Saturday, November 22, 2008

Call for Submissions Patristics Carnival XVIII

Welcome to Patristic Carnival XVIII. This month, we're back here at hyperekperissou.

The guidelines remain the same as the Modest Proposal entry back in November, 2006 and my additions in August, 2007.

The last day of submission will be November 30 and the postings will be up by the week of December 6th. .

Remember you can offer submissions on the carnival site or the dedicated e-mail (


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Task of Theology

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been reading St. Gregory Nazianzus' Five Theological Orations in the handy St. Vladimir Edition (On God and Christ). It has been an interesting read, largely because St. Gregory is one of those authors I knew I should read, but which, honestly, intimidated me (like the remaining Cappadocians- St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nyssa). The Cappadocians are so philosophical and foundational in determining the doctrine of the Trinity that I wasn't entirely sure that I'd get it. I've read the five orations now and I have to say that I'm not entirely sure I got all of it. I know my way around philosophy and theology, but this is not easy reading to say the least. Good reading, just not easy.

What I want to write about today is the first theological oration in which St. Gregory outlines what it means to be a theologian. This sermon was intended as an introduction to a series of sermons dealing with the neo-Arian Eunomians, who deployed Greek philosophical logic and ideas to deconstruct the Nicene conception of the Trinity, especially denying the sameness or similiarity of the substance of the Father and the Son. Strictly speaking, the Eunomians were never particularly powerful, largely because they were loathed equally by the Nicenes and the homoiousians. Yet, their critique was dangerous because it was so clever. Whatever else Eunomius and his teacher, Aetius, were, they weren't stupid. That was rather the problem.

Gregory take the position that his opponents, the Eunomians, are rather too clever for their own good. That is, they were more interested in "setting or solving conundrums (Or. 27,2) than learning from 'true religion'. Like many Fathers, he doesn't mince words. He calls the Eunomians "mere verbal tricksters, grotesque and preposterous word-gamesters- their derisory antics invite derisive description."(Or. 27,2) or, in a kind of WWF (or whatever they're calling it these days) style wrestling reference "they are like promoters of wrestling bouts not like those conducted in accordance with the rules of the sport and lead to the victory of one of the antagonists, but the sort stage-managed to give the uncritical spectators visual sensations and compel their applause (Or. 27, 2). That's strong talk, of course, and I'm sure Gregory meant every word of it.

Of course, accusing one's opponents of being over-clever (and, by implication, under-wise) was and is a common rhetorical move in philosophical circles. The simple fact is that naked logic is an exceptional weapon in an intellectual dispute, so it is usually a good idea to have a shield to protect oneself with. Using one's opponents' own weapon-proficiency with logic- against them is not only useful, but economical because the more logic one's opponent flings around, the less wise he looks. Logic can be a double-edged sword in a dispute. Its almost mathematical character makes it almost impossible to refute, if one accepts the premises of the logical system. Yet, one can undercut the whole system in one fell swoop simply by denying that those premises match with reality. This is of course, St. Gregory's polemical point which he drives home quite hard.

Yet, as important as this polemic is, this isn't why I wanted to write about this sermon. What struck me is St. Gregory's definition of the true theologians in which he argues that theology "is not for all people, but only for those who have been tested and have found a sound footing in the study and, more importantly, have undergone or, at the very least, are undergoing the purification of body and soul. For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous, just as it is for weak eyes to look at the sun's brightness (Or. 27,3)

To us, in the educated pluralistic West, this might strike us as not only elitist, but paternalistic. Sure, one might argue, it is better for the marketplace of the ideas to decide the soundness of an idea, not some kind of spiritual censor who eliminates the views of those who are not in the privileged 'in-crowd'. St. Gregory, with his late Roman contempt for anything even faintly smacking of democracy, rejects this idea and stresses the mission of the theologians is not a democratic right, but a spiritual discipline to be practiced.

