Monday, June 9, 2008

Christianity, the Rise of Philosophy, and the Problem of 'the One and the Many'

The worldview provided in God’s revelation is the conceptual framework in terms of which all things make sense and are accounted for. Convinced of this, many Christians have reveled in the observation that science was born in the context of Western Christendom and as a direct result of the efforts of individual Christians. Similar observations have been made about other grandeurs introduced into Western society by Christianity in the areas of civil government, jurisprudence, education and much else. Notwithstanding, some Christians have been pained by the fact that philosophy did not arise from Christian soil, a fact that has driven some to search out all manner of strained explanations.

While it can be disputed that philosophy arose in all respects first with the Greeks, there is really no need for Christians to be perplexed by what truth there is in saying it was bequeathed to us by them. It is after all an unwitting indication of the truth: God has made foolish the wisdom of this world. Because of rejecting the truth about and from God, the human race has been given over to an unending list of philosophical problems, and – short of exercising repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ – humanity is without any means of extirpating itself from these problems or of finding any solution to them.

An Old Problem

Greek philosophy was born from the recognition of a particular problem, a problem that, because of repeated failures to arrive at a solution, has, though much avoided in modern times because of its apparent insolubility,[i] remained very much with us to the present day. Speaking of this conundrum, William James said, “it is the most pregnant of all the dilemmas of philosophy,”[ii] and indeed it is. A careful study will reveal that this problem is at the bottom of many others. Accordingly, a failure to solve this problem is a failure to solve the others. The problem in view is that of “the one and the many.”

This problem asks, if reality is one and constant (i.e., if reality is characterized by unity and regularity), then how do we account for diversity and change? On the other hand, if the world is many and variant (i.e., if reality is characterized by diversity and change), then how do we account for oneness and constancy? And as the record shows us, “All attempts in philosophy to unify the diversity without diversifying the unity have ended in failure,”[iii] as have all attempts to diversify reality without also unifying the diversity.

An Older Solution

This problem is not one that would have naturally presented itself to a people who believed in and were in covenant relationship with the Triune God, a God who is both one and many. On the other hand, “The idea of one God in three Persons never crossed the pagan mind anymore than the idea that God could be both personal and infinite at the same time.”[iv] Whereas non-Christian conceptions of ultimate reality tended and still tend to conceive either of an ultimate unity that rules out genuine diversity or of an ultimate diversity that rules out true unity, Christians are in covenant with a God in whom unity is just as ultimate as diversity and diversity is just as ultimate as unity. This unity and diversity are reflected in the world that God made, and, to their frustration, the original philosophers sought to explain this world without reference to God and His Word.

“Because He created it [the world], its meaning is also created meaning, derived from Him who made it. This points us to the ontological trinity as the answer to the problem of the one and the many. Immediately we have a distinction which does not exist in non-Christian thought: we have a temporal one and many in the created universe, and we have an eternal One-and-Many in the ontological trinity, an absolute and self-complete unity… Since both the one and the many are equally ultimate in God, it immediately becomes apparent that these two seemingly contradictory aspects of being do not cancel one another but are equally basic to the ontological trinity, one God, three persons. Again, since temporal unity and plurality are the products and creation of this triune God, neither the unity nor the plurality can demand the sacrifice of the other to itself.”[v]

This is the most basic reason philosophy had its genesis elsewhere. With God’s self-revelation, as well as the implications of it for all aspects of created reality, God’s Old Covenant people could hardly have been expected to ask, “Given the ultimate unity of all things, how is diversity possible?” Conversely, it is hardly conceivable that they would have asked, “Given the ultimate diversity of all things, how is unity possible?”

Though God’s Old Covenant people would have been unlikely to conceive of the one and many problem, with the mass conversion of Gentiles to the Triune God in New Testament times the very opposite is to be expected. Indeed, it is to be expected that Gentile Christians would come to apply the fresh insights they had now graciously received, to this old conundrum under which they had previously labored and travailed all their lives. In this sense it might be said that the solution, to the extent that it was now recognized and applied as such, was a new, even a revolutionary, answer. It is precisely because the solution to this problem is to be found in God, and because a right answer to this question is the basis for all true knowledge and real progress in the world, that Western society has given birth to all the wonders that it has, inarguably outstripping every other culture on earth or in world history. Far from being a source of humiliation for the Church, the genesis of philosophy outside her fold really should be looked upon as further insight into the truth that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.

[i] As one example, see the entry on “Metaphysics” in A Dictionary of Philosophy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984), edited by Anthony Flew: “...since no conceivable experience could enable us to decide between, for example, the statements that reality consists of only one substance (monism) or of infinitely many (monadology), neither serves any purpose in the economy of our thought about the world, and they are alike neither true nor false but meaningless.”
[ii] The Writings of William James, ed. by John McDermott (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 258
[iii] Scott Oliphint, source no longer remembered.
[iv] Robert Morey, The Trinity: Evidence and Issues
[v] Van Til, The Defense of the Faith

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