Different approaches: East vs West

In relation to my previous post on The Vision of Theophilus, I was doing a little reading and ran across some interesting comments from a Coptic Orthodox priest on the relationship of faith and scholarship. The source is Be Thou There: The Holy Family’s Journey in Egypt, edited by Gawdat Gabra (American University in Cairo Press, 2001), page 114.

These are the words of Father Philoxenos of the Monastery of the Holy Virgin, Dayr al-Muharraq, Upper Egypt:

Not every fact of history is recorded in historical documents. Let’s not speak about Theophilus, but consider instead the Prophet Isaiah, who wrote about the altar in the midst of Egypt. The proof of Isaiah is stronger than Theophilus. We first depend on the Bible, then we have the doctrines of the Apostles, and the third source is Tradition. These are the three sources of faith of the Coptic Orthodox Church. We do not base our belief on Theophilus only, but on Isaiah.

You see, Coptic people are a very religious people. We have a strong belief in the Bible, in the Church, the sayings of the Church, and the history of the Church. We can’t deny that there are many stories that are exaggerated. We don’t deny this. But we have faith in our Church Fathers and in what they say. This is a very strong source for the people of Egypt.

The first source we depend on is faith. If historical evidence adds something that confirms it, it is fine, it is acceptable. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter because I already have the faith in my heart.

I look at whether such a story is a benefit to the faith. If what people believe makes their faith stronger and vital, fine, that is acceptable. But if a certain story contradicts accepted belief and dogma, we must oppose it.

[On those in Egypt who believe their various churches were visited by the Holy Family:] It is some kind of spiritual pride and a kind of blessing. They want to be connected to the Holy Family, and that is not a problem, because it is not against the dogma and not against tradition. Here the people are not so focused on the history but on spiritual things. We are not talking about research of a PhD on the Holy Family. We are talking about faith, blessings, miracles, about something spiritual. What benefit do we have if we confirm it here and cancel it there? But this is not accepted in the Western world. They ask for documents, proof, and if you don’t have proof, it can’t be true. That is a different way of thinking.

Indeed! “That is a different way of thinking” from that of the traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church as well.

I think in part it boils down to the simple choice of where one has one’s heart: on things of the flesh, or on things of the Spirit; on the temporary things of this age, or on the things of eternity. The salvation of the soul is the most important thing that a person can focus on, and should be focusing on. Matters of historical truth are not important when such do not contradict the dogma of the Church. That is a very important point, very clearly brought forth by Fr Philoxenus above, and instantly thought-provoking. Fr Philoxenus (and others whom I’ve spoken to) have a very healthy attitude, not denying that there are “exaggerations” but that these serve a purpose other than documentary, something that the Western approach fails in grasping anymore, which is quite sad. Our cultures have gone so far down a particular path of intellectualism that they can no longer be touched by the faith-stirring and wonder-inducing accounts of Saints and their doings that are still living wells of inspiration for the, frankly, much stronger faith found amongst others. I speak also for myself, as the wonder I felt as a child all around me, and throughout my reading of the Bible, is now in so many ways attenuated by having my head crammed full of intellectualist ideas about the Bible. It is only with great difficulty that I am recovering that sense of wonder, and part of the help is precisely in reading the Lives of the Saints, where, despite my own failures, I am moved and changed, through the merciful working of the Holy Spirit, it must be, because I can’t be doing that alone!

In any case, it’s something to think about.

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