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.




Weekend Fisher said...

I'm fully in sympathy with the view that theology is badly done by those who do it with a view to winning an argument or proving a point or displaying their intellectual prowess, yet have relatively lesser interest in knowing, loving, and serving God.

Still, everyone has thoughts about God; everyone is in that sense a theologian.

Take care & God bless

Matthew said...

Thank you for this post. I have to admit that I haven't read these "orations" but I've always been encouraged to do so. Your small offering here has helped to whet my appetite. Thank-you.

A good book that I've just read as of lately that compares and contrasts Orthodoxy and Protestantism is James R. Payton's, "Light From the Christian East" published by IVP. He seems able to grasps many "Eastern" concepts and present them in an easily digestable "Western" manner. His "doing" of theology is a good offering to us contemporaries.

The above angler might note that Evagrius of Pontus describes a theologian as one who truly prays and that one who truly prays is a theologian. Speculation is out of the question, experience is in;)

Phil Snider said...

Weekend Fisher;

To some degree, I chose to write on this because I was working out what I thought of St. Gregory's thinking on the subject. I am also leary of taking his argument too far in the sense that I think we all do theology. What I find helpful in him and much of Eastern Orthodox thinking on the subject is that it moves away from our rather Western separation of theology, prayer and action. There is an elitist edge to it that I find worrying, but much of its orientation is on target, I think.

Thanks, Matt, for the recommendation of Payton. I'll have to look him when I get down to campus again.


Maureen said...

Well, you certainly can't get anywhere in theology without obtaining the consent of its Subject. :)

Also, there's a lot of stuff in theology that you can't really understand if you don't have a fair amount of knowledge about God, a belief that Christianity is true, and are prepared to apply the stuff you learn in theology and to be corrected if you start thinking something unhealthy.

A lot of physical disciplines and arts are like this. You have to study martial arts with some kind of teacher, and go through certain prerequisites. If you don't learn correctly, you'll either tear yourself up or get beaten up badly someday because your knowledge is wrong or too theoretical.

If you sing the wrong way, you end up with no voice. That may happen quickly, or it may not hit you until you're middle-aged. But there will be consequences for skimping or slacking or doing things you shouldn't.

Now, that's not to say we should stop having music classes. Everybody with a voice capable of it would ideally learn to sing. But if you want to sing or do martial arts, you do have to be careful what you do, and there's no reason to expect that the careless study of theology would have any less real effects than careless study of chemistry.