Metaphysical Wonder: Plato and Patristics

The more I learn about Plato, the more I realize that patristic theologians relied heavily on his work to talk about God. I’m reading through Confessions right now, and it’s absolutely littered with echoes and quotations from Plotinus, a prominent Platonist philosopher. For example, here’s his classic definition of sin (the decision to act for yourself, rather than in accordance with God’s will) side by side with Plotinus’s definition:

I directed my mind to understand what I was being told, namely that the free choice of the will is the reason why we do wrong and suffer your just judgement.

Augustine, The Confessions, p. 113, Trans. Chadwick

What is it, then, which has made the souls forget their father, God, and be ignorant of them- selves and him, even though they are parts which come from his higher world and altogether belong to it? The beginning of evil for them was audacity and coming to birth and the first otherness and the wishing to belong to themselves.

Plotinus, Enneads, 5.1.1

Obviously not a one-to-one copy, but Auggie’s understanding is incredibly compatible with the leading Platonist voice. If you were a Christian, you’d be able to use Platonic logic to back up your points without too much trouble. Similarly, if you were a Platonist that wasn’t a Christian, you’d have some common ground with the Christian tradition if you were looking to convert.

Here’s another example. In this passage, Augustine is trying to describe how he thought about God interacting with creation.

I visualized you, Lord, surrounding [creation] on all sides and permeating it, but infinite in all directions, as if there were a sea everywhere and stretching through immense distances, a single sea which had within it a large but finite sponge; and the sponge was in every part filled from the immense sea. This is the kind of way in which I supposed your finite creation to be full of you, infinite as you are, and said: ‘Here is God and see what God has created. God is good and is most mightily and incomparably superior to these things.

Confessions, p. 115, Trans. Chadwick

The universe lies in soul which bears it up, and nothing is without a share of soul. It is as if a net immersed in the waters was alive, but unable to make its own that in which it is. The sea is already spread out and the net spreads with it, as far as it can; for no one of its parts can be anywhere else than where it lies. And soul’s nature is so great, just because it has no size, as to contain the whole of body in one and the same grasp; wherever body extends, there soul is. If body did not exist, it would make no difference to soul as regards size; for it is what it is.

Plotinus, Enneads 4.3.9.38

Whether we’re sponges or a net, there’s a massive entity in each example (God/soul) that exists as the water that extends in all directions and contains us. When Augustine wanted to talk about God, he used Platonic ideas that had been spread around the Mediterranean for hundreds of years to get the job done.

It’s beyond obvious that these aren’t complete rip-offs. Augustine didn’t pop open Plotinus and start copying bits word for word. Nor are all Platonic ideas are even compatible with Christianity. The guy believed in reincarnation, for crying out loud. To be Christian, you had to admit that Plato got some of it wrong. But clearly Plato and his gang were often seen as people that got most of it right; they just needed a bit of tweaking to fully get there. Augustine credits the Platonists with giving him the logic that prepared him for the Gospel:

You brought under my eye some books of the Platonists, translated from Greek into Latin. There I read, not of course in these words, but with entirely the same sense and supported by numerous and varied reasons, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him, and without him nothing was made.’

The Confessions, p. 121, Trans. Chadwick

In other words, thank God for Plato’s books, which prepared me for the Bible.

Before going too much further, I do feel obligated to discuss the possibility that patrstic authors like Augustine were too influenced by philosophers like Plato and weren’t really looking at the Bible on it’s own merits. Totally untrue. Patristic sources quote the Bible constantly. Confessions is littered with Bible quotes. These were people that swam in the Scriptures; the assumptions they approached reality with were just very different than our own.

Plato’s work gave early saints the metaphysical concepts and language they needed to talk about God. Platonism had it’s own version of the trinity (the One, the spirit, and the soul). It explained how when we do good, we participate in God’s good actions, rather than act independently of our own ability. It gave the Eastern churches the framework for the doctrines of theosis (becoming like God through constant participation in his actions) and apocatastasis (all things eventually returning to God, really only common in Eastern Orthodoxy). Even the ways that classical Christian orthodoxy frames God as the timeless, spaceless, source of all being are built partially on the assumptions that Plato built. That philosopher gave ideas and language to Christian theologians that were desperately trying to find words to describe their God. In the words of Anglican theologian Dean Inge, “Platonism is part of the vital structure of Christianity, with which no other philosophy, I venture to say, can work without friction.” More aggressively, he wrote that there is an “utter impossibility of excising Platonism from Christianity without tearing Christianity to pieces,” (History of Western Philosophy, 285).

