Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Is Taste Subjective?

G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Systems of the Hellenistic Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985) 318.

Timon was a Skeptic from the fourth-third centuries B.C.E. He stated, "I do not lay down that honey is sweet, but only that it appears to be so." Reale explains:

...honey does not have its own nature, and its appearance, if it is quantifiable by us as sweet, can be qualified in another way by another person (who does not like honey).

This position does not make a whole lot of sense to me, but I do wonder why two people can have different opinions about the same food. When they eat the same dish, is the taste the same in both of their mouths, only one likes how it tastes, while the other does not? For example, one person may like his cookies overly sweet, whereas the other may not. I think that's true in a number of cases, but I'm not sure if it's always true. For example, I absolutely hate stroganoff, such that I gag it out as soon as it enters my mouth. Am I tasting it the same way as someone who likes it? Is the same taste in each of our mouths, only I dislike it, and somebody else enjoys it?

Monday, June 29, 2009

Epistemological Foundation for Christianity

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. II: The Ante-Nicene Literature After Irenaeus (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 246-247.

Tertullian was a Christian thinker who lived in the second-third centuries C.E. Here are some quotes about him, along with my comments:

...the African writers [such as Tertullian and Cyprian] testify better than all other Latin authors of the West to the great difference between Greek and Latin Christendom...The comparison between the great theologians of both sides will show this immediately. Whereas Clement of Alexandria and Origen [of Greek Christianity] are anxious to put in relief the metaphysical content of the gospel and to prove the faith the only true philosophy and far above the Hellenistic systems, Tertullian and Cyprian [of Latin Christianity] set great store by the Christian way of life against the background of pagan vice. The Alexandrians stress the objective value of redemption, based on the incarnation of the Logos, which filled mankind with divine power; the Africans focus their attention on the subjective side of salvation, i.e., what remains to be done by the individual, i.e., the Christian's fight against sin and practice of virtue (246).

[Tertullian] does not tell us the reasons for his conversion [to Christianity]. Evidently it was not a careful comparison of the various philosophical systems which led him to the faith, as was the case with St. Justin. It seems that the heroism of the Christians in times of persecution influenced him more than anything else...(247).

Quasten makes it sound as if the Greek-speaking Christians (i.e., Clement, Origen) were more interested in reconciling Christianity with Greek philosophy and demonstrating Christianity's superiority to Greek philosophical systems. The Latin-speaking Christians, by contrast, focused more on ethics. Tertullian was drawn to Christianity, for example, because he was impressed by the strength of character that Christian martyrs demonstrated.

I wonder how the Greek-speaking Christians sought to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity to other belief systems. How can a person prove that one belief system is right while others are wrong, especially when Christianity is so based on faith, belief in the unseen? Quasten's discussion of Origen's Contra Celsum (54-55) gives us insight into some of Origen's apologetic approach: We know Christianity is true on account of fulfilled prophecy, miracles, and its conversion of many people, some of whom were once hostile to Christianity. Origen also mentions martyrdom.

In Dialogue with Trypho 2-8, Justin Martyr discusses the various philosophical systems that he encountered before he became a Christian. He was disappointed with many of the schools because he didn't feel that they led him to God. The Christian who brought him to Christ discussed with him such issues as the immortality of the soul, creation, fulfilled prophecy, and the happy life, which is the aim of philosophy. He convinced Justin that the world was created by a supreme being. I'm not sure if Justin grounds Christianity in a solid foundation, but maybe he thought that he was.

Is there a solid epistemological foundation for Christianity? I don't know. Maybe Origen is correct that we can see unusual occurrences that point us to the activity of the Spirit. Perhaps there is a subjective feeling of intimacy with the divine that Christianity brings certain people, something that they don't find in other belief systems. Fulfilled prophecy doesn't convince me that much, for Jews and biblical scholars have alternative ways to interpret the prophecies that supposedly point to Jesus. Does the lifestyle of Christians impress me? Not all Christians make a good impression, but there are some.

I knew a person at Harvard who was once an atheist and a Marxist, and he became a Christian when he went to a prayer group on a regular basis. As he saw God's work in the lives of Christians, he became convinced that the God of Jesus Christ was real. He became a Christian on the basis of experience.

In a philosophy class at DePauw, an atheist professor asked her students how people can know that there is a God. One of them (not me) replied, "By going to church." The professor didn't think much of that student's answer, but is there something to it? Maybe we can grow in faith as we see answers to prayer and unusual events. This happens when we participate in Christian community.

That's something that I'm missing right now, since I don't really participate in evangelical churches or small groups. But, on some level, I do see it in Alcoholics Anonymous, as I hear about changed lives and answers to prayer: God's doing for people what they cannot do for themselves. AA is not an explicitly Christian movement, which can lead one to the question of whether God blesses those who don't believe in Christ. I don't know. Maybe he rewards all sorts of people who seek him in faith. That could be one way that he draws them to Christ.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Above the Law

G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Systems of the Hellenistic Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985) 280.

For the Stoics, human laws[,] far from being mere conventions, are expressions of an eternal and indestructible law which comes from the eternal Logos. They suggest correct actions (katorthomata) to the sage because he feels their command as necessarily coincident with his interiorly felt deeds. This is made possible by his perfect interior disposition, that is, by the right logos within him which is in perfect harmony with the right logos outside of him. Hence we could say that the sage in his perfection has no need of laws or commands.

Two topics:

1. The quote above states that Stoics believed human laws were not mere human conventions, but were expressions of an "eternal and indestructible law" from the eternal logos. For the Stoics, the logos was the rationality that permeated the universe. They thought there was a logos (rationality) inside of us, and that righteousness is our rationality being in tune with that of the cosmos.

I agree that there is some objective moral standard out there. Killing innocent people is problematic, for example. And I agree that human laws often overlap with this objective moral standard, since even the Code of Hammurapi had laws against (say) theft. But laws can also express purely human conventions, which may change throughout history. The Code of Hammurapi is not exactly the most egalitarian document in the world, for it treats wealthy noblemen as more valuable than slaves. Laws may express an "eternal and indestructible law," along with "human conventions."

Why is this? Theists may argue that God has placed his moral laws on the human heart, but our sin contributes to our greed and mistreatment of one another. That would explain why laws are a mixture of good and bad. Evolutionists may contend that humans have learned certain ways for society to function effectively (e.g., not killing each other), yet they are still learning and growing. That would account for how their laws can be both humanitarian and unjust.

Could the Bible similarly be a mixture of good and bad: an expression of the eternal logos with some unjust things mixed in? That's an issue that separates conservative from liberal Christianity. Judaism too.

2. The above quote states that, for Stoics, the sage was perfectly in tune with the logos of the universe, such that he did not need laws to regulate his behavior. That reminds me of New Covenant theology, which states that Christians do not need the law of Moses, since the Holy Spirit inclines them to God's righteous standards. In his series on Galatians, David Antion stated that a Christian with God's Holy Spirit will not feel a desire to kill someone. And Augustine once exhorted Christians to "Love God, and do what you will." For Augustine, when we are in tune with God, then we can do what we want, since our desires will coincide with God's righteousness.

I can somewhat sympathize with New Covenant theology. Suppose I focused less on rules and focused more on God and his goodness. Would I be less inclined to sin? This may be what Byker Bob and a lot of evangelicals are getting at when they distinguish "religion" from a "relationship with God."

I think that Antion's statement is too idealistic, since I can picture even Christians resorting to murder. They have a bunch of other human flaws, like everyone else (e.g, jealousy, strife, just being plain a-holes). Why should I assume that they're totally incapable of murder under certain conditions?

One more thought, and this is somewhat related to my point in (1): Christians know that Jesus was perfectly in tune with God. Could that be one reason that he felt he was above certain Scriptural requirements? In Mark 2, Matthew 12, and Luke 6, he asserts that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. Maybe he thought he and his disciples didn't have to keep certain fine points of the law, since he was in tune with God's overall standards of righteousness (e.g., kindness, etc.).

