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Part of the Seven Talks on the Creed

The Nicaeo-Constantinopolitan Symbol

And so: the “Nicaeo-Constantinopolitan Symbol” … Every one of you, if you pay a visit to any of the Orthodox Christian churches of Moscow, Leningrad, or any other place at the time of the Liturgy, will notice that at a certain moment of the service the choir stops singing and all the people sing. This is an ancient tradition, but it was recently revived, in the first years of the Revolution, at the initiative of Patriarch Tikhon. This initiative was not without a purpose. The point is that what is being sung is the Nicaeo-Constantinopolitan Symbol of Faith. It was the idea of the prelate that it should be engraved on and remain in the memory of the people for a time when everything would be taken away from them, even a written text. This “Symbol” has an exceptional importance for the Christian Church. Therefore every Christian should know it by heart and understand its meaning. Therefore a knowledge of the main points and the essence of the Nicaeo-Constantinopolitan Symbol is necessary for those who are preparing to receive the Mystery of Baptism, for those who were baptized in childhood but didn't become active members of the Church, for those who wish to acquaint themselves with the basis of the Christian faith, and for those who wish to know the foundations of European and of Russian secular culture that are based on Christianity. For historians, literary critics, art historians, writers, poets, people of the most diverse creative specialties and people in various branches of the humanities it is also necessary to be acquainted with this fundamental “Symbol”. Therefore, as I briefly set forth its meaning to you, I am going to address everyone — those who are preparing for Baptism, and those who have been baptized, and those who wish to look at this simply with the eyes of an educated person. We are not thrusting anything on anyone; the notion of agitation is alien to the Church; we simply bear witness.

First of all, what is the “Nicaeo-Constantinopolitan Symbol” in a literal sense? Nicaea is an ancient town in Asia Minor, where an Empire-wide Congress of the Christian Church was convened in the year 325. This congress was convened in Nicaea under the Emperor Constantine the Great to decide important spiritual and organizational problems of the Church. It is called an Ecumenical Council, the first.

[The word] “Universal”/“Ecumenical” was at that time synonymous with the Roman Empire. “Council” [Sob or] is an old Church-Slavonic word which signifies an assembly of people, a meeting of the representatives of the Church. It was at this First Ecumenical Council in 325 AD., i.e. a few years after the Emperor Constantine the Great had proclaimed freedom of the confession of the faith in his Empire, that a short confession of the faith was composed. A person entering the Church was to recite it at the time of Baptism, in the course of the rite that precedes the Baptism. We call this rite “proclaiming” [oglashenie — connected with the term “catechumen” in Ch.Slavonic — TR], when a person who has received instruction in the fundamentals of the faith, bears witness not only to his desire, but also to his conscious intention to set forth on the road to which Christ calls. Additions to the Symbol of Faith were made after half a century in the year 381, at the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople. In Ancient Rus' this city was called Tsar'grad [“City of the Emperor”; Tsar' < Lat. Caesar — TR.] and for that reason this confession of faith came to be called in brief the “Nikeo-Tsar'grad” Symbol.

Why “symbol”? “Symbol” is a capacious word with multiple meanings. A symbol is a sign revealing a kind of other reality; on this was constructed an entire literary-philosophical movement -Symbolism. Ultimately, our language, as well as our art, as well as much else that permeates human civilization and spiritual culture, is impossible to imagine without symbols. I am not going to enumerate them, but I call your attention to just one of these. Not to speak of signs, emblems and all possible kinds of conventional symbols, let us take just the WORD. A word is an astonishing thing. It is a signal that one soul gives to another soul. Signals that animals give to each other are simply signals. Danger, challenge, warning, establishing of a fact that, let us say, this place is occupied — my nest is here. Such are the signals, or we could loosely say, “symbols”, in the animal world. Human symbols are different. They are mysterious connections between separate soul-islands — because every soul lives in a particular world. Not for nothing did Tyutchev say. “A thought put into words is a falsehood.” It will be easy for all of you to imagine how difficult it is to convey authentic deep experiences. Words are insufficient to describe experiences of the mystery of the world, experiences of love, experiences of the fullness of life or of despair. But I ask you to consider one interesting thing. Feodor Ivanovich Tyutchev, when he said. “A thought put into words is a falsehood”, nevertheless did put this thought into words anyway. And in a beautiful poetic form.

