16 June 2013

'What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?': A Cliché Examined

In a lovely apologia for the importance of culture entitled ‘Christianity & Culture’, C.S. Lewis includes among a list of authors that he consulted on the question only two Church Fathers: St Augustine and St Jerome. I shall quote the passage in full:

St Augustine regarded the liberal education which he had undergone in his boyhood as a dementia, and wondered why it should be considered honestior et uberior [higher and richer] than the really useful ‘primary’ education which preceded it (Conf. I, xiii). He is extremely distrustful of his own delight in church music (ibid., X, xxxiii). Tragedy (which for Dr Richards is a great exercise of the spirit’) is for St Augustine a kind of sore. The spectator suffers, yet loves his suffering, and this is a miserabilis insania...quid autem mirum cum infelix pecus aberrans a grege tuo et inpatiens custodiae tuae turpi scabie foedarer (ibid., III, ii). [1]
St Jerome, allegorizing the parable of the Prodigal Son, suggests that the husks with which he was fain to fill his belly may signify cibus daemonum...carmina poetarum, saecularis sapientia, rhetoricorum pompa verborum (Ep. xxi, 4). [2]
Let none reply that the Fathers were speaking of polytheistic literature at a time when polytheism was still a danger. The scheme of values presupposed in most imaginative literature has not become very much more Christian since the time of St Jerome.... [3]

While it is certainly somewhat surprising that Lewis only quotes two Fathers, and neither of them Greek, he at least gives an explanation for this that really amounts to an apology: ‘If my selection of authorities seems arbitrary, that is due not to a bias but to my ignorance. I used such authors as I happened to know.’ [4] In their treatment of essentially the same general question Lewis had faced, however, three later Protestant literary critics—Leland Ryken, Donald Williams, and David Lyle Jeffrey—offer no explanation so far as I can tell for dwelling almost exclusively on one or both of the same two Latin Fathers. The first two, to make matters somewhat more irksome, choose to begin their discussions with one of the most overplayed quotations on culture from the early centuries of the Church—Tertullian’s famous ‘What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ [5]

I daresay that reference to this quotation, and the tendency to treat it as something of a fountainhead for a discernible and unbroken tradition throughout Christian thought, is due at least in part to its rhetorical cuteness. Tertullian himself is of course consciously echoing the high rhetoric of II Corinthians 6:14-15—‘For what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial?’ Tertullian in turn is later echoed by St Jerome, who actually quotes the II Corinthians passage in his letter to the Roman matron Eustochium before improvising upon the theme: ‘What has Horace to do with the Psalter? or Virgil with the Gospel? or Cicero with the Apostle?’ [6] Then, finally, and more well-known to the Anglophone world than St Jerome’s letter, is the comment of Alcuin of York to Hygebald, Bishop of Lindisfarne in 797: ‘What has Ingeld to do with Christ? [7]’ [8]

I suggested already that the use of these quotations seemed likely to be due to their rhetorical cuteness. Certainly, it strikes me that short of the ignorance to which Lewis confesses, this can be one of the few possible reasons for focusing so exclusively on the Tertullian-Jerome-Alcuin chain and then at best looking to St Augustine [9] for a more balanced approach to the problem, while simultaneously leaving the entire tradition of the Greek Fathers’ engagement with secular culture completely untouched. Otherwise, why, just to take two outstanding examples, do none of these scholars make any reference to St Basil the Great’s wonderful Address to Young Men on How to Profit from Greek Literature, or to St Gregory the Theologian’s Eulogy on St Basil?

