For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Cor. 1:17)

Why, you might be asking, would any reasonable Christian be against apologetics?  It is a fair question, and I have a number of dear friends for whom apologetics is very important, so I should like here to be as gentle as I can in protesting it.  I do understand that for many people, and the better portion of them very thoughtful people, apologetics means a great deal, and in many cases, unfortunately in my view, the question of faith hangs on the results of apologetical questioning.  But to me, apologetics such as it is practiced is vulgar, and in my view it must, however sympathetically, be protested.  It disfigures the meaning of faith, and thereby deforms the whole meaning of Christianity.  It purges it of its own soul, empties the cross of Christ of its power, as Paul says in the epigraph above.  Philosophical apologetics vulgarizes Christianity by flattening out its meaning, import, and significance into a set of factual propositions, as if this is what is most important to the creator of the universe.

Why do I say so?  Because apologetics is about philosophical contemplation and factual propositions and orthodoxy, none of which either Christ or Christianity is about.  The point is very difficult to come about, still more difficult to express, but I think the poet Rilke most nearly touches upon what I mean here.  In his now-famous letters to a young poet, he writes that “the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”  If Christianity, like all good poetry and literature, is about actively living in the spaces opened by the questions, then philosophical apologetics is about passively thinking about answers.  You will have noticed here, a certain opposition, and I think it is important to recognize, between literature on the one hand, and philosophy on the other, two forms of discourses which could be, in respect of their relation to a text, no more different.  The distinction is important because without being fully aware of either the fact or its consequences, Christians have been treating Christianity philosophically, treating the bible as if it were some kind of philosophical treatise which provides answers about our existence in the world, and this  has had, in my view, profoundly devastating effects.

Plato and the Influence of Philosophy on Christianity.

Though I am uncertain of how confidently I can assert this, that Christianity has been treated discursively as a form of philosophical speculation, may have its roots in Plato.  While this explanation is itself somewhat speculative, it is not without a good deal of evidence.  In the first place, Plato’s own writings provide signs of what he himself very candidly calls this “ancient quarrel” between poetry and philosophy and he bans the poets from his ideal city.  Moreover, his philosophical misreadings of Homer in many ways prefigures our own philosophical misreadings of the bible.  Plato reads Homer as if he were some kind of botched piece of philosophy, and criticizes him for providing an imperfect depiction of the world, as if that were, in the first place, his intention.  Today, at least two groups of people carry on categorical error.  One of them is the kind of Christian who reads the bible as if it provides, or as if it were in the first place meant to provide, philosophical answers to the problems of existence.  They are not all fundamentalists, and a good deal of very thoughtful Christians — I would even include those like C.S. Lewis — fall into this category.  The other group of people who carry on Plato’s category error is the New Atheists, who style themselves as being “militantly” atheistic (Richard Dawkins), a group of “intellectuals” (to use the term liberally) with whom, for their sheer ignorance, for their earth-creeping simplicity, I am considerably less patient.  They too read the bible as if it is some kind of botched piece of science, and are astounded, bemused, absolutely flabbergasted, when they cannot find Darwinian theory in the pages of holy scripture.  In the technical jargon, they are known as “Victorian rationalists.”

But simply to observe a similarity, however analogous, is speculative.  In order to establish in some way Platonic influence as an underlying historical cause, it would be necessary to establish Platonic influence in Christian thought, which demonstration is not in the least difficult.[1]  The extent and scope of Plato’s influence on the development of Christian thought is universally acknowledged, by both those who welcome and those who (like me) protest it, to have been profound.   Nietzsche famously charged that “Christianity is Platonism for the ‘common people.’”[2] The German philosopher Bruno Bauer, a student of Hegel’s and a contemporary of Marx’s, claimed, “Christianity is a Graeco-Roman phenomenon in a Jewish mask.”[3]  In his review of the history of Platonism, the Platonist Paul Shorey suggests that Platonism “colored the thought and the language of all educated men, including the Christian Fathers,”[4] explicating the extent to which this influence was direct and obvious: “The Republic was the storehouse from which the Christian Fathers drew nearly all their arguments … The repetitions and paraphrases of these [Platonic] canons in European theology would fill a volume.”[5]  In this he is quite in accord with the general view, summarized by the intellectual historian Richard Tarnas suggests,

… Christianity’s self-conception as a world religion was profoundly facilitated by its relation to the larger Hellenistic world.  While Christianity’s claim to religious universality, both its effective universality–its success in propagation–and its philosophical universality owed much to the Greco-Roman milieu of its birth.[6]

Whenever one culture wishes to appropriate itself to another, it is typical that it should have to, in some way or another, accommodate itself to that culture.  It was no different for Christianity.  In spreading its influence out and over the Hellenistic world, it had to make itself intelligible to that mind.  It was in luck, Tarnas points out, because Christianity found, in a sense, a ready-made system for this to be carried out with, Greek metaphysics:

