§ 9. Relation of Greek Religion to Christianity
Philosophy, Faith, Paul, World, Human, Divine
One of the greatest events in the history of man, as well as one of the most picturesque situations, was when Paul stood on the Areopagus at Athens, carrying Christianity into Europe, offering a Semitic religion to an Aryan race, the culmination of monotheism to one of the most elaborate and magnificent polytheisms of the world. A strange and marvellous scene! From the place where he stood he saw all the grandest works of human art,—the Acropolis rose before him, a lofty precipitous rock, seeming like a stone pedestal erected by nature as an appropriate platform for the perfect marble temples with which man should adorn it. On this noble base rose the Parthenon, temple of Minerva; and the temple of Neptune, with its sacred fountain. The olive-tree of Pallas-Athênê was there, and her colossal statue. On the plain below were the temples of Theseus and Jupiter Olympus, and innumerable others. He stood where Socrates had stood four hundred years before, defending himself against the charge of atheism; where Demosthenes had pleaded in immortal strains of eloquence in behalf of Hellenic freedom; where the most solemn and venerable court of justice known among men was wont to assemble. There he made the memorable discourse, a few fragments only of which have come to us in the Book of Acts, but a sketch significant of his argument. He did not begin, as in our translation, by insulting the religion of the Greeks, and calling it a superstition; but by praising them for their reverence and piety. Paul respected all manifestations of awe and love toward those mysteries and glories of the universe, in which the invisible things of God have been clearly seen from the foundation of the world. Then he mentions his finding the altar to the unknown God, mentioned also by Pausanias and other Greek writers, one of whom, Diogenes Lærtius, says that in a time of plague, not knowing to what god to appeal, they let loose a number of black and white sheep, and whereever any one laid down they erected an altar to an unknown god, and offered sacrifices thereon. Then he announced as his central and main theme the Most High God, maker of heaven and earth, spiritual, not needing to receive anything from man, but giving him all things. Next, he proclaimed the doctrine of universal human brotherhood. God had made all men of one blood; their varieties and differences, as well as their essential unity, being determined by a Divine Providence. But all were equally made to seek him, and in their various ways to find him, who is yet always near to all, since all are his children. God is immanent in all men, says Paul, as their life. Having thus stated the great unities of faith and points of agreement, he proceeds only in the next instance to the oppositions and criticisms; in which he opposes, not polytheism, but idolatry; though not blaming them severely even for that. Lastly, he speaks of Jesus, as a man ordained by God to judge the world and govern it in righteousness, and proved by his resurrection from the dead to be so chosen.
Here we observe, in this speech, monotheism came in contact with polytheism, and the two forms of human religion met,—that which makes man the child of God, and that which made the gods the children of men.
The result we know. The cry was heard on the sandy shore of Eurotas and in green Cythnus.—"Great Pan is dead." The Greek humanities, noble and beautiful as they were, faded away before the advancing steps of the Jewish peasant, who had dared to call God his Father and man his brother. The parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan were stronger than Homer's divine song and Pindar's lofty hymns. This was the religion for man. And so it happened as Jesus had said: "My sheep hear my voice and follow me." Those who felt in their hearts that Jesus was their true leader followed him.
The gods of Greece, being purely human, were so far related to Christianity. That, too, is a human religion; a religion which makes it its object to unfold man, and to cause all to come to the stature of perfect men. Christianity also showed them God in the form of man; God dwelling on the earth; God manifest in the flesh. It also taught that the world was full of God, and that all places and persons were instinct with a secret divinity. Schiller (as translated by Coleridge) declares that LOVE was the source of these Greek creations:—
The Piccolomini, Act II. Scene 4.
As a matter of fact we find the believers in the Greek religion more ready to receive Christianity than were the Jews. All through Asia Minor and Greece Christian churches were planted by Paul; a fact which shows that the ground was somehow prepared for Christianity. It was ready for the monotheism which Paul substituted for their multitude of gods, and for their idolatry and image-worship. The statues had ceased to be symbols, and the minds of the Greeks rested in the image itself. This idolatrous worship Paul condemned, and the people heard him willingly, as he called them up to a more spiritual worship. We think, therefore, that the Greek religion was a real preparation for Christianity. We have seen that it was itself in constant transition; the system of the poets passing into that of the artists, and that of the artists into that of the philosophers; so that the philosophic religion, in turn, was ready to change into a Christian monotheism.
