Here is the paper I presented (warts and all) at the St. Sophia Institute Conference on Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. The conference was excellent and recommend such things to all those interested in such things. The paper may be useful to priests and church leaders as it encourages them support – and explain! – the traditional rituals of Orthodoxy. – Fr. Anthony
Orthopraxis and Theosis: The role of ritual in the training of the mind
V. Rev. Anthony Perkins, M.Div., M.A.
St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary, South Bound Brook, NJ
Paper prepared for presentation at the St. Sophia Institute Conference
on 9 December 2016 at Union Theological Seminary.
Comments, critiques, and suggestions are encouraged.
There are various ways of describing the road to theosis or the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. Vladimir Lossky describes the “ascent towards perfect union” as being composed of two inseparable stages: action and contemplation (p. 202). Action, here meaning the ascetic disciplines of Orthodoxy, is the mechanism that tames the flesh (p. 203). Right action eventually leads it to a state of stillness and immunity from the passions of the world (pps. 199-200). Contemplation is developed through acts of the intellect (to include apophaticism), but has as its goal an explicitly inactive state of quiet vigilance (pps. 203-204). This paper uses findings from the field of psychology (especially the work of Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt) and examples from parish life to describe how common Orthodox rituals do this work of stilling the passions so that contemplation can occur without outside distraction. It then goes on to explain how Orthopraxis can create a safe and sustainable spiritual state for those who are as of yet incapable of or unready for the advanced work of quiet vigilance. In this intermediate stage, ascetic disciplines tame the will, rituals strengthen the moral instincts, and positive theology imbues rituals with meaning (p. 189), thus allowing actions of the body and mind to work together in accordance with God’s will and grace (p. 180). The resulting state provides a safe and stable foundation for the next step of transformation. The paper ends with a call for an increased focus on Orthopraxis and ritual apologetics at the parish level.
The first time I read Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, I assumed it was some sort of hazing ritual for inquirers. Subsequent iterations didn’t prove that first instinct wrong, but it did demonstrate once again the value of Orthodox podvig. The lessons it and the material it introduced me to helped me take theology – and my spiritual life – more seriously. This appreciation only grew as I began to teach spirituality and theology at seminary and, more importantly, try to find ways to share its lessons as a parish priest. My first instinct as a pastor was to have classes on spiritual theology and hesychasm; there were some takers (there always are), and some continue to put the lessons into effect. But what about the other 99% of the people I served who weren’t interested? Assuming my experience was generalizable, what about most of the people in most of our parishes? I saw this as a huge pastoral problem: “union with God” was the goal of human life, but even seminarians had a hard time mastering the description of how it works. Was it possible that God only wanted union with people who could work their way through difficult texts and had the self-discipline necessary to live the kind of life they prescribe?
Obviously, I was trying too hard.
Orthodox Christianity is the fullness of the faith. It is designed as the way to theosis, not just for philosophers, academic theologians, and monks, but for every human being. This being true, active participation in the life of the Church should guide every believer towards theosis. Lossky is not raising the bar for sanctification, he is describing (as well as could be hoped) how Orthodoxy is able to deliver on its objective (or rather on God’s desire; e.g. John 17). Adherents of the Orthodox Way should naturally grow through cataphatic and apophatic knowledge of God, develop an intuition (and then real knowledge) about the distinction between God’s essence and energies, and finally know how God works to bring His people into His presence through personal experience.
But is this really true? Are our parishes really full of men and women growing in the knowledge of God that comes from increasing union with him? I’m not suspicious of the system, I’m suspicious about our application of it. I am convinced that the answer is not, per my first inclination, to make mystical theology more accessible through classes, it is to reinvigorate the practice of Orthodoxy within our parishes. Here I do not just have in mind the kind of liturgical and sacramental revival that previous generations have called for; I think this is generally well understood and accepted. What I have in mind are doing the same work they did for the many ritual movements (e.g. crossings and prostrations) that move theological concepts into the lives and minds (and especially the instinctive part; i.e. the “reigns”) of ordinary believers. As academic theologians for whom the written word really is sacramental, the importance of ritual actions can fall off our radar; but for most people (i.e. to include those who read next to nothing… ever), these motions are central to their spiritual development (as they are to ours, as well). In this paper, I will describe the way Orthodox rituals work as part of the Orthodox system1 believers through the stages of spiritual development (I break it into three) and protects them from heresy and idolatry. I will conclude with a description of ways in which priests and lay leaders can help ensure that parishes take Orthopraxis seriously in a way that will naturally lead its members towards sanctification and union with God.
