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Christian Culture — A Way of Life for All?

By Phiroz Mehta

A lecture delivered at Attingham Park, Shropshire on 26th February 1956 as part of a conference on ‘Christianity and Politics’.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and might.”

Deuteronomy, 6.5

“Love your neighbour as yourself.”

Leviticus, 19.18

You, as Christians, will recognize this as the foundation stone of Christ’s teaching, indeed, as the very essence of the Christ nature. Whoso is the living embodiment of this is a Son of God. Whoso radiates this reality in his own daily life is a true Christian exemplifying the perfect meaning of Christian Culture.

The heart of the good news which Jesus proclaimed was that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. When he was asked where was the kingdom of God, he answered:

“The Kingdom of God is within you.”

Luke, 17.21

The question, “How do you make yourself fit to enter the kingdom of heaven, to receive the kingdom of God?” is answered, largely, in one word: Repent. The creed of Christ is summed up in the Lord’s Prayer, and the heart of his code in the Beatitudes.

The Christian religion has grown out of the teachings and out of the life and example of Jesus Christ. Many cultural influences have played upon it, sometimes adding to its growth, sometimes changing it; and even today it is still growing, still changing. Thus Christian culture has seen changes in accordance with the influences that have played upon the Master’s original teachings, and with the different ways in which God and Christ, and Nature and Man have been interpreted. First and foremost is the influence of the Hebraic heritage. This bequeathed to Jesus himself the conception of the One God who was constantly concerned with human history, of God as father, the commandments to love God and one’s neighbour, and the Messianic idea. But whereas the Jewish Messianic expectation was that a son of David would come in power and glory and establish a dominion under himself as the king of the Jews, Jesus largely transformed this into the conception, and fact, that the kingdom of God is realized by being the suffering, sinless servant of God. In other words, not the material, political, self-asserting Messiah, but the spiritual, loving, self-effacing Messiah was the role which Jesus fulfilled, thus defeating the temptation of sovereignty throughout his life. Jesus, however, did not erase but actually lent support to the apocalyptic view of history, and of the history of the near future at that. Consequently, the new-born religion first flowed into the mould of apocalyptic Messianism. But when Jesus’ prediction remained unfulfilled even by the end of the first century, it broke its first mould. When the new religion moved into Europe, its affinity with Platonism could not be denied. St. Paul first formulated Christian doctrine, and the Pauline formulation is largely Platonic. St. John’s gospel develops Pauline Platonism. In the 3rd century a definite school of Christian Platonism flourished under Clement of Alexandria and Origen. The next great influence was that of Plotinus as evidenced by Gregory of Nyassa, Basil, and St. Augustine. Indeed, Rudolf Eucken considered that Plotinus exercised a greater influence than any other thinker upon Christian theology. Boethius, Scotus Erigena and the great Eckhart owed much to Plotinus.

Thus, as the early centuries rolled on, the original teachings of Jesus were being related to already existing religious and philosophical teachings, giving rise to a Christian philosophy or metaphysic and to Christian mysticism. Besides Hellenistic thought, Gnosticism, Philonism, Mithraism, and various Alexandrian schools contributed here. But Christian doctrine did not grow as a single doctrine. Dissident views emerged. Rome became full of churches, catering for Marcionites, Modalists, and Gnostics of various sects (Harnack, The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, Volume II, 1906, p. 385). The Catholics, however, were the most powerful, for Decius (according to Cyprian, Ep. 55, 9) said he would rather have a rival emperor at Rome than the Pope. The Christians were hated not especially by the educated and official classes but by the mob which disliked the position Christianity gave to slaves and women, and the condemnation which it pronounced upon the cruel amusements of the populace. The dislike of the mob slowly diminished after the middle of the 3rd century. The Church dispensed with much of its Jewish severity. Like contemporary society, it was developing a hierarchical organization, and was increasingly receiving support from all classes. Exercising a certain tolerance, it met paganism more than half-way by its local cults of saints and martyrs, by its sacramental doctrine, by its encouragement of relic and charms, and in other ways. Its annual festivals became more and more like the festi dies of the old worship. All this meant that more and more people joined the Church without understanding what Christianity really signified. But there were differences also between Christianity and the rival religions. In Christianity there was no blood sacrifice, no phallic element in worship; and because of its Semitic root it was opposed to Hellenistic polytheism to the degree of narrow-mindedness. Further, all Christians stood out against gladiatorial shows, slavery, and paying divine honour to the Roman Caesar.

