Essay / Culture

We Must Act Part II

John Mark Reynolds, 2005.

Read Part I here.

Athens and Jerusalem Break Apart

For centuries, these two cities, Athens and Jerusalem, provided the boundaries for intellectual and cultural growth. They formed one new kingdom. Tensions between the rationalism of Athens and the faith of Jerusalem always existed, but each recognized the contributions made by the other. Eventually, however, the citizens of both cities grew restless. A product of classical Christian civilization was the birth of modern science. Athens became drunk with the success of science. Secular, scientific answers seemed to make religious truth and boundaries not only unnecessary, but stifling. Athens began to pull away from Jerusalem. In the process, what was best in the old Greek and Roman tradition was also discarded. The moderation and humility so prized by the ancients was forgotten. Science would answer all questions and solve all problems. The old Christian, classical civilization began to crumble. The result was the nihilism we are experiencing today.

Others have noted the decline of this Christian, classical culture. The sort of societies that produced C.S. Lewis, Aquinas, or a John Chrysostom no longer exist in a dominant form anywhere. Some Christians have foolishly taken joy in the destruction. Oddly enough these people are found on both the left and the right in Christendom. Some Christians have moved to Athens while keeping a summer home in Jerusalem. The rationalism of Athens, by now reduced mainly to Science, dictates the nature of reality. Jerusalem provides these accommodating Christians with personal peace. Religion is a vacation from the harsh realities of a neo-Darwinian world in which only matter is real. Some shadowy divine providence is allowed to be unseen behind it all. Jerusalem is allowed this marginal existence, if it promises never to interfere with Science. Statements like “God created the heavens and the earth” are reduced to spiritual truths with no physical content.

Christian colleges are often dominated with this spirit. Religion is kept firmly in line. Faculty are petrified that the old place will look a bit dated and tawdry if their Athenian friends were allowed to visit. Like many vacation homes, Jerusalem is filled with yesterday’s furniture. No one lives there, they just spend the weekends and holidays hanging around. Other Christians have condemned Athens and left it to burn. Classical Christian culture is not mourned. They have locked themselves into Jerusalem and are not coming out until the war is over. Armed with Bible verses, they glare over the walls and leave the rest of the world to fend for itself.

It does.

They then complain that the Truth is ignored. The ghetto or fortress of contemporary Christian culture, with its separate institutions and media, is a prime example of this form of impotence. I once gave a talk about the sinful hatred many Christians have for the life of the mind. One older person came to me after the talk and said that this hatred was a sign of revival! Religion should be, in her view, about feeling and never about thinking. Thinking, she thought, leads to doubting. Doubting is simply the first step towards an apostate Athens.

Such faithful Christian folk try to reduce themselves to repeating the Truth. But it turns out, even the most pious citizen of Jerusalem cannot do it. They try to avoid reasoning at all, only to end up reasoning about the Faith badly. Any attempt to understand the very Words of revelation requires reason. Most people live for years after their conversion, minds fully functioning. They have questions. They try not to reason about them, so they simply reason without training, usually very badly. Why are there over twenty thousand Christian denominations, with more popping up every day? Trapped within the walls, an inbred Jerusalem becomes a bit crazy.

There is another way. Many Christians still find much value in the old crumbled civilizations that came before their time. They see Athens and Jerusalem, not as two cities, but as two districts in one city: the City of God. There are signs that this view is growing. Sales of collections of classical tales have reached best seller lists in the Christian community. Christian day schools and a few colleges have seized on the classical model with some success. This look back must not, of course, be reactionary. The classical and Christian interaction did not produce one culture, but many. It seems perfectly capable of doing so again, if allowed the chance to do so.

Now both Athens and Jerusalem are dying, because each needs the other to thrive. Our modern Athens has confined its rationalism to a materialistic science that prevents its thinkers from going beyond the natural to find the Truth. Science can do useful things, but by itself it cannot find Truth and it knows little or nothing about Goodness and Beauty. Because science cannot deal with Truth, Beauty and Goodness, it must call the very existence of such things into question. Athens, the rational mind, does not by itself have the resources it needs to deal with the most important things. The ancient Greeks knew this, which was why so many of them were eager to embrace Christianity. We are learning the same lesson again, the hard way. The fashionable philosophy we call post-modernism is merely the tired realization that rationalism without faith ends up destroying its own foundations.

