Authority and the Vision of God: Living Tradition in the Works of Robert Wilken

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Note: This lecture was delivered in Richmond, Virginia for the Alcuin 2022 National Retreat hosted by the Society for Classical Learning and Veritas School. Participants read and discussed Remembering the Christian Past by Robert Louis Wilken. Image above is from a mosaic of Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus from the Daphni Monastery (Greece, North Adriatic).

I wanted to call this talk “Authority and the Inebriating Presence of God” because I love Wilken’s reference to the “ancient commentators who practiced allegory or other forms of, shall we say, ‘inebriated’ exegesis” (107). This witticism is in response to those post-Enlightenment exegetes, including Rudolf Bultmann, who celebrated the “sober” exegesis of Theodore of Mopsuestia—the only church father whose methods of reading the scriptures they could tolerate. However, I’ve followed more sober lights and titled this “Authority and the Vision of God.”

At the heart of Wilken’s idea of authority is an awareness of God’s presence in the concrete realities of history, language, and liturgy. When we are separated from these sensible particulars by idealized or abstracted ideas about God and the truth, language and our memory no longer carry the power of God’s real presence, and we lose the ability to offer life to those around us.

As I hope to show, Wilken understands us to have lost this connection with living memory and language in two ways that are two faces of the same enemy in some ways. Enemy is my term and likely does not represent Wilken, but he comes close. These two dangers are:

  1. Enlightenment rationalism and higher criticism which can leave us out of touch with the corporeality of Christ’s incarnation and of Christ’s ongoing sacramental presence with us in liturgy and language.
  2. Traditionalism and fundamentalism as common reactions to Enlightenment rationalism that end up falling into the same trap by defending a set of abstract concepts or idealized claims about the scriptures and our past as if this is the way to preserve our relationship to God.

As I will expound below, this first danger is very much apparent within Remembering the Christian Past while we see the second confronted in The Myth of Christian Beginnings (an earlier book by Wilken that I read recently as well).

To forecast my conclusion, however, before jumping in, the solution to all of this put forth beautifully by Wilken is artistic creation, mimesis, and liturgy.

While Wilken is not very often explicit about the place of liturgy in Remembering the Christian Past, it is a primary theme of his next book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God:

It is apparent from the wording of the prayers that something more is at work here than recalling ancient history. After reciting the history of salvation leading up to the “night on which he was betrayed,” the prayer continues as follows: “And we sinners make remembrance of his life-giving sufferings, his death, and resurrection on the third day from the dead and ascension to the right hand of You, his God and Father, and his second glorious and fearful coming.” The key term here is the Greek word anamnesis, usually translated “remembrance,” which in this context means “recall by making present.”

There are parallels between this sense of remembrance and the way the Exodus out of Egypt is remembered in the Jewish Passover. In the Mishnah, the collection of Jewish law from the early third century, it is reported that Rabbi Gamaliel used to say, …”In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt, for it is written, ‘And you shall tell your son on that day saying, “It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.”‘” Those who celebrate Pesach are not spectators, they are participants. “It is I who came forth out of Egypt,” says Rabbi Gamaliel. Remembrance is more than mental recall, and in the Eucharist the life-giving events of Christ’s death and Resurrection escape the restrictions of time and become what the early church called mysteries, ritual actions by which Christ’s saving work is re-presented under the veil of the consecrated bread and wine. Speaking of the Christian paschal celebration Origen wrote, “The Passover still takes place today” and “Those who sacrifice Christ come out of Egypt, cross the Red Sea, and see Pharaoh engulfed.” What was once accomplished in Palestine is now made present in the action of the liturgy, as the prayers indicate: “We offer to You O Lord, this awesome and unbloody sacrifice, beseeching You to deal with us not according to our sins.”” Liturgy is always in the present tense. The past becomes a present presence that opens a new future.

…The repeated celebration of the liturgy worked powerfully on the imagination of early Christian thinkers. It brought them into intimate relation with the mystery of the Christ, not as a historical memory, but as an indisputable and incontrovertible fact of experience. Leo the Great, bishop of Rome in the fifth century, put it this way: “Everything that the Son of God did and taught for the reconciliation of the world, we know not only as an historical account of things now past, but we also experience them in the power of the works that are present.” Before there were treatises on the Trinity, before there were learned commentaries on the Bible, before there were disputes about the teaching on grace, or essays on the moral life, there was awe and adoration before the exalted Son of God alive and present in the church’s offering of the Eucharist. This truth preceded every effort to understand and nourished every attempt to express in words and concepts what Christians believed. (32-36)

One of the most profound books that I have encountered on the shaping power of liturgy is The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy George Patitsas. Many Christians have an awakening sense of the centrality of our shared liturgical life. However, we fail to teach our students the extent to which it was a shared liturgical life that gave the church the ability to settle upon New Testament scriptural canon and to develop and defend the bold doctrines of Nicene Christology.