On the other hand, I know there are people who would disagree with this interpretation (e.g., Steph). Plus, Galatians 4:4 states that Jesus was born "under the law," meaning he was under the Torah's authority.

For some reason, Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment enters my mind: he thought he was extraordinary and was thus above the laws that bound the common rabble (in his eyes). That's the mindset that led him to kill his landlady. But the Stoic sage, Jesus, and Christians are not like that, even if they need no laws. They need no laws because their lives are naturally in tune with the moral standard that underlies laws. (Or, in the case of Christians, they should be, but they're not always.)

But those are my ramblings for the day...

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Picket Fences, Hardball with Al Sharpton, Uzzah

Here are some odds and ends for this Saturday, my day of rest:

1. On Friday, I checked out some DVDs of Brothers and Sisters and Picket Fences. Both have Tom Skerritt, though he's usually in the flashbacks in Brothers and Sisters. Picket Fences, an Emmy-winning series in the 1990's, usually generated a lot of debates and discussions in my family when I was growing up: about religion, about the afterlife, about school bussing, about homosexuality, about creationism and condoms in schools, etc. One of my relatives didn't care much for Dr. Jill Brock, especially after she told a Christian Scientist, "I don't care about your religion." From that point on, she could do nothing right in his eyes! It's amazing how many of us (myself included) treat TV characters like they're real people!

2. I was watching Hardball last night. I know MSNBC is considered a liberal network, but I like Chris Matthews' reflective way of looking at the news. It's like he treats the people making headlines as characters in a novel, as flawed human beings with the ability to act both heroically and badly. I prefer this to Fox News' "This party and the people in it are good, while this party and the people in it are bad" (though, to be fair, Glenn Beck goes after both sides). Does a person become virtuous once he joins the Republican Party, or evil once he becomes a Democrat? That makes no sense to me!

Chris Matthews had Al Sharpton on to talk about Michael Jackson. At first, I wondered why Sharpton had to stick his beak into this situation, but I found myself liking what he had to say. Sharpton talked about how, fifteen years after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., people from all sorts of races and backgrounds were admiring and imitating a black man, Michael Jackson. For Sharpton, Michael Jackson was a pivotal figure in the history of American race relations.

3. For last week's weekly quiet time, I read II Samuel 6. I got to learn a little more about Uzzah, the man who died after he touched the wobbling Ark of the Covenant. I remember a documentary about the Bible portraying Uzzah as a soldier of King David, as if he were some random flunky security guard who touched the ark. Actually, Uzzah was the son of Abinadab, the man who had housed the ark for decades (see I Samuel 7:1). Uzzah grew up around the ark, since it was in his very own house!

This raises some questions about God's anger at Uzzah for touching the ark. Should Uzzah have known the proper way to handle the ark, since it was with his family all those years? Maybe his father had told his children over and over, "The ark is holy, so you're not supposed to touch it. God wants it to be handled in a specific manner!" In that case, Uzzah should have known better than to touch the ark!

Did familiarity breed contempt? The ark had been in Uzzah's house all those years, so perhaps he didn't think it was a big deal for him to touch it. For him, maybe it was a piece of furniture that he'd become accustomed to. Is there a lesson here for us?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Hippolytus on Recapitulation

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. II: The Ante-Nicene Literature After Irenaeus (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 200-201.

Hippolytus of Rome was a Christian thinker who lived in the second-third centuries C.E. What follows is Quasten's discussion of Hippolytus' views on soteriology (Christ's salvation of human beings):

[Hippolytus'] soteriology follows the sound doctrine of Irenaeus, especially his theory of recapitulation. He explains on several occasions that the Logos took the flesh of Adam in order to renew mankind (De antichr. 4 ANF):

"...He took upon Himself the holy flesh by the holy Virgin, and prepared a robe which He wove for Himself, like a bridegroom, in the sufferings of the cross, in order that by uniting His own power with our mortal body, and by mixing the incorruptible with the corruptible, and the strong with the weak, He might save perishing man."

According to Hippolytus, Christ became a man in order to recreate humanity: to transform people who are fallen, sinful, and perishable into people who are righteous and immortal. As the second Adam, Christ was the prototype of a new humanity (Romans 5:16-19; I Corinthians 15:21-22), and Christ came to earth as a man to be this second Adam.

Some form of recapitulation is taught in the New Testament. Paul states in Romans 8:3-4: "For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (NRSV). According to this passage, our flesh is too weak to keep God's law, so Christ condemned sin in the flesh, with the result that we can now live righteously through the Holy Spirit. This passage seems to tie Christ's incarnation with our salvation from sin unto righteousness.

This discussion about Hippolytus reminds me of what I was reading last night in Ellen White's Desire of Ages, which is her biography of Jesus Christ. Ellen White was one of the founders of the Seventh-Day Adventist church. In the chapter, "The Fullness of the Time", Mrs. White states that Christ came when the human race was especially corrupt and needed renewal.

Maybe the human race was particularly corrupt when Christ came. Infighting, selfishness, power-plays, hatred, murder, and adultery existed among both Jews and Gentiles in the first century.

And maybe Christ did manage to renew part of the human race, namely, those who believed in him. Ancient authors marvel at the early Christians' love for one another, as well as their willingness to risk their lives to help the sick and dying, even those outside of their own group. Christians opposed war, the slaughter of children, and (in some way, shape, or form) slavery. In the early days of Christianity, Christians exemplified the new humanity that Christ had established.

But was the change short-lived? First of all, are we any better than those of the "especially corrupt" first century, since we have our own infighting, selfishness, etc.? And, secondly, do Christians truly exemplify the new humanity today, or are they just like the world in their selfishness?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson

Two celebrities passed away today: Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. I want to honor them one at a time:

1. I first heard of Farrah Fawcett on TV Land, although I saw her before in the movie, The Apostle, in which she played Robert Duvall's discontent, cheating wife (though, to be fair, Robert Duvall's character cheated on her, his ministerial credentials notwithstanding).

TV Land had a reality show called Chasing Farrah, and it also featured her as one of the hottest TV women. I think it was Scott Baio who remarked that, even though Farrah Fawcett was only in the first season of Charlie's Angels, she managed to become a cultural phenomenon! She influenced women's hairstyles in the late 1970's. And don't forget all the Farrah Fawcett lunchboxes and posters!

Critics long doubted that she could really act, until she starred in the 1984 movie, The Burning Bed, which earned her an Emmy nomination. She played an abused wife, and the movie had a number at the end that women could call if they were abused.

In her last years, she struggled to stay alive, seeking all sorts of remedies for her anal cancer. Although I never had a Farrah Fawcett poster or lunch box, I still feel a need to honor her memory.

2. When I was a kid, I had a little book that had questions for me to answer. One of them was, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" My answer was "a policeman, or Michael Jackson."

That may puzzle those who see Michael Jackson as a pale-faced weirdo with lip-stick who has a thing for little boys. (Remember the Saturday Night Live cartoon?) But, when I was a little kid, people thought Michael Jackson was awesome!

Growing up in the Armstrong movement, I felt like an oddball because I didn't keep Christmas or Easter, in contrast to all of my peers. But my mom made me feel better when she informed me that Michael Jackson didn't keep them either. And, at the time, he didn't, for he was a devout Jehovah's Witness. He even included a disclaimer at the beginning of his popular album, Thriller, saying he was not promoting the occult!

I recall Michael Jackson as the one who gave us breakdancing and the moonwalk, but my parents also remember him as part of the Jackson 5. He was a celebrity for most of his life!

I vaguely recall someone telling me that Michael Jackson had a lot of emotional pain, and that very well may have been true. He struggled in his relationship with his family, one reason being that he was abused as he was growing up. Yet, his family stood by him in the lowest points of his life.

R.I.P., Farrah and Michael.

