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Ask a Theologian

Discussion in 'Off-Topic' started by Plotinus, Feb 13, 2007.

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  1. Fifty

    Fifty !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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    ahh, ok thanks. I had thought as much but with the "experimental philosophy" movement being talked about so much I thought maybe it was an actual growing sub-field.
     
  2. flyingchicken

    flyingchicken 99 117 110 116 115

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    I find that American "Atheism" is similar to an overzealous and essentially pointless Crusade. For one, it is preaching its absolutism in its reasoning against the existence of God. Another is its highly fanatical closed beliefs; for example, its attitude towards religion being the bane of human progress.

    As this anti-religion "Atheist" movement has great roots in Christianity (if I am wrong in this regard already, ignore the rest of the paragraph), I would like to ask the theologian in residence (1) as to how wrong I was in the previous paragraph (better to ask a question and look the fool than to never ask and stay a fool forever :blush:) and (2) what is the history of the line of thought that led to the widely common held definition of "Atheist" as "being opposed to religious practices and beliefs?" Unless, of course, my own held belief that "atheist" simply means "godless" is wrong, of course, but language evolves and it might be changing for the meaning of the word "atheism" in this day and age.
     
  3. ironduck

    ironduck Chieftain

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    What does 'godless' mean?
     
  4. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    The word "atheist" has meant all kinds of things ever since it was first thought of.

    I'll give a proper response to that and also DNK's enormous list of questions shortly - hopefully tomorrow! These are all really interesting and each could be a long thread in itself.
     
  5. DNK

    DNK Member

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    Thanks. Sorry for the length, but these have always bugged me. I await your reply quite eagerly.
     
  6. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Just a few! I'll do my best...

    In English, the best translation is probably the RSV (or the NRSV). I believe the NEB is good too. The GNB is surprisingly good: it's really a paraphrase, intended to be very easily understood, but it seems to me to express the sense very well. The NIV is a patchy translation, made in order to impose a fundamentalist interpretation upon the Bible. Which is why fundamentalists like to use it so much. Apart from the really, really fundamentalist ones who think the AV is the only acceptable translation. The AV is OK but very much of its time; it is superseded by the RSV.

    That depends on what you mean by "the Trinity". The doctrine of the Trinity as we know it was really established at the first council of Constantinople in 381. It was at this council that the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was first definitively established. This council is also supposed to have issued a rewritten version of the Symbol of Nicaea (a creed issued by the first council of Nicaea in 325) which expressly mentions the divinity of the Holy Spirit (not taught at Nicaea). However, the creed is actually missing from the surviving records of the council, and is attributed to the council by the later council of Chalcedon (451). The creed in question is the "Nicene Creed" that people today recite in church; it should more accurately be called the Constantinopolitan-Chalcedonian Creed, but that's a bit of a mouthful after too much communion wine.

    However, people had taught versions of the doctrine before this. Here is a (very) potted summary of how the doctrine of the Trinity came about.

    The Platonists and Stoics believed in a quasi-divine being (often called the Logos) which existed between God and the world. The Jews also believed in quasi-divine intermediaries such as the divine Wisdom (described in Proverbs and the book of Wisdom as a sort of person in its own right). The early Christians combined these ideas, identified them with each other, and identified them with Christ. The famous prologue to John's Gospel talks about "the Word" (that is, the Logos), pre-existent with the Father, by whom all things were made. It then identifies this with Christ.

    In the second century AD, a number of Christian philosophers continued the idea. The most important was Justin Martyr. He also called Christ the Logos and stated that he was a sort of "second God", who was generated by the Father for the purpose of creating the universe. Justin thought that the Father is infinitely far from the created universe, and the Logos acts as his go-between; whenever God deals with the world, it's actually the Logos. Justin wasn't very clear on whether the Logos should be called properly divine or not. He also had very little conceptual space left for the Holy Spirit.

    In the early third century, the famous Latin theologian Tertullian built on these ideas and extended them further. He shared Justin's belief in the Logos as a lower sort of deity than the Father, who the Father generates at a specific moment in time, before the creation of the world. But he extended this to the Holy Spirit, too, who is also generated by the Father, through the Son. The Father is thus the greatest, and the Spirit is the lowest. But Tertullian stresses that they are all divine, and furthermore that they are one God. Have a look here and search for the book “Against Praxeas”, which is where he talks about this. It’s in a vile Victorian translation, unfortunately.

    Shortly after Tertullian, Origen taught a similar version of the Trinity. The difference here was that Origen denied that there had been a point in time when the Son and Spirit were generated. He thought that their generation is eternal. They are always been generated by the Father, and they always have been. This means that for Origen, unlike for the earlier thinkers, there was never a point in time when the Trinity did not exist.

    In the fourth century, the Alexandrian priest Arius tried to revive something like Justin Martyr's version of things, with the added claim that the Son is definitely not divine at all, but a sort of exalted creature (an archangel, if you will). His ideas and those of his followers were what prompted the councils I mentioned before, and their insistence that in fact the Son is divine after all (and so is the Spirit). One of the major theologians at this time was Athanasius of Alexandria, who basically repeated Origen's point that the generation of the Son and Spirit is eternal.

    In the late fourth century, the Cappadocian theologians Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa produced a much more sophisticated doctrine. They basically took over Athanasius' doctrine but argued that the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinguished solely by their mutual relations. Thus they are neither three different substances (that would be tritheism) nor just the same person appearing in different aspects (that would be modalism). Here is a short but astonishingly difficult piece of writing by Gregory of Nyssa on the subject, in another vile Victorian translation.

