Philokalia

Philokalia

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Of Theology and Theologians: The Science of the Saints and the Fruit and Method of Spiritual Healing

I have always been struck by the patristic understanding of the nature of theology.   One of my earlier posts touched upon the necessity of “becoming theology”, stressing the need to assimilate the words and teaching of the scriptures and the fathers so that our very beings express their truth.  Here, however, I would like to expand upon this notion and address more directly how the Fathers understood the idea of theology itself.  In the glossary of the first volume of the Philokalia we are told that theology “denotes . . .more than the learning about God and religious doctrine acquired through academic study.  It signifies active and conscious participation in or perception of the realities of the divine world. . .  . To be a theologian in the full sense, therefore, presupposes the attainment of the state of stillness and dispassion,  . . . of pure undistracted prayer and so requires gifts bestowed on but extremely few persons.”  The present day idea of schools of theology where one pursues a degree abstracted from the absolute necessity of spiritual formation and the active pursuit of the life of holiness would have been completely foreign to the Fathers.  The study of the patristic texts and particularly those of the hesychast Fathers of the Philokalia reveals that theology is both a fruit and a method of spiritual healing through which one is brought into communion with God.

To enlarge on what has been said we do well to look to the teaching of the Holy Fathers relating to theology and theologians.  Bishop Hierotheos Vlachos in his work “Orthodox Psychotherapy” shows through the Fathers’ writings how theology is first and foremost a therapeutic science - principally a science that cures, that heals, the soul.  He writes:

“I think that we should begin with St. Gregory Nazianzen. . . [He] writes that it is not for everyone to theologize, to speak about God, because the subject is not so cheap and low.  This work is not for all men but ‘for those who have been examined and are passed masters in the vision of God and who have previously been purified in soul and body, or at the very least are being purified.’  Only those who have passed from praxis to theoria, from purification to illumination, can speak about God.  And when is this?  ‘It is when we are free from all external defilement or disturbance, and when that which rules within us is not confused with vexations or erring images.’  Therefore the saint advises: ‘For it is necessary to be truly at ease to know God.’

Neilos the Ascetic links theology with prayer . . . : ‘If you are a theologian, you will pray truly.  And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.’

St. John Climacus [writes]: ‘Total purity is the foundation for theology.’  ‘When a man’s senses are perfectly united to God, then what God has said is somehow mysteriously clarified.  But where there is no union of this kind, then it is extremely difficult to speak about God.’  On the contrary, the man who does not actually know God speaks about Him only in ‘probabilities’.  Indeed, according to patristic teaching it is very bad to speak in conjectures about God, because it leads a person to delusion.  This saint knows how ‘ the theology of demons’ develops in us.  In vainglorious hearts which have not previously been purified by the operation of the Holy Spirit, the unclean demons ‘give us lessons in the interpretation of scripture’.  Therefore a slave of passion should not ‘dabble in theology.’  

The saints lived a theology ‘written by the Spirit’.  We find the same teaching in the works of St. Maximus the Confessor.  When a person lives by practical philosophy, which is repentance and cleansing from passions, ‘he advances in moral understanding.’  When he experiences theoria, ‘he advances in spiritual knowledge.’  In the first case he can discriminate between virtues and vices; the second case, theoria, ‘leads the participant to the inner qualities of incorporeal and corporeal things.’

It must be emphasized that a theology that is not the result of purification, that is, of ‘praxis’, is demonic.  According to St. Maximus, ‘knowledge without praxis is the demons’ theology.’ 

In the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas it is those who see God who are properly theologians, and theology is theoria.  ‘For there is a knowledge about God and His doctrines, a theoria which we call theology. . . .’  Anyone who without knowledge and experience of matters of faith offers teaching about them ‘according to his own reasonings, trying with words to show the Good that transcends all words, has plainly lost all sense.’  And in his folly ‘he has become an enemy of God.’  

Thus, Vlachos tells us, theology is not abstract knowledge or practice, like logic, mathematics, astronomy, or chemistry . . .  .  A theologian who is not acquainted with the methods of the enemy nor with perfection in Christ is not only unable to struggle against the enemy for his own perfection, but is also in no position to guide or heal others.”