Friday, May 01, 2009

Matt's Comments on American Religious Culture

Gregory of Nazianzus presided over part of the...Image via Wikipedia

The post, “American Religious Culture,” generated several comments. One commentator, Matt, seemed especially taken with my description of that culture.

In his first comment on the post, Matt asked about the quote from St Gregory Nazianzen's First Theological Oration (Oration 27) that serves as the masthead for my blog. St Gregory says that

Not to every one, my friends, does it belong to philosophize about God; not to every one; the Subject is not so cheap and low; and I will add, not before every audience, nor at all times, nor on all points; but on certain occasions, and before certain persons, and within certain limits. (#3)

The saint then proceeds to explain what he means.

Theological discussion, he say, “is permitted only to those who have been examined, and are passed masters in meditation, and who have been previously purified in soul and body, or at the very least are being purified.” Gregory makes this argument because, as do many of the fathers, understand theology as grounded in, and returning to, the life of prayer, liturgical and personal.

Such an understanding of theology doesn't preclude (as I said to Matt in response to his initial question about the quote) theological scholarship in the contemporary sense. It does however relativize the intellectual and academic study of theology placing as it does the primary emphasis on the sanctity of the person.

And so Matt, at the risk of being niggling, I think you are only partially correct in your assertion when you comment that “that one can be merely ascetic. Untrained ascetics are still, well, untrained. Asceticism does not substitute for formal training and training does not substitute for asceticism.” While I understand (I think) your concern that we not fall into anti-intellectualism, theological obscurantism or fideism (all of which are not unknown in either the Christian East or West), I would have to disagree with the idea that untrained ascetics are untrained.

You assume, or so it seems to me, a understanding of theology that places a primacy on academic training rather than asceticism. Anyone who knows me (or reads this blog) will attest, I am not anti-intellectual and I value not only the intellectual life in general but also its the intellectual tradition of the Christian East and West.

But fidelity to that tradition (I have come to understand more and more) means a personal commitment to the practice of the traditional ascetical disciplines of the Church. While often more honored in the breech by Orthodox Christians (as Steven Hayes points out in his own comment on the original blog post), they have almost wholly disappeared among Western Christians both Protestant and Catholic.

Matt let me shift gears here a bit.

In your comment you allude to the importance in Western culture of monastic theology and an ascetically based theolog:

I fully understand that prayer and obedience are key to understanding any truth, theological or not. St. Bede the Venerable spent his days in a Benedictine monastery praying long before he recorded his brilliant history. Indeed, the Benedictine Order has, in my opinion, given us the most brilliant minds of all time. Why? Because they are shaped by silence, obedience, and prayer. Almost all of the scholars until the mid-1500s were ordained to at least the minor orders, and produced great works of literature still read today. Asceticism clearly benefits the mind.

I certainly agree with what you say above, but again I most point out that the monastic ideal you point to (what Fr Georges Florovsky in his own critique of Reformation theology calls the ascetic ideal of the New Testament) is one that has become foreign even to self-professed traditional Catholics.

Much as when I hear Orthodox talk about the “Western captivity” of Orthodox theology, I am inclined to dismiss your assertion that “that most of the problems inherent in modernity and the modern understanding of everything from God to peanut butter is a result of the Protestant assertion that we can all discover truth for ourselves, without reliance on either a [ecclesiastical] hierarchy or formal [academic?] training.”

While beyond my pay grade, I think a closer reading of the multiple traditions within the broad rubric of the Reformation would show a variety of attitudes towards ecclesiastical hierarchy (even if they are more or less united around a rejection of the hierarchy of the Roman Church).

I don't in anyway disagree that contemporary American Christianity tends to be anti-hierarchical, it certainly is. And yes, certainly, this attitude is a matter of pastoral concern for Catholic and Orthodox Christians in this country as well. In any event, Matt's I don't think that what seems to be your insistence on the primacy of academic (and specifically, philosophical) training is the way out.

I both agree and disagree with you when you write that

America is a nation in which everyone thinks himself to be a philosopher, while almost no one has any philosophy training (and those that do are trained in relativistic mumbo-jumbo, not Aristotelian or Scholastic truths).

First of all I am not a proponent of the anti-Aristotelian anti-Scholastic polemics that are popular in some Orthodox circles. That said, however, it seems to me that strictly speaking there are no “ Aristotelian or Scholastic truths,” even if the are true things that we can see by studying Aristotle and the Scholastic authors.

I wouldn't deny what Pope Benedict XVI calls the “tyranny of relativism,” I think the problem you point to is not fundamentally a lack of philosophical education (though no doubt this along with a lack of good catechesis) is part of the problem) but rather the almost wholesale abandonment by Christians of the historical asccetical ideal.

We need to come back to asceticism (I think) because no matter how the philosophical or theological, the different challenges face by not only Orthodox Christians in America but also Catholic and Protestant Christians can only be met by the active pursuit of sanctity. It was this single minded devotion to holiness that allowed the flowering of the intellectual life that you (rightly) praise. BUT, scholarship—theological or otherwise—is not the point of the monastic life. And this is so because scholarship is not the goal of the Christian life (though it may be part of the vocation of a particular Christian).

Matt let me conclude by answering your finally question: “Would you agree with me on that one or are we talking past one another?”

Matt, I would agree with part of what you write. But from my point of view, you seem to want to argue for the primacy—or at least a parity—between academics and asceticism. If this what you are doing (and may have misunderstood where you're coming from) then I think we I think we may have a rather basic disagreement.

Be that as it may, thank you for taking the time to respond to my post and I look forward to a continued discussion.

And, as always, your (and everyone's) comments, questions and criticisms are not only welcome they are actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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