Does Religion Need Culture?

Archimandrite Symeon (Tomachinskiy)
The report of Archimandrite Symeon (Tomachinskiy), Rector of the Kursk Theological Seminary, was represented at the Oxford University, 27.10.2016

As you know well, London is a capital of Paris. And Paris is a capital of Rome. And so on, according to «Alice in Wonderland». It means that all the ways finally lead to London. So I’m here.

I'm not going to speak about all the religions, as I'm not an expert in Buddhism or Islam or Religion of the Opening Windows. Their relations with culture one should describe separately, for we can see a great diversity of the attitudes in different religion traditions.

But we can openly discuss a question, if Christianity needs a culture, which is not so clear. It's a really very old problem, formulated even by Tertullian in the end of the II century AC like that: «What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?» In other words, what a human wisdom, philosophy and art, could give to a spiritual experience? (Tertullian's answer, by the way, was: nothing.)

The word «culture» etymologically originates from Latin verb «culturare» which means «to cultivate soil, or ground». So «cultura» (culture) is a noun of that verb which means «cultivation». Cultivation of soul, cultivation of feelings. Let us remember it to go further…

An Oxford professor, famous writer and Christian thinker, C.S. Lewis wrote an essay «Christianity and Culture». He used a word «culture» in the sense of intellectual and aesthetic activity. And we'll do the same, using this narrow sense of the term «culture», and not meaning all the products of civilisation. We’ll pay special attention, immediately after Lewis, to the one part of culture, to literature, to see pars pro toto.

Lewis affirms that «the New Testament seemed, if not hostile, yet unmistakably cold to culture…» As a prove, he gives a demand to sacrifice the organs of sense (Matt. 5, 29) and of virility (Matt. 19, 12). Also Lewis reminds the text about hating father and mother and therefore, according to him, a fortiori hating of human culture.

But it’s not a categorical imperative. It seems obvious that Lewis in all these cases always forgets to add: «when it makes an obstacle for a salvation» or «if it's necessary for the Heavenly Kingdom». And the question remains the same: «Does culture is a real obstacle for a true spirituality? Or not? Or it depends?»

Lewis finds the strongest argument against culture in the words of Apostle Paul in Philippians 3, 8: «And I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ…»

It’s true, but in the same time we can mention another words of the Apostle Paul, from the first epistle to Corinthians, some kind of a main slogan of Paul's mission: «To the weak became I as a weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some». (1 Cor 9:22, King James' version.)

As a matter of fact, for the great amount of people human culture has a tremendous and unquestioned value. Therefore for such «weaks» we should become «as weaks», which means: as experts, appraisers and commentators of culture.

And the same Apostle Paul gives us an excellent example of that kind in his famous speech in Athens Areopagus.

We read in the Acts, 17, that in Athens «his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry”. Nevertheless when the philosophers and other Athens citizens had asked Paul to speak them about this «new teaching» he didn’t begin with saying: «Oh! Miserable pagans, shame on you! You worship devils instead of true God! »

Not at all. On the contrary, Paul said: «Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. What therefore you worship, as unknown, this I proclame to you» (Acts, 17, 22-23, New Revised Standard Version).

And, continuing his speech about true God, Paul makes a quotations of a well-known pagan poet: «As certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also His offspring». (Acts, 17, 28) The name of the poet is Aratus, Greek author who lived in IV-III c. before Christ, very popular in Greek and even Latin world of that time. Paul quotes here the fifth line of Aratus’s Phaenomena. And «apostle of pagans» builds his reasoning on the base of this quotation: «Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God…» and so on.

In the same speech of Paul we can see another quotation, not so clear, but anyway: «For in Him we live, and move, and have our being…» (Acts, 17, 28) Many commentators think that Epimenides, Greek philosopher and poet of VII-VI c. BC seems to be the source of these words.

It’s true that sometimes Paul doesn’t give a reference to some of his quotations as these are well-known, even like proverbs. For example, Paul in his 1 epistle to Corinthians underlines: «Evil communications corrupt good manners» (1 Cor 15:33). We know how it’s quite right. Corruption is a big evil of our times. But the source of this observation is another Greek poet, Menandros.

Not only quotations, but we could describe the manner of vision of reality in Holy Bible as artistic, sometimes metaphoric and emblematic. These are, for example, Song of songs, Psalter, Lamentations and other books of the Scripture. In our Creed (Symbol of Faith) we call the God «Maker of Heaven and Earth». In Greek version, which is basic in that case (as Creed was adopted in IVth c. AC in Byzantium), for the word «Maker» we find a word «Poetes» – poet. God is a poet of Heaven and Earth, He created all the things with great art.

A man was created in the image of God. And God, according to Genesis, 2, 19, brought all the beasts and all the other creatures, «unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof».

Here is a first human art – naming of creatures, in Eden. And that is an essence of every human art, naming of things. To give a name means to understand, to know a thing. So art is the very first and the most ancient human work. In that sense we usually say: «ars longa, vita brevis est» (art is long, life is short).