Epicurus on the Gods

G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Systems of the Hellenistic Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985) 147, 157-160.

Epicurus was a philosopher who lived in the fourth-third centuries B.C.E, and he believed that people should live in pleasure. He was a critic of popular religion, for he thought that it encouraged anxiety rather than joy, plus he didn't think that the gods cared much about the affairs of humans. For Epicurus, the world came into being by chance, not through the design of a beneficent God or Demiurge. Moreover, Epicurus maintained that knowledge came primarily through the senses: what we can see, touch, hear, feel, and taste. And yet, at the same time, Epicurus believed in the existence of the gods.

Why did Epicurus believe in the gods, beings whom we cannot directly sense? One of Epicurus' reasons was that everyone in all times and places (even the uncivilized) believes in a god--or so Epicurus assumed. For Epicurus, one has to account for such a "precognition" in some way, and Epicurus concludes that "it can only come from [its] respective realities [(the gods)] even if these are outside of the range of our senses" (157). According to Cicero, Epicurus maintained that "the Gods must belong to us because nature itself has impressed the notion of them on the souls of all men" (157).

Epicurus also concluded that there were gods on the basis of certain presuppositions, which he may have reasoned out at some point. For example, he thought that, since there are many human beings and forces of destruction, then there must be an equal number of divine forces of preservation, namely, gods. Epicurus believed that the cosmos has some kind of equilibrium, which necessitates the existence of divine beings.

Epicurus also noticed that there are various degrees in the world, as some people are greater than others. Epicurus concluded from this that there must be supreme beings, who are superior to all else. These supreme beings are the gods.

Epicurus held that human beings should imitate the gods, not because the gods cared about them, but rather because they exemplified the blissful life that Epicureans valued. The gods "lived an eternal life free of worry and disturbance [and] enjoyed profound conversations in the company of friends" (159). For Epicureans, humans would be happy if they arrived at such a state.

Something I'm unclear on: to what extent did Epicureans believe that the gods were involved in human affairs? I've read in various places (including Reale) that they really did not think the gods were involved. And yet Cicero seems to say that Epicurus regarded the gods as forces of preservation. Did Epicurus think that the gods played a role in preserving the cosmos?

Also, Epicurus holds that the gods exist because virtually everyone believes in them (as far as he knows, of course). But many who believe in gods think that those gods are concerned about human beings and involved in their affairs. How would people sense the gods (as Epicurus says they do, albeit indirectly) if the gods were totally aloof from them?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Satanic Attacks?

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. II: The Ante-Nicene Literature After Irenaeus (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 147, 149.

Quasten discusses the Didascalia, a third century Christian document composed "for a community of Christian converts from paganism in the northern part of Syria" (147):

...the author turns to the danger of heresies...God has left the synagogue and has come to the Church of the Gentiles, but Satan has done the same. He does not tempt the Jews anymore, but he splits the one [Christian] fold into sects (149).

I've often heard Christians say: "You can tell that you're doing something right when things are going wrong! That shows Satan feels threatened and is attacking the move of God."

In The Prayer of Jabez, Bruce Wilkinson discusses a seminary student who is talking with his professor. When the student tells his professor that everything is running smoothly, the professor has a concerned look on his face. "You must not be in the battle," the professor remarks, "for Satan attacks those who are doing God's work."

At DePauw University, an influential Christian group was taking off like a wildfire, as numerous students from a variety of backgrounds came to praise God and hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But there were disagreements along the way, and the cultish International Church of Christ was trying to make inroads into our school. Some Christians attributed these things to Satan, who was trying to disrupt the work of God.

The summer that I graduated from DePauw, I attended a small evangelical church in the backwoods. The first night I was there, a debate erupted over whether Christians should keep the Seventh-Day Sabbath. Eventually, the pastor remarked: "Why is it we always get into these divisive arguments? It's Satan, isn't it?"

At Harvard, I was President of an evangelical Christian fellowship group at the Divinity School, and we were organizing a night of praise and worship. On the night of the event, so many things were going wrong! One lady, a pastor, remarked that this was actually a good sign. "When everything's going well, then that's not a good sign," she said. "Satan tries to disrupt what he considers a threat!"

At the same time, Christians also like to attribute good events to the presence of God. A Jehovah's Witness lady once told my family that her church was the only true one because everyone loved one another, worked together to build the new Kingdom Hall, and had no doctrinal divisions. "We all believe the same thing," she said. "Do you know any other churches like that?" But the Didascalia would say that the absence of problems is a bad sign, an indication that Satan doesn't consider the JWs enough of a threat to attack them!

I'm not sure if Christian groups suffer more problems than other people, or if they're just incorporating bad events into a narrative that tries to explain their significance. The Didascalia says that Satan does not tempt the Jews anymore, whereas he seeks to divide Christianity into sects. At the time that the Didascalia was written, Judaism was rather united under the authority of the rabbis. But the Jews still encountered problems: competition from Christianity, the temptations of paganism, later persecution. If problems are an indication of Satanic attacks on God's people, then why can't they assert that Satan is threatened by them?

I don't know where I stand on a lot of this. The body of Christ should take heed of destructive strife within its midst, but I don't think it should suppress disagreement with the usual "Satan causes divisions" line. And problems should encourage us to depend on God, whether Satan is causing them or not. Or at least that's my humble opinion!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ed McMahon

I learned today that Ed McMahon has passed away from pneumonia.

I don't know a whole lot about him. He was Johnny Carson's sidekick, and I remember someone portraying him on Saturday Night Live. Dana Carvey was playing Johnny Carson defending O.J. Simpson in court (because Johnny Carson sounds like Johnny Cochran, I guess!), and the guy depicting Ed was continually saying "YESSSS!!!" in an enthusiastic voice.

I admire Ed McMahon for being content to be a sidekick and not the top dog. I read in an article about him today:

McMahon, who never failed to laugh at his Carson's quips, kept his supporting role in perspective. "It's like a pitcher who has a favorite catcher," he said. "The pitcher gets a little help from the catcher, but the pitcher's got to throw the ball. Well, Johnny Carson had to throw the ball, but I could give him a little help."

I also knew McMahon from TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes, which he hosted with Dick Clark, and from the Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes. He always came across as a friendly, back-slapping sort of gentleman.

From wikipedia, I learned that he was a fighter pilot in World War II, so he was a part of America's greatest generation!

Rest in peace, Mr. McMahon!

Epicurean Coping Strategies, Epistemology

G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Systems of the Hellenistic Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985) 98, 120-121, 124.

[For Theophrastus in the fourth-third centuries B.C.E., t]he Stoics and Epicureans are deluded when they say that the wise man can be happy even when being tortured: where there is suffering and pain there is no happiness (98).

The teachings which came out of the [Epicurean] Garden can be summarized in a few general propositions: 1) reality is perfectly penetrable and knowable by the intelligence of man; 2) in the dimensions of reality there is space for the happiness of human beings; 3) happiness is the absence of pain and suffering, it is the peace of the spirit; 4) in order to achieve this happiness and this peace man needs only himself; 5) therefore he does not need the city-state, institutions, the nobility, wealth, and things in general, not even the Gods: man is completely autarchic (120-121).

Bignone: When anxiety about the supernatural overcomes, and earthly reality seems to be full of superstition and error, and true knowledge no longer inquires through the way of experience, but through mystical and religious apocalyptics (hence it will seem useless to worry about what can never be understood about the world and which will one day be revealed to us), when earthly existence itself is irredeemably condemned, and man aspires to nothing other than to leave it as soon as possible, only then will the philosophy of Epicurus vanish, as well as all the sunny realities of the ancient world (121).

Keep in mind that for Epicurus sensations are always, every one of them, true without any exceptions. In fact, if only one of the senses, even for only one time, were mistaken, then there could not be faith in any of the senses and the validity of sensation as such would collapse (124).

Epicureanism is often stereotyped with the slogan "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow may bring pain or death." That's how it was presented to me in my high school world history class, and maybe it's valid. I don't know.

