A Dialog with a Critic: When Athens Met Jerusalem

A Dialog with a Critic: When Athens Met Jerusalem August 25, 2019
http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/373037

Christianity is “a strange Asian religion … grafted onto” Western civilization. The Greek and Roman roots of “the West*” would have been sufficient to get us the good bits of our present age or so argues Jeff Williams.*

This claim is simple, bold, with the elegance of being wrong about everything consistently. As a result, any response threatens to get bogged down with long list of positive cultural developments in the West, starting with the scientific revolution**,  that are partially due to Christianity. Book length answers are common, a Pope spoke on the topic fairly recently,  even I introduce Greek culture from a Christian perspective in When Athens Met Jerusalem.

 I am tempted to provide links and stop.

I shall not stop, because Willams deserves a more succinct answer and one that is more charitable than merely pointing to his dubious artistic and literary claims. When Dante, the great Christain humanist who gave us the beatific vision of Paradise and the hope of Purgatory along with modern Italian as an aside, is reduced to his Inferno, one could merely abandon hope in Williams as a reader.  Worse Williams says of Bach: “within tight bounds there is an authentic passion, but also an imposed fussiness – the constraint of dogma” When even an agnostic can say of Bach, often called the consummate composer:

“It’s irresistible in its persuasiveness,” he admits. “I cannot deny that even if my logical mind says ‘no’ – my soul, my spirit says, ‘This can only have come from somebody who has a totally credible and believable sense of godhead and the futility of human existence; [these are] the aspirations that are necessary to make sense of our lives…’”

there is an overwhelming temptation to think Williams, like all people who view music through dogma, has allowed anti-theist brays from Nietzsche to deafen him.

There is a fatal weakness at the heart of William’s argument:  Greek and Roman culture only mattered in the West because Christians decided they did. This is a strength of Christian culture and this strength depended on a unique idea of Jesus, answering William’s worry that Christians provided nothing new.

Greece and Rome were failing cultures whose heritage was transported forward in time because Christians cared about the ideas found in Greek and Roman philosophers As Christianity has declined in influence in Western cultures, the ideas of the Greeks and Romans have also declined in importance.

Greco-Roman philosophy was not on the edge of some Golden Age. There was no progress toward scientific methods and the apparatus of government had fallen into the hands of a mix of tyrants, fools, and decent men unable to keep the Empire going. Fortunately for Greek philosophers like Plato, Christian thinkers, from Justin Martyr to Basil to Augustine, found much value in those writers. Basil’s ideas of the importance of non-Christian writers formed the basis of Eastern Roman education which maintained sophisticated thought in philosophy, law, and medicine for most of one thousand years.

One thing Christianity did for the West was to save non-Christian ideas. Would the non-Christian Romans have done the same with a beautiful work like The Gospel of John? We saved and urged the study for centuries of the epic poet Homer. Would they have saved the beauty of the Psalms?

No.

Christians saved non-Christian literature in a time when due to social chaos and invasions, much non-Christian and Christian writings were lost. For example, we have all of Plato thanks to such heroic care.* Christians lost much, occasionally through fits of fundamentalism, but mostly because books are fragile and hard to save. The number of Christian texts lost forever shows that saving a book over chaotic centuries was difficult. Christians gave Greek ideas new life century after century.

That there never was a Dark Age in the West was due to Christians, East and West, whose “strange Asian religion” kept higher education alive.

This is even more true of the Enlightenment so prized by Mr. WIlliams. The Enlightenment came from an overwhelmingly Christian culture. Great thinkers in it, one thinks of John Locke, were committed Christians and argued their case on Christian grounds. Other great Enlightenment thinkers borrowed ideas from Christianity or a Christianized Hellenism without realizing they were doing so. In every case, even the most severe critic of traditional Christian society was reacting to Christianity, so his ideals were shaped by Christian thought even in reaction.

And, of course, the overwhelmingly Christian populations of Great Britain and Western Europe preserved Enlightenment thought in the colleges and universities, used ideas they found congenial, and (however imperfectly) tolerated and even paid professors who taught views they found distasteful. With a decline of Christianity numerically in Western Europe in recent times (since the 1960’s really), there is no surprise that the Enlightenment ideas and thinkers so cherished by Mr. Williams are losing status and favor amongst our elite. The main enemy of a careful reading of Hobbes or an examination of the ideas of David Hume is, after all, not a religious College program like The College at the Saint Constantine School which studies both writers, but post-modern secular educational programs.

Mr. Williams asks for one idea that shaped the West that came only from Christianity. There are many, but let me take one that is certainly not the product of Greek or Roman influence: love everyone, even your enemies. 

Notice this is not some Enlightenment or even modern command to tolerance: Western civilization was formed in the crucible of love. This shaped national and international law in the West. It tempered our view towards a just war. Socrates in Plato’s dialogues did sometimes urge us to harm no person if we could, but the positive act of love is different and more complex. Platonic justice was not the power to harm enemies, but this is different from a command to pray for and love our enemies. At most, Plato’s Socrates suggests we owe even the tyrant justice, but not love.  “Do no harm” is not love . . . As my wife quickly would note if our relationship became about “not harming” only (a good start) and lost the duty of love!

