Tag Archives: Orthodoxy

Abusing the Apophatic: The Turn To Mystery As a Cop-Out

losskyIn our postmodern culture, talk of “mystery” is all the rage among religious folk.  Can’t explain something? Mystery.  Don’t like historic Christian teaching but still want to sound like you’re in continuity with the Tradition? Mystery it is.

The problem is that this is an abuse, a mischaracterization of the apophatic way (sometimes called “negative theology”) on that which which twists a valued mystical tradition into a cover for all kinds of bullshit.

Friends, please hear me out: stop using the apophatic as a cop-out.

Don’t believe me that this is a problem? I could cite my own personal experience, but we are all aware (I hope) that individual experience is just about the worst possible resource for knowledge in the Christian life.  To be sure, I’ve been in numerous conversations where my interlocutor attempted to dodge the particularities of Christian teaching by giving a nod to mystery and to the apophatic way. Let’s look instead two examples, in which I have added the emphases to highlight today’s topic.

Exhibit A

A piece by Gene Marshall over at ProgressiveChristianity.org mentions mystery several times. He goes so far as to reduce God to capital-M ‘Mystery,’ like so:

At the same time, “God,” as used in the Bible, points to an actual experience, an actual encounter with, how shall we say it, the Ground of our Being; the Mystery, Depth, and Greatness of our lives; Final Reality; Reality as a Whole; the Mystery that will not go away.

Drawing on the existentialism of Tillich and others, Marshall avoids anything particular about God by the apophatic turn.

Exhibit B

I generally try to avoid quoting comments, but in this instance it just fits too perfectly (I also mean nothing personal by this, as I have no idea who this particular commenter is).  Once again, in a discussion about Christian doctrine, the commenter uses the apophatic turn to stay in the realm of generic, personal-experience deity:

If you believe that God exist as three distinct persons and one of those persons incarnated as a human being in first century Palestine, good for you. It maybe right. Seems like you are 100% sure that Nicene Creed is the true doctrine about God and I am glad to hear that. Personally I cannot bring myself to believe that. I am agnostic about it. I am not an atheist. I believe that being similar to understanding of God most likely exist, more similar to understanding in Advaita Vedanta, Stoicism, Peripateticism and Process theology. But I maybe wrong. I am more of fan of apophatic theology.

Note here that “apophatic” has little content save being against the Nicene Creed and similar to a variety of non-Christian faiths and Process theology.  Further note how similar the above comments sound to that of Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada pastor fighting to keep her credentials because everyone else knows she’s an atheist while she maintains she’s evolved into a higher, non-theistic conception of the divine. Read: poppycock.

The Truth: The End of the Apophatic is the Holy Trinity

The real mystery: how did Kevin Smith ever make a movie this bad?
The real mystery: how did Kevin Smith ever make a movie this bad?

What’s truly sad is that apophatic theology is a valued part of Christian teaching, particularly in the East.  While the vast majority of Christians today have domesticated the transcendent, attempting to pull God down to our level and make the Divine only a friend, or a healer, a get-out-of-jail-free card or a cosmic soup of affirmation, the apophatic tradition at its best reminds us to keep silent before the incomprehensibility of our Maker.

Oh, Mystery there is: the One whom we love is too holy for words and, as Israel attests, the ‘I AM’ whose name is too holy to pronounce and too grand to scribble, this God, our God cannot be named by our limited imaginations, tamed by our feeble intellect, claimed for our puny projects.

But Christians, you see, revel not just in mystery but also in paradox.  This unutterable God has made Godself known to us in a particular way.  The goal of the apophatic, the Mystery that we claim as Christians, is named not by our own fatuous grasping but by God’s gracious condescension His creatures.  The great Russian Orthodox scholar-priest Vladimir Lossky thus reflects,

“This is the end of the endless way; the limit of the limitless ascent; Incomprehensibility reveals Himself in the very fact of His being incomprehensible, for his incomprehensibility is rooted in the fact that God is not only Nature but also Three Persons; the incomprehensible Nature is incomprehensible inasmuch as it is the Nature of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; God, incomprehensible because Trinity yet manifesting Himself as Trinity. Here apophaticism finds its fulfillment in the revelation of the Holy Trinity as primordial fact, ultimate reality, first datum which cannot be deduced, explained or discovered by way of any other truth; for there is nothing which is prior to it. Apophatic thought, renouncing every support, finds its support in God, whose incomprehensibility appears as Trinity. Here thought gains a stability which cannot be shaken; theology finds its foundation; ignorance passes into knowledge.”