No matter how imperfect our language is, no matter how little it is capable of grasping the mysterious levels of existence, we still need it. Here is an elementary example. When a person says that he loves another, every one of us packs into these ancient words something of his own, something unrepeatable, and nevertheless he says the very same words that his fathers have spoken, and his grandfathers, his distant ancestors. It turns out that these words continue to work when a definite psychic and spiritual reality stands behind them. Thus, any word is a symbol. But symbols are especially important for us where we come into contact with the reality of the inexpressible, with reality that goes beyond the boundaries of easily communicable events and facts. Music exists in order to communicate these experiences in its own way. Poetry also. But notice that real poetry, when it speaks of the highest things, of the mysterious, of the spiritual, of the divine, only attains its aim when it speaks indirectly, by way of suggestion. Those of you who are more or less acquainted with poetry no doubt will agree with me that when a poet, even a great one, tries with his “head” to speak plainly of things that transcend our normal level, he loses his poetic force. The concluding verses of Dante's Divine Comedy always come to mind. When, having described the entire cosmos, he approached the mystery of the eternal Mover of the world, the First Cause of the world, the Creator, he made an attempt to realize this, to comprehend it and finally ended up saying that here the flight of his spirit grew weak. He could no longer do anything. Therefore the most energy-laden poetry is the spiritual and the symbolic kind, which speaks to us through suggestion, that signals gently from soul to soul, so that one who is able to understand, understands, and one who does not understand, misses it.

Icon-painting is constructed the same way. It does not even pretend to represent adequately any material reality. It is a sum of symbols. Take the Novgorod icon of Elias the Prophet in the Tretyakov Gallery. Here we have intense color, on a blood-red background: this is a symbol of storm, of terror, of that inner fire that consumes the prophet Remember the lines — soft flowing — of Rublëv's “Trinity”, the mysterious circle that we may trace as we look at these three figures. These are symbols. Rublëv certainly did not claim to represent what is unrepresentable, to represent God. That is forbidden in the Bible, because the Eternal, the Infinite absolutely transcends everything earthly. This is when atrue artist provides us with a symbol. What is represented on Rublëv's icon? Incarnate love. Three persons who are carrying on a silent conversation. The bonds between them are like a magnetic field of love. They are similar to one another and at the same time different. They are one and yet are distinguished. It is this mystery of love that connects them, and not just love, but self-giving love. Here the table with the sacrificed animal signifies the sacrifice of the Eternal, which is offered by God to bring the world nearer to Himself and to save it.

Subsequently, in a period of decline in spiritual and artistic taste, the so-called New Testament Trinity began to be portrayed, where one Person was represented as an old man, the Second as Jesus Christ (as He was incarnated) and the Third as a dove. This is no longer a symbolic representation. It is an attempt, quite unsuccessful, of course, at some kind of realistic representation. Spiritual literature, the ancient sacred wisdom of the Bible, and the dogmas of the Church are constructed on the principles of symbolism. They are signs, conveying the Higher Reality as it has been revealed to mankind. It was revealed to them in all its paradoxality. Sometimes people ask why God is One in Three Persons. Wouldn't it be simpler to say that He is simply One? Probably it would be, reasoning logically. But the spiritual experience of Christianity was different and it had to sacrifice rational logic and create a dogma that was contradictory, paradoxical or dialectical, whatever you wish to call it. Similarly with regard to the dogma concerning Christ. Who is He? A man? Yes, answers the Church, verily a Man. Does that mean that He is not God then? No. says the Church. He is verily God True God. Paradox, contradiction; wouldn't it have been simpler to choose one of these affirmations, so that everything would fit together logically? But no. For in fact the reality has been revealed as Mystery transcending logic. There was nothing left to do but accept it in its paradoxical form — in the form in which it was revealed.

