Soul and Body According to “De Fide Orthodoxa” of St. John Damascene

Dorin Oancea

Abstract The Christian and particularly the Orthodox understanding of belief sometimes might be seen as a matter of the soul and not a matter of the body. Based on such an understanding the binomial “creditions - neuronal processes” would not have any significance for an Orthodox anthropology. But such an understanding can be marked as reductionist regarding the broader conceptions that we can find in the positions of the Fathers. In this contribution, some aspects of the comprehensive anthropological understanding of humans and their relation to God will be presented as it is conceived in the famous synthesis of patristic thought, De Fide Orthodoxa, written by St. John Damascene (~ 650-before 755).

Theological Thinking and the Complexity of the Process of Believing

The question of how to relate faith and brain activity has led to interesting developments. Many of them are associated with the so-called “neurotheology” (Persinger 1987, d’Aquili and Newberg 1999; d’Aquili et al. 2001; Joseph 2002). But the neurotheological proposals do not provide an acceptable approach for bringing together religious experience with brain functions, as the proponents of this idea ignore the basic rules of hermeneutics. It might be possible to conceive the intention of “neurotheology” as an attempt to conceive a “neurobiology of religiosity” (Angel 2013b). Therefore, it is crucial not to confuse the question of the neural base of belief with any neurotheological concepts. On the contrary, one of the origins of the concept of credition was to explicitly avoid those theoretical traps that result from a lack of hermeneutics, which are elemental in the attempt to understanding religious experience as neurotheology (Angel 2006).

On the other hand, it cannot be ignored that religious experiences are part of the general possibilities of humans. In this there is an interest to better understand this

D. Oancea (*)

Facultatea de Teologie Andrei Saguna, Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, Sibiu, Romania e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it ; This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017 319

H.-F. Angel et al. (eds.), Processes of Believing: The Acquisition, Maintenance, and Change in Creditions, New Approaches to the Scientific Study of Religion 1,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-50924-2_22

ability. It will be necessary to carefully separate different systematic approaches from one another and not to confuse incompatible terms and research interests.

One model that avoids the traps of neurotheology and even builds bridges between different approaches in science (esp. neuro-science), humanities, philosophy, and theology seems to be the model of creditions. Introduced a decade ago (Angel 2006), the “model of credition” (Angel 2013a) has meanwhile developed into a broader scientific context that includes different fields of science and humanities (Seitz and Angel 2012; Runehov and Angel 2013; Seitz and Angel 2014; Sugiura et al. 2015).

Regarding the concept of credition, three aspects seem to be of major interest for Christian anthropology and are fundamental at the same time:

  • • Creditions are not limited to solely religious belief, but include all other cognitive and emotional processes whose certitude comes from both repeatable observations of certain phenomena and subjective-emotional ways of understanding those phenomena. In this way, creditional processes may be interrelated with peoples’ general worldviews. Similarly in mathematics, postulates do not need any demonstration in order to be approved. Creditions are basic assumptions, perfectly able to offer a coherent, present world view and to approximate a still unknown or uncertain future, but of course, only within this framework. Religious belief is only one part of a complex process through which persons understand the world. Because of this, the idea of credition may be more easily acceptable both for religious and non-religious people. More importantly, it suggests a systemic isomorphism between all forms of belief. This might be discussed as a question of anthropology, but it seems to me that this way of understanding is more suitable to understand acts of beliefs than any dichotomic concepts of belief. On the other hand, one should not ignore the significant differences between religious and non-religious experiences. Depending on the religious or non-religious orientation, deeper consequences might be expected for the subjective perception of the self and the world. It will be of major interest to define more clearly the subjective efficacy of different orientations if they follow most of the aspects of general biological rules of processing.
  • • In general, as in theological discussions, belief/faith in the sense of religious belief is often emphasized as content/contents of belief. This content orientation of belief tends to ignore its emotional dimension although the major obstacles in theological dialogues are of emotional origin. According to the “model of credi- tion,” creditions (including religious beliefs) and all processes related to them are not only specific to the cognitive dimension of man but also to his emotional life: “Credition is conceived as a psychological term in analogy to emotion and cognition that denotes the mental activity related to what we call ‘he/she believes’” (Seitz and Angel 2012).
  • • The connection between creditions as processes of belief and neuronal processes allows an understanding of belief as embodied. This has a major implication for understanding religious cognition (see the contribution of Oviedo in this volume). Additionally, it helps to better formulate a central intention of Christian catechesis; it is not possible to pass over Christian Faith like an object. It has to be undertaken by those who are interested in understanding the meaning of the Christian dogma. Contents of belief and dogmatic concepts are not “alive” without “embodiment” in individual humans, and consequently in Christian communities. This leads to the conclusion that in order to understand Christian belief and the “growing in Christ,” one should keep in mind at least the bodily processes complementary to creditions.

