One World or Two Worlds

The Greeks

Platonism may not seem the proper place to begin a short survey of the background to the Christian doctrine of Original Sin.  Plato, after all, lived 350 years before the time of Jesus and in a land far away.  But I want to start there because I believe more than any other influence, despite the antiquity of the Jewish story of the Garden of Eden and Jesus’ own strictly Jewish perspective, it was Platonism that gave the essential character to Christianity and its doctrine of Original Sin.  Most are not aware of this.  Platonism not only reworked every detail of what was inherited from the Hebrew scriptures, it suffused every statement and action of Jesus, effectively re-interpreting his message in the light of Platonism’s own fundamental assumptions.  The essential meaning of the Christian doctrine of “Ori­gi­nal Sin” did not come from the Jews or from Jesus of Nazareth.  It was the product of Platonism and hellenistic culture.[1]

The first point is that Platonism, as philosophy, was believed to be the rational correction of the outland­ish stories of the gods of mediterranean mythology.  Platonism, in other words, considered itself not religion, but something like science.  Christianity eventually identified with Platonism, and picked up this attitude, at least by late in the second century c.e.  When Athenagoras wrote his “Letter to Marcus Aurelius” around 175 ce, it was on full display.  Christianity was truth, said Athenagoras, in the scientific sense of literal, factual and historical truth; the stories of the gods were “mere” myths.  Christianity never lost that self-projection.  The apparently factual accounts of Jesus’ life in the gospels, and the frank narrative of failure in his execution by the Romans, corroborated this feeling; with Christianity the days of legends and myths were over and the age of truth had dawned.

But while Plato worked to correct the ideas that Greek mythology falsely propagated, he did not chal­lenge its basic premises, and in fact even reinforced them.  The only thing he disputed were the fantastical stories told about the gods and the absurd infantile character of the divinity they portrayed.  But for Plato, there was indeed “another” world where the gods, whom he imagined were pure spirit, dwelt and acted.  His gods were contemplators of eternal ideas, and ruled the universe by them.[2]

Plato was different in this respect from his contemporary Zeno of Citium, the Stoic, who rejected any other world.  His “God” was immanent in the material universe.  Zeno sought to discover rational ways of living that did not involve preoccupation with what was going on in another, imaginary, world.

Plato’s “other” world was populated with different kinds of beings altogether — spirits.  He imagined they were minds with ideas, different from the dense stuff of this world, “matter.”  He found it strange that in this earthly world of matter there were human minds that use ideas to survive, grow food, build their families and their empires.  Ideas and minds are “spirit,” they didn’t really belong in a material world.  How did they get here?  The original human, he conjectured, must have been all “spirit,” and must have done something in that other world, by mistake or by malice, and as a result “fell” into matter.  Human nature as we know it, in other words, is not as nature intended; it is the result of a tragic misstep.  Humanity is the product of a catastrophe that joined two substances that were never meant to be together.  “Spirit” was exiled into matter as into a dungeon; and its true nature drives it to escape its place of torture and return to the world of ideas and minds from which it came.  All of human work, struggle and the social, political strife that seems to accompany us wherever we go, is explained as the effort to get back home to that other world — the world that the myths of the “gods” had so grossly mis-represen­ted.  Plato’s philosophy set out to rectify the false impressions of that other world created by mythology, and to set the correct course for “getting back home.”[3]

Stoicism was the other philosophy that vied with Platonism for popularity among the Greeks of that time.  While Stoicism had a non-dualist materialistic physics and cosmology, its views on these fundamentals are often glossed over.  Historians tend to focus on its ethics and spiritual program which Jews and Christians have always admired.  Its ethical views, however, cannot really be understood outside of the context of its cosmology.

