Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Theological Aside on Modern Liberalism and Christain Platonism

This is a subject that I hardly consider myself an expert on, but I do have a strong interest in religious history. I don't really consider myself religious, but I do take it seriously. And the main reason I take it seriously is that I have trouble understanding how we could have gotten from the slave holding, hierarchical, and patriarchal culture of the Greeks and Romans to modern western liberalism which takes as its guiding principle that all individuals deserve to be acknowledged as being morally autonomous, to be acted upon only with their own consent, and to be able to hold accountable those that act upon them without the Christian religion. Admittedly, we still have have a long way to go to disassemble those institutions that date from our wicked past but, despite some set backs, I look at the good so many people are doing today and see hope for the future.

Now, since my own faith is deeply tied up with the recognition that modern society has, for the first time, made a real effort to embody Christ's principles, primarily the golden rule (love they neighbor as thy love thyself, also I realize the term golden rule is non-Christian in origin and basically universal) but also other common biblical themes, such as our support for the poor, emphasis on non-violence, and recognition that we are each alike created in the image of God, I find myself particularly troubled that so many who claim to speak with a Christian voice see us as so fallen in comparison to past ages. Admittedly, we don't do so well on piety, but other eras were pious but fell far short of us on just about every other aspect of Christ's teachings. I am especially troubled to see so many claim that the modern concept of consent is non-Christian, for if one does not take consent seriously how is one to love one's neighbor? If one does not take another's autonomy seriously how is one to take seriously the idea that we are all created in the image of God? Accountability has less direct ties to scripture, but indirectly we see throughout the Bible Christ questioning the authority of those that claim position and wisdom in the ancient world. Without these hierarchies how can we organize ourselves without accountability?

So, in my view I see modern liberalism as congruent with Christ's teachings. Not to say there are not some difficult passages, but it is surely easier for us to approach scripture than it was for the Greeks and Romans. Our culture, while not an end point, is surely one that has been worked upon by Christ's teachings.

I should pause for a moment to make explicit my approach to Scripture since it is not fully orthodox. My assumptions are as follows:

1. Free will - while I have read many arguments against it I am not convinced that these discussions matter in its absence, so whether or not it is a defensible doctrine it is best to assume it and move forward

2. Context matters - God does not do things by accident. Christ was made man for a reason, we should take this seriously; not just through a spiritual perspective but as a hint at how we are to approach his teachings. He was made man in a specific time and place and his teachings are tied to it. We must understand that relations between his teachings and the culture of the time and place that he was teaching. To read his teachings as if he spoke these things today is to trivialize his incarnation.

3. Christ's is a living word. The gospels have acted on men throughout history individually and through them have reformed, to some degree, a sinful world. This is an ongoing process, but to take God seriously we must acknowledge that his Word has changed this world according to his plan.

4. God created a good world - While man can be evil, and throughout history has taken efforts to dominate others, deny the moral autonomy of others, and remove choice and consent from others, the actual world God made is good. God's world is congruent with God's teachings, it is the desire to place man over man, rather than God only over man, that leads to evil. If an interpretation of Scripture is at odds with our observation of the world, and with history, we must very carefully consider whether we are in error in our interpretation of either Scripture or of God's world.

Flowing from these assumptions I often find it difficult to stay silent when I hear those invoking God's name in support of ideas that I find antithetical to what I understand to be Christianity. Often, I have heard so called traditional Christians defend ideas that seem to me to be rooted in Roman paganism rather than Christianity. A recent post by Rod Dreher gave a specific form to this general impression. He quoted an essay by Michael Martin, the key sentences for me read thus,

"Indebted to Plato and his Christian Neoplatonist interpreters, realism affirms the existence of universals: abstract, general concepts possessing objective reality anterior to particulars. For realism, universals, that is, are real things (res). The ideas of ‘woman’ and ‘man,’ for instance, precede and inform the actualities of particular women and men."

Dreher goes on to say

Opponents of traditional Christians think we’re talking about morality when we talk about gender and sexuality, which, yes, we are. But more deeply, we’re talking about ontology. This may sound like philosophical jibber-jabber to you, but if you have any interest in being fair, and in understanding your opponents’ point of reference, you should explore this idea. 

