Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Alexandria, Hypatia and the Scandal of Christian Power

Yesterday I watched the documentary Alexandria, hosted by historian Bettany Hughes. It was a beginner’s documentary on the legacy and history of the city, but highly though-provoking and commendable. A word about the presenter and any “agenda” behind the documentary is in order. Hughes who is an Anglican has been in the news for expressing ideas about the masculine bias in the worldwide church and in the practice of the Christian faith through the centuries, and for provocative comments such as “Was God a girl?”, referring to the gender bias that the male writers of the Biblical canon carried in their writings. Though provocative, I have found nothing that is unsettling to a believer. If one understands that the Biblical writings are true but also human- meaning that they were written by human hands, by human minds expressing truth in a human language with human idiom, personality, reflecting an understanding of the time and culture in which the books were written, then it is completely understandable that women were overshadowed by men in the writings. This fact does not make the writings less true or even unfair. God works through his word, and if he intended to communicate to us through his word, then this is that word and no other. But his word itself gives us understanding on the prejudices in our hearts and in the hearts of saints from the beginning of history.

In recent years feminists have attempted to interpret the actions of the church fathers as having been hostile to women, going so far to believe that Mary Magdalene was not in fact caught in adultery. This, I believe, is a mistake, even with the noblest of intentions. Sure, it is a psychologist’s reading of the word, but if you pursue the word as a way to seek truth, and attempt to understand its meaning, this attempt weakens it. Further, an attempt by Christian feminists to create “another gospel” by reading the gospel of Thomas or other non-canonical writings as the “real” gospel or one that is more reflective of the truth, such attempts are ill-advised. Whether one likes it or not, the support for the consistency, dating (they all date from 100 years or more after the apostolic age) and a coherent philosophy, are scant. Even if one blames it all on the council of Nice that more such writings do not remain, the fact is that those positions were a minority view. The canonical writings that have survived have far more reliable credentials, and are our best bet. And, of course, seeing things as a Christian, I believe that God does not need human help to bring his word to pass, so the word that he has given us is in fact the closed canon.

Alexandria was perhaps the greatest attempt in all of human history to build a world of wisdom. The incredible ambition to house every written work and collect every bit of knowledge in one central location is itself a testament to the seeker’s zeal. The city was founded by Alexander the Great- forged after war. This is important to note. For the Greeks, through their classical history, were lovers of wisdom, but were by no means a peace-loving people. Regardless of what their convictions were- whether superstitious, freethinking or anything in between- they were constantly aware of the world around them and thought of it as something to be conquered. Every great city state and statesman believed that the key to sustained prosperity and even the longevity of the immense schools of wisdom lay in the conquest and subjugation of other lands. In the process Greece suffered many tragedies- the burning of Athens, the Athenian debacle at sea in the time of Pericles, and the execution of Socrates were all instances. This process culminated in Alexander, and ultimately in his conquest of Egypt and laid the foundation of Alexandria, a tribute to the master strategist or bloodthirsty warrior, depending on which way you considered him, who founded it.

After its founding, the Greek conquerors and the Egyptian people joined hands to create an fascinating culture, based on Hellenistic philosophy and Egyptian science. When the Romans conquered it, this process continued and became richer from Rome’s resources. After all, Cleopatra reigned from this city. After Rome, Alexandria was the pre-eminent city of its day- and through a different kind of power- the power of learning. The great library was built to house every scroll every written. They had half a million of them at its peak. The city thronged with students from every corner of the Mediterranean world and was vibrant with engineers, scientists and philosophers. When Mark the apostle came to the city, Christianity found a ready following among many, although as was the case in most other cities, Mark was martyred here by intolerant people. Clearly even Alexandrians were not open to every message. However, for centuries Christians and pagans lived alongside each other happily. Christians were among the city’s scientists and philosophers, and eventually occupied prominent positions in the city. Eventually this would mean the desire to control the city and the seduction of political power- which more than any other factor has contributed to decay of the Christian faith in every age and culture.

Among the most prominent of the city’s philosophers in the 5th century was Hypatia, a woman to whom remarkable inventions and mathematical, astronomical and philosophical treatises have been attributed. Christian writers have praised her as being virtuous (she spurned many suitors, wishing to remain ‘pure’) and more learned than the men of the city. Among her students were many Christians. Forged letters in later years have tried to show an anti-Christian bias in her writings, but these have not been proved to have been written by her. There were tensions in the city between Jews and Christians which led to violent confrontations. In the process, political jealousy caused a prominent Bishop to ridicule Hypatia and accused her of being a witch, due to her astronomical inventions and pursuits. A mob murdered her in the most gruesome way imaginable- and yes, these were Christians. My heart sank as I listened to this. When I say that, I mean that I do not care if they were real Christians or nominal Christians. Whatever they were, it was the desire for power that made it happen. Christians often point to the violence unleashed by Alexandria’s city authorities and Jews upon the city’s Christians and try to explain away the mob’s response. Sober-minded Christians of the day such as Scholasticus have rejected such excuses, and insisted that the violence is contrary to Christ’s teachings. Such voices carried the light amid the darkness. This holds a lesson of enormous significance to us.

