Monday, October 30, 2006

The Slavic Religious Spirit: from Paganism to Christianity

This is an excerpt from 'The Religious Spirit of the Slavs' (1916) by Saint Nikolaj Velimirovic. The entire work can be found here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13388/13388-8.txt
Its an interesting read for anyone intrigued by the fundamental differences between paganism and Christianity and in particular the Slavic experience of the two.

It was not until the decline of the glorious Byzantine Empire that the Slavs embraced Christianity. For nine hundred years the Greeks were the principal representatives, protectors, elaborators and explorers of Christianity. When the Greeks visited the Slav country with their divine message, the Slavs were heathens. Their heathenism was like a confusing dream. Nature stood before them with its contradictory forces. The primitive Slavs regarded all the forces of Nature encircling a human creature as being alive and stronger than this creature. All the forces, whether friendly or unfriendly to man, are man like, anthropomorphic, and none of them are indifferent to human life and doings. The practical conclusion come to was: men must give sacrifices to both of them, to the good and to the evil; to the good in order to encourage them to be more good, to the evil in order to induce them to be less evil. It was necessary to pray equally to the good as to the evil gods. The best worship was the best balance between the good and bad spirits; not to offend any of them, but to be reconciled with all of them! Skilful diplomacy was indeed needed in worshipping all the terrible, invisible representatives of the forces of Nature seemingly fighting around man and because of man. And men are too weak to take their part decisively in one or other fighting camp.Everything useful or beautiful for men was regarded as being possessed by a good god or spirit. Everything dangerous and unfriendly was considered to be possessed by an evil god or spirit. The supreme god Perun, supreme because the strongest, was considered as acting equally for good and forevil. The curious fact is that the supreme divinity in every pagan theology was imagined to be acting equally strongly for good and for evil, as Zeus, Jupiter, Wothan. You cannot call Zeus or Jupiter or Wothan or Perun a good god, but only a mighty god. With Christianity came into the world, including the Slav world, decisiveness, and every confusion disappeared. The Slavs learned to know that they could not serve two masters, but only one, and that they had not to balance between good and evil but to go straightway on the side of good.The Byzantine Emperors promised to the Serbs peace and land in their Empire in the Balkans if they accepted the Christian faith. And the Serbs accepted the Christian faith. The Emperors Basil and Constantine agreed to give their sister in marriage to Vladimir, King of Kieff, if he would embracethe Christian faith. And King Vladimir embraced the Christian faith. These may be considered very petty motives! Yet this was not the price to tie the mighty idol Perun on a horse's tail and to carry him into the water of Dnieper. The principal motive was the striking reality of the Christian foundation. The Christian message was like a dream ("We have been in Heaven," reported the Russian delegates, returning from Saint Sophia)--the Slavs loved dreams and poetry very much; but the Christian faith was stated to be a reality, and the Slavs, as men the world over, considered reality as more solid than any dream. Instead of a nightmare of youthful dreams, asthe Slav pagan theology was, came now a bright poetry warranted both as a past and present reality.It will remain as the greatest wonder in history how a poor Man, who preached in Palestine for about two years, who scarcely had a hundred followers at the end of His mission, who was crucified and died a shameful death, whose cause seemed a quite desperate episode, scornfully rejected or fearfully abandoned by all those who knew it--how this poor Man replaced successively the mightiest gods the human imagination ever invented: Zeus in Olympus, Jupiter in the Capitol, Wothan in the North, and at last also Perun in Kieff. The secret lies, I think, in the reality of His human life, in the mystery of His resurrection, and in the amazing enthusiasm with which thousands of His followers afterwards suffered death for Him and His cause.However, Christ entered the Slav world in an epoch when, not only one man after another bowed before Him, but nation after nation. He came to our ancestors no more as a humble preacher, but as a Lord, under whose feet lay already conquered Zeus, Jupiter and Wothan. He came to us, not from a poor Bethlehem cottage, but from the most brilliant temple upon earth, from the Saint Sophia in Constantinople. He came with a wonderful three-fold mission, to serve, to fight, to reigning one word, to be "all in all." He entered the Roman world as a humble servant. I am afraid He remained in this world for ever only as a servant. But He entered the Slav world as a Lord, and until to-day He remains there as the Lord.With Christ's coming among the Slavs the balance between good and evil spirits was lost. Quite unlike Perun, Christ was a decisive fighter for good. He showed only one--exclusively one--way, the narrow way leading to the kingdom of good, which is the Kingdom of God, the Highest and the Best, Deus Optimus, not only as a dream of Pagan humanity, but as a provable reality. Although good seems very often to be a weak and losing party in this world, men must not waver but always take cheerfully the part of good. Evil spirits in men and around men are very powerful in this world. Christ Himself was overwhelmed for a time by the evil spirits of this world. But it was only for a time which is now over. It was at the new beginning of the world, so to say, when He came to break the power of Pagan men, hold the balance between the good and evil spirits and to stop the serving of"two masters." The start was very unpromising; He was trodden down, but He got up and proved Himself the victor. He came now as a victor to the Slavs to make new armies of men, who would consent to undertake His burden, and to go His exclusive way of good, worshipping and serving only one God, His Father and the Father of all men. He came claiming everyone, telling each one "not to be ashamed"--as it is wonderfully expressed in the English Baptism formula--"manfully to fight under His banner, against sin, the world, and the devil, and to continue to be Christ's faithful soldier and servant unto his life's end."Tolstoi exalted only Christ's Sermon on the Mount, i.e., only Christ's teaching, or part of Christ's teaching. The Orthodox Church exalted Christ himself, as an exceptional, dramatic Person, suffering for good; as a divine hero, fighting against all the evil powers of the world. A teaching or a life drama--i.e., Tolstoi or Orthodoxy! The Church thought: there is something greater than Christ's words, that is Christ Himself. His words are extraordinary, it is true, no man spoke as He, but His person and His life were more extraordinary still. Thousands of martyrs died for Him, not for the Sermon on the Mount. His words died with His death and came to life again only with His resurrection. The fate of His words was quite dependent on the fate of His person. Consequently His words have been only a shadow of His personal drama, only an inadequate expression of His individuality and His world mission, only the secondary fascination for the coming generation. He himself was the essence of the human drama; He himself--the essence of God and Man; He himself--the incarnated good and the standard of the good in the world's history. He is incomparably better than Zeus, Jupiter, Wothan or Perun, because He is a reality, a divine reality among men.

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