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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What a Solid Idea!

This ship has a dragon head... foreshadowing.

Last week I posted on my understanding of the non-material world in a purely philosophical a method as I could manage. My thought was, and still is, to talk this week about what impact those suspicions have on my theology. But before I get into that let me take a moment to admit that part of me sort of hates what I have done.

I think that the common distinction between philosophy and theology is baseless and damaging to both disciplines. In fact, so far as I can tell it is like trying to make a firm distinction between philosophy and ethics or philosophy and ontology. I tend to irritate a lot of Christians and non-Christians with the following statement but here goes: I think that theology is a proper subset of philosophy just like metaphysics, ethics, anthropology and the rest; and I think that it ought to be treated as such. I don't think that anyone can really develop a full philosophical worldview without addressing theology any more than someone can develop an un-philosophical theology. So just as ethics is philosophy thinking specifically about how we ought to behave, theology is philosophy thinking specifically about God.

Right, now that that is out of the way why don't I talk a little about what impact my understanding of pre-modern metaphysics has on my theology. The first observation I want to make is that it clearly undermines any purely materialist understanding of life. If the non-material world of forms has a greater participation in reality than the material world does, it would be nonsense to say that the non-material world is less real than the material world, much less that it does not exist at all.

Secondly, it makes a lot of sense to me to equate the non-material world of the forms with the spiritual world. Clearly, the spiritual world is non-material. But I realize that this will not work if we insist on a purely Platonic understanding of the non-material world. So I don't. I think that one of Plato's greater mistakes was to miss the fact that personhood is a characteristic quality of the real (I think that Lao Tzu missed this insight as well but that's another story). If things with greater being are things which are more person then it would follow that the world of forms is not merely the world of abstraction but is the domain of concrete reality in which all souls, all essential personhood, is anchored.
Eustace does look like
he almost deserved it

Another implication of this pre-modern paradigm is the idea that things and actions can have an intrinsic significance which may be even greater than their material significance. I mentioned in the last post that C.S. Lewis thought of himself as a pre-modern (he would have said medieval) thinker. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Rahmandu the Star tells Eustace that in our world, burning gas "is what stars are made of, not what they are". The idea here is that there is more to stars than just their material composition and properties. If you have ever had the feeling that you are more than a cloud of atoms even though a cloud of atoms is what you are made of, and you apply that feeling to stars as well as to yourself, then you begin to get at the point here. Or to put it in more platonic terms: the burning gas is a pale reflection, a material hint, of the reality of a star.

In the same sort of way, the bodies we interact with in our friends and enemies are pale reflections, material hints, of the reality of those persons. When I put it this way to myself generally "spiritual" or "ethereal" concepts like the immortality of the soul, or the impact that virtue and vice can have on a person, become almost self evident. Of course if the spirit has more reality than the body, there is no reason to assume that it should be subject to the same weaknesses (death) as the body.

But the biggest payout for my theology has been the understanding that certain acts may have genuine, profound, spiritual consequences which ought to be take at least as seriously as the material consequences. The clearest example I can think of at the moment would be my understanding of sex. From a pre-modern viewpoint, there is not contradiction and a great deal of gravity in the assertion that sex creates a spiritual bond between two people. If this is the case then it would follow that once one persons soul has been - remember that we are talking about events more "real" than even our physical world - joined to another, then these two people ought to make a commitment to love and support one another at least as long as their bodies stay alive; not to would be cruel and self destructive. 
Is this just or at least burning gas?

I want to leave it open from here. Do you find the pre-modern worldview compelling? Does it explain anything you might have struggled to understand? Do you think I have come to accurate conclusions about its implications or am I way off base? Of do you think that the whole project is a wrong turn? I would love to hear your takes, thoughts and suggestions. 

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