by Tudor Petcu
Another in a series of interviews with Orthodox converts, Tudor Petcu today interviews Nicholas Smith.
1.) I would like to begin our dialogue by taking into account the similarities between philosophy and Orthodoxy given the fact that is much easier talking about their differences as worldviews. What would be from your point of view the main purpose of these two ways of living, both of them focused on the idea of “wisdom”?
Orthodoxy has a unique and tempestuous relationship with philosophy. One could say Orthodoxy is only Orthodox in as much as it refuses to be reduced into one particular philosophy, but that does not mean that it is against philosophy. The New Testament frequently emphasizes the difference between the wisdom of the world and the Wisdom of God (particularly in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians) but this dynamic is more complicated than a simple binary opposition between revelation and reason (a distinction foreign to the New Testament); it is rather indicative of how the evangelion does not hold to the formal and metaphysical distinctions of the Classical world. The distinctions between power and weakness, justice and injustice, the Divine and the material, being and non-being, are not applicable to the Event of Christ.
This Event cannot be held within the horizons of Greek philosophy, Classical aesthetics, or the Roman understanding of Law and Order. When Paul says that the world’s search for wisdom is made foolish, slow, by the wisdom of Christ, he is above all indicating how the Mystery of Christ is not reducible to thought or the power dynamics operative in the Roman Empire. In this manner one can say that Paul’s resistance to philosophy (or the wisdom of the world) is not a resistance to philosophy per se, but rather submission to the paradox that could be said to be the index of Early Christian thought: Weakness becomes the Sign of Strength, Submission and Sacrifice is Power, Baptism rends open the Heavens, the Cross opens the Gates of Death, and the Empty Tomb is the Womb of Eternal Life.
While this narrative of submission to paradox can be said to withhold philosophical contemplation from Orthodoxy, by looking at the writings of the Cappadocians (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, their elder Sister, Macrina, and Gregory of Nazianzus) in the 4th century we can begin to have more of a sense of the way philosophy and orthodoxy can work together. Philosophy, in and of itself, when it sees human thought as the final say on the truth, is not only flawed but becomes a science as alien to God as it is to a living human being. But when philosophy admits its limitations, the proper function of its art, it becomes incredibly fertile and in the words of the Fathers, no longer leaves wisdom or truth stillborn, but is actually generative of life. Just as Socrates destabilized the order of the polis by questioning the taken for granted understandings of his time, Christianity enters society as a frightening and destabilizing force. It not only questions the foundations of the Classical World, but renders it as speechless as the Women before of the Empty Tomb.
2.) The idea of “orthodox philosophy” could sound challenging for anyone who considers that philosophy itself has nothing to do with Orthodoxy because of the fact that Orthodoxy pretends that has already the truth, whereas philosophy is always in search of the truth. But how can we discover a common method of truth both in philosophy and Orthodoxy.
One could say that Orthodoxy hands over to lived experience what philosophy seeks to answer with the mind. As philosophy comes up with properties and theories, lived experience in the Church speaks riddles:
My Body, My Blood, My Spirit, My Peace, My Joy, is Yours. You are My Child, My Bride, My Lover, My infinitely distant body-mate, Love-soaked flesh, radiant like Lightning blooming across the Night Sky of an Impenetrable Dark as Lovely and Distant as the moment before the first Dawn.
At the same time the very impenetrability of lived experience reveals how philosophy and Orthodoxy can come to relate to each other. If lived experience is beyond comprehension it is also known in one’s ways of being troubled by it. If we look at Orthodoxy as the troubling of lived experience, it can also be said that when philosophy accepts being troubled by lived experience, it can be mobilized to serve Orthodoxy and become equally profitable and life-giving.
