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Clement of Alexandria, “Wise Man of Babylon”

Today we commemorate Clement of Alexandria, born in the year 150 in Athens. He was what we call one of the early church Fathers, among the several dozen men who wrote about Christianity in those very early years and helped shape what would eventually become some of the doctrines and creeds we still profess today. (I should add that there were early church Mothers, not many but a few, women who wrote theology.)

One of the things I like about Clement is that he was a robust supporter of women’s roles in Christianity. He reasoned that if salvation is extended to all humanity, women and men, then there is no reason women shouldn’t be able to have the same rights and authority as men. He even went so far as to describe God as both male and female. One of the Eucharistic prayers that we have in our book of alternate liturgies–I use this book at the Sunday night services–is inspired by some of Clement’s imagery for God. For example, he described the Eucharist as milk from the breast of Christ. Isn’t that lovely? Clement was born (as I said) in Athens, it’s thought. He was raised in a non-Christian home where his mother and father practiced a variety of religions. As a young man he left Athens and began a long journey across Asia Minor, studying with various teachers along the way.

He ended up in Alexandria, Egypt, where there was a famous Christian catechetical school. In those early days of Christianity, there were differing views on how much Christians should incorporate Greek ideas and concepts into their faith. There were two competing schools, one in Antioch and one in Alexandria, the first being rooted in Jewish thinking and the second more in Greek thought. This was a very sharp divide in early Christianity, and had been a sharp divide in Judaism long before Christianity even came along. It’s still with us today: how much should Jews assimilate? How much should they allow foreign thought and practices to infuse their own? Same thing, 2000 years ago.

Some of Clement’s theology stuck with us, some didn’t. He had all sorts of what seem today like bizarre theories on angels and cosmology, imported from Greek thought. But he laid the framework for later theologians, who would use the language and concepts of the Greek Logos, or Word, to form our creeds.

In the Roman Catholic tradition Clement is not a saint, though he is in ours. Clement was unpopular in the Reformation because he seemed too far-out in his thinking. The Reformers didn’t like to think that pagan and Greek thought shaped Christianity as much as it did. Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church agreed and dropped him from their lists.

But we never did.

I like to think that’s because Anglicans appreciate two things that those churches that dropped Clement don’t as much: the world around us and what it can teach about our faith, and the importance of scholarship. And, I should add, creativity.

I want to finish by reading a small part of a homily by a Canadian Anglican scholar and priest. I found this online. It begins like this:

“St. Clement of Alexandria has never been a very popular saint. There are no legends about him, no miracles, no heroic asceticism, no martyrdom. He was really only an academic, and, as everyone knows, academics don’t make very good saints.”

Then he talks about Clement’s life and works, ending his homily with this remark (which brings him back to where he started):

“The diversity of the saints exemplifies the principle of reciprocity in the Kingdom of God; and surely it’s nice, especially in an academic community, to be able to celebrate a sanctity which is “only academic”. In the church, we are a great diversity, and, at our very best, we are all one-sided. We see parts of the truth, and we emphasize important things in one-sided ways. But in and through that diversity - and not without it - we are one in Christ; one in the community of reciprocity - the community of charity - which is the fellowship of the saints.

And in this age, in which many church leaders are promoting a version of religious ‘inclusivity’ (as they call it), such as to abrogate the finality of Jesus Christ, perhaps St. Clement can point the way to an authentically Christian inclusiveness, which can truly embrace the wisdom of the Greeks, and need not ‘destroy the wise men of Babylon’. ‘Destroy not the wise men of Babylon’, says the prophet Daniel. Rather, let the star lead them from Babylon to Bethlehem, where the wisdom of all nations is summed up, and the desire of all nations is fulfilled. Amen. + “