Maybe Paul’s disciplemaking trip to Athens in Acts 17 served a greater purpose than we knew! Maybe spreading the Gospel to Greek minds was God’s way of preparing the ancient Church for the metaphysical work ahead. Ok, technically Plato was known by academics throughout the Mediterranean region, and Plotinus (an Egyptian) specifically wasn’t even born until over a hundred years after Paul’s death. The quotes from above aren’t direct results of Paul’s venture to Athens, but I still think Acts 17 is a brilliant symbol to represent the early Church’s theological growth. The Gospel made it’s way to Greece and was spoken to and by a new people, gaining new expression in the process.

Obviously, the average person today doesn’t know a lot about Plato. I wonder if that’s why so many classical ideas about God’s nature are under attack. It’s fairly common (at least, in my circles) to hear someone say that God is subject to change (not timeless), that God is capable of making mistakes (not good), and that God chooses to let us make whatever choices we want to make without interfering (no participation). If we’re reading the Scriptures with today’s prevailing philosophies in mind (probably some brand of rationalism and materialism), God might seem remarkably human. He bargains with a merciful Abraham about the minimum number of righteous people left in Sodom and Gomorrah before he’ll destroy it (Gen 18). He regrets making humanity (Gen 6:6). He changes his mind about disasters that he’ll send (Amos 7). You get the idea. God is personified relatively often, and those personifications are commonly read by modern thinkers in unflattering, very mortal ways. In the patristic era, it was common for theologians to say, “Well, those stories are just symbols to communicate God’s immense, unfathomable ways to a limited, sinful, mortal people,” but that’s not a common response that I hear anymore. With the loss of a language to describe the things we can’t see, it’s hard for most modern people to imagine a God beyond our mode of being. If God exists, he must be like us, which leaves us why he’s worth worshiping at all.

We need a cure for our loss of metaphysical wonder. I don’t know that everyone ought to go read Plato. There’s a lot of stuff in there that the Church Fathers rejected in long, drawn-out, messy theology battles. We don’t need to start those up again! But we do owe it to ourselves to listen to Christian voices that had a common philosophical vision so different from ours. Their writings have gifts that we won’t find anywhere else, and they point us to a God that’s so delightfully other from our cultural imagination that we can’t help but stand back in awe.

Can God Act? Charles Taylor and the Impact of Secularism

A few weeks back, I was chatting with my spiritual director and somehow I got on the topic of religious language.  A friend of mine uses religious language that’s really foreign to me.  For example, she might say: “I woke up this morning and was so grateful that the Lord gave me one more day, and so I thanked him with all my heart.  Later on, as I ate my cereal, I pondered, ‘Lord, what are you asking of me today?  What do you want?  Should I go to the store?’”  For some reason, her language just makes me a little uneasy. Obviously it bothered me enough that I wanted to process it with someone else! Why does she have to talk like that?

My director’s response was simple enough, “It’s very brave of her to talk like that.  She knows that most people in our world don’t sound like her, but she chooses to use that language anyway.  What makes you uncomfortable with her language?”

I threw out some bad guesses about religious background and education, but they were all nonsense.  I didn’t have a good answer.  I’ve just been sitting with that question for a few weeks, trying to ask myself why her language bothers me so much.

God must have heard me crying out, because I certainly ended up reading in the right direction; I stumbled back onto the work of Charles Taylor.  His work in A Secular Age may only be from 2007, but it’s a masterwork for religious people of all traditions.  He investigates the philosophy of secularism, how it developed, what ideas hold it in place, and what it means for religious thought today.  Admittedly, I’m not reading Taylor directly; I’m reading Andrew Root’s The Pastor in a Secular Age, which builds on Taylor’s work to see how pastors understood themselves and their society historically to determine what a pastor’s challenges are today.  That being said, it’s a book in Charles Taylor’s tradition.  Root is very much building on what Taylor’s work (in a delightfully readable way).

In any case, it had an answer to my burning question: I’m a pretty secular person. It’s no wonder that language about a God that acts feels wrong.  Does God exist?  Sure!  But it’s uncomfortable to address him as a being that acts and moves and has a being.  God is, after all, in us!  He is sustaining all things!  He is creating!  At least, that’s the way we talk about him in mainline churches.  But if we’re being honest, that’s all pretty passive, impersonal stuff.   God looks suspiciously like a weird spark somewhere between personal inspiration and natural law.  It’s not the kind of God you really need to worry much about, and it’s certainly not one that you wake up every morning talking to.

