The Foundations of Western Theology: Plato on God

A Course with Thomas Patrick Burke

Tuesday evenings, January 20 to February 24, 2009

The Wynnewood Institute is adding a new dimension to its work. Our previous courses have all had a reference to society.  This course, the first in a series called The Foundations of Western Theology, will deal with what have come to be considered more private and interior concerns.  The overarching intellectual question of the whole modern era is the relationship between science and human values.  The physical sciences have become arguably the most successful of all human endeavors.  In the last two hundred years we have discovered more about the universe we live in than in all the previous millenia since the dawn of history combined.  But this knowledge has come at a high price: it undermines — or at least appears to undermine — everything that makes our human world meaningful.  This is not because of any particular discovery of science, it is because of the power of scientific method.  Science sets the standard of knowledge because it operates by empirical testing, which provides a unique degree of certitude.  But it sets that standard only because it is skeptical about everything that cannot be empirically tested.  This includes such basic beliefs as the existence of mind and free will, and moral principles.  You believe, no doubt, that you have a mind.  But how do you know that I have a mind?  You cannot see, hear, touch, taste or smell my mind.  It is not an empirical reality.  That means it impossible for science to discover it.  From the viewpoint of physics and chemistry our brains contain only matter: although the cells of the brain can be seen on an MRI, these cells are not a mind.  Looking at an MRI you cannot see my will.  The skepticism required by science extends to God because it extends to every mind.  In exploring the question of God we are exploring at the same time the most basic question of man.

The question of the nature of God today in the Western world is asked for the most part within the framework of Christianity, though also in Judaism and Islam.  These are revealed religions which take faith as their basis, and to the extent their faiths are different they answer the question of God differently.  But in ancient Greece there was no such presupposition of a faith-stance for this question.  The nature of God was something to be understood by reason and in the light of our ordinary experience of life. The term for this was “theology,” a “reasoning about God,” and part of philosophy, actually its earliest part, the beginning of philosophy, not the separate religious discipline it has become.

Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and Plotinus have all had a profound and even a defining influence on Christianity and on Western civilization.  Even in the New Testament their influence can be traced.  They have also left their mark on the Jewish and Islamic traditions.  Reading the ancient Greeks, you see the possibility of a common world.

This course will focus on Plato, the father of philosophy, because we wish in a certain sense to start over again.  In his writings we find the first attempts of rational thought, thought prepared to give for its beliefs rational reasons that can be criticized, to come to grips with the mysteries of human existence.  It is the genius of Plato that the path he blazed twenty-five centuries ago is still full of insight for us today.