But the above quotes indicate to me that Epicureanism was about more than having a good time. It wanted people to find happiness from within themselves, apart from many of the external things that are supposed to make us happy (e.g., money, status, relationships). It was concerned with this life, not an alleged afterlife. And it was interested in epistemology: the question of how we know what we know. Epicureans were distrustful of mysticism, religion, or a focus on the Platonic "forms" in the pursuit of knowledge. Rather, for Epicureans, our senses are an infallible guide to the world around us. Notice in the last quote that the Epicurean treats the senses as many Christian fundamentalists approach the Bible: if it's in error in one part, then how can we trust what it says about anything?

One thing that I don't understand about Epicureanism: it focuses on the senses, and yet it insists that a wise man can be happy even while he experiences bodily pain. How is this the case? Does the wise man ignore the pain he is sensing, while focusing on the positive?

As far as its stance on religion is concerned, I'm rather mixed. Paul also could find joy in the midst of his pain, but that's because he had faith in certain concepts: that God loved him, that Christ made him his own, that he had an important mission from God, and that he would inherit a blissful afterlife. What positive ideas would Epicureans give a suffering person to focus on?

I'm not saying that religion is absolutely necessary for a positive attitude, for perhaps one can choose to be in a good mood and not to let the bad weigh him down--to sever his "give a shit" cord. Maybe one can set his mind on the beautiful, the noble, and the humorous without the assistance of religion. Thinking about funny things in my life, on television, and in books puts me in a good mood! An atheist once told me that he had the internal resources to get through life alone, without a wife and kids. I wonder how he does this. And would his strategies resonate with the Epicureans?

Religion can also make one unhappy, especially when it makes people continually evaluate if they're good enough. For example, as I've shared here, there are many times when I do not know how my afterlife will turn out. Will I go to hell, and does hell involve eternal torment? Paul states in Galatians 5:19-21: "Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (NRSV).

I have envy and anger. I guess I'm an adulterer, since Jesus said looking at a woman with lust is adultery (Matthew 5:28). So will I not enter the kingdom of God? The Puritans had a fun side, but no wonder there were many of them who became neurotic as a result of their religion, which continually made them insecure about whether they were a part of God's "elect"!

As far as the Epicurean stance on sensual epistemology is concerned, I think it's a little extreme. Our senses can deceive us, for there are such things as hallucinations. Add to that the possibility of us misinterpreting what we are seeing or hearing. But, just because our senses are not perfectly reliable, that doesn't mean that they're never reliable! Most of the time, they help us navigate our way through life quite well.

Can we say the same about the Bible? The Bible makes claims about a lot of things that I can't see, things that I can't evaluate one way or the other. I don't know the mind of God, unless God reveals himself. In the case of the Bible, I think fundamentalists make a valid point that, for us to be sure that any of it is correct, we must have assurance that all of it is correct. If the Bible says something is God's will, how could I evaluate whether it is true or false? But Epicureans wouldn't buy into the Bible, since they were more or less positivists. I doubt they'd be open to believing in the unseen!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Dionysius on Revelation

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. II: The Ante-Nicene Literature After Irenaeus (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 103-104.

Dionysius of Alexandria lived in the third century C.E., and he was a pupil of Origen. In Ecclesiastical History 7:25 (click here), Eusebius (third-fourth centuries C.E.) quotes Dionysius' views on the Book of Revelation.

Dionysius states the following:

For [some] say that it is not the work of John, nor is it a revelation, because it is covered thickly and densely by a veil of obscurity. And they affirm that none of the apostles, and none of the saints, nor any one in the Church is its author, but that Cerinthus, who founded the sect which was called after him the Cerinthian, desiring reputable authority for his fiction, prefixed the name.

According to Dionysius, some Christians in his day were claiming that Cerinthus was the author of the Book of Revelation. We don't have any sources from Cerinthus himself, but we do have second century Christian documents that seek to refute him. According to this article, such sources indicate that Cerinthus was a contemporary of the apostle John, and that he held the following beliefs:

1. The supreme God didn't create the universe, but an inferior Demiurge did so.

2. Christians should keep the Jewish law.

3. "Christ" came upon the human Jesus at his baptism and left him at his passion (adoptionism).

4. Some say Cerinthus believed Christ rose from the dead in the first century C.E., while others claim he thought that Christ would rise again at the last day.

5. Prior to the resurrection, Christ will rule the earth for a thousand years.

Not all of this is consistent with the Book of Revelation. For example, Revelation 4:11 and 10:16 seem to present the supreme God as the creator of the heavens and earth, which contradicts (1.). Revelation doesn't strike me as adoptionist (3.), for it affirms that Jesus is still "Jesus" after his death and resurrection (Revelation 22:16, 20-21), rather than separating Jesus from Christ. (But there's plenty that I don't know about adoptionism.)

For (2.), there are Christians and scholars who treat Revelation as a Jewish book. For example, many dispensationalists think that its passages about saints who "keep the commandments of God" (Revelation 12:17; 14:12) refer to Torah-observant believers in the last days. Scholars point out that Revelation 2:14 is quite negative about Christians eating meat offered to idols, whereas Paul appears rather tolerant of the practice in I Corinthians 8.

Revelation and Cerinthus do overlap on the millennium (5.). But what Dionysius presents as Cerinthus' position appears a lot more specific than what we see in Revelation:

For the doctrine which [Cerinthus] taught was this: that the kingdom of Christ will be an earthly one. And as he was himself devoted to the pleasures of the body and altogether sensual in his nature, he dreamed that that kingdom would consist in those things which he desired, namely, in the delights of the belly and of sexual passion; that is to say, in eating and drinking and marrying, and in festivals and sacrifices and the slaying of victims, under the guise of which he thought he could indulge his appetites with a better grace.

Cerinthus may have believed this about the millennium, but I don't see anything about that in Revelation's description. Certinthus probably did what a lot of dispensationalists do: he applied the Old Testament's passages about Israel's restoration and rule under the Davidic king to the millennium of Revelation. In the Old Testament, we see things about literal sacrifices, procreation, and eating and drinking under restored Israel's Davidic monarch. Come to think of it, maybe Revelation presents some eating and drinking, since it refers to a marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9).

Dionysius prefers not to go with Revelation's physical, literal millennium, preferring to see it as symbolic of something else. But there were some in his day who rejected the book because of its premillennial stance. But premillennialism was not always unpopular in early Christianity. While Augustine (354-430) later wrote against premillennialism, Justin Martyr in the second century believed in the literal rebuilding of Jerusalem and thousand year reign of Christ (see Justin Martyr, the Millennium, & the Resurrection). He even applied passages in Isaiah and Ezekiel to the millennium! But I wonder how far early Christian advocates of premillennialism went in their literal interpretation. Did they believe, for example, that God would raise up a literal priesthood, with animal sacrifices for atonement (as in Ezekiel)?

While Dionysius accepts Revelation but treats it as an allegory when it discusses the millennium, he agrees with Revelation's critics that the apostle John did not write the book. He notes differences in Greek style between Revelation and Johannine literature (the Gospel of John, I-III John). He's like a lot of modern critics, who dispute Johannine authorship of Revelation for that very reason.

But Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Origen believed that the apostle John wrote the book. Justin and Origen wrote in Greek, so I wonder what they made of Revelation's different style from that of John's Gospel and Epistles.

Anyway, that's my rambling for today. Have a nice day! And, for your viewing pleasure, check out Aggie's post tying Cerinthus' beliefs to Armstrongism: More secret teachings behind “The History of the TRUE CHURCH”.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

To Know the Good...

G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Systems of the Hellenistic Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985) 60.

There is nothing to which Plato, right down to the end of his life, was more passionately opposed than the statement that the soul can know that is just without being just.

