How does the gospel respond to stoicism?

Dear Vince and Jo,

May I first begin by saying thank you so much for the warmest of welcomes during EAP November 2017. I love you both with all my heart!

I have a question pertaining to philosophy. A good friend of mine was curious about my new interest in apologetics. When I tried to briefly describe what apologetics was (questions about life, purpose, meaning, morality, etc.) her face lit up and she began to speak about a, and I quote, “very similar” train of thought; stoic philosophy.

To be honest, I don’t know much about stoicism except from the word “stoic” itself. From my light reading, I gather that stoic philosophy is centred around one’s self, resembling a pattern like other philosophies which have evolved over time into major world views.

I hope that you may be able to advice me on how the gospel specifically responds to such a philosophy. Perhaps, what sort of questions should I raise or books I should look at? I tried to look up videos on YouTube to share with her but I couldn’t find something as specific as Stoicism Vs. The Gospel to draw distinctions.

Thank you for taking my question and praying that God will tremendously bless you both!

Blessings,
Petrina

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Dear Petrina,

So good to hear from you! And how encouraging that you’re sharing about your interest in apologetics, and getting into these kind of conversations, with your friends!

Wow, your question is a big one! Not least because Stoicism is a school of thought that has been through various phases and expressions since it was first founded as a philosophy by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rdCentury BC (“stoic” coming from the Greek “stoa poikilê”, meaning “colonnade”, and referring to the porch in the Agora, the marketplace in Athens, where Zeno used to teach).

In summary, ancient Stoicism was founded on the belief that the universe we live in has a rational order, referred to as the “Logos”. While ancient Stoics thought of this rational ordering of the universe (“Logos”) as “God”, this was not a relational deity, but rather a kind of semi-conscious, impersonal universe. Far from worshipping a transcendent God of revelation, therefore, ancient Stoics were pantheists who believed this ‘Logos’ to be the rational principle in all of us. In that sense, they were naturalists who didn’t believe in an eternal afterlife, but ordered their lives to the logic that they perceived in a deterministic universe.

While some Stoics do still believe in some kind of semi-conscious rational principle loosely termed “God”, many modern Stoics today are atheists and naturalists who see themselves as continuing in the same Stoic tradition of emphasizing the rationality of the universe, particularly in regards to scientific inquiry. Stoicism also appeals to many today not only because of its emphasis on the rationality of the universe, but also because Stoic philosophy teaches the importance of living virtuously. According to the stoics, what it means to live the ‘good life’ is not to allow ourselves to be ruled by our passions, but rather to align ourselves to the rational order of the universe and rule over our instincts with reason. In the words of the 1stCentury AD Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca,

“For what prevents us from saying that the happy life is to have a mind that is free, lofty, fearless and steadfast - a mind that is placed beyond the reach of fear, beyond the reach of desire, that counts virtue the only good, baseness the only evil, and all else but a worthless mass of things, which come and go without increasing or diminishing the highest good, and neither subtract any part from the happy life nor add any part to it?” (Seneca, The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters )

Although many people think of Stoics as fatalistic, its not so much that they are pessimists, but rather that they emphasize the importance of recognizing what you can change about your circumstances and the world around you, and what is predetermined such that you have no control over it, and to gracefully accept the latter while influencing the former.

From a humanistic perspective, it is easy to see the appeal of Stoicism: a philosophy that appears to offer a framework for living a rational and virtuous life without needing to appeal to a divine law-giver as the source of either our rationality or our morality.

When it comes to engaging with Stoicism today, how encouraging it is that we are hardly the first Christians to find ourselves standing in the marketplace of ideas and wondering how to respond to the competing philosophies that surround us. In fact, it was around 2000 years ago that the Apostle Paul first set foot in the city of Athens. Luke, the author of the book of Acts, described Athens as a city “swamped by idols” (Acts 17:16), and dominated by the two rival philosophies of the Stoics and the Epicureans.

Rather than immediately bashing these alternate philosophies, however, Paul begins his address to the Areopagus in Acts 17 by first establishing common ground:

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:22-23)

By identifying this “altar to an unknown God”, Paul seeks to build a bridge between the philosophers of the day and the “foreign deity” that he is preaching: Christ.

Following Paul’s example, there are certainly commonalities between Christianity and Stoicism that you can affirm with your friend as you seek to engage her in deeper conversation. For example, unlike those who embrace a post-modern philosophy of ‘living your own truth’, both Stoics and Christians recognize a rational order to the universe that we all have our place within.

Likewise, far from advocating hedonistic tendencies, Christianity and Stoic philosophy are both concerned with living virtuous lives, and offer a great deal of practical advice on how this can be achieved. In particular, both Christianity and stoicism emphasize allowing the suffering we endure to produce character, avoiding material excess, and living self-examined lives rather than allowing selfish impulses to rule over us.

