Two Stories About Alexandria in Light of the Higgs Boson

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:

  1. 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]
  2. 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].



The definition of “catholic” is, “the church anywhere is the church everywhere.”

But here’s a more poetic way of saying it.

You are not a single drop of water in the ocean, you are the entire ocean in a single drop of water.

Written by Rumi, a 13th cent Sufi mystic poet.

My one caveat is that this can be easily read as referring to an individual. But individuals are not the Church. The Body of Christ is inherently corporate.

Reductio Ad Hitlerum

I recently listened to the Tuesday, 9/9/2014 episode of The Gist, a podcast hosted by Mike Peska entitled Reductio Ad Hitlerum. (It was such a good title I decided to plagiarize it.) In this episode he interviewed Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil. The book is evidently an overview of different interpretations and/or explanations of who Hitler was and why he did what he did. Rosenbaum argued that the topic is significant because the Holocaust was an event of singular evil in the world. If one Hitler arrived on the pages of history (implying that only one has), is it possible that a second one could do the same? Pesca, by the way affirmed these sentiments without any pushback whatsoever.

This line of thinking upsets me deeply. It implies a level of Jewish exceptionalism that is either supremely self-centered or shockingly naive. What happened to the Jews in the Holocaust is certainly abhorant beyond words. Furthermore, it is likely that the Jews have had to put up with more persecution than almost any other group in history. We should never forget that.

But while their historical experience has been horrible it has not been unique in history. Starting with recent history and working back, we’ve experienced the extermination of Christians in the corner of the world shared by Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. In conjunction with that, there has been an increasing hostility that is bordering on religious genocide of Christians throughout the Levant and on into northern Africa. There has also been the century long genocidal attempts to exterminate the Armenians, Assyrians, and Kurds and take their land. And then there was the Rwandan genocide that centered particularly around hatreds stirred up between the Hutu and Tutsi people groups. In southeast Asia there was the unspeakably evil Khmer Rouge and the genocide of Hmongs, and other groups in Cambodia. And of course there were are the Roma (the Gypsies) who are occasionally persecuted, occasionally exterminated, but almost always either ignored or hated, in Central Europe.

I’ve had this contentious argument before and the rejoinder has typically been, that yes, there have been other genocides in recent history, in not quite so recent history, and in ancient history, but the Holocaust is singular and unique because 6 million Jews were exterminated (and then as an afterthought, possibly the extermination of homosexuals and Gypsies gets thrown in as well). It’s the magnitude that makes it singular and sets it apart. (And even this is not so singular. Some have estimated the genocide in Belgian Congo to have killed 10 million people. Granting that this is almost certainly an inflated figure, for there are no accurate population statistics, that late 19th century abomination is among the most massive in modern history.)

Genocide is so unspeakable that to diminish the Rwandan genocide, for instance, simply because it was smaller and less organized than the Holocaust is in itself unspeakable self-centeredness or cultural centeredness (or possibly an unspeakably cynical form of racism). Compare it to the U.S. bombing of Nagasaki. (I only mention Nagasaki because we can safely dismiss Hiroshima. A 21 megaton bomb was used above Nagasaki–compared to the mere 16 megaton bomb dropped on Hiroshima–and Nagasaki is therefore singular and unique in the horrors of history.) To dismiss the first because the second was larger is to miss a significant part of the horror.

And as it was with nuclear weapons, so it is with genocide. Adolph Hitler is not unique in history (in spite of Rosenbaum’s claims). There is Leopold II, Pol Pot, Idi Ameen, Ghengis Khan, Bashar al-Assad etc. Our fascination with Hitler very possibly blinds us to the ongoing horror of genocide in the world.

Or, possibly, our fascination with Hitler is a convenient way of not saying out loud that we don’t really care as much about those other genocides: those people, after all, are not like us. Do we remember the Holocaust because Jews are such an integral part of our culture? Do we fail to appreciate the plight of the Kurds because they are so different from us. Do we dismiss (on the broad cultural scale) the horrors of the Khmer Rouge because of its emotional association with the Vietnam War, which was such a terrible open wound for many years after the war? Do we downplay the neverending series of genocides in Africa, simply because it’s Africa and not Europe or North America?

Donald Rumsfeld, in a report to congress, said the following.

A few weeks after September 11th, I was in the Middle East, and I met in a tent in the desert with the Sultan of Oman.  He expressed his sympathy for the loss of life in America.  But he said that perhaps that tragedy will wake up the world, so that nations will come together to take the steps necessary to see that there is not a September 11th that involves a biological, chemical or nuclear weapon.  Perhaps, he said, the loss of those 3,000 precious lives, in the end, will help to save tens of thousands of lives. (Thanks to Torie Clarke for the reference to this report.)

Clarke, during a radio conversation, went on to compare this to the video of the beheading of two American journalists by ISIS. Is their death the necessary price to wake us up to the threat, she wondered?

