This is from St. Gregory the Theologian’s Funeral Oration for St. Basil, whose perspective I shared yesterday. St. Gregory says:
I take it all intelligent men agree that among human advantages, education holds first place. I refer not only to our nobler form of it, which disdains all the ambitious ornaments of rhetoric and attaches itself only to salvation and the beauty of spiritual contemplation, but also that external culture which many Christians by an error of judgment scorn as treacherous and dangerous and as turning away from God.
I believe it’s safe to say that one ingredient that should not be included in an “Orthodox culture” is judgment. I’m not referring to the type of judgment also called “good sense” or “discernment.” I’m referring to the type which seeks corroboration in all details for its conviction that its own way is bettter than the other person’s way.
This is an interesting problem for intentional culture creators. Judgment is an easy trap to fall into, even when you set out to exercise something more beneficial, such as discernment, piety, discretion, or the simple shunning of evil, the fight against temptation. You have only to go to the grocery store and take your jug of milk through the checkout line to see abundant proof that plenty of our current culture is absolutely “treacherous and dangerous” and “turning away from God.”
This tiny sliver of St. Gregory’s address doesn’t tell us much about his views, and when I looked him up, I discovered that this oration is quite long. If you want to learn more about it, here is a helpful site. On this site, I discovered an English translation of the full address and found the larger context of the quote above. Here is the larger passage, as it appears on “Elpenor, Home of the Greek Word.”
I take it as admitted by men of sense, that the first of our advantages is education; and not only this our more noble form of it, which disregards rhetorical ornaments and glory, and holds to salvation, and beauty in the objects of our contemplation: but even that external culture which many Christians ill-judgingly abhor, as treacherous and dangerous, and keeping us afar from God. For as we ought not to neglect the heavens, and earth, and air, and all such things, because some have wrongly seized upon them, and honour God’s works instead of God: but to reap what advantage we can from them for our life and enjoyment, while we avoid their dangers; not raising creation, as foolish men do, in revolt against the Creator, but from the works of nature apprehending the Worker,  and, as the divine apostle says, bringing into captivity every thought to Christ:  and again, as we know that neither fire, nor food, nor iron, nor any other of the elements, is of itself most useful, or most harmful, except according to the will of those who use it; and as we have compounded healthful drugs from certain of the reptiles; so from secular literature we have received principles of enquiry and speculation, while we have rejected their idolatry, terror, and pit of destruction. Nay, even these have aided us in our religion, by our perception of the contrast between what is worse and what is better, and by gaining strength for our doctrine from the weakness of theirs. We must not then dishonour education, because some men are pleased to do so, but rather suppose such men to be boorish and uneducated, desiring all men to be as they themselves are, in order to hide themselves in the general, and escape the detection of their want of culture.
I’m not an expert on either St. Basil or St. Gregory, so my thoughts here are simply that: my thoughts. The first thing I noticed in this passage was the connection made between salvation and beauty. I like this because I feel strongly that when we experience real beauty, it can awaken our inner sense that beauty is possible, that we are capable of feeling it with our spirit, and that our spirit has this sense because it recognizes the fingerprints of its Creator.
The second thing I noticed was what looks to me like a slippery slope, at least in potential. I’m sure St. Gregory did not fall down the slope himself. Here’s the slope: “…so from secular literature we have received principles of enquiry and speculation, while we have rejected their idolatry, terror, and pit of destruction. Nay, even these have aided us in our religion, by our perception of the contrast between what is worse and what is better, and by gaining strength for our doctrine from the weakness of theirs.”
I read plenty of secular literature. I have nothing against secular literature at all. BUT. I have also heard plenty of arguments in defense of books, movies, and television shows that appeared full of “idolatry, terror, and the pit of destruction” in which the arguer managed to tease out some theme or perspective on the book that was “Christian” and to offer this to others in the conversation as justification for reading or watching the book/movie/show in question. As I have said before on this blog, if a character flings out his arms as he’s riddled with bullets and falls on the ground in the shape of a cross, that doesn’t make the movie “Christian” and it doesn’t make the bullet-riddled dead guy a “Christ figure.” And don’t even get me started on the Lucifer-fallen-angel-Byronic-hero rant. I haven’t gone on this rant for years, and that’s likely for the best. But I haven’t forgotten!
I don’t think St. Gregory is suggesting that we view this secular literature as Christian, but rather that we look for what is valuable in literature whether it is overtly Christian or not. It follows that he’s also suggesting that literature can make positive contributions without being specifically or overtly Christian. I’m sure this is satisfying to those of you who think the current field of Christian literature is full of poorly written, agenda-driven recycle-bin fodder. It’s also satisfying to those who feel the supporters of certain types of secular literature need to lay off the mental gymnastics it takes to justify their reading choices as Christian. We can all relax. Literature can have positive value without being Christian.
But I also see another point of view presented in this passage. St. Gregory is suggesting that we should look for the Creator in all of creation, and that we should use the gifts of the natural world to draw closer to God, “from the works of nature apprehending the Worker,  and, as the divine apostle says, bringing into captivity every thought to Christ.” This suggests that although secular culture can have positive value, so too may culture that strives to “bring into captivity every thought to Christ.” If we can derive medicine from plants and reptiles as St. Gregory says, and if all natural things aquire power for good or evil according to the intention of their human users, isn’t this also true of words? Of paper and paint and word processors and musical instruments?
If good can be derived from cultural artifacts that aren’t intentionally Christian, how much more might come if the artist strove to embody his or her own inner sense of the beauty that will save the world in a book, or painting, or song?
But even for an intentionally Christian artist or writer, the caveat applies: our natural materials (our art?) take on the spiritual value or intention of the person using them. This suggests to me that Christian literature and culture are no different than their secular counterparts if they are created falsely or for purposes at odds with Christianity. I’m referring to that bullet-riddled dead guy. The effort at beauty would have to reach beyond the surface.