In a recent meeting of Westar’s Christianity Seminar, some scholars suggested that the trouble with Christianity is that Christians today mistake Plato’s allegory of the cave (found in Book Seven of Plato’s Republic) for the gospels or maybe even The Gospel.

In examining what this statement might mean, I suggest that, like many general statements, it is true so far as it goes but also false at the same time. It is true at a cultural level because the allegory of the cave is not well understood, but it is false at the same time because, when we examine the allegory of the cave, it is not about what we think it is about. The allegory of the cave is closer in intension to a parable of Jesus than to our cultural impression of it, which means that Plato’s cave is closer to the Christian gospels than we might imagine.

Of course, we must start with the scene of the cave and with the general or cultural impression. The scene is of several prisoners bound in a sitting position inside a cave and forced to observe the wall of the cave. Behind them is a passageway where individuals walk carrying different objects. Behind the passageway is a fire so that the shadows of the objects are cast on the wall of the cave. Those who are in bondage can only see the shadows cast on the wall of the cave. Their eyesight is accustomed to the darkness, and they must imagine what the objects might be whose shadows flicker in front of them on the cave wall. The shadows are the only reality they know. Then, one lucky soul (almost literally a “soul” in Plato) gets released from bondage. The individual at first can’t see because of the brightness of the fire, but does gain sight; then, the individual ascends to the surface and sees reality under the sun. Again, at first, it is almost impossible to stand the brightness as the eyes adjust to a new, clear, reality. This lucky person has been enlightened.

If we stop the story here, we can say that Christians today mistake the gospels for the allegory of the cave. The gospel message is about being some lucky soul who is saved and brought into the light. Other people, the unsaved, are in the dark world and dwell in the land of lies and fake news. They have no access, because their eyes are dim, to the libertarian experience of being an individual, set apart from the condemned, who is released from the bondage of sin. This really makes a great story for an individual who can indulge in selfish egoism and pretend that this is the gospel message. This interpretation of Plato’s cave has indeed increasingly become the Christian gospel from about the end of the nineteenth century to our time.

However, outside cultural Christianity that thinks the gospel is all about getting saved, the allegory of Plato’s cave continues. The passageway from the cave is actually a two-way street, not a one-way path to heaven. The religious or the pious are not those who see the light, either. The “religious,” that is, the ones convinced of the rightness of their beliefs, are the ones who never get out of the cave. To put this in a more shocking way, you have to give up religion (customs, beliefs, egocentrism, assumptions, socialization, institutionalization, paramount reality, or whatever you want to call it) to get out of the cave. Furthermore, getting out of the cave is not the point.

The point is to go back into the cave once you are out. The point is to be a liberator, a social transformer, on behalf of the common good. Plato is explicit about this in the Republic. The point of getting out of the cave is to go back into the cave because this allegory is not about personal happiness. This allegory is about the “condition” of happiness in the whole republic. If this allegory is reduced to the individual, then the point of the allegory is not heard. You could say here, on behalf of Plato, “whoever has ears to hear should listen.” Or, as the Jesus Seminar sometimes put it, “you have a head; use it!”

The parables of Jesus are about two things. One is catching a glimpse of an alternative reality, and the other is catching a glimpse of the way the world really is. Alternative reality holds unexpected grace and possible transformations, but the world as it really is concerns things that never change and brutalities that always persist. The glimpse in the parable about what could be and about what is causes the hearer who hears to re-evaluate and to live in the world differently.

Plato’s cave, though an allegory and not a parable, nevertheless has a similar intention. The allegory imagines catching a glimpse of reality as it really is. Being out of the cave is like a moment of enlightenment. You can see what’s really going on. Now you know what oppression is; now you understand bondage. With this glimpse of reality, you must live in the world differently. You must go back into the cave and live for the common good. You must accept the responsibility of liberation, the act of loving others.

In his allegory, Plato has a strong sense of self-sacrificial love, of what appears in the gospels as “agape.” If we think that the allegory of the cave is about a one-way street to heaven, and if we think the parables are about getting into heaven, then in both cases we hear half of the story only, if at all. The act of returning to the cave, in Plato, is like Christianity understood as liberation.

