A new friend, Destination Macedonia has left a new comment on [my] post “Liturgy: On Second Thought…“: I am curious to learn how the Orthodox Church has seen the Hellenic culture. So I’ve suggested some readings on my blogsite. Could you help me with your comments? Thanks

and on [my] post “Pope’s Regensburg lecture“: I am curious to learn the Orthodox Church link with the Hellenic culture. So I’ve suggested some readings on my blogsite. Could you help me with your comments? Έρρωσθε

Dear Friend,

Thanks for your interest from all the way over in Thessaloniki! Please forgive my lateness in responding. Between Pennsylvania’s heat waves this summer and my own health problems, I’ve been off my computer most of the last four months. Also, if you don’t mind, I’ve taken the liberty to make my response a separate article, so if you’re inclined to post comments, please do so here rather than at your original comments, or on your own site, since I can’t monitor your site. Thanks. And I pray you haven’t been harmed by the fires!

I gather from your website that by “Hellenic culture,” you mean pre-Christian, or Classical. And I don’t know if I can tell you anything you don’t already know, living over there and everything, but I’ll try my best.

The first principle of Orthodox Christianity in this question is to seek to persuade people outside the Orthodox Church to join it, called evangelization or spreading God’s Good News (Greek euangelion). Orthodoxy doesn’t rule out the possibility of salvation for non-Orthodox, but encourages others to take advantage of the ‘full information/training’ available in the Orthodox Church if possible. (And of course today the Orthodox Church is alot more widespread, geographically, than ever before!) In ancient times Orthodoxy did this almost completely nonviolently, as opposed to the much more violent spread of Western Christianity (ie, Catholicism and Protestantism) later, after it became heterodox.

As for persons already in the Orthodox Church, the ancient Orthodox Fathers of the Christian Church are divided on whether Christians should acquaint themselves with the philosophies and religions of their non-Christian ancestors, eg, the ancient Greeks. Some said there was only spiritual danger there, but others – even the great Saint Basil – thought there could be some intellectual benefit to academic students at least. In fact, in some Greek Orthodox temples (churches) even today I am told you may see murals that include Classical Greek philosophers in the vestibule (without halos), calling one or more of them “the Moses of the Greeks” (ie, of the pagans), because some of their philosophy came close to basic Christianity, or prepared the Greeks for Christianity, as Moses did for the Israelites. But certainly the Orthodox Fathers of the Church opposed embracing non-Christian religion as apostasy, requiring Baptism and Chrismation anew if someone who did so later returned to Orthodoxy. (This practice differs from Catholicism and Protestantism, which don’t believe baptism can or may be repeated.) (Ironically, the pre-Christian Roman Empire took a similar stance: one of the charges typically levelled against Christians in the persecutions was atheism, because they ‘apostatized,’ turning to the worship of an ‘unapproved’ God, or rejecting worship of ‘approved’ gods! [Sound familiar?! 😉 ])

(It is frequently said here in the West that Orthodox theology is heavily influenced, even “in thrall to,” pre-Christian Greek philosophy. This is ironic for two reasons: [1] It is actually Western Christian – Catholic and Protestant – theology that is so, as a result of the Rennaissance of Classical Greco-Roman culture in Western Europe, without a similar “rennaissance” of contemporary Byzantine-Greek Orthodox thought in most of the West; and [2] Although Orthodox theology clearly echoes pre-Christian Greek thought, the Orthodox Fathers and Mothers of the Church make clear that Orthodoxy’s teachings are the result of God revealing His Uncreated Divine Energies to them, and not Christian Greek “philosophizing.” See below.)