Herein, I think, is the problem with the explosion of popular theology. There is widespread interest in knowing the things of God, but very little in integrating that knowledge into our lives. Theology isn't just one subject to study among others, but rather is a contemplation of God, a spiritual exercise, if you like. The aim of theology isn't knowing God-after all, who could really know God and his ways- but, rather, learning God's ways and doing it. To do that, we need to listen to the voices of the dearly departed-the Fathers, to be sure, but, really, all those who followed them- and the tradition which they passed on to us as a running commentary of who God is and how we, in the Church, seen how He has worked in the world. In that sense, novelty isn't the point in theology, faithfulness is. That is why the Eastern Orthodox stress that theology isn't just intellectual endeavor, but it is also prayer. They, better than we do in the West, understand the two-fold nature of true theology- intellectual and spiritual- and encourage those called to the vocation of theology to pursue both.

I'm sure we've all run into people, whether online or off, who want to argue for the sake of arguing about God, but who have no interest in the nitty-gritty of living a spiritual life. St. Gregory seems to say both to those who like to argue this way and those of us who set themselves to oppose them that we have lost the point of theology. Theological discourse isn't a purely intellectual game, but rather it is a spiritual vocation. And, if it is a vocation, doesn't that call for rather more discernment about who has that call than passing a few exams and writing a few essays (not that these things are bad things). Or, for that matter, to hoist myself on my own petard, creating a blog and just talking into the ether about what comes into our heads.

So that is the challenge of St. Gregory in this sermon: to stop regarding theology as something to learn as a subject or to argue about as a way to score debating points off each other. We need to recover theology as a form of prayer and to discern who has the gifts needed to serve the Church in this way. The good news is that we are starting to recover this sense of theology and I hope that we see more efforts to practice real theological discourse. For our sake and for the Church's, I hope that we learn to discern the real thing from the false and to practice theology, as we practice every other Christian vocation, for God's sake.



Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 23

This is rather a delayed post. I had the translation done last week, but I had decided to delay the commentary until I had more time. That turned out to be a longer period than I thought. So, here is the next installment of the Life of St. Martin.


When a certain person named Clarus, a very noble youth, soon to be priest, but now blessed with a happy death, came to Martin with all the rest, he became distinguished to the utmost height of his faith and all the virtues. (2) When he set up a tent not far the bishop's monastery and many brothers were staying at his house, a youth named Anatolius came to him, while pretending humility and innocence in his monastic profession, lived for some time in community with the rest. (3) Then, as time went on, he used to say that he was used to speaking to angels. When nobody believed him, he compelled many to believe him through signs. Later, he went to the point that he proclaimed that angels rushed between him and God and that he was wishing to be considered one of the prophets. (4) Nevertheless, Clarus could in no way be compelled to believe in him. Anatolius threatened him with the anger of God and present calamities because Clarus did not believe in one of the saints. (5) Later, it is reported he broke out with this speech "Behold, the Lord will give me shining-white clothing this night. Being clad in this clothing, I will be taken up in your midst. That will be a sign to you that the power of God is in me, who shall be given the clothing of God. (6) Then, the expectation of all in this declaration was great. In almost the middle of the night, the whole monastery in that place seemed to be disturbed by the clamour of people leaping on the ground. You would perceive that the cell in which that same youth was staying shone with many lights and the clamour of those rushing about in it and a certain murmuring of many voices was heard. (7) Then, when it became silent, the youth came out and called to one of the brethren, Sabatius by name, and showed him his tunic which he was wearing. Sabatius, astonished, called the rest together. Clarus even ran to there. All of them carefully examined the clothing with light applied to it. It was extremely soft, with outstanding whiteness, shining with purple and, nevertheless, it was not possible to be known what type of material it was. When it was handled by curious eyes or fingers, it seemed to be nothing else but clothing. Meanwhile Clarus told all the brothers to apply themselves in prayer so that the Lord would show more clearly what the clothing was. (9) Thus, the rest of the night was spent in hymns and psalms. When the day grew light, Clarus wished to take the youth, held by his right hand, to Martin, knowing well that Martin could not be deceived by diabolic arts. (10) Then, the wretch began to resist and shout. He said that he was told not to show himself to Martin. When they compelled him to go unwillingly, the clothing disappeared in the hands of those dragging him. Therefore, who would doubt that such was the power of Martin that the devil was not able to pretend any longer or hide his own deception when it must be brought to the eyes of Martin.


