Mark 4: The Seed and the Soil

“There went out a sower to sow.” In his parable of the sower Jesus gives various active and passive roles: sower, seed, good soil, soil among thorns, stony ground, and waysides. This meditation on Mark 4 considers the seed as the word and the Word Christ, our receptivity to Christ, how he can enter, germinate, grow, and transform us into new creatures.

One of the Church’s greatest theologians, Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) was an astonishingly prolific writer. He’s especially known for his Summa Theologiae, which is one of my first go-to theology resources.  His style was analytic and detailed. Each of the “Questions” in the Summa reads like a geometrical proof out of Euclid, each with some assertion, supporting points, counter-assertions, and detracting points, and a conclusion. It was a masterful intellectual achievement. Yet near the end of his life Aquinas had a mystical experience that seemed to lead him away from that stage of life and into another. He was no longer able to write, not out of physical incapacity but because of the greatness of his revelation. He felt his writings, great as they were, couldn’t possibly match the greatness of the revelation he had been given. The direct experience of his revelation transcended the rationality of this most rational of thinkers. That’s a sobering thought, still, I’m inclined to think of this overwhelming experience of his as a reward for all the work that he had done in a previous stage of life. His mystical stage, if we can call it that, only lasted a few months since he died shortly after. But it’s something I think about a lot. The analytical, rational stage of the adult in his younger and middle ages, succeeded by a later super-rational, mystical stage. Something about that seems quite appropriate. I approach religion and scripture in that very analytical, rational way. It’s just more natural for me right now. But I wouldn’t be surprised or at all disappointed if that changed at some point. As satisfying as the intellectual nature of theology is, the infusion of the Spirit is so much greater. I spoke in a previous episode about a life with the Holy Spirit. Those moments of spiritual elevation are invaluable.

On this subject I’d like to share a meditation Mark 4, a chapter in which we read of Jesus’s parable of the sower, a masterful parable. I’d like to focus on two aspects of it: (1) the seed and (2) the soil. When Jesus explained the parable of the sower to his disciples he said that the seed was “the word”; “The sower soweth the word.” (Mark 4:14). For readers familiar with John’s gospel this can have at least a double meaning: (1) the word of the Gospel, the words that people speak to preach the message, and (2) the Word, Logos, is also Christ himself (John 1:1-3).

Another story about Thomas Aquinas. One day while Aquinas was in prayer before the crucifix the voice of Christ called out to him and said, “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward will you receive from me for your labor?” And Aquinas answered, “Lord, nothing except you.”

I love the Christmas hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, especially this verse:

“O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray,
cast out our sin and enter in,
be born in us today.”

I thought about this a lot this past Christmas. I tried to put myself in Mary’s state of mind as one who receives and carries the Lord himself within her body. She declared so much with that statement, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). I think it’s powerful – also for men, who probably aren’t used to thinking in this way – to think of being the mother Mary, bearing God in her body. It’s one vivid image of something that the scriptures and the ritual practices of the Church communicate in various ways, the Eucharist for example: that we are to take Christ into ourselves and allow him to transform us into new creatures.

This is how I think about the seeds in Jesus’s parables. The seed is “the word”, the message of the Gospel, as well as “the Word”, Christ himself.

In the parable of the sower, the sower plays the active role. “Behold, there went out a sower to sow” (Mark 4:3). He is the one sowing the seeds. By the time the sower passes by the soil is either ready or it isn’t. The soil is passive but its condition makes all the difference.

“And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred. And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:4-9)

Let’s talk first about the active role of the sower. One of the things that strikes me about moments of spiritual revelation is that they don’t happen whenever we want them to. They come as a gift of grace. That’s because they’re not manufactured. And they’re not the product of an individual. Rather, they are special encounters between us and Spirit. The Spirit, as the other person in these encounters, has to decide to participate. The philosopher Martin Buber (1878 – 1965) called this an “I-You” encounter. He contrasted this with the “I-It” experience in which a person can individually and unilaterally perceive and consider objects, ideas, and people in a way that doesn’t require another’s free participation. Basically, how we live most of the time. But our lives are sometimes interrupted by encounters of a different kind. And he says these come by “grace”:

“The You encounters me by grace–it cannot be found by seeking. But that I speak the basic word to it is a deed of my whole being, is my essential deed. The You encounters me. But I enter into a direct relationship to it. Thus the relationship is election and electing, passive and active at once: An action of the whole being must approach passivity, for it does away with all partial actions and thus with any sense of action, which always depends on limited exertions. The basic word I-You can be spoken only with one’s whole being. The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You. All actual life is encounter.” (Martin Buter, I and Thou, 61)

What’s crucial to understand is that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are persons. We can’t manufacture encounters with persons on our own. It requires the full cooperation of the other person. The Holy Ghost needs to act. And that happens when he chooses. But we can act to be receptive and prepare ourselves. We are the soil and we can condition ourselves as soil to receive Christ.

Jesus interpreted the parable for his disciples in this way:

“The sower soweth the word. And these are they by the way side, where the word is sown; but when they have heard, Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts. And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground; who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness; And have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word’s sake, immediately they are offended. And these are they which are sown among thorns; such as hear the word, And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful. And these are they which are sown on good ground; such as hear the word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred.” (Mark 4:14-20)

A lot here to think about. One part that stands out to me at the moment is the case of the seeds sown among thorns. The thorns are “the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things”. These create unfruitful conditions. To be fruitful it is necessary to be set apart from these things. Some Christians throughout history have applied this kind of setting apart in a physical sense, actually taking up a monastic life. But I think what’s most important is to apply this existentially, to be set apart from the world in the way we live and in our way of being. Especially in the things we care about.

Following Christ is not a light matter and Jesus made this clear.

“And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-62)

Wow! Clearly the kind of life Jesus requires is quite different from the way normal people live. In thinking about these verses it makes me reflect on the things I care about and whether they enable or impede my receptivity to the Holy Spirit. Jesus warns about the cares of the world. The Greek for “care” is μέριμνα (mérimna). The corresponding verb is μεριμνάω (merimnao): to be anxious or worried about something. It’s used several times in the following passage from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought [μὴ μεριμνᾶτε, me merimnate] for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought [μεριμνῶν, merimnon] can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought [μεριμνᾶτε, merimnate] for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought [μὴ οὖν μεριμνήσητε, me oun merimnesete], saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought [μὴ οὖν μεριμνήσητε, me oun merimnesete] for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought [μεριμνήσει, merimnese] for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:25-34)

Do we need food, drink, and clothing? Yes, Jesus said as much. “Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.” But he said not to seek after them. And this interesting, he says that seeking after food, drink, or clothing is what the Gentiles do. Gentiles are those who have not entered into the covenant. The Gentile way of life is a completely different way of life, and really the normal way of life. But it’s not the way of Jesus. Jesus said these cares “choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful”.

Jesus explained the good soil represents people who “hear the word, and receive it”. And again, I like to consider the double meaning in which the Word here is also Christ himself. The good soil receives Christ. Christ enters into it, germinates, and grows. Like with Mary, the God-Bearer, the Spirit can enter into us and Christ can abide in us. This reception is also mutual abiding. We abide in Christ and he abides in us. In the Trinity this kind of relation is sometimes called interpenetration and a similar kind of mutual abiding and interpenetration is happening here:

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.” (John 14:4-5)

I believe this is ultimately what Christian holiness looks like. Understanding, yes. By all means. Learn the doctrine, study the principles, develop a sophisticated philosophical and theological understanding. I think that’s appropriate and good, especially for certain periods of life. But beyond that is this direct receptivity to the Spirit and this planting of Christ into the core of our being to be transformed into new creatures.

Introduction to the Early Church Fathers

An introduction to eight of the Early Church Fathers: Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria. Important witnesses to the Christian faith in its earliest days who everyone should know about.

Introduction 

With this episode I’d like to give a brief introduction to eight of the Early Church Fathers. This is a subject that interests me immensely and one that occupies much of my personal study. I’m fascinated by the lives and writings of these men. But I don’t find that they are especially well known. So I’d like to introduce them here. It’s an introduction in two ways. First, I won’t be going into much depth this time around. And second, I’m just focusing on some the earliest of the Church Fathers from the second century. Maybe later I’ll go into more depth on these eight and also introduce later Church Fathers. 

One of the things I focus on in my study of these men is how they faithfully transmitted and carried on the teachings that had been handed down to them by Jesus and his Apostles. They were immersed in the scriptures: the Hebrew Bible, the epistles of the Apostles, and the Gospels. They maintained continuity of the faith. And their writings were fresh and vibrant. They didn’t always have the systematic rigor of later Church Fathers, but they were steeped in the life of the faith and you can see it in their lives and in their writings.

The eight Church Fathers who I want to introduce today are: 

Clement of Rome (c. 35 – c. 99)
Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 – c. 110)
Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 69 – c. 155)
Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165)
Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 – c. 202)
Tertullian of Carthage (c. 155 – c. 222)
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215)
Origen of Alexandria (c. 185 – c. 254)

All or most of their dates are “circa” or approximate.