The Components of Our Minds and the Stages of their Development
Orthodoxy divides the mind into three parts. Theologians give them different names, but for now let’s think of them as the “gut”, the “brain”, and the “heart”. The first stage of spiritual development focuses on the training of the gut; the second continues that training, but adds the development of the brain; the third continues both of those, but focuses on the development of the heart.
Stage One: Training the Gut; the development of moral instinct
Most Orthodox Christians enter the Church as infants. Given the physiology of these “new men”, it is not surprising that the Church focuses on the development of their gut. However there are sound psychological and theological reasons for training the gut first2: for most people most of the time, it is the instincts that drive decisions, especially moral ones. Moreover, if his instincts are poorly developed, some theological ideas will find no resonance within the mind of even the most sincere believer. All of this is born out by solid psychological research, and especially by work on slow vs. fast thinking and on moral decision making.
The first set of findings that informs spiritual development describes the difference between deliberative and instinctive decision-making. Daniel Khaneman, the preeminent researcher in this area, calls these “fast” or “system one” thinking and “slow” or “system two” thinking3. In the schema of the mind described above (i.e. gut, brain, and heart), system one corresponds to the gut and system two corresponds to the brain. The important point, further developed by Jonathan Haidt4, is that in moral reasoning, the default is for system one (i.e. the gut) to make the decision and system two (i.e. the brain) to serve as its advocate. The irony is that this process is invisible to the decision maker: the brain makes it seem to the thinker as though the decision came from objective analysis rather than instinct. This makes the training of the gut of paramount importance.5
The second set of findings that inform spiritual development also comes from the work of Jonathan Haidt (and this is his primary contribution to the field). His cross-cultural analysis has found that there are six main moral categories within the human gut: care vs. harm, fair vs. unfair, liberty vs. oppression, loyalty vs. betrayal, tradition/authority vs. subversion, and sanctity vs. depravity.6 Research has found that in America the first three categories are universal, while the second three “conservative7” instincts are not. Liberals and conservatives may disagree about the application of the first three instincts (e.g. what sorts of policies cause harm, are fair, or support liberty), but they all recognize that care, fairness, and liberty are legitimate bases for making moral arguments. With regard to the last three categories, it isn’t so much that liberals and conservatives disagree about their application; liberals claim that moral arguments based on these instincts lack legitimacy. While this has many implications for improving empathy towards and understanding of the other (and this is one of the best things about Haidt’s work), the point for us is that Orthodoxy assumes the full spectrum of moral instinct. Liberals can, of course, be Orthodox, but theological concepts involving tradition/authority, loyalty, and sanctity will lack resonance with them and, according to the research, these concepts will not receive the same weight as the “universal” virtues of care8, fairness, and liberty in their reasoning. For example, conservatives and liberals can both agree that a prohibition on same-sex marriage is not fair in some objective legal sense, but conservatives will go on to claim that concerns of tradition and sanctity trump fairness, a claim that liberals will reject as having no moral merit.
I exaggerated the differences between liberals and conservatives in the previous paragraph. The fact is that research shows that everyone’s gut resonates to some degree with all six moral categories, but that the conservative categories have atrophied within the guts of liberals. Haidt compares the moral receptors to taste receptors (i.e. saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, sourness, and umami), pointing out that cultures vary in terms of how much they develop reception of each flavor.9 Stereotyping once again, WEIRD10 Americans, following the trend of the Reformation and Enlightenment, have long been dubious about the independent moral value of tradition/authority, loyalty, and sanctity/purity (more on this below). They might be willing to consider the utility of them, but they are not willing to give them their own moral weight.
Nor has this been simply an ideological commitment; it has been reenforced by a concomitant mistrust of the rituals that might support those virtues11.
Society has long recognized how important rituals are in training the instincts. Stepping outside of the area of theology, the military has soldiers do the same things over and over again until their actions become automatic. Ditto for musicians and athletes. They do this because it works. And just as we can move actions and basic problem solving from System Two to System One (e.g. clearing the malfunction in a rifle or doing basic mathematics), rituals can build up the availability of each of the moral categories. This is similar to the way parents and teachers assign fairy tales and adventure stories to children; the expectation is that these will build up their moral imagination in a way that will make them more capable of understanding/intuiting virtue as adults.
