Roughly seven years ago I started studying philosophy. Tomorrow is my last day as an undergraduate student in philosophy. I woke up this morning with the thought that “I am ready to recognize that the Orthodox Church is where I belong.” I am not sure what to make of this–I fear my eagerness is making me hasty, though I haven’t just rushed into anything.
I am, however, clear now why I had this thought. The thought occurred in the morning, shortly after waking, and following some argument over the veneration of icons, and intrinsic goodness. In the afternoon, as I read St. John of Damascus’ First Apology Against Those Who Attack the Divine Images, it dawned on me that I had finally given shape to the topics I set out to study seven years ago, and that the most plausible answer, it appears to me (at this point), is intimately tied up in Eastern Orthodox Theology.
I taught myself logic late junior year of high school, and in my senior year picked up several introductory and survey texts. Seven years has passed quickly, but training myself, and being trained, in philosophy has been agonizing. I did this because I sought to decide, for myself, whether or not God existed, and if He did, if Christianity (whatever ‘Christianity’ denotes) is true. I was severely depressed and anxious: my critical pursuit was not welcomed by the Christian community I grew up around. I eventually became a Christian, through the work of philosophers and theologians like William Lane Craig, but it was so minimal, so Cartesian, that I was uncomfortable—made uncomfortable by my nagging questions about particular forms of Christianity and their more nuanced claims, and by the inflammatory group of evangelicals I was surrounded by.
Three questions pressed themselves into my mind: (1) How do we know if God exists? (2) Is Christian theism true, and if so, what sort? (3) What makes moral judgements and judgements of taste more than mere opinions? Eventually I was able to clarify my research interests as: (i) Epistemic access to the divine and transcendental. (ii) Analytic Natural and Polemical Theology. (iii) The nature of “the good” and “the beautiful” (metaethics). At one point, I charted out all the sub-topics under (i-iii), and made myself a course of study (which I have, surprisingly, stuck to almost perfectly); I chalk up my diligence to an acute awareness of the existential implications of particular answers to each of these questions: I’m terrified.
Five years or so was spent in two colleges, studying philosophy under the most perfect faculty I could have asked for—none Christian, and only one particularly interested in Phil. Religion, but they were each suited to form the foundation I needed to thoroughly investigate (i-iii). Mock to ascetics, Chew to the nature of inquiry and deductive/inductive logic (which are my strongest topics), Dadlez to epistemology, Silcox to philosophy of language and metaphysics (as well as meta-ethics), Deaver to humble me and teach me what it was to be a philosopher, and Pimentel to make me rebellious against the pomp of academia and Granito to show me the anti-theistic arguments of modern philosophy (a great joy of mine).
Roughly a year ago I broke down—I was badly in need of someone to help educate me in theology, particularly patristic theology, and to fill in as a mentor. I prayed very intently one night for a person like this to be put in front of me, because I knew so little about the Church Fathers that I didn’t know where to start, and, if I remember correctly, which I am very sure I am, it was the next day (but at most three) that I ran into a pastor with a sign, “What’s on your mind?” Dr. Philliber—a Presbyterian pastor—introduced me to the Church Fathers. I have spent a year deeply studying patristic thought, and at the most critical moments the advice and guidance of Dr. P, despite our profound doctrinal differences, has fleshed out another side to my thought that I had only vaguely known about prior: the identification of God with “the good.”
Seven years pursuing being an expert in answering three questions, and today, one day before I close out pre-graduate study, I can confidently say that I am an expert in the most rudimentary form that a unifying account of (i-iii) could take. That is, no expert at all. I have fought through the onset of Lupus, nearly killing myself with stress, to arrive at this stage of my philosophical life: a shadowy outline being slightly more comprehensible. I can see how the pieces fit together, but now it’s mostly a matter of confirmation, narrowing and clarification of one theory among many—this is the most daunting.
Through studying the Church fathers I became familiar with the Eastern (read: Athanasian) view of soteriology, and found that I had already conceived of atonement and salvation in that way. This prompted me to seriously consider the Eastern Orthodox Church as the ‘place I should be.’ Issues of ecumenicalism I also perceived as urgent, and looked to the fathers for answers. I prayed, once more, for guidance into the truth, and into the right Christian sect.
I took a short break from studying, as I was burnt out—badly. I played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The game engrossed me. I spent so much time on it, and praised it so highly, that one friend accused me of wasting my time (he later repented of such a terrible SIN). We argued about the intrinsic value of videogames, and I began to think about the beauty and goodness of the game, and exactly how to make sense of the fact that, though I had no goals left to accomplish in the game, and though I had no account of beauty, I recognized its beauty, and spent so much time getting to know its world. The story, though simple, filled me with a sense of purpose. Shortly after I found my favorite game of all time—The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Witcher 3 brought the inadequacies of my life into focus. I will not waste space detailing exactly how, but a clue is the emptiness I felt after its solitary-though-victorious ending. At least one hundresWhat was the point of my actions if they were not directed to some ultimately satisfying end? Is every victory euphoric only for a moment, or is there real significance to them? I recognized that I could only answer this by dealing with (iii), and so I prayed to understand this. I was made to crave “attainment” of ‘the good’ itself–a non-propositional encounter with beauty. But I do not know what this means.