First, let’s situate them in the history and timeline of early Christianity. Jesus’s ministry was in the 30s. And our earliest Christian writings are Paul’s letters; to the Galatians, Thessalonians, Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, etc. These date around the 50s and 60s. The four Gospels were written in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. At that point we start to transition and overlap with the period of these Early Church Fathers of the next generation.

Those of the generation immediately following the Apostles are known as the “Apostolic Fathers” because of their contact with the Apostles of Jesus. These include Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna. According to tradition, Clement was consecrated by Peter and Ignatius and Polycarp were disciples of John. These three left important epistles to the churches of their day and were active at the end of the first century and beginning of the second century.

The generations just after these Apostolic Fathers included Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian of Carthage, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria. These men were active in the later second century. And their writings tend to be works of apologetics, reasoned defenses of the Christian faith.

Clement of Rome (c. 35 – c. 99)

The Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians is the earliest of the writings we have from one of the Church Fathers. Clement is also known as Pope Clement I since he was bishop of Rome from 88 to 99 AD. His most important contribution to Church history is his Epistle to the Corinthians, sometimes called 1 Clement. It was probably written sometime in the 90s.

Funny enough, the situation that called for the letter to be written was quite similar to the situations that called for Paul to write 1st and 2nd Corinthians: community strife. In the case of 1 Clement the specific issue was that members of the Corinthian congregation were trying to depose their bishop. The letter is quite long and before even addressing the issue of the attempted deposition of these Corinthian bishops Clement recounts a history of Israel in which he creatively highlights examples of humility and envy, attributes he later uses as examples for the case he is addressing.

“Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. As for these, then, who were appointed by them, or who were afterwards appointed by other illustrious men with the consent of the whole Church, and who have ministered to the flock of Christ without blame, humbly, peaceably and with dignity, and who have for many years received the commendations of all, we consider it unjust that they be removed from the ministry.” (1 Clement 44:1-3)

Clement traces the authority to appoint bishops back to the Apostles and to Jesus. It’s not a matter of popularity or something that can be arbitrarily changed. These offices are managed through the church hierarchy established with Jesus and the Apostles.

In addition to that specific issue, the letter is also valuable for its doctrine and Gospel teaching. A few highlights:

“Let us fix our gaze on the blood of Christ and know how precious it is to His Father, because it was poured out for our salvation and brought the grace of repentance to the whole world. Let us look back over all the generations, and let us learn that in generation after generation the Master has given a place of repentance to all those who have the will to turn to Him.” (1 Clement 7:4-5)

“Let us consider, beloved, how the Master is continually proving to us that there will be a future resurrection, of which He has made the Lord Jesus Christ the firstling, by raising Him from the dead. Let us look, beloved, at the resurrection which is taking place seasonally. Day and night make known the resurrection to us. The night sleeps, the day arises. Consider the plants that grow. How and in what manner does the sowing take place? The sower went forth and cast each of the seeds onto the ground; and they fall to the ground, parched and bare, where they decay. Then from their decay the greatness of the Master’s providence raises them up, and from the one grain more grow, and bring forth fruit.” (1 Clement 24:1-5)

“We, therefore, who have been called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, neither by our wisdom or understanding or piety, nor by the works we have wrought in holiness of heart, but by the faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the beginning: To whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.  What, then, shall we do, brethren? Shall we cease from good works, and shall we put an end to love? May the Master forbid that such should ever happen among us; rather, let us be eager to perform every good work earnestly and willingly.” (1 Clement 32:4 – 33:1)

Good stuff. Good Christian teaching. And definitely worth reading.

Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 – c. 110)

Ignatius is a personal hero of mine and an inspiration, as he was to the Christians of his day. Ignatius was so prominent because died. He died a martyr’s death and he knew he was going to be martyred when he wrote the letters that we have from him. We have seven of these letters:

The Epistle to the Ephesians
The Epistle to the Magnesians
The Epistle to the Trallians
The Epistle to the Romans
The Epistle to the Philadelphians
The Epistle to the Smyrnaeans
The Epistle to Polycarp, a bishop of Smyrna

Ignatius addressed many issues with the communities he wrote to. And again, because he wrote these letters while traveling, being taken with his full knowledge, to Rome to be fed to the wild beasts, his counsels and teachings carried a lot of weight. They still do as I see it.

One of the issues he addressed was, like Clement, dissension and opposition to church leaders. It’s important to note that in these days being a church leader was not a cushy job. And Ignatius was the perfect example of this. As a bishop he was on the front lines during persecution and a prime target for execution. Church leaders sacrificed for their faith in Christ, often with their very lives.

His Epistle to the Romans is famous for his anticipation of his death by wild beasts. It seems quite morbid and I suppose it is. But nonetheless remarkable and heroic.

“I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless you hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep, I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body.” (Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 4)

“From Syria even unto Rome I fight with beasts, both by land and sea, both by night and day, being bound to ten leopards, I mean a band of soldiers, who, even when they receive benefits, show themselves all the worse. But I am the more instructed by their injuries [to act as a disciple of Christ]; yet am I not thereby justified. 1 Corinthians 4:4 May I enjoy the wild beasts that are prepared for me; and I pray they may be found eager to rush upon me, which also I will entice to devour me speedily, and not deal with me as with some, whom, out of fear, they have not touched. But if they be unwilling to assail me, I will compel them to do so. Pardon me [in this]: I know what is for my benefit. Now I begin to be a disciple. And let no one, of things visible or invisible, envy me that I should attain to Jesus Christ. Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.” (Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 5)

He considered this martyrdom the ultimate witness of his life for Christ.

In addition to his counsel to submit to the authority of the bishop and his anticipated martyrdom, Ignatius taught important doctrines regarding the nature and person of Jesus Christ. Some examples:

“There is one Physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and not born, who is God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first able to suffer and then unable to suffer, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Letter to the Ephesians 7:2)

“He underwent all these sufferings for us, so that we might be saved; and He truly suffered, just as He truly raised Himself, not as some unbelievers contend, when they say that His passion was merely in appearance. It is they who exist only in appearance; and as their notion, so shall it happen to them: they will be bodiless and ghost-like shapes. I know and believe that He was in the flesh even after the resurrection. And when He came to those with Peter He said to them: ‘Here, now, touch Me, and see that I am not a bodiless ghost.’ Immediately they touched Him and, because of the merging of His flesh and spirit, they believed. For the same reason they despised death and in fact were proven superior to death. After His resurrection He ate and drank with them as a being of flesh, although He was united in spirit to the Father.” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 2:1-3)

Here Ignatius is speaking against the heresy of docetism, which was the teaching that Christ’s body was not human but either a phantasm or of real but celestial substance, and that therefore his sufferings were only apparent.

One more I’ll share from the Epistle to Polycarp:

“Become more diligent than you are. Observe well the times. Look for Him that is above seasons, timeless; invisible, yet, for our sakes, becoming visible; who cannot be touched; who cannot suffer, yet, for our sakes, accepted suffering, and who on our account endured everything.” (Letter to Polycarp 3:2)

Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 69 – c. 155)

Polycarp was also a great martyr for the Church. We have some of his writing in his Epistle to the Philippians. And he is also known through a document about his death called the Martyrdom of Polycarp. The account is quite miraculous and dramatic. I’ll share part of it:

“And he, placing his hands behind him, and being bound like a distinguished ram [taken] out of a great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering unto God, looked up to heaven, and said,”

“‘O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before you, I give You thanks that You have counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, have foreordained, have revealed beforehand to me, and now have fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise You for all things, I bless You, I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with whom, to You, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.’”

“When he had pronounced this amen, and so finished his prayer, those who were appointed for the purpose kindled the fire. And as the flame blazed forth in great fury, we, to whom it was given to witness it, beheld a great miracle, and have been preserved that we might report to others what then took place. For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odour [coming from the pile], as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.”

“At length, when those wicked men perceived that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go near and pierce him through with a dagger. And on his doing this, there came forth a dove, and a great quantity of blood, so that the fire was extinguished; and all the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this most admirable Polycarp was one, having in our own times been an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop of the Catholic Church which is in Smyrna. For every word that went out of his mouth either has been or shall yet be accomplished.”

Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165)

Justin Martyr is one of this next generation of Church Fathers with whom we see a great focus on apologetics. Two of his most significant works are First Apology and Dialogue with Trypho. Both are works of apologetics.

