SAINT CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (CIRCA 150-CIRCA 210/215)
“The Pioneer of Christian Scholarship”
Over ten years ago, in southern Georgia, U.S.A., I heard a member of my father’s church disparage intellectuals.
Smart people don’t have the kind of faith common people do,
he said in a manner which indicated that he placed insufficient value on the intellect. (So I have to dumb down to have proper faith? No, I don’t!) I did not reply for for diplomatic reasons. Yet I refuse to check my brain at the church door. Neither did Clement of Alexandria check his brain at the church door. I like him.
Clement of Alexandria, a.k.a. Titus Flavius Clemens Alexandrius, converted to Christianity from paganism. (Paganism is a very broad term.) He studied at the Catechetical School at Alexandria, serving as its director from circa 190 to circa 202, when he retired to Palestine. Origen, his pupil, succeeded him. Clement has been a hot potato for a long time. Once upon a time he was a saint in the Roman Catholic Church; his feast day was December 4. Yet Pope Gregory XIII (after whom we call the Gregorian Calendar) decanonized him in 1584. Nevertheless, The Episcopal Church celebrates him on December 5. And The Hymnal 1982 (published in 1985, by the way) contains two of his hymns. Hymns #163 and #478 affirm the sacrificial death of Jesus.
Why was Clement so controversial? Why is he still that way? There are reasons.
Clement, the Ante-Nicene Church Father most acquainted with Greek philosophy and literature, welcomed insights from them. Philosophy was, he wrote, the necessary preparation for the Christian gospel. Said gospel is sufficient and pagan doctrines are insufficient, he maintained, but even pagan Greek philosophy (especially Platonism) contains truth. So, Clement continued, we ought to accept truth regardless of its source.
Clement sought to affirm orthodoxy; he was certainly no Gnostic. For Clement, knowledge was the goal of Christian perfection. This knowledge was manifest in Jesus, the Logos of God. So, he wrote, this knowledge is in the world; it is not a secret.
Perhaps Clement’s unabashed, even elitist intellectualism explains his lack of popularity. This knowledge, which is the goal of Christian perfection, is superior to the run-of-the-mill faith which common people have, he argued. Furthermore, he insisted, many people are incapable of walking in the better path. Such a perspective is inconsistent with spiritual populism.
We all bring our baggage to the theological table; let us be honest about that. I bring a distrust of anti-intellectualism, which I have witnessed. Egalitarianism, despite its virtues, can devolve into a dumbed-down lowest common denominator. We would not want to injure anybody’s self-esteem, would we? I bring a dislike for that mentality also. So I am an unapologetic intellectual, like Clement. He might have been impolitic, but he was right about a great deal. And yes, many people are incapable of certain levels of intellectual attainment. He was also correct about that that.
History tells me that subsequent theological developments in Western Christianity included, for a time, reflexive rejection of pagan, pre-Christian philosophy and other learning. The Byzantines retained such knowledge and the Muslims embraced it, but one reason the Dark Ages were so dark in Western Europe was the rejection of so much of the Greco-Roman heritage.
We are all prone to errors. Yes, Clement was wrong about certain points. But he was correct more often than not, which is a good way to be. Perhaps Clement’s greatest legacy is his broad-minded approach to knowledge and truth. All truth is of God, regardless of through whom God communicates it. May we, like Clement of Alexandria, listen to and read attentively to that truth wherever we find it.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
DECEMBER 17, 2011 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF MARIA STEWART, EDUCATOR
THE FEAST OF EGLANTYNE JEBB, FOUNDER OF SAVE THE CHILDREN
THE FEAST OF FRANK MASON NORTH, U.S. METHODIST MINISTER
THE FEAST OF SAINT OLYMPIAS, ORTHODOX DEACONESS
O God of unsearchable wisdom,
you gave your servant Clement
grace to understand and teach the truth as it is in Jesus Christ, the source of all truth:
Grant to your church the same grace to discern your Word wherever truth is found;
through Jesus Christ our unfailing light,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Samuel 12:20-24
—Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (2010)