I submit that to far too great a degree, Bible-believing Christians are allowing Roman Catholics and secular conservatives to do their thinking for them. Both of these groups advocate a return to the synthetic culture called “Western Civilization,” an unholy (and unstable) mixture of Greco-Roman paganism and Biblical religion. Many writers in these groups are brilliant and sometimes have penetrating insights, but this does not change the fact that what they advocate is basically a mixture of Baal and Christ. The so-called “canon” of Western literature is such a mixture, often including far more non-Christian work than Christian work. The situation as regards political philosophy in Western Civilization is, if anything, worse.1
These men and the many others like them have much good to say, but essentially they want to turn back the clock to a situation where pagan and Christian thinking is merged into the “Western” synthesis. To be sure, they tend to read the pagan Greeks and Romans through Christian eyes, creating imaginary Platos and Ciceros who did not ever really exist. But also, they do not take a high view of the Scripture, especially of the societal directives God spoke to Israel at Mount Sinai, and thus are much influenced by pagan ways, often without realizing it. As mentioned above, Western Civilization is over. That is to say, the tradition of that civilization has been broken now by two generations of ignorance and apostasy, extending from the “Sixties” to today. Therefore, the question before us as Bible Christians is this: Do we strive to restore that tradition, or should we look to the Bible and strive to create something better?
Again, he is describing something he takes as a given, and appealing to a moral evaluation in common with the reader. But what, really, is the “merged synthesis with a Plato that never existed”? What does Baal plus Christ look like? I would imagine he would cheerfully chirp, “a classical Christian school, of course!”. The lack of a high view of the Deuteronomic social objectives, he cites, specifically characterizes the syncretizers.
The early post-Apostolic Church was engaged in spiritual warfare with the Greco-Roman civilization, and was not interested in forming any kind of synthesis with it. Even in this time, however, many of the leading thinkers of Christianity were adult converts from philosophy, and they brought with them a great deal of pagan baggage. With the conversion of Constantine and the recognition of Christianity as true religion, things changed. Many people came into the orbit of the Church who were only scantily discipled, and with them came a host of pagan concepts and practices.
This is demonstrably incorrect. Clement of Alexandria (to mention a notable an unusual example) headed the catechetical school at the old Greek city-state of Alexandria in modern day Egypt. This “mystery” school actually initiated new converts in two stages into the Christian religion. Their philosophy was based, not merely on Greek categories of thought, but Egyptian myths. At one and the same time, they gave full authority to Scripture. Where people like Jordan see a rift or dichotomy, they insist there is full harmony. Clement and James Jordan cannot both be right. And Clement was no exception. Virtually without exception (Tertullian is the raccoon in the pantry) every single patristic early Church father that we have any written record of was a “syncretizer”. So we know exactly what this syncretism looked like. It wasn't Baal plus Christ (you can thank Rome for that, as Chesterton argues in The Eternal Man), it was truth plus Christ. Or, truth plus Truth. Some Christians may have gone so far as to argue it was Truth plus Truth. They thought this way because (unlike the modern man who specializes in binary dichotomies, or what he calls “logical antitheses) they thought that the culmination of Truth illuminated that which preceded it, and so to them, the truth of the Moon “lit up” with the truth of Sun. So Jordan needn't be vague in his terminology here: he has a wealth of things to choose from. Bonaventura, for instance, explained that the “intellect” or “heart” (this is the Scriptural word) has stages of contemplative illumination which can actually lead to the vision of God. By “explained”, I do not mean in the same sense Jordan takes the Old Testament: as a kind of lawnmower manual or schematic diagram which we can re-apply to human condition. Bonaventura is unfolding symbols that which actually have objective existence in the subconscious structure of the human mind, and the method he uses for this can be fairly described as Platonism. Has Jordan actually read Itenerarium Mentis ad Deum?
