2009-11-08

Christian conversion – an idea crafted by Paul from ancient philosophy

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by Neil Godfrey

This is a continuation from Paul and the Stoics – 1, a look at Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s thesis.

The previous post introduced a model which enables us to see the stark similarities of the very structures and foundations of Paul’s theological thought with the Stoic philosophical teachings of his contemporaries. The source of these Stoic (and Pauline) concepts is traceable — not to a Palestinian itinerant or a blinding vision on a road to Damascus — but back to Aristotle.

The following synopsis is an overview of what Engberg-Pedersen’s model is all about. My discussion of it comes from me alone and is not part of E-P’s thoughts at all. Details will come in future discussions.

Aristotle’s Happiness :: the Stoic’s Reason :: Paul’s Christ

Whenever Paul in his letters turns to ethical discussions it is clear that he is intensely engaged in thought about the best form of human living, indeed, about the only right, overall shape of human life and behaviour in the here and now. When he bases his ethical discussions on the foundation of a full knowledge and grasp of Jesus Christ and the gospel, he is attempting to establish a general scheme or structure for the ideal and only right goal (ultimate point – telos) of how to live.

To this end Paul was engaged above all with practical thoughts and reasonings that lead to right actions or behaviours.

In doing this he is following in the footsteps of the Stoics who in this respect borrowed from Aristotle. Aristotle wrote that the good to which all aspects of one’s life should be directed was something final, perfect, indeed the most perfect thing. This “end” or “purpose” of a human life alone makes one’s life complete and self-sufficient. One reaches “perfection” in the sense of “being complete” and “having reached one’s end or goal” as a result of having lived a life in conformity with right behaviours, and right th0ughts that led to those right behaviours.

Aristotle and the later Stoics were strongly focussed on engaging in practical reasonings to understand how particular good acts could all be found to emanate from, and in turn be directed back towards, a single grasp or understanding of the “goal” or “directed end” of one’s life.

For Aristotle, this “end” was “happiness”. For the Stoics, it was “reason”. For Paul, it was “Christ”.

The Good in Relation to the World, Self and Others

For Aristotle the “good” that was the “end” of a human life consisted not only of justice (first of all), and moderation, courage, magnanimity, and more, but also of fundamental worldly goods that are needed to sustain life. Note that these qualities include not only “individualistic” virtues, but also “altruistic” ones too.

The Stoics modified Aristotle at this point, and excluded those worldly goods from the essence of what was “Good” for a human. The consequence of this was that Stoic philosophy extensively explored the question of how a “good” person was to relate to the material things of the world. But like Aristotle, Stoics also saw a virtuous life as consisting of qualities pertaining alone to an individual (e.g. moderation) as well as qualities that governed a person’s relations with others for the good of others (e.g. justice, magnanimity).

Paul clearly reflects the Stoic’s philosophy of ethics here.

To Know, To Will, To Do or Not To Do

Intellectual insight is of paramount importance to Aristotle when describing the moral person. For Aristotle, moral insight at the cognitive level is the key to controlling one’s desires and emotions. This intellectual insight is an ability to grasp what one’s life ought to be about and to accordingly understand the right acts one ought to do in order to achieve that end.

For Aristotle virtue is a state of mind that may not always be active. But thoughts — right understanding — can activate it and lead to perform right actions and behaviour.

This “activation” of virtue is Aristotle’s word “energeia”, and it is found in the same context in Paul’s address to the Galatians:

For in Christ Jesus . . . faith works (=is active; “energoumene”) through love (5:6)

Paul’s discussion in Romans 7 about mental conflicts over knowing what to do, knowing “the good”, yet failing to do it despite desiring to do what one intellectually knows to do, follows in the train of the same discussion initiated by Aristotle and developed by the Stoics.

Aristotle’s discussion concluded that there were three states of virtue:

  1. a fully virtuous person is one who has a state of desire and intellectual understanding that leaves no room whatever for a divided mind. By definition a fully virtuous person will always do what is required;
  2. a person who understands cognitively what is to be done, and desires to do it, but who simultaneously has countervening desires and thus has a divided mind, is the person who struggles against these pulls of the flesh and overcomes to do what is right;
  3. a weak-willed person is also of a divided mind, but gives in to their base desires.

Stoics placed even more emphasis on the cognitive understanding of the “end” or goal of one’s life and associated moral virtues than found in Aristotle. For the Stoics,

everything hangs on coming to see the good, on getting a proper rational grasp of it. Then all ‘passions’ will be blotted out. There will be no weakness of will. And one will always and only act upon one’s (new) insight. (p. 53)

That does not rule out the fact of human weakness or a life-long seeking after and growing in “perfection”. But the relevance of this Stoic teaching to Paul’s thought is surely obvious. E-P states

That is why the basic structure in Stoic ethics comes very close to describing a case of conversion. That that is one further reason why it is particularly relevant to Paul. (p. 53)

Comment

Much of what is described above may sound like bland truisms to some readers, but that is because we have been immersed in a culture rooted in Christian and Aristotelian traditions.

It is the cognitive foundation of Christian ethics and its related view of their place in the world, vis a vis God, other Christians and nonbelievers, that deserves examination and critique. A humanist (and more humane?) ethic, on the other hand, surely must be grounded in an integrated view of the whole person — thoughts and emotions, understanding and feelings. By pitting parts of our nature against other parts, I believe that our cultural and religious traditions have invited mental and emotional dysfunctions and abuses. I do not deny that some have also been led to lead better lives than they would otherwise have done also as a result of this tradition. But the tree needs examination for all the fruit it has borne, the good and the bad.

By reading Paul in the context of the ethical philosophical discussions that were part of his heritage one also potentially gains a clearer perspective of the nature of Christianity and its relevance for today. Do we really want to cling to an ethical, anthropological and cosmological system that is in excess of 2000 years old? Have we not made at least some progress morally since then?

I am also interested in viewing Paul through this perspective because of what it might well explain about the dichotomy between Paul’s letters and the Gospels. Paul’s Christ is surely a heavenly entity without any ties to this world apart from those of the core gospel message (his incarnation, death and resurrection). Paul’s ethics and Christ derive from reflection, thought, and a philosophical tradition, not from sermons on mounts or ministries of healing.

The Details

This introduces the overview of what E-P’s model is all about. Details of what happens at each point of the diagram to follow.

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