Archives For Plato

In John 7, the Jews go up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. While this festival is going on, there is nonstop speculation about who Jesus is. Everyone is talking, whispering, and accusing with regard to Jesus’ identity and intentions.

Some are convinced that “he is a good man,” and others are saying exactly the opposite: “no, he is leading the people astray” (7:12). The question of whether or not Jesus is the Messiah gets raised a few times (7:26-27, 31, 41). Others speculate that perhaps Jesus is “the Prophet” (7:40), an Old Testament figure that would rise up to fill the shoes of Moses in leading God’s people.

CandleIt’s in this context that Jesus addresses the people in John 8:12, and says simply: “I am the light of the world.”

Light is a common metaphor. It speaks of purity rather than filth. Of truth rather than error. Of knowledge rather than ignorance.

As it happens, we have many candidates vying for the status of “light of the world.” In the 17th and 18th centuries, we had “The Enlightenment,” where the wisdom of the ancient Greeks was re-embraced. Some of these enlightenment philosophers were set on escaping the darkness in which the church had held the world (during a period that came to be referred to as “The Dark Ages”), and shining the light of true humanistic, autonomous, philosophical light around the world.

Those types of thoughts are still with us. Some would say that knowledge is the light of the world. All we need is better education and we will step out of darkness and into the light. Or perhaps we could argue that science is the light of the world. As we learn more about our universe through science, we will finally be able to become the type of superhuman race that can rid the world of its evils and enter into a golden age. Others would argue that deep religious knowledge is the light of the world. We need to look deeply within and gain the type of inward knowledge that leads to enlightenment (this is the mystical/eastern/new age approach).

But Jesus’ statement is unequivocal. I—and I alone—am the light of the world! It’s fascinating to consider that Jesus made this statement hundreds of years after Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle lived and spoke their profound philosophical teachings. As helpful as those insights may be—and some have said that all philosophy is simply footnotes to Plato, these guys still have a voice in the debates—there is only one light of the world.

The setting in which Jesus spoke these words is also significant. John 8:20 tells us that Jesus spoke these words in the treasury, which means that he was in the Court of the Women, which was the most public part of the temple. In this court were four golden candelabras. Each had four golden bowls that were filled with oil by the priests. On the first night of the Feast of Tabernacles, which was either still going on or newly ended at this point, these candelabras would be lit. These may have inspired Jesus’ statement.

Pillar of FireBeyond that, the Feast of Tabernacles is significant here. They were celebrating God having led his people out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness (hence the “tabernacles” or tents), and into the Promised Land. Remember that God led his people as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. It was this unique light that guided the people out of slavery and into the Promised Land.

And here Jesus stands, at the conclusion of this feast, identifying himself as the light of the world. He is the one who will lead his people out of slavery and into the Promised Land. And he will lead not only his Jewish people, but the whole world. Jesus says, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” We won’t be lost, we will know where to go. We will know who to follow. We will have the light of life within us. And as we will see in the next post, this last statement is incredible.

 

Plato wasn’t the only ancient mind to have a huge impact on the church. In this post, I want to consider another key player: Aristotle. Not many people have had as enduring a legacy as Plato, but Aristotle is far from irrelevant. His writings haven’t had as big of a direct impact on the church, partly because his writings were “lost” for much of church history, and partly because his impact was more roundabout. Even so, the world we live in has been shaped by Aristotle’s influence—not only outside of the church, but inside as well. In fact, you think the way you do in part because of Aristotle’s influence.

Aristotle studied under Plato, and while he advanced the Platonic tradition in many respects, he also turned a lot of Plato’s teachings on their heads. For example, Plato taught that the heavenly world contained “forms” which gave meaning and identity to the individual things on this earth. So there is a perfect chair in heaven that defines chairness, and the chairs on earth are imperfect copies of that chair—they are chairs only insofar as they conform to the heavenly chair. Aristotle, on the other hand, explained that the essence of a chair did not exist in heaven as some universal principle, the essence of a chair lives within each earthly chair.

The implications of this are huge (believe it or not). Aristotle was saying that rather than looking to some heavenly principle to determine the meaning of things on earth, we need to look at the individual things around us, and from there we can find some sort of meaning or essence that we might call a universal principle. Is that making sense? In essence: meaning doesn’t come down from the clouds, it comes from observing the things we can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Whereas Plato distrusted the senses, Aristotle believed that truth would be found through the senses.

Basically, Aristotle became the patron saint of modern science. His method of learning was not about revelation (waiting for a voice from heaven), he was all about observation (the scientific method). Beginning with the Renaissance and culminating in the Enlightenment, God was continually being pushed to the fringe of society. People became increasingly confident in man’s ability to explain his world apart from divine revelation. They grew optimistic about man’s ability to approve his world. They saw a golden age just around the corner, and science and reason would lead them there.