Here is how Douglas Wilson characterizes Jordan:
God interrupted the Hebraic world, moving to Hellenistic thought forms, argues Douglas Wilson, where God grafts in wild olive branches, so that we would have to deal with new issues, new categories. Wilson, in his comments on Jordan, thinks that we have to assimilate without capitulating, not by syncretizing, but combining and interacting in a way that is faithful to Scripture. In addition, you “play cards with the hand you are dealt”: this means being familiar with Roman categories and language and thought which is more accessible, and doable, than recovering Greek and Hebrew, right away. He thinks that the Hebrew contribution to local democracy, for instance, is much too often minimized, and that a “false dichotomy” is being set up between academics and character. His college, New St. Andrews, does in fact teach Hebrew. Your brain is not like a shoebox that can be filled up, but is more like a muscle, which can be conditioned. He cites the Reformation, in which scholars learned Greek and Hebrew, and wrote in Latin. All of this is a ladder, which we shouldn't kick out from under us, but rather use to try to get to where we are going.2
Jordan almost stumbles over the truth when he says in Part 3:
This is the development of “philosophy,” which came about in pagan lands at about the same time as the prophetic movement was raised up by God among His people. Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), Kung Fu-Tsu (Confucius), Lao-Tse, Plato, and Aristotle were roughly contemporary. Each sought to replace worship with contemplation, a further step of apostasy from God. Each of these three was a Cain.The tendency of the early Church was to see, instead, that these men came at the same time as the prophets because they represented the same spiritual development or revelation, from God, suited to the types and groups of people they were sent to. The Eastern mind (and body) is not identical to the Hellenistic one (which is not the same as the Hebraic, for that matter). That being the case, God's prophetic challenge to the Far East looked a great deal different than His mission to the Hebrews. Now, yes, it is fair to say that the mission to the Hebrews was unique and special. This does not entail that God had no revelation that was parallel or analogous in other parts of the world. In fact, this contradicts Romans 1, Psalms 19, and even Pentecost, where everyone heard them “speaking in their own tongue”. The problem with this “Biblicism” is that it is so un-Biblical. Even the prophets proclaimed that other nations would “come up to Jerusalem” for spiritual learning, just as the Magi came for the Christ child. Listening to Jordan, you'd think that the Magi were little Cains lead by demons to come and mock baby Jesus in the manger.
Jordan's problem is really larger even than this. What he wants to do (essentially) is to rip out Greco-Romanism, and plug in the Old Testament. To his mind, this is “safer” and more Biblical. Thus, instead of learning about and emulating the Mediterranean basin peoples, we would learn about and emulate (or not emulate?) the ancient twelve tribes of Israel. The Old Testament would become our canon, and (presumably) Old Testament canon law would become our politics, Old Testament canon literature our light reading, and Old Testament canon prophecy our philosophy. What's odd about this is not apparent at first glance. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with studying Job instead of Euripides: Job is a very under rated tragedy, and indeed, is more sublime and profound than Aeschylus or Euripides. What's odd is that the very thing he objects to in classical education (the syncretism) becomes the very thing desired in this new form of education. If Christ's coming made nothing clear, it certainly showed how Biblical culture ended up in the very opposite condition, so opposite that they crucified God's son. In other words, they performed the ultimate Satanic and pagan act. I don't deny that learning and studying this has profoundly necessary lessons – in fact, that's the same reason Greco-Roman culture can be studied – what is odd is that Jordan seems to think that substituting Hebrew for Greek will somehow magically ward off this end result, which he doesn't (for obvious reasons) talk much about.
While Jordan admits we can and ought to learn artistic or scientific technique from paganism, he doesn't think this applies to the “liberal arts”:
Second, and more importantly, political philosophy (law, statecraft, etc.) operates in a different sphere from music, agriculture, and metallurgy. The latter operate in the area of dominion, the world beneath man. Politics operates in the area of man himself, the image of God, the social arena. And religion operates in the area above man. These three zones of life have different qualities, different languages, different psychologies. We can learn statecraft from the Greeks and Romans only if we start with the assumption that other people are merely things, like musical instruments.
Apparently, we should learn religion and politics from the ancient Jews. Except this isn't quite right either. But I have to ask the most obvious question here: if we can learn politics and religion from God, by paying attention to His corrections of the ancient Jews, why can't we do the same thing with the Greco-Romans? That is, isn't God's wisdom principled and profound enough to apply in either case? If you are going to view the Old Testament as a lawnmower manual, can't you use the knowledge learned to work on another lawnmower? Wouldn't the prophetic injunctions apply just as much to ancient Greece and Rome, as to Jerusalem, perhaps even more so?
Because human beings are images of God, and because human society is to mirror the fellowship of the blessed Trinity, the Bible contains as much (if not more) teaching about social matters (man to man) as it does about religious matters (man to God). Indeed, the Bible says that how men relate to God is displayed in how they relate to one another (e.g., Matthew 25:31-46). By way of contrast, the Bible says next to nothing about dominion over the lower creation. The ways to make musical instruments, the ways to yoke animals, the ways to refine metals, etc. — all these we can learn from the city of Enoch.If the Bible teaches man how to relate to man, then a well taught and devout Christian young student should be able to relate to Plato. That is, if, the wisdom of God is greater than the wisdom of man. There is almost a practical atheism at work here, this secret, gnawing fear that if (gasp!) we let our young people pick up Plato, they “wont' be able to handle it”, and will be seduced by demons into deep, deep idolatry, worshiping the God-hating Cain-man in their own heart.
