Monday, October 28, 2013

Platonic Myths

Josef Pieper, Platonic Myths. Introduction by James V. Schall; translated by Dan Farrelly. St. Augustine's Press, 2011.

What did Plato think about the myths that he created in his works? Did he believe they contain truth? Why did he ban the poets form the Republic? These and other questions are answered in Pieper's Platonic Myths. Pieper makes a strong argument that the myths in Plato's works actually contain the truth. He also shows how faith and reason are compatible. He does this by showing there "is no inherent incompatibility between the teachings of philosophy and the teachings of eschatological mythology."

Platonic Myths is ably introduced by Father Schall. The title of the introduction is "Myths that are true and truths expressed in myths." Schall thinks that almost everything Pieper writes is a "commentary on Plato." This is interesting since Pieper has also written much on Thomas Aquinas and medieveal philosophy. Schall says this about the banning of the poets from the Republic: "In the city in speech that is being built in the Republic, however, after we have seen why many poets who charm us, including Homer and Hesiod, were abolished, we find Socrates telling us that poets, now purified, could be permitted back in the city we are building, the best city. Not only do we need them; we delight in them. When all is in order, we sing as we should. Plato is not at all opposed to poetry. Indeed, the Republic itself is, at one level, a haunting poem designed to out-charm Homer at his own game" x-xi). This brings light to many readers who wonder why Plato bans the poets from the Republic.

Schall thinks Pieper effectively answers the scholars who argue that Plato "did not find anything true in myths" (xi). Pieper shows us there are two types of myth is Plato: "We do find myths that simply teach a lesson by extended example. But we also find myths, those ancient ones that are handed down from of old that purport to explain the origins of man with his relation to the gods" (xii). In other words, there are myths that are true and there are myths that contain truth in them. This is a good summary of what Pieper is explaining in this book.

Platonic Myths is a small book, containing only 62 pages of text.  The book is divided into six chapters. Chapter one defines myth and how is used in Plato. Chapter two shows how how Platonic myths act as truth. Chapter three analyses the eschatalogical myths. Human origins is discussed in chapter four. Faith and reason is discussed in chapter five. Christian revelation is compared with Platonic myths in the last chapter.

Pieper is always easy to read. He makes difficult concepts understandable and that is equally true in Platonic Myths. This book will help the reader have a better understanding of Plato's view of the truth that exists in myths.

Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451. New York: Random House, 1996, originally published in 1953.

Robert M. Woods, "Book Burning Without Fire or Kerosene and Why Scripture is not even Safe: A Christian Humanistic Reading of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

Fahrenheit 451 was the book we discussed in our book group last week. I was surprised that I was the only member of the book group who had read the book previously, and I only read it a year ago. Most of the book was surprised by the book. They thought that the book was all about censorship or book burning. The book group thought that censorship is just one of the themes of the book. They thought two major themes of the book were technology and mass culture. In addition, the group thought the book was more relevant today than it was first written.

It is the interesting that the group did not see book burning or censorship as the primary theme of the book since this is the popular interpretation of the book. Before reading the book, I had always heard that Fahrenheit 451 is a book against censorship. It is interesting that the people stopped reading before the government began censoring the book.

The movie version of the book directed by Francois Truffaut views censorship as the primary theme of the book. For example, an important theme of the book is the alienation between Montag and his wife. This is not shown in the movie. In addition, it does not show the effect of mass culture and technology on the characters of the book. My family asked an interesting question: If people were not allowed to read, how did they learn to read?

An interesting part of the movie is that Montag's wife calls the television her family. Montag responds by saying that his books are his family. Montag's wife tells him he needs to choose between his books and his wife. Montag says it is too hard to decide.

Another interesting part of the movie is Montag wearing a robe late at night when he is reading. The robe looks like something a monk would wear. Is Montag saving books for a future generation like the monks did in their own time?