The Cappadocians felt so free to utilize the best of Greek Philosophy and education to defend and preserve Orthodoxy because the tools and methods they used never exceeded the primacy of the healing and illumination they received in and from the Church. Because the Cappadocian’s were firmly inscribed into the life—lived experience—of the Church, they felt free to become like bricoluers, simply utilizing the tools available at any given time to give expression as much as possible to what needed to be said. The writings of the Cappadocians, then, could be said to illustrate the philosophical method proper to Orthodoxy; it is a method cognizant of the limitations of the intellect and language. Derrida’s understanding of the writer as a bricoleur is fitting to describe this method, for it amounts to an acknowledgment of all the temporal, cultural, linguistic, and conceptual limitations placed on thought at any given time. Though Orthodoxy would say that it is only by the healing and opening of the heart to its proper aim that the intellect can appropriately speak, the attitude of a bricoleur, whose very name comes from his lack, his not having the “proper tools” to fix or build things, is the attitude proper to Orthodoxy.
One could be said to be on the way to a philosophical method proper to Orthodoxy by fulfilling the simple task of assuming this attitude. Accepting these limitations opens the heart to the troublesome phenomena of life and the phenomenological attitude proper to the Church: humility before the unforeseeable, uncontainable, immeasurable, and unconditional. This is the reduction, bracketing, of the self and intellect, to attune oneself to the troubling of lived experience, to face up to the unconditional unfolding of one’s existence.
The implications of adopting this phenomenological attitude, the bracketing of self as the measure of existence and the intellect as the possessor of it, is accomplished only in the negative certainty in Jean-Luc Marion’s terms, of one’s incapacity to contain or define her own existence. Simultaneously, this negative certainty, as one submits to it, is also the path to receiving the Gift of existence: that the temporal limitations, the very conditions by which it unfolds, render it unconditional. From an Orthodox perspective, this is what it means to be made in the Image of God: the Image always exceeds the one in it. The Image notifies the one in it of her nature by transcending her ability to ever grasp or fully participate in it. It is this lack though that notifies us of our proper nature—we exist in the Image of the Infinitely-more-than-we-can-grasp-or-be, and yet we are Given by it, in it, sustained by the fold of givenness, and issued forth into a life worth witnessing. Our existence troubles us in its impenetrability only to allow us to receive it with ever more gratuity.
To put it more concretely, in an augmentation of Derrida’s temporality: one exchanges one set of possibilities for another moment by moment, while never being able to control or possess the future. But, because of this—because one’s existence unfolds in time without one’s consent—the very conditions of one’s existence render it unconditional and infinitely open. This paradox is a troubling Gift, but as one submits to it as a Gift, letting go of having to control, define, or possess it, one comes to share in an eternally fecund moment, again and again and again with each individual in the vicinity equally exceeding expectation, and giving themselves in unforeseeable capacities. Each encounter with the Other, is open to possibility. Every moment, in its manifestation of unforeseen possibility, exceeds intentionality and is inevitable Mystery. Furthermore, by submitting to the Mystery and the ungraspable disclosure of the Other, one can receive the Mystery of the Infinite, uninhibited by any expectation.
To submit to the unforeseeable of one’s existence can equally be seen as the opening to prayer and watchfulness that the Saints of Orthodoxy speak of. The dominant mode of approaching life in the masses is to know before seeing, to know before living, and to live without knowing. But, Orthodoxy would say that it is only by letting go of possessing a future that we desire that we can be open to the “present” of the present. By greeting the present with watchfulness over the Images bedazzling our Gaze with empty promise, we can see how the prayer to come back to the Infinite given, can be fruitful. By openness to the “present” of the present we can be rent open to its depth and share this depth with others. However, this can only happen by prayer to continually shed distraction for the re-opening of the present. It is by giving up our own desire that we can come to participate in the troublesome fulfillment of lived experience, which is when our gaze is no longer seeking its own aim, but finds rest in its proper encounter, the Infinite.
