacity to make sense of data.  In this way, humanity is set apart from every other creation.  Plants or ants, for example, do not seek to make meaning of their existence.  Humans on the other hand strive to understand themselves in their world, and they use creation to come to this understanding.  Staniloae states:

The destiny of the cosmos is found in man, not man’s destiny in the cosmos.  This is shown not only by the fact that the cosmos is the object of human consciousness and knowledge (not the reverse), but also by the fact that the entire cosmos serves human existence in a practical way (p. 5).

Humanity is in a perpetual state of trying to make sense of the world.  This desire for meaning is not merely a thought exercise, but a legitimate attempt to find purpose.  Humans are by design meaning seekers and makers, which leads to all sorts of issues, not least the dilemma of not being able to find any meaning that makes sense of the world in which we live.

Staniloae states:

For our cruellest grief is the lack of meaning, that is, the lack of an eternal meaning to our life and deeds.  The necessity of this meaning is intimately connected to our being (p. 10).

As designed rational beings, humans long for meaning, and when we do not find it, and he suggests here that all of humanity at some stage has not found it, we lose our sense of self and reason to live.

So what kind of meaning does Staniloae suggest we lack and therefore seek?

Eternal existence!  In searching for meaning, humanity has an innate will to live forever.  The basic premise is that humanity desires a life invested in meaning.  Ridding meaning of life, renders meaning meaningless.  In this sense meaning and life are a couplet.  For this reason, the rational human desires meaning and a form of life that perpetuates the value of such meaning.  Staniloae describes a life that is an eternal, meaningful existence within the reality where that meaning is found and based.

It is at this point that Staniloae turns to the creator.

So what is the basis of the eternal existence?  I mean, what gives this existence meaning?  Staniloae’s answer to this question is predictable (if you’re down with Orthodox theology) – communion with an eternal existent person.

The meaning that the rational being arrives at is not eternal if it is bound to the created experience, because the created experience is characterised by death, thus rendering meaning meaningless.  Meaning must therefore be arrived at through an external and similarly rational source that transcends our earthly reality.

Underpinning the next phase of Staniloae’s natural revelation is the idea that objects of reason are the only kinds of being that are capable of interpersonal dialogue.  Yes, dogs are a man’s best friend but Staniloae would argue (and I think we would agree) that dogs are not capable of the kind of relational dialogue that other rational beings are capable of.  The creator, as the source of rationality, is capable of interpersonal dialogue – what’s more, eternal interpersonal dialogue.  If the finite human being can somehow become a partaker in the eternal existence that the creator being enjoys, then there is hope for an eternal existence that has meaning.

Thus we find distant meaning – relationship with the ultimate rational reality.  It is a reality that has not been attained, but one worth seeking out.  We can also see that creation is incapable of outlining or providing a means for attaining it.  The dilemma is stated and the answer is given, but the means is absent.

Staniloae gives a nice summary of his thoughts on his doctrine of natural revelation on page 12:

Through all things, God gives himself to man, and man to God.  This is, in general, the content of faith asserted by the meaning of existence, a faith which compels recognition on the basis of the evidence of nature.

Now let me offer a few points worth thinking about:

1.  Staniloae identifies the problem that humanity faces as not one of rejection of the creator as we read about in Roman 1:18-20, but rather of unfulfilled potential and lacking meaning as a result of being dislocated from the creator.

2.  Connected with the first point is the idea that Staniloae does not bring to bear the consequences of rejecting the creator on humanity, namely the judgement that Paul talks about in Romans 1:18.

3.  The issue that is raised by Staniloae that undergirds the human problem is stated in terms of the mind, a lack of meaning.  Romans 2:15 speaks of the issue being one that involves the mind and also heart.

4.  Staniloae’s use of humanity as the grounds for a doctrine of natural revelation is an interesting starting point.  God has created humanity so that they contain his image.  Surely, humanity should in some way point to God in a way that is as obvious(?) as a majestic sunset or awesome cloud formation or wave rolling in.

Freedom and Unity: It was Robin Hood’s problem too

Are unity and freedom mutually exclusive concepts?

In my last post I cited a Russian Orthodox theologian called Aleksey Stepanovich Khomyakov who said something along the lines that for protestants freedom comes at the expense of unity, whereas for the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, unity comes at the expense of freedom.

It’s an alarming thought!

What is he getting at with regard to the protestants?  Is the freedom that we have to read the Bible and the disunity that follows a given?  Is the freedom that we have to read and interpret the Bible and the disunity that follows a Biblically outlined outcome?  What is the proper relationship between the two?

