Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Did Paul Just Go All Plato on Me?

In a recent series on this blog (Part I, Part II, Part III), I discussed the fact that Paul's teaching on the resurrection in I Corinthians 15 (See also I Thess. 4 and Rom. 8) does not conform to a platonic worldview with its corresponding dualism of reality (material vs. non-material), and its human dualism (body/flesh vs. soul/spirit).

When, however, one turns to other passages in Paul, it may seem like he does embrace this sort of platonic dualism.  For example, here is what Paul writes in II Corinthians 3:18:
"18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit." (NRSV). 
Here, Paul may be opening the door to a human dualism.  In I Cor. 15, transformation is instantaneous at the resurrection.  Here the transformation is gradual and is taking place now.  Is this a "spiritual" or non-material transformation?  Shortly after this verse, II Cor. 4:16 reads:
"16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day." (NRSV).  
This verse seems to be even more clearly embracing a platonic dualism, expressed here by the terms "outer nature" and "inner nature." Paul goes on to write in II Cor. 4:18:
 "18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal." (NRSV).
And here we might have an embrace of  platonic dualism of the material vs. non-material.  As I continue to read E. P. Sanders' latest work on Paul, I found his comments on these verses informative.  Here is what he has to say about II Cor. 4:18:
"This sentence constitutes what I call 'Paul's most platonic moment': Platonic theory held that the eternal 'forms' are real, while their 'shadows' or 'imitations,' which are perceived by the human senses, are not real.  What can destroyed is not real, what is real cannot be destroyed. Again, this suggests body/soul dualism." (emphasis original)(E. P. Sanders, Paul: The Apostle's Life, Letters, and Thought, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 411). 
Add to these verses in II Corinthians Paul's words from Phillipians 1:21-23 which read:
"21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better;" (NRSV). 
Here, what is it that departs to be with Christ?  Is it Paul's immortal (platonic) soul?  And what is it departing? The body?  It appears, if you read these verses that between the writing of I Corinthians, which clearly battled against a platonic worldview, and the writing of II Corinthians and Philippians, that Paul has changed his mind and embraced a platonic worldview.  I (and Sanders) will have more to say on this in future posts, but for now, what do you think?

Friday, March 4, 2016

Resurrection and Plato Part III

In Part I and Part II of this series, I have been discussing Paul's worldview as expressed in I Corinthians 15 in relation to the very common "Platonic" worldview.  In a nutshell, I argued that Paul does not hold to a Platonic dualistic worldview which splits reality in two: material (earth) and non-material (world of forms) reality, and the corresponding dualistic view of the human with a material body/flesh and a non-material soul/spirit.

At the end of the last post, I posed the following question: "if Paul was not talking in I Corinthians 15 about a move from material (physical) to non-material (spiritual) existence, then what distinction is he making?"

The specific verses that I have been dealing with are I Corinthians 15:44-46, which in the NRSV read as follows:
44 It is sown a physical [psychikon] body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical [psychikon] body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being[psychen]”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical[psychikon], and then the spiritual.
As I pointed out, the NRSV, and virtually all modern English translations are misleading here as they translate the Greek word psychikos as "physical" (NRSV, CEB) or "natural" (NIV, KJV, NKJV, NASB, HCSB, ESV).  Both of these words, physical and natural, play into a Platonic worldview bias and render what Paul says as essentially mirroring the dualistic reality of Plato.  This makes it almost impossible to see the distinction that Paul is making here, and it is not a distinction between material and non-material reality, but rather the distinction is between corruptibility and incorruptibility, between mortality and immortality.

This distinction between mortality and immortality can be clearly seen if one doesn't let vv. 44-46 and their misleading translations drive the issue.  Rather, vv. 42-26 list four contrasts between life before and after the resurrection.  The controlling metaphor here is that of sowing a seed (i.e., before resurrection) and what grows from the seed (i.e., after the resurrection).  This metaphor was introduced in v. 37.  So, what is sown in death is transformed through the resurrection.  But once again, this is not a move from material to non-material.  Look at the four examples:
So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a "soulish" body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a "soulish" body, there is also a spiritual body. 
So, what are the four pairs?  They are:

  1. perishable vs. imperishable
  2. dishonor vs. glory
  3. weakness vs. power
  4. "soulish" vs. spiritual
We can follow this with one last pair: First Adam vs. Last Adam (Christ).  Adam died (and stayed dead), Christ died, but was raised to life.

Once again, the distinction here is not between material and non-material but between mortality and immortality.

