Plato Meets Christ

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Theology can either encourage or discourage a rigorous understanding of philosophy. This in turn can have some unexpectedly profound consequences. By briefly considering two different phenomena, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the rise of Jihadism, it can be seen how useful philosophy can be to theology if employed correctly. Conversely, how harmful it can be to society if right reasoning is ignored.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of Christianity. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians clearly states this fact, If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain. (1Cor 15:14, RSV). This event would seem to belong only in the realm of theology. However, on closer inspection, reason enables one to grasp this revealed truth more readily. If this central truth is discussed which incorporates a view of it being reasonable from the natural sciences, it makes evangelization easier. It is not simply a blind agreement to the Faith but also one that is possible or even probable. The book Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection gives important facts concerning this central event in the Christian faith by presenting basic truths that all can grasp.[1] These insights do not replace the assent of Faith but instead shows how reasonable arguments can be made for the reality of the Resurrection. For the sake of clarity, the term resurrection is defined as a dead body coming to life again joined with its own unique soul in a glorified state. This is to be contrasted to reincarnation which Eastern religions consider a curse. Neither is it a resuscitation, to live again to die again. Finally, the resurrection is distinguished from translation such as what Enoch and Elijah experienced, who were immediately assumed into heaven.

With a clear definition of the Resurrection in mind, one can consider the evidence from the natural realm for the Resurrection, which comes from both archaeology and the literary sciences. Archaeology is the study of ancient cultures through remains. Much information about burial practices at the time of Christ has been learned from this science. At present, there have been three types of rock tombs discovered that were in use at the time of Christ, all having a stone rolled in front of the opening. The first type is the Kokim. They are tunnels bored six feet deep, with the body placed in headfirst. The second type is an acrosolia. This is a semicircular niche in the wall. The third type is a bench tomb, in which a bench went around the inner wall of the tomb. The last two were used for persons of high rank and were sealed with a large stone slab rolled down an incline to seal the opening. It would have been easy to seal it but very difficult to remove the stone because it would have required several strong men to roll it back up the incline. A few of these tombs with the closing slab have been found. All of these types of tombs date to the time of Christ. From the description in the Gospels, it is clear that either the acrosolia or the bench tomb is what the Scripture writers had in mind. Current archaeological evidence confirms the burial details of the Resurrection as presented in the Gospels.

The second mode of analytical study is considering Scripture itself from a historical source perspective. Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection proposes to use the same mode of analysis for the Gospels as in used is studying other ancient texts, which gives one understanding of the people or historical facts of these cultures. First, the story of the Resurrection circulated immediately after the event took place when numerous eye witnesses were still alive to dispute the claim. Second, there would not have been enough time for a myth to develop. If we use Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, as a guide to how long myth development takes as Professor A.N. Sherwin-White, a renowned Roman historian, suggests then it takes 150-200 years.[2] There simply was not enough time to elapse for a legend to be generated. Finally, another striking feature of the Resurrection is that there are no other stories like it from the study of ancient literature as C.F.D. Moule, a classicist and Scripture Scholar of Cambridge University points out.[3]

A third manner of using right reason when reflecting on the Resurrection is the evidence of the empty tomb. What would have been typical in Judaism at this time would have been to revere the tomb as a shrine because there would have been a body of a great leader present. There is no evidence of the early Christians venerating the burial place of Christ according to James D. G. Dunn, a British New Testament Scholar and formerly at the University of Durham. Professor Dunn clearly asserts this must be due to the fact that the tomb was empty.[4]

These three examples, out of the ten presented in the book, give enough evidence of showing how philosophy, when considered as right ordered rational thinking, can be employed to support at its core a theological proposition, the Resurrection of Jesus. Reason cannot replace the primacy of Faith but it is an invaluable aid especially in an age of materialism. Philosophy must recover its broader definition of analytical study, with empirical scientific inquiry as one subset.

Another religion that has many adherents across the globe is Islam. Muhammad founded Islam around 600 AD by combining heretical Christologies, pre-Islamic Arabic tribal religions and some aspects of Judaism. It also had access to the Greek Philosophers, most notably Aristotle, as Augustine had access to Plato in its infancy. But the Muslim religion quickly would reject the aid of philosophy, in contrast to Christianity, and this would produce different societal consequences for the people under Islam’s rule. There are many sects of Islam, the one that will be considered is Jihadism because its refusal to use philosophy is most striking in its consequences.

