Inquiry Is Not An Enemy of Faith

I came across a film on Netflix titled Agora.  Because I’m doing a lot of research on the ancient world, I thought it might be interesting to watch.

The film was about a woman philosopher, astronomer and mathematician living in Alexandria, Egypt in 400 A.D.  Her name is Hypatia.  She lived right at the time when Christians went from being persecuted to being the dominant religion.  Inevitably, violence and other unflattering forms of conversion began to take place.  In the end of the film, as in history, Hypatia is brutally  murdered by a Christian sect, not because she is a witch, as her unconvincing accusers claim, but because she is a political threat to the rising Christian theocracy.

The film didn’t do so well at the box office.  As I watched it, I shuddered to think that the reasons might be not because of any inherent flaw of the film.  The script was clear and well written, the acting intelligent and deeply emotive, the story compelling, and the cinematography superb.  I suspected, rather, that the film didn’t do well because of its inherent non-doctrinal message.  The film had, according to viewers, one cardinal sin: the only reasonable character is a non-Christian.

Unfortunately when I read the reviews and board posts left by critics and viewers, I was disappointed to find that my worst suspicions proven.  The film is held under the most unreasonable standards of accuracy for events that are relatively minor to the plot. Some viewers cried foul because they mistook the library featured in the film (Serapeum) with the other famous library in Alexandria, which may or may not have been burned down by Muslims.  In fact, Serapium was most probably burned down by Christians, as the film claims.  Certainly, the film is not a historical archive — films, to my knowledge, never are. But it does portray a more or less accurate version of events as they occurred in that time, in that part of Egypt.

Regardless of these historical quibbles, compared to most films today, the film exceeds the vast majority of blockbusters not only for its historical accuracy, but also for its intellectual level. However, it didn’t do well. The film’s main point is dimissed as “atheist propaganda” when there isn’t a single line in the dialog pertaining to the discussion of the existence or nonexistence of God (or of Christ, for that matter).

Some of the reviews were deeply disturbing.  For instance, one board post went: “They were right to burn the library.  What good is knowing that the earth orbits around the sun if you’re going to Hell? You only need one book.”  Some dismissed the film as “stupid” and “not worth watching” because “it was anti-Christian.”

The fact that Jews and Pagans are shown stoning people to death and murdering people in the street is not mentioned by these objectors of showing early Christians as violent. People post such dismissals without realizing that with their omissions, they reveal the blindness and prejudice they themselves accuse in others.  It is truly as Jesus says, that we can see the speck in our brother’s eye but not the plank in our own.

In the film, Hypatia’s own faith is never brought up.  Only once, when she’s asked what she believes in, she admits, “I believe in philosophy.”  For this, she’s utterly ridiculed by the other magistrates.  It is clear, in the context of the film, that her words are not an admission of any faith: what Hypathia means to say is that she believes in rational inquiry.  Early in the film, she tries to dissuade the dominant Pagan upper class elites from murdering Christians.  She is ignored, and as a result there is a Christian insurgence that leads to the killing of many innocents on both sides of the dispute.  The film goes on to show Hypatia’s passion not only for scientific inquiry, but also for justice and non-violence towards all beings, regardless of creed.  It would seem that such a character would appeal to Christian values, but judging from both professional and common reviews, Hypatia is disappointing, as is, apparently, the actress who played her, not because of anything her character said or did, in history or in the film, but because the viewers believe she was an atheist.

In real history, Hypatia’s particular denomination of faith is uncertain, although she was by no means an atheist.  She was praised, later in history, by Christians, for her values, and she is said to have inspired a bishop to write some very influential Christian doctrines studied today.

Now everyone who has an internet connection can post an ignorant comment about someone’s artistic work.  Ironically, anyone with an internet connection can also look up Hypatia on Wikipedia and see that in fact, we are not talking about an atheist, but of a woman of science who was massacred in ways far more horrible than how it was portrayed in the film.  Regardless of her faith, one would think a viewer of any creed would be sympathetic to someone who was massacred for no reason other then that she chose not to be a hypocrite about what she did or did not believe. However, it is much easier to be judge and jury of someone else’s years of hard work and artistic vision, and to dismiss it with a simple comment and a label, then it is to do some research and come up with a thoughtful response.

This film and its negative reception strikes particularly close to me because of what I’m writing, the history of a people who lived before Jews and Christians.  I sent an excerpt to an agent who loved the writing and the story, but said, “I don’t like the Biblical references.”  I wanted to tell her that what she read where not Biblical references: they were history, scriptures that reside as we speak in the display rooms of museums around the world.  What I was reporting wasn’t derived from the Bible: it was the source of it.  But censorship these days rarely occurs at a level that is visible to the general public.  It occurs in small dismissals and phrases like “this offends my belief” before that presumedly offensive material ever has a chance to prove itself historically accurate. We can say that history offends us, but what offends me is ignorance of history.

I have been on a long and exhausting spiritual journey, and I have recently came to the thoughtful and responsible decision that I cannot call myself an “ism” or “ish” or “ist” anything. To do so would make it too difficult to sift between the chaff of human’s egotism and the spiritual truth contained in every faith. The history of religion as we know it through our official testimonies and archives doesn’t show me God’s mercy; it shows me men’s obtuse cruelty.  The dominant religion, regardless of whatever other message of charity or love it teaches, stifles the weaker one, primarily by relentless rhetorical campaigns that today we call propaganda, but also by violence and intimidation.  It was so for Christianity, and it has been so for all of the dominant religions of the world, including Buddhism.  Christians were at one time persecuted, fed to lions, chained and beaten and maimed.  They are still today so abused in some countries.  This is true.  But so it is also true that Christians have also persecuted others, the Jews for example, the Muslim world throughout the Crusades, pagans of old and of today, and even today there are Christian sects who are strong activists against the rights of Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists and others.  Only fools and ignorant people would deny that it isn’t so.

I am not angry towards Christians, nor Jews, nor any religion. I am angry towards a society that judges without fact and dismisses history because it may hurt some artificial construct of “values” that have nothing to do with what actually is right or wrong.  I am angry towards herd mentality, and towards artistic works screened by potential profit and dismissed on the basis of what is fashionable for us to believe. I am angry towards the White Noise of an unquestioning, self-righteous society.  As a teacher, and a life-long student of human truths, I feel deeply sympathetic to Hypatia, both as a character of history and as a character in this film, and I feel grateful that the director had the courage to remind us of some of the casualties of our certainty in our egos.  There is an old saying that goes something like, you get old when you stop learning.  What is wrong with asking questions?  Why are we so afraid of being proven wrong?

Published by laura

I'm the author of two short story collections, a story cycle, and a collection of short memoirs. I am an educator, literary translator, journal editor, and writing coach.

One thought on “Inquiry Is Not An Enemy of Faith

  1. When you mentioned this movie the other day, I didn’t realize it was about Hypatia! I’m intrigued by her and must watch this movie.

    This blog hits a hot button for me. “We can say that history offends us, but what offends me is ignorance of history.” YES! A fabulous blog post. Thank you for articulating your thoughts.

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