One can see this same thought, the contrast between mortality/decay/death and immortality and life in Romans 8:18-23 where it is not only humans that will partake in this new form of existence, but the entire material creation will undergo a transformation.  The verses are as follows:
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (NRSV)
So, Paul thinks that all of creation will take part in this transformation and will not longer be in "bondage to decay."  It is not material vs. non-material for Paul, but perishable vs. imperishable.  If there is a dualism in Paul on this matter at all, it is a dualism of time: this present age vs. the age to come, before the resurrection vs. after the resurrection.  What do you think?

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Resurrection and Plato Part II

In Part I of this series I discussed the difficulty of squaring Paul's teaching on the resurrection found in I Corinthians chapter 15 with Plato's dualistic worldview. Specifically I pointed out that Plato clearly divides between a material body(soma)/flesh(sarx) and a non-material soul(psyche)/spirit(pneuma). Thus, in a Platonic view, earthly/material life is lived in a body made of flesh, and after the death of the body, the non-material soul/spirit lives on in a non-material reality (heaven/world of forms).  The problem is that Paul does not split reality this way.  Instead of material/non-material, Paul seems to have a dualism of time: before and after the resurrection.  Moreover, before the resurrection life is lived in a "soulish" (psychikos) body, and after the resurrection it is a spiritual (pneumatikos) body.  This does not square with Platonic reality in two ways. 1) It characterizes life on earth with the psyche and 2) it has a body in both realities.

I am currently reading through Sanders' recent volume on Paul (E. P. Sanders, Paul: The Apostle's Life, Letters, and Thought, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015).) and he notes this very same thing.  He even happens upon the same awkward word "soulish" to translate psychikos.  Sanders notes, as I have also in the past, that Paul's use of psychikos to describe life before the resurrection is almost certainly dictated by his proof text which is Genesis 2:7, which reads:
"then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man [adam] became a living being. (NRSV).
Paul uses this verse to bolster his argument, and quotes it as follows in 15:45:
 “The first man, Adam, became a living being”
In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, which is most likely what Paul was familiar with as his Bible),  "living being" is the translation of the Greek "psychen zosan" or "living soul).  So, Adam was a living psyche, who of course would die, so the second Adam (Christ) was a "life giving spirit" (pneuma).

It is this verse, Paul's proof text from Genesis 2:7, that has controlled Paul's terminology and dictated his contrast between the "soulish" (psychikos) body and the spiritual (pneumatikos) body.  It is clear that Paul is not using the Greek terminology in the Platonic sense, because his terms do not line up with Plato's division of reality into material and non-material realms.  But, if he is not operating from a Platonic worldview, then what worldview was controlling his thought?

I would argue that Paul's controlling worldview, his controlling view of reality is a predominately Jewish worldview as displayed in the Old Testament.  That Jewish worldview rejects most Greek dualisms.  The Old Testament worldview does not split reality into material and non-material.  Rather, Creation, both the heavens (read sky) and earth are part of material creation.  Nor does the Old Testament split humans into material and non-material parts.  Rather, the human is a whole, a living being (see Gen 2:7) who is given life by the breath (spirit) of God.  In Genesis 2:7, a living being is a living nephesh, which is a Hebrew word meaning self, person, life, etc.  The word is often translated into Greek as psyche, as is the case in Gen 2:7, and thus is sometimes translated into English as soul.  But we are not talking about Plato's non-material soul that lives on after the body dies.  In Hebrew thought, the nephesh encompassed the whole person.

Here are E.P. Sanders words on the non-dualistic nature of Judaism, because I think they are instructive here:
"In general, Judaism is fundamentally against dualism, though some forms of Judaism accepted some forms of dualism.  But at the root of Judaism is the belief that there is only one true God, who is good, and who created the world, declaring it to be good too (e.g., Gen. 1:31). Christianity inherited this view, and the Jewish view of creation helped it fight off some of the worst aspects of dualism (especially the denigration of bodily pleasure), though it also accepted some.  The battle between dualism and monotheism went on for centuries, and resulted in a stalemate; to this day there is no final solution of the problem. (Sanders, Paul, 407). 
I would say, with Sanders, that what Paul writes in I Cor. 15 represents his predominately Jewish worldview and rejection of both dualistic reality and dualistic humanity. But, as a comment on my last post stated:
I can't guess what Paul meant by that distinction [psychikos vs. pneumatikos, before and after resurrection], if it wasn't the distinction between spiritual and physical.
Or, to rephrase, if Paul was not talking in I Corinthians 15 about a move from material (physical) to non-material (spiritual) existence, then what distinction is he making?  That will be the topic of my next post.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Resurrection and Plato