En la Cena ecológica del Reino (At the Ecological Supper of the Kin-dom) by Maximino Cerezo Barredo, 1980, Spain

The social gospelers of the early twentieth century understood Christianity this way; Christianity is not about personal salvation but social salvation. This is the basic idea of Liberation Theology. Christianity is about social justice and liberation from economic oppression. This is the basic message of Black Theology as well. Christianity is about deliverance from slavery and life in a just society. Plato’s allegory of the cave is not about being a lucky individual but about liberation from bondage in service of the common good. It may be that Christians today hear half of this allegory and read Christianity as a religion of individual luck, but this interpretation is neither Plato nor the gospels.

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University. He is the author of God's Human Future (Polebridge, 2016), Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press, 2012), and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press, 2011). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.

Publications

Academic Credentials

  • Ph.D., McGill University
  • M. Div., Vancouver School of Theology
  • B. A., University of Winnipeg

Academic Appointments

  • Westar Academic Director (2015-2017) and Executive Director (2017-)
  • Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Brock University, St. Catharines (2012-)
  • Co-founder (2000), President (2000-2007), and Academic Adviser (2007-20015) of The SnowStar Institute of Religion, Windsor, Ontario
  • Principal of Iona College, University of Windsor, 1996-2000
  • University Chaplain, McGill University, 1990-1996

Ecclesiastical Experience

  • Executive Director of the Quest Learning Centre, United Church of Canada, 2001-
  • Minister in the United Church of Canada, 1985-2001

Awards and Honors

  • Humanities Research Grant, McGill University, 1993
  • DAAD Scholarship, 1991
  • Graduate Prize in Religious Studies, McGill University, 1991
  • Amelia Elliot Prize for Graduate Studies, McGill University, 1990
  • George Harrison Prize for Pastoral Theology, Vancouver, 1985
  • Musgrave Prize for History, Vancouver, 1984
  • General Proficiency Scholarship, Winnipeg, 1981
  • Louis J. Reycraft Prize for Religious Studies, Winnipeg, 1981
0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available

In a recent meeting of Westar’s Christianity Seminar, some scholars suggested that the trouble with Christianity is that Christians today mistake Plato’s allegory of the cave (found in Book Seven of Plato’s Republic) for the gospels or maybe even The Gospel.

In examining what this statement might mean, I suggest that, like many general statements, it is true so far as it goes but also false at the same time. It is true at a cultural level because the allegory of the cave is not well understood, but it is false at the same time because, when we examine the allegory of the cave, it is not about what we think it is about. The allegory of the cave is closer in intension to a parable of Jesus than to our cultural impression of it, which means that Plato’s cave is closer to the Christian gospels than we might imagine.

Of course, we must start with the scene of the cave and with the general or cultural impression. The scene is of several prisoners bound in a sitting position inside a cave and forced to observe the wall of the cave. Behind them is a passageway where individuals walk carrying different objects. Behind the passageway is a fire so that the shadows of the objects are cast on the wall of the cave. Those who are in bondage can only see the shadows cast on the wall of the cave. Their eyesight is accustomed to the darkness, and they must imagine what the objects might be whose shadows flicker in front of them on the cave wall. The shadows are the only reality they know. Then, one lucky soul (almost literally a “soul” in Plato) gets released from bondage. The individual at first can’t see because of the brightness of the fire, but does gain sight; then, the individual ascends to the surface and sees reality under the sun. Again, at first, it is almost impossible to stand the brightness as the eyes adjust to a new, clear, reality. This lucky person has been enlightened.

If we stop the story here, we can say that Christians today mistake the gospels for the allegory of the cave. The gospel message is about being some lucky soul who is saved and brought into the light. Other people, the unsaved, are in the dark world and dwell in the land of lies and fake news. They have no access, because their eyes are dim, to the libertarian experience of being an individual, set apart from the condemned, who is released from the bondage of sin. This really makes a great story for an individual who can indulge in selfish egoism and pretend that this is the gospel message. This interpretation of Plato’s cave has indeed increasingly become the Christian gospel from about the end of the nineteenth century to our time.

