Home » Eastern Orthodoxy » A Thomist Brain and an Orthodox Heart

A Thomist Brain and an Orthodox Heart

dore the resurrectionOne thing about me that might not be obvious to readers of this blog (or perhaps it is devastatingly obvious) is that I’m an incessant thinker.  To a fault.

But first, some background:  today I looked through a bunch of Wikipedia pages about mysterious things I thought about as a child.  UFO abduction stories, the Oak Island “Money Pit,” the lost Roanoke colony, ancient trans-Atlantic human contact, ghosts, parapsychology, Atlantis, etc.  I was an inquisitive child but also saw lots of magic in the world, and loved reading ghost stories and mysteries that made me think there was “something more out there.”  So today it surprised me when I read down the list of these “In Search Of…” mysteries and realized I don’t believe any of them.

As I’ve gotten older and trained in the Scientific Method (I’m just finishing an MS in experimental psychology and in a few years will get a doctorate in clinical psychology), I have lost quite a bit of my magical thinking.  Perhaps this is for the best, but more than once I have been accused of being too cerebral, too rational-logical, and not as empathetic or accepting of magic in my life (especially by my wife, who very much exemplifies this magical way of looking at the world).  I don’t seek out miracles from God because I try my best to go it alone and I tend to “psychologize” many of the symbols and teachings of religion.  For instance, I see Genesis as divine allegory, I see the “evil demons” in the Gospels as mental illnesses, and when most people see miracles, I see the natural order (sustained by God, of course, but operating according to natural laws).  Even my preferred view of God – the Classical Theist God of Aquinas and Plato – is without parts or passions, does not intervene in or “tinker with” nature very often, and whose existence can be established through deductive reasoning.  Many Mormons (and even modern “theistic personalists” and Protestants) see this God as cold, mechanical, and non-dynamic – something not even worth praying to.  My idea of “pondering the mysteries of Heaven” is like a mental battle of arguments and counter-arguments until I feel the conflict is resolved into some kind of truth.

Many might think that my personality characteristics make me not religious at all.  If I don’t feel there’s magic in the world, and I’m skeptical about anything supernatural or paranormal, and I tend towards colder, logical thinking, doesn’t that make me an atheist?

No.  In fact, I’m one of the most religious people I know, and I couldn’t fathom ever not believing in God.  It all stems from the fact that I think the existence of God has simply been established through reason by the various arguments over the years.  As a result, I have sought out knowledge concerning Jesus Christ and have had many experiences that have led me to think that He is a real power that is a part of my life.

But still, I sometimes wish that my relationship with God were more magical and more warm.  I wish I didn’t have to over-analyze and run everything through some kind of logical filter.  I think that’s really what attracts me about Orthodoxy, even though personality-wise I might be more suited towards Roman Catholicism (and certainly being a Catholic in America would be much more convenient, and easier to explain to people!).

But, though many on both sides would be irritated by this remark, I see the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches as two sides of the same coin, and so even though I tend to think logically like a Roman Catholic (and read lots of Thomist blogs and literature), I want to feel like the Orthodox do.  I don’t want to “think about” Jesus during Easter, I want to participate in Jesus’ very life during Pascha.  I want to partake of the Mystery of the Divine Liturgy without having to think about substance and accidents, or “baptismal covenants.”  I want to surrender my over-analytical mind and give in to a greater mystical reality.

This Saturday night I will attend my very first Pascha at my favorite semi-local Orthodox church (it’s an OCA parish about 45 minutes away from home).  As much as I love Orthodoxy and have for several years, I still haven’t been to the most important service in the Orthodox liturgical year!  Perhaps I will find it… magical.


4 thoughts on “A Thomist Brain and an Orthodox Heart

  1. I completely relate to what you are saying. Even the the part about Roman Catholicism. I LOVE the Orthodox Faith. But there are some things that I really struggle with, like the miraculous relics or the incorruptibles. My family accuses me of over analyzing everything. I think to much. I very much see myself as a skeptic. I thought about being athiest for a little while, but I just can’t stop believing in God.

