What do Platonism and Christianity have in common? Have you got a few years?
That’s how long — four to be exact — that Alexander Hampton took to finish a book that examines the 2,000-year story of how one of the world’s most important religions was shaped by one of its most influential philosophies.
Hampton co-edited Christian Platonism: A History that brings together 24 scholars from Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Britain, and the United States to create what’s considered the first comprehensive history of this intertwined tradition of philosophy and faith.
“It's the book I always wished I had when I was a graduate student,” says Hampton, an assistant professor in the Department for the Study of Religion in the Faculty of Arts & Science.
“To me, it's this fascinating, 2,000-year narrative. But the challenge is that you're dealing with such a range of history and a lot of complicated ideas.
“For any one person to produce a history of this would be really difficult. There wasn't a compendium which brought together everybody working on the various areas to give an overall picture. That's what this book tries to do.”
How are Platonism and Christianity connected?
As Christianity developed from being a movement within Judaism, into a religion in its own right, the Platonic tradition offered a language for spirituality that encompassed the experiences of a wider diversity of people and cultures, allowing the new movement to grow.
At various times in history, Platonism provided Christianity with its intellectual framework, particularly during its early stages of development.
For example, a key theme in Platonism is transcendence — the existence of a higher level of reality, something beyond the physical world. Another shared connection is the notion of a divine presence in all creation. And Platonism brought forward the idea that we are more than just a body, that we possess a spirit or soul.
“As Christianity developed from being a movement within Judaism, into a religion in its own right, the Platonic tradition offered a language for spirituality that encompassed the experiences of a wider diversity of people and cultures, allowing the new movement to grow,” says Hampton.
The book is divided into three parts — the first being concepts of Christian Platonism in relation to subject such as God, the Trinity and creation. The second examines this tradition over distinct historical periods. And the third connects Christian Platonism with contemporary issues such as the environment, natural science, art and materialism.
“The chapter I wrote was on the environment, the way Platonism can help us think about our relationship to nature and in a radically interesting way,” says Hampton.
Through its essays, the book looks at some fundamental philosophical questions through the lens of Christian Platonism.
“For example, something we all want to know is, are we the source of our own ideals, or is meaning something that is outside of us?” asks Hampton. “That might seem an abstract thing a philosopher thinks of in a library, but think of a tree.
I'm using part of it in my Religion and Nature class and in my Introduction to Christianity class, but what I'd like this to be is the beginning of a larger project in terms of producing a set of resources for teaching this story. I want people to see Christian Platonism is an intellectual resource for engaging questions that are still very much with us today.
“If we are the inventors of meaning, we can do whatever we want with that tree — we can turn it into a product or admire it for something that brings us joy. But it's always something that depends upon us. Whereas if meaning is something that exists outside of us, then it's intrinsic to that tree itself.”
That shift changes our relationship to it in a radical way, believes Hampton. It introduces a non-anthropocentric way — one that doesn’t regard humankind as the sole source of meaning and value — of thinking about our relationship to nature.
“A lot of the debate in the environmental humanities today is about how we overcome anthropocentrism,” says Hampton. “How do we stop constructing the world according to our immediate needs and wants, and value it for something which has its own intrinsic ecological value?”
Though written for scholars, Hampton feels his book will be a valuable teaching tool.
“I'm using part of it in my Religion and Nature class and in my Introduction to Christianity class, but what I'd like this to be is the beginning of a larger project in terms of producing a set of resources for teaching this story,” he says. “I want people to see Christian Platonism is an intellectual resource for engaging questions that are still very much with us today.”
He also hopes that in reading the book, students and scholars think about pluralism and adopt the approach of the 20th century Irish and British philosopher and novelist, Iris Murdoch, who talked about the Christian Platonic idea of the ‘sovereignty of the good’.
According to Murdoch, “what is good or what is true is not just something that can belong to any one institution, philosopher or ideology,” says Hampton.
“It's something that can't be exhausted by any of those but it’s something that all of those have a claim to. To get closer to an idea of the good, it's not about simply defending one's own definition of it but trying to gather as many definitions of it as possible to then move closer towards this idea of the good.
“I think that's a beautiful way to think about it.”