Bettany Hughes tries to explain this, with pain in her voice, that though Christians had lived with these people for years, the desire to lay down the law and forbid all opposing thoughts, gave way to this behavior. She explains that when Christianity was just one of the voices in the street, things were okay- but when Christians sought to dominate the debate, things got ugly. Can truth triumph through human power and control? If truth is just “one of the voices” out there (as it has always been), will it limit its power? Let’s now think about our own day and age. We live in a democracy, never mind those who call it a sham. Under the circumstances, it is a working democracy with a lot to be desired to reach an ideal state. In principle and under the terms set by the US Constitution, this country was intended to be one in which the people- equal in their rights- could govern themselves.  Regardless of the faith of the founding fathers, this means that Christianity is intended to be just one of the voices out there. The separation of the church and the state is intended too, to safeguard this. This is one of the greatest gifts we could give ourselves, even for truth to triumph.

Often, many of the issues that we champion are ones which we debate based on what is practical rather than what is right. But some of them have proved deeply polarizing, due in no small part to the evangelical and Catholic voters who have pushed for their choice hard, and thereby ended up supporting mainly the Republican party that has endorsed these: pro-life, anti-gay marriage and anti-euthanasia positions.

LGTB rights have occupied center stage in the debates. Christians have mostly opposed same-sex marriage. Over the years, there have been an easing of other LGTB rights such as the right to visitation, adoption, inheritance of property, etc. We have somehow held on to opposing same-sex marriage, while individual states have passed laws allowing for these, and the trajectory looks to further this trend. What do we fear will happen if same-sex marriage were to be legalized nationally? Perhaps a further deterioration of traditional values (slippery slope), an increasingly pleasure-seeking culture, a challenge to Christians who seek to raise kids in sexual modesty? We call it devaluing or redefining marriage. But we have to ask, redefining by whom? By the world, clearly- it does not force us to accept the definition in our own lives. We hear voices speculating that this will lead to polygamy or polyandry, or worse, incestuous relationships. How about child marriage or bestiality? I think the slippery slope argument is valid to an extent, but the prospect of it including bestiality or the abuse of minors through child marriage, is scarce. It may well lead to the legalization of marriages among multiple partners or even incestuous marriages over the age of majority. However, as Christians, is it our business to challenge such laws? Why should we? Can we attempt to save our world though such laws?

In Hypatia’s day it was the desire to impose our laws that led to the destruction of one of the greatest cities of antiquity. It is heresy to expect a pagan to behave or think like a Christian. We have seen that when we seek to control the world in this way we become anti-Christian and that legacy lasts for centuries. Is it our fear that we may end up living in a world that is anti-Christian that lead us to act this way? If so, it may be the best opportunity we have to save ourselves and our kids from being deceived by civil religion. It is becoming increasingly tough to tell apart real Christian faith from American civil religion. Even at the cost of their lives, the early Christians told the Gospel story well. They had the moral authority to condemn the world because they lived for God. They used that moral authority to bear witness to Christ. This loving witness was compelling for the millions who saw their own sins as repulsive and the world’s value system as empty. Unfortunately for us today, people see our value system as hateful, prejudiced, ignorant and obscurantist. And why not? When civil religion takes over, faith in God suffers. Even believers are deceived and seduced by its power.

This brings us to another question/ Should we, like the Amish, seek to distance ourselves from all human laws? Are all human laws wicked? I think not. IJM, Freedom Firm and other such abolitionist organizations have sought the help of the police and other authorities in the countries of their operations to accomplish great things. Also Christians have achieved great moral victories by using the political machinery of their day- in civil rights, racial reconciliation, prevention of cruelty to animals, women’s rights, children’s rights, refugees’ rights, abolishing slave trade and other areas. But these victories have helped people, not constrained them from pursuing happiness or even immoral pleasure- as long as such pursuits did not harm another human being.

Preventing LGTB marriage (or other slippery slope variants), I’m inclined to think, is not the Christian’s business. Yes, I think there is a good case to made in understanding a homosexual relationship as being apart from God’s intentions for us- whether a person has control over their sexual orientation or not, whether we were “born that way” or made that way. But we must point people to the Gospel. The Gospel frees us to pursue God’s kingdom first. The rest is simply not our business, and as Alexandria’s example shows us, is counter-productive.

So what are the kind of laws we should pursue? To my mind, this should only include laws that help, protect or save people: being pro-life is a good example. If we do believe that a human life is sacred we must protect it in the womb, even as we seek to clarify exceptional situations. Such events are aberrations and we must be cautious when defining them. In general Christians must seek to prevent any war from happening. Controlling guns, to my mind, is a good thing as well- regardless of what the founding fathers thought. If we equate their thought with the word of God we would deem their dictates to be unalterable, but this is a big mistake. Civil religion must never replace God’s word to us. Death penalty, to my mind, is another mistake. I know CS Lewis and other big names have advocated this- but I cannot see the justification in sending a soul to hell when it is possible to incarcerate him or her for life, and hopefully offer a chance for redemption. Expanding healthcare coverage to everyone is a fight worth fighting- every Christian I have talked to in the US agrees with me on this topic. It seems to me that the big obstacle to their voting for the candidate who champions this is really the abortion issue. I respect this moral struggle, but at least let’s acknowledge that healthcare is a life issue as much as the right to life.

At a certain level this would seem intuitive- Christians are looking forward to seeing neighbors saved, poverty alleviated, peace maintained and their own lives to burn bright like a candle in the darkness. Instead we have sought to define the darkness as being light by allowing civil religion to hold sway.

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