When Christianity expanded beyond Palestine and into the wider world of the Mediterranean basin—an expansion described at considerable length in the Acts of the Apostles of St. Luke—it assumed the universal thought patterns of what we would call the Western World. Among the men of letters of the times throughout the Roman Empire the act of thinking and expressing had been inherited by the Greeks. The Greek world itself had gone through something of an evolution by the time of Jesus and St. Paul. Arguably the father of the Grecian mind is Homer, the unknown poet of perhaps a millennium before Christ, whose Iliad and Odyssey are a majestic expression of reality as perceived in his or her time. Homer’s works were moralistic poems of great length apparently interpreting an historical event of great contemporary importance (the Fall of Troy) in a unique idiom. Homer’s treasury lays bare the author’s insights into how humans interpret reality, a “principled dependence upon the fates” (my term) revealed through story-telling.
[An aside here: in researching Homer this morning, I kept crossing paths with Homer Simpson, living proof that the evolution of civilization and thought has its peaks and valleys.]
Greek thought seemed to progress into its own “Enlightenment” (as our Western world did after the Renaissance) over the centuries as its thinkers searched for more concrete explanations of the human experience. This search expanded into physics (think Pythagorean Theorem), history (Herodotus, Thucydides), mathematics, drama, astronomy. Greeks were becoming thoughtful scientists but were lacking an overall definition of reality to bring this new data together. The revolutionary rumblings of Socrates, who questioned the supposed certainties of his society, prompted the new generation of philosophers—most notably Plato and Aristotle—to address the “organization of truth,” though each would do so in a different manner.
Plato’s starting point was the “why” or the ultimate truth. Plato, as you may remember, believed that reality existed in perfect metaphysical forms of which forms of matter, including you and me—are imperfect reflections. Plato’s definition of God, from our vantage point, would be the highest good or the perfect form of the good—separate from individual entities like humans because we are material by nature and thus imperfect. Plato’s method allowed him to create perfect ideas of societies, most notably his Republic.
Aristotle, who followed Plato in sequence, worked from the reverse: he was a realist who believed that created things were the clues to the source of reality. His lost work The Topics includes a categorization of animals which gave him a sense of higher and lower forms of complex life. It is easy to see, then, how this philosopher was free to let his mind take him to the existence of the highest form of being, though in his lifetime Aristotle could not take this process further than “First Mover” or “Prime Source” is the ultimate reality.
This is the world into which Christianity established itself, and the thinking of Plato and Aristotle would shape the forms and language of Christian life itself. If you read para. 43 closely, there are significant indications of our Greek heritage. As the Catechism explains, believers try to speak of God and to God, though this effort will always be imperfect because we cannot express “his infinite simplicity.” Plato, of course, had no concept of the God of Abraham or the Apostles, but his description of the impossibility of “full communication between equals” (that is, between God and us) is very real and has provided something of a philosophical bedrock for all of Christian spirituality. St. Augustine was profoundly influenced by variant forms of Plato’s thinking prior to his conversion to Christianity, and many would argue that Augustine’s teachings on such matters as sexual activity and monastic austerity (flight from the material world) reflect a continuing influence.
It is also important to recall that the major Councils of the Church which defined our Creed were conducted in the Eastern or Greek portion of the Roman Empire, and Platonic influence was in no short supply. What probably kept the Church as a whole from drifting into a Grecian Platonic entity was the very concrete influence of the Synoptic Gospels which emphasized the historical and very material reality of Jesus, and certainly the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, in which Christians consumed Christ as real food. The material reality of the Church and its rites meant that Church theology could never take on the full agenda of Plato, though many tried in a variety of heresies.
Aristotle’s hour in the Christian era would come a millennium later, and by a most peculiar route. Islamic scholars preserved Aristotle’s work through the Dark Ages of the West and these eventually came into the hands of the great medieval fathers and scholars, most notably St. Thomas Aquinas. The Angelic Doctor made use of Aristotle’s writings in several ways. (1) He adopted inductive reasoning, from the specific observations to the general principles; (2) Like Aristotle, he came to the conclusion that knowledge of God was possible from observable factors, such as causality, and (3) he put forth his summary or summa of teachings in propositional form.
The present day Catechism of the Church reflects the Greek world’s optimism and pessimism about knowledge and conversation with the divine. Paragraph 43 does leave some interesting points for further reflection. Is the ‘baptized Greek” methodology of St. Thomas, raised to a position of official status in the 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris by Pope Leo XIII, the only credible way to “do” theology in the Roman Catholic tradition? The Hebrew Scripture reveal multiple modes of contact with God: historical narrative not unlike Homer, the Covenant and the Law, philosophical myth, prophetic wrath, apocalyptic, and wisdom literature, for example. With some possible exceptions in the writings of St. Paul, the New Testament does not expound its teaching in propositional form nor by abstract concept, but in lived history.
Perhaps more to our own experience, para. 43 does not close the door on experience and knowledge of God, but simply advises that such experience will be deficient or incomplete. If this is so, how do we distinguish our human contacts with a perfect God, more unlike us than like us, from our limitations as imperfect beings? What is the litmus test for divine communion versus self-delusion? Propositional Church theology can save us from our worst errors, but can it explain and define our best contemplations?