by Ben Schreckinger
Christmas is Wednesday, and as the recent (and absurd) controversy over the color of Santa’s skin indirectly reminds us, the holiday is an amalgam of various pagan and Christian traditions drawn from a diversity of times and places. In addition to the Gospel stories of Jesus’ birth, they include the hagiography of the 4th century Lycian bishop St. Nicholas, Roman Saturnalia, and the Scandinavian-Pagan Yule. It is remarkable that like a time capsule, this Christian holiday serves as a vessel in which parts of various pre-Christian belief systems, otherwise long-ago lost, stand preserved.
Their preservation is testament to the tenacity of human spiritual beliefs and traditions, which often manage to outlive the environments that first produced them. Far more fragile than beliefs are human institutions, whose shelf-lives only very rarely exceed a few centuries. The birth of Jesus represents the turning point Western history between its pagan and Christian periods, which are embodied by the institutions of the Oracle at Delphi and the Roman Catholic Church, respectively. The real Christmas miracle is that between them, these two institutions represent a continuity that spans the history of Western civilization, from about 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus right up to the present day.
To examine the two side-by-side tells us something about how Western civilization has evolved: from an individualistic, agonistic world into an organized, hierarchical one. It also teaches us about how human institutions live and die, giving us reason to suspect that the church will outlive every national government currently in existence.
The Oracle at Delphi was the product of an agonistic, individualistic world. Of those that sought its prophecies it made only one demand: “Know thyself.” The guidance it offered was ambiguous and could be a double-edged sword. In perhaps the most famous myth attached to the oracle (or the most famous moment in its history, if you believe Herodotus), the 6th century Lydian King Croesus sought guidance on whether to pursue an invasion of Persia. “If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed,” came the prophecy. Croesus attacked, but it was Lydia, not Persia that was destroyed.
The story epitomizes the Greek relationship to the divine, at the intersection of which sat the oracle. The gods were not benign protectors of humanity, but powerful supernatural beings with all the flaws and complex motivations of people. Their word was not meant to be taken at face value. They were just another force in the cosmos that a person had to contend with, sometimes friend, sometimes foe, sometimes something in between.
Compare that to the paternalistic embrace of the Roman Catholic Church. By the time the institution had matured in the early medieval period, there were few things it wanted less than for all the members of its flock to know themselves. The parish priest was their father, and the clergy claimed the exclusive right of exegesis — no one else was permitted to interpret holy texts. It called for obedience, rather than self-knowledge. This difference, too, of course reflects the orthodox Christian relationship between humanity and the divine, in which God is a benign father.
These two models for human behavior and the human relationship to the divine reflect two very different socio-political contexts. The Greeks of the Archaic and Hellenic periods identified themselves most strongly with their poleis. The polis, in general, was an independent and sovereign entity that operated with other poleis on the assumption of moral and cosmic equality. In many poleis, like democratic Athens, this model applied on the individual level as well, with the enfranchised male populations functioning as formal equals, despite practical inequalities in wealth or virtue. Formally unequal relationships between unequal poleis — such as in the Athens-dominated Delian League or Macedonian domination of the Greeks under Philip II — made for a less natural, and therefore less stable and enduring status quo. And so the norm was for entities to think and act for themselves.
In the Roman world from which Christianity emerged, on the other hand, there was a central power that propelled itself towards universal subjugation and rule. In this context, hierarchy was the norm, and benign hierarchy became the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, both in its administration and its theology.
We can glean insight, too, from the two institutions’ paths to longevity. Few other human institutions come close. The political entity of Rome itself, if you were to take the traditional founding date of the city, 753 BC, at face value, clocks in at over a thousand years — almost two thousand if you extend its longevity to the fall of the Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire in 1453. But over the course of that history, Rome’s esential identity morphed so completely that it’s difficult to talk of true continuity. The basic identities of the Oracle at Delphi and the Roman Catholic Church did remain and have remained stable enough to view each as a single, continuous institution (By “Roman Catholic Church” I mean the 1.2-billion member church headed by the pope, which scholars and the devout might prefer to refer to as “the Latin Church”). By that standard of continuity, it’s probably Oxford and the University of Bologna, each pushing a millennium, that come closest to these two for longevity. So how did the Oracle do it? And how has the Roman Catholic Church done it?
The Oracle outlived the poleis system that created it because its religious nature made it part of a rich Hellenic cultural tradition that Macedon, then Rome, were eager to appropriate to bolster their imperial credibility. As a religious institution it didn’t interfere with — even complemented — the imperial project, whereas Greek political institutions did, and they came to an earlier end. As the Oxford Classical Dictionary states, “It is not true that the oracle’s influence had diminished as a result of its suspect position in the Persian wars. Its influence continued, only it ‘political’ role inevitably diminished in the radically changed circumstances of the Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman world.”
The Roman Catholic Church achieved the height of its influence for political reasons: it essentially inherited the administrative system of the Roman Empire. When secular political power devolved into feudal anarchy, the Roman Catholic Church became the only connective tissue of the Western world — and did so on the skeleton of the empire. But like the Delphic Oracle, the church has its religious nature to thank for its longevity. If it were a political institution in its essence, it would have disappeared long ago. But because it can grow and shed its political role as circumstances dictate, the church can coexist with secular political powers that come and go. At times like the present when the church isn’t able to exist as a political power, it still enjoys a religious raison d’etre that gives it resilience.
That stands in opposition to essentially political institutions that graft onto themselves religious identities. Various Chinese dynasties, for example, could claim the mandate of heaven, but they ceased to exist when they fell from political power. European monarchs who claimed similar religious authority saw their monarchies destroyed when their hour of political domination ended. The pope has lost his states, but not his church.
The church has the benefit of an identity whose legitimacy depends mostly on human values and spiritual beliefs, rather than economic, technological, and demographic circumstances, which change more rapidly. So beliefs tend to outlive the socio-political paradigms that perpetuate the existence of any given political institution.
This year, we have a new pope who’s determined to sweep away the vestiges of the decadence that accrued during the church’s centuries of political power. His mission appears to be to bring the church back to its roots, which are inherently radical and anti-establishment — in other words, at odds with much of the current church. It’s a reinvention that would destroy most other human institutions, but one that the church could very well survive. By steering the church’s identity back towards older values and further from contemporary controversies, he may be clearing the way for 2,000 more years of institutional survival.
For these reasons, the church is likely to outlive the other human institutions around us. I’m no oracle, but my money’s on the church surviving at least the governments of the western European countries, even if they both outlive me and my grandchildren.