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SELF-KNOWLEDGE AND KNOWLEDGE OF GOD ACCORDING TO ST GREGORY THE THEOLOGIAN

 

 

When criticizing the Sophists for their utilitarian and agnostic approach, together with all those who sought to learn about the nature of the world and the laws by which it functions while being indifferent to the knowledge of their own selves, Socrates would say:

What, after all, is happening with these people? Did they think they know as much as they should concerning human matters and care for them, or did they perhaps abandon the human and instead examine other things, having the impression moreover that they are doing what they should?[1]

The primary duty of man, according to Socrates, is self-knowledge, to ‘know thyself’. Without self-knowledge, man is essentially left in ignorance or else is mistaken, having usually a false impression of knowledge. This is why Socrates attempted to prove the ignorance of those who believed they possessed knowledge, and to relieve them of their own deception. He would approach people who considered themselves to be authorities in a particular area of knowledge, and while entering into dialogue with them as a simple student, he would demonstrate that, in the end, they were ignorant even of the very object of their knowledge.

The only correct starting point for knowledge, says Socrates, is the realization of one’s own ignorance: ‘The only thing I know is that I do not know’. Through this realization, one comes to appreciate first of all one’s own condition of needfulness, thus avoiding arrogance and conceit. A sense of one’s own boundaries and limitations is developed; whatever one is in a position to do will be attempted, and whatever exceeds one’s powers will be avoided.[2] In spite of this, self-knowledge does not bridge the ontological vacuum that people feel within, nor does it satisfy the desire for knowledge of the truth which characterizes human nature.

To the degree that man ignores truth, he cannot sense completeness and freedom. Truth is of vital significance for the human person; it reveals the meaning and purpose of life, while the knowledge of truth is a liberation from falsehood and delusion. Our desire for knowledge of the truth leads us on an unceasing exploration. However, this exploration does not satisfy, but ultimately leads instead to an impasse and disappointment. And this is only natural, given that the exploration of truth is in the final analysis a theological exploration, and this cannot be satisfied on a purely human level.

Truth has an eternal character; it is not to be found on the level of corruption and death. At any rate, anything moving on that level is falsified by corruption and death and so cannot be true. Truth is related to life, and indeed with life that is eternal and everlasting. This means it is alive, and it cannot die or be corrupted. Truth cannot be something dead or lifeless. Nor again can it be a vague or abstract idea. It must be a living reality. And in order for it to be a living reality, truth must be personal, substantive. For Christianity, truth is the person of Christ, who is at the same time both truth and life;[3] it is God Himself.

Having been created in the ‘image and likeness’ of God, the human person is related to God, and is able more than any other being to find and accept truth, to find and accept God. Furthermore, as a living person, man is from the outset receptive of a personal relationship and communion with the living personal God. Yet while man is related to God and possesses within his being the imprint of the divine image, his apostasy has offended this affinity and distorted his existence. He ceased to have communion with God, having surrendered to the power of evil. In so doing, his mind was darkened and his entire being was weakened.

Original sin, according to St Gregory the Theologian and Orthodox tradition, is not simply some objective event which started with Adam and was transmitted to his descendants. This sin – committed through conceited autonomous action, resulting in the fatal illness of man’s nature and its submission to decay and death – involves not only our forefather Adam, but every person. It became an illness of our nature. St Gregory the Theologian characteristically states: ‘O my illness! Since the illness of the forefather belongs to me.’[4]

For man to be cured, he must first of all realize his condition. He must know the cause of his illness, which is arrogance, and humbly confess his ignorance in the Socratic sense of the word. While the Church Fathers knew and used the ancient Greek idea of ‘know thyself’ as promoted by Socrates, they preferred the biblical teaching of ‘be careful’.[5] Although both these sayings are closely related and could be considered in one sense as being identical, they differ in essence. And this difference has an anthropological and theological basis.

Ancient Greek self-knowledge, as an anthropocentric process, offers man neither the real truth nor the fullness of life. The human person is in a confused and fallen state. This means that every form of human knowledge is distorted and uncertain. One’s self-knowledge is in fact only a conventional knowledge of one’s own fallen and sickly self. Of course, this knowledge is necessary in order to help man in the search towards truth, yet it must be accompanied by humility. Wisdom, according to St Gregory the Theologian, is ‘also to know oneself, but without being overly proud’[6]. When man does not try to remain within his proper limits, but becomes ‘overly’ proud, then he is led to serious misdemeanors. And this becomes especially apparent during the more difficult situations of life. In such situations, as St Gregory underlines, people become dizzy, entrapped in their own opinions and unable to accept that God’s wisdom is greater than theirs: ‘They do not accept that God is wiser than they, whenever they feel dizziness at some occurrence.’ [7]

Total asymmetry exists between God and man. God is uncreated, while man is created. Any human attempt to approach or know the uncreated God is doomed to failure from the outset. Furthermore, any concept or representation of God that one might conceive is totally conventional and unavoidably limited to the level of the created world. One is unable to overcome the barrier of createdness and to know the uncreated God. Ultimately, man knows God only when He makes Himself known: ‘Knowing God, or rather being known by God’[8]. If God does not make Himself known to man, then the latter cannot know God; he cannot acquire true knowledge of God.

The appearance of God in history was made possible through the divine initiative and the acquiescence of man. It was prepared among the righteous of the Old Testament and accomplished with the entry of the Virgin Mary in history. With her complete humility, virginal disposition and incomparable purity of both soul and body, received from the Holy Spirit[9], she became the ‘vessel of the uncreated’ and the container of the uncontainable divine Word; she became the Theotokos. And whoever does not acknowledge the Virgin Mary as Theotokos, says St Gregory the Theologian, is ‘without the divinity’.[10]

In speaking of the chosen people of God in the Old Testament, we often forget the primary place of the person as such within the entire unfolding of the divine economy. At any rate, the chosen people arose due to the choice of a specific person, Abraam, and this was maintained with the establishment of personal relations and dialogue between God and the righteous of the Old Testament. God is revealed as person and He personally calls each human being to salvation and perfection. This is why the climax of the divine economy’s preparatory work was not some historical event or even a special historical concurrence, as is often believed, but rather the appearing of the most honorable person – that of the Holy Mother of God.[11]

The primary position in the task of the divine economy is occupied by humans as persons. And the first task that persons are called to achieve is to know themselves and to acquire the realization of their origin and the purpose of their existence. Know from where you derive your existence, states St Gregory the Theologian – your breath, thought, the sublime ability to know God, to place your hope in the kingdom of heaven, equality with the angels, glory…to be a son of God, a co-heir with Christ, and I dare say, to become god. From whom and where did you receive these things?[12]

As a personal and collective accomplishment, self-knowledge becomes a stepping stone towards knowledge of God. It is this which enables correct orientation in life. As St Gregory the Theologian notes, man is a second world. He is not merely a small world or, as is often claimed, a ‘microcosm’. He is instead a ‘great world within the small’, an overseer of the visible creation and a mystic of the intelligible; he is both earthly and heavenly, temporary and immortal, visible and invisible. He is ‘a being that lives on earth, yet is transferred to another world and…becomes deified through his love for Him.’[13] This vision of human life is truly magnificent. It is the prospect of transference from earthly temporality to heavenly immortality, to deification (theosis). And the completion of such transference requires inconceivable dynamism.

This dynamic upward progression is achieved via three births. With the first birth, which is according to blood and flesh, man enters this world and quickly passes from it. With the second birth, which is according to the Holy Spirit and takes place in Baptism, the human person attains heavenly splendour. Finally, with the third birth, which comes through tears and much sorrow, the image of God within (that had become darkened) is restored.[14]

 

Throughout the dynamic upward progression being described here, self-control and self-knowledge is of great significance. In examining himself continually and approaching his eschatological destination – which God had engraved from the outset within every person – man increasingly comes to know God and to enter into communion with Him.

However, given that empirical man finds himself in a spiritually unhealthy condition, he cannot rely on himself and instead needs to know what the authentic human being is and how he can grow to be similar. For this reason the Church Fathers, when referring to self-knowledge, do not confine it to the realm of psychology, but instead place it upon a theological basis and perspective. They do not identify it with awareness of the particular fallen state of each person (an awareness which they nonetheless consider to be useful and necessary), but rather with the state which each can and should attain.

In addition, it should not be overlooked that the self-knowledge of the empirical person also has elements that can easily mislead. The person who acts autonomously in relation to God, as St Gregory observes, is given over to the ‘autonomy of delusion’. And while he has been created to glorify and imitate God (to the extent that this is possible) man becomes the springboard of ‘multiple passions’ which destroy his soul. Indeed, moreover, he fabricates and promotes gods which justify his passions, such that his sinfulness is considered to be not only without responsibility, but even pleasing to God![15] However, when self-knowledge is combined with the truth of the Christian faith, it leads to rectification, the recognition of God’s gift and gratitude towards Him.

