As a historian, I know what we call today “Western Civilization” was largely based on Christianity. I also know that it was a particular brand of Christianity. I leave for another day the debate whether that particular brand is now, or was then, the true Church. However, it is no criticism to note the Church of Rome which midwifed Western Civilization had not precisely the same outlook on the world as the New Testament Apostles. That is, the Apostles were Jewish men with a distinctly Semitic outlook, and Rome was decidedly Latin-Greek. Specifically, it was Aristotelian.
A truly gorgeous Easter has just passed, one that meant more to me than previous Easters have, for reasons I’ll not go into here. As is customary, Holy Week television included lots of programming on the subject, much of it speculative “scientific” debunking of various religious traditions, some inspired by the best-selling heretical drivel of the novelist Dan Brown. The tone of this stuff is so consistent that I was truly surprised by a History Channel program about the Shroud of Turin.
Late last year, I considered what was wrong with approaching Christianity from a Western, Aristotelean perspective (part 1, part 2). It is not as if we have to completely ditch the legacy of Aristotle. We simply have to put it in its proper place. In our minds, we must recognize there is a limit, a wall.
It's the basic concept of sin: saying anything contrary to God's revelation. As a collection of documents arising from the Ancient Near East (ANE), the Bible must be read from that ANE perspective, with an ANE epistemology. The only purpose for which He preserved the Scripture was to explain our burden of obligation to Him. Revelation's chief end is not information, but a call to commitment. If God says man is created in His image, then it places upon us the burden to respect each human. Indeed, Jesus said love your fellow humans as yourself, which is another way of commanding us to respect them. You are not greater than another. When Christians forget this truth, it encourages untold wrongs both within the church and out in the world.
Here is a story. The leaders of a church have a personal agenda against someone and want to quiet him, exact revenge or what have you. They not only come at him within their church, they continue by following him outside of that church to any other church he seeks refuge at and any place he works, making a wreck of his life in the process. That is the sort of thing that only happened in the past, in dusty tales of witch-hunts in Salem or the Inquisition in Spain, right? Wrong: it is happening today, perhaps at a seemingly normal church near you.
Aristotle and his friends clearly stated only philosophers can really get where we are going. Thus, it was their duty to lay it all out for everyone else. To this day, we still use a significant amount of Aristotle's formal structure for human knowledge. Unfortunately, we carry forward his ideas without really ever questioning if they are valid.
It came to me as I surveyed a local bookstore. Many people write and believe things earnestly which are false, even monstrously so. And I saw such a book, authored by a noted celebrity. Right then, I understood as clear as day the truth of Christmas: it’s not about cultural conservatism, clean living, or patriotic fellow-feeling; the issue is fundamentally Christological.
It does no good to argue which path is better if we haven't first discussed where we are going. The real difference between the biblical world view — otherwise known to us as Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) — and the Western frame of reference is rooted in why we bother to philosophize in the first place. The goals of the Bible and those of Western Civilization are not compatible.
The popular term for my faith is Christian Mysticism. I don't participate much in what typically bears that label, but my basic approach is mystical, in that I assert nothing truly important can be put into words. Jesus taught in parables, in part because God and His revelation are ineffable. So we can't really describe ultimate truth, only indicate it using symbols.