On the first day of June, we celebrate the Feast of St. Justin Martyr. Born around the year 100, he was immersed in Greek philosophy and the culture of his day. He became a believer and put his education to use defending the Christian faith, for which he was martyred around 165. His life and theology provide good lessons for navigating our interactions with the philosophy and culture of our own day.
Take a lesson from his theology. Christians were proclaiming that salvation comes only through Christ. Cultured critics asked: What about people who lived before Christ, or never had a chance to hear about Him? Is it fair to deny them salvation for something that wasn’t their fault?
That’s a legitimate question, even today. St. Justin sketched a beautiful answer. It went something like this:
The Gospel of John calls Christ “the Logos” — the eternal Word. Christians are saved by knowing and following the Word made flesh. But the ancient Greek philosophers sought to follow reason, and the Greek word for reason is Logos (from which we get the term “logical”). Any time they exercised reason, they were allowing the Logos to work in them. Any time they learned the truth through reason, they were beginning to know the Logos. And any time they patterned their lives on the truths they learned, they were beginning to follow the Logos. In these ways, even if they didn’t have explicit faith in Christ, they were implicitly knowing and following Him as the unseen Logos. Knowing and following Him, they could be saved by Him.
However, the Greeks couldn’t know through reason alone the whole truth about the Logos. That only comes from the revelation of Christ as the incarnate Logos. But that didn’t mean everything in Greek philosophy and culture was simply false. There were still seeds of the Word, as Vatican II determined. That’s a lesson we can learn and apply to our time.
Not everything in our culture (or other religions) is simply false. Some things are imperfectly true. And we need to be ready to recognize and affirm the truth — even imperfect truth — wherever we find it.
St. Justin’s martyrdom teaches another lesson that we need to learn. When told to sacrifice to the Roman gods or be executed, he replied with simplicity and serenity: “No one who is right-thinking stoops from true worship to false worship.” When told further that he would be tortured without mercy if he refused, he replied with the same directness: “We hope to suffer torment for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so be saved.”
Sometimes we affirm an imperfect truth. That takes prudence. But some things are simply false and wicked and harmful. We need the courage to name them for what they are, and have the confidence to do so with great serenity. And sometimes our most powerful witness isn’t anything we say, but a willingness to suffer for the faith. St. Justin Martyr excelled in all three of these ways of engaging culture. He’s a great example for us.
St. Justin, Martyr pray for us!