A Monday of a new year. A good time to take a closer look at the past and to plot a tentative course for the near future. And while looking at the past, I came to the realization that it may be necessary to examine the very basis of writing in general and theological writing in particular. I will try to explain.
Why do people write? I imagine that it used to be the case that people wrote because they had something to say. Nowadays, however, it is very difficult to answer this question. Some appear to write because they must–whether for a class they are taking, or for a conference in which they have been asked to participate, or because they hope to get paid for their labors, or for some other such reason. But what if all of these reasons suddenly disappeared? Would many of us still write? Even more importantly, do many of us actually have anything to say?
Too often, much of modern theological writing seems to be a regurgitation of someone else’s writing. To use an example from some of my previous writing, topics such as “Desert Father N. on the Raising of Children” come to mind. First, the sheer absurdity of the topic does not seem to raise too many eyebrows these days. “The Professional Cello Player on the Practical Aspects of Brain Surgery.” Why would anyone want to know what a cello player thinks about brain surgery? Second, if anyone wants to know what some author thinks about any topic, would it not be best to study the works of that author? What exactly is the purpose of reading someone else’s view on the views of someone else? I know, I know: “In partial fulfillment of the requirement for…”
Furthermore, nothing of significance or consequence is added to the sum of human knowledge when I express my views on someone else’s views and prove my point by liberally citing the original text. Is it that I do not believe others to be capable of reading the text? Is it that I do not think that others can comprehend the text and thus require my predigesting and regurgitating it for their benefit? Is it not too presumptuous of me to tell other literate, educated, reasonable and intelligent adults what some very famous author wrote on any given topic? Why not let them read the text and judge for themselves? I know, I know: “In partial fulfillment of the requirement for…”
Of course, this is not to belittle the idea of the Great Conversation. However, the very culture of Orthodoxy seems to stifle the said Conversation. The obstacle is that we are the Church of the Fathers, not of the fathers. Because I cannot presume myself to be on the same level with the Fathers, my thoughts and opinions cannot be part of their conversation. They speak as ones having authority. The most I can do is learn what they taught and regurgitate what I learnt. To build on what they have already established, to add to what they have already said, to reinterpret and re-envision their thought would be too presumptuous.
And speaking of being presumptuous, what bothered me the most while thinking about the past was the fact that I have written pieces without actually having anything worth saying. In the Gospel of Matthew (7:29), there is an interesting mention about the manner in which Jesus taught: “…taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes…” The scribes regurgitated what others had said before them, citing one rabbi, referencing another. Prophets, on the other hand, did not pepper their speech with references to rabbis; they spoke with authority: “Thus saith the Lord…” That is to say, “I personally heard from God Himself, and therefore I have something to share with all of you.” Jesus, of course, had even more authority and often said: “But I say to you…”
Using these principles in examining modern theological writing, it is painfully evident that most of us write as scribes, not as ones having authority. This is the key difference between us and the Fathers of the Church. The Fathers conquered sins and passions and then wrote about their experience of being victorious. We are burdened by sins and passions and write about someone else’s experience. The Fathers fasted and prayed, kept vigil for decades and then wrote from the position of experts on this topic. We complain about our weaknesses, make excuses, give ourselves dispensations and then tell others about the benefits of fasting by citing someone else’s examples, unable to refer to our own.
In some disciplines (albeit, not all), such a lack of personal expertise in the subject would be unacceptable. Imagine someone who does not know how to play the cello attempting to give cello lessons, or someone who cannot swim teaching swimming, or someone who has never built anything giving construction advice by invoking the names of famous architects. This would be absurd. And yet, it does not seem to be absurd when the same is commonplace in modern Christianity. Do not tell me what Desert Father N. thought about raising children. I want to know how you raised such good children. Do not tell me how Saint Mary of Egypt kept her fast; I can read that on my own. Tell me how you keep yours and what you have learnt from your personal experience.
And yet, there is one valid reason to write about things I have not personally experienced. Writing is a good way to think; it allows for the process of thinking. It is necessary, however, to be honest about this kind of writing. First, just because I think, does not mean that my thoughts are necessarily correct or that they are worth sharing with others. Second, this type of writing must be directed at self, not others. If others happen to find my thoughts interesting and choose to join in the process of thinking together, this would be wonderful. But this type of writing must never presume or pretend to be any sort of teaching. It is necessary to think, and writing is not a bad format for this exercise. But this should never be confused with the writing as one having authority which only comes from personal practice and experience or as a direct revelation from God Himself.