Thursday, February 28, 2008

Athanasius: One iota of difference to me...

Day 20 of 40:
Thursday February 28:

It doesn’t make one iota of difference to me –
does it?

Athanasius of Alexandria was stuck among the Arians, Appolinarians, and Cappadocians, trying to honouring the Nicene creed from the early century while clarifying some of its ambiguities later in the century. He had been a secretary at Nicaea. He got the job of bishop in Alexandria, briefly, and after Arius and Gregory of Nyssa had died.

‘Athanasius contra mundum’, against the world, was his epitaph. He argued with everybody. Gregory of Nyssa usurped his first job as bishop. He managed a council in 361 that reached some common ground, but the next year he was exiled by Julian the Apostate, whose successor was Arian – like most people in power then, and now. Was this guy just argumentative and picking fights about picky details, or hanging tough and faithful to some heresies that win out?

The classic argument of the time was based on one iota of difference, the small letter ‘i’ in the Greek alphabet. The Nicene Creed used the term homoousia, God and Jesus being of one and the same substance. The Arians preferred the term homoiousia, God and Jesus being of like or similar substance. How picky is that and what kind of ‘contra mundum’ guy would lose his jobs and security over the issue?

The Athanasian Creed, twice as long as the Nicene, piling repetitive and apparently redundant terms upon Christ and Trinity, was not actually written by Athanasius, or even during his lifetime. On the other hand, it was true to his spirit. He himself said much of his argument was just terminology, and that he could use both apparently opposing terms, as long as he could still understand the essential unity of God in three persons.

‘Against the world’ is a critical attitude to take, engaged but not retreating from the world. Athanasius would argue with anybody, it seems, as if it did matter one iota to him. Sometimes what we call tolerance is just apathy or ignorance.

Athanasius remembered the consensus reached at Nicaea when he was a young man, and defended it for life, though it seemed to be the losing side against at least the Arian alternative. What hard-won consensus of your youth would you defend: the social welfare state, basic feminism or human rights, multiculturalism, ordination of gay and lesbian ministers?

It doesn’t make one iota of difference to me – 

does it?

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