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Ancient Thinking Compared to Modern

Posted on: September 27, 2020

Category: Theology

Ancient Thinking Compared to Modern
One of the key insights of modern history, from about the eighteenth century onward, is that ancient people had a different worldview compared to the modern worldview. The advent of technical history in the modern period, in which historians rely on evidence and facts, is distinct from the ancient historian’s commitment to tropes, themes, heroic tales, legends, and only occasional but still questionable “facts.” There are two questions for modern people in relation to ancient people. One is how and why they thought the way they did, and the second is whether there are things to retrieve from antiquity that can help in our modern (and postmodern) ailments.

The first question is the hardest one. How and why did ancient people think the way they thought? The most important point when answering this question is to understand that for ancient people the world outside speaks to the thinker’s inside. The movement, in ancient thought, is from outside to inside. That is the opposite direction, not absolutely but largely, of modern thought, which moves from inside to outside. It is hard to explain this difference because the language that ancient people used to talk about the movement from outside to inside is basically lost to us. We don’t use it anymore. The ancient language had words like “substance” (hypostasis), “form” (eidos), “word” (logos), “soul” (psyche), and “mind” (nous). We can translate all these words into modern English, but we cannot really recapture their meaning because we do not, today, think about these words in the same way.

All these words in antiquity indicate what is going on out there in the cosmos. The soul is not an individual possession, for example, but an energy (energeias) that animates moving things, including us. The soul acts outside and around us, and it is only part of us because we, in the first place, are part of it. This is true of the other words as well. “Substance” (hypostasis), which was a very important word for the Christian Trinity, is a “nature” not a thing. No one can put their finger on “substance”; rather, substance is the impression of the form (the idea) on the soul. For us, substance is tactile; in antiquity, substance is the image or idea of a thing. In the Christian Trinity, the being of God holds its image in substance (nature). This means Jesus is two substances, two natures, human and divine, but one being with God.

Though these thoughts might be hard to follow, there is an important thing to notice. In antiquity, nature speaks to us. Nature lies outside us, and it tells us how the world is ordered (that is what the logos or word does). Nature relays an energy (energeias) to our souls (our cosmic selves). Nature tells us what is important, like a sacred grove of trees or a particular cave or a ritual involving agriculture. Nature relates living beings to the comic sense of reason and order, and this order speaks to us as a revelation, as something from outside of us moving toward us as energy and mind. Again, while we can translate these words (energeias and nous) as energy and mind, it is still hard to know what they mean.

When the apostle Paul says that “we have the mind of Christ” (I Cor 2:16), he is not saying that we think like Jesus did or that we know what Jesus would do. Paul means that while we cannot know the mind of God, which is the mystery of God’s identity, we participate in the energy of the mind of Christ, which in-forms us (moves on us from the outside). Being in-formed by the mind of Christ, God’s anointed, is as close to the divine mind as we can get because, as the anointed, Christ reflects the intention of God for the world. In this sense, in Christianity, Christ is “revelation,” the outside nature of God impressed upon our inside.

In our modern world, we do not think like ancient people. For us, “revelation” means “insight,” something that happens inside ourselves. And, for us, “interpretation” is very important. I can look at nature, but I must interpret its meaning. In modern times and in capitalist countries, nature is interpreted not as “word” but as commodity. It is something useful, but it does not speak to us. In a sense, we tragically cannot hear nature or its suffering anymore. Meanwhile, reason is what happens inside my head. It is not part of cosmic life anymore. It is only part of how I figure things out usually for myself or for my community. The cosmos no longer holds “spirit,” that is, soul or psyche; these things only inhabit my internal reality. If someone says to me today, “Have the mind of Christ,” I naturally understand this to mean think like Jesus did or do what Jesus would do. I cannot hear Paul telling me, anymore, that Christ is a reality I participate in but that is outside of my thoughts.

Antiquity was not necessarily a great or better world than today. That is not the point. Empires like Rome exploited nature and people. They did so because their gods told them that they were great and that their exploitation of others was justified. The empire of Rome thought that the gods made them conquerors and that they deserved to be conquerors. It’s not unlike the United States today and the idea of manifest destiny. Even when ancient people had ears to hear nature, what nature told them was not always a good thing.

Still, there is something to be retrieved from the ancient way of listening to and hearing cosmic reason impress itself upon us. The world today does need to retrieve a way of hearing nature and understanding it with compassion. The world today needs a sense of sacredness about certain things like biodiversity and respect for non-human life. The ancient notion that the outside world speaks to us and impresses upon us ideas (forms) is worth valuing because it means that the outside world is full of integrity. Giving back integrity to our planet is probably the singularly most important religious act we can participate in today. The challenge is to hear our planet tell us this. The worry is that we, as the human family, are having a lot of trouble listening.

©By David Galston

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