According to Faith, Reason and the War Against Jihadism by George Weigel, he posits how a culture thinks about God has a great deal to do with how they will envision a just society and thus how they will treat their own people and others.[5] Therefore, it is vital that if one wants to understand a culture one must understand a people’s religion. The Qur’an is the starting point for all Islamic sciences. It is not considered an independent, separate source of truth as the Bible is in Christianity. According to Dei Verbum, “…it was true authors that they consigned writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.”[6] The writers of Scripture were not robots taking dictation from God. By contrast, the Qur’an does consider God directly dictating exactly what was to be written. The Divine Will is evidenced by a God who is Master and not Father. This directly led to the repudiation that Man was not made in the image of God. Man does not co-create with God but is submissive to Him. This would put an incredible strain on the connection of Faith and Reason. The notion of wrestling with texts, gaining insight “nous” and using reason is foreign to Islam’s approach to faith. In the religion’s infancy many of the sciences flourished in the area of Persia, however, as Weigel points out, that intellectual progress stopped when philosophical speculations made those in charge of theology nervous.[7] This is in contrast to the Early Church Fathers who deemed the works of Virgil and Plato as preparation for the Gospel. With its technology stagnating because of a lack of intellectual inquiry, losing military battles such as in 1683 at the Battle of Vienna and suffering defeat to the Mongols, Islam’s sense of identity was undermined.

This sense of inferiority would produce a fertile breeding ground for a more aggressive form of Islam, Jihadism, with the Taliban one of its off shoots. Fr Richard John Neuhaus would define Jihadism as the religiously inspired theology “[which teaches] that it is the moral obligation of all Muslims to employ whatever means [are] necessary to compel the world’s submission to Islam.”[8]In its theology, mercy is considered weakness and justice would become sheer revenge. This attitude is shown in the following incident, where there would be the instruction by the Taliban religious police of throwing reason to the dogs, it stinks of corruption.[9] Where is the meeting point for discussing the Good News with those who harbor such an attitude? Philosophy.

At the Regensburg Lecture in September 2006, Benedict XVI offered the language of rationality and irrationality (reason) as a mode of dialogue. He rightly understood that at the heart of Jihadism was its error, as it understood God, and that discussing theology directly would not be appropriate. It turned out, discussing reason in relation to God was not appropriate either as evidenced by the riots that erupted following this lecture. According to a theology that had turned its back on philosophy many centuries prior, God could request anything from his Divine Will, even if that contradicted reason, such as the killing of innocents to advance a Muslim state. The inability to engage in civic debate without recourse to violence is a direct result from eschewing reason. However, the Holy Father would press on later in the year, insisting in his Christmas Address to the Roman Curia[10] that on the ground where faith meets reason an interreligious dialogue should be constructed.

There are signs of hope precisely at the intersection of faith and reason in regards to some Muslims. Within a month of the Regensburg Lecture, an Open Letter was signed by thirty-eight prominent Muslim leaders to Pope Benedict XVI. The letter, though deficient in many ways, nonetheless showed openness to the Pope’s call for a serious intellectual meeting between Muslims and Christians. The Open Letter stated that God can not command the irrational, such as the killing of innocents.[11] What followed was a robust discussion of the theological roots of Jihadism. Weigel compares how Leo XIII, who reached back into the deeper philosophical resources of his Catholicism to engage with modernity in the 1800’s, could be a role model for Islam. Such an approach emphasizes the capacity of reason to get to the root of things and to be a basis of interreligious dialogue.[12]

Philosophy does aid theology in her mission of evangelization. Within Christianity, it can be used to show the reasonableness of its core theological premise – the Resurrection. Since the resurrection can be shown to be realistic, it is easier to assent to it as a matter of belief. Metaphysics can also be used to when dialoguing with a culture that has shunned philosophy for centuries. According to Benedict XVI, dialoguing with the Muslims requires philosophy. With a firm foundation of right ordered thinking in place, the possibility of discussions of a theological nature is then possible. Reason comes from the very nature of man. By being a rational animal, man has the capacity to rise above the problems of his day. It is hoped that this truth will eventually be realized by society, which is why both John Paul II and Benedict XVI implore the use of philosophy when preaching.

 

Bibliography

 

Craig, William. Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection: Our Response to the Empty Tomb. Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1988.

 

Dictionary.com. “Theology.” http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/theology?s=t (accessed October 29, 2012).

 

John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (1998).

 

Oxford Dictionaries. “Philosophy.” http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/american_english/philosophy?region=us&q=philosophy (accessed October 29, 2012).

 

Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Dei Verbum (1965).

 

Weigel, George. Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action. New York: Doubleday, 2007.

                  [1] William Craig, Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection: Our Response to the Empty Tomb (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1988)

[2] Ibid., 96

[3] Ibid., 120

[4] Ibid., 83

                  [5] George Weigel, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 12

                  [6] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Dei Verbum (1965), § 11

                  [7] Weigel, 39

                  [8] Ibid., 35

                  [9] Ibid., 50

                  [10] Ibid., 60

                  [11] Ibid., 60

                  [12] Ibid., 68

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