Shortly after I added into my prayers a request for guidance into truth regarding the Orthodox Church. I had no idea where to start, but luckily I stumbled into a collection of introductory books on Orthodoxy at a local Goodwill. This prompted me to read, read and read. Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church made its way into my collection. I am still surprised that “mystical” does not refer to any bit wacky, privatized experienced, but primarily to a rough account of the ways in which humanity access the divine. So, Lossky had essentially sketched the bare-bones eastern account to (i), and this account outlined just how one could have a non-propositional encounter with beauty.
I then looked into the major Orthodox doctrines. I found an identification of God with “the good,” and “the beautiful.” This prompted me to look into Aristotle and Plato’s conception of “the good,” and I found that the doctrine of divine simplicity has its origins in Aristotle’s account of “the good” (which he identified as ‘nous’—mind/soul/rationality—later coopted by Christian philosophers). I began to more fully understand these, and conflicting, metaethical accounts. But still I was left with little to account for the fact (if it is a fact) that we can recognize the good, and how we are to order the hierarchy and causes of goods. I was fleshing out (iii).
Icons were next, and this is what I am currently engaged in. What struck me, just a few moments ago, was the linking of access to God with the icons, and how the Eastern theory of “image and prototype” (a heavily Platonic account) accounts for the epistemic access to God. In short, an encounter with an iconic work of art is an encounter with God, on this view. But the framework underlying the iconodules’ thinking provided something more. Given that the depiction of a beautiful or good thing depicts a beautiful or good thing, it is delivering to us not just the beautiful thing itself, but beauty itself, or goodness itself, etc. So that we now have a partial theory of recognizing the good and beautiful: it appears to us not primarily via propositions, but via the senses (though it does, still, also come via propositions, though even these are steeped in visual language). We grasp it intuitively through encountering it. I paste this from my notes, and am too lazy to edit it: “Identifying God with the good, every good and beautiful object, since it is beautiful and good, and since beauty and goodness have their origin in God, and since the object has God within it, in some way, is an encounter with God.”
The affirmation of the goodness of being (itself and its instances), found emphatically in Augustine’s Enchiridion, and with anger in St. John of Damascus’ First Apology Against Those Who Attack the Divine Images, gave a much more clear account of how beings, not primarily ends (as Aristotle seemed to think, though he admits beings are good), may be intrinsically valuable in a theistic meta-ethic. I had had something akin to a religious experience playing Witcher 3. I encountered beauty and goodness in a refreshing way–in a way that was a bit more direct than dealing with abstract propositions, that is, in an incarnate way. The ordering of actions towards God, I have begun to think, is not just the ordering of actions to God alone, but to Him through His good works and the works of His works.
Here, I think, is why today I woke up thinking, “I am ready to recognize that the Orthodox Church is where I belong:” they, more than any other Christian sect, seem to have an account for (i-iii). I happen to believe their theistic explanations for (i-iii) are the best I am aware of, though I am cautious, and will continue to test them for the next several years as I pursue graduate degrees. At the very least, the Orthodox have placed the intrinsic goodness of creation, the concept of “the good” and “the beautiful,” at the heart of their worship practices, and theology. The emphasis on these doctrines is present in the Orthodox Church more than in any other sect I know of (and I have looked into most). To worship with them is to encounter the good, and the beautiful.
I, today, saw how the range of theories I have studied in the last seven years fit together to form a litany of possible accounts of (i-iii). And this was thanks to the Orthodox insistence on the centrality of God as “the good.” This is a refreshing departure from anti-intellectual, Piper-esque Protestantism, and I hope to keep following it. Tomorrow I finish my B.A., and the timing seems right. I feel stupid for writing this, and frustrated that, I think, no one will be moved to feel the way I do by reading this. But this post is mostly for me to remember.
Everything ordinary seems empty and I am torn between ascribing my prior experience of goodness with either delusion and wishful thought, or a real apprehension which I have since lost. I so badly desire the sort of goodness displayed in the gospels, in the most beautiful music, and in the best works of fiction. The way I finally came to structure value—in the moment very clear—has been muddled by my inability to find more goodness to surround myself with, and the suggestion that the good is indefinable (for then it would neither be God nor form, and totally unseekable) due to the intuitive discomfort with the question of motivation. That is, it seems obvious to me that any theory which identifies what goodness/value is must shed light on why we ought to care about acting in accord with whatever goodness is, and I cannot find any reason why any identification of goodness with any particular thing can provide such an answer.
The Orthodox Church is beautiful, but attending is practically the only recourse to linking in with beauty. I feel surrounded by emptiness.
With it goes the hope that I am seeking truth and goodness at all. For why should I suppose that my faculties are so established as to be conducive to recognizing this “goodness?” I am anxiously checking myself for delusions.