Re-envisioning Communion and Truth After Volf-zizioulas Dispute
Presentation at the 6th Symposium of Romanian Orthodox Spirituality, Trinity College at the University of Toronto, ON, April 13, 2013
When I think of Constantine and his legacy, two things come to my mind: First, a society of religious pluralism where all religions are free to express their visions, and this pluralism is supported by law and the judiciary system; second, with regard to Christianity, a constant struggle for Christ-ian unity. I think that particularly Christians living in modern Western societies may be essentially characterized as living in a pluralistic society and struggling for Christ-ian unity. This struggle for unity is in fact a struggle to adjust diverse visions of the truth about God and human salvation into a com-monly accepted perspective.
Beyond Volf’s Understanding of Faith
Miroslav Volf and John Zizioulas had a little bit of a dispute in their writings on the notion of faith and its relationship with such concepts as Christian communion, unity, or truth about God. In one of his books, Volf has noticed that “faith plays no role in Zizioulas’s soteriology and ecclesiology.”1 While agreeing with that, we may further observe that the dimension of subjectivity as such plays almost no role in Zizioulas’s theology, in which the emphasis resides particularly on the perfection or fullness of being in communion. This paper will try to recover the dimension of subjectivity while preserving Zizioulas’s fundamental insight that truth is built in communion. A modern philosopher such as John Searle would call it a “social construct.” Anticipating the con-clusions, this insertion of subjectivity into Zizioulas’s theological construction will introduce into discussion a dimension of obscurity, epistemic shadow, and ecclesial fragmentation. It is something that most likely we Orthodox Christians have to assume, if it is not already assumed by such previous authors as Paul, who thought that we see per speculum in aenigmate, and Basil of Caesarea, who denied that humans may see God’s essence. Truth and communion are not completely realized in the present age, but they have to be fully accomplished in the future or at the escha-ton. In this life, human knowledge is imperfect, defined as per speculum in aenigmate, and Christian community fragmented.
It is sometimes believed that subjectivi-ty is a modern invention. Nonetheless, I would like to mention that the subject was already a favorite topic of the ancients from Socrates to Plotinus, and the Stoics made of psychology a major field of philosophical investigation. What Descartes and Kant “discovered,” therefore, was not the subject or consciousness, but the manner in which our knowledge depends on our subject and the fact that the external world might not be the way we perceive it. In spite of the fact that Volf understands faith as a matter of subjectivity, faith is not so much an epis-temic capacity as it is a subjective commit-ment to a person (Jesus, the Savior) or a doctrine (Christian belief) 2. Volf under-stands faith as a twofold action, subjective and public. He asserts: “This public confess-ion of faith in Christ through the pluriform speaking of the word is the central con-stitutive mark of the church. It is through this that the church lives as church and manifests itself externally as church.”3 Objective faith is the public manifestation of the subjective faith of every believer.4 From a subjective angle, faith is the mediating channel of grace, where the consciousness has both a passive and an active role.5 It is a matter of knowing and willing, while re-maining a gift of God. From a linguistic point of view, faith is a verbal (discursive, assertoric) and also nonverbal organism.6 Thus, at the level of ecclesial society, “the transmission of faith occurs through inter-personal ecclesial interaction. God's salvific activity always takes place through the multidimensional confession of faith of the communio fidelium.”7 Inspired by Lindbeck, Volf further describes faith in Wittgenstein-ean terms as part of the basic grammar of being a Christian:
The faith with which I believe is shaped by the ecclesially mediated forms in which it is expressed; there is no pure, ecclesially unmediated faith consisting of pure feeling. Hence, even my most personal faith can only be that which is ecclesially mediated. Moreover, it is only through life in the congregation in whose confession I participate that I discover the meaning of the confession of faith. Although ecclesial socialization does indeed take place through learning the language of faith — this is the most important content and instru-ment of ecclesial socialization — learning the language of faith nevertheless also presupposes ecclesial socialization. 8
Furthermore, I cannot subscribe to Volf’s following sentence: “there is no pure, ecclesially unmediated faith consisting of pure feeling. Hence, even my most personal faith can only be that which is ecclesially mediated.”9 Trying to be a good Wittgen-steinean, Volf forgets such Wittgensteinean reflections as those on pain and suffering which are not intended to dismiss the exis-tence of pain or other emotions, but to affirm something about the limits of human language and the possibility of expressing linguistically any human experience.10 The conclusion would be that there are areas of “unmediated faith” or “personal faith” which are linguistically inexpressible, therefore beyond any Christian grammar or language game.
