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All One in Christ

Why Christian Platonism Is Key to the Great Tradition

It’s hip to be a traditionalist. Retrieval theologies of a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes are the in-thing. It is hardly any longer just the Orthodox that turn to the church fathers. Nor is ressourcement of the Great Tradition simply the reserve any longer of mid-twentieth-century Catholic theologians such as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Protestants, too—especially, it seems, of the Evangelical variety—have a newfound love of patristic and medieval theology and are intent on retrieving its riches for the church today.

I think this is a great development. Only the entirety of the witness of the Christian tradition is going to suffice to counter secular modernity’s amnesia regarding the past. I often hear the objection that many of today’s attempts at retrieval are only half-baked. That is to say, we often take a pick-and-choose attitude toward the tradition, selecting the liturgical elements that appeal to us most, implementing only those historic practices and disciplines that we can relate to, and selectively rummaging the theological toolbox of the church’s history. The result is a subjective pastiche that suits the sensibilities of our day. In other words, our retrieval of the Great Tradition allegedly plays postmodern hopscotch with our sacred past.

There’s no denying that the objection carries an element of truth. The complaint overlooks, however, the rationale behind the (admittedly sometimes partial and erratic) turn to the tradition. What drives recent theologies of retrieval is a deep longing for identity. It’s a desire to be linked with the past. Continuity with the past generates identities of solidity and strength.

In an age where everything seems fluid, transient, and discontinuous, people turn to tradition in the hope of rebuilding the continuity that is needed for stable identity. The intuition that it is by retrieving the Great Tradition that we rebuild and retain personal identity strikes me as profoundly true. Retrievals of the past are never perfect, but the basic impulse is one we should applaud.

And yet. No matter how much sympathy I may have with the often less-than-perfect turn to tradition, there’s one element in the retrieval of the Great Tradition that just isn’t up for grabs: it’s Christian Platonism. Put bluntly, without Christian Platonism, retrieval isn’t true retrieval. Without Christian Platonism, re-appropriation of the Great Tradition just isn’t worth the effort.

Problems in Platonism

I often encounter a great deal of agreement and support when I raise my voice in support of a retrieval of the Great Tradition. Whether it’s candles in church, the adoption of the liturgical year, the meditative practices of lectio divina, or theological reading of Scripture, people regularly applaud these and other elements of the Christian tradition. The notion of Christian Platonism, however, frequently evokes a different kind of reaction. Even those most vocal about the need for the Christian tradition to help shape church and society today fall silent when it comes to the benefits of Christian Platonism.

The reason people give Christian Platonism the cold shoulder is typically twofold: one, it’s unbiblical; and two, it’s otherworldly.

The charge that Christian Platonism is unbiblical usually means something like this: Platonism is a pagan philosophy, so when Christians read Scripture through a Platonic lens, they impose a pagan outlook on their interpretation of Scripture. In other words, the mixing of Hellenism with Christianity by way of Platonism adulterates the purity of the biblical truth. We can’t have the Bible plus Plato. Authentic Christianity is grounded on Scripture alone (sola Scriptura).

The complaint that Christian Platonism is otherworldly offers a specific instance of how the use of Platonism allegedly adulterates the Christian faith. Whereas the Scriptures insist that God created the world good, the dualistic escapism of Platonism tempts us to turn away from this world to an ideal world of forms. The otherworldliness of Christian Platonism, therefore, is a denial of the goodness of creation.

Typically, the objector will turn to various practices of the patristic and monastic traditions by way of corroboration. The asceticism and renunciation that characterized the Great Tradition are regular targets of disapproval: sex and food (and pleasure more generally) are God’s good gifts, and Christian Platonism wrongly places them under a cloud of suspicion.

Divergences & Consonances

In responding to these objections, it’s prudent (and necessary) first to acknowledge a basic truth: it is not possible to be a Christian and an unqualified Platonist at one and the same time. The reason is simple: at key points, Christianity and Platonism clash. First, Christians have an appreciation for the created order and for embodied life that is unmatched by the Platonic tradition. A Platonist might acknowledge that the demiurge has created a good world, but a Platonist would never acknowledge that God assumed a human body or that the body is meant for resurrection. Platonism has always balked at the incarnation and the resurrection of the body. In this regard, Platonism is indeed unbiblical.

