The Strangeness of the Patristic Legacy: Saved by the Hermeneutic of Love

Let us, for the moment, restrict “Patristic” to the first five centuries, even though the likes of me push the boundaries to Sts. John of Damascus and Bede the Venerable in the mid-700s. As Phil noted in the comments to this post, setting out to read the Fathers for oneself can be a bit of a strange experience. Indeed, I am tempted to say “bewildering.”

This is unsurprising, given the fact that 500 years covers an immense span of history and the Mediterranean world covers a variety of cultures, no matter how Romanised or Hellenised many of the writers in question were. Even if we imagine those bits of the Patristic legacy that are more or less Graeco-Roman in outlook, reading them is not exactly the easiest thing one can do.

More than 1500 years separate us from these authors. They think in different categories much of the time. There is an uncomfortably strong undercurrent of misogyny in many of the Fathers, along with an uncomfortably strong feeling of Judenhass.* Even when we would probably agree with their morals, we find them thinking like Platonists or Stoics — or, at least, what looks to be Platonism and Stoicism in Christian garb.

For those with a Classical background, the Fathers are less jarring.

Without such a background, I would like to recommend a particular way of reading that would be especially good for the Fathers. This way of reading is what NT Wright in The New Testament and the People of God refers to as the “hermeneutic of love” rather than that of suspicion:

In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself; and, even though it may speak of losing itself in the beloved, such a loss always turns out to be a true finding. In the familiar paradox, one becomes fully oneself when losing oneself to another. In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed.

When applied to reading texts, this means that the text can be listened to on its own terms, without being reduced to the scale of what the reader can or cannot understand at the moment. If it is puzzling, the good reader will pay it the compliment of struggling to understand it, of living with it and continuing to listen. (64, read the whole paragraph to get the idea; I hate long quotations on blogs)

The hermeneutic of love allows the Fathers to be strange; even to remain strange. But it says to them, “Ah, but you are my fellows on the journey with Christ! You are my brothers in the faith! You have experienced Him too, and your experience has in it wisdom to enlighten my own!”

This wisdom is sometimes hiding in places that need a lot of love to be unlocked, as in my occasional forays into demonology show us. However, the meaning of demonology for virtue, ethics, and the battle against evil in all its forms has been unlocked by a loving, attentive reading of Patristic hagiography.

With a good introduction and persistence, the Fathers become less strange — or, at least, more comprehensible. I promise that the more you bear with them, having adopted the hermeneutic of love, the less strange they become. If you are here and thinking that you’d like to check out an introduction to the Fathers, a good single-volume introduction that does not mince words and even has a reading programme at the back is Beginning to Read the Fathers by Boniface Ramsey.

*Lit. “Jew-hatred”, the German word for “anti-Semitism”; I picked it up from Dave Sim’s comic book of the same name and greatly prefer it because anti-Semitism is too antiseptic for the brutal evil that racial violence is.

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