Tuesday, November 10, 2009

God in Early Christian Thought

[An extract from the preface of my new (edited, with Tim Gaden and Brian Daley SJ) book, God in Early Christian Thought; Essays in Memory of Lloyd G. Patterson)]

Early Christian studies have changed. New emphases on diversity of thought and practice, and on the experience and belief of Christians other than the great theologians, mean more and deeper attention to a variety of ancient texts beyond those previously regarded as useful or revealing, as well as to material evidence. The diversity of Christian discourses and rituals, the distinctive experiences connected with class and gender, concerns about the construction of the body as well as the progress of the soul, and the role and function of languages and texts themselves, are now being given fresh and deeper attention.

In the more specific realm of ideas and their history, theoretical assumptions somewhat different from those of classical historical theology now elucidate the most foundational of ancient theological texts. And scholars exploring the beliefs of the ancient Christians are less likely to focus their inquiry exclusively on the work of great theologians, but have come more and more to consider the thoughts, experiences and practices of various women and men, so far as they are accessible. Thus the great tradition of emergent Catholic Christianity once easily evoked by the term “Patristics” is increasingly viewed in relation to a diversity at best imperfectly dealt with by categories of “orthodoxy” and “heresy”.

In this different intellectual landscape, where practice is emphasized and doctrinal clarity challenged, the question of God is perennial and fundamental. This volume ventures into that area of greatest scope, editors and contributors aware not only of the trepidation proper to mystery, but also of new pitfalls, as well as opportunities, arising from the methods and interests now deemed appropriate or necessary.

Since the idea of a comprehensive or definitive approach to the topic is more problematic than ever, these essays take a variety of approaches to the early Christian experience of God that reflect the changes just described. While individually modest in scope, they seek to address questions of both ancient and modern significance, using particular issues and problems, or single thinkers and distinct texts, as means to engage far larger questions. They include studies of doctrine and theology as traditionally understood, but also explorations of early Christian understandings of the Christian God that emerge from liturgy, art, and asceticism, and in relation to the social order and to nature itself.

In their various ways these studies all grapple with what is arguably the distinctively Christian problem and promise: of holding the philosophical impossibility and the soteriological imperative of knowing God in creative tension.

[More information here.]