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Two Cultures
... the only way to avoid floating in a vacuum 

It won\'t be long now before we meet, my dear Sophie. I thought you would return to the major\'s cabin--that\'s why I left all the cards from Hilde\'s father there. That was the only way they could be delivered to her. Don\'t worry about how she will get them. A lot can happen before June 15.

We have seen how the Hellenistic philosophers recycled the ideas of earlier philosophers. Some even attempted to turn their predecessors into religious prophets. Plotinus came close to acclaiming Plato as the savior of humanity.

But as we know, another savior was born during the period we have just been discussing--and that happened outside the Greco-Roman area. I refer to Jesus of Nazareth. In this chapter we will see how Christianity gradually began to permeate the Greco-Roman world--more or less the same way that Hilde\'s world has gradually begun to permeate ours.

Jesus was a jew, and the Jews belong to Semitic culture. The Greeks and the Romans belong to Indo-European culture. European civilization has its roots in both cultures. But before we take a closer look at the way Christianity influenced Greco-Roman culture, we must examine these roots.


By Indo-European we mean all the nations and cultures that use Indo-European languages. This covers all European nations except those whose inhabitants speak one of the Finno-Ugrian languages (Lapp, Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian) or Basque. In addition, most Indian and Iranian languages belong to the Indo-European family of languages.

About 4,000 years ago, the primitive Indo-Europeans lived in areas bordering on the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. From there, waves of these Indo-European tribes began to wander southeast into Iran and India, southwest to Greece, Italy, and Spain, westward through Central Europe to France and Britain, northwestward to Scandinavia and northward to Eastern Europe and Russia. Wherever they went, the Indo-Europeans assimilated with the local culture, although Indo-European languages and Indo-European religion came to play a dominant role.

The ancient Indian Veda scriptures and Greek philosophy, and for that matter Snorri Sturluson\'s mythology are all written in related languages. But it is not only the languages that are related. Related languages often lead to related ideas. This is why we usually speak of an Indo-European "culture."

The culture of the Indo-Europeans was influenced most of all by their belief in many gods. This is called polytheism. The names of these gods as well as much of the religious terminology recur throughout the whole Indo-European area. I\'ll give you a few examples:

The ancient Indians worshipped the celestial god Dyaus, which in Sanskrit means the sky, day, heaven/ Heaven. In Greek this god is called Zeus, in Latin, Jupiter (actually iov-pater, or "Father Heaven"), and in Old Norse, Tyr. So the names Dyaus, Zeus, lov, and Tyr are dialectal variants of the same word.

You probably learned that the old Vikings believed in gods which they called Aser. This is another word we find recurring all over the Indo-European area. In Sanskrit, the ancient classical language of India, the gods are called asura and in Persian Ahura. Another word for "god" is deva in Sanskrit, claeva in Persian, deus in Latin and tivurr in Old Norse.

In Viking times, people also believed in a special group of fertility gods (such as Niord, Freyr, and Freyja). These gods were referred to by a special collective name, vaner, a word that is related to the Latin name for the goddess of fertility, Venus. Sanskrit has the related word van/, which means "desire."

There is also a clear affinity to be observed in some of the Indo-European myths. In Snorri\'s stories of the Old Norse gods, some of the myths are similar to the myths of India that were handed down from two to three thousand years earlier. Although Snorri\'s myths reflect the Nordic environment and the Indian myths reflect the Indian, many of them retain traces of a common origin. We can see these traces most clearly in myths about immortal potions and the struggles of the gods against the monsters of chaos.

We can also see clear similarities in modes of thought across the Indo-European cultures. A typical likeness is the way the world is seen as being the subject of a drama in which the forces of Good and Evil confront each other in a relentless struggle. Indo-Europeans have therefore often tried to "predict" how the battles between Good and Evil will turn out.

One could say with some truth that it was no accident that Greek philosophy originated in the Indo-European sphere of culture. Indian, Greek, and Norse mythology all have obvious leanings toward a philosophic, or "speculative," view of the world.

