In last week’s blog post I gave an example of dualism that was evident in my church when I was growing up. In this blog post I want to share a point that Macaulay and Barrs made in their book Being Human: The Nature of Spiritual Experience and a quote from C. S. Lewis’ book, The Discarded Image.
Macaulay and Barrs point out that frequently some scriptures read out of context can seemingly suggest that we should have a divide between secular/earthly and spiritual. They give as an example a passage in Mark 8: 34-35 where Jesus tells his disciples that they must lose their lives. It reads,
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (New Revised Standard Version)
Here is another example from Colossians 3:1:
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (New Revised Standard Version)
This is an example of “proof texting” if one pulls the verse out of context and uses it to prove a point. Without a clear picture of the whole of Scripture these verses can lead one to think that religious activity is more important than our earthy activity. Or to say it another way is to say that things considered sacred are more important than things considered secular. In other words, we don’t need to be concerned “about present realities” (Macaulay and Barrs, p. 13). Again, this kind of thinking may lead us to make a choice between helping our neighbour, watching the birds in a bird feeder, and attending a religious activity. So we see from my experience growing up and the examples here that religious life can be claimed as superior to earthly realities and thus separated from each other. Francis Schaeffer used to say that all of life belongs to Jesus the Messiah, meaning that there is no separation between sacred and secular or spiritual and earthly. Again, on a very practical level, one should spend all his/her life in prayer, contemplation and quietness away from the earth that we live on. But we must make a distinction here. There are people who are called to a life of prayer but at the same time they do not devalue the rest of our existence. What we are talking about here is a devaluing of our earthly existence in favour of a spiritual existence as if one is more pleasing to God than the other.
Let’s pursue further what Macaulay and Barrs (p. 13) have to say. As with all of life as Christians so much of what we believe starts in Genesis and in this case Genesis 1:26-27, “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness.” Now we know that this does not mean that humankind is exactly like God. That cannot be. Not only because Scripture does not claim that, but because of the reality of our own existence. We are persons like God but we are very different. We are finite and he is Infinite. We are physical and spiritual, and He is only Spiritual, we are attached to this earth and God is not.
God created us for the Garden of Eden. He made us physical and put us in a physical place to do physical work in that place. This is an affirmation of life and not something to escape from. How do we know. Because in verse 1:31 of Genesis it says, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” But from my early church experience that I have described already, it is only religious activity that is good. Thus for some Christians life is about what we are not to taste or not to touch or not to wear or not to do, therefore, life can become more about NOT affirming our existence here on earth.
While Macaulay and Barrs say that sanctification is an affirmation of life here in this physical place with our physical bodies, they also make the point that we are not free to live as we please (p. 18). We must live within the confines of God’s moral universe.
But how did we come to believe in a sacred and secular divide. Remember that I said in an earlier post that when we make distinctions such as a sacred and secular dichotomy, there is a belief that we hold about life that is guiding that principle. Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of how the sacred and secular divide came about.
The early church had some serious persecution. During the time of Jesus the Romans had adopted much of the Greek culture. Thus Plato, Aristotle and others, who had lived many years before the time of Jesus, still had a heavy influence on Greek thought. To avoid persecution some Christians were trying to reconcile the teachings of Jesus with the teachings of Plato. Therefore, the ideas of Plato entered the church and are still hanging around in the church. The primary proponents were Justin Martyr and Clement. But what did Plato teach that still has influence in the church?
Plato believed in heaven. But we must be careful to understand what Plato meant by heaven. This is the beauty of Lewis’ work. He spent years understanding the meaning of the words used by Plato and others. Many in the ancient world believed in a heaven, but their concept of heaven was very different than the Judeo-Christian concept. Let’s explore this further.
In the ancient world only men had value. Women were for procreation and had a status not much above that of slaves. In order for men to get to heaven which was beyond the moon, they had to do glorious deeds which were referred to as virtues. The men included in this group were only the elite. This is why men often went off to war. They needed to do some glorious deed, such as fight to save their community or some other glorious deed by which they could earn entrance to heaven. Why? Plato believed and taught that the whole reason humankind was on earth to begin with was that man had done some awful deed and was punished by being put on earth. The goal in life was to do a glorious deed so that he could flee from the earth and get to heaven. The “body is the soul’s tomb; that the soul is the man . . .” (Lewis, p. 69), and “Earth is in fact the ‘offscourings of creation’. The cosmic dust-bin, (Lewis, p. 63). It was not where one wanted to be. Here is a quote from C. S. Lewis’ book The Discarded Image. Lewis was a scholar of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This quote deals with some of the ideas that fed in to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It can be a difficult passage to follow, but if you read it slowly you will get the idea that the classical period believed in a heaven and in fact, believed that men had been in heaven and were now on earth because of some kind of “Fall.” Lewis is referring here to Cicero’s Republic and specifically to the section entitled Somnium Scipionis.
Far more important than such curiosities, however, is the general character of this text, which is typical of much material which the Middle Ages inherited from antiquity. Superficially it seems to need only a few touches to bring it into line with Christianity; fundamentally it presupposes a wholly Pagan ethics and metaphysics. As we have seen, there is a heaven, but a heaven for statesmen. Scipio is exhorted (xxiii) to look above and despise the world; but he is to despise primarily ‘the talk of the rabble’ and what he is to look for above is the reward ‘of his achievements’ (rerum). It will be decus, fame or ‘glory’ in a sense very different from the Christian. Most deceptive of all is xxiv, where he is exhorted to remember that not he, but only his body, is mortal. Every Christian would in some sense agree. But it is followed almost immediately by the words ‘Realise therefore that you are a god.’ For Cicero that is obvious; ‘among the Greeks.’ Says Von Hügel—and he might have said ‘in all classical thought’—‘he who says immortal says god. The conceptions are interchangeable’ If men can go to heaven it is because they came from there; their ascent is a return (revertuntur, xxvi). That is why the body is ‘fetters;’ we come into it by a sort of Fall. It is irrelevant to our nature; ‘the mind of each man is the man’ (xxiv). All this belongs to a circle of ideas wholly different from the Christian doctrines of man’s creation, fall, redemption, and resurrection. The attitude to the body which it involves was to be an unfortunate legacy for medieval Christendom. (Lewis, 1964 & 2013, p. 27-28)
Notice the similarity with the concept of a fall from the Hebrew Bible we call the Old Testament. As Lewis points out there are significant differences in the Bible’s teaching on the fall than that conceived by Plato. In this space I do not have time to address all the differences. But there are several things I want to point out related to the quote above. 1). Heaven as defined by Plato is not the same as Heaven defined by the Hebrew Bible—it was only for statesmen—not even for all men let along women. 2) So therefore only statesmen were eligible to return to heaven—a form of reincarnation. 3) Notice the need for men to do deeds (reward ‘of his achievements’) so that they can earn their way back to where they have come from—heaven. 4) Observe also that their goal is to get away from the cosmic dust-bin—earth.
The advantage of reading someone like Lewis is that he gets behind the scenes so to speak and understands the philosophy out of which the ancients wrote. Once you understand this philosophy then you can see how different the ancients or classical writers were from Christian thinking. This poses a problem because many people today read the classical writers interpreting them through their 21st century eyes rather than doing what Lewis did by understanding the context and the word meanings of the ancient writers which get much closer to an understanding of what the classical writers were saying.
When this teaching (the understanding that the earth, our bodies were bad) was brought into the church, it is very easy to see how it affects one’s attitude to “earthy” work versus “spiritual” or “religious” work. One is encouraged to do glorious spiritual deeds to earn their way to heaven. They are not encouraged to do these deeds out of a love for others, but to guarantee their reward in heaven. Humility, grace and other fruits of the spirit are not a part of the classical writers’ virtues. We begin to see the effects this can have on people as they go about their daily Christian lives. They must be virtuous in order to get to heaven. When people hold on to these views of life, then the outworking of that view produces a need to do religious activity and to see that activity as more important than “earthy” activity. This produces a truly distorted Christianity or one can say that Platonic thought is still hanging around in the church.
The Christian view is that God created the heavens and the earth and when he had finished He declared it good. On this physical earth he put beings made in his image who are both physical and spiritual. He made a beautiful garden for humankind to till and grow plants thereby creating space for humankind to understand the earth where he is placed. We are to understand the nature of birds, squirrels, plants, and all of God’s creation. That is part of our inheritance and part of our job as stewards of God’s earth. Thus science should be an integral part of our lives. How radical Christianity must have seemed to the Greeks and Romans.
Next week I will bring begin to move these ideas into a discussion about education. Just so you, the reader, is aware, in the secular world of education, Plato’s beliefs about education are referred to as Idealism.
See you next week.
Lewis, C.S. (1964/2013). The discarded image. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
Macaulay, R & Barrs, J. (1978). Being human: The nature of spiritual experience. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.
Scripture verses are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.
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