Friday, February 02, 2007

Athens and Jerusalem Revisited

Creating in Love or Judging in Wrath? You Decide!
(Image from Wikipedia)

Over at Maverick Philosopher, Bill Vallicella has posted "Athens and Jerusalem at Loggerheads Over the One Thing Needful," citing Leo Strauss's argument that "Western civilization ... has two roots ... in radical disagreement with each other" ("Progress or Return?"The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, p. 246). Here, Strauss is referring to Greek philosophy and the Bible, what Tertullian preferred to call Athens and Jerusalem in posing the famous question, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?"

Strauss presents the fundamental incompatibility in this way:

"To put it very simply and therefore somewhat crudely, the one thing needful according to Greek philosophy is the life of autonomous understanding. The one thing needful as spoken by the Bible is the life of obedient love." (p. 246)

Strauss quickly adds that the Western tradition has often harmonized and synthesized the two because "because Greek philosophy can use obedient love in a subservient function, and the Bible can use philosophy as a handmaid." He notes, however, that "what is so used in each case rebels against such use, and therefore the conflict is really a radical one," and by "radical," he means that the conflict derives from the two fundamentally distinct, opposing roots (p. 246).

RĂ©mi Brague explores similar territory in his excellent book Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization (2002), about which I've previously posted, but Brague doesn't draw Strauss's pessimistic conclusions.

Let me add to this discussion. The Western concept of God has at its heart a radical ambiguity, namely, God as:

1. ontological ground

2. existential threat

The first comes largely from Greek philosophy, the latter largely from the Bible.

God as ontological ground stems from Greek philosophy and is perhaps best expressed in the cosmological argument, which (due to my laziness) I'll borrow from Wikipedia:

1. Every finite and contingent being has a cause.
2. Nothing finite and dependent (contingent) can cause itself.
3. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
4. Therefore, there must be a first cause; or, there must be something which is not an effect.

In other words, every contingent thing depends upon something, so there must, ultimately, be something absolutely noncontingent to serve as the ontological ground of everything contingent. This 'something' is what we call God, and understood in this way, God guarantees our existence.

God as an existential threat stems from the biblical emphasis upon God's holiness, which the Hebrew scripture presents as an active force that endangers any human who approaches too closely, as Uzzah discovered to his misfortune when he touched the extraordinarily holy Ark of the Covenant:

2 Samuel 6:1 Again, David gathered together all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 2 And David arose, and went with all the people that were with him from Baale of Judah, to bring up from thence the ark of God, whose name is called by the name of the LORD of hosts that dwelleth between the cherubims. 3 And they set the ark of God upon a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab that was in Gibeah: and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, drave the new cart. 4 And they brought it out of the house of Abinadab which was at Gibeah, accompanying the ark of God: and Ahio went before the ark. 5 And David and all the house of Israel played before the LORD on all manner of instruments made of fir wood, even on harps, and on psalteries, and on timbrels, and on cornets, and on cymbals. 6 And when they came to Nachon's threshingfloor, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it. 7 And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:1-7 (KJV))

Even the high priest has to take care about approaching the extraordinary holiness inhering in the Ark of the Covenant (aka Ark of the Testimony):

Leviticus 16:12 He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the LORD and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. 13 He is to put the incense on the fire before the LORD, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the Testimony, so that he will not die. (Leviticus 16:12-13 (KJV))
The mortal threat noted in both of these passages comes through God's holiness as a power almost automatically hostile to human beings, and understood in this way, God threatens our existence.

In commonplace terms, these two poles in the Western concept of God -- ontological ground and existential threat -- are understood as two roles of God: God as Creator and God as Judge, especially as presented in Genesis and Revelation, respectively.

Unlike Strauss on the 'two things' needful, I don't claim that these two poles are utterly irreconcilable, nor that the Western tradition's understanding of God reduces entirely to this ambiguity -- nor that this ambiguity can be found in no other religious tradition -- but I do think this ambiguity is central to the Western concept of God.


At 5:24 AM, Blogger Jeff in Korea said...

God as Prime Mover is a nice, warm, fuzzy way of looking the Creator. It certainly drops the stress level a lot.

The Existential Threat can be quite a depressing view of God. To paraphrase something I heard once, "the reason more people don't read the bible is that it's hard to read a book where the author is constantly telling you how his going to come, find you, and kill you."

At 2:26 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Fortunately, the Bible doesn't convey solely the message of existential threat. A religion would be an odd one that offered only that.

But God as ontological ground is certainly a more comforting message.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:10 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

It always made more sense to me that God would be the ontological ground, otherwise one would have to be intimate with God. He would have to know you to want to kill you. That is a concept that I can not grasp; not that I haven't tried. Since, some people feel they have personal connection to God, can't really say what I think would be true.

At 4:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I suppose that an omniscient God would know everyone as well as omniscience allows -- however well that is -- but I'm not sure if the mortal danger posed by holiness is related to God's personal knowledge of individuals. God as Judge certainly implies such knowledge, of course, but I'm not sure that holiness as danger implies this. The threat posed by holiness seems almost automatic (which means that judgement as danger is a refinement of the holiness danger).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a Mystery.

At 5:14 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Wait a minute ... that sounds like George Carlin. I'm beginning to think that you're not really the Pope.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not mystery, my son. Mystery.

At 5:18 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hmmm ... citing the Catholic Encyclopedia. That's an official source. Maybe you are the Pope.

But to be really sure, what I'd need is the religious equivalent of a Turing Test.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was a very interesting post, Jeffery.

I think there is a good deal of ambiguity and dissonant notions of God within ancient Greek religion, and the idea of holiness as something threatening to human existence could be paralleled in such stories as when Hera tricked some poor Greek woman into asking Zeus to reveal himself to her in all his glory (I forget the woman's name at the moment). Zeus had sworn to grant his human lover her request, and his glory burnt her to ashes.

In general, I think that each person conceives of God in his or her own way. I think this is also true of each religious tradition. I would agree with you insofar as you write that there is this ambiguity and dissonance within the "western" concept of God.

My personal theory is that Greek philosophy was instrumental in taking down Greek religion, and people like Euripides had no small part in this. By showing that the gods of Olympus were either unethical or not worthy of human adoration, Euripides and others were able to create a vaccuum which Christianity would later fill, since so much of humanity needs a god a bit less nebulous than a First Cause to get through life.

At 10:06 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I guess part of the ambiguity arises from our disparate needs. We need a God to sustain us but to punish those who commit evil. But such a God cannot play favorites and yet be consistent, so he's there to punish us as well.

(Of course, this is already refined a bit beyond the "holiness" aspect.)

Jeffery Hodges

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