Thursday, October 27, 2011

What Influences the Influencers?

Simultaneous with my reading of Confessions, I wandered off somewhere through hyperlinks and began reading through other early Christian writings. This happens to me frequently.  I begin reading one thing which makes an obscure reference to something else, which leads me to look up that piece of writing, which in turn references another text etc., etc. Before I know it I'm chasing rabbit trails...possibly tangential rabbit trails, but still slightly off of my original path.

During this frantic, hopping process, I came across 1 Clement, an early Christian epistle believed to be written around the turn of the first century by Pope Clement 1. You can read the text, in full, here.

For the most part it's what you would expect from a church leader writing to a congregation of believers, exhortation, warning, encouragement, and the reiteration of doctrine and practices and the faithfulness of the biblical characters. In the middle of all this, though, there is this nugget:

Let us consider that wonderful sign [of the resurrection] which takes place in Eastern lands, that is, in Arabia and the countries round about. There is a certain bird which is called a phoenix. This is the only one of its kind, and lives five hundred years. And when the time of its dissolution draws near that it must die, it builds itself a nest of frankincense, and myrrh, and other spices, into which, when the time is fulfilled, it enters and dies. But as the flesh decays a certain kind of worm is produced, which, being nourished by the juices of the dead bird, brings forth feathers. Then, when it has acquired strength, it takes up that nest in which are the bones of its parent, and bearing these it passes from the land of Arabia into Egypt, to the city called Heliopolis. And, in open day, flying in the sight of all men, it places them on the altar of the sun, and having done this, hastens back to its former abode. The priests then inspect the registers of the dates, and find that it has returned exactly as the five hundredth year was completed.
Do we then deem it any great and wonderful thing for the Maker of all things to raise up again those who have piously served Him in the assurance of a good faith, when even by a bird He shows us the mightiness of His power to fulfil His promise? For [the Scripture] says in a certain place, "You shall raise me up, and I shall confess to You;" and again, "I laid down, and slept; I awaked, because You are with me;" and again, Job says, "you shall raise up this flesh of mine, which has suffered all these things."
I was not expecting an early Christian leader to use the phoenix as a proof of God's resurrection power. Clement speaks about the bird as a real, factual, natural example of resurrection. It's intriguing because it is so removed from the Gospel accounts, or even Paul's description of resurrection. Instead of directly appealing to the Resurrection story, or Paul's assurances that 500 people witnessed a resurrected Jesus, Clement is using examples in nature as proofs for the resurrection of Christ and resurrection in general.  He discusses the renewal of the sun each day, or the growth of plants from "dead" seeds and ultimately goes on to this final example with the phoenix.

First, it's interesting to note that Clement doesn't reference the miraculous in any way.  He's writing to the Corinthians, a congregation with whom Paul spends a lot of time discussing tongues and healings and miraculous powers. Yet, now, there is no whiff of the supernatural in this letter. The transition is being made from a belief system based on experiential, emotive, supernatural events to a belief system that is moving towards an authoritative, literature-based system. The text's subtle feel places it in a different category than Paul's writings.

I'm not sure what it means. It seems somewhat removed from the immediacy of the apostles even though  Clement supposedly was alive when some of the apostles were still alive and is claimed to have been installed by Peter himself, though, as always, there is much uncertainty when it comes to dates and succession during this time period.

Second, it's always disappointing to come across these bizarre examples or reasoning in the founders of the Christian faith. Intellectually, I know that Clement believed that phoenixes were real and he was probably not strange in doing so and it shouldn't bother me.  However, it does make the point that many of Christianity's founders were incredibly credulous, maybe no more so than the average person in their culture, but still.....the implications further erode my confidence.

I experienced a similar deflation when reading St. Augustine's Confessions. One of the many pivotal moments he writes about concerns St. Anthony and the book Life of Anthony, which Athanasius wrote. He and his companions are set on fire by the book and its tales of Anthony's battles with demons and the strong, radical faith which caused Anthony to seek a solitary existence in the desert.

Off I went to read Life of Anthony in order to get a better understanding of what was so moving for Augustine and his friends.  What I read sounded like the ravings of a schizophrenic experiencing hallucinations. Demons spontaneously appear to Anthony and torment him, not only mentally, but also physically. It's one extreme episode after another.

Discovering this text as a seed of inspiration for Augustine is disturbing. What does it say about his mental state?  About what motivates him? About the credulity with which he accepts these tales?

