Posted on: June 24th, 2009 Christianity & “Contamination”

Arnold I. Davidson (U. Chicago), in his introduction to the thought of the magisterial intellectual historian Pierre Hadot, summarizes a major theme of Hadot’s thought as “contamination.” (Philosophy as a Way of Life 4). Contamination is the idea that, seemingly from the very beginning of Christian doctrine, any “pristine” forms of thought quickly – if not immediately – get synthesized and meshed with “non-Christian” ideas, from such various sources as Greek mystery religions, ancient mythologies, neoplatonic philosophy, etc.

Davidson points out that for schools of thought such as Aristotelianism, Platonism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism, this kind of “contamination” is a real problem.

But not so for Christianity, at least not in the same way. Why not? Because Christianity, from the very beginning, is always already contaminated. Just read Paul’s writings (and his life and times in Acts) in the NT. Christianity is already, just a couple of decades after the death of Christ, messily interacting with Judaism. And Paul opts, time and time again, for pragmatic ways and means: circumcising Timothy, taking on Jewish vows (in Acts, he does this not once but twice, the second time explicitly to show his Jewish detractors just how Jewish he is), etc. But, even prior to this, the Incarnation itself is already “contaminated.” God contaminates himself by taking on human flesh. Indeed, this kind of messiness is always already packed into the essence of the Christian religion.

Pluralistic diversity is at the very center and foundation of the Christian religion (not to mention the Christian God). May the denizens of pluralistic secularism come home to the true pluralistic community of the members of the body of Christ in the eucharistic community of the church.

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2 Responses to “Christianity & “Contamination””

  1. Collins Aki Says:
    July 18th, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    I loved this post! Would it not be a sweet and glorious thing, if the church was more cosmopolitan! Embracing different “shades” and “forms” of what Paul called those things that are “pure…lovely [and] of a good report”, in a few words, that which is “genuine” and “human”. Pluralism, is not so much as accepting what is wrong and even “condoning it”, as it is, accepting, allowing, and even embracing people’s freedoms to “be”, allowing for dialogue to take place, so as to see, if, the different “shade” and “form” of another, is actually acceptable, and if not, the freedom afforded to another to have dialogue, is a Godly thing. When the church is, as it has historically been seen to be, a totalitarian-like regime (and “like” is being nice) that, in the immortal words of Chief Justice Robert Jackson, a force of “elimination of dissent” then, as Justice Jackson concludes, the church “soon finds [herself] exterminating dissenters [which are people!]”. To some people this is good (hmmn, why do I have Rod Parsly in mind?), but the Gospel accounts show little of this. Jesus, Paul and Peter welcomed dissenters, doubters, the fearful, the outsiders, and they rebuked those who tried to eliminate them (i.e., the Pharisees, the Romans, and even themselves). Dissent should be welcomed. Difference should be embraced. When we accept that, we allow dialogue to take place. I hate to use the phrase “all progress is a negotiation”–because it has a business ring to it, but I think we can see it in a creative sense. Understanding comes through communication, which will never happen without dialogue. Sorry for the long post, but this really resonates with me!

  2. matt Says:
    July 18th, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    Sweet and glorious indeed, Collins. Like Paul, though, I have seen it happen, if only in seedling form. (Yes, I refer to Emanuel.)

    I like your use of “dialogue,” a concept crucially important in discussions of both liturgy and tradition. Indeed, liturgy and tradition are both forms of dialog.

    One could search this blog on “dialog” and find this to be the case.

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