A few weeks ago, I took issue with a quote offered on a particularly bad notion of how Christianity and culture have interacted through the ages. The quote is below, but I’m going to concentrate here on that part regarding Greece:
“In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture. And, finally, it moved to America, where it became an enterprise.”
But as I noted this, quote was was incorrect in just about every single idea it tries to convey. It may be a popular conception, that the Greek influence transformed Christianity through perhaps neo-Platonism popular in the first through 4th centuries in the Roman Empire, but this is a misconception and has little to do with the actual intellectual, historical, and practical actual evolution of the Christian faith through the ages.
During my plane ride back on Friday from the West Coast, I read through about the first third of The Vision of God by Vladimir Lossky. Mr Lossky in this book traces the development of the idea of how we as humans might see (perceive) God through the ages. Specifically he is also in the process of countering the idea developed by a certain Protestant theologian/historian that the Greek neo-Platonism was a lasting influence on the Christian understanding of theophany. I’m a little short on time tonight, but at some point during this week I plan to trace the development that Mr Lossky traces in this book. But, on the notion of “where it became a philosophy” I’ll offer a quick remark.
In the 2nd century Clement (150-211/216) and Origen where both very influential theologians in the period and they were both very much influenced by new-Platonism. In fact, well Plotinus, author of the Enneads, another Alexadrian is regarded as the founder of neo-Platonism for late antiquity it might be noted shared with Origen a high regard, each for the other. They were colleagues, in not unrelated spheres and their work influenced each other. However, the neo-Platonic influences guiding the nature of the understanding of the mystical experience and Theophany as a super-intellectual meditative activity was very short lived. It even might be argued that Origen himself was of two minds on this. In many of his writings theophany (or the perception of God) was seen as a meditative act, but in other writings on prayer and in some of his exigesis of Scripture he takes a different tack, seeing the act of exegesis and prayer in a non-intellectual experiential emotive manner.
Furthermore, by the 4th century with the Cappadocians (St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil the Great) and St. John Chrysostom it became clear that the idea of theophany as a super-intellectual activity carried out by philosophers and those combining apatheia and intellect to find God had disappeared. Another current that served to erode this idea was the culture of the Desert, as exemplified by St. Athanasius Life of St. Antony and John Cassian’s carrying of the desert culture and learning to Gaul.
The point is that if one was to take seriously the idea that Christianity “became a philosophy” that statement would only have held true for a few short centuries and at the same time that idea was only held by a few theologians and this idea was most definitely not a notion held by average or any substantial fraction of the Church membership, be they elite or “ordinary”.