Withering into the Truth

One of the interesting suggestions Christopher Dawson makes is that Greek philosophy was a world philosophy in search of a world religion. The observation is interesting for various reasons:

1 One doesn’t have to know much about Greek philosophy to understand that it was often critical of pagan religion. Outside of the prophets of Israel, who but the philosophers criticizes the pagan deities? And it is an interesting comparison between the prophets and the philosophers. I’m looking to substantiate the marriage of attitudes in the writings of the apologists.

2 It helps explain in broad terms what is happening in those first five centuries of the church. Works like the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas strike me as notably intellectually inferior to the writings of Paul. Paul was bright, but after him, the writings kind of dive off a cliff. That may be my misguided impression: I have to go back and look with better care. But if I’m right, then the subsequent generations didn’t really cultivate thought as devotedly as perhaps they could have. After all, from AD 70-130 what is happening is that Christians are pulling away from the original Jewish roots. They were considered a sect of Judaism at first, but they’re pulling apart, and as a result they’re loosing, it seems to me, Jewish education–Jewish traditions of thought and study. They have to look elsewhere when they realize they need to think.

3 Gnosticism, it seems to me, is the pagan attitude toward religion entering to gawk in the church. Pagans didn’t really make fine distinctions over theological points. They weren’t too happy with Socrates for trying to think about theological order. And the Gnostics seemed to have that attitude as well, but not about pagan gods. The Gnostics came along, like a pagan with a stupendous idea about this or that, and they found themselves oddly offending the Christians in whose midst they were. Christians had to meed the challenge somehow: who is God, who is Christ, what is Christ, what is salvation, what is sin.

4 Which is theology. The first great challenge once they were outside of the incubator of Judaism was the Gnostic challenge, and it was a challenge demanding clarity on authority in the church. Who teaches, what do they teach, where do they get it from. So you get Ireneaus who is a thinker, responding at the time and not a moment too soon. Gnosticism demanded theology, and with theology a canon, interpretation, and organizaton of your theological thought. You have an early figure, in the movement toward theology: Justin Martyr. He thinks Plato plagiarized Moses (I think it was Porphyry thought Moses plaigiarized Plato, which shows how much the two strands have interpenetrated a century and a half later). He’s not so great a philosopher or thinker, Justin, but he’s a beginning. Then Clement of Alexandira, searching for a good teacher, finding one, becoming a real thinker in the church. Clement’s thought is strange and no doubt if I studied Philo more, I’d make more sense of Clement, but he was a thinker. After him comes the great genius of his time and a figure of the stature of the great Plotinus: Origen of Alexandria. There Hellenic thought enters the church irreversibly, and you have in Alexandria the beginnings of deep theological thought, in time for the fourth century and the great councils and very deep theology. Then the Cappadocians, who studied in Athens, and in the Latin West at last those figures that bring the classical tradition and the Christian together definitively: Augustine of Hippo and Jerome.

Which is where Dawson started us. It sets the stage for what comes after.

And now, to end it all, some of that old pagan Yeats:

THOUGH leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.


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