This post is about the connection between Greco-Roman thought and Christianity – an idea which I have not developed fully but noting down here some preliminary thoughts if they are of interest to anyone. Unfortunately, my foray into this topic took the form of an acerbic debate on an online forum and I am reproducing it here as I haven’t got the time to extricate the arguments into a separate essay.
This is an edited version of my contribution to a debate on “The Heathen in his Blindness” forum about the “configuration of learning” (i.e. culture) which produces religion. It happened in April 2014 and I am producing here my views edited from those posts.
The fundamental question (raised by Arun) was about how did religion arise and why did it arise in the place and at the time that it did. According to S. N. Balagangadhara (Balu), the question about the origin of religion is ill-formulated for reasons beyond my understanding and so I will not go into them. See here if you are interested.
VNR, a disciple of Balu, responded that the origin of Christianity can be studied but the origins of Christianity as a religion cannot be studied. As a religion, Christianity supplanted the Greco-Roman configuration of learning with its own. According to Balu, the Greco-Roman configuration of learning disintegrated because it was unstable. Balu then responded affirming VNR’s answers and reiterated the question was pseudo-scientific.
Frankly, I find Balu’s writings incomprehensible. Whatever may be Balu’s theory of religion (“an explanatory and intelligible account – EIA – of the cosmos and itself” – a concept I find difficult to grasp) I couldn’t see any reason why its origin in history could not be studied. And so I answered Arun’s question in the following way:
[Arun,] I completely agree and sympathise with your situation. I think your question regarding the “configuration of learning” (COL) that brought about religion in the West is quite valid and deserves to be answered. This has not happened I think because it does not align well with the assumptions necessary for the project of a comparative science of cultures which is of interest to everyone here.
Christianity is the point of departure for this project – its first mover unmoved, first cause uncaused. VNR mentioned in his posts that you need to be a theologian to study Christianity as a religion, including its origin, but he also maintains that Christianity as a religion brought forth a COL which supplanted an existing Greco-Roman COL. Apparently, Balu has a theory about Christianity as a religion without being a theologian himself, but is it not odd that while we cannot study the origin of Christianity as a religion, we can study its effects as a religion.
How is this possible? I think it is because the project requires a Christianity sui generis, fully formed and ready to impose its COL on its subjects. You can speak about its becoming but you cannot tell how it came into being. What this achieves is a discontinuity between Greco-Roman and Christian COLs and this is a fundamental assumption of the project which needs to be zealously defended by anyone interested in pursuing it.
We are thus artificially restricted to speaking about Christianity as a religion i.e. Christianity can be many different things but we will only speak of it as a religion. Then we are told that religion is an EIA of cosmos and of itself which we heathens cannot understand. Fine, but we should be able to speak of it in ways that it affects us as heathens, namely, in terms of its COL. We should therefore be able to rephrase the question of the origin of Christianity as a religion, which you have raised, in the following way:
(1) What was the COL that was practiced in Europe before the rise of Christianity (say up to 325 CE)?
(2) What was the COL that came into practice in Europe after the rise of Christianity?
(3) What was the process by which the transformation from COL (1) to COL (2) took place?
Theoretically, there is nothing wrong with these questions and anyone who confidently says that the Greco-Roman COL disintegrated and was supplanted by a religious COL (as Balu does, according to VNR) and that the former did not just organically morph into the latter, should be able to attempt an answer. Yet, I bet even these questions will not be meaningfully answered.
Why so? Because, you see, if the fundamental discontinuity between COL (1) and COL (2) cannot be maintained, the project falls apart. Hence, a rational justification along the following lines is given:
Religion as EIA of cosmos and itself brings forth a particular COL. Europe did not know religion in this sense prior to the rise of Christianity. Ergo, it had one COL before and a different one after that.
But you cannot actually inquire into the realities of these different COLs because God forbid if you discover some continuity between them or note that a purported discontinuity occurred prior to the rise of Christianity. Then you would not be able to maintain the radical transformation brought about by Christianity which is necessary for the project.
