So it’s back to Year 1 in CoPhi, with JMH‘s take on Jesus, Paul, Epictetus, Plotinus [IEP], and the Gnostics (among others). Belief in the Judeo-Christian God’s heaven, as the necessary and sufficient price of admission thereto, is about to become “the central religious duty.”Doubt will be its correlative complement.
“Belief is difficult.” Really? You’ll have a hard time persuading freethinkers in Tennessee of that proposition. Most of our peers here seem to regard unquestioning belief as a given, along with patriotism and unwavering support of UT’s “amateur” athletic program.
But the claim here is that, in the Common Era, God demands uncircumspect, unreflective, unwavering professions of allegiance from all his creatures who want any chance of returning to the post-mortem fold. Not good works, not tribal devotion (“the afterlife was seen as a given for the whole group”), not rational Hellenic skepticism, notanything but pure unblinking faith in the face of evidential nullity. “The individual’s sole responsibility was to not step out of the group.”
It would be awkward, then, if Jesus himself (Son and Father) was a doubter. JMH says he was, in two respects. He doubted his own ability to sacrifice himself in the atonement of human sins, and he doubted God’s loyalty. “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Paul never met Jesus, but was convinced he was the son of God and could redeem the rest of us by dying in a horrible crucifixion. As Solomon and Higgins said, it’s an “extremely difficult notion” of justice and redemption.
Paul, who “reimagined the religion in terms of the magic of resurrection and life everlasting,” was not the only 2d-hand scribe involved in telling the Greatest Story Ever Told. “When people finally got down to writing about Jesus, they no longer knew much detail.” So it may just be true that, with his “doubting of establishment values,” he was really a Jewish Diogenes. (Speaking of dead philosophers…)
But in fact there were other influences in the mix, including Plato’s ultimate Truth, the Stoics’s “distant, universal, logical God,” and the desperate dream of an afterlife. Believing is seeing, allegedly.
With such high stakes, wouldn’t it be hard for most of us not to want to believe? “Everything is possible for him who believes… help me overcome my unbelief!” That attitude won’t get you far in Philosophy but it’ll sure build your church. I’ll bet I pass half a dozen message boards proclaiming precisely that message every day on my way to school.
Philosophers are more likely to echo Thomas, the empiricist disciple who would have been at home in Missouri, demanding to be shown the proof of the nail marks. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We really do live in a blessed region, here in the mid-state.
It must have been harder to believe, back then.
The philosophers and the Jews had both rejected the idea of any God with a biography: a face, and a mother… And then here was God, a man. It is a stunning shift.
It really defies credulity, and must have seemed literally incredible to many of Jesus’ peers. But does it become easier, as time goes by and generations pass, to believe? Was it a buyer’s market for Messiahs, when he and Brian Cohen and other stump speakers, were vying for attention?
JMH wonders how Paul’s insistence that divine justice (among other inescapable philosophical problems) is “not ours to ponder” went over in Athens, and among Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics? Like a lead balloon, I’d guess.
Plotinus thought Christianity was “an offensive, mythic little cult” and tried to improve it with his neo-Platonic emanations. His God was a lot like Aristotle’s:
“he had no personality, did not know of us, had not created the world, took no interest in it, and would never judge it or anyone… It was Plotinus who made Plato and Aristotle seem religious.” (JMH)
It was also Plotinus who downgraded the status of matter, nature, and the human body as inferior by comparison with the higher stages of emanation. After him, Christianity cracked down on dissent. Free-thinking was not tolerated, and the Dark Ages commenced with the horrific murder, probably ordered by Cyril (later rewarded with Sainthood), of the great female Alexandrian philosopher, scientist, and mathematician Hypatia (more on her next time.)
How about those heretical Gnostics? They said we’re
trapped on the surface of the planet, destined to die and rot in the ground or go up in smoke.
They wanted to be beamed home, and this (they said) isn’t it. But the creator God is not putting out a welcome mat either.
Why marvel that God made beaches, wheat, and honeycombs if, on the important questions, any fairly decent human being would have done a better job; would, for instance, neither invent torture nor allow it to be invented… Our sense of ethics, pity, and care makes us far superior to the universe in which we are trapped.
JMH says they celebrated humanness, but speaking as a humanist I prefer the version she indicated early in her book – the one where humans decide they’re not lost in the woods after all, and instead decide to hang out a “Home Sweet Home” sign and settle in for the duration to make the best of things in an imperfect world. “The self and the divine are identical” seems a bit of a stretch.
“I too am an Epicurean“: Jefferson on Epicurus, Epictetus… Jefferson the epicure… Back in the saddle (Paul etc.)… Ehrman at MTSU…