Jerusalem and Athens: Two worldviews, two schools of thought
Between a theo-centric understanding of the universe and anthropocentric view, represented by Jerusalem and Athens, which shall we choose? To a Christian, the answer should be clear.
Jerusalem vs. Athens. Why should we consider a theme that compels us to choose between one city over another? What significant differences do we find regarding the conception of reality and foundation of thinking, as represented by these two cities? How is it possible that two schools of thought, so different from one another, managed to coalesce so much so that it gave rise to a new conception of the world – a clash of ideas so powerful that it was capable of creating a totally new culture, what we now call “occidental Christian culture?”
The Jerusalem paradigm
To begin with, let us review some historical-geographical facts pertaining to the thought characterized by Jerusalem.
A little more than 1500 years before Christ – Israel, chosen by Yahweh – came on the world scene. The Israelites were chosen to manifest Yahweh and His character before the world. Years later, they established themselves in the promised land of Palestine, and eventually Jerusalem became its capital, as well as its holy city with the temple in its midst. By the time the geographical Jerusalem materialized, centuries of faith and belief, life and ethics, worship and service forged into a system whose central concern was the God Yahweh. The city, selected by Yahweh for His people, became not only the capital of Israel, but also an embodiment of great cultural, political, and religious significance.
It is not just the geography of the city that led to the school of thought that the name has come to symbolize. For that we should turn to the significant acts that determined the identity of the people of the Jewish nation. Those significant acts can be clearly identified along the vast journey spanning decades of learning through the desert. These acts are even more significant in the collective memory of these people, because they took place within the scope of a very close relationship that they maintained with their God. Only by way of synoptic recollection can we identify the significant particular acts, for example: the blessings and material wealth Abraham received; Moses’ tutelage in the school of the Pharoahs; the 10 plagues of Egypt that resulted in the final liberation of the chosen people; their long, tough, and treacherous walk through the desert; the giving of God’s law through Moses; the organization of the people; the cloud that guided them through the desert; the ark of the covenant; the tabernacle; and the salvific symbolism of the sanctuary. The list is long.
The Greek paradigm
The origins of the Greek paradigm can be found in a region removed a short distance from what would later become the place of Athenian settlement. That region is Asia Minor; more precisely, a group of small islands situated across from the Asian continent’s Turkish coast: the archipelago whose biggest island is the Island of Miletus.
At the turn of the sixth century B.C., a philosophy arose in Miletus that was in opposition to what was common for the era: the so-called mythological understanding. Thales of Miletus founded the Milesian school. His philosophy initiated a rational tradition, even though at the beginning it had its mythology. It took almost two centuries for the first Greek philosophy to shed its mythological vestiges. What emerged was a basic explanation of reality (physis). That explanation actually belongs to the level of science (episteme), and no longer to the level of opinion (doxa) which is typical of mythology. This marks a fundamental paradigm shift.
What was it that really changed: the method or content? Actually both, because a methodological shift involving a revolution of thought also affects its contents, and not haphazardly, but rather at the crux. Let us briefly review how such a paradigmatic shift came about in the understanding of the early Greek philosophy – the move from myth to logos – by bringing into relief those remants of pure myth that were present in the emerging philosophical paradigm in its first few centuries and subsequent development.
Myth is the non-scientific explanation of reality, of nature, the Greek physis. It was a vision as if divinely gifted, a vital force, breathed, with no beginning or end, but with a finality – a Greek conceptual notion, akin to the concept of destiny (dike), upon which both philosophy and Protestant theologies, especially since the 19th century, became dependent. While this physis was material in constant flux, betraying that it was subject to time, the changes, according to pre-Socratic philosophers, were mere appearance. What remained in the physis was its very essence, that which was not affected by time (chronos), that which was non-temporal, and thus ultimately immutable and eternal.
The polemic between Heraclitus and Parmenides (530 B.C.) illustrates what was for the Greeks nature’s ambivalent quality. However, both men were in fundamental agreement on the notion that in spite of perpetual motion, there exists a substratum that does not change, and hence there is a permanence about the essence of a thing which Heraclitus called logos. For both philosophers, the emphasis is to be placed upon reason, the logos, which is not subject to chronos, the latter which governs the eternal becoming the material and tangible world.
