Philosophy, Seinfeld and Soul Food

“There’s no danger in running out of appetites”

Seinfeld’s humour lands with us for many reasons, the most obvious perhaps, is that his insightful wit is like a welcome mat inviting us to laugh at ourselves. In this bit, he argues that he’s never in danger of ruining his appetite because there’s another one following along behind it. His appetite is infinite.

In 380BC, Plato wrote a political philosophical manifesto called the Republic in which he also identified the infinite appetite in the human soul. According to Plato, the thinking part of your soul (logistikon) may know what is logical – like, “don’t ruin your appetite” – but the appetitive part of your soul (epithymetikon) is constantly fighting to take the wheel and drive your actions – “I’ll have another cookie.”

In 397AD one of the church fathers, Augustine did a literary work entitled Confessions in which he was very overt about his unfettered appetite. He often wrote about how he loved  food and women too much. He reflected on how his appetite not only led him to love the wrong things – but to love the right things in the wrong way. The way to love the right thing in the wrong way is to take a good thing and make it the ultimate thing. Make it god.

The infinite appetite is real. Kudos to you Mr. Seinfeld, you’re in good philosophical company.

I’m taking KW Redeemer through Paul’s letter to the Colossians at the moment. It’s a small letter written to a small church that contains a big message. There was a problem in Colossae that Paul was concerned about. There was a mixed bag of ideologies that had crept in and distracted the church, inviting them to diversify their trust portfolio. The philosophy didn’t overtly call the church to outright deny Christ, it covertly lead the church to gradually dethrone Christ. In other words, the Christians in Colossae still looked to Jesus as the one who forgave their souls, but increasingly looked elsewhere for something to ultimately fulfill their souls.  

Paul’s encouragement to the Colossians has striking relevance for the church today:

Jesus Christ not only forgives us as the Saviour of our souls, He also fulfills us because He’s the architect of our souls.

In Chapter 2, Paul explicitly says that he doesn’t want the church “deluded by plausible arguments”, which in the Greek is pithanologia meaning persuasive speech. There’s a big difference between somebody telling you something that’s true and somebody telling you something that’s persuasive. Historical criticism reveals that the philosophy being introduced in Colossae was a mix of gnosticism, mysticism & asceticism. It sounded academic, sophisticated and given the insatiable appetite of the soul for this elusive thing called “meaning”, the Colossians were all ears.

Paul warns the church in Colossae, and us by extension, not to be taken captive by philosophy that promises ultimate fulfillment to the soul while dethroning the One who is the Great Architect of the soul …

“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” Colossians 2:8-9

The word “philosophy” in Greek is actually two words: “philo” which is love and “sophia” which is wisdom. Paul is not against the love of wisdom or against philosophy in that classical sense. He is against a love of wisdom that insists on limiting it’s scope to “human tradition” and the “elemental spirits of the world.”

Philosophy is the art of considering the fundamental nature of our existence and our reality. It pursues this with a line of questioning, considering and arguing that is driven by a love of wisdom. Just 30 years before writing this letter to the Colossians, there was a historical phenomenon that turned the world upside down, that could not be ignored if one was grappling with the fundamental nature of reality: the crucifixion, death, empty tomb and subsequent resurrection of a man names Jesus who claimed to be God.

When Paul says don’t be taken captive, he is warning: beware the sound of one hand clapping. If you are endeavouring to be truly philosophic, and truly love wisdom, then the only reasonable way to engage in philosophy is to do so with discussion about Christ’s empty tomb on the table, not off it. Hence Paul says, “according to Christ.”

Paul cuts to the chase and counters the Colossians philosophical claims with a historical truth claim. The cross and the subsequent empty tomb are on not ideas that are in the clouds and inaccessible, they are claims that are on the ground and historical.

When Paul tells the Colossians to do their philosophy “according to Christ” he is appealing that the church pin their fundamental understanding of reality, existence, ethics, justice – everything – in light of Christ.

If Jesus wasn’t God and He didn’t rise from the dead, then nothing He said matters. If He was who He said He was, and He did what He said He came to do, then everything He said matters. Paul is positioning Christ as the quintessential, philosophical game changer.

Jesus was crucified like a common criminal under Pontius Pilate on a Roman cross in 33AD. Jesus claimed to be God – not a prophet of God, a teacher who came to point to God – He said He was God. As CS Lewis said, that sort of thing means He is either a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord. Those are our options. 

Jesus said we were sinners and that He came to die for our sins. He predicted His resurrection and three days later, His tomb, guarded by Rome, was empty. The resurrected Christ appeared to women first – which was radical given that in the ancient world a woman’s testimony was not valid in court. Therefore, if there was a plot to start a great hoax, you wouldn’t choose women as your primary witnesses if you wanted your story to be credible in a patriarchal society – which was precisely what Christ did. Then the resurrected Christ appeared to His disciples, who were hiding for their lives like cowards behind locked doors, which is another embarrassing way of starting a new movement: have the chief staff run away in doubt of the Founder. Then Jesus appeared to 500 eyewitnesses who were gathered at one time. [1] Hallucinations don’t come in bulk.