We can observe that disunity is a given, sadly.  Regardless of the protestants’ goal of excellence, truth or what have you, we can see that  humans have a propensity to see things differently.   Robin Hood saw his plundering of the common wealth as a social service, whereas the Sheriff of Nottingham saw Robin’s benevolence as a crime against the state.  As a teacher I know this all too well.  A large part of any teacher’s job is to discern what really happened in the playground where 7 kids all saw the same incident differently.

Blind, stupid, naive, deceived, ignorant… there are many reasons for concluding what we do.  One thing is for sure, if we were to take away the opportunity to be blind, stupid, naive, deceivable, and ignorant there would be no place for division – this is Khomyakov’s point.  But that has not been for us to decide.  We protestants have in our kung-fu grip the notion of freedom, understood as being able to read the Bible in our own language and engage with it for ourselves.  Unity or disunity is the subsequent result.

But that is surely wrong.

If there are two ideas that Paul is constantly banging on about it is freedom and unity.

This coupling is captured throughout Ephesians, but most strikingly and paradoxically in 4:1-6.  Let’s have a quick squizzie at what has to say.

1.  Christian freedom does not look like earthly freedom

Paul begins chapter 4 in verse 1 by describing his freedom.  Firstly, he is literally chained up.  Christian freedom is not something that can be described as physical space to run around in, opportunities to engage with, or personal rights to be exercised.  Paul is free in a first century dungeon.

2.  Christian freedom is spiritual slavery

Christian freedom means that one is chained to Jesus.   That is, Christians are the possession of God (1:14), members of God’s household (2:19), slaves to a new master (6:6).  Paul helps us to grasp this idea by describing himself as a prisoner three times.  He is a ‘prisoner of Christ Jesus’ (3:1), ‘a prisoner of the Lord’ (4:1), and ‘an ambassador in chains’ (6:20).  Paul is free because his life is bound to Christ’s.

3.  Christian freedom and unity – In Christ

Christian freedom is by virtue of being in Christ.  We see this freedom spelt out explicitly in 3:12, but the out working of this is that ‘There is one body and one Spirit’ and not many (v4a).  Freedom does not result in a diverse group of individuals, nor in groups that flock together.  Paul calls the Ephesian church to ‘Make every effort to keep the unity’ (v3a).  Sounds like a good idea to me.

The ‘in Christ’ theme saturates the book of Ephesians and this is the key to understanding what it means to be truly free and truly united.  When we are found in Christ we receive every spiritual blessings (1:3); we gain legal standing as God’s own children – we are adopted (v1:5), we are made alive (2:1), and the icing on the cake is that we are saved (2:8).  These concepts and more smack of freedom!

This freedom is found only in Christ – one man – hence our unity.

It is clear that when we say that freedom comes at the expense of unity we are speaking of not Biblical concepts but those of the world.  When we have a look at how Paul deals with them we see that they are not mutually exclusive, but necessarily mutually inclusive.  Unity or disunity is not the subsequent result of how we express our freedom.

In Christ we are free and are a unity!  Why don’t we act like it?

Dionysius: problems in the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy

Sorry, but this one is a little highbrow.

Please give feedback if you have any thoughts.

In pseudo-Dionysius’ Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (EH) he does not use any form of apophatic theology.  Why is this an issue?

In the Celestial Hierarchy (CH) it a point of emphasis that symbols must be guarded because their capacity to misrepresent God through inappropriate comparisons is great.  The mechanism that Dionysius uses is the concept of dissimilar similarities.  For example, when God (?) is described as a worm in the Psalms.  The worm is similar to God but it is overwhelmingly dissimilar.  He prefers these symbols over symbols that are similar.  The problem with similar similarities is that God is dragged into the world of being – making him comparable with humans, or less, thus reducing him to the level of being, which Denys would stress he is not.

With this background in mind we move into the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy to find no obvious mechanism in place to protect the symbols there, namely the sacraments.  Why?  It doesn’t make sense that he would go to such great lengths to protect God in the CH, yet leave God exposed in the next work.

Some have said that Deny’s emphasis on the dissimilar similarities in the CH rolls on to the EH.  I don’t think this is very convincing argument because I don’t know of any polemicist that leaves the reader to join the theological dots.   Andrew Louth says that they are protected by the order of secrecy.  I think this is true, but this I think is more of a historical structure, imposed to deal with the theological problem rather than it being an inherent systematic Dionysian theological response to the issue.