Yet, in order for one to know the true self and to be led to the knowledge of one’s archetype, to self-knowledge, one should not be restricted to certain thoughts and theological reasonings, but rather advance to self-purification. If it is a great thing to speak about God, says the Theologian, it is an even greater thing to purify oneself for God.[16] The purification in question not only concerns each of us individually, but humanity as a whole, since contamination is not limited to specific individuals, nor is it to be dealt with on an ethical level exclusively. For it extends throughout all humanity and has an ontological character.

On an ontological level, humanity’s purification has been achieved by God Himself. Purification came as a result of the divine Incarnation. As St Gregory outlines, the Word of God moves toward His image, assumes flesh for the sake of my flesh and is joined to a rational soul for the sake of my soul, thereby cleaning like with like.[17] In this manner, the uncreated descends to the level of the created, becoming human and known to man according to his purity.[18]

The purification of the human person occurs on an individual level by keeping the divine commandments. It is a duty not only to examine oneself, but also to restore the self according to the original plan of the Creator. Man is called to investigate constantly, looking constantly towards his archetype, who is Christ, and following whatever is indicated in His commandments. He is called to determine his own strengths and weaknesses, to appreciate his majesty as well as his deficiency. If he does not take care of himself, he cannot possibly have a proper conscience, in which case he will fall into deception and delusion.

On the other hand, there is great anthropological and theological significance in the realization of one’s own ignorance – a realization which is so necessary in the avoidance of arrogance and the idolization of oneself. At this point, however, it is necessary to make the following clarification. The realization of one’s ignorance, which Socrates advocated and manifested through the use of irony in the Platonic dialogues, does in fact strengthen the desire to find truth. Yet while irony erodes the arrogance of man, it subsequently leaves him exposed and helpless.

How can the human person know the truth? And how can one be sure of its identity? Questions of this kind naturally lead either to the conception of groundless metaphysics, or else to disappointment and total indifference regarding the search for truth. With regard to the former case, we have various metaphysical systems which eventually assume the form of religion. In the context of the latter case, we can also understand the words of Pontius Pilate ‘what is truth?’, since they were directed as a question towards Christ, yet without the expectation of any answer.[19]

Moral purity does not of course suffice to elevate the human person to the level of the authentic knowledge of God, yet it is nonetheless a necessary presupposition for its acquisition and it determines the breadth of its receptivity. Therefore the degree of one’s knowledge of God is proportional to one’s purity. As St Gregory the Theologian observes, God is seen and known ‘in proportion to purity’.[20] This is also why ‘the philosophy concerning God’ – namely theology – is not an endeavour to be undertaken lightly by just anybody, but a task which presupposes spiritual vision and purification, or at least a journey towards purification of body and soul: ‘For it is a dangerous thing for the impure to handle what is pure, just as the rays of the sun are for an unhealthy eye.’[21]

God does not create objective relations with people, but personal relations, relations of love. And the initiative in the creation of these relations belongs to God Himself: ‘because He first loved us’.[22] He humbled Himself and became man in order to make man god. And man, for his part, is called to accept in his heart, with the Holy Spirit, the God who became human, so that he too might become god by grace.

True knowledge of God is not acquired through intellectual processes; it comes as the fruit of existential communion. Knowledge of God arises out of the meeting between the human person and God, which is actualized not only through the elevation of man to God, but also through the descent of God towards man. He condescends from his position of distinction; we are raised from humility below. In the end, the human person knows God when God Himself visits him or her and enters into communion (Below, the skull of St Gregory the Theologian).

In this theanthropic meeting and communion, no one is turned into an object. In spite of the immeasurable asymmetry of the co-existence of the created with the uncreated, there is a similarity and identity of glory and life. In the writings of St Gregory, God becomes ‘such’ a human being for human beings, and the human becomes god for Him.[23] And in the depths of the eschatological perspective, He will become known to man to the degree that He knew man.[24] God is united and is known by gods ‘to such a great degree, just as He already knows those who are known’[25]. This of course does not mean that man will also know the essence of God, which remains always unknown and unapproachable, but that he will become a full communicant of His glory and splendour. In this same perspective, another great Father of our Church, St Maximus the Confessor, writes that with the eschatological perfection of man and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, there will be a common energy ‘of God and those who are worthy of God – or rather only of God – given that he is the one who entirely pervades those who are worthy, as befits the [one who is] good.’[26]

In refuting the boldest claims of the Eunomians that man can know the essence of God, he mentions the great figures of the Old Testament who ‘saw’ God, as well the Apostle Paul who, although reaching the third heaven and seeing paradise, states that ‘we now see in a mirror dimly’. There will be a ‘face to face’ vision when the mirrors are abolished and truth shall shine forth.[27] By considering the immense promise of knowing God on the one hand, and personal unworthiness on the other, the faithful person is humbled.

