My Faith—A Philosopher’s Look At Christianity, 21

An Interesting Understanding

I begin with this presupposition: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The depth of that is seen in that no other creatures of God carries that definition, not even angels, and that while we are not God, never will be, we are as close to being God as anyone could be. And, “This is a trustworthy saying: If we died with Him, we will also live with Him, if we endure, we will also reign with him.” (II Timothy 2:11-12.) From the birth of my children each day I would give them freedom to be, a growing independence from me rather than force them to be me. In order for humanity to be all that God intended, he, too, had to give us the freedom to accept or reject that honor. In the beginning, like a father, we saw God walking in the garden with Adam and Eve. Then one day Adam and Eve were alone and went to the center of the Garden where they found their final test. He had to let them fail, if that was what it would be, to eventually discover their true selves. They did fail and there were natural consequences. We always have a choice to be who we are but there is a limited time for us to find that. 

Don’t mistake that we are to redeem ourselves, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8.) Redemption only comes because of the blood of Jesus. But this does not exempt us from redeeming our true nature and proving to ourselves who we really are. I began to see this in the Bible stories, especially in the Abraham story when God saw Abram’s heart, that it belonged to God, and made a covenant with him. To reach the numbers, God had to allow a few generations to get there, but why didn’t life for Abraham go smartly while on its merry way to the fulfillment of the Covenant? Rather, he made missteps, had terrible times, his children ending up as slaves and finally after pulling many teeth they end up in the Promised Land. As I began to look at all the stories in the Bible it was always the same. I’m not painting a picture that we always walk alone as in those stories are times of God helping us, but it is our job to fulfill who we are pragmatically and while those stories show us hard times they also show us success. This is the hard truth, we want everything instantaneously and it doesn’t happen that way. We believe the Bible promises that. The stories tell us it doesn’t.

I can’t tell you how many times I started to open the front door into the church and noticed the sign above it: Leave Your Minds Outside. If thinking gets you into trouble not thinking gets you into as much trouble so you might as well think. In the stories from Adam to Jesus we do not see philosophers, but then it was a very closed society and the Bible only cares about religion. And this is where we get into trouble, we act like it speaks to the totality of life, our other disciplines of thinking—philosophy, psychology, sociology, history, science—and while there are hints of thinking outside of religion, that’s all, hints. When God chastised the Hebrews for the influences they accepted from outside their own society it was over pagan religious practices and beliefs.

Western Philosophy began in 585 BC with the first philosopher: Thales of Miletus in Greece. From there it continued to spread throughout Greece. It basically put to rest pagan mythologies as the explanation for why things exist and how they operate. It didn’t put to death the idea of God, that was a Nietzsche contribution. The logos and the nous while there are many ways to interpret each, for Ancient Greek philosophers they saw both as creative intelligence behind all that can be seen and not seen.

At about the same time Greek philosophy was beginning, in 597 BC, the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar installed a vassal king in Judah, Zedekiah. However, Zedekiah revolted against Babylon, and entered into an alliance with the Pharaoh of Egypt. Nebuchadnezzar responded by invading Judah and began a siege on Jerusalem. During this siege the Bible describes the city as enduring horrible deprivation. When Nebuchadnezzar broke through Jerusalem’s walls, conquering the city, Zedekiah and his followers fled but were captured on the plains of Jericho and taken to Riblah, a city in Syria. There, after seeing his sons killed, Zedekiah was blinded, bound, and taken captive to Babylon, where he remained a prisoner until his death. After the fall of Jerusalem, the city was plundered, and Solomon’s Temple was destroyed. Most of the elite were taken into captivity in Babylon. The city was razed to the ground. Only a few people were permitted to remain to tend to the land. I don’t think thinking philosophically was on their minds.

The Israel the ancient Hebrews began as the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham ended after the death of Solomon. King Solomon created the wealthiest and most powerful central government the Hebrews would ever see, but he did so at an impossibly high cost.  When Solomon died, between 926 and 922 BCE, the ten northern tribes refused to submit to his son, Rehoboam, and revolted. From this point on there would be two kingdoms of Hebrews: in the north – Israel, and in the south – Judah. The Israelites formed their capital in the city of Samaria, and the Judaeans kept their capital in Jerusalem. These kingdoms remained separate states for over two hundred years. The capital of Judah became Jerusalem and of Israel it became Samaria. The Jews in Judah hated the Samarians—now considered the whole of the kingdom of Israel—because in 722 B.C. the city fell to the Assyrians and became the headquarters of the Assyrian province of Samarina and while many of the inhabitants were led off into captivity, some farmers and others were left behind. They intermarried with new settlers from Mesopotamia and Syria. It was this mixed race now identified as Samarians that were not accepted by the Jews and the Samaritans no longer thought of them as fellow Hebrews. (A modern concept of this can be seen in Ireland where Northern Ireland no longer think of itself as Irish but British.)

When Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and exiled the people, north and south were no longer nations of the Jews. Even when the Jews came home in Judah it would no longer be the same. With the conquest of the Babylonian empire by Cyrus the Great, king of the Persians (in 539 BCE), Palestine passed from Babylonian to Persian control. The various native dynasties of the region remained in place, now as vassals of the Persians, but the province of Judea experienced significant change. Jewish exiles in Babylon were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple. Judea was granted a large measure of self-rule, under the leadership of the Temple priesthood.

