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Heart of Hearing

Earlier this week I praised The Listening Heart: Vocation And the Crisis of Modern Culture, by the Baptist theologian A.J. Conyers. I’m back today to give you another sampling of the author’s treatment of the Fathers. He’s speaking specifically of the liberality of their thought and contrasting it with modern ideas of tolerance. This is no “lazy air of relativism,” he says, but rather “the openness of theology” which “always points to something deeper.”

It points to truth rather than holding it captive. This habit of thought has deep roots in the Christian tradition and helps to illuminate what is meant by the practice of toleration. It is an openness toward what is true, recognizing that the truth of God is true for all people, and to the extent that other cultures or religions have been illuminated by truth it is none other than the truth of the one God, the God to whom Jesus himself gives full and incarnate witness.

An example of this early practice is found in Justin Martyr (d. 165) who came to the Christian faith by way of Stoicism and Platonism. For him Christian faith is the “touchstone” of truth. He believed that the identification of Christ as logos in Scripture opened the way to understanding even pre-Christian philosophies as bearing a measure of truth. Explains the historian Henry Chadwick, “Christ is for Justin the principle of unity and the criterion by which we may judge the truth, scattered like divided seeds among the different schools of philosophy in so far as they have dealt with religion and morals.”

Clement of Alexandria provides another witness. Like Philo on behalf of Judaism more than a century before, he incorporated the best works of Hellenistic literature and philosophy in his own Christian teaching. The writings of Clement that remain to us contain more than seven hundred quotations from an excess of three hundred pagan sources. At the same time, it was perfectly clear that Scripture was his authority. His arguments would explore the world of Homer or Heraclitus, but then he would resolve the issue beginning with the words “it is written.” Thus his thought was not syncretistic, but synthetic. There was, for him, a “chorus of truth” upon which the Christian might draw. This multiple source did not replace Scripture, but it illuminated its pages. All philosophy, if it was true philosophy, was of divine origin, even though what we receive through philosophy is broken and almost unintelligible. All truth, Clement would argue, is God’s truth. In his Stromata (Miscellanies) he wrote, “They may say that it is mere chance that the Greeks have expressed something of the true philosophy. But that chance is subject to divine providence. . . . Or in the next place it may be said that the Greeks possessed an idea of truth implanted by nature. But we know that the Creator of nature is one only…” While Clement’s Alexandrian tradition had enormous influence on the church, the tendency toward a tolerant habit of thought was not found in Alexandria alone. Gregory of Nazianzus (330-389), whose ministry ranged from Athens to Constantinople, argued for the universality of the knowledge of God, who is “in the world of thought, what the sun is in the world of sense; presenting himself to our minds in proportion as we are cleansed; and loved in proportion as He is presented to our mind: and again, conceived in proportion as we love Him … pouring Himself out upon what is external to Him” …

Modern times … lost the earlier understanding of a higher connection among different ways of thinking and believing. Thus modern people tended to know no way of tolerating alien thought other than to say that all opinions are of equal value since they merely illuminate the mind of the individual doing the thinking. Or, to put it less starkly, they confined certain kinds of thought, religious and moral thought specifically, to the realm of the private. By contrast, Augustine could understand that his earlier Neoplatonist books taught him something about God, even though it was incomplete: “In the same books I also read of the Word, God, that his birth came not from human stock, not from nature’s will or man’s, but from God. But I did not read in them that the Word was made flesh and came to dwell among us.” And he continued to comfort Christians who are conscience stricken about intellectual “meat offered to idols,” saying, “Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master.” Toleration, which in this sense, and not the modern sense, means listening rather than speaking too quickly, so that one might rightly evaluate what is said, was seen by St. Augustine as the normal habit of a Christian mind:

“And what else have many good and faithful men among our brethren done? Do we not see with what a quantity of gold and silver, and garments, Cyprian, that most persuasive teacher and most blessed martyr, was loaded when he came out of Egypt? How much Lactantius brought with him! And Victorinus, and Optatus, and Hilary, not to speak of living men! How much Greeks out of number have borrowed! And prior to all these, that most faithful servant of God, Moses, had done the same thing; for of him it is written that he was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians (Acts vii. 22) … For what was done at the time of the exodus was no doubt a type prefiguring what happens now.”

It is not true, of course, that first millennium Christianity was tolerant in any thoroughgoing manner. A famous example of a dissenting voice was Tertullian, who objected to all this philosophizing by asking trenchantly “Quid Athenae Hierosolymis?”—What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? One finds skepticism regarding the role of other philosophies and beliefs in arriving at the truth throughout the history of the Church. But a tolerant habit of mind was, as any can see, an important part of the picture prior to late medieval Christianity when the talent for such thought began to be diminished. It is important for us to see that the diminishing of such a powerful tool as toleration came not with the “dark ages” as popular myth holds, but with the dawn of modernity. And if we should gain it once again, we must recognize the difference between an authentic practice and the poor substitute of a modern doctrine.

That’s a nice chunk. But you really need to see what I left out. Conyers shows how Christian theology’s “openness” led to profound developments in the doctrine of the Trinity. He marvels — and he leads his readers to marvel — as he shows how brilliantly thinkers like Basil the Great assimilated Aristotle’s notion of form. Yet Conyers manages to do this in a way that’s accessible to readers who don’t have a whit of philosophical training. In the pages of this book, we see a master teacher at work, and we have the privilege of learning from him. It’s the kind of joy those long-ago hearers of Justin and Clement must have felt.

A. J. Conyers learned well from his patristic masters, and from the Master he shared with them. Like the greatest of the Fathers, he lived in a large world — God’s world — and he walked that world with the confidence of a Son of God. Now he bids us to join him and to live large.

Even though it’s Lent, don’t deny yourself the pleasure of reading The Listening Heart. It’s a valuable guide in discerning God’s call for the rest of your life — no matter where you are in life — and that’s a lot. But it’s much more than that.