I went through a period of a few years where I was somewhat rabidly anti-Christian. It was specifically because orthodox doctrine relied on these ontological concepts. However, after reading a great deal more history, then specifically Christian history, and finally reading more of the Bible I came to realize that Christ was specifically criticizing this ontological viewpoint. One must love God, and love one's neighbor, and recognize that we are all created in the image of God. This is antithetical to the idea that there is a universal abstraction of man or woman, within Scripture there are men, women, and those that are "born eunuchs." (Matthew 19:12). This isn't exactly a modern formulation, but it is clear enough that Christ recognizes that male and female are not a Platonic duality and it follows from observing God's creation that intersex people as well as people of diverse sexual presentations and gender actually exist.  God's creation doesn't fit neatly into Platonic categories, God's creation shows a continuum, not a duality, and while Scripture generally does not go out of its way to challenge pagan dualism and patriarchy regarding gender it doesn't explicitly deny the existence of a continuum and does, at least in places, specifically acknowledge the existence of those that do not follow the pagan formulation of sex and gender as universals.

Now, I get that orthodox theology borrows heavily from Platonism and Aristotelianism. But, once I read enough to consider the subject, it seems obvious why the effort to reconcile these doctrines with the Bible was so difficult, they aren't really compatible. Theology rooted in them must go to the same lengths to create a workable moral philosophy that Ptolemaic astronomy, with its Platonic roots, did to create a workable predictive astronomy creating a complex array of indirect relations to arrive at a workable system. However, abandoning the Platonic assumptions leads to much simpler solutions, such as the Copernican system.

This does mean that the reliance of the church on these philosophical doctrines need to be explained. But that is easy to do. Platonism and Aristotelianism play such a prominent role because it was necessary in order to convert people in the Graeco-Roman world to Christianity, in the same way that missionaries developed the Cyrillic alphabet, or adapted local stories to get people in them to take Christianity seriously. I just finished listening to Augustine's Confessions on audio book, something that struck me is that he specifically wrote about how important it was that Christianity was able to explain his world in a way that Manichaeism could not, something it could not have done if it did not adapt to the local philosophy. But I see this as being all it ever was.

Once people began to again explore God's world, rather than relying on the teachings of Aristotle, they found that God's world did not correspond to Aristotle's ideas. At this point, science has thoroughly refuted the Aristotelian and Platonic philosophical systems, if they could not explain the world, which they could directly observe, how is it that we should consider them experts on metaphysics? I am unable to believe that God would have so created a world that would actively deceive those that seek truth in it. It seems obvious that given a choice between believing in the reality of God's creation or the reality of a pagan's word that the choice for a Christian is obvious.

Now, to get back to the topic of sex and gender that gets so called traditional Christians so worked up, I would also note that at least most, I don't claim sufficient knowledge of the Bible to say all, instances where Christ addresses marriage and gender roles that Christ expands women's roles and autonomy relative to the practice of the day. I would note particularly 1 Corinthians 7:4
"The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to the husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife." Read in the context of the Roman world of the first century A.D. it is notable that a man already would have authority over his wife in this way, as would a father over his daughter. What is new is that this is being made reciprocal. Similar to much of Christ's teaching this seems to be simply applying the notion that one should love one's neighbor, or in this case, one's spouse, as they love themselves to a specific case. Also, it follows that using the Bible to restrict women's rights and autonomy is very different from using it to make the restrictions that women legally suffered under in Christ's day apply to men as well.

I really don't see the problem with applying this principle more generally, in my read of the Gospels the specific rules generally seem to be particular applications of Christ's general principles. Since this is an extremely unequal world, with hierarchy and the exercise of power justified by false doctrines such as Platonism and Aristotelianism the application of these rules often seems strange to us. But it is the Roman world that sees marriage as solely between that of a man and a woman, since Christ did not seek to reform laws but to reform men there would be no need to specifically address a legal situation that did not exist in his day. But it is easy enough to apply Christian principles to modern problems, we need only consult Scripture for an analogy. Where I see error occurring is when we take the laws and institutions that Christ is denouncing as models for today rather than seeing Christ's message as the application of Christian principles to evil institutions to advise his followers on how to live within a fallen world.

So I have great difficulty with granting Dreher his request to respect his ontology. I believe firmly that to love one's neighbor as thy love thyself requires recognizing another individual's moral autonomy, that they too are created in God's image, and that I must be accountable to them and ask their consent before I take any action involving them. In practical terms this means that I must recognize that I do not have the right to judge others, as the Platonic ontology seems to demand.

