This post is based on brief comments at the Scholé Retreat 2019, Silencing the Sirens, and on an article from the author’s personal blog, The Reading Mother.
Most of us have probably been asked, as Christians and classical educators, if it is really necessary for our students to study pagan mythology and philosophy. It may be a question that you wrestle with in your own mind from time to time. And if you don’t, you certainly should!
Not a New Question
This question has been around since the earliest days of Christianity. “What hath Athens (philosophy) to do with Jerusalem (theology)?” queried Tertullian in the first century after Christ. As a theologian in fierce opposition to insidious heresies infesting the church—a serious problem then, as now—Tertullian believed that many heretical notions had their roots in speculative philosophical ponderings, however sincerely the ponderer might be desiring to understand the Scriptures. So Tertullian, thoroughly conversant with philosophy and poetry himself, concluded that it was probably safer to avoid pagan philosophy and literature altogether.
But it is interesting to note that just before Tertullian asks that famous question, he speaks of the eternal nature of the very questions raised by the Greek philosophers concerning the origins and nature of man, and of good and evil. Even in his warning against the pursuit of pagan lore, he acknowledged the significance of the questions that very lore raised—questions that could only be answered in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
Answers Through the Ages
Many of the church fathers of his day and in the following ages have answered Tertullian’s question. Another theologian conversant with the pagan classics, writing several hundred years later, came to very different conclusions. Having actually dabbled in many pagan philosophical systems, and a few heretical Christian philosophies as well, Augustine came to see all of those investigations as tools in the hand of the God who had relentlessly pursued him through the years. He cites the writings of the various philosophers as links in a chain of books that were inexorably leading him to faith in the one true God. His equally famous answer to Tertullian’s question is that Christians should “plunder the Egyptians,” an analogy he borrows from an earlier classically educated Christian philosopher, Origen. The idea is that gleaning a thorough understanding of the philosophers and poets is similar to the children of Israel readying themselves to leave Egypt. At the Lord’s direction, they asked their Egyptian neighbors to supply them with treasure, which the Egyptians in turn freely gave them. Those treasures were later used to create the rich furnishings that the Lord God directed them to place in the tabernacle. Augustine likened this to the Christian use of pagan literature: we should be mining the gold that is found in the writings of those philosophers and poets, appropriating the riches and truth found there to the service of the gospel, while rejecting the dross of heretical thought.
John Calvin, in his Institutes, echoes Augustine
Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver.
A Caution and a Caveat
Still, it is unwise to simply dismiss Tertullian’s question. Remember, before the Israelites used the gold to furnish the temple, they used it to create golden calves. So, we dare not ignore the possibilities that in the wrong context and in the wrong hands, the pagan philosophies of Athens, which are merely recycled under new names in every succeeding age, can actually be siren songs luring us (and our students!) to the wreck of faith.
With that caveat, I agree with the aims of Augustine and Calvin and a host of other Christians through the ages. The simplest and best picture of the answer to this dilemma comes from one of my very favorite books—a link in my own personal chain of books used by the Lord to draw me to Himself. Throughout his beloved children’s classic, Prince Caspian, C. S. Lewis ponders a version of Tertullian’s question in different ways. In a brief passage toward the end of the book, Lucy and Susan are treated to a feast with Aslan. Among the guests, the two girls recognize Bacchus, the Greek god of wine—known elsewhere as a pretty debauched character. They find him fascinating, but somewhat alarming. Susan says to Lucy, “I wouldn’t have felt safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan.”
What indeed hath Athens to do with Jerusalem? In the company of Aslan, in submission to Christ and His Scriptures, we may confidently engage Homer, Plato, Virgil, and yes, even the Sirens!
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Kathy Weitz is the Scholé Groups administrator for Classical Academic Press. Over the past twenty years, she has educated her six children at home and also pursued a classical education for herself. In addition to her own children, she has taught a number of other students, both online and in the classroom. After years of involvement in small, informal cooperative classical home education endeavors, Kathy and several associates organized their efforts formally six years ago as Providence Prep in Purcellville, Virginia. She is currently involved in founding a collegiate model school in her local community, Loudoun Classical School. Kathy blogs about Morning Time and commonplace books and self-education and scholé at The Reading Mother.