As part of a series of features examining Greek language education in the USA, we present an article by Father Demetrios Constantelos. Father Constantelos, whose essay first appeared in the National Herald, lives in New Jersey.
I was invited to speak before the Section on Education of the 35th Clergy-Laity Congress on "The Church Fathers and Hellenic Paideia," a most interesting and timely topic which can be treated here only briefly. Volumes have been written on the subject.
"The rise of thinking among the Greeks was nothing less than a revolution...They discovered the human mind," as Bruno Snell the distinguished German classical scholar has
Church Fathers and many Christian theologians realized that the ancient Greeks, although not Christians, were ancestors and some of them even forerunners to Jesus the Christ. When we turn to the forefathers we discover that because paideia -- as education, learning, and language -- improves the human mind and cultivates the human heart, it was highly valued. "Education is an ornament for the prosperous and a safe refuge for the less fortunate," writes Demokritos of Abdera, the father of the atomic theory. Paideia is what contributes to character formation, what exercises and trains body and soul, what elevates the human to the heights where one becomes "like unto god to the extent that it is humanly possible," writes Plato, one of the most influential individuals in history. And paideia as education is intended not only for practical and expedient goals but "to make human beings intellectually free and help them to refine their inner being -- their souls," writes Aristotle.
It was through Hellenic paideia, language and culture, that primitive tribes and other people were Hellenized and achieved a higher degree of civilization. Neither victories against enemies nor trade and commerce were the greatest contribution of the ancient forefathers to Western Civilization. It was through paideia that all ancients and many moderns became fellow Hellenes, as Isocrates put it -- "pantes oi tes hymeteras paideias metehontes." (Hellenes are all those who have partaken of our education). With the exception of some recalcritant individuals and despite some tension neither Judaism nor Christianity rejected Hellenic paideia. In fact the mainstream of both adopted it and enriched their own beliefs and practices. "From the Greeks we [the Jews] learned to love education...From the Greeks we borrowed wholesale," writes Abba Eban, the former Secretary of State of modern Israel and its ambassador to the United Nations.
From as early as the third century before Christ, the time when the Hebrew Bible began to be translated into Greek, and throughout the
From John's prooimion to his Gospel "in the beginning was the Logos," to Paul's citations from the Greek poets that "we are God's offspring," that in "God we live, move and have our existence," and that "bad company ruins good morals," to Peter's borrowing from Stoic philosophy that "we may escape from corruption...and may become participants of the divine nature," we find an affirmation that a close relationship had begun between Hellenism and Christianity. The influence of one language upon another is the greatest indication of the influence of one paideia upon another. While only about 70 Hebrew words are found in ancient Greek, there are numerous Greek terms in Hebrew, Latin, and the theological language of early Christianity. From its very beginning Christianity gained converts not only among Jews but also among Greeks, as the book of Acts of the Apostles confirms.
Greek paideia encompasses the study of Greek culture and civilization in its entirety from the Homeric age to the present. Its authenticity is confirmed not so much by texts as by the faith of the community, the tradition that was inherited and sustained throughout the centuries. History confirms that the identity of a people can be best researched and verified with tradition as a guide. Greek tradition is not invented. Religion as the deliberate quest of finding the origin and meaning of life, and the yearning for union with God cannot be divorced from the totality of human existence.
Christian intellectuals and Church Fathers from as early as the Apostolic age and throughout the centuries adopted Hellenic learning as part of their Christian beliefs and cultural practices. The examples are too numerous to cite: Justin the martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebios of Caesaria, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory the theologian, Cynesios of Cyrene and Maximos the Confessor, Tarasios and Photios patriachs of Constantinople, Eustathios of Thessaloniki and Thesphylaktos of Ochrida, Joannis of Euchaita and the monk Joseph Kalothetos of the fourteenth century -- to limit myself to only a few well-known fathers -- all were excellently educated in the Holy Scriptures and in Hellenic paideia. All of them realized the value of Hellenic paideia. Just one example. Writing to a dignitary, St. Photios, the great Patriarch of Constantinople of the ninth century advised: "Paideia, [education, Christian and Hellenic] contributes to a life of virtue and without regrets for the young, and it becomes the greatest support to those of old age. Educate your children in wisdom and virtue so that as youth they may live a beautiful life, and that in time of old age they may not need the support of others." Throughout the Byzantine millenium and beyond, the education of the Fathers and the clergy rested on the study of the Holy Scriptures, the writings of the Fathers, the life of the Saints, and Hellenic learning -- the study of ancient Greek philosophy, poetry, literature, and history. After all the Byzantine Empire was no less than the Christianized Hellenistic world as it had evolved after the Age of Alexander the Great.