Justin was trained as a philosopher prior to his conversion to Christianity and he brought a philosopher’s way of thinking to Christian apologetics. For example, he bridged the philosophical concept of logos, reason and intelligibility, with the Christian doctrine of Logos as the person of Jesus Christ. For example, he said in his First Apology:

“We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them” (Apol. I, 46)

The Apology also has some interesting and important information about the Eucharist and moral standards of the Christians of the second century. One highlight:

“We who formerly delighted in fornication now cleave only to chastity. We who exercised the magic arts now consecrate ourselves to the good and unbegotten God. We who valued above all else the acquisition of wealth and property now direct all that we have to a common fund, which is shared with every needy person. We who hated and killed one another, and who, because of differing customs, would not share a fireside with those of another race, now, after the appearance of Christ, live together with them. We pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who unjustly hate us that, if they live according to the excellent precepts of Christ, they will have a good hope of receiving the same reward as ourselves, from the God who governs all.” (Apol. I, 14)

Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho is a dialogue, through the persons of Justin and Trypho, between Christianity and Judaism. The Dialogue includes in its first few chapters an account of Justin’s early philosophical education and his conversion to Christianity. He had searched for truth among Stoics, Peripatetics, Pythagoreans, Platonists. His conversion came with a chance meeting on the sea-shore with an elderly man, a Christian, who told him that the truth he sought could be obtained only by divine revelation. Here’s a part of the Dialogue:

“Old Man: There existed, long before this time, certain men more ancient than all those who are esteemed philosophers, both righteous and beloved by God, who spoke by the Divine Spirit, and foretold events which would take place, and which are now taking place. They are called prophets. These alone both saw and announced the truth to men, neither reverencing nor fearing any man, not influenced by a desire for glory, but speaking those things alone which they saw and which they heard, being filled with the Holy Spirit. Their writings are still extant, and he who has read them is very much helped in his knowledge of the beginning and end of things, and of those matters which the philosopher ought to know, provided he has believed them. For they did not use demonstration in their treatises, seeing that they were witnesses to the truth above all demonstration, and worthy of belief; and those events which have happened, and those which are happening, compel you to assent to the utterances made by them, although, indeed, they were entitled to credit on account of the miracles which they performed, since they both glorified the Creator, the God and Father of all things, and proclaimed His Son, the Christ [sent] by Him: which, indeed, the false prophets, who are filled with the lying unclean spirit, neither have done nor do, but venture to work certain wonderful deeds for the purpose of astonishing men, and glorify the spirits and demons of error. But pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and His Christ have imparted wisdom.”

“Justin: When he had spoken these and many other things, which there is no time for mentioning at present, he went away, bidding me attend to them; and I have not seen him since. But straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and while revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher. Moreover, I would wish that all, making a resolution similar to my own, do not keep themselves away from the words of the Saviour. For they possess a terrible power in themselves, and are sufficient to inspire those who turn aside from the path of rectitude with awe; while the sweetest rest is afforded those who make a diligent practice of them. If, then, you have any concern for yourself, and if you are eagerly looking for salvation, and if you believe in God, you may— since you are not indifferent to the matter — become acquainted with the Christ of God, and, after being initiated, live a happy life.” (Dialogue with Trypho, 7-8)

I love Justin’s account and find in him a kindred spirit. He is a philosopher because he is a seeker. And I admire his humility in recognizing that a person cannot obtain knowledge independently, without it being imparted by God. And I very much relate to that experience when he says, “But straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me.” Yes. That fire of Spirit being kindled in the soul. That’s where it’s at.

Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 – c. 202)

Irenaeus has actually been in the news recently because Pope Francis just this year officially made him a Doctor of the Church. On January 21, 2022. I think everyone had assumed he already was one before that. But now it’s official. Irenaeus was also a kind of apologist but more specifically against Christian heresies. In particular he wrote against Gnostic Christian heresies. His great work was Against Heresies.

What stands out to me about Irenaeus is his continuity with the other Church Fathers, the Apostles, and the earliest Christian texts that we now have in the New Testament. There’s a narrative about early Christianity that what we now call “orthodox” Christian doctrine should, in the context of the first and second centuries, only be called “proto-orthodox”, because it was one of several competing Christianities. This is the view of New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. I have nothing but high regard for Ehrman’s scholarship and I’ve learned a lot from reading his work on the New Testament. But I don’t find that particular idea very convincing. For one thing, as a believing Christian I have an understanding of orthodoxy as something objectively true, regardless of whatever competing views may have been around. But even beyond that, I think Irenaeus himself made a good case that the Gnostics were the ones coming out of left field, whereas the teachers of orthodoxy had a continuous line of authority and tradition going back to Jesus and his Apostles. The oldest documents by the people closest to Jesus are orthodox in their doctrine. All the Gnostic documents come later. And this, I think, is Irenaeus’s strongest point:

“For all these [heretics] are of much later date than are the bishops to whom the Apostles handed over the Churches; and this fact I pointed out most carefully in the third book. It is of necessity, then, that these aforementioned heretics, because they are blind to the truth, walk in various and devious paths; and on this account the vestiges of their doctrine are scattered about without agreement or connection. The path of those, however, who belong to the Church, goes around the whole world; for it has the firm tradition of the Apostles, enabling us to see that the faith of all is one and the same.” (Against Heresies, 5,20,1)

Gnosticism was highly varied and Irenaeus documented much of that diversity. The 20th century discoveries of the Nag Hammadi documents, which included Gnostics texts, corroborated many of Irenaeus’s accounts of Gnostic ideas which, though he disagreed with them, he actually portrayed fairly and accurately. Some common Gnostic ideas include that the material world was created by an incompetent deity, who was lower in status than the higher deities. Gnosticism disparaged Judaism and the God of the Hebrew Bible. They understood Jesus to be one who imparted secret knowledge, gnosis, that would enable the elect to escape from materiality. Irenaeus would have none of this.

“It is possible, then, for everyone in every Church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the Apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the Apostles, and their successors to our own times: men who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about. For if the Apostles had known hidden mysteries which they taught to the elite secretly and apart from the rest, they would have handed them down especially to those very ones to whom they were committing the self-same Churches. For surely they wished all those and their successors to be perfect and without reproach, to whom they handed on their authority.” (Against Heresies, 3,1,1)

“The true gnosis is the doctrine of the Apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of bishops, by which successions the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere; and the very complete tradition of the Scriptures, which have come down to us by being guarded against falsification, and which are received without addition or deletion; and reading without falsification, and a legitimate and diligent exposition according to the Scriptures, without danger and without blasphemy; and the pre-eminent gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and more honored than all the other charismatic gifts.” (Against Heresies, 4,33,8)

One of the ideas I especially like from Irenaeus is that the Christian Gospel is not elitist. There is not a superior, secret version that is taught only to the most intelligent and superior people. It is taught openly. It’s not about trying to get some secret knowledge. Along with Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, Irenaeus affirms that “the pre-eminent gift of love” is a “more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) “more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and more honored than all the other charismatic gifts”.

Tertullian of Carthage (c. 155 – c. 222)

I wondered whether I should include Tertullian in this introduction because in one respect he was the complete opposite of Irenaeus: by the end of his life Tertullian was a heretic. But I include him for two reasons. The first is that his contributions to Christian theology when he was orthodox were substantial and significant. The second is that the way he became a heretic is quite interesting and instructive.

Tertullian was highly intelligent, prolific, eloquent, and feisty. He was the kind of person you’d want on your side in a debate. His Latin style was superb. And he was highly adept in Roman legal styles of argumentation. Some of his major works include: The Apology, Ad Nationes, On Prayer, On Patience, On Repentance, and On Baptism. His writing is often entertaining but also very edifying. Some famous passages from The Apology:

“If the Tiber rises to the city walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the weather continues without change, if there is an earthquake, if famine, if pestilence, immediately, “Christians to the lion!” So many for one beast?” (The Apology 40,1)

“Crucify us, torture us, condemn us, destroy us! Your wickedness is the proof of our innocence, for which reason does God suffer us to suffer this.. Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, accomplish anything: rather, it is an enticement to our religion. The more we are hewn down by you, the more numerous do we become. The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians!” (The Apology, 50,12)

Some of Tertullian’s feisty side. There’s also this passage on Christian character, which is quite moving:

“Now I myself will explain the practices of the Christian society.…We are a body joined together by religious conviction, unity of discipline, and by hope. We assemble in a meeting and comprise a congregation, so that we might surround God with our prayers, as if by force of arms. Such violence is pleasing to God. We pray even for the emperors, for their ministers and those in power, for the condition of the world, that peace may prevail, and that the end may be stayed. We assemble to recall the divine Scriptures, if any condition of the present times makes it needful to be forewarned or to reflect. And in any case, with holy words we nourish our faith, uplift our hope, strengthen our trust, and confirm the discipline by the inculcating of precepts. In the same place there are exhortations, corrections and divine censure. Judgment is passed with the greatest of gravity, as among men who are certain of the presence of God; and it is the greatest foretaste of the future judgment, when anyone has sinned so grievously that he is cut off from communication in prayer and assembly and from every holy transaction. Certain approved elders preside, who have received that honor not for a price but by the witness of character; for nothing that pertains to God is to be had for a price. Even if there is some kind of a treasury, it is not made up of huge grants, as if they were the price of religion. Each one puts in a small amount on the monthly day, or when he wishes, accordingly as he wishes and is able. No one is compelled, and it is given freely. These are, as it were, the deposits of piety. For they are not expended therefrom on feasts and drinking parties and in thankless houses of gluttony, but for the support and burial of the poor, for boys and girls without parents and destitute of means, for the aged quietly confined to their homes, for the shipwrecked; and if there are any in the mines or in the islands or in the prisons, if it be for the reason that they are worshippers of God, then they become the foster-sons of their confession. But it is mainly the practice of such a love which leads some to put a brand upon us. ‘See,’ they say, ‘how they love one another’; for they themselves hate each other. ‘And how ready they are to die for one another,’ they themselves being more inclined to kill each other. (The Apology, 38,1-7)

