Returning to Reality: Christian Platonism for Our Times by Paul Tyson

Returning to Reality: Christian Platonism for Our TimesThis book is an argument for Platonism, for Christian Platonism, for a return to the medieval consensus which was destroyed by Nominalism and Voluntarism. It argues that wisdom ought to be considered anterior to information and knowledge, and that philosophy and theology ought to provide the context in which science is meaningful. It argues that the world is being destroyed in a mindless pursuit of power and prosperity without any moral values to guide that pursuit, so that means have eclipsed ends. Ironically, what mars this book is that it has a transformational thrust. Granted, it is probably the best argument that can be made for transformationalism: lets be metaphysical realists. But it is a bit more than that, it is: Lets be metaphysical realists to save the world. Or in the author’s own words, “Metaphysical truth is the only way to morally effective politics” (211). One feels that means are eclipsing ends. Still, who else is making the argument that the problem has been modernity and that we need to turn back from that mistake? The modern world is a product of the two medieval heresies mentioned above, and the way forward is to return to the place where we went wrong.

2 He begins arguing that philosophy ought to be conceived of as a love of wisdom, which means understanding a divine order, moral goodness, and innate purpose in the cosmos.

3 The Platonist is the essential Christian outlook, he will argue. Christian Platonism recognizes that the good, the true and the beautiful all mediate transcendence, all have real and absolute meaning.

6 “I seek to rehabilitate a way of thinking about reality that was powerfully advocated in classical, patristic, and medieval times.”

29 Because “metaphysics is never simply metaphysics” because it has all kinds of implications in practical life, it “is a matter of the utmost practical and political significance.”

60 “Modern logos is a product of late medieval thinking, and this thinking re-invents the idea of what reason is, of what knowledge is, of what the relationship between philosophy and theology is, and of what philosophy itself is, in ways that are genuinely new.” That last is the most dismaying. The whole is nevertheless a very concise insight into a whole epoch.

82 Biblical support: “The relationship between the visible transient world and invisible eternal truth that Paul maintains here is common to all the New Testament and is not just a distinctive feature of Pauline literature.”

83 “The New Testament outlook on reality, the realm of immediate tangibility is never just nature in the modern sense, it is always nature as reflective of a larger, more solid, more real spiritual realm.”

88 “It is worth considering how easy it is for modern readers of the New Testament to misread or simply miss the assumed metaphysics of the New Testament.” And that is not the only place we ignore the assumed metaphysics, but starting there would be a good point to begin a recovery.

99 Christian Platonism is not Platonism with a dusting of Christianity. It is Christianity that “always interprets Platonic philosophy through the lens of Christian doctrine.” Christian is the modifier because it is doing the modifying, not the other way around.

126 If Christian Platonists was what previous ages were, why didn’t they explicitly say so? “They did not think of philosophy and religion as separate things. Religion and philosophy are two words for the same thing—the way of life rightly ordered by a divinely enabled pursuit of the highest truth to which humans can aspire.” This is a good point badly put. They are, rather, distinguishable but inseparable activities. It thins religion out too much to say it is the same as the philosophy by which humans pursue the highest truth they aspire to. It aggrandizes philosophy too much to claim it is a divinely enabled pursuit. It is better to say that a life directed to a divinely enabled pursuit of the highest truth to which humans aspire requires the orientation of religion, and to be rightly ordered, beside the orientation and guidance of religion, the care of philosophy.

131 Here he concludes a rather wonderful section on the impossibility of reducing Plato to a few salient points, how the dialogues work to suggest and to woo the reader, and skillfully hints at the glory of Plato.

131-2 Four general points of Christian Platonism

1 “Christian Platonism is an entirely integrative outlook, yet it is not a reductive or closed (conceptually complete) outlook.” This is Plato’s own method and disposition. Integrative but not closed: always open, not without certainties of the widest consideration.
2 No such thing as pure nature. God upholds even the intelligibility of the world. (This had better not be occasionalism.)
3 Qualities (moral, aesthetic, spiritual) are real, and more primary than material facts.
4 Ontological participation. Everything that is in some way participates in absolute being.

142 The problem with modernity is that faith and reason have “become functionally autonomous from each other.” This is the great divide that casts each adrift, so that reason has no reason, no purpose, no context, and runs along madly going nowhere, and faith becomes devoid of structure and suffers a loss of content.

161 It was Kant who isolated “knowledge from metaphysics and religion.” Kant was attempting to prop up knowledge without speculation, without vision of what is invisible and without that which is given which every person who has had a religious experience possesses.

162 The result is that knowledge, not being metaphysically or theologically framed, is a methodological atheism. It is the scientific method, and unguided quest for the knowledge of everything that can be done to the exclusion of every other consideration.

171 “Christian Platonism is a way of seeing truth and reality that is grounded in the full bandwidth of human existence. Genuinely qualitative and transcendently derived realities are taken as primary truths in Christian Platonism, but such a conception of truth is outside of the bandwidth of modern quantitative and materially manipulative scientific truth.”

177 “The ancients distinguished between wisdom and what we call science along these lines. Wisdom concerns fundamental truths that are ontologically prior to sensory knowledge. Wisdom is essentially a contemplative (spiritual/prayerful) insight that cannot be a matter of opinion and approximation, but is true knowledge if one has it at all.” Would the parenthesis were not added. It seems too much to project that onto Plato. Contemplative = reason in its fullest, noblest sense, but mental is better than spiritual.

181 Modern knowledge, with its aversion to metaphysics, is barbaric. It is not the kind of learning that comes to us without a proliferation of barbarism. It would be blind to deny that we can see it in our world plainly.

202 More must be accomplished than that which can be done in the sphere of personal morality. He wants social transformation. Society could use some transformation; that is true. I wonder if these need to be aimed at quite as pointedly as he does. What about the contemplation of reality as an end in itself?

207 “Imagine if Australian Christians came to see land-care as a significant issue of faithfulness to the Scriptures.” Indeed, this is what troubles me. What if Christian Platonism were undertaken with the purpose of achieving land-care? If it is a side effect, I can accept it. But when it comes into focus, I wonder how much Platonism this Christianity really contains. My advice: skip the last chapter. The rest is good.

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