Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Cryil of Alexandria & Ecclesial Realpolitik

This week I have been reading Daniel Keating's latest book The Appropriation of the Divine Life in Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril (5th Century) has been my favorite church father for quite some time now, mostly because of his unique willingness among the Greek fathers to speak of the suffering of God (though he always did this in a nuanced paradoxical way, e.g., that the Word of God suffers impassibly, unlike many modern theologians who throw around sloppy rhetoric about the passibility of God without assessing the consequences). On the other hand, Cyril is well known for his political cunning and sagacity. He is often labeled as the most despicable of early church theologians for his alliances with imperial forces in order to triumph over his theological foes, the most famous of which is Nestorius. His large and fascinating body of work is typically overshadowed by his Machiavellian reputation.

The question on my mind is whether Cyril-fans like me need to apologize for his bad behavior, or defend his politicking as doing Christian orthodoxy a great service. If Cyril was right (and I think he is) about Nestorius jeopardizing the reality of salvation with his Christological formulations, then what was the right thing to do? Just speak and write and hope the church would see the truth? Or get up and team up with the powers that be to ensure the victory of his view within the structures of the institutional church?

I am at a loss because I think so much can be at stake in such a foundational theological controversy, and yet I am not inclined to "play dirty" to ensure the right thing gets done. In today's controversies, I often find that those who are willing to politick are those with whom I disagree. So many in my generation are uncomfortable using institutional structures to do anything about it. So we idealistically sit back in the cool assurance that our ideas will win on their own merit. Maybe this ideal is a must, and I am willing to follow it through if it is a matter of obedient discipleship. But is it a higher calling to give up some of my personal piety for the sake of the church as a whole? That is the question.

12 comments:

David Drury said...

I'm going to go back and finish reading the rest of your post... but I laughed out loud in this coffee shop and people looked at me funny when I read: "Cyril Fans like me" in the post.

You're not in Indiana anymore, Toto!

David Drury said...

Good question, bro.
You = Nail --> head ... concerning the primary tension here.

I have the same one (although not really up to "Cyril Fan" status yet).

Steven Sample (who wrote the boo "the contrarians guide to leadership") has a chapter praising the classic book "The Prince" that would relate well to your quandry (I've always found the author of "The Prince" to be downright Machivellian, you know.

For me, I thought that chapter was full of crap and other assorted academic mud pies in the sky. However, upon further reflection that chapter I hated may have been on to something (sometimes the part of the Bible I like least is the part I most need to hear as well).

For my part... I've always believed at my core that the means can corrupt the end and often do. But that belief doesn't hold water well in the real world.

Cyril apparently lived in the real world more than many of us. (For instance, I've done a lot a research on it with google and apparently this Cyril guy didn't even have a BLOG!!! - astonishing!)

Ken Schenck said...

I've heard more than one person who had been in high level leadership in the past talk both with some regret and yet resignation to the politics of the church. The general sentiment seems to be that politics is almost inevitable the higher up you go in leadership. One comment I remember from one person was "I wonder if you can only be holy if you are in no position of authority at all."

It's actually hard for me to hold God's workings together (gulp) without coming to some sense of Him sometimes working through misunderstanding (e.g., how I think Hebrews got in the canon) or through the sinful (e.g., the Babylonians in Habakkuk). The Ubermensch concept is atrocious, but is God allowed (cf. Abraham and Isaac, although I think there is a better explanation)? Do leaders sometimes have to do an "end justifies the means" thing "within reason" (don't read, Bush)?

Don't hold me to the repercussions of any of this... I'm no Ubermensch...

Anyway, I find no fault in Cyril (and since I'm still in Indiana, I can live with the name).

Samuel Bills said...

Yahweh will politik for us...
Is there any relationship between non-violence and the necessity of politicking? Is political positioning the exchange for not choosing violence? It would be easier to just kill people that you have theological differences with. Or are the arguments that we use against violence also prohibitive of agrressive politicking? I loved my ethics class in seminary - but there was always a tension in my mind at the tension of politics and pacifism. Is politicking really a subtle, or sometimes not so subtle, way of violent coersion.

Samuel Bills said...

By coersion of course I mean coercion. Oops

JohnLDrury said...

Are church councils with binding dogmas necessarily coercive?

Samuel Bills said...

Binding dogma is not necessarily coercive...but it is the process of getting to binding dogma - and deciding on which dogma to make binding that can become coercive. Isn't that when politicking happens.

JohnLDrury said...

Is it possible to have a non-coercive process for church doctrinal decision? What would that look like?

Kevin K. Wright said...

It would look like God descending in the form of a fire blazing cloud over a church council and in a loud booming voice dictating what the correct doctrines were while simultaneously a large hand wrote them out on the wall.

JohnLDrury said...

Sounds like General Conference ;-)

Keith.Drury said...

As one who spent most of his life in a denominational headquarters I shall not address this topic (though I am willing to be quoted by others)

;-)

millinerd said...

"This side of the Eschaton there will be no crawling out of our political skins" (Damon Linker).