This pre-Socratic philosophical development became the foundation of all subsequent philosophies in their attempt to propose a solution to the ambivalence of being – such as, “the one and the many,” “the eternal and the temporal,” “the immutable and the changeable,” “the static and the movable,” “the intelligible and the sensible,” and even “the spiritual and the material,” which summarizes the quintessence of the opposition.
Greek philosophy: Its pervasive influence
This opposition did not stay limited to ancient Greek philosophy. It prevailed throughout the Middle Ages, when scholars – the majority of whom where Catholics, along with some Islamic scholars – learned neo-Aristotileanism, reformulating the fundamental dualism and clothing it in religious garb with a bit of retouching, yet without major change to its very essence. That is how during the Middle Ages, the intellectual was set in opposition to the physical and the material, and the position was allowed to prevail. The intellect thus received a primacy over the body, as is clearly the case in the Thomistic-Aristotilean version of the relation between the body and soul, now wrapped in the Christian worldview. Between the Platonic-Augustinian dualism and the Aristotilean-Thomistic dualism, the Catholic Church had to take a central position with some nuanced differences, but the essential aspect remained the same. Platonic dualism, made official and cannonized by the Church after the assumption of Augustinian philosophy, was tinged with Thomas Aquinas, recreating the Aristotilean position and thus delimiting earlier immortality of the soul to the agent intellect (intellectus agens). The agent intellect is now the intellective part of the soul that enjoys immortality, and therefore eternity toward the future (because it was created, it had an origin), immateriality, spirituality and, by extension, non-temporality.
Such dualism was reiterated by Hegel in the 19th century in a pantheistic setting, very appropriate for an age which had just begun to escape the dominance of deism throughout modernity and walked toward neopantheism, which would hold court during the 20th and 21st centuries. Yet in Hegel (1770-1831), dualism did not take place at the level of the individual or particular entities, but at the level of an overriding essence that is the sum of all history and dialectic manifestations. That is, Absolute Spirit’s very life, which comes to be after a series of matches and counter-matches that occurred in a spiritual-material world, where it will continue to differentiate until it acquires its perfect form and reaches absoluteness, a maximal expression of dualism where the spiritual – in keeping with Greek philosophy and mythology – substantially prevails over the very material that served as a vehicle in its development.
A little later, the history of thought suffered a paradigm shift or epistemological interruption. This was the time of dialectical materialism, greatly influenced by Hegelianism as it pertained to method, but endowed with a more realistic metaphysics that was concerned with politics and economics.
That concern came to fruition in Karl Marx (1818-1883), whose work bears the mark of a Hegel disciple, Feuerbach, the father of atheism and materialism. Marx placed reason firmly on solid ground, dismissing the spiritual as a mere superfluous phenomena. The spiritual had no place in the purely material world of Karl Marx.
At the threshold of the 19th century, Nietzsche’s (1844-1910) metaphysical thought constituted another hinge in the paradigm shift that would take place at the beginning of the 20th century with the greatest determination. Space does not allow a full treatment of Nietzsche’s philosophy. However, it needs to be noted that his concept of Being greatly influenced the existentialists of the new century.
Heidegger (1889-1976) is perhaps one such well-known existentialist of the 20th century. He returned to the essential temporality that constitutes the Being, meaning that it is time that constitutes Being’s essentiality. On one hand, such a revolution signified the abandonment of the concept that temporality was foreign to the Being in its most intimate essential reality. Ever since Heidegger, these aspects were considered as the constitutive properties of the Being.
A paradigmatic breach such as that of Heidegger’s and all the atheist existentialism that followed had profound implications as it relates to the types of being, and the Being in general, interpreted as ontos – the Being in its totality, the ultimate substratum of reality and pure phenomena to which it is restricted. A noumenal reality does not exist. This has been annihilated by the temporal conscience. Immortality of the soul no longer exists, and there is no place for any kind of dualism. The Being is time, and time is its essential constituent.
