The Christian religion is inescapably ritualistic (one is received into the church by a solemn washing with water), uncompromisingly moral (“be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” said Jesus), and unapologetically intellectual (be ready to give a “reason for the hope that is in you,” in the words of I Peter). Like all the major religions of the world, Christianity is more than a set of devotional practices and a moral code: it is also a way of thinking about God, about human beings, about the world and history. For Christians, thinking is part of believing.
Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Seeking the Face of God, xiii.
I must confess that until about a year and a half ago I had never heard of Robert Louis Wilken and I had to google his name when Father Andrew Louth recommended this book, along with Boniface Ramsey’s Beginning to Read the Fathers, as an essential introduction to the Fathers of the Church. I had known Ramsey’s work for years, but this was new to me. I finally ordered it this year, but my reading of it has been rather disrupted. While moved by Wilken’s beautiful prose – if the Ramsey book is a good descriptive introduction to themes in the Fathers, this one is decidedly lyrical – I was rather put off by what appeared to be his Augustinian orientation. He focuses on Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Augustine and St Maximus, but notes, as if in passing, that “few will quarrel with the conventional wisdom that Augustine stands at the summit.” (xix) Far be it from me to write off Augustine – and I do still need to gain a balanced and more in-depth perspective on him – but that seemed to me to be a statement that could at the very least be contested.
However, shortly after this Metropolitan Savas Zembillas recommended the book on Facebook as his favourite introduction to the Fathers and when I asked him he said that, while it does focus on Augustine, it is “the Orthodox Augustine.”
So, I’m back to reading it, in the midst of a somewhat disrupted and chaotic life. And it is just beautiful, and eminently quotable. In fact I’ve been thinking that it’s the sort of book that I should have extra copies of to give away. Consider this, for now:
Although I deal with ideas and arguments, I am convinced that the study of early Christian thought has been too preoccupied with ideas. The intellectual effort of the early church was at the service of a much loftier goal than giving conceptual form to Christian belief. Its mission was to win the hearts and minds of men and women and to change their lives. Christian thinkers appealed to a much deeper level of human experience than had the religious institutions of society or the doctrines of the philosophers. In this endeavour the Bible was a central factor. It narrated a history that reached back into antiquity even to the beginning of the world, it was filled with stories of unforgettable men and women (not all admirable) who were actual historical persons rather than mythical figures, and it poured forth a thesaurus of words that created a new religious vocabulary and a cornucopia of scenes and images that stirred literary and artistic imagination as well as theological thought. God, the self, human community, the beginning and ending of things became interwoven with biblical history, biblical language, and biblical imagery.
The church gave men and women a new love, Jesus Christ, a person who inspired their actions and held their affections. This was a love unlike others. For it was not only that Jesus was a wise teacher, or a compassionate human being who reached out to the sick and needy or even that he patiently suffered abuse and calumny and died a cruel death, but that after his death God had raised him from the dead to a new life. He who once was dead now lives. The Resurrection of Jesus is the central fact of Christian devotion and the ground of all Christian thinking. The Resurrection was not a solitary occurrence, a prodigious miracle, but an event within the framework of Jewish history, and it brought into being a new community, the church. Christianity enters history not only as a message but also as a communal life, a society or city, whose inner disciplines and practices, rituals and creeds, and institutions and traditions were the setting for Christian thinking. (xiv-xv)