In God’s nature or substance, that “stuff” (if you’ll forgive the vulgar imprecision) of which God is, God is utterly unknowable because God is outside and above and beyond us.  But in God’s hypostases, the Tri-Personal God has made himself known to us.  The Mystery has given us a glimpse; not a full view everything, of course, for that would be like asking to stare at the sun when it is one block away.

But what we can know about this God, what God has revealed to us in Scripture, through the teaching of Apostles, Saints, and Doctors of the Church, and most especially through life of Jesus, we gladly and happily confess as the Most Blessed Trinity.

Ignorance passes into knowledge, and theology has its foundation.

To misappropriate the apophatic as an excuse to feign ignorance of God is not only wrong according to every possible standard of Christian truth, it is tragic.  The Mystery at the heart of all reality has opened a door, as it were, and given us a glimpse inside.

Who are we to shut it?

Source: Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 63-64 (emphasis added).
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Orthodoxy as the “Authority of All”

Icon of John Cassian, courtesy wikimedia commons.
Icon of John Cassian, courtesy wikimedia commons.

John Cassian, who had a profound impact on monasticism thanks to his influence on Benedict, comments on the universality of the orthodox consensus:

“The consensus of all ought of itself to be enough to refute heresy; for the authority of all shows indubitable truth, and a perfect reason results where no one disputes it. Therefore if a [person] seeks to hold opinions contrary to these, we should, at the very outset, condemn his perversity rather than listen to his assertions. For someone who impugns the judgment of all announces his [or her] own condemnation beforehand, and a [person] who disturbs what had been determined by all is not even given a hearing. For when the truth has been established by all [people] once and for all, whatever arises contrary to it is by this very fact to be recognized at once as a falsehood, because it differs from the truth.”

Cassian’s insight is similar to what would later be called the Vincentian Canon, named after its progenitor St. Vincent of Lerins.  He argued, “we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”

The early church, led by the apostles and their successors, saw themselves as in continuity with the teaching of Jesus handed on by the disciples.  They determined to hold “the authority of all,” led by the Holy Spirit, above any individual or regional variations.

In an age where atheist preachers are fighting to keep their pulpits, this insight is more important than ever.  The Christian movement is not subject to my personal whims but is, in Jude’s language, the “faith once delivered,” and the health of the Body is not possible unless we hold fast to that deposit of faith and practice held authoritative everywhere, by everyone, and for all time.

Source: Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: Volume 1, 338-339.

Heresy As Extremism: Why the Middle Way is the Narrow Way

Icon of Gregory the Great, from monasteryicons.com.
Icon of Gregory the Great, from monasteryicons.com.

“Sincerity is no guarantee of being correct.”

-Rev. Dr. Mickey Efird

The lies of heresy are not just false, they are false in the extreme.

We’ve examined before in this space how heresy flattens the mysteries of the gospel.  The great doctrines of the church, the Incarnation and Trinity, are in a real sense names for mysteries.  These mysteries the church, we believe, has been led to confess by the Holy Spirit.  In so confessing, we preserve and celebrate the mystery of God and God’s mighty saving work.  Heresy always simplifies that mystery to something more palatable and less gospel.

But heresy can also be understood as a form of extremism.  Jaroslav Pelikan, near the end of Volume 1 of The Christian Tradition, notes, “It was characteristic of heretics that they erred in one extreme or the other, denying either the One or the Three, either despising marriage or denigrating virginity.”  It is worth mentioning that Pelikan, the now-deceased don of church history at Yale, writes this after multiple chapters spent painstakingly quoting and examining what the heretics themselves wrote.  He then quotes Gregory the Great:

“But the church, by contrast, proceeds with ordered composure midway between the quarrels on both sides. It knows how to accept the higher good in such a way as simultaneously to venerate the lower, because it neither puts the highest on the same level with the lowest nor on the other hand despises the lowest when it venerates the highest.” (334-335)

If you’ve ever ridden a bicycle, you know that just a little ways this or that and you will take a tumble.  So it is with orthodoxy.  Precision in thought, as in machinery, only tolerates so much wiggle room. Chesterton noted that many are shocked at the vitriolic arguments about small points of doctrine, but they do so because they fail to recognize that there are no small points about the Divine:

“…it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious.”

chesterton orthodoxyHeresy, even in the lightest of touches or turns, always perverts Christian truth into something “blasphemous or ferocious,” something extreme.  The Arians, sincere though they were, turned Christians into creature-worshippers.  The gnostic-influenced Christians, who’ve strangely enjoyed a kind of foolish re-appropriation of their literature in the last couple of decades, denied the good not only of God’s creation but the truth of the Incarnation as an affirmation of the physical order (modern Darbyism does something similar with its false doctrine of the rapture).

