25 January 2018

An eloquent shepherd’s pipe

Saint Gregory the Theologian

One of the several Orthodox figures cited specifically by the Iranian philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr as having a particular resonance with modern œcological thought is also one of the three (count them) people gifted by the Holy Orthodox Church with the cognomen of ‘Theologian’, alongside Holy Apostle John and the Venerable Symeon. He is also one of the handful of saints (alongside Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Saint Ephraim the Syrian, his contemporary Saint John Chrysostom and Saint John of Damascus) whose translated works were available in the vernacular to the people of Kievan Rus’, and contributed to the early depth and breadth of feeling and action in that people’s shared Christian life. I am speaking of Saint Gregory the Theologian, whom we commemorate today.

Saint Gregory was apparently a bit of a character – a ‘gentleman-bishop’, in the words of Lionel Wickham, with a flair for rhetoric; ‘touchy, rather vain, sometimes downright tiresome… waspish and given to self-justification’ – and a friend of mine from church recently compared him to a blustery, stuffy British aristocrat. For all that, however, he loved the Church with a devotion that couldn’t be faked (particularly since that same love bore him up to offices which he resented and duties which he loathed), and brought a truly formidable intellect to bear upon the deepest questions of our existence, expressing those mysteries not only with a finely-honed poetic tongue and pen, but with a reverent awe and humility that apparently didn’t come easily or naturally to his upbringing.

Having recently read his Five Theological Orations, the depth and subtlety of Saint Gregory’s thinking is instantly remarkable, and even in translation (a poor substitute, I am told, for the original Greek!), the beautiful poetry and parallelism which Saint Gregory deploys in his descriptions and understandings of the nature of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit come through, in some cases, loud and clear. So too, indeed, does the Platonic influence, even though Saint Gregory himself disavows many of Plato’s pagan concepts of the Divine.

And it also becomes clear to see, in the twenty-eighth Oration in particular, why a Sufi Muslim traditionalist like Seyyed Hossein Nasr thought so highly of his writing, and saw in it such deep potentials for an œcological Christian theology. For Saint Gregory, all of natural creation – from the wings of songbirds and the feathers of peacocks; the music of cicadas and the industry of ants, spiders and bees; the petals of flowers, the depths of the seas and the heights of the mountains and heavens – all of it is pregnant with the glory and grace of the Divine, and is stamped with the Creator’s mark. For him, it becomes something of a sign of ingratitude to look on any of these things and not value them rightly – not only for their own sake but for the sake of Him who made them. Although he places this point at the service of a broader theological aim: that of refuting the critics of trinitarianism, the argument is still a firm one standing on its own merits.

Also of interest: at one point Saint Gregory puts paid to the notion that Christ’s sacrifice was an act of legal satisfaction and appeasement of the Father. From the thirtieth Oration, chapter fourteen:
‘Ever living to appeal for us:’

Yes indeed—what deep significance and humanity it expresses! ‘Appealing’ does not imply here, as it does in popular parlance, a desire for legal satisfaction—there is something humiliating in the idea. No, it means representing us in his role of mediator, in the way that the Spirit too is spoken of as ‘appealing’ on our behalf. ‘For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man, Jesus Christ.’ Even at this moment he is, as man, making representation for my salvation, until he makes me divine by the power of his incarnate manhood.
How far a cry from the later distortions of the atonement! In addition, Saint Gregory issues a firm and sterling defence of Orthodox trinitarianism in these Orations. What is worthy of note is that he does it not by appealing to the infallibility or the literal interpretation of Scripture. He notes repeatedly, and with a palpable sense of disgust, that he has little patience for the sorts of semantic games such literalists devise to sow confusion. ‘It is not a hard task to clear away the stumbling block that the literal text of Scripture contains—that is,’ he addresses his interlocutors, ‘if your stumbling is real and not just wilful malice.’ Indeed, at one point he says outright: ‘Some things mentioned in the Bible are not factual; some factual things are not mentioned; some nonfactual things receive no mention there; some things are both factual and mentioned.’ And again: ‘“Believing in” is not the same thing as “believing a fact about”.

Was Saint Gregory a theological liberal then? No; not at all! Can a man who stood steadfast on the side of the Orthodox, Chalcedonian understanding of the Trinity be truly considered a ‘liberal’, least of all by a presumptuous peanut gallery standing at a sixteen-century remove? It’s only within an anachronistic, early twentieth-century American frame of reference, which empties theology of its content and focusses solely on methods and pragmatics, that he can even be suspected of such. Saint Gregory refers instead, not only to Scripture (though plenty to that!), but also to the sense and the spirit which motivates the Church of Christ as a whole, and not just in any one of its constituent parts. The ‘we’ with which he speaks is the conciliar ‘we’ of the Church, as here:
We shall give fuller grounds when we discuss the question of what is not in the Bible, but for the present it will be sufficient for us to say just this: it is the Spirit in whom we worship and through whom we pray. ‘God,’ it says, ‘is Spirit, and they who worship him must worship him in Spirit and in Truth.’ And again: ‘We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.’ And again: ‘I will pray with the Spirit but I will pray with the mind also’—meaning, in mind and spirit. Worshipping, then, and praying in the Spirit seem to me to be simply the Spirit presenting prayer and worship to himself.
The subtlety of Saint Gregory’s thinking, and the foundational respect it deserves particularly within the Orthodox tradition, is on full display in the Theological Orations. Even if he was, for many of his contemporaries, a grouchy, reticent, stubborn and stuffy personality to deal with – can there be any better proof that the Church has needed such difficult people than the example of Saint Gregory, and the corpus of theological writings which he bequeathed to us? Holy Father Gregory of Nazianzus, pray to God the Father, to God the Son and to God the Holy Spirit – whose eternal and beautiful mysteries you came so much the nearer than any of us to glimpsing – for us!
The sweet-sounding shepherd’s pipe of your theology
Overpowered the trumpeting of the orators;
For having searched the depths of the Spirit
Eloquence was also bestowed upon you.
Pray to Christ God, Father Gregory,
That our souls may be saved!

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