Sunday, May 3, 2009

What is Rain?

I've long been struck by the following passage about St Nikolaj's years as a professor at St Tikhon's Seminary in South Canaan, PA:
IN 1951, Bishop Nikolai came to St. Tikhons Seminary first as a professor and finally, with the death of the former Rector, Bishop Jonah, as Rector of the Seminary Here he lived out the last years of his life as an example of humility, as well as an elder to the monastics at St. Tikhons Monastery. To the students of the Seminary, the old Bishop was a loving father figure whom they would never forget. To the laity and faithful of the monastery parish, as well as all who came in contact with the Bishop, he was a hierarch in whom they saw manifest the grace of God. And to all, he was an example of humility. During his years as an educator at St. Tikhons Seminary Bishop Nikolai was seen to be a very unusual person in that his courses were profoundly simple, informal and very warm. His requirements were very basic: he taught, you learned, and he corrected.

Perhaps one of the most striking characteristics of his classes was that he taught solely in the English language, at a time when very few courses were taught in that language (and these usually by outside lecturers). This often caused friction with other faculty members, but Bishop Nikolai held fast to his position, for he knew the importance, for the seminarians, of hearing lectures in their native language. Indeed, without this use of English, much of the subtlety of his teachings would have been lost from memory. The use of English extended even to the monastery church, and on most occasions he would preach in that language. Often the parishioners would complain about this, but his answer would be: You have learned and heard enough. Its time for [the seminarians] to learn something.

Bishop Nikolai's classes, sermons and conversations were always geared to his audience, whether they be students, professors, theologians or simple parishioners, and his vocabulary never extended itself beyond the comprehension of his hearers. For him, class could be any time. Anything said to him could be turned around and assigned a deeper meaning. He would always take examples from conversations in class, at the dinner table, or that which occurred as he walked about the grounds, and would always introduce examples from Holy Scripture, relating them to life at hand. For example, one day in class a student mentioned the fact that it was such a terribly dismal day because of the rain. Bishop Nikolai walked over to the window, looked out, and expounded on the further dimensions of rain, from Noah until the present time: What is rain? It is like Christ Who was also sent by the Father from Heaven to water a thirsty earth.
This passage strikes me so strongly in large part because it serves as the perfect antithesis of my own experience as a seminary teacher. I was young, overconfident, and had a head full of partially digested ideas from graduate school that I thought should serve as the keys to any proper understanding of theology. Like so many young academics, my tendency was always to complicate and "complexify" ideas, forever pursuing originality of interpretation. After all, one establishes oneself in academia largely through the relentless self-promotion of one's own originality, through carving out one's own specific niche and line of argument. How often I was too clever by half, spoiling a perfectly good idea by needless reinterpretation. The old joke about the Russian newspaper Facts and Arguments is that it has neither. In my case I had too many of both, or certainly of the latter. A colleague from another institution once approached me after I had delivered a paper at a conference to compliment me on having given such a "nuanced" presentation. While I'm sure she intended her remark in the most complimentary way, I was horrified.

What was lacking in my own teaching was precisely that simplicity of manner and attention to fundamentals that we see so elegantly depicted in the paragraphs above. St Nikolaj was among the best-educated men of his times, had acquired a multitude of degrees, spoke many languages, and was able to relate to people from every level of society. Yet he was neither an intellectual nor an academic as those terms are popularly understood today. His writings bear none of the tortured and ironic tone so characteristic of nearly all contemporary academic writing. There is no application of critical method where it does not belong, no attempt to hide behind scholarly objectivity, no desire to overturn everything that came before him. There is genuine profundity of thought without futile intellectualization.

Those who have followed this web log for some time, or who have at least dipped into the archives, will likely have noticed that my posts have become increasingly less argumentative in tone. I've been out of the teaching and studying business for a few years now, no longer particularly keep up with academic publications, and have recently undergone a fairly severe illness. This has served to relieve my mind of the constant internal dialectic that is the keystone of the intellectual life. My imaginative life has been much more occupied with the Holy Scriptures than anything else. I do continue to read a good bit of classic literature (particularly the Russians and the Victorians), but it's been some time now since I've read a work of "abstract" theology. I've recently said very little from or about myself on this web log (this post being the exception that proves the rule), preferring rather to translate texts from the Russian and collate links to other worthwhile online resources. Many of the old arguments simply don't seem so important anymore. This is not to say that I won't still cry foul when need be (I do have at least one more forthcoming post on The Orthodox Study Bible), but it does mean that as my own basic intuition about what's important changes, so too will this blog.


Esteban Vázquez said...

Thank you, Father, for this marvelous post.

Gabriel said...

It's interesting to compare "the academy" generally with the legal academy specifically. In law, the trick (and oftentimes it's just that) is to make it appear as if you are barely being original at all. The mark of your genius is supposed to be showing people what was "obvious" all along and claiming to inch the ball up the field. Now, that doesn't mean there aren't some who come in like gangbusters trying to "revolutionize" some area of law, but it never ceases to astound me at how often they are ignored. I have heard people (other academics mostly) knock legal scholarship for being at least a decade behind various academic trends, but that comforts me in large part. Whether one believes the law to be right or wrong, the fact remains that it impacts people's lives; it shapes the very nature of society. I'd much prefer a tortoise-like conservatism where any upheavals are largely kept quiet and only instituted over many decades.

