From the Ashes of Paganism Arises a New Religion: Christianity

This post will rely heavily on Will Durant and his Story of Civilization, published by Simon and Schuster, Inc., copyright 1944.  In it, Will Durant addressed history, not only as a record of wars, which certainly had their significant influence, but also as reflected in all the arts and disciplines: literature, philosophy, theology, graphic arts, sculpture, architecture, religion, music, and even dance.  Other writers that have influenced me over the years include Eric Fromm, Karen Armstrong, Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeeckx, Robert Wright, Matthew Fox, and Teilhard de Chardin.

In  Story of Civilization, Vol. 2, The Life of Greece, at 186, 187, Will Durant describes the beliefs and rituals of the ancient Greek god, Dionysus.  Dionysus began as a goddess of fertility, became a god of brewed liquor, then of intoxication, and ended as a “son of god,” dying to save mankind.

Mourning for Dionysus’ death, and joyful celebration of his resurrection, formed the basis of a ritual widespread among the Greeks.  In the spring, Greek women went up into the hills to meet the reborn god.  For two days they drank without restraint.  They marched in wild processions; they listened intensely to the story they knew so well, of the suffering, death, and resurrection of their god; as they drank and danced they fell into a frenzy in which all bonds were losed.  The height and center of their ceremony was to seize upon a goat, a bull, sometimes a man (seeing in them incarnations of the god); to tear the live victim to pieces in commemoration of Dionysus’ dismemberment; then to drink the blood and eat the flesh in a sacred communion whereby, as they thought, the god would enter them and possess their souls.  In that divine enthusiasm they were convinced that they and the god became one in a mystic and triumphant union; they took his name, called themselves, after one of his titles, Bacchoi, and knew that now they would never die.  Or they termed their state an ecstasies, a going out of their souls to meet and be one with Dyonysus; thus they felt freed from the burden of the flesh, they acquired divine insight, they were able to prophesy, they were gods.  [It] was a ritual that satisfied the craving for excitement and release, the longing for enthusiasm and possession, mysticism and mystery.

Id. at 187.

In Durant’s  Story of Civilization, Vol. 3, Caesar and Christ, citing he notes a number of pagan practices that preceded similar Christian practices.    At page 595, he notes,” Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it.”  He goes on to note that the Greek mind entered Christian theology and liturgy; that Greek language became the language of Church literature and ritual; that Greek mysteries entered the mystery of the Mass; that the notion of Trinity and Last Judgment and eternal personal reward or punishment was first developed in Egypt; that Egypt also first modeled adoration of Mother and Child, of mystic Neoplatonism and Gnosticism and of monasticism; and

From Phrygia came the worship of the Great Mother; from Syria the resurrection drama of Adonis;  . . . [f]rom Persia came millenarianism, the””ages of the world,” the “final conflagration,” the dualism of Satan and God, and of “Darkness and Light” . . .  The Mythraic ritual so closely resembled the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass that Christian fathers charged the Devil with inventing these similarities to mislead frail minds. . . . Christianity was the last great creation of the ancient pagan world.

Id. at 595.  It cannot be denied that pagan forms of art and architecture were adopted and adapted to Christian purposes.  More of that later.

Of the early Church, Will Durant notes from sources available to him:

They met in private rooms or small chapels, and organized themselves on the model of the synagogue.  Each congregation was called an ekklesia – the Greek term for the popular assembly in municipal governments. . . . Women were admitted to the congregations, and rose to some prominence in minor roles; but the Church required them to shame the heathen by lives of modest submission and retirement.

Id. at 596.

We know that the early Christians were known for “how they love each other.”  Durant notes that “Lucian, in about 160, described ‘those imbeciles,’ the Christians, as “disdaining things terrestrial and holding these as belonging to all in common.” Id. at 597.  Durant goes on, “A generation later Tertullian declared that ‘we’ (Christians) ‘have all things in common except our wives,’ and added, with his characteristic bite, ‘at that point we dissolve our partnership, precisely where the rest of men make it effective.'”  Id. at 597.  Durant notes that the early Christian who did not share his wealth was considered a thief.  Alfred North Whitehead noted in his book, Adventures of Ideas, that the belief of the first Christians in the promise of Jesus to return before the last of those watching him ascended to Heaven had passed away caused them to eschew wealth because it would do no good for one to hoard it when the End Times were coming soon.  Gradually, he noted, when they adjusted to the passing of time, that expectation weakened, and they became more invested in the world and its treasures; and they became less willing to share their wealth communally.  After Constantine elevated the Church to the service of the State, while still expecting Christ’s imminent return during each successive generation, those who were able to accumulated wealth did so and they protected it should that event be delayed.

One interesting note of Durant is the agape or love feast.  Modern Christianity has referred to agape as referring to a love as between father and son, and Father and Son with the faithful.  As Durant describes the historical documentation of the feast, in practice, it was anything but love of father to son:

An element of communism entered into the custom of the common meal.  As the Greek and Roman associations had met on occasion to dine together, so the early Christians gathered frequently in the agape or love feast, usually on a Sabbath evening.  The dinner began and ended with prayer and scripture readings, and the bread and wine were blessed by the priest.  The faithful appeared to believe that the bread and wine were, or represented, the body and blood of Christ; the worshipers of Dionysus, Attis and Mithras had entertained like beliefs at the banquets where they ate the magical embodiments or symbols of their gods.  The final symbol of the agape was the “kiss of love.”  In some congregations this was given only by men to men and women to women; in others this hard restriction was not enforced.  Many participants discovered an untheological delight in the pleasant ceremony; and Tertullian and others denounced it as leading to sexual indulgences.  The Church recommended that the lips should not be opened in kissing, and that the kiss should not be repeated if it gave pleasure.  In the third century the agape gradually disappeared.

Id. at 597, 598.  Despite such excesses, Durant notes that Christian expectations that God the Judge exercised “divine surveillance” assured in general morally excellent conduct that would put pagan culture to shame.  As Whitehead had noted, so observed Durant: “Much of this difficult code was predicated on the early return of Christ.  As that hope faded, the voice of the flesh rose again, and Christian morals were relaxed . . .”  Id. at 599.

Durant elsewhere observes how Greek philosophy, rationalism and pagan influences contributed to the development of movements that separated from the dominant movement of the Church and came to be condemned as heresies.  That discussion is not within the scope of this blog and will not be addressed further. For the inquiring mind, there is much to be found in such diversions, their origins, their appeal, their ultimate extinction from the Catholic Church, and in some cases their continuing vitality in other separate Christian communities.

Next, we will explore the early influence of pagan Roman and Greek arts, particularly sculpture and architecture, and their adaptations and conversions for Christian purposes.

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