If we look at the role of tradition in our coming to know God we find in the Fathers a pattern reminiscent of what we have already noticed in Gadamer and Polanyi. Participation in the tradition of the Church meant for the Fathers acceptance of the Church’s rule of faith, acceptance of the framework of preconceptions within which Scripture and one’s own experience of grace could be interpreted as furthering the understanding of God. This tradition was essentially non-specifiable, or if specifiable, not simply by an indication of specific doctrines, but primarily as the bond of unity, the bond of love, which established the Church as the Body of Christ. As the Church reflected on the notion of tradition, it developed (as we shall see in more detail in the next chapter) a notion of what we might call, following Polany, a tacit dimension in which our knowledge of God is rooted. The Patristic doctrine of tradition might well be paraphrased in the language of Polanyi by saying that all knowledge of God in Christ is either the tacit knowledge of tradition or rooted in such tacit knowledge.
The notion of the tacit has deeper resonance within the Fathers’ thought, however, than in the thought of Polanyi. In them the tacit is interpreted as silence, the silence of presence, the presence of God who gives himself to the soul who waits on him in silence. The silence of the tacit makes immediate contact with the silence of prayer: and prayer is seen in the Fathers to be, as it were, the amniotic fluid in which our knowledge of God takes form. Participation in the tradition of the Church implies participation in a life of love, of loving devotion to God and loving care of our neighbour. Participation in the tradition is indeed a moral activity: it implies a growing attentiveness to Our Lord, and a growing likeness to him. In other words, the Fathers understand the place of what we have called, following Gadamer, paideia in making us into those who are capable of knowing God, or rather in making us receptive to God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. Hort’s assertion that ‘the perception of truth depends as much on the state of him who desires to perceive as on the objects that are presented to his view’ is axiomatic for the Fathers.
Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983) 64-65.
Louth’s discussion has brought him to a point where the Enlightenment paradigm not only looks “less compelling” but where it “is seen to be based on assumptions about how we come to knowledge that re being rendered increasingly incredible and naïve.” (66) Indeed it has had damaging effects for both the humanities and theology in leading to a one-sided understanding of truth.
While Louth rejects an absolute division between the sciences and the humanities, the sciences can be characterised by a concern with solving problems, whereas the humanities have a deeper dimension and require a deeper sort of reason to that required by the sciences. Understanding in the humanities does not bring definitive solutions but leads to a deeper engagement with reality. Drawing on Gabriel Marcel’s distinction between mystery and problem Louth continues
… what I am suggesting is that concern for the mysterious is at the heart of the humanities, whereas at the heart of the sciences there is a concern with the problematic. That this is a contrast, and not a dichotomy, is seen in the way in which problem-solving has a place in the humanities – though the most significant kind of problem is one that, in Marcel’s language, ‘conceals a mystery’ – and in the complementary way in which some scientists, such as Einstein, have spoken of a deepening sense of awe and wonder awakened in them, an awe and wonder in the presence of the universe, that grows through the advance of the sciences, through the growing success in solving problems. But the contrast remains, and since problem-solving can be successful, whereas contemplation of mystery cannot, there cannot be in the humanities any hope for the sort of success the sciences have known. Nor in theology: and especially not in Christian theology whose central mystery is focused in the birth of a child in a stable, and in the death of a man on a cross. (70)
Louth highlights the return to mystery in twentieth century theologians such as Barth and Rahner. He proceeds to argue that the main concern of theology should be not so much to elucidate anything, but rather to prevent us from dissolving the mystery that lies at the heart of the faith, which is precisely what the heresies attempted to do. The task of theology is to guard the mystery and to lead us back “to those ultimate unities that have so long eluded our grasp, unities that draw together the mind and the heart (or rather, find there a primordial unity which we have lost), unities that are nourished by the love of God which is the mystery of our faith.” (72)
I’m not sure if there’s much point commenting as I am generally most appreciative of everything Louth has argued in this chapter, even if my own background in science and religion is rather minimal. I’ve particularly appreciated his emphasis on the involvement of the one who knows in the process of knowing, which points to an ascetical dimension for all aspects of theology, something that has far-reaching implications and which I keep thinking I’d like to pursue further but never seem to get to! (A while ago Father Gregory Jensen of Koinonia had an insightful post on the role of the passions, and the struggle against the passions, in Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, and this is a theme that could be explored much further, not least in the polarised situation within the Catholic Church).
I have also been wondering whether Father Louth would use the language of “mystery” in the same way if he were to write this book today. This is sparked by having recently read his Afterword to the new edition of his The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition in which he provides a thorough going critique of the concept of “mysticism”, something that I really do intend writing on soon!