Jean-Luc Marion illuminates this matter in his discussion of the idolatrous Gaze and the one open to the Icon. He essentially says that it is when one’s gaze is caught and bedazzled by a concept or spectacle that it is diverted and closed off to God. This idolatrous gaze, rather than seeing the concept as the measure of its own finite gaze, reckons this concept to be the end of all truth. In the same way, by opening and submitting to our finitude, and asking for mercy from beyond our comprehension, we can open ourselves to be known and questioned by the One who knows us better than we do ourselves, and envisages us as we had not thought was possible.
By the counter-intention of this gaze we are given ourselves as a Gift exceeding expectation or definition that we may ascribe to it. This is where the index of Orthodox philosophy in paradox can be encountered. In Giving we Receive, Death is Life, and Humility is Sweet and Tender. This is the “present”—to be given in excess of what we can think, and happen upon the beauty of this Gift and its possibility by submitting our intentions to it. Here, at this moment, we can give ourselves to others, and be at peace with the increase in what is given to us without our capacity to earn, foresee, or imagine it on our own.
3.) It’s very hard to say that Orthodoxy itself could be founded on any logics in comparison with philosophy that can be defined first of all through different logics, especially the modal ones. But anyway, do you think that there could be any Orthodox logics based on a philosophical understanding?
One logic I can think of that could fit this question has been presented, with great beauty, by Marion. He calls it the logic of Charity, the economia of Charity, which gets worked out eventually into a Trinitarian vision of Love that’s elegantly beautiful and actually logical. It is though, like the index of Early Christian thought, not the logic of this world, but one confounding the logic of this world. He shows how a philosophy willing to be okay with paradox, with events rather than causal chains, becomes necessary. It is an economy of Love Given and Abandoned to be Received and Abandoned in a constant Giving without exchange.
All experiments in logic end with a closure on thought. They are based on a closed universe, where we sit at the feet of a chalkboard where all that can be known is already known by the formula on the board. When we step into life from this chalkboard and stub our toe on an unexpected, unaccounted actuality, instead of facing up to it, we contain it within our ready-made approach to everything. In effect we live in epistemological constructions that, without being troubled, damn us to judge everything before experiencing it.
The only hope in the face of this is what is similar to what has been called epistemic dispossession. To open to an economy of interactions and happenings that actually mean something, we have to dispossess our grasp on the world. Only the unforeseeable, the unspeakable, can trouble our episteme, to the point that we let go of the certainty of its boundaries, and can awaken to a new light or horizon previously unbespoken to us. Often this understanding can be traumatic, but the trauma is for our ego, not for anything else. This is where the paradox of Orthodoxy meets philosophy: without weakness we are trading one closed economy of exchange (or one episteme) for another. The logic of epistemic dispossession is the logic at the heart of the beginning of any feasible opening to the unseen or even to the other. All others are already reduced and identified along with the intangibles of experience if we can’t allow for some epistemic trauma, humility before the unforeseeable and unconditional unfolding of existence.
4.) I have always considered that Orthodoxy has a certain philosophical task which still remains a mystery for different contemporary philosophers. What, in your opinion, would be the main philosophical tasks of Orthodoxy? On the other hand, I wonder if Orthodoxy itself could be interested to assume what we can call “a philosophical task” especially in the American academic life, dominated somehow by different philosophical voices, such as those of pragmatism or different theories of justice, not to mention the philosophy of language.
The task of Orthodoxy for this Age, which has begun to spark in France in phenomenology, is the task of deconstructing the taken-for-granted manners of thinking in the West. These manners of thinking, of seeing, are known in the despair and lack felt in the hearts of so many without any capacity to understand why this is or how to fix it. The West, especially the States, is a cacophony of voices all aimed at capturing the minds and attention of others. The discourse about rights ends up revolving around one’s right to have the attention and gaze of others, but only in as much as one can then render others not worthy of the gaze and thus invisible.