If the Old and New Testaments teach anything, it is that you don't need Plato to become a God-hating, narcissistic, philosophical Satanist. The Scriptures are full of them, in both Testaments.
Jordan continues, and begins to really veer off the path:
Third, one has to ask what is the actual content of the political philosophy that we are asked to borrow from the Greeks and Romans. The answer to that question shows just how anti-God their thinking was, for the classical (Greco-Roman — and Buddhist and Confucian) view was that the virtue of self-control makes us fit to rule and to obey the rule of law. Education and self-discipline are essential to overcome our natural tendency toward slavery. Now, what is so wrong with that? The answer is that it is totally Satanic. It makes man into God. The Biblical picture is that it is not our control of ourselves, but our submission to God and His Word that makes us fit to rule and be ruled. However important and useful education may be, it is not the avenue by which we overcome sin. Rather, that avenue is faith-filled obedience. God tells us what to do, and we believe Him and do it, and that reshapes us. True society is formed not by a group of self-possessed mini-gods ruling everyone else, but by all people joining in obeying God’s commonly published and publicly available Book.
Good God, sir. This isn't Biblical at all: this sounds more like what Sayiid Qutb or a post-modern Muslim terrorist would say about finding God. It certainly doesn't accord with Jesus' dark saying: The Kingdom of God is within you. Or, you search the Scriptures because in them you think you have Life, but I am He who testifies of them. At this point, Jordan is not being un-Western, but anti-Western: that is, he is embracing a thoroughly Koranic view, self-consciously poised over against, the Western theologies of the divine that developed out of the likes of Erigena, Bonaventura, and Aquinas. He is artificially contra-posing self restraint and submission to God. The Western view (and it is informed by the Greco-Roman philosophies) is that these are the same thing. When a man controls himself and restrains his evil impulses, he is cooperating with Divine grace which is always speaking to the soul.
First, the Bible teaches that God has clearly revealed Himself and that He clearly speaks in the Bible, so that there is no need for any quest. Second, sinful man hates God and is not on a quest for the true God at all, but is rather on a quest for anything that will block out his innate knowledge of the true God. Now, just what is all this “great classical literature” about? Homer is about the sin of man trying to make himself too big in the eyes of the gods, who then humble him. There is a truth here, but it is no different from the truth you’ll hear from any pagan tribesman anywhere in the world. Moreover, as much as anything else Homer’s gods are actually jealous of Achilles and Odysseus, and little else is admirable about these gods either. So, why should Christian children be subjected to Homer? Or, why Homer rather than the Gilgamesh Epic or the Kalevala? The sole reason seems to be that Homer is part of “Western Civilization.” But we are entitled to ask: Who cares? Why keep this baggage? Let college students studying the ancient world read Homer as a curiosity, but don’t use him in the attempt to form fundamental mind of the Christian future.
I agree with his comments about the Kalevala. JRR Tolkien took just such an approach, and produced one of the greatest epics of all time. So we shouldn't get hung up, here. There is no need for any quest? If sinful man is on a quest away from God, then the quest is to forsake that quest by undertaking a greater, that of returning to God. Quoting the Bible at those who are voyaging through the abyss won't be nearly as effective as opening the Odyssey, and talking about God.
So he rejects classicism for “maturing minds”:
Such dangerous pagan literature can be appreciated by mature minds, but is just intellectual pornography for young minds, continually reinforcing the notion that man is the only god there is — which brings us back to pagan political philosophy.
I can see a point here, but it is poorly made. Who determines who is mature enough? What should maturing minds read? Wouldn't the best approach be to admit that we need teachers who can guide these young minds through the ancient world? And isn't this exactly the task classical education sets itself?
