Thursday, February 24, 2011

The deity of Charis

In this study of charis you can’t get to the heart of the matter until you understand how the ancient Greeks viewed the fundamental nature of charis.  The best way to uncover this is to look at their perceptions on a “theological” basis.  Yet everyone knows that the Greeks, as well as every other ancient civilization, had many deities that they worshiped and it makes some people squeamish when you start speaking about deities.  I don’t know if it’s because their own faith is weak or they fear that the “bogey man” is going to overtake them.  My personal take on the matter is quite simple: I know my God and there isn’t anyone higher or more worthy of praise and worship, so anything else is a piker not deserving any attention.

Why Deify Charis?

In the book of Acts we encounter an instance when the Apostle Paul is in Athens preparing to address the thinkers of the day at Mars Hill.  Paul notes that in his wanderings throughout the city he noticed many of the statues that had been erected for the various gods that they all worshiped, including one for whom they recognized as the “unknown god.”  This was the God that Paul subsequently referred to in his preaching of the gospel.  While Paul did not make a specific reference to seeing any statue to Charis it is most certain that it was present and it has some rather interesting aspects to it.
The god of charis first off was not a single god.  It was always depicted as three young females called the Charites. In most of the writings the three graces, Euphrosyne, Aglaia, and Thaleia are most frequently named but there appears to have been many more depending upon the occasion as well as the location of where you were in Greece.  Primary they were the personification of charm, grace and beauty and their realm was in social discourse, manners and culture.  Even today we often speak about someone’s social graces and ability to project an air of grace and beauty.  Yet there were other areas in life that they presided over including mirth, festivity, joy and favor, dance and song, praise and glory, play, amusement, banqueting, floral decoration, happiness, rest and relaxation.
“They are mostly described as being in the service or attendance of other divinities, as real joy exists only in circles where the individual gives up his own self and makes it his main object to afford pleasure to others. The less beauty is ambitious to rule, the greater is its victory; and the less homage it demands, the more freely is it paid. These seen to be the ideas embodied in the Charites. They lend their grace and beauty to everything that delights and elevates gods and men.”
One of the first areas of influence that the Charites shared was as goddesses of fertility and life.  Since this area of life was concerned with joyous celebration about matters that mankind could not explain it seems natural that the Greeks would create a deity to pay homage too.  They became patrons of youth, marriage and healing as their sphere of influence developed.  Their youth was an important characteristic because they eventually presided over the social gathering whereby, “good deeds, ever recalled and renewed, never grow old.
In the Charites we see a joyful, robust, exuberance to life that the Greeks not only recognized but practiced with their entire being as a tribute to the goddesses.  This is the influence that charis had on their lives.  To speak of charis to the Greeks meant that you were drawing on a vital component which was the very essence that defines humanity.  To a Greek, charis is life.  That is what Paul, Luke and the other gospel writers recognized and how the gospel message was the ultimate charis event for all humanity – an event that only God could supply.

Charis and Shalom to you

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Is there Charis in Super Bowl Sunday?

Today across the United States and in a number of locals across the globe, people will be gathering together to watch two American football teams conduct what can only be described as a form of organized war.  With great anticipation they will watch their favorite team revolve through offensive and defensive manuveurs in ground and air attacks directed to the final moment that will bring home to one of the teams the final victory of the year.  Many of these observers will be gathered in small groups consuming food and drinks chanting on the thrilling moves of well known athletes. 

After the game has finished, the trophy has been given to the winner and the wrap up of the game highlights has subsided, the party goers will think back on all that has transpired over the season that led them to this point in their team's support.  This is common in practically any sporting event across the globe.  But the question remains: Is there charis in all of this celebration?

In a word, Yes.  The framework that the Greek society recognized the operation of charis in was most frequently evident around a communal feast.  In these events there was eating and drinking and the honoring of deeds and accomplishments from members in the community past and present.  The reciting of glorious victories, often as poems or in song, in this setting was the way of passing forward the history of the community to the next generation.  This honoring is charis. 

