Why not read pagan literature?

Last Tuesday night I got involved in a discussion on why Christians are uncomfortable with pagan literature and how to deal with that problem. Then we ran out of time. Next Tuesday we’ll be renewing that discussion on the Pluto and Plato Radio show/teleconference. I hope you can be there because this is an important issue and I want to be able to answer your questions instead of just spouting ideas like a whale lolling on the ocean. Click here for information.

 In the last call I outlined six general categories for why we should read them. Then we talked about two of them (because the Bible tells us to and gives us the pattern and because the Christian tradition is led by those who have, from the apostles to the church fathers to the reformers). There’s a lot left to talk about. Come and join me!

5 Responses

  1. I have, for many years struggled with the fact of organized religion. Philosophy, I have a high regard for and I applaud anyone who takes the trouble to even step outside their everyday concerns to contemplate the nature of existence, the concept of a supreme being or power and our place in the lacework that is our world and universe. The more I learn about religion, the more I see that it generates hate, not love. I see followers who follow blindly and do not want to become educated about how people around the world feel and think and believe. I wish every member or every religion were open minded. Perhaps I’m just gpinf through a particularly jaded time. However, I feel that being unfettered and free of the shackles of religion allows a person more freedom to worship, to experience, to love. I wish people were less afraid. Perhaps if they were, religion wouldn’t be their shield to carry into battle and the wars would end. If I have offended, please forgive.

    • B. Will

      Thanks for your reply. I’m wondering where you get this impression of religious people, (“the more I learn about religion”) because mine has been generally the opposite. I’ll admit that religious people are, in varying degrees, nervous about the direction of the world. Having endured mind-numbing persecution (read the Gulag Archipilego or Tortured For Christ), there’s always a concern in the back of the Christian’s mind that we’re not far from being martyred ourselves.

      That makes some of us over-react to developments in American politics, for example, where we see our religious rights diminished, or in American popular culture, where we think we see a cultural suicide taking place. Some of us, as a result, certainly over-react. We aren’t as true to our faith as we wish we were.

      But the folks I’ve lived and worked with who were people of faith have been the finest, steadiest, most reliable people I’ve known. Among them are people who use religion as a foil to get what they want and to hurt others (and I’ve been deeply hurt by both sincere and well-meaning religous people).

      Against what standard are you measuring these religous people? What do you mean by hate? If I believe something is a sin and I say so, does that mean I hate someone who is doing it? If so, you have just written a hate-filled diatribe. However, I don’t believe that is what hate is and I have absolutely no reason to believe that you hate religious people. On the contrary, I noticed in your note a genuine concern.

      The thing that puzzles me most in your comment is the issue of organized religion. Any group that forms a group has an identity and wants to protect it. People outside resent that. But if we don’t form groups, we can’t be human beings. The solution to this dilemma is not to condemn people for loving their groups or building their identity around their relationships. It’s not to make ever individual try to work out through philosophy the answers to life’s enduring questions (Guy Noire has done fairly badly at that).

      That’s beyond the powers of human nature. We need each other and we need to love each other in concrete, personal, wash the laundry, clean the dishes, wash the wounds terms.

      To learn about how people around the world feel and think and believe is nice, though it can be awfully patronizing in lesser hands than yours, but that’s not love. Love is what you do with your hands and your mouth.

      Or so it seems to me.

  2. Why should Christians read ‘pagan’ literature?

    From the encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Fides et ratio (Faith and reason):


    1. In both East and West, we may trace a journey which has led humanity down the centuries to meet and engage truth more and more deeply. It is a journey which has unfolded – as it must – within the horizon of personal self-consciousness: the more human beings know reality and the world, the more they know themselves in their uniqueness, with the question of the meaning of things and of their very existence becoming ever more pressing. This is why all that is the object of our knowledge becomes a part of our life. The admonition Know yourself was carved on the temple portal at Delphi, as testimony to a basic truth to be adopted as a minimal norm by those who seek to set themselves apart from the rest of creation as “human beings”, that is as those who “know themselves”.

    Moreover, a cursory glance at ancient history shows clearly how in different parts of the world, with their different cultures, there arise at the same time the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? These are the questions which we find in the sacred writings of Israel, as also in the Veda and the Avesta; we find them in the writings of Confucius and Lao-Tze, and in the preaching of Tirthankara and Buddha; they appear in the poetry of Homer and in the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, as they do in the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle. They are questions which have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart. In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction which people seek to give to their lives….

    3. Men and women have at their disposal an array of resources for generating greater knowledge of truth so that their lives may be ever more human. Among these is philosophy, which is directly concerned with asking the question of life’s meaning and sketching an answer to it….

    5. On her part, the Church cannot but set great value upon reason’s drive to attain goals which render people’s lives ever more worthy. She sees in philosophy the way to come to know fundamental truths about human life. At the same time, the Church considers philosophy an indispensable help for a deeper understanding of faith and for communicating the truth of the Gospel to those who do not yet know it….

    72. In preaching the Gospel, Christianity first encountered Greek philosophy; but this does not mean at all that other approaches are precluded. Today, as the Gospel gradually comes into contact with cultural worlds which once lay beyond Christian influence, there are new tasks of inculturation, which mean that our generation faces problems not unlike those faced by the Church in the first centuries.

    My thoughts turn immediately to the lands of the East, so rich in religious and philosophical traditions of great antiquity. Among these lands, India has a special place. A great spiritual impulse leads Indian thought to seek an experience which would liberate the spirit from the shackles of time and space and would therefore acquire absolute value. The dynamic of this quest for liberation provides the context for great metaphysical systems….

    What has been said here of India is no less true for the heritage of the great cultures of China, Japan and the other countries of Asia, as also for the riches of the traditional cultures of Africa, which are for the most part orally transmitted.

  3. Andrew,

    I wish I could have heard your broadcast yesterday!

    Why read pagan literature? Well, in part, it’s because it is so much better than Christian literature. (OK. I jest a bit. But just a bit.)

    Besides, Christians should read pagan literature because that is what the pagans are reading. Note that St. Paul himself read pagan literature; pagan literature is part of the Holy Canon because St. Paul found truth therein that illuminates us all.

    Great topic!

    Peace to you,

    Bill Gnade

  4. I wholeheartedly agree that in the conversation between the Bible and, in particular, the Greeks (Aristotle and Plato) both worlds can come to a greater clarification of the nature of their different traditions. In this manner the so called debate between Jerusalem and Athens may provide modernity a postmodernity with a serious challenge as regards their own presuppositions.

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