    In the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo basically took over the Cappadocians' ideas but added some more of his own. He suggested that we think of the three Persons rather like different mental faculties. For example, I have the faculty of knowing and loving; these are distinct from each other, but grounded in one thing (me). Similarly, the three Persons are distinct, but share a single substance. Augustine denied that the Father is greater than the other two, although he is the (eternal) source of their existence. Here is Augustine's book on the subject (vile Victorian translation).

    At this point things get complicated. Suffice to say that the Cappadocians' doctrine became standard in the east and Augustine's became standard in the west. There are many subtle but important differences between them that I haven't mentioned here. So to put it more briefly, the doctrine of the Trinity as we know it appeared in the third and fourth centuries AD.

    The orthodox view is that none of them is merely an "aspect" of God; they are distinct persons. Traditionally their roles are something like this: the Father creates; the Son saves; and the Spirit sanctifies. The role of the Spirit is to dwell inside each believer; the Spirit is God giving grace to the believer, if you like.

    As you can see from what I said above, it took the church a bit of a while to come to this view. Justin Martyr thought that every divine action on human beings was actually the Logos, so he didn't have any need to talk about the Holy Spirit at all. It was only in the late fourth century that the mainstream church declared that the Spirit is definitely divine. Gregory of Nazianzus preached an important sermon arguing for this doctrine in 380. You can read another vile Victorian translation of it here.

    There was a bit, at the time. For example, there was a commentator in the second century AD named Heraclitus (not the philosopher of that name) who argued for the allegorical interpretation of Homer and Hesiod, which were effectively the Greek scriptures. Interestingly, the Christians took over this method of exegesis and applied it to the Bible.

    However, most of the pagan theology that was done in antiquity was done by philosophers. Many sought to re-interpret pagan beliefs in a philosophical way, especially by combining them with Neoplatonism. Proclus is a good example of this. Another is the emperor Julian the Apostate. You can read a couple of his works here.

    Modern paganism (neo-Paganism) tends to reject theological speculation altogether as unacceptably rationalist.

    Your answers to questions like those depends on your view of God, in part. The usual answer to the first, by the way, is that God cannot create such a rock. The reason is that omnipotence means only the ability to do anything that is possible. But a rock that is unliftable by an omnipotent being is an impossible object. Therefore God cannot create such a rock, but his inability to do so does not threaten his omnipotence. That’s the usual medieval answer. Richard Swinburne has a different answer: he says that God can create such a rock, but as long as he doesn’t actually do so, there is no problem.

    In answer to the second question, the traditional doctrine of God holds that he necessarily exists, and that there can be only one of him. In fact only yesterday I was looking at Henry of Ghent’s long and tedious arguments for this. So on that view, it is absolutely impossible that there could be two Gods, or that God should not exist. In which case, God cannot bring about such a situation, since he can do only what is possible.

    Descartes seems to have believed that God can do even impossible things, but such a view tends to have awkward consequences and is very minority, from a Christian point of view. Peter Damian is sometimes cited as sharing Descartes’ view on this matter, but I think wrongly.

    Some theologians have not thought it necessary that God exist. Thomas Altizer became notorious in the 1960s for saying that God not only could cease to exist, but actually did. He thought that God literally and completely turned himself into Jesus (rather than just one of God becoming human), and that when Jesus died on the cross, God simply died, and no longer exists. This “Death of God” theology was fashionable for a bit, but it isn’t really any more.

    As I said above, Justin Martyr and Tertullian thought that there was a time when the Father was alone, and then he generated the Son (and the Spirit, in Tertullian’s case). They used the analogy of speaking a word. “Logos” in Greek means both “reason” and “speech”, so the idea is that you have a thought in your head, and by speaking, you send it outside yourself. They argued that the Father did precisely this. Christ existed eternally as the Father’s reason, but when he was generated, he was “spoken” and became a distinct person. Tertullian describes this nicely here (VVT).

    After Athanasius in the fourth century, this approach was lost, and people believed instead that the Trinity is eternal.

    The standard answer to that is that God did not have to create, but he chose to, out of love. Rather as a couple might choose to have a child – they don’t have to, but it is a loving thing to do (supposedly, can’t say I’m convinced by that).

    Of course there are other explanations. The Gnostics thought that the physical universe was created by mistake and is basically evil. Origen had a more nuanced view. He believed that God created the physical world as a sort of safety net. In his view, all souls pre-existed, and were united to God. But there was a primordial Fall, and all souls (except one) drifted away from God to varying degrees. So God hatched a plan to win them back. He created the physical universe, and placed the fallen souls in bodies. The souls that fell very far became demons, the souls that didn’t fall so far became angels, and the ones in between became human beings. The idea was that the physical universe would be a place where all these souls would be forced to make difficult choices and improve morally. Eventually, by their own free will, they would return to God. Origen believed that when this universe ends there would be another, and then another, and so on in a vast (but not infinite) cycle. Every soul would be reincarnated in each universe, hopefully in a slightly better position than in the previous life. Eventually, every soul would make its way back to God (because evil is finite, so you can only go so far in that direction before returning).

    I don’t think that determinism, hell, and a perfectly benevolent God are compatible really. Of course, most Christians have not been determinists (some Protestants and Jansenists are the major exceptions). If you leave determinism out, you can simply say that people make the choices that condemn them. It is right and just of God to punish such people, just as it is right to punish criminals. If God saves anyone, then that is a gracious act on his part which he didn’t have to do. Those who aren’t saved can’t really complain, because they brought damnation upon them.

