I’m deep in syllabus building these days. I’m planning, among other classes, my spring course on the Church Fathers. The new courses are the hard ones, even ones cobbled together from previous versions like this one. We professors select primary and secondary readings, all the while trying to imagine the experiences students will have with them. We try to imagine as well the conversations that will fill the classroom as we pour over these texts together. Syllabus-building involves lining up readings and papers, because we want students to spend time with the texts. The goal, always: a real transformative experience.
Gaining New Companions
The right reading at the right time, one of my professors taught me, can change your life. I am building this course with that hope. I want students to come away feeling like Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa have become new companions in their faith and vocations.
That means, for starters, that I’ll need to keep in mind what it is that got me here. Why do I love teaching the Church Fathers?
I think, first of all, that it has to do with the energy and precariousness of the era. In those early centuries after the writing of the New Testament, it was not at all clear what the fate of Christianity would be. Familes and churches celebrated the Eucharist and prayed together. Little communities of men and women began to emerge, ordering their lives by the gospels.
Then Emperors and local governors sought to bring religious uniformity to their cities. Sometimes the priests and bishops worked with them, sometimes against them. Most often the for/against of church and state mixed unpredictably. Increasingly, feminist scholars and others writing from the margins of dominate academic culture are uncovering the implications of all that complexity. It was a big hot mess. And I love it all.
Following the Fathers
Two of the most important theologians of those centuries, Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine of Hippo, left memoirs. John McGuckin and Peter Brown have taken those memoirs, combined them with critical historical tools, and written fabulous biographies of the two, respectively.
We can read in Brown’s book how Augustine emerged from a north African backwater and got laughed at in Rome for his accent. How his mother’s faith pursued him through his youth. How he pushed back against various calls for purity in the church, and insisted that Christianity is about broken and healed humans coming to participate in the life of God.
We can read in McGuckin’s book about Gregory’s desire to contemplate the quiet things of God. He writes about the tensions this brought with his more practically minded father. About his friendship with Basil, and the painful betrayal this eventually brought. McGuckin also spends time with Basil’s remarkable family, including his little brother Gregory of Nyssa and big sister Macrina, whose theology and communal asceticism shaped so much of the doctrine that would follow.
Pulling No Punches
So I love the drama. I especially love showing students the way that this drama informs the all-out slugfests that sound so offensive to our (sometimes) more civilized ears. So much was at stake. When Athanasius insults Arius’s intelligence, or Augustine accuses Pelagius of siding with the anti-Christ, they seem willing to stake everything on what can seem to us to be nuances of language. Even a single letter, in Athanasius’s case.
This was still the era of Plato and Aristotle. It was the era of the Academy that taught the world to build careful arguments, to challenge assumptions, and to notice patterns in the world. Origen of Alexandria was an early theological innovator. He wrote in a city still filled with a rich intellectual diversity. Jews and Pagans and Christians who lived there respected one another enough to argue in public and in script about who God is and what the Bible says and means.
The Fathers use language of “heresy,” “apostasy,” and “anathama” to describe their opponents’ positions. There is, of course, pettiness and powerplay at work in this rhetoric. There is also more, though.
Believing with Bodies
Nearly every theological debate of those centuries comes down to a question of embodiment. Are bodies and material things evil? Does having a body put one in opposition to God? Or, if God’s Son has a body, does that make him less than the “main” God? Should we separate the one born from Mary’s body with the one born eternally of the unbodied God?
When I read Augustine’s arguments with the Manichees or Donatists, I hear a Christian insisting that bodies are made to share in God. I hear him remind us that God invites sinful humans to repent and get back to being embodied godly creatures. When I read Maximus the Confessor asserting that Jesus had both a human will and a divine will, I hear something similar. Human wills, limited and tied to bodies as they are, are ultimately no impediment to an abundant life in the Son. That’s the good way the good God made us.
The Church Fathers are men of giant philosophical intellects, often formed by the faith and prayers of the women of their families. They learned to listen to the Bible and the prayers of their communities, and to name the understanding of God that it all implies. Above all, they work out the implications of a God humble enough to be born in a human body. And they are willing to go down fighting to ensure that Christians never lose sight of that story.
That’s why I love teaching the Church Fathers.