Thursday, March 17, 2005

Philosophy, Discipleship and the Earliest Church

[Early Saturday morning, at Starbucks. Remember that Peg and Al are teachers. Peg is reading the sports page and enjoying her usual, a mocha latte. Enter Al.]

Peg: Well, fancy meeting you here, early riser.

Al: Don't be so cheery. I'm never up this early on a weekend--but I was up most of last night.

Peg: Problems? Can I help?

Al: Not really. Let me get a drink and a muffin and I'll tell you.

[Al slouches back with a gooey muffin and a grande Caramel Macchiatto, doppio.]

Peg: Well, if insomnia's the problem that won't fix it.

Al: I'm actually celebrating. I've been up writing.

Peg: Huh?

Al: Writing.

Peg: So, now you're Tolstoy? You're not busy enough? I know how many things you keep involved in.

Al: Oh, I'm busy enough, but still a bit restless. Every now and then there's a creativity bug that bites me, and I get to work on one of the little writing projects I keep in my file drawer.

Peg: So which project stole your beauty rest last night? Or are you one of those secretive writers that never tell what they're working on, in case the spell should be dissolved.

Al: No, I'm not shy about that. What I'm working on has a religious theme.

Peg: That makes perfect sense, coming from the Math teacher. You're more of a polymath than a mathematician.

Al: I can see that the caffeine does wonders for your vocabulary, too. Lots of things interest me. I'll tell you what: let me bounce a couple of ideas off you, while you're here. Start with this--what sort of person was Jesus Christ?

Peg: Good grief, I didn't expect that. I don't have the training to even begin to answer that question.

Al: That's OK. I don't want a trained answer. The trained answers are faithful to the creed and they are truthful, but I want something that's your honest answer. What sort of relationship do you think Jesus had with the people around him, especially those who gathered around him as his disciples?

Peg: Well, I think you just answered your own question. If Jesus had disciples, then he was a teacher. Does that help?

Al: Maybe. That is what I'd like to get to the bottom of--what sort of teacher? One like you and I are? A traveling preacher? A professor? Some sort of intellectual? A road show entertainer? A talk-show host? A cult leader? A gang leader with an extra dose of "nice"?

Peg: Goodness, stop. Isn't this the sort of question that gets answered when we hear the Gospel read at Church? Don't the dogmas and traditions of Christianity answer that?

Al: Well, see, here's what makes me curious. What the Church believes and teaches is important and I believe it. But it's the final answer.

Peg: Isn't that what we want--a final answer?

Al: Sure, but the final answer is the one that surfaces after all the struggle. It's already a given for believers who come later. That includes us.

Peg: So what's wrong with that? Why would I want to work for something that's already provided, just for the asking? Besides, isn't this like "revelation"? We really don't want to have some other final answer, do we? Then we'd be either nonbelievers or heretics.

Al: I don't really think I'm questioning or disapproving of what the Church teaches.

Peg: Then doesn't the question about Jesus get answered pretty clearly? I remember my RCIA training: Jesus is Lord and Redeemer, Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity, God Incarnate, who became one of us, suffered and died to forgive our sins, rose from the dead and reigns eternally at the right hand of the Father.

Al: You're precisely right. Those questions were and are answered perfectly well within the traditions of the Church, in the Catechism, for example. And the Church is precisely right.

Peg: So, why give yourself agita over this.

Al: Oh, I hate that word, “agita”. It reminds me of an old boss.

Peg: Sorry, I’m sure that’s a shaggy-dog story for another day. Why are you stressing over this Jesus question?

Al: Because at this point I see a different question--actually two questions. First, what was the nature of the day-to-day relationship, in the teaching sense, that Jesus and his disciples shared? Secondly, was this something that had no precedent in the ancient world, was truly revolutionary, or something that could be expressed in terms of a type of teacher-student experience that those early followers might have observed or followed, as a familiar pattern, somewhere in their time? If the latter is the case, then what can we learn about the manner in which Jesus intended to train the disciples?

Peg: I get it. It’s not the final answer that’s the problem, but more like wanting to discover the path that got one to the answer. If we could read the diary of one of the disciples, how would it show the education process to have proceeded?

Al: Maybe it is a pilgrimage or journey kind of thing. Someone can be completely sure of one’s goal in a formal sense, but not so certain he or she wants to follow the road that takes one there. I’m not sure that’s what I’m trying to say.

Peg: You told me one time that if something is truly good, then it’s both good in the absolute sense and good in the subjective sense. It's about making your commitments personal, making them really belong to you, not just saying you have beliefs, but that they make your life different, give it a vector, sort of.

Al: That’s a good point. The question is what the earliest disciple community may have understood about Jesus, and not just intellectually but socially, affectively and so on.

Peg: Really that is a good question. We’re “spoiled” today because we take for granted the struggles that are involved in heartfelt faith. As a convert I think there is something that I’ve been able to gain--or been given--that the average “cradle Catholic” or the purely ritual Catholic hasn’t totally experienced.

Al: Well, thanks a lot.

Peg: No, no. I don’t mean you, because I see you worrying this stuff all the time. I think about many of our students and their families. If there were some way that we could count on to have them wrestle with the “why follow Jesus” question and to work through to the real answer, which is a learner’s or disciple’s answer, then I’d be really happy.

Al: So would I. See, I think we could try to envision with some consistency--beyond the “doubting Thomas” idea--the road the disciples took on their way to a state where they were ultimately as prepared as humans can be for truth to be revealed.

Peg: You’re not saying that revelation happens through our own efforts--

Al: No, of course not. Revelation is pure grace. What the disciples finally encountered in the Resurrection was pure grace. They could not have been prepared for the implication of that, and so that event became the lens through which the whole of the Jesus story became clear to them. I’m sure you had a Scripture teacher who said that even the Gospels are primarily Passion and Resurrection narratives with a “life of Jesus” attached to the front.

