"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, June 20, 2014

Taking the Fathers Back

Whenever I heard self-appointed Orthodox apologists bashing people over the head with references to "the Fathers" or "the Holy Fathers said....X" I long for someone to write a bracing polemic subjecting such claims to the same treatment as Stanley Hauerwas did more than twenty years ago now in challenging people who make the same claims, substituting only "the Bible" or "the Holy Bible says....X." In his Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, Hauerwas begins by arguing thus:
Most North American Christians assume they have a right, if not an obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important for the church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. Let us no longer give the Bible to every child when they enter the third grade or whenever their assumed rise to Christian maturity is marked….Let us rather tell them and their parents that they are possessed by habits far too corrupt for them to be encouraged to read the Bible on their own.

.....North American Christians are trained to believe that they are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation. They read the Bible not as Christians, not as a people set apart, but as democratic citizens who think their ‘common sense’ is sufficient for ‘understanding’ the Scripture. They feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community to be told how to read. Instead, they assume they have all the ‘religious experience’ necessary to know what the Bible is about. As a result the Bible inherently becomes the ideology for a politics quite different from the politics of the Church.
Could not every word of that be applied to self-styled "traditionalists" quoting from Maximus the Confessor here, Gregory Palamas there, and Athonite elders everywhere? These types fail to realize that not anybody can pick up and read patristic literature, and read it intelligently and profitably. Their readings almost always do hermeneutic violence to the texts, and fail to realize that their own readings reflect not these ancient texts so much as their own late-modern "democratic" belief in their abilities to read and understand, seemingly above ideology and politics when, of course, they are steeped in it. (Come to think of it, someone has written an attack on these abuses--Christos Yannaras.)

Over the past half-century, intelligent people have offered some wise reflections on how to read the Fathers, and how to avoid the pitfalls in doing so. Georges Florovsky, in an article over fifty years old but still very much worth paying attention to, offered such wisdom.  So did Alexander Schmemann. Hans Urs von Balthasar, in the lovely and elegant introduction to his Presence and Thought: Essay on the Religious Philosophy of Gregory of Nyssa also offered perceptive reflections on what we can, and cannot, take from the Fathers, and how they can, and cannot, be used today--something he also wrote about in an important article from 1939, "Patristik, Scholastik und wir."

Now Augustine Casiday has come along to help us with these issues in his splendid new book, Remember the Days of Old: Orthodox Thinking on the Patristic Heritage. This is a very accessible, wonderfully useful book for those who want to learn more about the nature of reading and interpreting, about Christian historiography, and the place of the Fathers in the Church and in Christian history generally. It is cogently written and its crisp, clear prose makes difficult issues accessible, so this would be an ideal book for a parish study or for use in an undergraduate classroom. It should also be on reading lists for catecheumens coming in to the Orthodox Church so that they do not fall into the traps, and commit the errors, of too many zealots and apologists one finds online.

Casiday, whom I interviewed earlier this week about his book on Evagrius, has here written a short book of four chapters, beginning with the question "What is the Patristic Heritage?" Almost immediately he offers important cautions about what could be called the problem of "genre" in patristic literature. We have to watch out for certain aspects--e.g., technical vocabulary, say, or caustic personal attacks or vindictive rhetoric--that  mark certain texts, and we have to be aware, moreover, of the context in which these texts were written. Perhaps their disputatious context is too far removed from our own day to be entirely profitable for contemporary readers. It is not enough to blindly yank a fourth-century Cappadocian father into 21st-century North America and expect that everything will "fit" and the meaning and application will become clear. Here Casiday rightly avers to one of the classic treatments of hermeneutics, H.G. Gadamer's Truth and Method. Here I would also note an apt comment by another landmark work in hermeneutics, Bernard Lonergan's Insight: A Study of Human Understanding,where Lonergan pours scorn on the idea that knowing and understanding consist simply in "taking a good look." It involves time and effort, and the patience for both. Merely picking up a collection of patristic sayings, or a volume of The Philokalia and flinging a paragraph around in a Facebook debate does very little, and may in fact be little more than obscurantism in a high-tech medium and thus totally counter-productive. As Casiday nicely puts it:
the reputation that we as Orthodox enjoy (and sometimes cultivate) [is] for unrivalled continuity with the Christian past. On the basis of that reputation, one could assert that being Orthodox leads to a privileged understanding of the ancient church and that this understanding is preferable to the results of academic study. This option has the satisfying outcome of securing the theological study of patristic sources. But it does so at a cost. The security it provides is the security of a ghetto. It also increases the likelihood of confusing prejudices with insights. Above all, it betrays our responsibility to bear witness to Christ (35).
Much of the rest of this chapter is spent dealing with the not entirely satisfactory ways others in the past century tried to deal with the patristic heritage. Casiday singles out Florovsky and Paul Valliere for extended discussion. He ends the chapter with a reminder of the limitations of human knowing, and the importance of being mindful of those limitations.