However, outside cultural Christianity that thinks the gospel is all about getting saved, the allegory of Plato’s cave continues. The passageway from the cave is actually a two-way street, not a one-way path to heaven. The religious or the pious are not those who see the light, either. The “religious,” that is, the ones convinced of the rightness of their beliefs, are the ones who never get out of the cave. To put this in a more shocking way, you have to give up religion (customs, beliefs, egocentrism, assumptions, socialization, institutionalization, paramount reality, or whatever you want to call it) to get out of the cave. Furthermore, getting out of the cave is not the point.

The point is to go back into the cave once you are out. The point is to be a liberator, a social transformer, on behalf of the common good. Plato is explicit about this in the Republic. The point of getting out of the cave is to go back into the cave because this allegory is not about personal happiness. This allegory is about the “condition” of happiness in the whole republic. If this allegory is reduced to the individual, then the point of the allegory is not heard. You could say here, on behalf of Plato, “whoever has ears to hear should listen.” Or, as the Jesus Seminar sometimes put it, “you have a head; use it!”

The parables of Jesus are about two things. One is catching a glimpse of an alternative reality, and the other is catching a glimpse of the way the world really is. Alternative reality holds unexpected grace and possible transformations, but the world as it really is concerns things that never change and brutalities that always persist. The glimpse in the parable about what could be and about what is causes the hearer who hears to re-evaluate and to live in the world differently.

Plato’s cave, though an allegory and not a parable, nevertheless has a similar intention. The allegory imagines catching a glimpse of reality as it really is. Being out of the cave is like a moment of enlightenment. You can see what’s really going on. Now you know what oppression is; now you understand bondage. With this glimpse of reality, you must live in the world differently. You must go back into the cave and live for the common good. You must accept the responsibility of liberation, the act of loving others.

In his allegory, Plato has a strong sense of self-sacrificial love, of what appears in the gospels as “agape.” If we think that the allegory of the cave is about a one-way street to heaven, and if we think the parables are about getting into heaven, then in both cases we hear half of the story only, if at all. The act of returning to the cave, in Plato, is like Christianity understood as liberation.

En la Cena ecológica del Reino (At the Ecological Supper of the Kin-dom) by Maximino Cerezo Barredo, 1980, Spain

The social gospelers of the early twentieth century understood Christianity this way; Christianity is not about personal salvation but social salvation. This is the basic idea of Liberation Theology. Christianity is about social justice and liberation from economic oppression. This is the basic message of Black Theology as well. Christianity is about deliverance from slavery and life in a just society. Plato’s allegory of the cave is not about being a lucky individual but about liberation from bondage in service of the common good. It may be that Christians today hear half of this allegory and read Christianity as a religion of individual luck, but this interpretation is neither Plato nor the gospels.

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University. He is the author of God's Human Future (Polebridge, 2016), Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press, 2012), and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press, 2011). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.

Publications

Academic Credentials

  • Ph.D., McGill University
  • M. Div., Vancouver School of Theology
  • B. A., University of Winnipeg

Academic Appointments

  • Westar Academic Director (2015-2017) and Executive Director (2017-)
  • Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Brock University, St. Catharines (2012-)
  • Co-founder (2000), President (2000-2007), and Academic Adviser (2007-20015) of The SnowStar Institute of Religion, Windsor, Ontario
  • Principal of Iona College, University of Windsor, 1996-2000
  • University Chaplain, McGill University, 1990-1996

Ecclesiastical Experience

  • Executive Director of the Quest Learning Centre, United Church of Canada, 2001-
  • Minister in the United Church of Canada, 1985-2001

Awards and Honors

  • Humanities Research Grant, McGill University, 1993
  • DAAD Scholarship, 1991
  • Graduate Prize in Religious Studies, McGill University, 1991
  • Amelia Elliot Prize for Graduate Studies, McGill University, 1990
  • George Harrison Prize for Pastoral Theology, Vancouver, 1985
  • Musgrave Prize for History, Vancouver, 1984
  • General Proficiency Scholarship, Winnipeg, 1981
  • Louis J. Reycraft Prize for Religious Studies, Winnipeg, 1981
0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available