Ranges of faith, from the simple to the philosophical
Thursday 30th August 2018
Summary of meeting 5 August 2018
Ranges of Faith as observed in Egypt
led by Salwa Booth
On her return from a visit to her home country of Egypt and the Coptic Church, Salwa began with a few comments on the history. The ancient Egyptians believed in the after-life and that this was affected by life here; this was for all people, not just their kings. Thus when Christianity arrived many 'spiritual' things were not strange to their thinking. Christianity was introduced by Saint Mark who identified for them that these spiritual things could point to God and that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.
In Alexandria, there was a school of Philosophy from before Roman times and this carried on the highbrow thinking, questioning and discussion into the new 'faith' of Christianity.
They pursued questions about whether Jesus was God or Man for example. Related to this was the start of monasticism, but in the Christian church of Egypt this is not practiced as separate from others, but is a particular devotion to God in the world. The monks are also shepherds of the people.
In popular culture, there was great development of story-telling with a simple faith in the presence of God in the world and in certain events, including miracles and the supernatural. They incorporated Egyptian folklore. It is questionable whether analysis of these stories actually helps; maybe they should be just accepted ?
Today there are huge problems in the country but Christians believe that God will help Egypt in his own good time. One fairly recent development in the history of the church in Egypt is the Ethiopian Orthodox church, which has separated itself from the Coptic Church due to large differences in culture.
There, as in the UK, there is a pagan culture too, but this does not conflict with Christianity; Christian belief can be added on to it. Quite often it is rationalism which separates people, not faith. However, most of the people in the Coptic church stand by their traditions and have a simple faith that sustains them through the current difficulties.
One of the main items of discussion was that of supernatural events and miracles, where we disagreed on their meaning and significance. Thus, it was said that miracles do happen today; for example, that people survive in situations where normally they would definitely have died and no explanation can be given for the abnormal result. There are also feelings when certain things happen, that we are being spiritually led.
The usual questions were raised about miracles in the bible; some say that they did not happen as described, while others say that such events should be accepted even if they are unique, since there is no logical reason to deny unique events. Another very questionable word used was God's intervention, though more and more Christians have concluded that is the wrong word to use.
Since the meeting, I have looked again at John Polkinghorne's book 'One World' in which, as an extremely able thinker in both Science and Theology, he brilliantly sets out various views about how we can or cannot express Christian belief today, especially in the light of scientific discoveries. On miracles and attempts to explain them as God's intervention he writes:
"The question is not how can they happen, but why do they not happen more often. If God intervenes he seems to do so sparingly, only occasionally obliging with direct help. Such a view, if true, would destroy the credibility of the God of steadfast love. Indeed intervention is not a word that one can properly use of such a God. Whatever his relation to his world it must surely be faithful not capricious, regular rather than intermittent." He goes on to say that interventionist thinking may be logical but it is not theological. Miracles are what we call those events that are unexpected but bringing God into it requires that "they are perceived as part of a wider unity of divine action and purpose, which goes beyond the experience of everyday but which forms with it a coherent whole."
He also says that if you think theologically about them "the Christian is not committed to believing in the literal truth of every miraculous event recorded in the Bible. An understanding of the role of myth and legend enables us to accept some stories as just that, pictorially valuable but not historically accurate."
Nigel Jones (15 Aug'18)