The Persian empire was conquered by Alexander the Great in the 330 and 320s BCE. On Alexander’s death, his generals fought each other for control of portions of the empire, with Judea changing hands between them on numerous occasions in the space of just a few years. When comparative peace returned to the region, by around 300 BCE, Judea and its neighbors were under the control of Ptolemy, the ruler of Egypt. However, the Seleucids of Syria gained control of the region in 198.

Initially, the Jews were left in peace by the Hellenistic rulers, and the district of Judea remained under the Temple priesthood. However, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (174–163 BCE) tried to impose Hellenistic culture – including the Greek pagan religion – on them. He sacked Jerusalem, plundered the Temple, outlawed the worship of Yahweh in the Temple and set up a statue of the Greek high god Zeus near it. His actions of course inflamed the Jews, who rose in rebellion against the Seleucid regime (167). Ten years later the Maccabean rebellion returned Jerusalem to the High Priests and the Temple to Jewish worship.

The Seleucid Empire began when Seleucos I took control after Alexander’s death and the end of his rule. By the time of the Maccabean rebellion it was already in decline and after Judas Maccabeus’s death, the Hasmonean clan in 167 BCE, led the Jewish common people into revolt against their Greek overlords, the Seleucids – and against the Hellenized Jewish elite. There was nothing but revolt and chaos ever after until in 64 BC Rome took over Israel. (Some of this information comes from TimeMaps, “History of Ancient Palestine.”)

While Alexander the Great came in and began making changes in Athens, Greece, two men rose up who would affect thinking in the world; Plato, who wrote Republic in 380 BC and Aristotle who wrote Nicomachean Ethics in 310 BC, their basic arguments in philosophy are found in almost every philosopher after them.

I’m kind of juxtaposing two worlds that will after 33 AD meet; the Jewish world and the Greek world. When the two worlds, to include Christianity, inevitably got together there was no keeping them entirely apart because at its best they helped explain each other. Yes, at its worst they both butchered truth, mostly because some failed to see the value in each other.

I can hear many saying just believe, you don’t have to understand. In fact I accept that as part of my faith. But there is so much more to it. Read the words of St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino and father of Western monasticism in the middle of the 400s AD. He wrote: 

“Let a man consider that God is always looking at him from heaven, that his actions are everywhere visible to the divine eyes and are constantly being reported to God by the Angels. In order that he may be careful about his wrongful thoughts, therefore, let the faithful brother say constantly in his heart, ‘Then shall I be spotless before Him, if I have kept myself from my iniquity.’”

For some the Gospel was too simple, God had to be a frightening God looking down on sinful man and the only way for God to see us as spotless we had to purge ourselves of everything but that simple Gospel. I’ve read some of the writings of those early American Great Awakening preachers —Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield—and there was some good hellfire and damnation preaching going on. Just the title of this Edwards book ought to scare you, Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God. Sometimes we need hell scared out of us. It’s not an unworthy tactic, it has its place. It’s like spanking a rebellious child, you do it not to punish but to get their attention. But it’s not where you live and I’m afraid the appeal of monasticism was living in that scary moment making it a lifestyle. How did Monasticism do this?

“Christian monasticism is a structured, ascetic pursuit of the Christian life. It involves a return to God through attention to the classic spiritual disciplines of silence, chastity, prayer, fasting, confession, good works, obedience, and vigils. The monastic experience—from monas (Gk. “alone”)–is an inward and solitary one, though it may be practiced in community. The nature of the monastic pursuit is one that involves ora et labora (“prayer and work”), a submission of every aspect of one’s life to a practiced awareness of God’s presence.” (From “Overview of Medieval Monasticism.)

I suppose separating yourself from everything around you, even yourself through deprivation might keep you from sinning, but where does God say, or Jesus say, being a hermit, even a group hermit will draw you closer to God? I understand the intention of those monastics but it was based on a false premise, a Gnostic premise that the flesh, material, was evil. It’s been with us ever since the First Century, we still haven’t gotten it out of us. But . . .

“So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.” (Galatians 5: 16-17.)

Is this really a Biblical version of Gnosticism? Verses 19-21 puts “flesh” in context:

“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

These are the outward workings of the heart, the “flesh” being a metaphor for a wicked heart, not an ontological material structure that only came from a demiurge. One doesn’t punish the body for cleansing, one corrects the heart. Paul told the Romans this:

“For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. . . . What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7: 5-6, 24-25.)

Isn’t this a supporting scripture that the Gnostics are right? So let’s grab a whip and flagellate ourselves, or move to the desert, poke out our eye, castrate ourselves and everything will be alright with God. No, it doesn’t work that way. It’s not being taught that way though sometimes words make it sound as it is. What we don’t understand is that we are reading such words though Gnostic eyes. If you think it’s still bad now imagine what it was like in the second century. In trying to understand the Gospel message and how it pragmatically works out in our life we merged religious thinking with philosophical thinking. No, this didn’t come from outside us, from that dastardly philosophy, we began to speak philosophically about scripture without even knowing we were doing that so our language became very confusing. I’ve read so many Christian authors who do that, speak philosophically thinking they are communicating religion and so make statements that raise questions they are not even aware of. It sounds good so it must be good, that is if you ignore the little contradictions in their statements.

That paradigm of Judeo/Christian thinking hit the paradigm of a pagan world and the question of what can stay and what needs to go was a question we never thought needed to be asked. If you with a simple mind say, Well, just get rid of all the pagan world, as though there is nothing redeeming in it, you’ve misunderstood God’s world, his whole world, including that outside you.