So here is my idea, I think.

Throughout the CH we are told how the symbols are deficient.  They cannot represent God and so we need to protect God from them, hence the dissimilar similarities.  When we come to the EH the symbols (sacraments mainly) are presented as symbols that represent God perfectly.  So by participating in them one participates in God, well, his energies at least.  We also learn that the symbols are only participated in as far as the participant is able.

Here it is.

As symbols they point to something beyond themselves.  Symbols are also for participation.  There is a mechanism already in place, which alleviates Denys’ need to worry about protecting God from them.  The symbols are limited by the participants themselves.  The symbols are limited by being, that which God is not – separating them.  There is no way that the symbols could be used to misrepresent God because the symbols are hampered by the human element of being.  The symbols are therefore inefficacious, just like the symbols in the proceeding work.

To be or not to be = Philosophy

Recently, I’ve been brushing up on the stoushes that occurred in the 4th and 5th century regarding the exact way that Jesus as divine (or not) should be best articulated.  That is, would the Council of Nicaea be king, or was it the Council of Chalcedon, or perhaps other variations like the Henoticon or some other perspective?

In this post I want to make some comments on the place of philosophy in the articulation of meaning, particularly theological meaning.

Denys the Areopagite, while claiming to be a contemporary of the Apostle Paul, was actually probably kicking around during this 4th/5th century period during the christological controversies.  For this reason he is often branded Pseudo-Dionysius or Pseudo-Denys.  This ancient theologian is know for his development of a theology of darkness.  Not in the sense of evil darkness, but in the sense of unknowing darkness.  Like the saying ‘To be in the dark’ is to not know what is going on.  But even this is not accurate.  It is not unawareness as though clueless but rather a deliberate state of unknowing.

I hope that you are not confused yet.  In his work Mystical Theology (3.125 CPRS) Pseudo-Denys states:

For the more we soar upwards the more our language becomes restricted to the compass of purely intellectual conceptions, even as in the present instance plunging into the darkness which is above the intellect we shall find ourselves reduced not merely to brevity of speech but even to absurd dumbness of speech and thought.

This gives you a picture of the eastern mystical tradition and how it sought  (and still seeks) to deal with concepts that are other worldly.  The closer one comes to God, the more hopeless the mind, rational thought, and human conceptions become in the quest to understand God.  So what does one do?  How can one come to understand God?  Answer: you remove yourself from worldly strictures and retreat into a place of conceptual ignorance.  This mystical contemplative state is described by one Orthodox theologian as ‘perfect ignorance’.  In this dark place one comes to ‘know’ God by unknowing oneself of him.

I tell you all of this because this is the kind of theology/philosophy that developed during the christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries. There was a desire to know the creator who was so other, that knowing God was literally impossible for the rational human mind.  ‘God cannot be grasped by the mind.  If He could be grasped, He would not be God’ is a famous line said by Evagrios of Pontus, a 4th century eastern mystical theologian.  God is so other and we are so finite that God is not able to be comprehended by us.

You might be able to spot many issues regarding this line of thinking, however I simply want to draw our attention to the use of philosophy as a means to understand God and thus ourselves.

In one way, the mystics who argue from this rational point of view are right.  How, as created beings, can we think in terms of uncreatedness (as God is)?  Thinking about God in created terms (which is only the way we can think about him) drags God (the uncreated) into a created understanding which must make him conceptually less than what he is.  There must be certain issues in understanding God in terms of human created thoughts.

So what to do?  Well, you have been given a brief snippet of the eastern mystical way – agnosia or unknowing.  My problem with this can be stated thus:  A philosophical question does not always warrant a philosophical answer.  Yes, God is other and if we were left to our own devices then we might need to engage in philosophy as a means to understand the uncreated.  However, this is not the case.

We know God because he became created.  We don’t need to philosophize how we can know God as other because he knew this dilemma and dealt with it by becoming something that is similar, while remaining other.  God’s arrival in human form is described in Philippians 2.  God took the very nature of humanity and became like us.  This man who was God came and we can know him.  By knowing him we can know God.  By knowing and understanding his words and actions we can know God and therefore ourselves.

This is not some philosophical debate but a relational issue.  Do you know this man?  It is a conscious and active process.  We meet him in the word when it is read and taught to us.  It is about using our mind, experiences, and feelings to understand and comprehend him.  This process of knowing God cannot be described as unknowing, far from it.

Philosophy as a means to understand should not replace God’s revelation of himself as a means to understand.