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How Not to Read the Fathers

In Response to Ms. Karras

by Archbishop Chrysostomos

IN AN ASTONISHING article, "Moral Character in Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian," published in 1995 as part of a tribute to Archbishop Iakovos, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, under the rather cumbersome title Rightly Teaching the Word of Your Truth: Studies in Faith and Culture, Church and Scriptures, Fathers and Worship, Hellenism, and the Contemporary Scene (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press), Valerie Karras purports to give us insight into the supposed moral defects of a great ecclesiastical luminary, St. Basil the Great, who, along with St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostomos, is one of the Three Hierarchs especially honored and celebrated by the Orthodox Church. Ms. Karras' unfortunate and ill-conceived criticism is based on her analysis of Sts. Basil and Gregory and "the contrasting motivations for their ordinations to the priesthood and the episcopacy and for their actions in those offices." She sees in St. Gregory's service to the Church a desire to preserve "the orthodoxy of the faith" and to fulfill "the needs of others," whereas she attributes to "deep-seated pride and the attraction toward power" St. Basil's ecclesiastical aspirations (p. 274).

Oddly enough, Ms. Karras' basic presuppositions about the moral character of these two Church Fathers are contradictory. Although she praises St. Gregory for his desire to preserve the orthodoxy of the Church's teachings, admitting that St. Basil did not initially seek after Ordination, she chastises the latter for justifying his subsequent actions as a clergyman on the grounds that "the greater needs of the Church justified his behavior," pointing out that "in Orthodoxy, unlike Marxism" (p. 273), the end seldom justifies the means. Aside from the bewildering hyperbole of such an observation, one is hard-pressed to understand why St. Gregory is praiseworthy because of his commitment to the protection of the Church, while St. Basil is guilty of Jesuitical motives on account of his submission to the needs of the Church.

In the same vein, at the very outset of this article, the author wonders whether Orthodoxy, "so imbued with internal spirituality," does not foster in spiritual aspirants the idea that they are "'above' the Law and moral conduct" (p. 274). This befuddled understanding of spiritual life leads Ms. Karras to her assumption that, because of his spiritual eminence, St. Basil somehow lost hold of the ethical and moral dimensions of Christianity, as though internal spirituality, in the teachings of the Fathers, were not inextricably bound to the acquisition of personal virtue. Moreover, as we shall argue more fully below, the transformation effected by spiritual growth is not, in essence, internal and external in form, even if we use these terms to describe various levels of spiritual maturity. Internals and externals do not form a dichotomy in Christian life, but are as closely connected to one another as a beautiful rose is to the roots which produce it. Truly spiritual men and women constitute criteria of the Law and of moral action. Inner spirituality and the external moral life do not exist apart. Thus, if we purport to find ethical flaws in great Saints, this is either because the individual in question is not a Saint (and what sane person would argue such a thing about St. Basil the Great?), or we have misjudged him. Theosis, the standard of sanctity, cannot exist where moral confusion or ethical weakness abounds.

There are faults and foibles in Karras' article that go beyond mere conceptual contradictions. In the second line of her study, she asks: "Particularly for those of us who serve the Church, and most especially for those who have felt the calling to the priesthood, what are our responsibilities as Christians?" (p. 273). To this question, the Church has a ready answer: Pray, fast, attain humility, and let God move in His own way and in His own time. But our author has quite another agenda, I believe. Perhaps she has not "felt the calling to the priesthood" and the frustration that some women express at being spared this spiritual curse, but she certainly exhibits an obvious disdain for St. Basil's "strength" and "composure" (her reference to his "overweaning [sic] pride" we will ignore as unwise hyperbole, at best) and great approbation for St. Gregory's supposed passivity and "quiet and skittish" nature. In no standard life of either of these Fathers do we find even a shred of evidence to support the idea that St. Basil the Great was an opportunist "driven by his ego," while St. Gregory the Theologian was a passive, restive individual "forever disillusioned by his friend's pride and lust for power" (pp. 278-79). Even such a typically neutral source as The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church concedes that St. Basil "was possessed of great personal holiness" (s.v., "St. Basil 'the Great"'). Karras' contrived character flaws, gleaned from polemical secondary sources and suspiciously consistent with the positive and negative antipodes of male traits established by the more hostile feminists, set the stage for a false portrayal of the morally compromised St. Basil as an assertive, dominant figure and the fanciful portrayal of St. Gregory as a more passive, docile, and morally upright character.