Of course, even our notice of this particular Socratic riddle is formed by Christian assumptions. We had taken (historically) the parts of Plato or other pagan thinkers most like the sayings of Jesus and built on them using them to create great good. Those sayings in Platonic dialogs (think The Laws) that are less “Christ-like” were less influential.

You might be able to derive the importance of (some bright upper class male) individuals from Greek and Roman thought, but a flat command to love everyone, even enemies is not something that even as otherwise admirable a man as the Stoic philosopher and Emperor Marcus Aurelius would command. Jesus did not just ask us to tolerate our enemies, you might get that from the Stoics, but to love them. Christians have been interacting (and often failing) this command and the story of that pilgrim’s progress shaped the nature of our society in the West.****

The difficult centuries long interaction with this command helped shape “Western” civilization in profound and positive ways. First, Christian civilization has a very uneasy relationship with war and conquest. We have done our share of it, of course, but feel compelled to justify it in ways that remain a basis for “just war” or pacifist discussions to this day. We always had a strong contingent that thought war was never justified and at our most militant, hedged warfare with many rules. Second, Christians saved pagan texts in part because we love our enemies. Every soul is created in the image of God and so we anticipate (at our best) finding virtue in Homer and Plato. Third, the Christian ethic of love made Christian civilizations very self-critical about the actions of Christians in the past. The very difficulty of the command to love enemies and live in the world meant Christian rulers would make grievous mistakes that later Christain rulers would have to fix.

It is no accident that Christians built vast systems of hospitals wherever they went. Unwanted children were wanted (the imperfect solution of the orphanage). Nobody read King David being confronted by the prophet Nathan and thought the King was law, but all knew that law was king. Non-Christians could develop this idea, or even find seeds of it in pagan writers, but it was overwhelmingly Christian nations that kept expanding the circle of rights to all people.  An ethic of love is the heritage of Jews and Christians in the West, not to be found in Nietzsche. This ethic made a difference, because whenever Christians mistreated anyone (even very conveniently), a Christian would rise up to rebuke that mistreatment on Christain grounds.

Progress was inevitable. There is a reason that as recently as 1900 Western people could start a magazine called “The Christain Century.” The secularism that has replaced the Christain consensus of Western Europe and some of North America has no more tolerance for Mr. Williams’ Greco-Roman, Enlightenment, and University of Chicago humanism than Christianity. That secularist group always depended on a vast Christain majority to sustain interest and tolerance in and for their project.

The last Chicago style school, if a darker age is coming, will be run by the Orthodox Christians as we once again save what can be saved, but then I am more hopeful than that as seeds of a better and broader Christianity spring forth in places like China and sub-Saharan Africa. There is much that is good, true, and beautiful in the Greek, Roman, and “Western” heritage that is saved, but in a broader and more diverse mix further enriched by other cultures. 

Why can I be filled with hope, a virtue that Christianity gave the West, in hard times? I have hope because love is the basis of reality and reality always defeats fevered dreams of doom. There was always a humanism in Christain thought, which is why Shakespeare is at one with the makers of Medieval cathedrals and not so much with more secularist thinkers like Rousseau. Christianity, with an ethic of love, could support the value of the individual and the community: the one and the many.

That is a rare and great heritage indeed: love of self and neighbor, Christian humanism, grounded in the love of God.

When Athens met Jerusalem, Jesus said: 

43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?

47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?

48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.*****

Good fruit was slow in growing, but inevitable. Dante saw the basis of Christianity in his divine Comedy: a love that moves the heavens and the furthest stars. Christians obey badly, certainly American Christians have. Yet it was overwhelmingly the black Church, tested by the hypocrisy and evil of the lynching tree, the Cross of the American Church, that found unique strength in Christianity to peacefully end segregation and challenge unlimited capitalism.****** The great Christian prophet Reverend Martin Luther King sums the case:

So the greatest of all virtues is love. It is here that we find the true meaning of the Christian faith. This is at bottom the meaning of the cross. The great event on Calvary signifies more than a meaningless drama that took place on the stage of history. It is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power drunk generation that love is most durable power in the world, and that it is at bottom the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. Only through achieving this love can you expect to matriculate into the university of eternal life.

 

——————————————

*This was a fairly common argument or attitude in secular “great books” or classical programs a few decades ago. As respect for the “West” or the Western canon has faded in secular colleges, one hears this much less frequently, but the argument is still worth a response.

I appreciate Mr. Williams writing a clear and passionate piece.

**The doctrine of the incarnation was key. See my When Athens Met Jerusalem.

***Some Christians did take anti-intellectual attitudes, but this was a minority, thank God. We were not great library burners setting civilization back centuries. 

****Even if I were to grant, as I do not, that there is a statement or suggestion of “love your enemies” in some other thinker (Confucius?), the plain statement of the Son of God (as the West thought Jesus to be) was overwhelming to Western thought. 

*****The very language Williams uses, modern English, is shaped by the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer!

******Christianity helped to introduce  free markets, but has always worried and limited abuses like usury. Those restraints and the good done by Christian Democratic parties in Western Europe were based on the Christian ethic of love.

******God help us if we see a civilization fully in command of the science and technology Christianity birthed without any restrain, not even in vestigial reaction, to the Christain ethic of love.

 


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!