The Material God


In my previous article I used the example of kinesthetic knowledge (as in riding a bicycle) as a means of describing noetic experience, the means of knowing God through communion with Him. It is worth noting that the example is quite material and mundane. It is not an esoteric, exotic meditation or technique. It is so simple that we know it without knowing that we know it. As I type this article, my fingers “know” how to spell words. I discovered recently as I was sitting down with a pencil to write something (a rare method for me now), I was having trouble spelling certain words. At the same time, I realized that I could accurately type the same words without difficulty. My fingers know and remember things that my conscious mind struggles with.

My family is at the exciting moment of watching my newest grandson learn to walk. Everyday, it seems, another video is sent to me by his parents, as another skill is gained by his brain and muscles. He is learning without “being taught.” He will acquire language in the same manner, mastering most of the complex rules of grammar by age five or six without being able to describe the rules at all. At some point in school, perhaps, a teacher will “teach” him what he already knows.

The knowledge of God, the noetic experience, is quite similar. For Christians, this should come as no surprise since we proclaim boldly that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The God whom we worship became a material being, the God/Man, Jesus Christ. Strangely, however, we frequently abstract God, even the incarnate Christ, into an idea. For many, Christ is a word that represents an idea about a certain individual who did certain things on account of which I may now, by believing those certain things, be saved. It is little different than proclaiming that Julius Caesar has crossed the Rubicon and that all who believe that he did, will be saved. At least, the mechanism of salvation would be quite the same.

But this is not at all what the gospel teaches, nor is it consistent with the faith of classical Christianity. The gospel says that eternal life is “to know God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent” (Jn. 17:3). It does not say that eternal life is to think or believe certain things aboutChrist, but to actually know Him. And as I described in my previous article, such knowledge must be understood as an actual act of communion.

Anyone who has ever chased a thought (or been chased by a thought) knows that thinking is among the most frustrating things that we experience. Everything from an “ear worm” (those little songs that you can’t get out of your head) to obsessive thoughts that haunt us moment by moment, proclaim that thinking is a lousy way of doing most things. Thank God that almost everything we have to do in a reliable manner is done “kinesthetically” rather than rationally. I do not want to be on the road with anyone who has to think about driving a car. Only when their body knows how to drive are they at all safe. Even the most fundamental elements of math, such as addition and multiplication, are built on a form of memorization that is far more kinesthetic than rational. I do not think that six times seven is forty-two, I know it.

In the life of the Church this knowledge of God is largely given in the form of sacrament. Christ’s promise regarding the Eucharist is straightforward: “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me and I in him.” He does not say “Whosoever thinks correctly about the Eucharistic elements…” The knowing, if you will, comes by eating and drinking, not by thinking. We might well reflect on that knowing experience, but the reflection is secondary.

Of course, we do not eat and drink as an isolated event. The eating and drinking occur in the midst of the believing Church in the context of the Liturgy. The Liturgy itself takes place within a still larger context. Eating and drinking Christ’s Body and Blood is only the most immediate form of a greater set of practices. But our modern psychologization of belief tends to discount physical actions as contributing very little to our spiritual lives. We frequently describe them as representing something other than themselves – and that something is usually some abstraction.

The simple act of making the sign of the Cross is often explained in ways that make the action the very least and most insignificant portion of what is taking place. And yet, the sign of the Cross is itself the greater thing. Its value is not created by what I think when I do it, or some phrase I might say silently. Its value lies in the fact that it is the Cross. The Cross is itself powerful and we physically/spiritually apply that power to ourselves in making the sign of the Cross.

St. Paul describes a physical aspect of salvation, combined with the noetic:

“The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart ” (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. (Rom 10:8-10)

Here we should remember St. Paul’s use of heart (kardia) in a manner interchangeable with the nous. There is a two-fold aspect: the noetic and the physical. The act of speaking is essential to the noetic form of knowledge. The physicality of Orthodox worship and practice is grounded in this understanding. It is how we truly come to know.

The most common activity of children (until the advent of the digital age) is play. It is instinctive and does not have to be taught. Children will do it unless they are interfered with. But the nature of their play is itself one of their primary modes of learning. They acquire skills by playing them. They act out what they need to know. This form of learning is not restricted to childhood – it is simply the most effective and common form of learning, though often called by other names.

A pilot of a 747 learns his skill by “playing” in a simulator. He needs to crash a few times, without consequence, in order to learn not to crash in reality. Soldiers learn to kill by playing war games.

He makes my feet like the feet of deer, And sets me on my high places.
He teaches my hands to make war, So that my arms can bend a bow of bronze. (Psa 18:33-34)

We teach the hands of a child to make the sign of the Cross, for it will be a primary weapon when he enters spiritual warfare. The very actions that have been vilified now for centuries (cf. “empty ritual”) are, in fact, essential to the Christian life. For if you do not engage in these holy forms of “play,” then the other games of your life, those of the Spirit of the Age, will teach your hands another form of warfare against Christ and His children. Ritual is not optional in the human life. Those of the marketplace and the entertainment world are quickly forming and shaping generations for something other than God. You cannot live such a life of cultural conformity and then wonder why you see no evidence for God.

This habit of denigrating the physical is the constant companion of most people in our culture. We bring it to our Orthodoxy as well, constantly looking for God in all the wrong places (our rational and emotional experience) rather than where He has deigned to meet us (the “Word become flesh”). The incarnate God gave us an incarnate faith. The life of the sacraments and the actions that surround them, exist to teach our hearts to know God.

Most of the actions and rituals of the Orthodox life are quite simple. It requires approaching “things” as gifts from God. Everything in all of creation is icon and sacrament, a gift that bears the revelation of Christ, through Whom all things were made. We have become “users” who see and judge things for what they are worth or for how they might benefit us. This is what consumers do. A consumer’s mind only sees things that may be consumed. We become like a cancer to the planet (and to ourselves).

The proper ritual of our lives begins and is grounded in thanksgiving for all things, and not simply for how they may serve us. Everything in God’s creation is created good and is thus a cause for giving thanks for its very existence. When anything is received as a gift, it carries with it the presence and remembrance of the Giver. All things become a means of communion, a knowing of God.

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