Orthodopraxy can be seen as a ritual system that does this important work.12 The way we move into and through the various areas of the church builds up our capacity to intuit sanctity; prostrations and kissing the hands of clergy build up our capacity to intuit authority; the fact that we come to Divine Liturgy every Sunday no matter what else is going on in our lives builds up our capacity to intuit loyalty.13
Conservative Moral Instinct
Prostrations, Hand Kissing, Attentiveness (even during long dull homilies!), the Structure of the Liturgy
Regular/Sacrificial Attendance, Distinctiveness of church life (ethnic14 and rite)?
Movement in Sacred Space, Behaviors Related to the Reception of Communion, Special Use of the Voice and Language in Church
Table One: The Conservative Moral Instincts and Examples of Supporting Rituals
Unfortunately, our broader society has little use or time for ritual, and especially religious ritual. We are all affected by the culture around us. Orthodoxy may thrive on ritual, but one cannot help but notice the way their use has declined in many of the parishes and lives of Orthodox in America. The effect this has on spiritual development is treated below.
Stage Two: Training the Brain; giving words to the mind
When I was providing intelligence support to undermine the Taliban in Afghanistan, every once in a while, seemingly out of nowhere, protests would erupt throughout the country. Sometimes these came soon after the media had shared news about the alleged desecration of the Koran. When I would ask analysts why people were so quick to protest the such things, they would point to things like the role of agitators and other secular factors or make the point that as Muslims, the people of Afghanistan consider the Koran to be holy. The latter was closer to the mark than the former (although secular factors are always important), but missed a vital point: the protesters did not just think of the Koran as being holy, they felt it to be holy in their gut. A violation of the Koran led to a visceral rather than intellectual reaction. Even the religious analysts I worked with had a hard time understanding this. Muslims are taught to revere the Koran from the earliest age, from how they listen to it (and memorize it) to how they handle it. It’s not something they learn from words; the actions themselves are the theological instruction and the instruction is effective.
Similarly, if you are to ask any of our parishioners to name the three persons of the Holy Trinity, they will respond automatically. This is not because they have read theological books on the subject, but because from the time they could move their arms they have been taught to do so in a specific way every time they hear or say the words “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The ontology of the Trinity is made real in the mind of ordinary believer through the ritual action of blessing. It is not something they learn from books or even from being told; the repetition of the words and actions themselves are the theological instruction, and the theological instruction is effective. Given the central role of the Trinity in our Unity with God15, this is reassuring; as discussed above, believers need not read Lossky et. al. to benefit from Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy itself is the path. People who experience theology primarily in their brain may need academic theology to get them headed in the right direction, but Orthodoxy is what it is, and it is effective.
This does not mean that we do not need to be intentional in training the brains of believers: we do. Blessing oneself has obvious theological content (especially when one does it as the Antiochians I know do, adding “One God” to the end), but not all of our rituals are self-explanatory (and even the Trinity could use some – but not too much – explanation!). Giving believers true words and concepts is not just important for the sanctification and protection, it is important for everyones safety. As asserted above, Orthodoxy is fantastic at developing moral instincts. I can think of little more dangerous than someone who has a strongly attenuated capacity for moral reactions that has not been trained in their proper use. Remember, the default setting in moral reasoning is for instinct to come first and the rationalization for the decision to come second. The man who has, thanks to years of prostrations, attentive worship attendance, and hand kissing, developed a strong automatic deference to authority is dangerous if he has not also been trained that the only legitimate recipient of that automatic deference is God. Similarly, both automatic instincts towards loyalty and holiness can be misdirected in horrific ways.
This is why we cannot help but be sympathetic with the Western agenda to undermine conservative moral instincts and the rituals that might support them; they have chosen the most risk-adverse (i.e. conservative!) approach to the problem: focusing attention on the universal moral instincts (and on the bare or actual requirements of salvation) of care, fairness, and liberty while allowing the other categories to have intellectual but not visceral weight in decision-making. It may be worth noting that some conservative rituals and moral categories was intentional within the early generations of my own Ukrainian Orthodox tradition. As with the broader Western “liberal” movement, this is understandable: many of the pioneers of Ukrainian Orthodoxy in America, following the autocephalists in Ukraine, were reacting against the misuse of Church authority in the Russian Empire. This is not to say that the liberalizers are right. After all, it is easier to achieve success (in this case, union with God!) when all the constituent components of the mind are actively working towards the same goal.