This day there will recollections of past Super Bowls and its heros.  Many of those past contestants will be present in the dialogues that will ensue and they will be asked to recall their most memorable moments.  In their testimony they will honor the work of fellow teammates and those that opposed them in their victories and losses.  This is charis.

Super Bowl Sunday is the most Charis day in all of America - at least until the next game starts.

Charis an Shalom to you


Friday, February 4, 2011

Can Pleasure Be Found in Charis

In the last post I spoke about what Aristotle recognized as the defining characteristic to Charis which was reciprocity.  My good buddy Webster’s dictionary provides us with a better understanding of reciprocity when viewed against the synonyms of mutual and common. 

Reciprocity implies an equal return or counteraction by each of two sides toward or against or in relation to the other; Mutual applies to feelings or effects shared by two jointly; Common does not suggest reciprocity but merely a sharing with each other.”

In common every day terms I’m going to reduce reciprocity to the concept of giving – you give something and you get something in return.  Notice I said that I’m reducing it to this concept.  Charis is much broader in scope, but we have to start somewhere with the intention that we’ll build up from there.  And what is a better place to start than with an action that everyone loves to benefit from?  Tell me of a person that doesn’t love getting a gift.  I certainly do, and yes, I get great pleasure out of receiving them as I’m sure most of you do.  Yet I want you to understand what I mean when I say charis-pleasure when talking about an act of charis.  Bonnie MacLachlan describes this charis pleasure as follows:

Charis bound people together in the archaic Greek world, the experience of pleasure.  Before the Greeks became citizens of a polis, when new and more complex levels of loyalty and obligation became operative, the distribution of favors and good behavior – such things that went by the name of charis – was enforced with a vigor that in unknown to us.  We are familiar with charity that is voluntary and self-denying but, by the same token, was never confined to the self.  The exchange of charis-favors was founded upon a very general psychological phenomenon, the disposition to return pleasure to someone who has given it.  This pleasure exchange was accepted as a serious social convention . . . the charis-convention amounted to a lex talionis, but of a positive sort.”

So let’s look at this charis-convention.  Reciprocity, the equal giving and taking of favors (or gifts according to our reduction of the concept) was a serious exchange of pleasure.  I know that that sounds a bit strange at first but let me ask you this: Do you, or someone you know, get more pleasure out of giving a gift than receiving it?  I know of a couple of people that get more wrapped up in the wrappings than in the receiving of the gift.  And when I get something from them, I make it a point to make sure that I open it in front of them because half of my joy in the gift is watch how they respond to me opening it.  Conversely, I know of a few people that love to get gifts and it’s always a treat to watch them open a gift whether from me or anyone else.

Now notice that this charis-convention was social in nature.  It never happened away in a closet, it was in front of people that would recognize its function.  That means that this transaction had the ability to create a level of honor among the community that witnessed it.  What I mean by this besides the obvious definition of honor, is that it set up an expectation of completion within the community by the nature of reciprocity.  Example:  Joe gives a gift to Ted while their friend Bill is watching.  The exchange is marked by warm, sincere adoration.  This exchange creates an expectation within Bill to see Ted return the gesture and even greater, Bill anticipates that Joe may extend to him a similar recognition.

I realize that some of you might take issue with the above example citing that it’s too simple.  That is intentional.  I know that human dynamics in a social arena run in myriad of directions, but this simple illustration show the workings of charis-pleasure and the honor that charis establishes within relationships.  There is pleasure in the giving and receiving of gifts – no one can deny that – yet there is an expectation of honoring the reception of the gift that also comes with the transaction.   This honoring the transaction is what we’ll at next time.

