Concerning Patristics, Misogyny, Abortion, and Premises

calvin-hobbes-argue_1It increasingly takes a GREAT deal for me to voluntarily engage in discussions concerning abortion online.  I’m less and less interesting in doing so and usually do not.  That is because online abortion discussions rarely remain in the realm of reasonable discussion and quickly lapse into outright hysteria on all sides.  However, I was moved to offer a comment over at James Matichuk’s blog, “Thoughts, Prayers & Songs; My Journey from Self-Absorption to Doxology,” in response to a gentlemen named Brian Balke who commented on Matichuk’s review of Christopher Hall’s Living Wisely With the Church Fathers.  I hasten to add that Balke was respectful in his comments and did NOT indulge in the type of hysteria I just bemoaned.

Matichuk had noted, in commenting on Hall’s book, the consistent patristic opposition to abortion in the early years of the church and Balke responded with a comment that I mention here in part:

The attitude to the fetus is idealistic. Did the early fathers recognize that there are mothers and fathers that are incapable of providing such nurturance, and that in fact the pressure of adding a child to a household might guarantee suffering and death to both mother and child? I am not asking this to be contrary, but simply as a matter of record: did they grapple with the practical issues of pregnancy and birth from a woman’s perspective?

If they didn’t, why do we reference them?

I think I can say with honesty that I was immediately more intrigued by Balke’s premise than by any conversation about abortion per se.  I commented thus:

I wanted to offer a few thoughts here, not to be contrary or combative, but rather because I think this is an interesting discussion. And let me say that I appreciate calm and thoughtful discussion on this issue. It is too rare! (Also, thank you for the book review. I have the first two of Hall’s books and will be adding the last two as well.)

Brian, you wrote: “I am not asking this to be contrary, but simply as a matter of record: did they grapple with the practical issues of pregnancy and birth from a woman’s perspective? If they didn’t, why do we reference them?”

That last question is very interesting. I’m curious about the premise undergirding it. Is the premise that views are rendered insignificant and potentially illegitimate if they were formulated within a particular framework in which factors that we realize are significant today were not taken into consideration?

Meaning, that question would seem to undercut the legitimacy of a great many ideas that we consider valid even though they existed in similarly limited cultural contexts.

Let me give an example. How is your question, “If they didn’t [grapple with the practical issues of pregnancy and birth from a woman’s perspective]…why do we reference them?” conceptually different from this question: “If Thomas Jefferson did not grapple with the practical issues of freedom from the perspective of slaves then why do we reference his views on freedom?” Brian, would you grant the analogy? Just curious.

All of that being said, I think we must be very careful with saying that BECAUSE (a) the fathers were largely misogynistic therefore (b) the fathers’ views on abortion gave no consideration at all to women, their experiences, what they thought of abortion, etc. Meaning, granting the pervasive misogyny of the time does not necessarily mean granting that every church father was utterly and completely misogynistic and completely indifferent to the plight or thoughts or feelings of women. The notion that none of these men considered or gave ear to the thoughts and feelings of the women in the Christian communities they oversaw on the issue of pregnancy says more than we can say with any certainty.

Even so, I think you have to go one more step and say this: The truthfulness or falsity of the fathers’ views on abortion does not actually hinge on whether or not they gave consideration to the experiences of women. (We would all agree that the issue should not be discussed without consideration of women, of course, and, to the extent that the fathers did not do so they were mistaken. That such an approach is lamentable and misogynistic does not render their conclusion false per se.) There are LOTS of tensions in human experience and history rarely breaks down into such neat categories.

Over the last few years I have made it a habit when hearing any argument to try to delineate the operational premises behind arguments and claims.  My comments above will give an illustration as to why.  I think we sometimes grant validity to premises that take us further than we want to go.  I wonder if Balke has been guilty of doing that here, for reasons I outlined above.

Let me offer another example of what I mean.  Take the question of homosexuality.  It is not uncommon to hear people argue, “Well, people are born that way.”  Now, that is a statement that makes an argument and the argument hinges on the validity of the unspoken premise.  But take a moment and try to articulate the premise behind it.  As I see it, the premise would be something like this:  “Proclivities with which we are born are not sinful by virtue of the fact that we are born with them.”  But I wonder if many who use that premise in arguing that homosexuality is not sinful behavior would be comfortable with the premise itself and all the doors it opens.  Meaning, what do we do with people who claim that as far back as they can remember they have felt strong desires to do a number of things that society at large would condemn as morally wrong.  I probably do not need to list all of the things that those might be because we all hear these kinds of arguments all the time.  So, again, I ask:  is it not wise to ask whether a premise we are employing for a particular argument might not be opening doors we do not want opened in other areas where the premise can be similarly applied?

J.N.D. Kelly’s Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom – Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop

1433119J.N.D. Kelly’s Gold Mouth is, simply put, one of the better biographies you will ever read.  Learned, engaging, illuminating, and well-paced, you will learn a great deal not only about this amazing Bishop of Constantinople, but also about the complexion and intrigues of 3rd/4th century Christianity.  I personally found many of the side details to be as compelling as the primary focus of the study.

