Christian Platonism

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Philo: The Lifelong Festival of Those Who Follow Nature

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Spring (detail); Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Dutch, 1836−1912); 1894

PHILO of Alexandria, a writer of great but largely unexplored relevance to our age, expounds on the perennial psychology: the mythical Golden Age symbolizes the exalted psychological condition attainable by a lover of wisdom and of virtue who lives in accord with nature; whereas strife, inner and outer, result from placing material things above higher, spiritual goods.

Special Laws 2.42−48

XII. (42) When the law records that every day is a festival [Num. 28, 29], it accommodates itself to the blameless life of righteous men who follow nature and her ordinances. And if only the vices had not conquered and dominated the thoughts in us which seek the truly profitable and dislodged them from each soul — if instead the forces of the virtues had remained in all respects unsubdued, the time from birth to death would be one continuous festival, and all houses and every city would pass their time in continual peace and absence of fear, being full of every imaginable blessing, enjoying perfect tranquility.

(43) But, as it is now, the overreaching and assaults which people contrive against each other and even against themselves and have cleft a breach in the continuous line of this cheerful gaiety. And here is clear proof:

(44) All who practice wisdom, whether in Greek or barbarian lands, and who live a blameless and irreproachable life, choosing neither to inflict nor retaliate injustice, avoid the gatherings of busy-bodies and abjure the scenes which such people haunt — like law-courts, council-chambers, markets, congregations and, in general, any gathering or assemblage of careless people.

(45) Rather, their own aspirations are for a life of peace, free from warring. They are the closest contemplators of nature and all it contains: earth, sea, air and heaven and the various forms of beings which inhabit them are food for their research, as in mind and thought they share the ranging of the moon and sun and the ordered march of the other stars, fixed and planetary. Having their bodies, indeed, firmly planted on the earth, but having their souls furnished with wings, in order that thus hovering in the air they may closely survey all the powers above, they consider the whole world as their native city, looking upon it as in reality the most excellent of cosmopolites, and all the devotees of wisdom as their fellow citizens, virtue herself having enrolled them as such, to whom it has been entrusted to frame a constitution for their common city.

XIII. (46) Being, therefore, full of all kinds of excellence, and accustomed to disregard ills of the body and external circumstances, inured to look upon things indifferent as indeed indifferent, being armed by study against the pleasures and appetites, ever eager to raise themselves above the passions and trained to use every effort to pull down the fortification which those appetites have built up, never swerving under the blows of fortune, because they have calculated beforehand the force of its assaults (since the heaviest adversities are lightened by anticipation, when the mind ceases to find anything strange in the event and apprehends it but merely as it might some stale and familiar story.) Such individuals, being very naturally rendered cheerful by their virtues, pass the whole of their lives as a festival.

(47) These are indeed but a small number, kindling in their different cities a sort of spark of wisdom, in order that virtue may not become utterly extinguished, and so entirely extirpated from our race [cf. Hesiod, WD 200 f.] .

(48)  But if only everywhere men thought and felt as these few, and became what nature intended them to be, all blameless and guiltless, lovers of wisdom, rejoicing in moral excellence just because it is what it is, and counting it the only true good and all the other goods but slaves and vassals subject to their authority — then cities would brim with happiness, utterly free from all that causes grief and fears, and packed with what produces joys and states of well-being, so that no time would ever cease to be the time of a happy life, but the whole circle of the year would be one festival.

~ Philo of Alexandria, Special Laws 2.42−48. Translation from F. H. Colson (1937) & C. D. Yonge (1855).

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Christian Satyagraha

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What is Satyagraha?:  Satyagraha and Christianity

Mohandas Gandhi called his philosophy of social change by peaceful means satyagraha. The word is derived from the Indian words satya (truth) and graha (from the same Indo-European root word from which comes our ‘grasp’, ‘grab’, and ‘grip’).

Satyagraha is more than a philosophical system; it is a metaphysical force. Thus it would be more correct to call Gandhi a discoverer of satyagraha than its inventor. We should be willing to extend and refine our understanding of it, and to adapt Gandhi’s principles to modern issues and circumstances.

Consider satyagraha the subject of a cumulative science — something we collectively experiment with and gradually improve our ability to use.

* * *

Gandhi said many times that he developed his ideas about satyagraha in large part from New Testament teachings. Yet he also, when asked what he thought of Christians, replied: “I don’t know; I have yet to meet a real Christian.” Together, these remarks remind Christians that (1) they may, potentially, learn more about what satyagraha is and how to use it by looking more to their own Christian scripture and traditions than to the writings of Gandhi, and (2) they should try harder to use the spiritual tools of their tradition to promote change in the world.