While not all of us share the same ideas about liturgical and sacramental life and while most of our schools cannot incorporate this fully or directly into the lives of our schools, it is nonetheless crucial to contemplate the implications of such insights and to apply what we can in our own contexts. While it would not be appropriate in all but a very frew schools to offer communion services, this is not necessary in order to recognize the sacramental or liturgical nature of all that we do together. David Smith in his book On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom says that all of life is best understood as “peripheral participation” in the sacraments. Our classrooms should be understood as fundamentally sacramental in simple ways that all Christians can agree with, such as the centrality of worship, and the sacredness of God’s creation as communicating our Father’s presence and his love to us. This takes the forms of enjoying some food and taking tea with our students at times, reading out loud and giving honor and time and attention to this, singing and reciting beautiful music and poems together, etc.

We can get inspiration and encouragement in all of this from many other great sources such as:

  • Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry by Hans Boersma
  • For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy by Alexander Schmemann (originally titled The World as Sacrament and called “one of the most important theological texts I’ve read in my life” by Rowan Williams)
  • Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor by Hans Urs Von Balthasar

In one of the most important and Christian truths that we can impart to our students, Schmemann points out that the sacraments reveal all of creation to be essentially a means of communion with God:

The same act of blessing may mean the revelation of the true “nature” and “destiny” of water, and thus of the world—it may be the epiphany and the fulfillment of their “sacramentality.” By being restored through the blessing to its proper function, the “holy water” is revealed as the true, full, adequate water, and matter becomes again means of communion with and knowledge of God.

All of this is why Wilken alludes early on in Remembering the Christian Past to the ideal of creating a “city of poets.” His many appeals to the central place of imitation are in this same vein. Our festivals and habits and ways of being together are the essential means of transmitting memory and language. Regarding the task of teaching, Wilken cites a marvelous passage from Seneca:

Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates. The way is long if one follows precepts, but short and accommodating if one imitates examples. (Epistulae 66)

Here we see that the enjoyment of language and concrete memories together fosters deep relationships where we can actually serve as the presence of Christ to each other. As Brian Williams said to us last year:

Newman’s belief in the formational significance of personal encounter is reflected in his motto, cor ad cor loquitur, “heart speaks to heart,” which the Oratory School adopted as its own and which is engraved in the “Newman Window” at the back of the Oriel College chapel. In Newman’s ideal scenario, the tutor would be teacher, mentor, guide, and moral director. In the student-tutor relationship, Newman wants to hold together the “union of intellectual and moral formation,” or phronesis in two parts, the separation of which he considered an “evil of the age.”

When John Henry Newman was giving a lecture to his new faculty at the founding of the Catholic University of Ireland in 1854, Newman told his faculty that the tradition which they hoped to pass on to their students existed most essentially in the hearts of the teachers:

We must come to the teachers of wisdom to learn wisdom, we must repair to the fountain [ad fontes], and drink there. Portions of it may go from thence to the ends of the earth by means of books; but the fulness is in one place alone.

The tradition was only alive if it was, first and foremost, within the hearts of teachers where a student might actually see it displayed in the teacher’s love and therefore desire to take it up for themselves. This idea of a living tradition rooted in the hearts of teachers is widespread in the church fathers, both Greek and Latin. It is grounded in the primacy of desire and love that is so clear in the early Augustine and all the way through to Jonathan Edwards. We also see the need for active love and positive example when Saint Maximos the Confessor says that no one has truly inherited the tradition until they have not only made it their own but expanded upon it.

Wilken charges us: “Let it not be forgotten that the great religions of the world are traditions of learning as well as of faith” (13). If the incarnation of Jesus Chirst makes the new creation possible, so that heaven and earth might, in fact, be reunited, we Christians must have more to learn than any other world faith.

