Academic Theology: Swimming with Your Clothes on

In modern times we have become too ready to pronounce ourselves theologians by being informed rather than by being formed by the prayer of the Church and the practice of the spiritual life. Most Orthodox know that one does not become a theologian by merely memorizing Bible verses. Yet we often unconsciously adopt a similar Protestant approach toward theology, disguised by our acceptance of certain doctrines, of Church history, and of a liturgical “style” of worship.
| 12 July 2010

Source: The Word Magazine, Volume 45, No 2, February 2001



In the renowned and god inspired work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus makes an amazing and disturbing statement: “He who dabbles in theology while still in the passions is like one who tries to swim with his clothes on.” Of course, one who swims with his clothes on is likely to be weighted down and to drown. For once within the waters the clothes become saturated and restrict the proper movement of the body, potentially rendering it incapable of swimming. This teaching of St. John is essential to the Orthodox understanding of the nature of theology and theological education, the nature of the Church, the nature of the spiritual life and the life of each Orthodox Christian.

I believe that Orthodox theology is in time of crisis and many of us have placed ourselves in dangerous waters. We have often replaced the understanding and practice of true theology with the intellectual appearance of theology, an “academic” theology.

According to the teachings of our Holy Fathers on the stages of the spiritual life, theology is the final stage and is equated with perfect selfemptying love. For the Fathers there could be no theology apart from the practice of prayer and self-denial, humility and love of one’s enemies. Theology was understood to be the words, the silence and the actions of one who had been formed by faith and transformed by grace. A theologian was not one who could understand abstract concepts about God, but who had taken up the cross and followed Christ. Yet, in our day the saying, “The theologian is the one who truly prays” is one of the most often quoted and simultaneously the most neglected in practice (most certainly by the author of this article).

In the Orthodox understanding, the true theologian is the one who has attained to purity of heart and dispassion, has become illumined and deified in Christ, and therefore has attained to the experience of God and to God- likeness, that is to love. This is, of course, why in the Holy Orthodox Church the Saints are our theologians, because they know God. They have attained to that state of purity and love in which speaking about God is synonymous with and is the fruit of their own experience of God.

As St. John Climacus says, “The man who wants to talk about love is undertaking to speak about God. But it is risky to talk about God and could even be dangerous for the unwary. Angels know how to speak about love, but even they do so only in proportion to the light within them.” The true theologians of the Church, St. Gregory Palamas for instance, have been filled with this same angelic and uncreated light and are able therefore to speak about God with authority, from experience. The vision of God is therefore the prerequisite for theology, and purity of heart is the prerequisite for the vision of God. “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” St. Paul himself received his theology from his vision of Jesus Christ. For most of us, attaining to the vision of God requires great struggle, tears, confession and repentance, and the conscious practice of humility and obedience.

In modern times we have become too ready to pronounce ourselves theologians by being informed rather than by being formed by the prayer of the Church and the practice of the spiritual life. Most Orthodox know that one does not become a theologian by merely memorizing Bible verses. Yet we often unconsciously adopt a similar Protestant approach toward theology, disguised by our acceptance of certain doctrines, of Church history, and of a liturgical “style” of worship. It should be clear to us that this temptation is so great for no other reason than that it is easier for us. For instance, it requires much less struggle to read a “theological” book which does not challenge me to change my unspiritual habits, than to prepare for and receive the sacrament of confession. In contrast, the battle cry of Orthodox theology is, “Give blood [effort], receive [the Holy] Spirit.”

Yet by continually pursuing theology without practicing the spiritual life I become an “academic theologian.” I read theological books and yet my sins, bad habits, and passions remain untouched, unexamined, unchanged, unhealed. As we shall see below, this merely intellectual approach to theology is nothing new and has been confronted by the Church before.

As a former seminary student I am acutely aware of the temptation to fall in love with “theology” as a study, as a means to speculation of new controversies in the theological sphere, or as a conceptual form for its own sake. Both prior to and during my theological education I read extensively about monasticism — its history, its significance, its special influence on the life of the Church — without having ever stepped foot in a monastery, without ever being in the presence of a holy monk, without ever soaking in the rays of obedience, humility, simplicity of life, and living theology found in such a setting! Today it is possible to read books that interpret the theology of the Holy Fathers of the Church without ever reading them for ourselves, or worse, without having a spiritual guide to put them in perspective for us.

In the Orthodox Tradition theology does not proceed from reason, from the brain. Theology is a state of grace, a return to our nature before the fall in which reason has become formed and informed by the grace of God in the heart. The spiritual center (in Greek, nous) of the soul returns and abides in the heart, thereby restoring the natural vision of God. As Adam heard the voice of God in paradise, the pure soul also naturally communes with God and receives His words. As Adam knew the names of the animals, the illumined soul knows the true nature of all created things. As Adam prophesied, the illumined soul speaks the word of God by virtue of its vision of Him. As Adam was clothed in the uncreated Light of God, the deified soul (the true theologian) becomes a vessel of grace, embodying theology, which is direct and experiential knowledge of God.

