Today is the feast day of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, who lived at a time of great doctrinal tumult within the Church, and yet remained steadfastly committed to the orthodox position. For his courageous defence of orthodoxy, at a time when half the Christian world had gone Arian, he is remembered as one of the four Great Eastern Doctors (along with Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Basil the Great, and Saint Gregory Nazianzen), and is known in the East as the ‘Father of Orthodoxy’. In fact, such was his renown at the time that Gregory Nazianzen could refer to him as the ‘Pillar of the Church’.
At a time when doctrinal liberalism is seen as a badge of sophistication, and commitment to orthodoxy a sign of retrogression and naiveté, it is good to remember a man whose life and work show the intellectual integrity and coherence enshrined and articulated in the orthodox position. Christian orthodoxy, particularly the dogma of the Incarnation, as Athanasius knew (and staked his life on) is the only system of thought that ensures our human dignity, makes proper sense of our relationship to the divine, and is capable of providing a robust philosophical account of their interrelation.
Athanasius, having been well grounded in secular and religious learning from an early age, was quickly noticed by the Bishop of Alexandria, who made him his secretary and adviser, a role in which Athanasius was to attend the Council of Nicaea (325 AD), at which the teachings of Arius and his disciples were condemned. After this, in 328 AD, Athanasius himself was elected to the bishopric. From this position he wrote against Arianism, defending the divinity of the Son, as well as writing in support of the divinity of the Spirit and the dogma of the Holy Trinity.
During his time as Bishop of Alexandria (which lasted forty-five years), he was exiled five times (comprising seventeen years in total), under four different emperors, who all had embraced the Arian teaching contrary to the summary findings of Nicaea, for reasons of political expediency. Athanasius’ steadfast refusal to endorse anything other than the official teaching of the Church thus placed him at great personal disadvantage, and sometimes also endangered his safety.
The times he spent in exile were not wasted however – he was a great lover of the monastic life, and stayed with the monks of the Egyptian desert during the periods away from his see, establishing a close friendship with Saint Anthony during this time, whose biography he would later go on to write. He also travelled widely, to Rome, Gaul, and the Rhineland, teaching the Nicene doctrine and spreading the ideals of desert monasticism wherever he went. Thus not only is he a great example of courage in times of adversity, but also shows us that good can always be made out of a change in circumstances, even if at first this change is hard to bear.
For us today, who face the challenges of living in a society that more and more rejects Christian orthodoxy, and who find less opportunity to discuss our faith in the ways be have become accustomed to, Saint Athanasius can serve as an inspirational model of and testament to the power that a sincere faith can have to triumph over these trials and turn them to our advantage. The old privileges are no longer there, but this must surely force us to find new ways to express the truths of the Faith in ways which can compete in the public sphere on their own merits, convincing people because of the arguments themselves, not just because they represent part of a cultural inheritance.
Similarly, the alternatives offered to orthodox Christianity today – a shallow secular humanism which ironically offers no convincing picture of the human person (let alone the associated human rights and dignities we take for granted), or a multitude of vapid spiritualities catering to a vague sense of contentment and massaging of the ego – should, rather than leading us to despair, remind us that we have a much more compelling and rewarding vision of humanity to offer the world. As Saint Athanasius did not kow-tow to the idea that the Word of God was simply a highly elevated, but nonetheless created, spiritual being, and insisted on the need to recognise Jesus as being fully man and fully God, so we must not give in to the pressures that would see Christianity become just one of a wide range of spiritualities.
Christian orthodoxy provides us with a vision of mankind created in the image of God – and so infinitely valuable – yet fallen away from the intentions of our Creator, and so also deeply flawed. It gives us a picture of a startlingly unique creature, blessed with incredible gifts and able to recognise and reach out to God, but also one in dire need of saving from the destructive patterns of behaviour we so sadly slip into. We have our feet planted in the earth, but our heads in the heavens, and only the vision of the Incarnation, Redemption and Final Consummation that we see on offer in Jesus Christ can truly satisfy us.
The pop-psychologies and empty cafeteria spiritualities of today cannot quench the thirst we have for restoration to divine friendship and intimate communion with God. Jesus offers us both these things, and it is only orthodox doctrine that shows clearly the true nature of His person and the totality of the vision of God and humanity that He came to share with us. Saint Athanasius knew in his time how important this was for relating the Gospel to the world, and bore great personal hardships in standing up for it. We too, if we believe that this same vision can quench the spiritual thirst of our world, and liberate it from the slavery of self-love, must stand up for it also. Saint Athanasius, pray for us!