Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Questioning Basil

An old Romanian painting of Basil
Courtesy of 
Țetcu Mircea Rareș
Oddly enough, out of all the stuff I've written here recently the post that generates a question is Sunday's quotation of Basil the Great about the Holy Spirit. And not so much on what he said but why we should care what he said at all. I thought it was a great question but it appeared on my personal Facebook page. So I've made it into today's post.

My response was typed during breaks while doing my real life job, so it's not the most well written, but other than cleaning up the spelling and inserting links and brief annotations for context's sake, it's the way I wrote it.


Q: What does a guy in the early 4th century that was rife with superstition and political intrigue, just a couple decades after Constantine, ignorant of quantum theory, relativity theory, etc. etc. know about the nature of God? Isn't time for a "New" conference on the nature of God?

A: My short answer to the original question about the 'guy in the early 4th century' is that he's an integral part -- one of the most integral, in fact -- of the subject of my blog. My theme is classic early, consensual, ecumenical Christianity as it developed over the first 5 centuries and that what many people take as Christianity today (fundamentalism and progressivism in particular) is only superficially like it.

My longer answer is that I'm all in favor of research into whatever relation there may be between God and quantum physics (John Polkinghorne, Theoretical physicist/Priest, has some interesting ideas there), and I would add Neuroscience too. I'm especially fascinated with the work on reproducing some mental states usually associated with deep religious experiences. And the 4th century certainly was superstitious (though not as much as is usually made out, especially for well-educated people like a Basil or an Augustine) and politics was rampant as in all ages. You might remember my view of Constantine and the intermingling of Christianity with the state -- any state [Which is that it was one of the worst things ever to happen to the Christian Movement].


But I'm not sure that affects the validity of what Basil was doing on the nature of God. The basic presupposition of Christianity is that God revealed himself supremely through 'the Christ event' [fancy theologian-speak for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus]. That's one of the things about Christianity that bothered the Romans, that it was a revealed religion, not a philosophy or even a mystery religion. Because of that it was passed down from Jesus to the Apostles to the Church at large as a deposit of faith given "once for all to the saints." [In other words, since it was a revelation and not a philosophy or nature religion, it was by its nature something you received and tried to explain, the way physicists try to explain the universe.] 

The Father-Son-Spirit aspect was there from the beginning [in Second Letter to the Corinthians chapter 13 verse 13 for instance] (though not the trinitarian theology, of course). At first there wasn't a lot of deep thought about it, [i.e., the relation of Father to Son to Holy Spirit] except by Paul and to some extent John. But as evangelism continued, they ran into educated fellows like Celsus who wanted to know how we reconciled the one God with the man Jesus, who was worshiped, called 'Lord', prayed to and various other things that usually pertain to God. 

Basil and others weren't trying to do something quantum physics would help them on, I don't think. What they wanted was to define, as well as possible from the rather spare data left by Christ and the Apostles, the inner life of God.  

So what Ignatius, and Justin Martyr,  Irenaeus and Tertullian, Theophilus of Antioch, Arius (I'd include him too) and Athanasius and on down to Basil were doing was unrolling this revelation, this deposit, puzzling out which scenario covered the data (of the revelation) most completely, and struggling to come up with words with enough precision to describe their conclusion. And then, right after they produce their best effort, you find Basil and Augustine et. al. warning that even that doesn't quite do it; it's just the best try of the greatest Christian minds of their age.

The key words they used, "Ousia" and "hypostasis," were cutting edge Greek philosophy at the time, and their work has stood up well for 2 millennia. I'm not sure we have better today.

No comments: