Category Archives: Christianity

A brief note about the influence of Neoplatonism on early Christianity

Some of my posts over the past four years have focused on the influence of ancient mystery religions on the development of Christianity. Here’s a brief quote, really a footnote, found in a friend’s book on Neoplatonism:

“That which is utterly beyond us and cannot be expressed or thought is by its very transcendence of distance and difference most intimately present. The Neoplatonists express this with particular force: it was from them that Christianity and Islam learnt their understanding of the unity of transcendence and immanence.” — A.H. Armstrong, in Hellenic and Christian Studies (Aldershot: Variorum, 1990)

What Cicero saw in the Eleusinian mystery religion and its similarities to Christianity

In Cicero’s dialogue “On the Laws,” a character comments on the Eleusinian mysteries:

“For it appears to me that among the many exceptional and divine things your Athens has produced and contributed to human life, nothing is better than those mysteries. For by means of them we have transformed from a rough and savage way of life to the state of humanity, and have been civilized. Just as they are called initiations, so in actual fact we have learned from them the fundamentals of life, and have grasped the basis not only for living with joy but also for dying with a better hope.”

So there you have four points that sound like outcomes from an evangelical conversion experience: (1) transformation from sinfulness to fullness, (2) knowledge of the source of life, (3) joy in this life, and (4) hope for life after death.

That quotation from the Cicero dialogue was found in The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook, edited by Marvin W. Meyer. Here I’m including it as an additional note to some of my previous posts about ancient mystery religions, including this one and this one and this one. If you read the dialogue quotation with these three links in this paragraph, Cicero’s character seems to add something more than mere external and descriptive similarities between ancient mystery religions and Christianity. He seems to add something that maps with Christianity in the realm of interiority and values: enlightened living, joy for this life, hope for a wonderful afterlife.

It’s worth mentioning that the two most influential Inklings, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, saw these kinds of similarities not as challenges to Christianity but as supports for Christianity. Generally speaking, they believed the myths, poems, and philosophies of the ancient world were different kinds of divine revelation that prepared people for the advent of Christ — in Lewis’s famous phrase, “myth became fact,” meaning myths or pieces of myths were historically actualized and tied together in the Incarnation.

That being said, having been grown up with simultaneous influences of two very different strands of American Bible-skimming fundamentalism, I have to say the ancient mystery religions and their similarities to Christianity are a huge challenge to Christian faith (again, follow the above links). As a friend and I were saying the other night, the ancient mystery religions, sharing so many similarities to Christianity, challenge the assumptions and claims that there never was anything like Christianity before.

Christianity superseded the ancient Mithra mystery cult through violence and rationalism

My intended audience consists of the U.S. evangelicals and fundamentalists I’ve known my entire life in various church, school, home-school, and para-ministry circles. 

I’ve previously quoted scholars on the numerous similarities between Christianity and the Mithra mystery cult—similarities uncanny and striking for people who with a conservative, evangelical/fundamentalist perspective.

I’ve also noted, in recent scholarship, the critical consensus seems to be that “Christianity was influenced by the mystery religions of the Greco-Roman world,” according to Paul Hedges.

I hadn’t been looking, but I recently found another presentation of the similarities between the Mithra mystery cult and Christianity—along with a startling analysis of why Christianity carried on while its competitor, so similar, died out.

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across Religious Platonism by James K. Feibleman, who at the time of publication taught at Tulane University.

(The time of the book’s publication is its own quick story. I had been talking to my students about the currency of sources. Feibleman’s book first was published in 1959, and the copy I found was published in 1971. Is the scholarship still current? Probably: A quick search showed a respected academic publisher had reissued Religious Platonism in 2013.)

The subtitle of the 1971 edition is The Influence of Religion on Plato and the Influence of Plato on Religion, so it includes a short section on Mithraism to which I was drawn because of my previous reading. It includes both a list of similarities and a brief history of their relationship.

“There are many features of the Mithraic mysteries which are reminiscent of the Orphic and Dionysiac cults. But the later religion of Christianity shared even more striking parallels with it. The use of the idea of brotherhood, purification by baptism, communion, a Lord’s Supper, a birth of the saviour on December 25th, a sabbath on Sunday, an asceticism of abstinence and continence, a heaven and a hell, a flood early in history, immortality of the soul, a last judgment, a resurrection of the dead, a mediating Logos which was one of a trinity, and many other resemblances which have often been noted. [This last sentence is footnoted to The Mysteries of Mithra by Franz Cumont.]

“After Constantine had proclaimed Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, Mithraism suffered persecution but returned again under Julian the Apostate (A.D. 331-353). This was its last victory. As soon as the Christians were securely in power, they invoked the same kind of violence against their enemies, chiefly in other religions, especially Mithraism, that those enemies had invoked against them. Mithraism never again achieved the position of power it held in the third century. By the fourth century Christianity was sufficiently entrenched to enable it to do unto others what had been done unto it, and ‘the Christians, in order to render places contaminated by the presence of a dead body ever afterwards unfit for worship, sometimes slew the refractory priests of Mithras and buried them in the ruins of their sanctuaries, now forever profaned’ [Cumont]. The victory of Christianity was arranged through violence and fixed by establishment, won by the sword and made permanent by philosophy. For the fourth century that saw the ruthless destruction of Mithraism by the Christians saw also the adoption of Platonism by St. Augustine.

“The doom of Mithraism and the triumph of Christianity were spelled out in advance in their relations to Platonism. Mithraism had no relations with Greek culture and so was never able to avail itself of the support of rationalism in general and of Platonism in particular. It could not meet the challenge of a rival—and strikingly similar—religion which availed itself of these supports.”

This is all fascinating and frightening. Again, “For the fourth century that saw the ruthless destruction of Mithraism by the Christians saw also the adoption of Platonism by St. Augustine.”

And, “The doom of Mithraism and the triumph of Christianity were spelled out in advance in their relations to Platonism.” Wow.

A challenge for evangelical apologists: brain scans and Bible reading

Let me start with a real-world example from regular church-going folks: two adult men, both toward the conservative-evangelical or perhaps fundamentalist end of Protestant, both of whom I’ve known personally for decades, one a full-time pastor, the other a lifelong participant in lay leadership. (Then we’ll get to the scientific study.)

When on separate occasions I pointed out to these men the discrepancies between the two accounts of creation in the Old Testament book of Genesis, they both said, essentially, “Wow, I never noticed that.”

They didn’t say, “Yes, I noticed that, and I’ve read a scholar who can make sense of it.” Nor did they say, “Yes, I noticed that, and I really wrestle with it.”

They had never noticed the discrepancies despite having read the book of Genesis many times over the years. (I’m referring to the two distinct creation stories, with different orders of events, in Genesis 1:1-2:4 and Genesis 2:5-2:25.) In fairness, I never had noticed, either, until around 20 years ago when I tried to start reading more about the Bible.

My surprise was context-dependent: I grew up in churches and schools that believed the Earth was made in six 24-hour periods, and that insisted there were no contradictions in the Bible. Now I had discovered there were two different accounts, back to back, that contradicted each other, without any explanatory connective tissue between the two.

Yes, some people within the Christian and Judaic traditions have speculated about possible purposes behind the two different accounts of creation, but that’s a different matter from not noticing the different accounts.

I think I know why we never noticed, if I may generalize a bit just at the start here: When some people read the Bible, they read with a kind of altered mentality.

Here, I’m referring to my own experience and the experience of the two men I’ve just mentioned. I’m not referring to all Christian experiences of reading the Bible.

At best, we might have been reading with our hearts, which I will leave mostly undefined here because most of my audience will know more or less what I mean (although I will briefly point to the enduring influence of pietism in evangelical churches). Or, at best, consider how humans approach any number of not-strictly-informational experiences of the written word or artistic expressions. Or, again at best, an individual’s encounter with a text co-creates the meaning.

At worst, some people could be reading in a kind of situation-induced trance state. At worst, they could, for reasons we’ll consider with the scientific study below, approach the Bible with a state of mind that is less than analytical or properly critical.

Either way, these Bible readers, like the men I mentioned earlier and my younger self, don’t scrutinize what they read; rather, they sort of listen to it in a completely different way than if they were reading something technical or dryly informational (more about this shortly).

