Three years ago, I commented on the blog post, “Can Eastern Orthodox Prove They’re the One True Church?,” and I discussed the topic further in “Competing Claims.” Since then, I have received several messages from inquirers about Orthodoxy. I typically direct such folks to better apologetics sites and recommend that they visit an Orthodox parish, as Christianity is lived rather than merely intellectually affirmed. However, I try to answer questions as I am able to do so. This spring, I received an interesting rejoinder to my feeble attempt to defend the faith. My correspondent wrote:
I suppose I’m entertaining the idea of becoming faithful again, and I had some responses to your first comment in that thread. I’ll start with just one question and we’ll see if the conversation opens up from there:
You said: “The more immediate Orthodox response to an inquirer of Orthodox claims would be an invitation to see if you find sanctity and spiritual nourishment in the Church. For it is easier to trick the intellect of most people than to deceive their hearts.”
I disagree. Psychology (I do hope you permit me to bring in modern science) shows that people are incredibly malleable, in both intellect and heart. Ever tear up from a sappy movie? Or seen someone hypnotized (granted that need to be open to suggestion in the first place).
When I step into an Orthodox Church, I’m greeted with colorful icons and beautiful music. It almost makes me want to believe in something. But then I assess that what I’m experiencing is a form of ancient marketing (though sincere to its followers). You might argue that what I’m feeling is the truth, and that I should embrace it rather than try to explain it. But how am I to know that this is real? What separates that feeling from other feelings of persuasion? I imagine if you or I were forcibly kept at a cult’s headquarters, exposed to their images, their songs, their people, we would naturally develop an affinity for that. The mind can be influenced by so many things. So what makes the influence of Orthodoxy different than others?
When I wrote “heart,” I was not referring to our emotions, though I think that emotions have their place. It seems that our emotional reactions have their own somewhat idiosyncratic laws, and they are not always fully intelligible. I suppose that is what people mean when they state that emotions are irrational. Yet, they are rational in the sense that they follow our (hopefully rational) assessment of a situation. For example, our anger or sadness usually depends on judgment that requires rational activity—that something is unjust or that circumstances are bad (in whatever qualified way). Emotions are how part of our soul participates in rational activity—by responding in certain ways to what the mind judges. When there is a disconnect between the appropriate emotional response and the input, then emotions are really irrational, as when a man finds himself unfathomably sad even though he cannot figure out what is leading him to such a state. The usefulness of modern psychology and psychiatry is in discovering how such a disconnect occurs (by trauma, chemistry, and so on) and how to manage it. Yet, a more fundamental model of the soul is required to put the whole picture in an intelligible context, and I find Platonic psychology convincing. The subrational parts of the soul are properly ordered when they are commanded by the rational part of the soul.
The previous tangential point relates to your marketing concern. It is clear that different parts of our soul respond to different persuasions, as you wrote. The intellect and all the passions have their own natures. Yet, it seems to me that we may critically and rationally examine what moves us. This is an entertaining activity in its own right, as we can see in literary, art, and film criticism. Whether it be a syllogism, a scene of pathos, or a manipulative commercial, we may step back and trace the power of influence. Then, we may decide if such movement is good and why it is so. Accordingly, the aesthetic and emotional responses that one has to a liturgy, to a natural vista, to witnessing a heroic or villainous act, to a political rally, to a mob, to an orgy, to “two minutes hate,” or to a public execution inform us of ourselves and of reality. Of course, the reading is only as good as the instrument, which the wise have always known, but there is no way around that fact. If you cannot trust your reason to engage the world rationally, then you cannot trust anything, even your own mistrust of the same. We work with what we have. Radical skepticism undoes itself. One must live; nihilism isn’t a viable option.
Above, I mentioned that I was not refering to the emotions when I wrote about the “heart.” I am not a patristics scholar, but I know that the Church teaches an anthropology that distinguishes the heart, as the center of the soul, from the intellect, the desires, and the other passions. This is the seat of personhood. As such, it is very mysterious, but you can see why the Christian world view would demand it, even if you do not currently believe it to be accurate. If the idiot may commune with God just as the philosopher, and if the powerless slave can participate in the Body of Christ just as the emperor, then the most important part of the human person cannot be the intellect or the will, or whatever assembly of forces in the soul that go by those names. Theodicy demands as much, as well. Rather, there must be additional faculties in the soul, the purpose of which is the highest for men—to commune with God. The heart is the locus of this activity, and it is in the heart that man can perceive truth through the fog of illogical obfuscation, ignorance of reality, and moral perversion—in other words, our current state in a fallen world.
This is what I meant by “heart.” I am a rationalist; I am far more comfortable with syllogistic reasoning that can be demonstrated and knowingly shared. Yet, I am also aware that such powers are quite limited among men, more or less depending upon the person. Even where men are intelligent enough to follow logical arguments, many haven’t the spiritual power to attend to them enough to apply them. And even among the clever and wise, ultimate matters become cloudy. It is easier to dismiss faulty paths than to be confident in having found the right one, and that is the great practical value of a philosophical education. So, rational argument is not enough for our race. As such, pre-“Enlightenment” thinkers often uphold authority—whether of revealed religion or of ancient convention. Even Aristotle champions the people’s endoxa when they face the apparently rational arguments of the sophists. The rational argument for such conservatism makes sense; trial and error and the survival of the fittest are persuasive arguments to uphold long inherited convention. Yet, I think that the step toward philosophy—toward waking from the cave and wandering out to try to see the world as it is—involves something superrational. The few will notice contradictions, and that will suffice to start the process of asking questions. However, there is something more, as if man has an awareness of the truth through the curtain. Some have called this innate wisdom or the divine light within the soul or attending to inner natural law or the conscience. I think that these are ways of naming the reality of which I speak—that the heart has an affinity with knowing the intelligible world. It is the intellect’s and the will’s ignition, I suppose. In ancient Greek terms, it might supply the noetic power with the axioms that it uses to comprehend the world. I wonder if the Church fathers ever compared the heart to the active intellect.
If such is accurate, then the heart is what activates your awareness of the truth when you encounter Christ’s gospel. The sheep know the shepherd when they hear his voice. Likewise, men recognize in Christ the source of the law written upon their hearts. That is not marketing. That is spiritual sight.
Of course, we then have to address that ever unpleasant topic of error. How, then, is error possible? In this case, how is it that so many men do not notice the truth of the gospel? That is a thorny question, but we sly Christians have a first response: do the blind even try to look in the first place?