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on cross-tradition theological reading
If you really want to grow, there is nothing like immersing oneself in a different language and culture. Or at least that is what I’ve heard from others, including my mother, whose double major in English and French and immersion study in Paris during college inspired me to choose French as my required language in high school. Although I have no prolonged cultural immersion experience myself, I can testify to the benefit of immersive reading in different traditions of Christianity.
I have been doing that off and on for the last 2 years or so with Eastern Orthodox writers. The Philokalia is a well-deserved favorite, which introduced me to a host of teachers in the well trodden path of the spirituality of the desert fathers. A collection of writings in Orthodox monastic spirituality and theology spanning from the 4th to 15th centuries, The Philokalia only just became fully available in English in 2020 with the translation of the final 5th volume (sadly from a different publisher than volumes 1-4).1 Reading through over 1,000 years of Christian faith and practice from followers of Jesus in different lands who spoke a different language and inhabited a different worldview has challenged my own thinking, stretched my heart, and inspired my faith.
If I had not already been so stretched by The Philokalia, I doubt I would have been prepared for my next 748 page immersion experience in The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy Patitsas. Wrestling with his profound Greek Orthodox patterns of thought was truly like learning another language. I will return to his revolutionary thesis next week. For now, I mention his work to encourage Christians, especially evangelicals, to engage in cross-cultural theological reading.
C.S. Lewis warned about chronological snobbery, the presumption that contemporary authors are inherently more accurate. He explains,
“Our own age is also a "period," and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”2
Chronological time, or the age in which one lives, is an aspect of one’s culture, so we could just as accurately talk about “cultural snobbery”. There are blind spots in one’s era, so that engaging the thought of prior eras can dispel illusions. But the very nature of theological traditions means continuity of thought throughout time, so one can read authors from the same tradition in a different time without much challenge. We also need the challenge of different theological traditions and cultures, regardless of time period, to keep us from being trapped in the illusive hall of mirrors. The illusion that Patitsas aims to dispel is the illusion of what he calls the truth-first approach to ethics, advocating instead for “the beauty-first way”. For my fellow reformed Protestant evangelicals, there is a language barrier here, a “widespread assumption” that Patisas can help us with. More on that next week.
Quote from Timothy Patitsas
“…the importance of falling in love with other cultures and civilizations, or with something beautiful that can make us forget ourselves. Our lives only begin, our moral struggle only commences, once we’ve loved something enough to want to leave ourselves behind. That can be painful—but ideally it’s never worse than bittersweet.”3
The Ethics of Beauty, by Timothy Patitsas
When did you last read from or talk to a Christian from a different tradition and culture? What did you learn about your own tradition that you didn’t see before?
Praying for and laboring with you,
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I have since learned that Faber & Faber, publisher of volumes 1-4, did produce an English translation of the final fifth volume in 2023.
Surprised by Joy, p. 114, in The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis, Inspirational Press (1987).