School is almost back in session and I haven't managed to slough off the spiritual ick of this summer. I would love to make my spiritual issues sound noble, but they aren't really. Basically, I've been in reaction to some very insidious spiritual disease infecting the Church on a universal scale (and even penetrating the blessed but imperfect community of Duke Divinity). I still believe that the crisis of the Church is bad and real, but I haven't been taking it well. And it's personal to me because I feel a vocation to do Patristics. And hopefully I'll be employed at a seminary. So a main part of my work will probably be doing a core class on Early Church History (whatever is the equivalent to Duke's CH 13). So this will be my primary means of ministry to the future leadership of the Church.
This is something which I have come increasingly to feel as a clear vocation and this work has become like an inseparable part of me very quickly. I grew up Christian, but had a long period of discontentment and seeking. The exquisite abundance of the Church Fathers' and Mothers' thought, the vibrancy and richness of orthodox dogma, the absolute and astounding beauty of the life of virtue and holiness to which early theologians aspired -- these are the things I was seeking. Finding patristics at this point feels like traveling halfway across the world only to discover that finally you feel at home.
Fall 2009: No Crisis
I was almost ecstatically happy in the Fall. I felt like I was eating, sleeping, and breathing God. I couldn't stop saying prayers of gratitude for the Fathers, for my advisor, for Duke Divinity, for my life, for the leading to this place, for God being just so utterly, deliciously wonderful and for the chance to spend all my time thinking deeply about that wonderfulness. And most of this was because of CH 13. Twice a week, I got regaled with the stories of this wonderful group of people who are the Church Fathers -- these men and women who put themselves totally at the disposal of God to pursue God's goodness, to seek ever deeper and closer fellowship with God, to help others in the Church to draw closer and not be led away from true communion with God, to demonstrate to emperors that God is greater than human rulers and that God will not condone atrocities, to speak all around and right up to the edge of the dark-bright mystery of God's ineffable being, to give voice to the narrative of the economy of salvation again and again, each time enriching the picture with more imaginative, evocative, and illustrative words, themes, and Biblical allusions.
For the record, I was rather anti-orthodox when I came here; I was much more about social justice and Moltmann and Kierkegaard and Tillich and existentialism and universalism and quasi-unitarianism and feminism. Oh -- and I had a fairly well-considered and totally heretical Christology. I also sort of the thought the resurrection was a really unimportant bit of doctrine. I was kind of bummed about Duke, afraid it would be too conservative. What I really wanted to do was go to Drew and work with Catherine Keller on process theology. [Yes, I am serious: process theology. I was all jazzed when I got her latest book in Fall of 2008, when I was doing my applications for Divinity School. I still have the book and I can show you if you don't believe me.]
Spring 2010: Crisis Brewing
So CH 13 was the instrumental means of grace for me. Yay. So what's my crisis?
The crisis is that ever since the end of the Fall semester I've been realizing that meeting the Fathers didn't "work" for everyone. Hence the existence of the discipline of "Early Christianity." OK, but there are bound to be non-Christians looking at Christian stuff with their secular humanist methodologies. That's fine. I can deal.
Of course, I also met Christians who were all into the social-historical "Early Christianity" thing. But not everyone got to take CH 13 with J. Warren Smith. Maybe they didn't get the special dispensation of grace. OK; that makes sense.
But then I noticed that there were people in the Divinity School who took CH 13 who still seemed to be lacking some grace! In fact, some of them were kind of hating on the Fathers. But maybe they didn't come to class enough and just swatted up the material with study guides for the final. It really does make a difference when you let it sink deep into you meditatively and reflectively over the course of a semester....
But then I discovered there exist persons in the Div School who did CH 13, who took further patristics courses with Warren Smith, and who actively dislike orthodoxy. And there are also some real serious CH 13-haters who somehow came away thinking that it's all about white people trying to write off "the black experience" or that the entire Early Church was about vilifying sex and/or oppressing women.
Brief Moment of Horrible Un-Christian Arrogance
I know there are a lot of people going into ministry (even at Duke) who aren't um... well... "intellectual powerhouses." They have other gifts and other gifts are good. Other gifts are important. I celebrate other gifts. Yay. Celebrate. Woo-hoo.
But at a certain point I stop celebrating and I start thinking, "WHAT?!?! Did you miss the bit in the very first class where he said it's NOT about White European Males and that we weren't even going to meet a European until Irenaeus and the next one would Anselm in the 11th-12th century? Are you really saying that your main take-away message from an entire semester was "Early Church hated sex"? Very odd that they managed to make it to the Middle Ages with growing numbers, considering the whole "anti-sex" thing.... Did you just not even read the Life of Macrina? Or did you just decide that said oppressive things before you even read it? Did you just figure that because it's an ancient text by a man and is about someone female that of course it must be just chock full of patriarchal bias and unabashed sexism? This raises a very critical question: How dumb can you be, exactly, without getting kicked out for crappy grades after the first semester?"
Summer 2010: Super Crisis Maelstrom
I'm having a crisis not because I'm doubting the value of orthodoxy, but because I know how important orthodoxy is. I know that it is a very important part -- perhaps the most important part -- of a good spiritual life and relationship with God and of effective ministry. I know that orthodox theology IS life-giving; you can't have full fellowship with God without it. And yet I see how "untrendy" it is. Even in the Church, there are a lot of people who want other things to be more important than orthodox theology. And, after much reflection (both logically and in light of my own experience as a erstwhile heretic) I have come to the conclusion that this trend against orthodoxy is very, very bad. Ironically, it amounts to "putting God in a box" (although this is often used by the heretical types to describe orthodox dogma); heretical Christianity becomes not about the rich and paradoxical statements of the creeds and councils, but about a decision to utterly ignore God's being and instead to make God say what we want to hear. And this applies to both liberals and conservatives.