I believe I have read that as late as the 7th century AD, there were significant pockets of the old Greek paganism in the Byzantine Empire; in fact, the Orthodox Byzantines used the word Greek or Hellene pretty much to refer to paganism, and called themselves Romans or Romaioi (because Roman citizenship had been bestowed upon all subjects of the Empire in AD 212, ironically a century before Emperor Saint Constantine the Great), and often the words Roman and Orthodox in their usage were synonymous, and sometimes the Empire of the Romans was called instead the Empire of the Orthodox. Furthermore, a small minority of the Empire’s academics remained ‘fans’ of the paganism, both of the philosophy and even the religion (though not practicing it – as far as mainstream histories know anyway); it was these in part who, fleeing the Empire, sparked the “Rennaissance” of Classical Greco-Roman culture in then-largely-illiterate and impoverished Western Europe among Catholics and even eventually Protestants, in part leading to the Protestant Reformation, the American and French Revolutions, and the whole Modern Era as it is thought of by Westerners and others under Western influence (post-1500), with its revolutions in science, skepticism, philosophical speculation, economic “rationalization,” the Industrial Revolution, (small-R) republicanism, Civil-Law human rights on the Continent of Western Europe and subsequently in modern international law [Arguably the basic rights doctrine under English/American Common Law does not derive from this but is far older.], Communism, Nazism/Fascism, secularism, “post-modernism,” Evolution, the presumption of “progress” in history, anti-traditionalism (ironically perhaps), mass warfare, ideological politics, modern technology(!), etc etc etc.

Turning to modern Greece, it is this “Rennaissance” heritage of the West that led to Western romanticism over the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire in the early 1800s, and the high level of support for it there, even apart from Great Power interests in dismantling “the Sick Man of Europe,” that Empire, by supporting linguistic-ethnic separatism in the Balkans and the Middle East (the results of which, some critics say, we are still living with today, for better or for worse). As a result of this dynamic, there have been two schools of thought in Greece since the War of Independence, which may be characterized as neo-Classical or neo-Byzantine. While Orthodoxy has been the official religion of the Greek State, ISTM some Greeks view Greekness largely through quasi-Rennaissance (“neo-Classical”) eyes, and others largely through quasi-Medieval (“neo-Byzantine”) eyes… and perhaps some lie in between these two poles. Another, related way of looking at this – and I say this with some hesitation, but descriptively, not judgmentally – might be a “cultural” view versus a “theological” view. I believe this ambivalence can be seen even in the life of the Greek Church as such, both in the Eastern Mediterranean (ie, the Churches of Constantinople [mostly], Alexandria [mostly], Jerusalem [still largely], Cyprus, and Greece) and in the “diaspora”: some folks elevate Greeks’ ancient heritage and culture, and its outworkings in more recent Greek cultural manifestations, which we in the diaspora see at Orthodox parish Greek or Grecian Festivals; while others elevate Greeks’ Byzantine and Orthodox religious heritage over the former; and naturally, there has been some cross-pollination as well, as we are reminded of the Orthodox and Christian religious background to the more recent cultural manifestations, etc. The question of whether the two can be reconciled in modern Greekness, or even already have been, is a question for those more Greek-culturally-involved than I: although I have a couple Byzantine Emperors in my family tree, as well as an unnamed pre-Christian Greek concubine to a Mideastern potentate, I only found out about them in the last decade, and was raised mostly Irish-American, and also Native American (Indian)!

But then there is the question of Greek non-Orthodox, even non-Christians. Back to the history discussion, once the Byzantine Imperial throne was firmly in Orthodox hands for the first time, from the late 4th century AD, the Emperor came to be seen as protector of the Church and the Truth. In a sense his first responsibility was supposed to be his nation’s salvation, not in the same way as this is clergy and bishops’ responsibility, but he was supposed to take salvation into consideration when making policy. (In fact, IIUC, this was the choice offered St. Lazar, King of Serbia, going into battle against the Ottoman Empire – victory OR salvation. He chose salvation.) So increasingly, Jews, Heterodox Christians, apostates from Christianity, and I presume pagans in the Byzantine Empire, suffered legal disabilities, and some harassment. But the main interest of the Church here would not have been power for its own sake, but protection of its people from the perceived falsehood and temptation posed by these persons or doctrines/practices. We must remember that Orthodoxy doesn’t see itself as simply another philosophy or sect; ideally, it experiences itself, as do the Orthodox Fathers and Mothers of the Church, the Orthodox Saints, and other Orthodox spiritual fathers and mothers, as the cure of humanity’s fundamental problem of alienation from God’s Divine Energies. The late Father John Romanides of America and Greece, and other Orthodox writers like him, have compared Orthodox Church councils (synods) to meetings of the national psychiatric association (a better U.S. comparison, in part, might be to a state board of licensing), defining illnesses, prescribing therapies, endorsing practitioners, and proscribing “quacks.” Therefore it’s not just mere routinized “paternalism” when Orthodox Church leaders become concerned about their people and spiritual temptations to them, but real spiritual fatherhood and care for souls under their responsibility. True Orthodox spiritual fathers and mothers have God’s Wisdom to perceive dangers in the lives of their spiritual proteges.

