Well its 4.30 am on a December Tuesday morning and latent musings on the most profound questions of all have flooded my little grey cells into sudden wakefulness, and the ever-lasting wrestling match between the edges of reason and faith that are my life holds me in its restless grip once more.
Three decades ago, my doctoral supervisor in a tutorial said something that was to change my life and which still prompts these thoughts so many long years later, something that shredded my shallow angry atheism.
A confirmed agnostic, he argued that his was the only rational position since it was impossible to disprove the existence, or otherwise, of a transcendent creator God outside time and space. He went further and argued that atheism was the least rational of all three positions as there is much more circumstantial evidence for the existence of God than for his non-existence (testimonial witness evidence, the fact that all human societies have some belief in a form of divinity). An argument I still find as compelling today as thirty years ago, albeit I now believe that the testimonial and other circumstantial evidence is of sufficiently high quality to compel faith, if not certainty, in the existence of such a God. Indeed, the developing understanding of DNA was enough to force Professor Anthony Flew, the Dawkins of the philosophical world for half a century, to abandon his hard-line atheism of half a century and to embrace theism.
Now this article is not meant to rehash the old arguments, but rather to attempt to make some points about the nature of God, or at least the way our greatest progenitor civilisations understood him/them, and how they were reconciled in Christianity.
I would contend that the three greatest civilisations (in terms of contribution across the spectrum in a broad range of fields of human endeavour, were the Sumerians, the Hebrews (whom some scholars believe emerged from the Sumerians), and the Greeks.
The Sumerians pretty much invented civilisation, but it was the Hebrews who were the first known to advocate monotheism and a God outside time and space (the first verses of Genesis). while the Greeks invented pretty much everything else (a gross generalisation which has a core of truth). But more fundamentally the Hebrews were focused on the exploration for the Nature of God and reconciling Man to Him, while the Greeks were obsessed with understanding and improving the nature of Men.
Now, starting with the Greeks, where this all began for me being a Hellenist myself, who were intellectually much more interested in human nature than in their gods. A perhaps controversial thing to say. The Greeks’ gods were utterly different from that of the Hebrews, not only in their numbers but also in their anthropomorphism, their horrible natures and indeed the limits on their powers. They were not eternal, but were situated very much in time and space and would have an end at some point.
The Greeks gods were super-beings, no more, to be placated and got onside with ritual and sacrifice. They could not offer Mankind redemption, salvation or eternity (other than in one or two exceptional cases), and indeed weren’t that interested in humanity other than in its service, or as entertainment, for them.
One could argue that the Greeks never devised a coherent theology for their beliefs, perhaps hardly surprising given the nature of their gods, whereas they did invent several coherent worldviews through their philosophers, the likes of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Zeno, Diogenes and hundreds of others; all scrapping it out in the free market place of metaphysical ideas to help people acquire the ‘happy life’.
In some ways, the Greeks were much more concerned with acquiring wisdom (‘sofia’) rather than knowledge, ‘know thyself’, something which puts them at complete variance with the modern obsession with the obtaining of new knowledge for advancement, rather than how to use better what we already have.
The various schools of philosophy might all compete energetically and differ widely in their teachings, but at their heart they shared one unifying view – the content man or woman achieves this state by measured self-discipline, even denial, with some verging on asceticism. In disciplining one’s natural desires, one obtains self-mastery and therefore a measure of inner freedom. And this is what counted; the gods and other people were capricious, untrustworthy, even oppressive, and therefore to make your way through life intact you needed to master yourself.
The Hebrews by contrast, having become monotheists, if somewhat inconsistently, made the understanding of their conception of a single creator God outside time and space their overwhelming intellectual obsession for two millennia before Christ. The collected works of their civilisation, which we call the Old Testament, is in fact a library of histories, laws, poems, songs, prophetic works, even origin legends, all united in the central narrative of their collective culture – their relationship with the all-powerful one god, Jehovah, and the portrayal of their perception of His nature. They produced very little that did not have this central thread running through it.
