The Way: Christianity as Philosophia

Though now known as “Christianity,” the beliefs and practices of the followers of Jesus were not always grouped under that name. Indeed, “Christian” only appears thrice in the New Testament: once at Acts 11:26, where we are told that the disciples at Antioch were first called Christians, seemingly a derogatory term; once at Acts 26:28, where Agrippa asks if St. Paul wants to make him a Christian; and once at 1 Peter 4:16, where St. Peter exhorts us not to be ashamed to suffer because of being a Christian.

Rather, at least in the earliest days, Christians were known as followers of “the Way” (cf. Acts 9:2; Acts 18:25-26; Acts 19:9, 23; Acts 22:4; Acts 24:14, 22). It appears from the texts that this designation arose from the distinctive beliefs and practices of the early Christians. These early Christians are described at various points in Acts as follows in this specific passage:

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 NKJV)

They also kept the daily hours of prayer (Acts 3:1), practiced liturgical worship and fasting (Acts 13:1), kept a festal calendar (Acts 18:21), held that only in Jesus is salvation found (Acts 4:8-12), as well as other distinctive beliefs and practices, such as the sacramental nature of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10:14-22; 11:17-34), and passed on their way of living from person to person (Acts 20:17-21).

In at least these general characteristics, Christianity was no different than the six ancient schools of philosophy (Platonists, Aristotelians, Cynics, Skeptics, Epicureans and Stoics). And all these together could be described as attempts to know reality as it is and to conform one’s entire being to that reality. For a Platonist, then, as Socrates describes in the Phaedo, philosophia prepared the “friend of wisdom” for death, to cast off the body and free the soul to contemplate the Good unhindered. For an Aristotelian, philosophia was the life of contemplation in accord with the virtues, wherein one’s intellect was united with the divine intellect that is the uncaused first cause and pure thinking. A Stoic studied reality so as to conform his life and thought to it, to put off all illusion so as to achieve ataraxia, or quietude of soul. I need not go through the remainder; the point should be clear. All of these schools of philosophy had distinctive beliefs that led to distinctive practices, each had a way of life that set them off from the rest of society. Philosophers, as can be attested by the iconic Socrates, were counter-cultural and often persecuted.

But it should be noted that philosophers in the ancient world were not part of a professional scholarly class. Epictetus, who left us a summation of Stoic thought in his Discourses was a slave; another famous stoic, Seneca, was a wealthy Roman nobleman. Socrates had been a decorated soldier, Aristotle the son of a court physician. Sextus Empiricus was a physician. None of these men were philosophers in today’s sense of the word. But all of them sought philosophy as a way of life, involving a conversion from a non-philosophic way of life. As Socrates notes in the Apology, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

So, in this sense, Christianity is a philosophia, a way of life. It is not simply a set of doctrines. It is not simply a tool for social progress. It is a radical change of life, in conformity with wisdom, true reality, that normally puts one at odds with conventional society. Christians have distinct beliefs which result in distinct ways of living; and distinct ways of living that reinforce those beliefs.

Christians, for example, believe that God became man in Christ. And so they fast. Christians believe that God is holy, and so they confess their sins to one another. Christians believe that Christ died for our sins, and so they love one another. But similarly, because Christians fast as a community they believe the Church to be the Body of Christ. Because Christians confess their sins to the priest, they believe that God’s uncreated grace is unmerited even as they work out their salvation with fear and trembling. Because Christians love one another, they believe purity of life and belief is to be maintained, even excommunicating the unrepentant for the salvation of the errant brother’s soul.

Such a thumbnail sketch hardly does justice to the notion that Christianity is a philosophia, with unique doctrines and practices. But hopefully it at least pencils in the interrelation between belief and practice as a way of living.

This is extremely important to emphasize. For many Christians, of all stripes, seem to operate under a very different notion. Many otherwise intelligent people, believe Christianity to be primarily about doctrine and canon. Christian life, then, becomes a matter of proper exegesis. So long as one conforms to a specific interpretive grid (either of Scripture or canon or both), one is “Christian.” The conformity of life to that grid, while important, is secondary. But this imbalance is idolatry. For Christians have not been called to follow a text, but the God-man, Jesus Christ. Christians have not been called to do certain things per se, but to conform their way of living to the life Jesus lives which then involves specific behaviors and prohibits others. Many seek salvation through exegesis: of having the right beliefs and external behaviors.

But the truth is that a way of life is about the integration of belief with behavior, often in paradoxical ways. We are called to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. But we also believe that if anyone claims he does not sin, he is a liar. We are called to forgive a brother seventy times seven. But we are also charged with excommunicating him if he is unrepentant.

