The Axial Age in Greece

The coast and islands of the northeastern Mediterranean Sea were populated by waves of Indo-European immigrants who arrived from the north. Sharing a common language (though with different dialects), culture, and religion, they designated anyone who did not speak Greek as “barbarian.” But they engaged in trade with other cultures, including Egyptians, Phoenicians, and the Minoans of Crete. Politically, the Greeks were never united until they all were captured and drawn into the Macedonian Empire by King Philip II of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great. Before that time, each Greek polis (or “city-state”) was independent with its own form of government, ranging from the royalty of Sparta to the democracy of Athens. Sparta had two kings, and they could not act unless they agreed with each other. The democracy of Athens included only Greek-speaking men who owned property, so it excluded women, slaves, foreigners, and many other residents. But it was the beginning of democracy as is still practiced in the world today.

The Greeks united, after a fashion, to resist the Persian invasions of 490 and 480 BCE. They also united—sometimes voluntarily, sometimes involuntarily—as leagues to battle one another. Greek culture flourished in spite of their battles and wars. The Greeks of Athens and of other poleis achieved excellence in mathematics, science, architecture, sculpture, drama, history, and philosophy. Not only did Greeks know that the world is round; they measured its size fairly accurately. Although they borrowed freely from other cultures, the thinkers of Greece laid a foundation upon which western civilization firmly rests.

Confucius and the Buddha presented new Axial Age ideas without rejecting the gods and religious practices of the Chinese and Indian cultures. Zarathustra in Persia overthrew the gods in his proclamation of one god. Greek thinkers approached the world without reference to any gods. They continued to build temples to the gods and worship them; they continued to portray gods in sculpture and in drama. But Greek historians recorded events without attributing success or failure to the gods. Likewise, Greek philosophers sought to explain the material world and its processes without attributing those to the gods.

One early Greek philosopher thought that everything material is made of water. That makes sense: water can be solid, liquid, or vapor, and many things we encounter contain water. Others thought the material world consists of some other primary substances. Greeks first proposed the atomic theory, suggesting that all material things are made of tiny, unbreakable substances. Still others proposed that everything material is made out of numbers. Philosophers debated whether the material world is always at motion or whether true reality is stable and unmoving. One class of philosophers showed that motion is logically impossible. Achilles cannot defeat a tortoise in a race if the tortoise has a head start: by the time Achilles reaches the place where the tortoise started, the tortoise will have traveled to a new spot. When Achilles reaches that spot, the tortoise will have traveled further. Achilles can never catch the tortoise so long as the tortoise keeps moving. Likewise, I cannot throw a ball across the room, because the ball must reach a half-way point on its way across the room, but first it must get half-way to that point, and before that it must get half-way to that point—the ball cannot travel through an infinite number of points in a finite amount of time. (It took Newton and Leibnitz’ invention of calculus centuries later to handle concerns about traveling through infinite points of space.) Greek science did not involve observation and experimentation—that scientific method was developed in Europe during the medieval period. Greek science was a logical process that followed mental rules rather than seeking to discover natural rules.

Over time, Greek philosophy degenerated into theories of communication and rhetoric. Sophists claimed they could take either side of a dispute and win a debate—useful talents in politics and law, but not so helpful in scientific pursuit. From this community arose Socrates. He questioned experts in every field, searching for ultimate truth in the things they knew. Instead, he discovered limits to their knowledge. Socrates wanted to know what makes something good, whether that something is a song, a painting, a boat, or a man. A boat-maker can fashion a good boat and describe its goodness, but the boat-maker could not tell Socrates how the boat acquired its goodness. Especially the Sophists could not answer Socrates’ questions about language and rhetoric, about what makes something true or how to distinguish a good idea from a bad idea. By his persistence, Socrates made enemies among the Sophists and politicians and legal experts and leading citizens of Athens. They accused him of impiety and of corrupting the youth of Athens. Narrowly convicted, both Socrates as defender and his prosecutors were allowed to suggest a punishment. The prosecutors called for death. Socrates said that, because of what he had been doing, he deserved to have a house and regular meals charged to the public expense. The jury chose the prosecutors’ sentence. With his cooperation, Socrates was executed by poisoning.