Or is it actually far more sinister than just that? Is it that the beheading of hundreds of Arabs doesn’t matter to us (just as the genocide of millions of Southeast Asians and hundreds of thousands of Africans doesn’t really seem to register). That’s what those people do, after all. It requires the death of Americans, of “our” folks who talk like us, for us to sit up, take notice, and be horrified enough to wake out of our slumber?

Is the Christian Life All About Knowing God?

My brother called me a couple of months ago and asked, “What is Gnosticism?” Well, that’s an open-ended question, given the diffuse character of the Gnostic mindset, and so I gave a rather diffuse and open-ended answer. I should have questioned him further because it turns out that a speaker at his church had accused contemporary Evangelicalism of being Gnostic. That’s something that is far easier to nail down. This essay deals with the side that’s easier to nail down and leaves the question of the vaguely gnostic mindset that permeates our society for another time.

In the context of contemporary Evangelicalism, it is simplest to say that one of the main things that made Gnosticism a heresy was its assumption that salvation was a form of knowledge. (By the way, if you didn’t make the connection, the English word “know” is something of a transliteration of the Greek word gnosis. A “Gnostic” is literally a “knowledge person.”) It is therefore easy to accuse Protestantism of the Gnostic heresy because in Protestant (and especially Evangelical) shorthand, salvation is knowing. (Remember J.I. Packer’s runaway best-seller, Knowing God?) Salvation is believing Jesus Christ and accepting his message by faith. Protestantism, because of it’s emphasis on the Bible, and because it matured alongside the Enlightenment, is a very rational sort of approach to Christianity. The simplistic approach is to say that since Gnosticism is a heresy, and Protestantism is a lot like Gnosticism, Protestantism is therefore a heresy.

And let’s face it, that’s overly simplistic … and simplistic is usually dangerous.

Accusing some denomination or flavor of contemporary Evangelicalism of being Gnostic (very popular at the moment) is sort of like accusing a political movement of being Fascist. First and foremost, both are emotional rather than rational arguments because the actual meaning of either “Gnostic” of “Fascist” is rather vague but fraught with emotional freight.. Second, both are anachronistic, because the things that made Fascism what is was were specific to the the time between the two wars, just as the things that made Gnosticism what is was were specific to the intersection of Jewish, Hellenistic, and Christian thought of the second and third centuries C.E.

But back to the original issue: How is knowledge of Jesus Christ related to the Christian life? there is a beautiful passage in Philippians 3 where Paul piles image upon image, indicating some of the faces of the multifaceted jewel that is our goal in the Christian life:.

8 Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Notice that “knowing Christ” is emphasized twice in this passage: “The surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” and “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection.” But “knowing” is not the goal. Paul not only wants to know him, he wants to “be found in him” (v 9). He wants a “righteousness from God” (v 9). Verse 10 sounds like building blocks, beginning with knowledge and then moving beyond that to “the power of his resurrection,” sharing in his suffering,” and “becoming like him in his death,” all of these building blocks leading to a specific kind of life: “that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

It’s the last part of the passage that gets at what I suspect makes it so easy to accuse Protestantism, and Evangelicalism  in particular, of Gnosticism. Paul is working hard; he’s an apostle, and he’s not even sure he will attain the resurrection. In other words, the Christian life is hard; it’s expensive; it’s action oriented.

From the beginning the Protestant movement has had a weakness toward what Bonhoeffer (a WWII Protestant pastor killed by the Nazis) called “cheap grace” and what is often called “easy believism” today. (I mention Bonhoeffer to remind us that this is not a brand new phenomenon.) It also needs to be noted that easy believism is rampant all across the Christianity of the wealthy, industrialized Western world. Orthodox priests rail against it regularly. The lack of life-changing commitment in the Roman Catholic church is scandalous. But conservative Protestantism, with its unique emphasis on empirical knowledge in conjunction with easy believism, almost always takes the brunt of the Gnostic accusation.

True salvation, the real Christian life, is not knowledge, it’s experience or activity. It’s “gaining” Christ and then being “in him” (to borrow Paul’s phrase from vv. 9-10. It is knowledge, but it is knowledge that leads to suffering, death, and resurrection. It is not bringing the message of God down into my head, it is moving upward toward God (v. 14).

Of course this message is not foreign to mainstream Evangelicalism at all. The particular way that Evangelicals (especially those with some Reformed sensibilities) emphasize Christ alone, scripture alone, and faith alone can obscure the the Apostle Paul’s strong emphasis on “the obedience of faith” (Romans) and pressing on toward the prize of Jesus Christ (Philippians) as well as the more mystical sense of being “in Christ” (or as John puts it, being “one with Christ” and Peter’s “partaking in the divine nature”). But let’s be honest, that’s rather different than being an outright Gnostic.

In review: What was Gnosticism? In this context, it was a world view and eventually a Christian heresy that believed in a special knowledge (in contrast to activity or transformation) that was salvific. Is Evangelicalism Gnostic?  No. But since much of contemporary society has many Gnostic tendencies and Protestantism and Evangelicalism have a particularly knowledge-oriented relation to the Bible and their understanding of salvation, it is certainly easy to understand why the accusation pops up so frequently.