    Of course many Christians have not been happy with this. In the fourteenth century, Julian of Norwich had a big problem with the idea that a loving God could condemn anyone, no matter how just it would be. Her answer was simply that it will work out in the end, even though we don’t understand how. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

    I’m sure we’ve already discussed that at length in this thread – have a search back. But I don’t mind talking about it again, if you give me a definition of “free will” and say what you think is problematic about it.

    It depends on what you mean by “hell”. Most people (even most Christians) don’t seem to understand what the orthodox teaching is on life after death. So here it is.

    Christianity inherited two versions of life after death. The Platonists (and many other Greek philosophers) believed in a soul, which survives after the death of the body and floats off somewhere nice. The classic text arguing for this is Plato’s Phaedo. But many Jews, by contrast, believed in the resurrection of the body. On that view, when you die, you are completely dead and there is no “soul” that survives. But at a future time, God will raise you again. The Pharisees believed that this would happen to everyone at the end of time.

    Now the Christians basically combined these two views. The doctrine of the resurrection of the body was central to St Paul’s theology (see 1 Cor 15, where he goes on about it at length). This is because he was a Pharisee and believed that the coming of the Kingdom of God would be heralded by the general resurrection of the dead. He believed that Christ’s resurrection was, as it were, the harbinger of this. The second-century Christian theologians inherited this belief, and it was one of the most characteristic Christian doctrines; in fact most Christian writings at this time consisted of defences of the Christian lifestyle and the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead (philosophers laughed at it). But they also believed in the survival of the soul, because they were influenced by Greek philosophy. So they combined the two. By the time of Augustine, this picture was standard. When you die, your soul survives. But it does not go to its eternal reward. That only happens at the end of time, when the God raises the body, reunites it with the soul, and decides its eternal fate. However, in the meantime, the soul gets a sort of foretaste of its final fate. A soul that, on judgement day, will be saved, gets to be with God in the meantime. And one that, on judgement day, will be damned, gets a foretaste of that unpleasant fate.

    Now “hell” may refers both to the final destination of damned souls and to this temporary state, where they experience torment, but not their final torment. The doctrine of purgatory also developed from this: purgatory is a bit like hell, but you eventually get out of it and are saved. Traditionally, the “wailing and gnashing of teeth” and so on in the New Testament are supposed to refer to the final state of the damned, after judgement day, rather than the temporary state they experience after death.

    Theologians have differed over what this state is supposed to be like, and whether it’s eternal. In antiquity, a number of Christian writers believed that no-one would be permanently damned. Eventually, everyone would be saved, even though some might have to spend a long time wailing and gnashing their teeth first. Theologians who took this view included Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Titus of Bostra, and Gregory of Nyssa. Basil of Caesarea (Gregory’s own brother!) attacked it, though, and so did Augustine, which is why the belief that some people (perhaps most people) would be permanently damned became orthodox. Today, most theologians reject this view as incompatible with God’s love. It’s also notable that there are verses in the New Testament that explicitly state that everyone will be saved. 1 Cor 15:22 is the clearest.

    According to Catholic doctrine, the pope can’t go against the teaching of church tradition, and most particularly, he cannot override the teaching of church councils. I doubt that the pope could realistically overturn something as fundamental as hell. Perhaps he could declare that hell is temporary. This view was condemned at a church council (can’t remember which one), but it was not an ecumenical council (a council of the entire church, and the most authoritative event there can be), so perhaps a pope could argue that he is not bound by it. If he wanted to.

    Well, again, that’s a minority view among Christians, or at least I should hope so. In fact there are plenty of Christians who have no objection to casual sex at all – there are even Christian swingers. I don’t believe that even traditional Catholic teaching regards casual sex as worse than massive death and suffering. You might not think it, but traditionally, Catholic ethical teaching holds that sexual sins are among the least serious. Pride, for example, is traditionally regarded as far worse.

    Very much so. Most philosophers are almost completely unaware of both the history of theology and contemporary theological trends. Funnily enough this even applies to philosophers of religion (or at least most of them). Theologians tend to be more aware of philosophy, but I’m afraid this usually means that they get awestruck by certain “trendy” philosophers such as Nietzsche or Wittgenstein and use their ideas very uncritically.

    There is no definite answer to this, which is why it’s a bit of a problem in modern Catholic thinking. The doctrine of papal infallibility was only defined in 1870, at the First Vatican Council. It had been mooted since at least the seventeenth century but had always been controversial. After 1870 many Catholics refused to accept it; some still do, either because they are descended from those who split off then (the “Old Catholics”) or because they are modern liberal theologians, such as Hans Küng, who was discussed earlier in the thread. Basically, this is what the council said:

    It is important to note that the claim was not that the pope is always infallible, but only when he specifically defines a definitive and binding doctrine. It is not clear precisely what circumstances are required for this to be the case, but to date, most Catholic theologians believe that it has only ever happened twice. The first time was when Pius IX defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, and the second was when Pius XII defined the doctrine of the physical assumption of Mary in 1950. Some Catholic theologians argue that there are other instances as well, but they are rare, at least compared to the number of binding doctrinal definitions issued by church councils over the centuries.

    Now that is far too vast a question to tackle here! In short: immensely.

    Good to hear it! I hope I’ve helped at least a little bit...
     
  7. DNK

    DNK Member

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    Thanks for the long post. It will probably take me a while to digest it all, but here's a fist response.