Christianity was thus a rebellious and destructive force towards a pagan Rome. Naturally there was persecution, first officially organized by Decius (200–249–251) in the mid-third century, with the era of the great martyrs following under Diocletian from 303 onwards. But Constantine the Great recognized that, though rebellious and destructive to Rome, Christianity was a unifying and organizing force within its own communion. It was a growing force. It had already expanded its domains as far as Persia and Central Asia. It had, in fact, very early in its history, penetrated into India, the only country which, true to its ago-long traditions, received the new-born religion with open arms. Constantine saw that Christianity alone could organize the will of the people, and that it provided the only hope of moral solidarity in the prevailing welter of ideas and of self-seeking. He claimed that the God of the Christians had fought for him in his victory at the Milvian Bridge (312) in the battle for Rome. This put Christianity firmly on its feet for the first time in Rome. Constantine (b. 274, d. 337) afterwards began to see the fierce dissensions among Christian theologians. His effort at reconciliation led to the famous Council of Nicea in 325.What emerged from here, the Nicene Creed, in which the Trinitarian conception of Athanasius won the day against the Arian belief, marked the exact definition of Christian doctrine. From then on the Christian Church became a world force dominantly affecting European history. In later years, St. Augustine’s treatment in his book The City of God of the political ideas of worldly rule by the Church developed into definite political theory and practice. But the millennium in Europe from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries was the record of the failure of the idea of a divine world government to fulfil itself in practice (St. Augustine, 353–430).

The Christian doctrine which emerged from Nicea presented marked contrass to the teachings of that Jewish Rabbi who was called the Son of God. Jesus of Nazareth gave a prophetic teaching like his Jewish forerunners. He sent out his disciples as preachers of sermons, not as priests performing ceremonies in consecrated temples, or making sacrifices at altars. But fourth-century Christianity was a priestly religion which had taken over sacerdotal magic from other religions and had a complex organization of bishops, priests and deacons. Also, its doctrines took over much from other religions and added them to the teachings of the first and greatest Christian. Constantine, desiring to stamp out all controversy, independent thinking and opposition, by forcibly imposing a dogmatic creed upon all believers, injected into the Catholic Church the disposition to be authoritative and unquestioned in its teachings, autocratic and despotic in its practical dealings. After Constantine, Theodosius the Great (346–379–395) fostered this disposition.

In the 6th and 7th centuries Europe sank into social disorder. It had a slum morale. The social and economic structure of the Roman empire was in ruins. Slowly, Christianity tried to restore the lost sense of community. It taught men to rally around the idea of Christendom. In the work of reconstruction, the monastic orders which now began to rise up played an important part. St Benedict (480–544) discouraged solitary self torture, insisted upon hard work, and exercised a beneficial influence in politics. Pope Gregory the Great, a prominent follower of St Benedict, sent successful missions to the unconverted, particularly to the Anglo-Saxons, and imposed the whole Benedictine rule upon the whole of Latin monasticism. Cassiodorus (490–585), concerned by the widespread decay of education and the possible loss of all learning, directed his brethren to preserve and restore these things. He exercised a great influence in making monasticism a powerful instrument for recreating social order. The monasteries became great centres of cultivation, learning, useful arts, and of a way of life which could be distinctively called Christian culture. In time the early universities sprang up. Although one of the first European universities, Cordoba, was founded by the Moslem Umayyud dynasty ruling in Andalusia, the others, such as Padua, Bologna, Oxford and Cambridge are of Catholic foundation. They exercised an immeasurably far-reaching influence, not only upon European history, but upon the whole of Christian culture. And the learning was grounded in the theology of the Catholic Church.

