Friday, January 1, 2010
Jello, Plato, and Theology
In my last blog, I wrote a lot about food.
For some reason, it made me think about Jell-O.
(The way some of you celebrated New Years, you might need Jell-O!)
I understand that one might not conclude an elegant romantic meal with Jell-O (outside of West Virginia anyway), but indulge me. Jell-O will help me explain something important.
The old Greek philosopher, Plato, had a very considerable influence upon the writers of the New Testament, the church fathers, and many great Christian thinkers since. Sometimes early Christian thinkers have agreed with Plato and sometimes they haven’t. Whether they have or not, most of them borrowed words and concepts from him. They needed those concepts to communicate with their Greek-speaking audience. For this reason, we need to have some idea of of what Plato taught before we proceed.
So please bear with me for a couple of pages as I plunge us into some of Plato’s heavy thoughts.
Come on, you’re up to it!
Let’s begin with Jell-O. (Jell-O is not that heavy, you see.)
Plato said that everything in the universe is made of two things – form and substance. Now before you give the words “form” and “substance” the meaning you normally assign them, let me explain how Plato used these words.
By “substance,” Plato meant the stuff you can hold in your hand and do tests on and so forth, the elementary stuff of our material world. You know, stuff!
By the word “form,” he meant something like a blueprint. He believed that “forms,” or the blueprints of everything that exists in our material world, came first. Substance was added later.
Forms were made of some sort of spiritual stuff that is now invisible to us. We can talk about forms, but that requires a special kind of thinking and talking.
Think of Plato’s “substance” as Jell-O.
Now think of “form” as a mold into which you can pour the not-yet-solid Jell-O.
Congratulations, you just started understanding Plato! The only difference is that Plato thought “forms” were eternal and were, therefore, the most important part of creation. He also believed that the “substance,” (the “Jell-O”) was a much lower level of creation than the mold we choose to pour the Jell-O into.
(Of course, Plato never tried to eat Jell-O molds. At least one would hope not!)
However, Plato’s idea makes spiritual sense. Any plan that God makes exists on a much higher level than any human plan.
For example, when I decided to write this blog, I first made an outline. Then I began thinking about stories, illustrations and so forth I could pour into my outline.
God did something similar when he created the world. However, God’s “outline,” Plato would say, was itself a living thing. It came from God, for God’s sake! In fact, the blueprint for the universe, the form of all forms, was a part of God.
A bit further along in this book, we will see how St. John’s gospel used this very pattern of thought to introduce Jesus to the Greeks. He called Jesus the “logos,” the form of all forms, who in Christ become flesh and dwelt among us.
As we read through the Bible, we will be challenged by the thought patterns of ancient people. We will have to think about how God chose particular cultures, languages and ears of history to craft his Word into the form we now call the Bible.
A few years ago, I visited the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem. It commemorates the place where the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Just a few feet away, there is an old monk’s cell, where St. Jerome worked for years to translate the Bible into Latin, so we Westerners could read the scriptures.
I remember the awe of standing between these two memorials, one that helps us remember how the Word became a body; the other that helps us remember how the Word became a book.
As Plato might have put it: the perfect form leapt into the world, taking upon itself corruptible substance so we could see and touch the Word of life.
What he did not know was that the corruptible substance would itself be transformed, so that mortal might put on immortality and corruptible might put on incorruptibility.
Christ became a mortal body that we might become an eternal body. The Word became a book so that its power might transform us into God’s eternal companions.
There are some things that even Plato didn’t know.
Also, he never knew that there is always room for Jell-O.
This is a New Year and a new decade. It’s wonderful to think about how God had a plan for our lives before He even created the universe. Our spiritual journey is about discovering that plan and then living accordingly. Furthermore, the plan is not a dead description of God’s hopes but a living entity that flows from God’s own being; sort of like D.N.A. When children are conceived, the “plan” for their physical being is contained in a set of “drawings” that come from the Mom and Dad.
The plan for all creation – God’s D.N.A -- is Himself a living entity, a “form” in Plato’s language. That “form of forms,” the Logos, Blueprint, Word, once took on substance so we could see Him and hear Him.
Sometimes, God’s plan for our lives takes on flesh too and becomes a living thing. However, we have to cooperate with God for this to happen.
Like a woman long ago that prayed, “Let it be done unto me according to Thy will.”
Its not a bad prayer to pray on this first day of the year.