    It seems there's a position for every interpretation. Trinity could be both multiple and singular deity, eternal or chronologically constructed; hell can exist or not; Jesus as God or not or something in-between; God can both make and not make unliftable rocks. Somewhat frustrating, as one would wish there to be a final conclusion to these things, but I guess philosophy/theology tends toward unclear answers and multiple possibilities. I suppose it would require some sort of grand unification of logic to settle all of this, which is apparently far off. I eagerly await the day when philosophy/theology and science are synonymous, but get the feeling that it will be after my time.

    By the way, did Mr. Justin Martyr meet a rather unhappy death, which is to say is there any connection with his name and the word "martyr" or is it just a coincidence?

    I would say that the idea that the Holy Spirit and Jesus are somewhat psychological aspects of God made manifest makes a bit more sense than what I was taught in school (Catholic), which was basically nothing. I find that a fairly satisfactory answer, even if it is contested and unsure, not to mention the fact it would fit with the idea of man in God's image.

    Is it necessary that a split of God into two or more equal parts would be two Gods, or just one God with a multiple-personality disorder, so to speak? I guess the fundamental question is whether splitting something at the level of experiential existence is a split at the most fundamental level or not, which is what I was implying by that question (which was not necessarily related to the Trinity question). To give an example: could a man simultaneously inhabit two minds without being consciously aware of both, but existing in both simultaneously? I hope it is obvious where I am going with this, but if it is not, then I am hoping to answer the question of whether or not God could ultimately be everyone, as the aspect of souls also confuses me.

    Which brings me to another related question, what are "souls" considered in this? Are they divine, and if so how do they fit into the Trinity? If not, what sort of hierarchical system with the Trinity.

    I will say that your post was very useful and enlightening. At the very least I have come to realize that many "modern" understandings of Christianity are actually born from long debates and are not to be considered "natural" understandings of the tradition, but rather as a product of a long historical process which has not necessarily reached a perfectly logical conclusion, if that makes sense.

    I suppose that a rather large amount of my interest is in the pagan and pre-Christian beliefs, if not for the purpose of historical understanding of the Classical period and alternatives to rationalist arguments (perhaps an acceptance of the inability of man to understand and the failures of logic to comprehend the fundamental questions of existence). The dichotomy of the conceptual and experiential/sensual is probably my most pressing interest in the philosophical fields, as I am trying to understand the limits and progressive elements of both and their mutual relationship. I am also simply interested in understanding the subtext of the Greek and Roman religions and how they reflect on the ideologies of the people of the time.

    That explanation of my position having been given, I'm interested in any path that the pagans you mentioned have towards "enlightenment" or "heaven", assuming they even have such a concept. Perhaps I'm mixing East with West here (quite probable), as I'm not wholly aware of their ideology(ies), assuming there even is a general consensus. Still, I find the idea interesting that perhaps rational dialogue is fundamentally limited, and something deeper is required for further progression or understanding. Maybe I am reading your answer on paganism wrong, though?

    I guess what I'm asking for in these last couple of paragraphs is a fuller explanation of the pagan beliefs you mentioned, as well as any sources for a proper interpretation of the Greek and Roman religions (my university course was direly lacking in any such respect). My real interest in these is the progression from "primitive" belief systems (for lack of a better term) into the current systems, and hope to gain from this at least a little perspective on modernity.
     
  8. DNK

    DNK Member

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    One last question about Origen's understanding of the purpose of the physical world and reincarnation: would, at the end of its journey, the soul end up occupying the "Jesus" of that world, which is to say would the path to divinity and unity with God be that physical life which is the unification of God and man, the ultimate achievement of the physical world? It seems to make logical sense to me, as I have thought so for some time, assuming reincarnation and Christianity.
     
  9. Margim

    Margim Footy's back.

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    You are forgetting the most important translation which supercedes even the Greek text as a God-inspired work... The original KJV!!
     
  10. Eran of Arcadia

    Eran of Arcadia Stormin' Mormon Retired Moderator

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  11. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    You're pretty spot-on in the first paragraph. However, beware of tarring them all with the same brush. The high-profile anti-religion crusading atheists we hear so much of right at the moment - and we all know who we're talking about here - are not representative of atheists in general, just as insane right-wing fundamentalist American Christians are not representative of Christians in general. They are in fact just as ignorant and irrational, with the added quality of thinking they are the reverse. There's nothing worse than an idiot who thinks he's a genius, as perhaps we can sometimes see on this very forum.

    I have to say that I have never heard "atheist" defined as "being opposed to religious practices and beliefs". I think such a definition would be extremely misleading. But I can see how people would think it appropriate.

    The word "atheist" was first commonly used in early modern times to mean someone who leads an extremely immoral life. It had no connotations of belief or lack thereof. The archetypal "atheist" was the famous John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-80), the same chap who wrote those incredibly rude poems (can't give you a link to any here, because it would be against forum rules to link to sites full of such naughtiness, but they are well worth Googling for). Rochester led a very profligate life and wrote about it at length, and for this he was known as an "atheist", but there was never any indication that he didn't believe in God.

    By the middle of the eighteenth century, the word had come to mean someone who does not believe in God. It still had connotations of immorality. This is why people could not understand how David Hume, a notorious atheist, appeared to lead an extremely moral life. The word was still changing meaning. Perhaps ironically, the word "atheist" during this period had similar overtones to "Christian" in the second century AD: a subversive character with dangerously innovative beliefs, who probably engaged in extremely debauched behaviour, and might undermine society as we know it. In fact, in some quarters "atheist" might have similar overtones to "terrorist" today. At the same time, however, it was fashionable in some circles. There's a story of David Hume at a party with Baron d'Holbach and other notable philosophers in Paris. Hume commented that he'd never met a real atheist, to which d'Holbach replied that of the eighteen people at the party, fifteen were atheists, and the other three hadn't made up their minds. D'Holbach himself was of course a vociferous atheist at a time when it was still not wise to declare oneself as such (Hume never did, and there is still controversy over whether he was actually an atheist or just a deist).

