Monday, March 22, 2010

Islam and Christian Unity

Most of the pet theories that I had as an undergraduate or in my early twenties have died quiet, merciful deaths, resting in well deserved oblivion (alongside most of the output of my short-lived songwriting career).  How I'm glad the blog medium, back then, was in such primitive form that I could not avail myself of it, as I would have certainly attempted to find for my ill-formed fancies more of an audience than they deserved. Yet last night, staring down at Alexandria from a plane en route to Cairo, was just enough to cause one of those early theories of mine to unexpectedly surface, and I thought I'd record it before the tide of good sense and intellectual sobriety can submerge it once again. I find it hard to believe that no one else has thought of it - the notion I'm about to relate must be out there somewhere in some form in church history.

It regards the Copts, i.e. Egyptian Monophysite Christians.  They were first Protestants, and that's no compliment.  There should never have been a Coptic Church separate from the one Church, yet there was. The diaphysitism of the Council of Chalcedon was the supposed reason for the divide, but - I wouldn't be the first to suggest - just as significant was the fact that the same Council of 451 posited the more recently founded Constantinople, not Alexandria, as second in authority to Rome. Alexandria, that center of learning and culture which gave us the Septuagint, Philo, Clement, Origen the Great (as I like to call him), Antony and Athanasius, was forced to play second fiddle to an upstart. Upon news of the Council's urban rankings, Alexandrian riots were so forceful that the Great Catechetical School itself was destroyed.  A rift ensued.  Emperor Justinian could do nothing to heal it, and a separate branch of "Coptic" Christianity, luxuriating in its own formidable heritage (one soon to be turned in upon itself) was born. That's not the theory, by the way - all that is just the factual preface. My dubious theory is that upon the calcification of this (first?) yet to be fully mended breach within Christendom, God's hand of discipline on his faithless church appeared on the horizon in the form of Islam.  In short:  Copts break off, Christians are given over a century to make ammends, and (failing that) Muslims break in.

It is often remarked how, on the eve of the 16th century Ottoman conquest, the Byzantines preferred the Sultan's turban to the Pope's miter. We forget, however, that long before that the Copts sent the same message to the Byzantines, preferring Arab rule to Constantinople's. They got their wish, and Coptic Orthodoxy sustained enormous pressure to conform to Islam, while being, at the same time, cut off from the resources of the main currents of Christendom.  Not surprisingly, by the ninth century the Arabic language had replaced Coptic even among Christians, and Islam - demographically speaking - finally surpassed Coptic Christianity, making Egypt the predominantly Muslim land that it is today. Yes, Coptic Orthodoxy survived, and survives to this day, thank goodness. (God is, after all, merciful.)  And ecumenical progress on the monophysite issue in recent history is, of course, only to be applauded. But as R.R. Reno has remarked, "Let’s not kid ourselves... Repentance cauterizes; it does not erase."  Schism is sin, and if one believes, as I do, that Christianity stewards the truth (notice my absence of quotation marks) about the divinity of Jesus, then we have paid very dearly for this early schism.

Like I said, it's an outlandish theory that theoretically manhandles the two largest religions in the world, casually attempts to plumb Providence, and has been spurred lately only by a bout of "travel high" (which I'm convinced is a form of insanity). But it's not entirely original either. I seem to recall Isaiah and Jeremiah speaking of the Babylonians and Assyrians in such a "disciplinary" fashion, not to mention the book of Revelation warning about lamps being removed from lampstands (in what is now Islamic Asia Minor no less). But enough. Go back, strange theory, to those shapeless notional recesses from whence you came. But if your brief appearance goads someone else to stop uplifting their glorious "[insert Christian sub-division here] heritage," and to long for the incorporation of such distinctions within the larger body of Christendom instead, then you've done your job.