Thursday, January 7, 2016

Did Jesus "change what it means to be human"?

Peter Wehner, a contributing opinion editor at the New York Times, published an op ed on December 25th according to whose call-out "Jesus changed the very notion of what it meant to be human." In support of this claim, Wehner laid out a number of popular ideas about Platonism and Christianity that are clearly mistaken.

Contrasting Christianity with Platonism, Wehner says that although "it had considerable influence in the early church," Platonism’s “influence faded because it was in tension with Christianity's deepest teachings." On the question of "fading," he is clearly wrong. Through the Alexandrians in the East and St Augustine in the West, Platonism has always been influential in the Church. The most influential text in medieval thought is Pseudo-Dionysius, who is deeply Platonic. Modern Protestantism tends to be anti-intellectual, and thus is less obviously influenced by Plato. But when it gets seriously intellectual, as in Leibniz and Hegel, it is very Platonic. 

The supposedly Platonic doctrine that Wehner contrasts with Christianity is the "belief that the material world was evil.” This is a common misunderstanding of Plato. He said no such thing. He did sometimes express contempt for bodily life, but not condemnation. It was Gnostics and especially Manichaeans who called the world evil, and Platonists criticized them for this. Since the world is composed of images of the Forms, and the Forms are good, the world too is good. (So Plato’s contempt for bodily life is questionable—and indeed he himself seems to grow away from it in his later writings, such as the Timaeus.)

Against Plato's allegory of the Cave, Wehner asserts that “Our life experiences are real, not shadows.” Well, our life experiences certainly do “exist.” Why did Plato compare them to shadows? Because he wanted to explain how God transcends the world—namely, by being more free (because not governed by appetites or ego), thus more fully himself, and in that sense more fully real. If Wehner has a better explanation of how God transcends the world, I would like to hear it. I doubt that he does. 

Christianity, Wehner says, "laid the groundwork for the ideas of individual dignity and inalienable rights.” But Plato in fact laid that groundwork several centuries before Jesus with his doctrine that “the power to learn is present in everyone’s soul” (Republic 518c). The pagan Cynics and Stoics systematically developed this aspect of Platonism, maintaining that slaves have dignity and that all humans are citizens of the one city of the universe, the “cosmopolis.” (Some scholars think that Jesus was influenced by the Cynics, who had a community in Palestine.) Stoicism is a major source of the Declaration of Independence's doctrine that "all men are created equal." Jefferson, after all, was not a conventional Christian. Wehner probably knows much of this, but it’s not convenient for his story.  

“For Christians," Wehner says, "God is not distant or detached.” Nor for Platonists or Stoics, either. God is everywhere, in the form of inner freedom and love. Christian mystics all agree with this (“pagan”) teaching. 

When he quotes David Bentley Hart as saying that Christianity raised charity “to the level of the highest of religious obligations,” Wehner overlooks the Hebrew prophets, who had been preaching the obligation to care for widows, orphans, and the poor for generations before Jesus. Plato was the philosopher of love, and the Stoics and Cynics praised and practiced friendship and universality. Jesus effectively dramatized these principles. 

It is true that Christianity created community and brought propertyless people into it to a much greater degree than pagan philosophy had done. Unlike philosophy, Christianity was a social movement, and it accomplished great things. But its principles are less unique than Wehner thinks they are. 

Rather than picturing Jesus and Christianity as unique, Christians should practice a little more humility, I think.