The common saying that European civilization is founded upon Greek culture and Christianity is, like all similar sayings, only a partial expression of the truth. Nevertheless, it is sufficient for us, in the broad, to accept this statement as a working basis. Now when we say Greek culture, we refer on the one hand to a Greece which consisted of several independent city-states, which rested its material greatness  upon slavery, and which has a popular polytheism as the religion of the masses; and we also refer on the other hand to a Greece whose name is synonymous with some of the world’s most wonderful literature, sculpture and architecture, with games and athletics and the joy of living, and above all, with philosophy. In the context of our present considerations we must particularly note two men: Plato and Aristotle. With their names let us link the names of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, for the simple reason that the original Catholic orthodoxy was Augustinian Platonism, and this was practically superseded almost a millennium later by Thomistic Aristotelianism, which survives practically to this day as the dominant Catholic orthodoxy. Plato presents two ground principles: the rational, which is the formal or mathematical and scientific, investigated in the Republic; and the emotional, the Eros principle, which is the aesthetic, and which Jowett translated as frenzy or passion or love, expounded in the Phaedrus and the Symposium. In the Timaeus, Plato brings together these two principles, and denominates the rational as the male principle and the emotional as the female principle in the nature of things. Therefore the intuitive and emotional or passionate person in Church symbolism is the female Virgin, and the doctrinal rational person is the male Christ, who represents the unseen — unseen because only rationally known, that is the theoretically deduced — God the Father. For St. Augustine, who upheld the freedom of the human will, and whose theology is founded on Platonism and the teachings of Jesus, the good life consisted as much in the passionate love of God as in the rational knowledge of God. Plato, however, arbitrarily branded the female principle as evil and propounded the male as good. Thus in orthodox western Christian religion, both Catholic and Protestant, the Divine is restored to the rational principle, God the Father. Hence, when one attacks reason one is trying to destroy orthodox Christianity. For St. Thomas, the good life is the life completely controlled by reason, and man is saved by Divine Grace, not so much by feeling or passion as by the rational knowledge of God.

We must note, at this stage, a point of great importance: art and philosophy and religion in any age are intimately related to the physical sciences and mathematics of that age. Changes in conception of the nature of physical things and phenomena give rise to changes in philosophy. Amongst the Greeks, Democritus was the first to present an atomic theory and formulate a particle physics somewhat like Newton’s. This physics could not satisfactorily account for incommensurable magnitudes. So it was superseded by the mathematical physics of Plato’s scientific academy. This conceived of three-dimensional atoms as having the geometrical shapes of the five regular solids, termed the Platonic bodies. A member of Plato’s academy named Eudoxus, who rigorously formulated what is known as the method of exhaustion (a Greek equivalent of modern calculus), showed that for mathematical reasons Plato’s conception of nature was also untenable. As Aristotle said, “A view which asserts atomic bodies must needs come into conflict with the mathematical sciences.” (De Caelo, 303 a 21.)

Now because atoms could not be seen directly, both Democritus and the Platonists introduced the very important distinction between the world as immediately sensed and the world as designated by mathematically formulated theories which could be experimentally verified by science. Hence Platonic and Augustian doctrine laid down that the sensed world was not the real world. Thus, too, the sensed self of man is not his real self but merely the symbol of the real and immortal self. When Aristotle rejected the atomic theory, and therefore also the distinction between the sensed world and the real world, he was driven to say that the sensed world was the real world and therefore all ideas in the intellect are first given through the senses. Augustian doctrine had identified God and the divinity of Christ with the un-sensed and unseen. This was a theoretic and philosophically postulated factor, not verifiable by direct observations by the senses. Hence to 12th century churchmen of the time, Abelard’s proposal to accept an Artistotelian basis was damned as the rankest heresy, for it seem that such acceptance would utterly degrade God and Christ’s divinity. But Aristotle, in his mathematical and physical philosophy of prime matter and secondary matter, his continuous field theory in place of the atomic theory, and his doctrines of opposites, of positive form and form by privation, and of the fourfold theory of causes, replaced Platonic science with an acceptable and satisfying system. When European scholars like Albertus Magnus, through better acquaintance with Greek literature, saw that in Greek times Aristotelian science had indeed replaced Platonic science, Catholic doctors of learning and the Church itself came under the spell of Aristotle. St. Thomas Aquinas provided the theological structure on the Aristotelian basis. This has remained dominant up to date in Catholic orthodoxy. At the same time, however, the Platonic-Augustinian distinction between the sensed and real world still influences the entire thought of both Catholic and Protestant Christendom.

Part 1 To be continued...

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