Socrates had a student named Plato who wrote dialogues featuring the ideas and challenges of Socrates. Some are probably based on real conversations; others were likely invented by Plato to explore his own philosophical ideas. The search of Socrates for ultimate truths about what is good and true and beautiful led Plato to believe that the most real things in the world are goodness and truth and beauty. Those things we encounter in the material world merely draw their qualities from the more real world of ideas. When I write the word “dog,” each reader pictures a dog: large or small, young or old, exuberant or lazy, friendly or vicious, possessing various lengths and colors of fur, but each an example of a dog. Plato would say that they share the qualities of the idea of dog—the ultimate reality is not the individual dogs we experience and picture, but the dogness that they share. Likewise, goodness is an idea that is found in many places, but real goodness is an idea that we know through its diverse manifestations. To form a good society, we need experts who know how to approach the idea of goodness and how to express it in laws and requirements that will drive badness away and will draw goodness out of all citizens.

Plato had a student named Aristotle who disagreed. Aristotle said that the objects we encounter are real. Ideas about them, such as “good” or “dog,” are only labels we create for our own purposes; the labels themselves are not real. Aristotle had his students study the world to sort all things into categories. Dogs can be sorted into various breeds, and all dogs are among mammals, which are among animals, which are among living beings. Likewise, boats and songs and pictures can be described and labeled, sorted into categories and judged by predetermined rules to we can determine which boats and which songs and which paintings are the best.

Other schools of philosophy developed in ancient Greece. Stoics, like Buddhists, stressed non-attachment to the world. They viewed the material world as unimportant; they taught that the mind or soul escapes the body and material things at death and moves on to a higher state of being. Epicureans believed that only the material world exists. The mind and the soul, like the body, disintegrate and disperse at death. Nothing individual survives. The best we can do is enjoy life now, but not to excess. A glass of wine adds quality to the evening; drinking the entire bottle only causes problems. Both Stoics and Epicureans resisted Christian teachings about the resurrection of the body, but for different reasons. Epicureans thought that nothing remains to be regathered and raised; Stoics thought that when the mind or soul escapes the body it was better off and would not want to return to the body.

Many Christians have built their understanding of the world around Greek philosophy. Putting their trust in Jesus and believing the message of the Bible, they still approach and understand these teachings in a Greek framework, whether Platonic or Aristotelian or Stoic or Epicurean. Christian mystics often have drawn inspiration from neoplatonic expressions of ancient philosophy. Christian monastics often have justified their practices through a Stoic outlook upon the world. Christians committed to a faith-ordered life that is logic and rational draw inspiration from Aristotle’s writings. Christianity is not bound to Greek philosophy—the Gospel of Jesus Christ is available to everyone in the world, even if they were trained in Daoist or Buddhist or indigenous religious world views. J.

You will know the truth

Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

Why do Christians who read the same Bible and trust the same Bible have different versions of the truth? I’m not asking about people who read the Bible and purposely edit what they read to suit their purposes. I’m asking about people who expect to find the truth in God’s Word, yet disagree with each other about what that Word says and means.

For fans of big words, the answer to this question lies in hermeneutics. In simpler terms, even faithful Christians may approach the Bible in different ways, having different assumptions about what the Bible contains. One Christian may treat the Bible as a rulebook and may search the Scriptures looking for rules and regulations. That reader sees the historic accounts of the Bible as examples of what happens when one person obeys God’s rules and when another person breaks God’s rules. Another Christian may treat the Bible as a set of promises from God. That reader sees the historic accounts of the Bible as people acting out God’s plan of salvation. To the first reader, Genesis 22 (Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac) shows a believer giving his best to the Lord. To the second reader, the same chapter shows Abraham and Isaac acting out the drama of Good Friday, as a father is prepared to sacrifice his son.

How do we know which approach is correct? The best answer is, “Scripture interprets Scripture.” When a reader is confused about one passage in the Bible, that reader searches for other parts of the Bible that address the same topic. The other passages add clarity to the message of the confusing passage. To understand the apocalyptic language of the book of Revelation, a reader should be guided by the clear teachings of Christ in Matthew 24 & 25 and those of Paul in I Thessalonians 4 & 5.

Of the various mistakes that many Christians make while reading their Bibles, the two most common (at least in western culture) is to trust their reason and to trust their feelings. Both reason and feelings (head and heart) are important when reading the Bible, but reason and feelings should both be shaped by the words of God, not the other way around. Reason is a tool that helps the reader to interpret the Bible correctly; it assists in leading to other passages that provide clarity. Feeling is a tool that helps to apply the message of the Bible to a person’s life. God’s commandments can prompt a sense of sorrow which leads to repentance; God’s promises can prompt a sense of joy which accompanies faith. But so long as we live in this sin-polluted world, both reason and feeling are tainted by sin. Our heads and our hearts, even after we come to faith, are unreliable guides to truth. Both should be placed under Christ’s Lordship; both should be ready to surrender to the Bible’s message even when that message seems wrong to the head or to the heart.

