Dear Athanasius…A Letter to a Friend : Duane W.H. Arnold PhD
A Letter to a Friend
My dear and beloved bishop, Athanasius,
I hope this letter finds you well and at home in Alexandria and not in exile. I think both of us would agree that five times is more than enough!
I really wish that I had a better report to send you from this early part of the 21st century, but, unfortunately, it seems much like your own time. Just as in your time, the idea of “empire” seems to have returned. My country, as well as many others, seems moderately acquiescent with the idea of a ruler who promises a “new golden age”. I remember how you had to deal with Constantine and his consolidation of power. At least our rulers have not yet resorted to eliminating members of their own family, or at least not yet! Nevertheless, as with your imperial court, we also have court theologians who are trading their faith for power. I’m not sure if ours are as bad as Eusebius of Nicomedia, but they seem to employ the same argument and ethic that the ends justify the means. So, as in your time, when the court theologians overlooked or excused the actions and behavior of Constantine and Constantius, our court theologians do the same. At least your opponents attempted to make use of theology in their arguments. Our current court theologians simply make up their theology as they go along. Similar to Eusebius, however, they are quick to adapt their so-called theology to the times or for the leader they want to support and impress.
Just as in your time, my dear Bishop, the Church seems terribly divided, even as much of the population at large goes on with their lives only giving us their attention when some new scandal arises. Meanwhile, as you witnessed in your own era, different churches make grand pronouncements concerning their own importance and shift their theology according to the prevailing style. How many bishops did you know who first clung to Nicaea, then adapted themselves to an Arian or semi-Arian position, only to return again to orthodoxy after a season? We have much the same going on today as many shift their theological position almost as easily as they change their clothes. In contrast, I do remember that you were always considered to be stubborn and a bit of a problem, even if you were proved to be right in the end. Yet, on the other hand, you were also one of the most prolific and adventurous theologians of your day, always taking us deeper into the mysteries of our faith. Perhaps that is what you wanted us to learn, that being grounded is essential before one launches out on theological or liturgical adventures. In my era, everybody wants to be an adventurous, cutting edge theologian, but few, it seems, want to take the time and work to first ground themselves in faith and practice.
You will not be surprised to learn that many of our divisions have resulted in numerous breakaway groups. Each seems to have a particular reason for breaking away. I remember that you had this problem with the Meletians who did not think that you were strict enough with church discipline. With all your efforts to reconcile them, some just had to go their own way. I wonder what happened to them? They seem to have simply disappeared within a few generations despite setting up all their own churches and bishops. Perhaps that is simply the way of things.
Now, my dear Bishop, all is not doom and gloom. You will be delighted to know that there are some here in my time that are following the example of your friend Antony of the Desert. Many are reading the wonderful biography that you wrote about him. In our time, however, not everyone can travel to the desert, but in their own homes they pray morning and evening, like Antony, and attempt a life of simplicity. Yet others have banded together in small groups, just as you encouraged those in your own time to do in their desert monastic communities. As you witnessed in your own time, although they are few in number, they may hold in their hand (and in their prayers) the future of the Church.
As you know Bishop, I enjoy all of your books – even those ones in which you go after the Arians! My favorite, however, is that little book you wrote, ‘On the Incarnation’. As you know from the many times I’ve pestered you with questions, I’ve read this book often through the years. Every time that I have turned its pages, I have garnered something more from my reading. After over forty years of study, I think that I am just now beginning to understand that it is not merely what we believe about the Incarnation that is important, but rather it is the reality of the Incarnation that is to inform not just our theology, but our life. Moreover it is not just to inform our life, but it is to inform the life of the Church and, indeed, the life of the world. As you wrote, “The Self-revealing of the Word is in every dimension – above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.” This self-revealing of God in the Incarnation, is not mere knowledge, but rather the transformation of individuals, of the Church and, in the end, the transformation of the world itself. And it is all because, “He became what we are so that he might make us what he is.”
I’m sure, Bishop, that I do not fully comprehend all that this might mean, but I’m willing to spend the years that remain to me attempting to understand it and, perhaps more importantly, trying to live it as you did.
Bishop, please remember me in your prayers. I know that can ask you to do this for one reason – because of the Incarnation the two of us are part of the single Body of Christ and in that Body we cannot be separated by time or distance or even death. So, until I write again…
With all best wishes, I remain,
Your friend and student,