Reading the signs of the times in our present historical age probably causes us to conclude that we are in a period of cultural decadence. In response to this disheartening trend, many of us hope to find great witnesses who help us find courage to overcome this cultural malaise. We find just such a witness in the history of the Roman empire, nineteen centuries ago. St. Justin Martyr stood as a sign of contradiction against the decadent culture of his era, and he can help us stand as signs of contradiction in our own age. We will do well to listen to his words and follow his example.
In reading about St. Justin’s life, we immediately learn that he was a seeker. By constantly searching for deeper knowledge and asking questions, he found his way to Christianity through Stoicism, Peripatetism, Pythagoreanism, and Platonism.
An encounter with an old Christian man along the seashore was Justin’s final step into this new religion. In Christianity, he said he found the philosophy that satisfied his soul. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin wrote: “straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and … I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable” (chapter 8). He would spend the rest of his life searching for truth, goodness, and beauty, and working to share it with others.
Justin’s love for philosophy turned him into an itinerant teacher, and he found his way to Rome. When he arrived there, Justin’s passion for philosophy and reason led him to call for a reasoned hearing for Christianity within the culture of pagan Rome. To the emperor, Antoninus Pius, he made a serious charge: “you do not examine the charges made against us; but, yielding to unreasoning passion, and to the instigation of evil demons, you punish us without consideration or judgment.” Rather, he proclaimed, “Justice requires that you inquire into the life both of him who confesses and of him who denies, that by his deeds it may be apparent what kind of man each is” (First Apology, §4-5). Justin’s claim was that a man should be respected for the value he brings to the society around him, whether he be pagan or Christian.
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