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.

The Father of Monks

The Torment of St. Anthony by Michaelangelo

Anthony of Egypt is one of the most meaningful Christian mentors I’ve ever had, and he lived over a thousand years ago as a poor, solitary monk in the Egyptian desert.  All I have from him is a biography that someone else wrote (I mean, the famous bishop Athanasius wrote it, so, to be fair, it’s pretty good), a few letters of questionable authorship (they use some pretty technical terminology for a poor, uneducated monk), and some wise quotes from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (a collection of wise quotes from 4th century monks in the Egyptian desert).  Even though he doesn’t have the same body of work as someone like Augustine or Calvin, Anthony is so much more than his writings.  He’s the holy man that drew a generation of Christians out to the desert.  He’s the father of monks.  He’s the originator of monastic wisdom.  He’s a legend.

I love Anthony.  And since January 17th was his official memorial/feast day/commemoration/whatever other name for celebrating a saint the different denominations can come up with, I wanted to take a minute and appreciate him.

Anthony, or Abba (father) Anthony, as the desert monks would have known him, offers a spirituality that’s untethered by the quest for hedonistic pleasure and self-fulfillment that modern spirituality is so often tied to.  He didn’t pray because he needed a divine favor or because he was hoping that he’d get some sense of euphoria from the experience.  No, this is someone who gave everything for God.  He bled for God.  He hungered for God. He had an uncomfortable, no holds barred spirituality that commanded that he give over everything and spend every second in service to properly live the Christian life.

If all of that suffering makes it sound like he had some weird system of works righteousness or was a wild masochist, I assure you that isn’t at all what he was like.  He just loved God.  He would do anything that God asked of him, regardless of the physical toll it would take. Take, for example, his reaction to the classic verse Matthew 19:21:

[Anthony] entered the church, and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man Matthew 19:21, ‘If you would be perfect, go and sell that you have and give to the poor; and come follow Me and you shall have treasure in heaven.’ Antony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers

(Life of St. Anthony, 2)

Who actually does that?  It takes an iron will to legitimately actually do what Jesus said to do in that instance.  We usually spiritualize it away or say that it really only applied to the specific person that Jesus was talking to in the story, but Anthony?  He just… gave away everything.  He didn’t even take a week to think about it!  He knew what God wanted, and so he did it, regardless of the cost.

That leads to an intense war with devils and demons in the early part of his biography.  The devil comes in and reminds him of his past wealth, or tries to distract him with his own lust or boredom, and Anthony responds with prayer, conquering the Devil’s temptations through the power of God.  These scenes are often wildly dramatic.  My favorite is when he travels into a tomb filled with demons to pray and demons show up and beat him all night.  The villagers find him and take him back to town and try to heal him, but when he regains his consciousness, what does he do?  Asks to be carried back to the tomb, where he screams to the horde of demons:

Here am I, Antony; I flee not from your stripes, for even if you inflict more. Nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ! (Rom 8:35)

(Life of St. Anthony, 9)

and then he starts singing some of his favorite hymns until the demons show up again in the forms of animals to resume their attack.  Now, is this a literal story?  Probably not.  I don’t think that demons can just physically show up in the form of animals and start pummeling you (at least, it hasn’t happened to me just yet), and I can’t imagine a village of people finding you half dead in a demon tomb and then throwing you back in the next day, even if you begged them.  But it’s a really neat way of expressing the spiritual journey that Anthony went on to die to this world, the temptations that he wrestled with with along the way, and how his efforts to live a holy life weren’t something that gave him any degree of physical comfort.  He didn’t do it to feel good.  He did it because he loved God and wanted to be closer to him.  He emerges from the tomb with an ultradramatic ray of light from heaven coming down on him, showing that Anthony’s love and obedience have made him holy.

The biography might be ultra-cheesy, but it’s got a lot of good stuff in there.  And his wisdom sayings are even more approachable, as found in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.  My personal favorite is:

A brother said to Abba Anthony, “Pray for me.”  The old man said to him, “I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.

(The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 4)

Some of the other quotes are more comforting than that one, but to me, this captures the rigorous spirituality of Anthony’s life.  You want to grow holy?  Stop talking about it and do it.  You don’t need a new book on your shelf.  You don’t need the right person to pray.  You don’t need some fancy new technique.  You need to get up, stop making excuses, and do it.  As John Chrysostom said so eloquently, “human effort is profitless without help from above; but no one receives such help unless they themselves choose to make an effort,” (Philokalia, Loc. 13,333).  Anthony’s little warning to pray for yourself is one that I come back to a lot.  When my spiritual life is bad and I’m frustrated, I have to ask myself, am I actually putting in time and effort?  Or am I just expecting God to work magic on me while I go about my life as I choose to live it.  It’s a call to repent and live life intentionally, and if there’s any lesson I hear from the father of monks, it’s that the Christian life takes effort and intention.

Here’s the prayer from the Catholic breviary (Christian Prayer, 1064) for January 17th.  Whether you feel comfortable praying it or not is up to you, but I’d like to close with it either way:

Father,
You called Saint Anthony
to renounce the world
and serve you in the solitude of the desert.
By his prayers and example,
may we learn to deny ourselves
and to love you above all things.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen