"Christianity and Culture"
Bishop Alexander of the Russian Orthodox church
We are living in a changed and changing world. This cannot be denied even by those in our midst who may be unwilling or unprepared to change themselves, who want to linger in the age that is rapidly passing away. But nobody can evade the discomfort of belonging to a world in transition. If we accept the traditional classification of historical epochs into “organic” and “critical,” there is no doubt that our present age is a critical age, an age of crisis, an age of unresolved tensions. One hears so often in our days about the “End of Our Time,” about the “Decline of the West,” about “Civilization on Trial,” and the like. It is even suggested sometimes that probably we are now passing through the “Great Divide,” through the greatest change in the history of our civilization, which is much greater and more radical than the change from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, or from the Middle Ages to the Modern Times. If it is true at all, as it was contended by Hegel, that “history is judgment” (Die Weltgeschichte ist Weltgericht), there are some fateful epochs, when history not only judges, but, as it were, sentences itself to doom. We are persistently reminded by experts and prophets that civilizations rise and decay, and there is no special reason to expect that our own civilization should escape this common fate. If there is any historical future at all, it may well happen that this future is reserved for another civilization, and probably for one which will be quite different from ours.
It is quite usual in our days, and indeed quite fashionable, to say that we are already dwelling in a “Post-Christian world” — whatever the exact meaning of this pretentious phrase may actually be — in a world which, subconsciously or deliberately, “retreated” or seceded from Christianity. “We live in the ruins of civilizations, hopes, systems, and souls.” Not only do we find ourselves at the cross-roads, at which the right way seems to be uncertain, but many of us would also question whether there is any safe road at all, and any prospect of getting on. Does not indeed our civilization find itself in an impasse out of which there is no exit, except at the cost of explosion? Now, what is the root of the trouble? What is the primary or ultimate cause of this imminent and appalling collapse? Is it just “the failure of nerve,” as it is sometimes suggested, or rather a “sickness to death,” a disease of the spirit, the loss of faith? There is no common agreement on this point. Yet, there seems to be considerable agreement that our cultural world has been somehow disoriented and decentralized, spiritually and intellectually disoriented and disorganized, so that no over-arching principle has been left which can keep the shifting elements together. As Christians, we can be more emphatic and precise. We would contend that it is precisely the modern Retreat from Christianity, at whatever exact historical date we may discern its starting point, that lies at the bottom of our present crisis. Our age is, first of all, an age of unbelief, and for that reason an age of uncertainty, confusion, and despair. There are so many in our time who have no hope precisely because they lost all faith.
We should not make such statements too easily, however, and have to caution ourselves at least on two points. First, the causes and motives of this obvious “retreat” were complex and manifold, and the guilt cannot be shifted exclusively onto those who have retreated. In Christian humility, the faithful should not exonerate themselves unconditionally, and should not dispense too summarily with the responsibility for the failures of others. If our culture, which we used, rather complacently, to regard as Christian, disintegrates and falls to pieces, it only shows that the seed of corruption was already there. Secondly, we should not regard all beliefs as constructive by themselves, and should not welcome every faith as an antidote against doubt and disruption. It may be perfectly true, as sociologists contend, that cultures disintegrate when there is no inspiring incentive, no commanding conviction. But it is the content of faith that is decisive, at least from the Christian point of view. The chief danger in our days is that there are too many conflicting “beliefs.” The major tension is not so much between “belief” and “un-belief” as precisely between rival beliefs. Too many “strange Gospels” are preached, and each of them claims total obedience and faithful submission; even science poses sometimes as religion. It may be true that the modern crisis can be formally traced back to the loss of convictions. It would be disastrous, however, if people rallied around a false banner and pledged allegiance to a wrong faith. The real root of the modern tragedy does not lie only in the fact that people lost convictions, but that they deserted Christ.