An inch is everything when you are balancing.

This not only inveighs against those who wish to deconstruct orthodoxy as some kind of conservative fantasy, it also points us to why pious rhetoric that pits “the middle way” against “the narrow way” is ultimately false.  In terms of doctrine, the middle way – the balancing of heretical extremes in order to discover the one way to stand tall amid a thousand ways to totter over – is the narrow way.

Thus we can conceive of heresy, like Pelikan, as extremism.  Examples might include: emphasizing the transcendence of God to the detriment of the immanence of God; emphasizing works of piety so as to leave aside works of mercy; dogmatically adhering to classical Christian teaching in one area of sexuality while completely ignoring others; a simplistic biblicism that ignores experience and tradition (or, on the other hand, a Romantic attachment to experience which runs amok over scripture and tradition); or finally, as Bonhoeffer famously noted, grace divorced from the cross.

An inch is everything when you are balancing, which is why the narrow way of Christian truth is also the middle way.  I’ll let Chesterton have the last word:

“It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic.  it is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s head.  It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.  To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple.  It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.”

Are We Witnessing the “Suicide of Thought”?

chesterton
G.K. Chesterton

“There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”

-G.K Chesterton, “The Suicide of Thought,” in Orthodoxy

Satire is effective because it wraps a kernel of truth in packing that, if well-constructed, is hilarious.  An example of effective satire is this “story” from The Onion:

Saying that such a dialogue was essential to the college’s academic mission, Trescott University president Kevin Abrams confirmed Monday that the school encourages a lively exchange of one idea. “As an institution of higher learning, we recognize that it’s inevitable that certain contentious topics will come up from time to time, and when they do, we want to create an atmosphere where both students and faculty feel comfortable voicing a single homogeneous opinion,” said Abrams, adding that no matter the subject, anyone on campus is always welcome to add their support to the accepted consensus. “Whether it’s a discussion of a national political issue or a concern here on campus, an open forum in which one argument is uniformly reinforced is crucial for maintaining the exceptional learning environment we have cultivated here.”

dissent-is-hateOf course, college campuses are not alone in tending towards a sort of intellectual univocality.  Various corners (or are they cul de sacs?) of the church vie to have their views not only recognized, but made sacrosanct.  We see it also in our wider culture.  I am not among those who thinks that the sky is falling due to the Oberfell ruling; nevertheless, Justice Alito was probably correct in saying this decision will be used against those who will not “assent to the new orthodoxy.” (For all the bleating about “thinking for oneself,” every community has its own orthodoxy, after all.)  He was similarly prophetic in his concern about “those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.”

But it isn’t merely the reduction of valid viewpoints that is at issue, it is the manner in which those viewpoints are decided.  Another aspect of what Chesterton called “the suicide of thought” is the power play that the injection of a kind of fundamentalist identity politics as brought to contemporary discourse.  In many corners of American intellectual life, what matters is not what one argues but one’s identity which determines (before a word is spoken) the validity of what is proffered.  A self-described liberal college student aptly described the illiberality of such power games in a thought-provoking piece titled, “Social Justice Bullies”:

“But here’s the thing — who I am does not (or should not) have any bearing on facts. The problem with this brand of modern social justice advocacy is that who one is as a person (race, class, gender, etc.) is the be all and end all of their capacity to have a certain viewpoint. A millennial social justice advocate can discount an opinion simply because it is said or written by a group they feel oppresses them. It is a logical fallacy known as ad hominem whereby one attacks the person saying an argument rather than the argument itself. But this logical fallacy has become the primary weapon of the millennial social justice advocate. It is miasma to academia, to critical thinking, and to intellectual honesty. Yet it is the primary mode of operating on college campuses nationwide.”

