Saturday, June 14, 2008

O Fathers, Where Art Thou?

Gabriel on the blog "Going Along" offers what I think is an insightful critique of how the fathers are often [mis-]used in contemporary Orthodox theology. He puts into words something that I sensed in my conversation with many Orthodox Christians but haven't been quite able to put into words. There is a tendency among Orthodox Christians--both on the "right" and the "left" as he says--to elevate the fathers to the point where they are viewed effectively as themselves revealed . Yes, as Gabriel say, the fathers are godly, but they are godly commentators on revelation and not themselves revealed.

I have reproduced the whole post here, but please go, read what is posted on Gabriel's site and leave a comment there (and here if you would).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

O Fathers, Where Art Thou?

I have long held some hard reservations about making any of my posts deal with concrete issues in Orthodox theology. This is an extension of an even deeper reserve when it comes to the Church Fathers themselves. I have long thought that it would be worth the efforts of some enterprising soul to write a comprehensive account called, "The Use and Abuse of the Fathers of the Church in Contemporary Orthodoxy." I think it could be written in a non-polemical manner, charitable to well-meaning missteps, and brutal in exposing what has become a loathsome enterprise of proof-texting and fideism. That this has occurred on both the "right" and the "left" is not surprising since, with the exception of a few current writers, the dark clouds of historicist thinking have crept over Orthodox Patristic (or neo-Patristic) thought. The one "escape" which has been utilized more than proposed and examined is to interpret the Fathers as in no small sense divine, i.e., lift their thought out of the historical context not on the basis that they might have understood themselves to be confronting permanent questions of theology and morals, but on the basis that they were divinized insights which, by virtue of that divinization, renders them ahistorical. This line of interpretation has been put into practice with such Fathers as St. Symeon the New Theologian and even St. Basil the Great, a Father who—right or wrongly—tends to be interpreted in a far less "mystical" manner than St. Symeon. The logic behind this interpretation stems, I believe, from the Church's recognition of these men as Saints. Since saintliness and godliness are coeval, the "natural" extension is that their thought is godly, divine, even revelatory. Some critics of Orthodoxy have pointed out that this line of interpretation collapses the distinction between Biblical Revelation and the interpretation of that Revelation by the Fathers. That critique could be pushed a bit further, I think. At what point does it appear illogical to cease understanding what the Fathers have to say as a "new revelation"? Defenders of Orthodoxy would, of course, reject such a notion just as they reject the Roman Catholic notion of Development of Doctrine. Yet the lines are not clear when the writings of the Fathers take on a revelatory character, when they are deemed authoritative by the Will of God, and seen as the manifestation of supernatural experiences.

I say all of this not to reject the notion that any one Father or all of the Fathers had supernatural experiences. I do not mean to falsely separate their sanctity from their writings as some scholars are wont to do. Yet at the same time it seems too easy, nay, too simplistic, to use their relationship with God as an "escape" from the historicizing of other scholars. The ill effects of this attempted "escape" is the indiscriminate doctrinization of what the Fathers have to say. But nobody who isn't hopelessly na├»ve can successfully assert anymore that there exists universal agreement on all pertinent problems in the writings of the Fathers. (This is true whether or not one is inclined to exclude "heretics" such as Cyril of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Augustine, Theodoret of Cyrene, etc.) What, then, do we make of these "differences of opinion"? And on what basis can we call them "opinions" if we are already disposed to hold that their writings—all of their writings—come from the inspiration of God? Is it possible that some are rooted in divine experience and some to that fallacious instrument known as human reason? Are the former privileged over the latter? And, assuming this is a privilege worth bestowing, do we have any meaningful way to discern now which writings come from divine experience and which are merely the products of some rationalization, i.e., a working through of problems in a manner that is logical, orderly, and without, apparently, the requisite "mysticism" that may be taken in a spiritually-starved age as proof positive of holy worth? If arbitrariness is not to be extended as a sanctified outcome of the Church's "spiritual theology," then some criterion must exist—be it rational or otherwise. Perhaps the less rational is, the more likely it is to gain purchase.

As convenient as it no doubt is, a "return to the Fathers" is a fairly recent phenomena. The "right" in Orthodoxy may find comfort in the continuity thesis, but the "left" is still fairly certain that for hundreds of years, most ordained priests lived without access to most Patristic texts. (Cf. Triodion of the seventeenth-century Russian Church and the conspicuous absence of St. Gregory Palamas's commemoration.) Whether or not this calls into question the veracity of Holy Tradition in Orthodoxy seems, to me, to be a separate question altogether which ought to be answered in the negative. The only matter worth reflecting on here is the possibility that the Church went on absent a "Patristic consciousness" drawn from the sources themselves but, rather, maintained in other integral ways. The "left" call that nonsense, speaking so often as they do of distortions, interpolations, and that dreaded "Western captivity" (when, of course, the Church itself wasn't ambling through history under a cloud of total darkness). Today's return or, if you will, amplification of the Church's sure Patristic roots (which are, actually, its clear Apostolic roots) should not be lamented. What ought to be questioned is whether or not this has even really begun or, perhaps, if Orthodoxy is still not laboring under a false belief that historicist readings, spiritualized defenses, and more than a taint of triumphalism amounts to the same thing.

Unless other wise noted, everything posted here is © 2007 Gregory R Jensen
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