Peg: But Jesus did prepare the disciples for something. There was a process there. I have to believe they were different at the Last Supper than they were the day they were called to become the students of Jesus.

Al: How do you mean that?

Peg: What’s the last, ultimate thing that humans prepare for?

Al: Death, I suppose.

Peg: Wouldn’t the logic of the reality of death prepare us for whatever transcends death?

Al: That’s perfect, Peg. That’s where I gave up last night--or early this morning. You see, I was organizing some materials on how the ancients approached the whole concept of learning to be philosophers.

Peg: They weren’t like philosophers today--mainly writers and college professors?

Al: No, quite different in their presuppositions. The analytical-intellectual part of learning served something else--some approach to living and dying that was a practical, day-to-day activity.

Peg: So you’re not claiming that Jesus was like some professor or intellectual today--just another great teacher--or someone with a set of unique ideas.

Al: I heard someone on TV--I think it was O'Reilly--say that a while back, that Jesus was a “philosopher” like many other philosophers. The question really is what you mean by a “philosopher”. From what I’ve read, the old philosophic schools, even Plato’s academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, were not simply places to “get educated” in the modern sense of the word. Instead, they were associations in which one learned a way of life oriented to the service of a timeless good. When a student or disciple joined, he made a commitment to seek and practice a way or discipline of life that was different from that lived in society at large. They represented a real critique of society’s ways and were present as a sort of party in Hellenistic Greece and the Roman world in its heyday.

Peg: So questions of meaning and destiny would have been part of the student’s wrestling with life’s issues?

Al: That’s the way I read it. And, even more interesting, they committed themselves to living
well--in friendship with one another and in service to the larger society.

Peg: Why?

Al: They were all technically pre-Christian, so they didn’t have a personal Heaven or Risen Life, as we are taught. They did understand two things. The first was a sense of the eternity or eternal quality of certain goods whose power and purity could only be approximated in this life: truth, beauty, justice, goodness or virtue. The other thing was the importance of a certain principle of life: something to live by practically. Even these ancients were really civilized in this sense: that a person’s life was something that made a difference to that individual and to the quality of the community life of which the person was a part.

Peg: So you’re saying that there was some kind of ancient pattern of a community dedicated to good life and some sort of permanent happiness. So Jesus and his disciples might have formed a society that would have been recognizable according to this pattern. I guess historically speaking this would be more true in the Greek parts of the Mediterranean world than in Judea of Jesus’ day.

Al: My sense is that the parallels were even more extensive, and even more conscious. Now here’s where we come back to the beginning: if we understand this pattern more deeply, can we get a better sense of the way in which the disciples grew as individuals and became a community? And, can we get a better sense of how this group becomes, ultimately, the Church? And even further, might we even get a deeper understanding of our own searching and some consolation that what the disciples of Jesus went through was divinely inspired, but made use of a very human and natural sort of pedagogy?

Peg: You know what else? If you understand the students, you have a clue about the teacher. We might get a better idea about Jesus as the teacher of a way of life and as a pattern for teachers--and not just religion teachers or clergy.

Al: So, is the idea worth pursuing?

Peg: I hate to admit it to you, but I think so. But you have to make your intention clear.

Al: What's not clear?

Peg: Well, don't turn Jesus into some sort of intellectual. We have plenty of those. They just make a lot of noise and don't accomplish much.

Al: So there's teaching and there's--what?

Peg: If real teaching shows something about truth, even revealed truth as you described it, then that's a good thing. It's like leading by example, or good coaching, or being a guide for someone as they learn new responsibilities. The last teacher conference I went to called it mentoring. They said it was more about attitude than about qualifications.

Al: That's amazing.

Peg: What is?

Al: You've just described the same division the Greeks understood with regard to teaching, between the philosophers and the sophists. The philosophers, or friends of wisdom, were the heads or senior disciples in the communities of learners who really wanted to practice a more worthwhile and deeper kind of life than they found in society at large. Some wanted training so they could be wise leaders. These folks distanced themselves especially from professional instructors they called the "sophists".

Peg: I've heard of them. They played language games and taught people how to argue.

Al: Right. They charged fees for people to learn speaking skills, "rhetoric," so they could present even falsehoods skillfully. Rhetoric came to be called "the political art" because it was the skill of persuading the public to your point of view. It was about gaining influence, not about truth.

Peg: And politicians haven't changed a bit. So the point is that the way of living is just as important to the teacher as the subject matter. This sure aims us back to the example of Jesus, doesn't it? He was all about the preparation for truth. I'll bet you could re-read the Gospels and see the teacher-disciple relationship pretty fully in this light.

Al: I'll bet someone could do that.

Peg: Who might that be?

Al: I don't know, but it sounds like chapter four or five. I've got to hit the computer. See you later--and thanks, you've really helped!

Peg: Bye!

[Al exits.]

Peg: I'm not sure what all that was!


Acroamatic said...

Probably you wouldn't meet these teachers in real life, at a real school, public or private. It's been a long time since I've heard conversations that were serious but not argumentative, where there were real listeners working in a "philosophic" or collegial spirit to puzzle out some sort of wisdom.

Andy Lambert said...

I like these dialects. They're very Platonic in nature but at the same time some of your own personality certainly comes through. This particular one is intresting. Jesus as a Philosopher. I can certainly see the similarities. Interesting. You know I've heard Christ and Scorates compared and the simlarities are pretty striking. You should look into that one.

Acroamatic said...

Thanks, Andy. That's good feedback.