Preparing to Read the Fathers (Critically): Part Three

About the Author
David Wagschal
Saint Jerome in his Study Artist: Antonello da Messina. Wikimedia.

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

In my last few posts (part one, part two) I have been outlining five interpretative pitfalls that can derail even the best-intentioned attempts at reading patristic theology. Without an awareness of these five “traps”, it is extremely difficult to attain to the level of critical analysis that the “pre-modern turn” in modern theology so desperately needs.

These traps are:

  1. The “Great Tradition” Trap
  2. The Antiquity Trap
  3. The Difference Trap
  4. The Academic Sympathy Trap
  5. The Desperation Trap

In this post we’ll conclude the series with the last two: the Academic Sympathy Trap and the Desperation Trap.

4) The Academic Sympathy Trap

You may not be aware of this trap if you haven’t spent much time in the academy. Even within the academy we don’t discuss this phenomenon as much as we should.

Its essence is simple: academics, particularly historians, tend to develop a very strong attachment to their subject. We almost always reflexively become advocates or promoters for our research: we will show how important, dynamic, misunderstood, or underappreciated our topic/thinker/idea/period is.

This develops naturally. To become an academic, you need to spend years—probably at least six to eight—doing nothing but becoming a world expert in one very small area of study. This is a grueling, socially isolating exercise, requiring enormous hours and effort and with little material reward. It takes place in an environment of intense competition and often unforgiving scrutiny, and where years of work can potentially end in disaster (if you are wrong, if you fail your defence, if someone publishes before you do, etc.).

Psychologically, to survive, you almost have to believe that what you are studying is incredibly significant, rich, and special. There is no possibility that your topic is banal or of little worth. And if your topic hasn’t generally been treated as worthy of special attention—well, all the better: you double-down on your enthusiasm as you fearlessly revise the accepted narrative, and champion the true and neglected value of your subject.

In most cases, unless you’re studying something truly horrific (the history of torture, the Nazis, etc.), you develop a genuine sympathy for your subjects, and you even begin to identify with them to some extent. In effect, you spend years trying to get into your subjects’ “heads”, and they slowly get into yours too. Certainly you start to feel that it is your duty to get people to understand their contributions in the best light.

These tendencies are reinforced when you enter the academic job market, or try to advance in your career. Your livelihood depends on continually convincing others that your research is deeply significant: your area, your subject is Important, Unique and Special. You become a bit of a cheerleader.

The result of all of this is that, on some level, almost all academic writing is “promotional” in tone. This can be quite subtle, and often is more a matter of omission than commission. Its most typical form is when a historical subject is presented in an energetic and enthusiastic way without any kind of further contextualization. For example, a book might present the intricacies and development of Stoic philosophy as a fascinating study in human thought—but neglect to consider Stoicism’s (well-known) role in bolstering the oppressive and brutal social structures of antiquity. Or a study might wax lyrical on the compositional strategies of a neglected author as evidence for dynamic and creative thinking—without, however, noting that such strategies are easily identifiable in virtually any other text, ancient or modern. An even subtler version occurs when an ethically problematic topic—for instance, slavery, or the brutal power politics of pre-modern institutions—is treated so even-handedly and clinically that the topic almost becomes normalized. Such works almost cry out for some kind of ethical contextualization, for some sort of acknowledgement: “Oh and yes, all of this was horrible!”

Such contextualizations are avoided, however, because they are seen as implying “value judgments” on the historical material—and this is a big professional no-no. Historians are taught that they are not to judge their material, compare it to other developments/eras, or otherwise assess its substance; that is, they are not to ask whether the material is ultimately truthful, valuable, intelligent, or useful. Instead, they are to maintain a professional distance, simply exploring and presenting the historical material “on its own terms”, and by its own standards, as much as possible.

This professional distance is important: it is a way of avoiding modern triumphalism and anachronism. After all, it is hard to produce insightful historical work if you immediately dismiss your subject because of its substantive shortcomings. You can’t, for example, provide a very insightful description of ancient science if all you do is catalogue every mistake it made; or you won’t get far in describing Roman imperial ideology if you just complain that it is undemocratic. No: good historians have to suspend their own world a bit in order to enter into their subjects’ universe.

But by not adding “value critique” one still implicitly judges the material, only positively. By not considering the “dark” side of Stoicism, one leaves the impression that it has a purely positive value today: it’s only fascinating—not fascinating and appalling. By highlighting only the interesting rhetorical and compositional strategies of ancient historians—and ignoring the factual deficiencies and “creativities” that would render them unpublishable today—one subtly leaves the impression that these ancient works might be almost more valuable and dynamic than modern histories. By not subjecting ancient patristic writers to the criticisms of modern metaphysics, theology, and ethics, but only enthusiastically exploring their own thought-world on its own terms, you leave the impression that these theologians are somehow uniquely and exceptionally valuable—almost beyond critique, in a class of their own.

Professional historians know to filter out this “historian’s bias”. Most classicists, for example, fully realize how horrific the classical world was. But they don’t expect every historical work to spell out the dark side of the ancient world—because we all know it. If they write a work on the glories of Roman architecture, they don’t necessarily spend enormous amounts of time detailing the horrific structures of oppression and poverty that made this architecture possible. If they write a work on ancient science, they don’t spend pages and pages detailing its utter absurdities from the perspective of modern science. In each case the reader is supposed to understand that the enthusiasm and energy around a topic is not meant to be taken as ethical approval or substantive promotion—it’s meant to champion the historical study of the material. Historians are saying: “these works are terribly important, historically”. They are not saying: “these works are terribly important, period.”

