Saturday, September 08, 2007

Patristics and Early Christian Studies

This is a patristics blog. Of course, this should not come as a shock to any of my readers and, indeed, they might well wonder why I should make such an obvious observation. The reason is that I've been thinking over the past few weeks about the nature of patristics and its place in the intellectual universe which is dominated by (but not coterminous with)the modern academic world. In that world, despite the clear revival of interest among some Christians, patristics is a distinctly unfashionable discipline. Of course, neither is theology and, given the connections between patrology and theology, this is not a coincidence.

The reason for patrology and theology's lack of cultural cache is, ultimately, that they really don't fit well in the intellectual culture of our day. That intellectual culture is dominated by, but not coterminous with, the university which tend to have a very different intellectual stance to the subject matter of patrology and theology and, as a result, tends to see these disciplines as throwbacks to a less enlightened time. Instead, they deal with the subject matter of theology through Religious Studies departments and patrology through Early Christian studies. What Religious studies and Early Christian Studies have in common is their stance that the scholar's proper stance to his subject should be an objective one. That is, that it is very important for the scholar in either of these fields to set aside any of their own beliefs about God and faith in order to act as the classically liberal observer of facts and data. In its heart of hearts (and despite much post-modern posing in humanities departments), the academic world is still very modernist in its assumptions and it makes the assumption that this vulgarly scientific mindset is the only valid approach to these and other subjects.

Now, don't get me wrong. I've been trained in an academic setting and I value that training. The products of the research of academia are impressive intellectual achievements and have further our understanding in most fields immensely. What does annoy me about this mindset is that it presumes that it is the only way to think that is valid. I have no problem if someone decides to analyse something in this way--the results are often rewarding and helpful enough in advancing our understanding in historical and other fields to justify continued research in this mode. Yet, I would argue that theology and patrology have contributions to make as well. What I find problematic is that it is never entirely certain what we are doing history (or talking about God) for, if all we are doing are being observers of the 'facts'.

Theology and patrology represent is an inversion of the common academic approach. That is, its stance is within a living faith tradition in which the contributions of one's predecessors are developed and amplified in order to increase one's understanding of a worldview which differs substantially from the tradition behind modern academe. The concern of a patrologist is to ask questions about how the Fathers thought in order to provide resources to evaluate and re-evaluate our theology within the Christian church today. It is not to add to the database of some kind of abstract history-as-it-was database whose purpose is both unclear and, hence, represents, at best, a body of interesting reading and, at worst, unconnected (and, hence, trivial) antiquarian lore.

Patrology, as a result, is profoundly and truly counter-cultural in a way that Early Christian studies (for all its posing) cannot be. Early Christian studies is very much at home in the dominant intellectual culture of our day because it adopts the modern academic approach without question. Furthermore, it participates in the modern culture wars between religion and secularism with a decidedly slant to the latter. It can't help it. If one's job as a scholar is to check one's theology, faith and beliefs at the door, this is to say that they are, ultimately, irrelevant to one's scholarly discourse and to communal discourse as whole. And, after all, is this not the assumption of Western secular cultures--that religion (and not just Christianity) is, at best, irrelevant to our common life and, at worst, is a threat to it (by fostering division).

This, I think, explains the whole spate of books dealing with the historical quest for Jesus which have been coming out regularly at Easter and Christmas because they should be understood as counters to the religious pronouncements perceived as central to the Religious Right which do regard religion as an important aspect of our communal life. I have my problems with the Religious Right (more in its selectivity of causes and less than salubrious alliances, than in its right to political activity), but it is hard not to see the often gleeful 'de-bunking' of Jesus' divinity implied in the continuing alternative gospels craze on in the Jesus' tomb excitement as implying a slap in the face to religious conservatives. Not that there is a conspiracy to do this, but, rather, that we are educated in our modern Western secular culture to study early Christianity this way and, if it should annoy the Religious Right, that is good as well.

The justification of patrology's counter-cultural status is that it very clearly isn't interested in either validating the modernists assumptions of secular culture nor is it interested in trying to defend Christianity in the way that the Religious Right does. Patrology gives us a window to a completely different tradition and, hence, culture to that of the world around us. The same amount of care and intellectual effort can be used in patrology as in any modern university, but it is done so with different assumptions and different restrictions. The patrologist contributes to a different counter-culture-traditional orthodox Christianity- and, as a result, cannot help but to clash with those in a more 'academic' setting.



Roger Pearse said...

You touch on something that has always concerned me.

"What Religious studies and Early Christian Studies have in common is their stance that the scholar's proper stance to his subject should be an objective one. That is, that it is very important for the scholar in either of these fields to set aside any of their own beliefs about God and faith in order to act as the classically liberal observer of facts and data."

I once saw echoed something almost identical on the website of the Oxford Divinity Faculty.

But is there any practical difference between this and saying "we expect you to study Christianity on the basis that it is not true"?

If not -- and I suspect there is no difference worth discussing -- then surely this is not a value-neutral position of any kind?

I want to see objective study. Because of this stance, sometimes the evidence is disregarded in order to make up a story which suits the values of the period of history in which the scholar happens to live.

Nor is this only a modern trend. These studies have studiously reflected the agenda of those controlling appointments for centuries. I have on my shelves an English translation of the Apostolic Fathers, including the Didache, in which the author describes them as perfect proof of how the early Christians followed Anglican rituals. Based on this, apparently in the 1800's Anglican churches were run by Apostles and Prophets!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Very good, Phil!

The next step is to recognize the irrelevance of the academic for the faithful.

While one of the faithful may work within an academic set of constraints, bracketing his faith, why should he? An adherent of the Faith of Martyrs, the Church Militant, does not need to pull punches, but to throw them. This passivity accepted by the faithful within the academic realm is a slow poison, one that has done no good to those who've embraced it, but rather has eroded the faith which they so carefully "bracketed."

Even so, in the end, we're called to a life of prayer and transformation, not conferences and publication. One must keep his priorities straight!

Phil Snider said...

Roger and Kevin;

I think both of you are right here because I honestly think that the kind of academic study I'm alluding to is corrosive to faith and, I think, needs to be recognized for what it is. I hesitate from dismissing all of academe because there are Christian academics who continue to believe and write in an academic environment without compromising their Christian principles and faith. They are mostly based out of theological colleges and seminaries which are loosely affiliated with universities, but they remain a prescence in academic societies and journals. Indeed, groups like the SBL a pretty much divided right down the middle between religious studies folks and theologians.

A rigourous historical methodology should never be something to fear, but we do have to ask hard questions about the assumptions behind the application of a methodology. Faith matters (or should) to a Christian scholar and that should come out in what he or she writes.


TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Phil - excellent post - you nailed it on the head.