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Cyril of Alexandria

Were the Church Fathers Really Africans?

by Joel Elowsky

One of the objections we most often hear, especially from our compatriots in the West—but also from many Africans—is that these early African fathers we are studying are not African. They are Greek, they are Roman, but not African—as if these terms were mutually exclusive. While I lay no claim to being a scholar of comparative cultural studies or any of the other disciplines mentioned above—I’m primarily a theologian and exegete—it nonetheless seems to me that this would be akin to saying that someone like St. Patrick who lived in Ireland was not Irish because he wrote and thought in Latin, or that John of Damascus was not Syrian because he wrote and thought in Greek, or, for that matter, that the Apostle and Evangelist John or any of the writers of Scripture who wrote in Greek were not Jewish because they communicated in the lingua franca of the day. The same would apply to their use of philosophical categories and distinctions that may have had an initial provenance in Rome or Athens. But it is well known, for instance, that Neo-platonism was developed not in Athens, which by that time had decreased in importance, but in Alexandria Egypt on the continent of Africa. As Bediako points out, Africa did not simply receive Greek and Latin influences unchecked but rather received them critically, rejecting that which was counter to Christianity or to their African identity. Here it may be objected that Egypt is not African—an objection which many Egyptians themselves would tender. But the African American scholar Molefi Asante meets this objection:

"There has been a tendency for Westerners to speak of Egyptian religion and African religion as if these were two separate entities. What this creates is a false dichotomy on the African continent, where Egypt is divorced from the rest of Africa or, to put it another way, kemet is divorced from Nubia, as if there is neither contiguity nor continuity. . . . Ancient Egyptian religion was African religion; one cannot isolate Egypt from Africa any more than one can isolate a Christian Rome from a Christian Britain. Two different nations that practice the same religion with different accents and inclinations can be found on every continent. Egypt, or Kemet as it was called in the ancient times, is an African nation in the sense that the continental memory and cultural products are similar to those found throughout the continent.”

Asante argues against not only divorcing Egypt from the rest of Africa, but also against bi-furcating or driving a wedge between the north and sub-Saharan Africa. And, while there are obvious cultural, “color” and religious differences between north and south—not the least of which is the prevalence of Islam in the North and Christianity in the South—this should not be seen as an inevitable division, but one rather caused by the historical geo-political and religious conflict that has pitted African against African.

Posted in Africa, Egypt

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