Life today in a western society is very different to the life our parents and grandparents knew. As a result, our whole world view is quite different, and as such, I propose, our faith needs to also adapt to the new and ever changing circumstances.
One important area where this applies is the relationship between faith and knowledge. Extremes often help to illustrate a point more conveniently: think of your ancestors of centuries ago, most likely living in rural village somewhere along the majestic Nile. Let us imagine Folla, your great, great, great grandmother. She has grown to be a young woman without the benefit of formal education, for very few Egyptians can afford a formal education, and the vast majority would not want it even if they could afford it. It would be a waste of time and would not in any way help in running the family farm. Thus she is blissfully unaware of any formal laws of nature, of anything but the most basic mathematics, she cannot read or write, so she has no access to books or newspapers, and the only history she knows is the local legends of her village and the stories she hears read out in Church from the Bible and the Synaxarion every Sunday. She does not understand what the priest prays in Church every Sunday, for he prays in Coptic while she only knows Arabic. Sunday School has not yet been introduced to Egypt and the priest has only slightly more education than her, so he does not give sermons or conduct Bible studies; in fact her chief source of religious knowledge is her mother, the kindly woman who would sit her on her lap when she was a young girl and tell her stories that she had heard from her mother before her.
Folla’s faith is a very simple one. It is not based on outright reason so much as on trust. The people she loves and trusts in her life, her parents, her relatives, her priest, all agree about the faith they hold, so she holds it too, without questioning anything it. Not only is it backed by this authority (and no one in this society would ever dream of questioning authority), it makes sense of her world.
Because this is the nature of Folla’s faith, she is blissfully unaware that the core of ancient Christian faith at its heart has been mingled with centuries of accretions and additions. For her, it is all one body of beliefs, all of equal importance. For her, it is equally important not to drag your feet inside the house (for that would bring bad luck) as to proclaim that Christ is risen at Easter time. So far as she knows, not dragging your feet was part of Christ’s teachings.
Simple faith is a beautiful thing. In some ways, I wish I could have been Folla. Of course, the modern person would object that some of Folla’s faith is based on false premises, but this objection does not seem to me to be such a terrible thing. Even our most elaborate theology, our most impressive science, can never be more than our fuzzy guess at a reality that is far, far beyond our comprehension. There is absolutely no reason to think that we can ever gain a true and complete understanding of the nature of our reality in this life. As St Paul famously said, “For now, we see as in a mirror dimly, but then, face to face” (1 Corinthians 13). Isaiah gives this sobering evaluation, from the mouth of God Himself: “ ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts’ ” (Isaiah 55:9). So in a sense, our best efforts are going to fall a long way short of the truth anyway, and the difference between the size of an ant and the size of a horse pales to insignificance when you compare both to the size of the planet upon which both live.
However, I am certainly not advocating a return to ignorance! Today, we have been given the gift of knowledge, a gift that once received can never be returned. We cannot go back to being an ant, and the ways of an ant will no longer work for us – we must live as horses, like it or not.
What does that mean? For one thing, it means that our faith can no longer be based solely on the authority of others. Today’s Folla, let’s call her Felicity to avoid confusion, is bombarded with conflicting viewpoints from many different authorities. She still has the Church telling her one thing, she probably has her parents who largely agree with Church but may differ on a few small points, then there are her school teachers and university lecturers who may not be Christian at all, and all those voices of authority in the media, experts and politicians and community leaders, many of whom are almost certainly not Christian.
Felicity does not have the luxury of a being surrounded by a single unitary world view as Folla had. How is she to navigate this confusing maelstrom of ideas and beliefs? How is she to decide on her own world view?
To expect her to simply accept what her family and priest say purely on faith is unrealistic. For one, she has been trained by the western education system to question everything and to think for herself. Even her parents were probably educated in a system where you mostly had to learn facts by rote to get through and creative thinking was squeezed out of them in the highly competitive race to succeed. But today’s young person in the west is trained to think and encouraged to think for themselves. If we come to Felicity now and ask her to suspend thinking for herself and just accept our authority, it will seem like a major step backwards, a step into ignorance and darkness.
This is not the path to faith in the twenty first century. Reason is not the enemy of faith, but its helper. Our precious Coptic tradition teaches us that. We glory in the lofty achievements of the ancient Christian School of Alexandria, the centre of Christian learning and knowledge in the early centuries of Christianity. The most intelligent people in the world flocked to study at this school, where no discipline was off limits and natural science, astronomy and philosophy were firmly on the curriculum. Many of the ancient Fathers from this school display a remarkable mastery of the secular knowledge of the day, and use it to construct their arguments for their faith, arguments that were raised against the pagan philosophers who rejected the Christian faith. They took them on at their own game and won, in the process proving that reason too, is a gift from God, and completely compatible with faith.
Felicity needs us, the Church, to return to that ancient tradition. If she is to sincerely believe, it will be a faith fortified with a hefty dose of reason. The alternative today is not a faith based only on trust, but no religious faith at all.
How does the state of teaching in the Coptic Church measure up to this challenge at the moment? Well, there a lot of progress has happened over the past century, and especially in the last few decades. The re-establishment of the Theological College by Pope Cyril V around the turn of the twentieth century revolutionised the education of the priesthood and has led to today’s crop of highly educated, highly literate clergy. Figures such as the late Bishop Gregorius put knowledge and reason back on the agenda, even if they were not appreciated by everyone. The advent of books in English translated from the Arabic, especially by authors who are well in tune with the need for a reasonable basis for modern faith such as HH Pope Shenouda and HG Bishop Moussa have been of incalculable benefit to many young people growing up in the west. And most recently, vibrant discussions on the internet, such as those that run on www.tasbeha.org regularly, provide a forum for questions to be discussed and resolved.
But there are still some areas that lag dangerously behind. Many Sunday Schools still follow curricula that do not address the real concerns of young Copts today. If you have ‘graduated’ from Sunday School, ask yourself this simple question: in thirteen years of teaching, how many times did you actually address the question of why we believe in God, why we believe in Christ as God incarnate, and in His resurrection? How well were we taught the arguments people have raised against these beliefs, and the reasons we reject them? When did you learn of the evidence for the accuracy of the Bible, of its agreement with other historical documents and archaeological discoveries, and of the evidence for the faithful transmission of its text down through the centuries? And how satisfying was the treatment of modern scientific issues such as evolution or the Big Bang Theory and how they relate to our Christian faith?
It is wonderful to know the stories of the saints, the traditional staple of Sunday School lessons, but today, Felicity needs much more than that. She needs to find satisfying answers to the many questions that will inevitably arise in her mind, and she needs a Church that provides a free environment for raising those questions without guilt or stigmatisation. She needs to be guided in how to harmonise her secular knowledge with her religious faith and use her mind as well as her heart to mould an all-encompassing faith for the Coptic Christian of the twenty first century. Can our Church provide that? I believe that nothing less than the future viability of the Coptic Church (and all Christian Churches) depends on the answer to that question.
We have a lot of hard work ahead of us…