Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Col. 2:8

Warning: This is a long one.

One accomplishment (who's counting) gained through my temporary unemployment is reading.
I read all the time, employed or not, but I have taken the time to plow through a few books that I would consider tedious when picked up for a half-hour at bedtime after a ten-hour work day.
Not to say I haven't continued the purely gratuitous reading. I more or less try to alternate escapism with literature.
For example, I rewarded myself with Stephen Lawhead after Dostoevsky. I'm not intellectual enough to regard Crime and Punishment as "hard to put down," but, considering its credentials, I considered it worth my time, especially since I have so much of it at present.
I expressed my literary goals to my dad, and he, (perhaps in an attempt to call my bluff) handed me The Life and Times of Jesus The Messiah by Edersheim.
It is a substantial book, numbering over 900 pages. I keep it beside my bed so as to make it readily available for a few pages at bedtime or, a lethal weapon against intruders in the night.
Against such a housebreaker, I have then the option of shooting him with a snub-nosed .357 magnum, or, if I deem him especially dangerous, clubbing him over the head with the five pound tome.
Anyway, in slogging through Book 1, chapter the 2nd, in which the author discusses the influence of Hellenism on Jewish thought and literature around the time of the birth of Christ, I find an especially pertinent discourse on the effect that Grecian thought had upon Judaism and Scripture itself.
(Having gotten only so far, I hope to avoid jumping to conclusions and corrupting a valid point of Edersheim's, but what he had to say spoke directly to an ongoing debate in my mind about the value of philosophy.)
Greek had become more common than Hebrew, if not in Jerusalem, then certainly in almost all other lands and cities. It became practical, then, to publish the Scripture in Greek and to expound the Scripture in Greek. And it became as impossible to divorce the Greek worship of logic from the exposition and exegeses of the Word of God as it would be to make an authentic gyro sans the cucumber sauce or lamb. For the philosophy of a culture is marbled in its language.
(Which is a distracting concept when you consider the English language. No wonder we're so confused. We incorporate almost every major language on earth.)
At first glance, especially the first glance of a Western Christian, this cannot be all bad.
We currently employ logic and reason as our first line of defense against atheism, and are accordingly heavily indebted to the Greeks for this instruction.
But, the problem arises when Edersheim notes, "When the Jew stepped out of the narrow circle which he had drawn around him,"
(It is interesting, if unnecessary, to note what the author discusses preceding this. He has spent the last page or two portraying the inherent nationalism and ethnic pride of the Jewish race. Even dispersed throughout the East and West, and even profoundly affected by the different countries throughout which they were scattered, they still maintained a fierce determination to preserve their identity as Jews.
Interesting concept, when you consider the argument over assimilation in America.)
Moving on, "-he (the Jew) was confronted on every side by Grecianism. It was in the forum, in the market, in the counting-house, in the street, in all that he saw, and in all to whom he spoke. It was refined; it was elegant; it was profound; it was supremely attractive. He might resist, but he could not push it aside. Even in resisting, he had already yielded to it. For, once open the door to the questions which it brought, if it were only to expel, or repel them, he must give up that principle of simple authority on which traditionalism as a system rested. Hellenic criticism could not so be silenced, not its searching light be extinguished by the breath of a Rabbi. If he attempted this, the truth would not only be worsted before its enemies, but suffer detriment in his own eyes. He must meet argument with argument, and that not only for those who were without, but in order to be himself quite sure of what he believed. He must be able to hold it, not only in controversy with others, where pride might bid him stand fast, but in that much more serious contest within, where a man meets the old adversary alone in the secret arena of his own mind, and has to sustain that terrible hand-to-hand fight, in which he is uncheered by outward help."
Regarding the latter portion of the passage, my parents always viewed it as indefensible to bid or forbid me something on the grounds of "Because I said so." and for that I respect them. I appreciate their respect of their own child exhibited in their willingness to defend their position with reason. Furthermore, as Americans, we will accept no edict issued on such infuriating grounds. Practically, we are all Missourians.
(And as to the very latter portion, I have had no greater arguments than those within myself.
My early Christian experience was a lonely one, as I ill-advisedly took on everyone from Darwin to Satan on the battleground of my own mind.)
But, to the point, Edersheim is showing us the dichotomy confronting Hellenistic Jews.
It is the same untenable position we are in today.
While we have, and must maintain, every political and legal right to demand that everything be weighed by logic and reason, this "show-me" mentality becomes a little questionable when applied to the question of God.
Now, Edersheim thus far has not ruled on the advisability of combining the critical thinking of the Greeks with the theology of the Jews.
In fact, he says "-there was the intellectual view of the Scriptures, their philosophical understanding, the application to them of the results of Grecian thought and criticism. It was this which was particularly Hellenistic. Apply that method, and the deeper the explorer proceeded in his search, the more would he feel himself alone, far from the outside crowd; but the brighter also would that light of criticism, which he carried, shine in the growing darkness, or, as he held it up, would the precious ore, which he laid bare, glitter and sparkle with a thousand varying hues of brilliancy."