One must say that even man, as he grasps the laws of the cosmos, has gradually come to the conclusion that Nature, in its depths, is also constructed on paradoxes. Let us take a classic example. Andre Bergson had a point in saying that our elementary logic is the logic of hard bodies, i.e. of the simplest kind of relationships. Meanwhile, physics already knows of so many paradoxes that our logical thought seems to come to a halt when it confronts them. We know that there exist other systems of mathematics. For simple logic, the rational kind, parallel lines never meet. But for Non-Euclidean geometry they do meet. For logic a thing is either continuous or it is interrupted. For physics, particles are simultaneously continuous waves. In other words, human thought is unable to grasp all of reality as a whole. Therefore physics has come up with the so-called principle of complementation. This is a very important principle in science. It fully suits our dogmatics as well. Moreover, the principle of complementarity was employed in the dogmas of the Church long before Nils Bohr and others who launched this principle in science. Its essence lies in the fact that significant and fundamental phenomena of reality can be described only in contradictory terms. That is simply the way it is. Integral descriptions, uniting two contradictory manifestations, are in principle impossible to find; they don't exist.

Father Pavel Florensky, one of the outstanding Christian thinkers of the 20th century, used to say that “The Undivided Truth, in the process of falling from heaven, as it were shatters into separate parts, and we see it only in that broken condition.” Even Hegel noted that the “Symbol of Faith”, the same “Nicaeo-Constantinopolitan” symbol of faith we are talking about, is set forth in “theoretical” form; it is not a philosophy or a theological system, but a sequence of images, I would say, artistic, capacious images, alluding to the Reality that stands behind these words. The first word pronounced by a person reciting the Symbol of Faith is I believe. Often this word is employed in a negative context For example refering to “blind faith”. Blind faith? No. We strongly protest such a definition. On the contrary, faith is not blind, but clairvoyant. Every cognition requires a certain approach of its own. As the Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin, one of the greatest metaphysicians of the 20th century, said, it is necessary to a “correct act” (he used such an expression) that it [can] be carried out. He said that if a person wishes to see a picture, he has to have eyes: a blind man or a person with a blindfold does not see the picture. If you wish to listen to a symphony of Beethoven, it is necessary that you have ears, hearing. If you wish to become acquainted with any thing, for a very tiny object you need a microscope and other apparatus: for distant objects, radiotelescopes and other telescopes. In order to grasp the Highest Reality, spiritual Reality, it is our own spirit that serves as the instrument. When people say that they have to “touch God with their hands”, there is a certain misunderstanding here: the most important things in the world cannot be touched. Show me a person who has ever touched conscience, love, inspiration, wisdom. What makes a human being a human being, what is the main characteristic of our human existence, is based on things that are impossible to touch.

Starting at a certain point in history, let us say about 300-400 years ago, the temptation began to grow in mankind to give the greatest importance to things that can be touched. Measured, and weighed. No one would deny that these things exist. And that it is necessary for man to study them, to use them, and to make them. But when there arose a passion for them, when nothing else remained besides the tangible world, man set forth on a false path of development — because he is distinguished from the animal world by the fact that in him the development of suprasensual powers and capabilities is possible. Cognition, love, freedom — all these are suprasensual things, beyond time. Let me stress, they are placed in man with the potential to transcend time. But there is an enormous temptation before us. Man has taken as his mission the having of as much food as possible, and clothing, and good material conditions of personal life. Is this good? In principle, yes. But only on condition that what is human in him also be developed. For having as many dwellings, clothes and so forth as possible is not human but is something we have in common with all living creatures. A bird also has to have its nest (or hollow in a tree-trunk), and animals have to have their lairs; an antelope has to have a place where she can graze, and every bird has to have her own hunting region, where she will be sustained. This is biological law. The struggle for existence. Of course it exists, for plants, and for animals, and for man.

Man, however, became man when there appeared in him the special principle that rises above these things. If we take the best and I stress the best, representatives of humanity — great wise men, saints, poets, artists, heroes — we see at once that for the sake of their inner world, for the sake of their principles and convictions they often went contrary to the needs of the body. They were able to go without sleep for nights on end, they were able to manage for long periods without food, they were able to sacrifice their own conveniences, families, comfort, even life. When man sought after only the material, he began to stifle the higher needs in himself. Two models arose. One model is that of “practical greed”. Practical greed means that a person is directed entirely toward material well-being. This sickness exists in the whole world up to the present time. In what does it end up? In a catastrophe, a special catastrophe. Because here man betrays his own nature. Completely sated, he now begins to become possessed. This is where suicide, narcotic addiction, and the like come from in developed countries.