I have written on this blog numerous times (here, here, and here) about the Greek view of reality as expressed in Plato.  There is a strong dualism in Plato's thought that splits reality in two: the material reality and the non-material reality.  Corresponding to this dualism of reality, humanity is also split in two: the material body(soma)/flesh(sarx) and the non-material soul(psyche)/spirit(pneuma).  In this view of the world, there is little if any interaction between these two levels of reality.  Any influence seems to be in one direction, from the non-material reality (what Plato called the world of forms(idea)) to the material reality.  That influence was actually minimal, as the material reality is said to be merely a shadow of the world of forms.

Many Christians take Plato's dualistic worldview and subscribe to it as an accurate, truthful, and even "biblical" view of reality.  They then take Christian/biblical terminology and map it on to the Platonic worldview.  For example, for many Christians, the created order (earth) is Plato's material reality and Heaven is the non-material reality.  Thus, while on earth humans have bodies (soma) made of flesh (sarx), but these bodies are inhabited by the non-material soul (psyche) and spirit(pneuma).   After the death of the body, the non-material self (psyche/pneuma) go to the non material reality, heaven.  Well, this works well enough if one does not look too closely at the biblical material.  Yet, when one looks closely at the language of the Bible, it does not map neatly onto the Platonic worldview.  The following is just one example.

First Corinthians chapter 15 contains Paul's most complete teaching on the resurrection.  The chapter is 58 verses long and contains numerous interesting passages, all related in some way to the concept of resurrection.  At one point in Paul's argument, he poses the question to himself as follows:
35 "But someone will ask, 'How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?'" (NRSV)
So, Paul is wondering what sort of existence will there be after the resurrection.  Well, to line up with Platonic thought, Paul would have to posit a material/physical existence on this side of death, followed by a non-material/spiritual existence after the resurrection.   Enter 15:44-46, where Paul says:
44 "It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, 'The first man, Adam, became a living being'; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual." (NRSV)
So, there you have it.  Paul agrees with Plato, right?  Before death it is a "physical body" and after death it is a "spiritual body."  Here is how the NIV translates the same verses:
44 "it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”[a]; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual.
There again, Plato.  Before death, "natural," after the resurrection, "spiritual."  But, and here is the big but, Paul doesn't actually say what the NIV or NRSV translations say he says.

Interestingly, the word translated as spiritual here is, as we would expect, spiritual (pneumatikos, for which you can see the resemblance to the Greek for spirit, pneuma).  No problems there.  But, the word that is translated as physical (NRSV) and natural (NIV), is not the Greek word that means physical or natural (physikos), but instead, the word used there is, for lack of a better word, "soulish" (psychikos).  Here it is the soul (psyche) which characterizes existence on this side of death and the spirit (pneuma) which characterizes existence post-resurrection.  Now, it looks like Paul might not line up so nicely with Plato after all.  Plato firmly placed soul (psyche) and spirit (pneuma) in non-material reality, but here, Paul says that soul (psyche) is on this side of death, and that spirit (pneuma) is post-resurrection.  This is not even to mention the fact that body (soma) which for Plato is on the material side of reality, exists in both of Paul's realities.  There is a "soulish" body (soma) before death and a spiritual body (soma) after the resurrection.

I will have some further thoughts on this matter in a follow up post.  But, for now, what do you think?

Friday, February 12, 2016

Proximity Does Not Breed Understanding

I want to share something that happened recently in an ethics class that I teach.  I will not reveal the identities of any involved, other than myself.

A bit of background is needed here.  First, I teach at a university that has a racially diverse student body.  I do not have the exact numbers, but the following are close: 70% African American, 25% Caucasian American, and the other 5% are made up of other ethnic groups, both American and international.  (Interestingly, my class follows this breakdown pretty well.  Out of 38 students, 63.5% are African American, 31.5% are Caucasian American, and 5% are of other ethnic groups).  Now, I consider this diversity a blessing, and one that I believe is quite rare on college campuses across the country.  I also naively thought that this close proximity of different groups would somehow foster greater understanding between the groups, but this assumption was shattered the other day in my ethics class.

