Archive for category The “Nous” (series)
“What’s a “nous”?”
In the last 500 years, since about the time of the Protestant Reformation (16th century) and Enlightenment (17th century), Western culture has been obsessed with the rational, reasoning, logical mind. It has become so dominant in our thinking, that it is now the sole measure of human intelligence. Our fixation with the rational mind is not without foundation. The power of the rational mind has been the engine that gave us the scientific method of inquiry; it brought us the Industrial and Scientific revolutions; the Information Age. It has largely shaped the modern world. So, in modern society, when we speak of “mind” or “intelligence” we mean one thing and one thing only: the rational, reasoning human mind.
For Christians trying to understand the New Testament (originally written in Greek) and other early Christian spiritual writings (also predominantly in Greek), the exclusive association of “mind” and “intelligence” with man’s rational, reasoning faculties is problematic. In Christian spiritual tradition, the rational, reasoning faculty of man is not the only definition of “mind” and “intelligence”. In fact, it is not even considered the highest or most developed definition of “mind” and “intelligence”. That distinction belongs to the “nous”.
What? What’s a “nous”? I’ll bet most Westerners, even mature Christians, have never heard the word “nous”. The word “nous” (pronounced “nooce”) is Greek (νοϋς) and can be found throughout the Greek New Testament (it appears explicitly 22 times in the NT) and in scores of other early Christian (Patristic) writings.
The term “nous” can be thought of as a perceptive or receptive ability to hear God’s voice and to, perhaps, experience Him in His energies. It has often been translated simply as “mind”, as in Paul’s letter to the Romans where he wrote, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind [nous], that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (12:2)
More next post.
“…the organ of contemplation…, the ‘eye of the heart’…”
The word “nous” has been translated into English as “mind”, “intellect”, and a variety of other meanings as well. The word “mind” was the choice made by Bishop Kallistos Ware (now Metropolitan Kallistos) and others in their translation of the Philokalia (the collection of Christian mystic writings from the 4th to the 15th centuries). But our modern conception of “mind” does not really capture the meaning of “nous”. Some use the word “intellect” as an equivalent. This also misses the nuanced meaning of “nous”. The problem is that we in the modern world only think of “mind” and “intellect” in terms of our rational, reasoning faculties. We can start to get a sense of the real meaning of “nous” from the definition contained in the Philokalia itself. Here, it translates “nous” as “intellect”, but you can see that it is clearly different from our contemporary idea of “intellect”:
“the highest faculty in man, through which – provided it is purified – he knows God or the inner essences or principles … of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception. Unlike the dianoia or reason…, from which it must be carefully distinguished, the intellect [nous] does not function by formulating abstract concepts and then arguing on this basis to a conclusion reached through deductive reasoning, but it understands divine truth by means of immediate experience, intuition or ‘simple cognition’ (the term used by St Isaac the Syrian). The intellect [nous] dwells in the ‘depths of the soul’; it constitutes the innermost aspect of the heart… The intellect [nous] is the organ of contemplation…, the ‘eye of the heart’ (Makarian Homilies).”
A lot of confusion surrounded the term “nous”, clearly. As a result, many secular philosophers have used it to refer to quite different concepts. “Nous” has been used to refer to anything from personal mental qualities or abilities all the way to qualities ascribed to God or the cosmos.
“… the noetic energy that functions in the heart of a person that is spiritually healthy.”
Originally, “nous” was understood by ancient (pre-Christian) Greek philosophers, most notably Plato and Aristotle, as man’s highest intellectual faculty. By intellectual faculty, the ancient Greeks did not mean the ability to reason things out to a logical conclusion, but rather the intuitive and immediate grasp of the reality of things. To them, “nous” was more of a direct contact between mind and truth.
The Church Fathers borrowed the term “nous” from Greek philosophy and gave it a distinctive Christian meaning. They used it to refer to the noetic energy that functions in the heart of a person that is spiritually healthy. The “nous” can be used to explain another borrowed concept from philosophy, the Logos Doctrine of the church. Second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr used the spermatikos logos (“seed” of the Word) to explain the universal indwelling presence of the Logos, the Word, or Son of God the Father within every human being (cf. the prologue to the Gospel of John, vv. 1:1-18). The idea of the “nous” also evolved over time among the Fathers. Early use of the term can be ambiguous as some early Fathers used the word “nous” when they were referring to the reasoning rational mind.
According to Orthodox theologian Fr. Michael Pomazansky (in his book, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology), it was the teaching of the overwhelming majority of the Church Fathers that the phrase ‘Image of God’ (cf. Genesis 1:26) refers to man’s soul, more precisely to the highest faculty of the soul, the “nous”. So, man is the “Image” by virtue of the spiritual nature of his “nous”. One common comparison made among patristic writers illustrates the relationship between body and the healthy “nous”. The analogy is that of the body being similar to a horse and the “nous” to the rider guiding and controlling the animal to move in the direction he would have it go.
” As a consequence of the “Fall”, the “nous” became dissipated and diseased…”
The “nous” in all of humankind was severely injured, diseased, and damaged in the “Adamic Fall” (The “Fall” in the Garden of Eden). The “Fall” is seen as the misuse of free will; of focusing on oneself rather than on God for guidance, wisdom and worship. Free will gave man the right to choose. And choose he did. In the “Fall”, humans shifted their focus from God to themselves (and any number of other idols). As a consequence of the “Fall”, the “nous” became dissipated and diseased, overwhelmed with increasing concerns for individual survival and the needs and desires of the body in the physical, material world. The “nous” became estranged from God’s grace and humankind’s whole nature became sick. This sickness was handed on to later descendants as the inheritance of ancestral sin.
