#76 Is Orthodoxy Anti-Intellectual (featuring Sister Vassa Larin)


This week we're responding to another viewer question with help from our good friend Sister Vassa (check out the link to her channel below).  Does a love of theology and academic study somehow contradict the mysticism of the Faith?  We approach God as complete human persons, and that includes our minds.  Reading and studying theology can be a great thing, but it should also be a part of our larger life in Christ.  God is more than an idea we think about: He's a person we encounter.  


As you watch the episode, consider:

1. What is the relationship between knowing/learning about God and experiencing God? 

2. Does a lack of education or intellectual knowledge translate into a lack of holiness?

3. According to Saint Evagrius, who is a theologian in the Orthodox Church?

4. What are examples of saints who were uneducated, but came to know God in other ways?

5. Who were some of the great ecumenical teachers of the Church?

Check out these model lesson plans / retreat sessions for JOY and GOYA!


And here are some articles you may find to be helpful:

1. Abba Evagrius on Prayer

2. Mystagogy, The Theology We Need Today 

3. Mystagogy, Saint Katherine the Great Martyr and All-Wise

4. Mystagogy, Saint Xenia the Fool for Christ of Saint Petersburg

5. Mystagogy, Three Hierarchs Resource Page

6. Coffee with Sister Vassa YouTube Channel


Hey everybody this is Steve and our minds have a part to play in our life in Christ.  We received a great question from David, a high schooler from Michigan, who asks whether Orthodoxy is anti-intellectual.  He's wondering whether his love of books and rational theology somehow contradicts the mysticism of the Church.  To answer that, I'm turning to my friend Sister Vassa. Maybe you've heard of her. 

Of course you've heard of me!

Sister Vassa is both a nun and a scholar, so she has great experience on both sides of the question.  So what do you think Sister Vassa? 

That s a great question David. I've often wondered that myself.  We should remember that we approach God as persons.  God is a living being in Three Persons, as Steve has mentioned on his show.  So we approach God as persons: not just with emotion, not just with our minds, not just with the ritual of our bodies, but as complete human persons, with everything that makes us up: body, mind, and soul. 

That's a great point. And it's something we can see it in the incredible variety of saints that the Church has been blessed with.  Some have been simple and uneducated, like the humble priest St Nicholas Planas, or the fool for Christ St Ksenia of St Petersburgh.  Their lack of education or worldly sophistication didn’t make them any less holy; holiness is, first and foremost, about our relationship with God.

Yet the Church has been blessed with some incredibly brilliant saints, some of whom were the most intellectually accomplished people of their time.  For instance, there's St Catherine of Alexandria, who debated the most educated pagan philosophers and defeated them, convincing them that Christ

is the Lord. 

And there's St Basil the Great, who studied in Athens and received an incredible classical education.  He  made important strides in philosophy with his writings explaining the difference between person and nature. 

Not to mention his friend St Gregory the Theologian, and his brother St Gregory of Nyssa, and his sister St Makrina.  And did you notice I have a different mug now?  Collect them all! 

And of course there's St Maximos the Confessor, one of the most brilliant minds in Church history, whose writings continue to... Would you stop that Sister Vassa! And the list goes on.

Yet it's important to note that our more brilliant saints were not holy because of their intelligence and education.  That was simply a gift; and as with any gift, it is meant to be offered back to God. 

Despite all that, Orthodoxy is still sometimes described as anti-intellectual.  Why do you think that is, Sister Vassa?

I think some of it may be a misunderstanding of an important controversy in Church history.  In the 14th century, there was a disagreement, known as the Hesychast Controversy. 

Oh yeah!  Hesychasm comes from the Greek word for silence or stillness, hesychia, and is sometimes used to describe the way we should approach prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.  People sometimes present the controversy as a conflict between the head and heart, between rational theology and experiential prayer, but more fundamentally it was a disagreement over the nature of grace.  Whether grace is this created thing or actually the uncreated life and energies of God.

Because if grace is a created thing, then we can't ever really experience God or be united to Him.  Because there's always a created middle-man between us.

Right. That's why it s important to note that St Gregory Palamas, who was the great champion of the Church in the Hesychastic Controversy, was a brilliant man. And he did use his education and intellect to help articulate the truth of Orthodoxy.  By the way, we do have an episode of "Coffee With Sister Vassa" about St Gregory Palamas.  But we can't forget that he did spend years in a cave outside Thessaloniki, immersed in a life of prayer and fasting.  So he didn't just think or read about God, like Steve is doing back there in case you didn't notice.  He took steps to actually get to know Him. 

We did an episode on that!

Don't mind him, watch my episode on that.

St Gregory Palamas is a great example of a saint with a brilliant mind, who wrote some of the most incredible theology in all of Church history.  We'll always need theologians like that, people who can help teach and explain the beliefs of the Church, beliefs that have consequences in our relationship with God and the way we live our lives.  Yet St Gregory's thoughts were always grounded in his relationship with Christ, in prayer and fasting and alms-giving and studying the Scripture and attending the services.  It's like the great Egyptian ascetic Evagrius once said, "If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian."  So, if we're capable of reading and studying theology, that's great.  But we should make sure that it's part of a greater, wholesome life in Christ. 

So our study isn't simply an academic pursuit but rather is a part, and a help, in our journey to know Christ. 

So let's Be the Bee, and approach Christ with our entire person: body, mind, and soul.

Be the Bee, and Live Orthodoxy.

Remember to like and subscribe, and share, and please remember to subscribe to Coffee with Sister Vassa.  I'll see you all next week.

I'll take the stairs.

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