One could argue that the Christian and particularly the Orthodox understanding of belief is a matter of the soul and not of the body. If one follows this argument, there is no observable benefit from any progress in studying the bodily life of humanity. At least, the understanding of the body seems to have little relevance for his/her communion with God. Therefore, the binomial “creditions - neuronal processes” would have no significance at all for an Orthodox anthropology, one and the same at all times.

To me this seems to be a reductionist outlook which is quite far from the much broader perspective of the Fathers. The openness of the Fathers, who have a comprehensive anthropological understanding of humans and their relation to God, can be verified by having a closer look into their anthropology.

It is not my intention to offer a more detailed presentation of the credition model, but to investigate the extent to which the above-mentioned basic ideas are consistent or not with the traditional Christian and Orthodox anthropology. In the case of an affirmative answer, they might be used to articulate an anthropological understanding of Christian belief. Methodologically, this might be seen as an attempt to describe the general structure of Christian Faith in a way that is appropriate from a scientific point of view and which is familiar to contemporary people. In this way, the concept of credition might be conceived as one possible explanation of Christian faith as a “normal” potentiality of humans. But this is not enough to clarify how the aspect of transcendence, which is impossible to express in terms of human language, can be formulated. It should be noted that the understanding of creditive processes theoretically refers to the concept of subconsciousness and that creditions are understood as being deeply rooted in subconscious processes. This allows us to explain Christian faith also as a “specific” potential of humans which finally transcends all attempts to explain it in terms of natural science.

Of course, there needs to be deeper theological and anthropological research to clarify more substantially the relationship between the concept of credition and traditional theological concepts regarding the role of belief for any understanding of Christian faith.

I intend to make nothing more than a first step to see how the compatibility of the concept of credition with the anthropological view of the Fathers might be verified. I refer to the famous synthesis of patristic thought, which is expressed in “De Fide Orthodoxa[1] written by St. John Damascene (~ 650-before 755). This author experienced the period of Islamic expansion and gives insight in the way of thinking in times of transition (Argarate 2013).

De Fide Orthodoxa is the third and most important book of the Fountain of Wisdom. It is divided into four books, each of them containing several chapters. From the very beginning, I want to avoid a misleading interpretation of this title: fide means here the entire Christian understanding of reality, with its two fundamental dimensions - God and His creation. St John makes it perfectly clear that each of these two dimensions is governed by specific rules, spiritual and mundane, and that humanity is expected to act in accordance with them, on the one hand without confusion, on the other without separation. This broad understanding is at the same time Orthodox and Catholic and this is the reason why the Damascene treatise has been highly regarded not only in the Eastern tradition but also in the Western one, here as the first important synthesis of the Christian world view before the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas AquinasThomas Aquinas. The subjective faith of an individual person is just a part of the ensemble, and I shall deal with it in the context of the three ideas already mentioned.

  • [1] De Fide Orthodoxa is divided in four books, each of them containing several chapters. All quotations are from the online edition of the revised version.
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