Theology as a Way of Life
Dr. Clark Carlton · July 19, 2007
What is your "systematic theology"? What can we learn from the Fathers about how we structure our theological premises?
Today’s topic is “Theology as a Way of Life.” My title, and indeed the entire theme of today’s talk, is borrowed from a book by the French historian of philosophy, Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life. Hadot’s simple thesis is that philosophy in the ancient world was not primarily concerned with constructing intellectual systems, but was, in fact, an exercise of a particular manner of living.
Today, when we introduce students to ancient philosophy in our colleges, we usually tell them about Plato’s doctrine of forms, or Aristotle’s hylomorphism, or the Stoics’ determinism, but rarely, if ever, do we talk about the life of these philosophical schools. What Hadot points out, however, is that these philosophical doctrines were created precisely to express and defend the particular way of life of a particular philosophical school. In other words, the doctrine of forms is not the key to Plato’s philosophy—the method of continual self-examination and dialogue is.
I bring this up because we tend to think of theology in the same way that we think of modern, as opposed to ancient, philosophy. In some circles, theology is actually defined as an attempt to systematically define all of the doctrines of Christianity. In the Summa, for example, Aquinas outlines a method whereby one begins with certain indubitable propositions, and then proceeds to logically deduce other propositions from those. This is more or less what we call systematic theology today.
For the earliest Christians, however, theology was never conceived as a rational exercise in system-building, or even world-view building. Their approach to theology was more or less the same as that of their secular counterparts, the philosophers. In fact, from the very beginning, Christians began to claim that Christianity was the true philosophy, that is, the true path to wisdom. Some Christians, like the Greek apologists saw Christianity as the fulfillment of Greek wisdom. They saw Plato playing a role of the Greeks analogous to the role Moses played for the Jews. Others, however, were openly hostile to Greek wisdom. For them, Christianity was set over against secular philosophy.
And yet—and this is the point I want to emphasize—whether they approved of, or borrowed from, Greek philosophy or not, most Christians saw their faith as being philosophical in the deepest and most ancient meaning of the term. If this is the case, then it follows that early Christians were no more interested in system-building than the early philosophers were. On the contrary, they presented Christianity as, above all, the way.
Of course, from the very beginning, this way was plagued by those who wanted to follow a different path, all the while pretending to follow the way. Some sought to turn Christianity into a system of beliefs, which, of course, gave rise to all manner of debates about all manner of minutiae. This is the source of 99% of all heresy. Others, however, were less concerned with the theoretical framework, and more concerned with governing behavior. These wolves in sheep’s clothing continually tried to turn the Church’s therapeutic method into a legal code.
You know, if I weren’t so ecumenically sensitive, I might suggest that the Roman Catholic Church has come to embody both of these deviations. But the truth is, the Roman Catholics and the Protestants do not have a monopoly on that sort of thing. These have been constant threats to the Church’s survival from day 1 and they are present within Orthodoxy even today. And yet, by God’s grace, the way has survived, and continues to survive, and even thrive, down to our own day. We know that it has survived because we have the witness of the saints throughout history.
To what do they witness? Not to abstract doctrines or theoretical systems, but to the efficacy of the way. The saints are living testimonies to the fact that we can know Christ, the wisdom of the Father, here and now. It is no accident that Plato wrote dialogues rather than treatises, and that Socrates was the main character in most of them. If you asked Plato to define wisdom, he would have pointed you to Socrates, not because Socrates claimed to be wise—just the opposite—but because Socrates’ way of life embodied the search for wisdom.
In the same way, if you want to understand Orthodoxy, do not reach for a theology book, even one of mine, which, by the way, are available from Regina Orthodox Press (clears throat), rather, look at the lives of the saints. Learn Orthodoxy from the way the saints lived. All too often, those of us who come to Orthodoxy from Western Christian traditions bring with us the assumption that Orthodoxy is a theological system, like Thomism or Calvanism. We convert because we become convinced that Orthodoxy is the right system. We contrast the beauties of Orthodox Trinitarianism with the deficiencies of filioques, or what not. And yet, if we have not come to recognize the presence of Christ in the Holy Spirit as St. Silouan did, then it is all just a lot of hot air. Our high-falutin’ talk about perichoresis is just that—more talk. What was it St. Paul said about clanging cymbals?
I am going to continue this, then, next week by talking about the tragedy of dogma. That should raise a few hackles amongst the self-anointed heresy-hunters out there.
Until then, may our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska, and of the blessed elder, Sophrony Sakharov, have mercy upon us all, and grant us a rich entrance into His eternal kingdom.