Chapter 2 asks the question "How is it Transmitted?" How do we transmit the heritage of the Fathers of the Church? How is it received? Again, those who have attended to the processes of hermeneutics will recognize that these are deceptively simple questions hiding a rather involved process of transmission and reception, of translation, interpretation, and application. This chapter makes use of a tried and true scholarly method, which I often profitably use with undergraduates, namely case-studies. He begins with Vincent of Lerins and his treatment of Origen and Augustine, showing how one father grappled with other fathers before moving on to St. Maximus the Confessor, particularly his Ambigua

Casiday's final case study concerns the filioque,which is treated with great sensitivity and intelligence as the author notes, rightly, that "it is a fact of history that the theological literature of antiquity provides evidence which can be taken to support either the dual procession of the Holy Spirit (called 'filioquism') or the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father alone (called 'patrimonism'). The origins of this difference are obscure" (81). In the debates, within East and West and between them, over this issue, there was sometimes the tendency to regard "the Fathers" as having infallible authority here as elsewhere. But as Casiday repeatedly notes, one can be held up and respected as a father while having made errors and been wrong about one or more matters. This is an important point to underscore to some who seem to act as though the Fathers were immune to error and we must unquestioningly accept everything they wrote.

His next chapter focuses on symbols and creeds, and later in the chapter Casiday returns to the filioque again, asking why it is some focus on this as a sign of apparently insurmountable East-West difference while we ignore other discrepancies in other versions of the creeds. Drawing on the classical and pioneering anthropology of Mary Douglas in her Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, he notes that "something odd is going on in this particular case" because "there survive not only the Latin and Greek received texts, but also Armenian and Syriac texts. No two are completely identical, even allowing for the exigencies of translation. The Syriac and Armenian versions are not without interest--we have already noted that a Syriac version of the creed says that the Spirit is 'from the Father and the Son'" (129).

Casiday sharpens the point by referring to Tia Kolbaba's recent and important historical works Inventing Latin Heretics: Byzantines and the Filioque in the Ninth Century and The Byzantine Lists: Errors of the Latins. Why is it, both ask, that of all the controversies the Byzantines generated and of all the charges they threw at the West, the filioque is about the only one anybody still talks about today? (Can we not, as I asked yesterday, finally declare this discussion over and move on?)

The last chapter is appropriately titled "Forward with the Fathers," and spends no little time on the work of John Zizioulas, particularly his landmark work Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church. Zizioulas claims that book is based on patristic, and especially Cappadocian, theology, and it is, but it is also in dialogue with modern philosophy and theology. Sharp critical responses (notably from Lucian Turcescu) have suggested that Zizioulas tends to read back into his patristic sources distinctions and conceptions that are not found there, but only found in modern philosophy. And yet, this in itself is not objectionable if one is clear about it. (The problem is that Zizioulas rather flatly and not very convincingly asserts he is merely allowing the Fathers to speak through his work, without adding anything to that process.) It is, indeed, the same method the Fathers themselves used, as Casiday demonstrated earlier in the book. Casiday does not adjudicate these disputes, but once again uses them as a sort of case-study on the process of reading and reception of the Fathers, arguing that they--and we--have "the Christian freedom...in the business of articulating their good news in the idiom of their contemporaries" (149). Thus we must resist those who would insist that the Fathers and only the Fathers are entirely and absolutely normative for Eastern theology and nothing and nobody can challenge or go beyond them--something that Aristotle Papanikolaou has called "patristic fundamentalism."

How then to proceed? Clearly Orthodox theology cannot jettison the Fathers, but neither must it treat them as adamantine objects to be imposed on an unruly and wicked age. Instead, turning once again to the Fathers themselves--especially Origen and Augustine--Casiday uses their own tried and true method of "despoiling the Egyptians." We take what is good and useful for the glory of God, and use that, regardless of its provenance--a form, to use another old expression, of "baptizing paganism" if you will. This is precisely what the Fathers themselves did, and would tell us to do today. So scorning all of modern "Western" culture, philosophy, literature, and, yes, theology, is a deeply un-patristic thing to do. We cannot all sit around snorting incense and endlessly quoting from John of Damascus or Augustine of Hippo as though that would--as von Balthasar put it--absolve us of our responsibilities to and for our own age. As Casiday nicely puts it, "If we want to join the early fathers in 'despoiling the Egyptians' and imitate them in making the best of the world in which we find ourselves as Christians, we will find fairly quickly that there is more to living patristically than carefully articulating theological doctrines to rejoice the angels and refute the heretics" (172). Casiday then concludes by offering several suggestions for what the Fathers would say to us today, not least in challenging us to a greater service of the poor as seen, e.g., in St. Basil the Great.

In sum, Remember the Days of Old: Orthodox Thinking on the Patristic Heritage is an extremely useful and deeply compelling book, written with great clarity, insight, and restraint, and it very much deserves a wide audience, not merely among other academics, but especially in parish study groups, catechetical classes, and similar venues. The Fathers would applaud.

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