Sunday, July 10, 2016

Leaving every teacher to follow Christ: philosophy and Christianity

Consider the following interesting triplet of verses from the Gospel according to John:
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus (John 1:35-7).
These two disciples had been following John for some time, evidently, because they stood near him and kept close to him. With zeal they had observed his teachings and were with him as he was baptizing in the river. They wanted to know everything that John would say, convinced that this person was a true mouthpiece of God in the world, a genuine prophet. And notice what John says to them -- and this out of his faithfulness to his true calling, a faithfulness which precluded all pride and egotism: Look, here is the Lamb of God!

John points away from himself to Christ, and just as quickly, his two disciples leave him to follow Jesus of Nazareth. As I've said before, John had no illusions about his own calling: he was not the messiah and made this clear to everyone who asked him about it. His job was merely to prepare the way of the Lord, and when the Lord appeared, he knew to step out of the way. And so his disciples left him and went to follow the person who alone deserves to be followed at the expense of every other competitor.

These two disciples of John have the proper attitude: no teacher apart from Christ himself can claim our ultimate loyalty, and God forbid that any of them should think to compete with Christ for our faith. Any teacher worth his salt, in any case, points away from himself and to Christ, insisting that above everything we follow after Christ with all of our hearts. Christ alone is our savior, and not any theologian or teacher or preacher or pastor or any other human being whosoever. So if any should stand in the way of our approaching Christ or following him, let us set him aside and cling to the truth!

Origen writes about this in relation to philosophy in a letter addressed to Gregory, who would later become the Thaumaturge:
Natural ability, as you know, if properly trained, may be of the utmost possible service in promoting what I may call the "object" of a man's training. You, for instance, have ability enough to make you an expert in Roman law, or a philosopher in one of the Greek schools held in high esteem. I should like you, however, to make Christianity your "object," and to bring the whole force of your ability to bear upon it, with good effect. I am therefore very desirous that you should accept such parts even of Greek philosophy as may serve for the ordinary elementary instruction of our schools, and be a kind of preparation for Christianity: also those portions of geometry and astronomy likely to be of use in the interpretation of the sacred Scriptures, so that, what the pupils of the philosophers say about geometry and music, grammar, rhetoric, and astronomy, viz. that they are the handmaidens of philosophy, we may say of philosophy itself in relation to Christianity (in Philokalia of Origen XIII, §1).
Gregory's natural capacity for philosophy and law are good, but they ought not be sought as ends in themselves. Being a philosopher or being a lawyer is not worth more than being a true and genuine Christian, a devoted follower of Jesus Christ who alone is Savior of the World. As for philosophy and the rest, these may be used and appreciated insofar as they are true and good and useful for Christianity. But if these stand up against Christianity and its teachings, they cannot be accepted by any true and faithful disciple.

In the next section, Origen compares the use of Greek philosophy and other sources of knowledge to the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt:
Perhaps something of the kind is hinted at in the command from the mouth of God Himself that the children of Israel be told to ask their neighbours and companions for vessels of silver and gold, and for clothing, so that by spoiling the Egyptians they might find materials to make the things of which they were told for the Divine service (§2).
 In the same way, the appreciation of outside sources of knowledge -- philosophy, science, whatever -- may be compared to a kind of borrowing from the Egyptians. What is useful and good and of value ought to be utilized to serve for the true and right worship of God. On the other hand, we ought to leave behind everything that is false and worthless and which cannot be used. For Origen, then, philosophy functions essentially as a kind of ancilla theologiae, a handmaiden of theology.

People that I've met while here visiting in Romania, when they hear that I have degrees in both theology and philosophy, often ask me how these two can be reconciled. Their conception is that the two are irredeemably opposed to one another, with no hope of compatibility whatsoever. I think Origen gives me a fine example to give in defense of the study of philosophy: just as the Israelites borrowed vessels and gold and the rest to serve God as they ought, so also a Christian can rightly study philosophy to find what is good and useful and to utilize it for the sake of his spiritual worship.

But the danger is being attached to Egypt, which is beyond utilizing Egypt's gold. It is one thing to worship God using Egyptian gold, but it is another altogether to want to be an Egyptian and to live and believe and think like they do. This is a true danger. I sense a fundamental difference of orientation between the Christian and the philosopher, even though the Christian is a kind of fulfillment of the hopes and desires of the true philosopher. For philosophy means the love of wisdom, and the Christian is the one who loves the Logos, Christ, the wisdom of God. But the philosopher qua philosopher arguably rejects revelation and insists on figuring things out all on his own, and believing only that which seems right by his lights. The Christian, on the other hand, accepts the truth as a revealed gift, and so does not trust in himself most of all.

What can be done? Everyone who wants to be a Christian but also feels the pull of philosophy ought to follow the example of John and his disciples. Even the greatest prophet ever to come from a woman is not worth more than Christ, who is the Logos incarnate. Much less various philosophers and teachers who were not even prophets but just pontificators of differing capacities and talents! Take from them what is good, but orient yourself to Christ and worship him alone -- that is the right path.

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