Second, the hierarchical structure of Platonism places universal forms or ideas (such as goodness, truth, humanity, felinity, and so on) at a higher level than the gods themselves. This means that in a Platonic understanding, the gods were beings who were part of the cosmos and as such were supposed to act in line with higher eternal forms or ideas. Christians identified the world of the forms with the eternal Logos (or Word) of God. They turned to the eternal generation of the Son as the “place” where the forms (or logoi) of the created order can be found. The result of this Christian modification of Platonism is that for the Great Tradition (unlike for Platonism) God is not answerable to higher-up forms. Nor is God simply one among many beings of the universe. Instead, according to patristic and medieval tradition, God is Being itself—the form of forms—which renders him transcendent to the cosmos in a way that the Platonic demiurge could never be.

Finally, Christian theology is trinitarian. The Nicene (and biblical!) confession that God is Father, Son, and Spirit is unacceptable to the Platonic tradition—whether we have in mind Plato’s notion of a demiurge or Plotinus’s later idea of an eternal One (to hen). For the Platonic tradition, the Christian belief that God is both one and three is irrational and unacceptable. For the Christian tradition, by contrast, the mystery of the Trinity—God’s oneness of essence and threeness of persons—is something to be adored and praised.

All of this simply goes to say that Christian Platonism is exactly that: Christian Platonism. It’s an adoption of a Platonic metaphysic or worldview that at key points takes exception to the Platonic tradition from which it borrows.

But why then borrow from Platonism at all? Why not simply go with the unadulterated gold of the biblical faith and toss out the Platonist dross? Well, consider this question: why did the Great Tradition despise Epicureanism while embracing key aspects of Platonism? The reason is obvious: for Epicureans, the world was strictly material, and the gods did not intervene in it; we ourselves are to find life’s highest goods through the pursuit of pleasure. Epicureans’ basic philosophical notions were unacceptable to the early church.

By contrast, Platonism was at points remarkably consonant with the Christian faith according to the church fathers’ reading of Scripture. We have (1) the conviction that sensible objects correspond to eternal forms, in which they participate; (2) the notion that the vision of eternal truth, goodness, and beauty is humanity’s ultimate aim; (3) the recognition that this-worldly objects are not ultimate but serve the pursuit of one’s return to God; and (4) the importance of a life of virtue as an initial participation in the goodness of God—each of these aspects of the Christian faith was echoed in the Platonic tradition.

Some may find these similarities (or some of them) problematic; evidence that the church took a wrong turn by taking on board Platonic convictions. Even so, the point is that Christians throughout the Great Tradition rejected (almost everything in) Epicureanism while accepting (a great deal of) Platonism. Why? They were convinced the former was incompatible with the Christian tradition, while the latter was consonant with it. The Great Tradition didn’t blindly walk into an alliance with Platonism. The Platonism that Christians adopted was always Christian Platonism; their metaphysic always a theological metaphysic.

Christian Platonism & Its Forms

For my part, I believe that theologians of the Great Tradition were right to adopt the four points mentioned above. We, too, should make them our own if we want our retrieval of the Great Tradition to have integrity. Christian Platonism, I have become convinced, is the sine qua non for a theological retrieval of the Great Tradition.

Why? Let me give a couple of examples. First and foremost, it is the Platonic notion of universal forms or ideas that lies behind the Christian understanding of salvation. For the Great Tradition, God became man so that man might become God. This view of salvation hinges on the Incarnation. The early church believed that the Second Person of the Trinity took on our human nature, such that his (divine) person assumed a universal human nature. Had the person of the Son assumed an individual human nature, it would have been impossible for other human beings to be united to the humanity of Christ. Salvation, therefore, was the result of the many (human beings) participating in the one (the human nature of Christ). Christian soteriology depends on the conviction that behind the observable reality of numerous individual human beings there is an ideal form of a shared humanity.

Second, Christian Platonism helps us to read Scripture as Scripture. Those who reject Christian Platonism may think they are simply left with the pure gold of Scripture, but in actual fact, they simply replace one metaphysic with another—an atomistic, modern approach, which separates heavenly from earthly realities. When we rid ourselves of Platonic forms, thinking they are superfluous, the sensible objects of time and place lose their anchor in heavenly realities. (To be sure, Reformation theologies often have a high view of divine providence. But it is a providence that has largely lost its sacramental link with the created order.) As a result, in the secularism of modernity, observable objects are defined by their DNA, and historical events are simply the result of this-worldly cause and effect. Both created objects and historical events are shorn of their transcendent horizon. Sensible objects are form-less, and historical events without providential backdrop.

The results for biblical interpretation have proven troubling. If we are no longer able to see history as the outflow of God’s providence in Christ, then what are we to do with the similarities between the Cross and the tree of life, between the suffering of Christ and that of Joseph, or between baptism and the crossing of the Red Sea? On a purely this-worldly understanding of history, these similarities turn out to be patterns imposed by the mind (either of the biblical author or of the contemporary Christian).

