I am participating in the reading group Read the Fathers. In order to help me maintain this discipline I have been posting my notes each Saturday. These are my notes from this week:
This week’s readings are Athenagoras the Athenian’s A Plea for the Christians and On the Resurrection.
Athanagoras the Athenian is a second century philosopher who converted to Christianity.
A Plea for the Christians is written to the emperors of Rome and philosophers. As with several other figures I’ve studied he argues that Christians should not be prejudged by the name “Christians,” but like all citizens of the empire should be allowed to worship their deity and judged for actual wrong doings only (Chapter 1; Chapter 2; Chapter 37).
Athanagoras names three things charged against Christians: atheism, Thyestean feasts, Œdipodean intercourse (Chapter 3). He denies the charge of atheism by announcing that Christians worship one deity (Chapter 4). He argues that this is reasonable by quoting poets (Chapter 5) and philosophers (Chapter 6) who speak of the unity and oneness of the Most High God, the God the Christians worship, who works through his Word and Spirit. If poets and philosophers admit this, almost by accident, then the Christian view of God is superior to other theologies (Chapter 7). Athanagoras deconstructs polytheism (Chapter 8).
Athanagoras juxtaposes the prophets with other theologians. He depicts them as filled with the divine Spirit, who used them like a flute player uses a flute. If people possessed by the divine Spirit speak for God, why trust others (Chapter 9)? Athanagoras explains how Christian monotheism relates to God’s Son (Logos) and Spirit. Similarly, he tells his audience that Christians believe in beings like angele, presumably softening the charge of atheism by any means (Chapter 10).
As regards the charges of immorality, Athanagoras appeals to Christian doctrine: how can a group who loves their enemies, and aims to do no wrong to others, be guilty of the charges against them (Chapter 11; see also Chapter 31 where Athanagoras speaks of Christians living now in order to be close to God after death; especially strict morality as regards sex and marriage Chapter 32; Chapter 33)? In fact, Athanagoras argues that Christians have more moral uprightness than their opponents (Chapter 34). Christians harm no one, even forbidding abortions, so how would they be cannibals (Chapter 35)? It is belief in the resurrection that guides Christian moral thought (Chapter 36).
He ties this to his refutation of atheism: how can Christians be atheists with these moral teaching that they believe comes from their deity (Chapter 12)? The nature of God explains Christian refusal to make sacrifices: their God doesn’t need them (Chapter 13). The Christian view of God being a different view of deity from their neighbors is nothing new. Many people disagree about the nature of the gods (Chapter 14). Christians worshiping idols doesn’t make sense because Christians distinguish God from matter (Chapter 15). Similarly, Christians don’t worship the universe, because art glories the artist, and the universe glorifies the Creator (Chapter 16).
Pagan deities have not been “named,” until recently (Chapter 17). In fact, pagan deities have been created by humans (Chapter 18). The philosophers and poets agree on these things (Chapter 19; see also Chapter 23). The images used to depict the gods are absurd (Chapter 20) as are their symbols (Chapter 22). The gods are depicted as having questionable morals (Chapter 21).
Athenagoras is familiar with the story of Genesis 6 concerning angels and giants (Chapter 24). This is the origin of demons (Chapter 25). It is these demons that drive people to worship idols (Chapter 26; Chapter 27). The pagan deities are mortal (Chapter 28). The poets agree (Chapter 29).
On the Resurrection begins with Athenagoras presenting his view that every truth in the world is accompanied by a lie created by humans. Some humans live for these lies. So, when arguing for truth one should write one line of thought in defense of truth against those who adopt lies and another lines of thought for those who want to adopt truth but need further explanation (Chapter 1; see Chapter 11 also). The discussion begins with theology proper: what god exists? does this god enter human affairs? would this god will to resurrect humans? does this god have the power and knowledge to resurrect bodies? This determines how one thinks about resurrection (Chapter 2). If there is a god who was able to create everything, this god must have the ability to resurrect the dead (Chapter 3). God is not limited like humans (Chapter 9).
What about human bodies entering other human bodies, e.g., a man dies in a shipwreck and he is eaten by fish who are in turn eaten by humans who catch the fish (Chapter 4)? Athenagoras attempts to explain his view by discussing the function of the digestive system as he understood it (Chapter 5; Chapter 6; Chapter 8). How is the resurrected body juxtaposed with the current body? His answers begins by noting that the human body is in flux (Chapter 7).
There is no way to prove that God wouldn’t want to resurrect humans or that resurrection is too abased an idea to attribute to God (Chapter 10). Rather, one must begin with anthropology: what is a human? why did God make humans? If God made humans for himself, what does this tell us (Chapter 12, which exegetes Genesis 1 a bit, echoing Romans 1 indirectly)? Humanities closeness to God in juxtaposition with the rest of Creation gives an eternal aspect to humans: resurrection is a good and right destiny (Chapter 13).
Resurrection isn’t for judgment, primarily (Athenagoras argues that even small children who do not wrong are resurrected, Chapter 15), but judgment matters to the equation since what was done body and soul should be judged body and soul (Chapter 18). In fact, humans must remains body and soul, (Chapter 20; Chapter 21; Chapter 22; Chapter 23). Humans have souls, so there is a sense of eternality already. The body joins the soul (Chapter 16). Humans have innate potential for resurrection, like seeds (Chapter 17, echoing 1 Corinthians 15).
If there is no resurrection humans have it worse than irrational animals. Humans try to live for something, and by some ethical guidelines, rather than relying on instinct. If death has the final word rationality is a terrible thing (Chapter 19). The need for resurrection boils down to something simple: the purpose of humans. Do humans have a destiny limited to dying and disappearing? If not, what then? If something more, should humans (body and soul) always be humans? If so, then resurrection (Chapter 24; Chapter 25).