Nov 23 2009

Exploring the Twain 2

In the first post in this series, I introduced my thesis that Western theology is so tainted by a number of influences that did not affect the Eastern Church that the best way to evaluate Western theology is to start at the beginning, exploring where the West diverted from the East. I also proposed that the true “great schism” was a worldview split, and without understanding this aspect we can’t really appreciate the theological issues.

Father Michael Azkoul (an Orthodox Priest) appears to be a contemporary authority on this issue. He writes in a 1994 article:

Following the Holy Fathers, Orthodoxy uses science and philosophy to defend and explain her Faith. Unlike Roman Catholicism, she does not build on the results of philosophy and science. The Church does not seek to reconcile faith and reason. She makes no effort to prove by logic or science what Christ gave His followers to believe. If physics or biology or chemistry or philosophy lends support to the teachings of the Church, she does not refuse them. However, Orthodoxy is not intimidated by man’s intellectual accomplishments. She does not bow to them and change the Christian Faith to make it consistent with the results of human thought and science.

Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, places a high value on human reason. Its history shows the consequence of that trust. For example, in the Latin Middle Ages, the 13th century, the theologian-philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, joined “Christianity” with the philosophy of Aristotle. From that period til now, the Latins have never wavered in their respect for human wisdom; and it has radically altered the theology, mysteries and institutions of the Christian religion.

This difference of “philosophy of philosophy” explains much of the difference between East and West.  While Eastern scholars will make references to Plato, etc. (as does the Gospel of John with its discussion of the logos), it only borrows concepts as illustrations.  Augustine, who belonged to the Latin side, not the Greek, took a different approach.

Augustine – Saint or Heretic?

Augustine was a Manichaean as well as a neo-Platonist before he was a Christian, and a major focus of his thinking was merging his philosophical ideas with Christianity – ideas which included a continued belief in the eternal forms of Plato as existing alongside God, dualism, and the fallen man.  Augustine, who was largely unknown in the Eastern Church until the 14th Century or so, is the major shaper of Western Christianity, introducing – I’ll even say inventing – concepts like the doctrine of original sin and the total depravity of man.  His views not only heavily influenced the Roman Catholic Church, but also is the foundation for Reformed theology (Calvinism).

While accepted as a saint by the Orthodox, his ideas are largely rejected by them, with some recent Orthodox scholars taking the position that he was a heretic, and see him (rightly, I believe) as a major cause of the East-West schism.  Of course, the Orthodox don’t consider the Church Fathers to be inerrant, and some are more inerrant than others.  Augustine is seen as being in the “more” category.

What this means is, of course, that many of the doctrines and concepts that we take for granted, such as original sin, inherited guilt, total depravity, penal atonement, dualism, a Roman judicial interpretation of justification, and the concept of the “angry God” do not exist in the early church or in the Eastern church.  Furthermore many of these concepts are not Biblical or derived from Apostolic tradition, but began as philosophical beliefs that Augustine felt needed to be reconciled with Christianity.

Aquinas to Ockham to Luther

Thus began a Western tradition of basing theology on philosophy.  Subsequent to Augustine was Thomas Aquinas, who followed Aristotle instead of Plato.  Aquinas’ shift away from Plato caused a bit of strife in the Roman church, but eventually the majority of the church adopted his rationalistic approach. While Thomas still believed in a God limited by the eternal forms, he further altered Christian thought by basing all revelation on our 5 senses.

It wasn’t until William of Ockham (or Occam) – one of my heroes – that we got rid of the eternal forms, and finally back to a Biblical concept of God who actually had free will, who was not limited by some external ideals of “good,” “just,” and so on.   This is what Occam’s Razer was all about, but that’s another topic.  It was this school of thought – away from the limitations of Plato and Aristotle, and Augustine – that provided the backdrop for Martin Luther’s theology.  As I stated in my prior post, Luther also saw the error of basing theology on reason.   Luther also saw the error of Augustine’s concept of the angry God, instead finding that the Bible taught a loving God.  While Luther inherited much from Augustine – as did everyone – his theology was a major correction in a number of areas, and is probably the closest to the Eastern church than any other major Western theologian, even teaching the concept of theosis.  Calvin, however, is another story, and I’ll get to him soon.

So?

We now have a Western church tradition that has been tossed to and fro by every wind of philosophy.  Meanwhile, back East, nothing has changed.  They’ve had 7 major church councils to deal with some issues, but essentially nothing’s changed.  No new theories about the nature of God, no new theories about justification, and no need for a reformation.