Now, I have written before about how the Hebrews fundamentally misunderstood the reality of their perception of God and his relationship with them, and how their own Holy Books are pretty unsparing and unflattering about them, but their obsession was essentially extrovert, searching for something outside themselves, whereas the Greeks’ was introverted, searching within themselves.
In pursuing the nature of God, they conceived Him to be responsible for the laws of the universe, rather than subject to them like the Hellenic deities, and therefore comprehensible, consistent, rational, reasoned (the New Testament often uses the word logos as a title for Christ – the divine rational thought underpinning the universe), and immutable.
Another facet, somewhat surprisingly, is that the Hebrews saw God as interested in every fraction of His creation because he upholds everything every second, and that without this continual divine sustenance, everything would just cease and lapse into the void once more. Again, an utterly different view from the Greeks. But here the Hebrews were inconsistent because they also saw Jehovah as partial, biased to them because of the Covenant, whatever their behaviour, a tribal god asserting their claims to superiority, despite their prophets repeatedly stating the opposite and that their ‘chosen’ status was to be a race of apostles rather than conquerors. They were certainly accorded a promised homeland, but never empire: hence the root of their misunderstanding of the divine purpose for them.
So here we have it – arguably the two most brilliant ancient peoples seeing human and divine natures utterly differently, one theological extroverts, the other philosophical introverts, as a consequence, and, I would argue, both part right and part wrong.
And yet, on a night in probably 3 or 4 BC, these different world views were reconciled in the Incarnation in the person of the God child, the Son of Man, the Logos in the Greek mind, the Messiah in the Jewish. A Jew from the ancient Hebrew line growing up in a Romano-Greek intellectual world, whose early disciples were Jewish but whose teachings and faith spread like wildfire across the Greek speaking world of the time, subsuming the philosophical schools, reconciling Greek and Jewish thought into a unity – that of Christianity.
It’s always struck me just how readily the vast majority of Greek philosophies were absorbed into Christianity, the asceticism of the Cynics, the focus on ordered reason of the Stoics, Platonists and Peripatetics, arguably only the Epicureans weren’t fully integrated, but they were only ever a tiny fringe movement of the wealthy anyway. Even today we see their lingering traces in Christian thought, the intellectual apogee of which was surely Thomas Aquinas’s works reconciling Aristotelianism to Christianity in the Scholastic tradition (for me Aquinas is one of the three greatest known conceptual thinkers in the history of Mankind, alongside Plato and Aristotle).
And here we get to the script for the passing of the exam of life.
The Greeks thought that with no afterlife on offer, the purpose of life was to get through it as unscathed as possible, by denying one’s passions and exerting an iron self-discipline based on the Golden Rule. The Hebrews believed that, by being ritually purified and theologically fastidious, they would obtain a form of better afterlife., but this meant being a Hebrew, and was effectively closed to outsiders.
Jesus taught that both were incomplete, that the Jews were wrong because of their tribal exclusivity and obsession with the Mosaic Law, and that, while the Greeks might offer some strong ideas on how to live the ‘good life’, that they did not offer the hope of redemption and an afterlife. And that’s part of the explanation why Christianity is today the biggest faith on Earth and is still expanding without recourse to violence, absorbing painlessly and building upon the best of the Greeks and far outstripping the Jews. And that’s why, living the Good Life laid out in the New Testament and embracing the faith of reformed Messianic Jehovah devotion, is the formula for passing the exam of life – the first Christians called themselves ‘The Way’, not Christians for this very reason.
So, what is Christmas all about? At least in part, it’s about the unification of sundered truths, the revelations of the Hebrews and Greeks in creating a template for the inner and outer perfection of Mankind, and the reconciliation of Mankind’s position in a logos driven universe as a path to happiness and eternity. Plato used an analogy to describe love between men and women – how all happily fulfilled beings were originally spheres that were split into two and how they spend their lives searching for their other halves to be complete once more. And so it is, Christians like me believe, that the sundered halves of the Greeks and Hebrews were reconciled in the faith born about 2,020 years ago.
Post-scriptum: Islam on this reading, went the opposite way – it took the worst features of tribal Judaism and paganism, and magnified them a hundred-fold.
© 1642again 2017