Athens and Jerusalem

I find useful the use of “Athens” and “Jerusalem” as a convenient shorthand among followers of the philosophy of Leo Strauss. However, rather than thinking of Athens and Jerusalem as an irreconcilable dicotomy for which a person chooses one side or the other, I take the two worldviews to be the foci defining the ellipsoid of Western civilization. More picturesquely, Athens is the spike in the left hand and Jerusalem is the spike in the right hand of Christ, crucified, the center of the Church. In this regard, there is an interesting passage in the recent book by the eminent Australian theologian, Mrs Tracey Rowland, on Ratinzger’s Faith [pages 62-64]:

Nonetheless, while Ratzinger regards an immersion in the ordinary life of a Christian community as a normal part of catechesis, he also believes that the faculty of the intellect is an important tool for making judgments about the merits of one’s community, be it Christian or otherwise. Assuming that the memory has done its work in giving a person an understanding of the constituent elements of one’s Tradition, the intellect, and in particular the intellect in the form of critical reason, can then be brought in to discern the value of this Tradition. Ratzinger frequently reminds academic audiences that the Church Fathers found the ‘seeds of the Word, not in the religions of the world, but rather in philosophy, that is, in the process of critical reason directed against the [pagan] religions’. He notes that the habit of thinking about Christianity as a ‘religion’ among the religions, all of roughly the same intellectual merit, is a modern development. At its very origins Christianity sides with reason and considers this ally to be its principal forerunner. Moreover:

Ultimately it [a decision to believe in God] is a decision in favor of reason and a decision about whether good and evil, truth and untruth, are merely subjective categories or reality. In this sense, in the beginning there is faith, but a faith that first acknowledges the dignity and scope of reason. The decision for God is simultaneously an intellectual and an existential decision-each determines the other reciprocally.

Ratzinger therefore does not follow the trend of thinking of Athens and Jerusalem as shorthand terms for two fundamentally different ways of approaching religious matters: one fidestic and one philosophical. The great University of Chicago philosophy professor Leo Strauss (1889-1973) popularized this dichotomy to such a degree that now two generations later there are almost as many subcategories of Straussians as there are Thomists, according to which side of this apparently unbridgeable divide they find themselves most at home. However, Ratzinger’s approach is to argue that there are quite amazing parallels in chronology and content between the philosophers’ criticism of the myths in Greece and the prophets’ critism of the gods in Israel. While he concedes that the two movements start from completely different assumptions and have completely different aims, he nonetheless concludes:

the movement of the
logos against the myth, as it evolved in the Greek mind in the philosophical enlightenment, so that in the end it necessarily led to the fall of the gods, has an inner parallelism with the enlightenment that the prophetic and Wisdom literature cultivated in its demythologization of the divine powers in favour of the one and only God.

Ratzinger observes that, for all the differences between them, both movements coincide in their striving toward the logos. In Christianity philosophical enlightenment has become part of religion and is no longer its opponent. Christian existance means life in conformity to the logos; that is why Christians are the true philosophers and why Christianity is the true philosophy. The paradox of ancient philosophy consists in the fact that intellectually it destroyed myth but simultaneously tried to legitimize it afresh as religion. It treated religion as a question of the regulation of life, not as a question of truth; however, Tertullian put the Christian position when he said that Christ called himself truth, not custom.

Fundamentally, Ratzinger suggests that the question is whether reason, or rationality, stands at the beginning of all things and is grounded in the basis of all things or not? In response to this question he believes that the answer is Yes, the Christian faith does represent a choice in favour of the priority of reason and of rationality. He also argues that this ultimate question cannot be decided by arguments from natural science, and ‘even philosophical thought reaches its limits here’. In a statement which would upset some Neo-Scholastic sensitivities he says, ‘in that sense [the sense of scientific rationality], there is no ultimate [empirical] demonstration that the basic choice involved in Christianity is correct’. Nonetheless, he also rhetorically asks whether reason can really renounce the claim that the logos is at the ultimate origin of things, without abolishing itself.

Again in a manner that is reminiscent of MacIntyre, the logic of Ratzinger’s position is that the choice is between Christianity and nihilism. Both have their own internal logic. Both have their own God or gods and their own myths. The Christian God takes the form of absolute love, whereas the alternative gods are violent or selfish or both. What Ratzinger calls the ‘evolutionaly ethos’ of those who would deny that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God is not only wrong but cruel. It has nothing to offer the weak and suffering. Contrary to the ethos of social Darwinism, Ratzinger holds that the ethos of Christianity must consist in love and reason converging with one another as the essential foundation pillars of reality: ‘In the conception of early Christianity the primacy of the Logos and the primacy of love were revealed to be one and the same. The Logos was revealed to be not only the mathematical reasoning at the basis of all things, but as creative love to the point of becoming com-passion, co-suffering with creation.’ It is precisely here that the third faculty of the soul becomes effective, as it is for the will, or more biblically, the heart to make the choice for self-sacrificial love or against it. This is the Augustinian point about the two cities being founded on two loves. The choice of myth is intimately connected to what and how a person loves.

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