Here’s two big reasons that really hit me as why mainstream Western society has a hard time talking about God in an active voice:

1. We’ve dis-embedded God from public life.

Historically, God’s will was understood to be the foundation of public life.  Just think about Joan of Arc!  Why did she fight the English?  Because God wanted France to win.  She was God’s instrument, and God’s will was made manifest through her.  Again, think about the “divine right of kings.”  Why was someone the king?  Because God wanted it like that!  There was no way to divide what was happening in the world from the active work of God.  God acted, and the world was shaped according to his authority.

The rise of democracy made God’s action in the world a little harder to understand.  Power wasn’t vested in a king; it was in the will of the people!  But if you consider the way that God’s authority was popularly interpreted in the public square, that brings a bit of a problem to seeing God’s work in the world:

[In democracy,] sovereignty comes from the people, not from the king; but the king’s sovereignty comes from above, from God; so democracy is already an implicit rejection of God.

Taylor, Dilemmas and Connection: Selected Essays (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011), 228.

Ever wonder why so many American founding fathers were deists?  This is why!  When public life is a primarily a product of human will, rather than divine action, it’s harder to believe in a God that actively takes an interest in public affairs.  We moved from a system in which God was acting and the world was shifting according to his will to a system in which people were responsible for organizing themselves to manifest God’s ideal world.  God ceased to be the primary actor in public affairs and the role of the individual became far more prominent than ever before.

If you’re a citizen in a Western democracy, you’ve probably internalized this logic.  For example, what’s your first thought when a political candidate you despise wins the election?  Probably something like, “Dang, we needed to mobilize our voting base more effectively and appeal to a broader audience.” You probably don’t worry that this is a judgement from God for failing to live faithfully. When we have such power at our disposal, it’s hard to envision the results of an election, the outcome of a war, or the laws that we live by as a product of God’s action, rather than our own successes or failures in the public arena.

2. We’ve divided the natural world from divine purpose and action.

In previous eras, everything that happened was full of deep meaning.  Lightning struck near you?  Sign from God.  Good crops?  God is happy.  The sun rose?  God wanted the sun to rise.  The whole world was a theater for the divine, and God’s intimate work was everywhere.  Was it superstitious by our standards?  Oh, absolutely.  But every detail mattered intimately.  Today?  Well, today it’s hard to believe that anything is particularly meaningful.  The discovery and codification of natural laws have brought huge breakthroughs to the understanding of science and medicine, but (when they’re coupled with the elements of our secular philosophy) they’ve also closed off our understanding of the universe.  Whereas before the universe was open to God’s action, constantly being affected by the divine will (or the will of other, less pleasant entities), now the system is largely seen as self-governing and closed off to any outside parties.  For example:

When the fifty-five-year-old woman asks her pastor about her cancer, we’re quick to claim that its cause is impersonal. It’s just the odds, bad luck, the randomness of an impersonal order, or childhood exposure to some toxin or chemical. Yet if this is so—and it might be—then it becomes much harder for her to trust that a personal God can act to heal her. It is less frightening to assume that it is just the odds or bad luck that makes her sick—it’s nothing personal. She did nothing wrong, nor is some malevolent personal force after her. Yet, while this is less frightening, without a personal cause it is much harder to imagine (and explain) the intervention of a personal God in a presumed impersonal universe. And maybe more importantly, it becomes a challenge to provide meaning to her illness and death. She is stuck with a meaninglessness to her disease because, though deeply personal to her, her disease is only a fading echo in a dark, cold, impersonal universe where everything dies, swallowed in the tsunami of massive, impersonal time and space. If the cancer is caused by no personal force, how can a personal God affect her, other than by providing some banal comfort or cold indifference?

Root, Andrew. The Pastor in a Secular Age (Ministry in a Secular Age Book #2) (p. 56). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Where we previously saw God reaching into our world and acting, now we only see the cold logic of natural law. It’s harder to blame God, but it’s also harder to expect anything from him.

Hopefully none of this feels like a glorification of the past and an utter rejection of our present world.  Not at all!  After all, I live here and there’s some pretty cool stuff to enjoy!  It’s just a way of trying to explore why previous generations could easily see God acting in the world around them, and why we find it so hard.  Their philosophy naturally emphasized the role of the divine, whereas ours emphasizes human action and natural law to a far greater degree.  No wonder my friend’s language made me so nervous!  God is doing things?  Talking to people?  Planning stuff?  Eew.  Gross.  Please use more passive language for your God.  It sounds ridiculous when you act like he exists. 

What would it mean to imagine that God can talk over a bowl of cereal?  That he wants something and that we’re capable of hearing it?  More than that, that other people are capable of hearing God too, and he is acting in the world to make his will manifest?