Here is what happened.  We were discussing social contract theory and what Thomas Hobbes called the "coercive power."  In his social contract theory, people give up some their rights in order to gain mutual protection in a society.  This society then creates laws to be followed.  In order to ensure that the citizens follow the laws, there is the need for a coercive power that will enforce the laws and punish those who break them.  At this point I always bring up the fact that in Hobbes' social contract (which, BTW, is the model for government in the United States), the role of the coercive power (i.e, the executive branch of government from the President on down to local law enforcement) is to protect the citizens.  Well, over the past couple of years, this statement, that the role of law enforcement is to protect the citizens, has had around two thirds of my class bristling.  Of course, this bristling came from the two thirds of my class that are African American.  And, it is no shock to me why they did.  Right now, in much of the African American community, many certainly don't feel like law enforcement is there to protect them. Can anyone blame them? I could give a litany of highly public incidents from recent years in which a Caucasian police officer has killed an unarmed African American citizen.  Some of these have been caught on shocking video.

Now, here is where my shock came: not at the fact that the African Americans took issue with my statement, but that the Caucasian students pushed back and did not understand how their fellow students felt.  One African American student bravely shared that when he gets pulled over by a police officer he has a deep sense of fear.  To which, a white student responded, "well, don't we all?"  It was this comment that shattered my naive understanding that proximity of these different groups yields understanding. Of course, we all get that twinge of fear when we see flashing lights in our rear view mirror.  Yet, that fear, for me, a Caucasian male, is the fear of getting a ticket and draining my bank account just a bit.  There is also that sense of fear and shame of getting called into the principal's office. Yet, my fear ends there.  It does not for my African American students. Their fear is deeper.  I asked the student what he was afraid of, and his only answer was "anything."  He is fearful for his personal safety.  I would have thought that at such a diverse school, there would be a greater sense of understanding between these different groups, that there would be a greater sense of sensitivity, but alas, it is not so.

It appears as if we need more than just proximity.  We need interaction. We need compassion.  We need to have conversations, even if they are difficult.  We need to listen.  But, unfortunately, the problem gets ignored, as if it is no problem at all.  The groups remain largely segregated, even if it is a self imposed segregation.   I wish I had constructive solutions to offer, but I don't.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Trusting Expert Consensus

Following up on yesterday's rant, which was not really meant to be a rant, and which was not directed at anyone in particular, I want to talk today about expert or scholarly consensus.

While I said in my last post that one should not disagree with experts if one is not qualified to do so, I should give the following caveat: what I was really talking about was expert or scholarly consensus. Individual experts may not be correct. A particular scholar may hold an idiosyncratic, minority, or fringe opinion.  Individually, experts are often wrong on particular issues. Yet, there is something called scholarly consensus which non-experts have no ability to judge adequately.

A scholarly consensus is when the vast majority of experts in a given field, with the relevant skills and knowledge, agree that the evidence points to one conclusion. Depending on the field of study, scholarly consensuses can be quite rare.  Experts within any given field disagree on plenty of issues. Scholars are not inherently prone to agree with each other.  Therefore, when the vast majority in a given field do agree, non-experts ought to respect that scholarly process that led to the consensus. Why these consensuses ought to be trusted is that what is being claimed when a consensus is reached is that, of all of the people with the relevant skills and expertise, looking at the same evidence, the vast majority reach the same conclusion. Scholarly consensuses are hard-fought and contentious matters and are not reached lightly.

Another reason scholarly consensus ought to be trusted by non-experts is because, built in to the very fabric of the scholarly world is a strong motivation to overturn consensus.  Most scholars, myself included, want to be respected by one's peers.  Because scholars spend their lives thinking and producing ideas, we want those ideas recognized for their merit by other scholars. One of the best ways to gain notoriety and respect in one's field is to successfully challenge a scholarly consensus. If that occurs, what it means is that a particular scholar has gone against the majority opinion of experts, and has been able to convince the vast majority that his or her position is correct. He or she as caused the majority of experts to change their mind.  Therefore, there is a built in motivation for scholars to challenge consensuses. And, this does happen.  Long-held consensuses are often challenged.  Most of these challenges are not successful because the evidence does not support them.  But, sometimes they are successful, and the consensus is overturned, a new consensus is formed, and the collective knowledge of experts in the field grows.