Faced with the fact that there already existed in the greater Mediterranean culture a sophisticated philosophical tradition from the Greeks, the educated class of early Christians rapidly saw the need for integrating that traditions with their religious faith.  Such an integration was pursued … to assist the greco-Roman culture in understanding the Christian mystery.[7]

As a result of this accommodation, even assimilation, to Greek philosophy, the “Christian world view was fundamentally informed by its classical predecessors,” and as a result of this in turn, “even the most erudite elements of Hellenic philosophy were absorbed by, and had their influence on, the Christian faith.”[8]  Tarnas goes on to suggest that “as Christian culture matured during its first several centuries, its religious thought developed into a systematic theology, and although that theology was Judaeo-Christian in substance, its metaphysical structure was largely Platonic.”[9]

It is even possible, certainly feasible, to trace out the ways in which Platonic rationalism influenced the very formation of Christian conceptions.  The influence is so ubiquitous that is it not difficult to find examples.  For instance, Philo of Alexandria, who is especially important because he is more responsible than perhaps any other single figure for the integration of Greek metaphysics and Platonism into Christian theology, crucially identified the Logos of the Gospel of John with the Platonic eidos, the Idea of Ideas, as the divine principle of rationality which structured the universe below and the metaphysical heavens above.  Philo suggested that the Platonic forms were thoughts in the eternal mind of God.[10]  Augustine likewise thought the Platonic forms were ideas in God’s mind and shared the Platonic view that the world of the senses and of becoming was less substantial than the unchanging, eternal world of being, the world of the Platonic forms — unsurprising given his own admission that he found Platonic philosophy “the most pure and bright in all philosophy.”[11]  Indeed, so pervasive was this Platonic influence on the mind of early Christianity, in concepts like the Logos, for instance, that Justin Martyr very famously suggested that “those who live according to the Logos are Christians, even though they may have been counted as atheists — such as Socrates and Heraclitus, and others like them, among the Greeks … For all writers were able to see the truth darkly, on account of the implanted seed of the Logos which was grafted into them.”[12]  And like Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, who like Origen quoted Plato on almost every page of his writings,[13] likewise viewed the Greek philosophers as being, in a sense, proto-Christian.  Even Tertullian, who was in some ways deeply suspicious of Greek philosophy, believed that Christ prefigured Plato’s tripartite division of the soul.[14]  So contiguous were Greek philosophy and Christianity perceived to be that Clement believed Greek philosophy was but a forerunner for Christianity, writing that “until the coming (parousia) of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness … For philosophy acted as a ‘schoolmaster’ (epaidagogei) to being the Greeks to Christ, just as the law brought the Hebrews.”[15]  And many ancient Jews and Christians even believed that Plato “learned the philosophy of Moses from Jeremiah in Egypt.”[16]  Of course the notion is untenable, but it does nevertheless show how closely related early Jews and Christians thought Platonism and Christianity to be.  One could go on and on with such examples, and indeed Shorey, in his review of historical Platonism has suggested that an “exhaustive critical study of the quotations from Plato in the Christian Fathers would fill an erudite monograph,”[17] but I think the point is rather clear.

Christianity, Tragedy, Knowledge as Praxis.

Having established, however crudely, the influence of Platonic rationalism on Christianity, it is possible to trace out some of their significant differences, the most important of which I mentioned earlier: that between philosophy and literature as different ways of dealing with a text.  While, as Emerson says, Plato is philosophy and philosophy Plato, Christianity does not seem to me to permit of philosophical interpretation.  For rather than provide any kind of philosophical account of existence, let alone a systematic one, Christianity has precious little to say.  If anything, it provides questions.  What does it mean that the truth, after having entered the world, was savagely humiliated, tortured, and mutilated by it?  What does that say about human existence?  Why do human beings suffer? was the question taken up in the Book of Job, where, it is relevant to observe, the author lampoons those who try to give philosophical answers for Job’s suffering.  Nor yet does the author himself try to provide one.  Saint Paul, too, is of a similar mind when it comes to philosophy and philosophers, whose wisdom, he says, God finds foolish (1 Cor. 1:20).  Paul goes on: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).  The bible, indeed, does not have much to say about philosophy at all, but in the few instances where it does, it has little nice to say, a fact conveniently forgotten by our apologists.