In the Holy Gospel Jesus said: «Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment» (Mt 22, 37-38). How could one love God with all the heart, all the soul and all the mind without cultivation of soul, cultivation of mind, cultivation of feelings? And a culture helps us in that cultivation.

So it seems that the Holy Scripture isn’t so hostile to a human culture. It is hostile to a sin, even expressed in a very artistic form.

Another point of Lewis’ article is a position of Holy Fathers of Church towards civil culture. As an illustration Lewis quotes St Augustine, who really was extremely rigorist towards pagan writings, in spite of the fact that Augustine himself was formed and cultivated by this culture. Either St Jerome said several words against some poets who justified the human sins by pretty words.
But this is not a common view of all the Holy Fathers, many of them thought otherwise. For example, St Justin the Philosopher: «Whatever things were rightly said among all men are the property of us Christians».

The same Justin told, that the Stoics, the poets and the historians «spoke well in proportion to the share [they] had of the seminal Logos». All the antique thought was looking for a basic element, for a universal beginning of the world. As you know, some of the philosophers called it water, or fire, or atom, or something else. But Heraclitus called this first element Logos. And finally the Logos came in person, in person of Jesus Christ. And we can read in the Gospel of St John: «In the beginning was the Word» (Logos in Greek).

Jaroslav Pelican in his beautiful book «The Christian Tradition” underlines, that Origen, too, said: «The Logos who came to dwell in Jesus… inspired men before that».

And it’s not occasionally that we can see Homer, Plutarch and Vergil painted on the frescos of Annunciation cathedral in Moscow Kremlin. Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue, which is called «messianic», written in 41-40 years BC, was seen by Christian theologians like a prophetic one. It «prophesied a golden age, the culmination of the centuries, in which a virgin would return and a new offspring, bearing a divine life, would descend from heaven to earth to rule a world…» The same St Augustine and some other Fathers of Church believed that these words really referred to Christ, even though «poetically»…

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware in his article «Could We Think of Lewis as of Anonymous Orthodox Christian?» wrote that Lewis didn’t make any references to the Greek Fathers and possibly even didn’t know them.

For example, we have a classic treatise of St Basil the Great, archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, «Address to Young Men on How They Might Derive Benefit from Greek Literature». St Basil advises to take benefit even from pagan writings to be prepared for a spiritual life. By these writings «we give, as it were in shadows and reflections, a preliminary training to the eye of the soul, imitating those who perform their drills in military tactics, who after they have gained experience, by means of gymnastic exercises for the arms and dance-steps for the feet, enjoy when it comes to the combat the profit derived from what was done in sport».

St Basil gives an example of Moses, «that illustrious man whose name for wisdom is greatest among all mankind, first trained his mind in the learning of the Egyptians». The same with prophet Daniel who «at Babylon first learned the wisdom of the Chaldeans and then applied himself to the divine teachings».
St Basil gives many examples of benefits from the pagan writers if one reads them with wisdom and care, like a bee, looking for the honey, and not like a fly, looking for the mire.

In general, it’s difficult to agree with Lewis in his reflections about culture. In the same time Lewis himself in his introducing lecture as a Cambridge teacher said: «Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian».

Indeed, Lewis is much more severe towards medieval and modern literature. For him, their true values are honour, sexual love, material prosperity and, finally, «the life of liberated instinct».

Lewis was an Oxford professor of literature, so who am I to contest him?..

 And in general, I do agree with him, Lewis is quite right. But anyway I’d like to give just few examples of possible benefits from the secular literature.

1) Literature gives us some beautiful expressions of Christian dogmas, in vivid images, not only in formulas. For example, God’s Providence. Everybody knows about it, we have a nice definition from catechism. But all the way, when something happened, like a death of innocent children or a terrible catastrophe like 11/09 in World Trade Centre in New York, we ask each other: why? Where is a God? Did He really want it? And sometimes we couldn’t be satisfied with the right definitions…

One day, it was almost ten years ago, when I was a priest in Sretensky monastery, in Moscow, our parishioner, young girl, came to me to confess and to take a blessing for the trip in her native city, Irkutsk (it takes for about 6-7 hours to get there by plane). She took a blessing and went away. And in the airport of Irkutsk, when the aircraft landed, it exploded. Everybody inside was killed. It was not a terroristic act, but anyway.

Everybody was dead, including this beautiful young girl, very pure, very devout, very gifted – she was a musician, she was teaching in Moscow conservatory, she was an editor of the Publishing there, also she sang in the choir of Sretensky monastery. She was not married yet…

What should I say to her parents when they came to me to find a consolation? «Read a catechism»? «Everything is ok»? «Don’t worry be happy»?

Her father was a famous Russian writer, Valentin Rasputin. (I can tell you about it as he and his wife have already departed.) And we could take some examples from the literature about God’s Providence.