Let me explain with some examples. Let us consider the Socratic method and Roman mos maiorum (ancestral code) as expressions of a COL. Now, how certain are we that the Socratic method did not continue into the Christian COL and shape it? Conversely, could we not say that the mos maiorum disintegrated much before the domination of Christianity – when the Roman republic itself disintegrated and gave rise to the Roman empire? While religio (as traditio or whatever) always remained an integral part of Roman politics, was it of the same nature in the republic as it was in the empire or had it already, especially towards the end, begun to assume forms that came closer to Christianity?
If we hop off the guided tour of the cobbled paths of pagan Rome given in Chapter 2 of The Heathen in his Blindness, many such issues that would question the radical transformation Christianity allegedly brought about in Europe would arise. Consider this passage (pg. 53):
What Christianity did then – and was to repeat centuries later during the Reformation – was to criticise practices by criticising beliefs. That is to say, it postulated a link between practices and beliefs. A link of a type that (I claim) was unknown in Antiquity: practices express or embody the beliefs that human beings entertain.
What then, I would like to know, was the Socratic method, if not a linkage between practices and beliefs? Consider Euthyphro. This man charged his own father of impiety in a court of law. Socrates, by his classic elenctic method, interrogated his beliefs about impiety. Unwilling to admit the inconsistency of his beliefs, the lack of the so-called doxastic coherence, Euthyphro arbitrarily terminated the discussion. But what was the point of it? Simply this: If Euthyphro could not substantiate his belief about impiety how could he practise it? I think Socrates raised the same objection to Meletus during his trial – that he lacked knowledge of the very thing he was accusing Socrates of. How can you accuse someone of practising or not practising something if you don’t even know what it is? How does this linkage between practice and belief differ from the one proposed by Christianity?
I also have this following interesting footnote from an essay on Socratic Political Philosophy by Charles Grisworld (from the volume on Socrates in Cambridge Companions Online, pg. 347):
The word ‘theology’ is used (apparently for the first time in the history of philosophy) at 379a5–6 [of the Republic], as Socrates drastically revises conventional Greek religion in a way that effectively turns the gods into his conception of the divine (the Forms).
Balu mentions how Cicero et al did not really believe in the gods though they distinguished this ‘truth’ from the practice of religion but he does not speak about how Socrates and his successors affected Greek understanding of religion. Of course, Socrates did not oppose or reject contemporary religion any more than did Cicero, but the Socratic understanding of the gods as purely moral (as opposed to bearing moral and immoral capabilities attributed to them by the Athenians) certainly brings us closer to Christianity than the Ciceronean view.
And what about the idea of the Augustine ‘divine city’? Surely the idea of man as a political being i.e. a being fit to live in a polis where his flourishing can occur, is a Greco-Roman one. Also Greco-Roman is the notion that the flourishing of this political being is to be effected through right legislation – and on this background, one could say that Christianity as a religion brought forth the best piece of legislation (i.e. divine will) to shape the human will but the idea that human will should be shaped by legislation is not a Christian original – that was already in place. And who is to say that it was not this particular attitude that motivated the Christian mind to conceptualise the EIA of cosmos and itself?
The section ‘The Philosophers’ God’ (pg. 58) of The Heathen in his Blindness promises to address the ‘complaints about the baneful influence of the pagan philosophy (especially the Hellenic thought) upon the Christian religion’ – but it never does. It only explains how the pagan religio was different from Christian religion in that the former had to do with following ancient practices, the latter with practising the true doctrine. Ideally, it should have noted the alleged complaints and refuted them in turns, or at least should have explored the philosophies of religion of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others to show how they could not have anticipated Christianity – if indeed, they did not.
Also, I would exercise caution in clubbing together the Greeks and Romans on this issue. Although the Romans cherished Greek rhetoric and philosophy, they held that their ancestral code – the mos maiorum – was eminently superior to it and so I suppose the premium that the Greeks would have put on religio as traditio would be less emphatic than the Romans. And what about the fact that elements integral to Christian religion such as the “good news” (evangelion) and “Son of God” were both appropriations from the Romans (related to claims made by Augustus about himself, I think)?
I have just sketched some random points to show that the clash between Greco-Roman traditions and Christianity does not appear to be anywhere as cataclysmic as that between the Indian traditions and Christianity. Yet there is a persistent effort made to show that Christianity brought about a radical transformation in Greco-Roman traditions and the reluctance to examine a Greco-Roman basis for Christianity remains adamantine.
