On Theological Discussion - A Reflective Commentary on St Gregory the Theologian’s 27th Oration (Part 1)
By Deacon Daniel Malyon
Following my previous intention to post some ‘Back to Basics’ short theological pieces, I decided to reread St Gregory’s Theological Orations. Though I intend to still produce these pieces, the 27th Oration reminded me of the required warning as to how to approach a Theological narrative and the dangers faced when writing it. In order to explain these, I thought to examine the Oration in a commentary.
It is an increasingly common sight on Social media to see people debating religious values and Theology. For anyone who is involved in these circles on sites such as Facebook, it is common to see conversations turn into arguments and ad hominem attacks on people regardless of their views.
This growth in unloving and somewhat profane method of discussion of the sacred is nothing new, and in fact was a concern during the late 4th Century. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (commonly called 'The Theologian') spoke against what he called an undermining of True Religion' by which he means the obsession with settling Theological matters in arbitrary discussion and the resulting 'Strife of Words' which is involved in this. This is found in his 27th Oration, also called his first Theological Oration. This Oration speaks of the growth at the time of undue Theological and Philosophical debate which risked making the Great Mystery of the faith into a simple Theological conundrum to be debated for social gain rather than to be explored through a life of correct praxis and mindset.
My intention here is to provide a brief commentary on the key points covered in this oration with the hopes of understanding what we can learn from it with regards to our conduct when discussing matters on Social media. I hope that this can provide guidance to those struggling with pride in these matters and reassurance to those who feel undermined by others.
St Gregory opens the Oration by addressing his words to those “whose cleverness in words” who he goes on to refer to as not only having Itching Ears due to their eagerness to hear his words of advice but also itching tongues in their eagerness to respond with their retort. During late antiquity the education in Rhetoric was still a common one, therefore the person who was trained in persuasive talk was seen as intelligent regardless of their understanding of the subject itself, therefore, as with many mediums of discussion today it was often a matter of ‘The empty pots make the most noise.” Though this is part of his Orations against a specific community (The Eunomians) who argued against the Faith of the Church by use of Philosophy, the warnings therein can provide a message for all who engage in this form of discourse.
This is a common problem of pride and the belief that everyone has a right to speak their mind on all matters which many face in the modern world. In both Gregory’s time and that of today, the view that regardless of fact, all views are equal is a common one, which when combined with the self-assured pride in many people can become a hotbed for sinful speech and thought.
In the next section of the Oration, St Gregory goes on to explain in which ways this undermines the Church’s approach to true Religion. He does this through comparing those who obsess over and cater to mindless debates to “Promoters of Wrestling bouts in Theatres, and not even the sort of bouts that are conducted in accordance with the rules of the sport.” The extent of the issue is then explained, and we are told how “Every square in the city has to buzz with their arguments, every party must be made tedious by their boring nonsense” going on to speak also of the infection of this debate into feast funerals and even women’s dressing rooms, bemoaning of how “this infection is unchecked and intolerable; The great mystery of our faith is in danger of becoming a mere Social Accomplishment.”
It is at this point that St Gregory begins to explain the true nature and approach to discussion of the faith. This third section is a vital part of the Oration in that it gives us an understanding of the true scale of Theological Speech and its dangers. He begins with a warning at the start that “Discussion of Theology is not for everyone, I tell you, not for everyone- it I no such inexpensive or effortless pursuit,” explaining how Theology is not for every occasion, every audience nor does it leave every aspect open to enquiry. This may seem like a common sense aspect, however both in St Gregory’s time and ours it had become common for those who see themselves as having an elementary grasp of a subject felt the need to inform others of this, not always out of malicious or arrogant means an often in a good natured way. It is however something of note that not everyone wishes to listen to a Theological monologue and not every occasion is open to this discussion by its nature. St Gregory expands on this by covering the separate topics in their own detail.
He first states of how “it is not for all people, but only for those who have been tested and have found a sound footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone, or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul. For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous, just as it is for weak eyes to look at the sun’s brightness.” This concept of not being able to comprehend True Theology without living the faith is a common one in Patristic literature and is sadly neglected in the modern world by many. If we are to understand the Mystery of the Orthodox Faith in a true Sense we can’t just learn key concepts but have a duty to live by them, such as following Christ’s teachings rather than just knowing what he said. In this short clause, St Gregory excludes Theology from the realm of traditional Philosophical Rhetoric by reminding the reader (or listener) that True Faith is lives and not just learnt as a subject.
“What is the right time? Whenever we are free from the mire and noise without, and our commanding faculty is not confused by illusory, wandering images, leading us, as it were, to mix fine script with ugly scrawling, or sweet-smelling scent with slime. We need actually “to be still” in order to know God, and when we receive the opportunity, “to judge uprightly” in theology.” Here again we see the Ethical aspect of Theology raised in the reminder that discussion of the faith is not to be a boisterous or unruly affair. Also we are not to discuss it when our mind is on other things, ruling out many aspects of the fast paced modern life. This presents another issue in discussing Theology on modern social media platforms since these platforms are designed to allow for short-term and casual interactions rather than dedication to the task at hand and does not allow us the time and prayer to ‘judge uprightly’ in our interactions.
