Through you I am saying to the prisoners of darkness, 'Come out! I am giving you freedom!' -- Isaiah 49:9a
Teach the wise and they will be wiser. -- Proverbs 9:9
Jesus said to the people, 'I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won't be stumbling through darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.' -- John 8:12
So many of the readings in the last few days have been about wisdom. Coincidentally, I have heard similar messages from other sources. Something significant is usually found when this happens. Something worth sharing.
Last Wednesday, driving up to Phoenix, I began listening to a set of lectures on CD titled, "Philosophy and Religion in the West," given by Prof. Phillip Cary through The Teaching Company -- a Christmas present from my husband. Prof. Cary is interested in exploring the ways philosophy influences religion, and vice versa. So am I. He began the lectures by describing the philosophy of Socrates and Plato.
Socrates sought to teach people the meaning of true goodness: courage, justice, piety, and the like. He did this by asking meaningful questions of specific people who thought they knew all about the subject. Usually, however, in attempting to answer Socrates' questions, the "expert" was made aware of his own ignorance, and was left "perplexed", as Prof. Cary describes. Some of the men thus challenged by Socrates, when they realized that they did not know as much as they thought they knew, were spurred into probing deeper into the truth of all things. Other men, when faced with uncertainty, dismissed Socrates, preferring to live with their own illusions.
Plato described the differences between these two groups of people with an allegory about a cave. Most of us, he said, live in the cave, warmed by a fire between us and the back wall. The images we see on the walls around us are only shadows of reality. While behind us, unknown to us, is the real world in the bright light of day. There, in that light, the light of the Sun, is where the Ultimate Truth, or the Good (with a capital G), is found. Plato thought of Socrates as a searcher who had found the opening of the cave, and returned to tell the rest of the people about it.
After listening to this first lecture, I read the words in Isaiah above. I was amazed at the similarity of message. The rest of the messages followed on succeeding days.
Eventually, Socrates' provoking questions seriously annoyed some powerful people who did not like being exposed, or having their beliefs exposed, as fraudulent. And so, they tried and convicted Socrates under the charge of impiety. For, in his effort to find the Ultimate Truth, Socrates had killed too many of their "gods", their illusions.
I was puzzled by the charge of impiety against Socrates. It seemed to me that those who could not have their understanding challenged, who could not live with the unknown, or uncertainty, were more impious than those who could. It seemed to me that those who could not trust in the existence of some greater truth beyond their own knowledge were more impious than those who accepted their ignorance, who trusted in the existence of ultimate truth, and who sought to find it. To my way of thinking, the latter group, with Socrates as their teacher, were not only more pious, they were also wise, as the proverb describes.
Prof. Cary states that the New Testament writers appropriated Greek philosophy into their theology. That is certainly possible. In John's Gospel, Jesus is described as "the light of the world" in a way that reminds one of Plato's allegory of the cave. There are, however, significant differences. In Platonic philosophy the Ultimate Good is impersonal. It is a spirit that exist purely beyond this world. It does not act in the world. That is quite different from Christian (and Jewish) theology, which sees God as very much active in the world, taking care of humanity in a very personal way.
A fine distinction of this is made above in the passage from John's Gospel. For Jesus does not simply say that he's here to tell people about the light, as Plato says about Socrates. Jesus says, I am the light of the world. Jesus not only pointed to the light, he was not only the bearer of the light, he was the light that came into the world to set it free. He was the light incarnate.
And he too asked great, thought-provoking, questions.
Dear God, I love this conjunction of messages. I see in them your beautiful and glorious hand at work in my life. Thank you for that. Love always, Pam