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Athens and Jerusalem:
God, Humans, and Nature

by david novak
university of toronto, 392 pages, $51

Tertullian’s question—“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”—has generally been asked by Christians wondering to what extent they can draw on Greek wisdom. In answer, many theologians analogized Greek philosophy to Hebrew faith: Both were incomplete but preparatory. Clement of Alexandria believed the parallel was providential—that God had done for the Greeks with philosophy what he had done for the Jews with the law. Others believed the connection was historical. St. Ambrose, and even for a while St. Augustine, thought that Plato had learned first-hand from ­Jeremiah in Egypt.

Aquinas taught that, through ­revelation (both Jewish and Christian), God made widely accessible truths that were in principle ­discoverable through philosophy but for most too difficult to reach. Nietzsche ­departed from ­Aquinas more in tone than in argument when he sneered that “Christianity is Platonism for the masses.” Both were reversing the pagan Platonist ­Numenius, who claimed that Athens democratized Jerusalem: “What is Plato but Moses Atticizing?”

In all this, where is the Hebraic perspective on Athens and Jerusalem? We find Numenius’s view reflected in the Jewish Philo of ­Alexandria’s friendly appropriation of Plato. But Abraham Joshua ­Heschel, a twentieth-century Jewish ­theologian especially open to studying the Greek tradition, warned against Philo’s i­nfluence. He called it a mistake to think that “Moses was a sort of Hebrew Plato.” Whatever Jews can learn from engagement with Greek philosophy, they cannot simply “talk about God in the language of the Greeks.”

David Novak acknowledges Heschel’s influence at the beginning of his newest book, a study of Jewish theology’s engagement with philosophy. In 2017, ­Novak was invited to the University of Aberdeen to give the Gifford Lectures, philosophy’s highest honor (short of hemlock?). This book is the result. Novak, a professor at the University of Toronto, is a distinguished rabbi and theologian who has made significant contributions in ethics, political theory, and Jewish-­Christian dialogue. Here he extends ideas implicit in his other work to explore the history and social significance of natural theology in its relation to Judaism.

Along with Heschel, two other acknowledged teachers—an undergraduate lecturer and a doctoral mentor—also leave traces. From the agnostic Jewish thinker Leo Strauss, Novak learned to appreciate the tension between philosophy and theology. But whereas Strauss found this tension limiting and tragically ambivalent, Novak finds it creative and inspiring. Novak’s fitting ­inheritance from his Doktorvater, Germain ­Grisez, seems to be a confidence (characteristically Catholic, but with decidedly non-Thomistic inflection) that religious believers can embrace philosophy as a mode of public reason.

Novak counters misunderstandings of philosophy’s relation to ­theology that underestimate the ways in which authentic religion seeks to make reality intelligible. The interaction between philosophy and religion is often thought of as a confrontation between reason and revelation. But there is, Novak argues, a rationality in faith, and an element of revelation in philosophizing. Novak also rejects the assumption that universal questions belong to philosophy, not theology. He criticizes the view that “public” reasoning must be non-­theological, and that theologians must surrender some of their positions in order to engage in politics. He also warns that a similar “imperial” demand now threatens philosophers:

Just as Jews and Christians have recently learned that they can engage in unmediated, direct discourse among themselves because they are both distant from the seats of power in their increasingly secularized societies, so are philosophers learning of late how distant they too are from the seats of political power whose occupants are as suspicious of authentic philosophy as they are of authentic theology.

A related mistake is the idea that secularity must and does exclude metaphysical commitment. Citing Richard John Neuhaus’s critique of the “naked public square,” Novak insists that it is important to restore, through philosophy and theology, a “transcendent dimension” to political discourse. Novak’s proposal is not ­triumphalist, but a call for all those participating in public conversation to be more aware of both their ­reliance on reason and their acceptance of some things by faith: “The impasse between theology and philosophy is not an impasse between ‘reason and revelation’ [but] between two substantial revelations about which their recipients (and their heirs) reasoned.”

These questions lead Novak to a comparison of Judaism with Greek philosophy. The virtue of this discussion is its emphasis on the distinctive character of the Hebrew God as taught by the Torah. Novak rightly emphasizes that the God who reveals himself in Jewish Scripture is a transcendent creator, personally involved in his creation and especially in the lives of human beings, an active and free governor, respecting the integrity of human beings while asking our obedience. The nature of God thus described has consequences for how we understand the human condition: Our ethical situation can be conceived in terms of justice, freedom, and law, and human beings can be understood as bearing the imago Dei, participating in the life of God.

