Pre-socratics, politics and prosperity

I have been reading up on early Greek Philosophy -we’re talking 6th-5th century BC. It’s fascinating, thought-provoking and at times quite confusing. Often they start with a profound insight and end up with what we consider to be a ridiculous result. Other times, they start with what seems to be a false premise, and yet argue something powerful from it.

My aim is to investigate the religious conception of the pre-Spcratic philosophers. Their understanding of the gods is my particular focus (although this is closely linked to their cosmology). This provides a fascinating comparison with my own Christian belief. How were their ideas on track? What about their theology reflects the reality of the one true God?

One concept that cropped up, amongst a plethora of intriguing instances of concordance or difference, is that of how religious context affects worship. I can’t outline the full context here, but here’s the quote that really got me thinking:

“If it were not in honour of Dionysius that they conducted the procession and sang the hymn to the male organ (the phallic hymn), their activity would be completely shameless.” — Heraclitus, fragment B15.

Heraclitus’ basic religious belief is monotheistic, but allows for worship of the Olympic Pantheon of gods (i.e Greek traditional religion) as a conduit for understanding the one, more fundamental God.

The quote goes along with several others of Heraclitus. It is claiming that the religious rites, if stripped of their religious context and significance, would be dishonourable. The Dionysiac rituals were basically orgiastic ceremonies (read: drunken sex parties) that would certainly be considered wild and intemperate in any other context. The popularity of such rituals, and Heraclitus’ commentary on them, got me thinking.

Dionysiac Mystery, carved on a sarcophagus

Dionysiac Mystery, carved on a sarcophagus

It seems that the popularity of the god Dionysus would have a lot to do with this style of worship that allowed wild parties and immoderate conduct to be considered pious. As Heraclitus says, these are things that could not be justified except under the yoke of religious worship. It seems likely, then, that those who seek that sort of experience would be able to find good excuse, in religion, to serve their own desires.

So why does this matter? I think that while Christianity has no ritual that would warrant adoption of Christian worship for the enjoyment of the ritual, there are still dangers of leaning this way. Do people use Christianity as a framework through which to justify a particular desire?

Here I am not talking about Christians letting the gospel inform their views and actions. That is essential. I am considering, rather, in what ways people may adopt “Christianity” as a way to justify their presuppositions.

A few things come to mind. One may be the socio-political dynamic in the USA. Ultra-conservatism is justified as a Christian concept. While much of what they say may be, somewhere along the line, biblical, there is a lot of baggage that goes along with it. Consider homosexuality. While there is a biblical viewpoint on sexuality, and Christians are right to maintain their conscience, there is no biblical warrant at all for the hate and condemnation towards homosexuals that we have seen (and cringed at, for the damage it does to the cause of the gospel) so many times. It seems that Christianity may appear, to some, as a platform through which their homphobia may be legitimised. The fact that their actions are so far from gospel truth suggests that for at least some, Christianity is not a personal faith in Christ to the glory of God, but a social phenomenon. [Edit: For those who are interested in a more biblical view of homosexuality, have a look over HERE.]

Secondly, consider the hugely popular prosperity gospel. This has many manifestations, from the classic notion that those with faith will be blessed with money, to more subtle forms that tend towards superficial happiness or self-help. This seems to me to be largely driven by two notions: firstly that people do not wish to have to sacrifice, and secondly that it is an attractive justification for affluence and self-interest, while still allowing people to feel as if they are in God’s good books. It is people combining their own (sinful!) desires for prosperity with a sense of piety. It is, in one sense, almost the opposite of the situation Heraclitus describes. Here people are adopting values that are entirely acceptable to society, and combining them with religious conscience, distorting – perhaps denying – the truth of the gospel in the process. The similarity is also powerful, however; a doctrine and practice influenced by the presuppositions and desires of its adherents.

We must be careful. We must analyse our desires and the assumptions of our culture, and ensure that we are not allowing our own ideas to impinge upon the truth. In his chapter of  “Thinking. Loving. Doing…“, Al Mohler said something I found very helpful: don’t trust yourself. Don’t trust your own mind. Don’t trust yourself to come up with the best logic, the best ethics, the truth. That needs to come from the bible. We must remember that our minds are fallen, and though they are being renewed daily, we are still not free from sin and self-deception. We cannot allow our own philosophy to come in place of biblical truth.

Secondly, consider how people view Christianity. Do they see it as merely a social platform through which we can exercise our presuppositions? Are they right? It is possible that any one of those who are in church on a Sunday are not there because they love and follow Jesus, but because the church justifies their lifestyle. I think we all need to be wary, and make sure that we love the church because Jesus loves the church, rather than loving the church because it allows us to live a life that seems right.

People have many different views of Christianity and the church. Much of what puts people off may have something to do with the way that people hijack a religious context to enact their presuppositions. On the other hand, many people are drawn to churches because they see people who have something they do not. They see a contentment, community, love, service and purpose that is not offered elsewhere. They see people have clearly got something right. This is a great thing! The church is, in those cases, acting in accordance with its nature; light and salt.

But we cannot let the church’s blessing be merely that of common grace. We cannot let the church be nothing more than a group of people with an attractive lifestyle. We need to make sure that if someone is drawn in by the life of the church, they are not able to merely adopt the lifestyle without being confronted by Christ.

Make sure that your lifestyle and security are firmly rooted in the gospel of grace. Make sure that you are not merely going along with Christianity because there is a good community, or because it gives you purpose.

Let us not be like those partakers in Dionysiac rituals, who satisfy their own desires under the pretense of piety. May we not allow our sinfulness to compromise the church.

May we be transformed. May Christ be all.


John Piper and David Mathis (ed.) 2011, Thinking. Loving. Doing.: A Call to Glorify God with Heart and Mind, Crossway.

Kathleen Freeman 1952, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A complete translation of the Fragments in Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Oxford. Fragment 22.B15 is quoted.

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