Theory, Gender Studies, and all types of speaking about the social construction of identity, point out the problems of fixed social norms and prejudiced gazes, but without offering an answer. Fixed norms and gazes (modes of seeing what’s likeable and what’s ugly) cause a great number of persons to be dismissed as invalid or monstrous simply by their personality or appearance not fitting into the norm. Activists trained in this manner of thinking attempt to create social change by destabilize norms, transgressing norms, cross-dressing norms, until the norms are seen as foundationless and disappear. The problem is that to open up space for new possible identities to be recognized (which is the goal of this transgressing) is to render other identities or appearances as less, and dismiss the concrete conditions of the individual. This way of seeing, can only foresee change by asserting one image over another and shifting the gaze of what is good and what is bad in society; it cannot change the violence and insecurity at the heart of each person. Our society has so abstracted value and identity, from concrete conditions, or interiority, that people are reduced to what they perceive themselves being perceived as, by the next gaze that falls upon them. In this way, one can see that the understanding of identity, even in Theory, becomes bound to the social evaluation, and in this economy there is only jockeying for position, not equality.
The West has become incapable of seeing its basic a priori conditions of seeing—that one has to receive rights from the sovereign authority in order to be recognized, that civil-contracts and authorities grant rights, and that self-interest is property along with how one is thought of by others. This is Enlightenment thinking and Liberalism, but without anyone wanting to admit it. Social action only produces effects, but not answers, and is only validated in its effects because it sees itself as the means to progress. Within this narrative of progress, socialist tendencies to protect the poor and lack of any protection for the poor fall into the same economy for it is not equality we seek, but rights granted by the powers that be to be free to appropriate, devour, step-over others, and be affirmed for it. As long as justice is posited within the frame of Liberalism and openness to personal and interior change, is seen only as a repressive internalization of extrinsic moral codes, there is no hope for being more than what we are in the eyes of others. The hope of Orthodoxy is its manner of exposing the root of our problem.
The problem is that the West sees itself in constant progress as much as it takes a stance against feudalism, hierarchy, patriarchy, and its author, the Church. The epistemology or ideological apparatus of the West does not change for progress does not stand in the way of anything but the capacity to take responsibility for our present actions and the disasters we pile on top of one another.
Walter Benjamin illustrates this issue contemplating a drawing of:
“an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress (9th thesis in Philosophy of History).
Here, Benjamin points out how progress, the uniform narrative of both Classical Marxism and Liberalism, leads us away from the concrete truth of the wreckage and suffering caused by our seeking an end without paying attention to the means. The angel of history stands like the fateful truth of existence, that the most harmful pathology of society is the thought that we can exceed the limitations of time and the immediate effects of our actions because of the unconditionality of the future. We like the Angel of history are ever separated from the ruins he wishes to heal, but unlike this angel, we are forever detaching ourselves from empathy and responsibility for these ruins. In hope of progress, we fight for the right to never be questioned or challenged. In hope of preserving our selves we grow more divided. And in the inability to conceive of our own death let alone face it, we remove ourselves from the chain of humanity which is clasped together only through empathy and responsibility for all of humankind.
The hope of Orthodoxy’s mode of seeing is like a flash of clarity when presented to a world so thrust into an impoverished language and existence, for it does not make distinction based on appearance, nor on social judgment. For Orthodoxy, human value is determined by the infinite capacity of humanity, being in the Image of God, to grow into the likeness and love of God. Because of this, there is the capacity for progress without competing and value before appearance. Each person only lives and exists by the Gift of God and the Gift of always being given more than we can handle or think or contemplate. In Orthodoxy’s economy, there is not one who is greater than another; but rather, in Gregory of Nyssa’s words, because God is infinite, progress in arête and openness to God, is perfection. We are perfect not through being right, but by becoming humble enough to face the trauma of being encountered by what we cannot yet see, our own failures in judgment and lack of receptiveness to the Gift that is our own existence.