In one of the most wonderful models, in all of Christian history, of this kind of learning as well as of the teacher and student relationship, Wilken mentions the great love of Gregory the Wonderworker for the “fellowship” of his teacher Origen. There is no greater story in church history, in my opinion, than that of Gregory walking away from an illustrious career in law to spend almost ten years with Origen before returning home to Caesarea in Cappadocia where a tiny congregation of only seventeen souls prevailed upon him to become their bishop. After just over a decade of service to them, by the time of Gregory’s death, the entire city had been converted to Christianity. Moreover, the great household of Macrina the Elder—a prominent woman of the city and devoted disciple of Gregory who could recite his teachings at great length from her memory—would produce three generations of saints culminating in the Cappadocian fathers who would defend the Nicene Symbol with creative zeal and who understood the insights of Nicea to be grounded in the teachings of Origen on the incarnation and theosis that had so profoundly influenced their great grandmother. More on all of this below.

To circle back, however, I want to reiterate that remembering the past is all about communion with each other and with the dead (as Alan Jacobs talks about in Breaking Bread with the Dead: a Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind). Memory and communion are, of course, profoundly interdependent. Ultimately this goes back to the life of God himself and is the reason why we pray with the thief on the cross beside Christ: “remember us, O Lord, in your kingdom.”

In a very recent interview (October 21) about his novel Kenogaia, David Bentley Hart made this point about memory and the life of God:

There’s a reason why the central rite of Christian worship is correctly called “anamnesis” as well as “anaphora.” It’s a “calling back into the present” or “making present.” But it’s funny, the act of anamnesis, as you know no doubt because you know the Orthodox liturgy, the act of remembering becomes an act of remembering not just the past but the future because you remember the second coming, you know.

[One of the interviewers: “John Zizioulas, I recall, called the Eucharist ‘a memory of the future.’”]

Yeah, Zizioulas is very good on that. So was [Alexander] Schmemann. But by memory what we don’t mean is simply personal recollection of psychological histories. That’s a small and local phenomenon within what’s really the engagement of the Spirit in a living and conscious community of spiritual beings within the embrace of the mind of God, which is the history of all things.

Do you know the Confessions when Augustine’s friend Nebridius dies young, and he wonders if Nebridius, now drinking from the fountainhead of divinity and union with God, remembers me? But then he says, but of course he remembers me because he drinks from you, oh God, who art the memory of all things; you are the fountainhead of all knowledge. So Nebridius is mindful of me because he is mindful of God. It’s probably one of the loveliest moments of the Confessions for me.

Such passages remind me of the account that Lewis gives in The Four Loves of how we all exist as unique persons because we are known by God and we know God in return yet we also each help each other to see God more fully and thereby depend upon each other for our fellowship with God. Lewis writes:

Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.

When Wilken speaks of language, memory, and tradition, all of it is aimed at and sustained by our vision of God in the present. This abiding presence of God is what makes “the church” into “a living community” (168). We also know from the works of those such as Augusto Del Noce that we must have living and growing communities in order for authority to make any sense within its original meaning. If someone with authority is one who invents new options and stories (like an author) and one who promotes growth and flourishing, then we need communities that are alive and growing in which authority might be properly exercised by all. No true authority is possible in a static and calcified community where authority is understood in terms of explaining and enforcing the correct answers, the right reasons, and the right rules.

We see all of this coming together in one passage from the closing essay of Remembering the Christian Past:

Language is a vehicle of memory. [It] not only makes alive (or makes present, to use a sacramental term) what gets lost in the recesses of the mind; it also molds our experience, stirs our imagination, holds before us the same things that were known by earlier generations, and keeps our mind trained on that to which the language refers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. A pernicious feature of much historical criticism is that it unravels the cord linking the language of the Bible to the living God, and trains us to look away from the ostensible meaning to meanings that, however interesting, are not rooted in history or experience. (179)

This passage is centered on having God held before us and made present to us by the concrete and ancient language that we use. This presence of God (mediated by words carrying tangible images) is what makes a living tradition alive. We behold the same God who our ancestors beheld and this “molds our experience” and “stirs our imagination.” This passage contains, in compact form, the heart of what Wilken shares a decade later in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (published in 2005 with Remembering the Christian Past being published in 1995).

The enemy in this passage above (from page 179) is historical criticism. This is a post-Enlightenment desire to extract general, abstract, and rational principles from sacred texts that can rob their language of its concrete and particular power to confront one generation after another with the face of God.

