Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Platonic Christian Worldview

Most people think that there is simply one church, under the one leader, Jesus Christ. Why, do these idealists say, doesn’t the church just get unified? Apart from the different governing bodies that distinguish one denomination from another, there is another significant issue—there is more than one Christian philosophy. Within each denomination there exists a variety of different philosophies—all claiming the name of Christ, but in many ways incompatible. In this series of articles, we will explore different Christianities and try to understand them from an Anabaptist viewpoint.

In the third and fourth centuries, Christianity was coming into its own as a force in the Roman empire. Paganism was beginning to wane as the primary belief system, and it was getting competition from the revised Hebrew religion. But there was another belief system that was gaining popularity as well—Platonism. Platonism was begun by the philosopher Plato in ancient Athens, and held that the spirit world was the prime reality on which all of our physical reality was based.

Some platonic philosophers of this time —such as Ignatius and Augustine— saw quite a bit of compatibility between Platonism and Christianity, and came to believe in Jesus as the human face behind the platonic philosophy. Then these teachers began defending their platonic form of Christianity against those whom they saw as “heretics” and “unbelievers.” These became the strongest defenders of Christianity of the third and fourth centuries. Their idea of Christianity became enormously influential and their concept of Christianity continues to this day. Below are some of the main beliefs of a Platonic form of Christianity:

Spirit World is the Real World
According to Plato, there is an alternative universe which holds all the reality of the physical universe we see and feel. It is the Spirit world, and it is not less real than the physical world, but more real. In the spiritual universe, there is the real, pure Apple and all apples of our world are just poor copies of the original. Even so, the real Human exists in that universe, and all of us are simply copies of the true Human—and we are only trying to become like that Real Human.

God is the Primary Cause—Pure Spirit
Aristotle, Plato’s student, followed in this logic concerning God. He said that all things have a source, a cause. If creation came from the earth, then the earth came from somewhere, as did the sun and all of our universe. However, at some point one must arrive at the First Cause, because if there is no origin of all things, then nothing could exist. The platonic Christians hold that the Prime Cause is God, who is pure spirit, being made up of nothing physical, of this universe. God is the perfect being, complete Spirit, completely good, and the originator of all good, pure, spiritual things.

Flesh is Corrupt, Spirit is Good
Because God and the Spirit world is where all good comes from, then spiritual things are the only things that are good. This also means that the physical universe we live in is automatically crippled, automatically prone toward weakness. This weakness is called by the platonic Christians the flesh. The flesh is corruptible, able to drift further and further from the Spirit, which is pure good. Fundamentally, the more physical—the flesh—the more corruption and evil. The more Spirit, the more purity and good.

Humanity is part spirit, part flesh
Every human born, according to the platonic Christian philosophers, is part spirit and part flesh. The flesh, they say, is the body, which is corruptible and imperfect. But every human also has a spirit, which is the human’s connection to God. Between the flesh and the spirit is the soul, which is the basis of the mind and will. The soul is the fundamental part of humanity—neither pure flesh nor pure spirit—which determines the moral direction of the person, whether toward the spirit or toward the flesh.

Morality is based on the control of the flesh and motivation
To be a good human, therefore, we must constantly choose the spirit as opposed to the flesh. The flesh leads us to physical desire, to sexuality, to gluttony, to greed, to anger—all of the seven deadly sins are sins of the flesh, created by the platonic Christians. However, ultimately, humans are judged not on their deeds, but their motivation—that which their souls determined. If a soul chose the good, even though it lead them to corruption, then the soul may be saved though the body is corrupt.

Jesus was God Incarnate
Platonic Christians speak of Jesus as the Son of God, the human who was God from birth. Since Jesus was born as God incarnate, thus he was not human as we are human. Yes, Jesus was human, he had flesh and he had spirit, but his soul was already committed to the spirit, and so he constantly rejected the corrupt flesh. Thus, he never sinned. In this way, he had perfect faith and lived perfectly before his Father. Because of this, Jesus’ life could not really provide us with a proper example, because he had a different make up than we. So if we fall short of Jesus, that is only because he was God and we are not. Jesus died to give humanity the opportunity to be pure spirit. All of humanity has been corrupted by their flesh, but Jesus died so that such corruption could be left behind with one’s body, while the spirit and soul rises to God.

