perjantai 29. syyskuuta 2017

Does Christianity mix with philosophy?

We will probably never have a chance to find out what Jesus was truly attempting to do – at least not before the fabled Second Coming. What we do know is that he most likely was a charismatic speaker who gathered a group of followers – and who was then promptly executed for some reason.

This might have been the end of story, if it weren't for a fact that people were having visions of Jesus, which spurred the idea of him somehow surviving his death. This series of visions led to an organisation of a religious movement, which would later be called Christianity. The first task of this fledgling new religion was to determine what they actually believed in. A significant figure at this stage was apostle Paul, who first persecuted Christians, but later turned into one of them because of his own visions.

The main idea instigated by Paul was that the death of Jesus was somehow an atonement for the state of mankind – an execution of a perfectly innocent victim could blot out all sins and would eventually lead to cancellation of death, which had been a punishment imposed on the human beings. What humans had to do now was to follow the example of Jesus and spend their lives in serving one another and throwing away their selfish desires. This new command to love one another was in Paul's eyes much more important than the old Jewish law with its strict ritualistic regulations. Thus, he concluded, even people who did not follow Jewish practices could be salvaged.

Like all religions before it, Christianity was open to reinterpretation, and imposition of new layers of tradition begun instantly. Paul had seen a vision of Jesus, but then a story arose that he had been seen in flesh and blood by his earlier followers. Paul had suggested that Jesus had been born of a family line leading directly to ancient Jewish royalty, and then genealogies were drafted and stories of his birth began to circulate. Stories of miracles by Jesus, supposed speeches of him – layers upon layers of new material, which provided building blocks for the evangelists.

A most interesting part of this reinterpretation concerned the status of Jesus himself. Quite early on, Jesus was designated as the Son of God. This was an epithet that could be given to holy men, but it suggested also that there was something more than human in Jesus. Then, the final evangelist, whom we only know by name “John”, made the daring leap and identified Jesus with Logos, the Stoic concept for the guiding spirit of the world. Jesus was not just a human being, John appeared to say, but a force that had helped God create and rule the world and that had somehow taken a mortal form. Christians were still receiving visions, and since God himself was a too distant figure, who had not directly spoken to anyone since the time of legends, and Logos was rumored to come back only at final end of the world, a somewhat nebulous third entity, Paraclete or Prophetic Spirit, was added to the Christian pantheon, as the source of prophetic and charismatic experiences.

The first task of Christian writers was to justify the new faith, on the one hand, by showing its connection to Jewish tradition, and on the other hand, by making it more credible in the eyes of learned scholars. The first task began at the very beginning of the new faith. The Jewish tradition existed in the form of sacred writings, which just waited for another layer of interpretation. Individual sentences were taken out of their original context and regarded as signs and symbols of Jesus and his fate. The task of Christians was not as hopeless as it may sound, since some Jewish writers – the so-called twelve prophets – had already anticipated some important tenets of the new faith, such as the emphasis on good deeds instead of strict abidance of Mosaic laws.

A more difficult question was how to justify the introduction of a seemingly new divinity in the strictly monotheistic Jewish religion. The first suggestion of the new Christians was, firstly, that although Christ/Logos was an entity separate from the Creator, his powers were all derived from the Creator, just like a spark has no power of its own, distinct from the fire that spurned it. Furthermore, Christians also argued that Christ had already appeared in the Jewish writings – surely Creator of the whole world could not appear within the confines of that world or be bothered to speak to single individuals, which would mean that every time Torah spoke of God conversing with someone, it had to be some other God than Creator.

If convincing Jewish with these newfangled readings of old texts was difficult, this line of defense was even less effective with scholars who were not Jewish. The Christians did suggest that as the ultimate truth, their faith required no explanation, but they also felt the need to somehow argue for this truth. Of course, Christians could try to point out the prestige of Jewish religious texts, brought by their old age.

Yet, it was especially the novelties Christians introduced to Jewish texts, such as the virgin birth of Jesus, which were hard to swallow. A dedicated pagan scholar could remark that many of these new elements resembled old Greek myths and were probably just borrowed from these sources. Justin Martyr, the so-called first Christian philosopher, had an answer: these myths were just lies spread by evil beings willing to confuse the followers of Christ. In addition, he could point out, like many philosophers before him, that these myths were morally unacceptable, when they showed supposed divinities acting in a manner that would be reprehensible in human beings.

