“The Apostle Paul between Athens and Jerusalem”
Address of His Beatitude
the Archbishop Christodoulos
of Athens and All Greece,
at The American College of Greece
on June 10, 2004
I am so glad to be with you today. The contact with young people, particularly when it aims at assisting their education, teaches even the teacher and helps him to understand how much of what he supports contains life and is therefore transmissible, and how much is views which have withered and can no longer fertilize anything.
Your topic today, on which I shall say a few words, looking forward to reading the proceedings, so that I may see your perceptions as well, has been open for the last 20 centuries.
The breach or at least the opposition between Athens and Jerusalem is of course an oppostition partly familiar and partly made-up between reason and faith. These two cities epitomize the two respective principles. However, this division of thought into the rational and the irrational is untenable: it is not even certain that the terms rational and irrational bear any significance in our post-logical, chaotic, post-Freudian and post-surrealist times.
Nevertheless, I shall not refer to the extent to which the aforementioned distinction can apply to the fields of thought today. I shall focus my attention specifically on its historical connection with Christianity.
As you know, the philosophers of Antiquity did not perceive themselves as the exclusive bearers of the Word nor did they regard the spiritual premises of their thought as diametrically opposed to those of observant Christians. They never saw either themselves as consistent users of the wrench jaws of logic or the practitioners of religion as abandoned to the soft whispering of faith.
Heraclitus dared to accuse the religion of his time, claiming that men could not know which god was the true one and that, whereas they took part in mysteries in order to get closer to divinity, in fact they became unholy . Xenophanes, among others, radically challenged ancient religion, because it presented the gods as doing everything that for men was shameful and blameworthy . Yet, no philosopher ever considered that those who practiced religion followed anything other than reason. When Heraclitus accuses men of being “imprudent” because they do not understand reason , he does not accuse only religious observants but philosophers as well, so one can be imprudent whether one is a believer or not. The lack of prudence is due to one’s inability to understand that the world is ruled by the harmonic Logos, which is the true God, and not Zeus or Apollo, nor any law of nature produced entirely by chance.
The conflict between philosophers and religion, which reached its peak in the case of Socrates, had never had the form it took on after the dichotomy between Athens and Jerusalem. On the contrary, Socrates did not hesitate to answer those who accused him of insulting the gods by his teaching, that not only did he not do so, but he could not do so, either, because, at any rate, human wisdom was of minimal or no value .
The inability of reason to comprehend faith is taught to us already in the Gospels: the sceptical Pilate has Jesus himself in front of him, yet, being unable to understand what he beholds, he asks Him: “what is truth?” . Jesus remains silent. And that silence is to us like the silence observed by the centuries before one second of doubt.
However, the breach or the opposition between Athens and Jerusalem, between reason and faith, appeared for the first time in the 2nd century AD, when some pagans reacted against the rise of Christianity.
It seems that the first proponent of the distinction was the great Greek doctor Galen from Pergamon, who was an adherent of Hippocratic medicine. In one of his medical-anthropological works composed after the model of Hippocrates, he encourages his readers to examine everything by logic, so that they not become like Jews and Christians, who accept the unprovable . He adds that Jews and Christians are willing to follow unproved claims, instead of examining the truth of things .
In the same period, the Greek-speaking philosopher Celsus attacked Christianity. In his “True word”, a book full of false accusations, Celsus claimed, among others, that Christians did not wish to examine what they believed in by reason but replied “believe and search thou not” , a slogan which I hear even today, despite the fact that the Holy Gospel and the Fathers of the Church claim exactly the opposite. According to him, therefore, Christians are, by definition, alien from philosophy, which Celsus proclaimed the supreme creation of reason .
What Celsus attributed to philosophy and reason can be easily refuted, not only from the Christian point of view (which was adopted already by Origen in his refutation) but from a purely philosophical point of view as well. But I shall not take this path. I would like only to point out that the apparent opposition between philosophy and Christianity was received warmly by certain Christians, mainly non-Greek, in their effort to sever all links with “the wisdom of this world”. Tertullian’s rhetorical apostrophe is telling: “What relation can there be between Athens and Jerusalem? What communion between the Academy and the Church?” .
Let us now turn our attention to Paul. Let us remember how the Apostle’s Jerusalem spoke to the Athens of those gathered on the Areopagus.
The Apostle’s speech begins by the address “Athenian men”, in other terms with the same formulation and on the same tone as Socrates in the beginning of his Apology. Would this be a mere coincidence? I do not think so.
Then comes an instance of the rhetorical figure of captatio benevolentiae, namely a compliment that is intended to bring the audience round where he wants it to come. Thus he praisingly refers to their manifest religious feeling, as is proved by the numerous temples of the city, so that he may naturally come to the mention of the altar dedicated “to the unknown god”. This latter will be his rhetorical bridge, which he will use to achieve his aim, namely to speak to them of their unknown god.
Even so, as he speaks to them, he does not disregard their philosophical background. On the contrary, he uses a discourse familiar to them, and particularly to the adherents of Stoic philosophy.
He declares them “the God that made the world, and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth” , a teaching that is of course radically opposed to the Greek perception, according to which there can be no creation from nothing. But the Apostle proceeds by immediately building a bridge over to their beliefs: he rejects pagan temples, by adding that God “dwelleth not in temples made with hands” — a formulation that the philosophers among his audience must have shared to a large extent . The philosophers have already heard a harsh criticism of the temples and statues but also of the practices of worship of the gods, also voiced by Dio from Prussa , the first Greek orator surnamed Chrysostom by his contemporaries.
