So we all survived the 2012 apocalypse, right? Hands up if you didn’t. My theory is that the various prophecies were misinterpreted, and actually referred to the destruction of Nibiru. Maybe.
Anyway, since very few of us were transmogrified into three-headed yaks or somesuch on the 21st, the 25th inevitably happened, and with it came the usual flood of discussion among my friends concerning the place of Christians in contemporary Western society. This kind of brought some thoughts I’ve been having about my own faith into sharper focus. For you see, I am a Christian. But I am also a Classicist. There. I’ve outed myself.
I have encountered remarkably few people in academia who practise a religion of any sort. I guess it comes with the territory– let’s face it, at most Australian universities, orthodox religion is a dirty word. I get a mix of reactions when I disclose my religion to others. Some are amazed, some are aghast, some are dismissive, some are simply uncomfortable. Some are disgusted. I can understand that. Many of the things my fellow Christians say and do leave me disgusted too. Tell people you’re a Christian, and they’ll often automatically assume you’re a spiteful, hateful, anti-intellectual bigot. Many will think you’re a Bible-bashing simpleton. There are many Christians who are all these things, so I get why people might think that. But… I’m not. At least, I try not to be. For me, the first obligation of being a good Christian is that of a good human being: to be ethically beneficent.
Anti-Christian sentiment seems to be particularly strong in the fields of Classics and Ancient History. I suppose that this occurs for a few reasons. Our field is based heavily upon archaeology, which rarely if ever supports Biblical narratives, Genesis least of all. Moreover, the field of Classics is heavily based upon the criticism of ancient texts. In pursuit of historical truth, we go out specifically looking for inconsistencies, errors and discontinuities in our primary sources. The Bible is riddled with inconsistencies as an historical text. A lot of us interested in the history of religion can see how much Christianity has borrowed from religions of Antiquity in terms of its theology and institutions. Knowing the human origins of these things makes it difficult to uphold them as divinely inspired. But most of all, I think Classicists often despise Christianity because Late Antiquity, the period in which Christianity became the state cult of the Roman Empire, was a step backwards in so many different ways. (Incidentally, I think Christianity itself was only partly to blame, despite what Gibbon will tell you). Moreover, Christians actively engaged in the persecution of… well, so many people, actually. But in particular, Christian Proselytism and religious extremism harmed Jews, Pagans, and fellow Christians. That’s right, folks, nobody was better at persecuting Christians than Christians. If you don’t believe me, look into the way Arianism was dealt with.
These things are all true. I would be foolish to deny them. Also, it would be dangerous and irresponsible to deny the role that religion continues to play in human conflict, and in the suppression of minorities today. As a community, we have a lot to answer for, and answer we should. I cannot claim personal responsibility for what the entire Christian community does, or has done, but I can take responsibility for my own actions and the way they impact upon others.
You would think that my training as a Classicist would deter me from my faith. I will confess, the Christian Classicist has a difficult path to tread, not least of which because we face ridicule by our peers, and often by fellow Christians. We also have to reconcile our faith with our ability to reason. That is not by any means impossible. If anything, I hope that my training as a Classicist has aided me as a Christian.
It has given me a sufficient grounding in history to realise that a lot of what the Bible says is specific to its times and places. Believe it or not, that helps a great deal, as it is a stretch to imagine how, say, some of the laws in Deuteronomy are meant to apply to us.
The skills of textual analysis have helped me to understand that the Bible is not actually one book, but a collection of a lot of different books, each by an individual author with an individual message. I don’t think that means they’re worth any less. If anything, I can relate to the texts more, knowing that they come from ordinary people like you and me. That removes any need to ‘retcon’ the inconsistencies. Also, I feel considerably less anxiety about having to prove the Bible right when scientific and historical data clearly contradict it. I no longer see the Bible as a book of scientific truth, but as a repository of spiritual truth from a wide variety of authors.
My knowledge of Greek has helped me quite a bit. Even as a Christian, I did not start studying the NT in earnest until I tackled it from a linguistic perspective. Looking at the works which comprise the New Testament in their original tongue helps me to get into the mindset of the ancient author and reader. Also, it has taught me to distrust the words ‘literal translation.’
My historical knowledge of Late Antiquity has allowed me to see the good Christians have done in that era, as well as the bad. I don’t think anybody would disagree that banning the gladiatorial games was a positive move. I actually find this affirmative for my faith– it allows us to see that our moral choices are in our hands, which empowers us to make decisions for the benefit of the human race. Christianity has been a positive influence over the development of Western society in many different areas.
But more than anything, I guess that being a Classicist has taught me to appreciate the value of other ways of thinking, outside the square of Christian thought. It has exposed me to other religions, cultures, philosophies, languages and ways of life. It has taught me to empathise with others better, to see the good wrought by non-Christian religions and societies. Seriously, if it weren’t for Islamic preservation of Galenic medicine, we probably would be still using leeches. If it were not for the Enlightenment, you would not be sitting in front of a computer. In short, it has helped me to relate better to people of the world and see that they can make a positive contribution to the human race, even if they are not Christian. The world is a tapestry, with many different threads.
Some would say that my Classicism has had an adverse effect upon my faith, that it has made me more worldly. Perhaps– but the fact is, as Christians, we are in the world but not of it. Being in the world means we need to coexist with our neighbours… And love them, actually. In a sense, I believe that having a greater understanding of how the world works is a step toward the love and understanding of Christ. Being able to walk around in another person’s shoes helps us to respect, love, show compassion, and forgive.
These ideals are not exclusive to Christianity. Realising this has once again helped me to relate to others. It means I can encourage people to study the teachings of Christ upon a humanist ethical basis. My decision to avoid trying to convert people has not stopped me from encouraging others to study the Bible, and the Gospels especially. If people express an interest in reading the New Testament, I am pleased. If they find personal salvation, I am even more pleased. But I will not force it upon them. I believe that if people accept Christ, that acceptance must come voluntarily and not because some Christian is trying to force them. I no longer believe that it is my duty to convert people. And you know what? It has helped me a lot in my relations with others. People don’t like being told what to think or believe. Go figure!
These are just the thoughts of a Christian layperson, who is still figuring out how to navigate the world and do what he can to make it a better place.
Until next time,