Another philosophical problem that early Christians had to account for was the question of evil: why did God had to devise such a complex scheme for saving humans, when he could have just destroyed the source of evil or Lucifer, before humans had been corrupted? Answer was what it would still be after couple of millennia: this complex scheme resulted in a better ending than a simpler plan. Furthermore, Justin Martyr also emphasised that this complex plan did not take responsibility of killing Christ from the killers – God has just foreseen people committing crime, but he hadn't actually made them criminals.

The main line of offence with these first Christian philosophers was reminiscent of Philo: Greek philosophers had found their wisdom in the Old Testament. A particularly fruitful source here was Plato's Timaios, which was interpreted as originally as the Jewish writings. In this dialogue, one could find an idea of God designing the world – and also of God assigning another divine being to take care of the world. Logos, Christian thinkers were quick to add.

Yet, Christian philosophers were also happy to point out places where Plato had made errors. For instance, Plato's idea of souls reincarnating into different forms according to their past lives was ridiculed by Justin Martyr – souls in bodies of beasts couldn't know anything of their past lives, so the punishment would be completely pointless. A bit later, St. Iraenaeus pointed out that transmigration of souls was disproved by the lack of any memories of past lives – and this lack could not be just forgetfulness brought out by the combination of soul with matter, because then matter would interfere even with memorising the events in the material world.

The adherents of the new faith were especially keen to show that their notion of bodily resurrection was believable. They pointed out that all philosophers accepted that something remains identical throughout all material changes – thus, God just had to bring these very same bodily elements together in the same or improved form to raise up a body from death. Christians were also eager to point out that resurrection was not unworthy for the future existence of humans – surely nothing created by God could be truly corrupted? Some of them did accept that some bodily functions, such as those involving sexuality, would probably vanish in the resurrection, but still, material bodies as such would still be required even in the perfect state of humanity.

The defense of the body was an answer to various gnostic sects, which often thought that the bodily world was a creation of a lower, imperfect or even insane divinity. Above this creator god, gnostics suggested a whole hierarchy of pairs of divinities, with such high sounding names like Wisdom, Truth and Unity and forming an intricate numerological scheme. Reminiscent of the later cult of Spaghetti Monster, St. Irenaeus suggested ironically that gnostics might well have named their divinities Gourd, Cucumber and Pumpkin. In a somewhat more serious tone, Irenaeus suggested that gnostics had merely borrowed these supernatural principles from philosophers and especially from Pythagorean mystics.

Irenaeus was also quick to point out all the beauty and regularity in the world as a proof that the creation cannot be completely wicked or work of insanity. In fact, he ridiculed the gnostic idea of a highest divinity, which had nothing to do with the material world – surely such an entity that could have nothing to do with matter would not be the most powerful being.

In addition to metaphysical arguments, Irenaeus also relied on common morality. Some gnostic sects thought that people who had a spark from the immaterial realms could not do anything wrong. Indeed, they apparently even encouraged people to do all sorts of assumed depravities, so that the material world would burn itself quicker – or this was the light in which Irenaeus wanted to paint his gnostic opponents.

Iraenaeus, on the other hand, took seriously the idea that a divine entity had taken a fleshly form and suffered all the same hardships as an ordinary mortal – in this manner the material world had been made holier than it normally was and even mortal humans could then become immortal through God's power. This was part of God's plan to develop humans, which as created beings would always be somewhat imperfect, to a more perfect level of existence – humans were then free either to follow God into this state of perfection or then to turn away from God and thus be destined to a life of misery.

The basic fault that Iranaeus found in gnostic ideas concerning the supernatural world was their attempt to hold their own notions above the tradition derived from the earlier Christians – gnostics think that they know and can read Bible better than ordinary Christians. Iranaeus, on the other hand, emphasised the limitedness of human faculties – no one could really know by one's own devices such mysterious truths as gnostics state.

Christian stance on the philosophical traditions was then ambivalent and could be developed either positively or negatively. Clement of Alexandria emphasised the positive relationship. Although he condemned all forms of materialism and polytheism, he did point out that some philosophers and poets had had an inkling of truths expressed in Christianity. Jewish tradition was still far more older in eyes of Clement, and he believed that Greeks had merely stolen scraps of truth from Oriental traditions.

Still, philosophical teaching at its best was for Clement like a fainter image of the instruction given to human beings by divine Logos. Even this fainter image was in a sense a gift of God. Astronomy shows the greatness of God's creation, while mathematics – or Pythagorean numerology – could be used for seeing deeper truths in the Bible. Logos Clement saw as the only source for knowing the otherwise ineffable God – God is something that human mind can grasp only negatively, by describing what it is not. This divine instruction of divinity or faith gives to human beings, Clement said, an image of things that one will clearly understand in a state beyond death. Faith was thus connected with the hope of an afterlife.

