Christmas Musings on the Origin and Future of True Christianity

Was Plato, by virtue of supernatural insight, or some other paranormal power, a “Christian” nearly four centuries before the Incarnation of the Word? That is what some, when confronted with the exceptionally lofty doctrines of Platonism, and the great similarity between some of them and Christianity, have claimed. I do not entirely reject that as a possibility, but I think a more likely and less far-fetched explanation is that Christians are, to a much greater extent than hitherto usually acknowledged, Platonists –but Platonists unaware and ignorant of the actual origins of their beliefs, which, as Plato would say, do indeed, on the whole at least, constitute Orthodoxy, or True Opinion.

Considering what “Higher Criticism”, once better known as “German skepticism”, has brought to light regarding the true nature and history of the Greek and Hebrew texts making up the collection – or rather collections – often referred to as the Bible, I do not think this is something Christians should continue to shy away from, or be ashamed of.

Rather, it should be realized that this dual heritage of Christianity – a heritage stemming not only from “Jerusalem”, but from “Athens” as well – is a potential source of great opportunities and insights, particularly now that much of the Bible has been convincingly shown to be anything but the perfect Divine Revelation it was traditionally believed to be, and it can no longer provide the stable and reliable foundation which a communal religion always needs.

The Great Ship of the Christian Church, the New Israel (as Christ Himself indirectly proclaimed), is in the process of becoming wrecked on the jagged and merciless reefs of a wide array of startling discoveries, including those of «Higher Criticism» and archeology. But there is a way to save it. Painting by Ivan Aivazovsky: «The Harbor at Odessa on the Black Sea», 1852. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Roman Catholic and Orthodox branches of Christianity have, to some extent, a third foundation on which they may and do stand, namely Holy Tradition, and are therefore not quite as easily shaken by the unraveling of Holy Writ as the Protestant churches, but even the former cannot forever escape the fact that a part of the primary justification for their existence, namely the Word of God as thought to be revealed in the Bible, is crumbling, or, at the very least, has become subject to a new and inescapable doubt regarding its authority.

It is in this dire situation that I think a new and candid analysis and acknowledgement of the extent to which Platonism has shaped and been encapsulated in Christianity may provide a way forward – a way which, if taken, will involve a vast rethinking and reconsideration of what Christianity was and is and should be, as well as a great change in its manner of relating to both the ancient and contemporary “pagan” religions of the world, but which will nevertheless enable Christians to hold on to and perpetuate much of what Christianity has been and is, as well as large swathes of those doctrines which are dearest to them, such as the Kingdom of Heaven, the Immortality of the Individual Soul, and even the Return of the King.

It is understandable that the prospect of such a vast reinvention of a two thousand years old religion is viewed with great reluctance, or not even admitted into consciousness at all, particularly since the Christian Church, by making the Old Testament part of the Bible, and viewing itself as the new Israel, and the new People of God – a view which some wolves in sheep’s clothing are now attempting to slander as “Replacement Theology”, but which is in fact traditional Christian doctrine, grounded in the very words of Christ Himself – inherited the radical exclusivism and ethnocentrism of the ancient Israelites, and transformed these mindsets into a dialectical worldview in which any religion not originating in Israel was categorized as “pagan”, and therefore, by definition, “bad”.

It is, of course, true that a number of both early and later Christians did not utterly reject everything “pagan” – but this acceptance of some strands of “pagan” thought, such as those from the Platonic tradition, appears to have arisen more out of necessity and personal dispositions than out of anything clearly stated in the canonical texts or publicly decided upon. One example of such necessity is that Greco-Roman culture – and especially the Hellenic element in it – was so wonderfully advanced and sophisticated for its time that it was impossible for any intelligent person living in one of the first few centuries after Christ to wholly dismiss it – regardless of the numerous instances of anti-Gentile sentiments – often based on strawman arguments – in the Old Testament and the Pauline epistles.

As regards personal dispositions, some of the major Christian Platonists, such as St. Augustine and Origen, were clearly highly eccentric individuals. Carl Gustav Jung once theorized that the tendencies of some individuals towards true Rationalism and Platonism and of others towards Empiricism and Dogmatism are actually intimately bound up with their personality types, and that the former comes naturally to the introvert, while the latter cannot but recommend itself to the extrovert.

As for the dialectic I mentioned, one very illustrative example of that is certainly the “Egypt versus Israel” theme, which becomes more and more mystifying the closer it is examined. The great and sophisticated civilization of ancient Egypt, for example, was, as a result of the rather uncritical Christian adoption of highly polemical Hebrew books such as Exodus, defamed the world over for centuries as a pit of tyranny, barbarism and “idol-worship”, and virtually nothing objective was known about it until the rise of systematic European archeology, combined with the bold execution of French and British expeditions into Egypt in the 1800s, slowly began to reveal the poignant remnants of what the burning sands of the desert, the disappearance of literature and the waves of conquests had long buried in the mists of forgetfulness.

It is true that the church once held a doctrine of parallel revelation, which, by way of the figure of Hermes Trismegistus, gave some acknowledgement to ancient Egypt, and to the Hellenic tradition, but this seems to have withered away and well nigh disappeared long before the 20th century.

Another reason for the above mentioned reluctance is, I suspect, the emphasis on Scripture which began with the Protestant Reformations. Protestantism has, generally speaking, invested so much time and effort into its endeavors to return to “the sources” – an effort which has actually lead to the very opposite of the Christian Renaissance originally hoped for, since it eventually resulted in the undermining and virtual dissolution of the assumed “sources” themselves – that it is exceedingly difficult for Protestantism to now reverse this long established mindset of criticism and iconoclasm and “verbalism”, not to mention to embrace a move away from the shreds it has left the Bible in and towards the much-derided “paganism” and “Hellenism” of ancient Greece.

I am not at all saying that the Bible should be discarded – what I am saying is that it can never again provide the basis for society-wide religion, or for nationwide laws, but only for individual spiritual consolation and inspiration, since much of it is not what Christians thought it was, and since the tremendous authority it once possessed has largely evaporated.

But to return to the proposed way forward: One of the opportunities a concerted shift towards Platonism would provide is a move away from the dry verbal Empiricism of Protestantism and towards a new emphasis on the core and origin of the phenomenon we call religion, namely the moments of awe and wonder, the flashes of insight, the altered states of consciousness, the epiphanies and the profound mystical experiences that speak of or hint of something more and greater and more lasting than our ordinary, everyday world – which is fundamentally and unalterably tragic and chaotic and disquieting to the examiner, regardless of how many and how luminous and how lovely the shards of light in it may be, and which therefore requires, if it is to be endurable, the simultaneity of vision characterizing the accomplished living sage, namely the beholding of vast, exalted Realms of Eternity and Beauty and Goodness “in” and “behind” the world appreciated by sense experience. To such a sage, this world – even this fallen world – has become “transparent” to the Kingdom of Heaven, and therefore to Truth.

The symbolism of Christ walking on water would have been evident to all educated ancients, namely the overcoming and transcending of the World, since water is an immemorial symbol of the everchanging substance of Matter. Painting by Ivan Aivazovsky. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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