Jerusalem is sick as well. Her inbred residents, who cannot even do the sort of classical theology that produced their own creeds, sit in their ghetto talking only to themselves. Her ruling class is often composed of absentee land lords. They live in Athens and only show up to collect their tithes. These rulers reject the creeds, since Athens has rejected both the religion and the classical thought behind them, but cannot substitute much of anything in their place. So the Church is treated to the spectacle of evangelicals who believe the Bible contains errors and Anglican Bishops who do not believe in God.

Secular and Christian culture have no modern or post-modern answers. Real accommodation between Jerusalem and a scientific or post-modern Athens is impossible. Some contemporary theologians try to dialogue with post-modernity, but this is impossible without denying their Christian heritage. The Creeds are written in an elegant and precise Greek. They make bold assertions about God and reality. The early Christians could do this, because they believed their ideas were simply true. Move very far from those ideas as the main stream Church has understood them and basic orthodoxy, and Christian identity, comes into question. To be truly Christian, after all, was to believe some things and not believe others. That very idea, however, makes conversation with those who would deny such logical categories in religious discourse impossible. The rationalists believe the doctrines are false. The post-modernists think that all doctrines have only an inner or personal truth. Athens cannot hear what Jerusalem has to say. Like a married couple that after fifty years of marriage comes to look alike, the very shape of theological discourse has a Greek tone. Jerusalem cannot praise the nature of even the Holy Trinity without echoing the language of pagan philosophers. Athens has discovered that she cannot go it alone either. Science without God, intellect without theology, is rapidly becoming anti-knowledge. If you cannot know Truth, then even small truths can be called into question.

Athens and Jerusalem cannot live apart. Athens and Jerusalem cannot stay separated without grave damage to both. In the providence of God, the Church was born into a Greek, Roman, and Jewish world. From the mix came classical Christian civilizations that changed the world. Any hope of reviving such a classical and Christian culture must begin by understanding what it is. What are the roots? Once every educated person was familiar with both the Greek and Christian foundational ideas.

That is no longer the case. Study of the ancients is vital for any new beginning to classical civilization. Knowledge of ancient Athens is vital for Christians. Some will see it as the starting place for the flowering of new classical Christian civilizations. It is a chance to see what human reason, unscarred by an irrational desire to rid itself of Christianity, looks like. As Christians move toward the classical model, they must also be aware of the mistakes and dangers along the path. We cannot just reclaim the Academy. We have to remake it. Modern Athens is not what it once was.

The tradition of Ancient Athens has been harmed by modernity every bit as much as that of Jerusalem. Naturalism, science without limits, would have mostly been scorned as limiting or undercutting human freedom and knowledge in ancient Athens. The irony is that secular intellectuals have no more time for the old books and writers than the most anti-intellectual Christians. It is easy to graduate from most colleges in the United States with an advanced degree without having read a single classical author. As humans have remodeled and destroyed ancient Athens, they have also sacked Jerusalem.

It was after all a man who was a foe to both classical and Christian ideas, sitting by a lake in Switzerland, who developed the ideological formula that has captured the times. He knew that the modern human was interested in personal peace, often at any cost. He understood that contemporary people were driven by economic desires. He believed that the promise of a place to call mine would be an adequate substitute for religion. It was a philosophy that could have democratic, capitalistic, totalitarian, or socialistic implementation. It was still the siren call of modernity. Lenin summed up the spirit of the age in the revolutionary call for, “Peace, Bread, and Land.”

Classical and Christian thinkers did not agree. Such persons believed that goodness was often better than peace bought at the price of a toleration of moral evil. They believed that the quest for truth was more important than personal affluence. Whether in monastic community or in compassionate capitalism, it was the truth, not wealth, that would set humans free. Finally, classical and Christian humanists believed things, even important things, could not satisfy if there were not beautiful. Mere consumption or production was not enough. There were standards of beauty to which every civilization should aspire. Classical Christian civilizations answered modernity with a cry for, “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.”

These were not abstract ideas for the Christian. Whatever else the relationship was understood to be, these ideas were rooted in the very nature of Jesus Christ. God, a personal God, was Good. He spoke the Truth. He created a divine hierarchy that was Beautiful. Humans could know God and so know the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

The generation of Nicholas II turned away from the “Good, the True, and the Beautiful” and embraced “Peace, Bread, and Land.” They bought at best a violent peace, a destruction of the value of humankind, and polluting of the land. Perhaps, the time has come when, disillusioned by the failure to find real happiness in modernity, humanity will turn again to the old formula. If so, Christians need to understand how that formula came to be. The alternative is to be backed against some metaphysical basement wall and die asking, “What?”

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