Some comments on Tertullian’s heresy. He eventually followed a movement known as the Montanists, named after its charismatic founder Montanus. Won’t get into the details of Montanism at the moment but what’s interesting about Tertullian’s trajectory is that you can track his slide into heresy by the increasing rigor and extremism of his ideas. Scholars divide his work into three periods:

Catholic period (197 – 206)
Semi-Montanist period (206 – 212)
Montanist period (213 – 220)

William Jurgens describes his Semi-Montanist period as one “marked by rigorist tendencies and a developing attitude of anticlericalism” and the Montanist period in which “his rigorism has become extreme, his anti-clericalism has reached the point of invective”. (The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1, pp. 111-112) Works from his full Montanist period include On Monogamy, in which he condemned re-marriage even after the death of a spouse, Flight in Time of Persecution, in which he condemns those who flee persecution, and On Modesty, in which he declared that there is no forgiveness for the gravest sins. It’s interesting to me that Tertullian’s heresy was marked by increasing rigor and extremism. These days we usually think of heresy as compromising and softening of the hard doctrines. And it can certainly take that form and often does. But extremism and ratcheting rigor is an especially dangerous path to heresy because it can seem like ever-increasing enlightenment and religiosity, even as it is actually leading away from God.

All that being said, the earlier Tertullian was a remarkable man and a devoted Christian whose writings are inspiring, instructive, and edifying. Well worth reading.

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215)

Clement is regarded as one of the most intellectual of the Early Church Fathers. He was well educated in and knowledgeable of the philosophy of his day. Residing in Alexandria, he confronted numerous heresies that were rampant in that city. But he also had to confront an overreaction among orthodox Christians under his influence who, wary of philosophically-influenced heresies, had retreated into anti-intellectualism. Critics of Christianity were already accusing Christians of being simplistic and anti-intellectual. So it was up to Clement to confront heresy but also defend the use of the intellect and philosophy to Christians. He was adept at this. But what I also admire about Clement is that for all his familiarity with contemporary philosophy he was still grounded primarily in the scriptures. In his four major extant works he quotes the New Testament 3000 times and the Hebrew Bible 1500 times. Historian Robert Louis Wilken, in his book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought commented on this heavy use of scripture among the Church Fathers generally:

“I have tried to give a sense of how fresh, even astonishing, the Bible appeared to thinkers schooled in ancient literature. The Scriptures disclosed a world unlike anything they had known before, and reading and expounding the Bible left a lasting imprint on their vocabulary and altered their patterns of thought.”

“As intellectuals formed by the classical tradition, the first Christian thinkers belonged to a learned and contented club, secure in the confidence they knew whatever was useful to know… Yet when they took the Bible in hand they were overwhelmed. It came upon them like a torrent leaping down the side of a mountain. Once they got beyond its plain style they sensed they had entered a new and mysterious world more alluring than anything they had known before.”

For Wilken this was especially true of Clement:

“How fresh the water of the Bible seeped drop by drop into the mind of the early church can be observed best in the writings of Clement of Alexandria… In Clement’s writings the Bible emerges for the first time as the foundation of a Christian culture. His writings are suffused with its language, its forms of expressions, its images and metaphors, its stories.”

“Clement cites Greek literature to illustrate a point, to give flourish to an argument, to delight and amuse his readers. When he cites the Scriptures there is a sense of discovery, that something extraordinary is to be learned in its pages, that it is not one book among many.”

William Jurgens summarized the thrust of Clement’s thought as a deep concern with “the educative function of the Logos, the Divine Word, throughout the history of mankind”. In this he was very similar to Justin Martyr. A few characteristic quotes:

“The Word, then, the Christ, is the cause both of our ancient beginning—for He was in God—and of our well-being. And now this same Word has appeared as man. He alone is both God and man, and the source of all our good things. It is by Him that we are taught to live well and then are sent along to life eternal.… He is the New Song, the manifestation which has now been made among us, of the Word which existed in the beginning and before the beginning. The Savior, who existed before, has only lately appeared. He that has appeared is in Him that is; for the Word that was with God, the Word by whom all things were made, has appeared as our Teacher; and He, who bestowed life upon us in the beginning, when, as our Creator, He formed us, now that He has appeared as our Teacher, has taught us to live well so that, afterwards, as God, He might furnish us abundantly with eternal life.” (Exhortation to the Greeks, 1,7,1-3)

“When the loving and benevolent Father had rained down the Word, that Word then became the spiritual nourishment of those who have good sense. O mystic wonder! The Father of all is indeed one, one also is the universal Word, and the Holy Spirit is one and the same everywhere.…  The Word is everything to a child: both Father and Mother, both Instructor and Nurse. ‘Eat My Flesh,’ He says, ‘and drink My Blood.’ The Lord supplies us with these intimate nutriments. He delivers over His Flesh, and pours out His Blood; and nothing is lacking for the growth of His children. O incredible mystery!” (The Instructor of Children, 1,6,41,3)

“But that man in whom reason (λόγος) dwells is not shifty, not pretentious, but has the form dictated by reason (λόγος) and is like God. He is beautiful, and does not feign beauty. That which is true is beautiful; for it, too, is God. Such a man becomes God because God wills it. [2, 1] Rightly, indeed, did Heraclitus say: ‘Men are gods, and gods are men; for the same reason (λόγος) is in both.’ That this is a mystery is clear: God is in a man, and a man is God, the Mediator fulfilling the will of the Father. The Mediator is the Word (Λόγος) who is common to both, being the Son of God and the Savior of men.” (The Instructor of Children, 3,1,1,5)

And then a couple more quotes just to get a feel for his writing and thought:

“For into all men in general, and indeed, most particularly into those who are engaged in intellectual pursuits, a certain divine emanation has been instilled, by reason of which they confess, if somewhat reluctantly, that God is one, indestructible and unbegotten, and that somewhere above in the heavenly regions, in His proper and familiar vantage point, He truly and eternally exists.” (Exhortation to the Greeks, 6,68,2-3)

“When we are baptized, we are enlightened. Being enlightened, we are adopted as sons. Adopted as sons, we are made perfect. Made perfect, we are become immortal. ‘I say,’ he declares, ‘you are gods and sons all of the Most High.’ This work is variously called grace, illumination, perfection, and washing. It is a washing by which we are cleansed of sins; a gift of grace by which the punishments due our sins are remitted; an illumination by which we behold that holy light of salvation—that is, by which we see God clearly; and we call that perfection which leaves nothing lacking. Indeed, if a man know God, what more does he need? Certainly it were out of place to call that which is not complete a true gift of God’s grace. Because God is perfect, the gifts He bestows are perfect.” (The Instructor of Children, 1,6,21,1-2)

Origen of Alexandria (c. 185 – c. 254)

Origen is the last of the Church Fathers for this introduction. Origen was also a diligent scholar and extremely prolific. His largest work, the Hexapla, is no longer extant in its entirety but we know what it was and it must have been massive. The Hexapla was a critical edition of the Hebrew Bible with six versions of the text lined up in columns. The six versions were:

1. the Hebrew consonantal text
2. the Hebrew text transliterated into Greek
3. the translation of Aquila of Sinope into Greek (2nd century)
4. the translation of Symmachus the Ebionite into Greek (late 2nd century)
5. a critical edition of the Greek Septuagint showing differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew text
6. the translation of Theodotion into Greek (mid 2nd century)

Clearly, this was a massive scholarly undertaking. Especially considering that this would all have been done by hand.

Two other important works by Origen that we do have are Against Celsus and On the First Principles.

Against Celsus was a work of apologetics responding to criticism from the philosopher Celsus. Celsus’s criticisms were challenging and, to many, intimidating. As a man of learning and eloquence Celsus’s challenge that no self-respecting philosopher of the Platonic tradition would ever be so stupid as to become a Christian required a response from someone of Origen’s intellectual stature. And Origen proved himself up to the challenge and well in the same league as Christianity’s sophisticated critics. After Origen it was no longer possible to so easily dismiss Christian thought.

On the First Principles was arguably the most comprehensive work of systematic theology written up to that time. It’s a marvelous text and one that, even in our day of digital texts – ebooks and pdfs – I have selected to have in print on my bookshelf.

