Posts Tagged ‘paganism’

What follows is extracted from this blog post I know nothing else about, which is why I’m giving you what I got out of it here instead of sending you there to try and pinpoint it.  The book-author discussed, Rodney Stark, a sociologist (and BTW, according to Wikipedia he’s not “a Mormon fanatic” as one of the Commenters over there alleges, FWIW, although we could all learn something from Mormons’ sense of mutual aid, as well as, of course, evangelization), AFAIK became big in seminaries in the ’90s not only with the book mentioned but also his co-authored one with Roger Finke about how the U.S. is so “religious” because it’s a religious free market rather than one with a legally-established faith like most European countries (which fellow socio Andrew Greeley’s research also supports, so it must be right! 😉 ).

This extract first caught my attention because of something I read in a letter to the Orthodox Again magazine a few years ago citing pre-Hitler numbers estimating that in the first century of Christianity possibly some 90 percent or more of the world’s Jews placed their faith in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, ie, became Christians.  (And as we know from Scripture and Church history, many of them remained identifiably “Jewish” Christians in one way or another for some time afterward.)  I didn’t know how to take that source, and half-feared it might be some Anti-Semitic (ie, anti-Jewish) screed rather than serious scholarship.  But Stark seems to come to a similar conclusion (remembering he’s not a historian but a sociologist – counting people is what they major in!).  So again, FWIW.

I don’t necessarily buy everything in this excerpt, but Big Picture, it suggests alot to me about evangelization in general, as well as other Christian and Orthodox ideals.

Here’s the blog text, pasted as is (except Stark is now teaching at Baylor University instead of U-Dub), text coloring added:

Christianity, emerged from Judaism, introducing a set of revealed truths and practices  to its adherents. Many of these beliefs and practices differed significantly from what the Greek religions and Judaism had held. In The Rise of Christianity (Princeton University Press, 1996) by Rodney Stark, professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington, gives us a new perspective on the formative years of Christianity. I mention Stark”s study because he is a scholar without an ax to grind against Christians and his research approaches the subject without any preconceptions. In one of the more startling conclusions from his research, Stark says that contrary to the current wisdom, the mission to the Jews of the early Christians was largely successful and continued right up to the year 300. According to Stark, the some four or five million Jews of the Diaspora had “adjusted to life in the Diaspora in ways that made them very marginal vis-a-vis the Jews of Jerusalem, hence the need as early as the third century for the Torah to be translated into Greek for the Jews outside of Israel (the Septuagint).”  For Jews who lived in the Hellenic world, “Christianity offered to retain much of the religious content of both cultures and to resolve the contradictions between them.” 

It should be noted that most of the new converts to Christianity came from the Hellenized peoples of the East especially the Greeks rather than from Judaism, because Christianity had much more in common with the freedom imposed by the Greek mind than the legality of Judaism.  Christianity preached the possibility of a worthwhile and even happy existence for slaves, the weak, the poor, the ugly, even barbarians, people Aristotle  and Plato would not have regarded as capable of a happy life and people the Jews would not have regarded as those like themselves chosen by God.  During the major upheavals of the fourth century Christianity emerged as the dominant movement. The new faith engaged in both dialogue and conflict with Greco-Roman culture. Christians found themselves in conflict with pagan society and even with themselves.  Change, heresy, reformations, compromises, violence, persecutions were characteristics of the fourth century but they did not stop there.

Now was the spread of Christianity a “miracle” or just coincidental based on a combinations of existing facts?  Believers like me will lean toward the miraculous.  {snip}  …I will let Stark offer the conclusions formed by his research. I stress here that historians, even those who can offer us the benefit of their research studies, can’t be sure that they have all the right answers.  They are making an educated guess. Stark points out that in 165, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, an epidemic struck that carried away during the course of fifteen years up to a third of the total population of the empire, including Marcus Aurelius himself. In 251 a similar epidemic, most likely of measles, struck again with similar results. Historians generally acknowledge that these epidemics produced a depopulation which led in part to the decline of the Roman empire, more than the normally attributed cause of “moral degeneration.” Stark points out that these epidemics favored the rapid rise of Christianity for three reasons. One, that Christianity offered a more satisfactory account of “why bad things happen to good people,” based on the centrality of the suffering and Cross of Christ than any form of classical paganism. Second, “Christian values of love and charity, from the beginning, had been translated into norms of social service and community solidarity. When disasters struck, the Christians were better able to cope, and this resulted in substantially higher rates of survival. This meant that in the aftermath of each epidemic, Christians made up a larger and larger percentage of the population even without new converts.” Last, these epidemics left large numbers of people without the interpersonal bonds that would have prevented them from becoming Christians, thus encouraging conversion. He says, “in a sense paganism did indeed ‘topple over dead’ or at least acquired its fatal illness during these epidemics, falling victim to its relative inability to confront these crises socially or spiritually, an inability suddenly revealed by the example of its upstart challenger.”  His words not mine.