It is worthy of note that Ms. Karras bases her moral analysis of these two great Saints primarily on their correspondence, and this both on the basis of following at least one translator who takes great liberty with the original Greek texts and at the expense of concentrating too heavily on the tactics used by St. Basil to accomplish certain ends, such as the Ordination of St. Gregory and his own appointment to various ecclesiastical positions. She sees "deception" in St. Basil's efforts to serve the Church in a position for which she admits that "he was well qualified" (pp. 274-275), if only because she fails to see his larger aims, the same desire to preserve "the orthodoxy of the faith" that Ms. Karras freely grants to St. Gregory. Placing his correspondence and that of St. Gregory in the context of St. Basil's other writings and his life in general, one can but marvel at the distorted image of the Saint that our author has concocted. Who could read his essay "The Morals," drawn from Holy Writ, and accept that St. Basil was "deceived" or not "cognizant" of his "selfish or egoistic feelings"? Who could read his eloquent essay on asceticism (indeed, on the moral virtues), a guide to monastics and laymen alike for untold centuries, and still imagine that St. Basil was so negligent in self-examination as to have ignored a supposed dichotomy between theory and practice in his own life?

While it is true that St. Basil and his friend, St. Gregory, did not always agree on certain issues, and while many of the statements cited by Ms. Karras from the correspondence of the latter are shocking in translation, the translations in question, as we have noted, and the very nature of St. Gregory's writings present us with a problem. Today, even in scholarly circles, classical rhetoric is almost unknown. If too often we think in a simpleminded way, we frequently write without eloquence and without an appreciation for the art that good writing is. Therefore, when we look at the complex thinking and exposition of the Fathers, we usually first fail to grasp any but their most superficial ideas and then, second, proceed to translate their beautiful, purposeful use of words into that literary marmalade that is today called composition. Strong chastisement we take as condemnation; irony as literalism; admonition as disgust; hyperbole as natural sentiment, if not understatement; and personal correspondence about specific matters at a specific time as a basis for analyzing the moral stature of an individual. It is on this account that Ms. Karras can support her suppositions with quotations, but for which reason her portrayal of St. Basil is artificial, contrived, and inconsistent with what we know of him from the bulk of his writings and from his recorded accomplishments.

Finally, and more importantly, the article which we are considering fails to establish a working premise about the Saints and Fathers of the Church. St. Basil himself tells us that: "God always transcends the bounds of our intelligence." And so, too, do the Church Fathers and the holy men and women whom we honor as Saints in the Orthodox Church, since they partake of the nature of God by their union with Christ-the most basic definition of Sainthood and sanctity. We cannot apply to the Fathers and Saints of our Orthodox Faith the standards by which we determine and analyze the psychological or moral and ethical character of fallen man. Guided by a higher understanding of things, what may at first appear to us as expediency or moral relativism in the actions of these spiritual people may, indeed, prove to reflect the mysterious ways of the Spirit, which transcend our knowledge and criteria of moral judgment. When we bring into our study of the spiritual Masters of the Church those things of the "intellectual street" (feminist agendas, "pop" psychology, psychoanalysis, or mundane standards of upright behavior), then we read the Fathers and the writings of the Saints of our Faith with a spirit unknown to the generations of pious Orthodox scholars before us. We must read the spiritual texts of our Church with a realization that God has revealed His truth directly to those who wrote these texts, treating both the texts and their authors with awe. The Saints and Fathers, to which the Church attests by its recognition of their status among us, are above us. They are enlightened. It is not our task to approach them with a spirit of doubt or thinking that we can judge them, but with a keen desire to learn from them. Textual and personal evaluation have no place in this spiritual endeavor. Keeping this in mind, however sincere her motivations, we must understand that Ms. Karras' article is instructive only in the sense that she has clearly shown us how NOT to read the Fathers.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XIII, No. 2, pp. 10-12.