There are certain things that need to happen during this stage of training the mind. First, rituals need to be connected with their theological concepts. For example, the altar server that (Lord willing!) learned how to move and act within the altar and the nave as a young boy needs to be told, as soon as he can absorb it why the altar has such sacred gravity (he should be exposed to the ideas before this, but they won’t mean much until he reaches the right place in his development)16; loyalty needs to be pointed towards the Christ, the Creed, and the Orthodox and Catholic Church in a way that is positive but not triumphalist; and deference towards authority and tradition must, as stated above, be tempered with skepticism when applied very far past God, the Holy Bible, and the Nicene Creed. Although this has less to do with ritual in way I am treating it in this paper, this is also the time when the theology and history of the various components of the Divine Liturgy should be taught. Obviously there is more, but I think we generally understand how to do “regular” catechism.
My main concern here is that we fill the spaces ritual has created within the guts of our youth with words that allow them to resonate with the right theological concepts in their brains. To the extent ritual has inherent theological content, it will, on its own protect the believer from heresy and other misapplications; but even so, cataphatic theology has an important role to play in the believer’s union with God.
There is another warning that I need to share. Just as the committed ritualist can be lead astray by his strong instincts, so it is with the committed intellectual (or even the believer who knows “just enough to be dangerous”). It is not the case that the gut will simply stay quiet in the mind of the man that has not trained it. The default would still be true: his gut would make the decision and his brain would justify it (all the while convincing him that he is objective and rational). When we give such a person more words and concepts all we have really done is given him more tools for justifying his inherent prejudices. It is even worse when, after such a person has mastered all the requisite words and concepts, we grant him ecclesial or academic authority!17 In order to guard against this, further training of the gut and brain must take place during this stage, most especially the norms of humility, repentance, and patience. The rituals that support these norms go beyond regular confession and service to the ascetic disciplines of commitment to a prayer rule, to fasting, and to quiet.
Stage Three: Taking Words Away
Vladimir Lossky describes the “ascent towards perfect union” as being composed of two inseparable stages: action and contemplation.18 Action, here meaning the ascetic disciplines of Orthodoxy, is the mechanism that tames the flesh19. I have described some of the ways that ritual, a subset of ascetic action, tames the gut20. At least as important in training the mind is the ability to control (to include quieting) the gut (to include the passions) and the brain. This is how “right action” eventually leads the believer into to a state of stillness and immunity from the passions of the world21. Contemplation is developed through acts of the intellect (to include apophaticism), but has as its goal an explicitly inactive state of quiet vigilance.22 During this stage, the ritual of hesychasm develops an instinct of quiet attentiveness, focus, and single-mindedness. It also seems to be the case that the other rituals, worship, and sacramental participation resonate more deeply for the believer as all three parts of His mind work in concert, subject to the heart which is itself increasingly informed by its access and proximity (and even union with) to God.
There are myriad new dangers and temptations that occur during this stage and these are magnified to the extent that the previous two stages were skipped or poorly done. For example, Lossky follows others in using the image of Moses climbing into the darkness as a metaphor for the role of apophaticism in union with God. He points out that, at some point (it would be at the end of Stage Two and the beginning of Stage Three in the schema I have presented) words have a decreasing utility for the believer and that he needs to accept the unknowability of God. He argues that heresies like Originism come from “is always the result of forsaking the apophaticism which is truly characteristic of the whole tradition of the Eastern Church.”23 Unfortunately, while humility regarding positive knowledge of God is a sign of spiritual maturity and while apophaticism protects the believer from excessive imagination, it can be misapplied. Using the metaphor of the ascent, there is only One God and He dwells on His holy mountain. However, there are other mountains that are inhabited by other gods. We have all met people who have misunderstood and misapplied the fact of the unknowability of God and ended up on the wrong mountain with the wrong god. This is something that a well trained gut would warn one away from, especially when it is working with a well-trained brain (without a disciplined gut, the brain alone is capable of using words to clothe even the demons with the majesty of the Triune God).