Woods in his article also disagrees with the popular misconception that sees Fahrenheit 451 "as an example of left-wing social propaganda or preaching a message of hyper-libertarianism against any and all types of censorship" (69). He seems to think that censorship is a minor theme of the book. He actually says it is a "metaphorical" part of the book. Woods thinks that the book contains many humane themes: anti-intellectualism, relational alienation, the quest for meaning and happiness, social literacy, fallenness, and a longing for authentic human community" (70).

Most of the members of the book group did not like the ending. They did not like the way Bradbury left it open on what would happen in the future. I actually like the ending. It shows how the city was destroyed and the book people are heading to the city. (The Book People are people who have memorized an important book of the past and has become that book.)   It is a message of hope that civilization can be rebuilt from the ashes through the knowledge of the great ideas of the past. I will leave the reader with a statement and a question from Woods: Burn Right! What book are You?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?

What Does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?
            When the author of this essay became a Christian, he entered the world of faith. When he became a university student, he entered the world of reason. Jerusalem stands for faith, and Athens stands for Jerusalem. Tertullian, an early Christian writer, when penning this question, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem”? He was implying that faith and reason were not compatible. It is ironic that Tertullian is using his training in rhetoric to argue this point. There are at least three possible responses to Tertullian’s question. Two of these responses assume that faith and reason are not compatible. One response is the Christian fideist position. This position argues that reason corrupts faith. The other position is that reason does not faith. Some members of this group argue that faith is merely superstition. The third response is a mediating position. It claims that faith and reason are compatible.
            The first position to be described is the faith alone position. An example of this position is the argument that the early church was corrupted by Greek philosophy. This position thinks that philosophy corrupts the pure faith. It believes the faith is corrupted when philosophy is added to it. In addition, it believes that all a Christian needs is faith. For example, Martin Luther called philosophy the Devil’s whore. He even called for books written by Aristotle to be burned.
            The second position to be described is the reason alone position. Many thinkers since the enlightenment think reason alone can guide society and individual lives. In addition, they argue that Christian faith is made up of myths and fables. In modern times, scientism has argued that science or the scientific method is the only way to acquire truth. Since Christian faith or belief in God is not recognized as scientific, it is thrown into the dustbin of history.
            The third position is a mediating position between the first two positions. This position claims that faith and reason are compatible. It believes faith and reason are compatible. It acknowledges that faith can corrupt faith, but this is not inevitable. It also recognizes that faith without reason can become superstitious. It believes faith and reason needs each other. For example, Psalms 19 speaks of two books of revelation, natural and supernatural. Natural revelation is discovered through human means. For example, the scientific method is a valid method to discover knowledge about the world. On the other hand, the Bible provides a divine knowledge about the things of God. It is the kind of knowledge that only comes through divine revelation. This mediating position believes that ultimately, these two books of revelation cannot conflict. The reason they cannot conflict is because they come from one source. The source for both natural and divine revelation is God. A good example of an individual who lived out this position is Thomas Aquinas.
            The three responses to Tertullian’s question were evident in the time of Aquinas. These responses for especially evident in the responses to Aristotle’s writings becoming available. One could say that Aristotle’s philosophy is natural revelation. These writings of Aristotle became available to Western Europe in the twelfth century. Some of the religious leaders voiced opposition to the writings of Aristotle. They thought they should not be studied because they would corrupt the faith of the believers. This group represents the faith alone response. Some scholars thought Aristotle should be accepted completely even when he contradicts the Christian scriptures. Some even proposed the idea of double truth; that both faith and reason can be correct even if they contradicted each other. Aquinas was representative of a middle position. He accepted both faith and reason. He believed faith and reason could not contradict one another because they came from one source. This source was God. Aquinas agreed with thinkers like St. Augustine that truth should be accepted wherever it is found.
            The reader has seen three different responses to Tertullian’s question: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Another way to state the question is what has faith to do with reason? Should the believer say that faith and reason are not compatible? Or should they say faith and reason are compatible? Throughout 2000 years of church history all three responses have been evident. It continues to be evident today. For example, the new atheists argue that only reason is needed to order society and individual lives. They say science is the only valid method to acquire truth. In addition, some even argue that religion is not only superstitious, but that it is actually dangerous.
            Christians who opt for the faith alone position are also evident today. This group thinks learning is dangerous. They fear their children’s faith will be corrupted by modern education. They want their children to read only Christian authors. They see that all truth comes from the Bible. They do not think the believer can find the truth in non-Christian authors. It seems they believe only in divine revelation. For example, any truth must come from the Bible itself. They seem to deny that is not only divine revelation, but also natural revelation. Are there truths in natural revelation that even non-believers can discover?

