Athens and Jerusalem: the role of philosophy in faith, with analysis by St. Gregory Palamas

For me the role of philosophy in Christian faith has always been something like Anselm’s famous motto: “faith seeking understanding.” When applied to the faith, Philosophy is just faith seeking understanding, useful for synthesizing with reason those things initially accepted by faith. Philosophy offers the chance to know those things which the faith preaches.

Didn’t St. Paul say to always be ready to “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have” (1 Pet 3.15)? Give a reason! the apostle says. What better way to give a reason than to prove the faith through philosophy? Knowing the truth “will set you free” (Jn 8.32). These and other scriptures convinced me that Christianity needed as much input from philosophy and science as possible to shore up the faith (if not for believers, then certainly for nonbelievers).

Until recently I didn’t realize the troubles I was unwittingly stepping into with this. The troubles are serious and easily result in a complete undoing of faith. The above is nothing short of the difference between “I believe in one God” (the Nicene Creed) and “I know there is one God.” The difference in these two statements is immense, and there is good reason why the Church Fathers thought in terms of the former and not the latter.

Lev Shestov had this to say in his profound book, “Athens and Jerusalem”:

The apostle contented himself with faith, but the philosopher wished more—he could not be content with what preaching brings him (‘the foolishness of preaching,’ as St. Paul himself puts it). The philosopher seeks and finds ‘proofs,’ convinced in advance that the proven truth has much more value than the truth that is not proven… Faith is then only a ‘substitute’ for knowledge, an imperfect knowledge, a knowledge—in a way—on credit and which must sooner or later present the promised proofs if it wishes to justify the credit that has been accorded to it.

A common thought-approach to faith goes something like this: Faith is for children, knowledge for the mature. As God commands the ignorant to obey by faith, parents command their children to likewise obey. But the expectation is that eventually knowledge replaces child-like faith as we mature into adults, into gods. Knowledge saves.

Few Christians would actually admit this, the belief that faith is a “substitute” for knowledge “on credit” waiting for real knowledge to fill in the gaps. They recognize its gnostic vibe immediately and reject it. But the rejection is not full—it’s just intellectual—as evidenced by the way we actually live. To admit that knowledge saves is the same as admitting that the tree of knowledge grants life, not death. That is, that God, and not the serpent, was the great deceiver in the Garden.

Are we still deceived by the ancient lie? I’ve thought it in my heart a thousand times, “Dammit Adam, why were you such a fool to believe the lie and condemn mankind to death and suffering?” But what did Adam believe but that knowledge grants beauty, wisdom, and theosis. Every last one of us have repeated his fall. We all believe that knowledge saves regardless of the fact that we have no evidence of progress but only of the fall (G.K. Chesterton).

Shestov asks, “Is it not clear that we are in the power of that terrible, hostile force of which the Book of Genesis speaks to us?” Attempting to resolve faith with knowledge, as our first parents did, has not led to enlightenment, paradise, or godhood, but their opposites.

And this isn’t to disparage knowledge in general, but rather to disparage that sly, psychological faith in knowledge that creeps into the Christian psyche, promising deliverance from the struggles inherent in faith—struggles necessary for salvation. The Church Fathers speak at length on the necessity of spiritual knowledge in the pursuit of divine truth, but never fail to specify that it is “spiritual knowledge”–a divine gift of direct apprehension of spiritual realities–and not simple abstract, speculative reasoning, that they’re after.

A disciple of St. Gregory Palamas once approached him saying, “I have heard it stated by certain people that monks also should pursue secular wisdom, and that if they do not possess this wisdom, it is impossible for them to avoid ignorance and false opinions… and that one cannot acquire perfection and sanctity without seeking knowledge from all quarters, above all from Greek culture.” The disciple grieved that he had no answer to these people and desperately sought one.