Now, let me give a very brief (and surely oversimplified) overview of such a development in my field of synoptic gospel study.  The synoptic gospels are the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and it has been recognized almost since the birth of Christianity that these gospels bore a special literary relationship.  In fact, it was clear as early as Augustine, that these gospel writers had copied portions of their gospels. I often tell my students that if Matthew, Mark, and Luke turned in their gospels to me, I would turn them in to my dean for committing plagiarism. Augustine proposed the following order of composition: Matthew, Mark, Luke (also the canonical order).  He also noted that Mark copied portions of Matthew, and Luke copied portions of both Matthew and Mark. This view was held for over 1000 years without any serious contention.  Then, in the 1700s a German scholar named Johan Jakob Griesbach argued for a different order of composition: Matthew, Luke, Mark.  In his view, Matthew wrote first, Luke copied portions of Matthew, and then Mark condensed both Luke and Matthew into his shorter gospel.  This hypothesis, called the Griesbach hypothesis, then won the assent of the majority of scholars for nearly 100 years, thus forming a consensus on what was called "Markan Posteriority" (the view that Mark was the latest gospel of the synoptics).  Over the next 100 years or so, several challenges to this consensus were presented in scholarship, and the consensus began to crumble in the 1800s with the works of scholars like Christian Hermann Weiss and Heirnrich Holtzmann.  Then through the late 1800s and early 1900s, a new consensus was formed that held a different order: Mark, Matthew, Luke.  This is the theory of Markan Priority and this has been the consensus view in New Testament scholarship for about the last 100 years.  This consensus has been challenged many times over the past century, but none have succeeded in persuading a large number of scholars.  Thus, the consensus of Markan priority is still very much in place in New Testament studies.

So, this example should tell us several things about scholarly consensuses. 1) Scholarly consensuses are not always right.  2) They are often challenged. 3) Some challenges fail and are forgotten. 4) Some challenges succeed and often form a new consensus. 5) Scholarship is always progressing and learning more. 6) Rarely, if ever, do consensuses return to previously overturned majority opinions (i.e., scholarship rarely goes backwards).  Once a view is discounted, it is usually not resurrected. 7) Scholarly consensuses fall because other experts with the relevant skills and knowledge challenge them.  They do not fall because non-experts do not like certain scholarly conclusions.

All of this is to say that when the vast majority of experts in a field agree on certain conclusions (scholarly consensus), then non-experts ought to trust that they are right, or at least that they are more likely to be right than the non-expert.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Trusting the Experts

The world needs experts.  This may sound like a trivial claim, but I think we see too often people scoff at experts. Take any number of issues in the news these days and you get non-experts scoffing at the hard wrought opinions of experts.  The internet has made the airing of one's opinion on various matters both easy and ubiquitous.  And thus comes with one of the most vexing problems of the internet age: how to tell if what you read on the internet is coming from someone who actually knows what s/he is talking about. 

So, how do we even define the term expert?  Well, how about this definition from Google:
An expert is, "a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area."
That sounds like a good working definition to me. I find the terms "comprehensive," and "authoritative" to be the key words in that definition. An expert knows the breadth of his or her field and can make authoritative claims for that field.

Now, something needs to be said here about limiting the fields of expertise. The 20th century gave us the term "renaissance man," which referred to someone who had developed their intellectual abilities across multiple fields. The quintessential renaissance man was idealized in Leonardo da Vinci. Now, as noble as the idea of a renaissance man, or woman for that matter, may be, in our current world it is impossible to master multiple fields.  Human knowledge is too vast to be mastered by any one individual. We have to specialize. In fact, we have to specialize to a high degree.  For example, my Ph.D. degree is in Religion, yet I am not an expert in all things pertaining to religion.  Moreover, my focus was in Biblical Studies, but neither am I an expert in all things pertaining to the Bible.  Further, my specialization was New Testament, but I am certainly not an expert equally in the whole of the NT. I further specialize in the gospels, and my only publication is on the Gospel of Luke and Rhetorical Criticism.  One might say that I am one of the world's foremost experts in the extremely narrow field of rhetorical figures of speech in the gospel of Luke (but who cares).  In our world, to truly be an expert, means one has to narrow the focus of one's expertise.

Once one has achieved a level of expertise in a subject, his or her hard wrought conclusions ought to be trusted, at least by those with no business questioning them.  We ought to trust that those who have put in the hard work of learning the depth and breadth of their field know what they are talking about when it comes to their conclusions in their field.  Yet, since the internet seems to democratize all voices, many feel it their duty to inform the public that the experts are wrong.  This is a shameful practice and one that ought to be ignored.  Yet, all too often people listen to those spouting on about things they have no business spouting on about. Is there a good solution to this problem, or is this the price one pays for the convenience of the internet?  What do you think?