Where is God in this outline? Well, Heidegger himself thematized it. Without denying God, he took an agnostic position. In as much as understanding depends on experience, and since we do not have any experience of God within the space-time continuum, we are unable to affirm His existence. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), reknowned existential atheist, held an idea analogous to that of Heidegger, while much more engaged in the description of the conscience.
The development of both paradigms had profound implications for theology, including the mere lay, non-scholarly, understanding of the sacred Scriptures. Until Heidegger and the meridian of existentialism, it can be said that all of theology was dogmatic. In this respect, we cannot draw any distinction between Catholic and Protestant theology. Both are written in the same paradigmatic style. This is the case up until the 20th century, when Bultmann (1884-1976) reformulated all biblical exegesis, following the new metaphysics that had been inaugurated by Heidegger. Bultmann, who first studied theology in high school at Tubingen, brought prominence to the new movement in theology started by theologians such as Strauss, Weisse, Wilke, Wrede, Schmidt, and Kähler. The aim of Bultmann’s theology is to demythologize the biblical narrative. Thus, much of theology was reduced to mere allegory, rescuing the believer’s faith, like an event that is not necessarily blessed by an existent and real phenomenological correlate, such as the historical Jesus, for example. Scholarly theology, is therefore committed to the lurid byways of the historical-critical method – a path from which it is very difficult to escape.1
Back to Jerusalem
During this time when all these ideas were developing, what was happening to the philosophic concept symbolized by Jerusalem? Let us try to describe its fundamental paradigm, by which we shall address its metaphysics, its concept of Being.
It is here that the Bible sheds light on the basic contours of the paradigm represented by ancient Jerusalem. In what way? Because the Bible is a real historical account, through which God reveals Himself in many theophanies. Beginning with the creation of the world and humanity, God breaks into human time without affecting His constituent essence. According to biblical account, God is, and therefore He is not bound by Heidegger’s assertion of “the silence regarding God.” This means divinity need not remain bound to this temporal dimension – a human dimension – in order to enable both realities (human and divine) to communicate with one another. Such a requirement is the fundamental error of the Athenian paradigm. For since the very beginnings of philosophy, in the far-removed ancient Greek world, philosophical thought established its basic idea and epistemological principle that “like is known by like.” But who said that is how it ought to be? Why should all metaphysics and epistemology be subject to such a principle? Ensconced at the very beginnings of Moses’ record, there is a passage which illustrates this point.
We could read Exodus 3 in its entirety, but we will place special emphasis on verse 14. Here God appears in one of His space-time theophanies: “And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, I AM has sent me to you’” (NKJV). We are not sitting before a mere rhetorical expression; no, this has to do with a primordial judgement by which the Divine propels Himself toward His interlocutor, Moses, with the purpose of entrusting to him a message for the people about the pact, along with the message of the greatest authority in existence for the people of Israel. In this way the Divine is manifest simultaneously in His temporal – a flaming bush that paradoxically, is never consumed – and non-temporal character, because the Divine makes explicit His essential constituent character. The God Yahweh, as long as He is in contact with Moses, is in time and occupies a special place; thus, the Divine who presents Himself before Moses, with the purpose of giving a message, makes a phenomenological appearance in the space-time continuum and communicates “face to face” with Moses, His spokesman before the people of the covenant. Behold, divine super temporality. God does not remain behind the bush, although it is where He phenomenalizes Himself, but while phenomenalizing, He breaks into human time, yet transcends it.
This is how God breaks in. He is in human history and yet beyond and over it. If this is not the case, there are only two plausible options.
- God is reduced to time and matter. In such a case, we invite a pantheistic posture, for Divinity is no longer non-material; instead it remains arrested in the material. Upon reducing the Divine to human and the rest of material reality, we confuse the Divine and the material. Thus springs forth new-age religions, founded upon a fundamental neo-pantheism, by which the Divine is shaped and exists in the mere and individual consciousness.
- The alternative to such a pantheistic conception is God, who is located in the periphery of theism. This is true of the classical theism of basic Thomistic Catholic theology which, when taken to the limit of its internal logic, finds itself rehearsing Aristotle’s conception of God as the First Unmoved Mover that moves, by mere attraction, without being moved in turn by anything. Of course, it is not necessary to go as far as does the Aristotelian theology. Just think of the difficulties that Catholic Thomistic theology and much of Protestant theology have to explain the communication between God and human.