Some selections. First, here’s an example of Origen’s overview of the basic Christian teachings:

“The specific points which are clearly handed down through the apostolic preaching are these: First, that there is one God who created and arranged all things, and who, when nothing existed, called all things into existence; … and that in the final period this God, just as He had promised beforehand through the Prophets, sent the Lord Jesus Christ.… Secondly, that Jesus Christ Himself, who came, was born of the Father before all creatures; and after He had ministered to the Father in the creation of all things,—for through Him were all things made,—in the final period he emptied Himself and was made man. Although He was God, He took flesh; and having been made man, He remained what He was, God. He took a body like our body, differing only in this, that it was born of a Virgin and the Holy Spirit. Moreover, this Jesus Christ was truly born and truly suffered; and He endured this ordinary death, not in mere appearance, but did truly die; for He truly rose again from the dead, and after His resurrection He conversed with His disciples, and was taken up. Third, they handed it down that the Holy Spirit is associated in honor and dignity with the Father and the Son.” (On the First Principles, 1, Preface, 4)

In his systematic theology he touched on many significant philosophical points. For example, free will and choice:

“After these points, it is taught also that the soul, having a substance and life proper to itself, shall, after its departure from this world, be rewarded according to its merits. It is destined to obtain either an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness, if its deeds shall have procured this for it, or to be delivered up to eternal fire and punishments, if the guilt of its crimes shall have brought it down to this. And it is also taught that there will be a time for the resurrection of the dead, when this body which is now sown in corruption will rise in incorruption, and that which is sown in dishonor will rise in glory. This also is clearly defined in ecclesiastical teaching, that every rational soul has free will and choice; also, that it has a struggle against the devil and his angels and opposing powers, in which they strive to burden it with sins, while we, if we live rightly and properly, should endeavor to shake ourselves free of any such disgrace. Whence it follows also that we do not understand ourselves as being subject to necessity, so as to be entirely compelled, even against our will, to do either evil or good. For while we make our own decisions, some powers may perhaps impel us to sin, and others help us to salvation. We are not, however, forced by necessity to act either rightly or wrongly, as is maintained by those who say that the course and movement of the stars is the cause of human actions, and not only of those events which take place apart from the freedom of choice, but of those also which are placed within our power.” (On the First Principles, 1, Preface, 5)

He also developed ideas and explanations of the nature of God:

“Since our mind is in itself unable to behold God Himself as He is, it knows the Father of the universe from the beauty of His works and from the elegance of His creatures. God, therefore, is not to be thought of as being either a body or as existing in a body, but as a simple intellectual Being, admitting within Himself no addition of any kind. Thus, He cannot be believed to have within Himself something greater and something lesser. Rather, He is in every part μονἀς [alone] and, so to speak, ἑνάς [the One]. He is the mind and source from which every intellectual being or mind takes its beginning.” (On the First Principles, 1,1,6)

“John says in the Gospel, ‘No one has at any time seen God,’ clearly declaring to all who are able to understand, that there is no nature to which God is visible: not as if He were indeed visible by nature, and merely escaped or baffled the view of a frailer creature, but because He is by nature impossible to be seen. And if you should ask of me what I think even of the Only-begotten Himself, whether I could say that the nature of God, which is naturally invisible, is not visible even to Him, let not such a question seem to you to be at once either impious or absurd: for we will give you a logical answer. For it is just as unsuitable to say that the Son is able to see the Father, as it is unbecoming to suppose that the Holy Spirit is able to see the Son. It is one thing to see, another to know. To see and to be seen belongs to bodies. To know and to be known belongs to an intellectual being. That, therefore, which is proper to bodies, is not to be attributed to either the Father or to the Son; but that which pertains to deity is common to the Father and the Son. Finally, even He Himself did not say in the Gospel that no one has seen the Father except the Son, nor anyone the Son except the Father. But He did say, ‘No one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son.’ By this it is clearly indicated that whatever among corporal natures is called seeing and being seen, is termed, between the Father and the Son, knowing and being known—by means of the power of knowledge, and not by the frail sense of sight. Inasmuch, then, as neither seeing nor being seen can be properly predicated of an incorporeal and invisible being, neither is the Father, in the Gospel, said to be seen by the Son, nor the Son by the Father; rather, They are said to be known.” (One the First Principles, 1,1,8)

Origin, unlike Tertullian, never fell into heresy and was always in communion and good standing with the Church. Some of his ideas were later deemed unorthodox but they had not been so determined during his lifetime. After his death there were groups of people called “Origenists” who persisted in holding to unorthodox ideas not upheld by the Church. But this was not something that Origen himself ever did. He always strove to follow and teach correct doctrine and be in conformity with the Church.

Conclusion

When it comes to ancient history we never have as much documentation and information as we would like. But with early Church history we are actually quite fortunate to have a fair amount. It certainly helped that the documents were treasured and revered with literally religious devotion by people who preserved, copied, and distributed these documents throughout the Christian world. So we know a fair amount. There’s plenty there for any one person to devote an entire lifetime of study toward and never exhaust. Even after reading a text that’s merely the beginning of a process of digging into its profundities.

I think these ancient texts can be as instructive or even more instructive than many modern ideas. It’s interesting to me how the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s combined both aggiornamento, “updating”, with ressourcement, a return to the sources in scripture and these Church Fathers. Theology develops but, paradoxically, inspiration for the future often comes from the past. In the case of the Church Fathers their ability to inspire and guide us is rich indeed. 

Seeking and Making Beautiful Things

On having a personal “collection” of beautiful things. And making beautiful things. The Transcendentals: beauty, truth, and goodness. The theology of icons, physical objects that direct us toward higher things. The way beautiful things seize us and stop us in our tracks. On attending to beauty in life’s vocations in marriage and family.

As I was driving to work this morning the desert sunrise was absolutely fantastic. I kept watching the way the clouds were lighting up and the colors were changing every 10 seconds or so. Eventually I just had to pull over on the side of the highway to watch it and take a photo. It was a great way to start the morning. When I got to work, others who had been coming on the highway at the same time also commented on it. It was really something. The rapid change of the lighting in the clouds reminded me of Claude Monet’s series paintings. Monet would paint the same subject in different lighting conditions, at different hours of the day, and in various weather and seasons. I could see why that idea would have intrigued him.

An experience like that is something I want to keep in a kind of “collection”, a collection of beautiful things: beautiful experiences, beautiful images, beautiful music, beautiful literature, beautiful ideas, and the like. The idea of keeping this kind of collection has occurred to me recently and this sunrise experience was a nice addition to it.

In Medieval philosophy beauty is considered a special property of being called a “transcendental”. The three transcendentals are beauty, truth, and goodness. These are primary, foundational properties that are not logically traced back to anything prior to them. And there’s a relation and unity between these three. Approaching beauty is also an approach to truth and goodness. I don’t know if that’s true but I like the idea regardless. I can imagine that thinking about beauty in this way would produce that kind of effect. Since beautiful things are intrinsically desirable, thinking of truth and goodness as beautiful can also make them more desirable.

One of the places I’ve been actively looking for beautiful things recently is in the work of Beethoven, especially in his piano sonatas and symphonies. The great thing about a musical composition is that it’s something a person can participate in. This is especially true for a piano piece. I can listen to one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and appreciate it at the level of listening. I can appreciate it even more if I read the music while listening. I can appreciate it further still if I start to play it myself on the piano. And the experience deepens further as I continue to delve into the piece, move with it, and experiment with ways to express it.

I also started doing this with John Rutter’s “Psalmfest” collection composed for symphony orchestra and boys and men’s choir. I’ve enjoyed listening to the collection for a few years so I ordered the vocal score with piano accompaniment so I can start to enhance the experience.

I think the experience of beauty is partially an experience of unbidden grace. It can come upon you suddenly. But openness to it, a habituated sensitivity to it is also part of it. Flannery O’Connor is one of my favorite authors, the subject of a previous podcast episode. She would show God’s providential action in her stories through shocking, usually violent events. Not because she thought that God is violent but, in my interpretation, because God is so overwhelming and powerful. She was trying to produce a powerful effect on her readers. And in my case, it works. My favorite O’Connor story, though maybe not one of her more famous ones, is “Parker’s Back”. In this story the character Parker has an experience with an image, an image of Christ. Parker, after a near-death experience, wants to get a tattoo of God on his back. The following passage narrates Parker looking through a collection of images to select his tattoo:

“Parker sat down with the book and wet his thumb. He began to go through it, beginning at the back where the up-to-date pictures were. Some of them he recognized — The Good Shepherd, Forbid Them Not, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician’s Friend, but he kept turning rapidly backwards and the pictures became less and less reassuring. One showed a gaunt green dead face streaked with blood. One was yellow with sagging purple eyes. Parker’s heart began to beat faster and faster until it appeared to be roaring inside him like a great generator. He flipped the pages quickly, feeling that when he reached the one ordained, a sign would come. He continued to flip through until he had almost reached the front of the book. On one of the pages a pair of eyes glanced at him swiftly. Parker sped on, then stopped. His heart too appeared to cut off; there was absolute silence. It said as plainly as if silence were a language itself, GO BACK.”

