Category Archives: Philosophy

Up the Mountain

There’s an amusing man living in our apartment building. We call him the “soul” of the neighborhood. You can see him standing by the front door smoking and getting in conversations with whoever happens to pass by. He knows the neighborhood and the neighborhood knows him. When you hear his ringing voice outside you know he must have gained an attentive ear. Whatever it is he’s talking he has an expert look in his eyes — masterfully intertwining cuss-words here and there for the desired impact.

Usually I get to talk to him in the morning, returning from my jog. He would be standing on the staircase, by the edge of the pine forest, smoking as I slowly walk up catching my breath. Conversations come easy — I usually have something to comment on: weather, trash in the woods, mosquitoes, squirrels etc. But even if I have nothing to say he always does. He can talk about anything and argue about everything.

He’s a mister know-it-all. He will inform you on the state of the national oil industry in stunning detail. This year he was the only person who congratulated me on 3 national holidays at a time: May 1, Russian Orthodox Easter and fire-fighters’ day. Who would have thought we had a fire-fighters’ day! And he was very surprised to hear I wasn’t going to have any vodka for Easter. Isn’t it what Lent is all about – holding yourself back so you can let yourself loose when it’s over?

He’s quite point-black in expressing himself. He will often quote his sources, all of which seem to fall into one of three categories: “I have read it on Google”, “the Internet is full of that”, “I saw it on TV”. These “sources” he considers an indisputable authority expecting everyone to feel the same degree of awe. He firmly believes in what he says. A believer would envy such a faith. All he needs is to see a line of news and he’s ready to preach it from rooftops.

Internet is slowly but surely turning people into “experts”. It’s so much easier nowadays to speak with confidence than, say, a decade ago, when having read a book or two made you an expert enough to impress your audience. Today they would hardly be moved at all. On the contrary, most likely they would try to impress you back with tons of information from Google or Youtube. The so-called “sources” have become accessible to the general public and the general public is becoming more and more sure of possessing THE UNLTIMATE knowledge. People are becoming “experts” in politics, economy, hunting skills or Russian Easter traditions with respect to the appropriate consumption of vodka.

Today it’s much easier to believe that you can know everything. It certainly seems that way. Just go to the “source” and you’ve got it. You can get an elaborate view on pretty much anything. You will get all things explained and interpreted for you. You will know what to think and what to believe. Isn’t that nice? You have a 24/7 oracle at hand that will tell you what to think about the world you live in. There’s no more place for doubt.

Is seems however that such a knowledge in an illusion. An easy access to information creates an illusion that when you see or hear something you actually know something. But this is a mediated, vicarious, secondhand knowledge. You’ve got it through a third party. Yet you are under the illusion that it is your own. You’ve got someone else’s answers, someone else’s point of view, facts or events which you personally have never witnessed.

As Tim Keller says, “it’s easier to take Israel out of Egypt than Egypt out of Israel”. Israel was haunted by their slave mentality throughout their national history but perhaps the first and most iconic instance of their relapse into slavery was the refusal to go up the mountain to talk to God. They got scared and sent Moses instead. Refusing to meet God face to face and choosing to communicate with him through a mediator is one of the main characteristics of slave mentality.

Having a mediator makes life easy. He will always tell you what to do and what to think. To communicate with God face to face means you will have to think for yourself. It’s scary. You assume all the risks. Independent thinking, without relying on third-party expertise, is a sign of freedom. Of course, the mediator can interpret life for you, and nothing will be uncertain and unpredictable. But talking to God face to face, what is it like? It means I will be the one deciding WHAT He told me! What if I make a mistake? If I am too scared I would rather have someone tell me what to think and do!

True knowledge is never mediated. It’s always the result of a direct encounter — with God, man or event. True knowledge is personal, not a set of facts but a face to face experience.

God is calling us to freedom — to go up the mountain and talk to him face to face. A slave will say: “I don’t want the risk of doubting whether I have heard him or not. I’d better use a mediator”. A free person will want a face to face meeting and will not be satisfied with less. As the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev put it, the true knowledge is a marriage to God. And the apostle Paul prefigured it in his prophetic statement: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face… then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known (1 Cor. 13:12).