Thinking is among the most misleading things in the modern world, or, to be more precise, thinking about thinking is misleading. For a culture that puts such a great emphasis on materiality, our thinking about thought is decidedly spooky. The philosophy underlying our strangely-constructed thought-world of modernity is called nominalism (of which there are many formal varieties). Nominalism has as its imaginary construct of the world a view that sees everything as separate objects that are only connected by our thinking about them. There are things, and then are thoughts about things. But in truth, in this view, the thoughts have nothing to do with the things themselves: it’s all in our heads.
So the result is the strange contradiction of living in a world we conceive of as sheer material, while only truly valuing thoughts, ideas, and feelings that we conceive of as existing in our heads. I have described this in numerous articles and also in my book as the “two-storey universe.” We are certain of the material world, and though we only value the world of ideas and feelings, we’re not so sure that they really exist. So we live with troubled minds.
But there’s a much older way of experiencing the world that understands our existence as one of actual communion with the world. And, strangely, this way of thinking gives far more respect and attention to materiality. Nowhere is this more evident than in the contrast between ancient Christian thought and modern Christian thought.
Some examples: Modern Christianity, which has been around for a few hundred of years or less, views the death of Christ primarily in terms of the ideas associated with it. Human beings (it would think), through their breaking of God’s commandments (which are ideas), incurred an infinite debt (which is an idea), requiring their punishment (and that’s not an idea; that involves eternal torment in hell). But note that this is purely all an idea. Christ becomes man, and on the Cross suffers and pays the debt (again an idea). Those who now trust in him (again an idea), are forgiven (yet another idea).
The only value placed on the Crucifixion of Christ, then, is as an abstraction. The action itself gains value only through how it is considered by God. But this abstraction ignores the deeply literal treatments referring to the blood of Christ and his flesh. The event of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection gain their value precisely in their materiality and of God’s interaction and communion with materiality. Something happens on the Cross that is not simply in the mind of God.
Modern Christianity often holds an idea of memorialism when it teaches about the Eucharist and says that it’s simply a memorial meal, an event in which we have certain ideas about the death of Christ. But Christ says, “Take, eat!” and “Drink all of this!” The “remembrance of him” is not in our minds—it’s in our bodies, in our blood, in our mouths. We become one flesh with him.
It is very troubling to some when they begin to read the Church Fathers’ teachings on the heart (sometimes referred to as the nous). The Fathers were well aware of the connection between brain and thinking. Any number of ancient head injuries from battles and things like that had taught them that the brain has a connection with thought. But the Fathers disturbingly (for a modern person) insisted on locating the heart (that is, the nous) in the physical heart itself. Most moderns quickly dismiss this as some form of ancient nonsense and just bad medicine, but it holds a very serious insight. True knowledge and communion are not abstractions. Using the example of eating, when I consume a sandwich, I could be said to “know” it. Where does this knowing occur? My stomach knows it. My blood stream knows it. My taste buds know it. In truth, the whole of me knows the sandwich. It is a much broader understanding of knowing than the reductionist notions of modernity.
The language of the heart talk belongs to that larger, more holistic understanding that is a hallmark of classical Christian thought. This far more holistic understanding of human existence and knowing is actually much more sophisticated than modern two-storey notions. Modern abstractions about thinking and knowing have resulted in a fragmentation of our consciousness in which we ignore the larger part of what we actually know. We have been taught to attend to our thoughts, as though we had a disembodied existence. And to make matters worse, we have a very false, abstract notion about what thoughts themselves are.
We are in fact material beings. We are not souls that have bodies, or bodies that have souls. The soul is the “life” of the body, but is not, strictly speaking, a thing in itself. Most moderns mistake the soul for consciousness itself, and they imagine that at death their consciousness migrates somewhere else (to heaven or whatever), and we do not care very much about what then happens to the body, so long as our precious consciousness abides. This, I might add, is the mythology of Star Trek, where in at least several episodes, Spock’s consciousness is deposited in various other places, and the plot of the show turns on how to get Spock’s consciousness back in Spock’s body so that he can appear on the next episode. But it’s not, though, Christianity.