To be clear, at issue is not the ends to which contemporary “social justice bullies” aim but the means employed (side note: if you are worried you may be a SJB, check here).  Any means that rules out certain thoughts or ideas based solely on the identity of the person who holds them (outside of, say, a KKK or Nation of Islam member, someone who self-describes in a prejudiced way) is the opposite of the liberal ideal, which values exchange of ideas and wrestling for the truth.  Orginos elaborates:

“What I am talking about so far is not meant to discredit feminism or any social justice position that seeks to empower oppressed people or remedy social ills. As I made abundantly clear to begin with, these are fundamentally good and necessary goals. What is the issue here are the tactics used by some from a purported place of moral high ground to immunize themselves from criticism while promoting a close-minded authoritarian vice-grip on society through chillingly sinister tactics.”

It is both disingenuous and counter-productive to demand conversation about serious issues facing our society AND police attempted conversation so tightly that only the pre-determined righteous elite can come to the table.  This is at least part of the reason for the gridlock we currently face; those who set the terms of the debate have done so in a manner that predetermines the outcome, and then shame those who refuse to play their power game as unwilling and backwards.  The faux empathy which demands to settle ahead of time not just what can be said but how it is said  – resulting in the exchange of “one idea,” as The Onion so aptly put it – is regressive in the extreme. Rabbi and systems theorist Edwin Friedman called such gridlock “a failure of nerve”:failure of nerve

“…societal regression has too often perverted the use of empathy into a disguise for anxiety, a rationalization for failure to define a position, and a power tool in the hands of the ‘sensitive’…I have consistently found the introduction of the subject of ’empathy’ into family, institutional, and community meetings to be reflective of, as well as an effort to induce, a failure of nerve among its leadership.”

It’s tempting to be an alarmist about all this.  But the good news is that the flesh-and-blood people I talk to in my community, or pray with at the church I serve, are more fully-orbed than this.  I worry that, with Chesterton, “We are on the road to producing a race of [people] too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.”

But most people I know – those not trying to get a book deal or grow their Instagram following – are not like this.  If you pay too much attention to the thought police – the basement bloggers, armchair theorists, and self-obsessed justice tourists – it’s easy to become convinced that truthful speech and honest, vulnerable conversation are at an end in the 21st century West.  But we can do better.  Thought need not be destroyed on the altar of ideology masquerading as empathy.

But fighting this trend will require all of us – left/right/center, libertarian and communitarian, Christians and atheists and agnostics, progressives and traditionalists – to embrace a hermeneutic of charity that will allow us to be more interested in genuine engagement than in scoring points with the home team, more desirous of actually achieving progress than being seen as an expert in demanding it.  Otherwise, we are fated to continue trying to move forward as a church and society while fighting over the few, narrow, pre-determined views.

What do you think? Are we witnessing the suicide of thought? What institutions, places, arenas are there for genuine engagement across the usual battle lines? Leave a comment below.

Fear of God as the Pathway to the Love of God

love the harbor“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
    all those who practice ithave a good understanding.
    His praise endures forever.” 

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;  for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1)

Are love and fear opposites?  In the popular sentimentality of the 21st century West, fear is on a spectrum “negative” emotions to be avoided at all costs (including sanity, truth, and virtue).  Christians often like to quote 1 John 4:18 as evidence that our faith should have nothing to do with fear. Others seem to base their whole faith on fear, reducing the gospel to fire insurance.  But a more nuanced, canonical approach reveals that the Bible is not as paranoid about fearing God as we modern Christians are.  Taking a more holistic view thus undercuts

  • Fundamentalist Christians, who use texts like Psalm 111:10 and Proverbs 9:10 to justify a fear-based approach that is both effective and damaging.  I can’t tell you how many times I “got saved” as a youth because a preacher scared the hell out of me (literally) and sent me careening toward the altar convinced that God hated me.  It’s important to remember that the only people Jesus scared were the uptight religious folks and authorities of empire; the fundamentalist wing of Christianity tends to do the opposite: apologize for empire and religious authority while putting fear into the common folks and ignoring the plight of the poor and marginalized.
  • Progressive Christians, who use texts like 1 John 4:18 as proofs against fear having any kind of role in the Christian life.  It’s common to hear progressives talk about their “conversion stories” (meaning their transition out of conservative Christianity) as a move from a “fear-and-law-based” faith to a “love-and-grace-based” faith.  While I am sympathetic to this journey because it is similar to my own, the truth is that too often Christianities that are solely focus on “love” have such a Westernized, emotive view of love that it tends towards cheap grace and even pantheism.  If God is love, and love costs nothing and elicits no response, then discipleship, worship, mission, evangelism matter little.
  • Cultural Christians, who have neither fear nor love for God.  One significant strand of this is described well by Kenda Creasy Dean from Princeton as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  Cultural Christians are those who identify as Christians but have no active relationship with God and/or a faith community; they may pray when the chips are down and go to church at Christmas, but day-to-day their decisions and actions are governed by something other than the Triune God.  They have neither fear nor love for God, but might occasionally try to use God to get what they want.

