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.]