A spiritual exercise I intentional practice every few years involves “forgetting” what I think I know about God, faith, and faithful living. Of course, I don’t really “forget” these things but I do my best to identify and bracket these things and try to read the Bible again with fresh eyes and clear heart. It is always good to do this with other similarly committed believers. You can hold each other accountable, help us identify each other’s blind spots, and share the hope of growth and new life.
In North America most of us are shaped by the western tradition of thought and life. This tradition has its great strengths, to be sure. But it has blind spots as well, debilitating blind spots. We do well to focus on these blind spots as exercises in “forgetting” to open ourselves to a fresh reading and reflection on scripture.
Five of the central planks of theology done in the western tradition that negatively impact faithful Christian life and thought are its view of God, its view of reality, its view of a reason, its view of a Christian life, and its view of money. To “forget” these influences involves bidding adieu to Aristotle, Plato, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and Adam Smith. Today we say good-bye to Plato.
Plato, along with Aristotle, are the two “biggies” of Ancient Greek philosophy whose thought continues to influence us to this very day. Indeed, Alfred North Whitehead once described the history of western philosophy as “a series of footnotes to Plato”! Yet what Karl Barth said of Aristotle is true for Plato as well: he is not a doctor of the church. Therefore his influence over us must be critically assessed.
Unfortunately, for the most part, the church’s appropriation of Plato thought, at least at the level of his view of reality, was not so appropriated but rather uncritically swallowed. Much of early Christian thought was run through the sieve of his view of reality and shaped the thought of much western theology through the ages.
What is his view of reality? You’ll recognize it immediately. It’s more likely than not your view of reality. We’ve all been steeped in it from the time we came into this world. It’s the division of the world into matter (physicality) and spirit (inwardness, immaterial) and the valuing of the latter over the former. This is where all the talk of a “spiritual” life in Christianity comes from. Our interaction with God takes place primarily in this “spiritual” innerness of who we are.
Our bodily existence is less important than our spirit or soul. Ever heard evangelism described as “soul-winning”? That’s friend Plato’s doing. It’s our inward “being” that needs to be saved and through which we will relate to God forever (usually thought of as some kind of immaterial existence in “heaven” – our topic for tomorrow). Some have even rejected the body and its needs in favor of an ascetic “spirituality” which thought that the more we disciplined or even denied these physical drives and needs, the closer we would be to God!
Brothers and sisters, renounce Plato and his pernicious view of reality today if you have not already done so! Instead, hear again God declare his creation “good,” even “very good.” And on the other end of the spectrum, embrace the creed’s affirmation that we believe “in the resurrection of the body.” God’s good creation and our bodily existence within it is “good” and will be redeemed and be our mode of life throughout the ages with God.
God created human beings as what we today would call psycho-somatic unities. I like to call us “ensouled bodies” or “embodied souls.” Some say the body is the form in which our souls interface with the rest of creation. However you choose to put it, Christian faith ought never to have underwritten Plato’s dualistic view of reality.
-This is why things like ritual and habit have been much neglected in the west as aids to growth in faith. They are too bodily, earthy to be of real “spiritual” value, we think.
-This is a chief reason why we have a hard time with the Old Testament. We just can’t get our minds around God relating to history, politics, economics, and social matters in such a thoroughgoing way. Surely God put all that behind him with the coming of Jesus, the Spirit, and the church! On the contrary, however, the Old Testament is the essential presupposition on which alone the New Testament can be understood.
-The Old Testament also bears massive testimony to God’s intention to have a people, a real live community of people, who will live their historical, political, economic, and social lives in such a way that anyone can see, touch, taste, and smell the kind of life God designed and desires for all his creatures and to which he invites them through Jesus Christ.
-When we arrive at John’s vision of the new creation in Revelation 21-22 we find there creation perfected not rejected, cleansed and renewed not thrown away, and God leaving heaven to come down to this material realm to spend forever with us!
Let us, then, bid Plato adieu and embrace the wholeness of life for which we were created and in and through which we are loved and transformed by God into that creational design!
In the next post in this series we will bid adieu to the Enlightenment and its view of reason.