Polemics, Zeal and St Isaac the Syrian

Isaac the Syrian is probably the most eloquent patristic witness for the position I have been sketching out (you can read that post here). The saint writes that “Someone who has actually tasted truth is not contentious for truth. Someone who is considered by people to be zealous for truth has not yet learnt what truth is really like; once he has truly learnt it, he will cease from zealousness on its behalf.” [Kephalaia IV.77; The Wisdom
of Saint Isaac the Syrian, translated by Sebastian Brock, (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press Convent of the Incarnation, 1997), p15.]

Commenting on this passage, David Goa, writes that like relativism, the zealousness that informs our polemical attitude “fail to discern aright what stands under the desire we have for that which is true.” Both relativism and zeal, deform our desire for the truth “into an appetite.” Once the pursuit of truth becomes an appetite, a passion in patristic terminology,

Whatever we come to look at and care about is then forced into conformity with the idea, image, or ritual that we have erected as absolute. We begin to hang all our hopes and dreams on the truth of our chosen framework, our precious absolutes (including the relativists’ precious absolute that there is nothing of ultimate value). Our longing is captured by an absolute of our own making. It follows, almost without saying, that once we hang all our hopes and dreams on something that we claim as absolute, it is a short step to hanging all our fears on it as well. In this moment the holy longing of the human heart and mind that lies behind the search for absolutes becomes polluted. Zealousness for the truth frames how we see and understand and reshapes our response to the fragility of the life of the world.

Goa continues by observing that the symptom our passionate pursuit of the truth is a need for enemies. My passion (pathos) for the truth can only be sustained insofar as I stand in opposition to someone or something. But this approach is one “that reduces complexity and purpose to frame [my assumed] conclusions.” But for the Christian “this is a false start for it begins neither at the heart of human nature or in the presence of God’s love” but in fear. Again, Goa:  “For St. Isaac, zeal for truth is itself a symptom of a spiritual disease. Or, perhaps, it is a condition that tends to develop at a certain stage in the spiritual life and is itself simply a marker of that stage. It is the spiritual equivalent of adolescence where the young try out all sorts of ideas and actions with the conviction that no one else has ever had these thoughts or feelings and they are exploring them for the first time. How can it be that no one else has ever seen just how important and ultimate these thoughts and feelings are?”

There is a sense in which our zealous pursuit of truth “is part of the process of maturation.” So when as a spiritual father I see the “zealousness for truth” spoken of by St. Isaac, I understand that it is “a stage in the spiritual development of the person. But just as with adolescence, if the condition persists, spiritual growth is arrested. One is stuck in the adolescent stage of the spiritual life.”

Christ however calls us to wholeness of being. Part and parcel of this wholeness means that by God’s grace and our own efforts “we are freed from the habit of taking refuge in abstract notions of truth. If we taste of truth at every Eucharist we know better. If we taste of truth every time we, like the disciples, find ourselves in Emmaus breaking bread with someone we didn’t know we knew, we know better. We know better every time our hearts are moved with compassion.”

But as I mentioned earlier, polemics, a zealous approach to the truth has a strangle hold on us because we do not wish to grow, to change. Our conversations are polemical because more often than not, our thinking about ourselves is static and rigid. Catholic/Orthodox polemics—at least as we see them in contemporary practice—are only accidentally theological. In the main (and I will address this more in another post) our polemics reflect our own lack of wholeness, of balance, of our own lack of virtue. We are, as I said earlier, neurotic

At the risk of misapplying the theory, I will in the next essay explore the different neurotic styles that seem favored by Eastern and Western Christians. To anticipate, Eastern Christians tend to see themselves as standing “against” others, even as Western Christians tend to move “toward.”

But that for another day.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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