It is easy to see that Wilken is rejecting these tendencies of German higher criticism to say that the gospels are mythologies filled with abstract meanings, but Wilken is also critiquing the kinds of modern traditionalism that react against such modern higher critics by making abstract and idealized claims of their own. If modern higher critics claim that the historical reality of the Virgin birth or the resurrection are not essential because of a meaningful mythic truth to which these stories point us, modern traditionalists have responded by playing the same game as the higher critics and appealing to entirely anachronistic and idealized understandings of the scriptures as historically inerrant in every factual detail. To understand and follow Wilken is equally to reject the confusions of both liberal higher criticism and fundamentalist traditionalism which are just two sides of the same coin of a modernity that seeks to save us all from the messiness of history.

Wilken’s book Remembering the Christian Past is most obviously critiquing the liberal higher critics and a secular culture that is blind to divine realities in history and language. However, Remembering the Christian Past does have plenty of hints regarding the dangers of traditionalism as well. These hints become even more obvious when you read Remembering the Christian Past in the light of Wilken’s first book, The Myth of Christian Beginnings (published over two decades earlier in 1971). As even just the title suggests, this book is a direct attack on modern traditionalism. I highly recommend The Myth of Christian Beginnings and suspect, frankly, that its message is one that provides an even more direct, relevant, and painful corrective to many of us working in the renewal of classical Christian education because we are so easily tempted to idealize the Christian past.

At any rate, this basic truth that modern Enlightenment rationalism gives rise to both liberal higher criticism and modern traditionalism is essential for today’s Christian teachers and leaders to understand because we must see both faces of our enemy as we hope to follow Wilken in recovering our Christian history and memory as a real and living source of inspiration and growth, as a means of cultivating “faithful presence” to use the beautiful phrase of Dr. James Hunter.

To consider some of the hints that we get of Wilken’s continued opposition to modern traditionalism in Remembering the Christian Past, his substantial use of Wolfhart Pannenberg is one example. (And Wilken cites Pannenberg even more extensively in The Myth of Christian Beginnings, incidentally.) For some basic context, with a career that started a little before Wilken’s, Pannenberg boldly and brilliantly defended the bodily resurrection of Christ during a time when this was unpopular given the waves of higher critical thought that had rejected even the resurrection of Christ as anything but a profoundly meaningful myth. Nonetheless, while standing in the face of current trends with regard to Christ’s resurrection, Pannenberg was also fully engaged with the higher critics and himself famously (or infamously) rejected the story of the Virgin birth as an invention. Wilken, without any concern for these details that might be potentially controversial for traditionalists, cites Pannenberg in defense of his central point in Remembering the Christian Past:

In the first volume of his Systematic Theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg observes that for a long time he had thought it possible to present theology in such a way that its chief themes could be divorced from the “bewildering multiplicity of historical questions.” Only then could the systematic unity of Christian theology become evident. Contrary to his own expectations, however, he found that this way of presenting theology had to be discarded. He writes: “Christian teaching is of such a character that it is through and through a historical creation.” Its content rests on the historical person of Jesus Christ and on the historical interpretations that arose as a result of his life, death, and resurrection. The language of Christian thought cannot be extracted from its place in history, for without history, language loses particularity, and hence intelligibility. (173)

Moving to perhaps more familiar territory, the careful reader of Remembering the Christian Past could hardly miss the many references to Origen who is the one who “stands at the beginning of the Christian intellectual tradition” as “the first truly deep thinker to give a firm epistemological foundation to the claim that Christians had come to know the true God in the person of Christ” (55). It is obvious that Wilken (along with many other Christian scholars today) considers Origen to be a great creative visionary that, uniquely, gave birth to Christian intellectual history and who steadily opposed the traditionalists and fundamentalists of his own day, primarily in the form of Marcion of Sinope. The story that more and more scholars are coming to understand today—and to which Wilken’s clearly refers in both books—is of an innovative proto-nicene theology that was first articulated by Origen (as he taught his throngs of catechumen about incarnation and theosis), definitely articulated at the First Council of Nicaea, and finally defended by the Cappadocian fathers (who recognized it as in line with the teachings of their beloved Origen and who all faced accusations of innovation themselves while remaining doggedly faithful to the insight that “Christians had come to know the true God in the person of Christ”). Nicaea is then understood as a triumph of Origen’s theology of deification over an older Christology that would keep a barrier in place between God and humanity by failing to recognize Jesus Christ as “very God of very God.” Wilken tells this story explicitly and compellingly in The Myth of Christian Beginnings, but makes clear references to it throughout Remembering the Christian Past.

