Universitas, Number 10, November 2001

The Back Page

As the Catholic historians Christopher Dawson and Hilaire Belloc point out, while avoiding undue triumphalism, we should not be ashamed of Western civilization. Its Christian and Hellenistic roots gave rise to a culture of justice and respect for the human person unparalleled in history. Here in his speech to the President of Greece on May 4 the Pope reminds us of the nature and origins of Christendom.

"My wish is in some way to recognise the great debt which we all owe to Greece; in fact no one can be unaware of the enduring influence that her unique history and culture have had on European civilization and indeed on that of the entire world.

"…it is to Greece that I come as a pilgrim, in the footsteps of St Paul, whose mighty figure towers over the two millenia of Christian history and whose memory is etched forever in the soil of Greece…how could we not recall that it was here in the city of Athens that there began the dialogue between the Christian message and Hellenistic culture, a dialogue which would decisively shape European civilization?

"Long before the Christian era, the influence of Greece was felt far and wide. In Biblical literature, the later books of the Old Testament, some of which were written in the Greek language, were profoundly marked by Hellenistic culture. The Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, had a great influence in antiquity. The world that Jesus himself entered and knew was already deeply imbued with Greek culture. The New Testament was written in Greek, with the result that it spread rapidly. But it was much more than a simple matter of language, for the early Christians also drew upon Greek culture in order to transmit the Gospel message.

"Certainly the first encounters of Christianity and high Greek culture were difficult. One indication of this is the reception accorded to Paul when he preached at the Areopagus (cf. Acts 17: 16-34). While corresponding to the profound expectation of the Athenian people in search of the true God, Paul did not find it easy to preach Christ who had died and was risen, and to show that in Christ is to be found the full meaning of life and the goal of religious experience. It would fall to the first Apologists, like the martyr St Justin, to show that a fruitful encounter between reason and faith was possible.

"Once the initial distrust was overcome, Christian writers began to see in Greek culture an ally rather than an enemy, and there emerged great centres of Christian Hellenism throughout the Mediterranean world.

"Reading the learned writings of Augustine of Hippo and Dionysius the Areopagite, we see that Christian theology and mysticism drew elements from the dialogue with Platonic philosophy. Writers like Gregory of Nazianzus, steeped in Greek rhetoric, were able to create a Christian literature worthy of its classical antecedents. Gradually, then, the Hellenistic world became Christian, and Christianity became to a certain extent Greek. Then there came to birth the Byzantine culture of the East and the Medieval culture of the West, both deeply imbued with Christian faith and Greek culture. And how could we not mention the approach of St Thomas, who in rereading the works of Aristotle, proposed a masterly theological and philosophical synthesis?

"Raphael's painting "The School of Athens" in the Vatican Palace makes clear the contribution of the school of Athens to the art and culture of the Renaissance, a period which led to a great exchange between classical Athens and the culture of Christian Rome.

"Hellenistic culture is characterized by its attention to the education of the young. Plato insisted on the need to train the mind of the young to seek the good and the honourable, as well as to respect the principles of divine law. How many Greek philosophers and writers, beginning with Socrates, Aeschylus and Sophocles, invited their contemporaries to live "in accordance with the virtues"! Sts Basil and John Chrysostom did not neglect to praise the value of the Greek educational tradition, for its concern to develop the moral sense of young people and to help them to choose freely what is good.

"The fundamental elements of this long tradition remain valid for the people, including the young people, of our own time. Among the most sure elements are the moral aspects contained in the Hippocratic Oath, which emphasizes the principle of unconditional respect for human life in the maternal womb.

"We are in a decisive period of European history, and I hope most fervently that the Europe now emerging will rediscover this long tradition of encounter between Greek culture and Christianity in fresh and imaginative ways, not as the vestige of a vanished world but as the true basis for the genuinely human progress that our world seeks.

"Carved on the façade of the Temple in Delphi were the words "know yourself"; I appeal therefore to Europe to know herself ever more deeply. Such self-knowledge will come only in so far as Europe explores afresh the roots of her identity, roots which reach deep into the classical Hellenistic patrimony and into the Christian heritage which brought to birth a humanism based upon the vision of every human person as created in the image and likeness of God….there is still much to be done to bring harmony between the Christians of East and West, so that the Church can breathe with both her lungs."

Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted November 2001. It was published in Universitas, No. 10 (2001).
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