My original question was, how can we find a pure expression of Christianity that is unaltered by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine or the Enlightenment?  Especially after Descartes, in the west, we’re pretty much toast.  Our worldview – our entire context for understanding the Bible and early church teaching – has been hijacked not once, but several times.  In this context, it seems that to even try to discuss evangelical theology is pretty much a bust.  Even if the church is semper reformanda (always reforming), it’s reforming into what? To the 1800’s?  The Reformation?  Augustine?  It seems to me that the only way to evaluate theology is to compare it to that of the Eastern Church; even if you don’t accept that as “true,” you have to admit it is the only theology free from all of the Western baggage.

Again, I’m still a rationalist.  But, God does call for us to think, just not to let our ability to understand control our belief.

NOTE:  A friend on Facebook questioned my comment, “I’m still a rationalist.”  It was a poor choice of words, or at least not adequately explained.  What I meant was that I’ve been steeped in Western rationalism, and still naturally think like a rationalist.  However, I am not a rationalist in the sense that I don’t limit my ability to believe on my – or someone else’s – ability to understand or explain something.


Aug 6 2008

Communion, reality, Plato’s Cave and parallel universes

While I am not nearly as fond of Plato as some, I think I can understand why many Christians hold to somewhat of a Platonic Idealism; the belief that “the other side” is more real than the physical world seems to fit in with much of Christian thinking on the nature of reality.  I thought that C.S. Lewis did a marvelous job in exploring that concept in The Great Divorce, one of my favorite Lewis works.  I also can understand – in a sense – the belief that parallel universes exist. The idea that reality branches off in a decision tree, where all potentials are real somewhere, is intriguing, even if the theory is based on some questionable approaches to mathematics. Some of my favorite fiction is that which explores the nature of reality. It’s just fun to think about.

And then, sometimes I just encounter reality.

My neighbor, Randy, is pastor of one of the larger churches in our area, which I understand is one of the only 3 growing churches in town.  Randy’s a really great guy, we like him a lot. His church, on the surface, is one of those white, middle-class, conservative evangelical churches that I have a really hard time with.  However, this church is not your normal evangelical church, and Randy is not your normal evangelical pastor. He knows, for example, that life sometimes is very hard; a few years ago his son, still a teenager, simply died after a game of golf.  Randy never lost his faith, however the joy of golf is no more.

So, we visit Randy’s church on occasion.  He speaks truth, from the heart, and has no need for followers, or for your money. The church is on its 2nd huge building project in 6 years, but they only build what they have money for.  They don’t take an offering, people drop it in the basket on their way out.  The first time we visited, I confess I had a hard time dealing with the whole middle-class evangelical culture thing; while I sensed there was something more beneath the surface, I wasn’t sure that I had the patience to deal with the surface.  Then, of course, there’s evangelicalism itself…

While I have some difficulty with evangelical culture, I have perhaps more of an issue with evangelical theology; being self-consciously modern, they’ve done away with anything approximating mystery or the unexplainable, preferring to turn sacraments into mere memorials or “testimonies.”  They have, for the most part, accepted Plato’s dualism; they live life in the “cave,” looking for some future escape into a supernatural reality. Sometimes, in their attempts to bring some kind of faith element back into the sacraments, they become more like superstitions than anything else.  For this reason, I don’t take communion in the church we’ve attended for 7 years, or in most evangelical churches.

Surprised by Reality

This past Sunday, Randy’s church celebrated communion, which they tend to do once a month.  There, I had an experience of Reality. Rather than tack communion on at the end of the service as kind of the “weird uncle” of church practice, they center their morning around it. I was amazed… even Lutherans don’t put that much emphasis on communion.  Even though this is a regular practice for this church, Randy spoke at length about the meaning of communion as if they had never done it before, and I think what he had to say would have made most Lutherans feel at home, as well as most evangelicals.  As we took communion (even though they were little crackery things and grape juice), I encountered reality, or what is sometimes called the Real Presence.

I am not talking about any molecular changes or pseudo-cannibalistic superstitions, but a simple experience of Reality, a connection between parallel realities. It’s not a physical multiverse thing or even a Platonic vision of reality, neither of which I believe in.  I do believe that our material universe is entirely real, is not just a cave of shadows, but is “spiritual” in its own right. However, I do believe that there exists another reality, known theologically as the Kingdom of God/Heaven, and that God has provided a number of “contact points” by which this reality can be touched by those of us currently inhabiting our material universe. Communion is one such point, where – in a manner of speaking – Heaven touches Earth.

Being I was in a setting where I didn’t expect it, my epiphany, this sudden awareness of Reality, took me by surprise.

Is it mystical? You bet.  Is it detectable by any scientific means?  I don’t think so.  Is it irrational?  Not at all; such a reality is, as I’ve said, conceivable by better minds than mine.  To those who haven’t encountered Reality, it is indescribable.  However, for those of us who have encountered Reality, it is simply undeniable.