… the Stoics, make God material. … the Stoic God is immanent throughout the whole of creation and directs its development down to the smallest detail. … It is important to realize that the Stoic God does not craft its world in accordance with its plan from the outside, as the demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus is described as doing.  Rather, the history of the universe is determined by God’s activity internal to it, shaping it with its differentiated characteristics. The biological conception of God as a kind of living heat or seed from which things grow seems to be fully inten­ded.[4]

Please note: the Stoics did not believe in the existence of two-worlds, nor any alleged “fall.”  There was no thought of another life after death.  Their ethical program had to do with how to live in this world such as it is, not how to insure “salvation” in some other.  Hence their “stoical” attitudes toward suffering.  What is most relevant for our study is that there was a deep affinity between Stoicism’s ethical goals and the message of Jesus of Nazareth, and both differed significantly from Platonism’s em­phasis on returning to the “other world,” and Christianity’s “life after death.”  For the Stoics, as for Jesus, as we shall see, the ethical act was its own reward … a good human life for the individual and for the community.

The word “stoic” originally referred to the porch (stoa) from which Zeno delivered his lectures.  But it has come to be used in all European languages to mean endurance in the face of suffering, and a cold, bloodless acceptance of the meaninglessness of life.  With such a negative assessment, it is no surprise that its metaphysics has been ignored by western historians, the majority of whom have been Christians.  But I would offer an alternative evaluation.

Stoicism tapped into ideas of an immanent deity that antedated Plato by a hundred years.  Plato’s innovation in Greek thought was the introduction of the notion of “spirit,” and with it a “scientific” basis for the existence of another world and a hope in immortality.  Thus the primitive Greek fascination with the world of the gods and their immortal divine-human offspring was made suddenly accessible to ordinary mortals through the possibility of “return.”   The promise of immortality tapped and unleashed the infinite wells of energy stored in humankinds conatus — our “denial of death” the corollary of the drive to survive.  Platonism displaced the wisdom of stoicism and eventually gave it a disparaging label because the human “denial of death,” a force as irrational as it is insuppressible, was served by it.  The conatus, our blind physical irrepressible thirst for existence, resident in every cell of our body and oozing from every pore, was fatally seduced by Plato’s vision, and western civilization as we know it, was the fruit of that seduction.

Christianity, I contend, was a subset of that generalized hellenistic enthusiasm — the “movement for immortality” — called forth and spread throughout the mediterranean world by Plato.  Christians rejected the simple “stoic” wisdom of Jesus’ one-world Jewish message and, following Plato’s vision, transcendentalized it and Jesus with it.  Christianity represented the same preference for the fantasy of life after death as the displacement of Stoicism by Platonism.  They were really both part of the same phenomenon.  Christianity is Platonism in symbolic form.

One-world vs. two-worlds

Plato’s theory of the “fall” was consistent with his view of the two-worlds.  But once you assert the exis­tence of another world and the human destiny to return there, you necessarily create an ethos that is directed by and to that other world.  This entails some unavoidable consequences:

Revelation.  There has to be some way of finding out what you need to do to get there.  By defini­tion, since these worlds are not only separate but diametrically opposed, the requirements for entrance will not be readily available in this world.  At best, Plato thought, they can only be adumbrated, i.e., inferred from the shadows they cast.  The only real realities exist in that other world.  That means there has to be some kind of “revelation” from that world to this if we are to know for sure what we must do to get there.  This helps explain the endless western enterprise that we are all familiar with: of ascertaining exactly what “God said,” and what “God wants.”  We should remind ourselves of the centuries of conflict and rivers of blood spilt on this question.  It was inevitable.  For once you have convinced yourself that you know what “God” wants us to do, your toleration for other kinds of behavior evaporate.  “Knowing the will of God” not only destined Europe to endless wars in the centuries since the end of the middle ages but it also served as justification for colonial plunder, enslavement and genocide in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Ulterior motivation will always be suspected in a two-world system, because individual “reward and punishment” is an embedded feature of that structure.  Appeal to individual self-interest cannot be avoided.  Jesus’ moral program, however, was opposed to self-interest.  It was not based on reward and punishment of any kind, nor any form of selfishness no matter how “spiritual” or refined.  A two-world system is inconsistent if not totally incompatible with it.  Much of what is paradoxical in Christianity — like the conflict between forgiveness and righteous behavior — can be attributed to this fact.  Once the influence of the “other world” is allowed to disappear, these anomalies tend to disappear as well.

