Confession: Why This is Not an Apologetics Website (Part Four)

This post carries forward from Part 1, which outlined my main reasons for rejecting apologetics because at best it merely uses (rather than fosters) what is public for factional ends, shuts down conversations, absorbs political modes of engagement that are inherently divisive and immune to inquiry, adopts psychological stances that are poisonous, and absorbs metaphysical elements from the 20th century that ought to be rejected. It also carries forward from Part 2, which adds some autobiographical notes to the themes brought out in Part 1.

In some ways, it takes up some few themes of Part 3, which was a rather long reminiscence about several things that a professor I had –a former St. John’s student– told me about what the person of Christ meant, with some final remarks from me about the need for public language of value and worth, within which we articulate the merits of any and all of our commitments — religious or non-religious, Christian or otherwise.

Here, I recall a conference I attended in the John G. Rangos Family Building (photo in the banner, above) at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in NY that brainstormed, quite often, about creating an Orthodox Great Books College, and note the important objections to such a project that were raised at the conference, concerns relevant to my rejection of, and grave concerns about, the whole enterprise of apologetics. I also examine the approach taken by the Dean of that Seminary to theology, and compare it unfavorably with my apprehensions about apologetics from the first post. 

I should say at the outset that I value the mission and work that St. Vladimir’s does in producing good priests and in raising the bar of scholarship in the English-speaking Orthodox world. I’d never have heard the concerns about religious education if I’d not attended the conference that St. Vladimir’s hosted. I should also say that I like Fr. John Behr as a person very much, and respect much of the work that he does, administratively and academically. I do, however, think that Fr. John is wrong on his position about what theology is (and I take this to be central to his project); this ties into why I have no interest in apologetics, why I have chosen to focus on what is held in common, and how neglect of what is held in common leads down some awful roads. 

IV

Regarding the extra-academic model of the spiritual life we covered in the previous post: of course, seminaries do not, and cannot, take it seriously; neither do religious colleges and universities. There, religious knowledge is taken to be a subject matter that can be taught.

–and if theology is something that is public, it must be a common subject matter (there is no requirement that it be public, of course). If it is merely a heritage, then it is still public, but not common (for it is then purely historical-cultural-ethical, perhaps without remainder, though others may wish to pick from the bones of that heritage for the sake of their own projects); if theology is knowledge of first principles, however, it is more than historical and cultural, is public, and common. Yet the confessional model of theology, which treats it as the doctrinal heritage of a church, the school-opinions of a religious group, usually advances it as a historical contingency that has trouble justifying itself on public grounds (thus: the anxiety that Protestant Revivalists have about whether others accept the authority of the Bible as the kind of thing they say it is, &c.).

This makes the question of religious colleges something of a question. What distinguishes them? One could imagine a private religious motive to champion public things — such as the Great Books. Years ago I attended a conference (audio lectures here) at St. Vladimir’s Seminary on Secularism and Higher Ed.; the prospect of an Orthodox College or University came up. Would such a thing be built on a Great Books model? Such was the general feeling going into the conference. This mood seemed to die once one Orthodox professor, who then taught at one of the St. John’s campi, noted that there were already Catholic Great Books schools, and they faced a dilemma: does one teach the books, or teach an ideology? The Catholic schools that picked up a Great Books model were committed to Thomism, for the most part; would they use the Great Books to promote Thomism, or would they teach the Great Books from a Thomist perspective? The problem was that, as this professor noted, the Great Books cannot have a predictable outcome on the soul, and rigging them to have one is dishonest to them. Parents may send their children to such a school, or students may opt for such a school, to stay “safe” from “secular” influences; but a liberal education is not “safe” in this sense (and, I would add, there is nothing wrong with that).

The take-home from all this: if we are aiming at manufacturing a certain kind of student, or producing a certain kind of “safe” experience, then we are being unfair to the Great Books, which force students to confront the writers who pioneered different fields or who offered powerful and compelling visions of the world or life stances, or who generated archetypal presentations of fundamental and perennial problems of human understanding, life, and existence. The authors included in the Great Books do not offer a coherent vision, but training in them forces the reader to grapple with the basic issues and to find his or her own path.