Here we see the attraction, and admittedly, some benefits, of applying critical thinking to Scripture. Dimensions hitherto unseen are laid bare to our excited eyes. But, note the word "excited." How excited, and why? I'll return to this.
He continues, "What was Jewish, Palestinian, individual, concrete in the Scriptures, was only the outside-true in itself, but not the truth. There were depths beneath. Strip these stories of their nationalism; idealise the individual of the persons introduced, and you came upon abstract ideas and realities, true to all time and to all nations But this deep symbolism was Pythagorean; this preexistence of ideas which were the types of all outward actuality, was Platonism! Broken rays in them, but the focus of truth in the Scriptures. Yet these were (emphasis mine) rays, and could only have come from the Sun. All truth was of God; hence theirs must have been of that origin. Then were the sages of the heathen also in a sense God-taught --and God-teaching, or inspiration, was rather a question of degree than of kind!"
Now, I believe that. I do believe that "in a sense" the sages of the heathen were God-taught.
It is remarkable to note how closely Platonism and so many other philosophies resemble the teaching of Jehovah.
But there is a door opened best left shut.
When you begin to look for truth, not necessarily excluding Scripture or ignoring it, but looking for other truth in conjunction with Scripture, extreme caution is warranted; to such an extremity, in fact, that it can be ill-advised.
Because, it is so easy to unintentionally begin to ascribe more gravity to philosophy to the displacement and detriment of theology or just faith, if you will, and critical thinking will slip to the bottom and theology floats to the top like fizz. It becomes the root of our doctrine; theology then becomes the fruit or, the structure and not the foundation.
It is precisely so easy because reason is the currency in which we deal in every other aspect of our lives! And it is very difficult to maintain the preeminence of faith.
On every hand, we are challenged to justify God, to defend our faith.
And we must!
But the problem lies in defending our faith to ourselves.
Philosophy must be exploited, not trusted absolutely. It is not the original language in which our faith was written, and when we begin to translate that virtually unspeakable language into a philosophical one, it corrupts the integrity, the purity of it. It vulgarises our faith.
Yes, we must learn their language. But, we must not forget our own.
Do not assimilate to that extent where you begin to except their premise, their terms.
Now, to return to an earlier allusion, what does this new light of philosophy flung against formerly observed doctrines and concepts reveal?
Well, it might be as simple as donning 3-D eyeglasses. The concept is the same. We are given the opportunity to view old things in a new way.
You might have always just simply been told "God exists" and expected to accept it.
It is understandable, then, why it is invigorating to be able to explain this insistence with Pascal's Wager or Descartes' ruthless crucifixion of assumption.
It is rewarding and exciting to study philosophy. In the same way, it is rewarding, not quite as much for myself as other more enthusiastic scientists, to study the physical universe and see the hand of God, much as you can see the mind of God in philosophy.
But, when a biologist goes from seeing God in a flower to resting his belief in that God on the proof of design in the flower, he has put the cart before the horse. The weight of God will not rest on the stem of a flower, nor will the entire created complex universe sustain the weight of God. But God can most certainly bear the weight of it all and be not diminished for it.
It is the same when a Christian accepts the world's terms of debate in his own heart and mind and begins to justify God based on anything.
Faith is the evidence of things not seen. That "not" isn't merely incidental, it is necessary to the birth of faith. We don't get to know, based on verifiable evidence, that God exists.
The moment God lets us see, all is lost in terms of His plan of faith through Christ. We would then become shackled by evidence to serve Him.
I was struck by an epiphany reading Kant and Descartes years ago. Weary of that lonely battle that Edersheim talked about, the arrival of the reinforcements, that cavalry of philosophy tempted me to lay aside my own shield and sword and leave the battle of the mind to logic. I felt I had been given the ultimate weapon. I could now bandy words in the parlance of the provable.
Now I understand how such a concept is justifiable!
But really, I hadn't been asked to justify the concept, and as Edersheim put it, I had now given up that simple authority.
In so doing, I anthropomorphize the vessel, and endue it with the ability to ask questions of the Potter.
God can be defended by the laws of philosophy, but ultimately, He doesn't recognize the authority of our court and will not be judged by it.
To distill all of that, now, again I say, philosophy and apologetics is the language we are given to introduce God to the neophyte. And, for this reason, I heartily encourage fluency in all dialects.
But don't forget your native tongue. Speak it in your heart.

To distill it further, as Paul said "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the traditions of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ."
Well, you ask, mightn't you have simply quoted Paul and forgone all this?
Well, don't forget, I'm currently unemployed.

1 comment:

wncjr said...

Your being unemployed has enabled you to write a great blog.I find it very interesting and thought provoking.

My being unemployed has given me time to read and digest this.Perhaps good will come as a result of our joblessness.