Saturday, January 09, 2010

Pillars of the Church Reflection

This is a very long overdue entry as I have promised a reflection paper to Matt Bell and Tim Becker for the Ancient Christian Faith Initiative, but disappeared in a deluge of busyness in late November and have only now re-surfaced. What follows will likely be an odd reflection paper and may not reach the three to five pages asked of me. Knowing me, however, I'll blow right past it. I'm nothing, if not prolix.

With that caveat, I'll also give some background to those who don't know what the course entailed. The web version of the course (the one I followed, as I do not live in Pittsburg where the live meetings were happening) followed the writings of St. Augustine, On Christian Teaching (books 1-2), the Theological Orations of St. Gregory of Nazianzus and the Hymns on Paradise of St. Ephrem the Syrian. These figures represent the Latin, Greek and Syriac traditions of the patristic period and offer an interesting set of comparisons.

I also have to add the confession that I had already read all three works, although I was able to use the course as leverage to justify myself in buying the St. Gregory and St. Ephrem books (Popular Patristics series). What the course gave me was detailed lectures by Tim and Matt on the readings for the week and the opportunity to re-read carefully and think theologically over what was being said. I appreciated very much that chance because I don't usually get the opportunity to converse with interested people on close readings of the Fathers.

All this, of course, begs the question of what did I learn in these reflections. A few themes jump out.

First, the discussion of how and why theology should be practiced. One of the common threads found in all three authors was that theology as an intellectual pursuit was not a practice which is lightly entered into and that mere intellectual acumen isn't enough to justify one's entry into it. Instead, all three authors stress the need for spiritual preparation for the pursuit of theology- in a name (or a couple of names), prayer and meditation. Thus, we have Augustine's rather curt introduction in which he brushes off anyone who can't understand his guidelines for reading Scripture (by noting that it isn't his fault if they don't get it) or those who think they don't need them (by noting that they are blessed if their claim is true and tempted to pride if it is not) (Preface). Augustine also warns against dealing with humans and God as objects, but rather proposes we view both through the lens of Love to the point that, if we read the Bible and cannot find the love of God and neighbour, we have clearly misread it (Book 1). We also get Gregory of Nazianzus' cautions against word games and the proposal that those who disagree in theological questions shouldn't argue about it before those who don't understand how theology works (Oration 27). Then, we get St. Ephrem, whose poetic vision of Paradise easily crosses the lines of literal and allegorical interpretation, playing with various images and allegories to further our understanding of how we should understand Paradise in the past and in the future. This is the theological vision of a poet, but is no less demanding because Ephrem stresses continuously the hiddeness of what we are to understand about God and God's own unknowability.

All this contrasts with a common thread of academic theology which stresses theology as an intellectual pursuit divorced from the spiritual. There is a continual pressure on theologians- in their subject associations, among university colleagues, among themselves- to conform to either a modernist model of theology verging on a secularist religious studies model or post-modern models which emphasize the problems with meta-narratives and particularisms. Augustine, Gregory and Ephrem all see theology as a prayerful discourse, as a form of prayer, if you like, which is designed to build up both our neighbour (our fellow-Christians and non-Christians as well) and God. It should lead us to faith, not explain it away. It should lead to the heart and the head, not just the head. Given the bad name that theology has out there among many, I can't help but wonder if this approach isn't the way forward to making it more relevant to the Christian in the pew, rather than spewing forth the latest abstract theological point or historico-critical reading of this or that Biblical book. Not that either of those points wouldn't be helpful, but, if we are to understand our faith, we have to start with faith, not with raw spiritual information. And, I think, this is what our three authors are telling us today.

Second, how to read the Scriptures. This point builds off the previous one in the sense that all three of our authors automatically think of the writings of (what we call) the OT and the NT, when it comes to discussing faith. However, clearly, they do not act like fundamentalists today- bound only by a literal point of view. Rather we see the liberal use of allegorical and other figurative readings in all three and a critisism of over-literal interpretations. We especially see this in Gregory's condemnations of the Eunomians' word-play and philosophical dialectic. The problem that these radical Arians, according to Gregory, is that they are more interested with word and logic puzzles than in learning 'true' religion (Oration 27- I'm using this sermon a lot, I know, but it does lay the hermeneutical framework for the rest). This isn't to say that Gregory (or, for that matter, Augustine) reject philosophy, but rather that they subordinate it to what can only be called the rule of faith. That is, philosophy is useful for explaining what we learn about God in scripture and in prayer. In that sense, it is (to use the post-liberal catchphrase) second order discourse par excellence, so we do not judge faith on philosophical grounds, but we judge philosophy on faith-based grounds. This echoes what Augustine is talking about when he uses a hermeneutic of love (later taken up by N.T. Wright, among others) as a way of reading Scripture.

Book 2 of Augustine's On Christian Teaching, of course, provides a clear approach to reading Scripture which includes the theory of signs, but moves beyond it to discuss such topics as numerology, the importance of languages for scriptural study, the canon of Scripture, different versions of the Bible and the problems of dealing with translations and much more. Augustine is discussing these topics at a time which looks suspiciously familiar- a multiplicity of translations, an even greater multiplicity of interpretations, sometimes based on extremely arcane reasonings and readings. As a language teacher, I was particularly interested in Augustine's stress in reading Scripture in the original or, at least, using versions which tend to literal interpretations. I'm also fascinated by his recommendation of non-Christian studies which shows interesting parallels with Quintillian's list of recommended reading for the rhetor. Yet, despite all this stress on theory and knowledge, Augustine's true position comes back to the hermeneutic of love and to the reader whose reaction to Scripture is not to be puffed up with knowledge, but that "[the reader] is entangled in the love of this present age of temporal things, that is, and is far from loving God and his neighbour to the extent that scripture prescribes" (2,7,19). Again, the aim her is not knowledge per se, but rather spiritual learning which should lead the reader to repentance and prayer.

