Worship and Theology

I’ve noticed an increasing number of self-described Evangelical writers who are questioning the fundamental doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation. I thought it was just me wandering into unsavory corners of the internet, and then I saw Aidan Kimel’s, Reading Our Way Out of the Trinity, which is a blunt, no-holds barred look at Christian epistemology. He observes that theology is relational. It certainly doesn’t come from essays, and not even from scripture, but from prayer and the Eucharist.

I recently started reading Archimandrite Sophrony’s book, His Love Is Mine, and I found a more theologically concise description of the same thing in ch 2 of that book, “The Enigma of I AM.”

From the time of the apostles the faithful have lived in their prayer the single reality of the One God in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Human language has never found satisfactory logical terminology for expressing spiritual experience and cognition of God as proclaimed by God Himself. All the words which new knowledge and new life have passed on generation to generation have to some extent or another clouded genuine contemplation of God. (pp. 28f)

Elder Sophrony’s sensibility is also Aidan Kimel’s sensibility and both are the sensibility of the church. One does not so much know “the single reality of the One God in Father, Son and Holy Spirit” as one lives it. Theological descriptions are not descriptions of God, they are rather descriptions of our lived experience of God in prayer, and preeminently in the Eucharist. And since in most Protestant churches the Eucharist is only occasional, and because of its occasional and infrequent nature, an addendum to that which Protestantism calls worship, theology necessarily means something quite different, something more akin to Christian philosophy.

But let me revisit my claim in the previous paragraph. It is actually not precise to say (as I did) that, “Theological descriptions are not descriptions of God, they are rather descriptions of our lived experience of God in prayer, and preeminently in the Eucharist.” It is more precise to say that knowledge is not rational, it is supra-rational. We come to “know” the truth in a manner that is beyond words or description. This knowledge is “tacit,” to use Michael Polanyi’s terminology. It is only after we “know” it supra-rationally that we are able to start giving it a rational framework.

Polanyi is talking about scientific knowledge and not theology, and he (quoting Poincaré) argues that knowledge involves the following steps: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification (Personal Knowledge, p. 121). The rational part only comes when we verify what we came to know in the illumination stage. It is not rational but experiential and because of this we “know more than we can say,” to quote one of his favorite aphorisms.

Similarly, it is as we live in prayer and participate in the Eucharist that we come to know God in this tacit, supra-rational way that is beyond words, a process well described by Poincaré’s term, “illumination.” It is light rather than knowledge. It is life rather logic. Knowledge and logic are then applied to this relationship that we know tacitly and experientially, and the result is theology.

Up to this point I haven’t mentioned scripture because it is the result of this process and not the cause. It is not the revelation of Jesus Christ (in the New Testament) and the I AM (in the Old Testament) per se, but rather a record of the revelation that was revealed to the living Body of Christ, the church. This is why scripture is such a glorious treasure. It is a record in words of the living relationship of God who has entered into creation to reveal himself to us. It is not merely a love letter that came through the cosmic mail but a careful description of the consummation of the divine human relationship. (This, by the way, is why the Song of Songs is such a beloved book; it makes explicit what scripture is.)

Orthodox worship is an utterly foreign and off-putting experience. That is because in worship we travel to a very foreign land. We don’t talk to God and God doesn’t talk to us so much as we exist in the Divine Realm for a few hours, and that realm undoes us to the very core of our being. It is a realm far bigger than our mind comprehend, but when the soul arrives there, it knows that this is its native land. The Divine Liturgy deconstructs us and strips us past the bone to the very soul. Theology is the attempt to reconstruct what happened. Fortunately the Logos, the Divine Word, in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17) goes with us when we step out of church or our prayer corner. Theology could therefore be described as a recital of our putting the pieces back together, from supra-rational soul, to flesh and bone, to mind, and finally all the way down to our baser faculties such as the intellect.

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