But what if some Greeks (to focus on the question at hand, but applicable to others as well) wish to embrace other faiths, or none? As a “modern,” a Westerner, and especially an American, my impulse is that they should be legally free to do so in the eyes of the state. How would I feel if non-Orthodoxy were imposed on me here in America?! Furthermore, I grew up as an Irish-American Catholic with a strong sense of Catholics’ second-class status in their own Catholic-majority country of Ireland under British Protestant minority rule from the Reformation until the 1920s, and arguably continuing today in Northern Ireland under the rule of a slight Protestant majority since the Partition of the Island, as well as the history of anti-Catholic discrimination here in the Protestant-majority States largely until 1960, and in many places continuing to the present. In addition, recent sociology claims that all sects do better in a “religious free market,” in terms of adherents’ observance, than in a situation where one sect is legally favored by the State: they compare the relatively high level of religiosity in the U.S. to the much lower levels in many Western European countries having a legally-established Protestant or Catholic faith, even though in the last generation or more they have all ‘established’ individual freedom of religion – the implication being that even the perception of continuing governmental favor toward or involvement with one sect in particular is too much “socialization” (to extend the economic metaphor!), and hurts the whole “market,” and thus everybody in it.

Three questions arise for me considering this just now: (1) Is the “free market” thesis even applicable to non-Western-European countries where Orthodox are in significant numbers or even a plurality or majority, such as Greece? After all, religious cultures are different. (2) From an Orthodox perspective, is the “free market” model a good idea, or spiritually responsible? A true “free market” would seem to require more than a token number of non-Orthodox. How many souls should Orthodox spiritual fathers and mothers be willing to sacrifice for the “benefit of the free market” in religion? Or is this like some other things the West has experimented with “market-wise” over the last couple centuries, only to discover that “the market” isn’t always the best provider of necessity, equity, or social justice? So, do Orthodox Church leaders simply have to find other ways to increase observance among the faithful, or at least concede that a lax, skeptical, or even scandalous Orthodox is still spiritually better-off than s/he would be as a Latin, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, apostate, atheist, Neo-Pagan, or anything else? (It’s common among Catholics and Protestants to consider that someone is better-off in a creed they care about, than one they don’t. But such “relativism” would be a novelty to Orthodoxy, I believe.) And (3), presuming ambivalence toward a “free market” in religion, what should the attitude of the Orthodox Church as such be toward religious “tolerance,” especially in a country that is officially or quasi-officially Orthodox? Should other faiths be allowed to build their own houses of worship, the question you raise at the end of this post on your blog? worship or preach in public places? proselytize? publish? broadcast? make use of historical sites for their own religious purposes? vote? hold public office? receive government support? be passed-on to children? be taught about in government-supported or government-run primary or secondary schools? Or should Orthodoxy call on the “Orthodox” State to protect the Church, the Truth, etc., and if so, how exactly?

