On Theological Discussion – A Reflective Commentary on St Gregory the Theologian’s 27th Oration [Part 1]
By Deacon Daniel Malyon
This year I vowed to myself to write and plan some ‘Back to Basics’ short theological pieces, with this in mind I decided to reread St Gregory’s Theological Orations. Though I intend to still produce these pieces, the 27th Oration reminded me of the required warning as to how to approach a Theological narrative and the dangers faced when writing it. In order to explain these, I thought to examine the Oration in a commentary.
“Discussion of Theology is not for everyone, I tell you, not for everyone- it I no such inexpensive or effortless pursuit,” St Gregory begins to explain
It is an increasingly common sight on Social media to see people debating religious values and Theology. For anyone who is involved in these circles on sites such as Facebook, it is common to see conversations turn into arguments and ad hominem attacks on people regardless of their views.
This growth in unloving and somewhat profane method of discussion of the sacred is nothing new, and in fact was a concern during the late 4th Century. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (commonly called ‘The Theologian’) spoke against what he called an undermining of True Religion’ by which he means the obsession with settling Theological matters in arbitrary discussion and the resulting ‘Strife of Words’ which is involved in this. This is found in his 27th Oration, also called his first Theological Oration. This Oration speaks of the growth at the time of undue Theological and Philosophical debate which risked making the Great Mystery of the faith into a simple Theological conundrum to be debated for social gain rather than to be explored through a life of correct praxis and mindset.
My intention here is to provide a brief commentary on the key points covered in this oration with the hopes of understanding what we can learn from it with regards to our conduct when discussing matters on Social media. I hope that this can provide guidance to those struggling with pride in these matters and reassurance to those who feel undermined by others.
St Gregory | Whose Cleverness In Words
St Gregory opens the Oration by addressing his words to those “whose cleverness in words” who he goes on to refer to as not only having Itching Ears due to their eagerness to hear his words of advice but also itching tongues in their eagerness to respond with their retort. During late antiquity the education in Rhetoric was still a common one, therefore the person who was trained in persuasive talk was seen as intelligent regardless of their understanding of the subject itself, therefore, as with many mediums of discussion today it was often a matter of ‘The empty pots make the most noise.” Though this is part of his Orations against a specific community (The Eunomians) who argued against the Faith of the Church by use of Philosophy, the warnings therein can provide a message for all who engage in this form of discourse.
This is a common problem of pride and the belief that everyone has a right to speak their mind on all matters which many face in the modern world. In both Gregory’s time and that of today, the view that regardless of fact, all views are equal is a common one, which when combined with the self-assured pride in many people can become a hotbed for sinful speech and thought.
St Gregory | True Religion
In the next section of the Oration, St Gregory goes on to explain in which ways this undermines the Church’s approach to true Religion. He does this through comparing those who obsess over and cater to mindless debates to “Promoters of Wrestling bouts in Theatres, and not even the sort of bouts that are conducted in accordance with the rules of the sport.” The extent of the issue is then explained, and we are told how “Every square in the city has to buzz with their arguments, every party must be made tedious by their boring nonsense” going on to speak also of the infection of this debate into feast funerals and even women’s dressing rooms, bemoaning of how “this infection is unchecked and intolerable; The great mystery of our faith is in danger of becoming a mere Social Accomplishment.”
St Gregory | The True Scale Of Theological Speech And Its Dangers
It is at this point that St Gregory begins to explain the true nature and approach to discussion of the faith. This third section is a vital part of the Oration in that it gives us an understanding of the true scale of Theological Speech and its dangers. He begins with a warning at the start that “Discussion of Theology is not for everyone, I tell you, not for everyone- it I no such inexpensive or effortless pursuit,” explaining how Theology is not for every occasion, every audience nor does it leave every aspect open to enquiry. This may seem like a common sense aspect, however both in St Gregory’s time and ours it had become common for those who see themselves as having an elementary grasp of a subject felt the need to inform others of this, not always out of malicious or arrogant means an often in a good natured way. It is however something of note that not everyone wishes to listen to a Theological monologue and not every occasion is open to this discussion by its nature. St Gregory expands on this by covering the separate topics in their own detail.
St Gregory | Not For All People
He first states of how “it is not for all people, but only for those who have been tested and have found a sound footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone, or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul. For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous, just as it is for weak eyes to look at the sun’s brightness.” This concept of not being able to comprehend True Theology without living the faith is a common one in Patristic literature and is sadly neglected in the modern world by many. If we are to understand the Mystery of the Orthodox Faith in a true Sense we can’t just learn key concepts but have a duty to live by them, such as following Christ’s teachings rather than just knowing what he said. In this short clause, St Gregory excludes Theology from the realm of traditional Philosophical Rhetoric by reminding the reader (or listener) that True Faith is lives and not just learnt as a subject.
St Gregory | The Right Time
“What is the right time? Whenever we are free from the mire and noise without, and our commanding faculty is not confused by illusory, wandering images, leading us, as it were, to mix fine script with ugly scrawling, or sweet-smelling scent with slime. We need actually “to be still” in order to know God, and when we receive the opportunity, “to judge uprightly” in theology.” Here again we see the Ethical aspect of Theology raised in the reminder that discussion of the faith is not to be a boisterous or unruly affair. Also we are not to discuss it when our mind is on other things, ruling out many aspects of the fast paced modern life. This presents another issue in discussing Theology on modern social media platforms since these platforms are designed to allow for short-term and casual interactions rather than dedication to the task at hand and does not allow us the time and prayer to ‘judge uprightly’ in our interactions.
St Gregory | Discussion Of Theology
From these alone we see that the discussion of theology is not something to be taken lightly or as a part time habit for when we are on social media or engaged in other forms of debate but theology in its truest sense is internal and an act of prayer to glorify God and not ourselves. With this in mind, we are challenged to ask ourselves if we really do God any service in our loudness and instead retire to prayerful silence instead.
By: Deacon Daniel Malyon | A Deacon of St Paul’s Ministry and St Mary & Pope Kyrillos VI Church. United Kingdom ~ Coptic Diocese of London.
Delivered to you by COPTICNN™ | Coptic News Network on 2020-09-12 from London, England
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