In this sense, Orthodoxy eliminates the issue of competition and an economy of evaluation, because it requires you to dispossess all rights to know the other before they encounter you—it requires you to no longer hold onto an episteme. For Orthodoxy, the traumatic unconditioning of thought by the unforeseen becomes a fortuitous unknowing, a fortuitous unknowing that reconditions the circumstances that lead to growth. Instead of reiterating the mode of seeing by which we devour the other into our expectations, we can allow the other to be a revelatory stumbling block opening to us our own eyes and heart. We can begin to no longer try to possess, that which is not possessible in the first place. We can look at the persons passing us as we walk to some event who are not part of our party and be confronted by the actual concrete embodied situation they are living in and their existential state, their affect, their being. We can start seeing so many people we never saw as people before and pray for mercy to become more and more open to the capacity to receive and care for them in all their irreducible reality.
5.) I would be very interested to take into account for our dialogue the idea of “Orthodox epistemology” even if such an idea would be criticised by many pragmatic philosophers who probably consider that epistemology could be never religious. But how this epistemology that I am talking about might be possible and what would be your own philosophical view on it?
An Orthodox epistemology would be based first upon the admission that much of life or the given phenomena of life exceed our capacity to formally constitute, know, or arrange them into intelligible, conceptual systems. Secondly, it would have to encounter the distance and difference between representation of the things or truths of life, and the things or phenomena given in the course of life itself. Finally, with these first two things accomplished, it would have to reckon with our place in the present, the effect of our present actions, who we are around, what we care for, what we are doing, if we are available to be known or to know—and everything else a formal epistemological account would lead us away from.
6.) Do you think that metaphysics is the main characteristic of Orthodox philosophy? If so, how should we understand and analyze Orthodoxy as metaphysics through the philosophy of language
I would have to say that my understanding of metaphysics would be like Heidegger’s. Metaphysics (as a philosophy of language) is the attempt to create a picture of the world only to separate one’s thought, through representation, from anything that actually exists in time, including one’s self. The philosophy of language that suspends language from the effects of existence, is to speak of a void populated by statuettes of properties held in place or moved according to the thoughts of a demiurge.
7.) If you agree, I am asking you to tell me if you consider that there could be any common denominator Orthodox theology and the way by which Martin Heidegger is trying to analyse the Dasein as Being-in-the-World in “Sein und Zeit”.
Heidegger’s influence for me as sketched out above, comes down to asking the questions I had at the tip of my tongue but had not a manner of asking. Heidegger sketches out a different manner of addressing what is happening than the West. He evokes the question of Being and existence as greater than our simple thought of it. For me there a few key points he makes that are inlets into a different mode of thinking, different than a Western Analytic one. He shows that:
1) We are thrown into our situation with only so many possibilities before us.
2) We are not knowing anything as it is when we look at it as a subsistent entity abstracted from life or being.
3) We go about life being-toward something, working on projects (not thinking about them).
The common example he offers to illustrate this is what happens when the hammer I am using to build a house breaks. Before it breaks, the hammer is an extension of my mode of being, my hand, which I take for granted to fulfill its use. It is only after it breaks that I stop to notice what this hammer is as an “object”. When I am going about my business, nothing is an object until it breaks and causes pause and stops fulfilling its use. Only at this point, when the metal head of a hammer has broken off from the wood, do I notice the properties which make a hammer a hammer. When I think about a hammer as an object without it breaking, just to define it, I am removing myself and the hammer from being.
Heidegger illustrates that it is only by abstracting thought from what is actually happening in life, from the moment of be-ing, that we come to a picture of positive, propositional truth. We build representation built upon representation while becoming more and more alienated from being. Our fixed picture of the world, view of the world we see ourselves is in, keeps us from ever encountering actual existence, being, persons, etc…
I think that Heidegger ultimately fails to give us an opening to God though. Jean-Luc Marion’s intercession and expansion on Heidegger solves this issue thought. I recommend Jean-Luc Marion’s book, Dieu sans L’être (God without Being) and, Negative Certainties, as both deal with Heidegger and issues of representation conducive to what has been discussed above.