In spite of all this, however, as well as how it may feel to you, my friend (and believe me, I am not without sympathy), the Orthodox Church does not rule Greece, any more than it ruled the Byzantine Empire. Orthodox theology strongly prefers a strict separation of powers between civil rulers, who are laity, and ecclesiastical leaders, who are Bishops – the Ottoman millet system, the Montenegrin prince-bishops, and Archbishop MAKARIOS‘ presidency of the Republic of Cyprus being exceptions more-or-less forced onto the Hierarchy IIUC. And throughout Orthodox history, Orthodox lay civil rulers have frequently done things that they considered politically or militarily expedient, if not exactly “Christian” or even “Orthodox.” Therefore it stands to reason that the lay civil rulers of Greece also, minimally, will do for non-Orthodox, including your Hellenic culture and/or religion, what seems expedient from time to time, taking into account internal partisan and electoral politics, the domestic legal and court system, Church relations, and international relations. I have no familiarity with these currently, so I can’t say how much hope that offers you; you probably have a better idea of that than I.

Finally, not to assign too much homework(!), but I’ve just browsed a recent statement by the Orthodox Bishops of the Patriarchate of Moscow, who work not just in Russia or the Commonwealth of Independent States, but also in the Western world in all sorts of legal and political contexts. It’s a bit long, and sometimes not well translated, as well as not fully-informed on certain points (such as constitutional monarchy), but I think may reward your attention as you seek to understand Orthodoxy’s position in your regard. I highlight for your attention in particular the first five chapters, and chapter XIV section 2 (scroll down about half-way). Again, it’s kind of general, and not too specific to Greece or pre-Christian Hellenic culture or religion, but it might help shed light on Orthodox perspectives for you.

I don’t imagine any of this will persuade you, but I hope you find my poor attempt helpful in understanding those around you in Greece.

Best wishes,

Leon Petros Foulaniou 😉


  1. Destination Macedonia

    Dear Leon Petros Foulaniou, I would like to thank you about your support to the religious freedom. Once in a blue moon Christian orthodox followers in Greece can recognize the right to other Greeks to follow the Hellenic/Greek religion. They tolerate other monotheistic beliefs but polytheism is a red flag at their eyes.

    Greek religion has never been based on a dogma or a Truth as have done monotheistic beliefs. The sacred and the human law were clearly separate. Laws governing cities were written by legislators and philosophers rather than God’s holy book. Renaissance has illuminated the dark ages by contesting the Christian dogma.

    Unfortunately, in Greece there is no separation between the Orthodox Church and the State.

    The Result?

    Two years ago a huge number of scandals have been discovered in Greece. Everything started by the arrest of the priest Yosakis who in the past has been in jail for heroin dealing. He was the Right Hand of Mr. Christodoulos the Archbishop of Greece who sent Yosakis at many important missions to represent him at important meetings at Jerusalem. This unimportant man, Yosakis, was involved not only with drug dealing and supply of security material of our secret services through Mossad but also has been the key player to corrupt a several number of judges even at the higher rank of the justice hierarchy. During the days after his arrest an increasing number of scandals involving judges and priest at all hierarchy levels have been revealed. Priests accused their colleagues of outrageous sexual and financial scandals. Homosexuality, prostitution and financial fraud scandals with exotic islands destinations were discussed every day without shame by priest and judges on the Greek TV and radio. After one month of revelations in the press the Orthodox Church reputation has been irrevocably damaged at the eyes of the Greek people. The higher rank of clergy who was clearly involved in all these scandals and mostly the Archbishop Mr. Christodoulos remained unpunished not only by the Greek penal code but also by the Orthodox Church discipline meeting because the great majority of priest were involved they couldn’t do anything else but to do nothing. This is very sad and pathetic. Only Yosakis and some judges are in jail. Today the Orthodox Church doesn’t remember any of their scandals and openly support the conservative government who will trust at their hands a great part of the European Community financial package for the development of our country.

    These are the achievements of the Orthodox Church in Greece. I love my country and I see the Orthodox Church from the very beginning of the Greek Independence struggle at the 19th century (where all the Greek heroes of the revolution were excommunicated by the Orthodox Church of Constantinople) until now is acting against the development and prosperity of my country.