But when research starts to be digested more broadly, it’s very easy to start to think that historians are saying the latter.  And here is where the problems begin. This is particularly true when people look to historical figures/works as authorities—precisely as happens in theology. Then this “historian’s bias” can become very misleading.

Let me give an example from my own work. I studied a topic—Byzantine church law—which has been treated very dismissively by the literature. Like a good academic, I produced a book that enthusiastically demonstrated that this ancient law is actually a lot more interesting, complex, and coherent than has generally been recognized. I tried to show that, if we are just a bit more sensitive to how the Byzantines understood and defined law—and not simply dismiss it, since it doesn’t conform to modern expectations—we can suddenly gain considerable insight into how this important part of their world worked.

Now, as an academic, all I intended was to promote a greater understanding of Byzantine church law as a historical phenomenon and to reinstate it as a must-know topic in a historical discipline overwhelmingly dominated by western-centric narratives. Well and good.

But I’ve discovered that many people who read my book take it as a kind of manifesto of support or approval for this ancient form of law—as if I’m trying to promote it! They take it as an ethical vindication of this ancient system!

Nothing could be further from my intention. Although certainly there are aspects of this ancient world that serve as useful counterpoints or challenges to our modern conception of law, broadly speaking I would never promote this system: it’s effectively totalitarian (i.e. requires absolute and coerced adherence to a certain worldview); it has by modern standards little sense of procedural consistency or fairness; it presumes an (oppressive) aristocratic social and cultural structure; it’s sexist; it presumes slavery; etc. You would never want to be subject to this system, and you’d never want a friend to be either. Yes, it is a fascinating subject of historical study; but clearly its place is exclusively in the past. We’d no more want to resurrect this system than we would the Roman government or Roman economy.

To me, this should be obvious. But enough people have taken my book as a kind of substantive promotion of Byzantine law that I have come to realize that we historians really do write in a bit of a code, which can be misread. Our enthusiasm for our work, and our tendency to promote our subject, can easily be taken the wrong way. And, if people start to think that, for example, we are actually promoting pre-modern worldviews—well, this can become downright dangerous.

So: be warned! Always take academic enthusiasm with a grain of salt. You always need to re-add the ethical value judgment! A history book is not going to provide critique. You need to provide it.

5) The Desperation Trap

This is a trap that is specific to contemporary Christian theology.

Critical analysis of the patristic tradition requires a critical awareness of our own context as readers of these ancient texts. The more honestly we can assess our contexts and needs, the better.

Unfortunately, Christian theology’s current context is not a comfortable one. Over the last few centuries Christianity’s intellectual, political and social power has crumbled, especially in the developed world. I don’t need to belabor this point: everyone knows the story of declining membership, political and social marginalization, etc.

As a result, fear, sorrow and desperation (often disguised as anger or dismissive triumphalism) have become leitmotifs of Christian thought. This is understandable. It’s not a bad thing to be a religious minority. But it’s very difficult to become a religious minority when you were once the dominant religious-cultural force in society and were invested with considerable material resources and power. Christianity’s massive “fall” in the last hundred years or so means that Christians feel like they are under siege, and that they are losing their whole world. Everywhere in the church there is tremendous grief as we see the old world pass. And many are fighting to retain as much of this old world as they can, or maybe even re-establish it.

But this is where we need to be very cautious and self-aware when we start to turn to the patristic tradition. The key is to realize that the patristic world of the 4-6th C represents an almost exact inverse of our current situation. Late antiquity was when membership in the church was sky-rocketing; when the church was becoming established, wealthy, and powerful; when theologians were becoming major figures of social and political importance; when the dignity and honour of the church were written into law, and Christianity became the privileged religion of the state; and when Christianity was starting to become the major locus of cultural, intellectual and aesthetic excellence. Perhaps most importantly, this was when Christianity had a long, glorious, powerful future ahead of it, when its horizons were really opening.

Is it any wonder that many who want to re-establish “Christendom” are so interested in this period? Late antiquity was the period when precisely everything that is unraveling today was being built.

But this is exactly why we need to be exceptionally cautious in our assessment and appropriation of this period. Precisely because it represents such a perfect inverse of our current weakened state, and because we are so desperate for what it seems to offer, we can easily lose our heads: dazzled by the seductive allure of this ancient world, we might leap blindly—lemmings over a cliff! Our great need to restore our sense of dignity might make us ignore or downplay problems and weaknesses of the old synthesis. Desperation does not make for good decision-making.

So precisely because this ancient world represents such an exact inverse to our current weakness, we need to be extra-critical and extra-dispassionate when we approach these ancient sources. We need to proceed very cautiously and very methodically. Perhaps we should, in the end, retrieve some of this ancient world; but, if so, we need to be damn sure of exactly what it is we are getting ourselves into!


So: that’s it! That’s my five pitfalls of reading pre-modern texts that they probably didn’t teach you about in seminary. I’ll continue to refer to them as we plow through some actual patristic texts.

With these under our belt, let’s start our patristic journey next post with our first text: Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration.

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