Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Stăniloae on moral psychology and knowledge of God

The sixth chapter on the knowledge of God of The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, vol. 1, by Dumitru Stăniloae is very good. It is worth reading again and again, because he covers much of great interest and sophistication in a short couple dozen pages.

One thing which caught my attention was his appeal to moral psychology as a means of knowledge of God. Stăniloae talks about a certain mystery of God, an experience of the mysterious presence of God, which is had through conscience:

But this mystery is experienced especially in those states of responsibility, consciousness of sinfulness, need of repentance, and in the insurmountable difficulties of life. The psalms of the Old Testament give particular expression to this knowledge of God. All these circumstances produce a sensibility and refinement in our very being that lead it to perceive the realities beyond the world and to search for their meaning. In such circumstances especially, the knowledge of God is accompanied by responsibility, fear, and trembling. They make the soul more sensitive to the presence of God (p. 118).

This is an interpretation of conscience and the experience of moral consciousness which ascribes it greater significance than one might otherwise expect. Conscience is not just some voice in your head which prompts you to obey norms inculcated in you since birth, but with no greater reference or vantage point beyond the particular contingencies of your upbringing. Rather conscience is a means of making the soul sensitive to the presence of God who has a particular demand and expectation of you. Conscience is a way in which God opens your eyes to see him, and your mind to understand what he wants of you, in light of what you have done.

If this is so, than a neutral or indifferent conscience is an incredibly dangerous thing:

It is not within a state of indifference that God is known. He does not wish to be known in such a state, for indifference does not help me towards perfection. That is why God puts me in circumstances like those described, and through them makes himself transparent on account of the interest he takes in me (pp. 118-9).

The suggestion is not, of course, that your conscience must always be bothering you; that you must always feel worthless and immoral. I am doubtful that we could stand to live with a perpetual awareness of our own sinfulness. At the same time, however, a person whose conscience never bothers her is in a dangerous place, because in a critical way she has been cut off from a means of knowledge of God.

All of this suggests that much of human life, both psychological and religious, is oriented towards the moral. God wants us to exist in a certain way and to be perfected through our behaving in a certain way relative to himself, ourselves, and others. On a Christian view of things ontology is fundamentally ethical: it is not possible to be without being well or poorly, without being good or evil, and humanity is well when it is good. Conscience is a natural means by which God discloses himself to us, in order to direct us in the way we ought to go.

There is furthermore an essentially moral aspect to all genuine relations between God and human persons. God does not disclose himself in conditions in which a human person is not or will not be motivated to seek perfection in communion with him. A person with no desire or drive to change herself, with no conception that she ought to be differently, will never find God or experience him. Stated another way, a critical precondition to the genuine knowledge of God is a certain openness to be met and changed by him in a crucial way.