    Orthodoxy at his first steps persecuted everything was Greek and destroyed all our monuments and sculptures. Even the Roman Catholic Church was much more tolerating on this subject. During Byzantium and the Ottoman occupation the Orthodox Patriarchs tried to convinced Greeks that they are not Greeks but Romioi or Romans as you said at your article.

    They tried to stop the revolution by excommunicating all our revolutionary heroes of the Greek Independence Revolution when they saw that Greeks named their children with Ancient Greek names and define themselves as Greek/Hellenes!

    But after Greeks established their free state the Orthodox Church wanted that history writes that they were the first to raise the flag of freedom!!!

    Leon do you remember the Archbishop of Greece Mr. Christodoulos declarations about the 9/11/2001 attacks that “they were the willing of God”!?

    The Orthodox priests now like to declare themselves Greeks but if you compare how they dress with Taliban or Iranian imam you shouldn’t find a lot of differences! No, they are definetely not Greeks!

    Leon, I wonder sometimes if they are not just parasites in my country…

  2. me

    Dear Friend,

    Perhaps my verbiage was unclear. I didn’t think I was “supporting religious freedom,” as much as “sympathetic” to you who feel like an oppressed religious minority. I’m actually re-thinking a lifetime of belief in “religious freedom,” or at least ways it might be improved. I’m not certain where I’ll fall. I take the words of the Bishops of my Church – in Greece, in the Moscow Patriarchate, or elsewhere – very seriously. But I’m also an ethicist by inclination and to some extent by (Western) training. I’m also a journalist by training and sometime profession, and expect Greek politicians will treat Greek Paganism as they feel they need to, to stay alive politically… whatever that may mean from time to time and place to place.

    I would encourage you to recognize just how much “polytheism is a red flag at the eyes” of Orthodox Christians, especially the more devout, “traditionalists,” and the leadership – many if not most clergy and Bishops. As much as the latter may promote other aspects of Greek culture and heritage in Greece and abroad, they may draw a line at actual worship of anyone/-thing other than God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Even in the “liberal” West, actual polytheism, unless by Hindus, is mostly well marginalized. It has a higher profile here than in previous generations… but that ain’t saying much! I can imagine the reaction in the more conservative Eastern Europe, including Greece, is even less charitable. I certainly believe nobody should be forced to profess faith that is not theirs, but public expressions of other faiths are what is at issue in Greece in your regard. This issue may be influenced or resolved by one or more of the following: electoral and parliamentary politics, domestic or European court rulings, Orthodox Church internal politics, international agreements to which Greece is now or in the future a party, domestic cultural change, perhaps even change within the Greek Pagan movement.

    Greek religion has never been based on a dogma or a Truth as have done monotheistic beliefs….

    I’m not qualified to get into a full-blown debate about ancient Greek philosophy or religion, but I know enough that they were, or came to be, related to each other, and co-existed for centuries before Christianization. And certainly ancient Greek civil laws reflected their authors’ sense of people’s rights and duties to each other and to the gods. Otherwise, why did they persecute Christians? In any case, in a Greek legal tradition that did take account of people’s duties to each other and the gods, it may be sort of fitting that even in Christianization this emphasis remained, thoughout Byzantium, the rule of the Ottomans, and in independence since the 1820s… merely with a different God. Religious “non-conformists” like yourselves then would be sort of like Socrates!

