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ROWAN WILLIAMS ON THE COPTIC LIFE OF SAINT ANTONY AND THE POWER OF FAITH OVER ARGUMENTATIVE GREEK PHILOSOPHY IN BRINGING ABOUT REAL CHANGE IN HUMAN NATURE

February 28, 2013

rowan-williamsFigure 1: Rev. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (2002-2012).

Many of you would know Rowan Williams (b. 1950) as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury (2002 – 2012) and a man of intellect whose history at Cambridge and Oxford Universities is recognised, and an intellectual and theologian with wide interests.[1] When the American writer with much interest in Coptic monasticism, and author of so many books on the subject, Rev. Tim Vivian,[2] published The Coptic life of Antony by Saint Athanasius, which he translated,[3] he asked Rev. Williams to write a forward for the book.  I like what Rowan Williams wrote, and this is what I would like to share with my readers here.

Now, Saint Antony[4] the Great (d. 356), the Egyptian ascetic, was not an ordinary man – he was intelligent without being lettered; he was a man of clear mind and strong faith; and he was a man of the sweetest of characters. His influence on Egypt’s Christianity, and in asceticism in general all over the world, cannot be overestimated. Saint Athanasius (d. 373), the 20th Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, who wrote Vita S. Antoni (the Life of Saint Antony), too was a man of greatest intellect and faith, and his influence on Christianity is acknowledged by all. This combination of the two great minds, characters and saints – the subject of the autobiography and its author – in one book is what makes Vita S. Antoni one of the most beautiful books ever. And now, another intellect, Rev. Rowan Williams, adds to its brilliance by focusing on Chapters 72-80 of The Coptic Life of Antony, labelled “Antony and the [Pagan, Greek/Egyptian] Philosophers”[5]. He writes in his Forward to the book about the beauty of [Coptic] Christian asceticism, and the power and ascendancy of faith over Greek argumentative philosophy in bringing about real change in the lives of men:

In introducing this splendidly readable translation of the Coptic version of the first monastic classic, Tim Vivian speaks of it as a “frontier work”—a narrative that positions itself on the cutting edge of a new movement, pushing back existing boundaries. The boundaries in question are the habits and definition of Egyptian paganism: from the conclusion of the work,[6] we might gather that the translator has in view the average, not too bright rural believer, not the sophisticated Hellenic intellectual. The story is being told to show how Christian faith and monastic faithfulness quite simply expose an unreflective religious practice as slavery and deceit, unworthy of the dignity of human beings. And while we may be tempted to feel either superior or uncomfortable in the presence of this robust assertiveness, we need to hear what is being said. In Antony’s debates with the pagan philosophers, what is at issue is the importance of wisdom acquired in and expressed in action and commitment; even the pagans grant this in theory in the debate. Against what Christianity can offer, pagans practice can only bring forward nit-picking theorizing and empty religiosity—so the Christian narrator insists. The Christian ascetic, on the other hand, exhibits a life, an identy, that is attuned to reality, material and spiritual, and so has the only sort of power that matters, the power that comes from swimming strongly with the stream of truth. This is the power that sustains the monk in dereliction and temptation, that transfigures his physical presence and that exposes and overcomes the demonic slavery that prevails outside the Church, by miracles and exorcism.[7]

I thought it is remarkable that a 21st century Anglican Church leader, Rev. Rowan Williams, agrees with St. Antony, the 4th century Copt, that Christian faith beats philosophy in bringing about real change in the lives of ordinary men and women.

 


[1] He is now The Right Reverend and The Lord Williams of Oystermouth.

[2] Some of his works are: Counsels On The Spiritual Life: Mark The Monk; Becoming Fire: Through the Year with the Desert Fathers and Mothers; Saint Macarius, The Spirit Bearer: Coptic Texts Relating To Saint Macarius The Great; Four Desert Fathers: Pambo, Evagrius, Macarius of Egypt, and Macarius of Alexandria: Coptic Texts Relating to the Lausiac History of Pallad; St. Peter of Alexandria: Bishop and Martyr; Witness to Holiness: Abba Daniel of Scetis; Journeying into God, Seven Early Monastic Lives; Words to Live by: Journeys in Ancient and Modern Egyptian Monasticism; Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt and the Life of Onnophrius. N.B. Some of these works are shared with others.

[3] The Coptic Life of Antony; translated by Tim Vivian (San Francisco – London, International Scholars Publications, 1995).

[4] Or Anthony.

[5] The Coptic Life of Antony; pp. 103-112. I cannot put a link to these chapters in Vivian’s translation; but the reader can read the relevant chapters in Life of Antony in Vo. IV of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, here (Ch. 72-79) and here (Ch. 80). It is closely similar to what one finds in The Coptic Life of Antony.

[6] Rowan Williams refers to the last Chapter (94) of The Coptic Life of Antony, which is labelled “Concluding Exhortations and Doxology”. In the version in of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church the chapter is simply labelled “The End”; and the reader can access it here.

[7] The Coptic Life of Antony; Forward; pp. i-ii.

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