This passage has several interesting features to it. First, for two-thirds of the story, this isn't really about St. Martin. Really, for that first two-thirds, the focus is on the conflict between Clarus, the young, but spiritual disciple of St. Martin and Anatolius, a rival Christian teacher. Clarus doesn't have any position at the time of the story to base his authority other than his loyalty to God and his spiritual discernment which prevents him from being convinced or compelled to abandon his faith in Christ in favour of Anatolius' wish to take on the spiritual leadership in the community loosely associated with St. Martin. Really, it isn't until the very end, when Clarus thinks to solve the problem of the white clothing-- a problem which he himself could not solve, even if he had the right impulse to pray about it. It is ultimately Satan's reluctance to get into a contest with St. Martin which causes the hoax to be revealed and Anatolius to be revealed as demonically inspired.

To be sure, this incident is intended to highlight St. Martin's spiritual power which was so great that even Satan got the idea not to go up against him openly. Rather it is through stealth and a pretend monk that Satan tries to corrupt the community of St. Martin. Clarus' efforts to prevent are only successful when he gets ready to call out the big guns: St. Martin himself. This is, of course, a feature of hagiographies stories and a feature of Jesus' own experience with Satan. Here Satan tempts and displays power, but he withdraws hastily when He encounters a holy man because he knows he's outmatched.

Second, this story also demands some effort to unpack what was going on with Anatolius. One way we can look at him is to dismiss him as a deluded lunatic. That is, his claims to speak to angels and, eventually, to be a messenger from God would probably land him up in a psych ward today, not necessarily a monastery. Mind you, deluded lunatics don't necessarily produce unusually white mystery cloth as a rule, so that little detail would seem to argue against this interpretation. This is, of course, why Clarus and the other monks were so freaked out by Anatolius. He was able to manifest signs and material items to back up his story which is something that a complete fraud or a madman has a problem coming up with. Severus explains these signs as being the result of collaboration with Satan. Given that Satan has power, if inferior to God's, he could help manifest signs and get a hold of odd fabrics to confuse the monks of St. Martin's monastery.

Another way to look at Anatolius is to see him as some kind of misunderstood proto-charismatic. That is, his claims to hear angels and to spiritual authority based on these manifestations might be seen, at least in Anatolius' eyes, as charisms--gifts of the Holy Spirit. One of the results of these gifts is that Anatolius might come to that these experiences give him spiritual authority over others. That would explain his threats to Clarus. Anatolius is believing his own press and bases his authority on it.

Furthermore, if we accept Anatolius as a proto-charismatic, we have to admit that there was precedent. Montanism, for instance, stressed prophecy and gifts of the Spirit in such a way that the new dispensation of Montanus overrode the old one of the New Testament writers. Was Anatolius a proto-Montanus? Perhaps. The problem is, of course, that we can't really know how much he was a lunatic and how much a sane, if pushy charismatic.

This is a bit of a moot point, of course. Clearly, Severus regarded Anatolius as a dupe of Satan, whose professions of innocence and humility were merely a cover for a snare sprung on St. Martin's monks, designed to seduce them away from God. We moderns are squeamish about the idea of a Satan, who intervenes in human life to twist it away from God. We come by that squeamishness honestly because the figure of Satan in popular culture has become so ridiculous that it is difficult to take him seriously as a real force in the world. We have a tendency to relegate him to horror flicks or low comedy in such a way that his opposition isn't so much against God, but against us. And since he is against us, we all know who will win. That's right us. In many ways, I wonder if the secularization of the image of Satan isn't also a domesticization of him into something which we can handle, if we need to.

Yet, in Severus, Satan is a cunning opponent who threatens to win out against most mortals. Only a superlatively holy man could possibly be close enough to God to drive away Satan. Our archetype for this holy man is, of course, Jesus, so it is hardly surprising that it is Christ who gives us our example of Satan's ultimate weakness when measured against God. While the unveiling of Anatolius is a triumph of St. Martin, it is, more importantly, a triumph of God over evil. That, of course, explains what the story is doing in this Life of St. Martin.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Patristic Carnival XVII is up

Weekend Fisher has Patristics Carnival XVII up over at Heart, Mind, Soul and Strength. It looks good and, if I ever dig out of the mountain of marking I'm working on, it looks like I'll have some interesting articles to read.

Thanks very much to Weekend Fisher for her hard work on this month's carnival! Stay tuned for Patristics Carnival XVIII.

If you'd like to host a Patristics Carnival, please get in touch with me!