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. Read the rest of this entry »
I began to write a post on the situation in Egypt, or more specifically on the inspiring reaction of the Copts and the sensible Muslims to the troubles in Egypt, when I came across the following little essay. It was posted on Facebook by a Mary Sarkis, apparently a Copt, though I do not know her personally. The wonders of the modern age of the internet! I don’t think it needs much comment from me, for she says what I wanted to say so much more beautifully than I could have said it. As an aside, I came upon this lovely piece via a podcast by William Lane Craig, an American Christian philosopher and apologist. Our Apologetics Group had the privilege of meeting him and atheist Laurance Krauss after their recent public debate at Sydney Town Hall.
This message has really been on my heart so please take a minute to read!
IT WILL GO DOWN IN HISTORY the grace, love, self-control, and patriotism that Copts have demonstrated in this chapter of Egypt’s history. Persecution is not new to Copts (as is the case with many minorities), but I have never been more proud to be a Copt! Not because Copts are persecuted but because of the way Copts have responded and what I’ve seen of the reaction of Moslems to the behavior of Egypt’s Christians. When 50-70 churches, Christian schools/orphanages/ monasteries (some ancient) were attacked this last week, ALL eyes were on Copts to see their reaction. Moslem-Egyptian media figures / authors like Amr Adeeb, Ibrahim 3eesa, Youssef el Hussaini, Fatma Naoout, Tarek Heggy, to name a few, all testified to the Copts’ endurance and loyalty to their country regardless of the horrific abuses that they’ve suffered, not just now but throughout history. Here’s a sample quote from talk show host Youssef El Husseini… Read the rest of this entry »
We parish priests often tear our hair out (those who have any left) when we hear of parties or receptions thrown by members of the Church that don’t reflect our Christian values. One of the sins most modern Christians really despise is hypocrisy, and yet some of them don’t seem to realise that a celebration that encourages non-Christian behaviour is a form of hypocrisy. Perhaps they feel that Christ does not really think that drunkenness, immodest clothing and sexually-enticing dancing are wrong? Hmmm, I’d like to see where the Bible says that.
But it seems the problem is not just a modern one. Thank you to Fr Athanasius Iskander of Canada for sharing the following excerpt from St John Chrysostom in the fifth century.
Marriage is a bond, a bond ordained by God. Why then do you celebrate weddings in a silly and immodest manner? Have you no idea what you are doing? … What is the meaning of these drunken parties with their lewd and disgraceful behaviour? You can enjoy a banquet with your friends to celebrate your marriage; I do not forbid this, but why must you introduce all these excesses? Camels and mules behave more decently than some people at wedding receptions!
Is marriage a comedy? It is a mystery, an image of something far greater. If you have no respect for marriage, at least respect what it symbolizes: “This is a great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the Church.” (Eph 5:32) It is an image of the Church, and of Christ, and will you celebrate in a profane manner? “But then who will dance?” you ask. Why does anyone need to dance? Pagan mysteries are the only ones that involve dancing. We celebrate our mysteries quietly and decently, with reverence and modesty.
How is marriage a mystery? The two have become one. This is not an empty symbol. They have not become the image of anything on earth, but of God Himself. How can you celebrate it with a noisy uproar, which dishonours and bewilders the soul?
Coptic Apologetics Discussion Group is up and running for the third year, and the first two monthly topics are scientific ones. January’s meeting was on the Big Bang Theory while February’s meeting will look more broadly at the sometimes rocky relationship between faith and science. But how rocky does that relationship need to be? Does it need to be as difficult as some would make it to be? If you are one of those people who believe that God created the world in six 24-hour days a few thousand years ago, I must warn you: you are not going to like what I have to say.
I have to confess that although I took an interest in Young Earth Creationism for some years, I have now come to pretty much reject it wholesale. It really comes down to how you read the Bible, and how willing you are to let reality be itself rather than trying to squash it into a pre-arranged box of your own making. Such an approach can lead to ridiculous situations, such as the one Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine dug for himself in the early seventeenth century. Consider his view of the preposterous new idea that the earth might orbit around the sun rather than the other way around.
… to affirm that the sun is really fixed in the centre of the heavens and that the earth revolves very swiftly around the sun is a dangerous thing, not only irritating the theologians and philosophers, but injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.