The complete oversight of the Greek stream of Christian thought notwithstanding, there remain unfortunate shortcomings in these various scholars’ attempts to grapple with the Latin Fathers on this subject of secular culture (and primarily literature). Lewis and Leland Ryken seem content to tell us that St Jerome and St Augustine are ‘against us’ on this question. Lewis hopes ‘to answer the Fathers’ attack on pagan literature’, [10] and Ryken is convinced that ‘The specifically Christian tradition of opposition to literature begins with the Church Fathers.’ [11]

With Donald Williams, however, we begin to see that perhaps things are not so black and white. Williams at least, after trotting out some of the usual anti-lit passages from St Augustine, then observes:

Yet even as we read these passages, we cannot believe that for Augustine they tell the whole story. Where, we ask, would the felicitous style of the Confessions have come from if he had never studied the classics from the standpoint of rhetorical analysis? And where would he have found such a perfect concrete example had he remained ignorant of the dolors of Dido? Indeed, if we just keep reading, we find that there is more to Augustine’s view of literature than at first meets the eye. [12]

Jeffrey, for his part, not only deepens and extends the consideration of St Augustine’s view of literature, but also discovers that even St Jerome is not so one-sided as he may appear from the Epistle to Eustochium alone (which besides the II Corinthians echo, also features the famous dream where the irascible translator is accused in heaven of being a ‘Ciceronian’ rather than a Christian). In Jeffrey’s words, after the ‘What has Horace’ passage, ‘Jerome then makes clear that his concern is [not with literature per se, but] with priorities, with the ordering of Christian life in such a way that extrinsic interests remain secondary.’ [13] Jeffrey then notes:

But it is this same prioritizing of means and end which allows Jerome in a letter to another correspondent, the Roman orator and convert Magnus (Epist. 70), to defend the considerable use of non-Christian classical authors in his own writing....Jerome’s reply, a kind of ‘apology for poetry’, accordingly makes several arguments in defense of a Christian use of secular literature—which use is presented as not at all the same thing as an idolatrous passion for literature per se. [14]

But even Jeffrey leaves poor Alcuin to fend for himself. For a vindication of the great Carolingian scholar, we have to turn to a bona fide Anglo-Saxonist. In his charming but relatively obscure book, Anglo-Saxon Christianity: Exploring the Earliest Roots of Christian Spirituality in England, Paul Cavill not only provides some more context for Quid Hineldus...?, but considers the passage at some length. First, here is as much of Alcuin’s text as Cavill includes:

Let us prepare ourselves for meeting the great king, so that we may find him kindly, for no one can escape him. Let us think daily what gift we will bring, as scripture says, ‘Thou shalt not appear before the Lord God empty-handed’. No precious metal, no bright jewels, no vain clothing, no worldly luxury will be acceptable there to that fairest of Judges: only generosity of almsgiving, and multiplied good deeds will avail...
The words of God should be read at the monks’ feasts. There the reader should be heard not a harpist, the discourses of the Fathers not the songs of the heathens. What has Ingeld to do with Christ? The house is narrow, it cannot contain both. The kind of the heavens will have nothing to do with heathen and damned so-called kings. For the eternal king rules in the heavens, the lost heathen repines in hell. The voices of readers should be heard in your houses, not the cackling of the crowd in the street. [15]

So, the reference to the ‘monks’ feasts’ should suffice to remind us that Lindisfarne, home of Bishop Hygebald, was a monastery, not simply a local church of laymen. In other words, Alcuin’s advice to listen to Scripture or the Fathers at mealtime rather than heroic tales is not offered as general advice for Christians—much less a dogmatic statement on the relationship of Christ and culture, as he seems often to be taken—but specifically for monks. As Cavill notes, ‘Alcuin is using all the accumulated associations of Bible and Fathers to persuade the monastery at Lindisfarne that secular song at a monastic meal is a contradiction in terms.’ [16]

Finally, even Tertullian needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and should certainly not be seen as representative of any patristic ‘tradition’ concerning secular culture. Contra this idea of a ‘tradition’ stemming from Tertullian, Josef Pieper has noted:

In opposition to the sectarian narrowness of Tertullian, the fathers of the early Church, from Justin Martyr to Origen and Augustine, have unanimously championed their conviction of the power of the divine word to germinate and spread, and of the presence of seeds of truth active in human history from the beginning in the folk wisdom of the different peoples and in the teaching of the philosophers. [17]

