What role do the pagans hold in a Christian education?
This is a question that’s been bugging me for a while. I put Sisyphus on my final exam (he was supporting his boulder with a water jet), and there were a few people who got confused. Of course, my arrogant reaction is a “kids-these-days-don’t-know-anything” sort of grumble, but with respect to my own children, I wonder whether, when, where, and how to incorporate the pagans in such a way as to make a few things clear:
This is not Truth, though it has true lessons.
This is not Beauty, though much in it is beautiful.
This is not Goodness, though it has much to say of virtue.
The acculturation of a person is (in large part) the accumulation of stories. We have an immense and growing collection of such stories available, as virtually every mythos of every culture is translated and available to us in the West. What shall we do? What shall we read our children?
I’ll accept as axiomatic that the stories of the Bible are first and foremost. Stories of our family have their place – the worthy deeds of aunts, uncles, cousins, grand-folks, and so on are worth remembering. Stories of our nation have a place, too, though it is not enough to accept a nationalist (or cynical) view of any given nation. Personally, I think Paul Revere’s Ride belongs in a civics course, alongside discussion of social contracts and God’s blanket statements about authority from St. Paul. But I digress.
All of these stories shape our view of the world, consciously or not. And they all lay claim to belief simply by being known. To know a story is to allow it to make a claim – believe me. An aside: This is the power of the media state. A barrage of stories, without respite, all demanding the same thing – believe me.
But not all stories are to be believed. And it is certain that not all are to be believed in the same way. The news demands belief that such and such happened to so and so. The tortoise and the hare commands belief that diligence triumphs over pride. The tale of Sisyphus demands… what? Belief in an underworld of ironic punishments? Belief in justice? (Hardly.) Belief in the fiat of the gods and the unpredictability of fate? Perhaps. Or perhaps it is a story that, once known, requires continuous suspension of belief. This is perhaps the most pernicious way that media attacks a Christian. The more garbage that is allowed in, the more effort must be continually spent in the suspension of belief. This is effort that would be much more productively spent in pursuing holiness in various ways.
But back to the stories we are to tell. Every church tradition has them. In the Reformed churches, they tell of Huss, Tyndale, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, the brave fathers of the Reformation, who for the sake of private interpretation, shattered Roman Christendom. In Orthodoxy, saints are commemorated daily, according to their repose (or notable day – St. John, Ivan’s patron, is commemorated today and in September). There are innumerable hagiographies, and each autocephalous national church has a paterikon, an “image of the fathers”, a collection of the saints of that church. This leads me to my next thoughts on culture.
Russia is Russian because of the Kievan Rus, who converted en masse, and it has been an Orthodox nation ever since (Communism being the great harrowing and trial of Orthodoxy in Russia). Georgia, likewise, has been a Christian nation for much more than a millennium. Bulgaria for about 1000 years (even under the Ottoman yoke). The culture of these nations is entwined with Orthodoxy, because (many of) the stories that are told are those of the saints of that land. (Aside, oppression is a danger to this, as in Ottoman Bulgaria, because it can mistakenly canonize rebels.) Serbia, Armenia (though not Chalcedonian), Ethiopia, Ukraine, and many other people groups share similar church-as-culture trajectories. So how can we late-modern-Americans work in ways that build our culture? And how can it be entwined with the church?
There must be love of God, love of neighbor, and love of our land. There is no rootless culture. All attempts at disembodied cultures fail cruelly. We live in a place, and culture is tied to place. In a few weeks, on the second Sunday after Pentecost, the Orthodox Church in America will celebrate the saints of North America. It is a small beginning, but it is a thanksgiving for holiness demonstrated in a place. One of the stichera from the Great Vespers reads:
“Rejoice, O mountains of Pennsylvania,
Leap for joy, O waters of the Great Lakes,
Rise up, O fertile plains of Canada,
for the elect of Christ who dwelt in you are glorified,
men and women who left their homes for a new land.
With faith, hope and patience as their armor,
they courageously fought the good fight.”
I never thought to hear a hymn about Pennsylvania. But lo! A recognition that holy people have labored here for the glory of God is the beginning of Christian culture. Humility, a recognition that we stand on the shoulders of giants (to unflinchingly use a cliche), a knowledge that we accept with thanks those things given to us – be they plentiful or meager – and we give them to God and to our neighbor in our land. This will make a culture. The saints, not the pagans, are the lights to follow.
Perhaps there is some wisdom in knowing the pagans for academic purposes, but I am not at all sure that it is wise to uncritically approach pre-Christian literature, as though Christ has not dispelled the myths of the demons. It is instructive that the Ephesians burned their magic books, rather than make a library for scholars to consult in the event that valid herbalism might be in there, too.
So know the saints. They live to God. They are not far from us. They worship better than we do, and we may well desire their prayers for us and for our land, even as they pray to God for the consummation of all things from beneath the altar.
“And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work.” Nehemiah 2:18