I was born and grew up in the United Arab Emirates to Egyptian parents. They had moved there for economic reasons and later emigrated to Canada. Interested in the sciences throughout high school, I entered the University of Toronto in 1999 with the intention of studying Computer Science, specifically Artificial Intelligence.
We lived in the suburb of Mississauga, near a large Coptic Church and community centre, which became my primary site for social interaction. It was in this parish, like many other Coptic parishes in the Greater Toronto Area, that one heard the familiar worship of Coptic liturgies in Arabic and English. Cultural familiarity and shared interests fostered new friendships, and a familiar community that shared a common Coptic heritage eased the complexity of Canadian life for newcomers. While the possibility of having a Coptic Church and a Coptic community in Canada was a product of cultural openness in this country, Coptic churches in Canada formed a bubble of fear, seeking to exclude themselves from surrounding communities. Such an environment ensured that the religious tensions, sectarianism, and seclusion experienced by Copts in Egypt carried over to Canada. Fears of Islamic dominance, for example, led many Copts in Mississauga to oppose the building of a mosque close to the Canadian Coptic Centre. Old fears found company in the new perceived enemies of Canadian society: atheism and a sexualized secularism.
I developed an interest in how to live my Christian faith in the multicultural, post-modernist context of Canadian society during the youth meetings at the Canadian Coptic Centre. As a science student, I was drawn to questions about the development of religious faith, the philosophy of science, and the compatibility of faith and science. For this reason, I was driven to both deepen my own faith journey and to become open to new perspectives and new cultures around me.
Evolutionary science was one of the highly contested subjects in the youth meetings of the Coptic Church that I attended in my early twenties. One of the speakers, using internet sources from Christian Fundamentalist websites and the Bible (mainly the book of Genesis), described evolution as a contradictory ideology: a science that is inconsistent with the biblical revelation of God creating the universe by intelligent design. All in attendance – the majority of whom were science students in universities across Ontario – were convinced of the position that evolution was against biblical creationism and, therefore, against Christianity. Due to the nature of many such debatable topics in parish youth meetings, and with my growing interest in understanding my own faith, I decided to leave Computer Science and instead pursue a double major in Philosophy and the Study of Religion. In retrospect, I think there were three main reasons that I switched to the Liberal Arts. First, I had questions regarding how to fit in as an immigrant Coptic Christian in Canada. Second, I wanted to have some form of “authoritative” input among the youth, youth leaders, and priests when discussing religious questions. Third, at the time I pursued a Liberal Arts education, it was innovative and different among Coptic cultural expectations. The majority of university students were in the sciences or engineering departments, and only a few went for law degrees. Since I was the first to go into Philosophy and Religion, I was usually labeled as different, liberal, often controversial, and sometimes idealistic. That certainly affected my faith and spiritual life in Orthodoxy. I began to gravitate toward the friendly environment of free inquiry and understanding of faith in the academic context of theological education.
When I graduated, my advisor, professor Michael Vertin, suggested that I apply for a Masters in Theology. I did not know what to expect. I was accepted into the Faculty of Theology at the University of St. Michael’s College, where I pursued the question of how to resolve the conflict between science and religion from an Eastern Christian theological perspective. It was here that I discovered Patristics, in professor Pablo Aragárate’s lectures, and became fascinated by the liberal method that such early Church Fathers (and Mothers) utilized in their theology as it related to the philosophies of the cultures and societies of their time.[i] Furthermore, the early 2000’s was also the time when streaming videos on websites became more common, and debates on philosophical and religious/scientific topics were more accessible. In my second year of the Master’s degree, I developed a new interest in the field of Ecological Theology (Eco-Theology) in lectures by professor Dennis O’Hara. Rather than the narrative of creation vs. evolution – of a theistic, interventionist God who has no role in the blind chance of evolutionary experimentation – I discovered an alternative in the works of Catholic Passionist priest Thomas Berry. He wrote much on the subject of the New Cosmology and proposed that God created a universe that creates itself.[ii] Eco-Theology provided me with a theological paradigm shift, where I found not just a resolution of an apparent conflict between science and religion (evolution and theology), but a new worldview that accepts the theory of evolution in Christian theology. It allowed me to understand what it means to be a human person, a Christian, and a culturally relevant Church from that New Cosmological theological perspective.[iii]
I found that the study of theology, as a Coptic Canadian Christian, was one way to recontextualize the discussion. Theological thought would even go further to recontextualize the Coptic Church in the lands of immigration, the relationship of Coptic Christianity to Culture, the influence of clerical authority and education as they are applied in Egypt vis-á-vis Copts outside of Egypt, and what sources are used to interpret Scripture and make it relevant to the Church today.[iv] Theology, which is “faith seeking understanding,” has the ability to help the Church modernize and become more involved, inclusive, and accepting of the societies and cultures that she finds herself in. This will further encourage ecumenical dialogue with other Christian traditions. Thus, I find theological education as a necessary avenue for the Coptic Church to engage with Culture in a more freeing and inclusive, rather than fearful and exclusive, relationship. With such theological training, my work aims at constructing and influencing the Coptic Church in Canada and elsewhere to be spaces that move away from fundamentalist exclusivism, so as to be Christ-centered and Spirit-filled inclusive spaces of cultural and intellectual encounter and sharing.
“Many are the perspectives of his word, just as many are the perspectives of those who study it. God has fashioned his word with many beautiful forms, so that each one who studies it may consider what he likes. He has hidden in his word all kinds of treasures so that each one of us, wherever we meditate, may be enriched by it.”
St. Ephrem the Syrian
[i] Patristics, or the study of the Church Fathers, is an essential aspect of the study of Orthodox theology. It would help the Coptic Orthodox Church retrieve its theological tradition, which was lost and forgotten due particularly to the loss of religious and theological education in Egypt. The retrieval of Patristics, and accessibility of the literature in native languages, would counter the Church’s reliance on Fundamentalist resources that reflect a different theological framework and biblical interpretation than what is found in Orthodox theology. While the content of the Church Fathers’ interpretations of Scripture would differ from our contemporary evolutionary science, what is noteworthy about them is their methodology; their reading of the Genesis creation account in the Hebrew Scriptures from the perspective of Hellenistic science and philosophy. One such example is St. Basil the Great’s (330-279 C.E.) Hexaemeron, which offers a useful method for theologians today to work on integrating biblical texts with contemporary science and New Cosmology.
[ii] Thomas Berry notes that what evolutionary science discovered about the universe and life on our planet was that there is a self-organizing dimension and process for this evolution. Such an understanding of the direction and process of the universe, which is moving towards more complex forms of consciousness, is an indication that materialistic sciences are incorrect about the universe emerging by blind chance. On the other hand, Berry’s observation also opposes a literal reading of the creation accounts by religious fundamentalists, who view creation as personally designed at every stage by a theistic God. According to Berry, “God is not constantly running the show as though the universe were made up of puppets. It is not a puppet show, it is a reality, functioning from within its own spontaneity.” He understands God as a Creator who creates a universe that has the freedom to emerge and has an inherent capacity for self-articulation. See Thomas Berry and Thomas Clarke, Befriending the Earth: A Theology of Reconciliation Between Humans and the Earth (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1991), 25.
[iii] While the early 2000’s was a period when internet videos opposing religion from the perspective of atheistic evolutionary science were very popular, a number of more recent video lectures by theologians who work from the perspective of the New Cosmology are now available. Some examples worth noting are: Ilia Delio’s “Catholicity, Cosmology and Consciousness: Why Wholeness Matters” and “Evolution and the Primacy of Love”; Elizabeth Johnson’s “Ask the Beasts: Spirituality and the Evolving Earth.”
[iv] As the Coptic Church, especially in the West, found easy access to Christian Fundamentalist literature to address new theological issues it faced, Fundamentalism as a movement, limits itself to only one acceptable interpretation of Scripture. A study of Orthodox theology, and especially of Patristics, shows that, traditionally, Orthodoxy allows for diversity of interpretation and is open to new understandings by the guidance of the Holy Spirit through Tradition. For example, St. Ephrem the Syrian famously noted such diversity in Scriptural interpretation: “Many are the perspectives of his word, just as many are the perspectives of those who study it. God has fashioned his word with many beautiful forms, so that each one who studies it may consider what he likes. He has hidden in his word all kinds of treasures so that each one of us, wherever we meditate, may be enriched by it.” McCarthy, Saint Ephrem’s Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron, an English Translation of Chester Beatty Syriac Ms709 (Oxford, UK: 1993), 49.
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Bishoy Dawood is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Theology at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, ON, Canada. His research focuses on the ecological implications of the doctrine of theosis from an ecumenical perspective. Among his other research interests, are patristics, theological anthropology, and the theology of the Second Vatican Council.