Some future historian may find it mystifying that the combination of eighteenth century British empiricism and nineteenth century German philosophy could have led to the de-Christianization of Europe, destroying in less than two centuries what Western Culture took over two millennia to build.

By Jude P. Dougherty
The Annals Australasia July 2017

‘THERE IS an obligation to know God, and to fail to meet that obligation is not to err intellectually, but to sin morally. Belief is not a privilege but a duty. Man’s knowledge or lack of it depends wholly on the attitude of his will and desires toward God.’

Those are not my words but those of John Dewey, a newly minted Ph.D from Johns Hopkins University, speaking to the Christian Association at the University of Michigan in 1884. Dewey was not yet the naturalist or materialist he was to become.

Within little more than a decade, perhaps under the influence of Emil Durkheim and Frederick Schleiermacher, not to mention David Hume, Dewey changed his perspective.

In a new take on the subject, he voiced respect for religion because of its value as a “motivator,” and to some extent for its moral component, but even the latter he came to question. “God,” in his later thought, became an ideal, the imaginative personification of “the values we chose to hold dear.” Given that God does not exist, Dewey saw no warrant for worship or for religion and inveighed against both.

It is not clear to what extent Dewey was familiar with classical conceptions of God at the time he wrote of ‘Our Obligation to Know God.’ His references to Plato and Aristotle were usually in the form of rejections.

It is the function of philosophy, he proclaimed, to challenge the inherited. To be sure, Aristotle’s God was not a god to be worshiped, but one can make the case that Plato’s Summum Bonum i.e. ‘Most Perfect Good,’ was worthy of homage. For their part, neither Plato nor Aristotle could embrace Zeus, the providential god of folklore who determined the general course of events by maintaining order in the universe.

Zeus, it was thought, imparted to kings the principles by which they gave justice to their subjects, and it was Zeus who was the protector of suppliants and strangers and who would punish any offence against them. These and other Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic ideas return in Islamic thought, notably in Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroes.

We may take Alfarabi as an example. Known in the Arab world as the ‘Second Teacher,’ after Aristotle, he entertained a conception of the universe as ‘one thoroughly ordered, with everything occurring within it to be part of an integrated whole.’ There is a first cause that is perfect in every respect, with nothing prior to it.

Alfarabi’s universe is a hierarchical one. The first cause is distinct, complete and one, without matter, and ought to be thought of as divine, as the object of religious practice. In The Political Regime, after a discussion of first and secondary causes, there follows an explanation of how human beings fit into the cosmic order, and how political life allows them to fulfill their purpose, namely, the achievement of human perfection and ultimate happiness.

Alfarabi enumerates the reasons human beings associate and how civic life can be arranged to meet human need. He emphasizes the importance of religion for the social unification of all citizens. It is worth noting that Alfarabi’s The Political Regime is still influential in the Islamic world. The Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is known to quote him, as well as Plato and Aristotle, in some of his discourses.

Perhaps it was not until modernity that religion began to be regarded solely for its social utility, i.e., the promotion of selfless activity on behalf of the sick, the poor, the traveller, and others in need.

In the minds of many, concern for the poor has become the foremost identifying mark of religion. Within the West, secular agencies and anti-Christian governments alike profess to be concerned for the poor, but often for suspect motivations.

Where the social utility of religion is promoted, the true meaning of religion is likely to be neglected; worship and the things pertaining to worship are not likely to be addressed. Need one be reminded that concern for the poor did not build the great cathedrals and monastic edifices of Europe, but love of God did, as communities placed their wealth and art in the service of worship? Clearly Christianity is at odds with August Comte’s ‘religion of humanity.’

A recent work. Interpreting the Middle Ages, Charles Fried, brings to mind another kind of social utility that was addressed in the early Middle Ages by two extraordinary men. Pope Gregory the Great (590604) and the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne (747-814).

Gregory is known to theologians for his Commentaries on the Book of Job and for his Book of Pastoral Rule. In Fried’s judgment, it is the latter book that proved to be a seminal text for the governance of the Church insofar as it helped define the role of bishops and other Church leaders, not only with respect to the internal affairs, but with respect to the Church’s relation to civic authority. Gregory, Fried tells the reader, made special efforts to secure correctness and uniformity in liturgical practice throughout the empire.

Two hundred years after Gregory, it was under Charlemagne that the Church was to become firmly integrated into the Emperor’s ruling system. Charlemagne regarded the prosperity of a religious culture to be in the interest of the empire and he acted accordingly.

His religious initiative was aimed first and foremost at promoting the worship of God and the liturgical reform it entailed. In Fried’s account, Charlemagne believed that ‘in order not to offend the Lord, religious service called for correct liturgical language, error-free Latin, proper liturgical plainsong, and reliable scholarship.’

In order to achieve his ecclesiastical reform, Charlemagne requested from Pope Adrian I the Roman Missal and from Pope Hadran I a definitive collection of canon law.

Given that the proper organization of the Church was seen as important to the empire, bishops were charged by the Emperor with the education of their clergy.

The fulfilment of that charge became the origin of the cathedral schools, which in the late Middle Ages became the embryos from which the great universities of Europe grew. From the tenth century on, dialectics and the sciences flourished in the cathedral schools that initially vied with exceptional monastery schools, but eventually the urban cathedral schools of Chartres, Reims, Leon, and Paris outstripped the latter.

It is important to remember that the era of Charlemagne heralded the dawning of a new age of reason. At that time scholars in the West were just beginning to absorb the first books of Aristotle’s Organon in the original translation by Boethius.

By the High Middle Ages, Aristotle’s entire oeuvre had become known to the West through successive waves of reception. Under Charlemagne’s reign, and at his insistence, the seven liberal arts were resurrected. The study of Aristotle’s Categories and Ciceronian rhetoric was encouraged. Aristotle soon became the mentor figure of Western logic. Charlemagne’s personal thirst for knowledge and the enrichment of his library saved many an ancient text. His favorite book is said to have been Augustine’s City of God.

Discussions of religion as a virtue and its role in society predate Christianity. The Greek mind had a well-developed sense of ‘piety,’ in the sense of the virtue that it disposed one to acknowledge debt, e.g., to one’s parents, to one’s country, to the wellsprings of one’s own being.

In Plato’s Euthyphro Socrates discusses piety, which is that part of justice which concerns attention to the gods, the remaining part of justice concerns the service of men. The virtue of justice binds all other virtues into a harmony and brings unity to the person as a whole. What does attention to the gods mean? The gods are not benefited or brought to a greater degree of perfection by anything that men do. The kind of attention Socrates has in mind involves a certain kind of service, a committing of one’s self to divine service. Prayer and sacrifice are modes of service. Such acts as honour, praise, and gratitude, it was thought, bring salvation to individuals, families, and states.

On the subject of prayer, Xenophon records that Socrates’ ideal was ‘to pray for that which is good, without further specification, believing that the gods know best what is good.’ In Alcibiades II, Plato has Socrates approve this old Spartan prayer: ‘Give us, O King Zeus, what is good, whether we pray for it or not, and avert from us the evil, even if we pray for it.’ Socrates’ ideal of prayer is also shown in a beautiful prayer to Pan that occurs at the end of the Phaedrus: ‘O beloved Pan, and all ye other gods of this place, grant to me that I may be made beautiful in my soul within, and that all external possessions be in harmony with my inner man. May I consider the wise man rich; and may I have such wealth as only the self-restrained man can bear or endure.’ He then turns to Phaedrus and asks, ‘Do we need anything more, Phaedrus? For me that prayer is enough.’

Unlike Plato, Aristotle provides no significant texts on the subject of religion. There is no doubt, however, that Aristotle argues to a number of concepts associated with the divine, e.g., to an immaterial order of being, to a first efficient cause, to an ultimate cause which draws all things to itself, and to a self-thinking intellect. Yet one would look in vain for a text in which he prescribes homage or piety.

Marcus Tullius Cicero writing in the century before Christ regarded social organization as closely related to the divine.

In his De Legibus III considers, first, the means by which the State should endeavour to win the favor of the gods and, second, the ways in which the state under divine favour should live and function.

In the first case the State acts through religious ceremony and priestly order, in the other through magistrates and groupings of the chief men and people. Cicero then sets forth a code of religious laws, introduced by a preamble in which he urges all citizens of the ideal commonwealth to believe implicitly in the supremacy of the deathless gods. For the gods not only govern the universe, but they also perceive and record the acts and feelings of each individual. Accordingly, if reverence does not of itself inspire adoration, prudence will at least suggest the expediency of the worship of those beings who will be both witnesses against us and judges of our conduct.

Seneca and Macrobius were to follow the lead of Cicero, and St. Thomas in his day would draw upon all three in treating religion as the payment of a debt. The formal acknowledgment of any indebtedness, says Thomas, whether it be to parents, nation, or God, is an act of piety. Thomas’s most extended treatment of worship is found in the Summa Theologiae wherein he examines the moral and ceremonial precepts of the old law (I-II, q. 100 ff.).

In other passages, he discusses religion from an etymological point of view. In both the Summa Theologiae and the Summa Contra Gentiles he looks to the origin of the term itself. St. Augustine, he says, found the origin of the word religio in the verb re eligere (to re-elect), Cicero in the verb re legit (to ponder over, to read again), and Lactantius in the verb religare (to bind back) (II-II, q. 81, a. 1).

Thomas discusses all three views without dismissing any, although in a number of passages he seems to favour the last, which more directly connotes the bond which he takes to be the heart of religion. That binding of man to God, says Thomas, flows from several sources. Because God is a being of infinite excellence and worth, man owes him reverence; because God is his creator and the source of all that he possesses, man owes him service; and because God is man’s last end, man owes him love.

In the de Veritate, Thomas addresses the presuppositions of religion by offering an analysis of the act of faith on which it is based. Belief, he holds, is a rational act residing in the judgment act of the intellect, not in simple apprehension.

We believe or disbelieve true or false statements. What is known and accepted on faith is rational insofar as it complements or perfects what is known through experience and reason. Thus it may be said that between a natural worldview and that provided by faith there is a continuum.

Belief is definitely not the satisfaction of a psychological need, nor does it involve a dramatic shift in perspective, as if a darkened intellect suddenly comes to light. A natural knowledge of nature and human nature opens the way for the truths of Revelation, truths which reinforce and supplement reason. Thus it was understood by Justin Martyr, a Greek who flourished in the mid-decades of the second century after Christ.

Justin brought to his analysis and defence of the faith knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, and the Stoics. Philosophy, he taught, leads to Christianity as its fulfillment. Pagan philosophy, he maintained, is not to be feared, for it is consistent with biblical teaching.

Marius Victorinus, Boethius, and Augustine in the third and fourth centuries followed in Justin’s footsteps. Clement of Alexandria was similarly convinced that knowledge of Greek philosophy was essential for an understanding and defence of the faith.

Jewish law and Greek philosophy, he held, are the two rivers from whose confluence Christianity sprung forth. Clearly the faith as taught by these Fathers was more than a preaching of the Gospels.

Their teaching was equally grounded in the Acts of the Apostles, in the Epistles, and in the natural intelligence by which one seeks to understand the teachings of Christ and their implications. The New Testament, Clement taught, presents not only the life of Jesus but the response and reaction of those who experienced his life. There are consequences to the acceptance of the Gospels wherein Christ reveals the nature of the Godhead itself and presents himself as ‘The Way, the Truth, and the Life.’ As both Gregory the Great and Charlemagne recognized, the definition, conservation, and development of those truths become an important function of the religious body itself.

From a sociological point of view, a fact that cannot be ignored is that religious practice or its lack has cultural implications. Religion both presupposes and promotes virtue in the individual and morality in the people. A communal expression of faith through worship cannot take place without a common recognition of an obligation to honor God.

Here is where philosophy enters the picture. As Leo XIII recognized in Aeterni Patris, philosophy either opens one to religious belief or closes it down as an intellectual option.

I chose John Dewey’s intellectual journey to open this essay because of the tremendous influence he has had on shaping public education in the United States. The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach could have been chosen as well. His work, Essence of Christianity may have had greater influence world-wide than Dewey. Certainly Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were strongly influenced by it.

Some future historian may find it mystifying that the combination of eighteenth century British empiricism and nineteenth century German philosophy could have led to the de-Christianization of Europe, destroying in less than two centuries what Western Culture took over two millennia to build.

PROFESSOR JUDE DOUGHERTY is Dean Emeritus of the Philosophy Faculty, Catholic University of America, Editor, The Review of Metaphysics, and General Editor, Series Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, Washington, D.C. He is a regular contributor to Annals.

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