Lent, purity of heart, and the limits of human reasoning

As this Lenten season draws to a close, I am reminded again that every Lent brings new lessons. Lent has been difficult- but the worthwhile sort of difficult, the kind of difficult that feels almost necessary. I have been through three Lenten seasons so far as an Orthodox Christian, and it has been interesting how the highlight of the season has been different every year.

st-gregory-palamasThis year I have been thinking a lot about St. Gregory Palamas. He was a Byzantine bishop from the 14th century, and in his time there was a controversy when the monk Barlaam of Seminara criticized the practices of the monks of Mount Athos. Barlaam was a rationalist; he contended that the contemplative prayer and mysticism of the Athonite monks was worthless, and that to know God they should devote themselves to learning and philosophy instead.  St. Gregory Palamas is celebrated for opposing Barlaam and defending Orthodox mysticism as practiced by the Athonite monks.

I have always found the Sunday of Gregory Palamas to be the most difficult of the Lenten commemorations to appreciate. I am both a Protestant convert and a scientist, and for these reasons, like Barlaam, my preferred approach to discerning truth is very scholastic- I read books, and try to deduce facts through logical reasoning. Orthodox Christianity  has a very different attitude toward understanding truth, and I am still figuring out how this fits in my life.

In this regard the story of Cornelius the centurion was really helpful to me. Cornelius was one of the first non-Jewish converts to Christianity. In the book of Acts he is repeatedly described as being very prayerful and generous to the poor. One day an angel visits him and tells him to visit St. Peter, where he learns the truth about Christ.

In Matthew 5:8 it says that “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. and the life of Cornelius captures the meaning of this verse well. This is also the essence of St. Gregory Palamas’ theology. It is not possible to know God through learning and reason, but if we purify our heart- repent of our wrongdoings, treat people with love and kindness- the Holy Spirit will work in our life, and we will be receptive when God reveals himself to us.

This contrasts rather significantly with how we determine through reasoning. When we use reason to solve a math problem, or to work through a logical argument, our”purity of heart”  doesn’t matter. In fact, a computer could parse through a logical argument without much problem.  Using reason, we arrive at an objective truth, independent of the character of the person performing the analysis.

I used to be involved in Protestant groups that really emphasized logical reasoning in determining spiritual truths. We would use the Bible as a set of axioms, and then perform textual analyses similar to what you would see in a literature or history class to figure out our theological beliefs.

The Eastern Orthodox approach to discerning truth is focused more on developing our spiritual character rather than our knowledge and logical reasoning skills. I had a hard time appreciating this facet of Orthodox Christianity until this Lent, when I realized that “purity of heart” matters for discerning scientific truths as well.

To do science well, you have to be willing to accept that your ideas are wrong when presented with evidence to the contrary. I have also found that the best scientists are the ones who treat other people with kindness and respect. Outsiders tend to view scientists as solitary people performing solitary work, but on the contrary, science is a very social activity, and the best science tends to emerge when many people work together. Thus a willingness to admit that you are wrong, a willingness to hear other peoples’ points of view, and a genuine concern for the well-being of your peers and subordinates are vital traits in a scientist, although they have nothing to do with logical reasoning. Of course, I have also met accomplished scientists who display none of those traits; but they are rarer than you would think, and I always get the sense that, despite their brilliance, they are not fulfilling their full potential.

 

If the pure in heart shall see God, then the pure in heart shall see God in others…

Patirarch Kiril of Moscow and All Russia, homily on February 28, 2010 (Sunday of Gregory Palamas)

Purifying our hearts in Eastern Orthodox practice is centered on repentance. I try to continually be turning away from my sins, rather than focusing on what other people have done wrong. Only when I am fully immersed in this attitude can I accept what God reveals to me: I suppose that God equips us to repent of our own wrongs, but not to fix other people’s sins. I feel that spiritual truths are revealed to me through my interactions with other people, and when I am not fully in an attitude where I am being loving and kind towards the people around me, or when I am focused on my own needs to the expense of others, I miss out on those spiritual truths. But learning to be humble, to be kind, and to be loving in this way is not something I can just “turn on”- it goes against my natural inclinations, and continual prayer is essential in developing a “purity of heart” in this way.

I am reminded once again of how much Orthodox Christianity emphasizes the unity of belief and action. I used to think that the connection between belief and action was one-way: if for your religious beliefs to be meaningful they have to  affect the way you act and how you treat other people. But this Lent I learned that the connection goes the other way as well. If I show love, compassion and generosity towards other people, and continually immerse myself in repentance and prayer, I am then able to understand truths that I would miss out on otherwise.

And I hope for the readers of this blog, that this Lent and Paschal season was a joy for you too. Christ is risen!

 

 

 

 

 

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