Spiritual Warfare and the “Eternal Now”
In a previous post I discussed Plutarch’s warfare worldview – a view, I argue, that is quite insightful and remarkably consistent with the quasi-dualistic theology of the New Testament. What’s interesting, however, is that Plutarch fuses this warfare perspective with a thoroughly platonic ontology. In this platonic framework, reality is conceived of as a spectrum of “more” or “less” real things. At the top of the reality scale – the level of “true being” or “being itself” — is the supreme God with the inferior gods just below him. At the bottom of the reality scale is non-being with matter just above it. Everything else exists in between true being and non-being, participating in true being insofar as they are real and non-being insofar as they are not.
Most importantly, the higher up the scale of being something is, the less it changes, for in platonic thinking change only occurs to the extent that something participates in non-being. God is therefore understood by Plutarch (along with all ancient platonists) to be utterly changeless. This had been a long standing assumption in the platonic tradition (shared by many other Hellenistic schools of thought), but some scholars argue that Plutarch was the first on record to state unambiguously that changelessness entails timelessness. In one famous passage Plutarch writes:
But God is (if there be need to say so), and He exists for no fixed time, but for the everlasting ages which are immovable, timeless, and undeviating, in which there is no earlier nor later, no future nor past, no older nor younger; but He, being One, has with only one “Now” completely filled “Forever”; and only when Being is after His pattern is it in reality Being, not having been nor about to be, nor has it had a beginning nor is it destined to come to an end. (The E at Delphi, 393 A. [full bibliography below)
Later on he writes:
What, then, really is being (ontõs on)? It is that which is eternal, without beginning and without end, to which no length of time brings change. For time is something that is in motion, appearing in connection with moving matter, ever flowing, retaining nothing, a receptacle, as it were, of birth and decay, whose familiar ‘afterwards’ and ‘before,’ ‘shall be’ and ‘has been,’ when they are uttered, are of themselves a confession of Not Being (mē ontos) ( ibid., 393E-F).
It’s evident that, in this platonic framework, motion, change and therefore time come into being only insofar as things participate in “Not Being.” Following Plato’s famous teaching that time is a moving shadow of eternity (Timaeus, 37c-38b) Plutarch holds that the physical world is a mere “image of being” (eikõn…estin ousias) and imitation (memēma) of true reality (Plutarch, Isis, 372 F). “[E]verything of a mortal nature,” Plutarch says, “is at some stage between coming into existence and passing away, and presents only a dim and uncertain semblance and appearance of itself…”(E at Delphi, 392 AB). By contrast, the One who is true being does not come into being or pass out of being, but forever exists in a non-sequential “Now.”
It seems to me that when the warfare worldview is worked out in a platonic framework, such as we find in Plutarch, it logically undermines, or at least qualifies, the reality of the warfare worldview. All conflict, whether between gods, daemons or humans, involves action and response on the part of the characters involved. Conflict is, therefore, intrinsically temporal. If true being is non-temporal, and if things are temporal only insofar as they are unreal (and vice versa), then it follows that conflict is not fully real. It may of course be real to the characters involved, but the characters themselves are unreal insofar as they participate in conflict and time. When placed in the context of a platonic ontology, therefore, spiritual warfare (like all forms of becoming) is reduced to a quasi-reality.
This wouldn’t trouble a pagan platonist like Plutarch. What interests me, however, is that it didn’t seem to trouble any of the early church fathers either. They shared Plutarch’s warfare worldview, as I noted in a previous post. But they also increasingly shared his platonic view of reality and thus his platonic understanding of God as “true being” and as existing in a durationless “Now.” This is explicit in the writings of the Cappadocians, Augustine and most emphatically in Boethius, but I would argue that it’s implicit in almost all of the earlier fathers as well. They all adopt (in varying degrees) the typical middle platonic epithets for God, describing him as (for example) changeless, impassible, immutable and utterly simple.
If I’m right that the platonic framework renders spiritual warfare quasi-real, it might help explain why appealing to the activity of Satan, fallen powers and demons to help explain evil in the world gradually became the church’s pen-ultimate explanation. With Augustine (as platonized a church father as you’ll find), the ultimate explanation for why things unfold the way they do became “the sovereign will of God.” Augustine still talks about Satan, the Powers and demons, of course, but they no longer function as an ultimate explanation for evil in the cosmos. For they only behave in ways that conform to the timeless will of God.
In a metaphysical framework that sees time as a moving shadow of eternity and in which eternity is identified with a personal God, it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise.
For my part, I’m am happy to see that contemporary Christian theology is increasingly being freed from its association with (or bondage to) platonic metaphysics. In my opinion, the whole “scale of being” framework with its intrinsic prejudice against becoming, contingency and time is philosophically misguided and, even more importantly, fundamentally inconsistent with the picture of God and creation given in Scripture.
Think about it.
* Plutarch, The E at Delphi, (Peri Tou EI Tou En Delphois) in Plutarch: Moralia, tran. F. C. Babbitt (Cambridge/ London: Harvard University Press, n.d.), 199-253
* Plutarch, Isis and Osiris (De Iside et Osiride) in Plutarch: Moralia, 7-191.