Thursday, November 5, 2015

November 5 dissertation notes (week 12): In quest of a new topic

This week I've been back at it, feeling the pressure of needing to effectively reimagine my whole dissertation by December. Looking back on the past three years, it seems clear to me that trying to write a dissertation on homiletic theory (theology of preaching) was never likely to fly, and that I've consistently been pushed in the direction of doing something more technical (in terms of rhetorical technique), and less...ephemeral? More concrete?

Anyway, in light of that, I've spent my time these past two weeks doing three things: reviewing the rhetorical exercises that were the foundation of education in late antiquity, reading some orations of Themistius, a fourth-century non-Christian orator, and reviewing some less familiar orations of Gregory himself.

The rhetorical exercise that drew my attention the most has been the encomium, which is an exposition of the good qualities of a person, typically biographical in shape, using every detail (whether their family of origin, education, deeds, or manner of death) to showcase how awesome they are, and how others are less awesome by comparison. In school Gregory would have been trained in how to compose and deliver an encomium, and we find him doing so at several points throughout his career: for his brother Caesarius, his sister Gorgonia, and his dad Gregory, all of whom predeceased him; for Athanasius, who was of the generation before Gregory and probably not known to him personally; and for Basil, whom he certainly knew and with whom he shared churchly ambitions and a rather fraught friendship. There might be a couple of others which would fall under this category and will take slightly more effort to track down.

What's somewhat interesting is that, as you might expect, Christian encomia take some different tacks than those written by pagans would. For instance, stories of earthly suffering or lack of worldly position are opportunities to showcase Christian virtues. And Gregory's encomium of Caesarius is less a remembrance of his brother than a primer in how to grieve as a Christian -- i.e., according to him, we shouldn't grieve for the one who has gone on to glory so much as for our own sins and how much less holy we are.

On the other hand, I admit that I've spent less time reading these particular orations of Gregory's because they can become off-putting and just tiresome. I mean:

...[S]he was seen to surpass not only women, but the most devoted of men, by her intelligent chanting of the psalter, her converse with, and unfolding and apposite recollection of [Scripture], her bending of her knees which had grown hard and almost taken root in the ground, her tears to cleanse her stains with contrite heart and spirit of lowliness, her prayer rising heavenward, her mind freed from wandering in rapture; in all these, or in any one of them, is there man or woman who can boast of having surpassed her? . . . And if in some single particular she was rivaled, her superiority consists in her complete grasp of all. . . . O untended body, and squalid garments, whose only flower is virtue! O soul, clinging to the body, when reduced almost to an immaterial state through lack of food; or rather, when the body had been mortified by force, even before dissolution, that the soul might attain to freedom, and escape the entanglement of the senses! O nights of vigil, and psalmody, and standing which lasts from one day to another! . . . O nature of woman overcoming that of man in the common struggle for salvation, and demonstrating that the distinction between male and female is one of body and not of soul...
Taken by themselves, some details of the portrayal are interesting, but it's like this for pages, literally. And that's kind of the point: the rhetorical culture is foreign, the sensibilities about sanctity aren't exactly mine, it's a different context. I have to take all that into account when reading it.

 In any case, there might be something worth pursuing in a comparison of the themes of Christian encomia versus pagan ones of the same period, what was considered an ideal life and a good death, etc. There would be at least some overlap with material I've already written on Gregory's view of the character necessary for a good preacher.

Still, it takes me further away from preaching per se, which is what I found valuable and interesting in a patristics dissertation.

Next week I'll keep reading Gregory, try to identify some good comparative material in non-Christian sources, and hopefully ascertain whether there's potential for a topic. In some ways, conceding that there's need of a fresh topic feels energizing, and in other ways, it's just totally depressing.

As always, I'm glad to hear others' thoughts, and am thankful for your prayers and support!

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