Christianity has always been at the crossroads of various cultures. At a time in history when globalization and multiculturalism are quickly becoming the norm, it can be helpful for Christians to remind ourselves that this situation is not entirely new. The early church, in fact, faced a very similar situation as it navigated the pagan cultures in which it so quickly grew.
As one would expect, leading thinkers in the first three hundred years of Christianity’s history differed greatly over how to approach Greek and Roman culture. For example, Origen (184-254), one of the great theologians of Alexandria, urged Christians to make careful use of pagan philosophical traditions. In 235, Origen wrote a letter to Gregory, a young student who showed great promise. He knew Gregory would make a fine lawyer or philosopher, but he encouraged him to pursue the study of Christianity and to minister in the Church. In doing so, he was not asking Gregory to give up his love of law or philosophy. The exact opposite is the case. He believed that Gregory’s command of these subjects would be a benefit to the Church, and that God had given the world Greek philosophy so that Christians could use it for God’s purposes.
Tertullian (160-225), one of the great fathers of the Western tradition, took a very different approach. In his De Praescriptione Haereticorum, Tertullian argues that Greek and Roman philosophies have distorted the true Christian faith and given birth to a number of heresies. He writes:
Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our primary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.
The difference between these two approaches is one of purity. Tertullian insisted that the gospel alone is truth; Origen was willing to embrace a mixture of Christianity and the best of Greek and Roman culture. Tertullian argued for a more narrow version of the Christian faith; Origen encouraged young Gregory to seek out God’s truth given, in some measure, to all peoples in all times and places.
It is worth noting that for the early Christians, as also for us, the question of how to live in a diverse society was not merely an intellectual one. The early Christians were sometimes forced to navigate cultural differences in more concrete sorts of ways. For example, in 250 the Emperor Decius issued a decree that all inhabitants of the Roman empire be required to obtain a certificate testifying that they had sacrificed to the pagan gods. This forced Christians to re-evaluate their relationship to their neighboring religions. Some believed that there was little harm in sacrificing once to a pagan god, others sought out illegal means of obtaining a fake certificate, and still others refused and were tortured, or worse. Origen, in fact, was among those tortured by Decius’ officers and he only barely survived to tell the tale.
Christians in North America and Europe may not often face such difficult choices, but they do face the question of how to live among other cultures and religions. This is a question that bears upon almost every area of our lives (politics, religion, the arts, technology, etc.), and, lately, the question has become even more pointed with the rise of a so-called “secular” culture that promises to transcend our religious differences.
How do you think that Christians should relate to different philosophies and cultural practices? Do you think, as Origen did, that Christians are free to embrace the truth we find in other cultures and use them for our own purposes? Can we borrow ideas and practices from other cultures, perhaps even other religions, and integrate them in the life and worship of the Church? Do you think, as Tertullian did, that we should maintain the purity of the Christian faith in distinction from other influences? Do other philosophies, religions and cultural practices necessarily distort the gospel, or can they help us to see the gospel more clearly?
Jim Watkins is a regular contributor to Transpositions. In 2012, he completed PhD in theology through the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, and he currently teaches humanities and bible at Veritas School in Richmond, VA. His forthcoming book Creativity as Sacrifice: Toward a Theological Model for Human Creativity in the Arts will be published with Fortress Press.