    The recent scandals involving clergy, judges, and others in Greece have been indeed scandalous. (But not necessarily, I should point out, my Friend’s address of Archbishop CHRISTODOULOS as “Mister.” In Greek, Bishops are commonly referred to as “Kyrios [Name].” Today Kyrios, as radio disc jockeys told us in the ’80s, is commonly translated “Mister,” and so even in some translations of Church news stories from the Greek-speaking world. Perhaps *UK* nationals would have less problem calling him “Lord Christodoulos” because they have [for now] a House of Lords, and call others Lord and Lady, Sir and Dame, Majesty and Grace, etc. Even retired Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury who continue to serve in the Lords get called Lord… see here and predecessors linked therefrom.) As terrible as scandal and the alleged offenses are, as Americans, Canadians, and Australians know, we don’t need union between Church and State to have scandals involving clergy of any religion – including Orthodoxy – by themselves or in cahoots with government officials. (Some forms of Neo-Paganism here at least also include “sex as worship,” which would be quite a scandal if it were better-known.) I have no information about the medium-term effects of the scandals in Greece on average people’s view of Orthodoxy, but scandals in American Protestantism or Catholicism don’t seem to dampen the ardor of *their* followers very much. And if I were more Orthodox, I would also sincerely believe, “I have done all this and much more,” spiritually speaking. But were “the majority of priests” really involved? There are thousands of Orthodox priests in Greece, after all. But by all means, if and where civil laws were broken, there should be prosecution by the State – innocent until proven guilty – and if and where Church canons or morality were violated and great damage caused, there should be Church discipline also. Although I should point out that action regarding canons and morals has always been at the discretion of a cleric’s Ruling Hierarch, and a Bishop’s Synod, and sometimes there are good reasons action is not taken, and we don’t always find out what they are. It’s not easy making such decisions… which is one of the reasons consecration as an Orthodox Bishop is likened to crucifixion!

    IIUC correctly, much of what my Friend says about the Orthodox Church at the time of the Greek War of Independence is true. The “standard account” even I have heard is that it all started with a Bishop unfurling the modern flag after Liturgy for the Great Feast of the Annunciation (March 25, now commemorated as Greek Independence Day). I have not studied it, so whether that is true I leave to others who know better than I! The rebels’ Patriarchate, Constantinople, did excommunicate many of them, for religious reasons – possibly including succumbing to the “passion” of violent nationalism – and possibly also because of the Patriarch’s position as civil leader of all Orthodox under the Ottomans, and his need to keep order and ‘peace,’ such as it was. For his trouble, the Ottomans hanged that Patriarch in a gateway to the Phanar. But the Church in the ‘liberated’ territory, originally Achaia and vicinity, was declared autocephalous by its Bishops and the new State, and I’m guessing disregarded Constantinople’s excommunications. So what you had there was two parties within “the Greek Church,” and the excommunications were essentially an internal Church affair of, in the end, little import – rightly or wrongly.

    My Friend, I note your exclusive use of the word “Greek” for things pre-Christian. Most Greeks disagree with you there, and consider Orthodoxy also part of the “Greek” heritage; as I’ve said, among them, to what degree and in what way is the question. ISTM to keep insisting that Orthodoxy is somehow NOT Greek won’t win you many supporters among them, where you seem to need them.

    I never heard Archbishop Christodoulos’ comments about 9/11. Here’s Wikipedia’s current paragraph:

    After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, parts of the public were shocked to hear the archbishop attribute the attacks to “despondent men” who acted “out of despair caused by the injustices of the Great Powers”. Critics attacked the archbishop for what they considered to constitute an underhanded justification of the terrorist act. Christodoulos denied the allegation and responded that he condemned the attacks. In the fifth anniversary of the attacks, in 2006, and while speaking to an audience of High School students, Christodoulos characterized the September 11, 2001 attacks “a hideous crime that cost the lives of thousands of innocent people” and attributed them to “man failing to discern between good and evil, and being unable to posit himself responsibly towards the problems of the world.”

    In Orthodox tradition, despondency is one of the “passions” that influence us as if from outside of us toward sin. They are never a “justification” for sin, in fact often they are considered its cause, and what follows from our letting ourselves be ruled by them remains sin. (As a Major Depression patient who has experienced its apparent cause at least in part – for me – in neurochemistry [and in part, in the weight gain caused by one of my antidepressants!], I have difficulty with the identification by some of today’s Orthodox writers of Major Depression with the passion of despondency, and thereby a link to sin, morality, etc. But what do I know!)

    As for your objections to clerical garb – “long beards and long robes”! – I know some U.S. Orthodox you might like!


    Leo Peter

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