In a two-world system the kind of compassion and consequent forgiveness that would characterize a “this-worldly” ethic like the one Jesus promoted, is always secondary to salvation in the “other world” and to loyalty to its master.  Human compassion tends to be treated as a weakness, a dispensable indulgence attributable to an excess of sentiment; it becomes religiously significant only when transformed into a “virtu­ous act,” i.e., when “performed” as a disciplined obedience to a command from “God.”  Compassion does not “gain grace” unless it is performed as a hard-nosed “self-interested” compliance-for-salva­tion.  In this dual system, Jesus’ program of forgiveness, was in fact re-catego­rized as an other-worldly “law” dependent upon the arbitrary will of “God” rendering it psychologically contrary to the message of Jesus even as it became efficacious for “salvation.”  “Obeying law,” which strictly speaking may focus on the same moral content, actually contradicts the ultimate point of Jesus’ ethos, which is the development of a new type of personality, a “new human being” with a new psychological identity that functions on a new set of emotions and motivations.  In a two-world system, we are faced with the strange anomaly of hearing that Jesus came to give us a “new law” which “commands” us “to forgive as God forgives.”  The incongruence here is significant and revealing.  Such a “command,” if Jesus were ever to have used the word, could only have been meant metaphorically.  For If it is taken literally, it utterly eviscerates the sincerity and primacy of compassion; it undermines the spontaneity of love and trust in God, and it is damaging to human autonomy.  Just how free and generous are you if you are ultimately, always “taking care of yourself,” gaining grace and building your nest in the “other” world?

All this serves to emphasize the real focus of Jesus’ message — to live humanly in this world.  To be fully and deeply human, he said, one had to imitate “God” who gives … and forgives, gratuitously, spontaneously, unreservedly, generously, without expectation of recompense … just like a “loving Father.”  His message was very simple, much too simple, in fact, for the coercions we insist must drive all human interaction.  The complex theological labyrinths produced throughout the millennia of “Christian thought” can be understood as just so many elaborate fabrications needed to contain and subdue that sim­plicity … and, on the opposing side, the titanic efforts required to deconstruct them.

As far as moral content is concerned, a program of “living wisely on earth” — characteristic of one-world visions — will almost never work for “two-worlders” for the simple reason that the earth and living on it is not the object of their respect; its only value is as conduit to another world.  Attention, care and concern is necessarily directed elsewhere, and since the “other world” is a world of immaterial spirit, the focus will be on spirit: “God,” ideas, thoughts, etc, … not the human body of my brother and sister struggling to survive … much less the eco-systems that support us and all the other species with which we share the earth.  In a “two-world” system, the moral agent cannot really care all that much about life on earth and the organisms that populate it because matter is the place of banishment and frustration, soon to be left behind.  In fact historically the two-world view has caused people to despise earthly life and the human body.  It is hostile to a “natural morality.”

Objections

Well, then, couldn’t “God” mandate a “natural morality,” as in the traditional “natural law”?  “God,” in this case, would be requiring that certain natural human behavior be performed … not because it is humanly natural and good to do … but because “God” arbitrarily chooses to use it as a litmus test of obedience for entrance into a supernatural world.  It is a needless redundancy.  Moreover, such a “test” today strikes us as narcissistic.  It is not directed at what is good for us, but rather at God’s “need” to be obeyed.  Such a conception of “God” is psychologically infantile, not to mention philosophically impossible.  By even the most traditional standards, “God” needs nothing.