“Injuring our faith and making the sacred scripture false”? Really? The good cardinal’s words seem absurd to the modern Christian. Why in the world would he be so dogmatic? The fault lies, I think, in his mistaking his own way of interpreting scripture for the scripture itself. Even today, Young Earth Creationists fall into the same trap, insisting that if their very literal interpretation of the Bible is disproved by science, then the whole Bible becomes worthless and all of Christianity – all of it, mind you – collapses into a bottomless abyss of unreliability. Nice of them to include us in their prophetic doom.
But no, I object. Read the rest of this entry »
Sometimes we Copts forget that we are part of a wider community of Orthodox Christians, but I feel a sense of joy and comfort when I make any kind of contact with another community of faithful Christians. One of the ways I do that is to look in periodically on an Orthodox Christian news service, OCP Media Network. Please let me share with you two recent little items, one happy, one sad, from the lives of our fellow followers of Christ…
First, the sad. While the situation in Egypt for Coptic Christians is dangerous and difficult, the plight of our sister Oriental Orthodox Church in Eritrea is in many ways much worse. Here in the west, we hardly ever hear news of the dark and distant Horn of Africa. That silence is all the more disturbing when one realises what is going on there. Anyone who loves freedom and human rights should be outraged at what is happening to the Eritrean Orthodox Tawahedo Church. Together with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo Church, the Eritreans trace their Christian heritage back to the earliest centuries of Christianity, and consider their first archbishop to be St Frumentius who was consecrated by the Egyptian St Athanasius the Apostolic in the fourth century AD. They have a long and rich history of spirituality and ascetism that reflects their unique culture.
But today, the Eritrean Church in Eritrea is slowly dying. Persecution of the Church is hitting it on all levels. Abune Antonios, the duly elected patriarch who was consecrated by the late Coptic Pope Shenouda III in 2004, stood up to the Eritrean government when it tried to interfere in the affairs of the Church. As a result, he was deposed and replaced by a government appointee in an effort to turn the Church into virtually another department of the government. Abune Antonios was chosen for the patriarchate for his good character and his sincere devotion to raising the spiritual standard of the Eritrean Church. But now he has been held incommunicado by the government in an undisclosed location for some years, unable to pursue his spiritual agenda, while government puppets submit the Church to the agenda of a government that cares little for the Christian gospel or spirituality.
What is worse, the government has waged an unmitigated campaign against Eritrean clergy in an effort to weaken the Church. In the just the past eight years it is estimated that 1,500 priests and deacons have been conscripted against their will into the army for an indefinite period of military service, while clergy who refuse to submit to the government are arrested and defrocked. This has led to a drastic shortage of clergy for the parishes, and 1,500 parishes are in danger of being closed for lack of parish priests to serve them. Further, there are estimated to be up to 3,000 Christians currently held in Eritrean prisons as prisoners of conscience, subjected to torture and deprived of medical care.
It was a truly historic moment, and one that brought hope for many reasons. The tension built as millions of Copts around the world sat glued to their screens and prayed and chanted Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy) with those in the cathedral. I hoped fervently that it was only going to be 41 Kyrie eleisons and not 400! Anba Pachomius enjoined everyone to raise their hearts in supplication and submission, and a silent united supplication from millions around the world rose up to entreat God to choose a shepherd after His own heart for His Coptic flock. And then, a little boy named Bishoy dipped his hand into the bowl and pulled out a transparent orb. Time seemed to stretch out forever as Anba Pachomius fumbled with the seal and then unfolded the piece of paper that held the name of the poor man who is to lead the Coptic Orthodox Church into the future. After a quick peek himself, he held it up for all to see, and we had our new Pope…
Allow me to share a few impressions at this historic moment in time. Firstly, we must appreciate how wonderfully HE Metropolitan Pachomius has carried out his duties as locum tenens since the departure of Pope Shenouda. He had to care for a bereaved Church and soothe their sorrow (whilst no doubt dealing with his own). He had to tread a careful path in a tumultuous post-revolutionary Egypt, forging good relations with the new authorities while at the same time standing up for the rights of Christians suffering persecution and crying out for a father to defend them. He had to deal with a number of major unresolved issues within the Church, any of which could easily have led to huge splits in sections of the Church. He had to run the papal elections according to an outdated yet necessary set of bylaws, negotiating the conflicting opinions about diocesan bishops and (possibly) ambitious candidates, contrary to the venerable humble spirituality of our Coptic tradition.
