They made themselves what?

I have been fond of saying that the Church is by far the most multicultural institution in the history of the world. The history of her missionary activity is one of engaging what is best and noblest in a people wherever she finds them, and lifting it up, cleansing it of human grime, directing it toward its own inner meaning, which is Christ. The Irish were never so Irish than when they became Christian.

But there is a kind of “multiculturalism,” the kind that is favored now even in many Catholic schools and colleges, which is a parody of the Church. It is at once inimical to culture, ecumenical in its enmity, and eclectic in choosing rags and scraps from everywhere it turns, so that it appears cosmopolitan, but is actually totalitarian at heart. That kind of “multiculturalism” is what we read about in the first book of Maccabees.

The situation was this. Alexander the Great had gone marauding and conquering, from the Bosporus to the Indus River, establishing outposts of Greekish culture everywhere he went, and naming them after his own august self: Alexandrias everywhere (for example, modern Kandahar, in Afghanistan).

Alexander was a Macedonian king, and most Greeks viewed Macedon as a land of Greek-speaking barbarians. Alexander, however, whose father Philip hired Aristotle to teach the lad, wanted to show that he was Greek indeed. His success at this was at best spotty. He ended up marrying an eastern princess and adopting the ways of Persian emperors, thus making some of his generals and his men deeply uneasy. Nobody ever approached Pericles, a general in Athens during her most glorious years, as if he were a god; Pericles himself would have looked upon it as stupid and blasphemous. But that is how Alexander wanted to be approached, and in fact he asserted that he was not the son of Philip after all, but of Ammonian Zeus—and he bought the testimony of Egyptian oracles to prove it.

Thus, it was a strange conglomerate that prevailed in the near east when Alexander died, having divided his conquests among three successors. These men had vast territories to govern, made up of many peoples, and so naturally they wanted some kind of cultural order to prevail. They could not make them all Greek; they themselves were but semi-Greek. But they could fold all of their ways up into one new thing, happily assimilating everyone, because aren’t we all the same inside? That was the plan of the emperor Antiochus, who called himself Epiphanes, that is, the Shining One, the God-like Illustrious One. Writes the author of 1 Maccabees: “And King Antiochus wrote to all his kingdom, that all the people should be one: and everyone should leave his own law. And all nations consented according to the word of King Antiochus. And many of Israel consented to his service, and they sacrificed to idols, and profaned the Sabbath” (1:43-45).

Antiochus went so far as to forbid circumcision—the single most powerful sign that Jewish men were not like the rest of the world—and to set up “the abominable idol of desolation upon the altar of God” (1:57). That was a statue of Zeus, the father-god. Many Jews went along with it. They wanted very much to be like everyone else roundabout them, and they admired the Greeks for their knowledge and sophistication. So, they “built a place of exercise in Jerusalem, according to the laws of the nations: and they made themselves prepuces and departed from the holy covenant” (1:15-16).

The place of exercise was the gymnasion, literally the nudity place, where Greek men would strip to run, wrestle, box, throw the javelin, and talk about the business of the day. The Jewish boys were eager to join up, but were embarrassed by their physical appearance down under. That is why they made “prepuces” out of sheepskin to take the place of what had been cut away when they were eight days old.

This was not the old kind of idolatry, when the people of Israel and Judah bowed down before idols of Dagon or Moloch, actually believing these to be other gods besides the God who spoke to Moses upon Mount Sinai. It was a new and improved idolatry, softer, more craven and more intelligent and more insidious. It appears that Antiochus’ aim was to show the people not that Zeus was better than the Lord, but that Zeus and the Lord were essentially the same. The Jews could then say that they were still worshiping the Lord, you see; and other mental expedients might be used to justify the sheepskins.

Anything that was atavistic, that tried to turn the shadow on the sundial back, that was not on board with the obvious march of history, had to be punished severely. So “the women who circumcised their children were slain according to the commandment of King Antiochus. They hanged the children about their necks in all the houses. Those that had circumcised them, they put to death” (1:63-64).

Does this sound familiar? Certainly not the hanging of the children, now; that would never happen in our fine modern times. People would never be slaughtered in our fine modern times for adhering to the ways of their ancestors.

Well, at least they would not be slaughtered in the United States. But they would surely be mocked and called vile things and be denied employment, and would be threatened with the terrible “judgment of history,” as if history were a cannibal god eager to devour each generation of human beings that dares to suggest that history is not a god at all, but a creature of the mind, an idol.

History repeats itself because man repeats himself. Human nature does not change. In the days of Antiochus, the Jews who wanted to be accepted by the progressive Greeks “made themselves prepuces,” and surely thought themselves both intelligent and pious for doing so. They capitulated to the culture around them.

What shall we do now? The thing around us, whatever you want to call it, is hostile to any form of Christianity which keeps Christ at the center, and that trusts the word of God rather than the ideas of progressively progressing man. The only progress man without God makes is to the grave and worse. Shall we say, in effect, “Let us be like our neighbors”?

What are the costumes on sale now, so that no one will be able to tell the difference between a Christian and the typical post-Christian sub-pagan on the street or in the locker room—­­­or in the pews, behind the altar, or in front of the classroom?

ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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