Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Timothy & Countering The Culture (part 13)

On the other end of the philosophical spectrum against which Hebraic thought competed and which also was a dominant force in the world into which Christianity and its Hebrew-rooted, Resurrection-of-Christ-based claims concerning God’s rule and renewal of His once-good creation was introduced, stood the school of Epicureanism.  As part of its ethos of de-confirming the world and the value of the created order, in favor of the spiritual, it ironically suggested an attachment to the world in which one found oneself, making the most of what was, ultimately, an existence of futility.

The essence of its teaching called for a devotion to the pursuit of personal happiness which led to the avoidance of pain.  This was not a call to a complete hedonism, as an absolute hedonism could eventually lead to suffering, which was obviously to be avoided.  Rather, life was to be spent pursuing pleasure primarily through food, drink, and sexual union (let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die), with peace of mind being achieved through this particular model that was labeled as virtuous.  Clearly, this philosophy rejects the idea that there is a grand narrative into which humans have been inserted and in which they play a part, which is a component of the disavowal of the inherent goodness of the created order.  The created order is only good insofar as it is a means to experience pleasure during this exceedingly short sojourn of physical existence.  Upon death, the person, both body and soul, would dissolve and existence would cease.  Again, clearly, this leaves no room for resurrection.  The dissolution of the person, in body and in soul, continues to lend itself to the idea that there is no ultimate value to the physical.  Consequent to this outlook on life and death, a famous epicurean statement is “Death is nothing to us.”

If there was a sustained reflection on the afterlife, and given the remote possibility that the soul lived on (with no concern for the body), it was determined that the gods would pay little attention to deceased humanity, as they lived in a separate sphere of existence that did not touch the sphere of human existence, and were unconcerned with human affairs.  The gods, to the epicurean way of thinking, were completely absorbed with their own pursuit of pleasure, which could be looked upon as an example of fashioning gods in our own likeness.  Conversely, and more positively as it relates to what should be the Christian response to what is believed about the entity to which Christians look as God, this could serve as a sterling inducement to living one’s life in imitation of what one believes to be the case concerning the gods. 

It was routinely believed that the gods would only bring ruination to their blessed condition if they took it upon themselves to interfere, at any level, with human affairs.  So for the most part, the gods stood as examples of how to go about living a happy life.  This way of thinking, with its obvious self-imposed limitations, can be quite useful for the Christian.  Subtracting the lack of interaction with humanity from this point of view, the foundational belief that the Creator God of the universe manifested Himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, revealing Himself and His character through His ministry and His cross, and erecting those things as the lens through which He must be subsequently viewed and understood and revealed by His worshipers to the world, is an example that, if followed, most assuredly leads to what will ultimately be defined as a happy and virtuous life.     

Without commanding assent, and certainly eschewing dogmatism at this point, as we attempt to discover the multi-level counter-cultural sensibilities on offer in this first letter to Timothy, this information about both Stoicism and Epicureanism becomes useful background noise as we listen to what comes next in the fourth chapter.  Building on the statement that “every creation of God is good,” which led us to our examination of this component of the religious and philosophical culture of the day, we read “By pointing out such things to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, having nourished yourself on the words of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed” (4:6).  We now tune in to the underlying tension between the physical and the spiritual---between the creation-affirming Christian worldview and its opposites, hearing “But reject those myths fit only for godless and gullible, and train yourself for godliness.  For ‘physical exercise has some value, but godliness is valuable in every way.  It holds promise for the present life and for the life to come.’” (4:7-8)  Notice the talk of value and the dual emphasis on this life and the life to come.  Paul continues: “This saying is trustworthy an deserves full acceptance.  In fact this is why we work hard and struggle” (4:10a).  Why?  Why work hard and struggle?  Many in that time would affirm that such is pointless.  Paul says it is “because we have set our hope on the living God” (4:10b), that being the God that represented the overt over-lapping of heaven and earth, and who was physically resurrected into this world, “who is the Savior of all people, especially of believers” (4:10c).  

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