Global Catholics – ‘Christ plays in ten thousand faces’

In earlier stages of Christianity, areas of the world which today are not so associated with Catholicism were centers of theological study and learning. Before the spread of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries, North Africa and the Levant were home to an incredibly large number of Christians. In fact, the cities of Alexandria and Antioch rivalled Rome, Constantinople and Jerusalem in terms of influence upon Christian history and scholarship.
Each of these areas had their luminary figures – Alexandria (in Egypt) produced names such as Clement, Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril. Antioch (on the Turkish/Syrian border) was home to such figures as John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and St. Ignatius of Antioch, not to be confused with Ignatius Loyola, who changed his name from Inigo to honor the earlier Church Father.
The Alexandrian and Antiochene schools of thought were markedly different, and the fact that so many from each were canonized sheds a light on the complex picture in which the “big tent” mentality of Catholicism has been made evident throughout the centuries. Ours is not a “cookie-cutter” faith, there is room for difference of opinion, expression, prayer life and theological method within it.
The Alexandrian school was squarely focused on the divinity of Christ, read through Hellenistic lenses, especially that of Plato. It argued for a very “top-down” (in technical terms “descending”) Christology, in which God takes on human flesh and enters history. While we accept this as fact within Catholicism today, the position if taken to extremes tends toward the heresy of Docetism – where God merely seems to be human, but in fact is sort of like Zeus dressed up in a human suit and too holy to really be a flesh and blood person. Traditional Christianity rejects such positions.
On the other end of the scale, the Antiochene school of theology was firmly rooted in the historical reading of the Synoptic Gospels, tending toward Semitic and Aristotelian modes of thought. It emphasized Jesus’ humanity – his ability to weep, feel hunger and fear, and live and act truly as our brother. Jesus was a real man in such a reading, with all that such a reality entailed. The radical extremes of this school, however, then over-emphasized this humanity and argued that he was merely the most perfect human being “adopted” by the Father at some point, not an incarnated Person of the Trinity. This belief system argued that Christ was not in fact divine, but the highest version of what it meant to be human, a position firmly rejected by councils in the early church. However, the Antiochene “ascending” Christology did have benefits, leading us to better recognize Jesus, as we say in the creed, as both true God and true man.
These are generalities, and the history of debate and development of theological thought was obviously much more complex. But the conversation demonstrates that authentic theology often occurs in a free middle “zone” between the extremes of rejected positions. Within this zone of orthodoxy, different opinions and testimonies of faith in Christ’s message and ministry are debated and welcomed. Some theologians are more Alexandrian in vision, some more Antiochene, even today.
This is a positive net benefit for the universal church in this scenario. Few would say that Franciscan spirituality is the same as Thomistic, or that contemporary Jesuit interpretations of mission match those of Opus Dei on every front. Yet that is what makes Catholicism vibrant, organic and enduring. There is wideness and depth within the faith itself for, as the priest and poet Gerad Manley Hopkins wrote, “Christ plays in ten thousand faces/Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., of Collingswood, is a Research Associate at Durham University’s Centre for Catholic Studies in Northeast England.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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