Education and Theology

While theological education has become more important than ever in light of centuries of oppression, the pervasiveness of western forms of humanistic and scholastic theological approaches, and the danger of modern secularism, a theological education which is not based upon an Orthodox understanding of theology fails us. A contemporary Russian elder, Abbot Nikon (1894- 1963), gives us an excellent summary of the objectives of theological education. Speaking of some tendencies of theological education in this time he says:

Instead the students are obliged to memorize huge amounts of material. Does even one subject reach the mind, let alone the heart? … This is a conglomeration of facts — raw, undigested material. What is worse, given a weak faith and a worldly mind, the study of spiritual truth only leads to the diminution of these truths. The veil of mystery is removed from them, the depth of divine wisdom is stripped away. These truths become the subject of polemics, foreign to the student’s soul. His faith dwindles and even evaporates.

In contrast to this academic approach, Abbot Nikon presents the objectives for a good theological education:

A spiritual school must 1) strengthen faith; 2) teach one to pray; 3) teach one to know himself, his fallen state; 4) teach one to fight sin and temptations through the example of the Holy Fathers; 5) teach one to understand and gain a feeling for the writings of the Holy Fathers, and through them, the Gospel — to make them one’s own, dear and close to the heart, alive, answering the need of the soul in all circumstances, and not merely the subject of intellectual knowledge; 6) teach one to view the Gospel commandments not as an impediment to free living but as a path to finding … the pearl of great price for which, upon discovering it, a man gladly sells everything else, i.e. all the worldly interests and pleasures, all that the world prizes.

Without these criteria there is the danger of making theology an academic subject matter, or a speculative philosophy that produces purely abstract concepts and intellectual formulations wholly foreign to faith. We should not pursue theology as such but seek to be formed in the spiritual life through guidance from holy and experienced teachers who follow the practical path of the Holy Fathers.

Unfortunately, in our time, theological education has sometimes become founded on speculation rather than upon the mind of the Church Fathers. Instead of immersing ourselves in obedience to the Holy Fathers, we seek to raise ourselves above them, imagining ourselves their equal and peer. Instead of preparing our hearts to receive the theology of the Church by pursuing purification, we seek to become theologians in our own right. Instead of prayer, we seek speculation. Yet, as St. John Climacus says, “The growth of fear [of God] is the starting point of love, and total purity is the foundation for theology.” The “academic theologian,” however, exalts his own reason over the experience of the Holy Fathers of the Church.

St. Gregory Palamas and Barlaam

In the 14th century, St. Gregory Palamas defended the true nature of Orthodox theology against a scholastic theologian from the west, Barlaam. Barlaam taught that logical reasoning and philosophical knowledge was greater than the Saints’ experience of God, that the philosophers were greater than the Apostles, and that philosophy was more refined than the experience of God’s Light since in his opinion, God’s grace experienced by the Saints is a creation. St.Gregory recognized the danger in this academic approach, which seeks to exalt fallen reasoning and speculation above the pure prayer of the heart by which the true theologians of the Church are “taught by God” Himself. When the heart is purified and the soul illumined by the uncreated Grace of God, one comes to true knowledge and experience of God, which is theology.

Academic and speculative theology can become a “drug” to which we become addicted and which keeps us from the spiritual life. I have seen young men interested in theological education embroiled in speculative issues such as women and the priesthood, perhaps imagining themselves a “new” Athanasius articulating the faith of the Church for our times. The desire for answers to these speculations overcomes and distracts from even the desire for living the spiritual life or listening to the teachings of the Holy Fathers. Yet too often the answers are sought not in the simple teachings of the Church but within one’s own reason. Yet how can we seek the “higher” things without having attained to the basics?

“The Lord Himself says: ‘If you do all that is demanded of you [that is, follow all the commandments], consider yourselves unprofitable servants whose duty it is to fulfill the master’s orders’ (Luke 17:10) … For this reason, the seeking of high spiritual states is forbidden by the Lord and by the Holy Fathers. All our inner struggle should be concentrated on repentance and on everything which promotes the penitent state” (Abbot Nikon).

One must only experience an internet listserve devoted to theological discussion to see that today everyone has become a “theologian.” In our day it is possible to graduate from seminary and yet not even be able to fulfill a simple rule of prayer — five minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the evening. The point of spiritual education is the health of the soul. While many of the Holy Fathers and teachers of the Church had great formal educational backgrounds, other great “theological minds” of the Church had only elementary school educational levels. This should teach us that theological education is not determined by academics.

