Wednesday, August 6, 2008

St. Paul Cleans the Mirror

Just a brief and undeveloped post today, since I haven't formulated an actual theory about what I'm talking about here.

I've complained elsewhere about the neo-Platonist influence on Christianity and how I feel those two systems to be basically incompatible. Ever the contrarian (and ever confusing), St. Paul has confuted me and exploded my binary pair by converging with Socrates. First, Plato:
By our bodies and through perception we have dealings with coming-to-be, but we deal with real being by our souls and through reasoning . . . Being always stays the same and in the same state, but coming-to-be varies from one time to another. (Sophist 248A)
Compare that to Paul:
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12, NAS)
So apparently the neo-Platonist streak has been present in Christianity from the very beginning. But I'm more interested in the verse that immediately follows:
But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
I wonder if 1 Corinthians 13 is in some way a response to Platonic idealism (expressed most clearly in Phaedo and Sophist). I imagine that Paul would agree with Plato's debasement of bodily pleasures in favor of the soul, and perhaps he'd even teeter on the edge of Plato's body/soul dualism.*

What's interesting to me is the way Paul sets up the noetic effects of love. We've all heard the "faith, hope, and love" verse a million times, but until today I never made the connection between it and the "glass darkly" verse that immediately precedes it. Is love, for St. Paul, a remedy for Platonic dualism, for not being able to trust our senses (and perhaps our ostensibly rational conclusions, although Paul is less of a rationalist than Plato)? Is love one of the "first fruits of the Spirit" (Romans 8:23), a glimpse of the sanctified new earth to come? What I'm getting at: Can we believe the things we learn in love in a way that we can't under Plato's system? Does love take some of the dirt off the mirror?

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*Dualism is a sticky subject in Christian theology, of course. St. Paul sets the spirit against the flesh in Galatians 5, but it's in no way a given that "flesh" means "physical body," and credible theologians have fallen on either side of that debate for two thousand years. One thing is clear: The orthodox Christian cannot fall into the traps of either Gnosticism (the body is evil, and the soul is divine) or Manichaeism (the force of good is equaled by the force of evil); if St. Paul does mean "the body" when he says "the flesh," he cannot mean that the body is itself evil. After all, at the end of time, we are promised new bodies for the new heavens and the new earth. The issue with any body/soul dualism we may find in St. Paul is an issue of the old earth vs. the new earth.

5 comments:

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

Do you ever get the feeling that we're the only ones who comment on one another's blogs?

The main reason I'm hesitant to call Paul a mind/matter dualist is his insistence upon soma as a component of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. I'm inclined to go with N.T. Wright in calling Paul's main dualism fallen/redeemed on a temporal axis rather than mind/matter on an ontological axis.

Michial said...

Yes, I do feel that way. Depressing, isn't it? I was sure I'd be a public intellectual by month three. :(

I think Paul's dualism is largely up for debate, although I side with you and Wright (whom we're reading in my Sunday school class and whose views on general resurrection influenced this post)--and with Reinhold Niebuhr, who uses that dualism as one of the major differences between the Greek and biblical viewpoints.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

I tend to be a firmly entrenched Wright-winger, much to the chagrin of Jesus Seminar types. Once I read his "Christian Origins and the Question of God" trilogy, I just didn't have any use for Crossan and Borg and the boys. And I became acutely aware of how wrong so many literary critics get Paul.

Michial said...

We're reading "Simply Christian." Or actually the class is. We came to the class so late that we didn't even buy the book. So we're watching the movie.

I've not read Wright beyond that, but I want to.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

I'm a few chapters into that one; it's been supplanted, unfortunately, on my nightstand by a book that I'll not likely finish on Christian virtue in the face of information glut. The Wright book is much better, though I have to laugh at how blatantly he's styling himself as the new C.S. Lewis. I suppose after years of folks' accusing him of it, he just decided to write a book about the intellectual adequacy of Christianity and start it out with a reflection on schoolboys complaining about a cheater.