Living for the Lord in a Pre-Christian West
It is time to stop opining over whether we are living in a post-Christian, neo-pagan or post-modernist age. One of the unintended consequences of that debate is to focus us wrongly on the past, rather than point us, with hope, toward the future. I suggest we are living in a pre-Christian age. If I am right about that, it is time to do what Christians did when they first entered a pre-Christian world, the world of the first few centuries A.D.: proclaim the liberating truth of the Gospel in word and deed and lead the men and women to the Lord who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6).
Many Christians in America look to the founders of the American experiment for inspiration. That’s understandable, but we have a longer history from which we must draw, the history of the Christian Church. On the Feast of St Patrick, I wrote an article suggesting that the Saint who brought the source of true freedom to Ireland is a model for our new missionary undertaking.
Let me suggest here another great Christian hero from the undivided Christian Church, Justin, Martyr.
The Christian Hero Justin Martyr
Justin was born to pagan parents in Samaria at the beginning of the second century. Like many young men of his day and our own, he spent his early years searching for the meaning of life. He became a student in the schools of the Greek philosophers, seeking truth in their systems of thought. However, his hunger for truth was not satisfied and his search continued.
Even as a pagan Justin was impressed with the way of life of the Christians. Their fearlessness in the face of opposition from an increasingly hostile Roman empire inspired him to examine the source of their courage. “When I was a disciple of Plato,” he writes in his second Apology (meaning argument), “hearing the accusations made against the Christians and seeing them intrepid in the face of death and of all that men fear, I said to myself that it was impossible that they should be living in evil and in the love of pleasure.”
While some Christians in Justin’s day were hesitant about engaging the philosophers in debate or even speaking of the Christian faith within a philosophical framework, Justin became one of the Church’s first apologists. He openly addressed the emperor, the Senate and the influential teachers of the philosophical schools of the day, explaining the truths of the faith.
He even continued to wear his philosopher’s gown after his baptism as a sign that he viewed himself as a teacher of the only true philosophy, Christianity. His writings demonstrate how we are called to engage our own age with the truth revealed in its fullness in Jesus Christ and His Church. He is the patron saint of philosophers.
Be Not Afraid
We need not fear the systems of thought that have captivated the modern pagans of our age. They will never satisfy the longing in the hearts of the moderns. It is another great Christian, Augustine of Hippo, who reminded us in his prayer, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Justin did not withdraw from the culture or avoid contending with those who rejected his message. He didn’t hide from the authorities even though they might arrest and kill him. In fact, he opened a school in Rome where public debates were regularly held. Soon, his persuasive teaching and growing appeal to the seekers of that day began to disturb the authorities. It also raised the ire of the Cynics, one of those philosophical schools whose own claims (and income) were threatened.
It may have been his winning a debate with a Cynic philosopher which sealed his fate and helped to secure him the name “Martyr.” He was soon denounced for being a Christian and arrested by the authorities, along with several of his companions. The Martyrdom of Justin tells the story. The Roman prefect Rusticus ordered Justin and his companions to sacrifice to the gods. Justin replied boldly, “No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety.”
The Prefect Rusticus says: “If you do not obey, you will be tortured without mercy.” Justin replies: “That is our desire, to be tortured for Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and so to be saved, for that will give us salvation and firm confidence at the more terrible universal tribunal of Our Lord and Saviour.” And all the martyrs said: “Do as you wish; for we are Christians, and we do not sacrifice to idols.”
The Prefect Rusticus read the sentence: “Those who do not wish to sacrifice to the gods and to obey the emperor will be scourged and beheaded according to the laws.” The holy martyrs glorifying God betook themselves to the customary place, where they were beheaded and consummated their martyrdom confessing their Savior.
We live in an age much like the one into which Justin Martyr was sent by the Lord who called him into the mission of the Church. Like Justin, we are called to go into the center of our modern Rome and set up the schools from which we will engage this age with the fullness of the truth, Jesus Christ. What is needed today are new apologists, defenders of the faith, who will live – and die — fully for the Lord in a pre-Christian West.