Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Set your mind on the things above

Reading recently from scripture, I was impressed by these words:
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Col 3:1-2).
In this injunction we find the importance of the nature and direction of our thinking as Christians for our spiritual lives. The way we think, and the sorts of thoughts that populate our minds, will have a major role to play in our progress along the "straight and narrow path." Paul encourages us to set our minds on the things that are "above," where Christ is.

A depiction of ancient Greek philosophers
in an iconographic style in a monastery.
These words have the appearance of a harsh and strict asceticism. A person whose mind is set on the things above -- can he have anything to do with the life of the ordinary human being on the streets? Consider the wonderful description of the philosopher by Socrates in Plato's Theaetetus:
The leaders [of the philosophers], in the first place, from their youth up, remain ignorant of the way to the agora, do not even know where the court-room is, or the senate-house, or any other public place of assembly; as for laws and decrees, they neither hear the debates upon them nor see them when they are published; and the strivings of political clubs after public offices, and meetings, and banquets, and revellings with chorus girls—it never occurs to them even in their dreams to indulge in such things. And whether anyone in the city is of high or low birth, or what evil has been inherited by anyone from his ancestors, male or female, are matters to which they pay no more attention than to the number of pints in the sea, as the saying is. And all these things the philosopher does not even know that he does not know; for he does not keep aloof from them for the sake of gaining reputation, but really it is only his body that has its place and home in the city; his mind, considering all these things petty and of no account, disdains them and is borne in all directions, as Pindar says, “both below the earth,” and measuring the surface of the earth, and “above the sky,” studying the stars, and investigating the universal nature of every thing that is, each in its entirety, never lowering itself to anything close at hand (Theaetetus 173a-174a).
Socrates' philosopher, who is present on the earth in body only, is a strict, ascetic type. His single-minded dedication to discovering the truth and understanding reality cannot be reconciled with the ordinary pursuits of the hoi polloi, let alone the extravagances and exaggerations which catch the eye and attention of so many. Such a person will hardly resemble you and me, and indeed would more likely be a laughing stock, as Socrates goes on to tell about Thales:
Why, take the case of Thales... While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty Thracian servant girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy. For really such a man pays no attention to his next door neighbor; he is not only ignorant of what he is doing, but he hardly knows whether he is a human being or some other kind of a creature; but what a human being is and what is proper for such a nature to do or bear different from any other, this he inquires and exerts himself to find out... Hence it is, my friend, such a man [i.e., the philosopher], both in private, when he meets with individuals, and in public, as I said in the beginning, when he is obliged to speak in court or elsewhere about the things at his feet and before his eyes, is a laughing-stock not only to Thracian girls but to the multitude in general, for he falls into pits and all sorts of perplexities through inexperience, and his awkwardness is terrible, making him seem a fool; for when it comes to abusing people he has no personal abuse to offer against anyone, because he knows no evil of any man, never having cared for such things; so his perplexity makes him appear ridiculous; and as to laudatory speeches and the boastings of others, it becomes manifest that he is laughing at them—not pretending to laugh, but really laughing—and so he is thought to be a fool. (174a-d).
Instead of bothering himself with vain trifles, the philosopher is sooner concerned about becoming like God:
But it is impossible that evils should be done away with..., for there must always be something opposed to the good; and they cannot have their place among the gods, but must inevitably hover about mortal nature and this earth. Therefore we ought to try to escape from earth to the dwelling of the gods as quickly as we can; and to escape is to become like God, so far as this is possible; and to become like God is to become righteous and holy and wise (176a-b).
This is because, in the wisdom of God, the world has been constructed with a certain moral order. Righteousness is rewarded and wickedness is punished, and there is no escaping the proper punishment for the guilty if they do not change their ways:
Two patterns, my friend, are set up in the world, the divine, which is most blessed, and the godless, which is most wretched. But these men do not see that this is the case, and their silliness and extreme foolishness blind them to the fact that through their unrighteous acts they are made like the one and unlike the other. They therefore pay the penalty for this by living a life that conforms to the pattern they resemble; and if we tell them that, unless they depart from their “cleverness,” the blessed place that is pure of all things evil will not receive them after death, and here on earth they will always live the life like themselves—evil men associating with evil—when they hear this, they will be so confident in their unscrupulous cleverness that they will think our words the talk of fools. (176e-177a),
We see, then, the moral and social life of the philosopher, according to Socrates. He makes an effort to liken himself unto God, which means he lives in wisdom and righteousness and holiness, because only in this way will he be accepted into "the blessed place tat is pure of all things evil." Through an orientation of his mind away from the things of this world and the pointless pursuits of the greater mass of men, he focuses his efforts and energy on being made like to God. And through an association with God in what regards his character and thinking, he hopes to draw near to God at the moment of death, being delivered from the evils which inevitably haunt this world.

Paul's theology is not exactly the same but it is very similar, and for this reason, it is no surprise that so many of the early Christian apologists thought that Plato must have read Moses, or at least that Greek philosophy functioned as a kind of praeparatio evangelica, a preparation for the gospel. In his letter to the Colossians, he exhorts his audience to keep their minds on the things above, where Christ is. Their thinking must be differently oriented. No longer are they to think about the same things as their neighbors, whose lives are disorderly and sinful, and who are calling upon themselves the wrath of God through their sins. On the contrary, Christians, through the reorientation of their mind, are to "put to death what is earthly" within them:
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient (Col 3:5-6).
In light of this same impending judgment, the inevitability of which places a responsibility upon every person to repent and to accept the offer of salvation which God has given humankind in Jesus Christ, the Christian is also to put to death what is "earthly" in her. The point is not an unthinking opposition to everything bodily -- which was not properly characteristic of Platonic ethics, either, by the way -- but rather a purification of the character. Thinking constantly about the things "above," she puts to death the "earthly," which means her vices and her evils. What else, then, are the things "above" except the virtues of Christ which are given to us as an example to be followed? His love, his mercy, his obedience to the Father, his faithfulness in everything, his kindness towards the weak and the vulnerable: these are the things "above" which we have to keep in mind at all times, so that we can liken ourselves to them. When we do this, then the appearance of the Lord in glory will really be our own revelation as well (Col 3:4), instead of the wrath of God coming on those who are disobedient.

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