According to Plato (fifth-fourth century B.C.E.), the person who truly knows the good will want to do the good. This makes a certain amount of sense. If I truly know the good, then I recognize its beauty and the positive effects that it brings, which should inspire me to do it.

When I took a philosophy class at DePauw University, however, there were students who disagreed with Plato. "When I smoke a lot and cough shit up, I know that's not good for me!," a student exclaimed. "Yet, I keep on smoking." If my memory serves me correctly, the professor brought Aristotle into the discussion, asserting that there's such a thing as weakness of the will. In certain philosophical scenarios, one can know the good but be too weak to do it.

What are some biblical teachings on this topic? I suppose we get a mixed bag! Here are three teachings that come to my mind:

1. Knowledge of the LORD leads to ethical behavior. Isaiah 11:9 affirms, "They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea" (NRSV).

2. One can know the good and even delight in it, yet there's a law within that person that inclines him to evil (Romans 7-8).

3. One can fall away from the faith after tasting the goodness of God. Hebrews 6:4-6: "For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt."

I'd like to think that knowing the good and why it is good would inspire a person to do the good. But maybe weakness of the will can inhibit us, or a short-sighted desire for our own self-interest.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Father's Day 2009

Tomorrow is Father's Day, but I'll be doing my "Top 10 TV Dads" today. (Actually, it's 11, but I combined two of them, since I admire them for the same reason).

1. Ed Conner (Roseanne) and Martin Crane (Frasier): Both lied to their kids to protect their mother's reputation, thereby placing their own reputation on the line. Ed did not tell his son Dan about his mom's long mental illness, taking Dan's put-downs when Dan blamed him. And Martin told his sons he had an affair, when actually their mom Hester was the one who cheated on him! Martin knew they were closer to their late mother than to him, so he wanted to protect her memory.

2. Jack Arnold (Wonder Years): I once read in TV Guide that Jack Arnold was probably the most realistic dad on television. He was moody. He hated his job. He wasn't always the most communicative person in the world. But we learn in the course of the series that Jack had his own hopes and dreams, which he fulfilled when he started a hardware store. And there was an especially tender moment between him and his son Kevin. After Winnie had dumped Kevin, Jack gave him a big hug and told him that thing's wouldn't get easier, but he'd make it. But Jack could also be tough. After Kevin falsely told his friends that he'd slept with Winnie, he informed his dad about it, expecting Jack's sympathy as a fellow male. Instead, Jack replied, "Get on your bike and apologize to her right now." "But what if she doesn't forgive me?," Kevin asked. "I wouldn't," Jack said.

3. President Jed Bartlett (West Wing): Jed was always closer to his daughters Zoe and Liz than to his other daughter, Eleanor, a medical student who took more after her mother. Eleanor usually avoided the limelight as the President's daughter, until she told a newspaper that her father would never fire the Surgeon General, her godmother, who had recently promoted the legalization of marijuana. Jed was upset with his daughter, and he reflected on their tense relationship. "Why does she hate me so much?," he asked the Surgeon General. Later in the conversation, he remarked, "She said I'd never fire the Surgeon General. That's probably the nicest thing she's ever said about me."

When he came face-to-face with his own favoritism to his other daughters, he made an effort to reconcile with Eleanor. He joked with her about her medical studies, and he said, "You know, I don't want you to be something you're not. I just wish you visited every once in a while." He let her know that he loved her and that she was welcome.

4. Maude's father (Maude): There was an episode in which Maude talks to a therapist, and she tells him about her life growing up. She has bad memories about her father, claiming that he never did anything for her. Suddenly, she remembers that he once waited in the rain so he could give his daughter her prom dress (or something like that). "How could I forget that?," Maude lamented.

5. Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith Show): One episode that comes to mind is the one in which Opie's date to a party dumps him for someone else. Opie had a crush on this girl for a long time, and he's reluctant to go to the party. But Andy tells Opie (in his usual folksy manner) what he did when he was younger and a girl did the same thing to him: he went to the party and had a good time. Andy was helping his son with his own life experience.

6. Cliff Huxtable (Cosby Show): I always liked the way he used humor when he lectured his kids. Even his kids got a kick out of his lectures, although he was joking at their expense! And they got new ways of looking at their situation.

7. Ward Cleaver (Leave It to Beaver): he was loving, wise, fair, and he dressed like a million bucks! There are two daddy moments that come to my mind. In one episode, little Beaver is kissed by an attractive neighbor lady, and Eddie Haskell tells Beaver that the lady's husband will want to kill him for that. When the lady and her husband visit the Cleaver's, Beaver defiantly says that he won't go down to say "hi" to them. Ward at first commands Beaver to go, but, once he sees the intensity of Beaver's defiance, he says, "Beaver, I'm not going to make you do something you don't want to do!" He tries to get to the bottom of why Beaver won't go down.

In another episode, Beaver tells his dad that he didn't think parents made mistakes. Ward assures his son that parents are learning just like everyone else.

8. John Camden (7th Heaven): John wasn't the best father to his kids Eric and Julie, but he thought he was doing the right thing. A colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, he ran his household like it was the armed services. He was tough and gruff, and he didn't help Eric get through college, thinking Eric would build character by paying his own way. When Julie drank heavily, John remarked that her alcoholism was a result of her "poor character."

But he and his wife become close to an orphan boy, George, and they adopt him. John resolves not to make the same mistakes with him that he made with Eric and Julie.

9. Tom Baldwin (The 4400): I can't really pin-point why I like Joel Gretsch as a father, especially when he was so terrible at it in Stephen Spielberg's Taken! In the 4400, he and his son are not particularly close, but he still cares about his son's well-being and is always willing to listen when his son has something to tell him.

10. Noah Bennett (Heroes): Noah is a cold employee of the Company, which searches for mutants in order to keep track of them, sometimes killing them. But he has a soft spot for his adopted daughter, Claire, who is herself a mutant. He was reluctant to adopt her at first, since he wasn't sure that he'd make a good father. But he turned out to be an excellent dad: one who cared for his daughter's safety above all else, listened to his daughter's concerns, etc. Although Claire was mad at her dad on a number of occasions, she always respected his authority, at least to his face. This, even though he wasn't her biological father!

Have a happy Father's Day tomorrow!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Origen's Universalism

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. II: The Ante-Nicene Literature After Irenaeus (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 87.

Origen does not know of any eternal fire or punishment of hell. All sinners will be saved, even the demons and Satan himself will be purified by the Logos. When this has been achieved, Christ's second coming and the resurrection of all men, not in material, but in spiritual bodies, will follow, and God will be all in all[.]

Origen (second-third centuries C.E.) bases this belief in part on I Corinthians 15:22-28, which says that Christ must reign until God has put all things under his feet, in subjection to Christ. According to the passage, the last enemy to be destroyed is death, presumably through the resurrection. Then, God will be all in all.

For Origen, this passage means that God will cleanse all souls and purge them from vice, as he subjects them to the authority of Christ. After this process, the souls will receive a new spiritual body at the resurrection, when the last enemy (death) is finally defeated. Then, God will be "all in all" in each person and the entire world, for there will be nothing contrary to God. See First Principles, BOOK III, Chapters 4-6.

I have questions about this scenario:

1. Origen is big on free will. Commenting on De Princ 3.5.3, Quasten states: Origen derived...the last conclusion [that God will create worlds after this one] from his concept of the created spirit whose free will enables it to apostacize from good and turn to evil whenever it wishes to do so. Such a relapse of the spirits makes a new corporeal world necessary and thus one world follows the other and the creation of the world becomes an eternal act (90).

In my post, Origen on the Fall of (Pre-Existent) Man, I discussed Origen's view that we were once souls who sinned, with the result that God disciplined us by creating a material world and placing us in flesh-and-blood bodies. For Origen, creation is God's response to souls sinning. But Origen seems to believe that God has created a number of worlds before this one, and that he will create a number of worlds after this one. Why? Because we'll always have free will, so the possibility of us sinning will continually exist.