    So the word "atheist" came to mean someone who does not believe in God. Now today it retains that meaning, but it can also mean someone who believes that there is no God. Clearly the two are not quite the same thing: someone could not believe in God, while also not being certain that there is no God. Such a person would be an atheist in the first sense but not in the second. In the nineteenth century, Thomas Huxley coined the word "agnostic" to mean someone who hasn't made up their mind. "Agnostic" literally means "not knowing". But this again is ambiguous. It might mean someone who believes in God, but doesn't think that they know God exists. Or it could mean someone who doesn't believe either way.

    So we have two words, both with a complex array of overlapping meanings. Antony Flew used the word "atheism" in his famous paper The Presumption of Atheism to mean a position of neither theism nor atheism. He rather disingenuously claims that "atheist" is a better word for this than "agnostic" because, in his view, an "agnostic" is someone who hasn't considered the matter at all. Unfortunately it seems that, at the popular level, everyone misunderstands Flew's argument because of his odd terminology, and thinks he is arguing that the default position should be atheism in the sense of belief in no God, and that the burden of proof is wholly upon the theist. Which would be a ridiculous position (although that doesn't stop certain fundamentalist atheists from insisting upon it). I think that it's best to use "athiest" to mean someone who believes that there is no God - that is, someone who thinks that theism is factually false. And an "agnostic" is someone who has no belief either way, although they may be inclined one way or the other.

    As for why "atheism" has become associated with the rejection of religion: Alexis Khomiakov once said that all westerners are crypto-Catholics, meaning that even those who reject Catholicism still define their religious position in relation to it. Thus, a Protestant is a not-Catholic. His point, of course, was that the Orthodox avoid the whole issue and have their own tradition. I think that, in a sense, all westerners are crypto-theists. Even when they reject theism, they still define their religious or spiritual beliefs in relation to theism. To most westerners, "religion" means "belief in God", and "belief in God" means "religion". And an "atheist" must, be definition, be "not religious". The reason for that is that the west has been dominated for so long by the three Abrahamic religions, all of which revolve around monotheism.

    But in Asia, of course, most religions are not monotheist - more, they don't really have a concept of "God" which relates to the western concept at all. Hinduism doesn't have one - the closest it comes is monism, which is not the same thing as theism at all. The same is true of Buddhism. And as is well known, Therevada Buddhism is broadly atheist, in the sense of not having much concept of "God" at all. I have a good friend who is a Buddhist monk, and he is an atheist.

    So the equation of "atheism" with "anti-religion" has, in my view, come about because of the close relationship between theism and religion in the west. A more balanced view of things, however, will show that such an equation is completely wrong. Neither theism nor atheism is to be identified with religion or its lack (you can be a theist, but not religious, just as you can be an atheist, but religious). This is because a religion is a complex social phenomenon, which includes not simply doctrine but also liturgy, ethics, social gatherings, language, costume, politics, and all sorts of things like that. In fact for some religions, such as Judaism, doctrine isn't very important at all. And where doctrine is important, it doesn't necessarily include any reference at all - positive or negative - to God.

    I don't think there's a single doctrine which all Christians have believed. That even goes for things that you might think fundamental, such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, or the existence of God himself. In the fifth century, Vincent of Lérins famously defined "orthodoxy" as "what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all". But if we apply that strictly, orthodoxy doesn't exist. Where I use it here, I mean it in the sense of what has been officially defined by the church. Of course, every time the church has officially defined a doctrine, it has done so because some people didn't believe it, and they wanted to make it clear what was acceptable and what wasn't. In other words, the definition of orthodoxy is generally applied retrospectively and in an ad hoc way.

    Yes, he had his head cut off in AD 165 for being a Christian. He came to be called "Martyr" as a sort of surname as a result. I'm not sure why, as there are many other martyrs, but only Justin and Peter Martyr (a thirteenth-century Dominican preacher who was murdered by the Cathars) are commonly called "Martyr" as if a surname. (There's also a sixteenth-century theologian called Peter Martyr, but that really was his name - presumably he was named after the thirteenth-century saint.) The word "martyr" comes from the Greek for "witness".

    I don't see any reason why the same person couldn't exist in two minds without knowing of both, at least if it weren't simultaneous. For example, I can imagine someone who, every night, dreams of a completely different life, in which he has no memory of his waking life, and when awake, he has no memory of his dreaming life. And I can imagine that the dream life is actually real. So there's a case of someone leading two lives without realising it - it's conceptually possible even if it could never really happen. I don't think it would make sense to imagine that the two lives could run concurrently, though. Can you be in two places at once and not be aware of it? I think that would make you two people.

    But this largely depends on your definition of "person". John Locke argued that to be the same person you must have memories in common. So I am the same person that I was yesterday because I remember being me yesterday. If all my memories had been wiped, I might be the same body and soul, but I would be a different person. So Locke would think that the person in my scenario, with one life awake and another asleep, is actually two different people sharing the same body and soul.

