Tuesday, 17 January 2012 07:11

The Early Christian Thinkers

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This paper reviewed the early Christian theologians, aka philosophers, such as St Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon and William of Ockham. These Christian thinkers employed their understanding of Plato and Aristotle in their efforts to make their Christian religion rational and philosophically sound. Though what these theologians said are no longer acceptable to those of us living in the scientific age, any one wishing to understand the spirit of the West must understand them. You cannot understand the present if you do not understand the past.

THE EARLY CHRISTIAN THINKERS

Ozodi Thomas Osuji

It is reported that the chap that the Greeks called Jesus Christ was born during the year that Caesar Augustus conducted his first empire-wide census. Historical records show that such a census was, in fact, conducted in 4 AD. However, there are no legitimate historical documents proving the existence of a chap called Jesus Christ (whose Jewish name would have been Emmanuel Ben Joseph).

Nevertheless, a group of Jews went about the Roman Empire teaching that such a man did, in fact, exist and that he was crucified in Jerusalem under the orders of Pontus Pilate. Historical records show that Pontus Pilate was not at Jerusalem at the said time of said crucifixion, that he was the Roman Governor of Syria and was based at Damascus.

Simply stated, there is not an iota of evidence that a chap called Jesus Christ ever existed! Oh, there was a reference to what remotely resembled him in a line in Josephus history of the Jews. Josephus wrote several hundred years after the fact. Josephus said that it was alleged that a Jewish rabbi (teacher of God, minister) was crucified during the reign of Harold, the Jewish king who was a vassal to the Roman emperors. Any number of crucified rabbis, and many of them were crucified, could have been the one mentioned by Josephus!

True or false, a number of Jews descended on the Roman Empire teaching that a man called Jesus Christ once lived in Israel and that he was crucified by the Romans. Since there were no records of such a man folk probably did not take them seriously; perhaps, folk dismissed them as yet another oriental sect teaching another far out religion (Orientals suffused the Roman empire with many exotic religions).

Nor was the teaching about Jesus immediate upon his death hence verifiable. The teachings actually surfaced decades after he was supposedly crucified hence could not be verified by any one alive to have witnessed the crucifixion.

A certain man called Saul of Tarsus in the mid 60s AD apparently went all over the place teaching that he had a vision that led him to believe that there was a man called Jesus Christ and that he brought a teaching that could save the world. At first folk thought that he was mad (another mad Jew) and laughed at his teaching but matters got out of hand and he was arrested and eventually jailed for teaching an absurd view that a man could die and resurrect from death (he must have been drinking some middle eastern brew).

Nothing was written down about the Jesus Christ guy until around 94AD when out of nowhere a twenty something pages pamphlet appeared and supposedly written by Mark, once a follower of Paul (as Saul had called himself).

Who was this Mark? His legitimacy is as good as what you make of him. Any number of persons could have written the so-called first gospel of Jesus Christ. This gospel told a story of a Jewish man who preached to his Jewish people that he was the son of God and that he was sent by God to save them from their Roman yoke.

Subsequent to Mark's gospel other gospels appeared; in fact, a truck load of them were everywhere! It seemed that any Jew who had ever heard of Jesus wrote his own gospel of him!

By the mid 100s there were boat loads of gospels each purporting to represent the story of a man that there was no historical evidence of. Some folks were persuaded and flocked to this new sect of Judaism (Judaism had many sects or cults including the Essen's, Sadducees, Pharisees...often these different sects would use the same Jewish synagogue to preach their different interpretations of their Jewish traditions).

Initially, the Christian sect of Judaism was a Jewish affair; they were Jews teaching Jews; non Jews were left alone. As long as the Jew proselytized his fellow Jews they were left alone. But in time Roman citizens were taught to convert to this Jewish sect.

The rulers of the Roman Empire took notice. Like the practical men of politics they are, the rulers of Rome realized that every empire needs its religion and or philosophy to unify the people; people need a unified world view to give them a sense of belonging to the same polity. The Roman religion (which was transposed Greek religion, with Greek gods given Roman names) did an excellent job getting Roman citizens to obey the laws of Rome and by extension the ruler ship of the emperors.