I cannot state with certainty that there is a straight line that goes from Greek philosophy to Christian theology but what is worrisome is the unwillingness to investigate the possibility, the dismissal of questions that may invoke the connection as “ill-formed,” the all-too-readiness to support the Tertullian position that Athens has nothing to do with Jerusalem. It appears to me that this partiality for Athens is based on expedience rather than evidence. Our colonial conquest has now tied our fate to the West. Our alienation from our own traditions appears complete and irrevocable. Our future ways of going about the world will have to be learned using Western methods of social science. We recoken, based on Balu’s theory, that the current social science which is Christian theology in disguise must be overhauled for a better social science that is properly ‘scientific’. In this, Western thinkers can be our partners since such study would be of interest and value to them as well. But for all of this to succeed we need a piece of the West as an intellectual foundation untainted by Christianity. That is why it is important to rescue Athens from Jerusalem – to keep it as a sanctuary of all good Western philosophy and basis of science from which we can all draw our intellectual nourishment.
So now you see, Arun, why the simple has become so complicated? To even attempt to answer your question is to admit that Athens is deeply implicated in Jerusalem for, from where else, can a “COL conducive to religion” be sourced in the Hellenic world in which Christianity arose and grew up – other than Athens itself? If your question is to be answered at all, it would be to suggest that Christianity had its roots in the Greco-Roman milieu. It would be to say that Christianity was not so much an imposition on but a product of Europe – the Hellenic appropriation of Jewish thought.
What are the implications of this notion? It means we cannot use Christianity as a scapegoat anymore for the sins of the West and we are forced to admit that if Western thought is problematic then it is problematic to its very core. This becomes inevitable if it is shown that the world that brought forth the stinging gadfly and his insistence on doxastic coherence also brought forth Christianity when it came in contact with Jewish traditions; and Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. when it came in contact with Indian traditions. If this is true then the project of comparative science of cultures is also finished. So you see, we cannot raise questions that may demonstrate pre-Christian Western thought as proto-religious.
Debate with Balu
Naturally, this incurred the wrath of Balu and his disciples. I quote below Balu’s rebuttal and my rejoinder, combined together point for point, which would be relevant to the issue of the connection between Greco-Roman thought and Christianity. The first two exchanges are connected with the passage from The Heathen which I have quoted above and will repeat here for convenience:
“What Christianity did then – and was to repeat centuries later during the Reformation – was to criticise practices by criticising beliefs. That is to say, it postulated a link between practices and beliefs. A link of a type that (I claim) was unknown in Antiquity: practices express or embody the beliefs that human beings entertain.”
(1) Balu: In your first post, you cite from Heathen and say this: “What then, I would like to know, was the Socratic method, if not a linkage between practices and beliefs?” If I deny that in Asia of today and the Pagans from Greece and Rome do not postulate ‘any’ link between practice and belief, I am making the claim that these people act without thinking and think without acting. Where have I made this stupid claim?
(1) Me: You have said, as quoted above, that Christianity postulated a link between practices and beliefs that was unknown in Antiquity. Now you are saying that it is not that they did not postulate ‘any’ link because otherwise it would lead to the stupid claim that they thought without acting and acted without thinking. Fine, what was the link that the pagans postulated and in what sense was the Socratic ‘link’ an innovation and how far does this differ from the Christian ‘link’? You keep dodging this question again and again.
(2) Balu: In the very passage you cite, the second sentence tells you what I am talking about. Instead of reflecting on that, you ask these two questions: “How can you accuse someone of practising or not practising something if you don’t even know what it is? How does this linkage between practice and belief differ from the one proposed by Christianity?”
Thus, according to your ‘reading’ of the second chapter, I am saying that, according to my understanding of the pagans, they ‘practice’ something without ‘knowing’ what they are practicing. Clearly, either your reading of Heathen is extremely careless or you just do not understand what you read.
Regarding your second question, the answer is given in the second chapter, which you claim you have read. Clearly, you do not understand what you read.
(2) Me: I am saying that Socrates expected people to possess coherent beliefs about a thing they were practising or accusing others of practising. You have not said that this is not the case.