  2. Yes, one major difference for me is that there doesn’t seem to be a list of beliefs that one must assent to in Orthodoxy, like there is in Roman Catholicism. I think perhaps a Western influence might cause us to see a religion as a list of beliefs that one must assent to. I don’t think Orthodoxy approaches beliefs in this way – while there are certain beliefs that obviously must be held by believers (for instance, that Jesus was in fact raised from the dead), a lot of the more peripheral doctrines are just part of the Orthodox world-view and aren’t really about intellectual submission. At least, that’s how I see it. Instead, Orthodoxy seems very focused on participation in the Liturgy, prayers, and practices of the church as a body of believers. It seems easier to bracket certain doctrines or even disagree on the latter view. When it comes to things like whether Mary really, literally did not have sex for her whole life – I think maybe a Protestant might think something like, “Who knows? Who cares? I wasn’t there and really only Mary and Joseph could know something like that. How can I verify a historical fact 2000 years ago with not very much evidence?” But the Orthodox I’ve talked to seem to deflect questions of literal historical event and instead focus on what purpose that doctrine holds within the Orthodox world-view, and what truths are taught with that doctrine.

  3. Oh and PS, if God’s going to reveal some new “light and knowledge” to a group or family, and He wants the person to really give this idea a fair hearing, who is He going to reveal it to? The members of the group that have trained themselves to think, or somebody else? My guess is the former. What I’m saying is that in my family, I’m probably the one who is most open to really receiving some new information and give it a chance without prejudice – so don’t knock your anxious thinking temperament!

  4. I think it is a shame that many Orthodox Christians have been unable to give Aquinas the thoughtful consideration he deserves. While I agree with Orthodoxy that Roman Catholicism is prone to extending Scholasticism too far, it is important that we do not throw the baby out with the bath water, or make a straw man out of the philosophical tradition. I see no reason an Orthodox Christian cannot take some interest in Scholasticism. Marcus Plested, Richard Swinburne, and David Bentley Hart have.

    The opposition to Scholasticism among Orthodox Christians, which actually seems to be a fairly recent development, seems to result from a misunderstanding of the events surrounding St. Gregory Palamas spat with Barlaam. Orthodox Wiki states the following about Thomism’s relationship with Orthodoxy:

    “Orthodox theology has had a complex relationship with Aquinas’ work. For a long time, Aquinas and scholastic or schoolbook theology was a standard part of the education of Orthodox seminarians. His philosophy found a strong advocate in the person of at least one Patriarch of Constantinople, Gennadius Scholarius.

    In the twentieth century, there was a reaction against this “Latin captivity” of the Orthodox theology (Florovosky), and Orthodox writers have emphasized the otherness of Scholasticism, defining Orthodox theology in contradistinction to it. The criticisms have focused on, inter alia, the theological poverty of Scholasticism, nature, grace, the beatific vision, and Aquinas; defense of the Filioque.

    However, more recent scholarship has distinguished between Aquinas and the manner in which his theology was received and altered by the Schoolmen who came after him. Aquinas may be seen as the culmination of patristic tradition, rather than as the initiator of a tradition discontinuous with what came before. Vladimir Lossky, e.g., in praising the existential Thomism of the Catholic philosopher Etienne Gilson, refers to “the authentic Thomism of S. Thomas …, a thought rich with new perspectives which the philosophical herd, giving in to the natural tendency of the human understanding, was not slow in conceptualizing, and changing into school Thomism, a severe and abstract doctrine, because it has been detached rom its vital source of power.” The recent work of Anna Williams and others has pointed to the importance of deification in Aquinas and his similarity with St Gregory Palamas.”

    I find it interesting that Aquinas himself, after having a mystical experience late in life, referred to his work as straw in comparison to what he had experienced.

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