My Christmas present to readers of this electronic journal this year will be to tell you to go read the Church Fathers. I should mention that you are getting this advice already “used,” or at least secondhand. I already wrote a column saying the same thing in a different way in my (very) secular newspaper column, suggesting to the (mostly very) secular readers of it that, say, Irenaeus of Lyons would be a good place to start. But it strikes me now that Christian people should also consider reading the Church Fathers.
Even I should consider doing so, which is how this whole idea got started. Lately I have found myself immersed in them — and very glad of the immersion, and of the increasing excitement that comes from dispersing the fog and finding an ocean where I’d expected a pond.
Many years ago, as a vertiginously High Anglican, I made an inadequate start. You know: Augustine’s Confessions, and then a dip into City of God. These are often taken as discrete works, as classics for Everyman to consume along with, say, Mansfield Park and Great Expectations.
Augustine will indeed serve in all seasons, and for a particular reason is more immediately accessible today than any other ancient Christian writer — for the whole modern or post-classical world, and most of its attitudes, are incarnated in him. Even to the least initiated, he may feel like a contemporary of ours, this side of the Wall of Antiquity.
As one looks back over time, it becomes harder and harder to appreciate, in its own context, the magnitude of the “creative genius” that made this transformation possible, from “ancient” to “modern” sensibilities — first in Augustine and then, gradually, in everyone who followed in his wake. In the manner of our English Shakespeare, he steps decisively out of time — so that centuries are required to realize how “new” he is; and more centuries are still required to discover what else lurks within the old text. Yet Augustine is that much bigger and more consequential than Shakespeare: for what we call today “the West” was, in some sense, invented by him, seemingly almost singlehanded.
But it was not invented out of nothing; and it is in reading Scripture, and then rereading Scripture in the light of the earliest Church Fathers, that the path emerges from there to here. Things — infinite things — that are implicit in the teachings and life of Christ are unraveling or uncoiling and unfolding over time, as the nymph turns into the dragonfly before our eyes.
Yet there is something almost as grand, and in some respects even grander than Augustine, in Origen. One of the thrills of my own earlier life was finding (in a Protestant translation) his long epistle “Against Celsus” — in which the great genius of Alexandria is put to the trouble of explaining not only what “improbable things” Christians believe, but why, to a highly educated and very sophisticated and skeptical representative of the intelligentsia in the ancient pagan world.
Origen is directly on the path from Christ to Augustine. I wish when I had first found him I had been equipped with Hans Urs von Balthasar’s marvelous book Spirit and Fire, a “thematic anthology” of Origen’s writings; for the contemporary reader needs the direction of such a learned but lively Catholic hand, if he is not to become bewildered by the very range of Origen’s mind, almost invariably more orthodox than first appears.
Origen was enthralling to me, as a then-recent Christian convert, because he touched the ground I had recently walked over. There were moments in which it seemed that he was writing not to Celsus but to me. I realized that, superficial as my education had been, it was in one respect quite thorough. I had had instilled in me, by my well-meaning teachers, a pagan sense of the ancient pagan world: I actually expected Christian apologists to be intellectually deficient and drowsy, in comparison to the great pagan philosophers. and in point of style diffuse and embarrassing. It was a shock to discover such a sharp blade — and more where he came from.
Moreover, I’d been disposed, by the Protestant environment in which I was raised (as everyone in North America is raised), not to expect the earliest Christian writers to be very Catholic. Only recently has this “nervous twitch” been entirely cured — this fear that what is recognizably “Roman Catholic” will not emerge until Augustine’s time or later; that the first few centuries belong equally to all denominational comers.
Ignatius of Antioch is our man for this (though hardly the only one). He flourished — to the point of martyrdom — under the reign of Trajan (98 to 117 A.D.) and is known to us only as the author of letters written to various local churches while himself en route to Rome for his own execution. These fragments, recovered in Greek, Latin, and Syriac recensions, are so obviously imbued with Catholic dogma — uttered unselfconsciously and unambiguously and unmistakably, in such an unquenchably joyous spirit — that Protestant scholars long assumed they’d been faked. But such is the progress of scholarship that it is no longer possible even for them to try this on. “He’s there and he’s bare,” to paraphrase our contemporary idiom — and as infallibly Roman as Pope Pius IX.
I would go on, but this column is already coming in sight of its word count. Read Hans Urs von Balthasar, perhaps, as a guide to the early Fathers; or read Newman, who provides another viable route from our world to one that was younger. And discover, once you have arrived there, that the world has not changed. The myriad gnostic heresies are still on offer in their modernized forms; the “free market” of spacey “alternative religions” is still with us; the threat of persecution for orthodoxy remains; and the demands made upon us by Our Savior have not been altered over time. The pope in Rome will always be besieged by the media of the day, and terrible things will continue to happen.
Those “alternative religions” (including in our age everything from Communism to Environmentalism to Hippie Buddhism to Lesbo-Feminism to Radical Islamism) have the luxury of becoming extinct over time and being replaced by “fresh” gnostic alternatives to catch the breeze of fashion, so that they do not need to worry about internal consistency. Catholic Christianity does not have that luxury, and generation after generation we must pick up all the pieces and move on.
But there will be no generation in which our people will not benefit immensely by anchoring themselves, not only in the wise reading of Scripture, but in the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. That literature is vast and various — more than a lifetime’s reading for anyone — yet perfectly coherent, as it all revolves around our common Sun in Christ.
And in its very breadth and wealth it provides the antidote to the “five-foot bookshelf” — to the constraining spirit in what remains of our university humanities departments. For there is a mental five-foot bookshelf installed in almost every graduate: the list of commonly accepted “classics,” with whose paperback blurbs he is familiar. It is a five-foot shelf on which four feet at least are occupied by standard secular “classics” — including the bloated remains of the Victorian age, represented in every paperback line.
Young educated Catholics need to know that their heritage cannot be accommodated in those five feet (Migne alone is 400 folio volumes); and Catholic educators need to know that they have failed, terribly, to make the Catholic literature apparent to their young charges. For we live in a corner of the Catholic universe; it does not live in a corner of this.
Image: Altarpiece of the Church Fathers, Michael Pacher (1483)