From another angle, it implies that we humans are simply not mature enough to do what is good and natural for ourselves and on our own without being “forced” under pain of punishment.  It leaves us children … and it doesn’t say much for the quality of “God’s” creative design if “he” cannot trust “his” creation to do what it was created to do without being coerced (or enticed) by a secondary mechanism.  Some argue that it was precisely Original Sin that caused this breakdown in “God’s” creative design, and therefore the “law” only became necessary after the moral impotence precipitated by the fall.   I would answer that the very “fall” itself, if taken literally, occurred when a “command” given before the fall, was disobeyed.  What accounts for such a use of law imposed on humans in the pre-lapsarian, allegedly morally vigorous state?  Similar to the permission given to the serpent (“Satan”) well in advance of any “fall,” it only makes sense as a narcissistic test.  And in my opinion that borders on blasphemy.  All this indicates that the Genesis account is neither literal nor even figuratively reliable as theology.  It has nothing to do with Jesus’ message.  It is no wonder he never mentioned it.

Furthermore, while such “laws” may happen to dovetail with earthly human needs, it is not essential that they do so, since they are being imposed as a test for the other world.  In a “two-world” system it is predictable that there will be many arbitrary “laws” with no moral importance whatsoever — let’s call them ritual or symbolic laws — like commands about foods, or prescribed prayers, or work on the Sabbath, designed as symbols of submission to “God” or whatever forces control the “other world.”  In short order, the two classes of “laws” — the natural and the symbolic — become indistinguishable as far as their significance for “salvation” is concerned, and what is good for people is put on a par with, or even made subordinate to, arbitrary symbolic practice whose only purpose is a display of loyalty.  It is easy to imagine, in such a context, that the ritual law may be given precedence over human compassion and the moral law.  And for many of us, it’s not a matter of imagination at all, but something that we experienced first hand, that skewed our values and seriously affected our lives.

To the argument that making natural morality into a “law” subject to punishment is only a first and educational phase (later to be superseded), necessary to begin neophytes on their moral journey … I answer that as a teaching tool it generates more problems than it solves.  For it creates a selfishness of a deeper and more refined type that is more difficult to identify and eliminate than the initial gross selfishness targeted by the command.  Since it was intended to be discarded anyway, there is no intrinsic reason that it be used even at the beginning.  Since it is only an educational tool, and doesn’t necessarily enter into the dynamic of the moral decision, “training” can always be provided by other methods less prone to encourage a selfish motivation.

Jesus’ Jewish reform movement

A case can be made for saying that the very object of Jesus’ mission and message was precisely to overcome the obstacles created by the “reward and punishment” mentality of a Judaism that — according to Christian claims in the NT — had come to be dominated by an excessive legalism.  While Judaism did not subscribe to the existence of two-worlds, it had been moving in that direction since before Jesus’ time.  But even without it, the Jewish belief that “God” rewarded or punished in this world, set up the same dyna­mic.  The contract — the “covenant” — between Israel and Yahweh had precisely to do with national prosperity in return for obeying the “law” which was heavily ritual.  It is not at all irrelevant that even Jewish theologians recognize this as a “phase” in the evolution of mature Judaism as reinterpreted by the prophets, who saw the contract as well as the law in more moral and mystical terms.[5]

Jesus was part of the prophetic movement toward a universalist Judaism built on love for humanity.  For him it meant following the example of God himself who loved without measure.  The problem for Jesus, then, was the rigid self-involved and uncompassionate religion that the fixation on “law” — the hope for reward and the fear of punishment — tends to elicit.  In steering his followers away from that pitfall, his message was directed toward compassionate behavior in this world, in a way that was not unlike the Stoics.  Recognizing this similarity, John Dominic Crossan, a Catholic New Testament scholar, claims Jesus’ movement was similar to a Greek philosophical program he identifies as a lived version of Stoicism popular in Jesus’ time he calls “Stoic-cyni­cism.”  He categorized the moral program and intentional simplicity of life of this movement as one of the diverse ways in which people respond to the world when salvation from evil is no longer the issue.[6]

