Note that neither Origen nor Augustine nor Jerome was writing for tenure or to impress an academic audience

Quote of the Day for Saturday, October 1st, 2011:

Fr. Robert Barron, from the Introduction to his book, Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (Crossroad, 1996), on the pastoral character of pre-Scholastic theology:

[P]rior to 1300, that is, from the earliest centuries of the church up until the time of Thomas Aquinas, there was no significant split between theology (talk about God) and spirituality. many of the significant spiritual masters of the patristic period – Origen, Augustine, pseudo-Dionysius, Ambrose – were what we would call theologians. All of these figures were interested, finally, in the transformation, conversion,  and salvation of human beings. Their theology was not abstract speculation for its own sake; on the contrary, it was a sort of spiritual direction, an attempt to lure people into the imitation of Jesus Christ. It is interesting to note that neither Origen nor Augustine nor Jerome was writing for tenure or to impress an academic audience. Instead, they were writing, first and foremost, as pastors, passionately interested in the salvation of souls. Even the most challenging, philosophically oriented texts in the Fathers – and there are plenty of them – are meant, not simply to illumine the mind, but to open the heart. It seems to me that if one had asked St. Augustine to distinguish between his theological writings and his “spiritual” writings, the saint would have been at a loss.

I had been reading a number of glowing reviews of Fr. Barron’s recent documentary film and companion book, Catholicism, and in searching a library catalog in hopes of finding one or the other, came across this earlier volume on Aquinas, whose enthralling metaphysical thought was still fresh in my mind from my recent reading of W. Norris Clarke’s The One and the Many. I had to at least give it a look. The early verdict: it’s a great little (<200 pages) offering, from the Crossroad’s Spiritual Legacy series.

The passage above got me thinking a bit about the strange dichotomies that seem to dominate modern opinion regarding matters religious, such as the popular juxtaposition of “religion” (or sometimes “organized religion”) and “spirituality”; the preceding, Barthian juxtaposition of “religion” and “faith”; its preceding, Reformed juxtaposition of law and gospel; the religiously hostile or even oppressive interpretation of Church/State separation language in American jurisprudence; and the ever-present gnostic dichotomizing of body/soul dualism. All of these dichotomies seem to be to be essentially gnostic,and I wonder to what extent this thinking can be traced back to the professionalizing of theology into a largely academic field.

The kind of pastorally integrated theology Barron attributes to antiquity is precisely the kind of theology I’d like to practice. Now, I don’t find later theology, as a rule, to be at all devoid of pastorally fruitful “spirituality”, but that may be in part due to my personal constitution, and I can certainly grasp a clear distinction between literature that would be categorized as “theological” and that which would be categorized as “spiritual writing” – my own library is divided in exactly that way.

Nonetheless, I see it as a point well worth taking that these two components or aspects of the encounter with God need to be integrated properly: the intellectual musings of the Christian should be grounded in a fierce and personal love for Jesus Christ and His Church, just as the spiritual journey of the Christian must be rooted in sound doctrine if it is going to produce the fruits of the Holy Spirit. This exact thought has been on my mind for the past week or so, as I’ve begun again my catechetical duties teaching Christian doctrine to the parish children (8th graders this year). Too often, it seems that we are trying to inculcate “law” in those unaware of the existence of “gospel”, and perhaps even oblivious of its need.

One way to put it would be this: these youth-oriented programs need more kerygma to give life to the didache.