Milk and Meat

I’m not, really I’m not, trying to ruin anyone’s Lent. But I think we need to talk about, or at least think a little more about milk and meat. In this, I refer to the ancient pedagogic metaphor, found even in the writings of St Paul. Instruction in basic matters is referred to as milk, and instruction in more complex matters is referred to a meat. Simple enough. But there is a further application that I’ve seen: milk is used to refer to the superficial treatment of a particular subject, and meat to a more properly exhaustive, in-depth coverage. It is a combination of these two usages in reflecting upon theology in particular that I’ve been thinking lately.

I’ve been attending and paying attention to introductory classes of various sorts, and keeping my ears open about others (I have some elementary school-aged spies that are very useful!). One of the most interesting things that I’ve consistently noticed is that there is a kind of neglect of meat. I had an eleven year old boy and his younger sister tell me flat out that they wanted to be learning more about God in Sunday School, but all they ever did was “make stuff” (as she flipped some cute little vaguely religion gew-gaw at me; she really didn’t seem to care what it was at all). They sounded exasperated. These are kids telling an adult that! Nuts! (I am, however, honored by their trust!) The message has, to be sure, been relayed to the proper authorities.

Adults are not exempt. We have an “Introduction to Orthodoxy” class which I’m enjoying very much. The priest who is giving the class has put together a truly amazing summary of the history of Eastern Orthodoxy, designed to be complete in six sessions (one night a week for all of Lent). It’s amazing the amount of time and the topics that he’s able to cover, and to cover them coherently. It’s a very fine job! But it, too, is in a way, only milk, because there is insufficient time to go into depth on anything. Everyone is encouraged to ask questions, but there are some people who have so many questions, they are, I think, just overwhelmed. As an illustration of the variation of levels in familiarity with the subject, I will describe an occurrence from a couple weeks ago. The priest was showing pictures of the Monastery of St Catherine in Sinai, and showed various icons and pictures of the Burning Bush. One of the class members said, “Yes, Father, this is all very interesting. But why do you keep calling it ‘the Burning Bush’?” So, we have a range of participants, from those who don’t know the most basic of Bible stories, to someone like myself (embarassingly asked for a second opinion; more embarassingly offering one, at times). And for me, who is in awe of the skill of this priest at squeezing in all Seven Ecumenical Councils into one hour-and-a-half class (think about it), the classes are just fine. They’re a great refresher. And yet, these are supposed to be an introductory class. So I’m thinking, or hoping, that the detailed question and answer stuff will come at the end, when people feel they aren’t being rushed to fit in the last fourteen heresies of ninth century Trebizond or something. Right now, it seems to me that the other class members are just overwhelmed. One guy is someone who’s just interested in Orthodoxy, sitting in. I wonder what he thinks? I suppose I’ll just ask him: Are you finding this a good overview? A good introduction? Or is it too fast, too superficial? Or is that just what you wanted, a quick overview? He’s the kind of person those classes are for, ideally. But educating our own is up there too. “Why do you call it ‘the Burning Bush’?” Remember that, you teachers, and tremble to think where you’ve failed!

But there is also much of this going on in publishing on theological subjects. In much of the Lenten Orthodox reading which I’ve been doing not enough of this Lent, I’ve been noticing more milk treatments, as though the proper understanding of the subject by the reader has been, on the part of the author, taken for granted. That is, the authors seem to write as though the reader already knows the depth of a subject so well that the merest superficially glancing swipe in its general direction is taken as sufficient to recall all the intricacies of argumentation, historical background, and even theological vocabulary. And yet no one any more is putting together all that information so as to present it to the hungry masses of people who want the meat. I recommended W. H. C. Frend’s The Rise of Christianity to a friend, and she’s enjoying it so much, it makes me want to read it again myself. It’s precisely the depth of detail in the coverage that she’s enjoying. I’m reading John Meyendorff’s volume in the SVS Press Church History, Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions: The Church 450-680 A.D.. It’s a mixed bag of some milk and some meat. This is mostly due to the peculiar way in which the book is organized, so that it’s not proceeding chronologically, but covering different topics in each chapter. This leads to multiple coverage of times and historical personages, with varying depth and of varying quality. Overall, it’s a kind of chaos, almost. A good editor could’ve done wonders with this book.

