Why platonism?

A fellow Christian on twitter recently wrote an article explaining their position on materialism and why they believe it meshes better with Christian doctrine as taught by the scriptures than Platonism does. This article can be found here and this is my response to that article.

First off lets start by acknowledging that Christianity does accept a more friendly view of the material than Platonism. In fact this is one of the key issues of Platonism that needs correction by Christian doctrine. In middle and neoplatonism matter is viewed as something that the soul needs to escape from. Plotinus goes so far as to identify matter with evil itself. Within Platonism this makes sense since evil cannot derive from above since the One is the form of the good and has no evil within it, so whence then does evil come? The answer, for the Platonists was from below, it springs from matter. Though matter itself is the lowest level of emanation from the One, below matter is void and matter forms the nexus point between infinite being and infinite nothingness. All good flows from above from the One, all evil flows from below from the void.

For a Christian this view is unacceptable. Scripture clearly teaches in Genesis that God called creation “good” matter is by no means evil, or a suboptimal mode of existence. Rather, to hammer the point home, Christianity teaches the resurrection of the body. While Platonists try to escape the cage of the body, Christians look forward to the day when body and soul will be reunited in a way that fulfills Gods ultimate plan for creation and the place of humanity within it. Humans are fundamentally material beings, us being matter was not a mistake but rather Gods plan that will come to ultimate fruition at the second coming. So it is certainly true that on this point Platonism as a self standing religious/philosophical system stands in contrast to Christian teaching.

Cantus also makes the point that the fear of death makes sense in a materialist mode of thinking where my existence as a being is identical to my existence as a physical body. I fear death because when my body dies, I die. Therefore the promise of the resurrection, in Cantus’ view, only really makes sense with a materialistic view where my whole existence as a being will be resurrected from the clutches of nothingness and my “sleep” ends with my waking in a material, yet glorified, body that brings my existence full circle from the spiritual rebirth of baptism to the physical and ultimate rebirth of me with the resurrection of the body (keeping in mind in this view my body IS me, it’s difficult to avoid slipping into dualistic language by talking about “my body” apart from me as a person).

It’s also certainly true that in some ways the influence of Platonism on the theology of Christianity throughout history has muddled some aspects of doctrine. For example when people think of “heaven” as a spiritual realm rather than a renewed physical creation. Ironically the Evangelicals who have this eschatological vision are probably some of the most hostile towards “pagan philosophy” that informs that vision, but that’s for another time.

The ultimate point then is if this is the picture that scripture paints then why shouldn’t we accept this materialistic view and ditch the dualism of Platonism where physical reality is viewed as a “shadow” of a higher reality and that our existences, while being largely material, are not wholly material and that there also exists a non-physical and spiritual aspect to not only us as souls but all things that exist as exemplar forms in the mind of God.

I have a few responses. Firstly Platonism is the theological language of Christianity, like it or not. Once the persecutions of the first three centuries ended and Christians could finally freely start diving into serious theological issues they were in a Platonist milieu. To discuss theology was to discuss Platonism, and many educated Christians, such as St Augustine received their philosophical training in Platonism before converting to Christianity to apply it there. Many of the opponents the early Christians sparred with over the validity of Christianity were Platonists, such as Porphyry the student of Plotinus who wrote “Against the Christians”.

This shouldn’t be something we reject. After all scripture itself requires some backing in Greek philosophy to interpret. How could you properly understand John 1:1 without a background knowing the philosophical meaning of Logos used by the Stoics as the rational organization principle of creation that makes it intelligible? It’s also difficult to untangle at this point since many aspects of Christian doctrine utilize terms and ideas that were cribbed from Greek philosophy. How do you talk intelligibly about the Trinity if you don’t think “substance” or “essence” are real aspects of existence? And if God can have a “substance” then why deny the possibility that material things have an objectively real substance to them that underlies their physical existence?

Next is the issue of the classical theistic view of God as the ground of being. Cantus quotes David Bentley Hart on the issue of finite beings all deriving their being from God and being entirely unable to stand apart from God maintaining their being.

I submit that any succour Hart gets out of this picture is an illusion maintained only by the Christian window-dressing Hart grafts onto his Platonist framework. For the Christian Platonist, everything in creation only enjoys existence insofar as it participates in God’s existence. It is hard to see how we could enjoy intrinsic worth on this view or even any kind of existence that is not in some sense illusory qua existence.

Surprisingly Cantus doesn’t address THE number one verse that supports Harts view here, Acts 17:28 “In Him we live and move and have our being”. Certainly of all the verses in the Bible this one stands out for almost explicitly supporting the Platonic participatory model of being. That said I’m unsure of why finite beings participating in Gods act of existence somehow removes their intrinsic worth. I’m also unsure about why divine conservation makes things “illusory” while existential inertia does not. In some sense we all agree that everything that exists now owes it’s existence to God whether that be in a hierarchical series that extends to God ultimately upholding all created being from moment to moment or in a temporal (accidental) series that extends back in time to the big bang. The acknowledgement that we as beings exist only in so far as we participate in Gods act of being is simply recognition that everything that exists is ontologically dependent on God. Being theists, and not deists we recognize God is imminent in the world and His imminence is manifested by our participation in His being. I disagree that the concept of being as participation in any way reduces the dignity of created being, rather it elevates created being by reinforcing that God willingly created the cosmos so that it might participate in what God is, part of that of course being being.

Lastly, and this is probably the big one. Materialism still has all the bugbears that make it very difficult to square away a rational epistemology, whether it be an atheist materialism or a theistic materialism. We sometimes forget that the ancient philosophers were acquainted with the idea of a fundamentally materialistic metaphysics and they deliberately rejected it because of the absurdities that it causes. Plotinus pre-empts Kant when he points out the difficulty posed without a Platonic epistemology:

In other words consider a small animal and a human. They both see a chair. The sense information received by both is the same but the human gains something in addition to the sense knowledge, that is what the chair IS. The small animal only sees a chair shaped object but it is the human who recognizes it as a chair. It would seem that the human has gained some knowledge above and beyond what sense information provides, the human has perceived the form of the chair rather than just the appearance of the chair. How do we account for this? For materialism that posits there exists nothing in addition to the particles that make up the chair the answer seems difficult if not impossible. For the Platonist the answer is simple, as above we recognize through the nous the form has been recognized and we gain true knowledge of the object not by sensing it but by directly accessing it’s essence through the intellect.

So why should one be a Christian Platonist rather than a Christian Materialist?

  1. Christian theology has traditionally been couched in the language of Platonic philosophy
  2. Scripture has “baptized” Greek philosophy for use, both by it’s usage of philosophical terms like Logos and Pauls address at the Areopagus where he explicitly identifies the God of philosophy known by the Greeks as the “unknown God” with the Trinity.
  3. Platonism still makes far more sense as an overall worldview than materialism which still suffers crippling issues with its ability to account for the ability to obtain true knowledge and the existence of the human soul/mind.

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