Ephrem is, probably, the most explicitly allegorical. This makes sense because his subject is something that no one alive has seen- Paradise. If this wasn't going to be an 'angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin' kind of discussion, some kind of imagery and allegory was needed. The boldness of Ephrem's imagery, from the image of Paradise as mountain or the Tree of the Knowledge of God and Evil as the veil of the Temple (or vice versa, as is often true of typology), is testimony itself that Ephrem wasn't very concerned with just the literal level. This is a spiritual vision which is only reinforced by Ephrem's ecstatic lines in Hymn 5:

I read the opening of this book
and was filled with joy,
for its verses and lines
spread out their arms to welcome me;
the first rushed out and kissed me,
and led me on to its companion;
and when I reached that verse
wherein is written
the story of Paradise,
it lifted me up and transported me
from the bosom of the book
to the very bosom of Paradise.

Wow. That is a profoundly untheological thing for me to say, but I keep saying it as I read Ephrem. Yet, this is an intimate and personal reaction to Scripture of a type that most people would feel uncomfortable with saying, but, secretly, would love to be able to say. Who doesn't want to be transported by Scripture? The real question that Ephrem's reading of Paradise provides is why can't we do it now? Where has all the wonder and amazement gone from our reading of Scripture? How can we revive it?

Third, the role of mystery. What is refreshing about all of these authors, when contrasted with the fundamentalisms of our age, is that they all know that they don't know all about God. Ultimately, they expect their human wits to fail when they talk about God, so they don't claim for themselves something that they can't deliver. Thus, even St. Augustine in his rather didactic mode in the On Christian Teaching, notes "It is my intention to communicate these rules to those with the will and wit to learn, if my Lord and God does not withhold from me, as I write, the thoughts which he regularly supplies as I reflect on these matters" (Preface). St. Gregory insists throughout his Theological Orations upon the inspiration of the theologian, not his power or his intellect. In fact, he critisizes the Eunomian's for their overtly philosophical and mechanistic methods of dialectic in considering God's attributes which, St. Gregory believes, is the source of their errors in the first place. And, of course, St. Ephrem's poetic vision doesn't map Paradise, but stands in awe of the little he knows. Thus, he comments in his First Hymn:

I took my stand halfway
between we and love;
a yearning for Paradise
invited me to explore it
but awe at its majesty
restrained me from my search.
With wisdom, however,
I reconciled the two:
I revered what lay hidden
and meditated on what was revealed.
The aim of my search was to gain profit
the aim of my silence was to find succour.
What I like about that quote is the balance between what we can know and what is hidden, what we can't know. The more I read and reflect on God, the more I realize that there is a line past which I will not pass in my understanding of God. That makes sense, of course, because God is so much greater than we are. How can we understand God, without God's help, his self-revelation? I can't see how. Ultimately, theology's task is consider what we can know, but, also, respect the mystery we face when we look to God. God is God, and, praise be to God, I am not. Mystery reminds me that I am not God, but a simple, frail human being trying to work out what it means to live a faithful life.
And, ultimately, I think that this is the value of reading these Fathers and, the Fathers in general. Ultimately, one gets the sense of people who take God seriously enough to think and pray over how to think about God, how to read Scripture and how to confront our own inability to understand God and the world in its entirety. In our very information conscious age, the humility and faithfulness of these writers lead us to wisdom, not just knowing.
I want to end this reflection with gratitude, so I want to thank Tim Becker and Matt Bell for this course. I appreciate the chance to talk about these authors with them and the other participants in the online course. There is a new online course starting in February dealing with "The Early Church at Prayer and Worship". I fear, while I haven't quite decided, that I won't be able to participate in this course this time around, but I heartily recommend it for any of my readers who can.

1 comment:

Matthew Bell said...


Thanks for echoing back to us what you heard -- a very useful summary this is. It gives me a complementary window onto our own presentation of the material that coheres with what I feel I myself have been learning from the Fathers over the past three years.

I initially became drawn to the Fathers through an encounter with the writings of Hilary of Poitiers -- one of the doctors of the Church, "Athanasius of the West", and a thinker highly revered by folks such as Augustine of Hippo. I was thinking through the nature of Holy Scripture at the time, when I stumbled, half by accident, across the semi-autobiographical prolegomenon to Hilary's "On the Trinity", his Book I in that twelve volume work. I was struck, perhaps for the first time, by a crystaline attack on rationalism that, simulteneously, did not come across as anti-reason. To put Hilary's "epistemology", if such it may be called, into our own words: the would-be knower must be authentically related and oriented towards the object of which she or he seeks knowledge, or else knowledge will be impossible. When the would-be knowing subject insists upon lodging all interpretive authority in him/herself, the only "knowledge" he or she will take away are the shadows of the self.

The more I read the Fathers, the more impressed I become that this is a huge point to them. "Credo ut intellegam" (I believe so that I may understand) is not a way of checking one's brains at the door, but, rather, a call towards a certain kind of orientation: one that acknowledges the priority of the Object over knowledge of It, and, therefore, openness to moments such as repentence and reverence for the Mystery.

All that is a way of saying a Christian "Amen" to your reflections.

The peace of Christ be with your spirit.

-- Matt