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!)