My wife and I have recently been having a long-running dialog on the nature and application of prayer. So it was with great interest that I read Lauren Winner’s review of two books on prayer in the latest issue of Books & Culture . (The review is available on the B&C website.)
A quote from the second book reviewed specifically caught my attention. The book is Knocking on Heaven’s Door, written by a prof at Calvin College named David Crump. In it, Crump examines the New Testament’s statements on petitionary prayer. Of specific concern for Crump is the recognition of God’s personal immanence in prayer. So as Winner writes:
Crump insists that God is “personally available to hear and to respond to each individual’s requests in a two-way relationship of personal give and take.” Those who charge that such a view somehow undoes God’s sovereignty are themselves, says Crump, captive to a “Neoplatonic theological prejudice that substitutes … philosophical smoke and mirrors for the truth plainly revealed in Scripture.”
While I fully agree with the underlying point Crump is making, his reference to Neoplatonism caught me somewhat off guard, though on further reflection it made sense.
The metaphorical cities of Athens and Jerusalem have often been found in discord, and I’ve observed a recent tendency for some of the more erudite denizens of Jerusalem to pick a fight with that section of Athens under the inspiration of Plato. I understand some of the skepticism that many Christian intellectuals have had over the influence of Platonism on Christian thought; after all, the Platonic tradition is certainly not identical to Christian revelation.
However, I think it somewhat ironic that Crump, like many other Christian intellectuals, chooses Neoplatonism as his philosophical “whipping boy” in identifying the enemy of an understanding of an immanent, personal God. To explain why, I would first ask: do we really want a God who is near?
The revealed scriptures of the Old and New Testament allow us to say yes to that question. But it’s worth a pause to consider that the immanence of God was certainly not a self-evident good in antiquity.
To draw from the record of Hesiod and Homer, if the gods of Olympus took a personal interest in you and wanted to have a relationship, you could be sure all would not end well. As our professor of classical philosophy would often remind us, in antiquity “Smile, god loves you” was a prelude to rape. Even if the god who drew near the hapless mortal meant well, it simply singled him or her out for a special dose of torture courtesy of the god’s Olympian rival.
With gods like these, divine immanence was not a comforting thought. In fact, the Epicureans invented a functional atheism—essentially banishing the gods to a galaxy far, far away without any possibility of interference—as a way to avoid the terrible effects of the nearness of god.
So Plato was making a huge innovation when he posited that God, to be God, must be transcendent, rational, and Good. This concept revolutionized Greek philosophical and theological thought; downstream from Plato, both the Stoics and the Neoplatonists incorporated this type of transcendent God as a de facto element of their theology.
Granted, the Stoics took God’s transcendence to a level where a personal relationship was no longer possible, and the Neoplatonists may have done likewise. (One wonders if Crump has read enough Plotinus and Porphyry to know for himself.) But the point is that if it’s between an irrational, immoral Zeus who is near, and a distant, rational, good, and all-knowing “One”, I’d take the later any day. And so did most of the Greco-Roman world.
Thankfully, as Christians, we don’t have to choose between an immanent God and a transcendent God. Indeed, because of His transcendent Goodness and rationality we can survive the blessed nearness of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Which brings us back to Crump’s book. The irony is that in his rightful insistence on the immanent nature of the God we worship, Crump attacks the very philosophical tradition that made it safe for divine immanence.
Indeed, I would argue that part of the reason why the message that “Jesus, the God-Man, loves you” could resonate and capture Greco-Roman minds at the dawn of the first millennium was that the way was paved, in some measure, by the Platonic tradition.