Christianity, however, admits in its history the existence of several religious experiences which are beyond the tradition-al Jewish-Christian religious language game. Thus, the prophet Ezekiel already was always using the particle “like” in de-scribing God and all the surrounding celes-tial realities, thus asserting that his grammar is not able to express his experience. Like-wise, Paul describes what he calls the third heaven and refuses to put into letters and words his epistemic encounter with that celestial universe. Many other mystics as-serted similar things and all of these central Christian figures admitted that their experiences were genuine epistemic events, not mere psychological statistics or feelings. From a linguistic perspective, there is a gray zone which cannot be rendered by Christian grammar, but nevertheless the same zone is luminous and glorious from a mystical perspective.
Zizioulas on Faith
Most likely aware of Volf’s criticism in the late ‘90s, Zizioulas himself sought to address the shortcomings of his theological vision first in his Communion and Otherness (published in 2006) and second in his Lectures in Christian Dogmatics, published in 2008. In Communion and Otherness, he rejects an understanding of faith as mere trust, obedience, or psycho-logical experience—therefore the mere psychological perspective—and elaborates an understanding of faith as a Eucharistic event of communion with God. This is the privileged moment when a human being ac-cepts God’s existence and understands the entire creation, including his/her own life, as a gift from God. Faith thus becomes a thanks-giving response to the divine offering and divine self-offering through Jesus’ sacrifice.
In the second book, Zizioulas continues his elaboration of the concept of faith, this time understanding it as an about-turn towards true life, a change possible only within the community of those who believe.11 Employing Hebrews 11:1, he further defines faith as a hypostasis of things unseen and only hoped for, and thus an element which enables humans to see reality in truth. Zizioulas continues by regarding faith as a giant leap in someone’s life from his/her social identity to the identity of a heavenly citizenship, which is “participation in the eschatological community of God.”12 In addition, faith is a matter of freedom and a way of living in the Spirit.
Beyond Dispute: A Phenomenology of Faith
What I would add today to this discus-sion is some refinement from a phenomeno-logical perspective (since we need an investigation especially from the subjective angle). My perspective will take into account the Kantian transcendental turn and also some ancient intuitions of Clement of Alexandria. A first observation would be that a believer is not only a perfect semantic practitioner, who brilliantly learns the gram-mar of faith and function in the ecclesial community which uses that particular language. He or she is also a person similar to the biblical figure who articulated: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:24). The Bible itself, therefore, opens a dimen-sion of epistemological shadow and obscuri-ty in connection with faith, a kind of dialec-tic of this concept. It is, therefore, possible to talk about degrees of faith, about more or less faith, and be simultaneously under Jesus Christ’s mercy and love.
A. Clement of Alexandria on Faith as Epistemic Event
Today I would like to share with you the vision of an ancient author on the theme regarding the gray zone of human subjectivi-ty, namely Clement of Alexandria. I chose this Alexandrian philosopher and theologian because he develops a general phenomeno-logy of faith as an epistemic capacity, not as a feeling, sentiment, or any psychological phenomenon. Thus, faith is an apprehension of self-evident manifestations (in modern terminology we may call them intuition, a direct and unmediated gift of knowledge to our mind) which the mind perceives from the external world or from God. Second, faith is also the assent of the mind and the mind’s appetency (in modern terminology, intentionality) towards these intuitions. 13 Clement applies this general theory to the particular case of the intuitions which the mind receives from God, the first principle, calling them apodeixeis. Apodeixis is not only the logical or mathematical demonstration, but in ancient everyday language it also had the meaning of “demonstration,” “exposition,” something given, shown, or manifested to the human consciousness. Hence, Clement’s phenomenology presup-poses two central aspects. First, faith is a passive intuition or reception which re-presents the apprehension of those mani-festations which God offers to the human mind. Second, faith is an active intentio-nality which consists in a dianoetic ap-petency towards God and things divine. When faith takes God as the object of its intentionality and apprehension, the outcome is an unmediated and exceedingly accurate knowledge.