Stark introduces a number of other elements in Christianity’s rise to prominence. It was an urban phenomenon based in the teeming cities of the Roman Empire especially in the East. Stark underlines the fact that Christianity brought a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities more tolerable: “To cities filled with homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.”  Contrary to popular belief,  despite Christianity’s drawing power  for the poor and slaves, it also attracted the upper and middle classes in appreciable numbers.

Christianity was unusually appealing to pagan women” because “within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large.” He shows that Christianity recognized women as equal to men, children of God with the same supernatural destiny. Moreover the Christian moral code of prohibition against polygamy, divorce, birth control, abortion, and infanticide contributed to the well-being of women, changing their status from powerless serfs in bondage to men, to women with dignity and rights in both the Church and the State. Go to any Church service on any given day and you will understand the importance of women within the body of the Church.

Stark establishes four conclusions based on his study. One, Christianity rapidly produced a substantial surplus of females as a result of Christian prohibitions against infanticide (normally directed against girl infants), abortion (often producing the death of the mother), and the high rate of conversion to Christianity among women. Second, as already pointed out, Christian women enjoyed substantially higher status within Christian society than women did in the world at large, which made Christianity highly attractive to them. Third, the surplus of Christian women and of pagan men produced many marriages that led to the secondary conversions of pagan men to the Faith, a phenomenon that continues today.  Finally, the abundance of Christian women resulted in higher birthrates; superior fertility contributed to the rise of Christianity. 

Why did Christianity grow then? According to Stark, “It grew because Christians constituted an intense community, able to generate the ‘invincible obstinacy’ that so offended the younger Pliny but yielded immense religious rewards. And the primary means of its growth was through the united and motivated efforts of the growing numbers of Christian believers, who invited their friends, relatives, and neighbors to share the ‘good news’.” At the heart of this willingness to share one’s faith was the revealed word of God, as taught by the Church.  Acceptance of Christian doctrine was based on an article of faith. “Central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organization.” The chief doctrine, of course, which was radically new to a pagan world groaning under a host of miseries was that “because God loves humanity, Christians may not please God unless they love one another.”

Out-of-season, but not in all ways, since I’m here ‘talking about Orthodoxy’ and all… and Neo-Pagans are always somewhere around! I’m not sure about all the alleged facts on this page, and take strong exception to one Commenter’s endorsement of the genocide of the Aztecs no matter what they are alleged to have been doing. But the general thrust of Fr. Stephen Freeman’s article and many of the responses is helpful for me. And yes, I’m still drafting my own “faith journey,” but I’m afraid it’s gonna be terribly ‘cerebral’! 😉

(Not that anyone’s asked…! Or needs to…. I think the blogosphere is like the saying I once heard: “Some people can speak at the drop of a hat; he brings his own hat!” And no, it wasn’t about me… then!)

(Oh, and about Pagans… maybe that’s one reason they’re called Neo-Pagans? But there are some who claim to be “Orthodox Pagans,” though I haven’t studied them at all, just saw it on a T-shirt once, I think at a Louisville Irish Fest at Bellarmine College – er, University! – in Kentucky about a decade ago, over with the Society for Creative Anachronism folks; maybe that should tell me something?!! Of course, Fr. John Romanides would say pre-Judeo-Christianity IS “religion,” and the Gospel – Old Testament and New – is its CURE…. Maybe a different perspective, different topics of discussion, different contexts, etc. Or maybe that’s just the kind of thing to expect from a half-pagan Irish Catholic/ Native American “both/and” Orthodox like me!!! 😉 )

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 😉