And, if I can make an association between religious reading and religious listening, there might be a scientific measurement for reading-in-an-altered-state, according to a Feb. 16, 2017, article in Nautilus, which read in part:

In 2011, a team of Danish researchers led by Uffe Schjødt, a neuroscientist at Aarhus University, examined the brains of individuals experiencing one of the most extreme demonstrations of charismatic influence—charismatic healing. To do so, the team recruited 18 devoted, young Christians from faiths with a tradition of intercessory prayer (mainly from the Pentecostal Movement), all of whom reported a strong belief in people with special healing powers. They also recruited 18 secular participants, who did not believe in God and were skeptical that prayer could cause healing.

Both groups of participants were instructed to listen to 18 different prayers performed by three different speakers—and told the speakers were either non-Christian, Christian, or Christians known for having healing powers. The speakers were all unremarkable churchgoers randomly assigned six prayers apiece.

The researchers found profound differences in brain activity based on assumptions made about the speaker. In the Christian subjects, activity spiked in analytical areas of the brain in response to the non-Christian speakers, but plummeted when they listened to the speaker they believed was known for healing powers. These changes were not present in the secular group. The researchers drew parallels to similar experiments done on subjects on hypnosis, noting that hypnotism, when it works, was usually preceded by the massive frontal deactivation—in effect, a “handing over” of executive function to the hypnotist. Further, they found that “the more the Christian participants deactivate their executive and social cognitive networks, the higher they rate the speaker’s charisma post-scan.”

We’ll connect that to Bible-reading in a moment. First, the only problem, in my view, with this study is its focus only on Pentecostal Christians and a vaguely defined (at least in Nautilus‘s telling) “secular group.”

Sure, I find the results of the study very easy to believe, having grown up in so-called neo-Pentecostal or charismatic churches—some types of worship shut down analytical faculties, or at least get the analytical part of the to temporarily step aside. Once that state of less-mind is achieved, the congregants can accept an awful lot from a sermon, and become more open to suggestion.

However, many times over the years, in a mainstream newsroom and later in a state university, I’ve noticed how critical thinking skills soften to accept claims from left-leaning politicians. We’re all human here, and we probably experience “massive frontal deactivation” around anything we love, and when we are thinking about anything or anyone we love. Maybe “love is blind” really means “love massively deactivates your frontal lobe.”

For example, I couldn’t believe my ears during the last election: I could easily agree with critiques of Trump, but when it came time to discuss Clinton, well, sometimes, around some people, it was like I was watching a group of Sunday School children imagine Hillary walking on water and multiplying bread and fish for the masses. Why couldn’t critical faculties be applied in all directions? Just because one party was already hated? Yes. Just because one party was already hated. And because one party was already loved, perhaps leading to the massive frontal deactivation discussed in the study above. (At the end, I’ll link to another study that makes a similar suggestion.)

Yes, of course, I’ve noticed the same thing among advocates for right-leaning politicians, too. Cultists come in all political persuasions, as Michael Shermer has noted regarding followers of Ayn Rand.

People hand over “executive function” to many different kinds of influencers, not just those among faith and politics, but those among market brands and trendy ideas, too.

What’s interesting about Bible-reading in this respect is people might alter their mentality when they prepare and settle down to open the Scriptures. They may transition into a different mode. Their expectations of the text have nothing to do with mind as commonly conceived and everything to do with the heart as commonly understood. The “heart versus mind” concept isn’t well-defined in our culture, but it is everywhere, like cultural furniture. I mean, “heart versus mind” or “head versus heart” is not well-defined among everyday people, but a lot of people use it . (Like Wittgenstein said, “Don’t think, but look!”—at how language is being used.)

Of course, we can’t blame the Biblical texts themselves for this. And the way contemporary middle-class people approach church and Scripture is not a verdict on any of the numerous historical, ethical, moral, and metaphysical claims in institutions and books. (If not a verdict, though, sometimes I wonder if it is a reflection of church and Scripture.)

After all, if you are a nonbeliever and you were to go to hear some non-religious person speak, someone you think very highly of, in a place where you were surrounded by people with similar enthusiasm, would your brain scan be pretty much the same as those of the Pentecostal youths who thought they were listening to a minister with healing powers? My money is on yes.

On a related note, see Tali Sharot in this Big Think video (here linked to the 2:26 mark) on research into how people respond to others with whom they agree and with whom they disagree. The research used brain scans to notice what is happening during agreement and disagreement—and it seems similar to the outcome of the Danish research mentioned above.

The big question of our time, of course, is whether neuroscience says or can reveal all that there is to say about being human, or about the essence of humanness.

