Problematic Platonism

While I normally disagree on a fundamental, theological level with the majority of the people in the emergent church movement and the other “early church restorationists” (a term I’ve just now coined) one of the few common threads we share is a dislike of the level of influence Platonism and neo-Platonism has had on the Christian church. At least since Augustine, though probably even earlier than him, theology has been hobbled by the influence of this ancient Greek.

A brief refresher for those of you who may have forgotten your college philosophy classes. Platonism is a philosophy articulated by the ancient Greek philosopher (wait for it) Plato, who lived from roughly 428 to 348 BCE. A student of the great philosopher Socrates (who may or may not have existed) Plato is essentially the father of all philosophy. While he wrote extensively on philosophy, politics, logic, rhetoric and mathematics, his basic points are fairly simple. This world that we live in is a world of shadows, and everything that exists is but a pale and changing reflection of some kind of ideal form (the eidos) that exists “up there” in the world of ideals. The best way to access this world (indeed, the only real way) is through thought, through philosophy.

This all is well and good, but what does it mean for Christianity? Essentially, Platonic forms have been applied to the divine. Our understanding of God is said to be a pale reflection of a perfect and unchanging reality.  While I won’t argue with the first part, the second part has become a dangerous part of Christian theology. While some would take “unchanging” to mean unchanging in character or purpose (which is, I feel, a better definition, though not a perfect one), in the neo-Platonic sense, “unchanging” has evolved to mean absolutely unchanging, which means God can’t even experience emotions, because emotions require a change in emotional state. The discussions of God feeling emotions are described as “anthropomorphisms,” as simply the limitations of human language while talking about God.

This ideology manifested itself powerfully in church yesterday, as we sung “How He Loves” (which you can listen to here: Play song from iLike.com) Every other time I’ve sung that song, it contained the line “So heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss / and my heart turns violently inside my chest.” On Sunday, however, we sang the David Crowder version, which changes the lyric to “So heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss.” See the change? Aside from being less poetic, the David Crowder Band’s version neuters the power of the lyric. Instead of God being a passionate lover who aches for his beloved and desires them with great fervor, he kind of becomes surprising, but not longer passionate. It pains me to watch this trend in the church, to watch God removed from his place as the passionate lover to the calm, reserved God who loves, but not too much, and never too passionately.

Why does this matter? Because a God who is no longer passionately in love with his people has no desire for redemption. A God who feels no pain cannot sympathize with his people. A God who feels no love has no need of worshippers and cannot reciprocate. A God who feels nothing is nothing, and is not the God described by the witnesses in scripture. Zephaniah records this: “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love, he will exult over you with loud singing.” Sounds pretty passionate, doesn’t it? He rejoices over us, exults over us with loud singing, something that an emotionless being cannot and would never do. Moreover, the love that Zephaniah talks of in this passage is the same love the writers of Genesis use to describe the love between Jacob and Rachel. What’s more, Paul constantly uses the metaphor of bride and bridegroom for the Church and Christ. Who wants a bridegroom that feels no emotion?

So let’s reverse this trend. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-philosophy, I’m simply in favor of orthodoxy. There’s nothing wrong with studying Plato, as long as you remember that Plato may not have it all right. Nor should we always attempt to prove Plato wrong. He’s a brilliant man with brilliant insights into the human psyche, but he was also limited by his time and place. Instead, let’s join in the expression of our Greek Orthodox brothers and sisters and talk of God dancing among himself and making room for us in that same dance. Let’s replace the stagnant, Platonic God with the God fully revealed to us in the face of Christ Jesus. Let’s put aside this pseudo-orthodox neo-Platonic ideology and embrace true orthodoxy. Let’s embrace the God of Passion who longs to passionately embrace you.

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