Clearly, this account of Nicene Christianity is not the standard account that we most often hear today where Arius is the terrible innovator introducing a new and heretical idea into a church that had one clear Christology from the beginning. Most more traditionalist versions of the story have the Cappadocian fathers boldly standing up for this one Christological tradition and rejecting the innovations of Arius and Origen (with Origen often vaguely portrayed as having been a proto-Arian himself). The first place that I read a clear defense of the First Council of Nicaea as a faithful innovation grounded in the ideas of deification central to Origen’s thought was in David Bentley Hart’s book Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief (2022). The second place where I read it was in Wilken’s The Myth of Christian Beginnings which included an identical and detailed account of the First Council of Nicaea (along with many other substantial parallels with Hart’s book on tradition). I blogged about these parallels, and Hart replied:

What’s interesting is that The Myth of Christian Beginnings is a title of Robert Wilken’s I’ve never read. So maybe I’m just catching up to where he was in 1971. . . .He has always been a great friend to me, in times good and bad. I’m grateful for the information. I have to ask Robert what he thinks now [about my book].

I was therefore not surprised to find this continuing throughout Remembering the Christian Past, as Wilken cites Origen in the early pages regarding the fact that “nothing in human nature is ‘permanent’” (34). Origen’s insights into the incarnation and deification are central to Wilken’s points in this book. Wilken wants us to learn from the incarnation of Christ to see God in all of the messy particulars of history, and he claims that this is an essential insight from Origen who first articulated this “firm epistemological foundation” (55) in a way unique to Christianity:

For Origen, as for other early Christian thinkers, religion was a matter of seeing, and in this he is faithful to one of the central themes of the Scriptures. God is “seen,” writes Origen, “not only in the way implied in the words ‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God, but also in the way implied in the saying of the Image of the invisible God that He who has seen me has seen the Father who sent me’” (John 14:9; Col. 1:15, Cels. 7.42). The God who was beyond comprehension, who was not bound to time and space, had become known through things that could be seen. . . .Celsus [critiquing Christianity from the perspective of pagan philosophy] had claimed that Christians had no “sure foundation” for their belief, to which Origen responded: we make no claim about a presumed foundation, our claim is based on “divine action.” …Our teaching is not the product of “human sagacity.” That God “existed within the compass of that man who appeared in Judea” was for Origen the central “divine action.” …Yet it is noteworthy that Origen never presents the appearance of God in Christ without reference to the appearances of God in Israel. It was the same God who “established Judaism in the first place, and later Christianity.” (36-37)

For both Origen and Wilken, this divine action in the incarnation of Jesus Christ is an ever-present reality throughout all of human history and extending both before and after Christ’s earthly lifetime. In the midst of human history, the incarnation of Christ stands as the ultimate source of God’s inspiring presence with us now and always. This divine reality is made present to us continually through the concrete realities of language and remembered history as we actively recall the past and live with it through old texts and prayers. This vision of God through the Christian sacraments and the human arts (as lived practices) allow us to faithfully unpack and open up the infinite implications of the incarnation in our own day. Wilkens loves the example of jazz musicians when talking about tradition, and he opens his book with an essay about what it would mean to cultivate a “city of poets” (12) and how we must remember that all religions are “traditions of learning” (17). Tradition, properly understood (in distinction from traditionalism), must give life and always lead to learning and growth. An excellent survey of Christ’s presence in human history is Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture by Jaroslav Pelikan (a scholar who Wilken respects and cites often).

Wilken cites Origen again in pointing out that this seeing of God trough particular practices and memories is, first and foremost, a form of participation or communion in divine life (and not, at first, a matter of abstract or dogmatic correctness):

“The Scripture says that those who are united to something or participate in something are said to know that to which they are united or in which they participate. Before such union and fellowship, even if they understand the reasons given for something, they do not know it.” (59, quoting from Origen in his Commentary on the Gospel According to John)

Given this way in which truth is grounded upon relationships, Wilken argues that authority rests upon our personal vision and character and not upon the power of our will. Again, Wilken references Origen:

Augustine is not thinking of an authority that demands or commands or coerces (terms that require an act of will), but of a truth that engenders confidence because of who tells it to us. Authority resides in a person who by actions as well as words invites trust and confidence. Augustine's model for authority is the relation of a teacher to a student, a master to a disciple, not a magistrate to a subject. The student's trust is won not simply by words but also by actions, by the kind of person the teacher is in short, by character. When Gregory Thaumaturgus [or “Wonder Worker”], a young man from Asia Minor, went to Caesarea in Palestine to study with Origen, the greatest intellectual of his day, he said that he did so because he wanted to have “fellowship” with “that man.”