Now, when we speak of a “crisis of culture,” what do we actually mean? The word “culture” is used in various senses, and there is no commonly accepted definition. On the one hand, “culture” is a specific attitude or orientation of individuals and of human groups, by which we distinguish the “civilized” society from the “primitive.” It is at once a system of aims and concerns, and a system of habits. On the other hand, “culture” is a system of values, produced and accumulated in the creative process of history, and tending to obtain a semi-independent existence, i.e. independent of that creative endeavor which originated or discovered these values.” The values are manifold and divers, and probably they are never fully integrated into one coherent whole — polite manners and mores, political and social institutions, industry and sanitation, ethics, art and science, and so on. Thus, when we speak of the crisis of culture, we usually imply a dis-integration in one of these two different, if related, systems, or rather in both of them. It may happen that some of the accepted or alleged values are discredited and compromised, i.e. cease to function and no longer appeal to men. Or, again, it happens sometimes that “civilized man” themselves degenerate or even disappear altogether, that cultural habits become unstable, and men lose interest in or concern for these habits, or are simply tired of them. Then an urge for “primitivism” may emerge, if still within the framework of a lingering civilization. A civilization declines when that creative impulse which originally brought it into existence loses its power and spontaneity. Then the question arises, whether “culture” is relevant to the fulfillment of man’s personality, or is no more than an external garb which may be needed on occasions, but which does not organically belong to the essence of human existence. It obviously does not belong to human nature, and we normally clearly distinguish between “nature” and “culture,” implying that “culture” is man’s “artificial” creation which he superimposes on “nature,” although it seems that in fact we do not know human nature apart from culture, from some kind of culture at least. It may be contended that “culture” is not actually “artificial,” that it is rather an extension of human nature, an extension by which human nature achieves its maturity and completion, so that an “under-cultural” existence is in fact a “sub-human” mode of existence. Is it not true that a “civilized” man is more human than a “primitive” or “natural” man? It is precisely at this point that our major difficulty sets in.
It may be perfectly true, as I personally believe is the case, that our contemporary culture or civilization is “on trial.” But should Christians, as Christians, be concerned with this cultural crisis at all? If it is true, as we have just admitted, that the collapse or decline of culture is rooted in the loss of faith, in an “apostasy” or “retreat,” should not Christians be concerned, primarily if not exclusively, with the reconstruction of belief or a reconversion of the world, and not with the salvaging of a sinking civilization? If we are really passing in our days an “apocalyptic” test, should we not concentrate all our efforts on Evangelism, on the proclamation of the Gospel to an oblivious generation, on the preaching of penitence and conversion ? The main question seems to be, whether the crisis can be resolved if we simply oppose to an outworn and disrupted civilization a new one, or whether, in order to overcome the crisis, we must go beyond civilization, to the very roots of human existence. Now, if we have ultimately to go beyond, would not this move make culture unnecessary and superfluous? Does one need “culture,” and should one be interested in it, when he encounters the Living God, Him Who alone is to be worshipped and glorified? Is not then all “civilization” ultimately but a subtle and refined sort of idolatry, a care and trouble for “many things,” for too many things, while there is but one “good part,” which shall never be taken away, but will continue in the “beyond,” unto ages of ages? Should not, in fact, those who have found the “precious pearl” go straight away and sell their other goods? And would it not be precisely an unfaithfulness and disloyalty to hide and keep these other possessions ? Should we not simply surrender all “human values,” into the hands of God.
This questioning was for centuries the major temptation of many sincere and devout souls. All these questions are intensively asked and discussed again in our own days. We say: temptation. But is it fair to use this disqualifying word? Is it not rather an inescapable postulate of that integral self-renunciation, which is the first pre-requisite and foundation of Christian obedience? In fact, doubts about culture and its values arise and emerge not only in the days of great historical trials and crises. They arise so often also in the periods of peace and prosperity, when one may find himself in danger of being enslaved and seduced by human achievements, by the glories and triumphs of civilization. They arise so often in the process of intimate and personal search for God. Radical self-renunciation may lead devout people into wilderness, into the caves of the earth and the deserts, out of the “civilized world,” and culture would appear to them as vanity, and vanity of vanities, even if it is alleged that this culture has been christened, in shape if not in essence. Would it be right to arrest these devout brethren in their resolute search of perfection, and to retain them in the world, to compel them to share in the building or reparation of what for them is nothing else than a Tower of Babel? Are we prepared to disavow St. Anthony of Egypt or St. Francis of Assisi and to urge them to stay in the world? Is not God radically above and beyond all culture? Does “culture” after all possess any intrinsic value of its own? Is it service or play, obedience or distraction, vanity, luxury and pride, i.e. ultimately a trap for souls? It seems obvious that “culture” is not, and by its very nature cannot be, an ultimate end or an ultimate value, and should not be regarded as an ultimate goal or destiny of man, nor probably even as an indispensable component of true humanity.