Jesus’ entire program was about living with and loving other human beings here and now in imitation of a God of gratuitous love, not in response to a law, much less out of fear of punishment or hope of any reward other than the love itself.  Therefore it is not surprising that he did not point to the commands of “the Book” for the content of his vision.[7]  He elicited it from the hearts and minds of his listeners.  His teaching method reflected this; he taught in parables, which meant people had to look inside themselves to disco­ver what was right and wrong.  Clearly he thought his listeners were up to the task.  Correct conduct was theirs to discover and decide.  How many times did his parables end with a question … “which of these was truly a neighbor … a faithful servant …  a true son”?  He called forth the “law” written in their hearts, not on tablets of stone.  He encouraged attitudes of empathy, forgiveness, sincerity, humility, compassion, loyalty that may have been mentioned in the Jewish Torah and were certainly the spirit behind it,[8] but were not the direct object of a written “command.”  Jesus was so far from making morality an act of legal obedience that he even encouraged his people to judge their religious authorities by the standards they found in their own hearts.  “By their fruits,” he told them boldly, “you will know them.” 

Do not misunderstand .  I am not claiming that Jesus himself or the Judaism of his time actively rejected life after death.  But to them it was a controversial possibility, not “dogma.”[9]  Jesus ignored it at any rate and concentrated conspicuously on this world alone both for motivation and moral content.  I say “conspicu­ously” because it stands in such sharp contrast with the “other worldly” perspective of the Christianity erec­ted in his name.  Jesus was not a Christian; he was a Jew.  We have to remember that.  I contend that the program offered by Jesus, with no loss of integrity whatsoever, functions perfectly in a universe where there are not two-worlds … (but not without a loving “Father.”)  In fact, as it should be clear by now, I go even further and state that the insistence that there are two-worlds — and that human destiny is bound to the “other world,”is contrary to the spirit and focus of Jesus’ message.

In a two-world system we must always be ready to make whatever sacrifices are necessary — whether it be social peace in the village or harmony among nations, or even the welfare of our children or the health and well-being of our material matrix which includes our bodies — in order to “obey the will of God.”  Barbara Newman quotes Bernard of Clairvaux as saying: “It is the height of piety to be cruel for Christ’s sake.”[10]  With such a mentality we are not encouraged to listen to our hearts, and respond to our neigh­bor with empathy when she suffers, or a sense of outrage when she is exploited and oppressed as Jesus asked of us.  We are warned only to “obey God,” and, of course, those who claim to speak in “his” name.


[1] The primary agent of this penetration was Philo of Alexandria, a first century diaspora Jew whose books were widely known.  Diaspora Greek speaking Jews like Saul (later Paul) ofTarsus would doubtless have been familiar with his work.

[2] Plato’s Phaedrus

[3] Ibid..

[4] Dirk Baltzly, “Stoicism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/stoicism/.

[5] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, Harper Torchbooks, 1969;  cf Edward Greenstein, chapter “Biblical Law” in Back to the Sources, Barry Holtz, ed. Simon & Shuster, 1984 pp. 83-103. passim.

[6] John Dominic Crossan The Historical Jesus 1991, Harper Collins, p.72.  Cf the entire chapter 4, “Poverty and Freedom,”pp.72-88.  Crossan explores the striking similarity between the text and attitudes found in Matthew chapters 5 and 10 and attitudes of the “movement” of Stoic-Cynics of the Mediterranean.world in Greco-Roman times.  Crossan had hinted earlier that the proximity ofNazareth to the ancient Roman city ofSephoris, only 4 miles away, would suggest that Jesus was more aware of these non-Jewish Greek movements than we realize . His respect for them may or may not have induced him to include them in his program, but at any rate he seemed to share their values.

[7] The only “command” he cited was the paraphrase of the “Shema Ishrael” – Love God with your whole heart … and your neighbor as yourself.  Hardly a “law.”

[8] Edward Greenstein, op cit. says colloquially, “God is a mensch.” P.89

[9] Cf Jesus debate with the Sadducees on exactly this question: Mark 12:18-27, Matthew 22:23-33, Luke 20:27–40.  This was not a settled question in Jesus’ day.

[10] Barbara Newman, From Virile Woman to Woman Christ, Phila., U of PA Pr, 1995, p.81, cf Chapter 3 “Crueel Corage” pp. 76-107 passim.