I’m sure you know well an excellent novel of Thornton Wilder, «The Bridge of San Luis Rey», which got the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. It tells us about strange and unexpectable falling of the famous bridge in Lima, when five persons were lost. One monk, who saw this falling, tries to find out, what’s the matter: why these five, not others? What is it, this choice of Providence? Did these five persons, young and old ones, men and women, did they have something special in theirs lives?

And this novel gives us a very remarkable, artistic answer. I shouldn’t quote it to give you a chance to read it once more by yourself…

We could also remember a novel of Gabriel Garcia Marches «Hundred Years of Solitude». It’s only when everything has finished, when all the history is accomplished, that we can understand the inner sense of the things, we can translate the language of God’s Providence. Till that time something escaped from our vision, we try to decode the time letter, but some characters are not clear…

In that context also I’d like to mention a beautiful film of Terrens Malik «Tree of Life», consecrated to the question of passions, death and Providence.

2) The second reason for a Christian to study literature is to understand a psychology of different people, to know better a human race. For a priest it’s more than possibility, it’s a duty. It’s some kind of pastoral learning of the human. We can see that one of the works of metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitzkiy), famous hierarch of Russian Church abroad, is called «Pastoral learning of the people and life, through the writings of Dostoevsky».

But not only Dostoevsky could give us a food for thinking about life and people. For example, for many parents who care a lot of theirs teenagers it would be very useful to read «The Catcher in the Rye» of Jerome Salinger. We see a young boy, real trouble-maker, who stirs up, who fights with the world of phoniness and hypocrisy, but in the same time he is pure and honest. Metropolitan Antony of Surozh (Bloom) once said, that it was a novel about future priest.

The same things we can say about novels of Dickens or plays of Shakespeare.
Another manner of reading literature could be so-called «apophatic method» (not positive, but negative). An interesting thinker of XX century bishop Barnabas (Belyaev) wrote: «Literature is encyclopaedia of delusions, mirror of the vices, inexhaustible treasury of the human stupidity».

In that sense we can study the mistakes of others to avoid our owns.

3) Third use of literature (and culture in general) that it gives us a metaphor of life, an image of present. The main metaphor of life, the fundamental subject of literature was given to us even in Homer’s «Odyssey». Long and winding road home. Yes, it’s our life, long and difficult way home – to our Heavenly Fatherland. We can see the same subject in many poems and novels, including a new epos, «Lord of the Rings», of Tolkien.

We can see another metaphor of life, for example, in «House of Silence», the novel of the well-known Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, Nobel’s Prize winner. Life as a book, that we can’t change after it was written, but we do can read it again to understand our life and to see our mistakes and our mission.

You can ask me, what has this metaphor of life to do with religion? But religion is not about something strange, it’s all about life.

Sometimes it’s not but a literature that helps us make a right choice.

In my life, I had such experience two or three times when I made a very important decision with the help of the literature examples.

Sometimes we need it, as
… the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.

4) Another very important thing is that culture give us some heroes, some examples for an imitation. We can find not so many just men in literature, much less than villains. If we find any priests, some of them are kind, some are evil ones, like Gandalf and Saruman.

For example, we have beautiful examples of the true bishops in «Miserables», Victor Hugo, and «Promessi Sposi», Alessandro Mandzoni. And these bishops have real historical prototype.

(Usually we consecrate a special lesson in Moscow Theological Academy, where I teach a foreign literature, to the subject «An image of a bishop in world literature».)

But my favourite novel of that kind is «The Power and the Glory» of Graham Greene. (By the way, Greene was graduated from Oxford.) This novel, as you know, is based on the real facts and events in Mexico in the twenties of the last century. Firstly, Greene wrote a documentary book «Lawless Roads», where he described a total demolition of churches, murders of priests and the same terrible things in Mexico of that time.

In the centre of his novel we can see a priest, padre, drunkard, whisky-priest, not an Angel, not a knight without fear and reproach, but anyway a person who serves God and people. He understands well his own indignity but he continues his service in spite of the constant threat of the death. He gives a consolation to the people without consolation to himself.

For me, it’s a great illustration of the Gospel words: «My power is made perfect in weakness» (2 Corinthians, 12, 9, Bible English Standard Version). Here are the power and the glory of God manifested in human weakness. Through the novel of Greene we can understand better the essence of a priest mission – to sacrifice himself for a salvation of others.

I can continue very long time speaking about great use of the wise and careful reading of literature. One of the Russian modern writers, Fasil Iskander, said once, that « the goal of the art is a humanisation of a human». Another great Russian author, Gogol wrote that art is «invisible step to the Christianity».

It becomes much more important now when we are attacked everywhere by primitive pseudo-cultural temptations. Coca-colonisation goes on the planet. And we are alien in this world of total consumption, like an Englishman in New York…

We are called to shake our spear of culture to defend our values, great values of a Christian world.