Jun 5, 2008

Historical Roots and Weeds

At the outset, I acknowledge that my viewpoints do not necessarily represent some readers' conceptions of God. My point is not to discount differing religious opinions, but to share what I have come to understand in my pursuit of truth. At the same time, I want to assure the reader that many of the theological points that I will share hereafter are not my own concoctions. I am not just trying to calculate a God that fits what I want; rather, in this blog I will set forth the theology I have found best suits what I understand and have experienced of God.

I am a big fan of Plato and Aristotle. But being a big fan of them, I have no duty to espouse everything they taught. Much of the Western thought tradition sinks its roots into Platonic and Aristotelian thought, and without it, we would not have the scientific and social progress of our time. However, no matter how brilliant Plato and Aristotle were, assuming without question that their logical postulations can perfectly depict God would be, in my mind, a risky proposition.

From what we can tell, Plato was somewhat dissatisfied with the depictions of the Greek gods, perhaps cuing from his teacher, Socrates, who was tried and killed for allegedly leading away youth with his disbelief in the popular mythological understanding of the gods. Plato felt that God should be the infinite goodness, all positive attributes in their perfected forms, in stark contrast to the clumsy, blundering, moody, deceivable deities of the popular mythology. His student Aristotle and other neo-Platonists philosophers pushed the idea further, teaching that the greatest possible being would be immovable and unaffectable. Aristotle thought of God as an Unmoved Mover: one who creates and changes all, but cannot be changed or made subject to anything—to intellect or emotions, like love, pity, sadness, etc— and so completely other-worldly that He cannot be known or comprehended. We can follow these ideas through intellectual tradition, albeit with a few tweaks in semantics, to a God described as being abstract, absolute, transcendent, immanent, unknowable, without body, parts, or passions. As a response, the Gnostic philosophers were brewing opposing thoughts, with alternative views to creation, to contrast the abstracts of metaphysics.

Many early Christians, such as Origen, a devout Platonic Christian, and Augustine, a student of Greek philosophy and the most prominent early Christian theologian, espoused many of these philosophies, including those regarding God's attributes. Augustine showed not only his approval of Greek metaphysics but also his view of its compatibility with Christianity when he said in his True Religion, “If these men [Greek philosophers] could have had this life over again with us…They would have become Christians, with the change of a few words and statements.”

Much of Western religious text comes from these thought traditions, as manifested incrementally by the formation of creeds and the dominance of stalwart theologians (such as Anselm and Aquinas) whose views reflected these philosophies. These same philosophies have become a part of many of the arguments for and against God and, from what I can tell, have also mingled with other non-Christian religious belief systems.

I respect those who uphold such tenants, but I humbly submit that such attribution to God brings irresolvable questions for me. There are many that refer to part, but not all, of the Neo-Platonic philosophical description of God or to the Gnostic responses. I recognize that there are many who say that God loves but is still immovable and unknowable. I readily recognize that many believers in God have rejected the idea that He feels no emotion and therefore doesn’t love them in the sense that we think of loving, but they still see the need to hold on to other Neo-Platonic attributes. However, I don’t find the need to restrict my understanding of God’s attributes within Neo-platonic ideas espoused by theologians that followed suit, but rather I harness my understanding of God more often from spiritual processes, some of which are outlined in previous posts. I submit that this understanding of God, which I attempt to describe with this blog, is philosophically cogent, theologically sound, and pragmatically meaningful.

At this time, the reader will note that I am addressing the Judeo-Christian branch of theology, for it is under that umbrella that I classify myself. Searching in Judeo-Christian texts of God, I personally have found little to enforce the idea that God fits the descriptions of the purely Neo-Platonic or purely gnostic mindsets. One scholar of post-Biblical history and theology, George Foot Moore asserts that "Palestinian Judaism was innocent...of an abstract or transcendent or any other sort of a philosophical idea of god." And a historian-theologian of Christianity J.N.D. Kelly writes, "There is an extraordinary contrast, for example, between the versions of the Church's teaching given by the second-century Apostolic Fathers and by an accomplished fifth-century theologian like Cyril of Alexandria." Even the great Christian scholar Edwin Hatch observed, in a work that is considered a classic on the topic, that "a large part of what are sometimes called Christian doctrines, and many usages which have prevailed and continue to prevail in the Christian Church, are in reality Greek theories and Greek usages changed in form and colour by the influence of primitive Christianity, but in their essence Greek still." Even more fascinating is the paradox that arises from the trial of Galileo: he was put on trial not for contradicting the Bible, but for contradicting Aristotle—we know that the intellectual roots of our sciences, Greek philosophers, had flaws that we were able to recognize and uproot. These statements, among many others, suggest to me that there is a possibility that some depictions of God rooted in Neo-Platonic or Gnostic thought might be laden with human intervention and error. Though Greek philosophies provide us with the intellectual framework to pursue science (finding personally that science cannot prove or deny God), I don’t find it necessary to use their theological framework to pursue God.