Modern Christianity is not philosophic. It is Gnostic. As long as one has certain beliefs, so the thinking goes, one’s lifestyle need not be extraconventional. One doesn’t have to be “weird” to be a Christian. Indeed, by living conventionally, modern gnostics think, we can win more souls to the Lord. But the trajectories of those most conventional of churches, the mainline denominations, put the lie to this thinking. For, Christianity as the Way, as philosophia, demands a radical otherness. As St. Paul writes:

Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. (2 Timothy 3:12 NKJV)

If this was true of Socrates and the pagan philosophiai, indeed, if this was true of Christ, how much more is it true of Christian philosophia and the Christian philosophos and philosophe?

This transformation of the soul of Christian philosophia is all-encompassing, and makes radical demands. But it is characterized primarily by humility. When one takes on a philosophical school, one does not do so from the standpoint of the objective observer unbiasedly examining all contenders and settling on the one that one knows to be right. Rather, one enters that school and takes on the beliefs of that school and attempts to discern reality in light of the beliefs and practices of that school. If one is a Platonist, one will reject certain Skeptic presuppositions. If one is an Aristotelian, one will not agree with, nor live like, an Epicurean.

The difference, however, of the Christian philosophia is that it does claim to subsume all other philosophiai under its own claims. This is, perhaps, nicely illustrated in St. Justin the Philosopher’s own life:

“I will tell you,” said I, “what seems to me; for philosophy is, in fact, the greatest possession, and most honourable before God, to whom it leads us and alone commends us; and these are truly holy men who have bestowed attention on philosophy. What philosophy is, however, and the reason why it has been sent down to men, have escaped the observation of most; for there would be neither Platonists, nor Stoics, nor Peripatetics, nor Theoretics, nor Pythagoreans, this knowledge being one. I wish to tell you why it has become many-headed. It has happened that those who first handled it [i.e., philosophy], and who were therefore esteemed illustrious men, were succeeded by those who made no investigations concerning truth, but only admired the perseverance and self-discipline of the former, as well as the novelty of the doctrines; and each thought that to be true which he learned from his teacher: then, moreover, those latter persons handed down to their successors such things, and others similar to them; and this system was called by the name of him who was styled the father of the doctrine. Being at first desirous of personally conversing with one of these men, I surrendered myself to a certain Stoic; and having spent a considerable time with him, when I had not acquired any further knowledge of God (for he did not know himself, and said such instruction was unnecessary), I left him and betook myself to another, who was called a Peripatetic, and as he fancied, shrewd. And this man, after having entertained me for the first few days, requested me to settle the fee, in order that our intercourse might not be unprofitable. Him, too, for this reason I abandoned, believing him to be no philosopher at all. But when my soul was eagerly desirous to hear the peculiar and choice philosophy, I came to a Pythagorean, very celebrated-a man who thought much of his own wisdom. And then, when I had an interview with him, willing to become his hearer and disciple, he said, `What then? Are you acquainted with music, astronomy, and geometry? Do you expect to perceive any of those things which conduce to a happy life, if you have not been first informed on those points which wean the soul from sensible objects, and render it fitted for objects which appertain to the mind, so that it can contemplate that which is honourable in its essence and that which is good in its essence? ‘Having commended many of these branches of learning, and telling me that they were necessary, he dismissed me when I confessed to him my ignorance. Accordingly I took it rather impatiently, as was to be expected when I failed in my hope, the more so because I deemed the man had some knowledge; but reflecting again on the space of time during which I would have to linger over those branches of learning, I was not able to endure longer procrastination. In my helpless condition it occurred to me to have a meeting with the Platonists, for their fame was great. I thereupon spent as much of my time as possible with one who had lately settled in our city, -a sagacious man, holding a high position among the Platonists,-and I progressed, and made the greatest improvements daily. And the perception of immaterial things quite overpowered me, and the contemplation of ideas furnished my mind with wings, so that in a little while I supposed that I had become wise; and such was my stupidity, I expected forthwith to look upon God, for this is the end of Plato’s philosophy.

St. Justin then runs into an old man whose name he never learns who leads him from his Platonism to the true philosophia, Christianity. St. Justin continues:

“When he had spoken these and many other things, which there is no time for mentioning at present, he went away, bidding me attend to them; and I have not seen him since. But straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and whilst revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher. Moreover, I would wish that all, making a resolution similar to my own, do not keep themselves away from the words of the Saviour. For they possess a terrible power in themselves, and are sufficient to inspire those who turn aside from the path of rectitude with awe; while the sweetest rest is afforded those who make a diligent practice of them. If, then, you have any concern for yourself, and if you are eagerly looking for salvation, and if you believe in God, you may-since you are not indifferent to the matter. -become acquainted with the Christ of God, and, after being initiated, live a happy life.”

Notice: what does the saint say is the end of Christian philosophy? To become acquainted with the Christ of God and to live a happy (eudaimonic, i. e., fully flourishing) life. Christianity is the way of life. It is thought and act united in the heart, divinized by grace.

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