Regular readers of MGO may recall the recent debate about Greek Christianity. Getting caught in the middle of an emotional debate over a controversial post makes me prone to frequent periods of deep reflection during which I have a bad habit of tuning the world around me out while I think. Luckily, my wife Anna is there to snap me back to reality when the need arises. I have to confess that I find thinking about these issues intellectually stimulating yet exhausting because they really make me want to delve deeper, read some more and treat the subject more thoroughly. Needless to say that takes time, an increasingly scarce asset these days in my life. The debate is a result of the "tension" between the Greek legacy of the Ancients and that of the Byzantines. It is not a new debate nor is it one that has any intention of expiring any time soon. At the crux of the debate is simply this: Are the two compatible and reconcilable? Just as important, the underlying question is how does either one affect man's eternal search for truth?
Greeks and Westerners in general, are faced with a choice, very much like that facing people in the first centuries of the early Christian era. That choice is between Christianity with its difficult message of the "gift of self" and a despairing, narcissistic, hedonistic paganism in all its variations, the modern forms of which are worship of progress, nature and modern science. Hermes once informed me that I was old enough to be his father, which is quite true. Therefore I will take up the burden of at least attempting to answer some of the questions he poses in this debate in a fatherly way. Knowing of course that young men rarely pay much attention to their fathers since they are too busy putting everything under the microscope only to find us all wanting. I make no claim that I have any particular expertise in this realm. I am neither a theologian nor philosopher, just someone who is willing to stick his head out and give you my take on the subject.
Young people today are a product of a Postmodernist Western world. Postmodernists have a mission and that mission is to deconstruct the foundations of traditional Christian beliefs. Beliefs that they say are backward, dogmatic and utterly useless in the "modern" world. Beliefs that I hold dear. They claim they are always looking for the truth, unfortunately they can never seem to find it unless it comes in the form of dubious scientific theories. This particular malady points towards relativism - a doctrine instructing that truth and morality are relative and not absolute. Relativism asserts that what is accepted as truth is relative to a person's situation or standpoint, and denies that any standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. If truth is relative, then absolute right and absolute wrong become doubtful and obscure. And if truth is relative, then only subjective and indefinite answers exist for the purpose and meaning of life. It's all good and anything goes, as they say these days.
So is there any absolute or real truth in this complex and uncertain world? Our mutual friend, Socrates, was sentenced to death by his fellow Athenians for corrupting the youth and impiety. What his followers learned from him above all else, was to scrutinize, and to be skeptical. They learned not to take on authority or on faith what others told them about virtue, justice, or piety; they were seeking, as was Socrates himself, the truth of the matter—and the reasons for accepting it to be the truth of the matter. The most tragic part of the whole affair is that Socrates was put to death for what turns out to be the beginning of all knowledge and wisdom. Scrutiny and skepticism precede any growth in knowledge whatever, and they are its necessary prerequisites. A person who does not scrutinize will not separate truth from falsity, fact from fiction, reality from myth. And a person who is not skeptical will never even begin to scrutinize. This applies to both sides of an argument. Nowadays, this ability to think critically is a disappearing commodity. The education system, irregardless of where one lives, has abandoned the difficult task of inculcating the requisite skills needed by a critical thinker.
Here's the crux of the problem. No matter how well we scrutinize things and how skeptical we may be, truth is elusive. Reason can deal effectively only with certain categories of truth. True wisdom must necessarily refuse to allow reason to overcome its limitations; and where experience or common sense plainly proves that the intellect has reasoned wrongly, then sometimes we must rely on faith alone. Faith and reason are both sources of authority upon which beliefs can rest. Reason is generally based on the principles for a methodological inquiry. Once demonstrated, a proposition or claim is ordinarily understood to be justified as true or authoritative. Faith, on the other hand, involves taking a stance toward some claim that we may not be able to prove to everyone's satisfaction. It involves a commitment on the part of the believer. Religious faith involves a belief that is understood to come from the authority of revelation. If one can't accept revelation and true Christianity gives everyone a choice in the matter, then one has to keep looking. For some, the never-ending search for the truth and the worship of logic/science could not possibly come to terms with accepting the existence of God or anything for that matter that cannot be measured, examined or proven scientifically. Modern man has developed a penchant for explaining everything and he now suffers from a complete lack of humility when it comes to having an explanation for everything.
Demetrios Constantelos writes in an essay on Paidea and the Church Fathers:
"The question concerning the relations between the Christian faith
and Greek thought preoccupied the Christian community for nearly three
and a half centuries but it was resolved as a result of the
intellectual efforts of people like the Three Hierarchs, (Sts Basil, Gregory and John Chrysostom).
What do they have to teach us today? First that our struggles and frustrations, our defeats and disappointments are not unique; that as we carry humanity’s perpetual quest for truth, for wisdom, for inner freedom, for happiness, we must think historically and let our forefathers, either of the very distant antiquity or of later ages, provide us with their experience and their wisdom. Of course, we must build our research on their discoveries and add upon the structure of human experience our own experience. The primary requirement which many of the best thinkers of the Hellenic-Christian heritage advocated – from Solon, Sophocles, Euripides, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch to Basil, Gregory, Chrysostom, Photios, Palamas – was a realization of man’s limitations, the need for self-knowledge and humility, for a sincere search beyond the limited views of the natural senses, and an invitation to an endless intellectual adventure. In brief, the educational ideal of the Greek and Christian heritage is the development of the human being into a cultivated person possessing faith in a core of values and a persistent effort to apply them in every day life until the ikon of the god-man Christ, the theanthropos
The Greek Church arrived at the conclusion that the study of Hellenic wisdom was both useful and desirable, provided that the Christian rejected the evil and retained all that was good and true. Christianity was baptized in the Greek stream of language and thought, in the Greek cultural milieu and Hellenistic historical setting. As a whole, however, the Fathers of the Greek Church did not seek to borrow essence and content from ancient Greek thought, for these they possessed in their sacred Scriptures. They intended to borrow methodologies, technical means, terminology, and logical or grammatical structures in order to build up the Christian edifice of theology, of doctrine and thought. Nevertheless, in this effort Christian revelation did not escape infiltration by Greek thought, and Greek cultural and intellectual influences became interwoven with Christian faith. A harmonious convergence was achieved between Greek thought and Christian faith, and a balance has prevailed in the Eastern Church to the present day.
Tο be sure, attempts were made to upset the balance. For example, the Emperor Julian (360-363) made serious efforts to restore not only classica1 learning but also the Olympian deities. John Italos in the eleventh century and George Plethon Gemistos in the fifteenth maintained that the classical religious and intellectual tradition offered everything, if not more, that man needs to know and to possess than Christianity. Other ecclesiastics, such as Epiphanios of Cyprus and Anastasios of Sinai, believed that Christianity was self sufficient and that it could not be reconciled with the classical tradition. But neither the enemies of Christianity nor the adversaries of the classics prevailed. Apollinarios the Younger established the equilibrium when he stated that "the good wherever it is found is a property of the truth." The Church recognized in this principle the legacy of the Greek classics and united them with the Christian tradition. Thus we observe in the Byzantine era the continuity of the Greek past, the Hellenistic heritage united with the new element of the Christian faith."
Christianity, emerged from Judaism, introducing a set of revealed truths and practices to its adherents. Many of these beliefs and practices differed significantly from what the Greek religions and Judaism had held. In The Rise of Christianity (Princeton University Press, 1996) by Rodney Stark, professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington, gives us a new perspective on the formative years of Christianity. I mention Stark"s study because he is a scholar without an ax to grind against Christians and his research approaches the subject without any preconceptions. In one of the more startling conclusions from his research, Stark says that contrary to the current wisdom, the mission to the Jews of the early Christians was largely successful and continued right up to the year 300. According to Stark, the some four or five million Jews of the Diaspora had "adjusted to life in the Diaspora in ways that made them very marginal vis-a-vis the Jews of Jerusalem, hence the need as early as the third century for the Torah to be translated into Greek for the Jews outside of Israel (the Septuagint)." For Jews who lived in the Hellenic world, "Christianity offered to retain much of the religious content of both cultures and to resolve the contradictions between them."
It should be noted that most of the new converts to Christianity came from the Hellenized peoples of the East especially the Greeks rather than from Judaism, because Christianity had much more in common with the freedom imposed by the Greek mind than the legality of Judaism. Christianity preached the possibility of a worthwhile and even happy existence for slaves, the weak, the poor, the ugly, even barbarians, people Aristotle and Plato would not have regarded as capable of a happy life and people the Jews would not have regarded as those like themselves chosen by God. During the major upheavals of the fourth century Christianity emerged as the dominant movement. The new faith engaged in both dialogue
and conflict with Greco-Roman culture. Christians found themselves in conflict with pagan society and even with themselves. Change, heresy, reformations,
compromises, violence, persecutions were
characteristics of the fourth century but they did not stop there.
Now was the spread of Christianity a "miracle" or just coincidental based on a combinations of existing facts? Believers like me will lean toward the miraculous. Hermes on the other hand, wouldn't accept such an explanation, so again, I will let Stark offer the conclusions formed by his research. I stress here that historians, even those who can offer us the benefit of their research studies, can't be sure that they have all the right answers. They are making an educated guess. Stark points out that in 165, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, an epidemic struck that carried away during the course of fifteen years up to a third of the total population of the empire, including Marcus Aurelius himself. In 251 a similar epidemic, most likely of measles, struck again with similar results. Historians generally acknowledge that these epidemics produced a depopulation which led in part to the decline of the Roman empire, more than the normally attributed cause of "moral degeneration." Stark points out that these epidemics favored the rapid rise of Christianity for three reasons. One, that Christianity offered a more satisfactory account of "why bad things happen to good people," based on the centrality of the suffering and Cross of Christ than any form of classical paganism. Second, "Christian values of love and charity, from the beginning, had been translated into norms of social service and community solidarity. When disasters struck, the Christians were better able to cope, and this resulted in substantially higher rates of survival. This meant that in the aftermath of each epidemic, Christians made up a larger and larger percentage of the population even without new converts." Last, these epidemics left large numbers of people without the interpersonal bonds that would have prevented them from becoming Christians, thus encouraging conversion. He says, "in a sense paganism did indeed 'topple over dead' or at least acquired its fatal illness during these epidemics, falling victim to its relative inability to confront these crises socially or spiritually, an inability suddenly revealed by the example of its upstart challenger." His words not mine.
Stark introduces a number of other elements in Christianity's rise to prominence. It was an urban phenomenon based in the teeming cities of the Roman Empire especially in the East. Stark underlines the fact that Christianity brought a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities more tolerable: "To cities filled with homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services." Contrary to popular belief, despite Christianity's drawing power for the poor and slaves, it also attracted the upper and middle classes in appreciable numbers.
"Christianity was unusually appealing to pagan women" because "within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large." He shows that Christianity recognized women as equal to men, children of God with the same supernatural destiny. Moreover the Christian moral code of prohibition against polygamy, divorce, birth control, abortion, and infanticide contributed to the well-being of women, changing their status from powerless serfs in bondage to men, to women with dignity and rights in both the Church and the State. Go to any Church service on any given day and you will understand the importance of women within the body of the Church.
Stark establishes four conclusions based on his study. One, Christianity rapidly produced a substantial surplus of females as a result of Christian prohibitions against infanticide (normally directed against girl infants), abortion (often producing the death of the mother), and the high rate of conversion to Christianity among women. Second, as already pointed out, Christian women enjoyed substantially higher status within Christian society than women did in the world at large, which made Christianity highly attractive to them. Third, the surplus of Christian women and of pagan men produced many marriages that led to the secondary conversions of pagan men to the Faith, a phenomenon that continues today. Finally, the abundance of Christian women resulted in higher birthrates; superior fertility contributed to the rise of Christianity.
Why did Christianity grow then? According to Stark, "It grew because Christians constituted an intense community, able to generate the 'invincible obstinacy' that so offended the younger Pliny but yielded immense religious rewards. And the primary means of its growth was through the united and motivated efforts of the growing numbers of Christian believers, who invited their friends, relatives, and neighbors to share the 'good news'." At the heart of this willingness to share one's faith was the revealed word of God, as taught by the Church. Acceptance of Christian doctrine was based on an article of faith. "Central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organization." The chief doctrine, of course, which was radically new to a pagan world groaning under a host of miseries was that "because God loves humanity, Christians may not please God unless they love one another."
George over at Ellopos Blog has his own take on the subject with a blog post entitled: "The Transition of Hellenism from Antiquity to Christianity". It is well worth reading. I would also recommend reading a book called Christian Hellenism by Demetrios J. Constantelos. You can read a chapter entitled "The Formation of the Hellenic Christian Mind" here.
Are we going to change any minds? Not likely.