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On the Reading of Theological Books
by David W. Fagerberg
Although there is no listing for it on the IRS form, I sometimes describe myself as someone who reads for a living. It is true that this work is interrupted on a fairly regular basis by teaching classes, writing exams, and attending faculty meetings, but I try to look upon these as mere anomalies in my true job description.
I might prove to skeptics that reading is a real occupation by pointing out that, just like other occupations, this career comes complete with its own midlife crisis. A midlife crisis occurs when youthful enthusiasm collides violently with the mature conclusion that the time remaining on the far side of the midpoint is inadequate to achieve all the goals conceived on the near side of the midpoint. Thus, the blusterous banker comes to worry whether he will ever become as rich as he had intended, and the brash actor harbors secret doubts as to whether he will ever become a star, and I have begun to fret whether I will, in fact, as planned, read every book in theology before I die.
I am actually coming to suspect that some one of them will escape me. It is becoming a real possibility that the imbalance between an expanding bibliography and a dwindling supply of days means that I will finish in the red, debited, shy of my goal. It is just possible, I moan, that some text in Christology, ecclesiology, Orthodoxy, dogmatics, patristics, medieval studies, neo-Thomism, biblical studies, Judaica, mysticism, monasticism, iconography, sacramentology, liturgiology, eschatology, Scholasticism, church history, history of doctrine, hagiography, asceticism, angelology, or spirituality will escape my attention before I die.
Coming face to face with one’s evanescing future provokes a sober re-evaluation of one’s identity. My identity, in my capacity as professional reader, has often been designated “theologian”—at least that is what I have been called by confreres and innocents and well-wishers because the books I read are in theology. But with this midlife crisis comes a different awareness of the designation.
In most fields there is a difference between performing a task and reading about the performance of the task. Building a house is different from reading a book about the history of the hammer; making music is different from reading a book about Mozart’s early childhood; and if the designation “carpenter” or “musician” belongs to the person with a hammer or a violin in his hand, not the person with a book in his hand, then perhaps the designation “theologian” does not belong to the person with the library card. But then who does deserve the name?
Being a Theologian
The tradition (the very one in which I read) seems to make just such a distinction between reading theology and being a theologian. Just because theology is the subject, the subject is not necessarily a theologian. It is not enough to be acquainted with the theological grammar; being a theologian means being able to use this grammar to speak about God. Even more, it means speaking of God. Even more, it means speaking with God. Evagrius of Pontus calls prayer theology. “If you are a theologian you truly pray. If you truly pray you are a theologian.” And before there were universities with theology faculty, it was possible to learn the grammar of theologia.
It is not just a matter of acquaintance with a concept. What is important is not the information, but being formed within—a different kind of in-formation. “Once a brother came to Abba Theodore of Pherme, and spent three days asking him for a word. But the Abba did not answer, and he went away sadly. So Abba Theodore’s disciples asked him, ‘Abba, why did you not speak to him? Look, he has gone away sad.’ And the old man said: ‘Believe me, I said nothing to him because his business is getting credit by retailing what others have said to him.’”
Apparently even the desert had its form of graduate student teaching assistant who sought honor by letting it be known that he knows someone. Rufinus Aquileiensis describes such persons thus:
Their one desire is to see one of the holy Fathers, to hear some words from him, and then to repeat these, boasting that they have learned them from so-and-so. And if they perhaps acquire a little knowledge by listening, they immediately want to become instructors, and to teach not what they have done but what they have heard and seen; and they despise the others. They aspire to the priesthood, and try to mix with the clergy, not knowing that there is less blame in not wanting to teach when one is strong in virtue than in teaching about virtue when one is in the grip of passions and vice.
This accounts, I believe, for the numerous remarks in the ascetical tradition that criticize the attempt to find God by the intellect alone. The tradition does not distrust the intellect, only the intellect left to its own resources. Theologians formed of brain alone are susceptible to vicious pride. The devil, according to Lorenzo Scupoli’s sixteenth-century spiritual classic, Unseen Warfare,
is wont to suggest to them thoughts that are lofty, subtle, and wondrous, especially to those who are sharp-witted and quick to make lofty speculations. Attracted by the pleasure of possessing and examining such lofty thoughts, they forget to watch their purity of heart and to pay attention to a humble opinion of themselves and to true self-mortification. When the mind is firmly grounded in the self-relying thought that its own judgments are better than all others, who can cure it in the end? Then everything is so disorganized that there is neither place nor person for applying a healing poultice.
Such persons may be found in the stoa or in the academy, in the classroom or at the evening repast after a day of professional meetings, where Symeon the New Theologian can picture them.