Humility draws people closer to God, while attracting His grace and mercy: ‘And upon whom will I show respect, but to the humble and the peaceful and to him who trembles at My words’.[28] When addressing the Philippians, the Apostle Paul recommends that they cultivate the humble spirit of Christ: ‘Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.’[29] With the humility and the intimacy of the phronema of Christ, the faithful put away the old man and put on the mind of Christ[30]; they are christified.

Christ, as the new Adam and the firstborn of the new creation, brought into the world a new mode of life, with His kenotic presence and humble phronema. He embodied humility in His person, and taught it through example: ‘Learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart’.[31] With unfathomable love towards the human person, He embraced in His hypostasis, and raised with Him into the Father’s glory, all that is human. In this way, everyone who believes in Christ is renewed with the Holy Spirit and receives the authority to become a child of God: ‘But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name. Who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.’[32]

The activation of this authority depends on the freedom of the person. If someone who has been renewed by the Holy Spirit subsequently does not live according to the will of God, preferring to be attached to the things of the world and surrendering to the life of the flesh, then he or she is forgetful of God and becomes spiritually mortified. Forgetfulness of God constitutes the greatest threat to the human hypostasis and leads to spiritual death. ‘The tyranny of forgetfulness is great’, writes St Nicholas Cabasilas; no other passion overthrows man as regularly and easily as this one.[33]

Knowledge of God does not come as a result of any cognitive search or intellectual enquiry; it is the fruit of spiritual renewal and entry into the new creation revealed by Christ. Knowledge of God is the fruit of the love of God for the human person, and of the human person towards God. One cannot know God without loving Him, especially as God is Himself love[34]. This is why God assumes the initiative of making Himself known to humanity and to be the first to show His love toward it.[35] The more a person knows God and His love, the more he or she loves Him. And the more He is loved, the more He is known.

It then becomes apparent that the love of God is interconnected with the knowledge of God. To be more precise, the love of God is a presupposition as well as a result of the knowledge of God. In cultivating the phronema of Christ with humility and love, and following in His footsteps, the faithful person follows the path of the knowledge of God. In this way, the human person is fulfilled as a creature made ‘according to the image and likeness’ of God.

The deconstruction of the old person and the emergence of the new are achieved with the grace of God and the co-operation of man. And this co-operation is not easy, nor is it confined to a brief duration. Rather, it requires great effort and a difficult struggle throughout the length of one’s life. Christians are called to continually examine their own self, to acknowledge their faults and weaknesses, to reflect the person of the perfect human being, Christ, and to constantly struggle to imitate Him and keep His commandments.

The spiritual struggle of the Christian is, in the final analysis, the struggle of theognosia, the knowledge of God. This truth is made abundantly clear throughout the works of St Gregory the Theologian, especially in his poems and letters. It is the struggle of remaining in communion with Christ; the struggle of maintaining the grace of the Holy Spirit; the struggle of lifting and preventing the darkness that the ‘atheism after Baptism’[36] brings to man. In this way, the knowledge of God at the same time negates evil: ‘for such knowledge becomes a purification.’[37]

The motivating force for conducting the struggle is love for Christ. This love retains also the personal dimension of the Christian’s spiritual struggle. Often, St Gregory launches into a personal dialogue with God; he wrestles with Him, and he expresses his undivided love and gratitude. He sees Christ as his own, as his light: ‘My Christ’, ‘Christ my light.’ [38] He does however express his anguish as well: ‘I will speak a harsh word, but I will speak’[39]. ‘I have been deceived Christ… I have become haughty.’[40] Finally, he expresses his bitterness, when feeling helplessly deserted amidst his hardships: ‘Goodness has vanished, evil is out in the open; we are sailing in the dark, and there is no light anywhere. Christ is asleep!’[41]

The struggle to ascend towards God and knowing God is impossible for humankind without the grace of the Holy Spirit. If, as the Apostle Paul writes, no one knows the things of man except the spirit of the man found within, to a much greater degree no one knows the things of God, except the Spirit of God which searches everywhere, even the innermost part of God.[42] And at any rate, not even the ‘things of man’ are totally known to the spirit of man. In the final analysis, then, only the Spirit of God knows the things of man and of God. And only with this Spirit can man acquire true self-knowledge and true knowledge of God.

