It is the time of year when Christians around the world reflect on the life, the teaching, the execution and what they believe to be the resurrection of Jesus (the resurrection of Jesus is celebrated on what is now Easter Day, which in 2015 was the 5th April for Roman Catholics and Protestants, and the 12th April for the great majority of other Christians such as Orthodox Christians). For some such Christians it is also a time to reflect on whether Jesus, when alive at least, was wholly divine, wholly human or divine and human, and, if the latter, how the divine and the human existed within Jesus’ person. It may even be the case that some Christians reflect on what fraction or percentage of Jesus was divine and what fraction or percentage was human.
It always surprises me how little even educated Christians know about one of the most important fault-lines that exists in Christianity, the fault-line between the “dyophysite” and what we used to call the “monophysite” churches. In the interests of knowledge and understanding, forgive me for lifting most of what follows from another website of mine, “In Search of Unusual Destinations”.
The monastery featured in the photo above belongs to the Syriac Orthodox Church, a church which in the old days used to be misleadingly called “monophysite”. The churches most often deemed “monophysite” (Christ has one nature, the divine) are the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches. These churches are distinct from the “dyophysite” churches (the Protestant, the Roman Catholic and the “mainstream” Orthodox churches such as the Greek, the Russian and the Serbian Orthodox churches) which subscribe to the idea that Christ has two natures, the divine and the human.
However, the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches are better described as “miaphysite”. The “miaphysite” doctrine derives from Cyril of Alexandria who described Christ as being of one incarnate nature in whom both the divine and the human are united. While the prefix “mono” refers to a singular one, the prefix “mia” refers to a compound one.
The “dyophysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing oil and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, are present in Jesus, but do not mix), while the “miaphysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing wine and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, mix).
A brief word (my thanks to DelCogliano for most of what follows) about the attractive sutore (the plural of suturo) d’madbho, or sanctuary veils. Suturo d’madbho is a type of artwork encountered everywhere in Tur Abdin in south-east Turkey, the heartland of the Syriac Orthodox Church. Every Tur Abdin church has at least one suturo that separates the altar from the congregation at certain times during the liturgy. The suturo is attached to a curtain rod so that it can be easily drawn back and forth when necessary. Most churches also have several other sutore hanging on a bare wall or covering an alcove or doorway. Sutore are examples of a Turkish craft skill particularly popular in Anatolia called basmacilik, which literally means “stamping”. The art of basmacilik involves taking wooden moulds carved into various figures and shapes, pressing them into paint, and then stamping the cloth with them. An alternative way of achieving the same outcome is to draw the outlines of the figures and the shapes on the cloth and then paint them by hand.
Most sutore are approximately 2 metres square. Each suturo has one or two large images in the centre of the cloth, typically of Mary, the last supper, the crucifixion or the resurrection. Almost without exception, in small circles at each of the four corners, are images of the four evangelists together with their symbols: John with an eagle, Matthew with a man, Mark with a lion and Luke with an ox. Other images include seraphim or angels. Figures on the sutore are usually surrounded by decorative floral arrangements or elaborate scrollwork. While some sutore are subdued in tone because of the use of shades of brown, many are bright and vibrant because they employ deep reds, blues, yellows and greens. Although most sutore in Tur Abdin are not very old, they appear to be based on designs from an earlier age.
It is very sad that the importance of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the history of early Christianity generally, and Christian monasticism in particular, is so poorly appreciated in most of the West. It is also sad that the distinction between “dyophysite” and “miaphysite” Christianity is so rarely acknowledged in classrooms, whether in schools or universities.