St. Palamas responded first by acknowledging that people have indeed always arrived at concepts of God using these means, but their best attempts could only produce worship of demons and inanimate objects, and systems of polytheism. They in no way could arrive at the “truth” no matter their genius. But “just as there is much therapeutic value even in substances obtained from the flesh of serpents… so there is something of benefit to be had even from the profane philosophers—but it is somewhat as in the mixture of honey and hemlock.” Good luck at separating the two. Dividing correctly is a true gift: “but to divide well is the property of very few men.” He even notes an example of the then “iconognosts” who “pretend that man receives the image of God by knowledge, and that this knowledge confirms the soul to God.” This is a very ancient yet very modern idea, and it is thoroughly refuted by scripture and the Church. Knowledge does not save.  

St. Palamas continues his response explaining that even Adam who possessed natural wisdom in abundance more than all his descendants failed through knowledge to safeguard conformity to the image of God. “Profane philosophy existed as an aid to this natural wisdom before the advent of Christ…Why then were we not renewed by this philosophy before His coming? Why did we need, not someone to teach us philosophy… but One ‘who takes away the sin of the world’?”

After these and several other demonstrations of the failures of knowledge to deliver the goods it promises, St Palamas finishes with this:

If a man who seeks to be purified by fulfilling the prescriptions of the Law gains no benefit from Christ—even though the Law had been manifestly promulgated by God—then neither will the acquisition of the profane sciences avail. For how much more will Christ be of no benefit to one who turns to the discredited alien philosophy to gain purification for his soul?

Though this is a fitting place to end, I cannot resist one more example. All things considered, one needs proceed no further than Pontius Pilate. That famed pagan—representative of the combined wisdom of secular thought—stood before the Truth (Christ) and asked, “What is truth?” And immediately turned and crucified it.

There’s a lesson in there.

11 thoughts on “Athens and Jerusalem: the role of philosophy in faith, with analysis by St. Gregory Palamas

  1. Here’s a passage from the Bible that may stir up some confusion and/or disagreement.

    “Leviticus 26:29

    English Standard Version
    “You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters.”

    There’s more.

    The old and new testaments (The entire Bible) have 1,189 chapters, 31,103 verses, and 807,361 words.

    Yet, most Christian dogma is based on how a few of those verses are translated after a preacher cherry-picks what supports his or her thinking and beliefs and ignored the rest that numbers more than 30-thousand verses.

    Don’t forget that there are more than 400 different English translations of the oldest known Bible that was published in Greek, and each translation may be different.

  2. The concepts of belief, faith, and knowledge, easily become vague, losing clear distinction, and being difficult to grasp and communicate. Discussing abstract subject matters like faith and psychology requires all terms used to be precisely defined, otherwise it is like trying to separate, sort and arrange puffs of smoke into a structured formation with one’s hands.

    To understand such matters, we need not only to have a vast focus on our scope of awareness but also be able to divide between one thing and another to the finest and most subtle of degrees. Scope of awareness together with fineness of distinction, in other words, the acuity of mental vision, is the intelligence. Distinct definitions aid intelligence.

    And for truth to be grasped, understood and communicated accurately, the definitions used need to be true and accurate. There seems to be a quandary here, for how can we obtain accurate definitions of the parts of a composite picture before we know the picture or its parts. It seems we need knowledge before we can know. And perhaps prior to faith we need faith in faith.

    It is not easy. As you point out: “Dividing correctly is a true gift: “but to divide well is the property of very few men.” ”

    I think such subjects are difficult partly because we cannot easily see and touch the subject matter, and more so because we live in a world where truth and falsity, good and bad, right and wrong, are strangely and thoroughly mixed, and furthermore because the answers are mostly internal, and insight is rare indeed. We are, our self, the subject matter though. So insight is where we must start. Insight is intelligence directed inwards.