Grace and Peace to you!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Distinguishing Charis

“Some think that reciprocity is without qualification just, as the Pythagoreans said; for they defined justice without qualification as reciprocity. Now 'reciprocity' fits neither distributive nor rectificatory justice-yet people want even the justice of Rhadamanthus to mean this:
Should a man suffer what he did, right justice would be done
-for in many cases reciprocity and rectificatory justice are not in accord; e.g. (1) if an official has inflicted a wound, he should not be wounded in return, and if some one has wounded an official, he ought not to be wounded only but punished in addition. Further (2) there is a great difference between a voluntary and an involuntary act. But in associations for exchange this sort of justice does hold men together-reciprocity in accordance with a proportion and not on the basis of precisely equal return. For it is by proportionate requital that the city holds together. Men seek to return either evil for evil-and if they cannot do so, think their position mere slavery-or good for good-and if they cannot do so there is no exchange, but it is by exchange that they hold together. This is why they give a prominent place to the temple of the Charites-to promote the requital of services; for this is characteristic of charis-we should serve in return one who has shown charis to us, and should another time take the initiative in showing it.Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 5
Some 600 years after Homer describes charis of Achilles in the Iliad, Aristotle declares the distinguishing characteristic of charis is reciprocity.  Today we would know this process as The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  But how could this Greek society operate under such a clearly “biblical” order?
Consider that Greece is comprised of a main land and many islands which “in the day” were primarily agricultural.  Each of these islands were inhabited by clans that were fiercely independent and yet socially dependent upon each other.  Whenever a conflict would arise which would draw the men capable of fighting away from their homes, as a matter of social discourse, those that remained behind would tend to the estates of those that had gone on their behalf.  This would create a bond within the societal order to insure the protection of the community not only in the present circumstance but also for future conflicts that might arise.  Future generations were expected to fulfill their duty in honoring the sacrifices of those that had gone before them as an obligation to their own family’s commitment to protect the interests of a neighbor.
This honoring of the obligations of a “charis-event” would be the glue that held the Greek society together for so many centuries.  Some scholars even speculate that the reason that Greece never rose to a great economic power in the world was because of the rule of charis even in their business dealings. 
What, you might ask, would happen if charis was not honored? In a societal structure so tightly interdependent upon one another, not honoring the charis that was extended to you by a neighbor was grounds for public humiliation and disgrace.  It was acceptable practice to “call out” the offending party at any public gathering so as to insure that the community would be fully aware of the nature of the individual and how they conducted themselves with regards to commitments.  In small communities this would be devastating to the person and their family for many generations afterwards since it would adversely affect their daily transactions within the community as well as virtually deprive them of any ability to protect their resources in any future conflict.
So we see here that charis has a specific nature associated with it that is evident in the actions of reciprocal exchange.  This exchange process created a mechanism of honor which was passed down from generation to generation as reciprocal exchanges occurred within the social and economic fabric of each community.  Eventually this pattern would become tarnished in the larger urban areas through the mechanism of political advantage and the buying of “favors” to extend and secure ones influence in the community.  Yet in the rural areas, the operation of charis as it first developed would remain the law of the land.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Charis of The Iliad