The second model is that of utopia — when material well-being is not given, but is endlessly promised. Therefore people strive for it over the course of decades, through personal sacrifices, as if for some unattainable goal. In the end they achieve neither the spiritual nor the material. All this also ends in a deep moral, material, and economic crisis. Only harmony between the spiritual, the physical, and the psychological in man can bring about normal development. Faith is the pivot in which man finds the unity of his own Ego. Therefore, potentially, every person, even a militant atheist, is subconsciously a believer. Non-believers do not exist, because the spirit of man has been programmed for unconscious striving toward a higher principle. The history of the 20th century has shown us this with unusual clarity. It was not without reason that Mao Tsetung before his death told a journalist that he understood the meaning of the Mystery of God, just by pondering his own cult. He understood then that man deprived of a conception of God in the end will deify anything he likes. This turned out to be quite obvious. In all countries where they have tried in one way or another to extinguish the idea of a divine principle, it is quickly replaced by something else, something vastly more vulgar, vastly more worthless. An idol is created. The place comes to be occupied, instead of by the Highest Meaning and the Creator of the Universe, either by abstract social phantoms, or by political figures,more than half of whom have been scoundrels , always, forever.

So, faith is the unconscious aspiration of man for the highest meaning of Existence, the acceptance of a higher meaning of Existence. More than that, faith is the condition of the human spirit that is attained by this same perception of the meaning of Existence. If there is a meaning, life is worth living. When meaning is completely extinguished, man as it were loses the pivot of life, and he is destroyed while still alive. There is a faith which is conscious — Christian faith. It is aware of what man aspires to and why. It speaks to us of One God the Father, the Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. This is the first point of the “Symbol of Faith”. God, He is One. Why? Because man has always sensed behind the multiformity of spiritual and physical principles a single something. Science finds itself on the very same path.

A meteorite falls. Scientists study its composition. It turns out that it is made of the very same elements that are on Earth. Spectrographic analysis penetrates into the interior of stars: it discovers the composition of the stars. The same Mendeleyev's Table. Common laws are at work everywhere. Everything is as it were subordinate to a some kind of unitary Plan. The noted English astronomer James Jeans was on the right track when he said that the Universe today is more similar to an enormous thought than to an enormous machine.

What lies behind this perfection of the Universe? Whence this conformity to laws? When they tell us that there are no miracles, I immediately recall that the biggest miracle is the existence of the world, and this is a miracle that man is able to acquaint himself with. Aristotle said that every cognition, including the scientific, begins with wonder. Man is filled with wonder at what he sees. Echoing him, Albert Einstein wrote, “He who has lost the capacity to wonder is mentally dead. To know that there exists a hidden reality, which is the highest wisdom and perfect beauty — this knowledge, this conviction is the kernel of genuine religiosity.” In the age of the creation of classical mechanics, which preceded the Einsteinian understanding of the world, its creators spoke thus (recall the words of Johannes Kepler, one of the founders of celestial mechanics): “When I study the laws of the cosmos, it is as if I touch God with my hands.”

In the 18th century the Swedish scholar Karl Linnaeus, the originator of the scheme of classification of animals and plants that we use to this day, upon finishing his work, wrote. “God has passed by me. I saw Him in His works.” The founder of experimental science Francis Bacon wrote. “Only superficial knowledge departs from God: deeper knowledge, however, returns you to Him again.” A few years ago a book called Dialogues came out in Moscow. It included an article by the physicist Charles Townes, one of the originators of the laser, our contemporary. The article is called “The Unity of Science and Religion”. Just as science comes to comprehend the material part of the world, so faith gets to know its spiritual basis. But the two are connected in the most intimate way — for both come to know, in the end, the Creator and the Mystery. Here it is amazing that man is capable of sensing the Creator simply intuitively. In fact, there is an organ — our deep intuitive cognition — that is capable of grasping the “Father of All”. When man looks at life not superficially, when he perceives things not merely on the surface, when he ponders the miracle of the atom, of the cell, of a blooming flower, the complexity of his own structure, the more he enters into this, the greater his infinite wonder.

