In the last post, we spoke of the courage of the Christian, and how that can lead to various kinds of martyrdom. Few of us today will be called upon to display the courage of a martyr, although the world seems to be changing for the worse such that martyrdom is making a comeback in certain regions. In times of persecution, there was another category of people who were deeply respected and venerated: the confessors; those who suffered arrest and torture for their faith but survived their harsh treatment. A confessor is a martyr who lived instead of dying, albeit at the price of great sacrifice.
This spirit of self-sacrificial love lies also at the heart of the way of life that is called ascetism. The word ‘ascetism’ has roots in the Greek for athletic training or preparation for an athletic event. It commonly takes the form of three main practices, fasting, praying and charity. These three practices are grouped together and described in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:6-18. Orthodox Churches vary in the number and timing of the days they fast each year, but the ancient fasts of Lent and Wednesdays and Fridays are common to most Churches. These are communal fasts, fasted by everyone who is a member of the Church as one body and with one heart, although of course concessions are made for the sick, the elderly, pregnant and nursing mothers and children. The benefit of organised communal fasting, as opposed to the voluntary ‘personal’ fasting preferred by many other Christians, is that it brings the community together in a shared experience. The individual loses herself, sacrificing her own selfish will in order to become a part of something much bigger than herself.
When we fast communally, we can encourage and support each other to achieve the goals of fasting: self-control; gratitude for the food we take for granted; empathy with the poor and hungry of the world and a mindset that rises above the merely material and instead focuses on the transcendent. So long as it is practiced sincerely and with these goals in mind, fasting can be a powerful tool for regenerating both the individual and the community. Of course, like anything else in life, fasting can also be misused and even abused. Christ Himself in the Sermon on the Mount pointed out how it is possible for a person to use the deprivations of fasting to extort sympathy and pity from others or to make oneself a vain ‘spiritual hero’. Thus He advised us to go about our lives when fasting in exactly the same way we go about them when we are not fasting, so that no one might notice the difference and lead us down these undesirable paths. Then there is excessive fasting that leads to a deterioration in health, or ornamental and merely routine fasting; the fasting of the body but not of the spirit, mind or heart. But the misuses of fasting should not make us reject the benefits it brings when it is properly used. It is always regrettable to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
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. Continue reading “Being Orthodox 12: Courage.”
One of the criticisms of the Orthodox Churches that is often raised is that it has a rigid hierarchical and even patriarchal structure, a hierarchy of patriarchs, bishops, priests and deacons who run everything in the church, while Protestant structures are more democratic, more ‘congregation-friendly’. As you will have no doubt guessed by now, I am going to disagree with this assessment.
To understand the Orthodox Church hierarchy we need to go right back to its origins, the years of ‘training’ that the Apostles of Christ underwent under His wise supervision. Over and over Jesus taught the Apostles that they were not rulers or masters in the worldly sense employed by any other organisation. An example will serve to illustrate this point:
The hierarchy of the Orthodox Church is not a hierarchy of authority and power, but of humble, self-sacrificial service. If we listen to our clergy it is not because we fear their wrath, but because we respect the gift of the Holy Spirit to which they have humbly submitted themselves. If we treat them with respect it is because they prostrate themselves daily to wash our feet, heal our wounds and straighten our path. I do not know how I can say this any more clearly: leadership in the Orthodox Church is not about power or authority or popularity or wealth. It is a kind of death for the leader. He must put himself willingly and joyfully to death each day out of love for his Master Christ and for his Master’s children. That is one reason why our priesthood wears black, to remind them and us of that daily death.
In the post on Tradition, I mentioned that the Orthodox (and Roman Catholics) derive their particular Christian tradition from the most ancient sources, and therefore from those sources closest to Christ. They strive to preserve a Tradition that has been faithfully passed down from generation to generation for nearly two thousand years. We know that this transmission has been relatively free of major change because we can go back to the writings of those who lived in the first centuries and compare. Where we find significant differences, we are dedicated to reviving the ancient tradition and eradicating the changes, wherever that is possible and necessary (we would not for example, insist that everyone learn to speak Greek because that is the language of the New Testament!)
Of course, Protestants aim to practice pure, ancient Christianity too, but they go about it in a very different way. For the Protestant, the catchcry is sola scriptura, ‘scripture alone!’ And of course, they are quite right in thinking that the Bible is the closest of sources to Christ Himself that we have available – historically speaking at least, although we would say we get even closer to Christ in the Eucharist, for example. But sola scriptura has problems as a basis for Christianity. For one, like the core Christian Creed we saw in the last post, the Bible must be interpreted. Apostolic and non-Apostolic Christians do not disagree about the authority of the Bible. What they disagree about is how interpret the Bible.
You will notice that in the last post I listed the Bible as a subheading under the heading ‘Tradition’. I did this to emphasise the nature of role of the Bible in Orthodox (and Roman Catholic) Christianity, in contrast to its role in Protestant Christianity. Protestants mostly follow a doctrine named sola scriptura, ‘scripture alone!’ This doctrine developed historically as a reaction to the often misguided human inventions of the medieval Catholic Church in Europe that were commanded as though they came directly from God. Doctrines such as purgatory, indulgences, relic-worship and their abuses were (rightly) rejected by the reforming Protestants. But they took things too far, discarding not only the later additions, but also much of the ancient apostolic traditions as well. Having lost their confidence in the clergy and their laws, the reformers decided that each individual should read the Bible for himself or herself and build their faith on that Bible, and that Bible alone.
