The question that should better be avoided

Pavle Rak

Some years ago there was talk of building a new church in the centre of Athens to alleviate the problems of the Metropolitan Church, which became too small for the growing needs. But where could an appropriate space be found in the town centre? Some very orthodox Christians said there was a good space, but unfortunately it was occupied by a temple dedicated to demons. The idea was to destroy the Parthenon and convert this land, that had been dedicated to Satan for more than two thousand years, into a temple of God.

Almost at the same time, I was present when one of the two most famous gerondas of late twentieth century Greece told a small group of his disciples how he had God’s gift (charisma), which seemed rather peculiar even in his eyes: he felt the existence of antique sculptures underground and could indicate to archaeologists where to dig and what they would find. He felt that those sculptures were radiating positive energy. Was it possible, wondered geronda, that there was some good in these sculptures which we Christians took for demonic sculptures? However, he added, things were not so simple. With all respect to our Christian predecessors, that is, with all understanding for their polemical fervour against paganism, it was possible that God had found a particular pedagogic way of talking to the people who left us the sculptures that are to be found all over Greece. And for geronda there was no dilemma: God was talking to them in positive terms.

So, there are two diametrically opposed ways of answering the question posed at our symposium. And there is nothing new in this situation.

One of the early fathers of the Church, Clement of Alexandria, wrote that Plato was “in all senses almost equal to Moses” (Pedagog, 3, 11). In other words, Plato was elevated to the position of a Church profit. This is the best example of continuity. At the same time, we have hundreds of examples of the destructive attitude of Christian activists towards antique sculptures, because they considered them to be sculptures representing devils. The destruction was generally followed by arguments which were meant to demonstrate the falsity of pagan gods: namely that sculptures were not capable of defending themselves, an argument that could be easily used in the case of iconoclast destruction of Christian icons.

Sergey Averincev, who was the reason for our gathering here in Ljubljana, once wrote (U istokov poetičeskoi obraznosti vizantijskogo iskustva; Drugoi Rim, Spb. Amfora 2005) that the Greek world had a “strong nostalgia for Eastern wisdom” (p. 229). Greek culture was capable of looking at itself from a distance, capable of self-criticism, capable of correcting itself using the experience of others. Greek culture was open to Eastern influences. In the beginning, Eastern Christian culture was also open to the influence of Hellenic culture, which was dominant at that time. But later, the new needs of the new and growing culture prevailed, and with them came a predominance of Eastern poetics and sensibility. Classical Greek expression was gradually abandoned (with the exception of certain philosophical concepts and terminology that proved irreplaceable). So, there was some degree of continuity, when and where needed, and some degree of discontinuity, when and where the new culture emancipated itself.

I wanted to be original and to try and answer the question posed at our symposium in the most direct way: like a good pupil in a secondary school, if possible, with a simple yes or no. Was there a continuity or was there a conflict? But, in all those cases, what really matters is not the force of the argument from which we could deduce whether the answer is yes or no. We have to deal with a paradigmatic type of relationship between different religions and civilisations, and they are never simple. So I failed. Human relations, relations between civilisations, are such that they do not allow a simple answer. Those relations do not include a single dilemma: there is always a complex of dilemmas, the result of which is in most cases some kind of compromise; and if there is no compromise, then there is no question either: before any question, one partner “in dialog” destroys the other.

To begin with, as we were told at school, and as contemporary philosophy (of deconstruction, for example) insists even more strongly, before asking any question we should analyse the terms of the question, the categories we use. What is antiquity and what is Christianity? How do they conceive their respective identities? Questions multiply themselves. What relationship could so-defined entities have? Whom are we questioning? Antiquity or Christianity? In situations similar to this one encountered in our symposium, the attitude of antiquity is mostly neglected: antiquity is dead, and Christianity still lives and needs to define itself. But, antiquity had its answers too. To start with there was the answer given by Celsus, then the Decree of Tolerance, and last but not least the answer given by Julian Apostata.

Nevertheless, we are going to stay with Christianity, not because antiquity’s concepts of continuity or conflict are not interesting to us, but because in such a matter I lack both competence and experience. However, the Christian answers are, as we know, multiple. At a certain stage and in a certain field of activity, a civilisation, say a Christian one, does not concern itself with the question of compatibility, and happily utilises the fruits of other civilisations; at other times, it gives dogmatically clear and decisive answers, if the question is also posed explicitly and clearly.

In the case of the relations between different civilisations, cultures or political entities, they either succeed one another (one emerging out of the ruins of the others, or on the more or less carefully preserved remains of others), or harmoniously flow into each other, or live parallel lives (in more or less conflict-free relations). Conflict – or cooperation – depends on many elements, not only on the logic of difference and identity. If the only element for judgement were the persuasion that one’s philosophy or religion were right and true, a fight would always be inevitable because rightness usually doesn’t recognise the notion of compromise.

A special case of relations between different civilisations or religions (but not an isolated case) was the one analysed by Assmann in his book Moses the Egyptian (Jan Assmann, Moise l’égiptien, Aubier, Paris, 2001), the very case of self-persuasion in one’s absolute rightness. Assmann wrote about Akhenathon’s religious reforms and continued with the author of the Pentateuch, who had the same attitude as the reformists, namely the attitude of “anti-religion”, as Assman calls it. That is to say that both the Pharaoh and Moses constructed their religious concepts as systematically opposed to the religion previously in place, persuaded by the absolute rightness of their own and the absolute wrongness of the classical Egyptian religion. That persuasion gave them the right to destroy “the enemy” – without mercy.