But how does Origen reconcile his belief in free will with his universalism? Critics of universalism maintain that the doctrine contradicts free will in its assertion that God will force everyone to accept him. Does Origen see the two concepts as mutually contradictory? Perhaps he harmonizes them by saying that God's chastisements will influence the sinner to consider sin distasteful, meaning that God will use external afflictions to affect free will.

2. Origen discusses the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit in his Commentary on John, Book II, Chapter 6. He cites Matthew 12:32, which says that those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit will receive no forgiveness, either in this age, or in the age to come. Does Origen reconcile this verse with his universalism?

In De Princ 1, 6, 1, a universalist passage, Origen affirms that "everyone will be subjected to punishment for his sins," but the punishment will be temporary and purifying. Maybe Origen holds that those who blasphemed the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven but will still enter God's kingdom in the end. Their unforgiven state is made evident in the fact that they have to endure some form of punishment, even if it is temporary. But after their punishment, they will have done their time, and they can then enter the kingdom of God. Is this a plausible interpretation of Origen?

3. I wonder how Origen reconciles his eschatological scenario with the Book of Revelation. Origen says that the second coming of Christ and the resurrection will come after the purification of souls in hell or purgatory. In Revelation 20:12-15, however, there is a different order: (1.) Christ returns and rules for a thousand years, (2.) the dead are raised when the thousand years are over, (3.) the dead are judged, and (4.) the bad are thrown into hell. Origen may not have been a pre-millennialist, but how does he deal with Revelation 20's claim that hell will come after the resurrection, not before?

In First Principles, BOOK II, Chapter 10, Origen seems to assume that hell will come after the resurrection, but he still discusses "fire" in reference to chastisement and cleansing. Maybe Origen didn't get bogged down in the literal details of his eschatological scenario, since he believed that the literal meaning of Scripture was not as important as the more spiritual ways of reading it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Coping with Isolation

G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Systems of the Hellenistic Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985) 12.

The new philosophical conceptions...sought an ideal of life which any man could follow by using the resources solely found within himself...And this is easy to understand: in an epoch in which all is in ruins and rapidly changing, men cannot call upon other men or upon some things as a support or guarantor of security. They must search and find what they mean in themselves and only in themselves. This is the ideal of complete autonomy. In fact, the philosophers of this epoch extended the requirement of total liberation even to Destiny, Chance, and the Inevitable. Pyrrho put aside Chance with absolute indifference and complete insensibility. Zeno and the Stoics sought to free themselves from Destiny by pre-empting it, that is, by making the will of Fate their will. Epicurus laughed at Destiny and rejected it as an empty belief. Man, or better the individual, is thus freed from every dependency and becomes quasi-absolutized.

The fourth century B.C.E. was a time of turmoil. Alexander the Great made his conquests, spreading a common culture throughout the world. The Greek city-state collapsed, as people began to see themselves as "citizens of the world" rather than their local polis. And, according to Reale, ethnic and gender prejudices were beginning to lessen, indicating there were dramatic cultural shifts.

Reale argues that the collapse of the Greek city-state led to an identity crisis and feelings of alienation among many Greeks. When the polis was still around, they knew who exactly they were: citizens of a small area who knew each other and helped one another out. Once the polis collapsed, however, many of them felt isolated as citizens of a great big world.

Reale discusses various philosophical reactions to this alienation. Many philosophers encouraged people to find strength in themselves rather than other people. This could take many forms: accepting whatever fate threw one's way (Stoicism); laughing at destiny and having a good time (Epicureanism); rejecting societal norms and the company of other people while becoming closer to nature, like animals (Cynics).

Then there was Anniceris, who acknowledged the importance of friendships, and not just for utility's sake. Anniceris was against being friends with someone just for the purpose of self-advancement, only to discard that friendship once the person was no longer useful. For Anniceris, there is an actual value in benevolence. Anniceris seemed to differ from the "lone ranger" mindset that pervaded his time period.

I myself have had to cope with feelings of alienation, and I've often used the various ideas discussed above. Like the Stoics, I've tried to be tough in the midst of my loneliness and fears, resolving to accept whatever fate threw my way. "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger," I've thought, or "God is putting me through this for a reason." Like the Epicureans, I've tried not to worry about my past, present, and future, losing myself in the pleasures of entertainment (in my case, books, TV, and movies). And, like the Cynics, I've lashed out at society and other people, bitterly clenching my fist and claiming that I don't need others, nor do I care what they think.

All of these approaches can get my mind off of my pain, sometimes for long periods of time. But then my pain returns, and I once again feel empty and lonely. I can understand why there were Greeks who felt so comfortable within their city-states: they knew their role in life, and they found their self-fulfillment by performing it. But today's society is much like what the fourth century philosophers were addressing: there's alienation, and people are starving for their niche, or purpose in life. Because of globalization, many do not find stability, for they're continually changing jobs and locations. As people have said, "The days of working for one company most of your life are now over."

But many people do manage to find friends and community. Many have a family, where they have a sense of belonging. Yet, it's still possible to feel alone, even in the midst of groups.

Ultimately, the fourth century philosophers are right: one does have to find strength in oneself. The reason is that we can't always rely on people we know or outward circumstances, since they are subject to change. Even if we trust in God, we ourselves need to garner up the strength to have faith, since God is not someone we can see. At the same time, hopefully God will act in our lives in ways that sustain our faith.

I also agree with Anniceris, however, who emphasized that showing benevolence to others can make us feel good. I'm not overly eager to dive into relationships, since they can bring hurt in addition to support. But looking beyond myself and doing acts of love whenever the opportunity arises can bring me satisfaction.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Origen on the Fall of (Pre-Existent) Man

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. II: The Ante-Nicene Literature After Irenaeus (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 60.

The second book [of Origen's First Principles] treats the material world, the creation of man as a result of the defection of the angels, man as a fallen spirit enclosed in a material body, the transgression of Adam and redemption by the incarnate Logos, the doctrine of the resurrection, the last judgment and afterlife.

For Book II of Origen's First Principles, click here.

Origen was a Christian thinker who lived in the second-third century C.E.

The parts of this quote that intrigued me were those about (1.) God creating man "as a result of the defection of the angels," and (2.) man being "a fallen spirit enclosed in a material body."

At the moment, I don't really see these two themes in Origen's First Principles, but that may be because I'm not in the mood right now to wade carefully through it. I read through BOOK I, where he says that souls pre-existed the body. Origen also applies Romans 8:20-21 to souls becoming physical at creation. Romans 8:20-21 states: "[F]or the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope[,] that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (NRSV).

Many Christians interpret Romans 8:20-21 in reference to the Fall, meaning that creation became "subjected to futility" right after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Origen, however, says the subjection occurred before that, when God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1). For Origen, God giving souls physicality was his act of subjecting them to futility.

Quasten thinks that Origen means humans, and that may be the case, at least in part. But Origen focuses on stars, which he believes are conscious beings, on the basis of Job 26:5's statement that the stars are not pure in God's sight. According to Origen, that implies the stars' sinfulness. Origen maintains that God gave celestial beings "star bodies" as a punishment for their sins.

(1.), the idea that God created man "as a result of the defection of the angels," reminds me of an idea that Herbert W. Armstrong liked to promulgate. In Did God Create a DEVIL? and numerous sermons, HWA said that God created man to replace Lucifer and the angels as the lords of the earth, after Lucifer had disqualified himself from the office through his rebellion against God. I don't know if I'm comfortable with being God's Plan B, which is what this idea implies. Plus, such a notion seems to contradict the grandiosity of God's plan for humanity: to have sons and daughters who will rule with him for all eternity (a New Testament hope, even if one doesn't define it in terms of Armstrong's "God family"). But I guess Origen would say that we're not exactly God's Plan B: God had good plans for us, but we screwed up when we sinned in our pre-human state. So God made us humans, and now he's redeemed us because we also screwed up in our human state!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Seneca's Ups and Downs

G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Schools of the Imperial Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990) 465-466.