Instead, you say that I should reflect on the second sentence. Given that we are in agreement that Socrates presumed some connection between practice and belief, the question becomes whether he saw practices as expressing or embodying beliefs? I don’t know but that is not the point at all. The question is whether or not the connection he proposed can be viewed as a proto form of the one proposed by Christianity?
I don’t know whether you are saying that the pagans practised something without knowing it, but if they were doing an excellent job of it, I wonder why everybody was annoyed with Socrates when he pointed out to them how they were practising something when their beliefs about it were not coherent and that this was not care for the soul?
(3) Balu: In your first post, you make the claim that Hellenic thought absorbed Jewish thought (in one form or another) and make heavy weather out of this. The entire Jewish apologetics has been saying the same thing for more than 2500 years. How silly must you be to launch this idea in this forum? Thus, the Jews are responsible (Greeks too because they were contaminated by Jewish thought) for ‘the evils’ that humankind suffers! Really, Ashay.
(3) Me: No, why would the Jews be responsible for what the Hellenes made of their doctrine. Look what the Germans did to Vedas to build the theory of the Aryan race, the Japanese empire to Zen philosophy during WWII, the LTTE to the Bhagavad-Gita, etc. Look what has happened to the Indian doctrines when they fell into the hands of Western and Westernised people. Of course, the doctrines are not responsible – it is what the West does to them. But what of the West is perpetrating this ‘evil’? Why should it be their religion? What if it is their philosophy? We are all happy to imagine a world without religion. How about a world without philosophy? Why do we cringe at the very thought?
(4) Balu: Your ‘example’ about ‘religion’ is just as absurd. You refer to Platonic dialogues to speak about the ‘presence’ of religion in the Ancient Greek culture. If this is how you ‘establish’ the presence of religion in Ancient Greece, it is very easy to show that religion exists in India and Asia. Do you have any idea about how many books are written about religions in this part of the world? Surely, your silly argument has the consequence that ‘dialogue’ of hundreds of years ‘refute’ my claim that there is no native religion in India. Am I supposed to take you seriously?
(4) Me: I am not at all suggesting that the Platonic dialogues imply the existence of ‘religion’ in Ancient Greece, the way Christianity is a religion. The question is whether the Platonic dialogue demonstrate the existence of a proto-religion which, in combination with the Jesus narrative, could have given rise to Christianity. The way Socrates moralised the Greek gods, the way the Greeks conceived the polis as the domain of human flourishing, the way they saw political legislation as the means to make humans virtuous – do these impulses contribute to the development of Christianity later on such that the moral gods becomes God, polis becomes cosmos, and political legislation becomes divine legislation? This in no way establishes religion (or proto-religion) in ancient India for the Indians never sought to moralise their gods, did not see the janapada or the rashtra as the domain of human flourishing and did not see political legislation as the means to making humans virtuous.
This is an area that I am not actively researching at the moment. Based on my previous research, I can just provide some hints for now.
- There is, of course, the connection between neo-Platonism and Christian thought to explore.
- The idea that a human can pay for the sins of others is a Greek idea which occurs in Plato’s Republic. It needs to be seen how important it was among the Jews.
- The Hellenic colonisation of the Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora (Asia Minor and Egypt) occurred after Alexander’s conquest in the 4th century BCE. The Hellenes promoted their own culture in these regions and the Jews in the Diaspora would have been particularly influenced. Philo of Alexandria is the best example of a Jewish thinker who tried to reconcile Greek philosophy with the Jewish scriptures. It is telling that his works were not preserved by the Jews themselves but the early Christian fathers who found it particularly useful in their debates with the pagans.
- Ptolemy’s reign also witnessed the translation of the Jewish scriptures into Greek. It is this Greek work, the Septuagint, which became the Old Testament of the Christians. The New Testament also was originally written in Greek and not in the language of Jesus. Paul, whose version of Christianity became the dominant one, was also a diaspora Jew in the Hellenic world of Asia Minor. Jesus’ ministry, of course, took place in Israel but ultimately it is not what he said and did but how his life, and especially his death, was interpreted by the Hellenised Jews that ultimately became Christianity.
- In Christianity, the Logos became Flesh but the establishment of the Logos as a supreme principle was the handiwork of the Greeks.
Someday I hope I will elaborate on these ideas. Meanwhile, if someone wants to have a go at them, please do.