‘AGORA” was the name of the place designated in Alexandria where people gathered to talk and trade. It was not simply a marketplace; agora was a free space. In the absence of clear democratic processes—the 4th-century Roman-occupied Egypt had slaves—the agora was akin to our legislative buildings, the only difference, perhaps, was that there were more people conscious of their intellect during that era.
Agora is also the title of a historical fiction directed by Alejandro Amenabar in 2009. It is the story of Hypatia, a mathematician and a philosopher who was teaching in an academy heavily influenced by the teachings of Plato. It is to the credit of this period that a woman teaches male students. In Hypatia’s class were two students who would later challenge her heart and intellect. There was Orestes who became the Roman prefect and later converted to Christianity. Then there was Synesius of Cyrene, a bishop who comes back to convince Hypatia, his mentor, to convert to Christianity, and to whom the philosopher uttered these words: Your (referring to Synesius) duty is to believe and mine is to doubt and question.
Very few people know or acknowledge Hypatia. There are accounts stating that there was no major female philosopher in that period. In an age where gender-sensitivity marks great discourses, there are strong claims that gender bias caused the life of Hypatia to be pushed to the margin, and then, consequently obscured.
There are issues in the film Agora that have been swept under the massive Catholic rugs: These are the historical facts that, long before the cruelties of other big religions, Christianity and its early evangelizers developed their own mean ways to assert the place of the new religion among those declared as pagans. It is the index of Christianity’s strength from the 4th century that all other religions after and before it were all condemned to the dustbin label of “paganism.”
Wherever I get the chance to teach ancient and political theories in the Catholic universities I am connected with, I always try to find time to show this film, Agora. My purpose is to systematically examine the past of the religion I belong to. The other implicit aim of this intellectual exercise is to constantly validate one thing that is true about Christianity and, in this case, Catholicism—that we are allowed to criticize the institutional religion and with it, the officials managing the faith.
I had the opportunity to study in a Jesuit educational institution, and later the wisdom to teach in two of its universities. Teaching anthropology, I was fond of telling my students to “suspend your own belief systems” as we look at other cultural systems. Then one day, in one of those years, a theologian asked me to clarify a complaint by a student that I am allegedly teaching about godless societies. What is happening, Tito? Flabbergasted and quite embarrassed because the Jesuit asking me the question was one of those I truly admired. I could not reply quickly enough. Before I could open my mouth, the good priest asked: Is it a kind of searching, Tito? I grinned the smile of a slave who was able to save ancient manuscripts from the great library of Alexandria. I nodded and said: Yes, Father Jack, I am searching.
Searching is good, according to the good old priest. Even doubting.
This is what makes me proud of being a Catholic, I can always criticize my own faith. Criticism can be an act of faith itself as I distinguish clearly between the doctrine and the practices of those trying to understand the teachings. There is no claim of perfection in this religion as we live in this valley of tears. We are pilgrims, Saint Augustine assured us.
Popular culture can vouch for the stability of the Catholic religion. Recently I watched (and reviewed for this paper) a film titled The Vatican Tapes. Even as I saw the trailer showing the film as belonging to the horror genre, I was expecting sordid revelations about the corruption in that city-state. The film turned out to be exploitative of the label “Vatican.” The film is about exorcism and a great bulk of action happened in the US. The only time we are afforded what could be the locale of the Vatican Tapes is toward the end. I did not hear complaints from the Vatican and no official curse was thrown at the direction of the film. No death sentence, either, was handed down to those who spoke ill of the Church.
The Catholic Church had a share in censoring and banning literature that it saw as not fit for its believers. All that is technically of the past. The institution may relatively remain progressive from the viewpoint of those who seek to push the limits of moral standards, as well as questioning, but the institution has done reforms that one cannot expect to happen in other established religions. Think of Vatican II and the introduction of the vernacular as the language of the sacred. Think of liberation theology and its respect for ideologies.
I like this religion, this Catholicism, because when summoned, it would always save itself by its constant search, doubt and belief.