by Mary Hansbury
I recently returned from a conference in Qatar, having been invited to present research and read a paper in my field of Syriac studies. The conference was about various Syriac writers from 1,500 years ago. They are Christian writers, but the Muslim government of Qatar funded the conference in its desire to reach out to Christians and Jews. Perhaps a unique ecumenical experience in an age of increasing polarization!
It is only since 2008 that churches have been allowed in Qatar, ending a restriction dating from the 7th century. Now churches, without cross or bells, are permitted in a compound: Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, Anglican – all together. No churches may be built outside the compound.
For example, the Catholic Church has 100,000 members. These are mostly immigrants who have come to work in Qatar from India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Korea, Lebanon and Africa. They are ministered to by priests from India. Qatar has always had a link with India, being on the trade route from the Middle East to India from early centuries.
Now the Indian presence there helps forge a triple identity: Arab/Islamic; Indian; industrial/professional/Western. (Georgetown University, for example, has a campus there). It really is a unique place.
The conference was international, and scholars came to discuss issues of Syriac Christianity. Iraq, Iran and Syria are areas of this early Christian development. The Syriac language, like Arabic, is a dialect of Aramaic and is therefore very close to the language of the Hebrew Bible. The conference dealt mostly with the 7th century, but underlying all is the work of St. Ephrem who died in 373. He represents a genuinely Semitic form of Christianity.
Many now in the West appreciate this simpler, symbolic, faith-filled approach to Christianity as opposed to a doctrinal approach. Ephrem uses poetry primarily as a vehicle for his theology. Since poetry tends not to encapsulate truth, Ephrem is able to present a dynamic approach and does not use Western philosophy but rather images from the Bible and human experience.
The basic structure of Ephrem’s understanding of Scripture is that it has two kinds of meanings: an outer historical one, which scholars and exegetes deal with, and an inner spiritual meaning, “the hidden power” of divine inspiration. And it is through symbols that one understands the inner meaning.
It is important to understand the true sense of symbol: that it has a very real connection with what it symbolizes. Often in modern thought, symbol is separate from what it symbolizes. But the true sense of symbol, even in anthropological thinking, is that a symbol actually is connected to what it symbolizes and participates in it.
Another aspect of contemporary interest in Ephrem, and to those at the conference, is that he sees all of reality as interconnected. Nothing in creation exists in isolation. Nature and the natural world stand side-by-side with Scripture as witnesses to God. He does not deify nature, but he says it reveals God the way many Christians believe Scripture does. This has an impact on environmental issues.
Ephrem insists on wonder and gratitude rather than greed and exploitation. Modern commentators have seen in this an indication of what the attitude of mankind to the environment could be. The abuse of nature from human misuse of free will has moral consequences. And because of this Scripture/Nature relationship, Ephrem sees Paradise or heaven as literally all around us in a way that has been compared to the modern scientific theory of parallel universes.
Finally, Ephrem has great sensitivity for women. He wrote for women’s choirs, and the role of women in liturgical worship in the early church was significant. He wrote about women in the Bible frequently. And there is extensive use of feminine imagery in his poetry. He even uses it when speaking about God. In fact, in early Syriac literature, the Holy Spirit is translated as feminine.
Sebastian Brock, of Oxford University, was with us at the conference and has written on these aspects of Ephrem in “The Luminous Eye” (Cistercian Publications, 1992).
These are some of the issues that drew Muslim sponsors of the conference in Qatar to invite Syriac scholars, given the similarities between Syriac and Arabic ways of thinking. And this form of Christianity, free from European philosophical and cultural baggage, plays an important role in the development of Christianity in India as well.
Syriac Christianity has been in south India since the 3rd century and to this day is an active form of worship, especially in Kerala. A research center has been established in Kerala with a library and teaching facilities for Syriac studies where I go every other year. And now there are at least three Indian Syrian Christian Churches in Philadelphia.
As I look back at the time spent in Qatar, the beginning of a three-year project, I’m impressed with this ecumenical breakthrough. There is also a foundation there now: The Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue, sponsored by the royal family to spread a culture of dialogue and peaceful coexistence. Given the present sectarian divide in the area – the worst in a millennium – perhaps these ecumenical efforts may have a ripple effect.
Mary Hansbury, Ph.D., a Chestnut Hill resident, does research concerning early Syriac Christianity and has translated seven books and written numerous articles in her field.