Saturday, February 20, 2010

Brian McLaren's Mistaken Spin on Greek Philosophy

(Plato & Aristotle, by Raphael. Note that Plato is pointing up, Aristotle is motioning down.)

In A New Kind of Christianity Brian McLaren likens the Western Church's view of the biblical story line to Greek thinking of "an 'ontological fall' from Platonic being and transcendent state down into Aristotelian becoming and debased story." (50) This is because Western Church scholars, since the 4th and 5th centuries, read the Judeo-Christian story backwards rather than frontwards.

McLaren thinks the Christian idea of a Genesis "Fall" is not biblical, but is a reflection of the Greek philosophical "fall" from Platonic idealism into Aristotelian realism. While surely it is true that a lot of Christian theology is a result of beginning with Greek-philosophical categories and reading them into the biblical narrative, I think McLaren is working too hard to create a Greek philosophical story line out of one that's not there. Greek philosophical history cannot be simplistically reduced to a story line that reads: Platonic ideal/being...   "Fall" into the cave of illusion... Aristotelian real/becoming... which leads to Greek Hades...  or "Salvation" and a return to the Platonic ideal.

I don't think so. Why do I have this feeling that a lot of Greek philosophy scholars would start laughing at McLaren's analysis? Probably because I studied with people like Reginald Allen at Northwestern, and took his course on Aristotle's Metaphysics. The move from Plato to Aristotle is not some kind of "Fall." Aristotle did not "fall" from the lofty idealism of Plato. Plato and Aristotle become twin forces that influence Christian theologizing. McLaren offers no scholarly philosophical footnotes to support his odd thesis. I doubt that he can. I find the idea that the Christian idea of the "Fall" is indebted to some kind of a "fall" from Plato to Aristotle just bad philosophy as well as bad history.

So, for me, McLaren's book gets off to a bad start.