            Last, the middle position that accepts both faith and reason is acceptable today. They believers believe that God is the author of truth wherever it may be found. They accept that there is truth in Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. They think the writings of these authors should be studied and are compatible with the Christian faith. These believers believe that faith and reason are compatible. They think Christians can pursue the life of the mind and be faithful Christians too.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The God of Faith & Reason

Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith & Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology. Catholic University of America, 1995. ISBN: 0813208270

I recently read Sokolowski's God of Faith & Reason for the second time. It is the type of book that you can read multiple times and continue to learn from it. Sokolowski is professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America. He is a respected philosopher of phenomenology. He applies his thinking on phenomenology to theology in this book. Sokolowski states that "phenomenology reflects on the appearance of things, but it takes such appearances as generally valid and true, as manifestations of the things presented in them. It does not begin, as so much of modern thinking does, with a skeptical bias against appearances" (ix). The theology presented in this book the author calls the theology of disclosure which "tries to bring out the structure of manifestation that is proper to Christian 'things,' and most centrally it tries to bring out the structure of disclosure proper to the Christian God, the God of faith and reason.

One of the major themes addressed in this book is the distinction between God and the world, and how this distinction will cause us to see things differently. The author urges throughout the book the compatibility of faith and reason, and the natural and theological virtues.

The book begins with a Christian understanding of God. In this chapter he analyzes Anselm's definition of God. Chapter two describes the pagan understanding of God. In chapter three he begins his theme of distinguishing between God and the world. Chapter four shows how this distinction is different from the distinctions of things within the world. In chapter five he discusses the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas and how it addresses the distinction between God and the world. Chapters six and seven deals with natural and theological virtues. Chapter eight addresses the difficulties of "reconciling" the natural and theological virtues. Chapters nine through twelve discusses God's existence, Scripture reading, "Christian experiences," and the sacraments.

The chapters are short and can easily be read in one sitting. The writing is clear, but not easy reading. I believe the content can be understood by the general educated reader. This book is well worth the effort required to understand its contents.

The Chronicles of Narnia: the Silver Chair

The Silver Chair is the fourth book in the Chronicles of Narnia. It is the story of the adventures of Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole. Eustace first appearance in Narnia was in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It is Jill's first journey to Narnia. Jill and Eustace are members of a "progressive school" where bullies rule. Jill and Eustace are brought into Narnia to rescue Prince Rilian who has been captured by a green serpent and it is not known if he is dead or alive.

At this time, the Silver Chair is one of my favorites of the Narnia book. It has one of the most interesting characters in the Chronicles of Narnia-- Puddleglum, the Marshwiggle. He seems to be pessimistic about everything. However, at crucial times in their journey to rescue the prince, it is Puddleglum who helps to save the mission.

There are many spiritual truths that can be gleamed from the book. For example, when Jill first arrives in Narnia, she is dying of thirst. By a stream of water is Aslan the Lion. Jill does not know Aslan. She asks the Lion to move so she can drink. He answers no. She says she would have to find another stream. He tells her there is no other stream. This seems to refer to the water that Jesus gives and we will thirst no more. Another example is the Lady of the Green Kirtle. She deceives the Prince and even casts a magic spell on the Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum where they began to think that the world they come from does not exist. This whole story seem to allude to Plato's allegory of the cave. They have to go underground to rescue the prince. When they were overland they saw things clearly. When they went underground, their vision became cloudy.

The Silver Chair can be read as a good story. It can also be read for its deeper meanings. Another interesting symbol is that Jill must memorize four signs that will guide them on their mission. Some in our book group thought this pointed to Deuteronomy and the law. We are to memorize the law and it is to guide our paths.