“Parker returned to the picture — the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes. He sat there trembling; his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power.”

That is quite an encounter with beauty. Not because the image of the “flat stern Byzantine Christ” is merely pleasant but because it’s powerful and captivating. It’s like the sunrise that compels a person to pull over off on the side of the highway to give it the attention and respect that it deserves. That sunrise was essentially saying “GO BACK”.

I like the story too because it touches on the theological concept of icons. In Christian theology, especially in Eastern, Orthodox Christianity icons are means of directing us toward sacred things through physical objects and images. They’ve actually been a subject of heated contention in history, especially in the Byzantine Empire. What’s crucial about the icon is that it is not an end in itself but it points to something. It’s not about the wood or the paint. It’s about what these point toward. An icon of Christ, for example, though made of wood, points to Christ, the Son of God.

Bishop Robert Barron talked about icons in a 2018 talk about “Catholicism and Beauty”. In the historical controversy over icons and whether they were appropriate for veneration or constituted a form of idolatry, Bishop Barron references John of Damascus (676 – 749) who, in his treatise On the Divine Images made the point that God himself uses icons, most notably in the form of Jesus Christ, who Paul called “the image of the invisible God”, in Greek the εἰκὼν (eikon), of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). The idea being that this kind of icon is an appropriate and divinely appointed means of communicating what is divine and eternal. Something that is physical can point to what is transcendent.

The language of scripture itself is something I often find beautiful and captivating. They’re part of my collection of beautiful things. That verse from Colossians was actually one I added this week. Here’s the more complete passage that I found quite impactful:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” (Colossians 1:15-19)

The last line is also translated: “in him all things hold together” (NIV). I love that! When I read the Epistle to the Colossians this week, especially this passage, the experience was one of elevation.

I’m talking a lot about theology here, having started off talking about beautiful things. Part of that’s because I’m interested in both. But I also think they fundamentally relate. Hans Urs von Balthasar gave a principal place for beauty in his theology, which he called a “theological aesthetics”. I think that aesthetic sensibility is a product of the Spirit. John of Damascus pointed out that in Exodus God said he had inspired artistic ability in a man named Bezalel for the design of the Tabernacle:

“See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold, in silver, in bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of workmanship.” (Exodus 31:2-5)

How remarkable! This is quite the unification of Heaven and Earth. The Spirit of God, ר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֑ים (ruach elohim) works upon this man to get down into these very earthy materials: gold, silver, bronze, jewels, and wood. He’s getting covered in sawdust and forging hot metals, chiseling, and hammering. This is one of the things I love about music actually. One the one hand it’s supremely abstract. Music is not “about” anything in a strict sense. But on the other hand it’s extremely earthy. Making an instrument gets into metallurgy, carpentry, gears, bolts, and levers. And playing an instrument involves muscles, breath, and even spit. It’s extremely physical.

One last thought. Getting back to that connection and unity between the transcendentals: beauty, truth, and goodness. I’ve been thinking about this idea of not just seeking and collecting beautiful things but also actively producing them. Not just works of art but various vocations in life. Or maybe we could say making everyday things into works of art. The two things I’ve been thinking about are marriage and family. What would it be like to think about a marriage and a family like a work of art and treasure it as something beautiful and try to make it something beautiful. I was thinking a good motto for a married couple could be, “Let’s make something beautiful together”.

When I really get into these Beethoven sonatas I aspire to a high degree of finesse and sensitivity with my fingers, ears, and brain. It requires attention and dedication. What would it be like to give that same kind of attention and dedication to a spouse and children? Be like Bezalel, having that wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and all manner of workmanship, applied in these domestic vocations. That’s an idea that’s given me a lot to think about.

Logos: The Intellectual Structure of Being

The primacy of Logos entails that all things are intellectually structured, that the order of reality is rationally intelligible. All things come to pass in accordance with the Logos (Heraclitus) and all things were made through the Logos (John 1:3). This episode looks at Logos through the thought of Benedict XVI, who calls Logos the intellectual structure of being. The implications are significant to our general understanding of reality. Even more significant is the identification of the Logos with the person Jesus Christ.

My deep dive, theological and philosophical topic of study lately has been the Logos, a term that in Christian scripture is used to describe Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John opens, speaking of Christ, saying:

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος, καὶ ὁ Λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν Θεόν, καὶ Θεὸς ἦν ὁ Λόγος. Οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν Θεόν. πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν ὃ γέγονεν.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.” (John 1:1-3)

The word translated here as “Word” is Logos (Λόγος) and it’s often referred to in theology by just using the Greek term, which I’ll do in this episode. As I did with the episode on Hell, I’ve been reading the scriptures, early Church Fathers, and theologians throughout history to learn what they’ve had to say on the subject. There’s a lot there and I’d love to share it all at some point. But I eventually decided to break it down into more manageable parts.

Part of the reason for this, beyond just deciding to make it easier on myself, is that I came across a fantastic treatment of the Logos by Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, in his 1968 book Introduction to Christianity. Calling it an “introduction” may be a stretch, but regardless the book is excellent and I found that he put into words pretty much exactly what I wanted to say and understand about Logos. So with this episode I’d like to focus on Benedict’s theology of Logos in that book. And maybe, hopefully, go into more of a historical study later in another episode.

What is Logos? My own definition is that the Logos is the rational order of all things. Benedict refers to Logos as “intellectual structure”; and I love that. I’ve been trying to work out my own philosophy of structure so that description definitely gets my attention.

Logos has been a term of philosophical significance going back to at least Heraclitus (535 – 475 BC).  Heraclitus said all things come to pass in accordance with the Logos (γινομένων γὰρ πάντων κατὰ τὸν λόγον, ginomenon gar panton kata ton logon). Or put another way, the Logos is what makes all things come to pass in the way that they come to pass. This is quite similar to the statement in the Prologue to the Gospel of John:

πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν ὃ γέγονεν.

“All things were made (egeneto) through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.” (John 1:3)

Both Heraclitus and the Gospel writer used the word γίνομαι (ginomai): to become, to happen. All becoming, all happening, proceeds only in accordance with and not without the Logos.

As someone who is always trying to understand things I find this concept very interesting and important. And it’s a subject in which my scientific, philosophical, and theological interests converge. Every “why” and “how” question ultimately falls under the umbrella of the Logos. If you ever think about why something is the way it is or works the way it does you are pursuing the Logos. To one degree or another, everyone is pursuing the Logos. But what I find especially useful about it is that as a concept it serves as a way to unify and systematize our thinking about all these things.

Another way of describing Logos that I read recently and quite liked is as “an interlocking system of ideas”. I read that one from Edward Feser (Five Proofs of the Existence of God, 104-105, 110). That is not by any means an exhaustive description of what the Logos is. But it’s one description. An interlocking system of ideas. If you think about everything that happens what is it that makes it all happen the way it does? Just thinking of it from a purely scientific, physicalist, closed-system perspective. Laws of physics? Constraints of logic? I think that’s right. We often predict the evolution of a system over time with some set of starting and boundary conditions. Such a system is governed by an interlocking system of ideas.

So now let’s look at Benedict. First quote, he says:

“Christian faith in God means first the decision in favor of the primacy of the logos as against mere matter. Saying “I believe that God exists” also implies opting for the view that the logos—that is, the idea, freedom, love—stands not merely at the end but also at the beginning, that it is the originating and encompassing power of all being.”

Let’s break this down. Benedict is starting with the philosophical idea that Christianity holds in common with Hellenistic philosophies like Platonism, Stoicism, and Neo-Platonism. It’s a metaphysical stance. What is the nature of reality? Is it strictly material? Does reality consist only of “atoms and the void”, in the words of Democritus (c. 460 – c. 370 BC)? This would be what Benedict calls “mere matter”. The alternative is “the primacy of the logos”. Matter exists and it’s important. But it’s secondary, not primary. Logos is primary. Matter is derivative of and secondary to Logos.

Benedict calls Logos “intellectual structure”. So this means that prior to all matter there is an intellectual structure undergirding it. Why should we think this?

Let’s look at three quotes on this:

“In the old Pythagorean saying about the God who practices geometry there is expressed that insight into the mathematical structure of being which learns to understand being as having been thought, as intellectually structured; there is also expressed the perception that even matter is not simply non-sense that eludes understanding, that it too bears in itself truth and comprehensibility that make intellectual comprehension possible.”

“The intellectual structure that being possesses and that we can re-think is the expression of a creative premeditation, to which they owe their existence.”

“All our thinking is, indeed, only a rethinking of what in reality has already been thought out beforehand.”

Put briefly we ought to consider reality as intellectually structured because we can intellectually understand it. Not entirely of course. But everywhere we look, the more we look at the universe we find intelligible structure. It’s not just utter chaos but reality is actually something that we’re able to make sense of.