As evidenced by Gandhi’s life and writings, there is a link between satyagraha and suffering. The link is not spelled out; there is no definite metaphysical theory that explains the connection. We must rather infer it from various specific actions and indirect comments of Gandhi, along with other data.

There are clearly psychological mechanisms by which ones suffering may change the opinion of others. For example, oppressors may be moved by compassion to change oppressive policies and practices; or oppressors may become convinced of the others’ sincerity and good will by their acceptance of suffering.

But these psychological mechanisms, while important, are not the only consideration. What of silent, private suffering? What of sacrifices made that others never directly observe? It seems a near-universal practice in spiritual traditions that one person may assist another by voluntarily accepting suffering on their behalf. In Christianity, Christ himself accepted suffering for the salvation of others — for undeserving others, in fact, as St. Paul points out (Rom. 5:7-10). Christians, whose model is Christ, are expected to similarly accept sacrifice both to help alleviate the suffering of the oppressed, and to promote the moral advancement of others, including ones enemies and persecutors.

* * *

Satyagraha, as “truth force”, involves truth; people lose sight of that too easily. Social activism undertaken in a spirit of militant self-righteousness or indignation is not satyagraha. One must first align oneself with truth. That is no easy task.

It is especially ironic, then, that so many people engaged in activism choose to distance themselves from traditional religions. For example, young people today are quick to follow Gandhi’s beliefs about social change; he is taken as a credible, authoritative source in that matter. But people pay much less attention to his support of traditional religion and spirituality. If his example is authoritative in the one case, why not in the other? Should one admire his political actions, even to the point of calling him a mahatma, which means great-souled, yet ignore his obvious support of traditional religion? That makes little sense.

To apply satyagraha one must align oneself with the truth. This means one must first seek out the truth — which is God, or comes from God, or is in any case closely associated with God — and then overcome the personal obstacles that cause one to prefer self-will, egoism, or selfish ends to God’s will.

Thus, the person who wishes to follow the methods of satyagraha effectively should also be a religious person, in the traditional sense.

Today when a person says such things it is thought strange; yet this is completely consistent with Gandhi’s teachings.

* * *

Various rules and principles of satyagraha as outlined by Gandhi and Christianity:

Love your enemies

* harbor no anger towards your enemies
* suffer the anger of the opponent
* do not insult the opponent
* do not trivialize the beliefs or intelligence of opponents
* forgive as you wish to be forgiven; hate the sin but love the sinner
* opponents are God’s children, made in His image and likeness
* defend your opponent against insult or assault
* look for God’s face in the face of others

Truth

* set an example of truth-seeking
* educate yourself, expand your perspectives, question your assumptions
* be honest with yourself; habitually examine your conscience and scrutinize your motives
* God is Love. God is Truth. When you stop loving you depart from truth.

Mental transformation

* do not stereotype any ethnic or cultural group or any person
* understand the dynamic of projection: what you do not like in yourself, you project onto others
* a strong, irrational attitude towards others implies projection
* first see if faults ascribed to others apply to you
* external conflict mirrors internal conflict

Personal virtue

* do not be angry
* do not curse
* patience is the foundation of all other virtues
* concupiscence is the enemy of patience; practice temperance; moderate and control appetites

Religion

* have a living faith in God
* have faith in the inherent goodness of human nature and peoples’ ability to change
* pray
* read scripture
* prefer God’s guidance to the voice of false reasoning

* * *

It is very ironic and counterproductive that many advocates of peace today express themselves in negative, hostile, and aggressive terms. If, for example, you preach peace but hatefully ridicule George W. Bush, people will pay more attention to your actions than to your words. Moreover, acting in so plainly counterproductive a manner, you will have lost touch with truth and the truth-force.

Notes: On the unity of world religious culture

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I recently ran across the following quote from 20th-century Christian author, C. S. Lewis in his book, The Abolition of Man. These remarks preface an assemblage of quotes that relate to what Lewis termed Natural Law, which he more or less equated with ancient Chinese term, the Tao:

The idea of collecting independent testimonies presupposes that ‘civilizations’ have arisen in the world independently of one another; or even that humanity has had several independent emergences on this planet. The biology and anthropology involved in such an assumption are extremely doubtful. It is by no means certain that there has ever (in the sense required) been more than one civilization in all history.

This is a very important point to remember. Sometimes we act as if Christian culture and Muslim culture are two different things. In truth, they are not distinct. This might be true concerning some (but by no means all) of their religious doctrines, but it is most definitely not true of their religious cultures, broadly defined.

