Category Archives: philosophy

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)

Christianity superseded the ancient Mithra mystery cult through violence and rationalism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.

Let there be language

Regarding the word “phenomenology” —

“Heidegger finds around that word a whole cluster of etymologies, all of them having an internal unity of meaning that brings us to the very center of his thought. The Greek word phainomenon is connected with the word phaos, light, and also with the word apophansis, statement or speech. The sequence of ideas is thus: revelation-light-language. The light is the light of revelation, and language itself is in this light. These may look like mere metaphors, but perhaps they are so only for us, whose understanding is darkened; for early man, at the very dawn of the Greek language, this inner link between light and statement (language) was a simple and profound fact, and it is our sophistication and abstractness that makes it seem to us ‘merely’ metaphorical.” — William Barrett, in his book Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy

 

Try to be objective about this

“…without a subject, nothing at all would exist to confront objects, and to imagine them as such. True, this implies that every object, everything ‘objective’—in being merely objectivized by the subject—is the most subjective thing possible.”

— Medard Boss, in The Analysis of Dreams (1958), quoted in this intriguing overview of phenomenology

The Boss quotation could explain a lot of things, especially, in terms of this blog’s typical themes and audience, the world’s 8,196 Protestant denominations based upon the same Bible.

James K.A. Smith: ‘We were created for stories’

Two of the most-clicked posts on this blog have been Paul Holmer: How literature functions and Umberto Eco on theory and narrative. The common theme between the two might be that storytelling is not only necessary, but also of greater value than systematized and abstracted knowledge. Granted, the structure of Eco’s quotation seems to give priority to theorizing, but Holmer argues that humans learn more broadly and deeply from stories than from abstract or systematic knowledge.

So a quotation from James K.A. Smith’s book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church,  found in this recent review, was a welcome addition to the theme:

“We were created for stories, not propositions; for drama, not bullet points.”

In this context, it’s probably worth remembering that beloved storyteller C.S. Lewis warned against systematizing the Bible.

Philosopher David McNaughton on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien

One of my buds at the university has this excellent website called What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? It’s devoted to interviews with contemporary philosophers, and the conversational blend of biography and perspective is always fascinating, at least to people like me. I’ve previously posted an excerpt from the interview with Michael Ruse.

In the latest interview, David McNaughton, who like Ruse is a philosopher at Florida State, talks about his love of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Both of these Inklings, especially Lewis, make appearances throughout the interview. (McNaughton doesn’t name Tolkien, but he names The Lord of the Rings as a favorite three times.)

Happy Summertime!

21 Stoic Life Hacks For #Stoicweek | Thought Catalog

Stoicism never has gone away, not completely. For good reasons:

“This guide for living has been so effective and resilient that it’s been used by some of the most powerful, successful and wise people in all of history. From Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome to Epictetus, a former slave, it’s a philosophy designed for extreme abundance and adversity alike. It was the favorite of leaders like Cato (who challenged Caesar), Bill Clinton and Theodore Roosevelt, writers like Seneca and Ambrose Bierce, painters like Eugene Delacroix, entrepreneurs like Elizabeth Holmes and Tim Ferriss, sports teams like the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks, soldiers like Frederick the Great and James Stockdale, and countless other practitioners over the centuries.”

Source: 21 Stoic Life Hacks For #Stoicweek | Thought Catalog

Also see:

Margaret Graver on Stoicism & Emotion

Paradoxes for Better Living, 1

Paradoxes for Better Living, 2

Paradoxes for Better Living, 3

Andy Warhol’s semi-Stoic psychology — plus 40 more quotations from Thought Catalog