So the order of reality is rational and intelligibile to us. But is it more than that? Is there some kind of rational intelligibility per se. Say that there were no intelligent beings in the universe at all. Would it still make sense to call it a rational order or rational and intelligible? Maybe. Consider three possibilities:

1. The rationality of reality is a conditional property, conditional on there being intelligent beings in reality.
2. The rationality of reality is independent of any intelligent beings.
3. The rationality of reality is the rationality of a mind that grounds reality.

In the first option the rationality of reality is a conditional feature, a feature that reality would have if certain conditions are met, even if they are not otherwise actualized. Something of the form:

1. IF there are intelligent beings in reality.
2. AND IF any existing intelligent beings obtain some degree of accurate understanding of reality.
3. THEN such intelligent beings will find reality to be intelligible and rational.

This is probably the option that seems most immediately plausible and straightforward.

The second option moves away from a subjective understanding of rationality to an objective understanding. This gets a little tricky because just by talking about rationality, or anything, we’re using language and terms that are human constructions. How can you talk about something independent of thought and first-person experience when the very terms we are using to talk about it are creations of thought and first-person experience? There’s a passage from Richard Rorty that I find helpful here:

“We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations. Truth cannot be out there – cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own – unaided by the describing activities of human beings – cannot.” (Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity)

This is a very fine distinction and it can be easily confused. But it’s about the best explanation I’ve found of the problem at hand: how to talk about reality as it is independent of language, how to think about reality as it is independent of thought. Immanuel Kant’s concepts of noumena and phenomena are also useful for those familiar with them, otherwise they require some significant introduction.

So how would reality be rational per se, independent of any intelligent beings? One way of understanding rationality is consistency. For intelligent beings instrumental rationality is consistency between actions and intentions. But apart from intelligent beings we could think of consistency between states of affairs. At a most basic level, noncontradiction. For some state of affairs, S, it won’t be the case that both S and not-S.

That can get a little complicated and require different levels of states of affairs. For example, in quantum mechanics we see superpositions of states in which it might seem that both S and not-S could indeed be the case. But I think that’s resolvable by understanding any such superpositions of states as merely part of a higher-level state. In the case of a quantum superposition the relevant level of consistency would not be the superposed states, or eigenstates, but the probability amplitude of the quantum system. For more on that see my earlier episode on quantum properties (Quantum Properties, 5 Oct 2020). That might actually give reason to think that the rationality of reality is intrinsically independent of the thought and first-hand experience of intelligent beings. Because intelligent beings might mistakenly see inconsistency where there is actually unseen consistency and rational order.

The third option is that the rationality of the rational order is actually the rationality of a rational mind. Such a mind would be very unique, absolutely unique actually. This would be a mind grounding all reality. This is the view taken by Pope Benedict and many Christian theologians, that the rational order, the Logos, is the intellectual activity of God.

Benedict proposes a crucial parallelism between God’s thought and our own. All thinking is rethinking, “a rethinking of what in reality has already been thought out beforehand”. What people re-think is “the expression of a creative premeditation, to which they owe their existence”. The Creation was an act of intellect and speech, something attested in scripture, both in Genesis and in John. How did God create?

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י אֹ֑ור וַֽיְהִי־אֹֽור׃

καὶ εἶπεν ὁ Θεός· γενηθήτω φῶς· καὶ ἐγένετο φῶς.

“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3)

God said (vayomer elohim). God’s creative activity was an act of speech. That creation was an act of intellect was a view also held by the second century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (25 B.C. – 50 A.D.) Philo was very educated in both Jewish and Greek learning. Notably in his writings he makes frequent use of a Platonic idea of the image (εἰκών, eikon), which in Platonic thought is a form after which all things are patterned. Philo understood the God of Israel to have had these kinds of images in His intellect. For example, in his commentary On the Creation:

τὰ παραπλήσια δὴ καὶ περὶ θεοῦ δοξαστέον, ὡς ἄρα τὴν μεγαλόπολιν κτίζειν διανοηθεὶς ἐνενόησε πρότερον τοὺς τύπους αὐτῆς, ἐξ ὧν, κόσμον νοητὸν συστησάμενος, ἀπετέλει καὶ τὸν αἰσθητόν, παραδείγματι χρώμενος ἐκείνῳ. καθάπερ οὖν ἡ ἐν τῷ ἀρχιτεκτονικῷ προδιατυπωθεῖσα πόλις χώραν ἐκτὸς οὐκ εἶχεν, ἀλλʼ ἐνεσφράγιστο τῇ τοῦ τεχνίτου ψυχῇ, τὸν αὐτὸν τρόπον οὐδʼ ὁ ἐκ τῶν ἰδεῶν κόσμος ἄλλον ἂν ἔχοι τόπον ἢ τὸν θεῖον λόγον τὸν ταῦτα διακοσμήσαντα·

“Now we must form a somewhat similar opinion of God, who, having determined to found a mighty state, first of all conceived its form in his mind, according to which form he made a world perceptible only by the intellect, and then completed one visible to the external senses, using the first one as a model (ἐκείνῳ, ekeino). As therefore the city, when previously shadowed out in the mind of the man of architectural skill had no external place, but was stamped solely in the mind of the workman, so in the same manner neither can the world which existed in ideas (τῶν ἰδεῶν κόσμος, ton ideon kosmos) have had any other local position except the divine reason (τὸν θεῖον λόγον, ton theion logon) which made them.” (De Opificio, 19-20)

Philo imagines the process of Creation as an act of planning things out and that the “location”, so to speak, of this planning out was in the divine reason (τὸν θεῖον λόγον, ton theion logon). It is this “creative premeditation” that Benedict understands us to retrace whenever we come to understand the workings of reality in the universe in our own minds. We can retrace the divine thought in our own minds because there is divine thought there to retrace.

Let’s look again at the three possible understandings of the rational order of reality:

1. The rationality of reality is a conditional property, conditional on there being intelligent beings in reality.
2. The rationality of reality is independent of any intelligent beings.
3. The rationality of reality is the rationality of a mind that grounds reality.

All three can be interpreted theistically, i.e. in terms of God. We can think of the first two options, especially the second, as describing a kind of “God of the philosophers”. A God who is not especially personal or much like God as we read about Him in the Bible. More like an abstract principle.

The third view is Philo’s and also that of Judaism and Christianity. Philo shared many ideas about God, or the Logos, as held by the Hellenistic philosophies of his day, like Stoicism, Platonism, and Neo-Platonism. But he also affirmed more than this. Philo held the third view, that the rationality of reality is the rationality of a mind that grounds reality. The God of Israel is more than the God of the philosophers.

Pope Benedict stresses this point:

“It becomes easy to see the barrier to equating the ‘God of faith’ and the ‘God of the philosophers’ constituted by a narrow and insufficiently pondered concept of person.”

“The mathematician discovers the mathematics of the cosmos, the being-thought-ness of things; but no more. He discovers only the God of the philosophers.”

“Because in its investigations it [physics] abstracts, in accordance with its nature, from the aesthetic feeling and from the moral attitude, questions nature from a purely mathematical point of view, and consequently can also catch sight only of the mathematical side of nature.”

I think it’s quite remarkable and significant that “the mathematician discovers the mathematics of the cosmos, the being-thought-ness of things”. Let’s not downplay that. That’s a big deal. That kind of intellectual vision of transcendent, immaterial realities is an important breakthrough. It was something along these lines that helped Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) in his intellectual development and eventual conversion to Christianity, when he read “certain books of the Platonists” and “having read then those books of the Platonists, and thence been taught to search for incorporeal truth” he saw the “invisible things, understood by those things which are made.”

That’s important. But it doesn’t get us all the way to the personal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Disciplines do what they are intended to do. You find what you’re looking for. Many phenomena lend themselves to mathematical description and modeling. Models don’t intend or claim to capture everything. They’re maps not replications. As Benedict says, aesthetic feelings and moral attitudes don’t factor into the investigations of physics because they don’t have to. We all know that they are there. But for some tasks we don’t have to consider them. But for other tasks we do. For other tasks aesthetic feelings and moral attitudes are central. And so thinking about them requires different techniques that don’t abstract away from them. Mathematics and the sciences do bring us to God. It’s a kind of communion. But there is further communion to be had, to recognize the personal God we find in scripture and in Jesus Christ.

Benedict makes an important connection between intellectual structure and the act of intellect that can be understood to underlie it:

“The world is objective mind; it meets us in an intellectual structure, that is, it offers itself to our mind as something that can be reflected upon and understood. From this follows the next step. To say ‘Credo in Deum—I believe in God’ expresses the conviction that objective mind is the product of subjective mind and can only exist at all as the declension of it, that, in other words, being-thought (as we find it present in the structure of the world) is not possible without thinking.”

