About eight years ago, I determined that I would no longer spend energies and time reading what I will call “academic” theology. By that I mean books and articles on theological topics written for intellectual, rational examination and evaluation, as well as dialogue and debate. There is definitely a need and a place for such things–we are called to test and examine the spirits to discern whether they are of God–but I discerned a need, for my spiritual well-being, to cease such activities indefinitely. Instead I focused on learning the ancient prayers of the Church, and praying them, practicing the asketical disciplines of the faith, and reading the lives of the saints (which is another way of reading theology). This week, partly through providence, partly through prayer, I determined that I would begin again wisely and with discernment to allow myself to return to reading “academic” theology. What changed my mind? This is the providential part: I was given a copy of Joseph Farrell’s Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor.
But the providence is more than simply the fact that this happens to be the book I’ve taken up to read. The providence has unfolded over time. A fellow parishioner and I have been talking for about a year about reading through the book together. We made an attempt a handful of months ago that just didn’t pan out. Then a week ago, the parishioner unexpectedly found an old copy of the text, which he gave to me (for the price of a cup of coffee or two).
As I’ve reflected over the past week, it occurred to me that there’s even a larger providence involved. As it turns out, one of the last works of such theology I read was Farrell’s book (though there were a handful of books I subsequently read, or reread, some of which were in preparation for a philosophical anthropology class I was teaching). But as I traced these final readings, I recalled how pivotal this particular text itself was for me.
Prior to early 2005, over the course of about two and a half years, I’d done quite a bit of reading on the Orthodox Church: history, theology, sacraments, hagiography, exegesis, philosophy, and so on. With all the academic training I had, I early on knew the pitfalls of assuming a critical stance over the materials I was reading, which begged the question of why the fundamental presuppositions I applied to the materials were to be preferred over the fundamental presuppositions of the materials themselves. This is not to imply that truth is relative, but rather to maintain a humility in inquiry. So, my approach was to come to the materials and to look for coherence. That is to say, given the fundamental presuppositions of Orthodoxy, was it coherent and integrated? Yes, I had critical questions I felt it needed to answer, but by the same token, if Orthodox provided an answer that didn’t appear to fit my question, did it fit within that which is Orthodoxy?
The biggest critical question I had ultimately tied to the concept and reality of free choice (or sometimes called free will, though these two words are not the same thing). I would have characterized my upbringing, and later academic training, as basically Arminian (though an “Arminianism” that was not consciously opposed to various forms of Calvinism, or, more broadly, theological determinism). But this conviction of free choice was situated within a framework that was inherently dialectical (free choice could only be valid if the choice was between a good thing and an evil thing), and which lacked a robust mechanism for deliberation (or, rather, the asketical need for deliberation).
Because of this, because I viewed free choice nearly entirely from a framework that depended upon opposition (one choice opposed to another), and lacking an understanding of the place of deliberation as a necessary element of the development of one’s soul, I lacked an important and essential key to understanding several key matters of Orthodox faith and living. Why did I need to make confession prior to receiving Holy Communion? Why was it so important to spend significant time and effort in preparing to receive Holy Communion? Why was it necessary to be Orthodox so as to receive Communion? Why was fasting even necessary? Did it really matter that I didn’t eat a cheeseburger on Wednesdays and Fridays?
To my mind at the time, this felt a bit legalistic. I was still stuck in the blessing/punishment dialectic. Do the things you were supposed to do and receive blessings. Don’t do them and receive punishment. And if my baptism was considered valid (even if by “economy”), then why was I unable to receive Communion? And why did the path to chrismation (the final sacramental act of baptism) have to take so long? Couldn’t I have simply completed a class, taken a test, proved I would come to Liturgy every Sunday, formally moved my membership, and just got on with it?
It was St. Maximos’ understanding of free choice as non-dialectical (a choice between two good things is equally a choice as between a good thing and an evil thing), and, as importantly, that choice requires a framework of disciplined actions which shape a person’s heart and soul so as to empower a person’s deliberative abilities to properly discern what is truly a good thing. St. Maximos’ understanding is the understanding of the Orthodox Church. And it unlocked for me the coherence between fasting and the other disciplines, the sacraments, and the development of the soul (or one might say, sanctification or “practical justification”), and how all of this relates to a growing capacity to discern what is truly a good thing and what is only an apparent good thing but is in reality an evil thing. A side note: it also endeared me even further to the Aristotelian schema for ethics.
At this point, I had found what was for me the key to the coherence and integration of Orthodox teaching. At the risk of oversimplification: In St. Maximos’ thought I found the unity between the theoretical and the practical, between doctrine and living. I found that eating a cheeseburger on Wednesday’s and Friday’s was not about violating a rule and going to hell (which Orthodox do not believe). Rather it was a failure of putting on the mind of Christ. Just as not getting on the treadmill this morning won’t cause you to have a heart attack and die this evening, but it is a step in the direction of ill health and ill health could potentially lead to a heart attack and possibly to death–so, in this way, failing to engage in the time-tested disciplines of the Church leads in the direction of a lack of development of discernment, and failure to discern between the good and the evil (which is almost always an apparent good) leads to potential sinful acts, and such acts lead to a soul that is in ill health, and that could potentially settle one’s destiny in hell.
Just like the exercise where one looks at a picture and sees, at first, either the old woman or the beautiful woman, but then, with almost a click, suddenly discerns the alternate perspective (and its figure), so this understanding of Maximos’ thought helped to “click” into place, the Orthodox unity of doctrine and behavior. Orthodoxy is, in fact, a way of life, an integration of doctrine and practice, both necessary and each integrated with the other.
As I’ve noted to family and friends fairly frequently in the past few months, I’ve been thinking about getting back to reading “academic” theology again. However, when I made the decision about eight years ago to halt such reading and study indefinitely, it was a most serious decision. One not taken lightly. So, this inclination to get back to such reading is one I’ve been putting on hold for a while. But now that I’ve been given an opportunity to join with a brother in Christ and read over Farrell’s book again, it appears that some providential things have come together to encourage taking it up again. May God bless it.