It occurs to me that there might not be a way to have a culture without selecting material for students to engage in, material by which they learn about their culture’s history and commitments. If true, then this is likely the case, also, for a subculture. The question of the teaching of, and training in, shared commitments upon which a society is built seems like it precedes the act (or event) of real understanding. Facilitating understanding is something other than the kind of engagement with core texts that seeks to generate, foster, and secure certain approaches or subjective relations towards those texts — which is what the “religious” take on the Great Books above (or a Marxist one, or any other ideological take) seems to do.

V

Not every Orthodox scholar would consent to my undergraduate professor’s judgment about the nature of discourse concerning the divinity of Jesus, as noted in the previous post in this series; at least, not exactly. Among the range of options, there are those who rest on a curious hybrid between the extreme propositional evangelical view and the aesthetic view of my professor friend, above.

Fr. John Behr 2

Fr. John Behr.

Take the case of Fr. John Behr, the Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York State. Fr. John has published a number of articles, several short books, a monograph on St. Irenaeus of Lyons, edits an ongoing book series, and is (so it seems) nearing the end of a three-part project on the origins of Christian theology and doctrine in the course of the Late Antique period, the period covering the (first) seven Ecumenical Councils.  

In his article, “What Are We Doing Talking About God? The Discipline of Theology” [in Thinking Through Faith: New Perspectives from Orthodox Christian Scholars ed. Aristotle Papanikolaou & Elizabeth Prodromou (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2008), 67-86], Fr. John writes that “theology” is not “speech about God”, and that, for the early Christians, it was not something public:

Rather than speaking about God, “theology” was, more specifically, the affirmation of the divinity of the crucified and exalted Lord, Jesus Christ. [“What Are We Doing”, 70]

This drives a wedge between the sort of knowledge of God available in classical Greek philosophy (strange, since Paul of Tarsus was happy to employ Stoicism in his writings), and that of Christian theology. This is not surprising, however: Behr holds that

the usual methods of human knowledge –scientific analysis, historical inquiry, or philosophical reflection– are inadequate when the desired object of knowledge is God. For God is not subject to human, physical, or mental perception, but shows himself as and when he wills, just as the risen Christ comes and goes at his own pleasure. [“What Are We Doing”, 74]

God “does not remain as an external object for our scrutiny” [“What Are We Doing”, 74], Fr. Behr writes, as though anyone who was educated in the classical world thought such a thing. How can we know God, then? –what does Christian theology offer? Fr. Behr answers:

Christian theology proceeds, then, by reflecting upon the crucified and risen Christ understood through the medium of the Scriptures [i.e., the Hebrew Bible]. […] There is no surplus of divinity, as it were, elsewhere, to be discovered by any other means. […] Christian theology is intrinsically confessional and exegetical. [“What Are We Doing”, 75]

One is therefore not alarmed that on the next page he writes that the

crucified and risen Christ, proclaimed in this way by the apostles “in accordance with Scripture,” is the starting-point and end-point of theological reflection. [“What Are We Doing”, 76]

so that in the end,

[t]here is, for a Christian, no way of speaking “about God” apart from by reference to the cross […]. [“What Are We Doing”, 79-80]

This is disappointing, not only because it disconnects Christian theology from public rational discourse, but because there is no way to talk about anything apart from what is universal; talking about divinity requires that there be some shared sense of what one is talking about in order for such talk to occur, and to be intelligible, and, further, Christians are not the only people talking about God, and it seems silly to say that other people and religions who talk about God are doing something else simply because they’re not talking about Jesus. In Acts, Paul of Tarsus talked about God with non-Jewish Greek philosophers. This attitude of Fr. John Behr’s may cut off (at least some) apologetics, but it also cuts of discourse and knowledge.

This makes theology into the private language of an in-group.

