Alexandrian Christianity: Then and Now
New Camaldoli Hermitage: Big Sur
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the
--T.S. Eliot, “East Coker” Four Quartets
The earliest forms of Christianity emerged from the matrix of the Jewish Tradition, but Christianity, within a generation, encountered the Classical world. The much larger and more cosmopolitan ethos of Classical thought and culture was neither rooted nor grounded in Jewish religious thought, but such a civilization was deeply spiritual and religious. This meant that when Christians encountered the Classical world, they could not appeal to Jewish thought (which was largely foreign to such a civilization). The journey, then, of Christianity from Jerusalem and Palestine outside such an enclosed form of religion meant Christians had to speak their faith to a form of religion that was deeply contemplative, spiritual and religious but not Jewish.
Alexandria was, in the first few centuries of the Common Era, noted for its diverse cultures, pluralistic religions and crossroads where different forms of spirituality met one another. Alexandria had one of the largest libraries in the ancient world, one of the fullest diasporic Jewish communities (the Septuagint and Philo called this creative place home) and it was a vibrant centre in which Stoicism, mystery religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, Egyptian cults, middle Platonism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Yoga, Gnosticism, early forms of Christian desert spirituality and Christian thought and culture encountered one another on a daily basis.
In fact, Alexandria was one of the most vibrant centres and cities of Christianity from the 2nd to the 5th centuries of the Common Era. Pantaenus (120-200), Clement (150-215) and Origen (184-254) embodied, in their life and writings, a form of contemplative theology and philosophy that embraced the finest and most probing insights of the wisdom traditions of the East in their deeply meditative forms of Christianity. This was not a Tertullian’s “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, What has the Academy to do with the Church?” form of Christianity. Alexandrian Christianity was much more about contemplative Christians finding those points of concord and dialogue between Christianity and the “logos spermatikos” in the best of all religions and spiritual philosophic traditions.