Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Hayathology and Little Old Ladies

Lately, and from Yuletides of yore, there is a spate of Christian theologians calling for a de-Hellenization of theology. Here is a trendy example.

Though Whitehead repudiates the official formulation of authoritarian theology as "the deep idolatry" which fashions God in the image of the despotic prince of this world(PR.342), he basically agrees to the biblical ideas involved by the doctrine of trinity. He estimates the contribution of Alexandria and Antioch theologians as the only thinkers who in a fundamental metaphysical doctrine have improved upon Plato, because they had to grapple with the problem of mutual immanence between God and the world. (AI 168)

There is too much to quarrel with in this article, but I'll remark that one could argue that Antioch and Alexandria represent the continuation of the concrete truth coming to expression in Platonism. There was a real development, or pre-evangelium, that occured in the Mediterranean world. If you believe in any Providence. Whitehead's idea that God "needs" the world is precisely the kind of pre-heresy that the "Greek" or Platonic theologians objected against by distinguishing between essence & energy (another post?). God, contrary to Martin Luther (and hat tip to Daniel Fuller) spent eternity waiting to create the world to prove He doesn't "need" it. If He needs it, He could simply need it in a needy way, and this would be frightening.

At bottom, this essay is no better than the little old lady who angrily asked the pastor why the Greeks were messing with her Bible. There is no monolithic Greek thought (except maybe in the Orthodox Church, after Jesus arrived), nor is it possible to avoid the fact that Saint Paul openly approves of Stoical thought (and poetry) while denigrating Epicurean and Cynical thinkers.

As George Parkin Grant notes in his conversational interviews over philosophy, Plato never acted as if bodies were not real, or that we did not have them. All of those who go this angry Tertullianesque route will end up in sectarianism, because (in fact) Jerusalem and Athens (and Rome, and Antioch, and London and etc., etc.) very much do have something to do with one another. There is no simple gospel because the Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven - it grows. It articulates. And since paradox and mystery are at the heart of the Trinity, it should hardly surprise even tenured scholars that immortality of the soul and resurrection of the dead can both be true at the same time! I know, it's marvelous, even miraculous, but it is so.

I recommend heavy doses of Ficino to cure this illness in the brain.

If it’s not the theology, then what is it? Well, in a nutshell, it’s the piety. In the East ethics and morals are considered largely in Platonic terms, with the notion of the “ideal” being central. Thus, the entire life of piety in the Eastern Church is based upon striving for the ideal or goal, which is to be like Christ. In this way, MacDonald’s portrayal of the Christ-life is very similar to that of the Orthodox Church.

I’ve heard that when novices go to Mt. Athos in Greece, the center of Orthodox monasticism, one of the first things they are told to read is Dickens, because they can learn from his characters how to be a good, decent person. This basic goodness is considered the first rung on the ladder toward holiness. I think something similar can be said about George MacDonald’s novels. I have made it a point to recommend him to people who are interested in the life of piety, not because I am in any position to give advice (God knows I’m not), but because I have found his works to be of great spiritual benefit. Through his characters, we can catch a glimpse of how we can be if, with God’s help, we strive for the ideal.
Touchstone is a good magazine, and the excerpt above is telling. The Orthodox writer/teacher John Granger is interested in Harry Potter's universe. But the Harry Potter Archetypal Idealism & Alchemy which pervades that world of fiction is subject for another post...suffice it to say the Plato has more to do with poetry and the odes than with "philosophy", despite John Whitehead's conceptions.

Confucius wrote, "Take your stand upon the rites, be inspired by the odes, and find perfection in music...".

I do not know if it is possible to improve upon this formulation. What Plato defends, primarily, is the independence & primacy of the Good. The corollary to this, that the Good is somehow independent of change and mortality, is also the subject of another post, but it is only necessary to point out (again, incredibly) that a distinction can certainly be important without being all-consuming or absolute. Whitehead, in fact, admits this when he remarks that Christian theology improved upon Plato. Greek thought was anything but static. That was one of it's problems, formally. And Plato was not a "Platonist". He was a man who taught in parables.

I will note that the anthematized theologian John Philoponus seems a better way of reopening discussion on Greek "static-ness" than Whitehead. Although Whitehead has a good insight in wanting to reverse potentiality and actuality (assigning actuality to what we know and potentiality for embodying Good to God), I think Plato's emphasis is every bit as important, perhaps more so....Philoponus approaches this from a theological perspective that is sounder, and therefore, another post in the future on Hayathology.

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