A “primitive” can be saved no less than a “civilized.” As St. Ambrose put it, God did not choose to save His people by clever arguments. Moreover, “culture” is not an unconditional good; rather it is a sphere of unavoidable ambiguity and involvement. It tends to degenerate into “civilization,” if we may accept Oswald Spengler’s distinction between these two terms — and man may be desperately enslaved in it, as the modern man is supposed to be. “Culture” is human achievement, is man’s own deliberate creation, but an accomplished “civilization” is so often inimical to human creativity. Many in our days, and indeed at all times, are painfully aware of this tyranny of “cultural routine,” of the bondage of civilization. It can be argued, as it has been more than once, that in “civilization” man is, as it were, “estranged” from himself, estranged and detached from the very roots of his existence, from his very “self,” or from “nature,” or from God. This alienation of man can be described and defined in a number of ways and manners, both in a religious and anti-religious mood. But in all cases “culture” would appear not only to be in predicament, but to be predicament itself.
Different answers were given to these searching questions in the course of Christian history, and the problem still remains unsolved. It has been recently suggested that the whole question about “Christ and Culture” is “an enduring problem,” which probably does not admit of any final decision. It is to say that different answers will appeal to different types or groups of people, believers alike and “unbelievers,” and again different answers will seem convincing at different times. The variety of answers seems to have a double meaning. On the one hand, it points to the variety of historical and human situations, in which different solutions would naturally impose. Questions are differently put and assessed at a time of peace or at a time of crisis. But on the other hand, disagreement is precisely what we should expect in the “Divided Christendom.” It would be idle to ignore the depth of this division in Christendom. The meaning of the Gospel itself is discordantly assessed in various denominations. And in the debate about “Christ and Culture” we encounter the same tension between the “Catholic” and the “Evangelical” trends which is at the bottom of the “Christian Schism” at large. If we are really and sincerely concerned with “Christian Unity,” we should look for an ultimate solution of this basic tension. In fact, our attitude to “culture” is not a practical option, but a theological decision, first of all and last of all. The recent growth of historical and cultural pessimism, of what Germans call Kulturpessimismus and Geschichtspessimismus, not only reflects the factual involvements and confusion of our epoch, but also reveals a peculiar shift in theological and philosophical opinions. Doubts about culture have an obvious theological significance and spring from the very depth of man’s faith. One should not dismiss any sincere challenge too easily and self-complacently, without sympathy and understanding. Yet, without imposing a uniform solution, for which our age seems not to be ripe, one cannot avoid discarding certain suggested solutions as inadequate, as erroneous and misleading.
The modern opposition, or indifference, of Christians to “culture” takes various shapes and moulds. It would be impossible to attempt now a comprehensive survey of all actual shades of opinion. We must confine ourselves to a tentative list of those which seem to be most vocal and relevant in our own situation. There are a variety of motives, and a variety of conclusions. Two special motives seem to concur in a very usual contempt of the world by many Christians, in all traditions. On the one hand, the world is passing, and history itself seems so insignificant “in the perspective of eternity,” or when related to the ultimate destiny of man. All historical values are perishable, as they are also relative and uncertain. Culture, also, is perishable and of no significance in the perspective of an imminent end. On the other hand, the whole world seems to be so insignificant in comparison with the unfathomable Glory of God, as it has been revealed in the mystery of our Redemption. At certain times, and in certain historical situations, the mystery of Redemption seems to obscure the mystery of Creation, and Redemption is construed rather as a dismissal of the fallen world than as its healing and recovery. The radical opposition between Christianity and Culture, as it is presented by certain Christian thinkers, is more inspired by certain theological and philosophical presuppositions than by an actual analysis of culture itself. There is an increasing eschatological feeling in our days, at least in certain quarters. There is also an increasing devaluation of man in the contemporary thought, philosophical and theological, partly in reaction to the excess of self-confidence of the previous age. There is a re-discovery of human “nothingness,” of the essential precariousness and insecurity of his existence, both physical and spiritual. The world seems to be inimical and empty, and man feels himself lost in the flux of accidents and failures. If there is still any hope of “salvation,” it is constructed rather in the terms of “escape” and “endurance” than in those of “recovery” or “reparation.” What can one hope for in history?
We can distinguish several types of this “pessimistic” attitude. The labels I am going to use are but tentative and provisional.
First of all, we must emphasize the persistence of the Pietist or Revivalist motive in the modern devaluation of culture. Men believe that they have met their Lord and Redeemer in their personal and private experience, and that they were saved by His mercy and their own response to it in faith and obedience. Nothing else is therefore needed.
