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Archive for January, 2015

In Socrates’s last weeks, questions of piety and impiety were not the window-dressing of life. They were, on the contrary, quite literally a matter of life and death. He had been indicted on a charge of impiety, corrupting Athenian youths by teaching novel doctrines — he was a “god-maker” and did not give the old gods their due. He would shortly be tried and convicted on that charge, and then executed.

BookOfKellsEagle

The Eagle, the symbol of St. John, as shown in the Four Gospels plate of the Book of Kells.

It is against that background that one must read the dilemma Socrates put to Euthyphro: Is piety loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?[1] It is easy for us to dismiss Socrates’s question as philosophical play — fitting for a boy, deserving of a whipping for a man (as Callicles put it elsewhere)[2]. But a man about to stand trial for impiety needs some idea of what piety means for a very practical reason: to defend himself. So we may suppose Socrates to have been completely in earnest. And his question is an important one. It would be a strange thing to worship a god who didn’t come into existence until after “the good,” and was subservient to “the good.” It would be terrible, however, to worship a god who could alter “good” arbitrarily — say, to make hate “good” and “love” bad.

St John the Evangelist lived a few centuries after Socrates, in a different part of the Mediterranean region. He was a Jew, not a Greek, though he wrote in Greek and his writings show some familiarity with Greek thought. So we should not be surprised that the prologue of John’s gospel, though its primary purpose is to place the life of Jesus of Nazareth within the life of the one God of Israel — God the Creator who spoke creation and life into being, God the Redeemer who dwelt in the Tabernacle and led the Israelites out of Egypt — also addresses the Greek world by John’s use of the word logos. The prologue’s opening phrases also happen to address (probably unintentionally) the dilemma Socrates put to Euthyphro.

The first character to appear in St John’s prologue is the “Word”that is, the divine logos. In the beginning, the logos was. While “word” is a good translation for logos in John — connecting John’s prologue with God’s act of creation by speech in Genesis 1 — it isn’t a comprehensive translation. If you hear the echoes of our word logic, and the suffix -ology, in logos, you’re not hearing things. While logos conveys the sense of word as speech-act, it also conveys rationality. And John says that, no matter how far back in time one might travel, or if it were possible to go back to before the dawn of time, the Word, the logos, would still be there. And it would not be subject to change upon the whim of any deity.

But no matter how far back in time one might travel — even if one went back to before the dawn of time — the logos would not be there alone. He would be with Someone. He would not just be sitting alongside that Someone in a passive Aristotelian kind of way, nor at war with Him in a Zeus-versus-Kronos kind of way, but facing Him, engaging with Him with a quality of attention and affection that we can hardly begin to imagine. Or, as John puts it: “And the Word was with God.”

John’s first two phrases, without more, almost solve Socrates’s dilemma. For if goodness and sound logic are comprehended within the word logos, then goodness — Socrates’s piety — has always existed, and is not subject to change. Moreover, that logos has always existed with God, neither apart from God nor in competition with Him. So one might say, without proceeding beyond John’s first two phrases, that if God and the pious logos are co-eternal, always together, fully engaged with one another and of one mind, then we have a set of conditions that cuts the horns off Socrates’s dilemma. But John isn’t done, and his third phrase resolves the dilemma beyond all doubt:

“And what God was, the Word was.”

The three statements, taken together, read like this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and what God was, the Word was.” John calls the Word eternal, eternally in relationship with the God who called himself, simply, “I am,” and eternally in full possession and enjoyment of the character, nature and identity of that God, whose nature encompasses, indeed actively embraces, the Word’s piety. John solves Socrates’s old mystery by the plain statement of the eternal Mystery.

[1] Plato, Euthyphro 10a.

[2] Plato, Gorgias 485d-e.

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