Reason rejects paradox, but many of God’s truths are paradoxes. God is one, but he is three Persons. Christ is entirely God and entirely human, yet he is one Person, one Christ. The Bible is God’s Word, entirely trustworthy and true, yet God delivered that Word through human individuals who each had his own style of writing. Every attempt to make these teachings reasonable results in false teaching. One Christian makes the Father, Son, and Spirit sound like three gods rather than one God. The next Christian reasons that the three Persons are simply the same God under different names—that Jesus is the Father and the Spirit as well as the Son. Both approaches sound reasonable; both are wrong.

Feeling can carry a Christian many directions away from the truth. One Christian reads the commandments, begins to repent, and is overcome by sorrow and guilt which blocks true repentance and keeps that Christian from hearing the promises of God. Another Christian, having felt the joy that accompanies faith, yearns to continue in that joy. That reader avoids the passages that speak of sin and judgment and so avoids the guidance that God’s Law provides for our lives on earth.

Everything should be judged by the Bible, the messages God delivered to the world and to his people through Moses, the prophets, and the apostles. Any dream, any vision, any message that claims to come from God (whether audible or heard only within) should be compared to the Bible, which we know comes from God and is trustworthy and true. A message that seeks to change the message of the Bible—whether by direct contradiction or by subtle reinterpretation of the Bible—is not a message from the God who gave us the Bible. Even if that message makes sense to our heads or feels good in our hearts, the Christian must still “test the spirits” (I John 4:1-3) to be certain that the message is not false.

Head and heart are important parts of our beings. They were created by God and have been redeemed by Christ. We use them both to find God’s Word in the Bible and apply that Word to our lives. But, until Christ appears and makes everything new, neither can be trusted in the same way the Bible should be trusted. Scripture interprets Scripture—only by this rule can we come to know the truth and to receive freedom through that truth. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #1: Did Jesus exist in history?

When we speak or write about Jesus, Christians frequently are confronted by statements intended to disprove Christianity. Often these statements come from sincere unbelievers, although sometimes they are deliberate distortions of the truth. While we are unlikely to convert anyone to Christianity by reason alone—faith is a gift of God that dwells in the heart, not a set of propositions that dwell in the head—it is helpful to have an answer to those who question what we believe. It is particularly helpful for believers to be assured that many of the challenges to our faith come from misunderstandings and distortions. Therefore, this week I plan to address seven objections to Christianity that could be described as conspiracy theories about the Church and its teachings.

Today’s conspiracy theory is the challenge that Jesus of Nazareth never existed—that he is an invention of the Church. Few people actually believe that Jesus never existed, and almost none of the people who make that claim are professional historians. But rather than argue from the basis of majority opinion, it helps to have additional proof of the historical existence of Jesus.

The few who say that Jesus never existed support their belief by saying that there is no written account of Jesus from the first century other than those written by Christians. The idea that the written accounts of Christians cannot be trusted to tell the truth about Jesus is unsound—it would be as if citizens of the United States were disqualified to write biographies of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. The collection of writings by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude is in fact very strong evidence of the existence of the man they describe, Jesus of Nazareth, whom they call the Christ.

A Jewish historian who lived and wrote in the first century knew about Christians and was not a Christian. Flavius Josephus mentions Jesus in his history of Judaism. Some people believe that the surviving copies of Josephus’ work were edited by Christians to include favorable mention of Jesus. Such forgery cannot be disproved, but the demonstration becomes a circular argument: there are no nonChristian references to Jesus from the first century; Josephus wrote in the first century and mentioned Jesus; therefore Josephus’ book must have been altered by Christians. Roman historian Tacitus also makes a passing reference to the Christ worshiped by Christians, and the Mishnah—part of the Jewish Talmud, definitely not a Christian writing—also speaks of Jesus as a historical figure, one it seeks to undermine rather than support, but one that certainly is considered to have existed. Pliny, another Roman historian of the early second century, briefly describes Christians and Christ in a letter to the Emperor Trajan, asking what he should do about them. Trajan’s response was essentially, “Don’t ask; don’t tell”—in other words, don’t go looking for Christians, but if they make their presence known they must be punished for denying the other gods.