When you find that those who hold such prominent influence over the shaping of Christianity have faulty premises and facts at the inception of their faith, how do you walk with them further down the path and take what they say with unpolluted trust?

Reading the early writings has become an act of torture for me. I'm always finding stuff that I wish wasn't there, and I'm frequently appalled at the influences which guide the influential.


james said...

WRT Anthony, his descriptions of his experiences seem weird, but his advice to others was generally quite reasonable. One of his themes was that you shouldn't be afraid of the devil.

JSA said...

I remember reading that exact passage about the phoenix and thinking, "uh-oh!". I guess one lesson isn't that we shouldn't lionize people too much - even our greatest theologians were fallible human beings.

Regarding Anthony, I really enjoyed his descriptions of demonic visits and found them quite reasonable. I often quote those passages as a way to challenge charismatics who are convinced that some "prophetic" dream they had is proof that God is speaking to them.

JSA said...

^^^ Doh! lesson *is*

james said...

Turn the question around. What in _our_ cultures, religious and secular, would seem completely insane to Augustine or to Patrick?

For example, we have an amazing faith in "experts." We look to them to interpret events, tell us how to raise children, give us talks on how to "grow our church," improve our love lives, and on and on, when their actual track record is generally dubious at best. Rather like Romans (and some modern Indians(*)) who checked in with the astrologer before tackling any project.

Or to tread a little harder, was there ever a culture so entertainment-obsessed as we are? Even Roman circuses didn't run 24/7

We value what someone recently called the fungibility of individuals over family ties and setting down roots. The nuclear family gets a little lip service, but nothing about cousins or grandparents, and the home town is defined as the place you leave.

And wrt sex: I don't see much improvement from Augustine's attitude that "sex is almost always sinful" to the modern "all sexual expression is good."

And I suspect his reaction to a hip evangelical worship production would be to shake the dust off his sandals.

(*) A friend of my wife's went home to India for her sister's wedding, and came back with an unexpected husband. The astrologer had told the family that the younger sister had to get married first. AFAIK they're happy enough...

Luke said...

Big fan of Clement, there's plenty of writers like him with un-Pauline notions, and a pretty direct approach.

"I know that Clement believed that phoenixes were real and he was probably not strange in doing so and it shouldn't bother me."
--an example of the pre-modern mindset meeting your modern one. Clement wouldn't care if Jesus factually rose from the dead or not, in fact Origen, a contemporary of Clement, if not a little after, ruminates on just that fact and comes up with, "It doesn't matter, I have met Christ and found his way is true and endeavor to follow it."

terri said...


I'm ure there are all sorts of things in our culture that would shock Augustine. Entertainment, and its negative impact on people, was one of the things he wrote quite a bit about. The theater, circus, and gladiator fights were events he enjoyed in his pre-conversion period and abhorred post-conversion.


I don't know if I would agree that Clement wouldn't care if Jesus actually rose from the dead or not. HE seems to be attempting to reassure the Corinthians that resurrection is not a preposterous idea because there are examples of types of resurrection all around them. If it didn't matter, he wouldn't spend the time asserting it.

There is a definite shift occurring during the first 2 centuries of Christianity in which notions of Greek philosophy are being brought to bear upon the Jesus narrative and judaic-centric theology. By the time we get to Augustine, the two have intermingled to create some of the basic pillars of Christian theology.

There is endless talk about "souls", "essences", "substances", and "mind".

A very different bent on how people view God and humans.

Luke said...

" HE seems to be attempting to reassure the Corinthians that resurrection is not a preposterous idea because there are examples of types of resurrection all around them."
-- he's telling them about all the other stories and instances of resurrection. it's a big deal, and yeah, he's after the idea that it's not so crazy of a concept. the premodern mindset however, is not like ours: an empirical fact-based one. that was my point.

once the greek and Platonic-Arisotilian explosion with Augustine, that starts to erode away. all the myth and creativity gets tempered down a little bit. and now we have the fundamentalist revival now. sad shame from where we started.

Dave said...

Just found your blog, via Like A Child--thanks for writing! I had similar reactions to 1Clement (part of my voracious, desperate reading after loss of Christian/theistic faith). I still mostly have questions, so eager to read more from you!

Anonymous said...

I don't feel that we should ever have a blind trust, but also use our own mind, "eat the fish, and spit out the bones," so to speak.

Even the early church fathers were fallible, and very much impacted by their own culture, and subjective experience.