John Mark Reynolds has gotten downright deconstructive in his response to the ‘What has Athens...?’ question. In his own suggestively titled, When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical & Christian Thought, he writes:

How did the church deal with the massive intellectual and cultural heritage of this classical civilization?
One response was to reject ‘secular learning’ to keep the church pure. Theology had nothing to learn from philosophy. ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ thundered Tertullian, a champion of keeping the two far apart. A great deal as it turned out, since Tertullian’s own writings echoed Greek philosophy on nearly every page.
Judaism itself had been influenced by Greek learning. There was no ‘pure’ stream of knowledge that did not run through Athens. The very Greek language that the early Christians used to communicate their message was soaked in centuries of classical thought. Trying to pry Athens and Jerusalem apart usually led to inconsistency and heresy.
Tertullian ended up trapped in the heresy of Montanism, which taught that Jesus was going to land the New Jerusalem in a remote backwater of the Roman Empire. Private revelations to wild prophets stood on par with Scripture. Jerusalem without Athens becomes a weird place. [18]

Reynolds’s observation about the Greek philosophy in Tertullian’s own writings is perhaps more reason than the usual, basic one to examine the context of the famous statement in De praescriptione haereticorum. [19] While even I haven’t read the complete work, I first encountered the quote in at least some of its context—that of the complete seventh chapter, included in William Placher’s valuable little reader for undergraduates, Readings in the History of Christian Theology. Here is that chapter in full:

These are ‘the doctrines’ of men and ‘of demons’ produced for itching ears of the spirit of this world’s wisdom: this the Lord called ‘foolishness’, and ‘chose the foolish things of the world’ to confound even philosophy itself. For (philosophy) it is which is the material of the world’s wisdom, the rash interpreter of the nature and the dispensation of God. Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy. From this source came the Æons, and I known not what infinite forms, and the trinity of man in the system of Valentinus, who was of Plato’s school. From the same source came Marcion’s better god, with all his tranquillity; he came of the Stoics. Then, again, the opinion that the soul dies is held by the Epicureans; while the denial of the restoration of the body is taken from the aggregate school of all the philosophers; also, when matter is made equal to God, then you have the teaching of Zeno; and when any doctrine is alleged touching a god of fire, then Heraclitus comes in. The same subject-matter is discussed over and over again by the heretics and the philosophers; the same arguments are involved. Whence comes evil? Why is it permitted? What is the origin of man? and in what way does he come?...Unhappy Aristotle! who invented for these men dialectics, the art of building up and pulling down; an art so evasive in its propositions, so far-fetched in its conjectures, so harsh, in its arguments, so productive of contentions—embarrassing even to itself, retracting everything, and really treating of nothing! Whence spring those ‘fables and endless genealogies’, and ‘unprofitable questions’, and ‘words which spread like a cancer?’ From all these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, ‘See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.’ He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from ‘the porch of Solomon’, who had himself taught that ‘the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart’. Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.[20]

Much of this blog presupposes, but it also occasionally explicitly proposes (see in particular this post), a particular answer to Tertullian’s ringing rhetorical questions. I hope too that the comments quoted above from Donald Williams, David Lyle Jeffrey, Paul Cavill, Josef Pieper, and perhaps even John Mark Reynolds suggest some part of an answer. But leaving aside the whole question of St Paul’s relationship to philosophy and his mission to Athens, it suffices here to note that Tertullian has merely assembled a list of heretical beliefs which either originate with or are held in common with philosophers. It would be just as simple, of course, to produce a list of orthodox Christian beliefs which are held in common with philosophers. Thus, we are back to carefully evaluating Athens, the Academy, Horace, Virgil, Cicero, and Ingeld instead of merely dismissing them. In the process, I suspect it will be difficult not to fall in love with much that they have to say and offer. If we do not find it difficult, I believe that ought to be classified among our defects rather than among our virtues.

[1] ‘wretched insanity....What marvel was it that an unhappy sheep, straying from Thy flock, and impatient of Thy care, I became infected with a foul disease?’