All this he carried out with serenity, humility, integrity and profound wisdom. I had a personal experience of this during my recent trip to Egypt concerning one of those sensitive matters, Read the rest of this entry »
There have been many tales of people who have experienced the life beyond death and returned to describe it, but none has impressed me as much as this one. The reason it impresses me is that the subject of the experience, unlike most other cases, was a hard-headed, fairly agnostic and highly intelligent scientist … a neurosurgeon, no less! If anyone should be able to tell a purely physiological phenomenon from a genuine supernatural experience, you would think it would be someone like Dr Eben Alexander.
A near death experience is one where a patient is clinically dead for a period of time and is then resuscitated. Such patients often recall strange experiences during the time they were unconscious; some of them pleasant, some of them deeply distressing. A variety of natural explanations have been put forward for this very real phenomenon, such as the effects of a lack of oxygen in the brain. Others have pointed to the possibility of producing strange experiences using the general anaesthetic ketamine as suggesting a similar natural process underlying near death experiences.
Which is why the story Dr Alexander tells is particularly pertinent. He contracted E. coli meningitis, a bacterial infection of the lining around the brain that seriously imperilled his life and flung him into a coma for seven days. During that time, numerous scans of his brain and its function were conducted, and showed that his brain was not just impaired, but genuinely non-functional. What this means is that his vivid experiences are unlikely to have been produced by a lack of oxygen or damage to neuronal circuits causing the brain cells to misfire and produce hallucination, or any other natural process. To put it bluntly: a brain can’t hallucinate when it has stopped working altogether.
I have been interested in near death experiences for decades now, ever since reading Beyond Death’s Door by Dr Maurice Rawlings back in the eighties. His description of a patient who could recall the details of a neck tie worn by a staff member who came into his hospital room after he had clinically died and left before he had recovered consciousness struck me as being pretty good evidence for the reality of such experiences. Another striking tale I came across on the net was that of a Russian priest (from memory) who had a near death experience in a hospital during which he wafted out of his body and came across an infant in another bed who wordlessly told him that his hip hurt. Upon waking and describing the infant and his location to doctors, it turned out that the infant had been in hospital for weeks crying constantly with pain but without a diagnosis. When they examined his hip, they found that was where the problem was. This kind of knowledge, inaccessible to the patient, discounts the possibility of any natural explanation.
So I was fascinated when I heard of an experiment to be conducted by Professor Bruce Greyson at the University of Virginia that planned to test out the reality of near death experiences. His plan was as elegant as it was simple. Read the rest of this entry »
I thank Mark Ramzy in the USA for raising the case FOR diocesan bishops becoming pope in a Facebook discussion. To clarify some of the things in my previous posts on the topic, I thought it worthwhile to post his comments here with my response. Feel free to share your opinion – it is wonderful that we are able to debate such issues with frankness and love, and can it can only lead to a better Church in the future as together we seek the truth in love. To find the canons mentioned below and many more documents that are relevant, go the canon 15 website.
I like the article Abouna, with the exception of the paragraph about diocesan bishops. It strongly implies that any diocesan bishop who is up for patriarch is somehow automatically coveting the position. I don’t think that automatically follows and, if it does, whatever the reasoning is would apply to anyone up for patriarch, not just that select sample.
I think the only way the argument holds true is if (i) diocesan bishops cannot become patriarch and (ii) each diocesan bishop up for the position actually believes (i). (Also holds true if (i) is wrong but the diocesan bishops think it’s true).
And my response:
Hi Mark. If you read the actual canon there is leeway for exceptions in certain circumstances. Of course, we would always want the best person for the role and historically we have had even laymen chosen to be pope with excellent results. If there were a standout diocesan bishop of superior spiritual qualities and no viable alternatives, I would certainly support his elevation to the papacy – that’s the kind of exception envisioned in the canon. But that certainly was not the case in our current situation. Perhaps, say, if HG Bishop Moussa was a diocesan bishop, there would have been a good case for his being a candidate (note he immediately declined when he was nominated).
