August 8, 2004


Athens and Jerusalem: Reflections on Hellenism and the Gospel (Dr. John Mark Reynolds, 7/16/04, Orthodoxy Today)

For centuries, 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 also 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 exists 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. These Christians 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. Nevertheless, it turns out, even the most pious citizen of Jerusalem cannot do it. They try to avoid reasoning, 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 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.

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 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 landlords. 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.

Recently even evangelicals have begun to blame Athens for perceived problems in theology. For example, in the January/February Books and Culture, Nancey Murphy rejects the idea of dualism. Her essential point is that dualism is an unfortunate addition to Christian theology from Greece. Grenz and Kjesbo at least partially blame Greek culture and philosophy for the perceived oppression of women by the Church. The more conservative Ronald Nash argues that at most Biblical theology is only "weakly" dependent on Greek concepts. Even in Hebrews, the most Hellenistic of New Testament books, Nash sees few connections to the pagans. He is eager to remove all traces of Hellenism from Christian theology. He believes that the uniqueness of the Faith would be in danger if Christians allowed Athens a strong role.

All of these moves are wrongheaded. First, Greek and Christian culture cannot now be separated by any means I have been able to discover. Second, even if Christianity were strongly dependent on Greek ideas the doctrine of its divine uniqueness would not be in jeopardy.

Jeffrey Hart has argued, quite compellingly, that the glory of the West lies in the tension between the two cities. So perhaps we need not despair over the fact they are at odds, only when, as in today's Europe, one prevails to the near exclusion of the other.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 8, 2004 8:01 AM

I guess he never read 'The Greeks and the Irrational.'

But I thought the old woman in the story reflected your view.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 8, 2004 2:11 PM

Both cities offer the illusion of certainty. Certainty is the enemy of truth.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 8, 2004 2:15 PM

Are you certain of that, Robert?

Posted by: Judd at August 8, 2004 4:11 PM

It's the enemy of closer approximations, anyway

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 8, 2004 4:24 PM

Just like the perfect is the enemy of the good and for the same reason.

Posted by: Uncle Bill at August 8, 2004 4:45 PM

Isn't there a Hopi word meaning "Life Out Of Balance"?

Posted by: Ken at August 9, 2004 4:11 PM

Poyanasquati or something? it's a flick, right?

Posted by: oj at August 9, 2004 5:08 PM

Something like that. Either way, this essay is stating the same thing -- we've gotten Athens and Jerusalem out of balance, take your pick as to which direction.

Posted by: Ken at August 9, 2004 7:16 PM