Notice that it wasn’t science that was leading people away from God. Rather, it was the assumption that science was capable of explaining everything about our world apart from God. Aristotle gave people confidence that they didn’t need to look to God for the answers, they could find them through observing the objects around them.

And here is where Aristotle began to mess up the church. Christians began to concede that yes, people can explain the world apart from God by observing the natural world. Yet they insisted that you couldn’t know God without revelation. So religion is important for your spiritual life, but everything else can be explained sufficiently through science. It’s an oversimplification, but essentially, the church decided that there were two types of things in this world (spiritual things and natural things) and there were two separate ways of knowing those two types of things (revelation/faith and science).

Ultimately, this box we have allowed ourselves to be placed in has grown smaller and more constricting. The secular world grants us our faith, but we are told that it is a private matter. Faith belongs in our hearts, not our public discourse, our workplaces, or our politics. The amazing thing is that Christians have largely gone along with this.

Aristotle was a wise and fascinating man, but let’s not allow his influence to keep our Christian worldview sequestered off into the realm of private prayer. The Bible still speaks to every area of human existence. We can and should explore the individual things in this world, but we should do so with the conviction that nothing in creation makes sense apart from the Creator.

At the end of the second century, Tertullian famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” He was combating a trend in theology that sought to integrate Greek philosophy with biblical truth. According to Tertullian, these two things belong in separate universes.

Tertullian’s question is a good one. What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? A lot, actually. We can argue whether or not Greek philosophy should influence Christian doctrine, but that Greek philosophy has influenced Christian doctrine is indisputable.

Most of you don’t care about Plato. Maybe you were forced to read some of his writings in college. At best, you may remember something about a republic, a cave, a philosopher king, and maybe even “forms.” How could someone whose books you couldn’t understand have an impact on the way you think?

The reality is that your thinking has been profoundly shaped by Plato. It just has. You don’t have to know who he is or what he taught. His impact on Western thought and culture—including Christian thought and culture—is incalculable.

Here are a few things that Plato taught, then I’ll explore how this has affected the way Christians think. Plato believed there were two worlds: the visible, earthly, material world; and the invisible, heavenly, immaterial world. The earthly world is somewhat artificial, misleading, temporary. The heavenly world is real, truthful, permanent. Human beings are much the same. Each person has an eternal soul that longs for the heavenly realm. Unfortunately, that soul is trapped within a material body, which must be escaped, transcended. The way to do this is through reason. Reason allows us to get beyond the material trappings of this world and look upon that which is real, heavenly, and ethereal.

Do you see where this is heading? Most Christians see the world in these same terms. We long to become disembodied spirits in heaven. This world is temporary, distractingly material, and gross. We want to get away from this earth, away from these bodies, and spend a disembodied eternity floating on clouds.

As a side note, this type of thinking is partially responsible for the grand cathedrals in Europe. They were designed to draw our eyes and thoughts away from this world and onto the mysteries of heaven. Beautiful, awe inspiring, and handed down to us compliments of Plato.

Of course, everyone who thinks this way believes that we get this worldview from the Bible. But the biblical world is different. In the Bible, the world is created to be good. Though the world is stained by sin, God’s creation still retains its goodness (it is in bondage to decay, but it looks ahead to the day of redemption—see Rom. 8).

The biblical story does not move from nasty materiality to blissful disembodiment. Rather, it moves from God creating a gloriously physical earth to God re-creating a gloriously physical earth. Look at Jesus, for example. In many ways, he validated the goodness of God’s material earth by taking on flesh. Jesus was not defiled by his body. And when Jesus rose from the dead, he did not vaporize and ghost off into space, celebrating his escape from the physicality of earth. He appeared in a resurrected body; a body that could pass through walls and suddenly appear and disappear, but that could also be touched, that could eat and (presumably) digest food (he ate fish with his disciples post-resurrection).

Plato would have us believe that this world doesn’t matter so much. Let’s transcend it. Let’s escape it. Let’s meditate and get our heads in the clouds.

But God placed us on this earth for a reason. God encased us in flesh for a reason. And when Jesus returns, he is not going back on his commitment to physicality. He won’t be feeling embarrassed about all of the sluggish limitations of matter and therefore create a new world in which we can all float around as thoughts or ghosts. Instead, he’s going to go with a world that is much like this one. A new heavens and a new earth that features a great city.

So don’t be so Platonically minded that you are of no earthly good. Be here, where God placed you, where he commissioned you, where he is empowering you.