Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Leo Strauss is the thinker who in the last few decades has contributed the most to the renewed examination of the polarity between Athens and Jerusalem, reason and revelation. Tertullian famously stressed this contrast to the benefit of Jerusalem rather than Athens, but Strauss brings to the examination of this polarity an emphatically impartial spirit—so impartial that it seems impossible to say where he stands.

For Strauss, Athens and Jerusalem refer to two general and fundamental human dispositions, or ways of life: the life of free inquiry on the one hand, the life of humble obedience to God’s law on the other. He argues that Christianity belongs to Jerusalem because it rests upon God’s word, God’s revelation, but that it is less pure than Jewish Jerusalem because it has been contaminated by Athens. Christianity developed in a world transformed by Greek philosophy so that in Christianity the exclusive and rigorous obedience to God’s law has been supplemented, or rather obscured by, speculations fomented by undigested or decadent Greek philosophy, mainly debased Platonism of the sort exemplified by some authors Augustine felt obliged to discuss in the City of God

To use Strauss’ apparently neutral word, Christianity appears to us as a “synthesis,” and in a synthesis the authenticity or integrity of the two components is fated to be lost. Christianity would then appear to be the impure mixture of a theoretical activity that is not really free and of an obedience that is not truly humble.

Strauss’ generalized description is tilted in the direction of the religious attitude he judges to be the purest, that is, the Jewish one. However, his notion of revelation is not built simply according to the Jewish model. In his book Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, Strauss, with a palpable admiration, shows how coherently Calvin put the right knowledge of God, conveyed by the Holy Writ with the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, beyond the competence of human reason: Faith in God and self-knowledge depending on one another, no independent, objective, rational knowledge can break into this circle and validly or even meaningfully argue against faith. Strauss’ Calvin embodies the Jerusalem position.

Strauss takes upon himself the responsibility of deciding the right understanding of the Christian faith. For him this simply means the most rigorous formulation of an attitude that would strictly sever the practical disposition of faith from the theoretical disposition of philosophy. He is looking for a self-contained, non- or even anti-theoretical understanding of the human situation.

But it is not clear to me that the believer’s attitude can develop without some theoretical content that decisively informs the faith. Christian faith is not separable from Christian faith. The account of faith is inseparable from the account of the mediation through which men are made capable of knowing God. Whether the true mediator is the Church or solely the Holy Writ (sola scriptura) as interpreted by each believer under guidance from the Holy Spirit is a question that cannot be decided on the basis of a self-contained definition of faith. It depends on an account of the way, or ways, through which human beings can become participants in the truth.

Common human reason will necessarily play a part in this, if only because discriminating between a reliable believer and a dreamer or a crook requires a human institution able to conduct this inquiry and make this decision. The habitus of faith and the rules of common reason will have to be called upon together. Because they still live in this world, believers, at least Christian believers, live under a mixed regime of reason and revelation, and they cannot but accept this impure situation.

The Catholic epistemology of faith is not less rigorous than the Protestant one. Believing implicitly in the Church through which the Scripture is transmitted and interpreted is certainly less radical, but not less coherent, than believing in the Scripture separated from the Church which first authorized it. The Calvinist reader of the Bible who confides in the evidence of his inner sense is not a stricter believer than the Catholic faithful who confides in the sense of the Church. The individualization of faith was a tempting way of cutting through all the messy difficulties of Church mediation, but it did not bring faith closer to its essence since the latter is not separable from its human conditioning. Individual faith is not closer to some essence of faith than faith shared in a specific community. Strauss, then, was rash in consecrating as the best understanding of faith Calvin’s basically modern interpretation of the Christian revelation.

It could be said that Calvin’s interpretation of the Christian faith, despite its modern aspects, brought back this faith toward its Jewish, that is, its practical roots. Jerusalem stands for obedient, practical, loyal life, a life content with practicing the law of the Lord without curiously inquiring into his secrets, let alone the secrets of his creation. This presupposes that religious commandments as such convey no knowledge, that religious commandments have no cognitive content or significance. Strauss more than once suggests as much. At the same time, in Strauss’ accounts, however brief and somewhat cryptic, Moses’ law comes with a notion that has a very special but incontrovertibly theoretical content: The God of the Bible is the creator of the world and man. To address one’s prayers to God, or to obey his commandments, is necessarily to relate to being, or to the mystery of being itself.

Only in this case—only if the God who gave the law is the true God—does the election of the Jews have a definite meaning. Otherwise it risks being only, just as Spinoza objected, the inordinate love of one’s particularity. The political, or practical, separateness of the Jews is inseparable from the highest theoretical truth.

