Doodle: Hellenism, Ethics, and Old Testament Eschatology

Max Bemis, of the band Say Anything, sings: “God and death are none of my concerns / I’m no philosopher”. And these words have often struck an uneasy chord with me, provoking much reflection. Studying philosophy at college I noticed that from the pre-Socratics through to the Hellenistic philosophers, Greek philosophy gave little thought to god, except for when a godlike being was invoked to explain their philosophy, see Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. But this is not to say that the Greeks did not believe in the gods, however anthropomorphic the Olympians were. Coming back to Bemis’ words, a difficult question to get one’s mind around is the difference between religion and philosophy, or perhaps faith and reason.

Antonio Verrio - OlympusIt seems to me, that the Greeks separated philosophy from their religious beliefs, as my lecturer Nathan Lovell said, ‘They no longer wanted to attribute the workings of their world to capricious gods seemingly little more than infantile projections of men.’ Philosophy came about to explain the world around us, what it is, why it changes, and where it comes from. And this was done with little reference to the Greek gods. Philosophy could provide epistemology and ontology, though both then and today it struggled to provide complete or consistent ethics. Furthermore the question of death, which, though running the risk of reductionism, we might call eschatology, fell largely by the way side. Perhaps these then are two distinguishing features between philosophy and religion. Only, they are not distinguishing features because philosophy does not deal with them, but because it lacks the depth to do so.

Generally, in Greek thought all the deceased went to Hades, but we must not assume that this the same as Sheol of Jewish thought. Without going into major detail, it is a well attested to fact that the Jews understood death very differently to their Greek counterparts. At the transfiguration we are shown that Elijah and Moses lived with God (Mark 9); in the Old Testament some believers did not die and went to be with God (Genesis 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11); this was also asssumed of believers who died (Psalm 23:6; 16:10-11; 17:15). We are not given much explanation of it but, at the raising of Lazarus, an embryionic theology of resurrection is evident amongst the first century Jews (John 11). In Hebrew thought the great hope of a future when God would be with his people is hard to get ignore (Psalm 27:4; 73:25-26). A personal God, contrast with impersonal philosophy, offers eschatology, an answer in death. Whereas philosophy battles to provide any real answers about our future.

Raphael - AthensHow philosophers got around this is seen in the Hellenistic philosophies of the Epicureans, Cynics and Stoics. If we look at the Epicureans, their solution to this problem was extravagant and unchaste hedonism. Such an approach was (and is) not only exclusive and classist, since few could afford such an extravagent lifesytle, it was ultimately nothing more than hopeless distraction. Cynicism, on the other hand, radically devalued human life, reducing us to little more than stray dogs scrounging for scraps. But it is hard to think that the avoidance and abandonment of happiness is an argument proving that it cannot be lost. Lastly, Stoicism approached life rationally, excepting all that happened in a fatalistic manner, attempting to merely make the most of what is. This philosophy, not unlike existentialism, gives a bleak coating to life and denies questions of justice, while also leaving moral decisions to the aristocracy. It is therefore no wonder that most of these philosophies, at least in terms of their operating titles, did not last. But if we look beneath surface of how people think today we will discover more Hellenistic philosophy than we think.

When Jesus bursts onto the scene we see a major contrast to Hellenism, which was the fruition and expansion of Old Testamant eschatology. He promises a resurrection to new life, guaranteed by his own. He does not offer a pipe dream salvation or distract our eyes from the horizon, but gives us his Holy Spirit in the present who is a downpayment of our future, enabling us to live in light of it. Ethics, then, make sense, for we belong to a new kingdom; and they are not merely set forth by Scripture but are also engraved on our hearts by the Spirit who enables us to live as kingdom people. Does philosophy need god to make sense? I do not think it does. But does philosophy make sense of the burning questions that surround death? I do not think it can.

Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover and the Argument for God’s Existence

Turtles all the way downThere is a famous anecdote, retold by Stephen Hawking, about a scientist who was accosted by an old lady after delivering a lecture on how the planets orbit the sun, as our sun orbits the centre of our galaxy. She told him his lecture was utter rubbish for the earth is, in actual fact, flat and supported by the back of a giant tortoise. He replied by asking what the tortoise might be standing on, to which the lady retorted: “very clever young man, but it’s tortoises all the way down!”

The significance of this story to a post on Aristotle is not that he was potentially one of the first men to argue for a spherical earth as opposed to a flat plate; it is that the anecdote rushed to my mind when we studied Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, or final cause, in Philosophy at college. Aristotle came to the conclusion that there must be some cause outside of our world, otherwise nothing would ever happen. Later, theologians such as Thomas Aquinas repacked Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover as the First Mover, and channelled his philosophy into an argument for the existence of God. Whether or not this is a valid argument for the existence for God is not really my interest. Richard Dawkins has shown that the argument relies on a regress to which God must be invoked to terminate, but this assumes that God himself is immune to the regress.

William BlakeMy interest in Aristotle is the sometimes difficult and gnawing question Christians are asked or ponder. What was before God? What made him? Aristotle’s answer: besides this Unmoved Mover there is and can be no cause, no teleological purpose and therefore nothing at all. But the question still begs: where do we locate the beginning? Aquinas thought that we must look beyond the infinite regress to the First Mover, while Dawkins shows that an infinite regress is intellectually plausible. Only, Aristotle was not thinking about a beginning in history, he was merely explaining change. So there is a warning here against imposing modern frameworks on ancient philosophy. Aristotle was not trying to find God; the result of his philosophy of causation was something that was later called ‘Aristotle’s god’. But apart from being like the God of Bible in matters of first, or primary, cause, Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover is merely explained change in the world; creation was not in Aristotle’s mind. Aristotle held that this Unmoved Mover knew nothing of this world, it had to be utterly transcendent otherwise it would be affected by our world’s cause. Instead of focusing on the beginning, wherever that might be, Aristotle sought the teleological purpose to which every object moved. Coming back to questions I sometimes find myself asking: Aristotle does not provide us with the answer, he never intended to.

Word became fleshI will wrap up this post with a contrast between the Unmoved Mover and the God of the Bible; a contrast between cause and revelation. Dawkins, of all people, helpfully reminds us that even if God is the terminator of the regress that does not mean we can ascribe properties that are normally considered godlike, such as omniscience, goodness, creativity in design, answering prayers, forgiving sins, and so on (p101, The God Delusion). He is right, and Aristotle would have agreed with a hearty “amen”. If this is the god that we believe in then we are limited to speak of it in negative terms, describing what it is not like. However, Christians believe in revelation. The LORD shows us what he is like and addresses humans personally. God loves, cares, cries and despairs. We are able to speak in positives when describing what our God is like, for God has spoken to us in human language. In addition to God speaking to us in our language, he met us as one of us: the Lord Jesus Christ.  What happened at the incarnation was an almost complete reversal of the trend in history to project human attributes onto the concept of ‘god’. When Christ takes on flesh we see all of God in a man, which explains why he was a man unlike any other in history. Going beyond our language, the Son took on our form and came to earth that we might know God, see the Father. God is not only personal; he is a person, in every sense of the word (and more).

Emotional Reflection #1: Greek Philosophy & Our Emotions

So, off the back of Feel, I’ve been thinking about how Greek Philosophy has crept into our thinking and negatively influenced us. For those of you who are sold out on Greek philosophy, I don’t hate Greek philosophy, and I do think it has lots to offer us. I’m just here wanting to think about one point that appears to me to clash with a biblical worldview.