Authority rests neither on external legitimization nor on power but on trustworthiness, or in Augustine's words, on truth, Its purpose is to clarify and illuminate. (174)

This reference to Gregory the Wonder Worker’s deep love for Origen has a layered significance. It echoes Wilken’s own clear appreciation for how the Cappadocians are best understood as devoted students of Origen because Gregory was the one who brought Origen’s teachings to this great household in Cappadocia with its three generations of Christian saints. Saint Macrina the Younger (who was the oldest sibling and a profound support to her younger brothers and sisters), Saint Naucratius, Saint Basil the Great, Saint Peter of Sebaste, Saint Gregory of Nyssa (all three called to serve as bishops during turbulent times), as well as the family friend Gregory of Nazianzus (also a bishop) all testified of the instruction that they received, either directly or indirectly, from the grandmother of the household, Saint Macrina the Elder, who spoke constantly of all that she had been taught in person by Saint Gregory the Wonder Worker and who could recite long teachings and passages of his from memory. While traveling in Palestine on family business, Gregory gave up a lucrative and distinguished career in law to study with Origen for about ten years and became a devout Christian before returning to his home in Cappadocia where he was asked to serve as the bishop of a tiny congregation (just seventeen souls at first). During the remaining thirteen years of his life, this tiny community grew to include virtually the entire population of Caesarea, a sizable town in Cappadocia (modern day Turkey).

Now that is an example of a living tradition and a growing community. Here, clearly, the true authority of Gregory the Wonder Worker (wealthy law student turned Christian pastor) was being exercised. Not only did seventeen people convert an entire city, but, within three generations, one of their leading families gave the Christian faith almost all of its most distinguished defenders of the Nicea Symbol, as well as the creators, under Basil’s ministry, of some of the first hospitals in history, and a lenten sermon preached by Gregory of Nyssa (in the same year when he lost both Macrina and Basil) where he was the first person in recorded history to declare human slavery entirely incompatable with human nature as it was revealed by Jesuse Christ to be in the divine image. And note that this remarkable lenten sermon was preached to a large and affluent congregation that would have included hundreds of wealthy slave owners. Granted, this did not change the world (and I am intentionally echoing the title of Dr. Hunter’s wonderful book). It was simply a part of Gregory’s faith presence. In fact, no comparable statement about the complete incompatibility of slavery and the Christian gospel would make it into the historical record again for another three to five centuries (or arguably even longer).

Nonetheless, one of the points here is that, whatever Gregory of Nyssa and his family thought about tradition, it clearly was not incompatible with creative theological work, radical change, and prophetic challenge. In this same spirit, I hope to make it clear that some of the material in Wilken should be uncomfortable to us, and that any vestige of a reactionary tendency in ourselves toward an ideological traditionalism as a response to secular modernity must be confronted in us if we are to wield any kind of true authority and to be faithful to the living tradition of our Christian faith.

As I’ve noted, this discomfort is especially clear with Wilken’s first book The Myth of Christian Beginnings. It feels downright progressive (for lack of a better word). However, I do not think that it represents any change in Wilken’s thought. Instead, I think that his earlier work is essential to fully understanding what he says in The Myth of Christian Beginnings as well as in more recent works such as The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God and The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (from 2013).

