The West, according to an account beloved by Catholics, rose out of a providential encounter between reason and revelation in antiquity. Though occasioned by conquest, the encounter yielded an authentic synthesis: between a Greek rationality in search of the deepest origin of reality and a Jewish God professed to be just that, the very ground of being (cf. Ex 3:14). Later, that same God identified himself even more starkly and intimately with reason (cf. Jn 1:1).
Tragically, the story goes on, this synthesis eventually lost its supremacy in the West, owing foremost to opponents inside the Church determined to distill a “purer” faith, unmottled by “worldly” philosophy. The result was a stingy account of reason that excluded things divine and paved the way for a narrowly scientistic rationality. Today, we are the victims of this dis-integration, a process of Christian de-Hellenization centuries in the making.
The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who died last month, utterly rejected this account of faith and reason.
The God of the Hebrew Bible, he believed, was never the God of the Academy to begin with. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is neither the unmoved mover nor the ground of being, but a historical God, who has put himself in dialogue and relationship with one people, the Jews. He is a universal creator, yes, but little about him could be deduced by processes of reason. He is best known, rather, through the moral revolution heralded by Abrahamic faith: Judaism first, followed by Christianity and Islam.
De-Hellenization was thus no skin off the back of biblical faith, rightly understood. For, in this telling, the faith of the Jews, including Jesus, had always sat uneasily with the “faith” of Plato and Aristotle. The synthesis between the two collapsed once its Greek metaphysical structure gave way to the battering ram of modern science. What remains vital now is the Abrahamic moral revolution, which can still help people find meaning and preserve their inherent dignity.
It’s a testament to Sacks’s intellectual generosity and honesty that his challenge to the standard Catholic account of faith and reason often ends up reading as a lament for its loss.
The challenge was serious, to be clear. The God of the Bible, Sacks contended, was lost in the bargain of Saint Paul’s ambition to spread his newfound faith to the Greco-Roman sphere. More to the point, God was lost in translation. The Greek language, with its left-to-right script, per Sacks, tends toward abstraction and universalization, whereas Hebrew is fundamentally a “right-brained” language, tending toward narrative and particularity. The result was that the West received an abstract, theoretical version of a supremely narrativistic deity.
The Hebrew Bible, Sacks believed, has no “theory” of being itself, of natural law or of political regimes. What it does offer are stories that deal with things like creation, morality, and politics “from multiple perspectives, at a level of subtlety and ambiguity closer to literature” than philosophy. The synthesis—the attempt to Hellenize the Bible and the teachings of Jesus—was an imposition, in Sacks’s view. And it was precisely because the God of the philosophers was so distant and inaccessible, Sacks thought, that the early Church had to posit a God-man as man’s bridge to God.
Sacks was, in truth, a pure anti-metaphysicist. In his 2011 book, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning, he declared: “We cannot prove that life is meaningful and that God exists.” As a philosophy undergraduate at Cambridge, he recounted, he was thrilled by his atheist teachers’ demolition of the classical proofs for God, which he’d always considered a kind of cheap sleight of hand.
“Neither can we prove that love is better than hate, altruism than selfishness, forgiveness than the desire for revenge.” All of these statements are a matter of “interpretation,” rather than of “explanation,” and all interpretations are beyond proof or falsification. The quest for ultimate meaning, he argued, falls into the same territory as “ethics, aesthetics and metaphysics”—and “in none of these three disciplines can anything of consequence be proved.”
Ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics are great “repositories of human wisdom,” to be sure, but they simply don’t belong in “the same universe of discourse” as science. Thus, when premodern “science” (metaphysics, etc.) was debunked, all that was lost was the false certainty of the Christian scholar who imagined himself confidently bridging reason and revelation, Aristotle and Yahweh. But we today needn’t lose our bearings. If we distinguish the two discourses, neither need threaten the other: The one (science) explains the world by “taking things apart,” as Sacks put it; the other (religion) puts them back together via interpretation and moral formation.
This was Sacks’s solution to the dilemma of faith and reason. For many Catholic intellectuals, not least Benedict XVI, restoring religion to its rightful place in human affairs involves undoing the philosophical mistakes of nominalism and of the Reformation, which the pope emeritus singled out for criticism in his much-misunderstood 2006 Regensburg Lecture. We must dilate reason’s scope, Benedict thought, so that “reasoning” might again include more than merely observing phenomena and identifying their efficient material causes. Sacks did not think faith and reason could be reunited in this way.
But shouldn't we try? I seek ultimate meaning, yes, but I want that meaning to be true in a way that satisfies reason’s demands. And there lies the disagreement, I think, between “Regensburg Catholics,” if you will, and the various de-Hellenizing strands of contemporary religious thought.
It would be a mistake, however, to stop there. For despite rejecting almost in toto the Church’s account of faith and reason, Sacks nevertheless credited it for the fundamental humaneness of Western civilization. More than that, the rabbi blamed the mass horrors of modernity on the narrow and arrogant rationalism that supplanted the old synthesis.
“Outside religion,” he wrote,
there is no secure base for the unconditional source of worth that in the West has come from the idea that we are each in God’s image. Though many have tried to create a secular substitute, none has ultimately succeeded. None has stood firm under pressure. That has been demonstrated four times in the modern world, when an attempt was made to create a social order on secular lines: the French Revolution, Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany and Communist China. When there is a bonfire of sanctities, lives are lost.
As a student of Jewish history, Sacks knew well that the old synthesis of faith and reason wasn’t always a guarantee against unreason when it came to the treatment of Jews within Christendom. Nevertheless, he was far more wary of the merciless abstractions of the post-Enlightenment era, to which he traced modern anti-Semitism.
Sacks, to be clear, was no counter-Enlightenment thinker. And he paid gracious tribute to the modern scientific enterprise as an almost-miraculous instance of human cooperation with divine creativity. Nevertheless, he insisted, the Enlightenment ideology, with its tendency to apply the methods of scientific inquiry to all of life, “dehumanize[d] human beings.” Its universalist “reason” detested particularity, not least the stubborn particularity of the Jewish people. Moreover, it targeted for demolition, in the name of humanity and reason, “the local, the church, the neighborhood, the community, even the family, the things that make us different, attached.”
Sacks saw similar dangers at work in today’s market liberalism: “a loss of belief in the dignity and sanctity of life”; “the loss of the politics of covenant, the idea that society is a place where we undertake collective responsibility for the common good”; “a loss of morality”; “the loss of marriage”; and the loss of “the possibility of a meaningful life.” In short, the technocratic dystopia we are stumbling into.
Except, Sacks rightly insisted, we don’t have to, provided we can make room in our lives and societies for “the still-small voice that the Bible tells us is the voice of God”: the voice that chides Cain, “What have you done?” and invites Abraham and his progeny into the adventure of faith.
Sacks felt that divine voice couldn’t be definitively reasoned about, certainly not in the way that, say, Benedict XVI called for. Yet the rabbi’s own public presence—supremely learned yet humble and unfailingly charitable, even to his most vicious secularist opponents—was and will remain an enduring testament to the reasonableness of faith.
May his memory be for a blessing.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post and author of the forthcoming book The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos.
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