The Utmost Importance of the Incarnation of Christ
Recently, I’ve been casually studying the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, the progression of their thought, their history, and beliefs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not, and don’t think I’ll ever be, at the point of quoting lengthy passages by Plato, Seneca, or Epictetus from memory. Rather, I’ll leave that to our son who just graduated high school with four years of Latin and two years of Greek. But, by understanding the broader context of thought into which early Christianity was born can lead to a better understanding of Church history specifically and the development of Christian theology in general.
Probably the most fascinating thing I’ve learned in my casual sampling of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy is that there was a strain of philosophy that rejected the commonly-held pantheistic beliefs in the Greek (and subsequent Roman) multiplicity of gods with which we are familiar (Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Venus, etc., etc.). This philosophical rejection began with Xeophanes in the 6th century B.C., was partially taken up by Socrates, Plato and others, and came to a sort of culmination with Plotinus in the 3rd century A.D.
Though pagan, Plotinus taught of a supreme and transcendent “One.” Sound familiar?
In fact, I’ve come to learn that many of the Greek and Roman intellectual elite (in particular Stoics and Neo-Platonists) in the first centuries A.D. had come to a monotheistic or nearly monotheistic (in some cases, dualistic) understanding of a “highest power,” a “prime mover,” a supreme God. So, while many common pagans still sincerely relied on the favors of Zeus/Jupiter, Hera/Juno, the deified Roman Emperor, and countless greater and lesser gods, there was actually an intellectual elite that, apparently by reason alone, came to develop a basic theology not too dissimilar from the essence of the Jewish understanding of the one, true God.
The fact that there was not a lot of difference (in a “big picture” sense with respect to the one/unified nature of God) between the early Christians and their pagan persecutors (at least many of the adherents of Stoicism and Neoplatonism) has been a truly fascinating “discovery” for me.
From the “One” to the “One Difference”
Of course, we’re intimately familiar with the theological differences between Judaism and Christianity, the primary divergence being the Jewish rejection of the divinity of Christ. And we’re equally familiar with the theological differences between pantheistic paganism and Christianity. But, learning of the essentially monotheistic beliefs of many of the advanced Greek and Roman thinkers, really awakened me to the centrality of the Incarnation to our Religion.
Sacraments, Grace, and Salvation History aside (not minor matters I’ll concede), was there really much of a contrast between these “enlightened” pagans and Christians? Not much as they generally shared several other beliefs including general admiration of virtues and self-control as well as some sort of belief in post-mortem reward and/or punishment.
The One Difference is the Incarnation, God becoming man, our Savior Jesus Christ.
In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul acknowledged that Jesus was “folly” to the Greeks. Jesus is the One Difference!
Upon pondering this, my sense is that it’s easy for us to fall into a kind of quiet “Deism” in which, while we may have a very strong belief in God, we don’t really develop (as our Protestant brothers and sisters say) a personal relationship with Jesus.
That is THE difference. That is why so many thousands of early Christians were willingly martyred by otherwise monotheistic pagans. That is why we’re called Christians.
While this may be a “no brainer” for some of you, I hope you share my joy in this little “discovery.” And with this understanding, I hope you will join me in reinvigorating the pursuit of a personal relationship with Jesus!
How? Well, my first baby step the past week has been to more mindfully direct my prayers to Jesus in a conversational manner. I found that a great start was from the image of the Divine Mercy: “Jesus, I trust in you!”