How African is Christian Orthodoxy?

Home to the Church fathers? Victim of Christian colonization? Both?

Back in seminary, I remember one of my friends getting frustrated about the syllabus of our theology class.  It focused on 3 theologians: Augustine, Aquinas, and Kathryn Tanner.  She pulled me aside and vented, “How dare they present this as theology? It’s an ethnocentric, biased, racist presentation of what ‘theology’ is.” Being a little more moderate (and excited to delve into Augustine), I responded, “Well, you’ve got more diversity there than you think. You’ve got an Italian guy from the middle ages, an American woman from today, and Augustine is ancient and from… what… like modern Algeria or something? That’s 2 genders, 3 continents, and 3 eras.” Her response was simple: “Augustine has been co-opted by white people for generations. He’s effectively white at this point. You can’t count him as a diverse voice.”

I don’t want to argue about whether the class was biased. Of course it was! There is no unbiased presentation of information. In choosing which voices to include, you always create a bias. If anything, I think the voices from that class have a more Catholic bias than anything else! But that’s neither here nor there. I’m more interested in her response: Augustine isn’t African. He’s effectively white.  For those unfamiliar with him, Augustine is the father of Western Christian orthodoxy (Protestant and Catholic) and was born in Algeria when it was under Roman rule.  Admittedly, I don’t know that I’ve heard a lot of people discuss him as a non-white, non-Western source. He usually makes his way into discussions as a primarily Latin-speaking, Roman source (a factor that I assume made her consider him “effectively white”).

There are reasons for that! The Roman Empire stretched across continents and encompassed multiple nationalities. Ideas about who is “white” wouldn’t have been relevant in that era.  Racial stereotypes still existed, but not in the form that they take today.  When we say things like, “Augustine was not white,” it’s an anachronistic statement.  But still, we view the past with the lenses that we wear today.  Why is it that the ancient fathers of the Church born in Africa are often seen as basically European?

Thomas Oden took a solid stab at this question in his book, “How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.”  It’s relatively readable, but he is pretty bad about name-dropping.  Any given chapter includes the name of 10 or more ancient theologians, most of which the average person will not recognize. I’m just going to pick three theologians that he named that are worth talking about: Augustine, Athanasius, and Anthony of Egypt.  Auggie is the father of traditional Western Christianity, Athanasius is a bishop from Egypt that helped officially establish that Jesus was equally God with the Father (some people at the time were saying he was a lower-tier assistant to God, rather than the real deal), and Anthony is the father of monasticism who I’ve written about previously here.  Each one of these men is African, but rarely has that aspect of their identity acknowledged.

Oden takes a solid stab at uncovering Augustine’s legitimate, non-white ethnicity:

It is likely that Augustine had a mother with Berber background from a family that converted to Christianity at least a generation before his birth in 354. Monica would not have become any less ethnically African just because she married a military officer with a Roman-sounding name. Augustine was born and raised in a remote inland Numidian town (Thagaste) with mixed racial stock. The rock carvings from Neolithic times in Numidia show occupation dating back ten thousand years. Among Augustine’s known family and friends were people who had Berber, Punic, Numidian, Roman and even Libyan names.

How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, Kindle Locations 528-532

Someone with a family rooted in Northern Africa is logically probably from Northern Africa.  Latinized names were gradually adopted by native populations during their time in the Roman Empire, so they certainly aren’t proof of ethnicity.  Either way, a man that was born in Africa, worshipped in Africa, spoke to Africans, and died in Africa ought to be considered African.  When Romans based their logic on Augustine’s theology, they were following the foremost thinker of Africa, not Europe.