With that said, I think most people would be surprised at how much goes on in legal academia which does eventually spill out into public policy and the shaping of new law. Perhaps most pay little attention to it, but today's fairly novel law review article is tomorrow's ("tomorrow" meaning two or three decades from now) reordering of society's value system. Every time I hear someone knock legal scholarship as "meaningless," I refer them to Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren's 1890 Harvard Law Review article, "The Right to Privacy." Arguably, no single piece of scholarship has had such a profound (and arguably devastating) effect on the American political and legal landscape since.

Felix Culpa said...

Thank you both for your comments. The impulse towards originality and reinterpretation is certainly less strongly felt in Orthodox theological studies than in other disciplines -- there may be something of a parallel with legal scholarship here, since no Orthodox scholar would want to be seen as proposing innovation -- but it is still certainly present.

I clearly remember the shock I experienced during one of my first classes at the graduate (Orthodox) seminary I attended. I was called upon to lead a discussion of the Didache. Only rediscovered in 1883, there has been a great deal of discussion about what sort of service it actually describes: in short, a Eucharist or not?

In my presentation I rehearsed the various arguments about what kind of service the Didache describes. The professor (whose name nearly everyone who reads this blog would recognize), looking at the brief bibliography I had distributed, said: "Well, of course it's a Eucharist. Just look at the dates of the works you cite!" (In other words, the arguments made for it not being a Eucharist were generally from earlier publications, and those in favor of it being a Eucharist were from later publications.) Therefore the Didache represented a Eucharist. QED. (Granted, I agree that it certainly does describe a Eucharist, but not at all for these reasons).

I was horrified by his approach, particularly since I had just come from previous graduate work at St John's College in Annapolis where, needless to say, a slightly different methodology was at work.

The sort of approach this professor demonstrated, it seems to me, comes about when the methodology of the natural sciences is applied to theology. Just as one would naturally prefer a work on, say, genetics written last year to one written a generation ago, so too should one prefer a work of theology written last year to one written a generation ago That such an approach is radically flawed should be so obvious I need not have to comment further. (And for a really brilliant treatment of this general theme, see Fr Louth's "Discerning the Mystery.")

This is not to say that there isn't room for reappraisal and revision in theological scholarship. Much of what my own theological mentor, Fr John Behr, has done is to recover the thoughts of the Fathers from what has often become their standard interpretation. Much of my own academic interest was to question the patristic basis of much twentieth century "neo-patristic" thinking. There are always historiographical prejudices to overturn, critical texts to establish, and ancient works to be rediscovered and translated for use by a new generation.

But this is all secondary to the my main point of my post, which was not so much to criticize the "academy" -- or anything or anyone else -- as it was to express my growing dissatisfaction with the way I myself have studied and taught theology.

When one is really faced with the hard facts of life -- with pain and suffering and illness and death -- one's abstract, academic, scientific knowledge of historical theology does not provide much support at all. A faith based on academic theology is indeed a faith based on sand. There has to be bedrock beneath it all. If that bedrock isn't there,one might well have to dismantle one's elaborate structures and start all over again by establishing the most simple and fundamental truths.

Gabriel said...

Yes, isn't the methodology of St. John's, "If it's not at least two centuries old, it isn't worth studying?"

Though this is a side matter, have you ever read Seth Benardete's Encounters & Reflections? I always found his recollections of St. John's and, in particular, Jacob Klein to be amongst that book's highlights. Actually, given your background and familiarity with the cast of characters Beneradete went to school with, I'm sure you'd get a bigger kick out of it than I.

As for your remarks on theology, I'll defer to your judgment. I've never delved too deeply for the simple fact I was always afraid of getting lost.

Felix Culpa said...

St John's does have a good number of informal mottos, although that isn't one of them (they do read at least at late as Freud!). My personal favorite is this: St John's is where Jews teach Protestants how to be good Catholics.

I actually read the late Professor Benardete's book when it first came out, and loved it. The highlights for me were actually the stories about Leo Strauss, particularly the ones about his struggles with an electric fan, his asking a cabbie in New York how far it was to Chicago, and going shopping for a present for a gift for a baby shower with Jacob Klein. If I had the book in front of me I'd quote them each, since they're so delightful.

Strauss was actually at St John's only at the very end of his life, for two or three years, and was a "scholar in residence" rather than a regular tutor. If you ever go to the library at St John's you can listen to cassette recordings of a good number of his lectures and seminars. He's buried in the Jewish cemetery in Annapolis.

I can actually add a first-hand anecdote I heard about Seth Bernardete himself, related by Tutor Robert Williamson. They went to see "Casablanca" together, afterwhich Mr Bernadete remarked that it was "very easy." He then explained that he had kept himself entertained by translating all the dialogue in the movie into Attic Greek to keep himself entertained, and had found it very easy.

Robert said...

This is commendable. How much of this nuanced "originality" will stand the light of heaven anyways?

aaronandbrighid said...

Apropos of your anecdote about being 'nuanced', there is a wonderful satirical article in the Texas Law Review by Dennis W. Arrow entitled '"Rich," "Textured," and "Nuanced": Constitutional "Scholarship" and Constitutional Messianism at the Millennium'. You and Gabriel might well enjoy it, if you haven't seen it before already! In one of many hilarious footnotes, Arrow makes the point 'that favorite postmodern adjectives such as "comple", "rich", "textured", "nuanced", and "democratic" in Pomospeak mean the opposite of what they mean in English--as does the moniker "postmodernism" itself'.

Gabriel said...


Thanks for the heads-up. I haven't seen the article, but I will have to read it.

Richard Posner has a brief comment on an article by Pierre Schlug entitled, "The State of Legal Scholarship Today." It's also worth reading (though Schalg's piece probably isn't; Posner restates his better points). Posner's remarks on "Constitutional theory" are spot-on.