[Seneca] returned to Rome and participated actively and successfully in the political life. In 41 CE Seneca, because of the shady maneuvers of Messilina was sent into exile in Corsica. Only in 49 CE could he return to Rome, when after the elimination of Messilina, Aggripina recalled him to supervise the education of her son Nero.

In 54 Nero became Emperor, from then on for many years Seneca, together with Burrus (prefect of the praetorium) had great political influence and responsibility, but without taking on any official public office, simply in their role as counselors to the Emperor. In 62 CE Burrus died, Seneca, retired from public life, being by this time out of favor with Nero, as well as because of the malificent influence of Poppea. This however did not allay the suspicions of Nero, who discovered, in 65 CE, the plot organized against him by Calpurnius Piso. Seneca was accused of secret dealings with Piso and he was condemned to suicide. Seneca took his own life with Stoic fortitude and great equanimity of soul. The works of Seneca are very rich...

As you can see, Seneca had a lot of highs and lows, ups and downs. Right when he reaches a position of influence, he is suddenly demoted, only to rise and then fall again. He is betrayed by those he helps, showing that the favor of people is not necessarily iron-clad.

Yet, through all of this, he writes things that touch and influence many people, as he maintains "fortitude and great equanimity" in his soul. He reminds me of the apostle Paul, who was a contemporary of his. Paul had his ups and downs. Some towns accepted him and his message, while others stoned him. Some of the churches he founded appreciated his work on their behalf; others did not. Sometimes, Paul felt refreshed by the company of his brothers and sisters in Christ (Acts 28:15); sometimes, his felt abandoned by them (II Timothy 4:16-17).

Paul did not exactly arrive at his inner peace the same way that Seneca did. Seneca tried to suppress his emotions, whereas Paul trusted God's love for him and had the hope of a good afterlife. Both, however, left a positive mark on this world: Seneca influenced government, and Paul exposed people to the love of God in Jesus Christ his Lord. Regardless of their ups and downs, they had a purpose in life, and they clung to it with tenacity.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Clement: Marcion, Deified Humanity, Sects, Atonement

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. II: The Ante-Nicene Literature After Irenaeus (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 10, 22-23, 25, 28.

Clement of Alexandria was a Christian thinker who lived in approximately 150-215 C.E. This post will cover Clement's views on four issues: Marcion, the divinization of humanity, Christian sects, and the substitutionary atonement.

1. Marcion.

The basic principle by which the Logos educates His children is love, whereas the education of the Old Dispensation is based on fear. However, the Savior administers not only mild but also stringent medicines because God is at the same time good and just and a successful tutor reconciles goodness with punishment. Righteousness and love do not exclude each other in God. Clement refers here to the heretical doctrine of the Marcionites that the God of the Old Testament is not the same as that of the New. (10)

Marcion believed that the God of the Old Testament was mean and wrathful, whereas the God of the New Testament was full of grace. In a sense, both the New Testament and Clement agree with this idea. Clement affirms that the education of the "Old Dispensation" was based on fear, whereas that of the New Covenant is rooted in love. And, in Romans 5 and II Corinthians 3, Paul presents the Old Covenant and the Torah as a system of condemnation and death, in contrast with the grace and life that come through Jesus Christ.

At the same time, church fathers did consider Marcion to be a heretic, affirming against him that the God of the Old Testament was the same as the God of the New Testament. Like the Armstrongites, Clement believed that the Logos who became Jesus Christ was the God of the Old Testament: "The Logos...is the one who manifested God in the Law of the Old Testament, in the philosophy of the Greeks and finally in the fullness of time in His incarnation" (21-22). Moreover, the New Testament often appeals to the Old Testament for insight into God's character and manner of doing things (Romans 12:19; I Corinthians 10; Hebrews 13:5). It obviously assumes that there is continuity between God's Old Testament activity and God's behavior under the New Covenant.

For my weekly quiet time on II Samuel this week, I read Tertullian's Against Marcion 4:36, in which Tertullian tries to refute one of Marcion's arguments. According to Marcion, we can see that the Gods of the OT and NT are different by how each treats the blind. In II Samuel 5, David orders the murder of the Jebusite blind men who guard the city. Jesus, by contrast, heals the blind man who cries out, "Son of David, have mercy on me." Tertullian responds that (1.) Jesus accepted the label "Son of David," so he obviously did not reject the Old Testament, and (2.) David was upset at the Jebusites' arrogance, not the fact that some of them were blind and lame. The Jebusites had claimed, after all, that even the blind and the lame could keep David from taking over their city (Jerusalem), showing that their reference to these maladies was a taunt. Tertullian does not say here that God was more brutal in the Old Testament, whereas he became kinder in the New. Rather, he tries to portray David's action in a positive light.

So the New Testament and the church fathers have two parallel themes: there is a difference between the Old and the New Testaments, and yet there is also overlap, enough for the Old to still guide us as to what God is like.

2. Divinization of Humanity.

But Clement knows [Christ the Logos] as the savior of the human race and the founder of a new life which begins with faith, proceeds to knowledge and contemplation and leads through love and charity to immortality and deification. [Clement states:] "He, the husbandman of God, having bestowed on us the truly great, divine, and inalienable inheritance of the Father, deifying man by heavenly teaching, putting his laws into our minds and writing on our hearts..." (22-23)

Armstrongites maintain that Christians will become beings like God, as part of a "God family." And, indeed, they have passages that they can draw upon for their view. II Peter 1:4 states: "Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature" (NRSV). I John 3:2 has, "Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is."

A while back, Felix posted a link to John Ankerberg's discussion with Garner Ted Armstrong (see Guess What I found on Youtube.com???). In it, GTA appealed to II Peter 1:4 ("partakers of the divine nature") to defend his belief in the God family, and Ankerberg responded, "Look, we are partakers of the United States of America, but that does not mean that we're the same as the United States of America." For Ankerberg (if I understand him correctly), II Peter 1:4 means that Christians enjoy blessings from God, not that they will become God-like spirit beings.

But I John 3:2 and the church fathers seem to maintain that believers will become divine, in some sense. A popular cliche in the days of the church fathers was "God became as we are, so that we might become as God is." Actually, to bridge this post with my posts on Neo-Platonism, the Neo-Platonists themselves thought that human beings could become God.

But what did they mean by that? Did they mean that we would become spirit beings who are omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent? (Actually, I'm not sure where Armstrongites stand on the last attribute, since I've heard them claim that God has a spirit body, which can only be in one place. One of them said to me, "God is in heaven, but his spirit is everywhere." I'm not sure what that means, but it's a problem that even the Bible wrestles with, as one can see in my posts on whether God in the Hebrew Bible dwelt in heaven or in the earthly sanctuary.) My impression of Neo-Platonism (which could be wrong) is that it thought we'd be united with God after death, in the sense that our souls would become part of a large soup. In this scenario, we don't really become the One, but we become part of the One.

In the case of the New Testament and the early church fathers, maybe they thought we'd become like God in the sense that we'd share with God certain attributes, such as moral purity, immortality, and dominion over the cosmos. But did they think we'd become as great as God? My hunch is no.

3. Christian Sects.

Clement states that the existence of heretical sects is an obstacle for the conversion of Jews and pagans to Christianity. Clement responds that there are also many sects within Judaism and Greek philosophy, that Jesus predicted there would be tares amidst the wheat, that the beautiful "is always shadowed by its caricature, and that the heretics have abandoned the teaching of the church (25).

Atheists have used this argument against me: "If Christianity is true, then why are there so many denominations? God obviously wasn't that clear, was he?" I once pointed out to an atheist that many fields have different schools of thought--psychology, science, philosophy--but he wasn't suggesting we should discard them, was he? The intellectual snob basically replied that my point was stupid.

