Athens or Jerusalem?
What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the Academy to do with the Church? What have heretics to do with Christians? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with all attempts to produce a Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic Christianity! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after receiving the gospel! When we believe, we desire no further belief. For this is our first article of faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.
—Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum, courtesy of this site.
This post is a continuation of a sporadic this-or-that series that I started here and continued here. It also is informed by some of my ruminations (here, here, here, and here) as I slowly re-read the complete Bible for the third time. I took a few-month hiatus from blogging, and then on return got off into a series on the Fall. Thus, this post is a return to the earlier series. It is a synthesis between the cultural and Biblical posts reference above, and is more about philosophy and religious viewpoint. In a sense, Tertullian’s classic and famous quotation above helps set the stage.
My answer to the question posed by the title is “Athens”. The rest of this post will unpack that answer and relate it to the earlier posts. I have always found mythology fascinating, and have read widely in the mythologies of several cultures. The Greek and Norse myths were the earliest I read, as a young and then older child. I had a passionate love of and interest in them that has never abated. I can still retell most of the major myths from these cycles from memory, and my nine-year-old daughter has already learned enough from me that she probably knows them better than most contemporary adults.
As I grew older, I read Egyptian and Hindu mythology and some of the original source material for Greco-Roman and Norse mythology, in translation. I’ve read some Chinese and Japanese myths, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and a smattering of myths from many other cultures. It is very much interesting to compare and contrast them.
The Greek myths are the masterpiece. I have often said that Greek is one of the few world literatures in which the entire span of human experience is encompassed–tragedy, comedy, epic, nobility, banality–you’ve got it all. Norse mythology isn’t quite as all-encompassing, but it has a vividness and vigor that draw one right in, and a grimly noble outlook of a pantheon that knows itself to be doomed but which will go down fighting, anyway.
Hindu mythology can be epic–think the Mahabharata and the Ramayana–but it is also incorrigibly metaphysical. I can’t imagine any other culture whose main epic would contain an entire interlude devoted to religious philosophy (the Bhagavad Gita, which is part of the Mahabharata)! For a Westerner, anyway, one reads Hindu myths more for the embedded philosophy than for the narrative, as one would Greek or Norse myths. Still, as I got older I developed an appreciation for Hindu mythology in its own right.
Egyptian mythology is complex, bewilderingly contradictory, and covers a very long period of time. Parts of it are droll or weird; but there are sublime sections, such as the account of Ptah’s creation of the cosmos, and deeply fascinating and mystic cycles like the story of Isis, Osiris, and Horus. Egyptian mythology didn’t grab me like the Greek, but it grew on me, and I came to appreciate it.
Celtic mythology is less organized than the ones we’ve mentioned, but it has a dreamy, lyrical beauty to it. Chinese myths tend to be picaresque, such as Journey to the West, the story of the Monkey King, or droll and baroque. Japanese myths are much like Finnish, African, and other indigenous myths in that they are a relatively unsystematic collage of origin myths, hero tales, ethnic history, and folktales. Not as profound as some systems, but worth reading.
Then comes Semitic mythology.
There are two things that it is necessary to point out from the beginning. The magnificent Epic of Gilgamesh, while certainly Mesopotamian, is not strictly Semitic. The basis of it, in its earliest form, is Sumerian–keep in mind, the linguistic affiliations of the Sumerian language, like the origin of the Sumerian people, is unknown. The later, Semitic-speaking Akkadians (the people we usually mean when we speak of “Babylonians” or “Mesopotamians”) took their writing system and much of their culture from the Sumerians, and wrote poems about Gilgamesh in their own language. No doubt there was Akkadian influence in this process; but the original source material remains non-Semitic. The same can be said of the mythos of Inanna/Ishtar, which has both Sumerian and Akkadian forms.
Second, the existing texts on strictly Semitic pagan religions are relatively sparse, compared to many of the other mythologies mentioned. We have the Enuma Elish, Babylonian religion being the best-documented, and various Ugaritic and Canaanite texts. We have relatively little from Phoenicia, and almost nothing at all outside of fragments of mercantile documents, a few hymns, and some inscriptions from the greatest and most powerful Semitic civilization, Carthage. There is much debate as to whether this shows a relative paucity of imagination on the part of the peoples named, especially the Carthaginians, or a destruction and/or deterioration of original writings.
