Tag Archives: Evagrius

Discipleship in the Empire

There are times when the questions of someone else linger like the sweet taste of honey. These are the kinds of questions that you savor, and long for the answer but know deep down that the answer will never be quite as satisfying as the question itself.

My sister in faith Dana Cassell asked me one such question over lunch. “How do we live faithfully in the midst of Empire?” As soon as the point of the question mark lifted her intonation, I knew it was that kind of query. And it was one I knew that any thoughts would pale in comparison to the penetrating insight the question itself revealed. It was the question of first Christians as the Apostles spread throughout Rome. It was the question Hippolytus tried to articulate in his list of jobs a new Christian must renounce before baptism. And it was the question that drove the likes of Augustine and Chyrsostom to preach against attending the “spectacles” in the colosseums and theaters of the day. And though each one offered a short answer, it is in the question itself that we find the heart of our discipleship. So long as we can finally dig beneath the answers themselves to articulate the question itself. And like so many other times, Dana put words to the sweetness of the quest.

So I only attempt an answer with fear and trembling, and hopefully not gnashing of teeth.

In his book “The Way of the Heart” Henri Nouwen presented a captivating description of the desert in the spiritual life. In the desert, the monks sought a solitude that would transform them. This furnace, Nouwen said, refined them by melting off the bits of illusion that ran deep in their souls. Though we might think of the ascetic project as relative late comer into the history of the church, Nouwen pointed to Jesus’s journey in the desert. With forty days alone in the wilderness, Jesus confronted the temptations we all face, temptations that are precisely what Empire wants us to pursue.

Here is Nouwen’s account of the temptations:
“Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. Jesus himself entered into this furnace. There he was tempted with the three compulsions of the world: to be relevant (‘turn stones into loaves’), to be spectacular (‘throw yourself down’), and to be powerful (‘I will give all these kingdoms’). There he affirmed God as the only source of his identity (‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone’). Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter— the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.” 25-26

The stories of Jesus’ temptation were foundational for the growth of early Christian asceticism. By withdrawing to the desert wilderness, Jesus prefigured the necessary withdraw from the confines of Constantinian Rome, from the Empire. The wilderness, it was said, was the place where the demons could be confronted face to face. It was their domain, just as Satan confronted Jesus while he fasted and prayed.

As Christianity grew in social privilege and became increasingly intertwined with the Empire, throngs of people fled to the desert. There were those who sought to follow the example of Jesus, and those who came just to see how these spiritual athletes fared in the wilderness. Those spiritual athletes embodied a detachment that seemed admirable to many, all except those who found new power and influence in the relationship between church and empire.

However, the mythology of the desert hermits reveal that the retreat into the wilderness solitude was no easy feat. There are paintings and icons that depict the first monk Antony wrestling with demons who pulled his hair and beard, his body often in postures reminiscent of the cross. As Nouwen says, it was like a furnace that sped up transformation.

There in the desert, alone without the distractions of “normal” life, the monks confronted the illusions the Empire sought so hard to maintain. The same is true for us, though we clearly don’t see the struggle with solitude as a battle with demons. When we finally pull away from the drone of images and stories from our culture, we are left to hear the inner monolog— all the stories we have internalized both about ourselves and the world around us. Those tapes in our head are there all the time, it is just that in solitude there is nothing to distract us.

I remember my first day of solitude retreat. Honestly I kind of fumbled around. I took a nap for a couple of hours, and I walked around the grounds of the retreat house. But that only took up like two and half hours. There was a whole day yet. So I sifted through the book case, stared at the crack in the wall, and only fueled what I could only describe as boredom. There was nothing to do… no email to answer, no tv shows to catch up on, no commercials to make fun of, and no one to talk too. I honestly spent most of my time that day trying to avoid any kind of self-reflection. I simply did not want to do the work of solitude.

We are culturally shaped to avoid that kind of work. Marketers and TV execs do their best to keep us distracted. In fact, they work to make sure that we think and behave in ways that support the political economy of the society. That means keeping people from asking the tough questions. And they try to make sure we have a common understanding of what is good and right. Our flourishing, they tell us is tied to a thriving economy of goods and services, and the power and prestige of the state.

Even when they hold up the lives of significant men and women, they do so in ways that make them seem almost super human— they were powerful, relevant, and spectacular. They were able to meet the needs of the time, with insightful action, and do it in ways that captured the attention of everyone around them. And the spin doctors do their best to hold them up as icons of our time while trying to not make them too inspiring so that people don’t get the hair brained idea that too much needs to change around us. In order to be important people, we need to seek power and influence, and most of all be charismatic.

As Matthew tells us in the scriptures, this is nothing new. Even Jesus confronted that image of the charismatic and powerful leader. Or, in more theological terms, he too was tempted by the false stories about power, prestige, and relevance. As Thomas Merton has said, these were the stories of the false self— that self-understanding that is fueled by the needs and desires of the Empire. However, in facing these temptations head on, Jesus also reveals to us a way to hear the story, not from the perspective of the Empire, but from the wisdom of God. At each point, he rebuffed the false temptations with the words of scripture. He was not, then, alone in his solitude, left to face the temptations without another story.