    Getting back to the Trinity, there's another important development in that doctrine which may interest you, which I didn't mention before. This is the shift from an "economic" Trinity to an "immanent" one. The earlier theologians I mentioned generally thought of the Trinity (or whatever) only in relation to God's actions upon the world. So Justin imagined the Father generating the Logos for the purpose of creation. And Tertullian imagined the procession of the Holy Spirit for the purpose of the sanctification of the faithful. They weren't much interested in what God is like in himself: they were interested in how God appears, in his acts upon the world. This is known as an "economic" doctrine, in the technical theological sense of "economy", which refers to the history of God's actions upon the world. "Economy", in Greek, literally means "house law". However, by the time of the Cappadocians and Augustine, the emphasis had gradually shifted to what God is like in himself. So when Augustine wrote his immense On the Trinity, he was interested in our experience of God and what this tells us about the Trinity, but he was also clear that that was not solely what he was talking about: he was interested in our experience because he thought it could tell us something about what God is really like. The notion that God is eternally triune perhaps inevitably leads to the supposition that he is triune not simply in the way he appears to us but in his very nature. So this approach is called "immanent", because it conceives of the triunity as fundamental to God's nature.

    It may be helpful to mention, too, that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity precludes any notion that God is "split" or "divided", or that he has parts. The idea is that there are three divine Persons, really distinct from each other, all fully divine. But they are not different substances: they share numerically the same nature and essence, and that essence is neither multiplied nor divided. The three Persons are thus one single God. Historically, Catholic and Protestant theologians have tended to emphasise the unity, and Orthodox theologians have tended to emphasise the diversity, in the Trinity. Whether it is possible to emphasise both equally, and explain the Trinity in a rational and logical way without falling into one of the many possible heresies, is a moot question. My old tutor was of the opinion that Gregory of Nyssa - and only Gregory of Nyssa - had managed it successfully.

    No, from an orthodox point of view, souls are not divine, although they are the "highest" part of the human being, and the part that is made in God's image and likeness. The early Christians typically believed in a three-fold division of the human person (body, soul, and spirit). And some gnostics thought that the spirit is actually a sort of fragment of the divine, trapped in the body. Some of them believed that only a lucky few (ie, themselves) had this divine spark at all, and most people were condemned to a spiritless existence for ever.

    Now Aristotle, in the tenth book of the Nicomachean Ethics, argued that the rational part of the soul is the part of the human being that is closest to God, and he urged his readers to lead a life of contemplative reason, since that would exercise the part of themselves that is most divine. This was rather influential on many Christian traditions. For example, Origen believed that God is literally a mind, although a much more immense one than any human mind. It follows from this that the human mind is basically similar in nature to God, so although not exactly divine, it's sort of divinish. And a life of spiritual progression is one where the mind is cultivated and grows: spiritual advancement is thus intellectual advancement (which Origen believed would revolve around advanced study of the Bible). Later Origenists took this idea further. Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth-century spiritual writer who lived in the Egyptian desert, claimed that spiritual progression would involve stripping away all non-mental functions from the body and soul. That is, one must cultivate the mind only, and actually eradicate everything in the soul that is not mental. That means emotions, so the mystic seeks to enter an entirely emotionless state (apatheia). Only when this perfectly tranquil state has been achieved can the mind really function well, unimpeded by base passion, and begin to see God. This view also owed a lot to Plato, who once described the emotions as "encrusting" the mind like barnacles, and also to the Stoics, who also believed that apatheia was a desirable state.

    This Origenist emphasis on the mind came to be condemned, however. Jerome spent a lot of time arguing against it and the excessive Origenism of Evagrius Ponticus was condemned at the second council of Constantinople in 553. This was when the systematic destruction of Origen's books began, too, which is why almost all of them are now lost, and Origen is nowhere near as well known as he deserves to be. Interestingly, the Persian church never accepted the condemnation of Evagrius (it rejected the council of 553, which also condemned the works of certain other theologians who were greatly revered in Persia), and Evagrius remained extremely influential there for centuries. This is interesting because the Persian church was otherwise not much influenced by the Origenist tradition - in fact it was much more firmly rooted in the very different Antiochene and semitic traditions, which normally rejected all that Platonic intellectualism and emphasised the importance of the whole person, body and soul. For example, the spiritual writer Pseudo-Macarius, who lived in around 500, talked not of the soul but of the "heart", which represents the whole person conceived spiritually. For him, spiritual progession isn't about closing your eyes to the physical and ascending to God - it's about finding God within yourself, heart and soul, mind and emotions too:

    I'm not sure if that historical excursus tells you anything interesting, but there you go! Of course, many Christians don't believe in the soul at all, if by "soul" you mean some kind of immaterial substance which whiffles off somewhere when you die. Many of the Protestant reformers rejected the notion, claiming (correctly) that it was an import from Greek philosophy which didn't have much to do with the Bible. Most modern theologians would also reject the idea as very implausible, given the findings of modern cognitive science and philosophy of mind. Certainly most contemporary philosophers of mind would have little time for the notion of "soul", although it's not quite as unfashionable as you might think right at the moment.

    That's exactly right. I think that in most cases, where the church has had to decide one way or the other, it's usually made a fairly sensible choice. But the Christian faith didn't appear from heaven on tablets of stone - it's been basically cobbled together on the hoof, as it were, mostly by people trying to address immediate concerns rather than leave definitive statements for the ages. Gibbon put it rather nicely:

    The point, of course, is that Religion never did descend in such a way. Today, the theologian's task is that of the historian.

