Warriors of the Mind
A couple years ago, I was introduced to a website dedicated to improving lives through different philosophical schools and modern psychological insights. One of the learning tracks that I began was around the philosophy of Stoicism. I’ve always wanted to read more of the influential Greek philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Many current philosophical debates seem to have little to do with making life better for the average person. Yet ancient philosophers were practitioners of their pursuit of virtuous living. And little did I know that there are a growing number of modern Stoics – people trying to apply this ancient wisdom to the betterment of their own lives.
Ancient philosophers were warriors of the mind versus librarians, like modern-day philosophers.
– Donald Robertson, How To Think Like A Roman Emperor
There is much to inspire in Stoicism. And I found myself drawn to several teachings of Stoic writers. Some would argue that there is overlap between Stoic Philosophy and the Christian teachings of Jesus and the Apostle Paul. After all, Seneca and Musonius were contemporaries of the Apostle Paul, teaching around the same time. Others contend that the two are incompatible.
Truthfully, I even liked the idea of referring to myself as a modern Stoic, though that may have been more of my ego embracing that idea. But there was a larger issue that I have continued to process. Why did I find myself getting inspired by this ancient philosophy that shared many values with early Christianity, when I believed that the Christian faith has much more to offer? Why the desire to call myself a Stoic when I could just more fully embrace the identity of Christian?
Stay on the Path
I am reminded of some words of the Apostle Paul to the church at Colossae:
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught.
Much of what Paul wrote to the Colossian church was encouragement to continue their pursuit of Christ. They initially embraced it, but had become distracted by other teachings. Now it is not my contention that Christians shouldn’t study and learn from other philosophical teachings. Only that we take what we can learn elsewhere in order to strengthen our faith, not discard it.
But why are these other philosophies – both ancient and modern – so appealing at times? One reason has to do with the way the Bible was written. The Bible is a collection of histories, stories, wisdom literature, prophetic literature, as well as practical advice written to early churches. The remarkable – some might say inspired – distinctive of the Bible is that all these collections written over hundreds of years come together to tell a cohesive story. It tells of our attempt to commune with the Divine, with God. Yet, the Bible is not a philosophical treatise. While scripture does contain much wisdom on how to overcome the human condition and commune with God, it is not organized in a systematic way. In many ways, this forces us to study its words and extract the guiding principles for living the spiritual life. Which is a good thing!
Much of the last thirty years of my own spiritual journey has been trying to do just that. What are the guiding principles that lead to real spiritual transformation – transformation that the Biblical writers say is possible? It seems to me that there is something missing in our modern expression of the Christian faith, a gap between faith and practice. And I have spoken to others who feel the same gap.
Statue of Wisdom at Ephesus
The Love of Wisdom
The endeavor to systematize the teachings of the Bible is the aim of theology. Theology ensures that we believe the right things about our faith and about God. Good theology is important. But when I am feeling anxious about current events or struggling with motivation, I don’t pull my copy of Christian Theology off the shelf for guidance. Maybe I should. At the other end of the spectrum is the content of many sermons each week. Much of what is taught is at the level of self-help advice, attached to a verse or two from the Bible.
Perhaps, the gap between a rich theology and self-help advice should be filled by a healthy philosophy. A distinctly Christian philosophy in the mold of the ancients, who rigorously applied their principles with the aim of living a virtuous life. Who literally loved wisdom – the very definition of philosophy – and pressed it into a way of living.
Maybe I don’t need to become a Stoic, but instead pursue a Biblical philosophy of spiritual transformation. Between saving grace and the promise of God’s kingdom, what would be the guiding rules that would shape the way I live? What I eat? What I do, what I think, how I treat others? That is the path I increasingly find myself on and the path we are on here at Navigating An Ancient Faith.