On Theological Discussion - A Reflective Commentary on St Gregory the Theologian’s 27th Oration (Part 2)
By Deacon Daniel Malyon
(Part 1 of this commentary is found HERE)
Following the explanation of why external influences should be removed from our discourse in the previous section, St Gregory examines the inner life of the Theologian and the internal factors that should be considered before we are ready to engage in such discourse in order that we may “Smooth the Theologian within us, like a statue, into beauty,” the first of which is the examination of our motive in the discussion. Motive in an important examination as any discussion for the sake of self-gain or malice would profane the words from our tongue and present “greater violence than is pleasing to The Word.” Therefore, before we see ourselves as worthy to discuss the faith St Gregory suggests in this that we ask of ourselves “Do we commend hospitality? Do we admire brotherly love, wifely affection, virginity, feeding the poor, singing Psalms, night-time vigils, penitence?” along with many other qualities such as fasting, prayer, self-examination, mastery over passions, and a good temper. This is a reminder that we may speak out of pride or claim a superiority when it is a clear fact that none of us are worthy of God’s mercy or to speak a word in his name. This message is emphasized in the interaction that follows through the use of the Dialectical (conversational) style during the eighth Section.
Following this comes the analysis of motive, on the presumption that the Theologian has achieved a moral and spiritual life which has allowed them to have “looked upon things which cannot be seen” and become like “A second Elijah” or “A second Moses, judged worthy to see God.” This begins with a quick witted question that if you have attained this level of Holiness, why you would prepare people into a state of Holiness if your only intention is to use them as a “council of ignorant intellectuals,” with the purpose of using them to entangle others in a way that would “Stir a Wasps nest against the faith,” by which he refers to the idea of teaching others to argue with others of the faith to seek a sense of self-righteousness. Of course this is again not referring to all Theological discussion but this idea of “Itchy tongues” seeking to argue for the purpose of argument, regardless of their own personal level of Holiness as though they “cannot hold back words that, once conceived, must be delivered.”
This leads us to his last point on what points can be discussed. St Gregory here makes it clear that the main target for Christian apologetics at his time was the Hellenic Philosophers, which writers such as Theophilus of Alexandria and others in the century prior wrote great apologetic pieces. St Gregory lists the likes of Pythagoras’ Orphism, Plato’s Cycle of Souls or Epicurus’ Atheism as common Christian targets of his time. He follows this with the advice to “Attack the void” in such discussions, the void being “the mumbo-jumbo of gods and sacrifices, idols, demons beneficent or malignant, of soothsaying, summoning of the gods or the spirits of the dead and of the influences of the stars.”
Though this may seem to be a way of saying not to discuss Christianity, he also provides topics within Christianity which are ‘fit’ for discussion such as “the Universe- Or universes, about matter the soul, about Natures (Good and Evil), rewards and punishments or about the sufferings of Christ.” St Gregory gives his reasons for these being allowable for discussion as the fact that with these “to hit the mark is not useless, to miss it is not dangerous.” Meaning that these are not issues which at the time there were specific Church doctrines on and therefore their speculation is acceptable in discussion. This again, when combined with Gregory’s understanding of what makes an acceptable time to discuss these matters shows that St Gregory had no major problem with discussion of such matters but the impact on the faith and the person’s spiritual life.
Regardless of this, St Gregory does hold a view of one topic which is above all discussion, this is God. He explains this by saying “Of God himself the knowledge we shall have in this life will be little, though soon after it will perhaps be more perfect, in the same Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be glory for ever and ever.” Here we again see this view that discussion of God and his Nature is not up for debate, as these are aspects which are unknowable in essence, have great impact and can lead to the development of heretical and Profane Doctrines.
So what can we learn from this text in our own spiritual lives, especially with regards to those who indulge in theological discussion and debate on modern media platforms. From St Gregory’s Oration we can see that there are various rules and examinations which we should concern ourselves with before we engage in any form of discussion on the faith which concern both the external and internal context of the discussion.
In terms of the outer contexts, St Gregory sees it as important that we must ask ourselves whether the discussion is in the correct settling and to an audience to whom the topic is proper and beneficial. This does not mean that we judge this by our own personal standard but that we respect the setting. Believing that the man next to me on a bus needs to know about the unknowability of God does not make the discussion proper, as it would not benefit him or make the timing or place of the discussion proper to the Glory of God. I do not know what his views or level of knowledge are, whether he has any concept of God or even whether he has any interest, so it is not right to engage him in such a discussion especially if it will only give a fraction of understanding. Therefore one should ask where and when they should engage in such discussions before beginning them, so as not to present the faith as any less than it is.
Secondly comes the more complex inner examination. One should ask whether they are really fit to discuss the faith and their own motive in the discussion. In questioning our fitness to discuss the mystery of the faith we must ask whether our own spiritual life is at a point where our presentation of the faith can do it justice as well as our knowledge of the subject. This is because wisdom in the mystery of the faith is not as with any academic science but comes from engagement in the Doxa and Praxis of the faith which are inseparable by their nature. If I were to approach such topics without true understanding of them I would end up presenting them as another idea in the maelstrom of ideas and estranged from the praxis of the Church, and if I have no understanding I would be unable to express them. This is a balance which we must all strive for so as not to misrepresent the faith to those who wish to find God.
The second of these inner examinations comes from motive, and is one which I see of as vitally lacking today amongst those who sell themselves as Theologians. Before engaging in discussion of matters of faith we must ask the simple question of why? Are we starting a discussion to try and ‘win’? Are we trying to gain social respect for our words or are we angered by someone and wish to state an opposing view. If so, we must refrain as we would risk speaking of the word with “greater violence than is pleasing to The Word.” A correct motive in this speech is to give a fair presentation of the faith through experience and wisdom, if we cannot provide this we have no place to speak as we are not demonstrating in ourselves a prayerful member of the Church but just another hollow man of words and an ‘itchy tongue’ rather than a pure heart and mind.
From these we grasp the message of the Oration which is one of self-examination as to whether we can ever speak in a way that does justice to the faith that we claim to represent. If we are not able to do so then we must ask why we believe we can benefit the Church in attempting to speak on her behalf. If we speak for our own gain we are deceiving and if we speak in ignorance we do damage,. Therefore, in all cases we must ask ‘why speak at all?”