The injection of an oriental region into the Roman world complicated matters quite a bit. But as long as these oriental religions did not teach Roman citizens to disobey their rulers they were left in peace.

The Christian sect, apparently, encouraged its members not to obey the rulers of Rome and the rulers took notice of its subversive activities. But no matter what they did to correct the misguided teachings of the new religion the religion spread like wild fire.

It should be noted that there was actually no proven record that the early Christians were persecuted by the Roman authorities. Rome had a history of tolerating the many religions of the peoples it brought into its empire. Rome was a veritable cornucopia of religions. However, as is the case with all states the rulers try to extirpate any teaching that asks the subjects not to obey the rulers. Thus, a few Christians were conceivably rounded up and jailed. There is, however, no records that Peter was hung upside down in Rome nor was there any evidence that he even went to Rome. The whole Christian saga is mostly mythology.

By 315 AD the eastern Roman emperor, Constantine, had converted to Christianity. (The failing Roman Empire had been divided into two sections, one headquartered at Rome, the other at Constantinople, today's Istanbul; with each half having its own emperor.) Naturally, he was disgusted by the hundreds of books claiming to represent the teachings of the chap from Nazareth. He called the Bishops of the major cities in his empire to a meeting (council of Nicaea) and asked them to come up with a unified document delineating the accepted teachings of the Christian Church. This great council met in 325 AD.

After many years of trial and error the Christian fathers finally put together what is now called the New Testament (and to give it continuity with its Jewish past added it to the Jewish Torah, hereafter called the Old Testament). Thus came into being what is now called the Christian Bible.

Many books were examined before the current sixty six books of the bible were selected for inclusion in the bible. Many of the rejected books (apocrypha) were rejected for no better reason than that their proponents offended some bishop attending the great meeting! That is to say that the books of the bible are not the inspired words of God they are represented as but the selection of capricious men of power.

Emperor Constantine was given the book he desired and it acted as a sort of constitution with which he unified his sprawling empire. He commanded that all persons in his empire become Christian and obey what is written in the constitution of the new Christian world, the bible.

Naturally, there were those who did not see eye to eye with the books selected into the new constitution and rebelled. The Church showed its true colors and began persecuting them, literally killing them. The early Church burned more Christians than the Romans were said to have crucified Christians, yet all we hear are how Christians were persecuted but seldom how they murdered those who did not agree with their new perception of things.

The triumph of the Christian church was achieved through holy terror; Europeans were literally terrorized into accepting the teaching of the bible. Disagreement with even a word of the holy writ sent one hanging above the glows of the ambers.

The Roman Empire eventually fell (around 450 AD). But before it did Christianity had taken root in its four corners and holy superstition took root all over Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, the so-called Christendom.

The corpus of this new religion is belief, one was not allowed to question any thing and reason things out for ones self.

Thus, the glory that was Greece and Roman was run out of town. But not quite so fast! The educated Romans were after all educated in Greek philosophy, mainly Plato and Aristotle and some of them tried to make sense of the new religion of their world with the instruments of their learning.

ST AUGUSTINE (354-430 AD)

In Hippo, what is now part of Algeria, a sex obsessed youth from the upper classes called Augustine dabbled in religions. First, he explored the Iranian religion of Manichaeism (an amalgam of Christianity and Persian views). Then he gravitated to the Neo-Platonic teachings of Plotinus.

None of these religions seemed to help him get control of his run away addiction to sex. In his book, Confession, he delineated his struggle to get a handle on his sexuality. Unable to discipline himself he threw himself into the emerging Roman Catholic Church and embraced its teaching that one should simply believe in the unknown without questioning it. Submission to the will of God, apparently, does wonders for folk; it gives them surcease from their conflicted minds.

Augustine found some measure of inner peace and penned the first book on Christian theology, the City of God (theology is any attempt to use philosophical categories to explicate the existence of God and justify the belief in God).

To do his writing Augustine harkened back to his training in Plato and Neo- Platonism. Thus, his theology is infused with Plato and Plotinus. As it were, he used Plato's philosophy to justify the Christian belief system.

If you recall, Plato talked about forms. As it were, there are ideal forms floating out there and we are poor shadows of them and are forced to seek them. There are absolute truths and beauty out there and we are poor imitations of them. Augustine tweaked Plato to say that there is an absolute good and he now called it the Christian God, and we are forced to try to approximate him in our lives. But unlike what Plato said regarding how to reach those absolute truths, through philosophical reasoning, Augustine believed that we could never reach God by our will alone. See, his will and efforts did not enable him to get a handle on his sex addiction, only submission to the will of God helped him. So, we must submit to God if we are to know God.

As Augustine sees it, God is not known through reasoning but by belief. First believe in God and your poor dark soul would eventually be illuminated to the truth of God. (Later, Martin Luther is to teach this theology: we are saved by faith not works, though faith without works is dead.)

SIN AND HUMAN FREE WILL

Okay. So there is a good God out there, right? If there is a good God how come there is so much evil in the world? If a good God created this world, created people how come we are full of evil? We all know that it is easier for us to do badly than do good, so how come?

Augustine tried to answer this question and in the process posited his famous thesis on God and free will. You probably have heard this nonsense somewhere. God gave us freewill and permits us to do with it as we choose and blah, blah, blah.

If you created me something tells me that you made me do whatever I did hence you are responsible for my behavior. To say that you created me with free will and that you are not responsible for what I do does not sound convincing, or does it?

At any rate, if God is omnipresent and omniscience, as folks say that he is, it follows that he knows what his creations would do in the future, right?

If God did not know that Adam and Eve would eat the apple then he did not know about the future, right? If he did and did not stop them from eating the apple he is indirectly responsible for their eating the apple, right?

Uncle Augustine (he is an African, thanks to Chi Ukwu; it is nice to hear about Africans doing something) said not to mind. God's idea of time is different from our concept of time. We tend to think in a linear manner but God thinks in a different manner. God's time is of the here and now variety. God thinks as new age religionists tell us, in the present; he is of the eternal now.

God knows only the now, not the future. Therefore, he did not know what we who think in a linear manner would do in the future! This contorted argument presupposes that God created human being different from the way he is!

Give me a break, will you! Why are we always trying to make excuses for God? Could it be because we created him, he is our idol?

Let us not get ahead of ourselves and for the time being restrict our discourse to Augustine and his forth century thinking.

Augustine accepted the notion of original sin and accepted the need to seek salvation. Clearly, he did not persuade any one with rational faculties that he has demonstrated the existence of God. Be that as it may, his views on God informed the Catholic Church's views on God until the eleventh century when the newly rediscovered Greek thinking was taking its toll on the Christian Church.

MOHAMED (570-632 AD)

As noted before, around 610 AD, an Arab, Mohamed, a thirty year old man who had married a rich old woman, Khadija, hence had no more financial worries, took to going to a cave to meditate on God. He claimed to have heard the voice of the angel Gabriel talking-to him (if you do not believe in angels you could say that he was hallucinating, but beware what you say for you do not know that your day life is not also a hallucination; it may well be the case that you see what is not there and hear voices that are not spoken!).

Mohamed said that the voices he heard told him that he is the seal of the prophets, the last of the prophets of God (that the prophetic line from Moses to Jesus Christ ended in him). Indeed, he claimed to be the counselor that Jesus promised his disciples would come and help consolidate their learning (Christians believe that that counselor is the Holy Spirit and that he came to them on the day of the Pentecost).

Mohamed saw himself as the seal of the prophets and as here to teach the ultimate truth on God. He preached his new religion of total submission to the will of Allah (realistically, to the person interpreting the will of Allah, ergo to Mohamed's will). Folk appreciated the inherent power tripping of this new religion and attacked Mohamed. He ran to Medina and while there gathered a military and used it to return to his native Mecca and defeated the Meccans and used his sword to convert them to Islam. This was the first jihad.