    • Excellent reply, crossbow; one that I anticipated while writing the article but for the sake of brevity left undone. I was actually hoping to address it in the comments, so thank you for bringing it up. Defining knowledge is something few Church Fathers left out of their writings when on the subject. All of them were careful, when promoting knowledge, to promote “spiritual knowledge,” as that which God leads us in. Here is a worthy definition of “intellect” to consider from the Orthodox Greek Philokalia:

      “Intellect (nous: the highest faculty in man, through which – provided it is purified – he knows God or the inner essences or principles of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception. Unlike the ‘dianoia’ or reason, from which it must be carefully distinguished, the intellect does not function by formulating abstract concepts and then arguing on this basis to a conclusion reached through deductive reasoning, but it understand divine truth by means of immediate experience, intuition or ‘simple cognition’. The intellect dwells in the ‘depths of the soul’; it constitutes the innermost aspect of the heart. The intellect is the organ of contemplation.”

      Any time the father speak of the intellect, intellection, or spiritual knowledge this is the basis of what they mean, essentially, “direct apprehension or spiritual perception” by means of “immediate experience” through divine help and not unaided, philosophic reasoning.

      Adam and Eve had this ability to the utmost – immediate spiritual perception, which they forfeited by seeking knowledge of “good and evil.” Such knowledge boils down to the deceit that worldly knowledge has the power to save – something the Greeks were assured of and the apostles and prophets warned against.

  3. That definition of intellect from the Philokalia is getting into the subtle regions. It is a different location and function to what is termed intellect in psychology, of course. Psychology has a long way to go. It uses terms like emotions, feelings, moods, interchangeably, as it does intelligence, cognition, intellect… When we get among such subtleties we cannot use synonyms interchangeably if we want to think and communicate clearly. Everything must be distinct and precise.

    Personally, I define faith as being the (raw) power of God. That is something very different from belief, an unknown conviction, and which exists in man. Belief and faith, therefore are like oil and water, they do not mix, and they exist in very different regions. When faith is in man, belief departs, and is replaced with knowledge and ability.

  4. Interesting. A question, if I may:

    In conversation with those that are atheists or perhaps with those on their way to lose their faith, one needs to listen carefully and dismantle the intellectual stumbling blocks they have to faith in Christ.

    “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”(2 Cor 10:5)

    How, then, do we demolish arguments unless we learn to analyse and dismantle them? How do we, as Orthodox Christians, address the challenge of atheism? Do we battle using philosophy? Do we preach the Gospel, and pray that it takes root in the heart of unbelievers? Do we ignore the problem and hope that it goes away?

    This is an honest question. I really wish to know the correct approach to such matters.

    Thank you in advance.

  5. I love this question. I think St. Palamas shows how useful philosophy can be a demonstrating how inept philosophy is in bringing one to the truth of God, of the afterlife, of freewill, morals, etc. I’ve always used philosophy for this exact purpose – to take the weapons away from atheists. But I never expect philosophy by itself to lead someone to Christ. I use it to level the playing field and to demonstrate the need for faith. The verse you quoted is a powerful one, but it is in reference to the thoughts that attempt to “set itself up against the knowledge of God.” This is precisely what most secular philosophy does. Like Palamas says, so long as you’re able to keep philosophy and science in their proper place, which they do have a place, and not employ them to replace your faith, you’re using them rightly.

  6. They see we have something mysterious they wish they also had — strength and the ability to calmly manage all sorts of situations, the right words at the right times, we see things as they are and speak them as they are, carefully packaging the truth for presentation so that it is helpful without undue harm, and our hearts whisper silently to their hearts. In their efforts to find peace of mind they attend all sorts of secular resilience training, leadership training,… etc, which the faithful attuned through Christ to God do not need to attend. When they ask us, How do we cope with such stressors? from where comes such qualities as our strength? our calmness? our joy? our courage? our wisdom? our knowledge of possibilities? Then we answer in truth, From faith. That does more than dismantle their arguments, it shakes their paradigm, makes them doubt their reality. But our causing that to happen to them is not our motive or our aim, but is an incidental and consequential effect on them of us living our faith.

  7. Pingback: Athens and Jerusalem: the role of philosophy in faith, with analysis by St. Gregory Palamas – mostly philosophy

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