If you’ve ever used or heard the phrase, “A face that would launch a thousand ships,” you have just been exposed to the catalyst of the Trojan War, a ten year battle between the Spartans and the Trojans over the abduction of Helen, said to be the most beautiful woman in all of the earth and the wife of the Spartan King Menelaos, by Paris the son of Priam, King of Troy.  Meneloas goes to his brother Agamemnon, the ruler of Mycenae and together the two try to diplomatically secure the return of Helen to her husband, yet without success.  Meneloas decides to enlist the surrounding kingdoms in a campaign to rescue Helen and is joined by Nestor, an old family friend, in his journeys to solicit the aid of these kings and their armies. Some scholars state that the reciprocity that these kings show to Menelaos was a characteristic of the social order during the time recognizing that they would receive a portion of the spoil of the battles, while others suggest that many of them had been prior suitors of Helen and out of honor to her joined in this venture.  Note now that these two thoughts, reciprocity and honor, are foundational to the Greek concept of charis.
One of those recruited by Nestor was Odysseus who had been warned that if he participated that this journey home would take him twenty years.  He feigned madness until it was discovered the reason for his action at which point he reluctantly enlisted his services.  Many of the Greeks felt that they could not conquer Troy unless they employed the talents of the greatest warrior on the face of the earth, Achilles.  Achilles had been warned that he would receive great glory in the battle but that he would die at a young age.  His mother subsequently hearing this disguised him in woman’s clothing, which was discovered by Odysseus.  Achilles agreed to join the conquest much to the joy of many.  An armada of over a thousand ships representing all the Achaian independent states aligned with Meneloas set sail from Sparta with Agamemnon chosen as their general.
The Iliad picks up the story of the battle in its ninth year and there is great turmoil in the Achaian camp due to a charis-event between Agamemnon and Achilles.  Apparently Agamemnon withheld a portion of his rightful spoil from Achilles from a battle where he was clearly the victor and took Briseis, the concubine of Achilles, from his tent.  This was conducted in full view of the Achaian army which enflamed the anger of Achilles to the degree that he publically denounced Agamemnon and pulled his entire army from the battlefront back to the boats declaring that he was returning the following day back to his home.
Meanwhile in Agamemnon’s tent Nestor is showing the council that Achilles departure in demoralizing the troops and Agamemnon needs to make amend with Achilles.  He agrees that he has wronged Achilles and offers many gifts and riches be presented to him and the return of Briseis as an offer of reconciliation.  Odysseus and Ajax go to Achilles with the gifts and are welcomed into Achilles tent with great honor but he refuses to take the items or accept any terms that Agamemnon has to offer him with the following response:
“Nor do I think that Agamemnon son of Atreus nor the Danaans will persuade me, since there was no spoil (charis), then or now, for fighting against enemy-men, ever tirelessly.” Il, 9.315-17
So incensed by what Agamemnon has done to him publically, Achilles swears that even if all of the treasures of Egypt were given to him he still would not return to fight along side Agamemnon.  He claims that all that had been promised and delivered to him did not constitute charis to him.  This deeply concerns Odysseus who makes an impassioned plea with Achilles to reconsider since his absence is causing a great toll on the battlefield to the Achaians and there is a moral obligation that he owes to his comrades.  Again, this argument fails because it too lacks charis for Achilles.
In this matter some distinctions should be made.  Many might think, and have thought over the centuries, that Achilles is acting out from a wounding of his pride because of the dishonor that Agamemnon did to him.  These thoughts don’t take into consideration Achilles main point: Charis is not present.  We’ve seen already that charis deals with the aspect of honor and reciprocity, but in this instance the missing component is the “pleasure producing” aspect which has been severed from charis.  True, Agamemnon did trample upon the charis-honor of Achilles by taking the spoil and his concubine that rightfully belonged to him.  True, there is reciprocity on the battlefield as warriors fight beside each other that insures a sense of safety as each watches out for the other in the heat of the conflict.  But according to Achilles, the charis-pleasure that comes from obtaining the spoils and charis-pleasure that he as commander experiences when he and his troops successfully vanquish a foe has been taken from him by Agamemnon’s actions.
Furthermore, it must be kept in mind here that the relationship that Agamemnon has with every member of this expedition.  While he is the general, he is an equal with everyone in this battle.  Each has the freewill to decide the course of his own actions on and off the battlefield.  Achilles recognized that Agamemnon does not by his very position as general have a higher sense of responsibility that alleviates him from entering the battle while still enabling him to partaking of its spoils.  This was what Achilles believed Agamemnon had embarked upon and it would cause division among the ranks of the men if they felt that their efforts might be undermined too, and this could spell defeat for the entire army if it was allowed to continue.
At this junction I’m going to pause to give you time to reflect on some of the facets that have been revealed so far in the discussion of charis.  When we return we’ll take a further look at the nature of reciprocity in charis.
Charis and Shalom to you

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Where first to find Charis

Charis has a rich history in the Greek culture.  Its concepts cannot easily be boiled down to one or two simple words or sentences which will properly portray the vast richness and complexities that this single word spans.  Yet still we must begin somewhere in trying to convey the underlying essence of this word.  So we will begin by looking at one of the oldest pieces of Greek literature in an attempt to extract something of the flavor found within the earliest of writings.

