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Richard J. Mouw

Being Fair to Plato

About that "white grandfatherly God."

In a past life, before migrating into the world of graduate theological education, I spent 17 years teaching undergraduate philosophy courses. I gave many lectures in those courses on Plato, focusing primarily on The Republic, Meno, Crito, and Phaedo. Those are dialogues mainly from Plato's early and middle period, but in graduate school I had also enrolled in a full-year seminar on his later period, working through his Sophist, Laws, and Timaeus line-by-line in the Greek.

None of that makes me an expert on Plato. It does mean, however, that I once had—and continue to have to some degree—a more than superficial grasp of some his main themes. Indeed, I continue to have an intellectual affection of sorts for Plato. He made a profound contribution to Western thought in general, and to Christian thought in particular. To be sure, not all of that was positive. But neither was it all purely negative. When I was teaching undergraduates about how Christian thinkers appropriated themes from Plato, I tried to encourage nuanced assessments of his influence.

Take the much bandied about phrase, "Platonistic dualism," typically spoken with a disdainful tone. I still think that Plato was pointing us in the right direction when he distinguished between two metaphysical realms, the corporeal and the incorporeal. I even think he had it right when he said that the latter is more "real" than the former. C. S. Lewis employs this very distinction in explaining the difference between heaven and hell—the more we move away from God, Lewis observes, the more we enter into a realm of being that is only a "shadow" of the real. I find that insightful. My main complaint against Plato 's metaphysical dualism has to do with his insistence on a rigid "higher-lower" distinction between souls and bodies, with souls being more valuable than things physical. To buy into that perspective wholesale—adopting, say, Plato's view that "the body is the prison-house of the soul"—fosters a view of human nature that lacks full appreciation of our psychophysical wholeness, to say nothing of failing to honor the delight which God takes in his non-human creation. Furthermore, it fails to acknowledge the richness of the New Testament's references to "spirit" and "flesh." Biblically speaking, married love can be "spiritual" when it is grounded in a relationship that is directed toward glorifying God, while taking pride in one's capacity for abstract reasoning can be "fleshly."

It is that kind of nuancing that has long inspired me to be a bit wary of calls for "the de-Hellenization" of Christian theology. I sense no overall mandate to "get the Hellas out of" my theological formulations. More appropriately, I think that we do well to distinguish between a radical de-Hellenization—"If it is Greek, get rid of it"—and a moderate de-Hellenization—"If it is Greek and wrong, get rid of it."

Given these concerns, I was pleased to follow Nathan Gilmour's excellent critique a while back of the way Brian McLaren has blamed a lot of what McLaren finds distasteful in evangelical theology on the influence of Plato and Aristotle—McLaren insists, for example, that the creation-fall-redemption-eschaton that many are fond of is an example of Platonism gone wild. Gilmour rightly observes that McLaren's rejection of these "Greek" influences is a case of "playing fast and loose with historical identifications for the sake of scoring cheap rhetorical points."[1]

An even more blatant case, however, showed up recently in a comment by William Paul Young, responding to an interviewer's questions in the March issue of Christianity Today. In explaining his portrayal of the deity as a black woman in his bestselling novel, The Shack, Young reported: "I don't want my kids growing up with the image of God that I had—Plato's white grandfatherly god. That god is not a very good father. You can't trust him with your kids."

I have no desire to defend the image of a "white grandfatherly god"—but to attribute that depiction to Plato? In Plato's thought there are two entities that have served as candidates for a theological understanding of the deity: the Form of the Good, which transcends all other Forms, and which in Plato's own account can only be reached by an upward mystical journey; and the demiurge, who fashions finite things out of eternal matter, in subservience to the rationally discernible Forms. In short: for Plato we have to choose between the highest Being who is not a creator, and a creator who is not the highest Being. Either way, though, no beard and no skin!

Maybe it is time, for starters, to initiate a re-Hellenizing of Plato's philosophy, as a first step toward paying him the compliment of being more careful in assessing his influence on Christian thought.

Richard J. Mouw will retire in June from the presidency of Fuller Theological Seminary.

1. christianhumanist.org/chb/2010/02/a-new-kind-of-christianity-a-review-for-the-ooze-viral-blogs

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