The Universe is a gigantic organism. Anything made by man requires efforts, artifice, talent, and intellect. How great and incomprehensible has to be the Intellect and the Genius, Which stands behind the entire Universe! Everything that we know about the Universe lead us to Him. It goes without saying that I am not going to spend much time on the primitive arguments that were drawn out of dusty drawers thirty years ago. I remember there was a poster then, with pictures of Sputniks on it. And there was an inscription, that was supposed to be funny, attributed to the Sputniks, that they had traversed the entire Universe and had found God nowhere. Of course, this very assertion, that they had traversed the entire Universe, called forth doubt. One must have a concept of what the Universe is, how vast, in order to understand how nonsensical this assertion was. (In this connection I am reminded of the parable written by Soloukhin about a certain fish that decided to find out what was happening above the surface of the water. After leaping up a few centimeters, it flopped back and declared. “Well, there is no life there whatsoever, it is impossible to live there at all.” Man has not ascended above his planet any more than that fish did above its world.)

A second point. It is impossible to look for the Divine Principle in space. God is not located here or there. He is everywhere. He is in everything. When man comprehends this, he does not comprehend a thing that may be photographed or measured, he discovers God with his inner sight. There was a time when it was common to say that the faith that we call religious faith takes man away from life. On the contrary, it is the only thing that fills our life with meaning. It means, we were created for something; it means, the entire Earth was created for something; all of Nature was created for something; that the Highest Intelligence is directing both man, and life. At that time He breathed His Spirit into us. Then we are not merely bubbles that break on the surface of a boiling liquid, but we are the image of the Father, the Creator of heaven and earth.

What does this mean? Well, the concept “father” emphasizes that this is not an impersonal element — of the sort that Karl Capek portrayed in the novel “The Factory of the Absolute”. There, in that fantasy novel, the heroes manufactured refined some sort of supranatural element out of matter. No, this is not an element. “Father” is a personal principle. Therefore man is also a personality, because he reflects in himself the Highest Personal Divine Principle — that of the Creator of heaven and earth. What is meant by “heaven and earth”? This is an extremely ancient symbol of the Universe. Already 6,000 years ago the ancient Sumerians called the Universe “An-Ki”. “An-Ki” means “heaven and earth”, the two poles of existence. The Bible also begins its narration with the words, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth,” — that is to say, all the fundamental parameters of the Universe. Two more parameters are indicated in the “Symbol” — “everything visible and invisible.” He is the Creator of everything visible and invisible. These words take us to the idea of the duality of the whole cosmos, the duality of our nature. Man, who is a microcosm, i.e. a little universe, unites everything in himself. In our tissues, in our bones, there are minerals. In every cell of our organism there are exactly the same principles as in the cell of any plant. In our physiology there is everything that there is in the physiology of the higher animals. Besides this, however, there is in us an additional invisible principle, precisely that principle we call spirit. The soul is the connecting link, strictly speaking, between the spirit and the body.

The spirit is distinguished first of all by creativity. Only the spirit creates. In the animal world there is no creativity. Therefore man is like God. The spirit knows moral values. It chooses between good and evil. The spirit is free, potentially free. Therefore man bears responsibility for his behavior. The spirit is not material, it does not have color, form, weight, does not occupy space. Therefore, it is also indestructible. Why is matter subject to destruction? Because it is made from something: from molecules, atoms, elementary particles, which move in space. What is motion? Motion is the change of location of matter in space. Creativity, consciousness, and love are not located in space. Therefore material motion is inaccessible to them. And destruction as well. The spirit enriches itself in man. It enriches itself inwardly. It is able to grow. But its growth is non-material. A tree grows, an organism grows. The spirit also grows. But in quite a different manner. For this reason all the qualities of the spirit are dynamic values, i.e. they can increase and they can diminish. One can bury a talent in the ground, one can develop it. One can learn to love, or one can stifle this aspiration in oneself, and so forth. That is to say, we must not think that this gift is given to us in finished form, that is, given like Athena from the head of Zeus, that nothing more has to be added to it. No. All of human life is the development of spiritual qualities. The Bible calls these qualities the image and likeness of the Creator.