The bible is not a philosophical treatise.  If anything, it is a kind of literary treasury.  And if Christianity is any kind of literature in particular, undoubtedly it belongs to that genre which takes the form of a question without an answer, what according to the literary critic Terry Eagleton, is called tragedy.[18]  The Christian story in many ways not only fits into, but even defines the genre: the truth enters the world and is put to death by it.  As Eagleton suggests, in Christianity, the stark signifier of the human condition is the mutilated body of a political prisoner.  The Christian response to this tragedy writ large is not, as apologists do, to sit around and think about what are the soteriological mechanics, the abstract theories of justice, at work in the crucifixion, but rather, to act in order to change the material circumstances in which such questions are able to arise in the first place.  As the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez has written about, though Christianity has for centuries focused on the question of orthodoxy, it should, just as much if not to a greater extent, be concerned with the matter of orthopraxis.  In this respect, Christianity is much closer to Marxism than it is to Platonism, Marx having famously declared in the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”[19]  Christ, in this respect, is far less an armchair philosopher than he is a political revolutionary, and the realm which he seeks to change, much less comprehend, is not, as with apologist-philosophers, the starry heavens above, but the sublunary world into which he incarnated.  In fact, he says it very explicitly: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” he says (my emphasis).  Notice he does not say: Thy kingdom come in heaven.  Nor does he say: thy will be contemplated, on earth as it is in heaven.  It is significant in this respect to observe that Jesus does not spend his time idly philosophizing.  He does not passively think about the truth; he lives it and is it: I am the way, he says, and the truth, and the life.  For Jesus, as for Rilke, as for Marx, the truth is something lived, and reflection must take as its subject the praxis which follows from this fact.

To these assertions, the apologist may wish to respond: but all action requires contemplation; orthopraxis presupposes orthodoxy.  In this they are partially correct, though yet very confused.  Marx had, more than anyone else, properly accounted for the relation of knowledge to action, of consciousness to being, of theory to praxis: it is of a wholly different sort than the apologists practice.  Whereas philosophy is wont to spirit itself away from the historical conditions of human beings, shake loose its material fetters, and “flatter itself as something other than the consciousness of existing practice,” as Marx puts it, theory which remains rooted in the material conditions of human beings is quite another thing altogether.  Whereas abstract philosophy amounts, as Marx says, to a “demand to interpret reality in another way,” the philosophers forgetting that “to these phrases they themselves are only opposing other phrases, and that they are in no way combating the real existing world,”[20] scriptural theology is quite different.  This conception of knowledge as a theory of praxis, moreover, is not just a Marxist superimposition; it is in the scriptures themselves, perhaps most lucidly articulated in Jeremiah 22:16:

He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
and so all went well.
“Is that not what it means to know me?”
declares the Lord.

The theologian Jose Porfirio Miranda, who is also in my view one of the most perceptive readers of scripture, comments: “Here we have the explicit definition of what it is to know Yahweh.  To know Yahweh is to achieve justice for the poor.  Nothing authorizes us to introduce a cause-effect relationship between ‘to know yahweh’ and ‘to practice justice.’”  And he goes on: “Nor are we authorized to introduce categories like ‘sign’ or ‘manifestation of.’  The Bible is well acquainted with these categories, and when it means them, it says so.  A fundamental hermeneutical principle is at stake here … ”[21]

Christianity as Humanism: Christian Anthropocentrism.

In The German Ideology, from which we have earlier quoted, Marx, in a flight of rhetoric, goes on: “In direct contrast to German [idealist] philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven … We set out from real, active men …”[22]  In this, Christianity is in full accord.  While prima facie, it may seem Christianity, particularly in the doctrine of the Incarnation, suggests the exact opposite, such an understanding confuses words for their meanings.  For as Karl Barth well understood, the Incarnation, by transmuting the divine into the human, thereby equated the human with the divine: “Man is the measure of all things,” Barth writes, “since God became man.”[23]  In this way, in the Incarnation, while God “descends from heaven to earth,” man at last is able to “ascend from earth to heaven.”  The humanization of God implies the divinization of man.  I follow Emerson in this interpretation:

Alone in all history, [Jesus Christ] estimated the greatness of man.  One man was true to what is in you and me.  He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world.  He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine.  Through me, God acts; through me, speaks.  Would you see God, see me; or, see thee then thou also thinkest as I now think.’[24]

Despite the long history of its Platonic and idealist interpretations, there is nothing in the scriptures particularly which suggests anything other than that Christianity is, as religions go, sublimely immanent and anti-transcendental, stubbornly materialist[25] and anti-idealist.  It seeks no “wonder but the human face,” as the poet John Keats might say.[26]

In fact, scripture is quite explicit about this.  In Matthew 25, the Evangelist suggests that Christians ought to treat the poor, the hungry, the powerless as if they were God himself.  According to the bible, should any apologist care to read it, the plenum and proof of God’s existence is in the eyes of the cold, starving flesh on the side of the road.  There is no fancy apologetics here, no cosmological argument, no ontological argument; the argument is written in the face of this neighbor, in the ethical demand which his poverty and his hunger makes upon you, silently imploring the recognition of its existence.  Not only would metaphysical speculation be unnecessary here; it would be ethically obscene.

The French phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas had his own way of putting this.  He said, “ethics is first philosophy.”  Ethics precedes philosophy.  The ethical demand of the other, cold and starving on the side of the road, precedes, supersedes, and overwhelms the ethical individual.  The effect of the scripture’s equation of God with the starving flesh on the side of the road is to suggest that the infinity of the other overwhelms any totality, which is to say, any conceptual scheme, philosophy, or notional apparatus which we might use to comprehend it.  Again, to know Yahweh is not to contemplate transcendental profundities, but to do justice.  If for Marx, philosophy had reversed the relation of thought to action, then for Levinas, philosophy had reversed the relation of ethics to philosophy; it had been blithe in its conceit that ethics follows from philosophical speculation.  Wrong, he said: it is philosophy which follows, ethics which leads.  And in this, Levinas argues, philosophy is not only wrong, but also unethical: “A philosophy of power, ontology, as a fundamental philosophy which does not call into question the self [as ethics does in the summons of the other], is a philosophy of injustice.”[27]  As Miranda writes, “The God of the Bible does not ‘be’ first and later reveal himself.  He is only in the word which commands,”[28] that is, the ethical call of the neighbor.  Knowledge of God, if one is to take the scriptures at all seriously, is not achieved by going to seminars and lectures on apologetics, it is not by sitting around with fuddy-duddy scholars and discussing epistemology, ontology, and moral theory.  It is by working for justice in the world.  It is only by struggling for justice that one comes to know God.  Again, the distinctions follow along the same axes: philosophy, thought, ontology, Greek metaphysics on the one hand, tragedy, praxis, Christian ethics on the other.

To read scripture philosophically, to read it as if it provides some kind of philosophical answers to the problems of existence is to read it in a spirit fundamentally alien to itself.  The early Church Fathers may have found some profitable employment for philosophy in the service of Christianity, but it is well to remember that they themselves, all of them, were in thought and temperament Greek metaphysicians.  The Christian scriptures are literary, and they are literary in a specifically tragic way: they pose questions to the problems of existence which they not only fail to provide answers to, but refuse and resist answers on principle.  Knowledge is god is not something contemplated but done.  Christianity radically upsets and overturns all of the assumptions which underlie apologetical practice, which is fundamentally alien to it.  To the apologists, the scriptures would suggest that if they really desired knowledge of God, they should go do justice.

Keats, in his famous “Ode on a Grecian Urn” writes, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  In this spirit we might say: God is justice, justice God — that is all we know on earth, and all we need to know.  However simple this understanding, however much it preserves rather than violates the mysteries of God and the world — if it could suffice for Jesus, perhaps it can suffice for us too.


[1] A significant portion of what follows is adapted from my I See the Son of Man Coming on the Clouds with Power and Glory, pending publication.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Oxford World’s Classics, Trans. and ed. Marion Faber,  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, p.4

[3] Bruno Bauer, qtd. in William Ralph Inge, The Platonic Tradition in English Religious Thought, New York: Longmans, Green and Co., Ltd: 1926, p.11

[4] Paul Shorey, Platonism: Ancient and Modern, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1938

[5] Ibid., p.65

[6] Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, New York: Harmony Books, 1993, p.98

[7] Ibid., p.101

[8] Ibid., p.100

[9] Ibid., p.102

[10] Ibid., p.474-475, note 4

[11] Ibid., p.103

[12] Justin Martyr, Apologia, in The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister McGrath, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995, p.4

[13] Paul Shorey, Platonism: Ancient and Modern, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1938, p.81

[14] Ibid., p.74

[15] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata in The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister McGrath, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995, p.5

[16] Paul Shorey, Platonism: Ancient and Modern, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1938, p.73

[17] Ibid., p.78

[18] See, for more, my review of Eagleton’s book, “A Review of the Meaning of Life,” Harvard Ichthus, Spring 2011

[19] Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, trans. Cyril Smith, Marxists.org, accessed 19 January 2014 (original 1845), http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/

[20] Karl Marx, The German Ideology, in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, New York: Norton, 1978, p.149

[21] Jose Porfirio Miranda, Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression, London: SCM Press, 1977, p.45

[22] Ibid., p.154

[23] Karl Barth, Against the Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings, 1946-52, New York: Philosophical Library, 1954, quoted in Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, London: SCM Press, 1988 (original 1971), p.51

[24] Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Divinity School Address,’ in Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman, New York: New American Library, 1965, pp.251-252

[25] In the Marxian, not consumerist, sense, which is in many ways, the exact opposite.

[26] John Keats, “Revision of Hyperion.”

[27] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press; The Hague: Nijhoff, 1969, p.46, qtd. in Jose Porfirio Miranda, Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression, London: SCM Press, 1977, p.xix

[28] Jose Porfirio Miranda, Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression, London: SCM Press, 1977, p.42