The teaching of the Greek Philosopher Plato has been, and remains, the most dominant and influential philosophy in western history. Even though few of us spend much time pondering his work; even though many of us might struggle to know the difference between him and the former ninth planet in our universe, every one of us has been hugely influenced by this controversial figure who was born in Athens in 429BC. Like the unseen air we spend our lives breathing in and out, we are surrounded in modern day Ireland with the attitudes, viewpoints and approaches to life advocated by this ancient philosopher and, like the air, knowingly or unknowingly, we have all been breathing them in and out for our entire lives. Philosophical discussion may not be our thing; we may never once have read a philosophy book; but, nonetheless, whether we have ever known it or not, most of us have been hugely shaped by Plato’s thought and are thoroughly Platonic in our thinking and approach to life.
Like individualism, of course, not all of Plato’s teaching creates a problem for those of us who would follow Jesus. Some of his insights about life, politics and being are more than worthy of our consideration. But when it comes to understanding the nature of this world and our own nature, Plato’s influence is one that we must be very careful about indeed if are ever to properly understand this good news that has been revealed by Jesus.
You see, for Plato (as indeed for Buddha in his teachings) this present world of space and time in which we live is a world merely of illusion. What we affectionately call our ‘material’ existence is in fact only the appearance of reality rather than actual reality itself. True reality is something than can only exist beyond what we see and hear and taste and feel. True reality, Platonism advocates, lies beyond and apart from our physical world. Thus, for Plato, and for many in our 21st century world, if we are to discover who we truly are and, from that, find the true meaning of our lives, we need to escape this illusionary, this physical world in which we find ourselves and learn how to enter fully into the real, the spiritual world that is beyond.
Plato’s famous way of illustrating his viewpoint is by thinking of the shadows in a cave.
Imagine you are sitting inside a large cave looking away from its entrance and towards its back wall. As light shines in through the entrance and as people and things move back and forth across it, movement and form will appear silhouetted on that back wall. As you look on you can see outlines and detail. You can have a pretty good guess at what is happening outside the cave but all of your understanding is based merely on the observation of those silhouettes. What you are seeing is not reality itself, but merely its shadow.
This is how Plato believed it is with all of us until we find what many of his modern followers call ‘enlightenment’. Until we grasp how to move beyond time and matter, he argues, until we escape our lives of silhouetted, monochrome illusion, we are wasting the time given us and missing the experience of vibrant, colourful reality that could be ours instead. For Plato, encountering this needed reality meant finding the true ‘Forms’ of our universe; For Buddha it meant entering into what he called the ‘eternal nothingness’. For many of the eastern mystic, platonic spiritual writers of our day, including for example, Eckhart Tolle , it is described as finding our true Being or Transcendence.
This platonic thinking managed to enter Christian theology very early on, not least with the development of Gnosticism (from the Greek word gnosis – meaning knowledge) which first arose in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Like Plato, the Gnostics believed that the material world in which we live is an inferior and dark place, evil in its very existence. However, within this dark world there are people who are meant for something much better. These children of light, as they are sometimes called, are like fallen stars, tiny centres of light darkened and hidden within the confines of a material body. Made for life and vitality, they are instead trapped and living only in shadow.
This is where people’s need for ‘special knowledge’ (Gnosis) comes in. If only we can learn the true realities of our world, the truth about who we are and how we should live, then we will be able to enter into a ‘spiritual’ or ‘enlightened’ existence in which the material world will no longer count. As we learn and apply this special knowledge, so the Gnostics proclaimed, through it we will be able to journey in wholeness and completion not only in life but in death, and after death, when we move fully into the infinite world, or Being, that resides beyond our time and space. From this Platonic, or Gnostic position [it is also called dualism because of its contrast between the physical and the spiritual], creation is itself the fall that has happened in our universe; that we exist materially at all is the source of our malaise. And what is needed for us to find wholeness and healing in our lives is to escape these physical, mental and emotional realities that seek to bind us, these things that belong in the material world of illusion and decay, and to return ourselves to life lived in the spiritual realm.
It is thus easy to understand why these Gnostics had to create their own versions of Jesus’ story
If, as Plato and the Gnostics hold, our bodies, like our planet, are corrupt and evil, our very flesh is the evidence of our decay, then the idea that God himself would become a human, would actually take on flesh and blood for himself is utterly repugnant.
