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Marketplace of Ideas

In the middle of the fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa gave in to a fit of complaint. Ordinary people, he said, were spending entirely too much time talking about theology. “Mere youths and tradesmen, off-hand dogmatists in theology, servants too, and slaves that have been flogged … are solemn with us and philosophical about things incomprehensible … If you ask for change someone philosophizes to you on the begotten and the unbegotten.”

And the problem followed poor Gregory all over the marketplace. If he asked the baker the price of his bread, he got Trinitarian doctrine instead. If he asked whether the bath was ready, he got still more speculation.

Gosh, times have changed. Not too long ago, a friend of mine ordered a Christmas cake to read “Happy birthday, Jesus,” and the baker asked her how that name was spelled.

Today we live with widespread doctrinal ignorance, and reading St. Gregory’s complaint can be irritating — like listening to a friend gripe about having too much money or a spouse who cooks too well.

We live in a time when theology is an esoteric academic discipline practiced by very few Christians and of little interest to the bakers and bankers.

Christians of the fourth century knew better. Their century had begun with the Roman Empire’s most ruthless and systematic persecution of Christians. It was important for ordinary people to know what they believed and why, because they might be called upon to die for that faith.

Yet, just twenty-five years later, the Church, now triumphant in the world, was torn apart over a matter of Trinitarian theology: the Arian controversy. The emperors and even the bishops were divided in their allegiances, calling councils and counter-councils, exiling patriarchs from their sees, and demanding creedal compliance from the people in the pews. But which creed was saving? Sometimes there was just a single letter’s difference between one formula and another, but that little letter made all the difference in the world.

Once again, ordinary Christians needed to understand what they believed and why, because their theology could affect not only their salvation, but also their employment, their place of residence, and even their survival.

And so it went through the century. There were no printing presses, iPods, or EWTN, no searchable CDs or World Wide Web. Yet common people considered themselves duty-bound to study not just basic doctrine, but rather advanced theology. They would not settle for just the sacraments of initiation. They wanted to keep studying till even a saint would find them annoying.

They wanted to be theologians, and so should we. For that, we’ll need to develop a passion for doctrine — not just apologetics, the art and science of defending the faith. Apologetics can ride the adrenaline rush we feel when a co-worker insults us. But theology drives us to discipline our intellects beyond their comfort level. And it demands a disciplined prayer life as well. A friend of St. Gregory, Evagrius Ponticus, put it starkly: “a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.”

Nowadays, the motivation will have to come from inside, because most modern states prefer to remain neutral on the fine points of Christian doctrine.

Yet it is no small matter to know that God is love, and so must be a coequal, coeternal Trinity. It is no small matter to know that everyone — you and I and all our friends and adversaries — has a guardian angel. It is no small matter to know that we have recourse to these pure and powerful spirits and all their knowledge and strength. It is no small matter for us, whether we’re bakers or bankers, to know the name of Jesus and its saving power.

Theology is not just for the elites. It’s a basic life skill. St. Gregory himself knew this, and that’s why he wrote one of the Church’s first catechisms.

Maybe you know it, too. But do your children and your parents, your neighbors and co-workers? Couldn’t we all work a little harder to make the modern marketplace catch up to the fourth century?

We shouldn’t often strive to do things that irritate the saints, but maybe just just this once…

(This column originally appeared in my regular spot at the back of LayWitness magazine — to which you should subscribe!)

3 thoughts on “Marketplace of Ideas

  1. […] Mike makes an interesting post over at The Way of the Fathers on the Marketplace of Ideas. Beginning with a familiar quote from Gregory of Nyssa regarding Trinitarian debates with his baker and fishmonger, Mike goes on to lament that our times are not quote so filled with theological debate. (I’m sure he means only outside of the blogosphere!) Once again, ordinary Christians needed to understand what they believed and why, because their theology could affect not only their salvation, but also their employment, their place of residence, and even their survival. […]

  2. Mike,

    I am new to this blog and quickly coming to love it. Fantastic article. Next fall I am looking to begin doctoral work focusing on either a theology of friendship or theological education and monasticism. When the time comes I may have to throw some questions your way.


  3. That’s a true post in many ways, and a very good contrast, however, I have a question.
    At this point in time, where literacy was not common for the ordinary man, how could they have studied theology?

    Also, this also presents one small problem, that some people might attempt to introduce some original ideas into the theology and thereby end up with some erroneous view, sort of like a Calvin. However, most of the real heretics in history that come to mind were in some way clerics, such as priests or bishops, such as Luther, Zwingli, Nestorius, Marcion, Arius, Pelaguis ect. so, in effect, against the argument that some employ against laymen studying theology fail to realize that even clerics, trained in theology, such as Luther, can be more prone to error than the unlearned in that they may attempt reconcile several positions that seem in their mind not to fit as it should, or they in effect attempt to be able to comprehend the incomprehensible as St. Paul states “in which are certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16), this may apply even to the learned in some cases. Luther was a well educated man, well learned, yet he was a heretic with unordthodox views; even so, the point being that those not schooled in the faith, or rather ill-catechised, could be ill-fitted to defend it when the appointed time presents itself, especially in an age when the faith is attacked from almost every side.
    Yet, when a right theology is preached and studied, it is a good and salutary thing that laymen should know their faith, but in order to keep a right faith, certain other things must be retained, and that is the virtue of humility, which blocks the culpable guilt of formal heresy from taking root, and this is because heresy is born of pride; ergo, as long as an attitude of humility and submission is present, I believe that no real danger of heresy is imminent, but if one is of the opinion that he may be a second Cajetan or Athanasius, then there is risk of falling into an erroneous doctrine. The reason for which is due to the fact that such a man desires to fit his views into theology, thereby perverting it, yet to him it seems orthodox, and he defends it under such circumstances.

    And the question that begs to be asked is, how can a man be expected to keep the faith if he does not know it? Therefore, it is for this reason that the faithful are obliged to learn their faith, and if necessary defend it as mandated by the old code of canon law: “The faithful are bound to profess their faith openly whenever under the circumstances silence, evasion, or their manner of acting would otherwise implicitly amount to a denial of the faith, or would involve contempt of religion, an offense to God, or scandal to the neighbor.” (Canon 1325.1)Catholics are expected to keep the faith, but this is only possible is one knows what faith he is keeping, and this is the reason why all Catholics need to learn their faith.

    I do wish that I had the problem that Gregory had, it would be one more awesome sight.

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