Pachamama and the Gods of Ancient Greece. The Lesson of Paul in Athens
The synod for the Amazon has been filed away, but the “scandal” that accompanied its unfolding is far from being healed.
Generating this “sign of contradiction” was Pope Francis himself, at first on October 4 in the Vatican Gardens, by attending prostrations in front of unidentified objects of worship including a wooden statuette of a naked and pregnant woman that was carried in procession the following day inside the basilica of Saint Peter, and in the second place on October 25 in the synod hall, by identifying the statuette as a Pachamama, the name of an Incan divinity, and at the same time denying “idolatrous intentions,” to the point of once again hypothesizing “exposition during the holy Mass for the closing of the synod.”
Between these two acts, in the three weeks of the synod’s duration, the Vatican’s highest information officials consistently refused to give an answer to the repeated requests for clarification on the part of the international press, while at a nearby church those statuettes continued to be the object of worship, except for the days in which they were taken away and thrown into the Tiber river by a young Austrian Catholic inflamed with anti-idolatrous zeal.
After the synod the controversy continued, including among bishops and cardinals, with some of them very critical and others instead, like Austro-Brazilian bishop Erwin Kräutler, going so far as to express hopes for the inclusion of Pachamama in the Catholic liturgy.
Until Pope Francis weighed in again, likely with the intention of closing the dispute, without making explicit reference to it but dedicating an entire public audience in Saint Peter’s Square precisely to the “extraordinary example of inculturation of the message of faith” carried out by the apostle Paul in Athens, not “by attacking the idol worshipers, but by making himself ‘pontefice’, builder of bridges.”
The audience was that of Wednesday, November 6:
The key point of Paul’s speech in Athens, highlighted by the pope, is the one in which the apostle calls the attention of those around him to an altar of the city dedicated to “an unknown god, ” going on to say: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
But this is precisely the contradiction not resolved by the synod for the Amazon and by the Pachamama affair: amid the irrelevance, if not the absence, of the Christian proclamation and of the reckless emphasis given instead to pagan culture and piety, without exercising on these the necessary judgment – “krisis” – for the sake of their correct use – “chrêsis” – following the example of Paul himself and then of the Fathers of the Church, grappling with the idolatry of the time.
There is an illustrious scholar, Christian Gnilka, 83 years old, a friend of Joseph Ratzinger, who has written a capital work on this topic: “Chrêsis. The method of the Church Fathers in relations with ancient culture. The concept of right use,” published in its final version in Basel in 2012 and for now available only in German but soon to be translated in Italy by Morcelliana.
But just as instructive might be the conference given in Bologna last May on “A method for dialogue among cultures. The patristic ‘chrêsis’,” the proceedings of which will also be published by Morcelliana.
What follows is a very condensed excerpt from the compelling presentation given at that conference by Professor Leonardo Lugaresi – a patrologist whom the readers of Settimo Cielo have already appreciated for some of his previous contributions – precisely on Paul’s behavior in Athens, as narrated by the Acts of the Apostles and commented on by the Fathers of the Church.
Enjoy the read! (Keeping in mind the Amazon and thereabouts).
Paul’s action at the Areopagus as a model of the exercise of Christian “krisis”
by Leonardo Lugaresi
The first point on which to concentrate the attention is the dedication “to an unknown god” which Paul states that he saw inscribed on the platform of an altar in Athens, and which opens his kerygmatic speech to the pagan philosophers of the city.
In the polytheistic religious mentality of the time, the meaning of this dedication must have been very different from the one that Paul attributes to it. Like every religious system, Greco-Roman polytheism as well, if it intends to manage the relationship with the divine – which in the final analysis is every religion’s reason for being of – must understand it. The divine – by definition, super-human – is however not comprehensible on the part of man. So the polytheistic way of resolving this problem is to try to cope with the onslaught of the divine superabundance through the serial multiplication of the divine denominations and of the relative practices of worship. This is why inclusivity is one of its essential characteristics, without which it collapses and dies. In its effort to map the entire divine world, however, polytheism is in any case forced to admit that it does not know all the names of the gods. This leads to an anxiety that induces the devotee to add precisely the invocation to an “unknown god” in order to make sure he has not left anyone out.
