Monday, August 29, 2005

Christian and pagan learning

I have received a few emails regarding the connections of Stoic and monastic thought, and it might be worthwhile to clarify my views regarding the ways in which Christian teaching can borrow from pagan teaching. This is a very complicated topic, so I will merely introduce it here, and hopefully make further reflections as we go along. Greater minds than mine have struggled over this!

The basic ground rule is this: Catholic theology does not teach the total depravity of man after the Fall. The image of God is disfigured in the Fall but not erased. This means that even in the worst sinner, there is still a measure of God's goodness.

Pagan cultures, say of fourth-century Athens, can and do make strides toward coming to know things about God and about the life intended by God for men. What is different about Athens and Jerusalem is that God chose to reveal Himself directly 'as a friend speaks to a friend' to Moses and via the Torah, to the Israelites as a people. Thus, the Bible's knowledge of God is not merely derived from speculation on what God must be like. The Bible rather reports God's own Word in His relationship, His friendship with His people. This does not preclude speculation, however. All of us speculate about our friends; we might then ask them a question to check it out. The Psalms are full of speculative questions addressed to God.

The Bible is even influenced by Greek speculation, especially in the latter wisdom books, the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach and perhaps Ecclesiastes. The gospels and Paul are both influenced in some degree by the cultural milieu of Hellenism, the dispersion of Greek thinking engineered by Alexander the Great (see the opening of the First Book of Maccabees).

Is this bad? Obviously not as it is part of canonical Scripture. The question is: what of pagan learning is consonant with revelation and adds to our understanding and what of pagan learning must be jettisoned as unworthy of it?

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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