The Church Fathers set an example and teach us how to approach and what to do concerning Hellenic paideia and its relationship to religious and theological paideia. A kerygmatic proclamation of the Gospel through the fathers, the doctrines and teachings of ecumenical and local synods, requires that we enter the mind of the Fathers and comprehend the decisions of the Councils. Thus the need for our theologians, including priests and teachers, to have a thorough knowledge of historical culture and the intellectual climate in which the Gospel was proclaimed. "Culture is the form of religion and religion is the heart of culture; that is, the two are inseparable," as Paul Tillich, a Protestant theologian and philosopher, has put it. And Christopher Dawson, a Roman Catholic philosopher of history, adds: "The cultural function of religion is both conservative and dynamic; it consecrates the tradition of a culture and it also provides the common aim which unites the different social elements in a culture." Concerning the relationship between Hellenism and Christianity, the Russian Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky writes: "...The cultural process...which has been variously described as a Hellenization of Christianity can be construed rather as a Christianization of Hellenism. Hellenism was...polarized and divided, and a Christian Hellenism was created."
The success of early Christianity is attributed not only to the presence of the Holy Spirit and to divine inspiration and religious zeal, but also to Christianity's ability to integrate many Hellenic philosophical and religious ideas, ethical principles, and spiritual elements.
As Father John Meyendorff has put it: "it is the adoption of Greek language and the use of cultural and philosophical features borrowed from Hellenism which really witnessed to a catholic understanding of the Church...the Christian Gospel had to be proclaimed as a world which spoke and thought in Greek. To do so was not a betrayal of the Scriptures for the Christian theologian...but a direct missionary duty, which was begun by the first generations of Christians and fulfilled by those whom we call the Fathers."
Like Father Florovsky before him, Father Meyendorff concludes by adding that "there is no way in which that truth [of the Gospel and Christianity] can be known and understood, except by entering the "mind" of the Fathers, becoming their contemporaries in spirit, and therefore allowing oneself to become as Greek as they were. Our theology today must maintain consistency with their positions: all Orthodox theologians must therefore become "Greek" in that sense."
Of course, the question is: how did Church fathers manage to remain culturally and intellectually Greek and yet be Christian at the same time? Let me turn to professor Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale University, who recently embraced the Orthodox Church. In his book "Christianity and Classical Culture," professor Pelikan writes that "the fathers remained essentially Greek because they had been excellently trained in the classical Greek heritage (language, literature, philosophy, history) as well as the Christian Scriptures." Their historical interpretation of Divine Economy in no way relativizes the centrality of Christ in the Orthodox Church, its faith and worship. The belief that Logos became human in order to save humanity remains the mind and heart of Orthodox theology. Thus the Fathers constitute excellent models for students of theology and future clergy.
In light of this approach to the kerygmatic mission of the church, we realize the need for a reconsideration of the catechetical and theological curricula, for a rediscovery of the mind of the Fathers as it was expressed in sermons, essays, hymns, liturgical and sacramental texts of the Church. The task of educators, Sunday school and Greek School teachers is to study the teachings and the experience of the church in a holistic manner, vertically and horizontally, God's presence in history before and after the incarnation of God's Logos. Let us not forget that "everything is related to everything else" as social psychologists are telling us.
We need a critical assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of our system, of the educational administrative and economic issues, before we embark on a revision and improvement of both cathechetical and cultural education, our Sunday and our day and afternoon schools. Before we become teachers and school administrators we need to educate ourselves in both Christian and Hellenic paideia. We need to know and appreciate both if we are to succeed in our mission. Go to Page Two