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.