We saw in Part 1 that some great Church Fathers think a lot of good can be gained from the study of pagan and secular literature. They certainly haven’t encouraged us to only ever read things which the Church itself produces; they encourage us to read widely, but to use discernment. The question that then presents itself is this: why bother? Why bother digging through imperfect reflections to find what we already have in the Scriptures?
Before we get onto the reasons, I think it’s important to emphasise that for many in the Church, there is no need to turn to secular texts; some find all that they need for their life and service in the Scriptures and works internal to the Church. There is nothing wrong with that. But there are good reasons for making sure that at least some servants make the effort to trace the silhouette of Christ in non-Christian texts.
One of the most important reasons is for the work of evangelism. It would be a mistake to think that the only proper targets for evangelism are people outside the Church. Evangelism means taking the Gospel to places where it is not, and that is something which we often have to do among cradle Orthodox as well as to non-Christians. No-one is ‘born Christian.’ It’s not hard to tell that we are losing large numbers of youth who grew up as churchgoing children; the reasons are complicated and varied, but at least part of the problem is that there is a disconnect between Western youth culture and the culture prevalent in immigrant Orthodox Churches. The situation of the Church in the West trying to reach its youth is much like the situation of St. Paul trying to preach Christianity to the Greeks; there are cultural barriers which have to be bridged before serious communication can begin to happen.
The use of secular culture is an important part of breaking down cultural barriers in evangelism. Take this famous instance from Acts 17 as a paradigm example. St. Paul, speaking to the Athenians says:
“… as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:
TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.
Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you …” (Acts 17:22)
Elsewhere, St. Paul famously said “I became all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Cor 9:22). That’s precisely what he does in Acts 17. He claims that the ‘Unknown God’ whom the Greeks had longed to know, the great mystery in whom they ‘live and move and have their being, as some of their own poets had said’ (Acts 17:28), was in fact the God of Jesus Christ. Following St. Paul’s example, great churchmen like St. Clement and St. Justin Martyr used the incomplete reflections of Christ which were already contained in Greco-Roman culture to speak to the Greeks and Romans. St. Paul became a Greek to the Greeks; I think we should become youth to the youth. Part of that process is finding the reflections of Christ which already exist in their world, and identifying them with Christ.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann once said:
“It is sad and shocking to hear the West globally condemned and to see a condescending attitude towards the “poor Westerners” on the part of young people who, more often than not, have not read Shakespeare and Cervantes, have never heard about St. Francis of Assisi or listened to Bach. It is sad to realize that there is no greater obstacle to the understanding and acceptance of Orthodoxy than the provincialism, the human pride and the self-righteousness of the Orthodox themselves, their almost complete lack of humility and self-criticism. Yet, Truth always makes humble, and pride in all its forms and expressions is always alien to Truth and is always a sin. It is obviously inconceivable to say that we are “proud of Christ,” but we constantly preach and teach “pride of Orthodoxy.” It is time to understand that if the Orthodox mission is to progress, we must not only transcend and overcome this spirit of self-righteousness, but we must, without denying any genuine value of our Eastern cultural and spiritual heritage, open ourselves towards Western culture and make our own whatever in it “is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious” (Philip. 4:8). (The Task of Orthodox Theology in America Today)
In order to be a truly missionary Church, which speaks to the world around it like St. Paul and St. Clement did, we need to be conversant with the cultures around us. We can (and must) do this without abandoning the claim that Orthodoxy is true, and without embracing things which are depraved or false.
“I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.” (Jn 17:15-18)
On to Part 3: The One whom you worship without knowing, for what that process might look like.