Friday, May 3, 2013

Was Gregory of Nyssa a Heretic?

Recently I happened to read the work of someone who thinks that Gregory of Nyssa was a heretic. Also he blames Paulos Mar Gregorios for choosing Gregory of Nyssa rather than Mor Ephrem for his doctoral studies. Obviously this person is knowledgeable about the ancient Christian traditions and about the church fathers.  However, in spite of all my admiration for this scholarly person, I have to disagree with him when he goes to the extreme of labeling Gregory of Nyssa a heretic.  Let me briefly explain why I have to disagree with him. I prefer to keep him anonymous, for I am not sure if he would like me mention his name.

Both Gregory of Nyssa and Mor Ephrem lived in the fourth century. Mor Gregory was in Nyssa (Cappadocia), and Mor Ephrem was in Edessa. Both of them contributed immensely to shape the views and ways of Christianity, and both are honored by the church in the east and west as saints and fathers. Gregory used Greek, and Ephrem used Syriac, but we use none of those languages in our day-to-day life today. The shift of languages marks a shift of culture and world-view. Just because we accept someone from the ancient time as a father of the church, we are not supposed to blindly follow his thought and teachings disregarding the cultural context. Instead of adopting someone’s thought, we are supposed to adapt it to suit our own time, place, and context. Something that was good in the fourth century may not be good in this twenty-first century, and something that was good in ancient Turkey may not be good in the modern India. 

We can learn valuable lessons from all the fathers of the various ancient Christian traditions – Greek, Syriac, and Latin. We need to find out how they responded to the challenges of life in their times so that we may follow their example when we face the challenges of life today. We must have the freedom to use our common sense when we adapt their views. Paulos Mar Gregorios chose the thought of Gregory of Nyssa for his doctoral studies. Because of what he did, we have gained some understanding of this great father of the fourth century. Following his lead, we like to see many other scholars make similar studies of the other fathers. Fr. Dr. K. M. George chose the thought of Gregory of Naziansus for his doctoral study. Geevarghese Mar Osthathios seems to have had his studies on the thought of Basil the Great. We really like to see a similar study on the thought of Mor Ephrem by a scholarly person who understands the classical Syriac.

There might be significant differences in the world-view of Gregory of Nyssa and Mor Ephrem. However, I doubt if we have enough evidences to discard Gregory and the Greek tradition altogether in favor of Ephrem and the Syrian tradition. I request scholars to help us understand the thought of Ephrem better, so that we may understand clearly how he differs from Gregory of Nyssa.

When Christianity evolved beyond the first century Palestine, it developed diverse ways of looking at the mystery of existence through the lenses offered by the various cultures it came into contact with. That is how there developed the Syriac, Greek, and Latin tributaries of Christianity. This multiculturalism has always been seen as a threat to the unity and integrity of Christianity by many. Alarmed at the ongoing development of diversities, they call for a return to the original culture and world-view. However, a sensible approach would be to learn from all the diverse traditions of the past, and to develop our own way of life.

Let me use a story to clarify my point:
Once upon a time, a king got a rare sickness, and doctors were invited to come and treat his illness from different parts of the country. They were asked to get together to discuss the illness. Although they were treating the same illness, the variety of their medical language was perplexing. They were using different words for the illness, for the herbs to make medicines, and even for the procedures of the treatment. They all inherited their medical knowledge from the same person who lived a couple of centuries ago, but in two centuries, their language changed considerably. They began to wonder who has the right medicine.  Each doctor claimed to be in custody of the right medicine, and they began to argue with one another. The minister, listening to their arguments, said, "You are here to heal the sickness of the king. We don't care what medicine you use. Heal the king if you can!"

The doctors focused on the right medicine for the illness. By the right medicine they meant the medicine that fully conforms to the the ideal medicine that cured such illness in the past. There was nothing wrong in seeking the medicine that was used in the past successfully. But it was not easy, for they couldn't even communicate with one another, and they couldn't figure out the exact components of the original ideal medicine because of the change in language. But the minister asked them to shift the focus from finding the right medicine to curing the illness of the king. A solution is right if it can solve the problem in that situation. A solution that was right in one time and place may not be right in another time and place. The minister encouraged the doctors to find out the best medicine using the best of their knowledge and experience.

Our religious traditions are like doctors who try to heal a sick world. It is always easier and better to use the available knowledge instead of reinventing the wheel. We seek insights from our scriptures and our inherited tradition. The original language of the scriptures might be incomprehensible to us. Also the specific theological language we use might be incomprehensible to others. The scholarly friend I mentioned claims that the Syrian Christian tradition is the right one and the Greek Christian tradition is heresy because his focus is on finding the right solution rather than curing the sick world. However, according to the best of my knowledge, bishop Paulos Mar Gregorios had his focus on healing the sick world. It is true that he chose the thought of Gregory of Nyssa for his doctoral studies. Even if he had chosen the thought of Mor Aprem, his focus would have been the same-- on healing the sick world.  Although he admired Gregory of Nyssa very much, he was not willing to accept everything this ancient father believed. 

People of all religious traditions in the world need to come together and explore how to heal the sick world. Instead of claiming the custody of the right solution, let them adopt an attitude of openness willing to learn from each other and share their knowledge with each other. This can be done by focusing on the problem rather than focusing on their own knowledge of the solution. May all the religious traditions focus their attention on healing the sick world!


Raji Johnson said...

May all the religious traditions focus their attention on healing the sick world!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it might be helpful to know the points of criticism of this scholarly person.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it might be helpful if you could also post the points of criticism of this scholar of Nyssa's worldview. Paulo's Gregorios himself was not slavish in his acceptance of Nyssa's thought and quite certainly did not hold on to the point of view that Nyssa had the answer to everything.

John Kunnathu said...

Dear Anonymous writer,
Thank you very much for reading and leaving the comment. I agree. I am trying to understand the points of criticism raised by him.

George. said...

Dear John: Religions focus on traditions, not on the medicine or on the Great Physician.Sick need right medicine form the Great Physician. Sick trying to heal by himself that is religion.Religion is trying to heal by their good work.

John Kunnathu said...

George, I have used the world tradition with a wide meaning-- all the information, knowledge, and beliefs and customs we have inherited from our past generations. Among what we inherit there might be useful and useless and harmful things. We have to use our commonsense to differentiate them. St. Paul speaks about good traditions (I Cor 11:2) and bad traditions (Col 2:8). Our holy scriptures are a part of the good tradition we have inherited.