    That's all extremely interesting stuff and I wish I had the time - and the knowledge - to answer it properly. I'll try and write a fuller answer at some point. In the meantime, though, I'd say it's important to distinguish between different kinds of paganism. This is so even within the context of Greek and Roman paganism in late antiquity. On the one hand there was "popular" religion, which might consist of little more than making the occasional sacrifice to Caesar's genius (to avoid being executed) and obeisances to household shrines. But on the other hand there was "philosophical" religion, which would typically downplay the members of the traditional pantheon and tend more towards something like monotheism. The philosophical schools of antiquity were, in important respects, like religions: they had set doctrines, they were concerned with morality, happiness, and eternal life, and they didn't like each other. There was a lot of overlap between religion and philosophy, at least at one level. So by the first or second centuries AD, we find that the Platonists, for example, were spending far more time talking about God and how to find him than Plato himself ever had. The Forms, which for Plato had been primarily epistemological entities used to explain how universal terms refer, had become the objects of mystical veneration. Where Plato had been happy to suppose that even mud has an eternal Form, the Middle Platonists (as these later thinkers are now known) rejected the idea vehemently. And in the third century Middle Platonism turned into Neoplatonism, which was basically the same thing but even more mystical.

    The most famous figure in all this is of course Plotinus (the original, I mean...). His thought was very complex and hard to understand (he had appalling handwriting and poor eyesight, so he could never read back what he had written and correct it, which explains a lot). You can read his Enneads here. You may be particularly interested in Ennead IV.8, where he describes the mystical experience:

    Plotinus is extremely hard to read and understand, so I won't try to explain him here. Basically, he distinguishes between three levels of existence, which roughly correspond to body, soul, and mind. Just as a human being has a body, and a soul, and an intellectual part of that soul (this is the Platonic theory), so too the world has a body (the physical world we see), and a soul that governs it, and a divine Mind that directs that world soul. The soul is actually more real than the body, and the Mind is the most real thing of all. Philosophical and spiritual contemplation consists of turning inward, closing the eyes to the physical distractions around us, and ascending to the level of Mind. But beyond this there is a higher level still, one which defies all logic and reason - the One itself, the ultimate source of the divine Mind, which is itself the source of the Soul, which itself is the source of the body. Like the body, Soul and Mind are pluriform and varied: the Mind, for example, contains all the Forms, by which the Soul orders the body. But the One is a perfect unity, beyond all dichotomy, beyond good and evil.

    All of this was very influential on later Christian theologians, especially the Cappadocians and Augustine, and later on Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Like all sensible theologians they were very open to good ideas from any sources, even a pagan like Plotinus who disliked Christians (and even his disciple, Porphyry, who really hated Christians).

    If you're interested in Plotinus, the best book I know of for explaining his ideas is Plotinus: an introduction to the Enneads by Dominic O'Meara (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1993). There's another introduction by John Rist, which is older, but not as good or as readable, in my opinion.

    Origen believed that Christ's soul was the one soul which never fell from God in that primordial catastrophe. This is why Christ is both God and man: his soul remained perfectly united to God, just like iron that is plunged into fire and becomes red-hot: there is no real distinction between iron and fire any more. This was particuarly notable since when Origen was writing most theologians didn't have much of a sense of Christ having a human soul at all (it was only in the fifth century that the church declared that Christ definitely did have a human soul, since otherwise he wouldn't be properly human). Now ultimately, Origen did suppose that all souls would attain this same state of perfect union with God. But I don't think he imagined that such a state would ever be achieved in this life (or in any physical life). This is one reason why Origen was later regarded as heretical: he seems to have downplayed the notion of a physical (and permanent) resurrection. In fact such an idea doesn't really fit in with his cyclical view of history at all. But it's not certain exactly what Origen really said on this subject: the surviving texts that deal with it are in too poor a condition.

    Now interestingly, some later Origenists do seem to have taken the view you suggest. They were known as the "isochristes" because they thought that they would eventually become (or perhaps were already, now?) "like Christ". These were the post-Evagrius extreme Origenists who were condemned in 553. Of course, those who condemned them were not very clear on the difference between their views and those of the long-dead Origen himself, which is why Origen then came under deep suspicion and his works were mostly destroyed, as already noted. He was never officially condemned himself, though.
     
  12. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    As Eran pointed out, I mentioned the AV (Authorised Version), which is the correct name for the KJV (King James Version). It always puzzles me that certain American circles believe that this is the only correct version of the Bible and is actually more authoritative than the original: how do they think people read the Bible before the seventeenth century, and what do they think people in other countries read?

    Interestingly, though, although it is so stupid, that belief is similar to one held by the early Christians. The early church invariably used the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. This was a translation into Greek that had been made by Jewish scholars at Alexandria a century or two before Christ. After the first generation of Christians, the church consisted mostly of Greek-speakers (since the missions to the gentiles had been far more successful than those to the Jews), so they read the Old Testament in this translation, not the original Hebrew and Aramaic. They came to believe that the Septuagint was the Old Testament, that the moment of inspiration had come at the time of translation, not that of the composition of the original books. Thus legends grew up about it: it was said that seventy scholars had done the translation, each one working independently, and when they compared their work, they found that they had miraculously all produced exactly the same text. The word "septuagint" comes from "seventy", reflecting this legend. In disputes with Jews, Christians used the supposed superiority of the Septuagint as a sort of weapon against their opponents, who insisted on arguing from the Hebrew originals. This is also why Catholic Old Testaments contain more books than Protestant ones. When the Jews adopted a definitive canon of scripture in the late first century, they did not choose exactly the books that made up the Septuagint. They left some of them out. In the Reformation, Luther and the other reformers argued that this Jewish canon was the "correct" one, and they removed the Old Testament books that were in the Septuagint but not in the Jewish canon. These form the Protestant Apocrypha.