If you read the letters of St Basil, you will find that even in the fifth century, politics had entered the Church and he struggled greatly to overcome this objectionable environment of ambition and self-seeking. I think the wisdom of the canon is to create an environment where this is not possible. WHy target diocesan bishops in particular? Actually, the canon covers bishops, priests and even deacons. The premise is “don’t strive to leave a smaller service for a bigger service”. We should strive to faithfully fulfil the mission given to us by God rather than being discontented with it and seeking to do something “bigger”. This is something we teach to our servants every day and seek to follow as priests as well. Service is not about being a hero, it is about humble loving sacrifice. And the same applies to a bishop just as aptly, if not moreso.
I hope that clarifies it a little? What do you think?
Yesterday His Eminence Metropolitan Pachomius announced the final short list of candidates for the election to be held on November 24 to choose the 118th Pope of the See of Alexandria, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The list of five candidates is:
- HG Bishop Raphael (General Bishop)
– responsible for central Cairo but also serves with HG Bishop Moussa in the Bishopric of Youth.
- HG Bishop Tawadros (General Bishop)
– assistant to HE Metropolitan Pachomius in the diocese of Beheira, north-western Egypt.
- Fr Raphael Ava Mina
– a disciple of the late Pope Kyrollos VI and Abba Mina Ava Mina, the late head of the Monastery of St Mina.
- Fr Pachomius Elsouriany
– has served in Rome, Italy as a parish priest under HG Bishop Barnabas.
- Fr Seraphim Elsouriany
– has served in Hawaii, USA as a parish priest under HG Bishop Serapion.
No doubt more biographical details will soon be released about each of the candidates. I have gleaned from various sources that the Electoral Committee comprised of nine bishops and nine lay members of the Community Council (Maglis el Milli) spent nine days deliberating in the desert monastery of St Bishoy in order to trim the original list of 17 nominees down to just five. They considered all the objections that had been submitted to them for consideration and gradually whittled down the list through a series of secret ballots. All this was supported by a general fast with many prayers and liturgies carried out by the whole body of Copts all over the world, praying for God to guide the process and those conducting it to make the best decision for the Church.
I think the fasting worked. There are a number of positive things about this shortlist that are worth noting. Firstly, it is reassuring to see that our monasteries are still capable of producing monks of a high spiritual calibre in this day and age where life has become so complicated and true ascetism so difficult. Secondly, it is encouraging for the younger generations in the Church to see that some of the candidates, especially HG Bishop Raphael, have a firm background in serving the youth, which means they should have a comprehensive knowledge of the needs of the youth and how best to meet them. The young have been a very high priority since the papacy of Pope Shenouda III who was himself a Sunday School servant in his younger days and whose experience with the young greatly influenced his direction as pope. Also encouraging is the fact that a number of the candidates have served in the west and should hopefully therefore possess a sound understanding of the unique challenges and needs of western Copts, a category that currently comprises roughly 10-15% of Copts in the world, and will only grow in the years to come. Read the rest of this entry »
Most people take it for granted that each of us is free to choose in life. But some philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, claim that most people do not really want to be free. Choices have real consequences, and freedom brings with it responsibility. People do not want to be held responsible for the consequences of their actions. What if I make the wrong decision? What if the consequences are bad? I don’t want to be held to blame! I don’t want to feel guilty. And so people seek ways to shift the responsibility on to someone or something else, whether they know they are doing this or not.
One famous way of doing this is “the devil made me do it”. But a more subtle way of shifting responsibility is to lay it upon God, or upon His representatives on earth. Sartre points out that when a person adopts a faith, they surrender some of their freedom. They surrender the freedom to decide for themselves what is right and wrong, for by subscribing to their faith’s moral code, that decision is taken out of their hands. Of course, each person is still free to choose whether to obey their faith’s moral code or not – they are still quite free and quite responsible in that sense, but they are no longer responsible for the content of the moral code itself.
Now I do not see this as a bad thing in itself. We humans are, after all, quite fallible, and we have a disturbing tendency to try to cheat to make life comfortable for ourselves. If there is a genuinely objective right and wrong in the world (as most people would agree there is), then we are much more likely to find it when God tells us what it is than when are left to work it out for ourselves. Read the rest of this entry »