Q & R: New Kind of Christianity and Colossians 3:1-2

Here’s the Q:

I am reading through ‘A New Kind of Christianity’ and am enjoying it immensely. I have not yet finished it, and should probably wait until I have to ask questions, but I fear I will forget. My question concerns the Greco-Roman interpretation of our faith. I know you look at it from before Christ onwards, but I think Paul is a valid advocate of the faith. He writes in Colossians 3:1-2:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

This implies to me a plain above, and one below, as Plato suggests. What do you make of this with regards to your argument? Thank you for helping me continue my faith journey,

Here’s the R:

Thanks so much for this interesting and important question. It allows me to restate a couple things I put in the endnotes of the book … that perhaps should have gone in the main text.
First, I absolutely agree that Paul is a valid advocate of the faith. (It always amazes/amuses me when people put me in the “Paul versus Jesus” camp … even though I’ve explicitly articulated the opposite again and again – in my books, and on this blog.) I’ve gone to some lengths (you’ll come to this later in the book – under “the gospel question,” and in The Secret Message of Jesus and Everything Must Change) to show how Paul isn’t preaching a different gospel from Jesus, but is applying Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom in his context – as we must learn to do in our own.
Second, it’s important for you to understand that I’m not “dissing” Plato. That would be foolish. I’m not even “dissing” the various forms of later Platonism that may simplify Plato’s original richness and complexity to this or that version or slice of it. (I remember being enthralled with Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy” when I was an undergraduate … It beautifully celebrates a certain kind of Platonist vision.) Nor am I arguing against articulating the gospel in the language and thought-forms of any one of the later Platonisms that arise. Doing so is essential in translating and incarnating the gospel from Hebraic to Greco-Roman cultures, which was inherent in the Great Commission … to communicate the gospel and make disciples “of all the peoples.”
My complaint comes when we reduce Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom to any single version of it, Platonic or otherwise … when we forget the original Jewishness of Jesus and his message … when we take a message that arises under empire and turn it into a tool of empire … when we forbid other cultures (African, Asian, Polynesian, Native American, Australian aboriginal, postmodern, and so on) from having the same privilege as the Greeks and Romans had: of receiving the gospel translated/incarnated into their own thought-forms.
When the gospel truly enters a language, culture, philosophy, etc., I don’t believe it is cut and trimmed to fit into it. The culture can receive the gospel, but it can’t contain or control the gospel. The gospel must, like new wine, have the vitality to stretch and transform every wineskin into which it enters … which will, I imagine, always result in those wineskins being changed from old to new. As Paul said, in Christ, new creation.
Regarding Colossians 3, then, here’s the issue as I see it: Paul is telling us there’s a higher/truer/deeper/richer/more transcendent reality that is in tension with a lower/deceptive/shallower/cheaper/more transient reality. This shouldn’t be seen as collapsing the gospel into a school of Platonism … but rather of validating Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God, which is higher/truer/deeper/richer/more transcendent than the kingdoms of this world. That it does so in the language of the day – Greek, in which Plato’s rich legacy was inescapable – is necessary and itself inescapable. The Fourth Gospel (scholars tell us it was written much later than Paul’s writings) takes this a step further – revealing Jesus as “the Logos,” a key term in several schools of Greek philosophy.
(By the way, the last question in the book – the Future Question – tries to do something similar. It speaks of a clear above and below, higher and lower, using a schema of stages or zones. I also use a schema of higher and lower in my upcoming book … but I’m not proposing either of those formats as the ONLY way to see things. I would never say that the gospel should be considered as nothing more than an example of Spiral Dynamics or Fowlerian faith-stages, or whatever.) I’m just using available language and thought-frameworks to present something of value in the best way I can. I think that’s all any of us can do …)
To collapse the gospel into the worldview of Plato, or Plotinus, or even Paul, is, I think, risky. For example, if Paul held an Aristotelian (pre-Ptolemaic) view of the universe, in which the earth was in the center, does that mean we must? The European church erroneously seemed to affirm this in the time of Copernicus and Galileo … but later realized that was a mistake. For us to affirm that Paul was inspired to write certain letters which are essential for us today is not to affirm that Paul was omniscient and inerrant in all his beliefs and assumptions.
But back to Colossians 3 … when Paul speaks of Jesus being seated at the right hand of God, he’s speaking in the language of kingship. That evokes Jesus’ whole message of the kingdom of God, which was Paul’s gospel – as the last chapter of Acts makes abundantly clear. May we all seek that higher reality, that deeper kingdom, in all we do and say today!