Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration: Prologue.

About the Author
David Wagschal

This post is part of the series Patristic Redux: A Lutheran Reads the Fathers, in which our goal is to read the “fathers of the church” without rose-tinted spectacles: i.e. not as a priori authorities, set high upon a pedestal, surrounded by an aura of holiness and inspiration—but simply as any other theologians, whose work can and should be subject to critique in the same manner as anyone else’s. Can the theology of the fathers stand on its own two feet? Can it withstand serious critique? Can it hold its own in a contemporary theological conversation? Above all: is it actually good theology?

At present, we’re working through Gregory of Nyssa’s late 4th century Catechetical Oration (see the intro post for texts and editions).

Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration: Prologue

I’m afraid that we don’t even get more than a few pages—in fact a few lines—into Gregory’s Prologue before we hit something pretty problematic. The issue at first appears minor, but the implications are significant.

Gregory’s prologue is mostly concerned with explaining to his readers (bishops) that catechetical instructions—i.e. instruction for those who wish to become Christians—cannot be uniform. They must be tailored to the different backgrounds, beliefs and preconceptions of those the bishops are addressing: Jews, pagans, Manicheans, and a variety of different Christian “heresies”.

This is a rather unremarkable adaptation of the conventional Greco-Roman rhetorical doctrine that you must fit your speech to your audience. Here Gregory pulls it off with his characteristic elegance and eloquence.

But about twenty lines into Gregory’s development of the idea, we encounter this bit: “For it is necessary to fit the method of treatment [θεραπεία] to the type of disease [νόσος]. You will not treat/remedy [θεραπεύσεις] the polytheism of the pagan by the same means as you would the Jew’s lack of belief in the only-begotten God…[etc.]”

Gregory is using medical or therapeutic metaphors to describe his catechetical correction of his audience’s errors.

For those of us used to reading this literature, this is completely unremarkable. The use of medical/therapeutic metaphors to refer to the correction of sin, immorality, or error is extremely common in patristic literature. It recurs frequently in Gregory. In fact, it is very easy to breeze by this type of sentiment without a second thought.

But it’s worth pausing for a moment and reflecting on the implications of this language.

Those who believe differently than us, or disagree with us, are ill? Voices that are contrary to us are the voices of sickness or disease?

Woah! W-what? What just happened there?

Once you begin to think it through, this notion becomes quite chilling. Think, for example, of the uncomfortable history of totalitarian regimes classifying political opponents as insane, mentally deficient, or otherwise “demented”—and banishing them to asylums or the like.

Outwardly, such medical imagery might appear moderate, pastoral, and caring. But in fact it is a highly coercive, condescending, and almost brutal discursive strategy for dismissing and demeaning opponents and shutting down critical discussion.

Think about it: if you are in a debate with someone, and the only way they engage with you is to insist that you are sick, that your ideas are simply “diseased”, and that your viewpoint is a manifestation of your illness, what does that do—to you, to the dialogue? First, it leaves no real room for the possibility that they might be wrong (intellectual humility). More, it provides no space for the genuine exchange of ideas, and for respectful, reciprocal interchange of equals. It constructs “dialogue” as simply a one-way conversation from a paternalistic authority (the “doctor”) to a passive and defective recipient (the “patient”). In general, it reduces an interlocutor from a fully autonomous and respected agent to a disordered and defective “sick man” constitutionally in a state of cognitive error—one’s ideas are prima facie tainted, infected, even before uttered. Despite it apparently “pastoral” overtones, then, it is a very brutal means of dismissing opponents and invalidating ideas—perhaps made all the worse for its outward charm?

Now, to be fair, people do need to be able to say when something is right and something truly wrong. People need to be able to hold and express deep convictions. That’s not a problem. But there are healthy ways of doing this, and dangerous ways of doing this. I think we can agree that casting everyone else who thinks differently from you as “ill” is a dangerous way?