The strongest evidence of the existence of Jesus is not written evidence per se but is instead the very existence of the Church. True, the Romans were fascinated by exotic religions, and Christ could be compared to the Persian god Mithra or the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris in being adopted by the Romans. But there are important differences. First, Christianity emerged out of Judaism, a religion most Romans ignored or mocked because of its firm monotheism. Second, Romans added Mithra and the others to the pantheon of gods without denying any of the other gods, something Christians refused to do. Third, Christ Jesus is firmly tied to historical figures such as Caesar Augustus, Pontius Pilate, and the high priest Caiaphas, rather than being pictured as part of the distant and shadowy past. Fourth, the details of what happened to Jesus should have been highly embarrassing to Christians—that he was rejected by the religious leaders of his own people and was crucified by the Roman authorities. Likewise, his first followers are far from heroic, as in the legends of most religions. Peter, Paul, and the others are fallible humans who often fall short and are not to be imitated as paragons of virtue.

The willingness of the first generation of Christians to face martyrdom for their teachings is unthinkable if Jesus never existed. The willingness of thousands of people to join his movement in such a short time could have been countered if the authorities were able to demonstrate that no Jesus of Nazareth was ever sentenced to be crucified in Jerusalem. The dramatic change that the teachings about Christ produced in first century people from Spain to India strongly supports a historic Jesus rather than a legend. And the fact that hundreds of millions of people still know him today, while unconvincing to a skeptic, must surely reassure believers that the Jesus they know must be the historic Jesus of Nazareth. J.

Feelings (something more than feelings)

When I was younger (so much younger than today), I was drawn toward Stoic philosophy. Logic and reason were guides to life; feelings were to be ignored. After all, the great virtues all involve working against one’s feelings. Courage is not lack of fear: courage is doing the right thing in spite of fear. True love is not feeling good because of someone else; true love is caring more about the other person than about one’s self. Victory over evil does not come from never being tempted; victory over evil comes from resisting temptation, from saying no to temptation.

Yes, I was Mr. Spock, but with a better script-writer than Spock had. I did not prattle about logic, because logic consists of the rules that govern reason. Loving logic rather than reason is like loving the rules of football rather than the game of football. The rules make the game possible, but the game is the thing. Reason, of course, has limits; there are things that are beyond reason, and those things are of vast importance. Having learned of the reality that lies beyond reason, though, does not diminish reason. In fact, reason can be used to study and understand even those messages that come from the world beyond reason.

But in the last few years I have learned that feelings are not to be ignored. A human being consists of body and mind and spirit, and feelings happen at the intersection of body and mind and spirit. Many feelings come from the body, warning the mind and spirit of the body’s needs. Other feelings can come from the mind or the spirit, guiding the whole being along a certain course of action or turning away from a different course of action.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this” most of the time. It is rare for me to start a trip, long or short, without the feeling that I have forgotten something important back at home. If someone at home or at work is in a bad mood, I often feel that I am responsible—I must have done something wrong to annoy him or her. In shopping malls and large stores I often feel threatened and overwhelmed. I feel an eerie sense of doom, and I want to make my purchase and leave as quickly as I can. (And I am grateful for self-serve registers, so I do not have to interact with another person while in the store.)

Negative feelings have their silver linings. I never leave my keys locked in the car, because my feelings of anxiety cause me to clutch the keys in one hand while I close the car door with the other hand. In a similar vein, I never leave my magnetic pass key on my desk at work; I’m always touching it as I go through the secure door of the work area. I am probably kinder to my co-workers than I would otherwise be because of my false sense that their unhappiness is my fault. If bad feelings make me a better person, who am I to complain?

A therapist has helped me to be mindful of my feelings, to look at them and ask myself what they are telling me. Why am I especially jittery on Saturdays? Is it because of the change in routine, the one day that I don’t jump out of bed to head to work or to church? Is it anticipation of the coming Sunday morning responsibilities at church? Or is it awareness that, unless the weather is bad, I will be exposed to the noise of neighbors working in their lawns and gardens with the racket of power tools of various kinds?

In short, I’ve learned that feelings are not to be ignored. They have their place, even if they are not reliable guides for decisions to be made or actions to be taken. Feelings are part of being human. Much as I may have wanted to be a Vulcan, both my parents were human, and I am human too. And that’s not a bad thing—the Lord created humans and said that they made creation “very good.” When sin and evil entered creation, the Lord entered creation as a human to ransom and redeem humans. And the Lord has experienced the full range of human feelings, even as I do, without sinning in the process. Being human, having feelings, is good. J.