The Indo-Europeans sought "insight" into the history of the world. We can even trace a particular word for "insight" or "knowledge" from one culture to another all over the Indo-European world. In Sanskrit it is vidya. The word is identical to the Greek word idea, which was so important in Plato\'s philosophy. From Latin, we have the word video, but on Roman ground the word simply means to see. For us, "I see" can mean "I understand," and in the cartoons, a light bulb can flash on above Woody Woodpecker\'s head when he gets a bright idea. (Not until our own day did "seeing" become synonymous with staring at the TV screen.) In English we know the words wise and wisdom--in German, wissen (to know). Norwegian has the word viten, which has the same root as the Indian word vidya, the Greek idea, and the Latin video.

All in all, we can establish that sight was the most important of the senses for Indo-Europeans. The literature of Indians, Greeks, Persians, and Teutons alike was characterized by great cosmic visions. (There is that word again: "vision" comes from the Latin verb "video."} It was also characteristic for Indo-European culture to make pictures and sculptures of the gods and of mythical events.

Lastly, the Indo-Europeans had a cyc//c view of history. This is the belief that history goes in circles, just like the seasons of the year. There is thus no beginning and no end to history, but there are different civilizations that rise and fall in an eternal interplay between birth and death.

Both of the two great Oriental religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, are Indo-European in origin. So is Greek philosophy, and we can see a number of clear parallels between Hinduism and Buddhism on the one hand and Greek philosophy on the other. Even today, Hinduism and Buddhism are strongly imbued with philosophical reflection.

Not infrequently we find in Hinduism and Buddhism an emphasis on the fact that the deity is present in all things (pantheism) and that man can become one with God through religious insight. (Remember Plotinus, Sophie?) To achieve this requires the practice of deep self-communion or meditation. Therefore in the Orient, passivity and seclusion can be religious ideals. In ancient Greece, too, there were many people who believed in an ascetic, or religiously secluded, way of life for the salvation of the soul Many aspects of medieval monastic life can be traced back to beliefs dating from the Greco-Roman civilization.

Similarly, the transmigration of the soul, or the cycle of rebirth, is a fundamental belief in many Indo-European cultures. For more than 2,500 years, the ultimate purpose of life for every Indian has been the release from the cycle of rebirth. Plato also believed in the transmigration of the soul.

The Semites

Let us now turn to the Semites, Sophie. They belong to a completely different culture with a completely different language. The Semites originated in the Arabian Peninsula, but they also migrated to different parts of the world. The Jews lived far from their home for more than 2,000 years. Semitic history and religion reached furthest away from its roots by way of Christendom, although Semitic culture also became widely spread via Islam.

All three Western religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--share a Semitic background. The Muslims\' holy scripture, the Koran, and the Old Testament were both written in the Semitic family of languages. One of the Old Testament words for "god" has the same semantic root as the Muslim Allah. (The word "allah" means, quite simply, "god.")

When we get to Christianity the picture becomes more complicated. Christianity also has a Semitic background, but the New Testament was written in Greek, and when the Christian theology or creed was formulated, it was influenced by Greek and Latin, and thus also by Hellenistic philosophy.

The Indo-Europeans believed in many different gods. It was just as characteristic for the Semites that from earliest times they were united in their belief in one God. This is called monotheism. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share the same fundamental idea that there is only one God.

The Semites also had in common a linear view of history. In other words, history was seen as an ongoing line. In the beginning God created the world and that was the beginning of history. But one day history will end and that will be Judgment Day, when God judges the living and the dead.

The role played by history is an important feature of these three Western religions. The belief is that God intervenes in the course of history--even that history exists in order that God may manifest his will in the world, just as he once led Abraham to the "Promised Land," he leads mankind\'s steps through history to the Day of Judgment. When that day comes, all evil in the world will be destroyed.

With their strong emphasis on God\'s activity in the course of history, the Semites were preoccupied with the writing of history for many thousands of years. And these historical roots constitute the very core of their holy scriptures.

Even today the city of Jerusalem is a significant religious center for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. This indicates something of the common background of these three religions.