Wilken’s concern in The Myth of Christian Beginnings with what he calls a pervasive Eusebianism is a profound challenge to all of us struggling to know what faithfulness looks like in the aftermath of Christendom. It was a difficult read for me with a profoundly loving and Christian upbringing that emphasized the inerrancy of the Bible and the perfection of the New Testament church. My strong native disposition is that what is old is good, and that any change is deeply suspect. Passages such as these, therefore, are good medicine in my own case:

There never was an ‘original Christian faith’ or a ‘native Christian language.’ The further back one searches, the more unformed the tradition becomes. There is no moment or man or age or idea to which we can return and say: that is the Christian thing. The Christian phenomenon can only be grasped by looking at the historical experience of Christianity as it stretches from its beginning to the present and into the future. And because the Christian movement is still very much alive, we do not know what its final destiny will be. In future years it may become something even we have trouble recognizing. Historically, it is absurd to take the first stage of Christian tradition as definitive for the whole history. Not only can we not locate precisely what the first stage was, but even if we could, we would find it so unformed and embryonic that it could hardly do justice to the reality of Christianity as we know it from later history. (170)

…The new has been, on balance, more acceptable to Christians than the old, even though they have claimed otherwise. (175)

…As a first step in constructing a new historical picture of Christianity, I would suggest that we turn the whole history of Christianity on its end. Instead of viewing the Christian history as a movement away from something—an original perfection—why not view it as a movement toward something? Perfection lies, if anywhere, not at the beginning, but at the end. The stumbling efforts of Christians to embody their vision of God in ideas and concepts, in institutions, in morals and actions, and in customs and liturgy, are the striving, the reaching forward, indeed the longing, of men for something that is not yet realized and has never been realized in human history. The Christian dreams of things that never were. (192-193)

It is clear that, for Wilken, there is as much danger in traditionalisms and fundamentalisms of any kind as there is in the liberal progressivism that rejects any notion of transcendentals and a sacred tradition that is to be tended. In fact, many scholars have noted that modern traditionalisms tend to engage with secular modernity on its own ideological grounds without realizing it. The most wonderful thing about Wilken is that he points us to a path forward that does not engage with secular modernity on its own ground but that instead assumes the sacredness of human life and of God’s creation as the starting point from which secularism must be forced to yield. Wilken’s vision, however, depends upon a community with life-giving routines and habits where masters and apprentices worship Jesus Christ together in a community that can sustain “stumbling efforts” to “embody their vision of God in ideas and concepts, in institutions, in morals and actions, and in customs and liturgy” and that can strive without ceasing to “reach forward” and to “dream of things that never were.” Does this describe our schools and churches? If not, we have work yet to do.

In The Myth of Christian Beginnings, Wilken is certainly relentless in suggesting that Christianity has much responsibility to carry:

The roots of Christian anti-Semitism need be traced no further than Christianity itself; Christians have been anti-Semitic because they have been Christians. They thought of themselves as the people of God, the true Israel, who had been faithful to the inheritance of ancient Israel. Judaism, in the Christian view, had no reason to exist once Christianity came on the scene. We must learn, I think, to live with the unpleasant fact that anti-Semitism is part of what it has meant historically to be a Christian, and is still part of what it means to be Christian. (197)

Christians today can very easily grow weary and reactive in the face of so much hostility and deterioration, but Wilken requires us to be honest with ourselves while also pointing us to a proactive life that will deflect both Enlightenment rationalism and modern fundamentalism. Rather than worrying over all that is wrong, Wilken forthrightly points us back to a Christian way of seeing and living that is grounded in worship, prayer, and commitment to a learning that takes full account of our past.

In Remembering the Christian Past, one distinction that I find on display is a recognition that, while secular pluralism is certainly evil, there is a kind of sacred pluralism that Christians should welcome:

For Christians there can be no "theology of religions," only a theology of particular religions. What Christians have to say to Jews is different from what they said to the adherents of Mithra or Isis, just as what they say to Muslims is different from what they say to Buddhists. That what is said to one tradition differs from what is said to another implies that what one learns from one tradition differs from what one learns from another. Christian theology is not a closed system; it is able to recognize and respect elements of truth in other religions and to integrate these truths into itself. The particular claims of Christian faith are not, as often supposed, the end of dialogue, but its beginning. For if Christians cannot speak with others about what they know, there will be no conversation. (45)

As I have already noted, Wilken pleads with us: “let it not be forgotten that the great religions of the world are traditions of learning as well as of faith” (13). Many scholars have noted that the greatest early rival to Chrisitanity was neoplatonism because, in many ways, it possessed the most truth. Early Christians, with Origen playing an especially prominent role here, engaged neoplatonism in a way that directly opposed it but that also was willing to learn from it. Christian theologians gained great insight into the nature of the incarnation by applying the wisdom of neoplatonism to Christ’s perfect revelation of his Father. In this process of both making the uniqueness of Christianity clear while also being glad to engage and to learn from neoplatonism, Christians eventually subsumed neoplatonism within the Christian faith. Historically, a very good case can be made that neoplatonism never died; it simply became Christian.