The life of the world, and in the world, seems then to be but a sinful entanglement, out of which men are glad, and probably proud, to have been released. The only thing they have to say about this world is to expose its vanity and perversion and to prophesy doom and condemnation, the coming wrath and judgment of God. People of this type may be of different temper, sometimes wild and aggressive, sometimes mild and sentimental. In all cases, however, they cannot see any positive meaning in the continuing process of culture, and are indifferent to all values of civilization, especially to those which cannot be vindicated from the utilitarian point of view. People of this type would preach the virtue of simplicity, in opposition to the complexity of cultural involvement. They may choose to retire into the privacy of solitary existence or of stoic “indifference” or they may prefer a kind of common life, in closed companies of those who have understood the futility and purposelessness of the whole historical toil and endeavor. One may describe this attitude as “sectarian,” and indeed there is a deliberate attempt to evade any share in common history. But this “sectarian” approach can be found among the people of various cultural and religious traditions. There are many who want to “retire from the world,” at least psychologically, more for security than for “the unseen warfare.” There is, in this attitude, a paradoxical mixture of penitence and self-satisfaction, of humility and pride. There is also a deliberate disregard of, or indifference to, doctrine, and inability to think out consistently the doctrinal implications of this “isolationist” attitude. In fact, this is a radical reduction of Christianity, at least a subjective reduction, in which it becomes no more than a private religion of individuals. The only problem with which this type of people is concerned is the problem of individual “salvation.”
Secondly, there is a “Puritan” type of opposition. There is a similar “reduction” of belief, usually openly admitted. In practice, it is an active type, without any desire to evade history. Only history is accepted rather as “service” and “obedience,” and not as a creative opportunity. There is the same concentration on the problem of one’s “salvation.”
The basic contention is that man, this miserable sinner, can be forgiven, if and when he accepts the forgiveness which is offered to him by Christ and in Christ, but even in this case he remains precisely what he is, a frail and unprofitable creature, and is not essentially changed or re-newed. Even as a forgiven person, he continues as a lost creature, and his life cannot have any constructive value. This may not lead necessarily to an actual withdrawal from culture or denial of history, but it makes of history a kind of servitude, which must be carried on and endured, and should not be evaded, but endured rather as a training of character and testing in patience, than as a realm of creativeness. Nothing is to be achieved in history. But man should use every opportunity to prove his loyalty and obedience and to strengthen character by this service of fidelity, this bondage in duty. There is a strong “utilitarian” emphasis in this attitude, if it is a “transcendental utility,” an utter concern with “salvation.” Everything that does not directly serve this purpose should be discarded, and no room is permitted for any “disinterested creativity,” e.g. for art or “belles-lettres.”
Thirdly, there is an Existentialist type of opposition. Its basic motive is in the protest against man’s enslavement in civilization, which only screens from him the ultimate predicament of his existence, and obscures the hopelessness of his entanglement. It would be unfair to deny the relative truth of the contemporary Existentialist movement, the truth of reaction; and probably the modern man of culture needed this sharp and pityless warning. In all its forms, religious and areligious, Existentialism exposes the nothingness of man, of the real man as he is and knows himself. For those among the Existentialists who failed to encounter God or who indulge in the atheistic denial, this “nothingness” is just the last truth about man and his destiny. Only man should find this truth out for himself. But many Existentialists have found God, or, as they would put it themselves, have been found by Him, challenged by Him, in His undivided wrath and mercy. But, paradoxically enough, they would persist in believing that man is still but “nothing,” in spite of the redeeming love and concern of Creator for His lost and stray creatures. In their conception, “creatureliness” of man inextricably condemns him to be but “nothing,” at least in his own eyes, in spite of the mysterious fact that for God His creatures are obviously much more than “nothing,” since the redeeming love of God moved Him, for the sake of man, to the tremendous Sacrifice of the Cross. Existentialism seems to be right in its criticism of human complacency, and even helpful in its unwelcome detection of man’s pettiness. But it is always blind to the complexity of the Divine Wisdom. An Existentialist is always a lonely and solitary being, inextricably involved and engaged in the scrutiny of his predicament. His terms of reference are always: the ALL of God and the Nothing of man. And, even in the case when his analysis begins with a concrete situation, namely his personal one, it continues somehow in abstracto: in the last resort he will not speak of a living person, but rather about man as man, for ultimately all men stand under the same and universal detection of their ultimate irrelevance. Whatever the psychological and historical explanation of the recent rise of Existentialism may be, on the whole it is no more than a symptom of cultural disintegration and despair.