God desires the unity of his children and that they grow in union with Him. Through Christ and the Church that is His body, He has made this possible. Orthodoxy, to include the rituals of Orthopraxy, is the system or mechanism that makes what is theologically possible real. This is reassuring, but it also comes with a challenge. As leaders of the Church, it is our responsibility to ensure that the Orthodoxy that is offered in our parishes includes the fullness of the faith. This doesn’t just mean proper theology, worship, and sacraments, it also means ensuring that the rituals of Orthodoxy are are regular part of the parish culture and that they are repeatedly explained in a way that connects them to Orthodox theology. Moreover, catachism needs to ensure that all of the actions of Orthodoxy are similarly connected to its theology, and that the mature ascetic disciplines of patience, quiet, and watchfullness are fostered in all those who are ready.
1Please note that this is not a complete account of theosis; ritual is only a small part of the life in Christ.
2The training of adult catachumens and newly christmated Orthodox Christians recognizes this, as well. Even the most intellectual of inquirers is encouraged to participate in parish life (and especially of worship) as soon as possible.
3See especially his magnum opus; Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan, 2011. While Khaneman’s book is accessible to non-specialists, I recommend Malcolm Gladwell Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little, Brown, 2007.
4The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012. Part One basically summarized Khaneman’s work and describes how it applies to moral psychology.
5Orthopraxy can change this. One way of thinking of dispassion is of allowing system one to provide information without giving it control. Unfortunately, it seems all but impossible to know that one has achieved a sufficient level of dispassion. This is why discernment (like the scientific enterprise) requires both an individual and communal effort. The problem of teaching a brain theology without changing the gut is addressed below.
6His TED talk on this research does not include one of the universal moral catagories; liberty vs. oppression. https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind/transcript?language=en Last accessed 12/8/2016.
7Please note that I am not making any political points here; “liberal” in Haidt’s work applies to those who have the first three instincts but not (or at least less of) the second three; “conservatives” are those who feel all six instincts to be legitimate.
8This is hardly a fatal flaw; “care” is by far the most cited virtue in the New Testament.
9Haidt, chapter 6. Note that there is an issue of heredity involved.
10WEIRD is an acronym for “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic”. Henrich, Joseph., Steven Heine, and ra. Norenzian 2010. “The Weirdest People in the World?” in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 33:61-83. See also Haidt, Chapter 5.
11Here I am stepping away from the work of moral psychologists and relying on the literature on habit and instinct formation. See Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Random House Publishing Group, 2012
12Note that I am not implying that this is ritual’s only purpose and more than I would claim that the pedagogical value of prayer its only purpose or utility.
13I am focusing on the conservative virtues because our society seems to do fine at helping people intuit the universal virtues.
14The ethnic thing is mixed and can go both ways. For some, if the service is not done in their native language, people will feel excluded. On the other hand people who are part of an ethnic minority in their culture will find loyalty to the Church (or at least to their parish/Church) reinforced when their native language is used.
15Lossky, p. 43 and Chapter Three.
16The same goes for the ritual movement through the nave of all the boys and girls. Special attention should be paid to explaining things in a way that discourages girls from intuiting or believing that they are less holy because they cannot serve in the altar etc. This is a case where ritual can actually be counter-productive if we are not careful!
17A brief aside; when I worked in the intelligence community, one of my major responsibilities was teaching analysts 1) that their own flawed minds and the fog of war made objectivity and finding the truth about any given event all but impossible and 2) they needed to follow individual and collective procedures (similar to the scientific method and peer review) to work around and through these problems. I was still astounded by how many analysts and decision-makers acted as if their instincts and analyses were reliable (but those who disagreed with them were not). I have found the situation to be pretty much the same within professional Christianity. We spend a lot of time in seminary teaching our students that, 1) due to the fallenness of their own minds and the fog of spiritual war, their discernment was suspect and that 2) they needed to follow specific individual level (e.g. asceticism and humility) and collective (e.g. submitting to Tradition and ecclesial authority, having an experienced spiritual father, and having an informal council of friends, mentors, and advisors) procedures. I have been even more astounded than before at how many behave as though such things do not apply to them.
18 Lossky, p. 202.
19 Ibid, p. 203.
20 The gut is not just the source of visceral morality, it is also the source of worldly passions. Were this a paper on theosis more generally, it would focus more on the use of asceticism in taming the passions than on the use of ritual for building up the theological mind.
21Lossky, pps. 199-200.
22Ibid, pps. 203-204.