The article of the month

Great Conversion Stories by John Janaro

Clement of Alexandria

The Church spread remarkably throughout the Roman world in the 2nd century. Though their numbers were not large, believers of many diverse backgrounds established notable communities whose members (during periods of toleration) became an influential presence in the larger pagan society. They attracted not only the poor and uneducated but also the learned: lawyers, rhetoricians, scholars, and philosophers. Educated Christians began to explore the relationship between faith and reason.

We have already considered Justin Martyr, the 2nd-century convert who openly presented himself as a “Christian philosopher” in Rome. The center of higher learning in the world of late antiquity, however, was Alexandria in Egypt. Here another convert became the great pioneer of what we might call the first Christian humanities education program.

Titus Flavius Clemens was born into a pagan family in Athens sometime around 150. Much of what we know about the man who became “Clement of Alexandria” comes from his own writings and the testimony of other early Christian authors. Like many Hellenistic families in late antiquity, Clement’s Athenian forebears were eclectic in religion, combining the myths of the old gods with the new “mystery religions” and their rituals. But young Clement was not satisfied with this de rigueur hodgepodge of superstitions. He was convinced that the human religious sense pointed to something that also satisfied human intelligence and moral awareness.

Therefore, he set off on a journey to find teachers who might lead him to true wisdom. He traveled through Greece, Asia Minor, Palestine, and finally Egypt. Along the way he met
various teachers who gave him elements of truth. He spent a considerable amount of time learning from them and growing in erudition, but none of these teachers had adequate answers to his questions, and so he continued his journey.

When he arrived at Alexandria around 180, however, he met Saint Pantaenus, the man who changed his life, the man who not only showed him the vital relationship between faith and reason, but also lived and taught it as a coherent pedagogy, as an intellectual, moral, and spiritual path pursued in a disciplined environment, a “school.” Not long before Clement’s arrival, the bishops of Alexandria began to sponsor what we might compare to an RCIA program to form catechumens and also to educate sincere inquirers about Christianity. This great city of scholarship, dissatisfied decadence, and genuine searching included more than a few who were curious about what was still a new and apparently odd little sect. Pantaenus had learning and experience and a gift for communicating the Gospel to the intelligence and the authentic religious sense of his students.

Clement found here a wisdom that touched his mind and heart, a wisdom that was especially convincing because it came from the witness of a wise and holy man. He entered Pantaenus’ “school” and embraced Christianity. He became Pantaenus’ collaborator and eventually his successor. Under Clement, the famous “Catechetical School of Alexandria” flourished, integrating various human and religious studies into a “catholic” unity. However humble and insignificant it may have looked to the outside world, Clement’s school was the progenitor of what we know today as the “university.” Indeed it was the first Catholic university, in which the paths of the arts, sciences, literature, and ethics converged on Jesus Christ and were illuminated by him.

 

(John Janaro is associate professor emeritus of theology at Christendom College, and author of Never Give Up: My Life and God’s Mercy (Servant Books). He blogs at www.johnjanaro.com.