Strauss is reluctant to insist on this aspect of the Jewish claim. He more than once suggests that Greek philosophy is an equal, or even better approach to the mystery of being. And just as he justifies the separateness of the Jews, he insists in a shocking way on the separateness of the philosopher and the philosopher’s life. In sum, he is intent on restoring our awareness of the separations that order human life, the separations induced by truth: To the Jewish people is entrusted the guardianship of the practical truth, to Greek philosophy that of the theoretical truth.

At this point, we are left with a deep perplexity because Strauss’ understanding leaves us uncertain of the relationship between the practical and theoretical parts of Jerusalem, between the law and the mystery of being. In our sorry situation, we could do worse than inquire into the understanding that the most authoritative and influential Christian theologian developed on these questions.

In the City of God, Augustine at times speaks in a manner tantalizingly close to Strauss’. He pairs Jewish life and Greek philosophy together, for both represent a qualitative progress in the development and self-understanding of humanity, specifically in our grasping of God’s true being. In both cases, this progress was achieved at a steep cost. It was achieved at the price of a separation, or a rupture in the fabric of mankind: the separation between the Jewish people and the nations on the one hand, and the separation between the philosopher, or the wise, and the general run of men, which ultimately rests upon and brings to light the separation between soul and body, on the other.

For Augustine, Christianity confirms these two separations while overcoming them. He presents Christianity as the resolution of the two decisive breaks of human unity: the Jewish and the Greek. The mediation of the God-man Christ allows the unity of mankind to be restored while each human being is made capable of sharing in the truth enacted by Jewish life as well as the truth discovered by Greek philosophy. Jewish life and Greek philosophy, two very different ways of finding one’s way toward the true God, prepared humanity for the decisive step only God could take.

Augustine’s account is certainly impressive. At the same time, there is some awkwardness to it. In relation to Jewish life and Greek philosophy, for Augustine there is only identity or difference.

In relation to Jewish life, there is this difficulty: The strict identity or difference encouraged the Church to think that with the advent of Christianity, the Jewish people lost their whole raison d’être. Not only were Jews from now on pressed to convert to Christianity, but Christians had henceforth nothing to learn from Jews. The Christian Church as the final vehicle of truth neatly displaced the Jewish people whose mission was entirely accomplished. Thus, no effective relation remained between the Christian Church and the Jewish people.

In relation to Greek philosophy, we encounter a similar difficulty. According to Augustine, through means impossible to ascertain, Plato came to know some of the principal truths of the Jewish and Christian revelation. Augustine wonders whether Plato might have had access to the Holy Writ when in Egypt. But philosophic truth from now on was simply a part of Christian truth. Just as Augustine did not preserve a living relationship between Christians and Jews, he failed to preserve one in relation to philosophy, preferring to co-opt Plato.

Strauss intimates that there is a way beyond this impasse. Jerusalem and Athens, standing for two ways of life, the practical and the theoretical, stand accordingly for two human capacities, or organs of the soul: the heart on the one hand, the mind or reason on the other. This partition of the soul’s powers is at the center of the understanding of human conduct offered by Pascal, who ingeniously developed Augustine’s inchoate and rigid dialectics. Pascal’s understanding of the heart differs from Strauss’ inasmuch as Pascal lays great stress on the heart’s cognitive powers. In general terms, the heart gives us an active feeling of the thing we care about. The motions of the heart are powerful, but we lack criteria to decide on their authenticity: What my heart adheres to may be only dream or fancy to you.

Reason always works with (at least) two terms, allowing us to go from one to the other, through inference, causality, etc. Reason is about relation. Contrary to the heart, reason is all criteria. Accordingly, its results are incontrovertible. Nevertheless this perfect instrument constantly slips from our hands” and we are constantly at risk of losing the thread. We could thus propose this simplification: The heart is certitude without criteria, reason is criteria without (the feeling of) certitude. The key to solving the human problem, the problem of human conduct, is for these two capacities to work together, and help each other. But how?

Pascal tries to establish that only in the Christian religion are human beings able to make full use of their heart and reason in a way that engages the two in an intimate collaboration while giving each its due. For Pascal, the most perfect collaboration between reason and heart is necessary for us rightly to understand the relationship between Christians and Jews. Thus, making sense of the divide between Christians and Jews requires the most delicate and rigorous human operation.

Pascal’s dialectics involve three steps: confusion, distinction, relation. True Jews and true Christians have in truth the same religion, the same God. But this identity is only confusion as long as we are unable to distinguish between the two. The religion of the Jewish people was modeled on Christian truth, and Christian truth is recognized through the Jewish religion, which is its figure. Truth will be fully uncovered in heaven only. In the Church, it is covered and recognized through its Jewish figure only.