And finally, we should not ignore the resistance or indifference of the “Plain Man.” He may live rather quietly in the world of culture, and even enjoy it, but he would wonder what culture can “add” to religion, except by the way of decoration, or as a tribute of reverence and gratitude, i.e. especially in the form of art. But as a rule, the “plain man” is cautiously suspicious about the use of reason in the matters of faith and accordingly will dispense with the understanding of beliefs. What religious value can be in a distinterested study of any subject, which has no immediate practical application and cannot be used in the discharge of charity? The “plain man” will have not doubts about the value or utility of culture in the economy of temporal life, but he will hesitate to acknowledge its positive relevance in the spiritual dimension, except insofar as it may affect or exhibit the moral integrity of man. He will find no religious justification for the human urge to know and create. Is not all culture ultimately but vanity, a frail and perishable thing indeed? And is not the deepest root of human pride and arrogance precisely in the claims and ambition of reason? The “plain man” usually prefers “simplicity” in religion, and takes no interest in what he labels as “theological speculation,” including therein very often almost all doctrines and dogmas of the Church. What is involved in this attitude is again a one-sided (and defective) concept of man and of the relevance of man’s actual life in history to his “eternal destiny,” i.e. to the ultimate purpose of God. There is a tendency to stress the “otherworldliness” of the “Life Eternal” to such an extent that human personality is in danger of being rent in twain. Is History in its entirety just a training ground for souls and characters, or is something more intended in God’s design? Is the “last judgment” just a test in loyalty, or also a “recapitulation” of the Creation?
It is here that we are touching upon the deepest cause of the enduring confusion in the discussion about “Faith and Culture.” The deepest theological issues are involved in this discussion, and no solution can ever be reached unless the theological character of the discussion is clearly acknowledged and understood. We need a theology of culture, even for our “practical” decisions. No real decision can be made in the dark. The dogma of Creation, with everything that it implies, was dangerously obscured in the consciousness of modern Christians, and the concept of Providence, i.e. of the perennial concern of the Creator with the destiny of His Creation, was actually reduced to something utterly sentimental and subjective. Accordingly, “History” was conceived as an enigmatic interim between the Mighty Deeds of God, for which it was difficult to assign any proper substance. This was connected again with an inadequate conception of Man. The emphasis has been shifted from the fulfillment of God’s design for man to the release of Man out of the consequences of his “original” failure. And, accordingly, the whole doctrine of the Last Things has been dangerously reduced and has come to be treated in the categories of forensical justice or of sentimental love. The “Modern Man” fails to appreciate and to assess the conviction of early Christians, derived from the Scripture, that Man was created by God for a creative purpose and was to act in the world as its king, priest, and prophet. The fall or failure of man did not abolish this purpose or design, and man was redeemed in order to be re-instated in his original rank and to resume his role and function in the Creation. And only by doing this can he become what he was designed to be, not only in the sense that he should display obedience, but also in order to accomplish the task which was appointed by God in his creative design precisely as the task of man. As much as “History” is but a poor anticipation of the “Age to come,” it is nevertheless its actual anticipation, and the cultural process in history is related to the ultimate consummation, if in a manner and in a sense which we cannot adequately decipher now. One must be careful not to exaggerate “the human achievement,” but one should also be careful not to minimize the creative vocation of man, The destiny of human culture is not irrelevant to the ultimate destiny of man.
All this may seem to be but a daring speculation, much beyond our warrant and competence. But the fact remains: Christians as Christians were building culture for centuries, and many of them not only with a sense of vocation, and not only as in duty bound, but with the firm conviction that this was the will of God. A brief retrospect of the Christian endeavour in culture may help us to see the problem in a more concrete manner, in its full complexity, but also in all its inevitability. As a matter of fact, Christianity entered the world precisely at one of the most critical periods of history, at the time of a momentous crisis of culture. And the crisis was finally solved by the creation of Christian Culture, as unstable and ambiguous as this culture proved to be, in its turn, and in the course of its realization.
As a matter of fact, the question of the relationship between Christianity and Culture is never discussed in abstracto, just in this generalized form, or, in any case, it should not be so discussed. The culture about which one speaks is always a particular culture. The concept of “Culture” with which one operates is always situation-conditioned, i.e. derived from the actual experience one has, in his own particular culture, which one may cherish or abhor, or else it is an imaginary concept, “another culture,” an ideal, about which one dreams and speculates. Even when the question is put in general terms, concrete impressions or wants can be always detected. When “Culture” is resisted or denied by Christians, it is always a definite historical formation which is taken to be representative of the idea. In our own days it would be the mechanized or “Capitalistic” civilization, inwardly secularized and therefore estranged from any religion. In the ancient times it was the pagan Graeco-Roman civilization. The starting point in both cases is the immediate impression of clash and conflict, and of practical incompatibility of divergent structures, which diverge basically in spirit or inspiration.