Philosopher Roger Scruton takes a kind of both-and view that acknowledges both an historically older sense of the self and the contemporary insights offered by neuroscience. If you’re a believer over-troubled by the studies referenced above, it’s worth listening to this interview with Scruton just for a sense of what might be ultimately relevant to tradition religious worldviews.

But maybe the biggest takeaway from all this is an exhortation to sharpen how we read and listen — to anything, to anyone, for any reason.

A Question About Christian Theology

Why would God tell us to love our enemies if at least some of our enemies are beyond redemption¹ and God has already decided to destroy at least some of them², so by asking us to love them, God therefore is asking us to do something that would be loftier and nobler than what God is willing to do³

¹ This phrase assumes, for the sake of argument, some are predetermined to be beyond redemption (predetermined in this case because of points made in the following notes). Then again, maybe none of “our enemies,” the ones who ultimately really are enemies, are beyond redemption. Furthermore, it might not be clear right now who “our enemies” really are, which might be one reason to love those who appear to be enemies.

² By choosing to save some and to damn others. This point of view, while very present in Christian theology, is difficult because God cannot choose to save some without choosing to not-save others. When One is an all-powerful being*, not-doing must be just as volitional as doing. When all-powerful, choosing not to embrace one sentient being You have created must be just as volitional as choosing to embrace another sentient being You have created.

*or even all-powerful and outside of being

³ This phrase assumes, for the sake of argument, that God does not love those whom He created yet knows ultimately will be His enemies, and additionally, assumes that God has decided to create some to ultimately become His enemies. In other words, God creates some people He does not love or plans to stop loving. So, by calling humans to love their enemies as themselves, God has asked us to do something noble and good that He neither is willing to do nor desiring to do, which you should admit is kind of strange. Again, choosing not to embrace one sentient being You have created must be just as volitional as choosing to embrace another sentient being You have created. Oddly enough, two verses later, Jesus asks, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” So maybe by asking us to love our enemies, God is asking us to follow His characteristics or part of His nature.

The question seeks a coherent explanation of both the command to love our enemies and the interpretative and systematic traditions which affirm non-universalist positions on predestination and election in which some individuals are intentionally created by God for the purposes of committing sins and thereafter being held accountable for the sins without being given grace and therefore damned. Is there some achievable coherence between God’s decision to create some people to experience His wrath and God’s command to love our enemies?

T.S. Eliot’s Take on The Church and The World

Candidates from both major U.S. political parties have been visiting churches, which seems to make this excerpt from an old T.S. Eliot book quite timely:

“That there is an antithesis between the Church and the World is a belief we derive from the highest authority. We know also from our reading of history, that a certain tension between Church and State is desirable. When Church and State fall out completely, it is ill with the commonwealth; and when Church and State get on too well together, there is something wrong with the Church. But the distinction between the Church and the World is not so easy to draw as that between Church and State. Here we mean not any one communion or ecclesiastical organisation but the whole number of Christians as Christians; and we mean not any particular State, but the whole of society, the world over, in its secular aspect. The antithesis is not simply between two opposed groups of individuals: every individual is himself a field in which the forces of the Church and the world struggle.”

The quotation comes from a broadcast talk delivered in February 1937, then printed in “The Listener,” and later added as an appendix to Eliot’s “The Idea of a Christian Society,” published in his book Christianity and Culture.

 

Thoughts for Sunday Morning: The Believer’s Duty, According to Gabriel Marcel

Marcel often helps me do some sorting-out:

We shall understand nothing of the relation between the believer and the non-believer and there is danger of giving the most harmfully pharisaic interpretation of it if we fail to perceive something else which is even more mysterious, namely the symbiosis of belief and disbelief in the same soul. If the believer has any duty at all, it is to become aware of all that is within him of the non-believer.Gabriel Marcel, in “From opinion to faith,” Creative Fidelity

I might break it down this way:

  1. We shall understand nothing of the relation between the believer and the non-believer
  2. if we fail to perceive the co-existence of belief and disbelief in the same soul
  3. and if we fail to perceive that co-existence, we’ll probably be Pharisees, or pharisaic,
  4. so if you or I count ourselves among believers, we should probably get our heads around our own unbelief and our own non-believer tendencies before we consider ourselves too distinct.