    In antiquity, only two important theologians showed any interest in the Hebrew originals of the Old Testament. The first was Origen, who was keen to establish the definitive text of the Septuagint. To this end he collected three alternative Greek translation of the Old Testament and copied them out in columns, together with the Septuagint, and the Hebrew originals. This immense work was known as the "Tetrapla" (for the four Greek versions it contained). He also learned Hebrew and consulted Jewish scholars to try to establish the original Hebrew text (I don't think he ever mastered Hebrew, though). His aim was not to go back to the Hebrew but to work out exactly what the text of the Septuagint should be. Remember that this was in the age of copying by hand, so working out what the exact text of any book was could be difficult, with no "official" published version. Later in his life, Origen discovered two more Greek translations of the Old Testament (one had been found in a series of clay pots in the desert, like the Dead Sea Scrolls) and added them to the work, turning it into the "Hexapla". The "Hexapla" was immense - it would have required a whole room to store all the scrolls.

    The other major figure who was interested in Hebrew was Jerome, who set out to translate the whole Bible into Latin. Bits of it had been translated before (the "Old Latin" versions) but he wanted a really good and thorough version that could become standard, and he was commissioned by Pope Damasus to make it. Unlike Origen, Jerome was an excellent linguist who fully mastered Hebrew; he also consulted Origen's "Hexapla", which still existed in Caesarea a century and a half after its author's death. But Jerome became convinced that the Hebrew original was "the" Old Testament, and he chose to translate into Latin direct from that, not via the Septuagint. This was extremely controversial. Augustine wrote to Jerome (politely, since Jerome was a very venerable figure and considerably older than Augustine) telling him that, in his opinion, this was a big mistake. To translate from the Hebrew was seen as "Judaising", that is, to slip into some strange "Jewish" heresy. However, Jerome continued anyway, and his translation became the "Vulgate", that is, the standard Latin version of the Bible.
     
  13. Elrohir

    Elrohir RELATIONAL VALORIZATION

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    But by definition, wouldn't a Christian have to believe that God exists, and Jesus Christ existed, and was the Son of God? Wouldn't that qualify as a limited form of orthodox belief?
     
  14. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    But orthodox according to whom? What makes someone a Christian as opposed to a member of some other religion? It's not as simple as you might think. Now Don Cupitt rejects the notion of God as an entity that exists "out there"; he aims to strip Christianity of everything metaphysical altogether and focus only on the ethical part, which he thinks is what Christianity has always really been about anyway. Does that make him not a Christian? Many people would say so. But he would vehemently deny it. And he is an Anglican priest, after all!

    To put it another way, you say "by definition", but where does such a definition come from? Many people would say your definition leaves out too much - for example, you don't mention the Trinity, which for many theologians is the most fundamental Christian doctrine of all. Who defines "Christian", and how could any such definition become generally accepted?

    And to put it yet another way, what do the doctrines you mention even mean? Don Cupitt denies that there is a thing called "God", but he would not say that God does not exist - he would say that "God" simply means something different from what most people think it means. So in a sense he does believe that God exists. Again, what does it mean to call Jesus "son of God"? In New Testament times that only mean that someone was favoured by God - it didn't carry any metaphysical import at all. In fact the Old Testament describes all Jewish people as "sons of God". So to believe that Jesus was the "son of God" doesn't really mean anything much.
     
  15. Tabster

    Tabster Chieftain

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    Hello Plotinus

    I was wondering if you could help , I remember reading about a conversation between a pupil of Marcion ? and an orthodox priest which went along these lines -

    priest - "how do you know this"
    pupil - "I just know it to be true"
    priest - "well that proves you're a buffoon , ha,ha,ha"

    Basically , when I read this I could'nt understand why the pupil's argument had been so destroyed as he seemed , to me at least , to be describing "faith"

    a ) do you know what I'm referring to ?

    and

    b ) could you explain it to me ?

    Thanks
     
  16. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    I don't know what the conversation is that you're referring to. Marcion was around in the second century and I don't think the Marcionites were around for very long after that. The priest's point in the argument, however, is that if you claim to believe something for no reason whatsoever other than your own certainty then you must be daft. Now you say that that is just "faith". But is this so? That may be the most common understanding of "faith" today, but it has not been the most common one in Christian history.

    Here's something I wrote a while ago on the different views of "faith" that there have been.

     
  17. Tabster

    Tabster Chieftain

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    That was very intresting , it can be easy for a lay person to fall in to the trap of looking at past through modern eyes and not taking account of the distortion . It seems to me however, that it is the importance that is attached to faith that has changed more than the nature of faith itself .

    Sorry to be so vague about the above , I read about the conversation on the net and didn't feel I'd have a chance of finding it again . The only other thing I could tell you is that the pupil was an old man who had being taught by Marcion as a youth so I would imagine it was about 200 AD

    Thanks
     
  18. Margim

    Margim Footy's back.

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    Oh, right. My bad... haven't seen that abreviation before.
     
  19. DNK

    DNK Member

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    Thanks for the reply. I'll respond in a few days, as my attention seems perpetually distracted right now.
     
  20. ironduck

    ironduck Chieftain

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    I've wondered about why the ten commandments are cut off at ten.. in Exodus 20 there are ten commandments given and then there's a little interlude and then it carries on in Exodus 21 with more laws that god tells Moses to pass onto his tribe. There doesn't seem to be any distinction between the two, both are god telling Moses about what they should and shouldn't do. The first ten just seem more general, and therefore more useful in a wider context and timeline, but does it say anywhere in the Pentateuch that there are only ten commandments?
     
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