This is a model for a powerful alternative to secularism where Christianity would band together with other ancient faiths in opposition to secularism and insist upon the sacredness of human life and of our shared world as God’s creation. This would only make sense if it started in meaningful ways within local communities of lived and intergenerational faith, and if our own commitment to and love for what is distinctive about the Christian faith allowed us to both have unique points to make with each of the other living traditions of faith that surround us and also to learn uniquely from each of them. Such communities have existed and flourished in the classical and Christian worlds of the past, and were they to succeed again today in any meaningful form, they would certainly be one of the most remarkable and potent alternative visions to secularism that could be imagined.

These might seem like grandiose or impractical dreams. However, we all live in a radically pluralistic society, and most American towns and cities have multiple places of worship. As Christians opposed to the inhuman and totalizing claims of secularism, we should be taking the lead in finding ways to offer alternatives. At appropriate ages and with careful preparation, we should be visiting other places of worship with our students and inviting shepherds and teachers from other faiths into our classrooms.

Cultural relativism is not the only alternative in such practices, and we unknowingly cede all of the ground to secularism in the hearts of our students when we fail to engage with other faith traditions because we are afraid that meaningful conversations are not possible with our neighbors or we are afraid that such interactions must inevitably take the form of relativism or of some vague idea that all roads lead to God. Just the opposite is actually the case. We cannot really combat the secularism rooted deep within our own hearts without recognizing religion again as an essential human virtue as was once the only meaning of the word religion.

Christianity has always succeeded because it has more reason than any other faith to rest confidently upon our communion with God together, here and now, and because it therefore has every confidence in assuming that everything good and true in all the earth is, in fact, the lost treasures of its own Lord and King, Jesus Christ. This powerful vision has often been twisted in Christian history into a kind of worldly dominance. We see this both with Enlightenment science as well as with colonialism. These both started with a confident Christian claim to everything as our own, but in ways that came to be understood in an acquisitive sense that then justifies the exertion of our wills in making it so. Our wills must, instead, serve our loves, as the early Augustine recognized and wrote about so beautifully.

In a compact summation of so much ancient wisdom, David Bentley Hart has written: “To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.”

Goodness, beauty and all of the transcendentals are badly fragmented and dispersed in our culture today, but we must lead the way in teaching our students to see and to desire them still so that our students might, even in our own day and age, be free to choose the good.

Wilken ends his last chapter with a critical meditation on the fact that the divine union offered to us by Christ is a union with an infinite God for whom relationship and communion is also always a “straining forward to what lies ahead” as Paul writes. Here is Wilken:

For Maximus, as for Gregory of Nyssa, perfection is never a simple coming to rest, a standing still. Maximus, who loved paradoxical phrases, spoke of “ever-moving repose” or “stationary movement,” by which he meant that the soul that loves God is at once at rest in God and at the same time in perpetual motion drawn toward God. “All things created according to time,” he writes, “become perfect when they cease their natural growth. But everything that the knowledge of God effects according to virtue, when it reaches perfection, moves to further growth. For the end of the latter becomes the beginning of the former. Indeed, the one who by practicing the virtues keeps in check the substance of past things begins other, more divine patterns. For God never ceases from good things, just as there was no beginning of good things.” (161)

The church fathers, with Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus in the lead on this point, all understood tradition to be so much a living reality that it will continue to be an experience of growth and deepening even in our life with God eternally. In a little self-published book, The Foundation of the World: A Short Introduction to the Theology of Origen by Jonathan McCormack, he writes:

True creation is joined to the life-giving energies of God; it is eternal, obeying His will. ...To be properly called “created,” the Cosmos must become full of His Spirit. When God is all in all, then true creation will have begun. True creation is persuaded by God’s beauty to “be.” Wooed by His great love, it has said “Amen” and “Yes” to its creator. C.S. Lewis, of course, beautifully captured this with his call to “come further up and further in.” Tradition is in service of this kind of life which can only be partially seen now, on this side of our bodily death, but that is, nonetheless, the life that we are called to remember together with every rising of the sun.

C. S. Lewis, of course, beautifully captured this with his call to “come further up and further in.” Tradition is in service of this kind of life which can only be partially seen now, on this side of our bodily death, but that is, nonetheless, the life that we are called to remember together with every rising of the sun.

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