Sometime towards the end of the fourth century, Arsenius, the erudite professor of the sons of Emperor Theodosius, discreetly broke with the world of secular culture, as well as from the splendor of the imperial court. Disappearing in the Egyptian desert, he devote himself to the monastic life. According to Patricus, a collection of sayings of the Desert Fathers, he said of his ascetic master, a frustrated peasant of the region: “I know the Latin and Greek teachings, but I do not yet know the alphabet of this simple peasant.” The tale was included in the “bag” of considerations invoked by Christians to express the absolute superiority of the new teaching over the ancient culture of Paideia, over the Greco-Roman culture. Even the lack of value for the latter.
At that time, the “luggage” was already hanging. Two and a half centuries earlier, Justin, one of the earliest Christian apologists, had portrayed the shift in dialogue with the Jew Tryphon as an accomplishment of his philosophical pursuit. According to the classical model, the path led him to representatives of the great currents of that time: Stoic, Peripatetic, Pythagorean, Platonic (in dialogue with the latter, the feeling that “my soul was growing day by day”). But the stoic master was limited, wandering greed for profit, Pythagoras asked him to learn a lot of auxiliary sciences. Christian upbringing appeared as a leap and a personal revelation given to him by the divine word. Justin, nicknamed Martyr and Philosopher, still treats ancient philosophy with a certain respect, as legitimate research, even if it is fallible, even if it is suddenly overtaken by Christian doctrine. Trypho addresses him precisely because of his philosopher’s clothing, and the two agree that, like the other’s faith, “philosophy has no purpose but to know God.”
The Egyptian fable seems to say something more depressing and more detached. This is if it is interpreted – and is interpreted – ideologically, as a hierarchical socio-cultural division. In this reading, she claims that the higher the skill, the more he “performs” in the faith is the unpolluted island of the paedia, to which the educated man is inferior. That the uneducated can give lessons to the studio. The ignorant of the book is in a better position than the educated in principle. The first will outperform the second precisely by “not polishing”. In short, in faith, the cultural make-up is confusing.
It is familiar and persists to this day: true faith stands on the side of the “simple man,” of the pious untouched by questions, critical inquiry, and reflection. In the media show, on television stations, this is how faith manifests itself in abundance: the masses are in procession, the eyes are bowing, the beliefs are rigid. And sometimes amazing. Like the guy who said icons don’t wear masks, so he doesn’t see why they wear them either. (He was a follower of His Eminence Theodosius Constanta, a fierce opponent of vaccination.) that’s not the point. But about the pope who claims the privilege in principle, in religion, of the uneducated man. Here’s an ideological picture of faith taken by TV editors, glorified by Christian populists, and used by some “progressives” to fight the church.
In Alexandria in the fourth century, on the frontiers of the Egyptian wilderness, who enjoyed tales like those mentioned? Who is publishing it? It was precisely some Christian ideologues who sought to “invade” mental space and positions of power in the city by dismantling the laws of urbanization in the ancient pagoda, and replacing them with some expressed in Christian language. Peter Brown, to whom the reading of this phenomenon belongs (Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity, 1992), does not hesitate to call such a maneuver – based on the celebration, in faith, of the lack of culture – “Christian populism”. (On another sinister scale, Islamic extremists are doing the same thing today, forbidding thinking, researching statements of religion, and crushing believers under barbaric stereotypes.)
Does the Christian event legitimize faith without intelligence? Is he asking about a cultural race? Did Christ appear in a world without culture, without tradition, without spiritual training and discipline? exactly the contrary. It comes in the place of the Jewish religious tradition. It uses its symbols, culture, and experience to communicate its vertical message, to invite a person to encounter with the soul itself. Yes, in connection with this unifying encounter, culture – whether non-Christian or Christian – is secondary. But it is not ineffective. In spiritual traditions, whether religious or philosophical, the mystical union really requires a person to transcend culture and even reason, in order to “sacrifice” it. In its maximum intensity, the divine light is placed on a “naked” vessel, in which there is nothing to limit its radiance. A “naked” pot, but not unprepared, not unintelligent.
Indeed, the Arseny wilderness was not a place for raw, monolithic, uncultivated spirituality. In her unit, there were all kinds of paths: fiery simplicity, terrible experiences, intellectual contemplation (Antoine Guillaume is the author of a volume called Un philosophe au désert, Évagre le Pontique), each led by creativity and spiritual audacity. Synsius, a Neoplatonist Christian contemporary with Arseny, but who was a city dweller who was eventually forced to become bishop of Cyrene, said: [fără educaţie şi studiu] in the target; But it does not seem that they have actually taken a path… This means to reach the goal without running, and to cross without any effort to comprehend beyond the limits of comprehension.”
There were, in late antiquity, Christian Fathers and authors for whom ancient paganism was inescapable. It provided the believer with the formation of the soul, the refinement of the mind, and the elevation of thoughts, all of which are useful for meeting Christ and his infinite wisdom. Clement of Alexandria was one of the most daring. He introduced the idea that ancient philosophy was a kind of “commandment of the Greeks”. In order to prepare the whole universe for the proclamation of his Son, God gave two laws: one for the Jews and the other for the Greek world (Stromati I, V, 28). As for Origen (Homilies on Exodus, 11, 6), he believed that Greek wisdom, when assimilated by Christians, could illuminate the spiritual meaning of Jewish law.
Nevertheless, ancient pediatrics and, in general, teaching, study, scholarly research, disciplined reflexivity, and intellectual discrimination, remained undeniable values in the Christian world. (Without them, this world would not have produced theology, art, or civilization.) But with them, the cliché continued that “poverty with the soul” is the crown of the uncultured soul. And these cliches have somehow turned, at least in Eastern Europe, against Christianity. The devaluation of culture led, among other reasons, to the current anemia of Christian culture, to its present lack of expression, to all too easy forgetting.
Anka Manulescu Researcher in the field of religious anthropology.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons