Our little congregation of 13 pilgims celebrated an intimate Holy Eucharist for the morning of Pentecost in a hotel next to the site of Pisidian Antioch, where Paul taught the gospel in the local synagogue. The day before we had visited the Antiochene (not to be confused with Paul’s home base Antioch in Syria) ruins. We visited the Temple of Augustus, which had been the Temple of various Hittite deities before classical civilization arrived, and where no doubt early Christians were not so graciously invited to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar.
At Antioch, we saw the ruins of the synagogue where Paul taught. It was next to the Church of St. Paul, or rather its ruins. I was amazed that the Church was built in 324, which is the same year Constantine assumed control of the Eastern Empire (including Anatolia). The Christians here knew how to do a capital fund drive and do construction. Of course the building fell down and was rebuilt a few times over the centuries. My Pauline friends in Elko, Sparks, and Virginia City, I thought of you while there.
As I write our bus has just passed Lake Ergirdir. Paul crossed Egirdir on his way from Perga near the coast to Antioch. From there he went on to Iconium, modern day Konya, where we visited the day before yesterday. We are indeed going to the places Paul went on his first missionary journey (Acts version), but in reverse order.
Along the way there have been quite a few lectures. The main thread of the lectures is to help us understand the first two Ecumenical Councils, Nicaea I and Constantinople I. We started with a lecture on Platonism, Neo-Platonism, and Middle Platonism – the dominant philosophical context of the Councils. There is just too little time to deal with this to my satisfaction. Stoicism was also a major player and Epicureanism had a bit to say as well. But Platonism was rightly presented as the main philosophical framework.
The idea, based largely on the Metaphor of the Cave in The Republic, is that reality consists of certain abstract Forms of which the material world is a mere shadow. Platonism is generally regarded as denigrating the world of matter as illusory, much like maya or samsara in Hinduism and Buddhism. Thus framed, the Councils can be understood as fighting back against Platonism to affirm the reality and goodness of the created order.
With great respect, I want to disagree. First, the folks who won at Nicaea and Constantinople were of the Plato-leaning Alexandrian party of Christianity and the understandng of the relationship between God the Father and God the Son that won out out goes back to the Platonic theologian Origen of Alexandria.
Second, I think we are reading Platonism through the eyes of the Gnostics and the gnostics were not the adversaries at the Councils. The goodness of the material order was not the issue at these Councils, but rather the nature of God.
Finally, I don’t know that this is right but I at least prefer another interpretation of Plato that pays more attention to the form of his argument than the content. The form is a dialogue and these various ideas, like Forms, caves, and sunlight are arguments on the table, not timeless truths. In Plato At The Googleplex, the author regards Plato as thinking our mental constructs (and all of this system of ideas we call Platonism are mental constructs) cannot contain Truth. We get glimpses – “hints and guesses” (T. S. Eliot) – of Truth by striking ideas off against each other like flint and steel emitting sparks. Something attributed to Socrates may not be “the word of the Lord” but a provocative idea intended to get a response.
If that is the case, then I want to say that the Councils were a bit Platonic. Decidedly, they were conversations in which competing mental constructs were being banged against one another. But the key for me is the product of the Councils, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. The rejected views of God were something you might believe or not, but they were comprehensible. You could get your mind around them in order to agree or not. The Creed is a dance of paradox. It does not fit inside the head. It opens the mind, awes the reason, inspires the imagination.
In trying to explain this to my classmates, I said the Creed is not a rational formula or a definition of God -- because Gregory of Nazianzus (like Rumi after him) taught that God is “unutterable” – but rather the Creed is “a swirling koan” for contemplating the Divine Mystery. One classmate misunderstood me and thought I was saying something about the whirling dervishes. Her misunderstanding made the connection for me. The Sufis dancing in the mystery may have gotten their dance from Cappadocian monks (Christians) who took up the dance or one like it 900 years before. However, there is reason to believe this general sort of dance was being done by Hittite holy people a millennium before them. This is an old old Mystery and an old old way of experiencing it. Remember the metaphor used by the Cappadocian Fathers who formulated the doctrine of the Trinity to explain it. They called the Trinity a perichoresis, a circle dance. I suspect they had something like the mystical dance of the dervishes in mind.
All this leads me to give the first two Councils mixed reviews. Wise and holy people gathered to strike their ideas about God against each other like subatomic particles in a cyclotron. Good. The result was a swirling koan of dancing metaphors of mystery. Very good. They failed to resolve anything because the controversies continued. Also good, I say!
But the problem is they tried too hard to resolve the controversies. I suspect that was at least to a significant extent the Empire’s agenda. The Empire wanted a lock step uniformity church to become its state religion. At a minimum the Empire wanted no one arguing about politics or religion – and remember this is a religion with political implications. They wanted the Bishops to be cheerleaders for the Emperor the way the priesthood of various primitive religions had been cheerleaders for their kings in early agrarian societies. So the original Nicene Creed concluded with an anathema cursing the Arians who believed God the Son was not eternal (preexisting the Creation, but not eternal). Power politics and even violence ensued. Striking ideas against each other emits sparks of truth, but striking people against each other spills blood. Not good. We would do well to learn form the Councils by attending to what they got right but also to what they got wrong.