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THE FIRST PIECES
THE WAY TO LIVE_DOT II (YOURSELF) // CHAPTER 8
This is a lot of history. We have painted the Old Testament and western philosophy with broad brushstrokes, barely scratching the surface.
We have heard the aphorism “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.” This extends to how God deals with humanity. Think sequentially about the progress of human history. From the Stone Age comes Abraham. God asks him to consider the possibility of a divine plan for generations to come. Sure, this thought makes sense to us today. But Abraham was a shepherd living on the backside of the world four thousand–plus years ago. At the time, this was a major development. There is a high likelihood that no one had ever considered a question like that in human history until then.
God then takes humanity on a journey for thousands of years so he can demonstrate who he is and how he works from generation to generation. He makes a promise to Abraham and his family and follows through again and again. We know this because these same people chronicled their experiences with God. When we read Scripture, we are reading the stories of people who watched God work in their lives.
Then he went silent. Abraham’s family, the Jews, were waiting for God to speak again. They were struggling, just as they always had, to hold up their end of the covenant that Abraham made with God.
Their sense of meaning came from the desire to know God. Their chief goal was to set themselves apart as holy by obeying his laws. If they could do that—just obey enough—they would accomplish their purpose, an important and foundational piece of God’s plan for humanity, but maybe just one piece. Knowing God is the start of the journey. God gave Abraham and his family that one piece, and there were more pieces to come for more people than just Abraham’s family.
While the Israelites are making their best efforts to know God, the world kept turning. Along came philosophy. The Gentiles—non-Jewish people—had pantheons of gods that dictated everything from the seasons to omens of childbirth. They weren’t considered part of God’s family and had no concept of him. They weren’t included in the promise.
For most Gentiles, their meaning was not sought in the understanding of the divine but in their understanding of themselves. A piece of God’s plan, but just another piece.
St. Augustine, who was a philosopher before he was a Christian and who made important contributions to both philosophy and Christianity, said: “A person who is a good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature . . .”[i]
Can philosophy and God work together? Are they meant to?
To understand how to live, it is important for us to understand who God is. His nature and his character. So wouldn’t it also be important that we understand ourselves? Does philosophy, something that arose during a time when God “wasn’t speaking” play a part in his plan for us?
If all truth is God’s truth, could he speak to us without speaking through a prophet? Or a holy book? Can he use both? Most of us would say that God can use whatever he wants; after all, he’s God. I am not asserting that ancient philosophers’ teachings are equal to Scripture, but God can use whatever he wants to teach us his plan. The rise in philosophy and the silence of God may be a coincidence worth considering.
Philo of Alexandria was a Jewish philosopher who was the first to draw parallels between the Torah and Greek philosophy. Augustine and Jerome referred to Seneca as a Christian writer. Seneca was also considered a saint by some thirteenth-century Catholics. There is an apocryphal story that Paul and Seneca exchanged letters and may have been friends. This was believed to be true until the eighteenth century when researchers began to claim the letters were forgeries. But Acts 17 tells the story of Paul meeting with Stoics and Epicureans, and in Acts 18, Seneca’s older brother, Junius Gallio, dismissed charges brought by the Jews against Paul. So, there may be some credence to Paul and Seneca having a relationship. This could be evidence that Christianity and Stoicism have been tied together for a long time.
It is understandable that Christians are often averse to philosophy, as they may be the worst philosophers in modern history. If philosophy is beliefs put into action, one needs to look no further than the reputation of Christians in the modern world to see how well they put their beliefs into action.
Ghandi is quoted as saying, “I like your Christ, but your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”[ii]
Does that mean that all Christians do this? Of course not. However, the truth is that most do. Hence the reputation.
So, Christians are bad philosophers. As are most human beings. Most of us struggle with bridging the gap between belief and action. Knowledge is not action. If life is a gym, most of us are out-of-shape people standing on the sidelines critiquing the form of the people attempting to get in shape.
Philosophy is how our minds think and rationalize. We all have philosophies. We don’t just need philosophy, we need good philosophy. Because we all need to do a better job of taking what we believe and living by those beliefs. It is essential to understand and decide how we should live. Without it, we cannot hope to live a life that is meaningful. This is philosophy.
The Apostle Paul echoes this in his letter to the Corinthians,
If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. // 1 Corinthians 13:2
To love someone is not just thinking lovely thoughts toward them. True love is action. We know this.
We have access to more knowledge now than at any time in human history. If we don’t act on what we know, not only is this knowledge meaningless, life itself is meaningless. How many of us know what to do, but we don’t do it? Knowing how to act is simple. But simple ≠ easy. That’s why we need to be intentional about deciding how we should live. Intentional about living out what we believe. Intentional about our philosophy of life.
[i] St. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R.P.H. Green, 1st ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008).
[ii] James Edward Stroud, The Knights Templar & The Protestant Reformation (Florida, USA: Xulon Press, 2011).