Clement of Alexandria. Probably a name that few recognize. But I’ve found this 2nd/3rd century philosopher to be an inspiration, even a prototype, for those of us trying to reconcile the modern tension between science and faith, particularly that of the Fundamentalist variety. Before I explain, let me introduce you to him.
Born in Athens of Greece in the 2nd century, he benefited from the very best of Greek philosophical training. And he was at the top of his game. In his writings that still exist today, he quotes from hundreds of classical authors. Bear in mind that Greek learning was the cutting-edge science of that day. This wasn’t just training in “boring” things like deductive reasoning or rhetorical argument, but included everything that was known at the time about the universe, biology, mathematics, medicine, and other things that we now call science. Clement was a formidable and intimidating Greek scholar. He knew his stuff.
And, yet, he wasn’t satisfied. He deeply believed that there was much more to absolute truth. And he was hungry for it. Not just mere learning for learning’s sake, but the conviction that all forms of truth will fit together like a jigsaw puzzle into one complete whole.
We don’t know many of the details of Clement’s spiritual journey. Neither he nor any of his students wrote about his backstory … the specific events which drove him here or there, the places and times, or the backgrounds of the teachers who influenced him along the way. But at some point he encountered Hebrew Scriptures … the Old Testament … and he saw in its metaphors and imagery a truth that was deeper and older than that in Greek learning. More importantly, he saw the two blending together into one ultimate truth.
In trying to fully understand those Hebrew texts, he hunted down a particularly well-known Hebrew teacher (Philo) in the city of Alexandria.
That city was the perfect fertile ground for Clement’s search for truth. It was the biggest city in the cross-hairs of global travel in that day. Right in the middle of the narrow corridor of land that bridges North Africa to the Middle East, it caught all the east-west foot traffic going between those two. At the mouth of the Nile River, it caught north-south marine traffic coming up the Nile and down from the Mediterranean (which was the super-highway for the Roman world, connecting “Europe” to the Middle East). It was also a stone’s throw from the Suez Canal, which meant north-south traffic to/from the Arabian Sea and South Asia also spilled over into Alexandria.
With all this traffic coming into the city, it was a magnet for travellers of all kinds, bringing a constant influx of new and diverse ideas in science, theology, philosophy, and world-religions from all around the Greco-Roman world. These new ideas blended with the many old ones found on the pages of the thousands of manuscripts in Alexandria’s massive state-funded library.
Every day, scholars and intellectuals turned these new and old ideas over and over … compared them … debated them … integrated them … criticized them … fitted them together. It was quite the intellectual environment. The perfect oyster shell for this Christian philosophical pearl.
Somewhere along his journey of integrating Greek philosophy and Hebrew theology, probably in that melting pot of ideas which Alexandria was, Clement found another well-known teacher (Pantaenus) who introduced him to a third and very different strand of thinking … Christian theology … and helped braid all three together.
In Alexandria, Clement became one of the leading Christian thinkers and writers of his time, and greatly affected the early development of Christianity. He cited the scriptures 5,121 times in his own writings: 1,002 of these were of the Old Testament, compared to the 93 citations of the same in all of the Apostle Paul’s writings. All because of his consuming drive to unite all forms of truth around him, even ones which a more careless thinker might see as being incompatible or contradictory.
This is where Clement becomes a role model for those of us in the modern era engaged in the on-going and divisive dialogue between faith and science. I’m also looking for an all-encompassing truth: not one that integrates Greek philosophy with Judeao-Christian theology, but rather one that unites Christian theology with modern science. A long list of scientific findings, many of which I’ve blogged on previously, butt up violently against my Fundamentalist upbringing, as well as against certain more “liberal” Christian theologies which I’ve been exploring.
I’d like to quote here from Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski (Clement of Alexandria: a project of Christian perfection; published by T&T Clark, 2008), who wrote a whole thesis on Clement’s life “project.” This short paragraph may be a bit dry (I’ve inserted a few words in square brackets to help with ones that may be unfamiliar to some), but tell me if this doesn’t sound like the project we’ve been working on in trying to find the common truth between faith and science:
“Clement’s hermeneutics [theology] rejected arbitrary exegesis [interpretation] of Scripture based on either a literal reading of the text or a misguided application of philosophical assumptions. As Clement was writing in the period without a precise canon [Bible] or even an authority in commenting on the Bible, the potential for misuse of the Scriptures to justify and promote particular theological and moral doctrine was extensive. At this time of fervent polemic [arguing] among different approaches to the written text, what caused not only a hermeneutical problem but, in Clement’s view, had the potential to deform the backbone of theology, was the doctrine of the saviour and salvation. Charismatic, freelance and authoritarian teachers made free use of the Scriptures without any reference to existing ecclesiastical [church] traditions of interpretation. They simply quoted particular passages, changing words and explaining the text according to the pre-established needs of their doctrine/ideology.”
Piotr wrote this about Clement’s journey in the 2nd century, but doesn’t this resonate with our own journey in the 21st century?
I’m cautious of those who take a dogmatic stance on certain interpretations of Scripture, who would appear (to me) to misuse passages of Scripture without considering their context, and who do this “to justify and promote a particular theological and moral doctrine.”
I remain convinced that any theological truth has to be compatible with scientific truth: just as Clement believed that God revealed himself to the Greeks (through philosophy) and to the Jews (through Moses, and their Scriptures) and to all humanity (in Christ), I further believe God reveals himself in nature (seen through science). When a way can be found to fit together Christian theology and Darwinian evolution, we’ll have a much more complete understanding of the three most important questions we can answer: who we are, where we came from, and why we’re here.
As Clement found, I’m finding that this necessarily involves re-interpreting passages of Scripture, and setting aside long-held teachings of earlier church fathers.
Also in the same way that Clement was misunderstood—some then and now labelling him a gnostic or heretic because they didn’t like how he modified long-held traditions of belief—I likewise expect that most attempts to fit traditional Christian theology together with clearly demonstrated scientific fact will be met with visceral and emotional opposition. Yes, I understand, there’s a danger in going too far too fast. But we need to put something new on the table, if for no other reason than to get informed discussion going.
What’s at stake? The countless numbers who give up entirely on faith because it just doesn’t square with modern reality. Students who go to high-school, college or university and find that what they learned hasn’t got a leg to stand on. Friends and neighbors who equate “Christian” with “Flat-Earth” or other anti-science labels. Children who are home-schooled to protect them from the big bad world out there (which they’ll eventually encounter anyway).
Is that worth the price of maintaining the old tradition?
I think it’s time to change the wine-skins.
As always, let me know what you think …