Essay / Philosophy

Can a Christian love the dialectic?

John Mark Reynolds, 2004.

I am a Christian and not just any kind of Christian, but the most robust kind: a Christian who believes the creeds are true and that the Bible is infallible. I don’t think much of modernity and tradition seems a better guide to behavior than the front page of the LA Times. I also love Socrates and Plato. If forced to take two books with me to an island (a great party game! Unless you are looking for a second date!), they would be the Bible and the Republic.

However, some of my non-Christian friends, don’t get these two passions. How can they fit together? Can I be committed to dialog when I think that Jesus is Lord? Not only can I, but I believe Plato in his writings provided the best defense for being a Christian. In his early dialogues, Plato presents Socrates as the man of many questions. He exposes the ignorance of his friends. . . And also his own ignorance. Most “great books” programs focus on this style of education. This is an intellectual event equivalent to a total reformat of a hard drive on a stuck computer. It is painful, tedious, and hard but it clears up many problems. Questions of the Socratic sort reveal opinions disguised as truth. Inherited customs are not experiences. They can be questioned and even rejected. Seeing the good is not the same as hearing a story about the good from the fathers.

However, Plato does not end there. This reformat produces only clarity, it cannot find the truth. Truth can only be built from the strong foundation of clear thinking and best experience. As one begins to move forward, the good thinker begins to see that there is something “more.” There is a great unknown out there that human reason can know is there, but not know in its essence. (Republic, Symposium, Alcibiades) It is the known unknown. If this is true, then one can begin to make a hypothesis about what this known unknown is. These theories can be tested against reality and rejected or accepted. They can also be examined by use of Socratic questioning to see if they are coherent.

A hypothesis is not enough. It is too flat, not part of a three dimensional story that can explain life. Life moves. It is not static. Plato describes what is needed next as a myth, a likely story. In particular, he hopes god or the gods will provide him with such a story. We need to see truth “doing things” if it is to account for the world in which we actually live and not just the ideal. Ideally, god or the gods would tell us the right story. In the meantime, Plato creates stories that can be rejected by questions, looking at the world, or by divine revelation. These stories that Plato told tend to fall back into the old Delphic (Homer and Hesiod) myths. The great man, Plato, cannot totally escape the images of his youth. His creator is too small. His creation too powerful. This is why the truth of Christianity, when thinkers like Saint Paul revealed it, had such a major impact. Christianity is the myth that Platonism needed. It is the “likely story” that completes the search.

It is no surprise that many of us begin first with that story. We experience, after Jesus, the story first. Later we examine what we think we know about the story using Socratic questioning and hypothesis. We test each link in the chain. Many of us go through a time in which we “leave” the faith. I know I did. However, when it comes time to move philosophy from the classroom and into life, we see that the story of our childhood, our experience of God is the best myth. It is real. It is true.I am far from being uncomfortable as a seeker, as someone who constantly checks each link in his chain of reasoning, and a Christian. I believe the Bible, because it comes to me from God. I experience truth in it. My experience when examined by reason checks out. It makes sense of life and is coherent. When I kneel in prayer and catch a brief glimpse of the verity seen and yet unseen, then I know the long road from Athens leads to Jerusalem. The questions of the Republic find their resolution in the stories of the Bible, which replaces times and Laws as the likely story that brings us home.

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