THE LOST PHILOSOPHY
“Science is about explanation, religion is about interpretation. The Bible simply isn’t interested in how the universe came into being.”
[Jonathan Sacks, UK Chief Rabbi, In the Sunday Times.]
Christianity has lost the living faith that was its heart: it has become no more than a mixture of conflicting opinions, the changes not only leading to massive inconsistencies in doctrine, but altering that doctrine’s effect on the way Christians think and live: yet the power of the Christian religion depends on consistent belief. Originally, a single consistent tradition of knowledge - expanded with the years but essentially unchanged - lay behind the preaching and written traditions of the early Church. Over the centuries, however, as the faith has grown, there have been changes and disagreements in the teachings of our faith as Christians. Originally our beliefs reached us either in writing, in repeatedly-spoken words within the Church, or from what can only think of as coming from an invisible reality. As a result, confusion between conflicting statements lead to an uncertainty which too often makes the faith ineffective.
Yet the original knowledge lives on in its ancient centre, its main monasteries often more than 1000 years old, where the ancient knowledge of the first centuries of the Church is preserved and remembered by practice ... kept alive for future generations who currently cannot distinguish knowledge from opinion. There, a few men and women become elders: 'startsi' or 'gerontes'; through practicing certain disciplines, they develop an entirely different kind of character from that which most modern Christianity produces. There is in their knowledge a large element which is non-sensory and often not descriptive in the modern sense. Instead of defining something, it uses knowledge based on what they call the ‘heart’, which term is linked with personal experience of how our actions influence our state. Used in this context, the word ‘heart‘ describes something more than simply the muscle that pumps blood … more even than the organ of feeling and emotion. In the early Church the ‘heart’ was in fact that part of the psyche we can never properly describe in modern language, but this is precisely because it communicates an element of the non-sensory in our lives.
That ancient Christian knowledge was changed in most regions by the introduction of the rationalist mode of thought which began in the 13th Century, and which now dominates the scientific world. This was based on a combination of two elements: sensory perception and descriptive reasoning, and there is clearly something puzzling about the differences between perceptible knowledge based on sensations and knowledge of things we actually cannot perceive, so that it is easier to say that what we don’t ‘see’ we don’t know - at least, not with any certainty. This is why the Elder told me to pass on his message concerning the religious crisis of our time. This is a crisis of disbelief because of the early successes of the scientific method were dependent on obtaining knowledge of physical properties which could be directly or indirectly measured. Nearly everyone now thinks of this as the only kind of knowledge, yet in fact the same method proves entirely unable to answer other kinds of question. The enormous success of science has simply caused people to forget there are other forms of knowledge: of what we can know, and how certain kinds of knowledge can be used and tested.
The result was an ongoing philosophical crisis. This crisis has not only influenced our philosophical thought, but for most of the 20th century led philosophy to concentrate on the use of language, resulting in ‘blind spots’ in the more serious areas of philosophical thought concerning the nature of non-sensory and non-measurable knowledge; whether we can know it, that is, if such a thing exists, and also, how we may be sure of its existence.
In fact, there is a lot of sense in the idea that: “Science is about explanation, religion is about interpretation.” Rabbi Sacks’ statement certainly opens up a range of enquiry that goes much deeper than the ‘world of the senses’, much wider than that of Newton. What they called ‘Hesychast’ spirituality - derived from the Greek word for inner peace - ‘hesychia’ - opened up another whole field of enquiry that is almost totally unknown today, yet was successfully developed almost two thousand years ago, in the early Byzantine Church. They had a way of looking at the question of different kinds of knowledge that was almost the same as Sacks’ statement yet was more successful in solving the question of knowledge, because it extended the range of verifiable knowledge possible to us.
This in turn has repeatedly damaged religious thought except in those whose philosophical understanding extending beyond the bounds of the sensory, the measurable, and the precisely definable.
This situation in turn too easily causes mistrust of belief in what appear to be the insubstantial claims of all religions, and this means that it seems to prevent belief in the claims of all the world’s great faiths. But, as a friend wrote recently: “it is no small task to rewrite this Christian tradition in its more complex solid-food form, a task that is now unavoidably necessary.”