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The cogitating Christ

01 July 2009

Truth is the big issue, says Hugh Rayment-Pickard

Neither porcelain nor Chinese: a glazed earthen-ware plate probably from Delft at the end of the 17th cen-tury (and now in the Lambert van Meerten Museum). An illustration from Timothy Brook’s Delft-centred study Vermeer’s Hat: The seventeenth century and the dawn of the global world (Profile Books, £18.99; 978-1-84668-112-7).

Jesus and Philosophy
Paul K. Moser, editor
Cambridge University Press £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

Theologians tend to create systems of ideas, and thereby enjoy a natural affinity with philosophers. Jesus, however, was not a systematic thinker but an aphorist and a story-teller, a teacher by example rather than precept, and to that extent apparently unphilosophical by temperament.

Jesus and Philosophy is a fascinating ex­ploration of where Jesus stands in relation­ship to philosophy. The first section deals with the philosophical contexts that may have influenced Jesus’s thinking, such as the wisdom traditions and Greco-Roman moral philosophy. Two further sections consider Jesus in relationship with medieval and then contemporary philosophy.

An obvious point of contact between Jesus and philosophy is, as Brian Leftow points out, a common concern with “truth”. Plato said that philosophy, although a form of question­ing, must be committed to truth. Aristotle saw the goal of philosophy as the uncovering of truth in the form of first causes and principles. For Jesus, particularly in John’s Gospel, the pursuit of truth is paramount; indeed, Jesus himself is the truth. But a tension arises between the tendency of philosophers to regard truth as an intel-lectual achievement and Jesus’s insistence that the truth must be lived and must ultimately be discovered by love rather than through the intellect.

The distinction between a living truth that exists within history and a pure, eternal idea of truth is the principal difference between the Jewish belief in a God who acts through history and the classical Greek vision of a supreme reality that surpasses time. Paul Moser tackles this tension between “Jerusalem” and “Athens”. Moser argues that Jesus represents a “power movement” offering redemption. The Greek philosophers ask how we can know the truth of this redemption, but Jesus teaches that the proof can come only through participation.

If I have a criticism of this book, it is that I wish that there had been more of it. I would have valued something on the Renaissance theologians’ view of the relationship between Christ and the ancient philosophers. It would have been good to read about the existentia­l­ist concern with Jesus’s teaching about the nature of time. I would also have enjoyed reading about Nietzsche’s admiration for Jesus despite his loathing of the Church. But perhaps that’s the sign of a good book, like a good meal: we should be left wanting more.

The Revd Dr Rayment-Pickard is the author of 50 Key Concepts in Theology (DLT).

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To buy this book click here

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