Christianity’s Transformative Preservation Of Paganism – Derek JeterJuly 13, 2012
As he was now drawing near, at the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, `Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
A story generating a modicum of buzz in the blogosphere is the radical Islamist’s destruction of the heritage of the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu, razing tombs and attacking the gate of a 600-year-old mosque, despite growing international outcry.
The International Criminal Court has described the destruction of the city’s patrimony as a possible war crime, while Unesco’s committee on world heritage was holding a special session this week to address the pillaging of the site, one of the few cultural sites in sub-Saharan Africa that is listed by the agency. The militants claim the shrines represent an affront to their conservative interpretation of Islam.
The local al-Qaida rep in Mali had this response:
Reached by telephone in an undisclosed location in northern Mali, a spokesman for the Islamic faction said they don’t recognize either the United Nations or the world court. “The only tribunal we recognize is the divine court of Shariah,” said one of Ansar Dine’s spokesmen, Oumar Ould Hamaha.
“The destruction is a divine order,” he said. “It’s our Prophet who said that each time that someone builds something on top of a grave, it needs to be pulled back to the ground. We need to do this so that future generations don’t get confused, and start venerating the saints as if they are God.”
When confronted about the losses in tourism to the region:
Mr. Hamaha said he didn’t care about the impact that their actions will have on tourism. “We are against tourism. They foster debauchery,” he said.
Many atheists would be quick to point out that this is nothing new nor anything that would be confined to radical Islam as the West has had numerous incidents of sovereign and Christian attacks on cultures throughout its history. Yet the story of Christianity is less about conquest and subjugation of pagan populations as much as it is about the beneficence the orthodox, catholic Christian faith has bestowed upon human culture in its attempts to preserve what it perceives to be best within it.
I’ve been reading The Logic Of Christian Humanism, an article in the Spring 2009 issue of Communio by Peter M. Candler, Jr. which notes the following opinions:
Of course, one could cite instances where the arrival of Christianity was less hospitable to the ancient cultures, where it destroyed rather than saved, leveled rather than elevated. But I think that art historians and anthropologists would be hard pressed to deny that these were more the exception than the rule. And yet, the popular imagination tends simultaneously to hold two contradictory opinions: on the one hand, that Christianity simply co-opted pagan culture for its own purposes, in an act of unparalleled marketing savvy and opportunism; on the other, that Christianity, in a sustained act of ressentiment, obliterated every vestige of human culture which, in obedience to the first commandment, it perceived as idolatry.
We are all familiar with the story of how Christmas replaced the pagan festivals of Rome and the missionaries conquest of the Indian tribes of Mexico and Central America. Candler proffers a third way of considering Christianity’s relation to the pagan, one that takes hints from how pagan structures were consecrated as Christian religious structures:
The Venerable Bede records that Gregory, writing in 601 AD to Abbot Melitus about to depart for Britain, says that “we have been giving careful thought to the affairs of the English, and have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols among that people should on no account be destroyed. The idols are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there. For if these temples are well-built, they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God.
In this way, we hope that the people, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may abandon their error and, flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and adore the true God.” [Bede the Venerable, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Leo SherleyPrice and rev. R.E. Latham (London: Penguin, 1990) I, 30, 92.]
In this same spirit, the rites of consecration which developed in the seventh century and following sometimes involved “a kind of baptism of the stone structure that enclosed the living Church,” using a special mixture of water, ashes and wine known as “Gregorian water,” owing to the Pope’s alleged authorship of the “Gregorian Sacramentary.” [Cf. Migne, Patrologia Latina 77, 153E Cf. also Louis Bouyer, Rite and Man: Natural Sacredness and Christian Liturgy, trans. M. Joseph Costelloe, S J., Liturgical Studies 7 (Notre Dame: Notre Dame, 1963), 187-78; Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (London: A. & C. Black, 1945), 570-73]
Now it may be possible to detect a whiff of opportunism in Gregory’s exhortation, but, according to Josef Jungmann, “[t]here is something to be learned from the fact that in the consecration ceremony … church and altar are `baptized’ and `confirmed’ almost like human beings; they are sprinkled on all sides with holy water and are anointed with holy oil.” [Josef A. Jungmann, S J., The Mass of the Roman Rite, vol. 1, trans. Francis A. Brunner (Allen, Tx.: Christian Classics, 1986), 254.]
Peter M. Candler, Jr., The Logic Of Christian Humanism
We’re seeing in the above a more basic theological impetus for how the Church approached the pagan:
The Christians are, each one, to be living stones, each one distinct but comprising together the great building whose foundation is Christ.”] That much at least should be obvious, but this sense that an intimation of the glory of God still somehow subsists in the stones is a function of an exclusively Christian dogma, to wit, that in Jesus of Nazareth God himself assumed human flesh and redemptively consummated it.
Janet Soskice, Resurrection and the New Jerusalem
The transformation of the pagan flows from an understanding of the logic of a well conceived Christian humanism. Pope Gregory, the great 7th century monastic prelate and Church father, related this all to the mystery of the incarnation and rooted his thought in opposition to the Apollinarian heresies of his time according to which God assumed a human body but not a human mind. Instead, the theory goes, the human mind was replaced by the divine logos. That is, in the human Jesus, the divine logos acts as the rational element in place of an ordinary human mind. This contained two unacceptable factors for Gregory: It denied the full humanity of Christ; and it also denied the human nature of human beings.
Another Gregory, (of Nazianzus) summed it up here:
If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole. Let them not, then, begrudge us our complete salvation, or clothe the Savior only with bones and nerves and the portraiture of humanity. For if His Manhood is without soul, even the Arians admit this, that they may attribute His Passion to the Godhead, as that which gives motion to the body is also that which suffers.
Gregory of Nazianzus, Letter (101) to Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius.
The divine Word was not changed into a human nature, nor was a human nature absorbed by the Word’ (Denzinger 219 ); cf. also Third Council of Constantinople: “For just as His most holy and immaculate human nature, though deified, was not destroyed (theotheisa ouk anerethe), but rather remained in its proper state and mode of being” (Denzinger 291 ); cf. Council of Chalcedon: “to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, change, division, or separation” (Denzinger 148 ).
This may be somewhat familiar stuff to those who understand the Creed and the phrases (I believe) in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Begotten Son of God, born of the father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through Him all things were made. This is the basis of Thomas’s famous maxim, that “grace does not destroy but perfects nature,” and is a reiteration of the principle Gregory of Nazianzus articulates to Cledonius above. As far as the human person is concerned, theosis is also anthroposis, deification also hominization. As Benedict XVI says, “Only Christ can humanize humanity and lead it to its `divinization. “‘ [Benedict XVI, Message to the Young People of the World on the Occasion of the 23`d World Youth Day, 2008.] And so it is that the Church embraces the pagan, sees the pagan impetus towards the divine and recognizes it in Christ. Grace does not destroy but perfects nature. It’s a lovely thought and stands in dignified opposition to the barbarism of radical Islam.