Saturday, October 20, 2007

Classics and Patristics

I am, by training, a classicist. I was reminded of that on Friday because I went to a lecture on Homer, back into the particular section of the local ivory tower which currently houses the Classics department. I felt I was back on familiar ground because I had spent some years at this particular department, but felt unfamiliar because of all the things that have changed over the seven years that I've been away. I enjoyed the talk and found some useful tidbits for my own teaching, as well as some grist for this particular blogging mill.

What I've been thinking about in connection to this re-entry into the Classical world was the relationship between my training in this field and my current interest in patristics. I am something of an autodidact when it comes to patristics (and, for that matter, the more general field of theology of which patristics is a part). That is, in my many years in university (15 years all told; 8 of which were post-graduate), I only took one course on a patristic author. That course was something of a Beginners Intensive Augustine taught as a historical topics course, so not exactly taken from a theological standpoint or even a linguistic one. So, I'm not sure that counts.

Of course, my classics training has proven to be incredibly useful in my autodidactic approach to patrology. My understanding of Latin and Greek, my familiarity with the various types of anciliary modes of criticism (textual, form, source etc) and specialized skills (epigraphy, papyrology, etc) and the basic historical/literary background of the classical period has proved invaluable as I've entered the thickets of patristic learning. All of these skills have given me invaluable shortcuts in pursuing my patristic enthusiasm.


Still, being back in a classics environment continues to remind me how different a world classics is. You'd think it wouldn't be. After all, patristics and classics both inhabit the same time and places, so have so much overlap that you'd think patrologists and classicists would be talking all the time. The truth is, however, that the relationship is strained. Classics, by its very nature, focuses on the literature, history, philosophy of the non-Christians and is, thus, uncomfortable with what is going on among the Christians. Many classics scholars would be more than happy to forget the Christians were there or, if they should be so rude as to obtrude into their historical vision, to condemn Christians as narrow-minded, ignorant fanatics who couldn't appreciate the art, beauty and nobility of the classical ethos. It shouldn't strike anyone as odd that many classicists dismiss Christianity and find their comfort in the classical world. Nor should it surprise anyone that Christians sometimes find Classics departments rather uncomfortable and frustrating places in which to be Christians.

Still, this division between patristics and classic is, at once, appropriate and artificial. It is appropriate because, for a long time before Christianity's future triumph, declaring oneself a Christian was to separate with the mass culture of classicism. Refusal to sacrifice effectively removed one from the political sphere. Distrust of paganism removed one from the literary sphere. Thus, in a real sense, Christian literature before Constantine operated with different rules and appealed to very different audiences than more mainstream authors. Mind you, we'd still have to work in the inevitable economic/social status as determines of who read what, but I doubt we'd find many non-Christians reading, say, Tertullian. If we did, it might only to look for ammunition to convince Christians to stop being so obstreperous.

Yet, it is still an artificial division, even before Constantine, because Christian writers were concerned with how Christians related to the culture around them. They were often seeking to explain Christianity to non-Christians in culturally understandable ways or in interpreting the culture to Christians in a theologically understandable way. One couldn't quite separate oneself from the mainline culture then any more than we can do it now. In that sense, patrologists can't do with a good understanding of the classics.

That, of course, is the irony of the patrologist's relationship with classics. At the end of the day, the patrologist needs the classicist rather more than the classicist needs them. The classicist can still ignore the patrologist and the Christians of his era and suffer comparatively little distortion. Yet, the patrologist (and the Christian today) has to engage with the dominant culture, even as it critiques it.

Peace,
Phil

5 comments:

Jim said...

In Becket, J. A. has him define his role as the chaplin of the ship of State. He tells Henry that as king, Henry must stear the ship, but that as God's prophetic bishop, he must speak out if he sees the ship sailing against God's intentional wind.

In a sense, I think, he nailed the rold of the Christian in a secular culture. I do not want theocracy although the nutcases who fund the IRD and many of the attacks on the ACCAnanad and TEC do. I do want the church to speak, in an effective voice to the society when it errs.

So, for instance, the pernicious phrase 'campus friend with beneifits' which now is common on our university campuses points to a need for us to speak. But, after we say, 'faithful and monogamous' and thus speak truth to the society, we should probably shut up and pray.

It is interesting that the divide that you describe is so intense. I should think that any understanding of how the classic world evolved and eventually ended would require an understanding of what was going on in Christianity. Hmmm....


FWIW
jimB

Phil Snider said...