Take but one example. Christians prefer certain postures of prayer, and Muslims prefer others. In Hinduism and Buddhism still others are to be found. Are these postures efficacious only for a particular religion? Or are these postures collectively the proper spiritual heritage of all humankind? The latter seems far more plausible.

But if that is so, should we not study each others religious cultures, and freely borrow from one another. Do not mistake that for syncretism, the mistaken notion of producing a bland, watered down world religion which glosses over doctrinal differences. Our concern here is rather with practices, not doctrines. And the model is a more complex one. The suggestion is that the spiritual practices of our most ancient ancestors, say those of the ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Indians, are now found scattered throughout the modern religions of the world, each retaining a subset. We are then not seeking to produce a new religious culture, as much as to reclaim an old one.

As I write this, the Muslim children are playing ball outside in the pool of Anspach fountain, drained for the winter, in St. Catherine’s place. Their teacher, leading the play, is a young Belgian woman, scarcely more than a girl herself. I do not speculate on the significance of this, except to vaguely consider that it has <i>some</i> meaning. It has happened; it is part of the Tao, and is worthy of comment on that basis alone, and for this reason: I planned originally to write something else — in fact, to quote a poem by the Sufi poet, Rumi, for the express purpose of participating in a mingling of cultures, and by that simple action, to further it. Here is the poem, chosen before the events outside my window began:

I used to be shy, you made me sing.
I used to abstain now I shout for more wine.
In somber dignity, I would sit on my mat and pray,
now children run through and make faces at me.

The children have not made faces at me, but they have enjoyed themselves playing as I wrote this.

Finally, here are two quotes cited by Lewis:

Men were brought into existence for the sake of men that they might do one another good.’ (Roman. Cicero. De Off. i. vii)

This is obvious enough, and needs little comment. Another is this:

‘Man is man’s delight.’ (Old Norse. Hávamál 47)

This simple statement speaks volumes. How many of modern misfortunes have come from our constant attempt to improve upon nature, and to seek something beyond what is already given to us. We imagine that one day in the future, when all problems have been solved, then humankind may have happiness. We seek to be rich, to have automobiles, and wide-screen televisions.

In truth, technology has already succeeded. We have beaten most of the diseases that afflict humankind. We are no longer at the mercy of the weather. We can feed everyone, if we simply try. Having conquered these enemies, who do we not enjoy the blessings that God has given us? Foremost among these is the gift of life itself. And second is the gift of others. God, in his kindness, has designed us so that little, if anything, on earth gives us more pleasure than to see the smile of another, to see the sparkle in their eyes. This is what truly makes us happy, and it is all free.

This blog entry is not as so rigidly organized as the others; consider it poetry, if you like, just writer’s notes.

Written by John Uebersax

February 18, 2008 at 5:07 pm

Politics: Inner and Outer

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A fairly little-known fact is that Plato’s Republic, a work often taught in government and political science classes, is really about psychology. If you read the Republic closely, you see that Plato (through the character of Socrates) introduces the ideal State as a metaphor for the human soul. The idea is to, using the familiar example of a city, discover the principles by which harmony and justice are achieved; these same principles can then be applied, Plato suggests, to the individual (Republic, 2.368d)

A central message of the Republic is this. The soul consists of many individual members (appetites, drives, desires, etc.). Discord and strife result from these members working selfishly and at cross-purposes. Peace and harmony are attained when the soul is not governed by transitory drives and desires, but instead continually looks to something higher — wisdom — for guidance; that is the true meaning Plato’s famous term, the philosopher king. This does not mean some kind of enlightened social leader, but rather a person (you or me) who has achieved a new psychological structure: that of being ruled by love of wisdom.

Wisdom, for Plato, is not mere knowledge, but something divine. Wisdom, for him, comes from God. Further, it is closely related to Beauty, and Goodness itself. A fact readily ignored in modern universities is that Plato was an explicitly religious writer. There is a remarkable similarity, in fact, between Plato’s model and the psychological model found in the New Testament. We see this clearly in the letters of St. Paul to the Romans and Ephesians, and especially the letter of James.

A point made by Plato, Paul, and James alike is that wars and external conflicts reflect internal conflicts. James 4:1 says, From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?.

People sometimes read this and get hung up on the word, “lusts”, thinking this is just religious moralizing. Actually, the Greek word is hedone, or pleasures — a much more general term — so one may see that this is quite a broad principle.