The books we read often form our spiritual attitudes and approach to theology. Do we continually read highly academic-oriented theological books, or edifying works which seek to teach us how to live the spiritual life? Books on the lives of holy persons (canonized and not yet canonized) of our own times are being written and translated in abundance today. These books can provide us with examples which inspire us and form us in the theology of the Church. There are the lives and teachings of more recently canonized Saints such as St. Silouan the Athonite, St. John Maximovich, St.Nicholas Planas, St. Nektarios of Aegina, and the Elders of Optina Monastery, Leonid, Anthony, Moses, Macarios and the others. There are still many more works in existence of those holy ones who have not yet been officially canonized by the Church: Papa Dimitri Gagastathis, the Nun Gavrillia, Elder Porphyrios, Elder Joseph the Hesychest, Elder Amphilocios Makris, Elder Epiphanios Theodoropoulos, Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain, and many more.

The Church as “Hospital”

The primary indication of true theology is whether it affects the cure of our souls. The Holy Fathers often refer to  the Church as a “spiritual hospital” for sinners. Sin is a spiritual sickness and the goal of theology is to bring the person into spiritual health and wholeness through repentance, to heal the passions and restore them to their proper order. As St. Basil the Great says, “Cure is not conditioned on the passing of time but rather by the manner of repentance.” Based upon this understanding of the goal of theology, a penance is always seen as the method by which a person can overcome sin and receive the healing for the soul.

Through Christ, “Physician of our souls and bodies,” the Church provides us with the true doctrine, true prayer, true sacramental life, and true spiritual teaching which can heal us. This is the purpose of the Church and this is our hope for salvation. The Church is the hospital in which we all find the medications and surgeries that bring grace deeper into the soul in order to purify the heart. All of this takes place through our active repentance and prayer, which is the beginning of theology.

Therefore struggle is necessary. We must take seriously the prescription of the Church and her teachers. Our participation in the activities and sacraments of the Church must be accompanied by our own inner spiritual struggle. In the words of St. Maximos the Confessor, “Theology without action (praxis) is the theology of demons.” The praxis refers not to mere activity or even social action, but rather to asceticism, selfdenial, the inner work of purification, prayer and repentance. The Holy Fathers teach that the sacraments only effect healing in us to the extent that we are open to their grace through purity of heart. The sacraments give us the grace to do the work of purification. Just as wine cannot be poured into a container which is already filled with oil, the sacraments can only import grace to the extent that the soul can receive it.

Involvement in activities, organizations, and programs within our parishes do not take the place of repentance and spiritual growth. The quality of these activities will reflect the degree of repentance and spiritual health of those who undertake them. These activities and “ministries” will bear fruit and bring healing to the extent that the persons involved are being healed through repentance.

Theology and Salvation

The purpose of theology is to lead us to salvation, and salvation is our participation in true theology. Forgiveness in and of itself is not always equal to salvation. The dire consequences of sin, which is the darkening of our soul and loss of spiritual vision, cannot be overlooked in our search for the salvation of our souls. Heartfelt and active repentance must follow forgiveness to effect the purity of heart which brings kinship with the One who saves. It is true, we can never earn our salvation. Yet we are saved by grace, and grace comes to the one who sincerely demonstrates his desire for it. As St. Augustine said, “Who is it that purifies us if not God? But God does not purify you unless you are willing.”

We Orthodox love to talk about St. Moses the Robber and St. Mary of Egypt, both terrible sinners before turning wholeheartedly to God and embracing the ascetical life of repentance. We discuss in detail their sinful lives before their conversion. We also discourse on their eventual saintliness and the wonders that God worked through them. Yet what about the period in between? How often do we remember the frightening and agonizing struggle that led them to sanctity? How often do we forget the years of penance and suffering necessary to overcome the passions which had taken root? According to the life of St. Mary of Egypt, seventeen of her forty- even years of prayer and fasting in the desert were spent in unspeakable anguish from terrible thoughts and temptations produced by her sinful life. By overlooking this long period of “silence” in between sinfulness and saintliness, we mislead ourselves and unknowingly minimize the effort required to reach such holiness.

In the Orthodox Tradition, true theology flows from the heart and mouth of one who comes to know God from direct experience through spiritual struggle. Theology is not a comprehension of concepts, but the result of a fight against the passions which has cleared the spiritual vision to comprehend all things as they are and to behold Christ. The theologian is the one who has been restored to the state of Adam before the fall, who “knew” the names of each animal and walked with God.

St. John of the Ladder speaks about the dangers of speaking about God before having been purified of the sins which darken the vision of the soul. He compares such a theologian with one who jumps into waters while still wearing his clothes. He is weighed down by the heaviness of the soaked clothes and sinks into the depths of the waters. We must remember that the heretic is not one who merely fails to “understand” the Church’s teachings, but one who twists the teachings of the Church to fit into his own desires (passions). He is one who needs his “truth” to be something other than the Truth in order to compensate for his crippled or diseased soul. He needs the heresy because his ego will not let him have it any other way. The heresy is actually food for his passions.

Does our theology confront us on a personal level? Does our theology restore our spiritual health? Is our theology a theoretical concept or more like a surgeon’s scalpel which effectively cuts out the passions which are the diseased areas of our soul? Have we replaced academics with the saving theology of the Holy Fathers?

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