Thursday, May 12, 2016

Love the Fathers? Thank an academic.

Do you love getting to read the Church Fathers in a language you understand? Then you should thank an academic---or more likely multiple academics. Men (and women) of academia are the reason that almost anyone in America can have patristic theology as a hobby. Yet, it is almost always inevitably these very people who enjoy patristic theology as a kind of hobby who, at the least provocation, will pour contempt and scorn upon "academia", "academic theology", or the "liberal universities" (sometimes without any provocation at all).

Of course, this is not entirely unmerited when we do see some of the horrible things that come out of theology departments at modern universities. But to focus merely on those abuses and not on the immense gift that the modern universities have offered us is a immense sin of ingratitude to the people, the majority of whom are not Orthodox, who have made available to us the sources of our own theology.

We have to face the facts that unless we read patristic Greek (or Latin or Syriac) and have access to the manuscripts, our own ability to interact with the texts of the Fathers comes only by means of the blood, sweat, and toil of "western academia." But even this expression, "western academia" is too impersonal for me though. Our access to patristic theological works isn't the result of an impersonal process or institution called "academia." Access to the Fathers came at a very real cost--a human cost.

Yes, theological research has a human cost. We have access to the Fathers because innumerable young men and women decided they loved theology enough to give the best years of their life to sitting in University libraries, learning how to read upwards of five and six languages, learning the techniques required to produce good critical editions, all because they believed that the Fathers and other theological writers in the Christian tradition had something important to say to the contemporary Church today and to all of humanity. Especially today, when there is plenty of information available about how disastrous it can be to go into graduate studies in a liberal arts field, the fact that there are still a portion of people who would give up the "prime years of their life," almost certainly destroy their lifetime earning potential, sacrifice the time they could be spending on cultivating their relationships with their family and friends, all so they can produce good, printed editions of works that a rapidly secularizing world doesn't care two cents for, is an immense blessing and a testament to the power of the Christian theological tradition to continue to transform lives.

All that being said, this is why I find it nearly unpardonable that those who enjoy the fruits of the academy feel so free to pour scorn upon that same institution. That institution, without which, the possibility of them doing armchair theology would never have existed in the first place. I don't write this because I want to condemn anyone, but simply to remind us all: theological research has a human cost. And the next time you want to go and make carte-blanche condemnations of academic theology and the universities, remember that human cost. Remember that any volume of patristic writings is the product of years of work by philologists and theologians who likely gave up material comfort and much more to give you the privilege to access the texts of the Fathers in a language you understand.

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