Then we have Athanasius of Alexandria.  Again, we have a similar situation regarding name. Athanasius’s Greek-sounding name that would have been popular in the region after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, but Greeks would have been a minority population in Egypt.  The average person, even in metropolitan areas like Alexandria, was Egyptian.  Greece left the imprint of their language and their philosophers, but those ideas were taken up and developed by the people who did the majority of the eating, breathing, living, and thinking across that landmass.  As a bishop, Athanasius worked regularly with churches that stretched deep into modern Egypt, almost bordering modern day Sudan.  This population wouldn’t have known Greek!  They’d have spoken a language like the native Egyptian Nilotic.  He was someone who spoke to, cared for, and related to the people of Egypt.  Even some of the metaphors that he uses reflect a mind that is distinctively Egyptian!  When people like Athanasius talked about eternal life or spiritual ascent, those terms were packed with meaning that were inherited from ancient Pharaonic religion. They spoke to him and the people he knew because of their cultural heritage.

And then there’s Anthony.  Favorite saint of mine, Anthony.  Anthony helped popularize Christian monasticism and is often considered the first Christian monk.  Not only was he Egyptian, but the ultramajority of people that followed him out to the desert would have been Egyptian peasants.  The academics among them may have written in Greek to make their ideas accessible, but they would have regularly spoken Egyptian Nilotic. As people throughout Europe started monasteries, they were taking on a pattern of life that was developed by Africans.

With these three examples alone, I think it’s clear that the achievements of Africans in Christian theology have been unjustly ignored.  Orthodoxy flowed from the South to the North for centuries!  Europeans don’t get to lay claim to these men simply because they enjoyed their work.  And it’s equally unjust to say that their theological work didn’t find lasting roots in African communities.  There are churches in these regions that have been active for about 2000 years.  If anything, those regions have a better claim to the title “traditionally Christian” than most places in Italy, England, or France.  So why is there a bias in favor of Europe when it comes to claiming ownership over Christian thought?

That bias didn’t always exist.  A popular story in medieval Europe was the legend of Prester John.  He was this grand king from beyond the Islamic lands that controlled an ancient and powerful Christian kingdom.  There were a lot of journeys to try to find him and ask for help!  Mind you, he didn’t actually exist.  Maybe they meant the King of Ethiopia, who fits the bill reasonably well?  Apparently when Europeans made contact with Ethiopia, they insisted on calling the King “Prester John” (much to his confusion).  Whether or not the myth had any grounding in reality, Europeans were aware that there were Christians elsewhere in the world.  They were wise, they were important, and they were very much alive.   Christianity wasn’t understood to be a European phenomenon.

Today, the cultural legacy of colonialism lives on in how we view theology:

We can hardly find these prejudices against Africa voiced anywhere where in Christian history until we get to the nineteenth century, especially to the writings of the French Enlightenment, German idealism and British empiricism. It was not until [then] that these prejudices became so standardized that they were accepted without question by educated Westerners-and by Western educated Africans.

Ibid., Loc. 555-557

In an era where Europe was casting off the vestiges of tradition and claiming an unbiased, “scientific” worldview, real Christianity became an intellectual property of Europe.  Good ideas were emphasized as primarily European.  Augustine became a Latin theologian.  Athanasius and Anthony were assumed to be working from their Greek intellectual inheritance.  Anything good that they wrote was suppposed to have come from their Western sensibilities; any anything that was obscure or odd was a product of unenlightened, superstitious nonsense that Europeans were fighting against.

Orthodoxy was redefined and reframed to fit the presiding worldview, and some of the diverse voices of the early Christians were whitewashed.

There’s something to be gained by seeing the famous theologians of the past for the diverse people that they were.  That doesn’t necessarily mean we need to completely redefine the way we read them!  If we try to wrap their faith around their ethnicity, we could end up creating the same kind of ethnocentric faith that the enlightenment brought us. We might be tempted to think about Augustine in terms of how African he was, or to have conversations about Anthony as primarily an Egyptian thinker.  That’s all well and good, but both men would much rather be weighed by a more important measure: in terms of the truth that they were a witness to.  Oden put it well:

Orthodox Christians do not admit skin color as a criterion for judging Christian truth. Never have. Never will. African Christianity is not primarily a racial story but a confessional story of martyrs and lives lived by faith active in love.

Ibid., Loc. 545-548

The benefit to recovering the full story of these saints is seeing just how vast the workings of God have been.  Europe isn’t the alpha and the omega of historic Christian faith. Christianity belongs to the whole world, and it always has.

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