The third part of this section asks ‘who should listen to discussions of theology?’ Many today would claim that anyone serious in their Orthodox faith should be engaged in such discussions and seem to have some obligation to do so. This is a common mind-set online, in which many will make such judgements as “How can you be an Orthodox Christian and not know ___?” about a complex subject, however one must ask whether the old Russian woman in a village who prays 7 times a day, or the Syrian refugee who built the camp’s Church have a weaker faith than the self-appointed Theologian of the Internet.
St Gregory’s response to the matter is simple. He states that the people who should listen are “those for whom it is a serious undertaking, not just another subject like any other for entertaining small-talk, after the races, the theatre, songs, food, and sex: for there are people who count chatter on theology and clever deployment of arguments as one of their amusements.” In this way, he sets aside the Faith from academic or Philosophical subjects of conversation in that it is one of deep conviction as opposed to a simple amusement. Theology in this respect becomes a life-long pursuit which is part of both lifestyle and belief, the Orthodoxa and Orthopraxis which are covered in the Liturgical and daily prayers of the Church.
St Gregory finishes the Third part of this oration by examining what aspects can and should be investigated in Theology, explaining that “only aspects within our grasp, and only to the limit of the experience and capacity of our audience” since “our discourses may so oppress and overtax our hearers” in comparison to a heavy load or excessive rain may damage regardless of their motive being positive. This again provides a stark warning and reminder that there are clear boundaries on what can be achieved in Theological discourse. The idea that we should not discuss things which we cannot understand is his first point, one which is prevalent in Orthodox speaking of the nature of God especially within the Apophatic way. The point of the limits of audience is also important as over complication can often lead one to struggle in their faith in a way which cannot be recovered easily. Again this leads to the reminder that is not a duty of all to engage in senseless discussion of the faith as it can lead to adverse effects even if meant in a positive manner.
In the fourth part of his Oration, St Gregory follows on from his warning by explaining that he does not seek to discourage proper discussion of Theology but to “its untimely practice” and in cases of theological instruction to “when it goes to excess.” This is a position which all Christians would relate to. To love theology as an academic field is not in itself something to be criticized or dissuaded, I myself began this study through academics and was brought to the Orthodox faith through this. The problem is when Theology is distorted by this and becomes a hollow field without the stressed importance on the Mystery of faith and the prayerful and practical aspects in its proper understanding. Sadly, much of this becomes lost during such mediums as social media discussion due to the narcissism and anonymity of an online conversation which takes away from the personal aspect of a long term and accurate education. In this way, much of the nuances and prayerful aspect of learning Theology can take a back stage to simply learning of the subject as though it were any other academic field or simple ‘area of interest’. This is why any Theological education should come from a deep seeded relationship with one’s spiritual father or through guidance of the Priest in your parish as opposed to something through simple reading or discussion through a computer screen.
Through the rest of the fourth through sixth sections, St Gregory takes the opportunity to expand on what is the proper means of discourse on the Mystery of the Faith. He speaks of this occurring amongst the community of the faithful instead of placing Theology as part of a wider Philosophical debate, warning that we should “conduct our debates within our frontiers and not be carried away to Egypt or dragged off to Assyria” linking this to the idea that debating the Orthodox Theology amongst those who seek to disprove Christianity would strengthen them my allowing those with no true strength in their profane teachings to “hunt for it in our weaknesses, and for this reason like flies settling on wounds, they settle on our misfortunes-or our mistakes.” In this, St Gregory makes a clear criticism of Christian infighting and how it does little more than promote the cause of those intending to discredit Christianity for its division. In the same manner he warns of Christians should not divulge the faith as simply an alternative faith to others but keep the words we speak as Venerable so as not to “Prove that we are less reverent than those who worship demons” as “they would rather give their blood than disclose certain words to non-initiates.”
In a modern Christian settling this last point may come as an oddity, especially when we can easily search the scriptures and find many examples of the Apostles proclaiming the faith to those who opposed it. However, in a practical sense we need to remember that the Early Christians and many today still keep many aspects of faith to the faithful only. We only need to look at the Liturgy to remember the practice of having the unbaptized leave before the Liturgy of the Faithful with the famous words “The Doors, Stand aright” proclaiming that the doors are to be closed to them as they should not be present when the communion rites are performed. St Gregory sees the words of the faith to be as important as any other aspect, and therefore not be profaned through misuse or untimeliness.
Following this comes a further explanation of the dangers of involving the Christian Faith and its teachings in debate with those who wish to discredit it. To St Gregory, one of the biggest risks of this is the profaning and misappropriation of the faith, as he warns that “if we abuse the terms ourselves, it will be difficult it would be difficult to persuade such people to accept our way of thinking; and if they have a natural inclination to “invent new kinds of evil” how could they resist the evil we offer them?” This is a common cause of confusion when someone without a proper understanding of something tries to present it and ends up either confusing the matter or presenting a false version of Christianity and producing a ‘straw man’ of the faith of others to attack. We see the invention of such straw men in the modern world in writings such as ‘The God Delusion’ by the Evolutionary Biologist Prof. Richard Dawkins and others who see themselves as presenting Christianity in their texts when they are in fact presenting a hollow version of Christianity which others have promoted as the full faith. As St Gregory warns, “This is what our Civil War leads to. This is what we achieve by fighting for The Word with greater violence than is pleasing to The Word.”
(Continued in Part 2 HERE)