James, again like Plato, also distinguishes between earthly wisdom and the wisdom that is from above. The former corresponds to the false reasoning we typically engage in — conclusions that masquerade as prudent ones, but which are actually formed by appetites and desires. These are what modern psychologists might call rationalizations. In contrast is true wisdom, which, among other things, is experienced as coming ‘from above.’ Earthly ‘wisdom’ is ego-generated, something one constructs oneself: one knows the conclusion in advance, then selects facts and arguments to support the conclusion. True wisdom, however, is experienced more as inspiration — a subtle whisper, a revelation, an unearned insight. Whether its source is God directly, or our higher self, the point is that it comes a source above our competing and conflicting appetites.

So how does this relate to Elections 2008? Quite directly, in fact. The problem is that peoples’ thinking about the election is dominated by ‘earthly wisdom’. People have set up, for example, spam agents to automatically add defamatory news articles about candidates as comments to blogs like mine. I’ve had to partially disable comments, in fact (but that’s not really a problem). These spammers evidently feel they are doing a service by posting such articles. That is, they think they’re being wise. They’ve confused earthly and true wisdom.

Then what is true wisdom as it applies to the forthcoming elections? That isn’t hard to figure out. Wisdom, Plato and the New Testament tell us, is recognized by its ability to harmonize the disparate and potentially contending drives and desires of human nature. It always seeks the welfare of all. Further, it presupposes that there is a way to achieve happiness, and that we’re designed to be in that state. There is a natural way, in other words, for the desires and drives to be in balance.

What we obviously seek in life are peace and happiness. That isn’t going to happen in society unless and until it happens in our own souls. Within each of our souls are inner Democrats and inner Republicans, vying for control. (Maybe the inner Democrats want pleasure, and the inner Republicans want money — a simplistic model, but perhaps not too far from the truth.) All the contention, anger, mudslinging, and name-calling you see in the current elections is mirrored within your own psyche. External politics is ultimately a projection of inner politics.

How do you find peace of soul? By letting yourself be governed by true wisdom, which is characterized by humility, love, and genuine concern for the welfare of others. Discover your higher sources of knowledge, and stop being led by emotional reasoning. The latter does not reflect your welfare, but rather the narrow purposes of particular appetites and drives.

If we do this individually, we’ll likely find that our external political solutions are not as difficult as we currently make them out to be. In any case, we’ll certainly see the absurdity of all this political fighting.

Written by John Uebersax

February 11, 2008 at 9:16 am

Recognizing the Power of Prayer

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The thing about prayer is that everybody knows it works, but they act otherwise.

The problem is not that prayer doesn’t work, or only works sometimes; it’s that people forget to pray. Scripture teaches, the saints affirm, and I am personally convinced that prayer works. And it always works.

You are not just some lump of clay who utters a few words, thinking God might hear, and then weakly hopes God might choose to act on them. You are a divine, immortal being, made in God’s image and likeness. Further, if you are properly on the spiritual path, then, by the grace of God, you are a Son of God. Your prayers are not minor things, then. They are, or are meant to be, immensely powerful cosmic forces.

Well-Motivated Prayers

God always hears; and He answers all well-motivated prayers.

What is well-motivated? That means, principally, that the impetus for the prayer comes not from you, but from God. You, to be sure, must apply your will in prayer; prayer involves an active effort of faith and will. In some sense, your will is probably instrumental in making happen what you pray for. But if the prayer is well-motivated, working beneath or within your will is God’s will, moving yours.

If you pray for something entirely selfish — like to win the lottery — chances are that God’s will is not at work in the prayer. But if you pray for another person, and out of genuine concern or compassion, then God is likely at work. Then pray fervently, believing not just that your request will be granted, but that you act on God’s behalf in making it.

People sometimes wonder why we’re put on earth. Theories include that we are here as punishment, as purification, or as education. But perhaps the most important reason we are here is to assist God. We are unique beings — part material and part divine. On that basis we have a special role in making things happen here. Our prayers have a unique efficacy — we can accomplish things that angels cannot.

When you pray for another, the person is always helped. Sometimes the help is not recognizable: God’s wisdom and foresight are infinitely greater than ours. But if you request benefit or help for another the prayer will be answered — and in ways better than you could have planned or imagined.

It’s truly a wonder that people don’t take advantage of this tremendous resource, prayer. It’s like a person who lives in direst poverty, oblivious to a purse full of gold coins that they hold. If one could see how valuable and effective prayer truly is, ones life would be transformed. One would pray all the time, and for everyone.

So be moderate in most things, but not in prayer. Pray for small things and great things. Pray for those around you; for whoever is in need. Make prayer your vocation.

Most of all, pray now for world peace. Pray sincerely, and with full confidence.

Written by John Uebersax

January 18, 2008 at 2:38 pm