Novak sharply contrasts this Jewish view of God with the view found in Greek philosophy. The god of the philosophers, Novak suggests, is closer to the impersonal watchmaker god of the deists than to the transcendent but personal being found in the ­Hebrew Scriptures. But the God of the Platonic dialogues or of ­Aristotle’s Metaphysics has also been interpreted as genuinely transcendent, neither aloof nor self-absorbed, neither uncaring nor constrained. This is precisely the view taken by Philo, Clement, Augustine, Boethius, and Aquinas, all of whom drew on classical natural theology in order to speak of the God of ­Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Standing behind the difference between Novak and other readers of Greek philosophy are two conflicting understandings of the idea of divine immutability. Novak describes ­Aristotle’s immutable God as an “inert, unchanging object of contemplation,” incapable of engaging in any “transitive activity.” But classical arguments for divine immutability follow not from God’s inactivity but from his transcendently pure activity. Instead of calling the philosophers’ God “intransitive,” we could call him super-transitive, or transitivity per se. Aristotle’s thought-thinking-itself is so essentially relational and active as to be simultaneously an activity’s subject and object and the activity itself.

Because he rejects this understanding of divine immutability, Novak finds a wider gulf than some others do between the Greek and Jewish ethical perspectives. The immutable God, he believes, remains distant from man. But for Aristotle or Plato, human beings can share in God’s perfect reason and will. Contemplating God is not an idle act, but something that ramifies throughout all of life, and the philosopher imitates God. Even short of philosophy, there is no more classical virtue than piety, and Plato teaches not only that a divine power exists, but also that it is good and provident over the universe, cares for us, and deserves our worship. Nor need divine impassibility be understood as a denial of the subjective ­experience of God engaging, responsively, in human history—even choosing to reveal himself in particular places at particular times. God’s great personal statement of impassibility—“I Am Who Am”—was revealed at the burning bush.

Novak’s understanding of Greek metaphysics colors the rest of the book. ­Novak rightly challenges Strauss’s take on Greek morality as centered on contemplation and Hebrew morality as centered on obedience. He finds ­contemplation in Judaism and ­obedience in Greek thought. Still, he draws a sharp distinction between Plato and Aristotle, from which arises a distinctive understanding of Aristotelian morality as “not as intertwined with Aristotelian ontology as is the case with Platonic morality and ontology.” This view is contestable. There are thinkers who contrast teleology and virtue with law and obligation, but this is mostly a modern development—especially pronounced in Anglophone analytic ethics—and hardly representative of the neo-­Platonic and Aristotelian ethical tradition masterfully assimilated into the Summa Theologiae.

Novak offers mixed assessments of Philo’s appropriation of Plato and Maimonides’s appropriation of ­Aristotle. In each case, Novak shows, the Jewish thinker was responding to political challenges in his historical moment. Philo, living alongside Platonists in Alexandria, sought to show how Platonic aspirations could be fulfilled only in ­Judaism. Maimonides worried that Jews living among philosophically literate Christians and Muslims needed a way to give full intellectual assent to Jewish teaching. Here, too, Novak is critical of the philosophers, especially Aristotle. According to Novak, Aristotle’s god was neither an active nor an efficient cause, his visions of the political and contemplative life cannot be reconciled, and his natural teleology has been superseded by modern cosmology.

Kant receives warmer treatment. Novak responds to Hermann ­Cohen, the German Jewish scholar whose understanding of Kant led him into what Novak regards as the mistake of “turning Zionism into a ­messianic idealism,” that is, denying that God’s covenant with the Jews will be fulfilled in human history. Against ­Cohen, Novak argues for the historical reality of the Jews’ covenant with God and affirms that the primary reason God created the universe was to establish the relationship with ­human beings described in the Torah. And yet this primacy doesn’t mean that God’s relationship to nature, or human ­beings’ relationships to each other, are not also i­mportant.

Even those who disagree with ­Novak’s characterization of Greek philosophy will admire this bold and learned book. Such an ambitious project is an exercise not only in philosophizing and theologizing, but in intellectual history and political rhetoric. Perhaps its greatest value lies in its reminder that discussions about faith and reason are not abstract, but embodied in particular communities, bound to a time and place. There are as many different questions about faith and reason as there are faith traditions and philosophers.

We will continue to ask what Athens has to do with Jerusalem. Thanks to Novak we can now better ask what all these have to do with Philo’s Alexandria and Maimonides’s Fez, as well as with Kant’s Königsberg and Spinoza’s Amsterdam. And if we can hope to find an effective response to modern secularism’s attempted dethronement of both reason and faith, perhaps it is because our own cultural condition—the allegedly naked public squares of Ottawa and Washington, New York and Brussels—may not be so different from the Athenian agora, which, though it attempted to exclude Socrates and Paul, failed to silence their voices. 

Joshua P. Hochschild is a professor of philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University.

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