The challenge to Christians comes from the diversity of early Christianity. In the New Testament, there are books that have a form of works salvation and are friendly to the Torah (Matthew, James), and there are books that are more critical of the law (Romans, Galatians). In the second century, there were all sorts of movements that claimed to follow Jesus of Nazareth, and they asserted that their doctrines were consistent with the apostles. Many of them had ideas that are considered heretical by what became "orthodox Christianity." I think that's why Aggie continually refers to the "Early Christian Writings" (see the discussion here): there was so much debate about what Christianity was in its early years, so how can we be so dogmatic about it?

There's a lot that I don't know about this issue, and I'm told that New Testament studies nowadays tend to view the first century Christian church as diverse. Maybe it was, but here are two things to note: (1.) In Galatians 1-2, Paul essentially says that he's preaching the same Gospel as that of the rest of the church, including Peter and James, and (2.) most of the "heretical writings" seem to crop up during or after the second century. For me, that lends credibility to the view that there was some consensus about Christianity in the first century, but heretical sects later broke away from the church. That's how Clement presents the situation. Sure, the New Testament warns about false Christianities (II Corinthians 11:4), but the apostolic leadership agreed upon a normative doctrine.

4. Substitutionary Atonement.

In Quis div. salv. 23:1, Clement places these words in the mouth of Christ: "For you I fought with death and paid your death which you owed for your past sins and your unbelief towards God" (28).

The substitutionary atonement states that Christ died in our place to pay the death penalty for our sins. Many Christian intellectuals act like this doctrine was developed by Anselm (1033-1109). Actually, it appears to have been held by Clement--centuries before Anselm! Clement states that Christ paid the death that we owed for our sins.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Iamblichus and Grace

G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Schools of the Imperial Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990) 416-417.

Let us see in the first place what is the exact definition Iamblichus had of theurgy. In the De mysteriis it is presented as a practice and an art with which, by means of appropriate acts, symbols, and formulas not understood by human reason but understood by the Gods, man can join himself to the Gods himself and benefit from their influence and power...

Hadot clarifies these concepts very well: "If we could achieve the perfect union with the Gods by means of contemplation, then it would be by our powers that we could reach the divine. The God would be then moved by lower beings. On the contrary, if they themselves choose the practice, incomprehensible to men, by means of which it can be hoped to be united to them, they remain immobile in themselves and maintain their initiative."

Reale often states that the concept of grace was radical in the philosophical schools of this period (second-fifth centuries C.E.). After all, Plotinus, believed that human beings could reach God through things that they did.

At some point, however, there emerged the belief that the gods were impassible, or unresponsive to humans. But advocates of this view did not go the route of the Epicureans, who thought that the gods didn't care about us and so we shouldn't care about them. Rather, they still craved union with the divine. And so they concluded that the gods are the ones who take the initiative to bring us closer to them, meaning that we don't climb up to them through our own efforts. The belief in the gods' impassibility led Neo-Platonists to embrace a notion of the gods' grace.

At the same time, they acknowledged means of grace: mysterious rituals that the gods have devised to bring us closer to them. That's called theurgy, and it doesn't always accord with our human reason.

Christianity has a lot of these same issues. Calvinists like to emphasize God's sole part in bringing us to believe, since that is their definition of God's grace. In their eyes, if a relationship with God is based in any way on our efforts (e.g., believing, good works, etc.), then we are climbing our way up to God, which leads to self-righteousness rather than a humble reliance on God's grace. But believers in predestination do believe that there are means God has commanded that are conduits for his grace: baptism, the Lord's supper, the preaching of the word, etc.

Moreover, Iamblichus' view that theurgy can conflict with our reason reminds me of what Paul says in I Corinthians 1:18ff.: God used an outwardly foolish means to save human beings. In Paul's day, the cross of Christ made sense to neither Jews nor Gentiles. But that was how God chose to save humanity. And Paul stresses, like Hadot, that human wisdom did not bring people to God.

One would think that God would meet us at our level, by giving us revelation that makes sense and accords with our reason. In many cases, he does. But maybe he's more interested in the type of people that we become than in whether something makes perfect sense to us. Perhaps God wants us to be humble and dependant on his grace, not proud of our ability to climb up to him.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Propping Up a Failed System

Near the end of my recent therapy appointment, my therapist and I were discussing our current bad economy. My therapist is rather conservative, and I asked him if he thought we'd ever get out of this funk. He responded that we probably would, if we put the right policies into place. Instead, our President is propping up the current system with his bailouts, when sometimes the proper medicine is to let the economic problems clear the dead wood. Then, we can start to recover.

I told my therapist that George Will had said something similar on a recent episode of This Week. George remarked that we should let Chrysler go under, since that's a part of capitalism. In response to the counter-argument that Chrysler is "too big to fail," Will responded that people would still want cars after Chrysler went under, so jobs in the automobile industry would still be created.

I thought about these things as I watched this week's episode of Bill Moyers' Journal. Bill was interviewing Robert Reich, who was Bill Clinton's Secretary of Labor in the 1990's. Reich stated that, although the U.S. government is propping up businesses with its bailouts, the companies are still running the same way that they did before the economic collapse. Here are his thoughts (click here for the full interview):

Wall Street does not need help. I mean, Wall Street, in fact, has pulled the wool over the administration's eyes and over the public's eyes. A lot of these toxic assets are still on the books. You know, Wall Street has made, basically, wangled the system right now where it's beginning to show profits not because it's got rid of the toxic assets but because it's gotten an accounting change that enables it to paper over these toxic assets.

You know, a lot of what happened in the--on Wall Street had to do with the fact that, number one, you had people who could make gigantic bets with other people's money. And if the bets turned out great, they would make a great deal of money. If they turned out badly, too bad. Well, their compensation was based upon making the big bets rather than being responsible. You also had all kinds of conflicts of interest. You had the credit rating agencies who were rating the issues coming out of the very companies that were paying the credit rating agencies to begin with. That's all still there. It's all still there.

It looks like elements of both the right and the left agree that the current bailouts are only propping up a failed system. And, because this system has powerful lobbyists, politicians on both the right and the left are failing to do anything about it.

Brothers and Sisters and Sobriety

I finished the first season of Brothers and Sisters last night. One of the bonus features pointed out something that was swimming through my mind as I watched the episodes: the Walkers are almost always drinking! Beer. Wine. Harder stuff.

Except for Justin, who's in recovery. One of my favorite scenes is when the Walkers learn about their late dad's "illegitimate" daughter, Rebecca. (In the second season, she turns out not to be his daughter, but I'm not supposed to know that right now.) Justin goes out to meet somebody, and we think he's about to resume his drug habit. A rough-looking guy comes up to Justin and tells him that it's been a long time, then the show cuts to a commercial. When we come back, we learn that the rough-looking guy is not a drug dealer at all, but Justin's sponsor!

The sponsor gives Justin something new to think about. Most of the family was upset to learn about their new half-sister, but the sponsor asked Justin about Rebecca's feelings, since all of this had to be hard on her too. And so Justin became the first Walker to reach out to Rebecca and welcome her into the family.

At times, as I watch Brothers and Sisters and other shows, I get the impression that drinking is a must for someone who wants to fit in and socialize. That's why I think it's important for me to go to AA meetings: to be reminded that there are others like me who are on a path of sobriety. But, overall, I enjoy socializing more now that I don't drink, maybe because I'm alert enough to talk and to joke. I'm not trying to bury my insecurity in alcohol. And I feel a lot better now than I did when I was drinking.

I still have plenty of low-times, but I'm learning constructive ways to deal with them, and I'm also gleaning new ways of looking at situations.

Lately, I've felt pretty good because my "give a shit" cord has been severed, to quote to book on Asperger's and alcoholism. Why should I always dwell on the fact that certain people don't like me, or that so-and-so said this, or that I'm deficient in such-and-such an area? Why should I continually rant against life and against God? At some seasons of my life, I just want to let things be.

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