Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Q&A: Patristics

When people ask me what I'm studying, or what area of theology I'd like to concentrate in, and I tell them "patristics," I sometimes get a cocked eyebrow or a blank stare in response. So, as an aid to those folks, here's a little Q&A on said subject.

So what's this you're doing?

Well, since theology is an awfully big field, and you have to specialize somehow, I'd like to focus on patristics.

Huh? What does that word mean?

"Patristics" is the study of the Church Fathers.

The Church Fathers? Like my pastor, Father X?

Not quite.

Who are the Church Fathers, then? And why am I capitalizing that term?

The Church Fathers are those men who were most influential in developing Christian doctrine, and whose writings are considered to have a certain amount of authority. They're kind of a big deal, which is why you capitalize the term--think "Founding Fathers."

So is St. Thomas Aquinas a Church Father? He's a pretty big deal.

No, the term only applies to those who lived in the first several centuries of Christianity (though the Orthodox Church will use the term more broadly, e.g. calling Gregory Palamas, who lived after Aquinas, a Church Father, because he was so important).

Why only the first several centuries?

The idea is that at a certain point in the history of the Church, people sort of changed the way they did theology, moving away from certain methods of Scriptural exegesis to a more systematic approach which incorporated more frequently the authority of the Fathers themselves. Though the Fathers would refer to each other in the Patristic age (e.g. Cyril appeals to Athanasius, Maximos to Cyril, etc.), this became more commonplace later on.

When did the "Patristic age" begin and end?

Generally, we'd say it begins in the generation or two after the apostles, so that the earliest Fathers would be men like Pope St. Clement (ca. 90 AD) or St. Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 107 AD). These are the first men to be carrying on the apostolic tradition. The end of the Patristic period varies: the title "last of the Fathers" is usually given to St. John Damascene (8th century), though I've seen some people push it out as far as St. Bernard of Clairvaux (11th century).

What sort of "authority" do the Church Fathers have?

When some Johnny-come-lately heretic would crop up with a new theory on something, there would be those who stood up to say, "This is not in line with the faith we have always known and preached"--we later recognize these men as Church Fathers. The Fathers carried on the teachings of the apostles, assuring that Scripture would be read correctly and the Gospel preached in its integrity. Typically we'd say that if the Fathers agree on something, that's a pretty solid indication that it's right. It's not as though each of them were individually infallible or anything like that. But their combined witness to the Tradition of the Church carries a great deal of weight.

Who are some of the "big name" Church Fathers I might know?

Well, to start, there are eight that are usually regarded as pretty important: the "Four Great Western Fathers" St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory the Great; and the "Four Great Eastern Fathers" St. Athanasius, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzus, and St. John Chrysostom. St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine way of monasticism, is also fairly important, I'd say. But there are sure a lot of them!

So who are some of the others I should know?

Oh man... St. Anthony of the Desert, a huge influence for monasticism; St. Irenaeus of Lyons, a great defender of the faith against the Gnostics; St. Justin Martyr; Tertullian and Origen, who both sorta became heretics later (Tertullian, definitely), but who wrote some very important and influential works in their orthodox phases; St. Cyprian of Carthage; St. Hilary of Poitiers; St. Gregory of Nyssa; St. Cyril of Jerusalem; St. Cyril of Alexandria; St. Maximos the Confessor; too many to name!

Are there any Church Mothers?

Well, being that not a ton of women were educated in that time in that part of the world, and being that the Church Fathers tend to be clergy, and the Church has only male clergy, there weren't a lot of women who gained enough influence to garner such recognition. But there are a few who have been noted for their influence and holiness, such as St. Mary of the Desert, St. Macrina, and St. Scholastica.

Why are you so big on these guys?

I like studying the Church Fathers because of their proximity to the apostles, and their consciousness that they are carrying on the faith of the apostles in Jesus Christ. I like them because they developed the most important doctrines in the Christian faith: the Triune God and the nature of Christ. I like them because they treated the faith as a unified whole: in just one patristic homily you could find theological reflection on the Trinity, the sacraments, the nature of the Church, the need to serve the poor, and the meaning of the liturgy! I like them because of the beautiful way in which they find connections between the Old and New Testament--read Origen's homily on Genesis 22, and how the sacrifice of Isaac prefigures the sacrifice of Christ.

