Just like we agnostic and atheist Stoics have to struggle to reconcile our beliefs with the Stoic tradition we have claimed for our own (see “Zeus for Atheists“), Christians who become interested in Stoic literature also have to navigate the question of how their tradition and doctrines mesh with philosophy.
Both questions are deeply interesting to me, in no small part because I have a Christian family and I’m in an interfaith marriage (aside: shoutout to Dale McGowans’ excellent book, In Faith and in Doubt!)—and so I regularly engage with Christianity, Humanism, and Stoicism, sometimes all at the same time!
In fact, the title of this blog—Euthyphroria—is a subtle shoutout to exactly the question of how humanistic and religious morality do or don’t mesh together (a question that Socrates discusses in Plato’s Euthyphro).
The question of Christian-Stoic compatibility comes up frequently in social media. The topic has been treated a number of times in Stoicism Today, and several relevant full-length books have been published in the last few years—but perhaps a brief explanation would be more helpful to you than a long scholarly treatise!
So here is how I explain my current understanding of the relationship between the two traditions to people who are struggling to make sense of their own practice:
Can a person be a Christian and a stoic at the same time? any ideas.. thanks.
It’s true that ancient Stoicism and early Christianity had a number of commitments on human nature, cosmology, and theology that made them quite different from each other. I have very much enjoyed Kavin Rowe’s recent book on the topic, in which he argues that classical Stoicism and Christianity are incommensurate traditions (in the sense of Alastair MacIntyre) which can really only be understood from the perspective of their lived practice—I learned a great deal about both Stoicism and Christianity from reading it.
But Stoicism and Christianity can absolutely be effectively syncreticized! Christians have always loved Seneca and Epictetus, Erasmus once wrote something to the effect of “I look to the Bible for my spirituality, but I prefer to look to Cicero for morals,” and the neo-Stoic movement of the renaissance created an entire school of Christian Stoicism! A number of doctrines we now think of as characteristically Christian, moreover, can be traced to ancient Stoicism—such as theodicy and the immanence of God.
IMO, the two biggest points of potential conflict between Stoicism and Christianity are:
- Justice. Stoicism completely and utterly rejects the moral validity of both A) anger and B) retributive justice. This can be a problem if you hold strongly to the substitutionary theory of the Atonement: i.e. that we “deserve” to die for our sins, or to (Calvinist) notions that God is “wrathful” with us, and that he had to vent his anger on somebody.
Of course, Christian interpretations of justice vary wildly. If you already lean anywhere remotely close to moral influence theory, you’ll have no problem with Stoicism here!
- Moral exercise. Stoicism is ultimately about using your own effort and non-revealed, human wisdom to slowly approach an ideal moral state. The Christian gospel sees nothing wrong with moral discipline, but it is much less optimistic about our ability to make progress through personal effort—largely because sin is a pernicious disease that always leads us astray, even when we think we are honestly pursuing wisdom. That’s why “faith” always takes precedence over “works.” Rowe’s book covers this topic very nicely!
All said, it’s probably safe to say that the more you find the ideas of Christian humanism appealing, the less tension you’ll feel that Stoic praxis has with the gospel.
Personally, Stoicism was very appealing to me specifically because it resonates strongly with the way I interpreted Christianity growing up.
It always seemed obvious to me that all God cared about was that I be virtuous, and that the truly moral person—Christ, the Sage—would not get angry, would not be driven by the passions, would be very long-suffering and compassionate, etc, and wouldn’t care about promises of eternal reward or punishment: he would only care about being a good person.
It was obvious to me that I needed to practice my morality by looking to an ideal model, and that the Holy Spirit would not magically remove sin from me.
It also was obvious to me that God’s plan of salvation could be about nothing less than giving us a chance to learn to pursue that kind of wisdom. All this talk of his blood “paying the price” for our sins could only be a metaphor—a Wise God would only want virtue, he wouldn’t care about “blood.”
I became atheist in college, and some people would say that my soteriology was well on its way to becoming a Socinian heresy worthy of William Ellery Channing anyway, but I never lost my idea of what a truly Good God would be like.
Today I recognize the same idea of God in the Stoic understanding of the Sage, and of the pure (if idealized) wisdom of divine reason.