Thursday, February 7, 2008

Nazianzen Against the Internet

As was mentioned in the last post, today we celebrate the memory of St Gregory the Theologian (also known as "of Nazianzus" or the "Nazianzen"). He is one of only three Fathers to whom the Orthodox Church has given the title of "theologian." The first is the Apostle and Evangelist John, who "theologized" the Son (that is, spoke of Him as God); the second is our saint of the day, who "theologized" the Holy Spirit; and the third and final is St Symeon the New Theologian, who "theologized" the Divine Light. St Gregory is also grouped by scholars into the "Cappadocian Fathers," along with the brothers St Basil the Great and St Gregory of Nyssa.

St Gregory the Theologian is probably most well known for his Five Theological Orations, which should be required reading for all interested in the theology of the Fathers. I will reproduce the first three chapters of the First Theological Oration (oration 27), entitled "An Introductory Sermon Against the Eunomians." See if any of this can be taken to describe the average "Orthodox" forum or list:
I shall address my words to those whose cleverness is in words. Let me begin from Scripture: "Lo, I am against you and your pride" [Jer 50:31].

There are people, believe me, who not only have "itching ears" [2 Tim 4:3]: their tongues, also, and now, I see, even their hands itch to attack my arguments. They delight in the "profane and vain babblings and contradictions of the Knowledge falsely so-called" [1 Tim 6:20], and in "strife of words" which lead to no useful result [1 Tim 6:4]. "Strife of words" – that is the term given to all elaborate verbiage by Paul, who proclaims and confirms the "short and final account," Paul, the pupil and teacher of fishermen [Rom 9:28; Is 10:23]. These people I speak of have versatile tongues, and are resourceful in attacking doctrines nobler and worthier than their own. I only wish they would display comparable energy in their actions: then they might be something more than mere verbal tricksters, grotesque and preposterous word-gamesters – their derisory antics invite derisive description.

But in fact they have undermined every approach to true religion by their complete obsession with setting and solving conundrums. They are like the promoters of wrestling-bouts in the theaters, and not even the sort that are conducted in accordance with the rules of the sport and lead to the victory of one of the antagonists, but the sort which are stage-managed to give the uncritical spectators visual sensations and compel their applause. Every square in the city has to buzz with their arguments, every party must be made tedious by their boring nonsense. No feast, no funeral is free from them: their wranglings bring gloom and misery to the feasters, and console the mourners with the example of an affliction graver than death. Even women in the drawing room, that sanctuary of innocence, are assailed, and the flower of modesty is despoiled by this rushing into controversy.

Such is the situation: this infection is unchecked and intolerable; "the great mystery" of our faith is in danger of becoming a mere social accomplishment [1 Tim 3:16]. I am moved with fatherly compassion, and as Jeremiah says, "my heart is torn within me" [Jer 4:19]. Let these spies therefore be tolerant enough to hear patiently what I have to say on this matter, and to hold their tongues for a while – if, that is, they can – and listen to me. You can lose nothing by it, in any case: either I shall speak "to them that have ears to hear" [Sir 25:9], and my words will bear fruit, and you will benefit (for, while he who sows the Word sows it in every kind of mind, it is only the good and porductive kind which bears fruit) [Mt 13:3 and 23]; or else, if you spit on this speech of mine as you have on others, when you go away you will take with you more material for your mockery and attacks on me, and you will then feast yourselves even better. But do not be surprised is what I say is contrary to your expectations and contrary to your ways, since you porofess to know all and teach all – an attitude which is too naive and pretentious: I would not offend you by saying stupid and arrogant.

Discussion of theology is not for everyone, I tell you, not for everyone – it is no such inexpensive or effortless pursuit. Nor, I would add, is it for ever occasion, or every audience; neither are all its aspects open to inquiry. It must be reserved for certain occasions, for certain audiences, and certain limits must be observed. It is not for all people, but only for those who have been tested and have found a sound footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul. For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous, just as it is for weak eyes to look at the son's brightness.

What is the right time? Whenever we are free from the mire and noise without, and our commanding faculty is not confused by illusory, wandering images, leading us, as it were, to mix fine script with ugly-scrawling, or sweet-smelling scent with slime. We need actually "to be still" in order to know God [Ps 46(45): 10(11)], and when we receive the opportunity, "to judge uprightly" in theology [Ps 75(74): 2(3).

Who should listen to discussions of theology? Those for whom it is a serious understanding, not just another subject like any other for entertaining small talk, after the races, the theater, songs, food, and sex: for there are people who count chatter on theology and clever deployment of arguments as one of their amusements.

What aspects of theology should be investigated, and to what limit? Only aspects within our grasp, and only to the limit of the experience and capacity of our audience. Just as excess of sound or food injures the hearing or general health, or, if you prefer, as loads that are too heavy injure those who carry them, or as excessive rain harms the soil, we too must guard against the danger that the toughness, so to speak, of our discourses may so oppress and overtax our hearers as actually to impair the powers they had before.
Taken from the volume On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, translated by Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham.


BJA said...

Wow, this is right on the money. This describes perfectly not only the notorious Orthodox forums and lists, but also not a few Orthodox blogs as well (yours excluded, of course!).

Felix Culpa said...

Nothing new under the sun, my friend, nothing new under the sun.

Eric Sowell said...

You could also title this "Nazianzen Against the WWE" :)

"Reserved for certain occassions." I think that makes sense. I don't suppose it is valuable to make talk of God so common that through its use in all situations it becomes truly common and no longer special.

Felix Culpa said...

Yes, professional wrestling is one of the relatively few crimes against humanity that can not be blamed on the twentieth century.

Bear in mind, too, that St Gregory was writing primarily against the Eunomians, who were famous as verbal tricksters and theological sophists. Much of what the Cappadocians wrote against them had as its aim to insist that our human language can go only so far in speaking of the divine; we can't claim a direct correlation between our theological lexicon and the Divinity Itself.

Above all, I think, St Gregory was insisting on the spiritual or ascetic dimension of theologizing: only those who "have undergone, or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul" should speak of theology. And even such people should craft their words to the "experience and capacity" of their audience.

While I intended this post as a somewhat lighthearted jab at a lot of on-line theological clatter, it could really serve even better as a criticism of a lot of academic theology, at least that which is done of the historical-critical method outside a community of faith.