What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem?

Athens-Louise-Cowan-BioWhat has the Greek quest for excellence and order and beauty to do with the Hebrew quest for the living God?

This is the question the Church Fathers asked themselves, a query that we still must raise from time to time. And in our day in particular, it is the question that Christian educators in the West should make their primary concern. For the liberal arts are indisputably Greek in their orientation: and yet those bright gods on Mt. Olympus, who mingled with men (and women!), jealously coveted sacrifices, and accepted official commemoration in marble temples and olive groves, have little to do with the hidden presence who spoke from a burning bush and forbade David to build him a temple. And the center of our faith—that lonely one who hung on the cross at Golgotha and redefined the purposes of life—took as his earthly ancestry the Hebrew tradition, with its pervasive tendency to regard as idolatry any representation such as we in the West have called art.

Writing a poem or painting a picture is a little like fashioning a golden calf. Hence, at first glance, nothing seems further from the concerns of art and human culture than the Scriptural heritage with which Jesus Christ aligned himself. And yet the Western intellectual tradition contains a Hebrew strain even more surely than a Hellenic one. Perhaps, then, educators need to take a look at the peculiar contradictions and the wide inclusiveness of this much maligned and greatly misunderstood “master narrative,” as its detractors have called the Western tradition.

More than a century ago, in his essay “Hebraism and Hellenism,” Matthew Arnold addressed the contradictions the West has faced in inheriting two such diverse strains, attributing much of our cultural difficulties to these conflicting ideas of the good. The object of the Greek way of thought, as he said, is to know rightly; the object of the Hebrew is to do rightly. Perhaps we could rephrase his statements to say that the highest calling of the Greeks is to pass by appearances and “hit the mark” of intellectual truth, whereas the supreme obligation of the Hebrews is to walk in the way of the Lord and on his law to meditate day and night. It has been the complicated task of Christian culture to bring these two imperatives together, and in these changing times it is dangerous to allow either tradition to be lost or to be narrowed into private concerns. No doubt one of the great strengths of Western civilization has been its ability to draw on these two heritages and produce artists and thinkers of sometimes outrageous paradox—witness such thinkers and artists as Augustine, Dante, El Greco, Donne, Milton, Goya, Beethoven, Goethe, Melville, Kierkegaard, Hopkins, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Mahler, Rouault, and Faulkner, among others. All of these manifest a Greek sense of form combined with a Hebraic sense of restlessness and a haunting sense of that darkness we call sin.

Differing Views of Art
The Greek mode of thought gave rise not only to philosophy, but to the quest for harmony and beauty. It invented philosophy and provided the models for epic, tragedy, and comedy. In their art the Greeks discovered myth and symbol as modes of human imagination that arise from the earth like a cloudy veil wafting up toward the sky, rather than coming down like manna from heaven.

The Israelites had no such figure: for them the numinous was not to be found in indirection. The glory of the heavens and the wide stretch of the firmament of which the psalmist sang were not mere symbols of something else: they were creations of God, awesome realities which He had made. And Yahweh himself, speaking from the whirlwind to Job, brings home the realization that the creature cannot rival the creator:Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Can you draw Leviathan with a hook? Could you make the mighty nostrils of the horse? And confronted with this mysterium tremendum, Job is abashed, as well he might be. He had heard of Yahweh, he says, but now that he sees him he repents in dust and ashes. He does not actually see God, of course; he is made to “see” only his creation. But in the more intimate mode of Hebraic thought, he hears his word. He knows the artist from the artwork—and is forcibly made aware that God, not he, is the maker.Athens-Man-Praying

And as a matter of fact, hardly any Old Testament figure is allowed to create, except of course in some of the most gorgeous poetry of praise the world has known. David, who is a man after God’s own heart, is a musician and a singer and—at least one time—a dancer. Deborah and Miriam raise songs of praise. The prophets utter powerful poetry inspired directly by Yahweh. The psalms are ecstatic love poems to a God who is both dominating and reticent—and essentially unknowable. But on the whole, the Israelite was not portrayed as homo faber (creative man). For the ancient Hebrews it is not the things one makes that count; rather, it is one’s relation to the God that made all things.

