Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Pepe Le Pew And The Epiphany

Can you tolerate just one more visit to Plato’s world of forms and substance?

Even though today is Epiphany?

It’s really important. To understand the world in which the New Testament writers lived, a little knowledge about Plato and his teachings is flat out necessary.

(In our contemporary world, a thing to note is that Pepe Le Pew was created on today’s date, in 1945. Mr. Le Pew was envisioned to be an amorous but confused skunk that fell in love with cats. When this “form” became “substance,” it created layers of unwelcome questions from curious children. This has been happening ever since. Some ideas should never see the actual light of day. They should remain pure forms.)

Believe it or not, in the first century Plato’s ideas were the topic of everyday conversation. Two centuries later, the Bishop of Constantinople complained in a letter to a friend that one could not go to the public bath or buy a carrot at the market without being accosted with questions about philosophy and theology. Most of those questions were Plato’s fault, directly or indirectly.

The good bishop would have enjoyed being a pastor in our times. If I get accosted at the market; it’s almost never about theology or philosophy!

I am much more likely to get in a conversation about some figure like Pepe Le Pew, as to whether or not he is or is not an appropriate cartoon for healthy Christian children to watch. Personally, I think Le Pew stinks, and am willing to take a stand on that.

Anyway, back to Plato and how his ideas influenced Christian theology. Who knows when the days will return like those that troubled the bishop of 3rd century Constantinople? We will need to be prepared.

Imagine God preparing to create the universe. First, according to those influenced by Plato, God made “molds” or “forms.” Because these ‘forms” were made of spiritual “stuff,” and came from the being of God, the forms were eternal and perfect.

Now imagine God making material substance, stuff we can see and taste. (I personally don’t know anyone who can taste a form.)

Finally, imagine God taking His various mixtures of “earth-stuff,” all the carbon, water, silicon, and whatever else seemed good to Him to make, and pouring this stuff into His invisible and perfect “forms.”

If you can imagine that process, you have started to understand Plato.

However, as you can imagine, when “substance” gets poured into the forms, the result is never as perfect as the forms themselves were before becoming matter. A building’s lines aren’t as straight as the blueprint designed them to be because the materials used to build buildings are always a bit faulty, a bit “de-formed.”

I don’t know if Pepe le Pew turned out exactly as Chuck Jones planned. I doubt it. The artists and engineers, the sound guys and the program directors all had to tweak the idea as it moved through production and I’m sure the original idea shifted a bit before it became a cartoon character for kids to watch on Saturday mornings.

The visible parts of the universe are not in as good shape as the invisible parts. (Except for the Devil and his friends but that’s another story.) Here in the material universe, things diverge in small and big ways from the divine plan. This difference in quality between “spiritual” things and “material” things, are due to the imperfections of substance. That’s Plato’s idea, anyway.

This way of looking at things is behind many expressions and arguments in the New Testament, as we will see.

Once again, material things – things that exist in our visible universe -- are imperfect. They do not adequately represent the eternal and invisible forms that give them definition, shape and identity.

Plato coined several terms that we use every day to express his view of reality.

For example, he created the word “deformed.” When something is deformed, it has lost some of its form. When things are deformed, they should be “reformed,” that is, “returned to the original form.”Sometimes, we can change the form of a thing, in which case it will be “transformed,” or “made into an entirely new thing.” If something is “formal,” then we are observing the form much more closely than we do under normal circumstances. All meetings have a form but a “formal” meeting tolerates much less deviation from that from than when the meeting is more relaxed.

We could go on and on about this, but you get the idea – if you are still reading!

In Plato’s opinion, all visible and material things are imperfect copies of the perfect and eternal forms, up in the real world (what the New Testament calls “the heavenlies.”)

Some Platonists, or people who study Plato, believed that this inferred that material things are necessarily further from God than the eternal and perfect forms. That is not a New Testament idea, but one that crops up repeatedly in Christian history.

So even though the New Testament writers used Platonic terms, they did not agree with him in some very important ways.

Nonetheless, the idea that things in this world are only imperfect copies of the eternal, and perfect things, is used several times in the New Testament, particularly in St. John’s gospel and the book of Hebrews.

The New Testament twist on Plato is that material things as they are today, after the fall of Adam and Eve, are indeed imperfect representations of what God originally intended. However, material things, before the fall, were “perfect,” at least perfect in the sense that material things were exactly what God created them to be.

Since the fall, material things are not as they were created to be. Material things have indeed become imperfect, or to use a platonic word, “deformed.”

That is why God called the Wise Men from far away by the light of a star, which we celebrate on Epiphany. It announced that light would now be shared with the gentiles – the non Jews – about God and faith. The nations would now be given the law of God and the good news that Jesus Christ has come to save us from our sins.

Now, one question remains: why doesn’t Pepe get it when Penelope the Cat tells him that she doesn’t want him around? Why does he keep thinking that she wants him but just can’t bring herself to admit it?

Perhaps it’s because he cannot recognize his own stink and has no grasp of his real condition.

If only Chuck Jones could talk to Pepe about the original design and how to bring life and love into conformity with that design.

Of course, he would have to pay attention.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Okay, I must admit, I have not yet learned of Epiphany and that there was even a day in which Epiphany was celebrated. I am now on a quest to learn more of this; you know, in order that I may have my own 'epiphany'. :) I did giggle while reading this... there was a point where I felt I was reading Romans 7:15-20... I'll explain later, ha! :) I was more of a Tom and Jerry, Tweety Bird and Sylvester type of kid... what does that say about me - perhaps merely that I don't stink or that I like the adventure of a good chase? :)