Chrysostom was a fascinating, focused, and intense follower of Christ.  There was an edge to him, we might say.  This edge could lead him to be unbelievably stubborn, incendiary, and difficult.  He was a man with big faults…as men of big virtues sometimes tend to be.  He was a polarizing figure, but I daresay his excesses were born more out of genuine convictions about who he was and what the right course of action should be than out of any kind of arbitrary cruelty.  There can be no doubt that Chrysostom loved the Lord and loved the church.  He could be an austere and extreme person, but he was a pastor above all.

Kelly does a masterful job of showing us Chrysostom’s mind and heart, the good and the bad.  He demonstrates effectively the amazing devotion that large portions of the populace held for John even after his death.  It is interesting how the loyalty of the people and their reactions to this or that move surrounding the whole drama of Chrysostom affected the course of events.  Kelly does a great job explaining the ecclesiological climate of the day:  the ongoing chess game between bishops and church leaders, the uneasy relationship between the Church and the state, the turbulent clash between orthodox believers and schismatics, the political maneuvers, the ambitious, the ideologues, and the peacemakers.  What a fascinating period of history this was!

In all, one gets the feeling that Kelly has been honest and fair with Chrysostom.  Those wanting romantic hagiography will be disappointed by this book as will those who want a hatchet job.  But if you would like a clear, honest depiction of one of the more compelling and enthralling figures in Christian history, you will not want to miss this biography.

Very, very good!

Thomas C. Oden’s Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements

Note to self:  do not, I repeat do NOT get Thomas Oden mad.

Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements is Oden’s partially autobiographical story of his movement away from 60’s liberal radicalism (here called “The Feast I Left”), around Roman Catholicism (“The Feast I Missed”), and finally into postmodern Protestant paleo-orthodoxy (“The Feast I Did Not Expect”).

I’ve been intrigued with Tom Oden’s theological programme of paleo-orthodoxy ever since I heard him lecture at Southwestern Seminary while I was a student there, and I’ve read some of his more didactic works on the theological programme in which he must be considered the key player.  I’ve only just read, however, Oden’s fascinating Requiem (1995).

Now, anybody who has read any Oden at all knows that he has a flourish for polemics.  In fact (though I gather that Oden would deny this or not be pleased with it) his writings often seem primarily polemical in their thrust and focus.  Oden, by his own admission, is building an iconoclastic programme in the ruin of modernity, a period of time that he defines as resting roughly between the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  But this collapsing and collapsed modernity is a sphere in which Oden used to be quite a major and fad-obsessed player.  In fact, I would be tempted to question exactly how Oden could have been involved in all of the movements (he says that he was a movement theologian) that he claims to have been involved in were in not for the fact that he has a lifetime of publishing in these movements.  But the movement is now dead, and Oden drives a rhetorical nail in the coffin of modernity in ways that only a child of the movement could.

Oden identifies the four hallmarks of the collapsed modernity as “autonomous individualism”, “narcissistic hedonic assertiveness”, “reductive naturalism”, and “absolute moral relativism and modern chauvinism” (p.118).  For Oden personally, the last straw in the failed experiment of modernity was a eucharistic service at the chapel of Drew University (where he was a member of the faculty) in which a radical feminist explicitly invoked and called for the worship of the goddess Sophia instead of Jesus Christ.  Oden walked out of that service, the first time he had ever walked out of an observance of Holy Communion.

Oden is now calling the church away from such faddish blasphemies into the rich and fertile ground of a postmodern retrieval of what he sees as the classic consensual tradition of patristic exegesis.  This call is most effectively seen in his Agenda for Theology (later republished as After Modernity…What?) and more recently inThe Rebirth of Orthodoxy.  He’s worked this paleo-orthodox program out in a myriad of impressive and significant works touching on exegesis (the multi-volume IVP Ancient Christian Commentary on Scirpture), his three-volume systematic theology, his work on pastoral care and ministry, and his patristic readers on issues like justification.

But here, in Requiem, Oden seems primarily concerned with diagnosing a cultural and university/seminary climate where the last vestiges of the dying/dead modernity still hold sway.  Oden bemoans “the McGovernization” of the seminaries, the rise of radical feminism, the maddening proliferation of new fads and movements, and the reduction of theology to just about anything that a professor with a fetish and the freedom to define elective courses might wish for it to be.

In Requiem, Oden levels one of the most blistering attacks on the modern tenure system that you’re likely to ever see in print.  His advice to orthodox students within modernistic seminary settings is fascinating and insightful.  Again and again, Oden shows that he’s no hack with a grudge.  Rather, he’s seen the belly of the beast and lived within its dying walls.

This is what separates proper polemics from irritating screeds:  genuine heartbroken concern.  And, though perhaps Oden occasionally gets lost in his very impressive verbiage, there is no doubt that he is genuinely heartbroken.

For a fascinating former-insider’s look at the machinery of modernity run amuck, and a compelling call for a return to what the late Robert Webber called “ancient future faith,” you’ll want to read Oden.  He is indeed the granddaddy of postmodern paleo-orthodoxy, a proposal that, while not without problems (i.e., Oden’s own idiosyncratic acceptance of certain portions of the paleo-orthodox tradition and rejection of others and the ever-vexing question of just how this classic consensus is to be defined), nonetheless is, in my opinion, the most significant and helpful proposal before the church today.

Here is provocative and edifying theology at its best.  Put on your helmet and give it a read.