How different the Promethean view, which may be taken to represent the Greek attitude toward the status of humankind. According to Aeschylus, after Prometheus taught mortals “all the arts,” they were expected to use their skills to create and to advance civilization. But the Israelites, as the noted Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber comments, made no real contributions to painting or sculpture or architecture. Their task, as he points out, was to work with a more recalcitrant medium: human hearts and wills. And the end of their work was not a monument, but a community.


2 Views of the Cosmos
But the Israelites gave us the concept of the book and in Exodus the unforgettable liberation epic of the world. They set the pattern for narrative and bequeathed to us a sense of the desert experience and a divine discontent with the things of civilization. They established the norms for lyric poetry. And they passed down to us something radically new: not myth but history, a movement forward in time, and therefore, the sense of an ending. Further, their dominant paradigm was not the lonely masculine hero, as in classical culture, but marriage, man and woman standing side by side as partners—Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel. These are the ancestors: two people working together and, amazingly in the Abraham story, journeying together in Odyssean fashion, surviving by their wits across the many miles that lead from Ur to the land of Canaan. Marriage is the figure the prophets use for Yahweh’s love for his people. A passionate marriage lyric, “The Song of Songs,” with its frank eroticism, can be interpreted by the rabbis as fitting to describe the love of God for humankind, just as it can later be taken by Christian mystics to delineate Christ’s love for his bride, the Church. The awesome God of the Hebrews loves his chosen people passionately, is jealous of them, hurt by them, reproachful of them, sometimes even petulant, but always faithful to them.

What Greek myth implies is somewhat different: that the gods are children of earth (Gaia) and sky (Uranos), and though mortals are thoroughly second-rate, they are called upon to be as like the gods as they can. Though gods sometimes mix with mortals (Zeus has an indefatigable attraction to beautiful maidens), nonetheless, an “iron sky,” in Pindar’s phrase, divides the two realms. In the very nature of things, humanity is limited by certain natural ties that bind individuals to different orders of being: to the earth, the family, the city, the dead, the divine. They are assigned their moira, their portion, their fate—though they are free to react to it as they will. In the face of their mortality, they endure by what Prometheus calls “blind hopes.” Magnanimity (great-souledness) is the highest virtue; a noble humanism pervades Hellenic art and thought. In striking contrast to the Greek, Hebrew literature assigns immense significance to humankind, made in the image of God, though it enjoins a necessary humility in the face of the creator’s majesty and power. It affirms that mortals are not simply offspring of nature or of Mother Earth but children of the God beyond gods—and obligated through the very fact of their existence. In creating humankind and promising to be present to his people, God has made a covenant with the human race through those who will hear his voice. Thus, in the Hebraic tradition God is to be found by means not so much of human eros as God’s agape, his overwhelminghesed, to use the Hebrew word. And his first act of covenant was creation: all of creation was undertaken from an outpouring of generosity, issuing in a creature like himself, in his own image, one that could know and understand and love.

The glory and the benevolence of this creation story are unmatched in the entire literature of the world:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void;
And darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good.

The rest of these magnificent verses continue an account of such majesty, in such poetic terms, that even for moderns, across the centuries, wise in the ways of black holes and the possibility of parallel universes, the Genesis story remains an account of truth, not mere fable or primitive superstition. And the lofty lines that tell of the creation of life on earth, and finally of man, are of breathtaking grandeur:

And God said, Let us make man in our image,
after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea,
and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth,
and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
And God blessed them, and God said unto them,
Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it:
and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air,
and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

It is significant that the “word” of God, this command to be fruitful and multiply, was implanted in the very core of human living material—in the secret code of the human genome, we would say now.

