G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Schools of the Imperial Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990) 321.
Ethics becomes in Plotinus the way of “returning” to the One…
Plotinus was a Neo-Platonist who lived in the third century C.E. His emphasis was on human beings attaining an ecstatic union with the divine, such that they become God themselves. At the moment, I am not entirely clear what Plotinus means by that, but I hope to gain insight as I read more of Reale the day after tomorrow. In this post, I want to look at the notion that ethics is a means to an end, namely, union with God.
That reminds me of what I encounter in George MacDonald’s fiction. George MacDonald was a nineteenth century Scottish author, poet, and minister, who had a profound influence on J.R.R. Tolkein, Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis. In some of his novels, there are non-Christian characters who are scrupulously moral. Sometimes, MacDonald takes an approach that I see among a lot of evangelicals: try to find a flaw in the non-Christian’s life! That way, we can conclude that he’s a sinner who needs Jesus Christ, as the Bible depicts unregenerate humanity! In one book, for instance, we learn that a moral agnostic doctor is good primarily because he feels guilty about his past. So his goodness is flawed!
Most of the time, however, MacDonald affirms that human morality can lead a person to God. If a person is moral, wouldn’t she feel more whole once she reached union with the source and embodiment of all morality? And wouldn’t she want for there to be a God, one who loved human beings and was bringing them to wholeness?
Many evangelicals try to bring people to Christ by hammering home to them their sinfulness. That way, the prospect can recognize his flaws, feel guilty, and flee to God for cleansing and forgiveness. And this is a biblical approach, one that the apostle Paul practices in Romans.
But there are times when pointing out a non-believer’s goodness to him can get him thinking. I went to college with an atheist who wanted to be a pediatrician. His dream was rooted in a desire to help people. I asked him one time where he thought that desire came from, and he remarked to me later that it may be from God. I don’t know what his beliefs are today, but I do know that his wife is a Christian, so maybe he believes in God right now. But he was an example of someone who wondered where goodness comes from, and if there is a source promoting it in the world, even in himself.