There is some interesting stuff in the Bablyonian mythos–the Bull of Heaven, the slaying of Tiamat, etc., but to the extent that I’ve read it, it just doesn’t move me in the way that Greek or Norse or Hindu or even the Egyptian or Celtic myths do. There is much violence in Semitic mythology, but none of the grim nobility of the Norse. There is nearly as much made of the Heavenly bureaucracy as in Chinese myth, but less of the humanism infused into most Chinese literature from a very early date. You don’t have the keen characterization, the fascinating plotlines, and the wit of Greek mythology. There’s none of the lyricism of the Celts or complex philosophy of the Hindus. I’m not saying there’s nothing at all of interest; just that it really, in my mind, falls short on most counts.
On the other hand, Semitic Gods–Marduk, Baal, El, Shamash, etc. tend to be violent and arbitrary (as are the gods of most ancient pantheons) while lacking the humanism and irony of the Greek gods, the stolid civic pietas of the Roman, the mystery of the Egyptian, or the complex depth of the Hindu. Whether this is because the mythologies never had a chance to develop, were overwhelmed by other cultures, or whether it was a bent of mind of the people themselves is not clear; but I see much less of what I treasure in the great mythologies in the various Near Eastern tales (once more, excepting the Sumerian).
Now, to tie all this together, and to do so very carefully, for reasons that will become apparent. In re-reading the Bible after thirty-odd years, I find that the things I’m feeling in reading the Old Testament are much like those I feel in reading Mesopotamian myths–that is, that I’m reading about brutality, nastiness, arbitrariness, and tyranny with not a heck of a lot of redeeming virtues. As I said in one of the earlier posts of this series, I have found it rather distressing to be reading commands to “kill everyone that pisseth against the wall” and such.
Of course, Christianity, in a sense, is a vast syncretism. Jesus of Nazareth–a Jew living in a Hellenized society–preached a message largely rejected by his own people, but enthusiastically embraced by Gentiles, most of whom were partly or fully Hellenized, if not Greek outright. Thus the Semitic Old Testament and God passed into a Hellenistic matrix, where they were strongly influenced by neo-Platonism through men like Justin Martyr, St. Augustine, and most strongly Pseudo-Dionysius. Pope Benedict himself has commented on how Christianity is a fusion of the Semitic and Hellenic traditions.
C. S. Lewis, in his Reflections on the Psalms, spoke indirectly to this matter. He forthrightly acknowledged the barbarism and outright savagery of the Psalms, where there is often an almost gleefully bloodthirsty desire for vengeance, most hideously expressed at the end of the otherwise beautiful 137th Psalm which ends with the desire to “seize [Babylonians’] children and dash them against the rock.” Lewis’s take was that this was indeed abominable; but that the lesson it taught wasn’t about dashing children against the rocks. He said that a cultured Greek or Roman might be perfectly reasonable and moderate, but at the very same time would have no trouble with torturing a runaway slave or slaughtering enemy hostages as punishment–all in the coolest of rationality.
According to Lewis, the admittedly barbaric mode of expression of the Psalms conceals the passionate thirst for justice of the Psalmist. In short, the Greco-Roman world was the highly civilized, humanistic, and rational society that could not work up the passion for justice that would have ended many of the institutional injustices and savageries of their own system. This could be provided only by the passion for the right manifested in ancient Jewish society.
Lewis didn’t use the metaphor, but it’s almost like Plato’s chariot, where the driving force of the emotions moves the chariot of the soul along, while the driver, Reason, guides its way. One might almost say that the Jewish part of Christianity provided the monotheism and the emotional motor of the faith, while the Greeks and Romans provided the theology and philosophy to keep the rougher tendencies in line. Given the manifold blood on the Church’s hands, it wasn’t quite successful.
Still, it’s interesting that the other great Semitic religion that has survived to the present, and which has been a majority religion in its sphere of influence (Judaism has been either a minority religion or a majority religion in a country controlled by outside empires from the 6th Century BC until the formation of modern Israel), Islam, has had a similarly violent background. It would be hard to do a comparison on which everyone would agree, and all kinds of point/counterpoint observations would be possible–Islam was more tolerant of Christians and Jews in Islamic countries, than vice versa, but Christian women were treated better, for example.