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7 comments on “One World or Two Worlds

  1. Thank you, Tony. Thank you, thank you.

    As I have said before, what your recent postings are enabling me to do is to recognize that so many of my current values are not necessarily in conflict with the values of Christianity, but only with the version underpinned by Platonic dualism.

    Terry

    • tonyequale says:

      Terry, hi … and thanks for your comment. I personally believe that Christianity is a mythopoetic and ritualized Platonism. What Jesus taught was, I think, something different … much closer to today’s Judaism than any version of Christianity that I am familiar with.

      Tony

  2. Hi, Tony. Not sure what is wrong with religion being poetic myth, but I do have problems with ritualized and Platonic religion.

    Insofar as you distinguish between “Christianity” and “what Jesus taught,” I agree that the latter is closer to Judaism. You are far better informed on the historical and theological issues than I am, though, so your assessment has particular value for me in that it makes my own conclusions better grounded.

    Again, thank you. It is a delight when your posts drop into my e-box.

    Terry

    • Further thought on my comment above. I would argue that all human thought – including both religion and science – is symbolic and in that sense is both poetic and mythic. The “poems” of religion and science are constructed to answer different questions and so are constrained by different rules and different standards of judgement.

      In my view, Christianity fails not because it conflicts with science but because it does not meet my criteria for a successful religious poem. For all the reasons you point out in your post above, I am unsatisfied with the answers Christianity provides for how to live. Living in order to get to another world after death has all the self-seeking limitations you describe.

      Thank you again. I look forward to your reply should you disagree. Even when we disagree, I invariably learn something from listening that feels worth the effort.

      Terry

      • tonyequale says:

        Terry … I did not mean to imply there is anything wrong with mythopoesis. It’s the way we celebrrate the mystery of existence. In the case of christianity, however, it does not “stand on its own” in that regard. It was an attempt to create a hieratuic and ritualized version of Platonism … and it was Platonism that was heuristic in that relationship. Without Platonism and the priority of the “other world,” the words of Jesus and his inevitable clash with the Empire can be “celebrated” without distraction. It all remains … the words and the martyrdom … but the meaning in a material, one world universe is entirely different.

        Now, as far as science being poetry … hmmmm … you might be right, but that is definitely not a mainstream insight. Maybe you need to be a scientist to see it. Brian Greene often mentions “the elegance in the equations” and the role of symmetry.

        Thanks for your reflections. Keep them coming!

        Tony

  3. Well, Tony, I laughed out loud when I read your suggestion that my thinking “is not mainstream.” I dare say that “not mainstream” can mean anything from out right whacky to brilliantly original, so it was quite a tactful term for you to apply. But when it comes to “not mainstream,” I’m afraid you win hands down.

    But seriously, I did suggest that both scientific and religious thought are poetic in that all human thought is intrinsically symbolic. Carl Jung understood this. I was first introduced to the idea in graduate school in the best philosophy course I ever took taught by Georges Gurvitch. In my experience, most scientists do not understand this, though many of them – many of us, perhaps I should say – do use the poetry of science to celebrate the mystery of existence. Einstein certainly did.

    In any case, I fully appreciate what you are saying when you say that mythopoesis is how we celebrate the mystery of existence. I think I may have a broader definition of poetry – to leave out science for me would be to denude the universe, to strip it of some of the most awe-inspiring visions I have. But we do agree that it is the medium of poetry through which we exclaim at this amazing happening.

    And yes, without Platonism, I can see that the teachings of Jesus take on a profoundly different meaning. Although I gave up the idea of another world half a life time ago, I’m only realizing now, mostly through reading your posts, just how dramatically Christianity has taken Jesus out of context. That, again, is the essence of why I see science as a kind of poetry — putting something in a different context often changes it completely.

    I think I’m going to stop saying thank you. You know it by now, don’t you?

    Terry

    • tonyequale says:

      Terry … my gratitude is to you for your deep and abiding interest in these questions. Without that these posts would dry up. Tony

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