But can we get to the love of God and wholly bypass fear? St. Isaac the Syrian suggests this is impossible:staniloae

Just as it isn’t possible…for someone to cross the great sea without a ship, so someone can’t reach love without fear. We can cross the tempestuous sea placed between us and the spiritual paradise only with the ship of repentance, borne by the oarsmen of fear. If these oarsmen of fear don’t handle the ship of repentance well, by which we cross the sea of this world toward God, we will be drowned in it.  Repentance is the ship, fear is the rudder, love is the divine harbor. So fear puts us in the ship of repentance and we cross the tempestuous sea and it guides us to the divine harbor, which is love where all those who labor and have been enlightened by repentance arrive. And when we have reached love, we have reached God. And our journey has ended and we have reached the island which is beyond this world.

In his classic work Orthodox SpiritualityDmitru Staniloae expands on this by noting that the fear at issue is chiefly fear of a lower love of God, or fear of remaining egotism which would keep us from reaching the harbor of pure love (Wesleyans would call this Christian Perfection, the East would call it theosis or union with God):

The will for a greater love will keep us on board and help us to steer a straight course. It will keep our heads above the giant waves of evil and the egotism which rises up within us. It will lead us straight ahead. Only in the vessel of repentance do we constantly pass over the sinful waves of egotism, which tend to rise up from deeply within us and beneath us. Only by it are we always above ourselves and moving onward from our present position, moving closer to full love, closer to the paradise where the tree of life is, in other words to Christ, the source of love which feeds our spirit. (2)

I love the vision of the life with God as a journey.  Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Eastern spirituality reminds us that there are “many danger, toils, and snares” on the way to the full love of God. (3)  A proper and holy fear of failing to reach “perfection in love” and thus the fullness of the life God intends to give us seems, as St. Isaac suggested, a part of our pilgrimage we cannot avoid if we would reach that harbor for which we were made.

What do you think? Does fear have a role to play in our journey towards a full love of God? Are repentance and fear necessarily linked? How would you preach or teach this journey? I’d love to have your feedback below.

Notes

  1. Proverbs 9:10; Psalm 111:10; 1 John 4:18.
  2. Staniloae, Orthodox Spirituality: A Practical Guide for the Faithful and a Definitive Manual for the Scholar (South Canaan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2003), 140-141.
  3. “Amazing Grace,” by John Newton.

The Wild Truth or Easy Heresy?

chesterton
Even Pharrell couldn’t imagine this much fun: Chesterton thinking about orthodoxy.

Heresy never goes away, it simply returns in various forms.  Whether it is the gnostic escapism of the Heaven is For Real, so popular in our ‘Christian’ bookstores and movies, or 18th century deism that has re-emerged as MTD, heresy (being a parasite) will always be found wherever true belief and practice occur.  The key is not just to be able to identify it, but to recognize now boring it is.  Thus, G.K. Chesterton speaks of “the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy:”

“People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”

Those of us advocating for a third way or via media tend to share an interest in basic orthodoxy, in part because we see doctrinal renewal as a key to the vitality of the church, but also because this gives us something more interesting to do that merely wallow around in progressive and conservative echo chambers.  As Chesterton notes, the church had to constantly juke to avoid heresies from every corner.

“She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic.  it is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s head.  It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.  To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple.  It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.  To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth wheeling but erect.” (Orthodoxy [Mineoloa: Dover 1994], 94.)

In my view, the wild truth remains the property neither of the left nor the right in the church.  Orthodoxy is not the possession of any culturally-determined faction or party, but it is the inheritance that the Holy Spirit, the saints, apostles, and martyrs have entrusted to us.  And that millenia-old party is better than all the dull heresies put together.

