13 May 2019

Christian Platonism and the Platonic redemptive story

Two weeks ago I was privileged to attend two back-to-back conferences at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The first was the annual Kuyper Conference, whose overarching theme was “Christ and Community.” One of the major speakers was Hans Boersma, until recently a professor at Regent College in Vancouver, BC, soon to join the faculty of Nashotah House near Milwaukee.

In an address titled, “Neo-Calvinism and the Beatific Vision,” Boersma suggested that the neo-Calvinist emphasis on continuity between this life and the next lacks a proper sense of the beatific vision of God.
From the abstract of his address:

These recent trends within the Reformed tradition are closely linked to a rejection of Christian Platonism, with its emphases on participation in the divine life and on the beatific vision as the final end of human desire. The loss of the doctrine of the beatific vision within neo-Calvinism runs counter, not only to the broad history of the Christian tradition, but also to classical Reformed thought.

If Boersma’s admonition had been limited to reminding neo-Calvinists of the importance of cultivating genuine piety, the life of daily prayer and gathering with the saints regularly for corporate worship, I would have been most appreciative. The complete life of obedience consists of labour, leisure and liturgy. Neo-Calvinists properly focus on the first but sometimes neglect the latter two.

However, I would challenge Boersma’s assertion that the so-called Great Tradition which all Christians might be said to share consists of a Christian-Platonic synthesis. To make such a statement requires that one ignore the redemptive narrative underpinning the Platonic project. What is this narrative?

We can trace this in several of Plato’s dialogues, such as the Phaedo and the Republic. In the former dialogue we have Socrates waiting on death row after his conviction by the Athenian jury of atheism and of corrupting the city’s youth. Here we have the great philosopher’s teachings concerning the relationship between body and soul:

If at its release the soul is pure and carries with it no contamination of the body, because it has never willingly associated with it in life, but has shunned it and kept itself separate as its regular practice–in other words, if it has pursued philosophy in the right way and really practiced how to face death easily–this is what ‘practicing death’ means, isn’t it? (80.e, emphasis mine)

In the Republic we similarly find Socrates extolling philosophy as a means of ensuring just rule in the polis. The path of philosophy leads to life, but it does so by way of death to the corporeal and visible. We easily picture the stereotypical unkempt and dishevelled philosopher, thinking deep thoughts but caring little for his appearance and surviving on nuts and herbs for nourishment.

What Plato is describing, however, is not an ascent to the divine, but nothing more remarkable than the human capacity for thinking abstractly–for reasoning from the variety of things we perceive around us to the intangible qualities they share. Two lampshades and two books share the quality of duality, which brings us into the realm of mathematics. A beautiful mountain and a beautiful day share the property of beauty, taking us into the aesthetic imagination. Reflection on the interaction between sodium bicarbonate and acetic acid brings us into the disciplines of chemistry and physics. It is not difficult to see that such theoretical abstraction is the stuff of the academy, where we learn to dig beneath the surface or, to shift the metaphor, to ascend into the lofty domains of theory.

However, the capacity to think abstractly is a created capacity and is in no way redemptive. Beauty as a concept is no more real–and certainly not divine!–than the beautiful things God has given us to enjoy in his creation. Our ability to think abstractly and to account theoretically for lived reality does not bring us closer to God. Rather, mental abstraction is caught up in the larger drama of creation, fall and redemption in Jesus Christ.

And what of the beatific vision? If the visio beatifica simply means that we enjoy full communion with God in a state of perfect blessedness, then, yes, this would seem to be one way of describing our ultimate hope (e.g., Psalm 11:7, 17:15; 1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:2). But this is not something we seek by imposing ascetic practices on our bodies and pretending thereby to transcend our creatureliness. Rather it is a gift of God’s grace, to which we respond with grateful obedience in the full array of life’s activities within God’s creation. Even prayer, which points beyond creation to the Creator, is itself a creational activity, subject to the norms by which God upholds what he has made. Bowed heads, folded hands and closed eyes–prayer books, bibles and psalters–are tangible elements of the life of prayer. In praying to God, we do not despise our creatureliness; we embrace it, recognizing our utter dependence on the One who has brought us into existence and redeemed us through the saving work of Jesus Christ.

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