A few days ago I posted a short reaction Robert Clark, co-founder of Elaion, had sent me on one of my blog posts. I enjoyed reading his views, and he graced me with another piece he did, which I would like to post for you today. It's entitled 'Greek religion as a catalyst for achievement'. Enjoy!

Greek Religion as a Catalyst for Achievement
Robert A. Clark

Greek religion, as the spiritual framework of society, provided the values and stimulus for the remarkable achievements of ancient Greece. These timeless classic values have been an inspiration in shaping Western Civilization throughout the centuries and are especially essential today in meeting the environmental and social challenges ahead.

What is the role of Greek religion in bringing about the remarkable achievements of the ancient Greeks? There appears to be little scholarly discussion of what must have been a profound influence. This, I suspect, is due to modern categorization, a compartmentalizing of subjects and ideas and the assumption that Christianity is inherently superior which encourages a blind acceptance of Christianity over the former religion. Although we recognize the interaction and relevance between subject matter, we tend to dominate our thinking in terms of subjects rather than interactions between them. Scholars discuss Greek athletics, architecture, tragedy, comedy, literature, poetry, ethics, thought, and religion, but rarely do we find a discussion of the integration of subject matter and especially of the role of religion not only as a catalyst but as the driving force which produced the remarkable achievements of the Greeks. Even when we find great praise for the achievements of the Greeks we find references to the religion as 'primitive' or 'childish,' attitudes which predispose authors from recognizing the true role of religion in all Greek accomplishments.

The Greeks were and are today very religious people, but there has been a fundamental change between then and now and that is the major religion practiced. Edith Hamilton in The Greek Way (W. W. Norton & Company, 1942) says, pages 32-33:

"To rejoice in life, to find the world beautiful and delightful to live in, was a mark of the Greek spirit which distinguished it from all that had gone before. It is a vital distinction. The joy of life is written upon everything the Greeks left behind and they who leave it out of account fail to reckon with something that is of first importance in understanding how the Greek achievement came to pass in the world of antiquity. [...] The Greeks knew to the full how bitter life is as well as how sweet. Joy and sorrow, exultation and tragedy, stand hand in hand in Greek literature. [...] The Greeks were keenly aware, terribly aware, of life's uncertainty and the imminence of death. [...] But never, not even in their darkest moments, do they lose their taste for life. It is always a wonder and a delight, the world a place of beauty, and they themselves rejoicing to be alive in it."

From my all too brief time spent in Greece, I found it a productive land in many respects. The climate allows a very long growing season and, although labor intensive, a plot of land and a few animals can provide the bounty to enable a life of goodness. It is not a harsh or inhospitable land nor is it the lush and productive land of Egypt or Persia. For those who work the soil or depend on the animals they raise, the land becomes part of their very fabric. They are a product of the land as much as they help shape the land for their living. Thus, a harmony between people and the land becomes a major force in how they perceive life. 

A particular feature of Greek religion was the absence of a centralized, hierarchical priesthood as Tim Gamble recently pointed out, unlike Egypt, the Middle East, and Eastern religions with a large organized priestly caste. Not that there were not numerous priests or families who inherited priestly positions, but there was no centralized hierarchy such as the Christians adopted in later times. There was no priestly class to enforce dogma, rather the priests worked locally with people and shared in their lives, aspirations, spiritual needs, and thinking. They were part of the communities in which they lived. 

All this still does not explain why the ancient Greeks were different from all the other peoples.  What was the impetus for their many achievements?  Religion is the one element that gives a society its outlook on life, its spiritual relationship to the world around them. Again, Edith Hamilton in The Greek Way says, pages 18-20:

"By universal consent the Greeks belong to the ancient world. [...] But they are in it as a matter of centuries only; they have not the hall-marks that give title to a place there. [...] With them something completely new came into the world. They were the first Westerners, the spirit of the West, the modern spirit, is a Greek discovery and the place of the Greeks is in the modern world."

"[...] The Greeks were the first intellectualists. In a world where the irrational had played the chief role, they came forward as the protagonists of the mind."

Why?  Even Edith Hamilton refers to Greek religion as 'childish.' She does not make the connection between their religion and their perspective on life. What shaped Edith Hamilton's perspective on life and what shapes everyone's perspective on life? Religion! It is religion whether science becomes a defacto religion or something else does, it is that element that shapes an individual's or a peoples' perspective on life. 

All the accomplishments of Greece are integral with the religion.  Most were religious events such as theater, athletics, and poetry contests. Others are inseparable from religion. Greek religion was not a religion that one believed in. It was a religion of recognition, a religion of practice. The Gods were not the product of a mythology but the reverse; mythology and the poetry and literature surrounding it was a means to express the nature of the Gods in an understandable and recognizable way to the people. The Gods were not aspects of life, they embodied the aspects of reality and life. There was no dogma of belief, but a mandate for learning and inquiry. Reason, understanding, and inquiry were perspectives encouraged and supported by their religion. As Aeschylus so aptly states in his Agamemnon:

"But whoever willingly sings a victory song for Zeus, he shall gain wisdom altogether,--Zeus, who sets mortals on the path to understanding, Zeus, who has established as a fixed law that 'wisdom comes by suffering.'  But even as trouble, bringing memory of pain, drips over the mind in sleep, so wisdom comes to men, whether they want it or not. Harsh, it seems to me, is the grace of gods enthroned upon their awful seats."

For the vast majority of people anywhere in the world and during any time period, religion shapes their perspective on life more than any other factor. We should bare this in mind. Our ancient religion is about life and how we should live it. It is about kharis, arete, eusebia, paradosis, xenia, all of which speak to sharing, accomplishment, and understanding. Ours is a rational religion that encompasses all aspects of life and encourages inquiry and knowledge. It is a religion that is as timely today and as important as it was 2500 years ago in shaping the understanding and perspective of the ancient Greeks.  It should be a beacon to dispel the darkness of the fundamentalists with their narrow and myopic outlook that denies the very nature of life. Ours is the religion of reason, a celebration of life, understanding, and knowledge. It is a religion that seeks truth, verifiable truth. It is as timeless as any of the classics as it speaks to peoples of all times. This is the message we need to incorporate into our lives and portray to others. We need to dispel the distortions that have been perpetrated on our religion and share the values that shaped the achievements of the ancient Greeks and continue to shape progress, reason, and knowledge today.