Clement provides a fascinating ap-proach to the question regarding the ultimate foundation of science and demonstration (apodeixis). Expounding on the possibility of any type of knowledge or science in genere, Clement acknowledges that it has to be based on demonstration. In its turn, demonstration has to be based on the self-evident phenomena offered either by (1) sense perception (aisthesis) or by (2) intuition (noesis). Employing the term “self-evident” (enarges), a notion that had a re-markable previous career, especially within Epicurean and Stoic philosophy, Clement asserts that scientific demonstration cannot be based ad infinitum on another demon-stration. On the contrary, the whole human corpus of knowledge has its foundation in something that appears to the human mind as self-evident (enarges).
Using modern language, we may assert that all our life and activity in the world implies a cluster of presuppositions. Our everyday breakfast implies a set of cosmological and physical presuppositions which our brain or mind assumes every morning: there is a reality totally indepen-dent of us, the macro-structure of the universe has a certain constancy and thus my kitchen is still in the place it was yester-day, things are not melted, decomposed, or vanished, I also trust my sense-perception and actions of my body and the way they cooperate in order to make my morning coffee. Science in itself, the most competent and useful human corpus of knowledge, similarly implies a vast net of presupposi-tions tacitly assumed as well as a set of undemonstrated axioms and not yet demon-strated hypotheses. In order to function in the world, therefore, we need a lot of tacit presuppositions, in fact as many instances of faith. And this is what Clement of Alexandria was trying to assert 18 centuries ago. Faith is not a mere feeling; it is an epistemic process, an epistemic event.
Clement affirms, however, something we moderns might not agree with, namely that the knowledge which faith procures is the most accurate. In order to understand this assertion we have to place it in the context of its time, when all human know-ledge was envisioned as one large pyramid, like in the standard positivist model, and the most accurate things have to be found surely at the very beginning, at the bottom of the pyramid, namely human perception. Most likely, Clement did not doubt human perception. In addition, it is very plausible to find something true in his assertion, especially when he thinks that faith, which is a perception of the things God presents to the human mind, is the most accurate knowledge. From a Christian perspective, it is most plausible that the prophets, then Paul, Steven the martyr, and other vision-aries considered their experiences as the most accurate knowledge.
In conclusion, Clement of Alexandria offers us, over the centuries, a new para-digm for conceiving faith. It is an epistemic faculty. By characterizing faith as apprehension of self-evident phenomena, assent, preconception, and appetency, Clement elaborates, on the one hand, a general phenomenology of faith that might be seen as an investigation of the trans-cendental ground of knowledge. On the other hand, applying this theory to the apprehension of divine intuitions, Clement articulates a particular phenomenology of faith which involves two distinct aspects: one passive (the apprehension of what God makes manifest to the human mind) and one active (the human appetency for God’s manifestations). While the process of apprehension procures the most certain, self-evident epistemic grounding for all knowledge, appetency leads the human being to divine knowledge and new divine manifestations. Faith is therefore an intuition of a divine manifestation followed by an intentional act oriented toward the knowledge of what God makes manifest to the human mind. Rather than an acceptance of a certain set of propositions or dogmas, faith is first and foremost the epistemic capacity of perceiving the manifestations of God and reacting as an appetency for an even deeper knowledge and acquisition of divine donations.
B. Further Phenomenological Notes on the Meaning of Faith
Concluding my Clementine interlude, we may notice that faith is a significant epistemic process not in itself, but rather because it mediates more important things, like a channel or window. It mediates Christ’s proximity, the Spirit, and the truth. Regarding especially truth, it is manifested in the human mind or consciousness in the manner in, and to the extent to which the mind is able to perceive it. My elaboration seeks to be in line with the neo-phenomeno-logical paradigm, a phenomenology which incorporates the linguistic and linguistic-cultural paradigms originated in Wittgenstein and has such remarkable representatives in John Searle or Alva Noë. 14 Human mind advances epistemologically from one horizon to the other. This horizon is the universe of the subject’s world, the social context in which the subject acts, including his or her linguistic praxis.
From a very early age, while this world of the subject evolves, experience offers to the mind several constant repetitive perceptual structures. However, there are also realities which do not come into the world of human perception and the subject understands them as the source of its perceptions. These are the things-in-them-selves of the external world: the world-in-itself and the experience other people have in their minds.
