Since the previous post I have been reflecting a bit on how Father Louth’s discussion of the gulf that opens up between a discipline and its history applies to theology and, more specifically, to patristics. This also helps to explain my own experience in seeking to get in touch with the Fathers. As someone with a theological background in which the Fathers were largely missing, my immediate inclination was to look for some sort of an academic programme. But, apart from the fact that western theological faculties do not generally go in for such things, and some other complicating factors, I was also uncomfortable with this because of the way the Fathers often appear to be dealt with in western academic circles. And this connects for me with Louth’s distinction, for patristics appears to be viewed largely in historical terms – if it appears in academic programmes then this is often together with Church History. Now I certainly have nothing against Church History. But my own interest in the Fathers is not simply to understand them in their historical context, important as this is. My interest in the Fathers is theological, but this is not simply an abstract interest in which they can be used as source material for building elaborate theological artifices or an armoury for defending particular positions. It is rather concerned with their life-giving role in passing on a living Tradition which is able to feed and sustain, but also challenge and transform.
Now this does not mean that we don’t need historical knowledge, nor does it deny that the Fathers are indeed a rich resource into which we can tap. And it also doesn’t exclude critical study, an appreciation of different traditions and our posing of awkward questions. But when such a critical approach loses its rootedness in the Fathers’ own commitment to ascesis, conversion and prayer, to being taken up in and transfigured into the Mystery of Christ, then it doesn’t seem to have much point.
A postscript to a postscript: Shortly after writing this I came across Phil’s post at Hyperekperissou on Prayer and Patristics – Origen on How to Pray, in which he points to the Fathers’ importance in going beyond intellectual abstractions. It is also the first post in a series on Origen’s On Prayer, which looks very promising.