And God saw everything that he had made,
and, behold, it was very good.

In none other of the numerous cosmic creation myths that have been discovered (at least so I am told) is there anything like this account—a deity who fashions a cosmos out of love, possessing the majesty and benevolence of this creator God. He makes things by the power of his effective word and calls his creation good, in the way that an artist matches the idea to the form, knowing beforehand what he is doing and yet surprised at its realized beauty. Creation is a work of art, brought into existence by the spoken Word—God’s thought, his design, his gathering together in an imaginative act, his electrifying creation ex nihilo. Thus human persons, made in the image of God, though not called to be ingenious or aesthetic, are by their very nature intended to bring things into being, as their creator did, poetically.

But Yahweh’s blazing furnace of love is a terror to the Israelites and to those who take his revelation seriously. Martin Buber writes:

The fear of God is the creaturely knowledge of the darkness to which none of our spiritual powers can reach, and out of which God reveals himself … It is the dark gate through which man must pass if he is to enter into the love of God.

The burning coal placed on Isaiah’s lips is the gift of love and of poetry: it is a terrifying ability to suffer the eternal in the midst of the temporal. Artists and thinkers in the West, under the Biblical influence, have known that their work must include a recognition of this dark gate; and they themselves must endure at least an analogue of the burning coal.

The Bible thus provides a different and seemingly antithetical model from that given in Greek literature. Ιt demands one’s whole heart and one’s whole viscera. Nonetheless, without in the least giving up a faith in Scripture, Westerners still find within themselves qualities that only the classical vision can express. The Hellenic cosmos of intellect and heroism, competition and perfection, is a fine model, never to be forgotten by anyone who has encountered Athens. It reveals the unchanging nature of things and the nobility of the human spirit. But the Hebrew cosmos—God’s revelation to his chosen ones—has been a more intimate if sometimes invisible paradigm for thinkers in the West. It offers a covenantal model—a bond, a contract, a mutual promise—to be made freely by the will and requiring the offering of one’s word. One’s relation with God depends not on virtue or achievement but on a covenant to be his and to acknowledge him as one’s own. The seventeenth-century metaphysical poet George Herbert has captured (in “Love III,” the lyric so greatly praised by Simone Weil) the absurd but splendid generosity of such a donor, offering a love that creates, prepares a feast, makes a covenant, suffers the indignity of refusal, gives his own substance as nourishment:

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back
guilty of dust and sin
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in
Drew nearer to me sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here
Love said You shall be he
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand and smiling did reply
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth, lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve
And know you not says Love who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat
So I did sit and eat.

Herbert’s poem expresses an intimacy, an “appetite for God,” in C. S. Lewis’s phrase, that could have come about only through the influence of Scripture. The tonality of the poem recalls the Old Testament psalms; its content, however, derives from the New Testament kenosis, the divine abasement and sacrifice. Images of feasting, of sexual union, of seeing, of the Eucharist—these are used to express the immediacy and generosity of Christ’s love and the necessity of its mutuality. All this is to indicate the intimacy of God’s love for man; and all this would be, in St. Paul’s words, “a scandal to the Greeks.”

But the corollary to this generosity is sobering. If we can turn away from such a personal and insistent love, we must indeed be in bad faith. And there is the frightening possibility that God might harden our hearts, as he hardened Pharaoh’s. Yahweh has a terrifying potentiality for what the Jews called “the evil urge,” a power within God that can scourge and destroy. The Old Testament authors saw into the abyss as even the Greek tragedians were unable to do. They looked on God’s majesty and on human violence and depravity with unaverted gaze. Part of their legacy to Western writers and artists, then, has been a sense of darkness and sin that cannot be erased from the imagination.

