From the Letter to the Colossians:
Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Colossians 2:16-17 (NRSV) – January 10, 2014.)
I sometimes wonder to what extent Paul, as an educated Jewish citizen of a Greek-speaking empire, was schooled in the classical Greek philosophers. Had he read Plato’s Republic? Was he aware of the conversation portrayed in Book VII between Socrates and Glaucon in which the allegory of the cave is laid out?
In the dialog, Socrates describes a prison cave in which the inmates have lived all of their lives chained in such a way that all they can see is a blank wall. The prisoners watch shadows formed on the wall by things passing between them and a fire behind them. They recognize the shadows, give them the names of the things which cast them, and believe them to actually be those things. The shadows, says Socrates, are as close as the inmates get to viewing reality. According to Socrates, a philosopher is like a prisoner who is loosed, sees the real forms casting the images, and comes to understand that the shadows are not reality at all. He is aware of the true form of reality, not the shadows seen by the chained inmates. The story illustrates Plato’s “Theory of Forms,” which holds that things in the material world perceivable through sensation are mere “shadows” of ideal “forms.” These “forms,” not the “shadows,” possess the highest and most fundamental reality.
When Paul writes things like “these are only a shadow . . . the substance belongs to Christ,” he seems to be buying into this Platonic idea. His famous line from the first letter to the church in Corinth seems to do so as well: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12) Take these sorts of Pauline statements and mix them with the Letter to the Hebrews (“They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one.” – Heb. 8:5) and even a bit of James (“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” – James 1:17), and one can see where the Neoplatonists and even the Gnostics get the notion that the material world is less than ideal, fallen, corrupt, or even evil. That’s a position that, unfortunately in my opinion, has made a significant impact on Christian theology.
It is also not a view to which the Hebrew Scriptures lend much support and one doubts very much that it was the opinion of Jesus of Nazareth! Oh sure, there are hints of it in Hebrew poetry and prayer. For example, King David prays with the assembly of the people: “For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope.” (1 Chron 29:15) And Bildad the Shuhite advises Job: “For we are but of yesterday, and we know nothing, for our days on earth are but a shadow.” (Job 8:9) And from time to time the Psalms say things like the description of human beings as “like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.” (Ps. 144:4) But on the whole, the Old Testament and (I suggest) the Christian faith declare a much different understanding of reality!
Just read the accounts of creation in Genesis! God is not shown to be casting shadows; God is creating hard, physical reality and, at each step along the way, declares it good. In the second account (which is probably the older of the two), God gets God’s hands dirty in all that good, hard, physical reality molding human beings out of the clay. I’m particularly fond of poet James Weldon Johnson’s retelling of that story (which I quoted in last Sunday’s sermon):
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;
Then into it He blew the breath of life.
(“The Creation”, from God’s Trombones)
When I was a second-year student at law school I was a member of the law review where we used some very early word processing equipment and software in which one had to enter the codes for changes in typeface, indentation, and so forth (not too dissimilar from writing HTML code, frankly). What you looked at on the green-on-black computer screen bore no resemblance to what (you hoped) the printer would produce. The next year, when I became an editor, we purchased a new computer and were introduced to a new concept – “WYSIWYG” (pronounced “wissy-wig”) – What You See Is What You Get. What was on the screen looked like what the printer produced!
I believe that’s the kind of world we have been given, one in which what we perceive is real. Yes, I know that quantum mechanics and superstring theory bring that into some question, that at some super-micro-nano-reality level things are not quite what they seem; but that is a different issue than this philosophical nothing-is-really-real shadow-world construct of Plato’s, and a far cry from the fallen, corrupt, evil world of some Christian theologies. We live in a real, physical world, one in which God was pleased to take on flesh and dwell among us (John 1:1-14).
When I see beautiful winter hillside covered with glistening snow, when I taste a sweet-tart bite of homemade cherry pie, when I kiss my wife or hug my daughter, when I listen to a Vivaldi concerto, I am seeing/tasting/feeling/hearing what I get, not some shadow of an unseen and unknowable “ideal form.” Like that mammy bending over her baby, what I am experiencing is real and good; it is the ideal. We live in a WYSIWYG world!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.