The highest Christian act is spiritual contemplation
Those of us who are Christians are those who have entered into Jesus death through baptism and the Lord’s supper. As we partake with Jesus, according to platonic Christians, we find ourselves being led by Him to act in the Spirit, and to set aside the flesh. Thus, as we find gluttony, drunkenness and sexuality set aside, we will also partake more and more in the Spirit realm through contemplation of the Pure Spirit—God himself. We can focus on God through meditation, through praise, through singing or through quoting the Scripture. But the focus is to transport oneself out of this world and into God.

The Church is Invisible
Because morality is a completely internal process, we cannot know who is more spiritual than another. While it is true that the most fleshly people would not be spiritually minded, for the most part we cannot tell. Some are spiritually minded and some are not. But the true people of God are invisible—only God knows who they are. The rest of us cannot judge.

Heaven is Living in Spirit
The ultimate goal of every platonic Christian is, therefore, the stripping away of our bodies—our corrupt flesh—and living in spirit in the presence of God. This is heaven—a pure spiritual existence. In heaven God is the continuous focus, and all who enter heaven take full satisfaction and pleasure in adoring and contemplating God, the Pure Spirit, the Source of all Things.

An Anabaptist Critique of Platonic Christianity
Platonic Christianity has tried to walk a wall that borders Platonism and the Bible—and so there are many aspect of their philosophy that reflects the Bible. Jesus himself said that God is Spirit and that we are not to worship him based on the physical. Jesus also recognized that the Spirit world is more powerful than the universe we live in, and that he himself is from the Spirit world. Jesus did die in order to help us enter God’s kingdom. And the flesh can corrupt us into doing evil.

However, the Bible takes a more balanced view of the physical world than the Platonists do. The physical world is created by God who called it “good” not corrupt. The perfect humans, Adam and Eve, were both flesh and spirit, and completely pure that way. There is no evidence in the Scripture that Jesus was not fully human, even as we are, and pure and innocent in that humanity. While the flesh can corrupt, as Paul said, it is not the flesh alone that corrupts us, but our determination to live out of balance with the flesh—to be obedient to our corrupt desires instead of God. God created sex, he created grapes, he created food, and he wants us to live in pleasure with these things. God also created limits so that we can live in the flesh, but in purity—through marriage, sobriety and moderation.

The physical world is the source of our good acts, as well as evil. It is in the physical world that we give to the poor. It is in the physical world that we love our families. It is in the physical world that we bow down and worship God. But most of all, the paradise that Jesus promises us is not a world of pure spirit. Rather, the cornerstone of his future promise is that we will be resurrected from the dead—we will not remain spiritual, but we will become physical again in God’s perfect utopia. In that time, our bodies will be incorruptible, pure, holy and completely physical.

Jesus also made it clear that what our bodies do is a reflection of our spiritual life. Thus, our moral life is not just in our minds, but equally in our actions. It is not enough for us to have the right motivation, even if we do the wrong actions. Rather, our motivation is shown by our actions. Our morality is based on the life of Jesus. Jesus’ life is not just the pie-in-the-sky ideal, but it is the paradigm for our physical life. We can—and should—be as willing to obey God, as willing to trust in God, as willing to surrender ourselves for the needy as Jesus was. This is our goal, and the purpose of our lives.

1 comment:

Ryan Harker said...

Steve, I appreciated this summary of Platonic Christianity. My name is Ryan Harker, a Philosophy & Religion undergrad. on my way to AMBS. I've recently discovered your blog while researching for my senior thesis on Menno Simons and/or contemporary Anabaptist theology..haven't decided yet.

Anyway, I'm studying Plato this semester and have been intrigued/disturbed by the influence of Plato on Christianity, most of which is very implicit in today's Christianity in America, but very much alive. Anyway, I'm wondering if you know of any books comparing the Platonic worldview to the Biblical?