Lastly, we should note that self-knowledge, but also the knowledge of creation in general, is connected both positively and negatively with the knowledge of God. Positively, in the sense that self-knowledge, as with the knowledge of creation, directs us to the knowledge of God. But also negatively, in the sense that self-knowledge and the knowledge of creation lead us to the awareness that neither man nor the created world are to be confused with God.

By way of conclusion, we could say that self-knowledge offers us two extremely significant things:

a) the realization of God’s majestic gift towards us, and

b) the sense of our own condition of spiritual sickness, together with our ingratitude towards our Creator.

All that exists in God is somehow reflected in created humans as well, because it is His image that is depicted in their very being. But also all that exists in man belongs to God, because He is the Creator of man.

When this is appreciated, man lives within his own limitations, and is at the correct starting point in order to authentically know God and his own self. On the other hand, by keeping Christ before himself and examining his own person in relation to Him, the Christian sees his own wretchedness, prompting him to struggle even harder and correct himself, so as to respond to his high calling accordingly.

The human person’s grandeur and wretchedness, strength and weakness, knowledge and ignorance, although mutually contradictory, are in fact of assistance on the path towards the same goal – humility. And humility, which makes each person receptive to the grace of God, becomes a springboard towards the knowledge of God.

Translated by D.K.

GEORGIOS MANTZARIDIS


Emeritus Professor of the School of Theology

Aristotelian University, Thessaloniki.


[1] Xenophon, Memorabilia 1,1,11-12

[2] See Xenophon, op.cit. 4,2,26 following

[3] See John 14:6

[4] Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38,12, PG 36,324D.

[5] Deut. 15,9. See Gregory Theologian, Works 2,1,78, PG 37,1425A. Cf. Basil the Great, On ‘Being Careful’, PG 31,197-218.

[6] Gregory the Theologian, Oration 32, 21, PG 36, 200A.

[7] Oration 14,32, PG 35,900D

[8] Gal. 4:9

[9] See Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38,13, PG 36,325BC.

[10] See Letter 101, PG 32,177D.

[11] See Gregory Palamas, Oration 53,25, published by S. Oikonomou, Athens, 1861, p.162.

[12] See Gregory the Theologian, Oration 14,23, PG 35,888A.

[13] See Oration 38,11, PG 36,324A.

[14] Gregory the Theologian, Works, 2,2,3, PG 37,1498-1499.

[15] See Gregory the Theologian, Oration 39,7, PG 36,341C.

[16] Oration 32,12, PG 36,188D.

[17] See Oration 38,13, PG 36,325B.

[18] See Oration 40,45, PG 36,424D.

[19] See John 18:38

[20] See Oration 40,45, PG 36,424D.

[21] Oration 27,3 (First Theological Oration), PG 36,13D

[22] 1John 4:19

[23] See Oration 40,45, PG 36,424C.

[24] See 1Cor. 15:12

[25] Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38,7, PG 36,317D. See also Oration 32,15, PG 36,192B.

[26] Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua PG 91,1076C.

[27] See 1Cor.13:12. See also Gregory the Theologian, Oration 32,15, PG 36,192AB.

[28] Isaiah 66:2

[29] See Philip. 2:5-11

[30] Gregory Theologian, Epistle 102, PG 37,197A.

[31] Matthew 11:29

[32] John 1:12-13

[33] Nicholas Cabasilas, Commentary on the Divine Liturgy 21, PG 150,413C.

[34] See 1John 4:8-16

[35] See 1John 4:19

[36] See Mark the Monk, Concerning Divine Baptism, PG 65,992C

[37] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Life of Moses, 2,38, PG 44,313A.

[38] Gregory the Theologian, Works 2,2,7, PG 37,1569 & 1574.

[39] Gregory the Theologian, Works 2,1,74, PG 37,1421.

[40] Gregory the Theologian, Works 2,1,67, PG 37, 1408.

[41] Gregory the Theologian, Epistle 80, PG 37,153.

[42] See 1Cor. 2:10-11

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