Man is in the image and likeness of nature. I have already spoken about this. But as a creator, as one knowing good and evil, as a thinker, contemplating the entire universe, he is the likeness of his Creator. In this connection he is raised infinitely above anything else. Blaise Pascal, the renowned physicist and philosopher, wrote that man is like a blade of grass, a thin reed, that costs nothing to obliterate; he can be killed by a small droplet. But if the entire universe collapses on him, he will still be higher than it, because it collapses on him senselessly, mindlessly. He alone will understand that he is perishing. Man appeared in the last moment of the history of the world. It remains a mystery for us whether he was created only on Earth or also on other worlds. For practical purposes, however, we are speaking today meanwhile only about this earthly humanity. There can be two variants: either God colonized the Universe with other humanities, or our humanity is the epicenter, from which in time will go forth a rational colonization. But what is important is something else•- that the world, according to the Bible, according to Holy Scripture, is not a finished thing, but a kind of task, a vocation for man. When man betrays his vocation, he begins to destroy the world. Instead of transfiguring it and spiritualizing it he befouls it. Instead of cultivating the capacity for spiritual knowledge, he dulls it. Instead of deepening in brotherliness and love, he becomes brutalized. This finally leads to painful consequences.

One must not think that Divine punishment is criminal punishment. Often I am asked, why do people say, “God has punished,” and the like. No. God is not a criminal court. But He has created a definite moral world order. In this moral world order evil that is sown turns back upon the one who sowed it. Man bears responsibility for what he has created. Moreover, this responsibility is connected with the deep-level solidarity of human beings. Human beings are mutually connected. When we do something evil, this evil is not our personal affair; it always spreads out around us. Thus, the first point of the “Symbol of Faith” touches on the chief point of any religion. What I have just been talking about is a dogma also both of Islam and of Judaism, each in their own way ... Even the pagans, who render homage to individual manifestations of nature, know all the same that behind them, behind the individual manifestations, is hidden a Higher Reality. Therefore the first point of the “Symbol of Faith” still brings us only onto the threshold of Christian teaching proper. So far this is still religion in the most general sense of this word. Is this an abstract theory, a metaphysics, a theology, a philosophy? No. Theology and philosophy only interpret this.

The fact of the matter is that there exists for every human being the possibility of the deepest mystical personal encounter with the Highest Reality. Man can and should always seek the way to It. We shall never have fullness of life or what we call “happiness” if we are cut off from this Reality. We shall never really be happy, if we replace it with idols. Sooner or later the idol will fall, and we shall see that it is powerless and inglorious.

Mankind over the course of a hundred thousand years, from the moment that it became conscious of itself, has always aspired to Heaven, has always sought God. As the Bible tells us, God made man, and man seeks Him, but in fact He is not far from each one of us. So it was put in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 17. The history of the search for God is the history of the human spirit and of culture. Only in particular segments of history did there flare up as it were the black flame of unspirituality — the attempt to deny this aspiration to Eternity. Such were the attempts at materialism in Ancient India, Ancient China, Ancient Greece, and in our century. But these are anomalies of spiritual development. The normal spiritual development always is found under the banner of faith, under the banner of what we call religion. The word “religion” comes from the Latin religare, “to connect”. We exist as separate individuals, but there is a mystery that connects us with one another, that connects us with the Higher Reality, that connects us with the Purpose of Existence. It gives to every individual a nontransient meaning. We are no longer grains of sand, we are no longer dust, nor autumn leaves that fall to the ground. Each one of us is infinitely valuable, like a precious stone found amid the waves: it is extracted, and found to be a pearl. Every soul is a pearl. Everything depends on how it is polished. And the polishing — that is what spiritual life is, spiritual effort.

This is what the first point of the “Symbol of Faith” is all about. Later on we shall go over its fundamental themes. To be sure, you understand that I cannot capture this inexhaustible problem in all its fullness. Therefore, if any of you have any questions right now, I will try to answer them. But now I thank you all. I have been very glad that you have met here to hear the old and eternally young word of the Church, the “Nicaeo-Constantinopolitan Symbol”, on which Christianity has stood over the course of the centuries and will stand immutably, continually discovering ever new depths in it, continually comprehending it, for here is the Way that has no end. The Way to Infinity. It is an open model. A model of flying and journeying to the Light.

Thank you.