Think about this existentially: think about how you would rear your children. Do you want your child to look at everyone around them who lives differently, believes differently, or simply disagrees with them, and to think: “They are all sick. Everyone else is ill. Only I am healthy.” No: of course not. This is neither ethical nor wise. It would cultivate an almost sociopathic perspective on reality that is incapable of falsification, correction, or alteration. Socially it is a recipe for disaster: it shuts down any real back-and-forth, any real communication. At best it permits a kind of patient condescension towards others. But even that would, in the end, simply mask an ugly reality beneath: a view of “us vs. them” where dialogue is only ever a struggle for power, not for understanding.

No: this is not an ethical way of behaving or of treating others. This is not what we want to teach our children.

But, sigh, here we have it, sitting not 20 lines into a classical handbook on training Christians! “Everyone else is ill, except us”! Classical Christian theology has this notion sitting at its heart.

<Sigh again.>

But here’s the great irony: shouldn’t the Gospel produce exactly the opposite perspective? Shouldn’t we think of the Gospel as that which reveals to us only our own”illnesses” or weaknesses? Or that at least teaches us to think of ourselves as equally “ill” as our interlocutors? (If we want to think of the Gospel revealing illness at all—which I’m not sure is such a good idea.) Shouldn’t the Gospel instead produce a humility which draws us toward patterns of dialogue that are genuinely respectful? That are actually dialogical? That do not dismiss, but include; that strive to look for the best in all other arguments, and put the best turn on everything our opponents say? That always genuinely give the benefit of the doubt? And above all, that would keep us from adopting any type of view of others that systemtically demeans and disparages them?

The fact that none of this seems within Gregory’s theological vocabulary is troubling.

This leads to another line of critique, which is profounder.

One thing that becomes rapidly evident in Gregory’s prologue is that he’s got to get things right. This is the source of Gregory’s illness discourse. For Gregory, to make a mistake (gasp!) is terrifying, unthinkable. In this, Gregory is quite overcome but one of the central, driving compulsions of the ancient world: a deep fear of thinking the wrong thing—of somehow getting your construction of reality, your narrative, your “equation of things”, wrong: the wrong dogma, the wrong belief, the wrong point of view. For Gregory, there is only one correct way of thinking, and holding on to this is life-or-death.

But shouldn’t the Gospel give us the confidence and power to not be worried about getting things so wrong or right in the first place? Is Jesus going to come down off the cross because we’ve got the wrong opinion in our head about this or that? Doesn’t the Gospel of God’s totally overpowering grace precisely free us from existential fear of error—even theological error? In fact, isn’t the starting point of the Gospel that our little brains all constitutionally and consistently get it “wrong” about God, reality, etc.—but that Jesus makes this ok?

I’m going to leave this line of inquiry aside for now—since we’ll undoubtedly return to it often—except to note that I think the terror of making mistakes, and the inability to operate with the reality of the ambiguity and fallibility of human cognition, is one of the central structural weaknesses of the old synthesis. For Greco-Roman thinking, getting “it” absolutely right—and making everyone conform—was absolutely key. Should this be true for Christian theology…?

Next post: Time for some Old Time Philosophy! Catechetical Oration 1-4.

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Patristic Redux: Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration. Introduction.

About the Author
David Wagschal

[Part of the series “Patristic Redux: A Lutheran Reads the Fathers”]

What happens when we read the “fathers of the church” without rose-tinted spectacles? What happens when we approach them, not as a priori authorities, set high upon a pedestal, surrounded by an aura of holiness—but simply as any other theologian, whose work should be subject to critique and analysis in the same manner as anyone else’s?

What happens when we brush aside the patina of veneration, and claims of inspiration, and simply take their theological works at face value? What happens when we step back from any investment in the patristic tradition we might have institutionally, culturally or ethnically, and just let it speak on its own?

Can the theology of the fathers stand on its own two feet? Can it withstand serious critique? Can it actually hold its own in a contemporary theological conversation?

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