As rational beings, we try to make sense of our experience. Contradictions and gaps are to be resolved and filled. Sometimes real contradictions are there, and sometimes they are merely apparent, the consequence of confusion and disjointed experience.

An interesting example of perplexity is the Euthyphro dilemma, discussed by Plato in the dialogue that bears that name. The original discussion was about the nature of piety. Do the gods love what is pious because it is pious? Or is piety simply what(ever) the gods love?

This dilemma was re-imagined in the modern era as part of the interaction between atheism and theism, with morality substituted for piety. Does God command what is moral because it is moral? Or is morality simply what(ever) God commands? The former proposition appears to undermine God’s omnipotence or self-sufficiency by positing that something exists independently of Him and this thing constrains him, – namely, morality. The latter proposition suggests that morality is arbitrary, since God’s will is taken as unconstrained in this model. Since our conception of morality presupposes that morality is guided by some principle, this option makes morality into a contradiction.

I do not believe I have met anyone who became an atheist because of the Euthyphro dilemma. Usually some other problem is the cause for such a position. Nevertheless, this is the kind of scenario that will be used by atheists to attack the coherence of the Judeo-Christian conception of God. Apologists can respond by providing a specific solution or by appealing to the concept of transcendence: God is ultimately beyond the limits of human understanding.

One response is to argue that God’s will is guided by God’s love. This only pushes that problem back a stage. The atheist will ask, “Is God’s love arbitrary or not?” Or he may ask, “Why is God’s love good?” The theist may provide an answer, but there will be back-and-forth until either or both of the two following assertions arise: “It just is; it is a mystery.”

Human existence appears to be contingent. We do not see ourselves as necessary beings and we do not see the course of our lives as taking necessary courses (though this does not entail that the power to change all aspects of one’s life lies with the individual whose life it is). Heraclitus observed that the world is in flux: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” In such a world, the concept of something being necessarily and unalterably so is mysterious.

Nevertheless, eternal and perfect beings and qualities – the abstract – are applied to our contingent world. We may not be able to say what justice or coherence or love are in and of themselves, but we seem to recognise their presence in the world in shadowy and distorted forms. “That action was loving.” “That ruling was unjust.” I am, of course, appealing to Plato’s concept of the Forms (Ideas), which he himself later criticised in his dialogue, Parmenides.

This Platonic line of thinking was mingled with the Israelite worldview in the works of Philo of Alexandria. Philo provides an interesting parallel with the Christology of John, drawing upon conceptions of Wisdom as a hypostasis of YHWH found in earlier Second Temple literature. St Paul agreed with this sentiment: “But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). We do not understand the deep things of God, but Christ is the Reason (Logos) and Wisdom (Sophia) of God. In Him we find our answers and our rest.

 

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