It may be said, since philosophy had undermined the old religion and substituted for it more noble ideas, why did it not take the seat of the dethroned faith, and sufficiently supply its place? If it taught a pure monotheism and profound ethics, if it threw ample and adequate light on the problem of God, duty, and immortality, what more was needed? If ideas are all that we want, nothing more. That Greek philosophy gave way before Christianity shows that it did not satisfy all the cravings of the soul; shows that man needs a religion as well as a religious philosophy, a faith as well as an intellectual system. A religion is one thing, a speculation is a very different thing. The old Greek religion, so long as it was a living faith, was enough. When men really believed in the existence of Olympian Jove, Pallas-Athênê, and Phoebus-Apollo, they had something above them to which to look up. When this faith was disintegrated, no system of opinions, however pure and profound, could replace it. Another faith was needed, but a faith not in conflict with the philosophy which had destroyed polytheism; and Christianity met the want, and therefore became the religion of the Greek-speaking world.
Religion is a life, philosophy is thought; religion looks up, philosophy looks in. We need both thought and life, and we need that the two shall be in harmony. The moment they come in conflict, both suffer. Philosophy had destroyed the ancient simple faith of the Hellenic race in their deities, and had given them instead only the abstractions of thought. Then came the Apostles of Christianity, teaching a religion in harmony with the highest thought of the age, and yet preaching it out of a living faith. Christianity did not come as a speculation about the universe, but as a testimony. Its heralds bore witness to the facts of God's presence and providence, of his fatherly love, of the brotherhood of man, of a rising to a higher life, of a universal judgment hereafter on all good and evil, and of Jesus as the inspired and ascended revealer of these truths. These facts were accepted as realities; and once more the human mind had something above itself solid enough to support it.
Some of the early Christian Fathers called on the heathen poets and philosophers to bear witness to the truth. Clement of Alexandria after quoting this passage of Plato, "around the king of all are all things, and he is the cause of all good things," says that others, through God's inspiration, have declared the only true God to be God. He quotes Antisthenes to this effect: "God is not like to any; wherefore no one can know him from an image." He quotes Cleanthes the Stoic:—
"Nor," says Clement, "must we keep the Pythagoreans in the background, who say, 'God is one; and he is not, as some suppose, outside of this frame of things, but within it; in all the entireness of his being he pervades the whole circle of existence, surveying all nature, and blending in harmonious union the whole; the author of his own forces and works, the giver of light in heaven, and father of all; the mind and vital power of the whole world, the mover of all things.'"
Clement quotes Aratus the poet:—
"Thus also," says Clement, "the Ascræan Hesiod dimly speaks of God:—
"And Sophocles, the son of Sophilus, says:—
"But the Thracian Orpheus, the son of Oeagrus, hierophant and poet, at once, after his exposition of the orgies and his theology of idols, introduces a palinode of truth with solemnity, though tardily singing the strain:—
"He then proceeds:—
Professor Cocker, in his work on "Christianity and Greek Philosophy," has devoted much thought to show that philosophy was a preparation for Christianity, and that Greek civilization was an essential condition to the progress of the Gospel. He points out how Greek intelligence and culture, literature and art, trade and colonization, the universal spread of the Greek language, and especially the results of Greek philosophy, were "schoolmasters to bring men to Christ." He quotes a striking passage from Pressensé to this effect. Philosophy in Greece, says Pressensé, had its place in the divine plan. It dethroned the false gods. It purified the idea of divinity.
Cocker sums up this work of preparation done by Greek philosophy, as seen,—
"1. In the release of the popular mind from polytheistic notions, and the purifying and spiritualizing of the theistic idea.
"2. In the development of the theistic argument in a logical form.
"3. In the awakening and enthronement of conscience as a law of duty, and in the elevation and purification of the moral idea.
"4. In the fact that, by an experiment conducted on the largest scale, it demonstrated the insufficiency of reason to elaborate a perfect ideal of moral excellence, and develop the moral forces necessary to secure its realization.
"5. It awakened and deepened the consciousness of guilt and the desire for redemption."
The large culture of Greece was evidently adapted to Christianity. The Jewish mind recognized no such need as that of universal culture, and this tendency of Christianity could only have found room and opportunity among those who had received the influence of Hellenic culture.
The points of contact between Christianity and Greek civilization are therefore these:—
1. The character of God, considered in both as an immanent, ever-working presence, and not merely as a creating and governing will outside the universe.
2. The character of man, as capable of education and development, who is not merely to obey as a servant, but to co-operate as a friend, with the divine will, and grow up in all things.
3. The idea of duty, as a reasonable service, and not a yoke.
4. God's revelations, as coming, not only in nature, but also in inspired men, and in the intuitions of the soul; a conception which resulted in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
The good of polytheism was that it saw something divine in nature. By dividing God into numberless deities, it was able to conceive of some divine power in all earthly objects. Hence Wordsworth, complaining that we can see little of this divinity now in nature, cries out:—
|Written By James Freeman Clarke|
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