In the opening pages of 1 Samuel from the Bible we read the story of the two wives of Elkanah, Peninnah, and the mental abuse she inflicted upon Hannah since she was unable to bear a child.  If you’ve done any bible study you know that Hannah has a child which becomes Samuel, who eventually becomes the one who anoints David, Israel’s greatest king, the forerunner to Jesus the Messiah.  What, you may ask, does all of this have to do with Charis and the Greek culture? 
I use this as measuring tool since at this same time several hundred miles to the north on the northwestern edge of present day Turkey a war is being fought, one that would last for ten years, a war that would become the defining moment for all of the Greek culture.  It would shape the character of national leaders like Alexander the Great who was to come almost 800 years after it had been fought.  This war would be analyzed by great writers, poets, philosophers and military strategists for centuries, even up to this day.  If the Red Sea was the defining moment for the tribe of Israel, this war, the Trojan War, was such a moment for Greece, and embodied within the backdrop of this conflict is the beginnings of what we know of the nature of charis.
Before I go any further I want to emphasize something very important here in the context of this story.  I said that we would be looking at one of the oldest pieces of Greek literature which tells about this event.  It was penned by Homer, and is called The Iliad.  Homer wrote about this war over two hundred years after the events transpired at about the time that Solomon was dedicating the Temple of God in 1 Kings 7.  Why is that important?  The narrative of this ten year war was not penned by someone that witnessed it firsthand but by someone, that understanding the first nature of charis, was willing to bring honor where honor was due to as many as would receive it.
After this great war, as many had before it, ran its course, champions and vanquished each went their way telling the stories of great battles and their heroes to any that would listen.  And since they didn’t have our modern conveniences of distraction, weekly, if not nightly, symposiums, which were the mainstay of the communal life, became the outlet for these stories.  Symposiums, unlike today’s dry, staid intellectual forums were festive drinking events held after a communal feast where songs and stories of heroic deeds from the champions of the past and the present flowed as easily as the wine, which by its very nature, was the regulator on the ability of the teller to hold the attention of the audience. Over and over again these grand and noble stories would be told, each generation adding to the richness as new subjects of honor arose in the community.  This is what we might call the oral traditions of a culture but to them it was an element of charis – giving honor to those that honor was due to.  Charis, in this venue, was something that every man acknowledged was important to the fabric of the community and conducted his affairs so as not to be seen without honor, which could be brought up in these events just as well.
I’ll continue with the charis found in the Iliad in my next post.  Until then . . .

Monday, January 24, 2011

Is it all Greek to you?

Charis is a Greek word that today has an entirely different meaning than it had back “in the day.”  Today’s meaning is something I’m not going to focus on yet because I want you to understand the word from how the poets and philosophers of “the day” understood and developed the character of the word.   

I’m often going to be citing from a book that was written by Bonnie MacLachlan who has done great study in the original meaning of charis.  In her book she provides excerpts from a number of works where the author used charis within the context of the subject matter.  She includes both the original Greek text and its translation to give you an understanding of the topic being covered.  I’m not going to include the Greek text because I’ve found that most people can’t read it and since this isn’t a place to properly teach that material I’m just going to give you the translations that she supplied.

Currently I’m not going to mention the title of her book simply because it would give away what charis is recognized as today and taint the nature of what I’m trying to uncover to most people.  If you believe that you can objectively read this material after knowing what the title of her book is then go here to find the name of it.

So what was charis to the early Greeks?  In the introduction of Bonnie’s book she states:

“. . . No serious reader of early Greek poetry can avoid the fact that charis dominates the literary portrayal of life during the archaic age. . . Charis flickered when beautiful women sparkled; soldiers brought charis to their commanders on the battlefield or expected to win it when they fought well; charis graced appropriate behavior and speech and was a distinguishing mark of nobility; it was at the center of the feast; in the verses of the love poets it sat upon the hair or the eyes of the beloved.  For the epinician poets it crowned the moment of supreme glory when the athlete won and was celebrated in song.  Indeed, it would seem that for the early Greeks charis was present at all the high moments of life.  And at death one faced the dreary prospect of the disappearance of charis.  Just what was the charis experience, the sensation that clearly brought the greatest enjoyment to the early Greeks?”

You can now see that charis as it was “back in the day” covered a lot of ground and I assure you that today, knowing the background as I do, the present understanding of it is pretty pale in comparison.   So we shall look at the past before we bring it into the present and eventually into the future.  Hopefully it won’t all be Greek to you in the end.