This is the disease not only of those who venture to speak about God on their own authority, but also of those who repeat by rote things which the inspired theologians of old said and wrote against heretics. They engage in vain curiosity, not to gain spiritual profit but to be admired by those who listen to them at banquets and reunions, and thus gain a reputation of being theologians. This saddens and disturbs me when I think of the awesomeness of the enterprise and of the judgments awaiting the audacious.
One must not only know the truth, but also desire it, for “What is the use of knowing the truth and loving what is false?” Hugh of St. Victor wants to know.
The passions make it impossible to do theology. Evagrius seems to have been the first one to record a synthesized explanation of the journey to theology, but he himself had to learn humility from the monks in the desert. When he asks a certain old father to “speak some word whereby I may be able to save myself,” the old man replies, “If you wish to be saved, when you go to any man speak not before he asks you a question.” Evagrius’s vanity is cut, and he regrets having even asked the question, saying, “I have read many books and I cannot accept instruction of this kind.” Nevertheless, he is said to have profited greatly and goes forth to practice what this elder commands.
The Desert Fathers thought of man possessing three centers of action, or “faculties,” called the intellective, incensive, and concupiscible powers. These are the capacity to think, the capacity to be moved in spirit, and the capacity to desire. So long as everything is in balance, reason will stand under God’s law and direct our anger and appetites toward their proper ends (there are injustices that deserve our anger, and things that we should desire at the right time, in the right way). But when the intellective capacity no longer obeys the divine law, then the other two abilities also lose their way, and a person is said to suffer the passions.
Passions of the intellective variety are vainglory, pride, unbelief, and ingratitude. Passions of the incensive variety are heartlessness, despondency, envy, and lack of compassion. Passions of the concupiscible variety are gluttony, greed, unchastity, and the desire for empty pleasures. This is not an exhaustive list, but one can see that the passions afflict the whole person, in all his capacities.
The ascetical tradition seeks a way to reintegrate the thoughts, spiritedness, and appetites of a person under God. Evagrius says the journey to such a deified state runs through three stages, beginning with praktike, leading to physika, and arriving at theologia. Theology is therefore much more than a simple liquidation of ignorance. It is the fruit of a rightly ordered existence. This is why Evagrius’s book-reading does not bring him as close to being a theologian as the person whose practice in humility has created right thinking, right feeling, and right appetite. The ascetic seeks apatheia (dispassion, or rightly ordered faculties), which John Cassian translated as puritas cordis (purity of heart), which Augustine to Petrarch to Kierkegaard have said means “to will one thing.” To will God, and God alone, is a mark of theologia.
“Seek the reason why God created,” said Maximus the Confessor, “for this is true knowledge.” Only after the passions are tamed can one think clearly about anything, including creation, including the Creator. The theologian knows what matter is for, and therefore knows the cure for what is the matter with the world. He knows the world to be a finite temple for the infinite.
The would-be theologian, therefore, should seek out those persons who can guide him to overcoming the passions. The accreditation such teachers possess is not always what one would expect. We must find someone who knows the grammar of the heart even if he does not know the grammar of classical languages. “Abba Arsenius was once asking an old Egyptian for advice about his temptations. And another, who saw this, said: ‘Abba Arsenius, how is it that you, who are so learned in the Greek and Latin languages, come to be asking that uneducated countryman about your temptations?’ He answered: ‘I have acquired the world’s knowledge of Greek and Latin, but I have not yet been able to learn the alphabet of this uneducated man.’”
If there is any doubt as to what Abba Arsenius was saying, the story is recorded again. “Abba Evagrius once said to Abba Arsenius: ‘How is it that we educated and learned men have no virtue, and Egyptian peasants have a great deal?’ Abba Arsenius answered: ‘We have nothing because we go chasing worldly knowledge. These Egyptian peasants have acquired virtue by hard work.’” It is not the case that the person with the most books is always the person with the most virtue.
This conclusion must nettle the professional theologian, especially while he is still finishing his student loan payments. Symeon the Pious tells his spiritual pupil, Symeon the New Theologian, to “gain God for yourself and you will not need a book.” The pupil apparently took it to heart, for he writes,
He who has acquired consciously within himself the Teacher of spiritual knowledge has gone through all Scripture, has gained all that is to be gained from reading, and will no longer have need to resort to books. How is this? The person who is in communion with him who inspired those who wrote the Divine Scriptures, and is initiated by Him into the undivulged secrets of the hidden mysteries, will himself be an inspired book to others—a book containing old and new mysteries and written by the hand of God. . . .
When God writes his life, the theologian becomes, himself, an autograph of God. He is taught by the Holy Spirit, and, St. Gregory of Sinai says, “The intellect, once purified and reestablished in its pristine state, perceives God and from him derives divine images. Instead of a book the intellect has the spirit.”
