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In our last weekly Bible study, the “Parable of the Sower”, we were sidetracked into a discussion why parables were a popular method of teaching. So, with this in mind, I happened upon this quote from Galen, the physician who lived in the early 2ndcentury AD. Evidently, he was of the impression that people who needed parables for understanding were little more than knuckle-draggers.
More generally, he viewed himself as a man of science and reason, he had no use for Christianity and was deeply and publicly critical of the burgeoning Christian faith in and around Rome. Galen believed (as did his elite contemporaries) that a life of deep philosophical reflection was the only path to a virtuous life. Not surprisingly, the elites like Galen considered the common man to be singularly unsuited to philosophy and a life ordered to reason. With this background in mind, we can appreciate why Galen was truly mystified by Christians. He expressed his puzzlement this way:
“Most people are unable to follow any demonstrative argument consecutively; hence they need parables, and benefit from them and he (Galen) understands by parables tales of rewards and punishments in a future life — just as now we see the people called Christians drawing their faith from parables [and miracles], and yet sometimes acting in the same way [as those who philosophize]. For their contempt of death [and of its sequel] is patent to us every day, and likewise their restraint in cohabitation. For they include not only men but also women who refrain from cohabiting all through their lives; and they also number individuals who, in self-discipline and self-control in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers.”
In so many words, Galen could not explain why these common people were unafraid of death, refrained from promiscuity, were disciplined and self-regulating, and zealously pursued justice. How was it that the rough and tumble Christians could attain the virtues hitherto only achieved by the leisure, patrician class?
What do we learn from Galen’s puzzlement? The most significant lesson is probably this: that until the age of enlightenment Christians were radically distinct. Like the Jews during the 1st and 2nd temple periods, they stood out by how they ordered their lives to the pursuit of goodness, knowledge((Empiricism and the scientific method were largely codified by scholars of the Roman Church and the modern [European] University system was a uniquely Christian institution.)), and justice. In today’s secularized world (largely based on Judeo-Christian values), Christianity does not have a monopoly on virtue, compassion, and justice. Indeed, most people – Christian or otherwise – are good people who seek to do good for others.
Christians, because of their success in establishing Judeo-Christian values, have lost their distinctiveness. Christians and Jews are simply two of many lights unto the world. One of the great questions of faith is how do we recover our distinctiveness in a way that encourages the unchurched to take up the Christian life.
- Translated from the latin by Richard Walzer in Galen on Jews and Christians (London: Oxford University Press, 1949), p. 15↩