Now, what are the implications for religion of these two options? And, more important still, is Adventist theology and its entire body of doctrine affected, especially with regards to our positions on health and education?2
1. Our theological thinking has not always been consistent and structurally integral with the concept of Being, evidenced and described in the Bible, beginning with the concept of God and consequently, the concept of existence, neither of which can be understood unless they are historically located.
2. Our concept of education has also not been consistent with the biblical ideal of a wholistic and integrated approach to education. Too often this concept of an integrated, whole-person approach to education is no more than mere speech, and is not well understood in its entirety because it is not known. We have not tried to truly understand the basis of such an education, nor the reasons for holding it. Many times we borrow ideas from other systems without taking the time to sift through them or formulate our own belief system in which there is no place for the dualisms of any kind, either mechanistic concepts, evolutionary or anti-teleological. For example, how much importance do we give to our education system to the “harmonious education of all human faculties,” placing on equal level of importance of physical, intellectual, and spiritual development? Of course, we have well-written words, but do we really accomplish this, and is this clearly manifested in the training curriculum for our students?
3. This is not a minor issue, because it impacts heavily on the curriculum of each program of study, as well as each of the subjects that shape it, not only in natural sciences, where competing material is easy to pinpoint and cut out, but especially in the social sciences that are based on certain values which, if cut out, would overturn the whole discipline (biological and social evolution, behaviorism, non-teleological, non-historicism, etc.).
4. The same applies to the area of health. Actually, in our hospitals and clinics, “interpreted as a network of psycho-physical-mental-spiritual health,” can we not find traces of an irreducible dualism in our medical healing practices? For example, do we have a clear idea of the intrinsic connection between the physical and the mental components of a given sickness? Or do we simply treat them as a purely physical problem? How much emphasis do we put on the development of a wholistic whole-person approach to the planning of treatment, surgery, and use of drugs, in line with a theology of Being as historical, real, and concrete, and starting with the human being in the Creator’s image and likeness?
5. Judeo-Christian theology provides sufficient ground for knowledge without having to rely on Greek-based philosophies. All we have to do is base our theological understanding in the historical story that God through His prophets and messengers has made known in certain specific historical situations and through His Word.
6. We need to realize that our theology and philosophy of education and health can find a solid basis in Scripture. This will, of course, entail the need to redefine the concept of Being in general as well as its relationship to all beings. But such a reformulation does not need to owe anything to Greek-based philosophies, such as the Western basic axiom of dualistic metaphysics, as well as the new metaphysics of the 20th century existentialist phenomenology.
7. At the foundation of every thought and any logic of the entity of Being can be found the real and concrete fact of “I am who I am” of Exodus 3:14. This view of being is both manifest in a particular historical moment, as well as transcends space and time of the entire history of humankind and of the universe created by God.
To conclude, the entire debate enumerated above can be summarized in asking the question: should we be guided by the commitment and preoccupations of Jerusalem or Athens? The Adventist answer should leave us in no doubt.
Fernando Aranda Fraga (Ph.D., Catholic University of Santa Fe, Argentina), is a professor of graduate studies at, and research director of, Montemorelos University, Nuevo Leon, Mexico.
A preliminary version of this article was presented at the Symposium of the Society of Adventist Philosophers in Atlanta, Georgia, United States, in November, 2010. Translated from Spanish by Edward Guzman and Abigail Doukhan.
I would like to thank my philosophical and theological mentor Dr. Fernando Canale, from Andrews University, who long ago, when I was majoring in philosophy and teaching in Argentina, inspired in me the desire of inquiring about the analogies, similarities, and differences between both philosophical schools of thought.
- Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, 1921; Religion without Myth, with Karl Jaspers, 1954.
- See: Fernando L. Canale, A Criticism of Theological Reason: Time and Timelessness as Primordial Presuppositions. Andrews University Seminary Doctoral Dissertation Series, volume 10 (Berrien Springs, Michigan: Andrews University Press, 1987).