When I’m in a philosophy class and my professor begins talking about Christianity, I for better or (more often) for worse, become defensive and start to really pay attention to what he or she is saying. So, recently, when the professor of my class on Stoicism began describing the relationships between Christianity and other ancient philosophies, I tuned in.
He began with early Christianity’s love affair with Neoplatonism, the influence of these Hellenistic ideas on theologians like Origen and Augustine. Christians found truth in otherwise pagan concepts, such as the immortality of the soul and the immateriality of God. Christian ideas were in some ways identical to Neoplatonic ones.
By now, I had several points I wanted to push back on. I wanted to say that Christians believed in more than that, that Christians believed not only in the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection of the body, that Christians believed God made the world, made material good, and that He chose to take on flesh.
As I was formulating this brilliant piece of apologetics that would guarantee an “A” grade for class participation and an undisputed title of Section Kid, the professor continued. In the middle ages, when Aristotle was rediscovered by western philosophers like Aquinas, Christians tried to reconcile the dualism of Plato – the belief in a soul distinct from the body – with the ideas of Aristotle. Unlike Plato, Aristotle argued that the existence of souls was dependent upon the existence of a body for the soul.
Thomas Aquinas reconciled these ideas through a renewed emphasis on the resurrection of the body. The resurrection had always been a part of Christian doctrine, but Aquinas put new focus on it to explain how Christianity believes both, on the one hand, that the soul is immortal and immaterial, and on the other, that the body is a necessary part of a human being (not just a corpse dragged about by a soul).
This sort of comparison of Plato and Aristotle is a hobby beloved by philosophers, one which has filled libraries and libraries with books. As I put my hand down and let the professor get on with teaching, I realized he had covered the subject concisely and correctly.
Further, I realized that the problems that puzzle theologians are not mere quibbles. Questions that may seem minor at first (for example, whether or not we will we eat in heaven) lead to larger questions about the relationship of mind and body and soul, of the what constitutes the self. The questions of theology run right into questions that have haunted philosophers for thousands of years. As such, Christianity is not the first framework from which to try to answer these questions.
For these reasons, Christians should look to the great thinkers of the past to gain a better understanding of Christianity. We cannot fully understand what it means to believe in the resurrection of the body until we understand the idea of the soul existing after death without the body or the self ceasing to exist after death. When Christians study philosophy and see how our own intellectual heritage fits into a larger tradition, we can gain a better understanding of our own beliefs and of Christ.
Greg Scalise ’18 is a Philosphy and Classics concentrator in Pfohorzheimer House.