In other writings, particularly in the introductions to some translations I’ve been picking through, there is another annoying failure. This is the oversimplification of very complex situations, glossed over by platitidinous models or dichotomies based in older and/or not very good scholarship. Specific details are unnecessary, but one example is the current trend to state that the interior mapping of man is such that kardia is this, and nous is that, dianoia is this other thing, and pneuma and psyche are yet others, yet they are all arranged in some kind of perfectly coherent hierachy of relationships which works perfectly to describe the work in question. Until you read your next introduction to another translation, were the relationships are given differently and the hierarchy is thus altered. It is a failure to try to systematize the non-systematic. It is quite patently the case that Greek Orthodox Patristic writing is not systematic. Systematizing such a thing is a grave mistake. Oversimplifying them is a grave mistake as well. In order to introduce the terminology and topics, oversimplification is used, but is presented as definition, as an authoritative representation of semantic meaning obtained through objective and exhaustive investigation of the usage of the words. One would expect the latter to be the approach of every author, and yet it apparently simply occurs too seldom to register. This oversimplification is misleading to readers, who think they’ve been given the answer by someone who did the legwork to figure it all out. Then they can blurb it to their Orthodox-curious friends, “The nous is the blah blah of the psyche which is related to the blah blah blah….” If such oversimplification is employed, it should be stated to be only the roughest summary (as I’ve too seldom seen done) of the usage of a particular author, noting that the technical vocabulary, while now fixed, was for some time (then and for centuries) actually more fluid.

I suppose I don’t really know where I’m going with this. There is obviously a need for milk (“Why do you call it ‘the Burning Bush’?”), but there is also a need for meat (my Frend-reading friend). I really need some meat, too. Like a big double-cheeseburger of learnin’! Even if it’s a lot of work, it’s worth it. And while I’m learning much from attending to some excellent summaries (really, I am quite in awe of that ability), I think no summary should be without its fully articulated partner presentation, in excruciatingly, exquisitely full detail. Particularly in a setting where people are interested in these things not simply because they’re curious but because they find it relates to their ultimate salvation (such a responsibility!), I think we need to cover our bases better. I know the twentieth was a rough century in particular for Eastern Orthodoxy, but that century is over now. Hopefully, things will improve.

10 Replies to “Milk and Meat”

  1. Bravo! It’s good to see these things articulated. The nous/dianoia dichotomy in the glossary to the Faber Philokalia was one that particularly bothered me. As I said over at my blog, I may do a similar post, but I think I shall focus on those two words in particular.

    But while I agree with you whole-heartedly, I’m afraid ‘a big double-cheeseburger of learnin’ was not the most appropriate expression to use at this point in the Church year.

  2. You were supposed to laugh, Mr Taylor! The image coheres, nonetheless. I would be much more delighted, any time of year, by a double-cheeseburger of learnin’ than I would be by a double-cheeseburger.

    I look forward to your post on the matter!

    Another thing that I didn’t touch on was that some of these summary treatments (skim milk, or 2% at best) then come to be seen as authoritative, their very wording becoming the launching point for terrible new summarizations (soy milk, surely) that are completely divorced from and entirely unfamiliar with the sources. This leads to a further separation from Orthodox Tradition, although all such summarizers would not understand that.

  3. “But while I agree with you whole-heartedly, I’m afraid ‘a big double-cheeseburger of learnin’ was not the most appropriate expression to use at this point in the Church year”.

    Kevin… here’s someone who is obviously at the “milk” stage. One does wonder about such “prunish” sorts. They sound like “vegetarians” who couldn’t understand “real meat” like that served up by Prof Osipov or Prof Narochnitskaya. In my view, if you can’t smile… you’re not Orthodox. Remember, Good Friday is preceded by Rowdy Thursday (in Maslenitsa). I mistrust the long-faced lot, Kevin, what about you?

    Cheers (and do pass the jug, Kev),

  4. Hello Kevin,

    I recently picked up an old copy of Frend’s: Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church, which I haven’t started yet. Are you by chance, familiar with that one?


  5. Hi John, I don’t have that one. I have his Rise of Christianity and The Archaeology of Early Christianity: A History. He refers to the Martyrdom volume often in those two, I remember. I’ll have to pick up a copy. Thank you for the reminder!

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