No matter what the source, this instruction and divine wisdom was meant for all humans, no matter what their position in life or gender, and people should listen to it like children ready to be filled with knowledge. Indeed, without a trust of such divinely given wisdom, nothing could be known, Clement assumed, since the principles of all knowledge must be accepted without demonstration. The divine instruction revealed the future of humankind, but it sometimes also used symbolic images to reveal deeper truths, both in Bible and in Greek philosophy, just like the commandment to respect one's parents also implies that one should respect the creator of the universe.

Clement thought that divine instruction consisted not just of learning, but also of a more concrete guidance toward good life, in form of rewards and punishments. Thus, he also gave direct guidance on how a good Christian should live. Clement's basic idea was that anything that hindered connection with Logos was detrimental to humans. He based his instructions on a roughly Platonic idea of human beings, in which bodies were mere outer garments for the soul or the inner core of human beings. The end of all action should be, Clement said, being assimilated to God in the sense of imitating his perfection as much as one could.

Like many ancient philosophers, Clement disparaged pleasure seeking and all sort of luxury as a distraction from the proper way of life, and again like many philosophers, he emphasised that humans should try to live as naturally as possible. For instance, Clement thought that sexuality was by nature just a means for procreation and therefore all sexuality that could not lead to conception, such as sex in time of pregnancy, was to be avoided. Furthermore, such practices like shaving beard and using make-up were also condemned due to unnaturality. Then again, a complete ignorance of body was equally unnatural in Clement's eyes, and for instance, a complete celibacy would break God's command of filling Earth with human beings.

A perfect person, which is just an ideal for mere mortals, Clement suggested, would be completely free of the influence of body, but would still use body as a tool. This perfect person might as well be a woman or a man, free person or slave. Such distinctions would be indifferent for her soul or true essence, although as a woman, she would follow what Clement thinks is the natural order, accepting her husband as a leader. She would be, like a Stoic sage, unaffected by either pleasure or pain, but in a much more perfect sense – while a mere philosopher can merely endure lack, a perfect Christian would be happy because of her contact with God. She wouldn't specifically go on looking for martyrdom, but she wouldn't be scared of that fate either because death would be for her only a release to God's presence. Nor would she do good deeds just because of a hope for a reward. Instead, she would be motivated by a love, which is no carnal desire, but a rational choice to do good to others.

A more negative attitude towards Greek culture we can see in the works of Tertullian. Like many philosophers before him, Tertullian ridiculed the poetic divinities of Rome, because they acted like humans. Furthermore, he was shocked to find that certain cities had just chosen their own divinities and thus made them arbitrarily. Philosophers themselves were not perfect in these questions either, Tertullian continued, because they could not agree on what divinities were and even raised such imperfect and fleeting things as elements in place of God. Indeed, Tertullian saw philosophical tradition as a source of heresies, which tried to usurp the true Christian tradition, handed over by apostles to their disciples. In Tertullian's eyes, philosophy was just a watered-down version of Christianity, and while philosophers had just endeavoured to find rules of proper behaviour, Christians were already acting according to them.

Tertullian thought even that pagans couldn't repent properly, because they often regretted doing good deeds, if no reward followed. Tertullian, on the other hand, was of the opinion that the only proper reason for repentance was doing or willing to do something against God's commands. It was an emotion proper for a person who was becoming a Christian, but a proper Christian shouldn't feel the need to repent, because he should follow God's decrees perfectly. Tertullian did allow for a one chance of further repentance even for Christians, but this was the maximum which the mercy of God couldn't exceed.

Tertullian was also highly critical of Jewish tradition, and like so many Christians of his time, he thought that it had been replaced by Christianity. Tertullian argued that the annunciation of law to Moses was not a momentous occasion Jews thought it was. The core of Jewish law, or Ten Commandments, were already implicit in God's judgement of Adam and Eve. For instance, they had disobeyed their parent or God, coveted his divine position, stolen from him and in a sense killed themselves by doing a deed leading to an abolition of their immortality – and then they had given a false testimony of the proceedings. Such examples showed that Ten Commandments formed a sort of natural law, which did not have to be revealed. Still, Tertullian did not want to go as far as to throw away all the Jewish tradition, because he endorsed the idea that this tradition contained important information about Christianity itself.

