Let me tell you two stories about Alexandria, Egypt, or more accurately, the same story from two perspectives. I say they’re the same story because it’s hard to tell from the narrative itself:
- In the middle of the 3rd century, St Anthony heard the voice of God and he went into the desert recesses to be with God. Through the influence of St. Anthony at the end of the fourth century, so many people had gone to live in the desert that there were as many people living in the desert as there were in the city. [From St. Athanasius, as told by Josiah Trenham]
- From the Ptolemaic era well into the period of the Roman Empire the city of Alexandria was a center of culture, learning, and government. During the third century the city became increasingly corrupt. This period of growing dissipation was accentuated in 215 when Emperor Caracalla, after a dust up with the locals, commanded his troops to massacre all the youths old enough to bear arms. The over-zealous troops ended up killing over 20,000 people.
After this Alexandria’s rate of deterioration increased; in turn, people increasingly fled the city. The process of decline and depopulation came to a head in 365 when the city was hit by a tsunami.
Because Alexandria was far more Roman than North African, Alexandrians tended not to move to the other regional population centers, whether because they were not welcome or not comfortable in Egyptian culture, no one knows. As a result, many moved farther inland to the desert regions setting up small communities away from the dangers of Alexandria as well as the threats of Egypt proper.
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Was the decline of Alexandria and the beginnings of the monastic movement a sociological accident or a result of God bringing forth the nascent monastic movement through St. Gregory? I would argue that it was both. We get confused about this relationship because we often assume that God acts in a particular manner that is actually contrary to his character. The faithful Jews, for instance, were expecting a conquering Messiah (or “angry God” in popular culture) and instead got a would-be Rabbi crucified by the Romans. In retrospect that proved to be the greatest victory in all creation although at the time it appeared Jesus got run over by the wheels of history. The event also demonstrated God’s preferred mode of operation. He is the humble God, the secret God. God’s actions can dismissed as being in no way divine (among those who choose to do that) because there is almost always a natural alternative explanation.
As a result, God’s call, when I’m wealthy, successful, and comfortable, is easily ignored. But when the city I love and am comfortable in manages to go all Detroit on me, “miraculously,” I hear God’s call for the first time. Although naturalists can completely dismiss the story of Gregory as being completely irrelevant to the demise of Alexandria, that is precisely what one, who has become accustomed to how God works, would expect.
My mind went in this direction after listening to Josiah Trenham’s Sunday of the Exaltation of the Cross sermon shortly after listening to Lawrence Krauss interviewed by Leo LaPorte on the Triangulation podcast. Krauss, along with being a world-class physicist, is also famous for being one of the New Atheists who take every opportunity they can to debunk religion. Not surprisingly, Krauss, after familiarizing himself with all the amazing new discoveries in physics (many of these discoveries are connected with the Higgs Boson) has declared unequivocally that the Higgs Boson success proves there is no room in the universe for God.
And I agree with Krauss as long as I consider the question from within the rather confining limitations of the modern scientific endeavor. Paul says unequivocally that God can only be “found” when one honors and gives thanks to him (Rom. 1:21) — not a big part of the modern physics curriculum. Apart from this, God remains completely invisible and irrelevant to the workings of the universe. Just as one can explain Alexandria without God, so one can explain the creation without a Creator … because this is how the humble God made it.
My favorite facet of God’s ultimate and overwhelming victory over death, sin, human stubbornness and blindness, is that we humans can only come to God in the same manner he came to us — in total weakness, with nothing to hold on to, with no evidence to offer to the world that we’re right, aside from the wonderment of, “Look, how they love one another!” [Tertullian, referencing John 13:35]. “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong” [1 Cor 1:26f].