Assmann demonstrated the option that when one civilisation from the very beginning defines itself as opposed to another, then there is no room for compromise. However, such cases are extremely rare. Christianity, even if disposed to present itself as the “anti-religion”, in practice mostly applied the art of compromise, as I shall attempt to demonstrate in the case of the attitude towards antiquity of one of the most uncompromising late-Byzantine authors – St. Gregory Palamas.

So far as antiquity is concerned, we have to deal with two different attitudes of St. Gregory: when the question of attitude is posed directly, his stand is adamantly strict; when the question is indirect, we see Palamas entering into an open-minded dialogue (such as his tolerant discussions with Muslim theologians when he was captured in Turkey, which were referred to in descriptions of his life), freely using the conceptual apparatus of antique philosophy from Aristotle to neoplatonism.

In the polemics against Varlaam, the question of natural knowledge, Greek philosophy and sciences was posed directly in terms of their compatibility with Christian practice and attitudes, and Palamas’ answer was as direct as possible: “Plato himself, praising those he considered the best amongst poets and thinkers, said that if someone wants to create poetry without being inspired by demons, neither he nor his poetry can have any success; also, before starting to think about the nature of creation in his Thimaius, (Plato) was praying not to say anything that would be unpleasant to gods – but could philosophy that was pleasant to demons be given by God? Socrates had his demon, who certainly initiated him into his secrets; obviously, this demon witnessed that Socrates was the most wise among all men. Homer also called upon the ‘goddess’ to sing through him the murderous anger of Achilles, allowing that demon to use him as a tool and attributing to the same ‘goddess’ the source of his wisdom and literary talent. It seemed not enough for Hesyodes, when he was creating The Theogony, to be possessed by only one demon, so he called upon himself no less than nine demons at the same time…” (Triada I, 1, 15). In Triada II, 1, 13, Palamas wrote: “Paul said that no one could drink from the chalice of demons and from the chalice of God, so how can anyone be in possession of the wisdom of God and be inspired by demons? Those who recognise that their wisdom is inspired by demons, we call demonic wise men.” I am not going to continue with quotations, but the text goes on in the same manner.

And what about secular knowledge in itself, not only Greek? “Do they (Varlaam and his followers) ever think that, once we had turned towards the tree of knowledge and eaten from it, we were thrown out of the divine place of pleasure?” (I, 1, 6). “Don’t you see that knowledge alone (that of Greek philosophy) is of absolutely no use? … Even worse, it causes the greatest possible harm. … The first of all evils, the principal sin of the devil – haughtiness – is caused by knowledge.” (I, 1, 9).

We see two different arguments against Greek philosophy and culture in general: one is based on a strict way of interpreting original antique claims of divine inspiration (the demon is the devil, all “gods” are satanic idols), the other on the rejection of all secular knowledge, even if it is not of “demonic” origin. For our argument, the second case is even more important. It reflects the very situation of “anti-religion” that says: the only true knowledge is our revealed truth. The revealed truth could only be complete truth, so there could not be any partial truth – its very partiality proves that it is a lie. Consequently, everything that is not the knowledge of revelation is a lie, most directly opposed to the salvific truth, and must be opposed by all means or ignored. If and when we want to have any sort of continuity with other cultures, any sort of compromise with the surrounding world that doesn’t share all our opinions, we had better not pose the question about ultimate truth. Once posed, that question leads to an everlasting conflict.

Now, I am not going to analyse further the content of those declarations of Palamas. My primary intention is simple enough: to draw your attention to the attitude that is potentially (always?) present in a (monotheistic) religious discourse – the attitude of anti-religion.

I’d like to end with one contemporary example. A month ago, at Easter, a prominent Greek theologian and spiritual leader issued an epistle with following conclusion:

“The risen Christ-Truth could not be identified (equated) with the ‘truths’ of other religions and faiths. Christ is the entire Truth. He is not a half-Truth to be completed with other truths. …

Heresies were terrible enemies of the Church. More terrible than any other is Syncretism, that is the mixing and interconnecting of all beliefs. Syncretism subverts not one dogma, but all dogmas; it subverts all-Truth (panaletheia), God-men and our Lord, with the ultimate goal of relying on the force of the Almighties of this world, open the way to all-religion (panthriskia) of the New Age.

Our answer to that total war against the Christ-Truth should be our open confession that only Christ is the ultimate Truth and therefore the Saviour of the world, and that only the Holy Orthodox Church is truly apostolic and the continual presence of the Church of Prophets, Apostles and Fathers.

We confess our faith even if we are going, now or in the future, to suffer the worst social isolation.

It is the time for confession and suffering for the sake of the Crucified and Risen Christ, our Truth and Salvation.

Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!”

In the face of this confession I am more than embarrassed. Yes, I am an orthodox Christian. But at the same time, I would like to stay open to other cultures and civilisations, to antiquity, among others. Schizophrenia? Maybe.

But as we are still in the Easter period, I will finish with greetings that, in my eyes, should liberate us from any dilemma:

Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

For the Resurrection is far greater than any conflict or even cooperation.