[2] ‘the food of demons...the songs of poets, secular wisdom, the pomp of the rhetoricians’ words’

[3] C.S. Lewis, ‘Christianity & Culture’, The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis (NY: Inspirational, 1996), p. 183.

[4] Ibid., p. 183.

[5] William C. Placher, Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Vol. 1: From Its Beginnings to the Eve of the Reformation (Philadelphia: The Westminster, 1988), p. 44.

[6] Qtd. in David Lyle Jeffrey, People of the Book: Christian Identity & Literary Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 76.

[7] For some reason the Latin text of this one is given more often than that of Tertullian or St Jerome: Quid Hinieldus cum Christo?

[8] Qtd. in Paul Cavill, Anglo-Saxon Christianity: Exploring the Earliest Roots of Christian Spirituality in England (London: HarperCollins, 1999), p. 57.

[9] Or, in Jeffrey’s case, St Jerome and St Augustine. Though to be fair, Jeffrey may also be consciously focusing on the Western Christian tradition, and may see the Greek Fathers as not contributing to that tradition in a sufficiently direct way to warrant attention.

[10] Lewis, p. 184.

[11] Leland Ryken, Triumphs of the Imagination: Literature in Christian Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1979), p. 14.

[12] Donald T. Williams, ‘Christian Poetics, Past & Present’, The Discerning Reader: Christian Perspectives on Literature & Theory, ed. David Barratt, Roger Pooley, & Leland Ryken (Leicester, UK: APOLLOS, 1995), p. 54. Incidentally, Jeffrey refers to this book, though it’s not clear to me whether he intends to suggest that it is an example of the modern Christian tendency ‘to uphold a pristine formalist approach to the text in ethical or even theological terms’ (p. 94), or an example of the argument that ‘this strategem is intrinsically vulnerable to the poststructuralist’s denigration to the degree that it remains historically unselfconscious’ (p. 94, n. 19). I’m thinking the latter based on what I know of the book, but I could be mistaken.

[13] Jeffrey, p. 76.

[14] Ibid., p. 77.

[15] Cavill, pp. 167-8.

[16] Ibid., p. 58. Of course, lest we get the idea that Christian monasticism specifically, if not Christianity generally, is therefore ‘against us’ on the question of literature, Cavill goes on to point out:

If Alcuin’s orthodoxy has a certain narrowness, we learn something from his letter to Lindisfarne about the breadth of Anglo-Saxon monasticism. Monks listened to heroic, presumably secular tales, and no doubt enjoyed them. The larger part of the Anglo-Saxon contribution to world civilization was in preserving both Christian and secular classics. Books were produced in monasteries, except for a few, mainly functional and rather dull works, which were written for kings. But the vernacular works—poems particularly, which are both Christian and composed in the Germanic language and style of the ordinary Anglo-Saxons—are worthy of attention, not least because they are less bound by the need for orthodoxy. Not only is there Beowulf, which offers a challenge to the prevailing theological understanding, as exemplified by Alcuin, of the fate of the unconverted heathen. There are also vernacular poems which confound all modern expectations of monastic production. (ibid., p. 60)

[17] Josef Pieper, Tradition: Concept & Claim, tr. E. Christian Kopf (South Bend, IN: St Augustine’s, 2008), p. 54. Besides the now familiar passage from De praescriptione haereticorum 7, Pieper also cites Apologeticum 46 as an example of Tertullian’s ‘sectarian narrowness’ (p. 82, n. 18).

[18] John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical & Christian Thought (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), p. 17.

[19] Unfortunately, Jeffrey, whose book is an outstanding work of original scholarship, mistakenly cites Tertullian’s famous quip as De Spectaculis, 18 (Jeffrey, p. 107, n. 21).

[20] Placher, pp. 43-4. Placher’s reader, along with his survey of the history of Christian thought, was the assigned text for my undergraduate Church History course at OCU with Amy Oden, niece of Thomas Oden.