That is the problem, of course: how to speak to society without seeking a 'theocracy'. I personally am so suspicious of Constantinianism that I question to what degree we can trust the state to act in a manner consistent to Christianity even when its leaders are professed Christians. History has shown that the connection between the Church and State usually has the State as the senior partner and the Church distinctly the junior one. One of the privileges, however, of being the senior partner seems to be to deflect blame onto the junior. Not that the Church isn't complicit in the abuse of Constantinian politics, but the real story apportions blame rather more evenly than pop culture will allow.

This is one reason why I have to smile at the accusations of seeking theocracy. I smile because, strictly speaking, that has never happened. That is, at no time has a people put itself solely in the hands of God or even his duly appointed priests and ministers. Nor is the IRD and its allies actually suggesting theocracy in a real sense, but rather they promise a return to a form of neo-conservative Constantinianism. That is dangerous enough, mind you, but it falls rather short of theocracy.

I agree with you on the 'friends with benefits'. Somehow we have to communicate our sexual ethics clearly, but I don't know that we are even very clear on them. On this issue, perhaps we can be clear because no Christian is likely to support promiscuity, but, with our divorce rates so high and our clear inability to teach to even our own people a Christian sexual ethic, I don't know that we make the most credible alternative these days. The pop culture stereotype of Christian sex Gestapo doesn't exactly help either.

I think the reason for the divide between Classics and Patristics is the same one as the divide between the secular academy and seminaries. Or between religous studies and theology. In many ways, the secular university offers a different world-view to its students and scholars which can clash pretty fundamentally with a Christian concept. If you try to articulate the idea of Christian scholarship in an academic setting, you are just asking to be dismissed. Luckily, I'm not dependent on academic circles for my career, so I can pretty much say what I want, but there is a barrier in secular university where you are either expected to check your beliefs at the door or water them down into a generalized amorphous lump of 'civil' religion.

Peace,
Phil

Jim said...

I have been thinking about your comment. Some observations:

First, I think students of history, such as we, have a different perspective than those who simply observe the rosy colored sunset. So, for instance, I hear from time to time that America was 'founded to be a Christian nation.' ;-) Of course there were Jewish signers of all three of our foundation documents, the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation and and Constitution, as well as Quakers, deists, and skeptics or agnostics of one type or another.

Second, the rosy glow includes the idea that there was once, until the bad people screwed things up, a universal Christian belief and structure we need to 'get back to.' This requires an amazingly intentional ignorance of the content of Second Luke - Acts, and the history of the church, but none-the-less it exists.

Third, people react badly to knowing they were wrong. Not a particularly original observation I know, but point out to a fundamentalist that the Roman, Anglican, Orthodox, Coptic and protestant canons of Scripture are all different, sometimes in significant ways only if you are prepared to fight or run.

In the context of our current conversation on theocracy, all three points bear, I think. Those who think they want such a system, believe they once had it, that it was stolen by the bad {choose any two: secularists, professors, judges, liberals, atheists, yada yada yada} and think they want it back.

Implicitly, of course, they think the group(s) they identify with naturally will be on top of this putative theocracy. That assumption is at best amusing.

In general, I think, those who want theocracy are actually anti-modern folk who are afraid of many things. Men who want, they think, a place where women are 'in their place.' Or want that for blacks, Jews, gays, or political opponents.

I have a son who thinks he wants the good old days of white Christian supremacy back. He is the one who is bi-polar. hmmmmmm....

FWIW
jimB

Phil Snider said...

Well, this is part of the problem; lack of historical knowledge. Any study of Constantinianism would show the degree to which the church has to compromise on things that it shouldn't be compromising on. That has led to problems in the church and to its reputation...and rightly. I don't know that we can expect anything out of these alliances.

The problem with the Christian Right, frankly, is that they aren't nearly Christian enough. If they were, in addition to the moral issues that they want to deal with, they would pushing an anti-poverty agenda, at least a 'just' war policy, health care and the traditional 'Democrat' platform on social issues. They don't because their alliance with the right prevents them from doing so. This is enmeshment with the ruling powers and we really have to remember that we rarely get the best of that.

Peace,
Phil

Jim said...

As one wag had it a ways back, The Christian Right isn't. For the life of me I cannot understand how one can claim to be following Jesus when supporting capitol punishment, war, and racism On that last item, cf. Bob Jones University.

I am politically, I guess, a classic conservative. I generally agree with the idea that the best government is the one that gets out of the way of its people and lets them solve their own problems. Because of that, there is not a lot of room for me in the Republican party and none in the Democrat. ;;sigh;;

FWIW
jimB