A few weeks back, Mike Aquilina alerted his readers to Prof. Reno's article in the Catholic journal, First Things. I finally got my hands on the article (thanks to my wife who picked it up for me, bless her heart). Of course, I enjoyed it. How could anyone currently labouring the patristic garden not enjoy an article which, as Mike puts it, makes patristics sound cool and post-modern. Why, those of us who are patristic blogging are even on the cutting edge of this trend because we are studying and, in many cases, trying to popularize the Fathers!
Prof. Reno characterizes the dilemma of faithful Christians in this post-Christan era as a people in disarray. We have fragments of Christianity left, but we really don't know how to connect the pieces in a way that makes sense. Like the Old Narnians who rally behind Prince Caspian, in C.S. Lewis' volume of the same name (soon to be a movie as rumour has it), it is not until the magic horn is sounded and the past kings (or here, past Fathers) are called back, that a more cohesive response is possible. In Lewis, the arrival of Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy not only raises the morale of the embattled Old Narnian army, but it signals the revival of the sleeping power of Old Narnia (embodied in the dryads and the trees). Further, Peter sets the army, demoralized by many defeats, back into order and issues the challenge which leads to the final confrontation with the New Narnians, the Telmarines. The study of the Fathers, Prof. Reno seems to say, is the result of the sounding the magic horn which will reconnect us with the wealth of the past. It is that past which can allow us to re-focus ourselves on what is important in our Christian witness in the post-Christian world.
I think it is important here to note that we aren't returning to the Fathers for mere antiquarian interest or because the patina of age gives a theologian a particular authority. That would lead to the same kind of sterile and theoretical study of the Fathers which caused it to be rightfully dismissed so summarily around the middle of the last century. Yet, the Fathers have something to say to us because, unlike most of Christian history in the West, the Fathers (especially the earlier Fathers) faced a world which, to a large extent, did not understand or want to understand what Christianity was about. They also faced a fragmented Christianity in need of definition. Their problems are not our problems, since we have the added complication that many people believe they've tried Christianity and it didn't work. But, their problems were similar to ours: how do we relate to a non-Christian culture and how do we read the Bible in a way that allows us to witness truthfully to that culture?
It is good news to hear that the study of the Fathers has become more popular in academic theology because this gives us a chance to re-orient ourselves to face the challenge of a new post-Christian world. More importantly, as Prof. Reno notes, it will allow us to re-ignite our Christian imagination which has seen some bad decades at the hands of the hyper-literalism practiced by both conservative and liberal scholars. The patristic imagination was fired by Scripture in a way that we're only just now starting to experience. Reading the Fathers not only provides us with information to write the history of the Early Church, or theological tidbits to quote or catenae of Biblical exposition, but their integration of thought and prayer should point us towards a different way of doing theology: where intellectual, mystical and imaginative approaches are no longer seen as opposites, but as compliments. Theology, the Fathers teach us, is not the found only in the scholarly ivory tower, but, also, in the lives of individual believers.
What the Fathers contribute is a reference point to ways of reading Scripture which work both theoretically and practically. That way, while being immersed in Scripture like the Fathers, we won't lose our way, pulled this way or that by the treacherous currents of our unguided imaginations. The rule of faith, like the Gulf Stream, will pull us along as we read Scripture to where we all seek: the Kingdom of God.
The horn has been sounded and we New Narnians have met the Fathers as they return from the distant past, not just as a common reference point to start our theological journey, but as guides on the way ahead.