Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Contesting the Legacy of Abraham: Guy Stroumsa at the Oxford Patristics Conference


Guy Stroumsa gave the opening lecture of the 16th International
Patristics Conference last night, on "Athens, Jerusalem, Mecca: The
Patristic Crucible of the Abrahamic Religions" at the University Church.

Stroumsa began reflecting how Henry Chadwick, Henri de Lubac and Harry Wolfson were all reflecting on the Church Fathers during horrors of WWII that affected them quite directly (it was hard not to think of being here amid the dreaming spires while London or parts of it have been burning again).

He suggested that while the Church Fathers are often the preserve of ecclesiastics and seminaries that these three remarkable individuals (apparently he met them all) remind us that Patristics is fundamental to the humanities, as foundational for later Western thought. In a sweeping survey both of important ancient writers and their modern interpreters, he was (appreciative but) critical of Harnack's view of Christian exceptionalism and leant rather to Max Müller's pioneering work in comparative religion, notably the idea (drawn in part from Islam) of "religions of the book".

Stroumsa argued that it was necessary to consider not only "Athens" and "Jerusalem" as has often been done (the juxtaposition of Greco-Roman tradition with Judaism and Christianity) but to include Mecca (S., as a part-time resident of Jerusalem now, was not being entirely "armchair" about this I suspect).

His exploration of this link was based in late antique specifics rather than more abstract ideas such as that of "monotheistic religions" (a very recent idea and coinage). More fruitful for Stroumsa was the Abrahamic link - not quite in the sense of that other recent coinage of "Abrahamic religions", but rather considering how the three ancient traditions contested over the legacy of Abraham.

From (Paul to) Justin to Eusebius we find the claim that Christianity restores Abrahamic faith - interestingly sometimes with a swipe at Moses and the dross of the ritual law in passing. Likewise Islam claims its faith was Abraham's too, and that it was restoring what Jews and Christians had corrupted.

Just as Christianity was originally a Jewish heresy in effect, Islam began as a Christian heresy - at least in the eyes of such as John of Damascus. Each claimed to be the true exemplar of Abraham's faith. This commonality and this contest are the scarlet thread running through the Fathers, and late antiquity.