By Jim Denison
There is a transportation strike going on here as I write from a hotel room in Athens. I come to Greece often and have never seen such gridlock.
Today’s traffic is a metaphor for the politics of this struggling nation. Leading a two-week study tour in the footsteps of Paul and John, I am visiting some of the most famous sites in Western history. Tragically, the modern state where they are located is embroiled in financial controversy of historic proportions.
Some economists compare America’s financial struggles with those in Greece. Both governments spend far more than they take in. Both are mired in political quagmires that make progress on substantive issues difficult. Both subsidize large segments of their work force in unsustainable ways.
Others argue the opposite. They say America’s level of debt is far lower than the massive liabilities built by Greece, and our natural resources, open trade and entrepreneurial opportunities far surpass those of this ancient land.
I am no expert in economics. The next finance class I take will be my first. As a theologian looking for spiritual similarities, however, I find parallels between the United States and Greece that are real and deeply troubling.
Six centuries before Christ a legendary poet and philosopher named Orpheus taught that our souls existed in a pre-incarnate state, but they “sinned,” as we would say, and were punished by being placed in physical bodies. The point of life is to purify our souls so they can return to their pre-incarnate existence when we die.
This was just one idea among many, but it became influential for Pythagoras and his followers. Pythagoras focused on mathematics and music precisely because they are non-material. How much does a C scale weigh? What color is the number seven? Pythagoras in turn influenced Plato, and Plato changed the Western world.
It is because of this ancient Greek influence on our civilization that it is part of our cultural DNA to regard religion and the “real world” as separate realms.
The Greeks had a transactional religion. They placed offerings on the altars of their gods to secure their blessings. If you were about to take a voyage, you would sacrifice to Poseidon. If you needed help in war, you would sacrifice to Ares, and so on.
Biblical Christianity, by contrast, was a transformational relationship. Jesus’ call was clear and holistic: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” He announced the coming of God’s Kingdom and taught his followers to pray for it to come on earth as it is in heaven.
In the Bible, God is a king. In culture, he is a hobby. How did this happen?
As Christianity grew outside its Palestinian roots into the larger Greco-Roman world, it gradually adopted much of the culture it had set out to change. By AD 250 we separated the “clergy” from the “laity” — making priests like those in Greek and Roman religions to help us perform our transactions with God.
When Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 we began constructing buildings where those priests could live and work. The architectural similarity between our church structures and ancient Greco-Roman temples is striking.
In the modern era we began to measure success by the size of our temples and programs. The postmodern world went on to tell us that all truth is personal and subjective. It doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you’re tolerant of my beliefs and sincere in yours.
American Christianity today is by and large a transactional religion. Millions go to church on Sunday in hopes that God will bless them on Monday. We give to the church so that God will bless us financially. C. S. Lewis said we relate to God like honest people who pay our taxes but hope there will be money left over for us to do what we want.
The great need of our day is to repent of this pre-Christian transactional religion and return to a transformational relationship with Jesus Christ. Which would God say is true for you?