I was reading blogs for awhile before I ever thought I had anything to say. I stumbled onto Phylax a few months ago and I discovered within Phylax, a community of people who were actually thinking and debating about things I considered important. For the first time, I started writing comments and eventually I decided to start a blog of my own. Phylax Blog is the brainchild of Ted Laskaris. Ted helped me take my first baby steps as a blogger, and for this I will be ever grateful. Recently two commenters on Phylax (and occasionally on Greek Odyssey), Hermes and Anestis have engaged me in a very interesting discussion that made me think long and hard about the relationship between Hellenism and Orthodoxy.
The dictionary defines Hellenism as the civilization and culture of ancient Greece. Although the contribution of the Ancients is unparalleled, my definition of Hellenism is more expansive. I define Hellenism as the sum total contributions of Greek civilization. This includes Greek contributions during the Byzantine, medieval and modern era. In my opinion Christianity has played a decisive role within Hellenism and has helped it survive. A growing number of Greeks however, are rejecting Orthodox Christianity and looking at Hellenism in a new way; in a religious context. So we must ask are Christianity and Hellenism compatible?
For many Greeks, membership in the Greek Orthodox Church is a determinant of one's Greekness. Others will argue that the determinant of Greekness is not religion, but education and language. How do we distinguish the Greeks from the rest of the herd? Hellenism for me is like Christianity, inclusive. It does not seek to shut out ideas or people that do not fit into some preconceived notion of who or what Hellenism constitutes. Hellenism is a way of thinking and acting based on the sum total Hellenic experience, which is rich and varied. There are values and traits that I consider genuinely Greek, however, they are not the sole property of a particular ethnic group. They belong to us all. Christianity is also universal in nature and available to all who will partake. Hellenism is a legacy of thought and ideas. Orthodox Christianity has become in my mind an integral part of Hellenism. You don't have to "join the club" in order to partake of the rich legacy that each offers.
The spread of Christianity (made possible by Hellenism) is nothing short of miraculous. How was it able to do this? Perhaps it espoused a unique view of man's relationship with God that men and women felt deep in their hearts and psyche. This was especially so of the Greek World which embraced Christianity and has never let go. Some will argue that Greeks did not willingly and fervently take up the Cross and that only a small segment of the Greek population was Christianized during the first 300 years of Christianity. Nevertheless it was Greeks and Hellenized missionaries, in Europe and Asia who played a leading role in the history of Christianity. Antioch, Tarsus, Ephesus, Smyrna, Phillippi, Thessaloniki, Athens, Corinth, Nikopolis, the islands of Cyprus and Crete were only a few of the many Greek cities that heard the Gospel of Christ. As early as the second century there were flourishing churches in each of these cities as well as in Greek towns and islands such as Megara, Sparta, Patras, Larissa, Milos, Tinos, Paros, Thera and Chios. All the important churches of the first three centuries were Greek or Greek speaking. Many of these Greek cities produced many martyrs and profound thinkers. The Emperor Julian who succeeded Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, tried his best to stamp out the new religion. He died on his death bed uttering "You have won Galilean."
Father Demetrios Constantelos in an essay entitled The Historical Development of Greek Orthodoxy writes the following: "Orthodox and non-Orthodox theologians and scholars believe that the Judaization of Christianity would have been fatal, while its Hellenization determined its universal appeal and its catholic character. Greek Orthodox Christianity is Christocentric and biblical, but at the same time it bears all the characteristics of the Greek genius. Christianity's religious schemes and theological categories reveal the influence of the ancient Greek mind. There is unity, but a unity in diversity. There is canon law, but it is not always enforced. The concept of the Roman "autocritas" has found little fertile ground in the Greek East. The Greek emphasis on inquiry and the continuous quest for personal understanding and interpretation constitute the background of the development of "heresies"or "choices" outside the mainstream of Orthodoxy. Christianity is Greek not only in form but to a great degree in content as well. Greek religious and philosophical thought has penetrated into the mind and thought of later Judaism and Greek thought thoroughly imbued the whole Roman Empire. The fusion of Greek classical and religious material was present not only in theological and philosophical writing but also in mystical and spiritual. Christian thinkers were in constant dialogue with ancient and Greek thought and religious experience. Hellenization affected every aspect of early Christianity including worship."
By arguing that Christianity is not inherently an inalienable part of what we call Hellenism is to ignore and thereby exclude the accomplishments of a huge historical segment of Hellenism, Orthodox Christians. Let's exclude the accomplishments of Byzantium, let's also exclude the accomplishments of millions of Greeks in the last thousand years who managed to preserve their Greekness intact because of two key pillars: Orthodox Christianity and the Greek Language. During the darkest era of Greek history, the Turkokratia, there were diasporan Greeks, Phanariots, and even Westerners who kept the legacy of the ancients alive. The great mass of illiterate peasants scattered throughout the Mediterranean and Black Seas however, were not reading Aristotle or Homer. They were trying to survive and maintain their identity. Religion was a key "determinant" of the Hellenic identity then even if it is not now for some Greeks.
With the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire (324-1453), many Christians of the Greek Orthodox Church came under Ottoman Turkish rule. Islam was the dominant religion of the state and Christians were second-class citizens to say the least. From the beginning of the fifteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century numerous non-Muslims were converted to Islam. Many were either induced or forced, while many more made the change voluntarily. From Father Constantelos in his study entitled: Altruistic suicide or Altruistic Martyrdom? Christian Greek Neomartyrs: "Extensive testimony not only of the contemporary Christian writers, both Eastern and Western, but also of Turkish, corroborates the fact that a considerable number of Christians preferred death.Writing in the middle of the seventeenth century about the state of the Greek and Armenian Churches under Ottoman rule, Paul Ricaut, the British consul in Smyrna, who traveled widely within the Ottoman Empire and became an astute observer of its religious and social scene, made several important observations which can be summarized as follows: first, the Turks expelled Christians from many of their churches, converting them to mosques; second, the "Mysteries of the Altar" were concealed in secret and dark places, vaults, and sepulchers, having their roofs almost leveled with the surface of the ground; third, many Christians turned "Mohametans" and many "flocked daily to the profession of Turkism"; and fourth, Christian priests, in the Eastern parts of Asia Minor especially, were forced to live with caution and officiate in obscurity and privacy, fearing the temper of the Turks. Ricaut adds that considering the oppression and contempt for the Greek Church, as well as the allurements, worldly pleasures, and privileges that Christians would enjoy by becoming Muslims, the stable perseverance of the Greek Church is a confirmation of God's presence "no less convincing than the miracles and power which attended the beginnings of the early church" According to several accounts, from the conquest of Constantinople to the last phase of the Greek War of Independence, the Ottoman Turks condemned to death 11 Ecumenical Patriarchs of Constantinople, nearly 100 bishops, and several thousands of priests, deacons and monks.
Some see our Orthodox faith as making us weak. The ramblings of an itinerant Jewish carpenter. I see it as a source of strength. Hellenism and Christianity have been mutually beneficial to each other. Being an Orthodox Christian requires hard work, it is a lifelong work in progress. The Hellenic heritage can help us along the way. I see my Orthodox faith as a legacy passed on by my ancestors who clung to it tenaciously, very often at personal risk. It is based on the revealed word of God and it strengthens those that accept its grace. Many of us Christians fall short of those God given standards we should be living by, however that doesn't mean we need to stop trying to achieve them. By chucking our Christian beliefs aside we weaken the Hellenism we want to preserve. We are falling into the same trap that many in the West have fallen into. Eschewing Christianity for secularism, consumerism, paganism or whatever the flavor the month happens to be. In so doing they have have sown the seeds of their destruction. Let's not do likewise and follow them headlong into the abyss.