The early Christians were facing a particular civilization, that of the Roman and Hellenistic world. It was about this civilization that they spoke, it was about this concrete “system of values” that they were critical and uneasy. This civilization, moreover, was itself changing and unstable at that time, and was, in fact, involved in a desperate struggle and crisis. The situation was complex and confused. The modern historian cannot escape antinomy in his interpretation of this early Christian epoch, and one cannot expect more coherence in the interpretation given by the contemporaries. It is obvious that this Hellenistic civilization was in a certain sense ripe or prepared for “conversion,” and can even be regarded itself, again in a certain sense, as a kind of the Praeparatio Evangelica, and the contemporaries were aware of this situation. Already St. Paul had suggested this, and the Apologists of the second century and early Alexandrinians did not hesitate to refer to Socrates and Heraclitus, and indeed Plato, as forerunners of Christianity. On the other hand, they were aware, no less than we are now, of a radical tension between this culture and their message, and the opponents were conscious of this tension, also.
The Ancient World resisted conversion, because it meant a radical change and break with its tradition in many respects. We can see now both the tension and continuity between “the Classical” and “the Christian.” Contemporaries, of course, could not see it in the same perspective as we do, because they could not anticipate the future. If they were critical of “culture,” they meant precisely the culture of their own time, and this culture was both alien and inimical to the Gospel. What Tertullian had to say about culture should be interpreted in a concrete historical setting first of all, and should not be immediately construed into absolute pronouncements. Was he not right in his insistence on the radical tension and divergence between “Jerusalem” and Athens: quid Athenae Hierosolymis? “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? . . . Our instruction comes from the Porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that ‘the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart’ . . . We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the Gospel. With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides” (de prescription, 7). “What is there in common between the philosopher and the Christian, the pupil of Hellas and the pupil of Heaven, the worker for reputation and for salvation, the manufacturer of words and of deeds” (Apologeticus, 46). Yet, Tertullian himself could not avoid “inquisition” and “disputation,” and did not hesitate to use the wisdom of the Greeks in the defense of the Christian faith. He indicts the culture of his time, and a specific philosophy of life, which, in its very structure, was opposed to faith. He was afraid of an easy syncretism and contamination, which was an actual threat and danger in his time, and could not anticipate that inner transformation of the Hellenic mind which was to be effected in the centuries to come, just as he could not imagine that Caesars could become Christian.
One should not forget that the attitude of Origen was actually much the same, although he is regarded as one of the “Hellenizers” of Christianity. He also was aware of the tension and was suspicious of the vain speculation, in which he took little interest, and for him the riches of the pagans were exactly “the riches of sinners” (in Ps. 36, III. 6). St. Augustine also was of that opinion. Was not Science for him just a vain curiosity which only distracts mind from its true purpose, which is not to number the stars and to seek out the hidden things of nature, but to know and to love God ? Again, St. Augustine was repudiating Astrology, which nobody would regard as “science” in our days, but which in his days was inseparable from true Astronomy. The cautious or even negative attitude of early Christians toward philosophy, toward art, including both painting and music, and especially toward the art of rhetorics, can be fully understood only in the concrete historical context. The whole structure of the existing culture was determined and permeated by a wrong and false faith. One has to admit that certain historical forms of culture are incompatible with the Christian attitude toward life, and therefore must be rejected or avoided. But this does not yet pre-judge the further question, whether a Christian culture is possible and desirable. In our own days, one may, or rather should, be sharply critical of our contemporary civilization, and even be inclined to welcome its collapse, but this does not prove that civilization as such should be damned and cursed, and that Christians should return to barbarism or primitivism.
As a matter of fact, Christianity accepted the challenge of the Hellenistic and Roman culture, and ultimately a Christian Civilization emerged. It is true that this rise of Christian Culture has been strongly censured in modern times as an “acute Hellenization” of Christianity, in which the purity and simplicity of the Evangelical or Biblical faith is alleged to have been lost. Many in our own days are quite “iconoclastic” with regard to culture en bloc, or at least to certain fields of culture, such as “Philosophy” (equated with “sophistics”) or Art, repudiated as a subtle idolatry, in the name of Christian faith. But, on the other hand, we have to face the age-long accumulation of genuine human values in the cultural process, undertaken and carried in the spirit of Christian obedience and dedication to the truth of God.