The desert monk Evagrius of Pontus wrote an entire collection of sayings that followed the model of Jesus’ confrontation with Satan. In a small tract aptly titled “Talking Back” Evagrius offered the monks battling the stories of the Empire in solitude a list of scriptures that could be recited to rebuff their own temptations. Like Jesus, if they found themselves battling the temptations of particular demons, the monks could recite the promises and truths of scripture. As he says in the open of the book, “In the time of struggle , when the demons make war against us and hurl their arrows at us, let us answer them from the Holy Scriptures, lest the unclean thoughts persist in us, enslave the soul through the sin of actual deeds, and so defile it and plunge it into the death brought by sin.” (49)

This kind of instrumental approach to scripture, using small verses apart from their context, flies in the face of all the interpretive values we have learned in Sunday School. What is more, the idea that we combat demons contradicts our modern understanding of the world. So it is no wonder that many readers of Evagrius psychologize his system. By recalling the scriptures to mind in the moments of angst in solitude, the monk re-ordered his mind. The words of the Bible countered those tapes in their head that celebrate power, vice, and prestige. In the moment of distraction and temptation, the holy scriptures were a kind of detox from the false images of the self the empire banked on.

In solitude, accompanied by the scriptures themselves, we find a new way through the loop holes of Empire. How do we live in Empire, as disciples of Jesus? We follow his example. We make time for retreats into solitude, and confront our false selves with the words of scripture. This isn’t an easy answer to the beautifully sweet question Dana asked a few weeks ago. It isn’t even a complete answer. However, in our work around the denomination, it is one that pulls us from temptations to be powerful, relevant, and spectacular. For in rejecting these temptations with the holy words of scripture, we too might be attended to by the angels.


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Discipleship Not Dogma

This post is part of a larger NuDunker conversation, “Dunker theologizing: How we do our God talk” including a series of blog posts and a live Google+ hangout Thursday, 10/3 at 10 AM eastern. We would love for you to add your voice to the discussion! Check out the list of blog posts on our Google+ page here.

The Brethren often are accused of being anti-intellectual, both from those within the tradition and those outside. In fairness, that moniker is often applied to evangelicals as well (see Mark Noll’s book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind). For Brethren, though, it does seem to be in our DNA. Culturally, we have been a rural denomination. Though education is clearly important, there is often a mistrust between plain folk and those of the ivory tower. I have written elsewhere that this might be better construed as anti-elitism. The family vision of being church often plays out as a kind of radical egalitarianism that has little room for specialists or academicians. The second reality is that our roots in Pietism included a skepticism of the scholasticism that emerged in the second and third generations of Lutheran and Reformed theologians. Though these thinkers did not debate the number of angels on the head of the pin, a derision often applied to medieval scholastics, they did work towards dogmatic precision.

These Pietists, as well as their Anabaptist predecessors, did not have much good to say of such dogmatism. The theological precision, birthed in academic ivory towers, often elevated belief above discipleship. We might say that dogma, a kind of rigid and precise theology, is a lifting of ideas out of lived experience. For the Radical Reformers, such an approach to God-talk was one of the many problems with the state of the church. Theology, for them, appears to have been first and foremost a part of discipleship- understanding what it means to follow Jesus.

None of this is said in order to imply that the Brethren are or have been atheological. Since theology is first and foremost “talk about God,” then everything we do and pray is a kind of theology.

I have found that the liturgical theologians exemplified in writers such as Alexander Schmemman, Aidan Kavanaugh, Gordon Lathrop, and Don Saliers help to understand the way Brethren do theology. Though their talk of Liturgy is more high-church terms they do distinguish between two kinds of theology. Primary Theology, they argue, is the theology expressed in our worship. In that sense, all prayer is theology- talk not only about God, but to God. As Don Saliers puts it, Primary Theology is a theology of address. Secondary Theology, then, is the reflection on and interpretation of the theology in our doing. That is what most people think theologians do in writing books and teaching classes.

The difference is born out in two great maxims of the early church. First, Evagrius of Pontus, a monk of the fourth century, wrote this of prayer and theology: “A theologian is one who truly prays, and one who truly prays is a theologian.” The idea is clear- our prayers are theology, and anyone who prays is to be understood as a theologian. The second comes from a writer in what is now France called Prosper of Aquitaine. In one treatise he summed up what was expressed in a great number of writers before him. “The law of supplication is the standard of belief.” That long phrase, often cited in Latin has come to be known in a shorter phrase- Lex orandi, lex credendi” or “The rule of prayer is the rule of belief.”

For Brethren, it seems to me that the phrase might be altered a bit- Our way of life is the rule of belief. This gets to the deeply embodied sense of what it means to do theology. This includes our worship, our commitment to mutual aid, and the way we envision a witness for peace. All this is to say our discipleship is our theology.

That is not to say that we are not “secondary theologians.” By that I mean we do have a need to reflect on both our categories for God and God’s mission through the church, and especially our experiences in the living out of our confession of faith. It is just that our commitment isn’t to dogmatic theology. Rather, our theology and reflection are subjective, integrated within our particular lives. Dogma, as the lifting up of a theology beyond what we know and experience, is counter to this integrated mode of theological reflection and discipleship.

In a recent meeting sister Dana reminded me of what our teacher Don Saliers often said as he taught this liturgical approach to theology- “You all already know this.” By this he was trying to remind us that many of the theological categories often relegated to the realms of systematic theology are already a part of our worship and prayer. I often offer this as a reminder to members of the Church of the Brethren. Though I may have several theological degrees, my commitment to the Priesthood of All guides me to hear the thoughts and perspectives of my sisters and brothers. Even more so, it is incumbent upon me as a teacher of theology to remind us that we each are theologians. For, as Evagrius said, when one truly prays, one is a theologian.


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