Posted by: Dan | April 30, 2006

Plundering Egypt or Returning to Egypt?

Now the LORD said to Moses, “One more plague I will bring on Pharaoh and on Egypt; after that he will let you go from here. When he lets you go, he will surely drive you out from here completely. Speak now in the hearing of the people that each man ask from his neighbor and each woman from her neighbor for articles of silver and articles of gold.” …

Now the sons of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, for they had requested from the Egyptians articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing; and the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have their request. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.
~ Exodus 11.1-2, 12.35-36

The question of the relation of Christian theology to secular and pagan philosophy has long been questioned within the Christian tradition. Indeed, from the very beginnings of Christian theology this question has created controversy in the Church. Thus, Tertullian, writing in the early third century, rhetorically asks: “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Tertullian believed that Athens [pagan philosophy] has nothing whatsoever to do with Jerusalem [Christian theology]. However, other Church Fathers, notably Origen in the East in the late second century, and Augustine in the West in the late fourth century, argued that Christian theology could make significant gains by dialoguing with pagan philosophy and appropriating its methods, categories and terms. In this regard, both Origen and Augustine [and several others since then] used the analogy of “plundering the Egyptians” to speak of this appropriation. Just as Israel, in obedience to God, plundered Egypt on their way to the promised land, so also the Christian theologian can “plunder” pagan philosophy on the way to Christian theology.

However, I wonder a little about the approach of Origen, Augustine, & Co. After all, not long after the Hebrews plunder Egypt, what happens to the gold that they took with them into the wilderness? It was melted down and turned into a golden calf. Plundering Egypt leads fairly naturally into worshiping Egypt's gods. That is to say, Christian theology, in its eagerness to gain respectability, relevance, and practicality, can be a little too eager in its appropriation from secular philosophical systems, and the end result can be very appealing, impressive, and convincing… but not at all Christian. Plundering secular philosophies often leads to the abandonment of the Christian god. Our plunder becomes that which fuels our idolatry. To state things in an overly simplistic manner, this is the mistake often made by more Liberal theologians.

Furthermore, it seems that many contemporary Christian theologians are so eager to plunder Egypt that they don't just plunder Egypt as they depart. They return again and again to Egypt [note that God commands the Hebrews not to return to Egypt], and often end up deciding that the back and forth journey is a waste of time. And so they have taken up residence in Egypt, and have been delighted to do so. It's much more comfortable. In Egypt we get the security, respect, and acclaim we desire. Thus, we forget that the people of God are a people on the way to the holy land, and as such we will be forever seen as a little odd to those around us. Thus, as Hauerwas and Willimon say, we are “resident aliens” or as Rodney Clapp says, we are “a peculiar people”. After all, following Jesus is not a road that is altogether appealing, respectable or intelligible. Rather it is a road that seems foolish, embarrassing, distasteful, and painful. Too often our motive for plundering Egypt stems from our fear of carrying a cross. Instead of being a cruciform people presenting an embodied mystery to a wondering world, we become a respectable people presenting efficient arguments to a pragmatic world. To state things in an overly simplistic manner, this is the mistake often made by Conservative theologians.

In this regard, I am tempted to side with Tertullian. Of course, Tertullian himself was more influenced by the philosophy of his day than he seems to recognise. We are all inescapably contextual beings and will be shaped by the categories, themes, and methods of our times. Thus, if we are to avoid the mistake of either worshiping Egypts gods or making Egypt our home, we must maintain a critical distance from secular philosophical frameworks, hermeneutics, languages, and stories, while also reflecting critically upon ourselves.

God may have commanded the Hebrews to plunder Egypt, but the Church's vocation is rather different. Like Paul, we are to be “fools for Christ's sake… weak… without honour” saved not by the wisdom of the wise but by the “power of God” which destroys the wisdom of the wise and which is, therefore, a “stumbling block” to some and “foolishness” to the rest [cf. 1 Cor 1 & 4].

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