This is an interesting idea. I don’t think it’s exhaustively proven here but it makes a lot of sense in my opinion. Benedict connects three ideas:

1. Intellectual structure
2. Objective mind
3. Subjective mind

Intellectual structure is the intelligibility of reality. We can think about it and make sense of it in our intellect. There is at least an “as-if” quality to the intelligibility of reality. It is structured “as if” rationally constructed. Let’s call this objective mind. But is it just that? Or is there actually a subjective mind behind the objective mind that is actually doing the thinking, so that it is not merely thinking “as if” but thinking “in-fact”? That’s the move Benedict makes.

Benedict then takes this idea and places it in the context of three major metaphysical systems. Metaphysics concerns the ultimate nature of reality; the question of all questions:

“The question to which everything finally leads could be formulated like this: In all the variety of individual things, what is, so to speak, the common stuff of being—what is the one being behind the many ‘things’, which nevertheless all ‘exist’?”

Benedict then looks at three possible answers to this question; three metaphysical systems:

1. Materialism
2. Idealism
3. Christianity

“The many answers produced by history can finally be reduced to two basic possibilities. The first and most obvious would run something like this: Everything we encounter is in the last analysis stuff, matter; this is the only thing that always remains as demonstrable reality and, consequently, represents the real being of all that exists—the materialistic solution. The other possibility points in the opposite direction. It says: Whoever looks thoroughly at matter will discover that it is being-thought, objectivized thought. So it cannot be the ultimate. On the contrary, before it comes thinking, the idea; all being is ultimately being-thought and can be traced back to mind as the original reality; this is the ‘idealistic’ solution.”

What Benedict has been saying up to this point, making the case for the intellectual structure and mind behind all reality fits quite well with idealism. But he will argue that idealism is not the final stop. There is more to reality than just idea:

“The Christian belief in God is not completely identical with either of these two solutions. To be sure, it, too, will say, being is being-thought. Matter itself points beyond itself to thinking as the earlier and more original factor. But in opposition to idealism, which makes all being into moments of an all-embracing consciousness, the Christian belief in God will say: Being is being-thought—yet not in such a way that it remains only thought and that the appearance of independence proves to be mere appearance to anyone who looks more closely. On the contrary, Christian belief in God means that things are the being-thought of a creative consciousness, of a creative freedom, and that the creative consciousness that bears up all things has released what has been thought into the freedom of its own, independent existence. In this it goes beyond any mere idealism.”

This is a fascinating idea. This is what moves Christianity beyond Platonism. In a sense, it brings us back to the material world, but with a renewed and richer understanding of it; no longer “mere matter”. The material world and, what is especially important, our physical bodies are not just illusions or mental projections. They are real. Logos, the divine intellect, is generative not only of all things but also of more intellects with powers to think on their own. And Benedict actually makes this kind of freedom foundational:

“In the Christian view what supports it all is a creative freedom that sets what has been thought in the freedom of its own being.”

“At the beginning of all being it puts not just some kind of consciousness but a creative freedom that creates further freedoms. To this extent one could very well describe Christianity as a philosophy of freedom. For Christianity, the explanation of reality as a whole is not an all-embracing consciousness or one single materiality; on the contrary, at the summit stands a freedom that thinks and, by thinking, creates freedoms, thus making freedom the structural form of all being.”

What I see as one of the essential features of Christian thought is an insistence on the reality, importance, and goodness of matter and physical bodies. This is especially evident in the doctrines of Incarnation and resurrection. In the Incarnation Christ became human with a material body. Not only that, but after he died he was resurrected and became embodied again. And that is our ultimate destiny as well. We humans are physically embodied beings. Our bodies are not meant to be escaped and transcended. Our bodies are essential to who we are. And so our salvation necessarily consists in our eventual resurrection as individual, embodied beings. We have our own personal identities and freedom. Benedict places this kind of individuality and freedom, along with Logos, into a primary position:

“If Christian belief in God is first of all an option in favor of the primacy of the logos, faith in the preexisting, world-supporting reality of the creative meaning, it is at the same time, a belief in the personal nature of that meaning, the belief that the original thought, whose being-thought is represented by the world, is not an anonymous, neutral consciousness but rather freedom, creative love, a person.”

“Accordingly, if the Christian option for the logos means an option for a personal, creative meaning, then it is at the same time an option for the primacy of the particular as against the universal. The highest is not the most universal but, precisely, the particular, and the Christian faith is thus above all also the option for man as the irreducible, infinity-oriented being. And here once again it is the option for the primacy of freedom as against the primacy of some cosmic necessity or natural law.”

There are three things here that Benedict gives primacy:

1. Logos
2. The Particular
3. Freedom

This brings together some concepts that at first glance seem contrary: order and freedom. On the one hand reality is rationally ordered. Things happen according to laws and patterns in ways that are intelligible. On the other hand reality is replete with animate life, both at its foundation in God and in its products in intelligent created beings. Benedict proposes that these ideas in apparent tension are not only compatible but mutually necessary:

“Moreover, it can be shown that the first option—for the primacy of the logos as opposed to mere matter—is not possible without the second and third, or, to be more accurate, the first, taken on its own, would remain mere idealism; it is only the addition of the second and third options—primacy of the particular, primacy of freedom—that marks the watershed between idealism and Christian belief, which now denotes something different from mere idealism.”

The implications from this are far-reaching and recur back to the foundations and redefine it. The Logos of Christianity, because it is coupled with the particular and with freedom, is radically distinct from the logos of Stoicism and other Hellenistic philosophies.

“But if the logos of all being, the being that upholds and encompasses everything, is consciousness, freedom, and love, then it follows automatically that the supreme factor in the world is not cosmic necessity but freedom. The implications of this are very extensive. For this leads to the conclusion that freedom is evidently the necessary structure of the world.”

Again this paradox. Freedom and necessity would seem not to fit well together. But Benedict calls freedom “the necessary structure of the world”, working freedom into necessity. Freedom is not only possible but absolutely necessary. 

“The Christian sees in man, not an individual, but a person; and it seems to me that this passage from individual to person contains the whole span of the transition from antiquity to Christianity, from Platonism to faith.”

Let’s review some of the transitions Benedict outlines in all this. I see three transitions, each with three parts.

First, there’s the transition of:

Intellectual structure → Objective mind → Subjective mind

Second, there’s the transition of:

Materialism → Idealism → Christianity

And third, there’s the transition, or mutual primacy of:

Logos → The Particular → Freedom

These are all related and follow a transition, as Benedict describes it, from Platonism to faith. 

Conversion to Christianity is a work of the Holy Spirit, something that’s not simple to characterize. Jesus said it’s like the wind, that “blows where it wishes” where you “cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes” (John 3:8). But as best we can discern, it can manifest in both emotional and intellectual forms. Or sometimes even as silence (hesychia, ἡσυχία). But the intellectual form is one manifestation of the Spirit. And it’s one that I focus on a lot.

As far as I know there aren’t too many people calling themselves Platonists these days but I think many technically and intellectually inclined people hold Platonist ideas, even if they don’t think of them in that way. And I’m interested in working with that. I see Platonism as a kind of “gateway drug” to Christianity. At least for the intellectually inclined. So as a ministry let’s see if we can convince people of Platonism first, appealing to the intellect, and then move from there to Christianity, through these transitions Benedict lays out.

In a way these concepts kind of work in a cycle, getting us back where we all start off. Before we ever get too sophisticated it’s natural to think of a world filled with free, thinking individuals whose decisions have meaning and value. Later we come to notice, or are taught about, the regularity of nature. And that regularity is extremely useful. We can do a lot of stuff with science and technology using our understanding of the order and regularity of things. That’s the value of empirical methods: experiments and data. All important parts of a material perspective. But there’s more to be gained and appreciated by still further abstraction, abstracting away the material components of systems to the patterns and structures themselves. Mathematical structures and algorithms have even more generalized utility and power. And their immaterial, substrate-neutral natures are especially amenable to the mental. It’s a perspective at the level of ideas. This is, in a sense, the goal of all education, to get us to be able to comprehend the intelligible structure of things. And I think that’s right, as far as it goes. It’s basically Plato’s model for education outlined in the Republic. But from an existential perspective there’s still more. And that is to consider, not just the ideas themselves but also the thinkers thinking and producing these ideas. Both the one great mind, the Logos, thinking all of reality into being and the multiple created beings living in the created order. And that brings us back to a world filled with free, thinking individuals whose decisions have meaning and value, as measured by the standards of the transcendent Logos. It ends up in much the same spot but picks up a great deal of insight through the process. More of an ascending helix than a circle.

Like Pope Benedict I take this all the way out to Christianity. But in my intellectual activity and conversations I tend to occupy the idealist space, being interested in both the transition into it and through it. I think a lot of intellectuals find materialism convincing. And I’m interested in the move from materialism to idealism, how to make a case for it, and to understand the difficulties and problems with making that move. I think that’s very interesting and challenging. The realm of intellectual structure is where a lot of exciting and interesting stuff is happening. More difficult but even more important is the move from idealism to faith. To understand Logos not only as order and intellectual structure but also as the person Jesus Christ.