What is important in this case is that the Ancient Culture proved to be plastic enough to admit of an inner “transfiguration.” Or, in other words, Christians proved that it was possible to re-orient the cultural process, without lapsing into a pre-cultural state, to re-shape the cultural fabric in a new spirit. The same process which has been variously described as a “Hellenization of Christianity” can be construed rather as a “Christianization of Hellenism.” Hellenism was, as it were, dissected by the Sword of the Spirit, was polarized and divided, and a “Christian Hellenism” was created. Of course, “Hellenism” was ambiguous and, as it were, double-faced. And certain of the Hellenistic revivals in the history of the European thought and life have been rather pagan revivals, calling for caution and strictures. It is enough to mention the ambiguities of the Renaissance, and in later times just Goethe or Nietzsche. But it would be unfair to ignore the existence of another Hellenism, already initiated in the Age of the Fathers, both Greek and Latin, and creatively continued through the Middle Ages and the Modern times. What is really decisive in this connection is that “Hellenism” has been really changed. One can be too quick in discovering “Hellenic accretions” in the fabric of Christian life, and at the same time quite negligent and oblivious of the facts of this “transfiguration.”
One striking example may suffice for our present purpose. It has been recently brought to mind that Christianity in fact achieved a radical change in the philosophical interpretation of Time. For the ancient Greek Philosophers, Time was just “a movable image of eternity,” i.e. a cyclical and recurrent motion, which had to return upon itself, without ever moving “forward,” as no “forward-motion” is possible on the circle. It was an astronomical time, determined by “the revolution of the celestial spheres” (let us remember the title of the famous work of Copernicus, who was still under the sway of ancient astronomy: De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium), and human history accordingly was subordinate to this basic principle of rotation and iteration. Our modern concept of the linear time, with a sense of direction or vectoriality, with the possibility of progression and achievement of new things, has been derived from the Bible and from the Biblical conception of history, moving from Creation to Consummation, in a unique, irreversible and unrepeatable motion, guided or supervised by the constant Providence of the living God. The circular time of the Greeks has been exploded, as St. Augustine rejoicingly exclaims. History for the first time could be conceived as a meaningful and purposeful process, leading to a goal, and not as a perennial rotation, leading nowhere. The very concept of Progress has been elaborated by Christians.
This is to say, Christianity was not passive in its intercourse with that inherited culture which it endeavoured to redeem, but very active. It is not too much to say that the human mind was reborn and remade in the school of Christian faith, without any repudiation of its just claims and fashions. It is true that this process of Christianization of mind has never been completed, and inner tension continues even within the Christian “Universe of discourse.” No culture can ever be final and definitive. It is more than a system, it is a process, and it can be preserved and continued only by a constant spiritual effort, not just by inertia or inheritance. The true solution of the perennial problem of relationship between Christianity and Culture lies in the effort to convert “the natural mind” to the right faith, and not in the denial of cultural tasks. Cultural concerns are an integral part of actual human existence and, for that reason, cannot be excluded from the Christian historical endeavour.
Christianity entered the historical scene as a Society or Community, as a new social order or even a new social dimension, i.e. as the Church. Early Christians had a strong corporate feeling. They felt themselves to be a “chosen race,” a “holy nation,” a “peculiar people,” i.e. precisely a New Society, a “New Polis,” a City of God. Now, there was another City in existence, a Universal and strictly totalitarian City indeed, the Roman Empire, which felt itself to be simply the Empire. It claimed to be the City, comprehensive and unique. It claimed the whole man for its service, just as the Church claimed the whole man for the service of God. No division of competence and authority could be admitted, since the Roman State could not admit autonomy of the “religious sphere,” and religious allegiance was regarded as an aspect of the political creed and an integral part of the civic obedience. For that reason a conflict was unavoidable, a conflict of the two Cities. Early Christians felt themselves, as it were, extraterritorial, just outside of the existing social order, simply because the Church was for them an order itself. They dwelt in their cities as “sojourners” or “strangers,” and for them “every foreign land was fatherland, and every fatherland foreign,” as the author of the “Epistle to Diognetus,” a remarkable document of the second century, stated it (c. 5). On the other hand, Christians did not retire from the existing society; they could be found “everywhere,” as Tertullian insisted, in all walks of life, in all social groups, in all nations. But they were spiritually detached, spiritually segregated. As Origen put it, in every city Christians had another system of allegiance of their own, or, in literal translation, “another system of fatherland” (c. Cels. VIII. 75). Christians did stay in the world and were prepared to perform their daily duties faithfully, but they could not pledge their full allegiance to the polity of this world, to the earthly City, for their citizenship was elsewhere, i.e. “in heaven.”