The element I’m thinking of in my white, middle-class, Western-influenced-African culture which has been influenced by Greek philosophy is obviously our emotions. We seem to believe that emotions are to be suppressed and controlled, rather than understood and dealt with (if they are seen as bad) or cultivated (if they are seen as good). It is, perhaps, more accurate to say that only a portion of the population has taken on this understanding. There is another section of the population who are suspicious of reason, and believe we should follow our feelings or desires. In the post on Feel, Grace helpfully points out that Elliott is close to swinging the pendulum in that direction. Although we shall not directly deal with this other part of the population, the points below will be framed in such a way that my line of response to this group shall be evident.

The way this Stoic element has entered my culture is that we have allowed our being to be split dualistically into an emotional sector and a rational sector. The rational element is then elevated to a position of superiority, and so the emotional element is made subordinate to reason. This is to be equated with a form of dualism because our emotions are seen to be the result of a biochemical reactions, whereas our thoughts are seen as fundamentally superior.

Although, within my culture, this is attributed less to fatalism – as the early Stoics did – and more to what Marcus Aurelius called chaos, the result is the same. If one wishes to find true happiness they should not seek to change that which they cannot, but should pursue peace within themselves. Thus, the most self-evident way within our culture to grasp happiness is to follow the conclusions of our highest faculty (reason) and dismiss any lower dissenter, which in this case is decidedly emotional.

One way we see this entering the Christian conception of the world, within this culture, is that the emotional words in the Bible (love, joy, peace, hatred) are re-defined into rational or intellectual concepts. Further, importance is placed on one affirming the intellectual concept, regardless of whether the corresponding emotion is felt or not.

The point to make in response to this is that both our thoughts and feelings are the result of biochemical reactions, and so we cannot dismiss our emotions on this count, while at the same time allowing our rational thought to remain unaffected.

A more significant point is that both our reason and our emotions are affected by the fall. We may wish to discuss the different ways in which they are corrupted, yet the basic point stands. Thus, since our whole being is corrupt, we cannot look to something within ourselves and submit all other aspects to it.

The Word of God comes to our entire being from outside of us, and our entire being (in its rational, emotional and actionable aspects) is called to submit to that Word. Thus, we need to treat our emotions more like we treat our reason. They are fallen, and should come under the truth revealed in Scripture. Yet, because of our corruption, our emotions – indeed our whole being – rebels against that truth. This is because we have an emotional and intellectual attachment to falsehood, both of which need to be eradicated.

The truth is that, for the most part, our emotions and intellect work together. We feel angry because something is endangered which we value. We feel scared because something we value is threatened. Thus we need to discover what we are loving more than we love God, in our minds and hearts. We should then evaluate our whole being against the revealed Word. Once that has been done, we need to begin the process of repentance by working through why we are thinking what we are thinking and why we are feeling what we are feeling.

In an attempt to develop the manner in which our emotions and intellect work together, perhaps we could say that our emotional reactions give us insight into the truths that we intellectually affirm, yet have not absorbed within our being? If this is correct, then we need to look at the object of our emotions. The object of our ungodly emotions will be the idol which we are still worshipping. Thus, we might know the truth about a specific idol, or the arguments against some specific expression of sin, but we haven’t attached such value to any given truth such that it generates the appropriate emotional response. We still love the idol more than we love God. This is why being concerned about intellectual obedience, without any concern for emotional obedience, will never suffice over the long term. We need both for complete repentance.

We cannot then subdue or manipulate our emotions. Nor can we let them run wild. We should not elevate emotion above reason and so swing into emotionalism. We need to understand and process that which our emotions point to, and then cultivate godly feelings. We need to accept that God is reforming our entire being – which includes both our emotions and our thoughts.

For the above reasons, we cannot accept this Stoic aspect of our culture, which is based on a dualistic view of humanity. On the path to happiness, this is not an adequate response to God’s providence, or to any kind of chaotic understanding of the world. We must see that if we view our emotions as inferior impulses which need to be subdued, then we will damage an aspect of our being which God uses to reform us into Christ’s likeness – in a manner similar to the way he uses our minds. We need to view our being with balanced eyes: we are wholly depraved, and we are being wholly renewed!