The Christian faith holds to the resurrection of the body and the soul’s proper life within that glorified body. After death, God sustains our souls (that is, our life) in existence, but this is a great mystery for which words are inadequate. It is not our proper existence nor the fullness of our being. If you ask, “But what exactly is the soul?” You really get no answer. It is the “life of the body”; not just the life, but the life of the body.
The thing which we call consciousness is even itself problematic. Much of it is simply the noisy artifacts of various neuroses, and even the sound that the body itself makes. It is not unusual for modern Christians suffering from depression, for example, to reject medication, declaring that they want a “spiritual solution.” (This makes me want to pull my hair out.) This two-storey approach is itself a strange superstition in which we imagine that our “spiritual life” is somehow not physical.
Modern consciousness is nurtured by modern media. So long as we have the “sight” of something, it is enough. Even pornography is strangely disembodied experience of an intensely embodied reality, something that kind of adds to its perversity.
Orthodox liturgy, on the other hand, is pointedly sensual. It smells and tastes. You can watch a video of it, but that’s not the same thing as going to church. You should smell church. You should taste church. It is physically exhausting. It engages the whole of our being.
Of course, moderns are particularly troubled and report (as sin) that their “minds wander.” They will even declare that this makes them “not present” in the service. I was asked a while back about how “to be present” by someone. I responded that you actually have no choice. You are always present. Wherever your body is, there you are. Present is what you are. I have yet to have anyone confess as sin that one of their feet “fell asleep” during Liturgy. It’s much the same thing, only we have a strange perception that it’s different.
I tell newcomers to the Church that they should prepare to be bored in services. The reason is that it’s not designed for the entertainment, much less the entertainment of our of false modern consciousness, unlike everything else around us. Instead, it’s an encounter with God, not an encounter with thinking, not an encounter with emotion. It’s an encounter with God.
The true spiritual life includes a recovery of the fullness of our being. St. Paul speaks of the “renewing of the mind” (that is, the nous) in Romans 12. Today, it not only needs renewing; it needs discovering. That discovery is not found in the maze of our thoughts. Rather, it is found moment by moment in paying attention to the whole self. As we withdraw from the noise of our false mind, generated by the cacophony of our consumer world, we work slowly at encountering the world in true communion.
We need to learn to live slower. “Whatsoever you do,” Paul says, “in thought, word, and deed, do it as unto the Lord.” This does not mean ignoring your activity and “thinking about God”; it means, when you walk, walk with God. When you eat, eat with God, in thanksgiving. Give your body as much credit as you’ve been giving to your mind. I strongly expect that the nature of our activities would change if we were actually doing this.
Some complain about their minds wandering when they pray. I have ADHD, my mind always wanders, but I don’t worry so much about it, or I’ve learned not to worry so much about it. It’s a very terrible thing to worry about something you can’t help. So when I pray, I stand in front of the icons. If my mind wanders—and I know it will—I keep standing there. The icons have been given to us for “communion,” and that communion is real, regardless of the noise of my mind. The noise is not me; it’s just noise.
Our glorification of ideas perverts our Christian understanding. Christ said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” But we distort this and think it means, “Your treasure will be where your heart is.” Instead, it says that where your treasure is, that’s where your heart will be. So we think that the thought that matters. But Christ was quite materialistic (that is, holistic) about the matter. Your treasure (your stuff) will control your thoughts. If you say you care about the poor, give them some of your stuff. If you don’t care about them—then give them some of your stuff. If you give enough over time, you will come to care. The heart follows. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” Where your materiality is, your hearts will follow.
Prayer is very much like that as well. We imagine prayer to be some sort of mental force. So, when a matter seems desperate, we call on others to pray with us and for us, imagining that the more minds we can join in prayer, the more powerful the prayer becomes. This is simply secular nonsense. If you want powerful prayer, then do as the Fathers did: fast and give alms. Deny yourself, and give stuff away to the poor. Ask the poor who benefit from your generosity to pray for you, and they will with glad hearts.
The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there, too, is God, the angels, the life, and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.
Quit thinking so much. It’s beside the point.