The insertion of faith in the subject’s world actually represents a response to a new epistemological horizon. It is a res-ponse to the Spirit that comes into my world and changes it completely, making it replete with God, replete with God’s vestigia, and, from now on, replete with those acts, gestures, and linguistic practices through which the subject tries to express his or her belief in Christ and communion with the other believers, the ecclesia. It is, however, in this world of experience, in this horizon that the mind discovers the truth as the vestigia Dei, those sparks of experience which make the subject think of an entity manifested in the universe, in its past, through theophanies. The story of those theophanies, including the Incarnation of the Son of God, represent an epistemo-logical gift to my mind (an apodeixis, as Clement of Alexandria would express it) which makes the mind develop as a response the epistemic process of faith. In this context, faith is not a mere pious sentiment nor the commitment to a set of sentences, as in a foundationalist philo-sophical system with all its sentences demonstrated from primary sentences, a system which my mind should be necessarily forced to adopt due to the logical character of its demonstrations. Faith is not such a thing. It is, on the contrary, an epistemic process which the mind plays with the intuitive knowledge received from God, the self-offering of the truth, and the subject’s intentions towards God. This type of epistemic ongoing process creates, and actually is, human relationship with God. It is, undoubtedly, a knowledge of God per speculum in aenigmate. Moreover, faith actually opens a horizon with a new thing-in-itself, God.
In terms of functionality, religion in general is a social game and the believer plays it almost as all the other grammatical or social games or languages. We play a game where we also assume God’s existence and action. However, I submit that being a Christian has to be more than that. Religion and faith must start from a profound encounter with God beyond any encounter with another human person. And it is only this encounter that transforms my world into a world indeed permeated by God or his activity, and it is only this encounter that opens a new horizon in the human encounter with another human. Without this first encounter with God, we remain in the mechanics and technicalities of a mere social grammar. God, faith, and religion are just another social game or set of rules of action pertaining to a certain religious community. With that first encounter, the subject’s world changes and a new universe of knowledge opens to the mind or consciousness.
The second process is indeed that of reaching out to the other. In fact, the life of the subject is not a life in a certain bubble of consciousness, but its essential act, intentio-nality, opens it constantly to the world. From a Christian perspective, this process actually unveils to the subject a broken human community and also an ongoing process of building up a community. We realize that there are so many ways in which human subjects act together in various “collective intentionalities,” as John Searle would call them, for instance in a football game, a concert performance, a church service, and many other instances. Further-more, humans create institutional realities. A Christian community is special in its constant attitude or intentionality to God. Christian communities are communities of hope, sharing the collective intentionality to participate in God’s life or existence.
The socially constructed truth in the context of the church is the ecclesial truth. It is built there in the Spirit either linguistically—by comparing formulas—or epistemologically, or ontologically, when Christ and the Spirit are present helping Christians to understand that conciliar formulas are true linguistic icons of the Trinity. I think that truth is built up in community, but as an icon that approxi-mates the archetype of the Trinity. It is the speculum (the mirror) and the enigma through which, as through a lens, we contemplate and try to discern the mystery of the Trinity. Truth thus becomes a mediato-rial agent between the visible and the invisible, an icon always to be perfected.
Truth and communio are constructed only fragmentarily in earthly existence, per speculum in aenigmate. Truth is ecclesially constructed, as Zizioulas affirms, but only incompletely and as in a mirror. This dimension of obscurity, of mystery, and epis-temic shadow needs to be introduced into Zizioulas’s vision. He himself leaves a door open for this dimension when he speaks about sin and temporality as still part of the earthly Church. Coming back to Cons-tantine’s legacy, his dream of a unified ecclesia remains indeed an inspiring goal for a unity desired first and foremost by God himself, as we remember Jesus Christ asking his Father in the garden of Gethsemane for one ecclesia as the Trinity is one.
Fr. Prof. Dr. Dragoş Giulea
Concordia University, Montreal
1 M. Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 95.
2 Ibid., 145-155.
3 Ibid., 150.
5 Ibid., 160.
6 Ibid., 169-170.
7 Ibid., 163.
10 E.g., Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, I. § 404: “In saying this [‘I am in pain’] I don't name any person. Just as I don't name anyone when I groan with pain.”
11 Zizioulas, Lectures in Christian Dogmatics (London: T&T Clark, 2008), 34.
12 Ibid., 37
13 For more details regarding Clement’s vision of faith, see Dragos A. Giulea, “Apprehending ‘Demonstrations’ from the First Principle: Clement of Alexandria’s Phenomenology of Faith,” The Journal of Religion 89:2 (2009): 187-213.
14 See, for example, John Searle, Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Mind, Language And Society: Philosophy In The Real World (New York, NY: Paper Books, 1999); Alva Noe, Action in Perception (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).