Basil of Caesarea (329/330 – 378) was an important early thinker about the still-developing world of monasticism, writing guidelines for those who sought to lead lives of quiet contemplation.
Yet, as Andrew Radde-Gallwitz notes in his short, sprightly biography Basil of Caesarea, Basil saw little difference between ascetic and authentic Christianity, between living in a monastic setting and living in the wide, bustling world.
Both, for him, were aspects of a “life centered on Christ’s commandments.” Both, too, involved living a God-focused existence within a community.
Basil was suspicious of a “go it alone” model of spirituality. For him, to think of ourselves as self-sufficient would be to ignore the many ways in which we need each other, a mutuality that God our Creator intended. Moreover, Christ himself set the example of service-in-community. If you live entirely on your own, Basil asks, ‘whose feet will you wash?”
Earthy, direct and deeply rooted
“Whose feet will you wash?” — Basil won me over with that phrase, so earthy, so direct, and so deeply rooted in the central teachings and life of Jesus.
And it wasn’t a fluke. The many quotations from Basil in this book show him to have been a vibrant, clear-eyed writer, particularly, in his most important role, as a commentator on the nature of God and the Trinity. Indeed, the present Christian understanding of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as equal and separate persons in the Godhead owes much to Basil.
The son of a professor of rhetoric, Basil served as the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia (today, the city of Kayseri in central Turkey) during a time of great flux and debate within the church, Radde-Gallwitz points out.
In many ways, Christianity then looked much different than it does today. For instance, the December 25 feast of the Nativity of Jesus hadn’t yet been established in the churches of the eastern Roman Empire during Basil’s time.
A network of churches
Doctrinal disputes going to the heart of the faith caused significant and sometimes violent disruptions. In Alexandria, Egypt, two men, espousing different views on the nature of Jesus, each claimed to be the local bishop. It got so bad, Radde-Gallwitz writes that “In 362, a pagan mob lynched [one of the men] and paraded his corpse around the city on a camel.”
Meanwhile, over a 17-year period, in the see of Antioch in what is now southern Turkey, there were three separate Christian communities, each with its own representative claiming to be bishop. “Clearly, at least two camels would be needed to settle matters in Antioch,” Radde-Gallwitz remarks dryly.
Although there was a Pope in Rome, the Christian church in that era was nothing like the monolithic institution it was to become.
[O]ften today we have a more “centralized” notion of church authority, as well as established procedures for meeting together and airing grievances. The church of Basil’s day was not nearly as centralized. It can be thought of as a federation or network of local churches, each one led by a bishop and centered in one of the cities of the Roman Empire (and in fewer cases, beyond its boundaries).
“Light from light”
This is the frequently contentious context in which Basil lived. More than three centuries after Jesus walked the earth, church figures were still banging heads over who he was and what he was — fully human? fully divine? And the Holy Spirit was even harder to describe, define, understand.
In his own search for understanding, Basil used the image of light many times, Radde-Gallwitz notes.
For him, the heart of the [Nicene] Creed is the language of “light from light” and “true God from true God.” “Now no one can possibly conceive of any variation either of light in relation to light, or truth to truth, or of the substance of the Only-Begotten to that of the Father.”At another time, Basil described the relationship this way, peppering his writing with quoted Biblical words and phrases:
The Father is the first principle of all, the cause of being for those things which are, the root of living things. From him proceeds the source of life, the “wisdom,” “power,” “exact image of the invisible God;” the Son who was begotten from the Father; the living Word; he who is both “God” and “with God;” who does not come into being; who exists before the ages and is not acquired later; Son, not possession; Maker, not made; Creator, not creature; being everything that the Father is.
And the Spirit?
This Spirit remains in heaven and fills the earth. It is present everywhere and is contained nowhere. It dwells entirely in each place and is wholly with God. It does not administer its blessings as a servant, but distributes the gifts with authority. For “the Spirit distributes to each one individually just as the Spirit wishes.” It “is sent” as part of the [salvific work of God in the world], but it “acts” on its own authority.
Some admissions and comments
Let me make a few inter-related admissions and comments here:
• I am a friend of Radde-Gallwitz. We play basketball most Sunday afternoons. So, when I call this book “sprightly,” maybe you want to take that with a grain of salt.
• On the other hand, the theological arguments in the fourth century were convoluted and esoteric, and also incredibly meaningful to the future of the Christian faith. It would be easy enough for a modern writer to lose readers in the arcania of diphthongs, metaphors and prepositions. I’m no expert on theology, particularly of that era, and I was able to make my way through Radde-Gallwitz’s book with relative ease. So maybe “sprightly” is a legitimate description.
• That said, Basil and his contemporaries were wrestling with some of the central questions of existence. Despite Radde-Gallwitz’s efforts at clarity, these topics, by their nature, are murky in the extreme.
Basil’s concepts of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are crystalized above in words that are simultaneously poetic, philosophical and theological. They give glimpses into the reality, hints at understanding something that isn’t understandable, really.Radde-Gallwitz writes that Basil was angered at attempts to explain too much. He realized that, at the crux of the Christian faith, is mystery.
Although Basil’s theme [in a homily] is Christ’s birth from Mary, he begins with Christ’s eternal “birth” (or “begetting”) from the Father. Christian faith acknowledges both births. When we try to understand either, however, we are brought to depths that our minds cannot fathom. What is it to say the Son is eternally born from the Father? Or that the same one was born in time from a virgin? Some are tempted to claim that they have understood the Father’s eternal, timeless begetting of the Son, by capturing it in a simple verbal formula or thinking of it in terms familiar to us as a temporal process. Basil counsels to “revere it in silence.” Do not ask what happened, or how. Do not think it was like a human birth. Even if we could understand it, words would fail to describe it.
Near the end of his book, Radde-Gallwitz comes back to this incomprehensibility of God:
Within the Christian Scriptures and the subsequent tradition of theology, [Basil] discovered seeds of reflection on the most mysterious and controversial of topics. He did so while insisting upon a stance of theological humility: that we not claim to know more about God than we can.
Basil lived more than 1,600 years ago. Back then, his powerful thinking and writing helped Christians come to better understand the meaning of their faith.
Here, today, I honor that legacy. Even more, I am touched by a man who could ask, “Whose feet will they wash?” And whose biographer can describe him as taking “a stance of theological humility.”
Refreshing. And very Christian.
Patrick T. Reardon