Socrates or Jesus?

(Originally written just after I had started writing this blog, on July 17 2005, but I thought it worth tweaking and updating and bringing up front. The ‘book’ has now become LUBH.)

Where have I got to?

After such a long time of first writing, and then thinking, and then reading and then thinking some more, have I come to any conclusions? Am I ever going to write this book?

Well, I do feel that I have been climbing a mountain, an intellectual mountain to be sure, but a spiritual mountain as well.

For this book that I am compelled to write is really a way of resolving a conflict within myself. The origins of the book lie in an experience that I had around the time of my twentieth birthday, which moved me from being a militant atheist to one who could not deny the reality of God, and one who is now a priest.

That transformation moved me spiritually in a way that I suspect I would never have been able to achieve on my own, and really the last fifteen years can be seen, in one light, as my trying to catch up intellectually with what happened in that summer of 1990.

I think I have now caught up – or at least, if I have not in fact gained the summit of my personal mountain, that summit is now in sight.

The best way to describe the reality behind these words is to talk about the difference between two paths to God, the Platonic path and the Christian path.

The Platonic path has its roots in Socrates, and his attitude in the face of death. He embraced the conflict with the Athenian authorities, and used that conflict – engineering the death sentence – in order to display his teachings about the irrelevance of death. For the true philosopher has an immortal soul, which is not affected by death. Indeed, the best life, the truest, most virtuous and most authentic life, is one in which a person prepares themselves for this death by removing all the ‘attachments’ to the world from their emotional life, restricts the objects of their concern to the realm of the Forms and seeks, ultimately, to ascend to a contemplation of the One, which, in one neo-Platonic phrasing, is the journey of ‘the alone to the Alone’. This is a journey for an intellectual elite; it is a journey undertaken in solitude; it is a journey which is self-directed and under the control of the individual will, properly trained. Those who become ‘perfect’ attain to the One. And the One does not care whether you make this journey or not.

The Christian path, in contrast, has its roots in Jesus’ attitude in the face of death, best revealed in the Garden of Gethsemane: “My soul is sorrowful, even unto death… Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.” Jesus is afraid of death; he is not facing the prospect of crucifixion with philosophical detachment. Yet he surrenders his will to God. Moreover, this surrendering of the will was characteristic of Jesus’ mature life, and it was this surrendering which was taught to the disciples. This surrendering bears fruit in a community of loving friendship, exemplified in the Last Supper: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing, but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” So the Christian journey is one that is undertaken within a community of friendship; it is a journey for everyone; it is a journey which is centred on the abandonment of self-direction and a radical dependency on divine grace – for God cares very much whether you take this path. It is the journey of love: ‘Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God’.

So, to summarise: the Platonic path, as I understand it, is an individualistic and intellectualistic project to achieve the contemplation of the One and thereby to achieve immortality. The Christian path, as I understand it, is a Eucharistic and moral project to transform the world in the light of eternity, and thereby gain eternal life.

In the Platonic path, the intellect is dominant.
In the Christian path, surrender of the will to God is key.

(Christianity is not about the abandonment of intellect. It is about surrendering the intellect – and the intellectual products like our ego and the deadly sins that go with the desire for ego-preservation – to a higher power.)

To return to my militant atheism: it was a manifestation of the mainstream of our present culture, in which the modernist project of triumphant Reason – atheistic, self-sufficient, controlling, technocratic, inherently totalitarian – has largely succeeded in eviscerating the Christian alternative. As I am, temperamentally, an intellect-dominated person, that Modernist idolatry took deep root in my understanding. Although I would not have had the words to describe it accurately until very recently: my understanding was Platonist, in the sense that I have described.

That triumphant Modernism was built upon the re-incorporation of the Platonic path within Western Christianity itself, from which came the evils of the Inquisition, Scholasticism, the Crusades, the Wars of Religion and, ultimately, the Holocaust.

Really what my journey has been about is seeking a way to reconcile my intellect with my guiding spirit, my soul, that which is of God within me – to achieve an integrity between a part of myself which was ‘touched’ by God – and is therefore undeniable, for it is deeper within me than my understanding can reach – and an intellect which, every step of the way, has resisted the implications of that touch. To achieve integrity, to find that peace which the world cannot give, I have had to dig deeper and deeper into my understandings, to uproot what it is in my intellect which is opposed to that touch of God and to slowly and steadily surrender my will to God. Of course, I resist even now, for I am mulishly stubborn. Truly the Will is a terrible master.

I believe that, in essence, what I have to say in my book is to share the fruits of this journey that I have made: to, as +Richard put it, ‘speak the word that [I] have been given’. To offer a truly prophetic critique of Western Christianity – prophecy not as a prediction of what will come (although there is that) but prophecy as a demand to return to a proper worship of God, and thereby to alleviate the sufferings of the widows and orphans of the world. For God is a jealous God and a righteous God.

I am conscious of the way that sounds grandiose. Left to myself, my ego would seek to protect itself from such a reckless endangerment – for such boastful-sounding words are hubristic, and I believe deeply in nemesis, although I give that pagan concept a different name. If there was a way in which I could have a quiet and peaceful life I think I would choose it, yet ‘not what I will’.

I think much of Jonah fleeing to Tarshish; I think much of Amos: “I am but a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees”; I think much of Isaiah: “I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips”; I think of Jeremiah: “Ah Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth!”. If I have a ‘guiding text’ which hovers at the back of my mind as I think and write, it is this:

“Hear the Word of the Lord, O people of Israel;
for the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or kindness,
and no knowledge of God in the land.
There is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery;
they break all bounds and murder follows murder.
Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish,
and also the beasts of the field, and the birds of the air;
and even the fish of the sea are taken away.

Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse,
for with you is my contention O priest.
You shall stumble by day,
the prophet also shall stumble with you by night;
and I will destroy your mother.
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;
because you have rejected knowledge,
I reject you from being a priest to me.
And since you have forgotten the law of your God,
I also will forget your children.”

(Hosea chapter 4).

The Psalmist writes that ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’, and in truth, the more that I reflect on our world and the corruption in our mother the church (it is so corrupt that it no longer can see the corruption), the more afraid I become. I think apocalyptic thoughts.

And yet, and yet. Jesus tells us repeatedly: do not be afraid. For perfect love drives out fear. And we are called to love, for ‘God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.’ God is a God of mercy and of grace.

And I remember – at this time of both literal and metaphorical darkness – that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overwhelm it.

I hope, in my book, to give an account of the light and hope that is in me.