The city comprises prominent (Jewish) synagogues, (Christian) churches, and (Islamic) mosques. It is therefore deeply tragic that Jerusalem should have become a bone of contention--with people killing each other by the thousand because they cannot agree on who is to have ascendancy over this "Eternal City." May the UN one day succeed in making Jerusalem a holy shrine for all three religions! (We shall not go any further into this more practical part of our philosophy course for the moment. We will leave it entirely to Hilde\'s father. You must have gathered by now that he is a UN observer in Lebanon. To be more precise, I can reveal that he is serving as a major. If you are beginning to see some connection, that\'s quite as it should be. On the other hand, let\'s not anticipate events!)

We said that the most important of the senses for Indo-Europeans was sight. How important hearing was to the Semitic cultures is just as interesting. It is no accident that the Jewish creed begins with the words: "Hear, O Israel!" In the Old Testament we read how the people "heard" the word of the Lord, and the Jewish prophets usually began their sermons with the words: "Thus spake Jehovah (God)." "Hearing" the word of God is also emphasized in Christianity. The religious ceremonies of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all characterized by reading aloud or "reciting."

I also mentioned that the Indo-Europeans always made pictorial representations or sculptures of their gods. It was just as characteristic for the Semites that they never did. They were not supposed to create pictures or sculptures of God or the "deity." The Old Testament commands that the people shall not make any image of God. This is still law today both for Judaism and Islam. Within Islam there is moreover a general aversion to both photography and art, because people should not compete with God in "creating" anything.

But the Christian churches are full of pictures of Jesus and God, you are probably thinking. True enough, Sophie, but this is just one example of how Christendom was influenced by the Greco-Roman world. (In the Greek Orthodox Church--that is, in Greece and in Russia-- "graven images," or sculptures and crucifixes, from Bible stories are still forbidden.)

In contrast to the great religions of the Orient, the three Western religions emphasize that there is a distance between God and his creation. The purpose is not to be released from the cycle of rebirth, but to be redeemed from sin and blame. Moreover, religious life is characterized more by prayer, sermons, and the study of the scriptures than by self-communion and meditation.


I have no intention of competing with your religion teacher, Sophie, but let us just make a quick summary of Christianity\'s Jewish background.

It all began when God created the world. You can read how that happened on the very first page of the Bible. Then mankind began to rebel against God. Their punishment was not only that Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden--Death also came into the world.

Man\'s disobedience to God is a theme that runs right through the Bible. If we go further on in the Book of Genesis we read about the Flood and Noah\'s Ark. Then we read that God made a covenant with Abraham and his seed. This covenant--or pact--was that Abraham and all his seed would keep the Lord\'s commandments. In exchange God promised to protect all the children of Abraham. This covenant was renewed when Moses was given the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai around the year 1200 B.C. At that time the Israelites had long been held as slaves in Egypt, but with God\'s help they were led back to the land of Israel.

About 1,000 years before Christ--and therefore long before there was anything called Greek philosophy--we hear of three great kings of Israel. The first was Saul, then came David, and after him came Solomon. Now all the Israelites were united in one kingdom, and under King David, especially, they experienced a period of political, military, and cultural glory.

When kings were chosen, they were anointed by the people. They thus received the title Messiah, which means "the anointed one." In a religious sense kings were looked upon as a go-between between God and his people. The king could therefore also be called the "Son of God" and the country could be called the "Kingdom of God."

But before long Israel began to lose its power and the kingdom was divided into a Northern kingdom (Israel) and a Southern kingdom (Judea). In 722 B.C. the Northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians and it lost all political and religious significance. The Southern kingdom fared no better, being conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. Its temple was destroyed and most of its people were carried off to slavery in Babylon. This "Babylonian captivity" lasted until 539 B.C. when the people were permitted to return to Jerusalem, and the great temple was restored. But for the rest of the period before the birth of Christ the Jews continued to live under foreign domination.

The question Jews constantly asked themselves was why the Kingdom of David was destroyed and why catastrophe after catastrophe rained down on them, for God had promised to hold Israel in his hand. But the people had also promised to keep God\'s commandments. It gradually became widely accepted that God was punishing Israel for her disobedience.

From around 750 B.C. various prophets began to come forward preaching God\'s wrath over Israel for not keeping his commandments. One day God would hold a Day of Judgment over Israel, they............
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