Words in the flesh: on the possibility of witnessing


Photo by Alin Mesaros Photography (http://alinmesaros.com/)

Philosophers usually speak of propositional knowledge. Briefly, this is about whether a certain proposition is known to be true. In this sense, propositional knowledge does not lead to a beyond but rather remains within the framework offered by the sentence itself. It remains in concepts. However, as Gregory of Nyssa said, “concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.”[1]

If we want to grasp things, then, we seem to be encouraged to reject philosophy. Still, as Vladimir Lossky points out as well, suspending all kinds of judgment and, more, ceasing any attempt to express oneself in words may not imply the departure from “philosophy” but still remaining within such a system because we would believe that words are merely concepts without flesh. Denying words presupposes a certain view about them. Lossky believes, I think, that there is another option: theology. Incarnation made theology possible. The Word incarnate allows us to use language to point toward that which is beyond language, and the icons offer an opening towards divinity in a similar fashion. “Since the Word has incarnated Himself, the Word can be thought and taught—and in the same way the Word can be painted” (Orthodox Theology 13). To use an expression from the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, it seems as if theology (and iconography as well) is a good manifestation of the infinite within the finite.

The germs of the idea of the infinite within the finite are found even in Greek philosophy. One can see as early as Heraclitus the awareness of the conflict between that which statements say and the reality which the statements need to comprise. B50, for example, says, “Listening not to me, but to the Logos, it is wise to agree that all things are one.” The interesting feature about Heraclitus is that he does not completely reject the possibility of expressing oneself in language, but he shows that the use of this language points to that which (the Logos) language cannot comprise.

But let me return to orthodox gnosiology. It does not deal with essences, with substances clearly defined in concepts. Such concepts create limits and separation, but orthodox gnosiology searches for union. This gnosiology is phenomenal—it develops in the manifestation of divinity in our life.  It is an existential relationship—we situate ourselves towards God in praise, and so “theology must be praise and must dispose us to praise God” (Lossky 14). If gnosis, as Lossky says, “implies encounter, reciprocity, faith as a personal adherence to the personal presence of God Who reveals Himself” (13), then it has nothing to do with episteme understood as science and reasoning.

 Allow me to give an example, the knowledge a child has of his mother. How do we know a person? And if we know a person, can we communicate this knowledge to someone else? Consider asking a child to tell who his mother is. Would he ever be able to express a definition of his mother? And even if he were, would he be able to communicate it to anyone else? I am bringing together these two questions here because if indeed gnosiology is phenomenological, existential, ontological, personal and mystical, the knowledgea child has of a mother can be counted as an example of this. One cannot learn at school who his mother is, but rather what it is to be a mother. But any conceptual knowledge of what it is to be a mother will not allow the child to know his mother, to communicate with her, to love her, and to feel her absence. In order to know his mother (and any person, after all), a child needs to have a relationship with her, a personal relationship with her. Perhaps the child needs to make his mom part of his soul. A child knows his mother (and all of us know those we love) by taking the object of knowledge into his soul. He cannot describe “who mom is,” but has a knowledge of her that is genuine, immediate, and without fault. He may be able to describe his mom, but any description would never encapsulate the knowledge he has of her. He lives mom and is nourished by mom, and thus he knows her through this living and being nourished.


One may say that if we understand gnosiology in this way—and perhaps in here we can see the limits of this example—we would be in danger to fall into some sort of relativism, especially if we consider that it is personal. A personal knowledge, if understood incorrectly, may suggest that each individual has his or her understanding of God and that a personal relationship with Him is in no need of validation from any possible “authority.” But this would be a departure from the meaning of personal and indeed a falling away from gnosiology to a pseudo-epistemology. It would mean a knowledge of God that is different in each individual, and not indeed a giving birth to God, which I think gnosiology presupposes. And I consider here the call that perhaps all Christians have, to be birth-givers of Christ, in themselves and in others. A Romanian priest, Father Arsenie Boca, once said something along these lines[2]: “We know from Jesus that we will have the image He showed us in His Transfiguration. This will take place only when Jesus will be born in us as well, as he was born in the Holy Virgin” (121). In this sense, gnosiology is personal for it gives rise to knowledge of God that would result in theosis.

But in this sense the origin of this relationship is God, not us—as Lossky says, “theology… is located in a relationship of revelation where the initiative belongs to God, while implying a human response, the free response of faith and love” (16). It is not a mere feeling, a personal relationship with something that is outside of you, but indeed it is with something that is already in you. And so the teaching is already found in you, for otherwise, as Lossky says, you would hear nothing (18). One may say that the hearing of the teaching presupposes allowing that which is in you to respond to the teaching—and it is so that Orthodoxy talks about kenosis, emptying.

The ontological relationship between man and God is not then a relationship between objects, but a true communion that has God always as source. It is in the refusal of such connection that we establish separation and, perhaps, objective knowledge, in the sense of knowledge of objects, of concepts, of idols. Theology, in order not to become mere philosophy, needs to see that concepts themselves are witnesses. One may say, using the Greek terminology, that concepts in any theology are martyrs: they witness for God’s existence and doing so they die to themselves. It is not in the accuracy of concepts that theology finds its worth, but in their ability to witness to God.

[1] I read this quote in several sources, some of them giving mentioning The Life of Moses as the work in which it appears.
[2]  Cuvinte Vii (Living Words).  It was also published in English by Charisma Publishing House in Deva, Romania.

About Tavi's Corner

Blogging on ancient philosophy, communist persecution in Romania (including deportation to Siberia), and Orthodox Christianity. I've translated books from Romanian to English, and I also write about them from time to time.
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