Friday, July 05, 2013

Practical Patristics

Summer's here again and so is the time for blogging. Well, it isn't quite that bad, but close. Certainly, the summer is the time when I have the most time to reflect on what I've been reading and thinking for the times in the year in which there isn't much time to sit down and write.

What has come back into my mind is a slip of the tongue I made one day about a year or so ago, when I was talking to my wife about St. Vladimir's Popular Patristics series and said, instead, Practical Patristics. We laughed, of course, but it did get me thinking about what does Practical Patristics, actually, look like.

Of course, there are people (many people, I suspect) who might well think the idea of practical patristics is oxymoronic. Isn't patristics just a bunch of dead old white guys spouting off about stuff that no one actually cares about; that is, when they aren't actively oppressing anyone who doesn't agree with them? Didn't the Fathers put those darned angels on the pin for the scholastics to count because of their tedious philosophizing on the Christological and Trinitarian heresies? How would that be practical?

I get what people like this are saying. There are a lot of highly technical, highly philosophical patristic treatises on the fine points of Trinitarian theology, often including very difficult to follow polemics against those unfortunate enough to stray from the author's own sense of orthodoxy. I admit that, to this day, I haven't been about to get more than five pages into St. Cyril of Alexandria's On the Unity of Christ (also available through St. Vlad's Popular Patristic series). The fault, I hasten to add, isn't in St. Cyril, but in my own not particularly philosophical mind. I am still a fan of the hypostatic union and I think I get it, but don't ask for the philosophical underpinnings because, as soon as I think about it, my head starts hurting and I get sleepy.

Yet, focusing only on these works, as critics and academic fans alike often do, ignores not only the sheer variety of patristic writings, but the attention that the Church Fathers gave to the pastoral side of their ministries. It is a very different experience to read, say, St. Basil's technical treaties on the Holy Spirit and to read his sermons. Or, for that matter, consider all those sermons by so many Church Fathers which discuss the nitty-gritty of Christian life. St. Basil's or St. John Chrysostom sermons on social justice will curl your hair and make you wonder if you are giving enough or doing enough for the poor. I could multiply examples, but the practicality of these authors is difficult to escape.

Nor are the Father's only about moral admonition. Take the very way that they assume that theology is done; through the lens of prayer. This sounds odd to us in the modern age who seem to think that theology as an academic pursuit can be done in the absence of prayer or those who have thought (and may continue to think) that it is best done that way. Yet, the aridities of many modern theologians are part of the reason why theology has a bad name these days because one can detect the disconnect between faith and theology. The patristic example offers a way to fuse these back together and, I suspect, explains the modest revival among some evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox theologians of the past twenty or thirty years.

Furthermore, the modest revival in interest in the Desert Fathers- those monastic figures whose teachings come to us in collections of saying from the Egyptian and Syrian desert communities- also reveals the relevance of patristic teachings on prayer. The advice and insights given by these monastic writers are intensely practical guides to the obstacles to prayer which betray such a subtle understanding of human psychology that they remain useful even today. Indeed, one of the books which has fed my reflections in this post, Father Alexis Trader's Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck's Cognitive Therapy, directly parallels the teachings of the Fathers on prayer with cognitive behavior therapy, which is one of the leading therapy methods for depression, addiction and anxiety. The parallels are intriguing and suggest a usefulness in the teachings of the Desert Fathers which is rather under appreciated.

Alright, but is any of this practical? It depends on perspective, I suspect. If we mean practical as in something which will make us money or famous, then, probably not. If we mean practical as in something that we can take from the pages of a book and actually apply it in real time, make it part of our Christian praxis, then, yes, I think so. One of the glories of patristic thinking is that firm belief that theory and practice (theoria and praxis) aren't at odds, but should constantly feed each other. The trick is figuring out how.

No comments: