Archive for June 24th, 2005

It has been my intent, in this series of reflections, to do two things: to draw a sharp distinction between how philosophy is understood in our (presumably late) modern context and how it was understood in antiquity, and to demonstrate the strong similarities between the ancient understanding of philosophy (as philosophia) and of Christianity’s own understanding of itself as a philosophia, indeed as the true philosophia. In turn, I want to draw a sharp distinction between how Christianity is currently understood in our present-day context and how Christianity understood itself in antiquity.

Present-day Christianity is rife with grammatique, with grammarians rather than philosophers. I mean by this, a perspective that focuses on analysis, definition, and dogma rather then humility, obedience and repentance. Grammatique, as I am using this term here, should be seen as the technique of the grammarian, the hermeneutical orientation, the intellectualization of belief.

Grammatike is, in many ways, safer than philosophia. Socrates was not sentenced to die, after all, for grammar or inflammatory speeches, but for inculcating a way of life, an examined life, that was a threat to the conventional mode of living of the Athens of his day. The Apostles were persecuted for sake of the Word, not for words. The seven martyred brothers whom we celebrate today (the soldiers Orentius, Pharnacius, Eros, Firmus, Firminus, Cyriacus and Longinus) were martyred not for an intepretation of Scripture, but for failing to adhere to the way of life of the Roman military: sacrificing to the gods after a victory.

Once the perspective shifts from philosophia to grammatike, however, definition becomes paramount, hermeneutics and discourse are separated from virtue and struggle. Once this divorce happens, what it means to be Christian will inevitably shift from performance to concept, from the ecclesiola, the “little Church” in the home, to the academy and those with the skills to argue and define in plausibility. With this shift, what it means to be Christian amounts to what one defines Christianity to be, and apostolicity is rendered in rhetoric.

This is little more than gnosticism. A select cadre of hermeneuticians and lawyers are allowed to render the measurements for what Christianity is by virtue of its plausible content. Another group makes their arguments, and the jury of onlookers each decide whom they think is right. The intellect is tickled and reason satisfied, but there’s little or no justification for why any of this makes any real difference.

But the Christianity that is philosophia, while it must give attention to words and interpretation, gives primary attention to the ways of living that have been passed down from grandparents to parents to children. The Councils of the ancient Church did not convene so as to define the doctrines that must be believed, but met because the way of life Christ had handed to the apostles–and the apostles to the rest of the Church–was being threatened by grammarians who were at work changing words and arguing definitions, the consequences of which grammatique would fundamentally alter the Christian way of life. Arius was not a threat merely because he interpreted Scripture differently from the Church, but because the consequences of his belief would change the prayers which sustained the Church in daily life and would radically gut the bowels of common liturgy.

Dogma and belief do not change, but not because the faithful retain, like automatons, a mere conformity to the exact words. After all, in the historic Church the Faith and its worship were translated into a multitude of languages and cultures. Rather, dogma and belief remain unchanged because they are guarded and preserved in a particular way of living that does not change in its substance. Dogma is “defined” for the sake of the life of the Faith, to the end of guarding the hidden treasure and keeping the great-priced pearl.

It is because Christianity is a way of life that its unity can be manifested. If one bases unity on mere words, then unity is subject to rhetoric, and can only be preserved in political power. To be sure, unity grounded in a way of life will be manifested in institutions and authority and hierarchy (even if such authority and hierarchy arise from mutual submission), but such things serve unity, rather than unity the institution.

Christian groups today remain fractured in large part because they have failed to maintain the historic way of life that marks out authentic Christianity. They have allowed their faith to become grammatical. This grammatique has its own way of life, of course, and that way of life is at odds with that of the ancient Church. Modern Christianity is awash with names–the origin of denominations–which seek to lay claim to the Faith of the Apostles. But one cannot lay claim to that which one does not have. That is to say, anyone can define terms and argue that one’s beliefs fit those terms, and that therefore one is “apostolic.” But if one wishes to claim a particular way of life, one must receive it from those who can give it. A way of life is not cobbled together from spare parts. Christianity is not bricolage. A way of life is an organic whole, each part serving the rest, the sum greater than its parts. To make it up anew is to create something alien, a knock-off of the real thing. There is no “reformation” or “restoration” of ancient Christianity, as though one can determine an original blueprint and tear out a wall here and install a new wing there. There is no tinkering with the Faith. There is only the receiving of it.

[The remainder of the posts in this series can be found here.]


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For to have offended God is more distressing than to be punished. But now we are so wretchedly disposed, that, were there no fear of hell, we should not even choose readily to do any good thing. Wherefore were it for nothing else, yet for this at least, we should deserve hell, because we fear hell more than Christ. . . . But since we feel otherwise, for this reason are we condemned to hell: since, did we but love Christ as we should love Him, we should have known that to offend Him we love were more painful than hell. But since we love Him not, we know not the greatness of His punishment. And this is what I bewail and grieve over the most! And yet what has God not done, to be beloved of us? What hath He not devised? What hath He omitted? We insulted Him, when He had not wronged us in aught, but had even benefited us with blessings countless and unspeakable. We have turned aside from Him when calling and drawing us to Him by all ways, yet hath He not even upon this punished us, but hath run Himself unto us, and held us back, when fleeing, and we have shaken Him off and leaped away to the Devil. And not even on this hath He stood aloof, but hath sent numberless messengers to call us to Him again, Prophets, Angels, Patriarchs: and we have not only not received the embassy, but have even insulted those that came. But not even for this did He spew us out of His mouth, but like those slighted lovers that be very earnest, He went round beseeching all, the heaven, the earth, Jeremiah, Micah, and that not that He might weigh us down, but that He might speak in behalf of His own ways (Is. i. 2; Jer. ii. 12; iii. 12; etc.; Mic. vi. 1): and along with the prophets He went also Himself to those that turned aside from Him, being ready to submit to examination, and deigning to condescend to a conference, and drawing them that were deaf to every appeal into a disputation with Himself. For He saith, “O my people, what have I done unto thee, and wherein have I wearied thee? Answer me.” (Mic. vi. 3.) After all this we killed the Prophets, we stoned them, we did them other cruel wrongs without number. What then? In their place He sent no longer Prophets, no longer Angels, no longer Patriarchs, but the Son Himself. He too was killed when He had come, and yet not even then did He quench His love, but kindled it even more, and keepeth on beseeching us, after even His own Son was killed, and entreating us, and doing all things to turn us unto Himself. And Paul crieth aloud, saying, “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: be ye reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. v. 20.) None of these things however reconciled us. Yet not even then did He leave us, but keeps on both threatening hell, and promising a kingdom, that even so He may draw us unto Himself. But we be still in an insensible mood. What can be worse than this brutishness? For had a man done these things, should we not many times over have let ourselves become slaves to him? But God when doing so we turn us away from! O what listlessness! O what unfeelingness We that live continually in sins and wickednesses, if we happen to do any little good, like unfeeling domestics, with what a niggardly spirit do we exact it, and how particular are we about the recompense made, if what we have done has any recompense to come of it. And yet the recompense is the greater if you do it without any hope of reward. Why saying all this, and making exact reckoning, is language fitter for an hireling than a domestic of willing mind. For we ought to do everything for Christ’s sake, not for the reward, but for Him. For this also was why He threatened hell and promised the kingdom, that He might be loved of us. Let us then so love Him as we ought to love Him. For this is the great reward, this is royalty and pleasure, this is enjoyment, and glory, and honor, this is light, this is the great happiness, which language (or reasoning) cannot set before us, nor mind conceive.

–St. John Chrysostom, Homily V on Romans

[This entry is also posted to my my companion blog.]

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