Mystery, Uncertainty, and the Orthodox Mind

A beautiful quote from Eugenia Constantinou’s Thinking Orthodox: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind has been making the rounds on social media:

Being Orthodox in mind requires that one accept ambiguity, uncertainty, mystery, and paradox. Perhaps this encourages humility before God. We cannot rely on clever explanations or beloved definitions, and we must accept that we cannot completely explain or fully understand our faith. Therefore, we must rely solely on the grace and mercy of God. Perhaps that allows us to focus less on the mind and more on the heart, which is where we encounter God.

This emphasis on uncertainty, mystery, and paradox—an embrace of the unknowable—is one of the great takeaways I’ve had from my time in the Orthodox Church. I just finished reading Andrew Louth’s Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, a book that only reinforced the importance of these qualities of the Orthodox faith. Louth compares Orthodox speculation about toll houses to the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. Purgatory is carefully and painstakingly detailed in Catholic teaching; the condition of the human soul after death is the subject of much systematic theology in Catholicism. The toll houses, although taken very literally by some Orthodox believers, are a rich metaphor, drawn from the often contradictory and culturally-specific realm of local practice: they are lore, speculation, almost literary in nature.

The Death of Theodora, which portrays the journey of the human soul after death.

I believe the Orthodox mindset is, to borrow a term from the wildly and proudly blasphemous American mystic Robert Anton Wilson, “model agnostic.” Wilson described model agnosticism as follows:

[Model agnosticism] consists of never regarding any model or map of the universe with total 100% belief or total 100% denial. … I put things in probabilities, not absolutes … My only originality lies in applying this zetetic attitude outside the hardest of the hard sciences, physics, to softer sciences and then to non-sciences like politics, ideology, jury verdicts and, of course, conspiracy theory

A devout Christian cannot take this approach to everything (e.g., the reality of Christ and Christ’s resurrection), but I’d argue that she might take this approach to most things—especially many philosophical and theological questions. By endorsing a model-agnostic approach to reality, I am not suggesting a cheap relativism within Orthodoxy (the Church simultaneously insists on an absolute truth and the inaccessibility of that truth to the human mind). Instead, I’m suggesting that we filter our experience of God and the Church through imperfect human models (“we see things through a glass darkly,” wrote Saint Paul). This is why one of my favorite quotes, by the Serbian saint Nikolaj Velimirović, describes a man whose eyes are opened to the full nature of reality, causing him to exclaim, “Forgive me, forgive me! I do not know anything!”

What we Orthodox Christians have in place of knowledge is practice (liturgy, prayer, and the physical components of worship: icons, incense, etc.), humility, and the almost infinite variety of “models” through which we perceive reality. Many of these models are culturally inherited. Orthodoxy’s sensitivity to local culture allows its unique vision of a single truth embodied within a unified, catholic Church to resonate so deeply within cultures as varied as Russia, Greece, and the Arab world.

I do not mean to suggest that other Christian traditions do not possess mysticism or do not engage with ambiguity, uncertainty, mystery, and paradox. But the understandable human desire for certainty and concrete models of heavenly reality is a scratch that these other traditions regularly itch, a scratch that Orthodoxy teaches us to tolerate, ignore, and eventually overcome. This special emphasis on mystery and unknowability is a large part of what drew me East. The gaps within Eastern theology are intentional and beautiful, like the gaps between flakes of gold that crack and fall from a beautifully aged icon.

Everything about my journey into Orthodoxy so far as reaffirmed my conviction that humility is the core attribute I must cultivate in order to follow Christ. There’s a reason that the most repeated prayer in the Orthodox church is the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Humility is the common denominator among all the truly great Orthodox Christians I have encountered in my journey. I believe that humility offers the surest gateway into the Mind of Christ.

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