Pascal’s epistemology of faith, unlike Augustine’s, is less than triumphalist. To be effective, the mediation of Christ needs the mediation of the Church, but to be recognized and understood the mediation of the Church needs the mediation of the Jewish experience. The Church becomes aware of her proper truth only through becoming aware of her relation to Israel. The revelation of truth is formed by Israel and the Church together. The Church in this world does not cease to need Israel as the proof of her own truth.

Now, how do you prove that Israel is the proof? Here intervenes the collaboration between heart and reason. Holy Writ is full of contradictions. You cannot claim to understand it as long as you are unable to bring together contradictory passages. How do you do that? By showing either that different words mean the same thing, or that the same word means different things. Ultimately the contradictions of the Holy Writ derive from the uncertainty concerning the words which refer to the promise. What was promised to the Jews? How did the Jews understand this promise?

Reason can deal with this kaleidoscope of contradictory meanings only through the intervention of the heart. When we read the Holy Writ, we understand it according to the direction of our hearts, that is, according to our cupidity or charity. What was promised to the Jews, only Christians can fully understand, but they understand it as the promise made to Israel and understood by Jews according to the direction of their own heart: Carnal Jews understood it in a carnal way while spiritual Jews understood it exactly as Christians later on would do.

Christians, freed from the equivocity of Jewish experience, know that their only enemy is sin, that is, themselves. But only through Israel’s longing for liberation can Christians be sure that the Messiah they believe in is not a figment of their imaginations. The Jewish rejection of Jesus makes the testimony of their books incontrovertible. Christians can believe in Christ because the Old Testament is a non-suspect witness to the long expectation of Jews and to the promise made to them. It is a non-suspect witness to the Messiah to come. This, of course, is in stark contrast to Islam, which establishes its credentials by disqualifying as corrupt or false the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, thus depriving itself of a very precious means of self-awareness and self-confidence.

For Pascal, Christian faith is self-sufficient. It lies in the heart. But when reading Scripture, the Christian reader is not alone. He is part of the Church that collected and authorized the Scripture. And the Church in turn is not alone in vouching for herself, since the Jewish people warrant the authenticity of the promise.

The Jewish people are the chosen people, God’s people. They need only their Scripture, which is their law. Beyond the hedges of the Torah lie the nations. The Christian church brings Israel’s God to the nations, and welcomes Greek philosophy into the new Israel. In the process, Jewish law and Greek philosophy are not simply preserved, but they are not simply lost either. Contrary to what Augustine seems to suggest, this mediation is not a one-way thing. The self-understanding of the Church needs to relate to the Jewish experience and the Jewish people, as Pascal so impressively explained. It needs also to relate to the Greek or philosophic experience.

Philosophy in the Christian context is not necessarily the servant of noble Greek descent who is familiar to us from the Thomist or Augustinian tradition. It also takes the important form of apologetics, the rational exercise purporting to show that Christian revelation is not against reason, or even that nothing is more reasonable than the (Christian) disowning of reason. In Pascal’s rendering, this rational exercise is tasked to show that Christian religion understands human life rightly. Thus, Christianity is not the dialectical Aufhebung of Israel and the nations. Israel and the nations are also a mediation for Christianity. They are needed not to accompany her chariot of triumph but to be a necessary part of her self-understanding.

We can now better discern what at the beginning I called Catholic epistemology. Catholic epistemology rests upon the fact of the Church. The understanding of the Church cannot be encompassed within the interior testimony of the individual believer. As a visible whole, it relates to the other wholes between which mankind distributes itself. While claiming exclusive authority derived from divine grace, the Church has always laid great stress on reason, because it is in the confrontation with those still untouched by grace, with Jerusalem on one hand and the nations on the other hand, that she achieves her mediating vocation. It is through being impure in the eyes of Jews and philosophers alike (and not a few Christians to boot) that the Christian logos recapitulates all things human.

Today we feel much perplexity as to the direction of the West. A disturbing kind of immobility seems to have set in, and it is hardly clear how our culture will advance rather than fall into one of several dead-end extremes. This makes what I call mediation all the more urgent. For Strauss’ account of Athens and Jerusalem, reason and revelation, however descriptively fitting, is static, while the notion of mediation is dynamic, in accordance with the necessary motion of human things in the Western world. Strauss’ notion of a compromised Christian synthesis obscures the nature and necessity of Christian mediation for the future life of the West. For the frozen confrontation between Israel and the nations will not be resolved, nor even understood, simply through the invocation of the intrinsic legitimacy of the chosen people, nor through the philosophic idea of a borderless mankind.

Pierre Manent teaches at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

Image by Edmund Gall licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.  

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift