During one of the times in my life that I have been in therapy, my counselor at the time pointed out to me that I have a tendency to be an extreme thinker. I tend to frame my choices in life in terms of an “either/or” proposition. “Either I choose this or I choose that.” Somewhere along the line I learned to only give myself two distinct choices rather than to look for some kind of middle ground or compromise. Life is at times clear cut, but more often life is messy and choices can be found that integrate disparate options. In my experience finding a “both/and” often is a liberating experience, because limiting my worldview to the “either/or” paralyzes me with indecision.
I’m not sure where I learned to frame the world as “either/or,” but I’ve decided that it’s Plato’s fault; that’s right, Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher. I’m no expert on Plato, and I suspect my knowledge of his writings is based upon other people’s faulty interpretation of him, but nonetheless I have to blame somebody, and blaming an ancient Greek philosopher is easier than taking responsibility for my own thoughts. I read Plato’s Dialogues in grad school and studied how Platonic philosophy influenced early Christianity, so I know something about Plato—probably just enough to be dangerous.
Last week, Michael Smith, our CCCUCC moderator, invited me to speak to one of his political science classes at Emporia State University. I’m not sure what this invitation says about Michael’s judgment, but I agreed to do it. The class had read some of Plato’s political stuff, as well as some of what Augustine had to say about politics. I was supposed to talk about how platonic ideas had influenced Christianity in general and western understandings of how religion and government mix.
I didn’t have time to make the drive out to Emporia, so we decided I would speak to the class via Skype over the internet. I had never Skyped before, and although when we practiced beforehand everything seemed fine, when it came time for class I couldn’t get it to work right. The class could see my giant melon talking to them in real time projected on a screen in the classroom, but I couldn’t see them on my computer. So, in the end I couldn’t tell if there were college students present or if it was just Michael changing up his voice to sound like half a dozen co-eds. For all I know they were shooting spit wads at the screen while I blathered on about how Augustine misread the Apostle Paul.
What struck me most about returning to Plato and then Augustine’s use of Neoplatonism centuries later was the dualism. Reality according to Plato is split between the material world we live in and the world of forms or ideas, the spiritual world where all is perfect. Everything in the material world is a mere shadow of its perfect analogue in the realm of spirit. (Think about Plato’s story of the cave where people inside sat staring at the shadows cast on the wall instead of turning around and looking at the things that cast the shadows. We live merely looking at shadows and never seeing what is real.) This dualism between the spiritual (i.e. the perfect, changeless and superior) and the material (i.e. the imperfect, changing and inferior) pervades ancient Greco-Roman thought. Forms of it are deeply woven in the New Testament and early Christianity, as well as Judaism and other religious thinking around the first century C.E. (the Letter to the Hebrews is probably the best Christian example of this worldview).
When you play out the logic of spiritual/material dualism—which Augustine does in terms of violence, sexuality, government, etc.—you end up in some very dangerous territory. If our world is by its nature imperfect, impermanent, deteriorating and inferior, it is not too far a stretch to describe our world in negative moral terms. What is mortal is equated with what is sinful. Augustine takes the Apostle Paul’s description of sin entering the world through Adam and having power over humanity and develops the idea that since humans are of the material world they are utterly depraved. Humans are born in sin, live in sin and die in sin. Only that which is spiritual can be moral.
Augustine developed the idea of what would later be called “Just War,” and he felt free to preach that warfare against heretics was not only justified but to oppose destroying the opposition was to side with the sinners. Better to destroy the sin of heresy than to let it infect the spiritual purity of the church. In addition to unorthodox belief, Sexuality was inherently sinful. If only the whole world would end up celibate, so then this corrupt world would come to an end through lack of reproduction!
This either/or dichotomy between the spiritual and the material plays out still today in American Christianity, usually mixed with an apocalyptic furor. Why bother being concerned about climate change? This sinful world will be destroyed by God anyway. Why be concerned for those we go to war with? They are on the side of evil? Why try to prevent extreme poverty or disease? Saving souls is what really matters. When this kind of either/or thinking dominates a person’s or community’s worldview, a sort of fatalism or nihilism ultimately results.
As my counselor reminded me, sometimes we can have “both/and” options. Is it not possible to believe there is more than what we experience of the universe and at the same time recognize the sacred beauty present in the universe? Why can’t we admit that sometimes aging sucks and the deterioration of our bodies is worth grieving over while at the same time acknowledge that our own mortality can lead us to cherish the sacred in each day of our finite lives? Can we acknowledge that the same forces of nature that can cause suffering are just as likely, if not more likely, to inspire awe? Must we only see the flaws of humanity without also seeing its capacity for goodness? Why can’t the spiritual exist within the material? Is there not something of the image of God in each of us and in all of creation?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in The Quest for God about our efforts to find the sacred here in this material world. He wrote, “To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live....Amidst the meditation of mountains, the humility of flowers wiser than all alphabets--clouds that die constantly for the sake of God's glory--we are hating, hunting, hurting. Suddenly we feel ashamed of our clashes and complaints in the face of the tacit glory in nature.”
Grace and Peace,