It does no good to argue which path is better if we haven't first discussed where we are going. The real difference between the biblical world view — otherwise known to us as Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) — and the Western frame of reference is rooted in why we bother to philosophize in the first place. The goals of the Bible and those of Western Civilization are not compatible.
If you ever attend a decent educational institution, one of the courses required would introduce you to the fundamental philosophical assumptions of our Western culture. Most often these courses survey the literature of classical philosophy. One of the most famous examples can be found in Plato's Allegory of the Cave. In this, Plato overtly states truth is something men don't instinctively know, but must struggle mightily to find. In part, the philosopher presents a basic assumption about the nature of reality, and how men ought to think and reason, so as to make the most of it. Ironically, most students passing through those courses can't explain what the allegory has to do with their daily lives, because — as Plato might have it — they haven't left the cave, yet.
Plato's allegory assumes those who are free have some moral obligation to help the prisoners leave their chains and their cave. In other places, Plato and friends describe the process of human learning, a process which assumes a goal of knowing about the world outside the cave. In our cultural education, we are told the reality detected by our senses is the shadow world, while the world outside the cave is the realm of ideals, of pure thoughts. The path of freedom is to train the mind to see all physical objects as manifestations of ideals. We find these ideals by surveying the real objects, processing things by building categories, hierarchies of kinds of objects, classifications on different levels of function and form, until we have constructed a matrix of understanding. It's another way of saying you need to back off from individual trees so you can grasp the concept of “forest.” When you find a rational order for placing every object and event in your life, you are in a better position to see the larger connections between things, and respond more effectively.
This works. It works for so much of what we experience in our world, most of those who live on that basis are content to simply dismiss what cannot be understood that way. This system has stood so long, we don't really teach people to build their own logic; there's a whole world of pre-built, commonly accepted categories. While a few rare individuals are permitted to challenge bits and pieces of the system, that permit comes only after they have become particularly expert in what already exists. Yes, there are plenty of challenges to the underlying system itself, or so it seems. Oddly, if you really grasp the system, you'll find most of those philosophical challenges can be chased back down their line of assumptions right back to Plato. They challenge the matrix, but not the basic Allegory of the Cave. In the end, few of them do much more than add one more piece to the existing framework. So solid and stable are the underlying assumptions about human existence and the very nature of knowledge itself, most people simply don't have to bother examining it.
It is a broad irony Plato's philosophy comes to us cast as merely his recounting what his teacher, Socrates, gave him. If we understand correctly, Socrates was far closer to Eastern mysticism than the world built on Plato's legacy. Today we give a name — Platonism — to a worldview he might not have held himself, but rather is the result of where his work took following generations of philosophers. Indeed, Plato taught in a very Eastern fashion, while it was his most famous student, Aristotle, who gave us the first formal examination of human knowledge. Thus, it is more correct to say modern Western Civilization is essentially Aristotelian, in that much of what we have is based on his pattern of organizing human knowledge. The main point here is to note our modern intellectual heritage is a sharp departure from something much older.
So, in all our modern insistence on standards of logic, the definition of truth, we appear to have something clearly at odds with that ancient tradition. Given the corpus of education morphing as it passed up the chain of Socrates-Plato-Aristotle, it constitutes a final blunt rejection of those primitive roots. So complete is this rejection, the very terminology for describing it is colored with despite. In common use today, those terms are patently dismissive. Indeed, the vast majority of Western Christianity sternly warns the basic intellectual assumptions of this more ancient culture is equivalent to pagan Hindu, Buddhist, and other Eastern religions. Merely saying the Bible is essentially a document of Eastern religious traditions will get reactions which border on violent in many churches today.
This is insanity. Our modern intellectual assumptions dismiss the whole range of Far, Middle and Near Eastern cultures, lumping them together under harsh visceral hatred. What most Western Christians don't realize is somewhere in that mix is the culture God built with His own hand. It came as revelation from God as the way fallen men ought to live, how they should operate, how best to understand the world He made and His will regarding all things.
The Bible truly does arise from the ANE cultural base. How it is most Christians reject this orientation as evil comes from the flawed assumption the New Testament is inherently Western. Simply because Paul knew Greek and Greek philosophical assumptions, there seems no effort at all to see whether any of his work, nor the rest of the New Testament, reflects any other viewpoint. The blind hatred prevents even a cursory examination of the differences between ANE and Hellenism — they don't know and don't want to know. Thus, they read Jesus' words through mental assumptions He would reject. Indeed, all His teaching calls men back to the ancient Hebrew ways, which came from the hand of God, and is essentially one of many Eastern traditions. While we justly note all the others are corruptions derived from God's original Hebrew culture, an honest look shows the similarities.
The fatal flaw in Western reasoning is assuming man is the measure of all things. It is inherently human-centered, which should obviously be a sinful notion. Man is fallen, but the results of Socrates-Plato-Aristotle denies that man's rational faculty is included in that condemnation. The modern Christian notion man can theoretically reason his way back to God is not at all in Scripture, but is read back into it from Hellenistic assumptions. When Paul writes in Romans how fallen man cannot even desire to know God, the Western Christian mind translates that somehow to a mere cultural issue. Teach them better and they'll “make a decision for Christ.” Paul says bluntly that's not possible, that only a miracle from God can bring any human mind to the place of repentance and faith.
The fundamental assumption of ANE is man cannot know more than a certain limited amount. Even that is by God's grace. The only way anyone can hope to truly understand anything at all is by revelation. It must come from above, not be built up from below. Yes, mankind is imprisoned in a cave of shadows, but no man is brought out without the direct intervention of God. However, it's not about some elite few chosen, as Socrates supposed, but a bunch of failures with one added benefit. There is nothing elite about that divine difference, for those so touched are the first to fall humbly on their faces and profess loudly what horrific filthy scum they are. Any confidence or hope at all is the result of realizing the presence of God's calling, not anything in the self.
While Western Christians do say such things, it amounts to lip service when we see the actual working out of this bastardized understanding of the world. We call it “noble” when men are touched, and give titles, plan professional tracks and plaster fame on them as if God's whim in choosing them somehow equates to making such men great. The system exists because far too many recipients of such honor won't do the right thing and reject the whole mess. You cannot build a name for yourself in this world without sinning. The real thing is when men are so deeply concerned about their standing and “fame” with God, they could care less whether their name will show up in advertisements for the next big Bible conference. The very existence of educational certificates and degrees is the child of Aristotle's mind, not the mind of the Spirit. Men of God won't need to charge admission, or even take up a voluntary collection, because they won't seek the biggest or best accommodations for hosting their gatherings. They won't bother with fine clothing to add a professional image to their words.
“But that's the way we have to do things in this world.”
No, it isn't. That's the way the world does things, not the Kingdom of Heaven — which is by no means of this world. Most modern Christianity hangs onto some semblance of spreading the gospel message, and people continue crossing over into the Realm of the Spirit very much in spite of Western Christianity, not because of it. We don't have what Jesus had in His ministry because we refuse to embrace the source of that power. We have our dime-store version of faith, and while God continues to touch lives through Western churches, it's because that's the best He can get from us. That we are otherwise so crippled and lame serves to warn us we aren't where we could be. We have excluded His whole path because we hardly understand where we are supposed to be going.
Ed Hurst is Associate Editor of Open for Business.
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