The Orthodox do not understand the “Fall” in legal terms, as Western Christianity does, but rather in medical terms. When Paul says in Romans 5:19, “as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners,” it is understood in a medical sense, not a legal one. In other words, as a result of one man’s sin, human nature became sick.
The Incarnation and ministry of Jesus Christ is seen as a therapeutic (Greek therapeuo) mission of love from God to humankind in order to heal and restore our fallen sick souls. The key to this is the healing and restoration of the “nous”, the “eye of the heart”. Jesus possessed a complete human nature, not only on the lower side (body) but also on the higher spiritual side, the “nous”. His perfect human nature broke the grip of sin on fallen human nature, opening the possibility of restoring the diseased “nous” of every human being to its spiritual pre-Fall state.
In his book, Orthodox Psychotherapy: the Science of the Fathers, Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos (now Metropolitan Hierotheos) quotes Saint Maximus the Confessor (7th century) as saying “The nous functions in accordance with nature when it keeps the passions under control, contemplates the inner essences of created beings, and abides with God.” The “nous” is changed by every conceptual image that it accepts. When the “nous” is in a fallen state, confusion is created in the whole of the spiritual organism of man. In this “fallen” state, the “nous” needs therapy/purification.
“The aim is to restore the pre-Fall health of the ‘nous’…”
St. John of Damascus (8th century) says that the “nous” is the eye of the soul. The essence of the soul is the heart (kardia). The “nous” is that part of the soul that sees things most clearly and so it is important that it be purified of any impediment. When the healthy “nous”, the purest noetic power of the soul, is returned to its rightful place in the heart, it is then again capable of experiencing God’s presence through grace. It is this unification or return of the “nous” to the heart that constitutes the cure of the “nous”.
In “Orthodox Psychotherapy“, Hierotheos (Vlachos) speaks of the Church as a hospital which exists to heal those who are sick with sin. That is, to restore to health the diseased and dissipated “nous”, made sick by the “Fall”. The first step is to guard and protect the “nous” so that it can realize its origin in the “Image of God”. Then it can begin to be purified and restored to its intended role of leading the entire human being in “attaining to the likeness of God (cf. Gen. 1:26), or “deification” (theosis). In order to restore the diseased “nous” to this healthy state, it must first pass through a stage of purification. The church’s therapeutic work takes place in this stage of purification.
The “nous” can only be purified with the help of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, it is imperative that every believer be baptized in the Holy Spirit (cf. St. Symeon the New Theologian) and experience His indwelling presence. Through a regimen of self-discipline called ascesis (borrowed from the Greek word askesis, meaning athletic exercise or training), the “nous” can be purified and eventually healed. This only happens as a result of our active cooperation (synergeía) in this work with the Holy Spirit. The first result of this healing of the “nous” is a state which is called dispassion (apatheia) or a release of the “nous” from the influence and distraction of human passions and emotion. Real theology (i.e., a mystical experience of God) is another result, as are an authentic self-knowledge and an accompanying sense of freedom and joy.
“In Illumination, a vision of God is granted to the now-healed “nous”.”
When the “nous” is healed and restored, it is no longer dissipated among all the various senses and distractions of this world but is able instead to retire within itself to attain to a vision of God (theoria). A purified “nous” can be illuminated by grace, seeing the glory of Christ reflected in itself and seeing spiritual things clearly. In Illumination, a vision of God is granted to the now-healed “nous”. This vision of God is of His manifested energy (energeía), not His essence (oúsia), which remains beyond human conception and unknowable.
This is the spiritual development process of the early church: purification (katharsis), followed by illumination (theoria), culminating in deification (theosis). These three stages are the purpose of the mystical life of the church.
The manner of healing the “nous” is outlined by Hierotheos (Vlachos) in “Orthodox Psychotherapy“: First, the guarding of the “nous”; second, the purifying of the “nous”; and third, the returning of the “nous” to the heart through the practice (ascesis) of repentance and noetic contemplative prayer so that the “nous” might finally be illuminated by the “divine light” of God’s grace.
This noetic contemplative prayer is the Primitive Christian Prayer tradition of Jesus, Paul and the early church. This, Hierotheos assures us, is the common experience and teaching of the Church Fathers. They may have sometimes differed from one another as they sought to describe this common experience, but the variations in how they expressed themselves should be seen as just that. The true problem may not even be in their expression but in our interpretation; fragmented, locked into a rational modern worldview, and lacking in spiritual understanding as we are in comparison with them.
In closing this discussion of the “nous”, I return us to the point I made at the beginning of this series. Modern Western culture has virtually deified the rational, reasoning mind and intellect over the past 500 years. So thorough is our fixation and obsession with the rational mind, that any other conception of mind or intellect, such as “nous”, is virtually unknown, even within the church.
It is no wonder that we operate at such a low level of spiritual consciousness. But, now you know about your “nous”, the ‘eye of your soul’. You also now know about the 2,000 year Christian tradition of the healing of the “nous” and “attaining to the likeness of God”. So, what will you do now that you’ve discovered your “nous”?