We started our class in Ankara, which for political purposes is the 6 million-person capital of modern Turkey, but for our purposes it is in a region of Turkey called Galatia. 1st Century churches here received Paul’s second most tendentious letter, the one that famously begins “YOU FOOLISH GALATIANS” – not the conventional salutation for letters in the Roman world and not the way Paul usually commenced his correspondence. Galatians was the beginning of Paul’s theme about law and grace. See Live From Anatolia: Part 1.
Stephen Need, author of Paul For Today, gave a good lecture on the sources for what we know about Paul and began our conversation about how we see him. Linda observed that our dozen different views of Paul seemed to reflect a lot of projection. The truth about Paul may lie in the eye of the beholder. Still it makes for a good study.
We then visited the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, where we saw art and artifacts from the Bronze Age when Assyrians roamed these lands, then came the Hittites who also spent some time in Israel and were the Anatolian people for centuries before being driven out by Phrygians from the Balkans where they had been called Bryges. This is actually going to matter soon.
After visiting the magnificent Mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, we drove thorugh the afternoon to the Cappadocia region, which is significant not because of Paul but because of the 2nd Ecumenical Council. More on that soon.
In Cappadocia we stared out by going down. We explored the underground city. Cappadocia is a green but rocky land. There is a vast amount of soft volcanic stone, some lying flat along the earth, other stone rising vertically as huge boulders, cones, and cylinders. The stone is relatively easy to dig into. So the Hittites dug a whole city underground to hide in – presumably from the Phrygians, as the Hittites were too tough to need to hide from anybody else. The point here is that we began our experience of Cappadocia underground.
Then we got up at 4 o’clock the next morning for a hot air balloon ride to get a bird’s eye view of Cappadocia. From the sky, we could see that Christian monks, beginning in the 4th Century, had emulated their distant Hittite forbears digging into the volcanic rock, only they dug into the tall vertical structures. They dug out monk-made caves and enhanced existing caves to turn Cappadocia’s stony landscape into a beehive of monasteries. Seeing the place from below and then above gave us a sense of a cavernous spirituality here that infused Christianity but also preceded it. Christianity was tapping into something older and more primal.
After breakfast Stephen Need, author of Truly Divine, Truly Human (a history of the first six ecumenical councils that defined the faith) spoke on the Cappadocian Fathers – Basil the Great, his best friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, and his brother Gregory of Nyssa – and Basil’s brilliant theologian sister, Macrina. After the Council of Nicaea left major questions about who Jesus is unanswered, and failed to say anything particularly helpful about the Holy Spirit, these four closely connected spiritual giants thought, prayed, and wrote our way into the 2nd ecumenical council, Constantinople I, which finalized our present version of the so-called Nicene Creed.
More than anyone else the Cappadocians are responsible for our understanding of the Trinity as a living, organic network of procreative relationality, breathing life into the creation as an act of infinite love, but they were careful to insist on the mystery of God that cannot be reduced to a creedal formula. In one of his poems, Gregory of Nazianzus said,
“You are above all things.
How can words sing your praise
Since no word can grasp you. . . . .
You alone are unutterable.”
And Gregory of Nyssa, in his Life of Moses, portrayed the spiritual life as a journey into mystery, foreshadowing The Cloud of Unknowing.
So here’s what I’m wondering. How is it that these folks who knew words could not describe God become the key players in crafting a creed that would later be used to say who’s in and who’s out? Answer: I don’t know. But here’s my guess. The Creed they crafted is a spiraling koan of metaphors designed to open the mind to mystery. The heresies they opposed were efforts to reduce reality to something that made sense, something you could get your mind around. Maybe they intended the Creed as a doorstop to keep our minds open, not a dead bolt to keep them shut. I like to think that.
In the afternoon we exhausted ourselves tramping around the cave monasteries with their haunting/ haunted little stone chapels, each with walls of Byzantine frescoes. Truly awe-inspiring.
We heard a lecture on persecution of the Christians in the Early Church. My thought on that: as soon as the pagans stopped persecuting us, we began not only persecuting the pagans but also persecuting each other. Same game, just changing positions.
We closed they day by descending into yet another cave, this one quite well appointed. It was an upscale cave. There we watched the whirling dervishes do their dancing prayer. And it all seemed very much in line with the spirituality of the Cappadocians and the early monks.