Get Truth Where You Can
Get truth where you can.
Some useful ideas comes to Christians from non-Christian sources and this is the least surprising fact that surprises critics of Christianity. “Ha! That’s an idea you got from . . . “ is said as if that is a bad thing. If you love wisdom, believe all people are created in the image of God, receive a common grace from God, as Christians do, then you are never surprised when wisdom, truth, or beauty exits.
All truth is God’s and whatever is of God belongs to all God’s children. Of course, God revealed Himself to some people in a special way. They became the great teachers to the world of what we could not know by common grace. This special grace is freely available to anyone who will listen or read.
A Christian is someone who listened, thought about it, did not just adopt these wonderful new ideas, but is being transformed by meeting the source of truth.
As a result, Christians know some unique truth that God showed our mothers and fathers. Over centuries, we have refined that truth and learned to what it implies. When God said to love our enemies, God did not mean we could torture them into being good! When God said all humankind were sisters and brothers, God did not intend for us to enslave part of the family. We are learning.
One type of learning is to put together the good ideas from all these sources. How does revelation inform what common grace showed to those without this revelation? How does Socrates help us understand Jesus and how can Jesus complete what Socrates saw so dimly?
Plato was one forerunner to Jesus who got a good bit right, a bunch wrong (looking at you doctrine of transmigration of souls) and so thinking things through has been a long term Church project. Slavish Platonism has produced a good bit of heresy, but so has the fakery that pretends Plato has no influence even on the New Testament. Often the translation of the Scriptures used by the apostles and their students was a Greek translation heavily influenced by Platonic terms and imagery.
Plato gave our spiritual fathers and mothers some useful ideas and vocabulary. My favorite is the idea of the vital role of music in . . . Everything.*
Get a Useful Image Where You Can: Heavenly Music
Word pictures can help us learn the truth.
Of course, useful images are not a “truth” in the sense of a proposition. Instead, some clever people think of images or analogies that point us toward the truth. In the early days of the Scientific Revolution, the image of an atom looking like a little solar system, the nucleus playing the role of the sun, and the electrons as planets helped people think about the atom. Young children still sometimes use that picture to begin learning physics.
Nobody now thinks that image is just the way an atom is, but the image points us to truth. Even if in early days, people took the image as just the way the atom is (wrong), the image was useful as the closest proximate truth that people could grasp. It was a forerunner to a better image and helped stimulate thought on the right lines.To give another example, the sun is not the center of the cosmos, but heliocentricism, literally a false idea, was useful in freeing minds from another image (geocentrism). So an image of the truth can be a teaching technique, to free us from bad ideas, or even to point to a deeper truth.
Plato gave the world one such image or account that has had a great impact on Christian thought. It fits the way we think about the world and makes sense out of much for us as we learn. Christians know that God made the material world and this world is good. We also know that God is not made up of the stuff of the world in God’s essential nature. He is totally other than matter and energy.
Christianity teaches us that there are “invisible” truths, immaterial mind, and great passions. The good God is beautiful, we see Him, love him, and so are driven toward Him. This desire for the Good is the beginning of our reasoning: a move Godward through longing. When we think about the cosmos God made, people He created, and eternity we know, all will be as reasonable, mathematical, and passionate as possible.
How can mathematics be passionate?** Make it music.
As any musician can tell you, music incarnates mathematical precision and is performed passionately. We bring the head, heart, and our hands together most easily when we perform music. Plato extended this truth to the very nature of the cosmos:
This is the reason why these four particular constituents were used to beget the body of the world, making it a symphony of proportion.***
Whatever the truth of the world, this image of the cosmos as musical is useful. It teaches us that there is order and we can find it, but without losing our sense of joy and wonder in creation. We also can perceive how ideas, such as numbers, might relate to the physical through the example of music. Bach is precision passionately performed.
Music and church have always gone together, because music incarnates reason and passion into a harmonious whole and this is what God does within us. By extending this idea to all nature, Plato extended the image of the “heavens declaring the glory of God” and suggested that the Psalms might be in every turn of the celestial sphere.
The old hymn, Biblical truth with a dash of Platonism, had it right:
“This is my Father’s world and to my listening ears all nature sings and ‘round me rings the music of the spheres.”
Thanks be to God.
*To be fair, there is a healthy dose of Pythagorean influence in this!
**Gene Roddenberry got this truth when he had the very logical Mr. Spock play a Vulcan harp-thingy. Of course, he was musical!
***Zeyl translation of Timaeus. I have read scholars who think the entire Timaeus is musical composition, recording music before musical notation existed. Maybe.