Anything else I should know?

That seems to suffice for now. Just go read them!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Loving Your Everyday Enemies

I'd like to compare two situations in life.

Situation #1: Drivers here in the Bay Area (pardon the impending pun) drive me crazy. They treat the highway like a stunt course. They dodge between cars like a pickpocket weaving through a crowd to evade the police. And, the one that really chafes my backside, they rarely signal when changing lanes. Those who know me to be a mild-mannered fellow may be surprised at my reactions: I swear at them; I question their intelligence and their parentage, and compare them to the less reputable parts of the human body; I have a strong desire to run them off the road and put them out of my misery. Some of you may be reading this nodding your heads and recalling similar feelings in yourselves. 

Situation #2: When Osama bin Laden was killed, part of me was glad that SOB had finally been taken out, but another part of me knew I ought not rejoice in another person's death. As a Christian I am compelled by the Lord's command to love my enemies, and difficult as it may be to will the good for someone who would have gladly killed me given the chance, I know I must do the right thing and pray that God have mercy on his soul.

Question: Where is all my noble benevolence in situation #1? Why do I not pray for my enemies as they're endangering my life on the road?

It seems much easier to be forgiving and compassionate (or at the very least to think you're being those things) toward an enemy who is far away, nearly mythic in stature, and already dead, than toward one who is nearby, ordinary, and still living. It seems much easier to conjure up an attitude of holiness in a grand situation than in the ordinary and everyday. But the ordinary and everyday situations are the ones we face most often. Our habits are formed by how we react to situations; those repeated reactions form the shape of our character. It's like a path or a trail developing by repeated usage, like ruts in the road caused by the wheels going over the same spots. If we react in ways that are of God, that are responses to His grace, we will form a heavenly character; if we do the opposite, we will form a hellish character. In a real way, our eternal destiny will be determined by how we react to the mundane happenings in life. So what good does it do me to say "I forgive you" of Saddam Hussein or Joseph Goebbels yet revile the lady in the grocery store who brings 17 items to the "15 items or fewer" line?

G.K. Chesterton put it well once, as he tended to put all things well: "The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people" (Illustrated London News - July 16, 1910). If I want my life to be such that it is Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20), I need to have a loving disposition when someone repeatedly sniffles instead of blowing his nose; when people say "ekkspecially" instead of "especially"; and yes, even when people change lanes without signalling. Even though that really, really bugs me.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Divine Logic

Catholics are very familiar with addressing the Blessed Virgin Mary as "Mother of God," just as we do in the Haily Mary: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners." This is an ancient title for Mary, which was officially approved and sanctioned by the Church at the third Ecumenical Council, at Ephesus, in 431 AD. Some people objected to it then because they had a distorted view of the nature of Christ, but this should be an easy one, right? It's simple logic:
Jesus is God.
Mary is the mother of Jesus.
Therefore, Mary is the mother of God.
But did you know that some Evangelical Christians object to this title today? They say it gives Mary too much honor to be called the Mother of God--to that I would respond, "If the shoe fits, wear it." I also heard one Evangelical in a debate try to show that calling Mary the Mother of God is absurd by making this counter-argument:
God is Trinity.
Mary is the mother of God.
Therefore, Mary is the mother of the Trinity.
"But this is absurd! No Christian believes Mary is the mother of the Trinity! See, Catholic, your logic is flawed!"

Indeed it is absurd, 'cause your logic is flawed.

There are two problems here. One is a formal problem, which may be a little complex to get into here (i.e. I'm not sure I understand it well enough to explain it), but suffice it to say that the way that syllogism is set up renders it invalid. I think it can be demonstrated with another example:
God is Trinity.
The Father is God.
Therefore, the Father is Trinity.
Well, that didn't work, did it? So the first issue is the form of the argument.

