Guarding Heathen Things

I was musing on the fact that there are apparently a good number of Islamic clerics who want to BLOW UP THE PYRAMIDS. Did you catch that? Yeah. Apparently the pyramids are relics of a pagan past, and several clerics are calling for them to be destroyed. Much the same way the great tombs of Timbuktu are currently being destroyed. The rabid iconoclasm of Islam would be laughable if not for the fact that it has destroyed many ancient and beautiful works of art. This made me think of the way Christianity has spread throughout the world, and of the fact that when a culture/nation converts to Christianity it is never required to destroy its own history.

One of the most surprising aspects of the spread of the Christian Church throughout history is that Christianity does not seek to impose an external culture upon every new land into which it enters. It is not the goal of the Church to make everyone in the world Roman or Greek; it is not the Church’s goal to make everyone adhere to the culture of first century Israel or even of thirteenth century Europe either. Christ commands in the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matt. 28:19) The nations are to be made disciples and baptized. This baptism of a nation will certainly change the culture. It will change the customs and festivals, the worldviews and common beliefs, and the laws and government. However, it will do so from the inside out and the end result will look very different in each case. A baptized Chinese culture will look very different from a baptized Brazilian culture, for example.

Another aspect of this is a recognition of the goodness of God’s creation. Yes, all men have fallen into sin, but all men retain the image of God which is not wholly destroyed. Thus in every culture there will be beauty and there will be elements of the truth that should be accepted and preserved. Missionaries to Scandinavian countries had no problem using stories of Balder in order to teach about Christ, for example. Likewise, Christians have never had a problem with baptizing pagan customs and making them Christian; although it must be said that this is often different from what people think it is. Take Halloween for instance. There was, indeed, a pagan festival called Samhain at this time of the year in ancient Britain. However, as best we can tell historically, it was simply a harvest celebration. Carving and putting candles in gourds, dressing in costumes, and the prevalence of skeletons and symbols of death are all Christian additions to the pagan holiday, not carryovers from the pagan holiday.

The process of keeping and using whatever is true, good, or beautiful in a pagan culture was laid forth by St. Augustine of Hippo:

“Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves, were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them.”
–From On Christian Doctrine by Saint Augustine, Book II Chapter XL

Likewise, Pope Gregory the Great, when asked by Augustine of Canterbury what was to be done about all the pagan temples in Britain, suggested that they be kept and used as Christian churches:

“Howbeit, when Almighty God has led you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have long been considering in my own mind concerning the matter of the English people; to wit, that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let water be consecrated and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed there. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more freely resort to the places to which they have been accustomed.”

-from a letter of Pope Gregory the Great in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede, Book I Chapter XXX

G.K. Chesterton portrays this aspect of Christendom in his epic poem “The Ballad of the White Horse.” In the poem, King Alfred, when he has defeated the Danes at the Battle of Ethandun orders his men to restore the great chalk figure of the Uffington White Horse, a relic of pre-Christian times in Britain and which has been allowed to deteriorate under the rule of the Danes.

“Ere the sad gods that made your gods
Saw their sad sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale,
That you have left to darken and fail,
Was cut out of the grass.

“Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.

“For our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
What spirit with whom you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God's death the stars shall stand
And the small apples grow.”

-From "Ballad of the White Horse" by G.K. Chesterton, Book III

So is it likely that the Great Pyramids are going to be reduced to rubble? Probably not. But the fact that there are many that would like to see them so is a sad testament to a religion whose god “hath blessed destruction with his hand,” and a great contrast to the Christian God who “hath blessed creation, calling it good”.

Comments

Erica said…
Although, according to some liberals, Christianity has destroyed all cultures it has touched. Or something.

By the way try commenting again, see if it works. If it doesn't I'm going to assume blogger is just being blogger again.
Rick said…
Nope. Still doesn't work. I tried with my account and as Anonymous.