Christian art and thought are heir to these two strains which, in having been lived out among two great and gifted peoples, have informed the Western imagination. By taking the Hebrew Tanach as its “Old Testament” and considering it as part of its own revelation, Christianity followed and extended the Hebraic vision of life, challenging the classical view not only of time but also of matter. Socrates, in response to one of his students’ questions about whether it was not inspiring to look up at the stars, replied that whether he lay on his back and looked at the stars or on his belly and looked at the mud, he was seeing with his physical eye and hence viewing not truth but appearance. For Greek thinkers, matter represented change and illusion. But for Christians, when God himself took on human flesh, matter was given dignity and potentiality. It is not only the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation, however, that testifies to the worth and eternal significance of the body; this belief is borne out even further in the Christian teaching of resurrection, centering on and emerging from Christ’s crucifixion—a scandal, too, as St. Paul indicated. So also with the ideas of grace, forgiveness, and the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, that revolutionary document that proclaims the ultimate triumph of the meek, the poor in spirit, the mourners, the persecuted. This deliberate counter-saying to the noble and reasonable classical ethic has enormous implications for Western culture. Within it, phenomena take on a heretofore undreamed of significance.Athens-Jesus-Birth

The Christian Contradiction
However, rather than resting with Arnold’s verdict that we in the West are somewhat schizoid (though of course he did not use that twentieth-century word), I might venture to say that it is in this very tension, this doubleness of vision, this intolerable contradiction, that the genius of Western art and thought resides. We say, in effect: the good is impossible and we must undertake it; images are idolatrous and we must find the divine order through them; the human is confined within nature and we must go through the finite toward something transcendent; human suffering is a punishment for sin and they that mourn and are persecuted will inherit the kingdom. This scandal of contradiction has produced in the West far more than the obviously “Christ-haunted” poets and philosophers. It is at the base of all our thought. As a matter of fact, the personal beliefs of our writers and artists have less to do with this paradox than does their imaginative heritage. William Faulkner, when he was asked point blank if he were Christian, gave one of his evasive but always provocative replies: he had grown up surrounded by that story, he said, and considered it the best story he had ever heard. And of course he has hit upon the important thing. The question is not whether artists themselves are Christian in their personal belief, but what it is that they reflect in their art. We know nothing of Shakespeare’s religion, for instance; yet his plays are thoroughly Christian in outlook, with Greek and Roman influences—and very little of the Old Testament. In contrast, we know Milton’s religious commitments very well indeed. A short fifty years after Shakespeare, Milton drew all his convictions from the Protestant Reformers, yet his major poems transcend any doctrinal bias. Paradise Lost is filled with classical references from beginning to end, though an emphasis on the Old Testament is revealed in Milton’s very choice of subjects for his epic: the origin of sin in the world. In dramatizing and extending the Book of Genesis, Milton’s treatment of his subject reflects the Hebraic influence: talkative, thorny, authoritarian, with very little visual imagery. It is this charge that T. S. Eliot leveled against Milton in the 1930s, almost dethroning him. The literary imagination of most Western critics has always been indisputably Greek, whereas a good part of the Western artists’ imagination is Hebraic. From the Scriptures, the Western soul has been given a yearning for eternity, a hunger for sacrifice, a thirst for suffering; and the artist has been drawn irresistibly to the source from which these longings spring.

It is one of the most serious flaws in our systems of higher education, therefore, for the Bible to be relegated solely to departments of theology, its study in colleges and universities limited to the technical and professional. Holy Scripture should be part of the liberal arts core, which is damaged considerably by its omission. The Biblical narratives need to be placed beside other great narratives if their depth is to be revealed. For the individual student, there is always the danger that Biblical knowledge will be destined to seem either esoteric or childish—the first, if studied only in highly specialized courses; the second, if omitted from the general courses that purport to give an overall view of the intellectual landscape. Either of these approaches severely hampers students’ full understanding of their culture. But if American educational leaders have failed at their task of representing the whole Western intellectual tradition in their curricula, nothing has been able to keep the best writers of Europe and America from absorbing, on their own, the stunning beauty of the Scriptures.

Originally published in The Classical Teacher Winter 2010 edition.

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