It is only Christian Platonism that turns to divine providence and recognizes there, rather than in the human mind, the eternal cause of the historical similarities. The reason the contemporary church has largely rejected typology and allegory is not that we have outgrown the so-called artificiality of earlier modes of reading. Rather, we have lost the ability to recognize that sensible objects and historical events are grounded in spiritual and eternal truths.

Biblical Otherworldliness

Let me give one final example (though it wouldn’t be difficult to provide more) of the indispensability of Christian Platonism. This example has to do with the second objection often lodged against Christian Platonism, namely, that it is otherworldly and fails to uphold the goodness of creation. The objection here concerns not Plato or Plotinus but Christian Platonism. This is important, since we have already seen that the doctrines of the Incarnation and the resurrection of the body (enshrined in the Creed, no less!) made Christians duly appreciative of embodied life as God’s good gift.

Still, it is true that Christians borrowed from the Platonic tradition also in their otherworldliness. We only have to call to mind the pervasive trope of contemptus mundi (contempt for the world) and the ars moriendi (art of dying) tradition to realize that the Great Tradition treated the here-and-now rather differently than we typically tend to do. Both the notion of contemptus mundi and the treatment of this life as preparation for death in practices of ars moriendi make clear that the Great Tradition was grounded in an otherworldliness that is alien to our contemporary church and society. It is an otherworldliness that is intrinsic to Christian Platonism and that stamped the Great Tradition, Orthodox and Catholic, as well as Protestant.

The question is: which one is biblical? Is it the other-worldliness of Christian Platonism or the hedonism of contemporary Epicureanism? I am convinced it is largely the former. I don’t mean to deny that sometimes Christian Platonists veered into dangerous territory by treating food and sex in less than wholesome ways. But I do think that the basic metaphysic of Christian Platonism was biblical in its otherworldliness and in its corresponding treatment of this-worldly pleasures as secondary.

That great Christian Platonist C. S. Lewis recognized the silliness of settling for this-worldly pleasures rather than aiming at the vision of God in the world to come. He writes in “The Weight of Glory”: 

Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

For Lewis, we are far too easily pleased: we set our sights on this-worldly goods rather than on the otherworldly Good that is God himself.

Neither Lewis’s otherworldliness nor that of the Great Tradition disparages the goodness of the created order. Christian Platonists believe that in and through Christ, created (sensible) beings participate in God’s uncreated (spiritual) Being. Put differently, it is the eternal world of forms that gives meaning and significance to created things. Ironically, by shaving off the forms (disconnecting heaven from earth), our secular, modern world deprives created things of all genuine meaning. If the meaning of things (for the Christian Platonist, at least) is truly located in their heavenly forms in the eternal Word of God, where could we possibly go to find their significance once we let go of the Word? Where, then, can we find the meaning of sex? Where the meaning of food? 

In the End: Human Identity

And, of course, there’s the most important question of all: where do we find human meaning in a non-Platonist world? Where do we find our own identity? Christian Platonism allows us to find our identity in Christ. The Great Tradition always recognized that God in Christ is our ultimate end. Nothing created ultimately satisfies our desires. Only God does. The reason that the Great Tradition uniformly looked to the beatific vision (the vision of God in the hereafter) as our final end is that Christians were convinced that it is only in the happiness of God that we can also find our happiness. Or, to put it Christologically, it is only in the end, in Christ, that we find our true identity.

If our identity is found in our final end (our destiny in Christ), then our identity has to do less with our individual particularity than with our common humanity in Christ—an important point to recall in an age that centers on individual rights and individual self-expression. What is more, if it is the final end that determines our identity, then human identity and desire are not the private choices of an autonomous human will or the outcome of our own fickle desires. Instead, both our intellect and our will are drawn or pulled by Christ as our final cause or end. It is the universal form or idea of humanity, perfected in Christ, that secures our identity.

Traditionalism isn’t just hip. It also provides us with our identity. The stability and strength of the Great Tradition are great boons for our sense of identity. The continuity that this tradition provides is indispensable in an age that has long exchanged the forms of Platonism for the fluidity of postmodernity. Still, it’s not just continuity per se that provides us with a sense of who we are. Rather, it’s the content of Christian Platonism that is a warrant for human identity: Christ as the form of forms and as our final end is the one who gives us the true perfection of our humanity. 

Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Chair in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House, Wisconsin.


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