Christianity did manage, after the horrendous Wars of Religion, to find a way to manage pluralistic societies without persecution or dhimmis. Islam, which as been no slouch in intra-religious warfare and persecution, has not managed to do so. I half wonder if the greater Hellenism of Christianity has helped mitigate its actions at least a little (Islam experienced some Hellenistic influence, but much less, and such influence declined in the later Middle Ages). In any case, following St. Thomas Aquinas, the West adopted a view of theology and philosophy as both parts of a unitary truth, encouraging scientific development; whereas the Dar ul-Islam, influenced by fideistic viewpoints, dropped away from its original scientific and cultural heights.
Judaism, though less Hellenized than Christianity, still experienced much Hellenization, especially through philosophers such as Philo and to a lesser degree Maimonides. Also, the Jews of Europe were strongly influenced by the mainstream society, even to the extent that the Enlightenment, begun among Christians, inspired the Jewish Haskalah.
At this point I need to be clear what I am not saying. I am not being anti-Semitic in the literal sense (disparaging or opposing Semitic peoples, worldviews, or religions) or in the more usual sense of being opposed to or hating Jews or Judaism. My preference for Greco-Roman and Hindu thought has nothing to do with any beliefs regarding Indo-European supremacy, as I also hold in high regard Sino-Japanese and Egyptian cultures. I am not disparaging Judaism or Islam, or suggesting they are invalid or inferior religions. In fact, there’s no such thing as a purely “Semitic” or “Indo-European” or “Sinitic” or any other such religion, since they’ve all syncretically absorbed aspects from other faiths and cultures over the millennia.
Also, of course, weak points and negative aspects could be found in all religions, as if that needed saying.
Still, there are aspects of the ancient proto-Semitic worldview that bother me. The extreme violence and intolerance I’ve discussed. This has been blamed on monotheism per se, but the Zoroastrian religion of Persia was (and is) quite tolerant. The only issues with persecution were the of early Christians, but this was not religion-based as such. The Christians, being linked to the state religion of Rome, the ancestral enemy of Persia, were seen as being a fifth column. When the Nestorian and Assyrian Churches separated from the Catholic and Orthodox Churches over dogmatic issues, they were accepted much more readily in Persia. During a couple of politically unstable periods, there were attempts to suppress the Zoroastrian heresy of Zurvanism (or vice versa), but mainly because the kings in question wanted a unitary state religion to stabilize the kingdom.
On the whole, Zoroastrianism has much less blood and oppression on its hands than Christianity or Islam. In fact, as I’ve noted elsewhere, the Zoroastrian Persian King, Cyrus, had the Temple in Jerusalem rebuilt at his own expense. It is difficult to imagine such a pluralistic, tolerant, and magnanimous gesture occurring in ancient Israel, Medieval Europe, or in Medieval Islamic countries (some even now forbid the building of non-Muslim religious buildings).
Thus, I can’t help but think that it’s not the monotheism, but something in the mindset of the Middle Eastern Semitic peoples themselves. Whatever this “something” was, it came to be mitigated–very much so, since the Enlightenment–in Judaism and Christianity, for interrelated but not identical reasons. There was much less mitigation in Islam.
So I think the Hellenic and the Semitic compliment each other, as I have discussed above. In a globalized world, there may be a need for the Indic, the Sinitic, and other philosophies and worldviews to enrich the Christian tradition, as well.
This post has rambled, and it’s the longest I’ve written lately, but it has been something that’s been on my mind for awhile, and something I’m still not sure I’ve put with complete clarity. In my opting for “Athens” I certainly am not denying or denigrating the Hebraic aspect of my religious heritage, by any means. If anything, it’s more of an objection to or rebellion against certain trends in theology over the last few decades. I’ll discuss that in another post in the near future.
Posted on 09/07/2012, in Catholicism, Christianity, religion and tagged Catholicism, Christianity, Gnosticism, Hellenism, Judaism, philosophy, religion, Semitic Religions, Tertullian. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.