Saturday, March 15, 2008

Beware of the Greeks!

Years ago, right as I enrolled in the first of a series of philosophy courses that would change my life (at least my life as a reader), a friend who had taken classes with the same professor gave me a warning I didn’t heed.

“Beware of the Greeks!” my Christian intellectual friend warned.

I believe his beef was with Aristotle, no doubt the least compelling philosopher I was ever to read in that course. Since I was not likely to succumb to any Aristotelian whiles, I soon forgot his warning.

No, Aristotle will never be the man for me. Plato, on the other hand…

Perhaps because C. S. Lewis was somewhat of a Christian Platonist, Platonism initially struck me as a hair or two away from Christianity. I mean, “life is but a sojourn” is practically in the Bible, after all; and if one considers God to be the ultimate reality like Plato’s Forms, the Christian can join Plato in saying “If particulars are to have meaning, there must be universals.” God could be the great Universal that gives meaning to the shadowy particulars. I quickly fell in love with Plato (Platonically?).

I even found the notion of Platonic love appealing. I flattered myself to think that my own love was, as Plato defined it, “the joy of the Good.” I imagined that I loved a man’s compassion or courage or strength or worldview; the man was the vehicle through which I saw a greater Ideal.

Of course, if the greater Ideal was God himself, it seemed fine to assume that the man became the vehicle through which I saw God. And therefore, I could ease my way right into a Plato-endorsed, intellectually-sanctioned idolatry. (I’m not the first to fall into it that way, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron reminds me.)

A more incarnational, sacramental worldview would have let me know I was wrong, that the physical and the spiritual are not separable, that unembodied brains are not beautiful but are actually disgusting, that dualism is still a heresy no matter how many Christians disregard the physical, that it is people whom we love—not ideas. It would have reminded me, as the Anglican houseblessing service asserts, that Christ’s coming “made our flesh the instrument of [his] self-revelation.” Our flesh… not just our souls.
Love's not so pure, and abstract, as they use
To say, which have no mistress but their Muse...
-John Donne
I’m not even twenty-five, and I’ve already stumbled into (and hopefully out of) one of the oldest Christian heresies!

And to that old friend, if you’re out there reading blogs, I should have listened to you. I will be much more wary of those wily Greeks in the future.


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Chestertonian Rambler said...

Very good points, and always timely.

(As Jack *also* said, "all that is not eternal is eternally out of fashion." Of course, his writings frequently remember the fact that men and women are eternal.)

I think it is this "incarnational" focus in Christianity that makes things so frequently messy--and full of life. We are to love people where they are at, to bring Christ's kingdom to Earth, even as we preach the stumbling stone and new thing that is Christ crucified and sinful man redeemed.