Paul is inviting the Colossians to be philosophic by definition, and truly love wisdom by contemplating the answers to their deepest inquiries about life and death by grappling with the claims of Christ – the One who defeated death.

The problem with turning from Christ, the saviour and the architect of your soul, to something or someone smaller in the hopes that it will ultimately fulfillment to your soul, is that as the great philosophers Plato, Augustine and Seinfeld said: there’s no end to your appetite. Whatever you live for in hopes to quench it won’t do the job … because there’s another appetite coming along behind it.

The next romantic encounter, bonus, or business acquisition will never be enough. The next trophy, championship, accolade will never be enough. The next generation phone, gaming system, or car will only be as exciting to us as the length of their planned obsolescence. The next outfit, tech toy or home reno project will all grow old. We will need the next star, like, share, retweet or heart to confirm that our life is as full and interesting as we hope to portray it to be. We will need better marks on our transcripts – not because we are freely developing our gifts to God’s glory to use in our vocations, but because those marks have become the plumbline by which we measure our value and as the great measuring stick of our identity, we use them to announce to everyone else that we’re OK. We’ll need to get married in order to be happy, then we’ll need to change our spouses to be happy, then we’ll need to get rid of our spouses to be happy. We’ll need children to be happy, then we’ll need our children to move out to be truly happy.

Make no mistake, I’m not up on a soap box here, because us preachers have appetites too – and we can be the worst. I should know. I am one.

If us preachers wander from the rest of Christ, we’ll line up at the philosophical satisfaction food trough and start binging as well. Instead of loving God’s people, we’ll use God’s people. Instead of using our pulpits to point people to Christ, we’ll use them to point to our awesome vision – a vision that is way better than other churches by the way – in order to validate our fragile little egos. Instead of seeing people as people to be loved, we’ll see them as tools to be used. Instead of serving like servants we’ll swagger like CEO’s. Instead of dedicating our lives to ensure that Christ’s gospel is preached, we’ll obsess over how to have our names remembered. Instead of making disciples by doing the very unsexy work of meeting with people who can’t write big checks, we’ll craft weekend experiences that are a mile wide in attendance and a foot deep in substance.  If us preachers get hooked on the opium of attaboy’s on Sundays, then our addiction to affirmation is definitely going to kill us because the moment we walk away from the pulpit – next Sunday is already on it’s way. We’ll find our identity in sermon downloads, blog reads, and that great evasive unicorn called consistent church attendance.

If we turn from worshipping  the Architect of the soul so something smaller in the hopes that it will ultimately satisfy our soul, then we are headed on a trajectory of bingeing soul cookies, leaving us chronically dissatisfied. These things – whatever they are – become like drugs that offer only diminishing returns as our souls enter into a cycle of addiction. The thing we used to need to feel better, we have come to need in order to feel normal. Living in worship to anything smaller than Christ is like ordering a single rice chip off the soul food menu – it is incapable of satisfying you.

The way to truly enjoy the things of life – is by not living for them.

Paul is drawing the Colossians attention to the implications of a resurrection and encouraging the church to allow those implications to inform their philosophy. He refers to Jesus as the “firstborn”, which in Greek is prototokos, meaning the first of whom the rest will follow. If Jesus is who He said He is, and by grace and faith believers are united to Him, then the life of of the believer ends in resurrection and restoration.

Because the resurrection is true and our sense of ultimate hope, identity and meaning is not limited to paradox that this this life, our soul is liberated. Our philosophical framework for the basis of ultimate meaning changes. Our souls are no longer hostages that plead with a god named Circumstance, begging that it be perpetually favourable so we can lead happy lives. Christ’s life, death and resurrection is our philosophical framework, liberating our souls from sacrificing our joy on the altar of circumstance. 

We are free. Free to enjoy all good things without living for things, worshipping things and endlessly seeking to fill our God-sized appetite for satisfaction with things. The insatiable appetite of the soul is filled each time we remember, rest and recalibrate to the good news of the Gospel. United to Christ, our lives are in the hands of One who transcends all things, is with us in all things and because the resurrection is true – will restore all things.

Christ not only forgives us because He’s the Saviour of our souls, He fulfills us as the Great Architect of our souls.

Press on,

Paul


Listen to the KW Redeemer Colossians series here.

[1] 1 Corinthians 15 is written to invite the readers to fact check the resurrection by going to eye witnesses who saw Christ after the tomb was found empty – the number of which exceeded 500.

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