The writings of Scripture are certainly historical documents, set in their own historical context, and all the disciplines of historical-critical study can illuminate their possible meanings. But, when read as Scripture, they have been taken by Christians, from the beginning, as speaking of Christ, for he alone is the Word of God, whose full divinity theology has sought to understand, explicate, and defend. [“What Are We Doing”, 77]

Now, this makes it sound like he’s saying that “that mountain has an origin within geological history, and can be studied using the ordinary scientific methods, but when one comes to our village on this side of the mountain, and when one looks at it from where we live, and under the proper lighting conditions, one can make out the face of an old man in the rock, and that occasionally-appearing old man in the rock is the truth behind the mountain.” It certainly sounds like the “special public qualities” of scripture declared by the Revivalist apologists are here replaced with the Lutheran idea of a “special quality” that scriptural language has only when it is brought up into the preached word of the Gospel (Fr. Behr does prefer the language of theology as a “living and active” word). In Fr. Behr’s telling, however, this special quality is not public (unlike the strong public element it has in Luther). It is only perceptible, like the face one might see on the mountain, from a certain perspective, at a certain time. The face, however, is not a property of the mountain.

Fr. Behr seems to wish to make a stronger claim than this, but it is not clear how he can, and the private-language canonical-employment system he is championing seems abusive both to the parishioners, who are left with a private language cut off from public things, and those outside, who by nature cannot benefit from (or be benefitted by) this language, and who are robbed of any capacity to understand what’s going on within the in-group practicing it. Further, it is not clear how “theology” might defend the “full divinity” of Christ , how one might defend a confession that is, seemingly, both political and founded upon the historical contingency of canonical norms that are suspended in mid-air. If there is no shared idea of divinity, how can one “defend” the divinity of Christ? –the very word would not make sense to those outside. Sadly, in his video interviews, he seems not to escape the unintelligibility of this position.

Helpfully, Irenaeus of Lyons (died ca. A.D. 202), who Fr. Behr wrote his dissertation on, some of whose work he has very helpfully translated (I noted that I respect him, and I meant it), and who he continues to write about, does not seem to approach theology this way. He writes that

3. […] the Father of all is at a vast distance from those affections and passions which operate among men. He is a simple, uncompounded Being, without diverse members, and altogether like, and equal to himself, since He is wholly understanding, and wholly spirit, and wholly thought, and wholly intelligence, and wholly reason, and wholly hearing, and wholly seeing, and wholly light, and the whole source of all that is good— even as the religious and pious are wont to speak concerning God.

4. He is, however, above [all] these properties, and therefore indescribable. For He may well and properly be called an Understanding which comprehends all things, but He is not [on that account] like the understanding of men; and He may most properly be termed Light, but He is nothing like that light with which we are acquainted. And so, in all other particulars, the Father of all is in no degree similar to human weakness. He is spoken of in these terms according to the love [we bear Him]; but in point of greatness, our thoughts regarding Him transcend these expressions. (Adv. Haer. 2.13.3-4)

This is exactly the kind of language one might find in a middle-platonic school, and it was common language for divinity across the ancient world. It does not flow out of anything particularly Christian at all, and, despite the fact that Jews and Christians adopted this language (together with Greek pagans), much that is in the biblical text (or in Homer) requires interpretation (some would say re-interpretation) in the light of it.

~~~

There is one thing that Fr. Behr says that is helpful to illustrate something central to Christian identity in general, and that is the nature of confession, or response to the figure of Jesus in Christian texts, discourse, ritual, and art:

It remains for each one of us to respond to his question, “But who do you say that I am?” [“What Are We Doing”, 73]

Now, a confession doesn’t aim to sell anyone anything, nor does it seek designs upon others. Which brings us to this issue of recognition with regard to Christology, to why this is not an apologetics website, and why I could never really make such a thing.

3 thoughts on “Confession: Why This is Not an Apologetics Website (Part Four)

  1. Pingback: Confession: Why This is Not an Apologetics Website (Part Five) | Into the Clarities

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