Pushing Back: 'Greek Thinking' vs. 'Jewish Thinking' is a Dualistic Error - Brad Jersak
A very popular trend (especially among my best friends!) -- virtually an assumption -- is the common rejection of 'Greek thinking' and the supposed 'Platonic Dualism' that somehow infected Christianity. With the repudiation of this popular 'whipping boy' comes the call (quite reasonably) to hear Jesus as a first century Jewish Rabbi, rather than a wandering Greek philosopher. This would seem fair, except that the assumptions involved are loaded with misrepresentations about the importance of Greek language and categories that are essential to the New Testament itself, and to the subsequent development of Christian orthodoxy.
I will expand my critique below, but for now, here is what I propose:
1. To pit Jewish thinking against Greek thinking is a dualistic error.
2. Plato was simply not a dualist. He was all about mediation and participation.
3. Reading Plato was not a rationalist. It is our modernist (Cartesian) lenses that wrongly project Rene Descartes' mind-material dualism onto Plato's worldview.
4. So called Greekthinking isn't an infection that distorts the 'biblical God.' It is embedded within second temple Judaism and the New Testament itself.
5. Platonic Christianity is not dualistic. There is One (God) and all else participates in that God. The universe is a sacrament of the One who created it.
Below, I will expand this proposal into an extended critique, but Christians who talk about what Plato did or didn't believe ought to do so after reading Plato in context and for those who haven't, Dr. Simon Oliver (Nottingham) is a very good primer.
When I hear about the problem of "Greek thinking", it raises questions.
Let's start with 'which Greek thinking'? Polytheism or monotheism? Mysticism or philosophy? Which Philosophy? Platonism? Stoicism? Cynicism? Pythagoreanism? Epicureanism? Which century? Homeric gods and poetry of 600 BC, or the Plato vs Aristotle around 300 BC, or the Hellenistic Judaism (1st century - Philo) that informs the Gospel of John, the Epistle to the Hebrews and the language of the entire New Testament? Shall we strip away the 'Greek thinking' that gave us the logos? Are we prepared to delete John 1 from our Bibles?
Anyway, here are some of my main critiques of this easy dismissal of the Greek influence of Christianity:
Which 'Greek thinking'?
Not all Greekthinking is even close to the same. Much of this critique of 'Greek thinking' is based on faulty assumptions that come from reading the Greeks with Cartesian lenses (i.e. Enlightenment era rationalism that Plato would scoff at) and notions of dualism that are Gnostic but not Platonic in the least. So, what many critics of Plato are describing is actually Cartesian rationalism (Rene Descartes, early 1600's) and then reading the entirety of Greek literature through those lenses. This shows how much we are conditioned to reading the Greeks through the very lenses we think they're critiquing (in Plato for example). That is, it's a projection of our own modernism that blinds us to Plato's critique of rationalism and his actual epistemology, the core of which is contemplative.
Further, not all Greekthinking is dualistic, and especially not Plato. The dualism we are describing is the kind of gnosticism that the Church actually employed Platonic categories to defeat. Even in Aristotle's critique of Plato, he says very plainly of his former mentor that he was decidedly not a dualist. Indeed, the top philosophers today all agree on that. Quite simply, nogood Platonist is a dualist because the forms ALWAYS form and the particulars always participate in the ideas.
On the other hand, some dualisms are true. Here's one: "Let your kingdom come ... on earth as it is in heaven." Here's another: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and dust corrupt, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven." Here's another: "To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord," and so on. "Jewish thinking" includes a range of quite valid dualisms. What the Greeks contribute is their quest for how divine love, truth, beauty and justice is mediated into our world. "Mediation" implies and admits that two 'somethings' (Creator/created, transcendence and immanence, 'in heaven' and 'on earth') come together and mutually participate. It was primarily Greek philosophy and Christian theology that worked together on this idea of mediation of the Good. The Greeks show us how this happens through Christ as the logos made flesh. Is that something we want to expunge from our faith?
Jewish vs Greek?
Moreover, the categories of the history of thinking are NOT simply Jewish-Christian vs. Greco-Roman. Rather, Judaism and Roman often had in common the God of naked will and violence, while Christianity and the kinds of Greek philosophy it employed were about a higher Good manifest as beauty, truth and justice of which self-will and violence had no part. Greek thought incorporated into Christian theology enabled us to see that the wrath of God was a metaphor and literalizing it was idolatry. Even Jewish Rabbis (like Philo) prior to Christ began to see this as they interacted with Hellenism in Alexandria. The Jewish image of a tribal patriarchal God of Israel who ordered genocide gave way to the prophetic vision of a God who creates, loves and fills the cosmos. In this, the Jews found some Greeks to be good interlocutors, and this was common in second temple Judaism. Let me repeat that: second temple Judaism conversed with and incorporated Greek thinking where helpful. Not to see this is, in fact, a false dualism!
Dramatic vs. Sterile? Religion vs. Philosophy?
The idea that Jewish thinking was dynamic and narratival and that Greekthinking was something sterile, analytical and rationalistic ignores the poetry and incredibly image-driven language of the Greek language that stood behind the philosopher-mystics. Their mystics and prophets were every bit as into story and supra-rational reflection and pictoral language as the Jewish prophets ... and both together were primarily concerned with how the Good is to be played out as just men and women constructing a justice society.
There's a start, but you can see why and how I get grumpy about it. The problem is that the trend now is to attack rationalism (good) so it scapegoats the Greeks (oops). It wants to attack gnostic dualism (good), so it scapegoats the very Greeks who overcame it (oops).
Naked Monotheism, Trinity and Mediation
But there is another tensions at play with some of my good friends (and we argue about this in a friendly way). It sees the Greek notion of the 'One' as undermining trinitarian theology with a bare monotheism. But in context, Plato's idea of the 'One' was an attack on the fickle and quite wicked polytheism of the Homeric pantheon. He is saying, 'There aren't hundreds of gods who are bastards. There's one God and he is perfectly Good.' And if we need trinitarian language, where did we get it? Plato leads the way on the Greek side, where the Father is the Sun, the Son is the light proceeding from the Sun, and the Spirit is the experience of light as it enters and illumines our eyes. There's no lack of this in early Christian theology. So much so that I would argue if it weren't for 'Greekthinking,' we wouldn't have come to a co-substantial Trinitarianism in the first place. Judaism on its own (though it wasn't on its own) would only offer us only a kind of subordinationism and adoptionism -- a less than divine Messiah. Maybe that's the draw for some?
Ah, finally, a little more ...
Immutability and Divine Love: Statis is not static
The trend assumes, wrongly, that supposedly Greek-based doctrines like God's immutability make God static (because they think the Greek word 'stasis' means static and that it denies a dynamic relationship). The fact is that immutability is a Platonic repudiation of the fickleness of the Homeric gods and the Jewish belief (sometimes) that God could turn his back on you. Immutability alone enables us to say, "There is nothing you could do to make God love you more or less." No less than James (the Jew!) said that God is "the Father of Lights and in him is no shadow or turning." This means that he loves us no matter what. The stasis of God is that he is constant in his love, not static in his relationships. He is a continuous, constant flow of self-giving love that never increases because it's infinite and never decreases because it's infinite.
The God who is not immutable is unreliable, has tantrums, incredibly arbitrary, on a roller coaster emotionally. The immutable God is love, and this love, though constant, is experienced in a variety of ways that reflect changes in me, not him.
Whether I turn to Love or from Love, that Love is always for me, always with me and always flowing over me. I know this by experience, but I also thank 'Greek thinking' for confirming it.