Pastoral care and theology


An icon of the Prodigal Son

Plato’s Socrates is famous to have said that it is impossible to do something bad when you know the good: the problem of akrasia, or of weakness of will, as it is known in modern philosophy. Many critics of Plato emphasize that theoretical knowledge cannot have any effect on action. According to them, knowing the good cannot make one good.  In other words, propositional knowledge–and these critics consider that Plato was referring to propositional knowledge–has no influence on the being of a person. For them, while the rational part of the soul may tell us the right action, the non-rational parts, the appetites and the thumos may direct us to our passions. We can see in this criticism the difficulty people have with accepting that knowledge influences being. This difficulty stems from separation between theory and praxis, and it also represents the danger that pastoral theology faces.

Consider a priest. If a priest only knows only propositionally the right kind of action, he would never be able to shepherd his flock. The only thing he could do in such a case is to give them theoretical knowledge; to be a teacher. Soren Kierkegaard says in his Fear and Trembling that a knight of faith is a witness, and never a teacher. This is so because a knight of faith lives (or “experiences”) faith—he is transformed by it; he knows God in a different way than propositionally. And so, as Fr. Joseph Allen says in Orthodox Synthesis, “the practice of the priesthood is itself an intrinsic theological activity since it is the ‘being in act’ of theology” (99). Theology cannot be just engaging abstract concepts and making sense of them philosophically. Rather, theology is life—words incarnated—and so the life of priesthood is the being in act of theology, or words having life.

This seems to suggest that there is an essential connection between theology and priesthood. If the latter is the being-in-act of the former, then one may be able to say that we cannot separate priesthood and theology in two things. We could apply instead an Aristotelian perspective and say that theology and priesthood form a hylomorphic whole. The separation is in act—theology becomes what it actually is only when lived, the same way a body is that which it is only in engaging in the activities specific to its kind. If this is so, then one cannot engage in pastoral care in the absence of theology in the same sense in which a human soul cannot engage in human activities in the absence of a human body.

Pastoral care is not done in a vacuum; also, it is not its own source. When a priest is engaged in pastoral care it is not him who provides the care, but he can rather do it in allowing Truth and Love to work through him. It is in actualizing that which constitutes him—theology—that a priest can truly be a shepherd.

In yesterday’s post, I said some things about the healing ministry of the Church. It seems that this idea of union between theology and the practice of pastoral care, which is emphasized in Orthodox Synthesis, can also be seen in the practice of healing. Healing brings together that which was broken: sickness in the world is separation; our separation from God and our separation from each other. Healing is the reparation of broken constellations, the recovering of beauty out of ugliness. Pastoral care brings back this union in reconciliation with God. But this is not only apparent in relationships with others, but also in our relation with ourselves. This is how I understand the idea that the pastor “introduces the person to himself” (Orthodox Synthesis 222). We perceive ourselves as being separate from God. We do not acknowledge to Whom we belong, and thus we become people with two heads (see Parmenides, for whom the people on the path of not-knowledge are double-headed), being always in conflict with ourselves. The role of the pastor, who himself is theology in action, is to bring us back to this union. This is not done through lecturing, but rather through being this union, through witnessing to Truth by living life in connection with Truth.

Pastoral care, then, is connected with theology in that it always begins from the word of God, from understanding God. This understanding, however, is not expressed in propositions, but rather in the life well lived. Fr. Roman Braga says that in the Orthodox tradition we do not believe too much in learning about God. God is alive. You live Him and you are nourished by Him. On the one hand, this life is potentially giving light and understanding to others—allows others to live God, just as the “lamp placed on a stand” (Matthew 5;15). On the other hand, it provides guidance and direction—it takes you by hand when you cannot see the path. But these lamps are not ours, but they are given to, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann said, as the means of communion with God.


About Tavi's Corner

Blogging on ancient philosophy, communist persecution in Romania (including deportation to Siberia), and Orthodox Christianity. I've translated books from Romanian to English, and I also write about them from time to time.
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