If one searches, one can find in the tradition a few encouraging words to say about book owners. Abba Epiphanius admits that “the acquisition of Christian books is necessary for those who can use them. For the mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin, and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness.” And John Climacus advises gentle patience and tolerance towards my type. “Do not be a harsh critic of those who resort to eloquence to teach many important things, but who have few actions to match their words. For edifying words have often compensated for a lack of deeds. All of us do not get an equal share of every good, and for some the word is mightier than the deed . . . and vice-versa for others.”
Nevertheless, one should be careful about the trouble that could be caused by owning books, since even a very small pile of books could get in the way. “A brother asked Abba Serapion: ‘Speak to me a word.’ The old man said: ‘What can I say to you? You have taken what belongs to widows and orphans and put it on your window-ledge.’ He saw that the window-ledge was full of books.” And:
Abba Theodore had three good books. And going to Abba Macarius, he said to him: “I have three good books and am helped by reading them. But other monks also want to read them, and they are helped by them. Tell me, what am I to do?” And the old man said: “Reading books is good, but possessing nothing is more than all.” When he heard this, he went away and sold the books, and gave the money to the poor.
If your library causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better to go into the Kingdom of God empty-handed than to go to Gehenna with your library intact.
Courting popularity is a regular pitfall for scholars, as St. John of the Cross knows:
There comes to them a certain desire to speak of spiritual things in the presence of others, and sometimes even to teach such things rather than to learn them. Many can never have enough of listening to counsels and learning spiritual precepts, and of possessing and reading many books which treat of this matter, and then spend their time on all these things rather than on works of mortification and the perfecting of the inward poverty of spirit.
C. S. Lewis supposes that the devils also know how to use theological books to their advantage. When Wormwood, the novice tempter in The Screwtape Letters, finds the person he has been assigned beginning to slip from his fingers, he asks his uncle what to do. “As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance,” Screwtape tells him. “Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it; that is often an excellent way of sterilizing the seeds which the Enemy [God] plants in a human soul.”
Awareness of this spiritual fact leads Gregory of Sinai to urge restraint before contributing to the world’s pile of books by writing one yourself. He concurs with Maximus the Confessor that there are only three motives for writing that are above reproach and censure: to assist one’s memory, to help others, and as an act of obedience. According to Gregory,
It is for the last reason that most spiritual writings have been composed, at the humble request of those who have need of them. If you write about spiritual matters simply for pleasure, fame or self-display, you will get your desserts, as Scripture says, and will not profit from it in this life or gain any reward in the life to come. On the contrary, you will be condemned for courting popularity and for fraudulently trafficking in God’s wisdom.
The ascetical tradition I am citing from expresses concern not about intelligence or intellection, but about the particular temptation of pride that will come to dabblers and dilettantes. Blaise Pascal manages to impale both himself and his reader on the irony that we can become vain even while excoriating vanity:
Vanity is so anchored in the heart of man that a soldier, a soldier’s servant, a cook, a porter brags, and wishes to have his admirers. Even philosophers wish for them. Those who write against it want to have the glory of having written well; and those who read it desire the glory of having read it. I who write this have perhaps this desire, and perhaps those who will read it.
This way of looking at things is not intended to make us cynical about theology books, or even cynical about the people who read them. It may even admit that the struggle to become a theologian may be abetted by a book. (Although it would have to be the right kind of book. Isaac the Syrian cautions that “Not every book is conducive to recollection. Books that deal with speculative theology are not usually helpful for purification of the heart. Changing from one book to another leads to wandering thoughts. Do not think that every book of instruction on the fear of God will lead automatically to purity of conscience and to recollection. . . .”)
This only says that being a theologian has less to do with the subject matter of the book, and more to do with the subject reading the book. The reader must make some attempt at the truth he is reading. When my teacher, Paul Holmer, tried to get us to read our textbooks in this way, he used to say that one cannot peddle truth or happiness: What a thought cost in the first instance, it will also cost in the second.
The point was made also by Abba Theodore. “When a brother began to talk and enquire of Abba Theodore about matters of which he had no experience, the old man said to him: ‘You have not yet found a ship to sail in, nor put your luggage aboard, nor put out to sea, and are you already in the city which you mean to reach? If you make some attempt at a thing you are discussing, you will discuss it as it truly is.’”
In order to discuss theology, one must make an attempt at theology. But theology is prayerful communion at the end of a long journey that begins in asceticism, not in the library, because, John Climacus said, “It is risky to swim in one’s clothes. A slave of passion should not dabble in theology.”
David W. Fagerberg is Associate Professor in the Department of Theology of the University of Notre Dame and the author of The Size of Chesterton?s Catholicism (Notre Dame).