Instead of Greek and Jewish culture, Tertullian was dedicated to the cause of a third race of humans, that is, the Christian culture. Like his predecessors, he was keen to purge Christianity from all dogmas he considered forgeries. For instance, he denied that God would have required any independent matter in creation of the world – that would have been against the supposed infinite might of divinity. Instead, all things helping God in creations, especially the Logos, had already been produced by God. This did not mean that God would have been immaterial. Influenced by Stoics, Tertullian was convinced that even God was material, although his matter was not of the ordinary, earthly sort, but something that we humans could never see.

Tertullian was also certain that there could be no god higher than the creator of the world. Firstly, Tertullian insisted, the concept of god already implied that there could be only god. Furthermore, if such a higher god existed, it wouldn't have shown its existence, unlike creator, who had done something worthy of divinity, that is, the world itself. Instead of a passive perfection, Tertullian thought God must be active and do things.

Even more suspect in Tertullian's eyes was the suggestion that creator and world he had made were evil, because he punished human beings, while the supposed higher god would have been completely good and thus purely merciful – true goodness, Tertullian said, could not exist without the capacity to judge and condemn evil persons. Indeed, Tertullian endorsed the notion that God would have emotions, such as anger, although in a much more perfect manner than humans. By having such human sounding emotions God raised the worth of humanity to the level of divine.

Because of this need to raise up humanity, Tertullian thought it was important that Logos who took the form of a human being had truly had a material form and not just an appearance of a body, as some sects were saying – Logos had went through a seemingly shameful birth just to sanctify such bodily processes. It was also important to him that Logos was in a sense something closely attached to creator and not a completely independent entity. Logos was literally the reason of God, with which God had a sort of internal dialogue, just like human beings could be said to speak with themselves when they consulted their reason. Thus, one could say that God himself had become human and so divinised humanity.

Yet, Tertullian was also not willing to completely identify Logos and creator. Creator had, as it were, released its reason and separated it from himself. Because even God was material in Tertullian's eyes, he could easily say that this separated reason still had the same substance as God, just like a beam of light still was made of the substance of the sun, even if Logos now was a distinct personage. Thus, while Logos had brought something of divinity to Earth, creator could still remain outside the world.

Just like Tertullian thought that God had matter, he also didn't want to admit the immateriality of human soul. Instead, soul was for Tertullian a special sort of material object, existing within certain body and taking on its shape. In fact, he insisted, soul had not existed before the generation of human body, but was born at the same time as the human body was produced by combination of a male seed with matter from a female. Death, or separation of soul and its body, was then also unnatural, unlike sleeping, which meant just cessation of some of the activities of soul. After death human souls waited in the recesses of Earth for the eventual return to their bodies. After this resurrection God would make human flesh incorruptible, so that it would never again be separated from the soul.

Just like Tertullian attacked the notion of soul's immateriality, he was also critical of the idea that a human being would have a part distinct from the soul, which would connect it with a realm beyond the world. All the higher faculties of a human being were just more developed faculties of human soul, Tertullian said. Indeed, he was certain that all these higher faculties depended essentially on senses. Because senses are the basis of all human knowledge, Tertullian was convinced that senses must be on the whole reliable and give us a direct contact with the world around us. In cases where they seem to deceive us, it is according to Tertullian always a question of some external influence interrupting this direct contact.

Tertullian insisted that certain central tenets of Christianity were ingrained in the soul of every human being. Thus, everyone could feel the existence of a beneficent creator and also the existence of an evil entity rebelling against the creator. Similarly, Tertullian continued, all humans were afraid of death, because they instinctively knew that they would be judged according to their deeds in the afterlife. Still, Tertullian continued, this natural connection to God was shadowed in birth by the original sin inherited from the first human being. Further disruption was caused by evil spirits, which gave human souls all sort of unnatural desires concerning their bodies. In fact, Tertullian said, the only natural bodily desire was that of sustaining it with food and drink. Even that desire could control person too much and regular fasting was to be commended, because one should make spirit and not flesh strong. Finally, Tertullian acknowledged also the existence of cultural disturbances, since pagan rituals practically invited demons to torment the soul.

The aim of human life was then to cleanse the soul from these disturbances and find anew the original connection with divinity. The task of Logos was to help in renewing this connection. Furthermore, Tertullian became enamoured of the idea that just like creator had separated Logos from itself, a third entity, Paraclete, had been distinguished in a similar manner from Logos and was even now spreading new visions about divinity to us. This idea – main tenet of the Montanist sect – was not liked by the official church, because it appeared to suggest that established truths of Christian faith might still be changed.

