20 July 2010

‘To be or not be ... to do or not to do?’

The Revd Professor Andrew Louth speaking at the IOCS summer school in Sidney Sussex College this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

I once saw a T-shirt on sale in the Plaka in Athens that said: “To do is to be, Socrates. To be is to do, Plato. Do-be-do-be-do, Sinatra.” This morning, at the IOCS summer school in Cambridge, the Revd Professor Andrew Louth said the great moral question for Christians is indeed: “To be or not to be?” and not: “To do or not to do?”

Father Andrew was delivering a paper on the topic: ‘May the One who suffered for us and freed us from the passions, Almighty Saviour, have mercy on us!’ Reflections on the Passion and the passions.

Father Andrew has been at Durham University since 1996, for most of that time as Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies. He teaches courses on the history and theology of the Church, and his research interests lie mostly in the history of theology in the Greek tradition and in mysticism. He is the author most recently of Greek East and Latin West: the Church AD 681-1071 (2007). He is a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church, editor of the journal Sobornost, and co-editor of the series Oxford Early Christian Studies.

He spoke of how the verb from which the word passion comes means to suffer, and not merely to be in pain. For example, when Christ says ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me,’ the word ‘suffer’ means not to be in pain but to let, to allow, to be passive.

In his passion, Christ lets something happen to him. He accepts being arrested, betrayed, scourged, and being put to death. Though he lets these things happen to him, he never loses control. He allows something to happen. I

The Greek word for Easter, Pascha, is derived from the Hebrew for Passover (Pesach), which means transition, passing over, or passing beyond. But to the Greek ear, the word Pascha is close to the word used for the Passion, which is not only his death but his transition to the Resurrection.

He outlined the four basic qualities, excellences or virtues as temperance, courage, wisdom, and justice or righteousness.

Moral philosophy in the past debated how to acquire these virtues, so that we can be most truly ourselves through being active rather than being through reactive.

We live in a world that is mostly beyond our control. But we have to ask how we can live in it so that whatever happens we can rise above it because we are clear about what values to pursue. What we do must flow from what we are rather than from being reactive.

The great moral question for Christians is indeed: “To be or not to be?” and not: “To do or not to do?” We rise above the passion, and how we act flows from who we are and what we believe.

The great moral question for Christians is indeed: “To be or not to be?” and not: “To do or not to do?” (Photograph © Patrick Comerford )

Our second lecturer today is Dr Sebastian Brock, who speaks on “The ‘Anger’ of God: some thoughts from the Syriac Fathers,” and on “The Passions according to John the Solitary.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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