For the Love of God

Ben Myers at his Faith and Theology blog is doing a series on theologians that different people love. I’ve contributed a post on Sister Marie Keyrouz, who may seem an unlikely choice on my part in that she’s not strictly a theologian, nor is she Eastern Orthodox. Just go read it, and it’ll make more sense. My entry is the third of twenty, so stay tuned to Ben’s blog to read them all!

One of the reasons I chose Sister Keyrouz is that I encountered her first as an artistic treasure, and only after closer listening was I impressed by the faith that one can hear in her voice. Then, as though by the song of a Byzantine siren, intent to lure the unwary to salvation rather than destruction, I was irresistably drawn East. My emotional response to how she sings is tied up with the edification gained from what she sings, a rare experience for me. Now there is also the association of first hearing her early in the period of my own personal spiritual renaissance. So many of the theologians I read are just not emotionally stirring. She popped right into my head when Ben wrote to ask for a contribution. Though I first wrote a piece on The Three Theologians, I think it lacked the personal element that Ben was looking for. There are many great modern Orthodox theologians I love reading: Fr Alexander Schmemann, Fr Georges Florovsky, Bishop Kallistos Ware, and Bishop John Zizioulas come immediately to mind, and are well-known outside Orthodox circles as well. There are also numerous Patristic theologians, of course, like St Basil the Great, St Gregory the Theologian, St Ephrem of Syria, St Nicodemus the Hagiorite, and many others. There are the holy Prophets and Apostles themselves. Anyhow, I don’t actually know why I didn’t think of one of them as a “beloved theologian” apporopriate for this. I felt a need to address that, so there we are. At least now I know I have something else to add to Kevin’s List of Things to Work On….

The Three Theologians

This was my originally intended contribution for Ben Myers For the Love of God series. I didn’t find it to have the personal touch that he was looking for, so I wrote the other piece on Sister Marie Keyrouz. I thought some might find this interesting, though, so here it is, even though it’s not quite as well put together as I’d like.

It’s difficult to pick a single, favorite star out of such a host of luminaries that is the body of Eastern Orthodox theologians. After all, like those greater cosmic constellations, in beauty greater than the sum of their parts, so too individual Orthodox theologians are only properly understood and known within the context of the Church, the whole panoply of Saints. In keeping with this understanding, I’d like to discuss briefly the three men in the life of the Church who have been officially designated Theologian by epithet: St John the Theologian (aka the Evangelist, ca 15?-100 AD), St Gregory the Theologian (aka Nazianzen, 328-389 AD), and St Symeon the New Theologian, 949-1022 AD). Why were only these three given the title Theologian, when so many others are also considered theologians these days? Why were they particularly noted for their “God-talk”?

The answer is obvious to anyone even superficially familiar with their writings. They are all three quite essentially mystical writers, and the proper expression of theology is only possible through a truly mystical life in the Church. In the Eastern Church, the “mystical life” is not some holy humbuggery, some navel-gazing mummery, nor is it a mentally constructed contemplative space, or any other of the modern suppositions connoted by “mystical.” It is above all a description for the Christian Life: one that is both Spirit and flesh, a life of transformation, a life in which a citizen of Heaven is dwelling in the foreign locale of Earth.

In the Gospel According to St. John the Theologian, we read not just details about the Lord’s life as were detailed in the other, earlier Gospels (now known as the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Luke and Mark), but we’re treated to the reminiscences of the Beloved Disciple, the Holy Apostle John son of Zebedee, recalling the substance of various private instructions given to those who followed the Lord, not just the things said to the larger, less intimate audiences. These sermons, for lack of a better term, are truly mystical, involving much that would later become foundational in Incarnational theology, and which all have direct bearing on the transformative life of a Christian.

St Gregory the Theologian was bishop of Nazianz in Cappadocia, now central Turkey, and was also briefly Patriarch of Constantinople. His writings are similarly focused on the mystical life, being especially powerful in, again, Incarntational theology. He expresses the key Eastern understanding of the Incarnation succinctly in a letter to Cledonius: “What is unassumed is unhealed.” Centuries of debate are eliminated with this statement, which implies that God heals, that the Lord was as fully human as we are, and that the healing of that nature by God was achieved through taking on a completely human nature personally, and suffering everything that human nature could suffer, including death.

St Symeon the New Theologian was a great exponent of prayer, and a great influence the Hesychasts of a later time. It is especially in the work of St Symeon that we gain a better understanding of the uncreated energies of God, which by His Grace, some very few have been blesssed to perceive. This is the “Divine Light” that is discussed in Eastern Orthodox theology. St Symeon’s distinctions are based fully in all of Tradition, but I think rely especially upon the work of St Maximus the Confessor, teaching that God’s essence, His essential being, is imperceptible and unknowable to all but God, yet His uncreated energies (energeia: movements/emanations) can be perceived when He wishes.

These three men were so integral to the Church’s understanding of the nature of God, that they have gained the reputation as theologians par excellence. There is also the slight in-joke among the Orthodox about St Symeon: “Look! We call a him a New Theologian who died in the eleventh century!” So we also have great affection, of course, for these Theologians, who are part of our family, very much alive to us, just as they are to God.

The Relevance of the Fathers

I have often a strange feeling. When I read the ancient classics of Christian theology, the fathers of the church, I find them more relevant to the troubles and problems of my own time than the production of modern theologians. The fathers were wrestling with existential problems, with those revelations of the eternal issues which were described and recorded in Holy Scripture. I would risk a suggestion that St. Athanasius and St. Augustine are much more up to date than many of our theological contemporaries. The reason is very simple: they were dealing with things and not with the maps, they were concerned not so much with what man can believe as with what God had done for man. We have, “in a time such as this,” to enlarge our perspective, to acknowledge the masters of old, and to attempt for our own age an existential synthesis of Christian experience.

Father Georges Florovsky. Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View. Collected Works, volume III. (Belmont, Massachusetts: Nordland Publishing Company, 1972) page 16.