Yet, this detachment from “the world” could be but provisional, as Christianity, by its very nature, was a missionary religion and aimed at a universal conversion. The subtle distinction “in the world, but not of the world,” could not settle the basic problem, for “the world” itself had to be redeemed and could not be endured in its un-reformed state. The final problem was exactly this: could the two “societies” co-exist, and on what terms? Could Christian allegiance be somehow divided or duplicated, or a “double citizenship” accepted as a normative principle? Various answers were given in the course of history, and the issue is still a burning and embarrassing one. One may still wonder whether “spiritual segregation” is not actually the only consistent Christian answer, and any other solution inevitably an entangling compromise. The Church is here, in “this world,” for its salvation. The Church has, as it were, to exhibit in history a new pattern of existence, a new mode of life, that of the “world to come.” And for that reason the Church has to oppose and to renounce “this” world. She cannot, so to speak, find a settled place for herself within the limits of this “old world.” She is compelled to be “in this world” in permanent opposition, even if she claims but a reformation or renewal of the world.
The situation in which the Church finds herself in this world is inextricably antinomical. Either the Church is to be constituted as an exclusive society, endeavouring to satisfy all requirements of the believers, both “temporal” and “spiritual,” paying no attention to the existing order and leaving nothing to the external world — this would mean an entire separation from the world, an ultimate flight out of it, and a radical denial of any external authority. Or the Church could attempt an inclusive “Christianization” of the world, subduing the whole of life to Christian rule and authority, endeavor to reform and to reorganize secular life on Christian principles, to build the Christian City. In the history of the Church we can trace both solutions: a flight into desert and a construction of the Christian Empire. The first was practiced not only in monasticism of various trends, but also in many other Christian groups or “sects.” The second was the main line taken by Christians, both in the West and in the East, up to the rise of militant secularism in Europe and elsewhere, and even at present this solution has not lost its hold on many people.
Historically speaking, both solutions proved to be inadequate and unsuccessful. On the other hand, one has to acknowledge the urgency of their common problem and the truth of their common purpose. Christianity is not an individualistic religion and is not concerned only with the salvation of individuals. Christianity is the Church, i.e. a Community, leading its corporate life according to its peculiar principles. Spiritual leadership of the Church can hardly be reduced to an occasional guidance given to individuals or to groups living under conditions utterly uncongenial to the Church. The legitimacy of those conditions should be questioned first of all. Nor can human life be split into departments, some of which might have been ruled by some independent principles, i.e. independent of the Church. One cannot serve two Masters, and a double allegiance is a poor solution. The problem is no easier in a Christian society. With Constantino the Empire, as it were, capitulated; Caesar himself was converted — the Empire was now offering to the Church not only peace, but cooperation. This could be interpreted as a victory of the Christian cause. But for many Christians at that time this new turn of affairs was an unexpected surprise and rather a blow. Many leaders of the Church were rather reluctant to accept the Imperial offer.
But it was difficult to decline it. The whole Church could not escape into Desert, nor could she desert the world. The new Christian Society came into existence, which was at once both “Church” and “Empire,” and its ideology was “theocratical.” This theocratical idea could be developed in two versions, different, but correlated. Theocratical authority could be exercised by the Church directly, i.e. through the hierarchical Ministry of the Church. Or the State could be invested with a theocratical authority, and its officers commissioned to establish and propagate the Christian order. In both cases the unity of Christian society was strongly emphasized, and two orders were distinguished inside of this unique structure: an ecclesiastical in the strict sense and a temporal, i.e. the Church and the State, with the basic assumption that imperium was also a Divine gift, in a sense co-ordinated with sacerdotium, and subordinate to the ultimate authority of the Faith. The theory seemed to be reasonable and well balanced, but in practice it led to an age-long tension and strife within the theocratical structure and ultimately to its disruption. The modern conception of the two “separated” spheres, that of the Church and that of the State, lacks both theoretical and practical consistency.
In fact, we are still facing the same dilemma or the same antinomy. Either Christians ought to go out of the world, in which there is another master besides Christ (whatever name this master may bear: Caesar or Mammon or any other), and start a separate society. Or again they have to transform the outer world and rebuild it according to the law of the Gospel. What is important, however, is that even those who go out cannot dispense with the main problem: they still have to build up a “society” and cannot therefore dispense with this basic element of social culture. “Anarchism” is in any case excluded by the Gospel. Nor does Monasticism mean or imply a denunciation of culture. Monasteries were, for a long time, precisely the most powerful centers of cultural activity, both in the West and in the East. The practical problem is therefore reduced to the question of a sound and faithful orientation in a concrete historical situation.
Christians are not committed to the denial of culture as such. But they are to be critical of any existing cultural situation and measure it by the measure of Christ. For Christians are also the Sons of Eternity, i.e. prospective citizens of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Yet problems and needs of “this age” in no case and in no sense can be dismissed or disregarded, since Christians are called to work and service precisely “in this world” and “in this age.” Only all these needs and problems and aims must be viewed in that new and wider perspective which is disclosed by the Christian Revelation and illumined by its light.
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