I believe that the Church and her future leaders need more orthodoxy. Not for some airy-fairy theoretical reason, so that we can all be "right" for the sake of being "right." And not for some reason born of historical toadyism, as if anything old and traditional is automatically good and to be preserved uncritically. And not because I'm one of those "propositional Protestants" who thinks that proper formulation equals salvation or that God can't work with us if we're not really smart and abstract and totally right about who God is. The reason we need orthodoxy is utterly spiritual and pretty darned practical. Because without orthodoxy, the Christian life becomes deeply unfulfilling and won't sustain us to do anything good. We won't be producing fruits -- we'll be laboring to try to manufacture fruits that are composed mostly of corn syrup, preservatives, artificial flavor and Red #40. It's harder to try to make fruit than to let fruit just grow; we might manage to crib something together that vaguely resembles spiritual fruit, but it won't look or taste quite right.
And my problem is that I'm out to give the Church what it needs and what it doesn't want. And I'm angry that it doesn't want it. I've been wanting to kick the world for most of the summer. So, my real problem is that I'm angry. I vented and prayed and thought and prayed some more. I made a desperate cry for help. Got no answer. So I vented again, prayed, thought.
A pretty good proverb: "If you're angry, you're wrong." Maybe not totally right, but a good check to perform if you have anger issues. So I asked very honestly if I was perhaps wrong about the whole orthodoxy thing. Pretty sure that's not it. So there's something wrong happening that is making me want to kick people. I think I'm finally starting to get a handle on my problem.
1) It's easier and feels better to be angry at people for not liking orthodoxy than to be sad. Anger is kind of an ego-boost: it stirs up energy and makes you feel like you can fix things, right the wrong. The point is, I can't. I can't argue anyone into good doctrine. I hope that God will move in people's hearts to draw them closer, but I know from my own experience that God's grace is not an irresistible Calvinist caveman who wacks people over the head and drags them to faith. I am little. I can't fight this fight. This is a major trend of badness that has infiltrated the Church. I'm trying to do the same thing as the ministerial nuts who notice that there is poverty and disease and war and oppression and forget that Jesus already saved the world and think they've got to go do it all themselves. So, partly I need to deal with being sad that things are how they are and that people are cutting themselves off from truth.
2) I'm also being kind of lazy. I managed to get spoon-fed orthodoxy-based spiritual practice on a regular basis during the year by being in numerous patristics courses. This summer, I read one good scholarly book on patristics which was faithful -- and then followed that with a bunch of secondary literature which is not orthodox and not life-giving. No primary texts. And my asceticism has slipped; now that I'm not pressed by classes and deadlines, it's easy to feel like eating, sleeping late, watching TV. I'm all angry and fruitless because I'm not practicing what I preach. I've been so caught up in my reaction against heresy that I haven't spent enough time sinking deep into orthodoxy, thinking about God and being and letting that truth sustain me.
A Spiritual Practice for Me
I realize that I don't know how to do patristic spirituality by myself. It just happened when things were brought up in my patristics classes. I'd think about the arguments against the Eunomians or about allegorical interpretation or Christology or Nyssen's anthropology and then I'd just sort of -- turn to God. It just kind of happened. I've kept listening to the recorded CH 13 lectures. It sort of helps. Except that I listen while driving and almost ran a stop-sign the last time I got too into it. Also, it's the 5th or 6th time I've listened to the whole set now. It'd be nice if there were some *little* surprises every now and again...
So currently, my spiritual practice is rather non-existent because what I used to do before I came to Duke was based on a very wishy-washy theology. It is pretty directionless and vapid -- and it also feels icky because it reminds me of the sad time when I my dogma was bad. And also, I think I might be spiritually "remedial" -- I have special needs because of my severe social anxiety, my sensory processing problems, and my ADD. If I'm around other people, I'm generally overwhelmed and am going to be manic and hyperactive or else hyper-vigilent or else totally glazed and shut down -- very hard to think about God in the midst of that kind of brain chemistry. So I need some practices I can do while I'm alone.
There are plenty of practices in lots of Christian traditions. I'm sure I could try a bunch and see what works. But how would I know what "works"? I don't want to make the mistake of thinking that some sort of subjective emotional experience actually constitutes effective spirituality. So, I've decided that I'm going to interrogate whole subject of spirituality from an orthodox perspective and then figure out what sort of practices support the ends of "spirituality" and fix something up to be a nice, doctrinally sound spiritual discipline for me. And I want to get this going before classes start up and things get crazy -- especially because I only have one patristics-type class this semester and it's only partly about patristics. And I really don't want to just hang around CH 13 spooking out the first-years....
So I am hoping to blog through my investigation of "spirituality" and my figuring out a happy little orthodox spiritual practice that socially awkward Christian Platonists can do. I will do so in the coming days before classes start, unless my advisor magically gets all his work for the new semester done at warp speed and notices the email I sent that said I'm having a spiritual crisis and tells me some spiritual practice stuff to do, which would probably be quicker, easier, and more effective than me trying to figure it out myself.