Something within Orthodox Christianity that doesn’t get talked about much is the concept of the nous. It’s hard to talk about, partly because I am not a theologian, but more importantly because I don’t live in the nous. I have glimpses of it, but only having glimpses of it is part of the disease of the modern world.
What is the nous?
Nous, a term from ancient Greek, simply means “mind.” When Saint Paul says we have the mind of Christ, that’s the word nous. He doesn’t mean in terms of deductive reasoning. In fact, the Orthodox Church believes you cannot come to know God by operation of the human mind, but by the nous. The nous is distinct from and beyond the rational mind. You can rationally learn about God and learn about Scripture and still be far from God. With the rational mind you can only understand concepts about God in terms of your mental constructs.
The nous for the early Church Fathers is that part of the human person which God gave us to have a relationship with him and the part of the soul that is capable of direct communion with God. It is the highest part of the soul, the seat of spiritual perception, intuition, and mystical experience. It is through the nous that we can experience the uncreated energies of God, which is God Himself working in us.
How do we have a relationship with God, if not by learning things about Him?
We do it by doing things that please the Lord. Through our prayer, acts of humility, acts of kindness for others, reducing distractions, paying attention to yourself, attending to your sins, attending to your heart, and attending to God. All these images of attention are there to reduce our distraction from the chaos of the world and move our focus to a spark of light that is the nous. The Eastern Church does not believe in total depravity. The early Church believed that the nous was darkened by the fall of man and that we need to be illumined by the light of Christ. Thus, Baptism in the early Church was called Holy Illumination because it was the beginning of our process of enlightenment. So, we come to know God not primarily through the rational mind, but through illumination of the soul, the purification of the nous, the spiritual mind. The more we behave in a manner that contributes to that, the more the nous becomes illumined or receptive to divine insight. Ultimately, the goal of the spiritual life in Eastern Orthodoxy is to achieve theoria.
What exactly is theoria?
In Orthodox Christianity, the term theoria refers to the contemplative knowledge of God that can be attained through the purified and illumined nous. Theoria is not simply an intellectual understanding of God, but a direct, experiential knowledge of God that is attained through spiritual practice and divine grace.
The goal of the spiritual life in Orthodox Christianity is to attain theoria and to participate in the uncreated energies of God. Theoria involves the transformation of the entire person, not just the mind, through participation in the sacraments and through ascetic practices such as prayer, fasting, and contemplation.
Furthermore, theoria is closely connected to the concept of deification, or theosis, which is the idea that human beings can become like God through their participation in the divine energies. This is what St. Athanasius meant when he said that “God became man so that man might become god.” Therefore, theoria is seen as a necessary part of the process of deification, as it allows the human person to experience the divine energies directly and to be transformed by them.
Overall, my goal is not to say that we should not learn about God with our rational mind; we should, but my hope is to emphasize that knowing God is more than reading about Him or trying to define Him with mental constructs. The ultimate goal of the spiritual life in Orthodox Christianity is the attainment of theoria and participation in the uncreated energies of God through the purified and illumined nous.