While some have drawn such close parallels between Christianity and Stoicism as to advocate for a form of ‘Christian Stoicism’, however, at heart these are two contradictory worldviews. If you want to examine how the gospel responds to Stoicism, then Paul’s speech at the Areopagus is once again a helpful model for us to follow. There are five points that we want to highlight in particular.

Firstly, while Stoics believe that everything is material (even the ‘Logos’ does not transcend the physical universe, but is guiding principle imbued within it), Paul makes sure to distinguish the created universe from the creator God: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24). Likewise, while today we recognize the orderly nature of the universe, as Christians we believe God to be the one who not only initiated but sustains that order. A God who can be the cause of the universe precisely because He alone is non-contingent, existing outside of space and time. Indeed, unlike naturalist Stoics who trust in their reason, we might ask why we should trust our brains to produce rational thought, if our minds are the product of an unplanned evolutionary process? For if they are hard-wired by evolution, then at best they are hard-wired for survival, not truth.

Consequently, unlike many modern Stoics who hold atheistic beliefs, Christians conclude that our rationality only makes sense if we are created in the image of a God who has given us minds to reason by. In his own way, Paul makes a similar argument by noting that if we are capable of using our rationality to seek God (Acts 17:27), then whatever God we are seeking must be more than a material thing (“we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man”, Acts 17:29), not lesser than us but far greater, “since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).

Secondly, Stoics seek to live a virtuous life by gaining mastery over their own emotions and responses, everything they achieve is through the work of “human hands” (Acts 17:25), through their own effort. Ultimately, this is a philosophy that celebrates wisdom and living ‘the good life’, but does so with the expectation that this is something we can discipline ourselves to do. However, while this might be an optimistic view of human nature, it’s highly questionable whether it is a realistic view. In the words of the atheist philosopher John Gray, who himself is highly skeptical of this perspective:

“Civilisation is natural for humans, but so is barbarism. The evidence of science and history is that humans are only ever partly and intermittently rational, but for modern humanists the solution is simple: human beings must in future be more reasonable. These enthusiasts for reason have not noticed that the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion. Since it requires a miraculous breach in the order of things, the idea that Jesus returned from the dead is not as contrary to reason as the notion that human beings will in future be different from how they have always been.” (Gray, ‘Humanism and Flying Saucers’)

Thirdly, given that Stoic tradition also perceives anger and retributive justice to be unreasonable, the notion of God as a judge also does not sit easily with Stoicism, something that Paul is quick to highlight: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:30-31).

Of course, there is wisdom in being wary of anger as uncontrolled emotion, but God’s righteous anger against sin is a central tenant of the Christian faith. In the words of John Stott, “The wrath of God is His steady, unrelenting , unremitting, uncompromising antagonism to evil in all its forms and manifestations” (Stott, The Cross of Christ ). For the Christian, the promise that God will deal with evil by upholding justice is a hope for the victims of injustice to hold onto, even if in this lifetime they suffer. For the Stoic, on the other hand, suffering is just a fact of the universe that we have no control over and which cannot be set to rights. The best hope for the Stoic, therefore, is not to look for an ultimate justice, but rather to roll with the punches and allow suffering to mold your character in the brief time that you have.

Fourthly, while the ‘Logos’ may be impersonal within Stoicism, the same cannot be said of Christianity. Rather, as John explains at the beginning of his gospel:

“In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made… And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1-3, 14).

Here we get to the primary distinction between Christianity and Stoicism, which is that within Christianity, we do not believe in a impersonal guiding principle, but we call upon a knowable, personable God. The Logos who took on flesh, God incarnate, so that we can truly say that on account of the person of Jesus (“a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:31)), God really is “not far from everyone of us” (Acts 17:27). This is a personal God who is in his very nature not only rational, but relational.

And finally, as Paul himself concludes, we can verify the truthfulness of the Christian claim that “the man he has appointed” is indeed the divine Logos, a God who is personal in nature, through Jesus’ historical resurrection from the dead. Once again, this act of resurrection, and what it signifies in regards to the promise of eternal life, is radically distinct from the Stoic naturalistic perspective that we have this one life and nothing more (“Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live. The inescapable is hanging over your head. While you have life in you, while you still can, make yourself good.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations4.17)). Hence the mixed reaction of Paul’s hearers at the Areopagus to Paul’s declaration that

“‘…he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” (Acts 17:31-32).

There is so much more that could be said here! But I hope this is a useful starting point for you as you consider how to respond. Below are a few resources if you’re interested in doing further reading on the contrast between Stoic philosophy and Christianity. We’ll certainly be praying for you, Petrina, and that you are able to have a fruitful dialogue with your friend over the coming weeks!

Blessings,

Jo and Vince

Further Reading:

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