Memorial of Saint Athanasius, bishop and doctor of the Church
(Acts 5:34-42; John 6:1-15)
A philosopher writes of her journey of faith. She says that she entered college with every intention of becoming a lawyer and earning bundles. Then she took a course in ethics, became fascinated with ideas, and changed her career goal. In the meantime she started attending mass. The first time her purpose was to memorialize the September 11 slaughter, but she became absorbed by the experience and eventually entered the Church. Now she finds tension between some of the conclusions of philosophy and the teachings of faith. Rather than ignore the differences or settle for the conclusions of one kind of wisdom over the other, she writes of pursuing the “Way of Aporia.” Aporia is a Greek word meaning an intractable puzzle. In physics a famous aporia from the last century is the contention between Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and Max Planck’s quantum theory over the behavior of subatomic particles. Just as physicists keep observing and testing to resolve that issue, the religious philosopher should contemplate how the truths of faith might correspond to reason. St. Athanasius embarked on this endeavor in the fourth century with results that have deepened our appreciation of God.
The hot-button issue in the Christian world during Athanasius’ lifetime was Christ’s divinity. Was he truly God or only partially God? A famous teacher named Arius made the latter case saying that “there was a time in which the Son was not.” He cited biblical texts to secure his position. But Athanasius understood Scripture as revealing that the Son is one with the Father for all eternity and resolved the issue of uniqueness of the Father and the Son by saying that God is of a different order of being than creation – an order where two or three are one in a way beyond human comprehension. His thinking, of course, lays the premise for the doctrine of the Trinity.
The need for contemplation to resolve tension between faith and reason may be applied to today’s gospel as well. How could food for five thousand be obtained from a few loaves and fish? Was it that Jesus convinced the people to share the food they had hidden in their pockets? Or perhaps there was a passing caravan with wagonloads of bread? More probably, Jesus “multiplied” the food available although the gospel does not use this term. In any case, we do well to meditate on the meaning of it all and to give thanks for knowing Jesus.