Now, what Paul does by taking up this appeal that comes from the heart of paganism – and giving, at first glance, the impression of affirming it – is precisely to change its meaning profoundly and to denounce the failure of this line of religious conduct.
If in fact the appellation “unknown god” is nothing other than a substitute for a further divine name, the religious man would always be left with the doubt that there could be yet another form of expression of the divine that this label does not cover. Putting into the account an unknown “n” is not enough for polytheism to solve its theological equation, owing to the hypothesis, ever looming, that the manifestations of the divine could instead be “n + 1.”
So it must be that ”unknown god” means a great deal more. Not simply “an” unknown god, but “the” unknown God, meaning the true God. That unknown God whom polytheism is not capable of grasping, and whom however Paul proclaims he has come to reveal.
So it is necessary that the radical superabundance of the divine with respect to the way in which polytheistic religion thinks of it be recognized by this. And it is precisely in this recognition of limitation that there is found the prerequisite that alone can open Paul’s interlocutors to a true hearing of his message, overcoming the facile temptation to reduce him to a “proclaimer of foreign divinities,” to be treated according to the inclusive logic of the religious system in force, meaning with a cooptation into the pantheon.
The Christian “krisis” exercised here by Paul – separating an element of polytheism from its context, exploring it, and situating it on another level of truth – therefore takes shape as an encounter that, entering within that cultural environment, brings it into question and judges it from the inside. It acts as a sword that cuts into and destabilizes the system it comes up against, forcing those who are its architects, beneficiaries, and defenders to bring their own certainties into crisis.
This examination, or if one prefers this purification, is the necessary precondition for a “chrêsis,” for a right use of all those elements of pagan culture whose value Christians recognize.
The second aspect of the account of Acts 17:16-34 that needs to be emphasized is that Paul also performs a critical revision of his initial attitude. In other words, the”krisis” works on him as well.
The text says, in fact, that the apostle “trembled with indignation in his spirit, seeing that the city was full of idols.” Note carefully: this violent reaction of his is not just psychological, but also cultural, in the sense that it fully corresponds to a code of behavior that a pious pharisee like Paul has perfectly internalized. It is the only and necessary response that must be given by a follower of the true God in the face of idolatry, to which one responds only with indignation and condemnation. But is this already “krisis”? No, because this is not a matter of a judgment that enters and separates and therefore rends, but rather a judgment that remains outside and rejects en bloc. On this basis, evidently, it is not possible to have any sort of “chrêsis.”
But the account continues by saying that Paul not only “discussed meanwhile in the synagogue with the Jews and the worshipers” – which seems entirely consistent with the indignant rebuff of pagan idolatry as above – but also “in the marketplace, day after day, with those whom he met,” and this instead turns out to be anything but predictable.
I will not dwell on the implicit but perfectly recognizable Socratic “allure” that the author of Acts imprints upon his character, commonly recognized as one of the keys for interpreting the entire episode. I will limit myself to pointing out that there lies precisely here – in the Pauline decision to talk with anyone in the public space, without closing himself off, on account of the initial judgment of condemnation for impiety recognized as a characteristic trait of the city, within the enclosure of an exclusive relationship with the Jews and with the God-fearers – the indispensable precondition for the “krisis” and for the “chrêsis” that he later puts into action and the reason for the character of reflexivity that this process inevitably assumes.
In deciding, in fact, to enter into dialogue with anyone he may meet, Paul must necessarily also give the benefit of the doubt to the idolaters, take their position seriously, and on this change of attitude is based the attempt to enter their field and make his own, albeit in a profoundly critical way, their religious imperative.
The paradigmatic value of Paul’s missionary action in Athens and the critical and self-critical scope of his speech, with regard to the possibility of founding a “chrêsis,” a right use even of pagan religion, would be fully understood by the exegesis of the Fathers of the Church.
The previous writings of Professor Lugaresi on Settimo Cielo and on http://www.chiesa:
> Thespian, Throw Away the Mask! (20.2.2011)
And on today’s forms of polytheism:
> The New Polytheism and its Tempter Idols (9.12.2010)