One of Tertullian's tasks was to argue for the rationality of Christian ceremonies. He went through Lord's prayer line by line, suggesting that it is actually a concise rendering of certain key tenets in Christianity. Furthermore, he insisted that baptism is more than just a ceremony. Water, said Tertullian, may assume the powers of divine spirit, just like human flesh is following the desires of soul. Thus, a sprinkle of water has the power to cleanse a human soul, if the person washed with the water truly wanted to establish a connection with God.

In Tertullian's eyes, the life of a Christian should always be oriented towards her true source of happiness, that is, divinity. In comparison with the promised afterlife in connection with God, Tertullian thought the earthly life is a jail, in which we just wait for the final judgement. Tertullian encouraged every Christian to patiently endure all the sufferings inflicted on them and not to avoid even death of a martyr. Thus, they would follow the example of God, who waited for millenia before punishing the wicked, and of Christ, who gladly went through all kinds of torments, although he could have just willed to avoid them. Indeed, Tertullian said, such hardships were just God's way of testing our resilience and faith.

The prime source of information on good behaviour was for Tertullian, of course, the Bible. For instance, because worshiping other gods was forbidden in the Bible, a true Christian should avoid taking any part in such customs and even shun festivities held for the sake of some divinity, Tertullian said. This didn't mean that he wouldn't endorse any rules of good behaviour, which couldn't be literally found in the scriptures. Instead, he admitted that rules of conduct should be accepted, if they were clear consequences of rules in the Bible. For instance, Tertullian was of the opinion that gladiator fights and theatrical performances should be avoided, because they had their origin in the worship of the supposed pagan gods and because they encouraged brutal and frivolous way of life. Even such a seemingly innocent thing as wearing a garland as a decoration was frowned upon by Tertullian, because it was a pagan ritual, which used plants and flowers for unnecessary frivolities.

All earthly desires leading one away from the heavenly goal were in Tertullian's eyes at least partially mere obstacles. One should avoid luxury and clothe oneself modestly, like a true philosopher was supposed to do. Gold, silver and jewelry were in Tertullian's eyes in no way special compared with other stones and valued only for their rarity. In general, all attempts to make something more beautiful than they were by nature was, according to Tertullian, an attempt to improve God's own work and thus mere folly. And although Tertullian thought it was folly for anyone, in quite a gendered fashion he said it was even more of a folly for a male, who was supposed to have more dignity according to Tertullian's worldview. In an equally gendered fashion, Tertullian was of the opinion that all females who had reached puberty were by their very nature defined by their relationship to their potential husband and should thus follow the dress code that Bible had declared for married women. It is better if females see, but are not seen, Tertullian stated – a statement quite extraordinary even among ancient Christians.

Even marriage, although partially sanctioned by the divine commandment to fill the world with humans, was in Tertullian's eyes not as perfect mode of life as an unmarried life dedicated to the worship of God. Becoming a widow can then be regarded, Tertullian said, a great boon allowing a person to concentrate on the one truly important relation, that is, relation to God. Especially to be avoided in Tertullian's opinion was a marriage with a non-Christian person, who would constantly tempt the spouse from a proper way of life. With advancing age, Tertullian's views on marriage became more and more extreme. He became convinced that world had already been filled with human beings and that further population would just increase the misery of everyone. Thus, even the last reason for accepting marriages was rooted out and especially marriage after the death of one's original spouse was to be completely eradicated, according to Tertullian. If a supposed Christian could not follow the rule of not marrying twice – or heaven forbid, committed even worse fornication – such a person should be excommunicated from the Church, Tertullian said, because forgiveness of such great sins was given only to pagans converting to Christianity, and a second digression could be forgiven only by God after the death of the person.

Although Tertullian wanted Christians to turn their gaze toward heaven, he did not suggest that they should completely remove themselves from mundane concerns. In fact, he even congratulated Christians as being of major assistance to the Roman Empire, because of their honesty and diligence. Christians even cared for the welfare of the Empire, which Tertullian thought as the last line of defense against the end of the world. The Roman emperor had been chosen by God, and Christians were thus bound by duty to pray for his good health. Much more critical, especially in his later life, Tertullian was of the official church. No wonder then that many of Tertullian's ideas were not sanctioned and that the future development of church dogma followed a completely different route.

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