He tells them that we men are children of God, “for we are also his offspring” . This is also a perception alien from Greek religion, which considered men and gods creatures of earth and sky. Nonetheless, even this novel teaching was not unfamiliar to them. Aratos had already taught this and his works were among the most popular in that period. Paul not only knew this, but in his speech he quotes a verse from Aratos: “because we are also his offspring” , as a reminder to help them . It is worth noting that Aratos, too, echoes a position of Cleanthes, purportedly the founder of Stoic philosophy, who taught that we men are children of God .
Certainly, St. Paul did not speak on the Areopagus as the offspring of Stoic philosophy; far from that. He was the disciple of Jesus Christ, and only His. But he honoured the Athens of philosophy, making sure that he would show her the true means by which she should test the quality of her thought: the light of Resurrection. We see him upholding the same position when he writes to the Thessalonians: “ye turned to God from idols, to serve [from now on] the living and true God” .
Paul’s teaching in Athens remained without continuation. He did not stay long in town nor did he ever intend to return. We have no epistle of his to the Athenians. Nevertheless, this does not imply contempt. The Athens of Paul’s time was a small town, which lived mainly on the income from the foreign students of the schools. It was a town with reputation, but without population. So Paul left Athens for Corinth, a prosperous and populous town. And it would be worth noting that there, in Corinth, where he came into contact with the powerful Jewish colony, he decided —not without soul-sickness— to put his own race aside and to direct his attention exclusively to the Gentiles .
Nevertheless, in Paul’s work we come across numerous and explicit condemnations of philosophy. How can we explain these? Did he speak to the Athenians without revealing his true feelings? Not at all. Paul was pure and great enough to avoid resorting to such schemes.
Paul categorically rejects the “wisdom of this world” , following the method of the “like from like”: “we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual” . Yet in this case again, it is not a method unknown to the Greek spirit: we see it for the first time in Homer’s work, when the poet asks that divinity be understood in a way appropriate to the gods and not to the human intellect .
Under these preconditions, Paul declares that he himself does not speak as a brilliant orator or a philosopher , but “in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling” , weak as a human person, strong only by the grace of the Lord. And he proceeds to the formulation of the terms under which it is possible for man to approach divinity: he must rely neither on knowledge nor on reason nor on his own intellectual powers. “We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom”, which God offers us, the wisdom which “God hath prepared for them that love him” .
I have attempted to evince, albeit briefly of course and to a large extent schematically, the framework of the conversation between Jerusalem and Athens, expressed through Paul’s voice.
However, the debate on the relationship between Athens and Jerusalem, between word and faith, continued. In his reply to Celsus, Origen asserts that faith does not revoke reason nor does it break away with it. Origen notes that the word is to man what hope is: who boards a ship, who gets married, who has children, who sows his field, unless he hopes that all will be well, even though he knows that even the worst may occur? The faithful realises that “the world did not understand god through wisdom” , although this does not mean that the faithful must be foolish. Besides, this is why the faithful Christian does not prevent himself from knowing and admiring the wisdom of Greeks, Egyptians and other nations .
Holy Augustine expresses the position that reason without faith is irrational and that faith is a prerequisite for the knowledge of God, because man offers his faith and it is God Himself who, in return, provides the knowledge about Himself .
Nonetheless, please allow me to maintain the impression that it was the leading philosopher and Church Father Maximus Confessor who made the most substantial contribution to the subject. According to Maximus’ teaching, man has two levels of discourse: on the first of these levels, the word is an interpretation of the surrounding reality, this latter being nothing more than his confinement by anxieties about things. If man overcomes this state of mind, by using as his instrument his own reason, his existence is opened up and ascends to pure knowing, which is knowledge beyond things. This is undoubtedly a higher state of mind. Even this state, however, does not lead to the knowledge of the divine word. The purified reason must be flooded by love, so that it may be drawn upwards, attracted by the true Word, namely by God.
Therefore, according to Saint Maximus, reason is by no means an adversary or an obstacle to faith. On the contrary, its part in the evolution of man has been decisive: if it is abandoned to the whirlwind around reality, it becomes an instrument of destruction, whereas if it is lifted, it becomes a means of man’s connection with God.
From this perspective, the perspective of man’s theosis, the simplistic opposition between faith and reason —simplistic to the point of distortion— cannot stand and the subject is transferred to a transcendental context.
Certainly, the discussion did not end with Saint Maximus. I cannot say that it progressed but it surely continued, both in Western and in Eastern Christianity. Indeed, in the Age of Enlightenment, the supposed opposition of times past was coloured by a Manichaean perception, according to which the relation of reason to faith is —or rather, should be— similar to the relation of Cain to Abel. Thereafter, in contemporary philosophy, further discussions followed.
It is not my intention to present the history of the aforementioned opposition here, or else we would run out of time as the question would have to be examined with reference to more than one field of thought. We would probably need to take a very long course, before we be able to understand that the roots of the question why does man believe? can be no other than the roots of the question why does man think?
This is why I told you at the beginning that I look forward to reading the proceedings of your meeting, so that I may assess the further implications of your own problematics.
I wish and hope that the teaching of Saint Maximus will become the core of your thinking and a leader to you as well, so that you too, my beloved youth, may progress from the breach between faith and reason to the rise of the word to true knowledge, which, in turn, will allow your ascent to the true raison d’etre of your existence.