As Christians in general, and as Coptic Orthodox Christians in particular, an important part of our heritage is the ancient Christian School of Alexandria, which flourished from the second to the fourth centuries and produced such giants of ancient Christian thought as Pantaenus, Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras, Origen, Didymus the Blind and of course the great theologian-patriarchs, Pope Peter the Seal of Martyrs and philosopher-priest, Pope Athanasius the Apostolic and Pope Cyril the Pillar of Faith. Most historians regard this School as the cradle of Christian theology and philosophy, not just for the Copts, but for the whole Christian Church, East and West. That is no small legacy to inherit! But inheritance is not about boasting of past glories, it is about continuing the traditions that made that past glorious. And how can we continue that tradition if we are unacquainted with it? So to begin, I will offer some contemplations on the School of Alexandria, as it was in ancient times.
What made the School of Alexandria so influential? My view is that truth has an inevitable power to it. Things that are true tend to eventually win out, while things that are false sooner or later collapse. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Greek philosophers of two and half thousand years ago, are still studied carefully in universities today because they touched deep and timeless truths that remain forever relevant. The genius of the School of Alexandria lay in its courageous pursuit of truth, wherever that pursuit might lead, and using any and all tools that might help in that pursuit. Thus the Christian Alexandrian scholars studied not only theology and sacred texts, but all the natural sciences (as they were then), mathematics, geometry, rhetoric (the ancient art of arguing) and philosophy. They used every available tool in their world to conduct a pursuit of truth that was as all-encompassing as possible. This is reflected in their writings that often go far beyond the merely religious and present a worldview that covers every aspect of the world and human life.
They were not afraid to engage with their non-Christian critics, pagan, gnostic or any other variety. They met them on their own turf, using the tools of philosophy to engage with the philosophers, history and literature to engage with the historian, and the natural world to engage with the ‘scientists’ of the day. They seem to have believed that all true knowledge must inevitably lead to the God of Truth, and found the fingerprints of that God even in the writings of the pagans themselves. In this they were following in the footsteps of St Paul, who was quite comfortable using pagan poetry and philosophy, and even their own theology, to bring the knowledge of the true God to them.
Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” … Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you … though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring. ’ (Acts 17)
I love this approach to Christianity, and prefer it greatly to the approach that feels the need to shut itself off from the world and hide, lest perhaps one’s faith be shaken by some uncomfortable truths out there. If our Christian faith is true, then it will ultimately stand against every challenge that is brought against it. And if it is false, then isn’t it better that we find that out rather than living a lie? This open-minded approach also means that the Christian does not have to box off different parts of her life to isolate them from each other. We do not have to quarantine ourselves from popular culture or from modern scientific theories, but instead we can find the grains of truth in that culture and knowledge that actually help us in our Christian walk. The ancient Christians not only used pagan philosophy and poetry, they also employed pagan temple hymns to express their love for the True God and recruited common folk songs to give tune to the liturgy. Today, some Christians have denounced children’s novels like the Harry Potter series, but this is in fact quite contrary to the spirit of the School of Alexandria and of St Paul. More in keeping with that spirit is to seek the messages within those books that teach and encourage Christian principles, such self-sacrificial love and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. “To the pure, all things are pure,” wrote St Paul (Titus 1:15), and the ancient Christians purified everything in the their world, ‘baptising’ it in order to use it to glorify God. This world ultimately belongs to God, and it is part of our mission as Christians to win it back for His kingdom by healing it, piece by little piece.
In a similar way, the scientist does not have stop being a Christian in the laboratory, nor stop being a scientist at Church. The intelligent, educated young Christian in an Evangelical Protestant environment often faces a crisis of faith when they are exposed to some branches of modern science. For example, Young Earth Creationism in its modern incarnation is chiefly an Evangelical Protestant movement that is based on a very literal reading of the Bible, the kind of literal reading the Coptic Church usually denounces. It leads to Christians being forced to deny well-established and compelling scientific ideas (like the age of the universe being over 13 billion years old) and scrabbling to come up with ultimately unconvincing arguments in a vain effort to support a mistaken interpretation of Scripture. Falsehood supporting falsehood, and in the end, a disconnection with reality and truth. I think the ancient Fathers of the Church would have shuddered. Indeed, St Augustine, a Western Father, wrote this way back in the fifth century, long before modern science had even been invented, but his words ring a note of caution to us today.
It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about the other elements of this world, about the motion of rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about the definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of the years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty, by reasoning or by experience even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, however, and greatly to be avoided, that he should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, 1,19,39)
Young Earth Creationists object that there is an irreconcilable difference between the Bible-based faith and the conclusions of modern science. “I would rather trust the Word of God”, they boast confidently, “than trust the speculations of men!” That may be admirable loyalty, but it is misplaced, for it is not ‘the Word of God’ they are trusting but their own characteristic interpretation of the Word of God, and that is another thing altogether. In fact, so far as I can tell, there is never any disagreement between good theology and good science. Disagreements arise between bad theology (like YEC) and good science, or bad science and good theology. If we see Orthodox Christianity as being at least partly about a search for truth, then like the Alexandrian School, we have nothing to fear from science or any other valid branch of human knowledge and learning – they can only help us understand the God of Truth even better. In fact, I would venture to say that the currently held view of the vastness of the universe in both time and space, and the immensely complex and beautiful structures that fill it are far more suitable to an infinite God than the tiny little universe of either pre-scientific times or of YEC today. Science has allowed us to appreciate and glorify the majesty of God far more than any other time in history.
The ancient Fathers, including those of Alexandria, certainly do not agree on every point. But I find this comforting, rather than troubling. They understood something that many Christians today fail to appreciate: that the world in which we live (and the world to come) are far greater and more complex than we puny humans can understand. This majestic complexity is what makes our search for truth such a fascinating adventure, a journey, as it were, to unravel the mysteries of reality that reflect the glory and wisdom of the God who is far beyond human understanding altogether. Our certainty is not the certainty of the fanatic who fears and resists facts that disagree with his worldview, but the certainty of the child secure in the undoubted love of her Father. So long as we live in this indomitable love, we bravely meet the world and take it as it is, rather than try to see it as we wish it to be.
Thus the Orthodox have been in the habit of distinguishing between two types of statements made by the ancient Fathers. Dogma is that which makes up the core of the Christian faith and Gospel, things like the incarnation and divinity of Christ, His crucifixion and resurrection. Dogma is not negotiable. It is revealed to humanity by God and comprises the unmistakable foundation for all that exists. It is most succinctly laid out in the Creed of Orthodox Christianity. Upon dogma, no truly orthodox Father disagrees. Theolegoumena on the other hand, are statements of conjecture and exploration. They represent the courage of the ancient Fathers in seeking to push back the boundaries of human knowledge and to make sense of matters both secular and spiritual. Here we would be terribly surprised if we found that there was no disagreement, for these statements are reasonable inferences, educated guesses, with no guarantee of infallibility. The Fathers understood what today’s scientists understand all to well: the road to truth is often littered with mistakes along the way. But humility and devotion to finding that truth no matter how long it takes pay off in the long run. A Church that stifles or even outlaws such courageous reflection and speculation is certainly not following either the fearless devotion to truth of the Christian Gospel, nor the courageous tradition of inquiry of the School of Alexandria. What have we to fear if we sincerely seek truth?
That is why you will find that even the most outrageous and improbable speculations of that great genius Origen were not condemned in his own lifetime (he was condemned, however, for disobeying his bishop, but that’s another story) but tolerated and even discussed openly, influencing many of our most respected Fathers such as St Basil of Caesarea, St Gregory the Theologian and St Gregory of Nyssa amongst others. His theolegoumena were only formally condemned centuries later when the Church had become intimately entwined with the state and the authority of the government was employed to squelch any belief out of the ordinary. But in the earlier centuries, error was not remedied with heavy-handed authority, but with truth: with open, frank and honest exploration and discussion, and with sincere prayer for divine guidance to truth.
In Pope Peter the Seal of Martyrs we see a coming together of two types of courage. Not only was he a learned philosopher who, like the other Fathers, met the pagan philosophers on their own terms, but he ended his life as a martyr for Christ, in spite his high position, offering himself up to death with the prayer that his death might bring to an end the suffering of his flock under the persecution of Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century. Orthodox Christianity has a rich history of utter surrender to God, including the willingness to lay down one’s life for the One who lay down His life for all humanity. This too is part of our inheritance as Copts, that quite literally millions of our forebears made this ultimate sacrifice. And indeed, the martyrdoms continue until this day in a troubled Egypt undergoing sectarian violence.
This is a courage deeply rooted in a faith based on truth and love. The Christian martyr would rather die than deny the truth or the Gospel or forsake the love of Christ. Even as she dies, she still loves the very people who doing the killing, in faithfulness to the example of Christ upon the cross. Examples abound of Christians loving their persecutors, both in the past and today. The Christian villagers who washed the feet of the soldiers on their way to killing other Christians converted a thoughtful young pagan to their religion of love, and he went on become St Pachomius, author of the first rule of monasticism. And on the walls of the burnt out shell of a Coptic Church in Egypt that was destroyed by fundamentalists recently, some anonymous Christian spray-painted the following words: “We still love you”. This is not weakness as many today would read it, but great strength, for Christian love fears nothing, not even death.
These days, few of us are going to become literal martyrs. But that does not mean that the spirit and courage of the martyrs is alien to us. Ancient Orthodox Christianity developed a way of life that allows the person to live the principles of martyrdom in their daily life, a way of life that requires the same courage that characterized both the ancient School of Alexandria and the ancient martyrs. That shall be our next topic.