For them God is wholly Spirit. God is wholly good. The material world and our bodies are material and evil. Thus, there is no way that God would allow himself to be born as a human child in a stable or walk through adolescence or experience pain or allow himself to be tortured and die on a cross. It would be unthinkable. It would be a denial of everything they proclaimed. And that is why they could not accept the gospel accounts written by the first Apostles and those who travelled with them. Instead, they completely rewrote the story of Jesus to portray him in a way that supported their new (though not really new – just platonic) understanding of the world. It is not surprisingly, therefore, in these Gnostic Gospels that were penned in the second and third centuries – such a the gospel of Thomas, of Philip and of Judas – that Jesus’ story is retold and describes him as an ordinary spiritual teacher who got married, had kids, did not willingly die on a cross and most certainly did not rise bodily from the dead! And it was largely on these and other books written on them such as the Holy Grail and Holy Blood that Dan Brown based his book, ‘The Divinci Code’, the Jesus Seminar folks based their presentations, and to which Channel Four seem determined to constantly focus our attention ad nauseam.
This underlying view of our world that comes from Platonism and Gnosticism remains firmly with us. So let me finish by mentioning just three of the influences this prevalent philosophy brings that we need to overcome if we are to rightly understand the Gospel proclaimed in the pages of the New Testament:
1. The misunderstanding of Jesus’ Resurrection
When we in the Church today summarise our Christian hope by saying that the message of Jesus is that we will have life after death; that one day we will escape this dark & broken world and go instead to the perfection of heaven; when we orate and sing that we are just ‘passing through’ this world now in order to get to the better one then, that our universe is spiralling towards ultimate destruction and won’t it be great to leave it behind and go instead to glory, what we are in fact advocating is a soft version of what Plato and the Gnostics taught! Such a summary misses so much of what the Gospel proclaims! It misses the fact that when God finished his physical creation he said it was all very good. It misses the promise of the New Testament that one day we will rise with new resurrection bodies that can be touched and felt and held. It misses our hope that not only we but this entire physical universe will be redeemed and restored by the salvation of our God. It thus misses the fullness of what has been declared in the most important event in human history as God himself has become flesh, has died on our behalf, has been raised from death conquering it for us all.
2. The undermining of Jesus’ the Ascension
Since Platonism has led us to subconsciously believe that the purpose of Christianity is to prepare us for ‘that day then’ when we will all be gathered together ‘up into heaven,’ it has led many us to fail to understand what Jesus’ ascension means for us right now. The strong assertion of the New Testament is that Jesus is not only raised, is not only alive, but is in fact now ascended and is reigning at the Father’s right hand as the Lord of All. Jesus will not only be Lord when God wraps up our universe on that final day, he is Lord already. He has all authority already. He sits upon the throne already! He is building his kingdom already! It was their crystal clear understanding of this that led so many of those in the early church to be martyred for their faith. Rome could not stand the presence of these dissenters who fearlessly proclaimed that Jesus was Lord, not Caesar and that Jesus’ kingdom was now the one to which their obedience was directed. This talk of the kingdom where right now justice and freedom and equality were proclaimed was a threat to all who saw themselves in power in the ancient world. It is the threat to those who see themselves likewise today. Those who oppressed the poor, sought power through the suffering of others, pursued wealth and influence for their own individual benefit without reference to its impact on others – all feared the message of the early Christians and for good cause. Their message wasn’t just about the promise of ‘then and there’ (though it of course included that) but rather was very much one that called for action and impact in the ‘here and now.’
3.The masking of our calling to the Kingdom
Since Platonism has convinced us that the real goal of our lives is to escape this dark & evil world and go instead to be with God in heaven, we have thus been led to miss the gospel’s clear promise that one day God will actually come to live with us here on earth! More than that, it has blinded us to the truth that this kingdom that we yearn for and look forward to has already come among us and is already rising up all around us! Our calling as believers is not just to look forward to dwelling in God’s kingdom ‘then.’ It is to spend our lives advocating and building towards that Kingdom right now. Jesus first message and the primary focus of his entire ministry was that the Kingdom had come, the Kingdom is among us and the Kingdom was now moving towards completion. How often we miss this because of Plato’s philosophy. How often we pray ‘Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ and yet miss entirely the radical nature of our calling these words articulate as they call us right now to be agents not just for the church but first and foremost for the Kingdom.
Very few of us would regard ourselves as Philosophers. Thank goodness! Yet all around us are the proclamations of this philosophy of Plato and they would hide from us so much of what Jesus has declared to be true. If are ever to properly pray the Our Father, if we are ever to properly understand what the Resurrection, the Ascension, the gospel are all about, we will need to recognize this unwelcome guest in our thinking and do our very best to expunge its presence from our own minds and from our family of faith.
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