I spent yesterday afternoon and early evening in the wonderful presence of Fr. John Behr (one of the speakers at the forthcoming Florovsky Symposium in Princeton). The time with him was in three parts. The first was a lecture he delivered to the honors forum of my university’s honors college on the Orthodox tradition and the liberal arts. The second was over a drink with three of my colleagues, good chaps all around, pace their Protism, who have very good heads on their shoulders (and Oxford grad, a St. Andrews grad, and the last from Notre Dame). Finally Fr. Behr had dinner with a number of students and faculty, who, afterward asked him a variety of questions. For this last part he largely gave his responses based on his The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death.
The lecture, which was about 70 minutes in length, looked not merely at Orthodox attitudes to ‘pagan’ literature, but to what end these attitudes were held. In short we read Homer, Plato et al. because we need instruction in words, instruction in reading, in order not merely to read holy Scripture, but in order to understand it. He made reference to all the usual suspects: Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory Thaumaturgus, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom (and with these last three, the feast of the Three Hierarchs, so chosen – – to the seeming exclusion of Gregory of Nyssa – – because they were orators, those trained in words). He even noted that when Julian the apostate banned Christians from using pagan literature to teach in their schools, Apollinarus and his father transposed the scriptures into epic, drama, and tragedy in order that students could learn to read. Once Julian died, Christians went back to using the pagans, and Apollinarus’ and his father’s efforts were discarded. The pagans were preferred for this. Indeed, quoting Origen, using the pagans was like the children of Israel plundering the Egyptians (Augustine uses the same analogy), for with the gold and silver and fabric the Israelites got, the constructed the tabernacle (a point I don’t remember as being in Augustine, though I could be forgetful here).
But it was, of course, more than mere pedagogy. For the Christians it was also hermeneutical in regard to history. The apostles only understood Jesus’ life and ministry after the fact. They were obtuse. Paul read the Old Testament, but not till confronted by the risen Christ did he understand it. Thus, meeting Christ and seeing Christ in the scriptures, knowing him in the breaking of bread, do we see the real “metanarrative” of the OT; only then do we truly get what its saying. And so with the pagans. The logoi spermatakoi resides in all, so while Plato and Socrates would have had no notion of Moses (they weren’t plagiarizers), they nonetheless contained within them elements of the truth that now elevated their works above the merely pagan.
The afternoon zizzers were good, just to take the edge off the day before going back to the students (Whom we really do love! Honest injun!). At dinner the topic largely drifted to history, and its fulfillment in Christ. For Fr. Behr, the resurrected Christ is the first human, and he gives meaning to all human life. Thus we are not human now, but becoming so; death holds us, and only when we see death for what it really should be, the abandonment of ourselves and total reliance on God (Father, into they hands I commend My Spirit), can we hope to become human. Needless to say, none of these kids, or even any of the several faculty, save one other than myself (an Antiochian deacon who is adjunct at my institution) had ever heard such, let alone thought along such lines.
There were numerous other items – – icons, “being saved”, candles, baptism; given more time, and perhaps with the prodding of questions I shall remember others. Nonetheless, any of you who can get to Princeton on 12 February, he alone is worth the price.