Recovering the Church Fathers

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e0/All-Saints.jpg
The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, by Fra Angelico

The Fathers (and Mothers) of the Church have – rather providentially happily – been the subject of a bit of a renaissance among Christians in recent decades.  This recovery has been spurred on by the ecumenical movement (which, in part, moved forward by looking back), and by the awakening, in some corners of Protestantism, of a desire to recover the roots of Christian worship and thought.  But how do we re-appropriate them today? Is it simply a matter of dusting off old books, that we might quote the occasional Augustine or Chrysostom and sound informed? Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in a book I cannot recommend enough, says this misses the point entirely:

A mere reading of the Fathers, useful and essential as it is, will not suffice.  For even patristic texts can be made, and are often made, into “proofs” of theological systems deeply alien to the real “mind” of the Fathers.  The “patristic revival” of our time would miss completely its purpose if it were to result in a rigid “patristic system” which in reality never existed.  It is indeed the eternal merit of the Fathers that they showed the dynamic and not static nature of Christian theology, its power always to be “contemporary” without reduction to any “contemporaneousness,” open to all human aspirations without being determined by any of them. If the return to the Fathers were to mean a purely formal repetition of their terms and formulations, it would be as wrong and as useless as the discarding of the Fathers by “modern” theology because of their presumably “antiquated” world view. (145-146)

I am grateful to professors like Warren Smith and others at Duke who taught me to appreciate the Fathers, not just as part of the “history” of the Church, but as vital conversation partners today.  Fr. Schmemann has provided me with an excellent reminder that we are meant not merely to “use” or “reference” the Fathers to further our own theological and ecclesiological agendas, but to pray and think with them: lex orandi, lex credendi.

On the Trinity: Preserving the Mystery

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In his excellent work The Triune God, former Wabash College  professor William Placher gives a succinct and yet profound defense of the classic Christian doctrine of the Trinity.  For Placher, influenced by George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, and the rest of the Postliberal school of theology, dogma about the Trinity involves a certain set of language that we use and also that which we must avoid.  However, we must never imagine that by our language and our brilliance we have somehow “defined” the “Three-One” God (to use Wesley’s phrase).  Placher says that Trinitarian language is not used because we necessarily understand what it all means, but rather because this is how God has revealed himself to us.  This is how scripture leans on us, and we cannot speak any other way accurately of God:

“What the early theologians said was…something like this: We know from Scripture that the Son is not the Father, for the Son prays to the Father with an intensity that cannot be playacting.  We know that the Spirit is Another the Father will send, and not the same as the Son.   We know that there is one God, and yet we pray to the Son and the Spirit, and count on them to participate in our salvation in a way that would be blasphemous if they were other than God.  We need some terms in order to say that God is both one and three, and so we devise such terms, but it is only beyond this life, in the vision of God, that we will understand how God is both one and three.” (The Triune God, [Louisville: WKJ Press 2007], 140.)

 

Chesterton and The Thrill of Orthodoxy

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We live in an age that revels in rebellion, that idolizes the myth of “thinking for myself.”  In such an environment, adherence to a set of philosophic, historic, and theological norms is seen as silly at worst and oppressive at best.  Orthodoxy is safe, boring, on this reading; the post-moderns tell us orthodoxy is the teaching of the powerful, the “winners” of history.  And, as the so-called Occupy Movement has taught us, nobody wants to pull for the winners anymore.  The effect of this cultural suicide in the church is the love-affair with the heterodox, seen in the odd passion for long-dead Gnostic sects and the popularity of speakers like John Shelby Spong (who jumped the shark years ago).

But alas, there is a balm in Gilead.  His name is G.K. Chesterton.  I’d heard much about Chesteron, but never read any of his major works.  Now I’m most of the way through his most famous work, Orthodoxy.  It is marvelous.  Arguments aside, it is quite simply written beautifully.  The man has a way with the language.  He brings his considerable talents to bear describing how he came to discover the truth and then, to his surprise, discovered that he had arrived at orthodox Christianity.

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy.  People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe.  There was never anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.  It was sanity; and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad.  It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses…she swerved to the left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles…The orthodox church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions: the orthodox church was never respectable.  It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians.  It would have been easy, in the Calivinist seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination.  It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic.

He argues that orthodoxy is a game of balance, and that the delicacy of that balance explains all the so-called hairsplitting over theological debates.  If you’re balancing on the tip of a needle, it becomes a game of millimeters.  Of course, I have to applaud him for taking a shot at the Calivinists right after the Arians (though I wouldn’t put them that close together).  But what a grand vision of basic Christian teaching!

He concludes the chapter on “the paradoxes of Christianity” writing:

To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame.  But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect. (Orthodoxy [New York: Dover 2004], 94.)

Orwell once wrote, “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”  Chesterton fulfilled this duty admirably.  May we be so bold in our own time.