The other problem is called the fallacy of four terms. This is when a logical proposition uses one word in two different ways, so that the word does not mean the same thing every time it is used. Here is a handy example (borrowed from the Wikipedia page on the subject of this fallacy):

Major premise: Nothing is better than eternal happiness.
Minor premise: A ham sandwich is better than nothing.
Conclusion: A ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness.
The word "nothing" in the example above has two meanings, as presented: "nothing is better" means the thing being named has the highest value possible; "better than nothing" only means that the thing being described has some value. Therefore, "nothing" acts as two different words in this example, thus creating the fallacy of four terms.

Just as the word "nothing" is being used in to mean two different things in this example, so "God" is being used to mean two different things in the Evangelical example.

The three Persons of the Trinity are each fully God, so that it can properly be said of each, "The Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God." We say that "God" can be predicated of each person of the Trinity, and everything that can be predicated of God-ness can be predicated of each of them, e.g. omnipotence, omnipresence, eternity, etc. Think of it like this: Nick is human. Jim is human. That means both possess human nature. Everything that can be said of human nature can be said of Nick and Jim: they are rational, they can see humor, etc. Just so, saying "The Father is God" and "The Son is God" means both possess the divine nature, and everything that can be said of the divine nature can be said of each of them: they are all-loving, all-just, all-merciful, etc.

BUT the process does not work in reverse: just because Nick and Jim share human nature, and just because the Father and the Son share divine nature, does not mean that everything that can be predicated of one can be predicated of the other. Though Nick and Jim share human nature, that does not mean that Nick is Jim. And though the Father and Son share divine nature, that does not mean the Father is the Son. The Father's fatherhood is unique to Him, and the Son's place as Son is unique to Him. Likewise, since it is only the Son that became incarnate in the Virgin's womb, only the Son can be said to have been born of her, and thus Mary is said to be Mother of God only as it relates to the Son.

No one should make the mistake of thinking that calling Mary "Mother of God" makes her the Mother of the entire Trinity, and no one should think that this title makes Mary superior or even equal to God. The title simply acknowledges that the one to whom Mary gave birth is truly the God, and that the God to whom Mary gave birth did truly become human. The only way you can deny the title Mother of God to Mary is to either deny that Jesus is truly human or that Jesus is truly God. And I don't think any who call themselves Christian would want to do that.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

On Male Modesty

Last week I read this article by Simcha Fisher humorously discussing the perils of dressing modestly in a society that does not value that particular virtue. The gist of it was: many a Catholic man will implore women to dress modestly so as to prevent the women from becoming sex objects and preserve the men from potential temptation, which is all well and good, but please recognize that this is no easy task, as this places women between the Scylla of being too hot during summer and the Charybdis of being unable to find clothing that is simultaneously sufficiently cool and sufficiently decent. The author was pleading for a little understanding from men and a little help from the fashion industry.

I heard a different sort of plea from a female friend on this same subject: as much as we hear about the need for modesty on the part of women so as to not be an occasion of temptation for men, we hear nothing about the need for modesty on the part of men so as not to be an occasion of temptation for women.

This may be a surprise to some. "Doesn't everybody know that it's men who are tempted by visuals, whereas women are tempted by... well, heck, are women even tempted at all?"

To which I respond: That's just plain silly. Now, I'm no expert on the internal workings of the feminine mind, but I hear tell that women can be tempted to lust, too. They tell me that women actually like the sight of a good-looking guy. They say that women can be tempted by the sight of a man's well-formed body.

This is the problem: a part of American Catholic culture stresses the need for modesty, but it only goes halfway--it addresses itself to women but neglects the responsibilities of men in this same area.

Now, fellas, let me ask: if you're a man with bulging biceps or panoramic pectorals, should you be wearing a tank top that would fit a 12-year old girl? If you've got legs like knotty tree trunks, should you be wearing those board shorts to the beach that cling like spandex when they get wet? Should you go jogging with no shirt on? Come on, bro, at least meet them halfway and wear a sleeveless. You might say, "Hey, not my problem if they can't handle that I look good." Great, now we're doubling up our sins: your wardrobe is not only feeding someone else's lust, but your own pride. Way to go, jackwagon.

So, gentlemen, if we are asking the ladies to dress in a way that won't be a source of temptation for us, ought we not to return the favor?