Tag Archives: Plato

Christianity superseded the ancient Mithra mystery cult through violence and rationalism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

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Cornel West as jazz man, as blues man, as ‘a Christian but not a Puritan’

This is a great interview, not only for its content (Dr. West’s responses are energizing), but also for the dynamic way in which it was filmed. Dr. West has several connections to make, touching on jazz, blues, classical music, death, literature, religion, and of course philosophers. Highly recommended!

Trippy news about Plato — yes, news about history and philosophy

While I have been wondering about the relevance of Plato in contemporary times, Julian Baggini now has written in the U.K.’s Guardian about some new research into the ancient philosopher’s writings:

It may sound like the plot of a Dan Brown novel, but an academic at the University of Manchester claims to have cracked a mathematical and musical code in the works of Plato.

Jay Kennedy, a historian and philosopher of science, described his findings as “like opening a tomb and discovering new works by Plato.”

Plato is revealed to be a Pythagorean who understood the basic structure of the universe to be mathematical, anticipating the scientific revolution of Galileo and Newton by 2,000 years.

Kennedy’s breakthrough, published in the journal Apeiron this week, is based on stichometry: the measure of ancient texts by standard line lengths. Kennedy used a computer to restore the most accurate contemporary versions of Plato’s manuscripts to their original form, which would consist of lines of 35 characters, with no spaces or punctuation. What he found was that within a margin of error of just one or two percent, many of Plato’s dialogues had line lengths based on round multiples of twelve hundred.

The Apology has 1,200 lines; the Protagoras, Cratylus, Philebus and Symposium each have 2,400 lines; the Gorgias 3,600; the Republic 12,200; and the Laws 14,400.

Kennedy argues that this is no accident. “We know that scribes were paid by the number of lines, library catalogues had the total number of lines, so everyone was counting lines,” he said. He believes that Plato was organising his texts according to a 12-note musical scale, attributed to Pythagoras, which he certainly knew about. …

Read the full article here.

Plato and Plotinus in contemporary theology and philosophy

Nerd that I am, I recently posted a question at the University of Sheffield’s website Ask A Philosopher.

I’m a nerd, but with context. My scattered reading habits have recently included the book Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition (2005), in which Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith wrote a chapter entitled “Will the Real Plato Please Stand Up?” The chapter reflected the importance of Plato in contemporary theology and in philosophical discussions within some Christian circles. The chapter began with a pro-Plato quotation from John Calvin.

So I was curious if Plato and Plotinus (founder of neo-Platonism; two interesting quotations here) have much traction in broader swaths of academic philosophy today. What follows is the question I posted to Ask A Philosopher and David Robjant’s answer, for which I am very grateful.

Who are some of the contemporary philosophers who generally accept Plato’s metaphysics? Who are some who generally accept neoPlatonic metaphysics? Are these philosophers in the minority today?

Not that they mightn’t exist, but I can’t think of any contemporary followers of Plotinus within academic philosophy – assuming that is what you might mean by ‘neoplatonic’. I’ve a feeling – and it is no more – that I’ve heard of Plotinus’ One being taken seriously by the occasional theologian.

Plato, on the other hand has had atleast one rather illustrious minority follower who, if not contemporary, is at anyrate deeply engaged with the giants of the contemporary scene and very recent: Iris Murdoch.

I should add, however, that it is not universally agreed what ‘Plato’s Metaphysics’ amount to, and if you want to know what Murdoch agrees with, you will have to read Murdoch. You will get very little idea of what Murdoch is for by reading any of the widely cited commentaries on The Republic.

My own opinion is that Murdoch is right about Plato, so that if one understood Plato aright, one would understand him as Murdoch does, rather than as do Ryle, Popper, Vlastos, Annas, etc. As I see it, it is a tremendous help to Murdoch’s discovery of Plato’s good sense that she is actually looking for it.

We tend to distinguish Plato scholarship from mere Platon*ism*, as if distinguishing the professional from the mere amateur. My sense however is (and this is an important thought backed up in Murdoch by a great deal of influential argument concerning Mother in Laws and the Ontological Argument) that to understand someone aright it may be necessary to attend to them with love.

David Robjant

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Is C.S Lewis’s assessment of ancient wisdom out-of-date?

I’m curious if anyone thinks the following observation, made by C.S. Lewis in the 1940s, is less true today than it was when it was written:

“If we did all that Plato or Aristotle or Confucius told us, we should get on a great deal better than we do. And so what? We never have followed the advice of the great teachers. Why are we likely to begin now?”

That’s the central issue I’m after.

However, it seems unfair not to include how Lewis continues:

“Why are we more likely to follow Christ than any of the others? Because He is the best moral teacher? But that makes it even less likely that we shall follow Him. If we cannot take the elementary lessons, is it likely we are going to take the advanced one? If Christianity only means one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance. There has been no lack of good advice for the last four thousand years. A bit more makes no difference.

“But as soon as you look at any real Christian writings, you find that they are talking about something quite different from this popular religion. They say that Christ is the Son of God (whatever that means). They say that those who give Him their confidence also become Sons of God (whatever that means). They say that His death saved us from our sins (whatever that means).”

(Quotations from Beyond Personality, which was later included in Mere Christianity.)

Aesthetics in Christian theology and worship

Kelly James Clark and James K.A. Smith of Calvin College, and Richard Lints of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (my uncle’s alma mater), offer a concise expression of the role of aesthetics in theology and worship:

“….While strands of Christian, especially Protestant, theology have adopted the more rationalistic stance of Plato, throughout history many theologians have affirmed the aesthetic as a central medium of both revelation and truth, particularly Neoplatonic theologians such as Bonaventure. This emphasis on the aesthetics has received renewed interest in contemporary theology due to the work of Hans urs von Balthasar, Jean-Luc Marion, and Jeremy Begbie. At the core of these theological aesthetics (or aesthetic theologies) is a rejection of the rationalistic axiom, which assumes that truth is communicated only in cognitive propositions. Rather, there is a mode of truth telling that is unique to the aesthetic or ‘affective,’ that cannot be reduced to cognitive propositions. Appeal is often made to the liturgy itself as an example of this, particularly the rich eucharistic liturgies of Orthodox and Catholic traditions, where all of the senses are engaged in order to communicate the truth of grace. Theological aesthetics has entailed a double development: both a renewed interest in arts and a retooling of theology in response to aesthetic reality.”

The excerpt comes from the definition of “Aesthetics” in the excellent (if rather utilitarian in title) 101 Key Terms in Philosophy and Their Importance for Theology (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004).

The above excerpt is what I wished I had said when I founded LiturgicalCredo.com, because it explains much of my editorial stance.

-Colin Foote Burch