Alas, the jihadists are still with us today; they are still bent on converting the entire world to Islam; they have their eyes set on a world wide Caliphate with all mankind praying to Mecca, that is, all mankind governed by Arabs!

Soon, thereafter, Mohamed's followers took a leaf from him and used the sword to convert the entire Middle East and North Africa to Islam. By the 700s they had taken over Spain and were in Southern France. But for the heroic struggles of the Germanic folk, the Franks, Europeans would today be Muslims (flogging their women for showing some skin, as the Talibans do in Afghanistan)!

In the meantime Islam brought Greek learning back into Europe. Greek learning percolated into European consciousness. Even Catholic monks got a wisp of Plato and Aristotle. Somehow these monks began their efforts to justify their beliefs with the philosophies of the Greeks.

Catholic monks had established great monasteries in the major cities of Europe, such as Paris and Oxford (those became the University of Paris, Sorbonne and the University of Oxford). These monasteries, aka universities, began teaching whatever gleaning of Plato and Aristotle they had.

ANSELM (1033-1109 AD)

Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, having been exposed to these Greek teachings tried to provide what seemed to him a rational argument for the existence of God. His postulation is called Anselm's ontological argument.

The crux of Anselm's argument is that we all have the idea of God in us. Somehow all human beings talk about an entity called God. Where did that idea come from? Even if we deny God, as atheists do, we deny it by presuming that it existed? If we had not first accepted it we would have no need to refute it.

As Anselm sees it, because we all have the idea of God then there must be God. As a good Platonist he proceeded to make that God the perfect God. God is perfect and we are his imperfect imitations.

Let us chalk Anselm to Plato and move on. If you understand Plato you need not be detained by Anselm's unpersuasive ontological argument.

On a final note, Anselm is credited with the famous statement "Credo ut intelligam," I believe that I may understand. That is, you must first believe before you can understand God. This is a tautological position and need not detain us.

THOMAS AQUINAS (1225-1274 AD)

Whereas Augustine and Anselm employed Plato in their herculean efforts to explicate God, Thomas Aquinas tried employing Aristotelian categories to explain God. Aquinas was motivated to resolve the Averroist position that faith and reason are irreconcilable, that God can only be known through faith not reason. Aquinas said, not so fast and wanted to demonstrate that reason can explain God. He thought that he found his solution in Aristotle's philosophy.

If you recall from the lecture on Aristotle, we talked about Aristotle's concept of unmoved mover. Aquinas said that the unmoved mover is God. Everything is moved into motion by something and ultimately the first mover is God.

Everything comes into being at a point in time; God is the force that makes things comes into being.

In our world nothing is permanent. As they say, the only thing that is certain in this world is change (and taxes and death). Aquinas said that there must be a force that is changeless and permanent that produced the world of impermanence and change; that force he called God.

Aristotle talked about universals, how built into us is the drive to truth and beauty. Plato had assumed that that truth and beauty are outside us but Aristotle believed that they are inherent in us. We have an inherent perfection in us hence feel motivated to become perfect. What is the source of that perfection? Aquinas called it God.

Finally, the world is not chaotic; there seems a force that makes things work orderly in the world, that force that makes for universal order is God.

Clearly, Aquinas employed Aristotelian categories in his efforts to demonstrate the reality of God. However, it must be noted that he took liberties with Aristotle. The universals of Aristotle were not Plato's forms. As it were, Aquinas conflated the two. To Aristotle the universal is a mere potential and there is no guarantee that we can actualize that potential. To Aquinas the universal has become an imperative that we must satisfy or else we are guilty, sinful and must be punished by his God. Religion has a way of "rubbishing" whatever it touches.

I am not trying to make fun of Aquinas. Please be advised that to the present his theology still informs what Catholic seminarians learn. Reading his magnum opus, Sumna Theologica, is second to reading the Bible. This man had an over sized influence on the Catholic Church and by generalization on the Western world. No discourse on Western philosophy can omit Thomas Aquinas.

