December 19, 2011

Christmas in Platonic Context

The important cultural background to the rise of Christianity includes both the Hebrew context of the Old Testament and the context of the Greek culture which was dominant in the Eastern Roman Empire at the time. From the Christian perspective, Athens has quite a lot to do with Jerusalem. I believe there is adequate evidence for this (admittedly controversial) claim in the New Testament; if one is sufficiently traditional to allow the testimony of the Greek Fathers of the early church, then the matter should be beyond any doubt.

Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation, of God becoming man in the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth. Now, the Christian church often exhibits laughable ignorance of its Hebrew background. However, the Incarnation is often treated from an almost exclusively Hebrew angle (or so it seems to me). The emphasis is on the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, and the expectation of salvation from Roman oppression. This emphasis is encouraged by the fact that Matthew, one of the most culturally Hebrew books of the New Testament, also contains one of the most detailed birth narratives. (Not quite so detailed as Luke, of course, but Matthew is responsible for the three magi, and what would a Nativity scene be without the magi?) This is all well and good; this angle is quite important to our understanding of the events. But I think there is also a lot to be gained by viewing the story from a Greek, and particularly Platonic, perspective. This is, in my view, encouraged by John. John, however, does not have any simple historical narrative suitable for a Christmas pageant. He doesn't say anything about concrete historical circumstances. But he has a lot to say about the significance of the events. So what I want to do here is to view this event, the Incarnation, through Platonic eyes. I'll be drawing primarily, but not exclusively, on the Republic.

Plato is responsible for originating talk of 'saving souls'. As is well known to most students of the New Testament, the word for 'save' here also means 'heal', and is frequently used in accounts of Jesus' healing miracles. Our souls, according to Plato, need saving, or healing. We are fundamentally disordered. The part of the soul which ought to be ruled, rules. Our animal desires, or our desire for reputation (glory), too often take control at the expense of our better judgment. This state of things is undesirable in itself, not just because of the consequences it brings: injustice is a disorder of the soul, and is intrinsically undesirable for the same reason disorders of the body are intrinsically undesirable. Hell, on this view (though of course Plato does not use any equivalent of that word in this way), is not some sort of externally imposed punishment; the disordered soul is its own hell.

How, then, can souls be saved? What must be done to repair their disorders? According to Plato, the only hope is to bring the soul into contact with the Good Itself, the transcendent source of all goodness.

How can this be done? Plato prescribes a rigorous program of education: students learn arithmetic, geometry, and dialectic, mounting, by sheer force of intellect, to ever higher levels of abstraction, apprehending more and more reality, until at last they are prepared for direct vision of the 'sun' of the intelligible realm, the Good Itself.

Plato recognizes that not everybody is capable of this sort of intellectual feat. Some lack the native abilities, some the opportunity. Even for those who are adequately equipped, it is a process of many years of hard labor.

Against this background, the message of the New Testament is clear: the Platonic program is not just difficult, it is impossible. None of us can, by intellectual force, mount up to the Good Itself, and so save our soul. No, the only hope is for the Good to come to us.

According to Christianity, this event occurred in the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth. God, the transcendent source of all goodness, did what we could not and united humanity with Goodness, in order that our souls might be saved. Saved not primarily from an externally imposed hell, but from their own internal hell. Saved from the life dominated by wicked desires and brought to the freedom that comes from being ruled by the desire for the true Good.

Although, in my view, there are Platonic overtones to Christianity, and I have characterized the problem the Incarnation was meant to solve in an overtly Platonic manner, this conclusion is a shock to the Platonist. First, it is a shock to the elitism of Platonism; salvation is, on this view, available to just anyone. It is not something that must be accomplished by impressive feats of intellect. Second, it is shocking to suppose that the Good should defile itself by this kind of close contact with the messiness of the sensible realm. Both these sorts of shock are responsible for the Gnostic heresies of the early Church. Orthodox Christianity, however, embraces these shocking conclusions, and even celebrates them.

Posted by Kenny at December 19, 2011 10:57 AM
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