Living Wisely with the Church Fathers (Hall)

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BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Hall, Christopher. Living Wisely with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2017.

I approached this book with mixed feelings. On one hand, Christopher Hall is an accomplished scholar on the church fathers. On the other hand, it is published by InterVarsityPress. When IVP usually talks about money, war, and sex, it sometimes sounds like Bernie2020. Fortunately, Hall doesn’t do that. Hall introduces us to the wider framework of the spiritual disciplines, except the Fathers never called it that. They called it “askesis,” athletic training for the soul. Evangelicals have long (and usually sanely) talked about the spiritual disciplines, yet they never connected the spiritual disciplines with the power they have to undo the “passions” (more on that later).

The Church Fathers know that sin is what is wrong with us. That’s really not that profound. The Reformation tradition knows that sin “warps” our dispositions. What the church fathers suggest is the how of sin’s warping our dispositions. Sin warps by the “passions.” The “passions are the vices that cripple our ability to pray and life well” (Hall 17). Interestingly enough, for the early Christians “passion” could mean simply a state of mind. These are the logismoi that function like maggots in rotten meat.

As Hall notes, “The passions, then, throw the faculty of reason ...off balance. They blind the eyes of the mind and cripple the mind’s ability to form a realistic or fitting opinion or judgment regarding a specific ethical question or dilemma” (19-20).

Wealth

Reading the fathers on wealth and poverty can be tricky for a number of reasons. The ancient world and economy is not like America’s. Technology and movable capital have raised several billion people out of poverty. By contrast, in the ancient world if there was a local drought, the entire region could starve to death. The fathers can teach us about wealth, to be sure, but you can’t apply all of their statements to our world today in a 1:1 fashion.

War

While the fathers might have been unanimous in condemning luxury, they were not one voice on war. The earlier writers--Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius--did condemn the military. Military life was openly pagan, so that isn’t surprising. Augustine, and to a lesser degree Athanasius, understood that after Constantine the military didn’t have to be openly pagan.

Sex

These two chapters are worth the price of the book. The fathers’ usually negative comments about sex in marriage have to be understood in their changing context. Rome was a sexually charged society and women were often viewed as objects. With that said, fathers such as Chrysostom represent a more balanced view on the subject.

Like “passions,” the word “desire” doesn’t mean for the fathers what it means for us. Thus we see Clement saying, “He ought not to have a sexual desire for his wife, to whom he has a duty to show Christian love” (Stromateis 3.7.58). Does he mean when the couple has sex they should not have desire but some sort of Buddhist-like transcending of desire? Not exactly. By desire Clement would have meant “the self’s blazing furnace and the power it is generating” (Hall 135). It is the self that is warped. Therefore, even in marriage, it is possible to project sinful desires upon one’s spouse and treat him/her as a sexual object. That’s what Clement is opposing.

Hall illustrates the shallowness of modern life by summarizing the non-plot of Seinfeld. All of them are empty humans. “They are emotionally and ethically stunted.” What do the passions writ large look like? They look like an episode of Seinfeld. The fathers, by contrast, call us to aptheia. Apathy for the fathers was not a blase uncaring. Rather, it was when you had mastered self-control and were able to act spontaneously to God’s law. It was love purified. As Hall notes, the passionate person “habitually misidentifies what is worth our love, commitment, and attention” (141).

Learning to Live a Good Life

Hall, following his mentor Thomas Oden, notes that askesis is necessary if one is going to grow as a Christian. You probably can’t do the ascetic practices of a 4th century monk. But what would it look like? Hall sketches some sort of outline following the practice of Anthony the Great.

Ascesis is just working out for your soul. You are training the soul to discipline the body and even call forth its natural strength. This is what neurological science is noticing today about the brain’s neuroplasticity. Antony:

>A specific learning place (for him, it was the desert)

>meaningful work (usually manual labor)

>Vigilant, consistent prayer life.

>Regularlized sleep patterns (In many ways this is most important for killing the passions).

>A simple disciplined diet (I used to eat oatmeal for breakfast and lunch for a year; it’s not fun but it works).

> Regular times of fasting. The Eastern tradition fasted at minimum on Wednesdays and Fridays. Nothing magical about that but it tunes your body to a rhythm.

>Attentiveness to emotions, thoughts, memories.

>Deep immersion in Scripture. This isn’t a cliche. They had the Psalms memorized. They did so by chanting. Chanting.
 
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