P.S. I have read in recent times that some academics believe that Christianity is the religion currently suffering the most persecution globally, sometimes by people who are characterised as aggressive or militant secularists, but more frequently by people subscribing to religions other than Christianity itself. While I strongly suspect that people who follow, for example, Yazidism, Sikhism and/or Paganism will question that Christianity is the religion suffering the most persecution, a growing body of evidence confirms that it is increasingly dangerous to be Christian in many parts of the world (e.g. Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, parts of Nigeria and even India). Add to this that persecution and massacre in the past have rendered some nation states, or parts of nation states, effectively Christian-free lands (e.g. most of the Arabian peninsula, large swathes of North Africa, the sub-Saharan region and central Asia) and you realise why such concerns are expressed. Recent events in Kenya, where gunmen who were members of or in sympathy with Al-Shabaab (the brutal and bestial Somali Islamist group) murdered at least 150 people at Garissa University College, add to the evidence that to be Christian is to invite hatred of the most extreme nature imaginable (it is now clear that the great majority of the people murdered at Garissa University College were Christian and that the gunmen separated Christians from others so that non-Christians, most of whom were Muslim, could live).
I ask Muslims once again, whether friends of mine or not, to explain how it is that people who are quite clearly “inspired” by the Islamic faith can act in ways which suggest that fear, hatred, contempt for life, hostility toward diversity and disregard for individual and communal rights lie at the heart of their mindset. No longer will it do to allege that such people are not “good” or “true” Muslims; they justify their actions with quotes from the Qur’an and the Hadith, and they dress and act in ways that are stereotypically Muslim. Moreover, there appear to be a worryingly large number of Muslims who engage in such acts, or support such acts from the safe distance of their homes in stable lands that are not predominantly Muslim.
Obviously, Christians all around the globe have condemned this latest atrocity by Muslim militants, but why have similar condemnations not derived from the Muslim world itself? And why is it that thoughtful, reflective, caring Muslims with commitments to interfaith dialogue, community cohesion and human rights (and millions of such Muslims exist) have not provided us with a narrative based on Islamic scripture which undermines the Islamist scriptural narrative of hatred for and the murder of the despised other, a narrative which also embraces the persecution of women, whether Muslim or otherwise, the destruction of anything deemed unIslamic and an alarming distrust of the benefits of education and free enquiry? Non-Muslims could quite easily generate such a narrative, but, if such a narrative derived from non-Muslims, it would be ignored with a contemptuous shrug of the shoulders by the Islamists themselves. Such a narrative must be generated from within Islam itself if it is to have an impact on extremist Muslims, many of whom are alarmingly young. Sadly for all of humankind, burn, burn appeals to such Muslims far more than build, build.
Why is it that so many Muslims have a complete disregard for one of the most fundamental principles that most people sign up to, even though they often fall short of living up to it: do to others as I expect others to do to me? This principle, one that is inspired by notions of equality, justice, fairness, mutual respect and the celebration of diversity, makes perfect sense, but in sharia, the Islamic legal code, it is very rarely, if ever, given expression. Note how Muslims and non-Muslims must be accorded different rights, responsibilities and opportunities. Note how Muslim males and females must be accorded different rights, responsibilities and opportunities. And note how people of the book (people who have access to scripture said to derive from God) must be accorded more rights and opportunities than people who lack access to God-given scripture. Sharia is predicted on checks and balances designed to ensure that Muslim males enjoy rights and opportunities that are denied to everyone else. Discrimination of the most overt kind permeates sharia, so much so that one is reminded of the worst excesses of the medieval feudal system or the caste system in Hinduism. Moreover, in some interpretations of sharia, apostasy is punishable by death. Yet verse 256 of sura 2 in the Qur’an says, “There is no compulsion in religion”. How can anyone make sense of this? No wonder sane and sensible people within the Muslim world say that sharia has no place in ethnically or culturally diverse nation states which seek to treat all their citizens equally, fairly and with dignity. In fact, some sane and sensible people in the Muslim world say that sharia has no place in predominantly or overwhelmingly Muslim nation states if such nation states seek to provide all their citizens with universal human rights and the benefits, material or otherwise, currently enjoyed by developed nation states in the so-called West.