JOHN DUNS SCOTUS (1265-1308 AD)

John Duns Scotus tried to reconcile Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas. Whereas Augustine said that we can not understand God through ratiocination but only through God's illumination, Duns Scotus said that we could use our intellect to understand God. He further said that Aristotle's universals are in the mind of God where they exist as forms.

Now this may seem like mere hair splitting but be advised that during the medieval period folk went to war because of their different beliefs; those who believed with Augustine and those who believed with Aquinas duked it out. Resolving the Augustinian and Thomist controversy was no mean accomplishment.

ROGER BACON (1214-1294 AD)

Roger Bacon was the first Catholic monk to suggest that perhaps it were better folk left all these talk about God and tried to observe things as they actually are! Instead of relying on the authority of religion to teach us what is real, why don't we, for Christ sake, try to rely on our experience of things themselves and combine those with reason? Bacon said that there are three ways of knowing: by authority, experience and reasoning.

Observe things as they are, think about them and posit tentative hypothesis of what they are. Roger Bacon was an early scientist.

WILLIAM OF OCKHAM (1300-1349 AD)

William of Ockham was the ultimate spoiler. You see, human beings like to think that the more complex their ideas are or the more convoluted their manner of writing seem to be the more sense they are making! Folk actually do not have respect for simple prose and simple arguments; they are hoodwinked by complicated rubbish.

Willy boy entered the picture and said that the simplest explanation is always the truest one. This is called Ockham's razor.

Augustine and Aquinas posited complicated explanations of God. These men are impressive in their logicalness. But after reading them you know that they have really not explained anything to your satisfaction. Only a simple explanation would satisfy your soul, not the gabbled gook of the high scholastics.

Try reading a professional journal on psychology and after spending hours on it put it down and ask yourself if you learned anything new? The chances are that you merely exposed yourself to idiotic lingo that does not tell you anything new about human beings and their behaviors. Psychology has not contributed an iota of new knowledge of human beings since the 1950s; it is all noise masquerading as knowledge.

William of Ockham posited a philosophy called nominalism. Essentially he said that arguing over things like Plato's forms and Aristotle's universals does not explain anything for those are mere intellectual categories that we superimpose on things. Just state the truth as you see it. Of course, your perception of the truth is limited by the level of information available to you and by your experience; you do not have all the information and have not experienced everything hence your truth cannot be the absolute truth. But who has complete information and absolute experience to tell us what the truth is?

CONCLUSION

Around 450 AD the barbarians (Germans) sacked the Roman Empire. There was no great power to step into the power vacuum that ensued. Darkness fell over Europe.

A bunch of rag tagged Middle Eastern religionists that called themselves Christians maneuvered themselves into pretending to rule the hulk of the Roman Empire. They proceeded to impose their superstitious ideas on reality on Europe. Europe really, really went into darkness.

The dark ages gave way to the middle Ages when, thanks to the Mahomet's (I love that name), Greek and ancient Roman philosophy began to permeate Europe. These ideas stimulated Catholic monks, fathers and bishops (they were the only ones with access to education at that time) to try using Greek philosophical categories to explicate reality. In this chapter we looked at some of the efforts made by the Church's early thinkers to explain God.

These efforts are useful but clearly did not explain what they were trying to explain; they still required folk to believe in the unseen. The West has since moved beyond belief in the unseen to secular-humanist society. Nevertheless, to understand the contemporary West we must understand where it came from.

I found it necessary to review medieval intellectual productions to set the stage for us to enter into real thinking (which begins when we get to Rene Descartes).

Finally, there were other early Christian thinkers, such as Origen, Athanasius and so on. However, those were strictly speaking not conducting philosophical cogitations on the nature of reality but exercised religious thinking; they were accentuating their beliefs without offering us any reason to believe that their beliefs are worthy of philosophical approval. I limited my review of the literature to those Christian thinkers whose ponderings smacked of rational discourse.

Next, Renaissance to Reformation Thinkers.

Ozodi Thomas Osuji

August 25, 2009

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: ozodiosuji@gmail.com (907) 310-8176