Several years ago my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting England. The beginning of the trip was terrifying – we had decided to rent a car. Our modest little Fiat fit well among the many toy cars that fill British highways. But there was a problem. Everything on English roads is backwards. You sit on the wrong side of the car; you drive on the wrong side of the road; you shift gears (yes, it was a manual) with the wrong hand. I felt that I had just gotten out of the dentist’ office and the entire left side of my car was “numb.” It was terribly awkward. I curbed the wheels on the left side three times before I got out of the parking lot. And then we burst immediately onto the highway, a monstrous multi-laned beast with high-speed toy cars and trucks flying along (on the wrong side).
I know how to drive a car. Indeed, I consider myself a good driver. However, my English experience demonstrated a fundamental flaw: driving is not an activity for thinking. When you are in the midst of flying objects, multiple lanes, with foot-work (I hadn’t driven a manual in years), and gear-shift all operating at various moments, in the dyslexic world of high-speed English traffic-flow, the one thing you do not have is the time to think about any of them. Friends do not let friends think and drive.
I managed not to kill us or anyone else, though I doubt anyone has logged more prayer-time in a single week on the roads of England than myself. But the basic lesson is worth noting: we do not drive by thinking. You may rationally reflect on what has happened, but you cannot rationally reflect on what you are doing while you are in the midst of doing it. We drive by feel (or something similar).
The Christian life, the life of faith, is much the same. Rationality is not the primary mode of believing. Faith is not simply what you believe, it is equally how you believe.
When confronted with a challenging and uncomfortable situation, the human body generally responds with a burst of adrenalin. It’s useful – people have been known to perform super-human feats (lifting a car or a piano) in extremely dangerous situations. But this same safety mechanism, triggered by fear or danger, can be paralyzing in the wrong setting. It is the physical mechanism behind what are called “panic attacks.” The mind tells the body there’s a saber-toothed tiger in the cave and the body responds with the instincts of “fight or flight.” If, however, the task at hand is driving a car in an unfamiliar setting, or simply sitting down to take a math test, the adrenalin is not only unnecessary, it is crippling.
Strangely, how we believe works in a similar manner. Our culture has reduced Christian believing to a set of rational propositions. The various doctrines can be described, defined, repeated, even rendered in Latin. But almost nowhere do we bother to think about how we believe those propositions. We can answer the question, “Do you believe in the Incarnation?” But we never bother to ask, “What does it look like to believe the Incarnation?” This disconnect leads to tragic, even paralyzing versions of Christianity.
When I was in high school, my adolescent Christianity was strongly committed to a pacifist position. The country was in the midst of the Vietnam War and passions surrounding the war ran at a very high pitch. We had a Catholic priest visit our school once for a “discussion” of the war. He was a well-known pacifist and very articulate. Our principal, who articulated the opposing view, was a decorated pilot from World War II. During the open discussion following their talks, my passions burned bright.
Afterward, the priest spoke to me. I was expecting some sort of congratulations since I thought I had spoken well for his position. “Stephen,” he said, “There is more than one way to do violence to a man. You use pacifism like a weapon.”
Truth always has a double edge. The Word of God is a “two-edged sword,” we are told. We generally know better than to let children play with sharp objects.
My previous articles describing noetic perception and the importance of a neptic life, are not meant to be obscure tropes about interesting Greek words. The kind of sober perception to which they refer are the essential requirements in the labor of salvation. We are not saved by correct ideas, if the ideas are not held correctly.
This reality lies at the heart of all communion devotion in the Orthodox Church. The truth of Christ’s Body and Blood are nowhere questioned, nor even pondered. All of the attention within the prayers surrounding the sacrament are directed towards the heart and lips that receive it.
Behold: I draw near to the Divine Communion. Burn me not as I partake, O Creator, For Thou art a Fire which burns the unworthy. Rather, cleanse me of all defilement.
The Gifts of the Holy Eucharist are not approached by mere doctrine or correct thoughts. However salutary such things might be, they fall short of the truth of our soul and being. It is entirely possible to confess the whole of the Orthodox faith, perfect in every letter, and yet lack the state of soul that receives without being consumed in the fire.
Rightness of heart is what a true noetic understanding and sobriety (nepsis) of spirit are about. I have had more than a few conversations with people who hold the faith with great “precision” and are yet a danger to themselves and to those around them. The “truth” of the faith, if divested of noetic insight and held in the grip of the passions, may be the deadliest form of delusion (prelest) known within the Church. St. James identifies this with devastating accuracy:
You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe– and tremble! (Jam 2:19)
The demons are perfectly “Orthodox.” Indeed, the demons recognized and confessed Jesus as the Christ long before human beings. In the fathers, fasting without prayer is called the “fast of demons,” for demons never eat anything, but neither do they pray.
Christ invites us into a wholeness of being. We are given the right faith, but the right faith must rest in a right heart. Over the years, it has been my observation that the right facts are easy. Any compendium of doctrine or collection of patristic quotes can summarize the faith we hold. But no compendium can easily describe how we hold the faith. Of course, this is very frustrating for many. The facts make for an easy argument. The rational mind champions argument and judgment (it was always meant to measure, weigh and compare). But the rational mind was never intended to be the seat of the soul. That belongs to the nous. And it is only in the sobriety of noetic comprehension that the truth of the faith yields itself up as the life-giving Word of God. Only the sobriety of noetic perception is able to wield the fiery coal of the Divine revelation in such a way that it heals and doesn’t destroy.
And so we pray. And we tremble.
“Burn me not as I partake.”