For open-mindedness, I choose not to restrict the possibilities of God by forcing His attributes to be something (incomprehensible, unknowable, immovable) outside of what I have experienced. I, personally, must place the Neo-Platonic and gnostic depictions of God back on the shelf, with all respect, nevertheless accepting the grand sum of Greek philosophers’ contributions, knowing that without those philosophers our society wouldn’t have the intellectual foundation to pursue science as we now pursue. The God I and others trust is knowable, and as I have stated before, actively loving, and if God is those things, for me it could signify that other attributes of God from the philosophical tradition of Aristotle might be in error. Indeed Tertullian, an early Christian leader, taught, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?…Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!” The irony is that Tertullian wanted so little to do with Neo-Platonism, that he espoused thoughts of the opposing Gnosticism. Indeed with the further investment of these abstracted thoughts, Chadwick records that one early Christian monk cried out, upon being instructed that God had not the personal nature which he had previously believed “Woe is me! They have taken my God away from me, . . . and I know not whom to adore or to address.”

Able to free myself of the restraints placed on God by espousing all of the Neo-Platonic and Gnostic thought traditions, I am able to see more clearly some of the complications, and the major one for me I will likely address in my next post. I have left a traditional framework, and I intend to construct another with subsequent posts.

This discussion is foundational to understanding what has been, for me, a way to resolve the Logical Problem of Evil. To me it seems that removing those philosophical restrictions I’ve mentioned above relieves much of the problem. This is not to say that there aren't other solutions to the Logical Problem of Evil. C.S. Lewis wrote an excellent book called The Problem of Pain in which he argues many of the points I would eventually like to make far better than I could. There are also a number of defenses of the Logical Problem of Evil that I have come across. I suppose that many authors who have taken on the logical problem of evil argue that my approach of distancing myself from Neo-Platonic and Gnostic thought is unnecessary. But with the questions that I have, for me, it makes all the difference.


Rachel J. said...

I appreciate what your 3rd paragraph from the bottom states; "I choose not to restrict the possibilities of God by forcing His attributes to be something...outside of what I have experienced...".

This mindset is key. We can spend so much energy upholding the traditions of out parent's parents without ever pausing to really inspect what we are doing...It is just what is done, and questioning upsets the flow.

My mom is older now, and really overweight. She missed the boat for change, she is too tired to try and is I guess, "comfortable" in the familiarness of her fat. This is not to say that I disregard faith in miracles and the power we all have access to if we seek it; but so many of us are freaked by the prospect of learning how to re-think, or re-be...or that we could in fact, be wrong and misled.

I am a big advocate of open-mindedness, and I used to play the elementary game "telephone" (where a secret is passed through the channel of a long line of ears to the mouthpiece who then voices the original secret...and it is almost always fudged up!

Academics and our smarts will only get us so far. There is a wall we will eventually hit, and from there it is up to us to ask for help...and believe that it can and will be given.

Mikha'el said...

Thank you for your comments Rachel. I am appreciative of your thoughtful responses.
I think you are correct in saying that academics "will only get us so far." Oftentime I write with loaded with academia, because I have discovered that my beliefs are not illogical nor contradictory to science nor manifestations of my own ignorance. However, many people choose to think that if someone has a sliver of a functioning brain, they'll figure out that belief in God isn't logical or possible.
Slowly as I write this blog, I hope to show that there are intellectual responses to the arguments of the day. I also want to encourage open-mindedness and sharing of thoughts.
I hope that this blog will give you some intellectual understanding of spiritual things that you've come to understand. And that we can explore together the possibilities of belief.