Religious liberty requires recognizing others moral autonomy, I do not get to judge for them what is sacred, I can only judge this for myself. I do not get to demand of others I can only seek their mutual consent and recognition. My, and their, religious liberty requires that we each accept the others autonomy and that we fulfill the roles given us in our common society, when we are in a role of power we must be accountable to those who are not. Christ consistently teaches that we have no right to exercise power over another, when society puts us in this position we must be as a servant and accountable to others. So a merchant, an official, or a business owner, is bound to respect the individual moral autonomy of their customers, citizens, or employees, they have no right to deny them their autonomy of moral choice and must fulfill their roles in a neutral fashion. In turn, when they are under the power of another, they too can claim that their autonomy be respected. So a merchant cannot deny their services to another of different beliefs, whether this is for a gay wedding or if it is a gay individual being asked to print a church missal. An official or business owner is likewise bound, being in a position of power they are the servant and must respect those they exercise authority over. Of course, within the church itself it is valid to demand that those who claim membership act in accordance with its teachings, so if a denomination does not recognize something as sacred, such as marriage between two persons of the same sex/gender, it is valid for a minister or priest to deny the sacrament as marriage since this directly involves the priest or minister acting in a sacred capacity as part of a church. But this is an easily distinguishable case from that of a business person interacting with their customers in a non-sacred capacity. Even if the customer believes something is sacred that the business person does not it follows only that the business owner treats this as non-sacred and acts in their normal capacity as a business person.

To wrap this up, I am somewhat chastened by remembering that Augustine did say in his confessions that we should recognize that others can have just as valid an interpretation as we do, and thus it is hard to deny Dreher's ontology. The problem I have with this, however, is that the Platonic ontology seems to foreclose on mine, by holding up ideas such as male and female as abstract, general concepts seems to be directly contrary to mine. They talk often of rigor and how difficult it is to adhere to these teachings. But this dismisses the rigor that comes with taking other people seriously and acknowledging their equal moral autonomy. There is a rigor in accepting that we must respect others autonomy, that the obligations that matter are those that are mutual and reciprocal, and that whenever we judge or exercise power that we must in turn be accountable to those we act upon. They seem to fail to understand that modern philosophy is not some kind of solipsistic worship of the self, rather it is about taking others seriously. And we could use the help of more religious moralizers, far too many are adrift through not having any authority figures to look up and teach them about how to apply modern liberalism in Christianity and in their daily lives.

So how can these doctrine's coexist? As religious conservative's keep pointing out, my belief that people must be treated as morally autonomous forecloses on their right to judge us upon our adherence to Platonic doctrine. By denying the right to judge, we do in fact judge.

Ultimately, I have to say that I do judge, I see throughout scripture the refutation of the Roman world that has come to dominate the land of Jesus's birth. I see nothing in the Scriptures that lead me to think that he does not include Platonism and Aristotelianism in this. As a historical matter reconciling the gospels to these doctrines was necessary. But this is so that Christ could be understood in native terms, there is no particular reason to think their systems of moral reasoning have any pride of place, rather the opposite. It is a simplification, but in general Medieval scholasticism sought to reconcile two things that were known to be true, the gospels and Aristotle's teachings, Aristotle was considered so important because he was thought to understand God's creation. But, once the scientific revolution refuted Aristotle the rationale for interpreting the Gospel's through an Aristotelian lens collapsed. I often hear conservative Christian's wonder why so many have turned from Christianity. I believe this is the answer, we are not Romans. Why would any modern person be convinced by a Christianity filtered through Graeco-Roman philosophy? Instead, the task still stands, to interpret Christ's teachings through the world that God has made. If the goal is a more Christian society this is the task that is set. Aristotle and Plato distract from this task, moreover, with people as transformed as they are it actively drives them away. Modern people see Platonic and Aristotelian reasoning as something wrong and repugnant when they encounter it. And they should! We are an improved people because of Christianity, it is not right that we fall back on these evil times. To misapply a Biblical quote, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mathew 22:21). As Caesar is dead it is time to bury his philosophy along with him. It is time to interpret God's Scripture through God's creation rather than through that pagan philosophy whose truth has been denied.

[Edited to correct some minor errors]


  1. Nice thought piece. I agree that religion if used according to the founders (I don't include sects such as Catholicism, Sunnism, etc) is ameliorating rather than otherwise.

    1. Thanks, I'm glad someone else found it interesting.

  2. We are still struggling with the moral and ethical questions started at the beginning of the axial age. Socrates, Confucius, Buddha have wrestled with these issues that pit individual against society and human against god(s). WHile Carol Ann is onto something that the "founders" have tried to improve things with their teaching, you have also to consider that the culture we live in is a social construct.

    God has departed its creation in the trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, unless you consider "Calculating God" as a scenario when God had additional reasons to intervene.

    So the idea of man and woman, ontologically, appeared with the first eukaryotes - after all, matter, and life is the substrate that allows philosophy and religion to flourish.
    I am rambling a bit, probably because I don't know how to take God out of the picture fast enough since I don't see it as necessary to explain morality and ethics but I also don't want to insult anyone's sensibilities.