This is all good and well, until you realise that the Bible as we have it today did not come into existence until the fourth century AD. For the first three hundred years, Christians lived their Christian lives guided not by a single monolithic text, but by a living tradition, some of which was gradually recorded in that text. That’s right, Jesus didn’t hand out NKJV Study Bibles to His Apostles (with an inspirational message scribbled inside the cover) when He sent them out to preach the Gospel to the world. Does this mean that the early Christians were lost? The Protestant Reformation aimed to return to a simpler more authentic Christianity, yet one of the central tenets of their project, sola scriptura, was something that the first generations of Christians could not possibly have practiced!
Fr Peter Farrington of the British Orthodox Church wrote a very important article in the Glastonbury Review about the history of Protestant missions in Egypt and their influence on the Coptic Orthodox Church, one of many resources now available on this fascinating period of Coptic history. While the main gist of Fr Peter’s article describes the low view the British missionaries had of the Coptic Church of the day, (some even considered Copts to be on a par with Muslims in their ignorance of the Christian faith!) he also describes the willingness of the Coptic clergy of the time to benefit from the help of the Europeans, even to the extent of sending candidates for the priesthood to seminaries run by the Protestants to train them in theology. This shows an admirable ecumenism on the part of the Coptic decision-makers, but it also reflects one of the darker trends in Coptic Church history over the past two centuries.
The trend I am talking about is the tendency to associate Western Christianity with advanced Western civilisation, and therefore to see both as something superior to aspire to. What this means today is that due to this historical phenomenon, patchy though it has been both in time and place, the Coptic Orthodox Church has adopted some worrying aspects of Western Christianity, and forgotten that they are foreign innovations. The same thing happened in the Eastern Orthodox family, a phenomenon they call the ‘Western Captivity’, echoing the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrew people. But the Eastern Orthodox have experienced an inspiring revival of ancient, patristic and apostolic thought over the past hundred years or so, mainly through the brave work of scholars such as Vladimir Lossky and Alexander Shmemann, that has gradually purified their theology from the Western innovations and restored it to something much closer to that of the ancient Church. In the Coptic Orthodox Church, there have always been those who have delved deeply and honestly into this matter and come out with much the same results as the Eastern Orthodox revival, but until recently, they were not influential in the Church. They published their views in scholarly journals like The Coptic Church Review,Coptologia and the Glastonbury Review, the learned journal of our affiliated British Orthodox Church, or in the mammoth masterpiece, the eight volume Coptic Encyclopedia, but for the most part their work was ignored in parishes and Sunday School classrooms. I rejoice to see the winds of revival finally blowing through the corridors of the Coptic Orthodox Church, a trend I believe is being tactfully supported by HH Pope Tawadros II. Continue reading “Being Orthodox 1: Introduction”
Some of my best friends are Protestant! I have engaged in innumerable fascinating discussions with Protestant friends over the decades on the differences and similarities between the two approaches to being Christian. One of the benefits claimed by some Protestants is that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are “traditional” Churches while Protestant Churches are not. By this it is usually meant that the traditional Churches adhere to a body of beliefs and practices developed by human beings through the centuries while the non-traditional Churches are not limited by such constraints, and are therefore able to enact the Christian Gospel free of any merely human innovations. But is this really true?
Human nature is such that we cannot, like God, create anything ex nihilo, out of nothing. All we can do is take what is given to us and perhaps synthesise or modify it into something else. In this sense, all that we do is traditional. When we drive our cars on the left side of the road, when we wear clothes of particular fashion, when we follow certain healthy diets, when we use qwerty keyboards; all these are examples of traditions that we follow. If we didn’t, life would be impossible. Imagine if you could not depend on medical research to tell you what a healthy diet looks like, but had to work it all out on your own, right from scratch! Traditions allow us to get on with life, to progress in life, to build on the wisdom and experience of others rather than have to do it all ourselves from first principles. To be sure, it is often interesting to go back and read how a tradition came about, and thus understand why it is a good tradition to follow, and to be sure, some traditions occasionally need revision or even total reformation or replacement, but the idea of living your life according to a set of traditions is something we all do every day of our lives, and indeed, could not live the lives we now live without doing it.
As Lent begins one senses a silent groan in some hearts and minds. How are we going to survive 55 days of strict fasting? What shall we eat? I can’t wait till its over! Lent is a time of prayer and fasting and charitable deeds, but also a time of repentance. Sometimes this same negative attitude can be transferred to our approach to repentance. It can seem such a chore, or at least something we must drag ourselves reluctantly to do.
But there is another way of looking at these things. It may seem quite new to some, but in reality it is very, very old. In fact, it was the way most of the first Christians looked at these things. Apart from my love of all things authentic and original, I find it so much more satisfying, so much more sensible, and so much more realistic than the later interpretations of the Christian enterprise that have spread through most Churches, including our own. It goes something like this:
God = existence = goodness = light = life.
Therefore, since sin is a separation from God, then to sin is to be diminished in existence, goodness, light and life and to instead be in a state that we describe with words like non-existence, evil, darkness and death.
In this state, our ability to do anything to help ourselves is also diminished. Thus our ability to save ourselves from this state is diminished, quite severely in fact. It’s a little like a drowning man who reaches a stage where he is so deprived of oxygen that his brain can no longer function well enough for him to realise that he needs to swim upwards or keep his head above water.
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.
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, Continue reading “Our Poor New Pope…”