Now, personally, I tend to favor Christian European texts. That is, read Rosenstock-Huessy's Out of Revolution, rather than Polybius, or Humboldt or Alexander Vinet or Groen van Prinsterer, rather than Aristotle's Politics. If you start from where you're at, it may be advantageous to save Greco-Roman learning for more mature phases of development, and to concentrate on Kafka and Camus or something like that. But they're still dangerous too, maybe more so to some. You see the problem? His objection is that it is dangerous. Since Life is dangerous, at all times, moments and places, an emergency (as Rosenstock-Huessy describes) this objection carries merely rhetorical weight. And while danger can't be used as an argument to positively engage in something (eg., the student shouldn't have to read the Marquis de Sade), it is not really a good negative argument, if that is the only objection against it, and the person on the other side has positive reasons for selecting the literature. Maybe classically educated people just like and prefer Homer more than the Kalevala? Maybe there's just more scholarship and tradition on that side. And maybe Homer's a better poet than the Finn who jotted down the epic of the North.
What texts would he have them read, as punching bags for their minds? Greco-Roman texts are admirably suited for critical teenagers. If you give a critical and argumentative person the Bible as their text, they may end up being needlessly critical of God's Holy Word. So an argument could be made that to do this is more dangerous, and more sinful, than to give them Greco-Roman tomes to shred and tear up and have fun with. I don't give my one year old a nice book to play with on the floor – I give him a cheap coloring book he can happily wad up and shred and crumple and sit on. I speak as if I agreed with his fundamental outlook here, but one can see that even from his standpoint, he's being arbitrary.
I agree that man is homo adorans, not homo sapiens (worshiping, not thinking, man). But what makes Jordan think that thought and contemplation aren't worship? Again, false dichotomies. Is false dichotomy the essence of being a “modern man”? I tend to think so. How very un-Hebraic and very “Greek-like” of him.
The full empowerment of God’s people by the coming of the Holy Spirit meant that they were sent out into existing cultures to transform them, not that they were to go to a desert island and set up a “city on a hill.”
When Jordan gets down diatribing against Greco-Romanism, he is eminently sensible:
The first is the centrality of worship. That means a daily chapel service. There is no need for preaching in this service, since supposedly the child is learning information all day long. Rather, the focus should be on singing the psalter and Bible passages, and memory of the proverbs. Do this every day for 30 to 45 minutes, and by the time the child is out of the eighth grade, he or she will know the entire Psalter by heart. Why would we settle for anything less? How dare we settle for anything less? Yet, though I have read here and there in Christian school material over the years, I have never seen this advocated anywhere. Second, we should take our cue from the Bible regarding what is important. Certain things stand out as very important in Biblical education: Bible content, music, martial arts. Certain things are obvious from their absence from Biblical culture: sports. I suppose most Christian schools do a fairly good job on Bible content, but what about music? If the second person of God is the Word of God, the third person is the Music of God, for Breath (Spirit) means the sounding of words out loud, which involves tone and timbre and rhythm, etc. It is pretty clear that worship in the Bible is musical (even if this is not much the case in American Christianity), and we are told that the Father seeks worshippers. The first goal of Christian education is to train worshippers, and that means to train musicians. It is clear in the Bible that the next thing people learn after they learn the Word of God is how to make music with it.
I couldn't agree more with the emphasis on music, martial training, and sports. John Milton (who knew Latin and Roman mythology) argued precisely this same approach in the Aeropagita. Young men should know how to ride a horse and hold a pike and throw a ball. That's just the way things should be. So no disagreement here.
Well, then, what about other languages? The reason why learning a foreign language is regarded as a crucial part of a liberal education is that learning to view things from the standpoint of another language and culture sets a person free from the boundaries of his own. It makes him culturally free, and “liberal” means free.
Classical Christian education doesn't set up a competition between Greece and Rome on the one side, and Athens and Jerusalem on the other. Nor does it try to make them into a mush of porridge, the “same thing” by another name, interpreting the Bible with Greek concepts. Rather it is being faithful to the idea that “when the time was right”, Christ came into the world, not “into a corner”, but into the Hellenistic Mediterranean basin, and that the entire Levant and all Europe was illuminated by the light of that Incarnation, which showed the high holy Jerusalem which is in heaven, as she should have been, and the beauty that was Greece (as she should have been) with the power that was Rome, as little daughters and worshippers of that heavenly light. It is illuminating to see how Athens and Jerusalem differ, and how they are the “same”: they are both the same in that they both rejected Christ, but remember, Athens didn't crucify the Lord of glory. Jordan should be more imaginative, in the Inklings' sense, here. He's seeing false dichotomies and hunting witches; when he sobers up, his practical suggestions are very sound.
It's no surprise that Jordan prefers the rascal Tertullian, who asked “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”, just as Pascal was said to have written “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the god of the philosophers”. Just so. There is a point to both meanings. But if the slogan is taken as absolute truth, and pushed farther than it will go, we end up contradicting the God of the Bible Himself, who is the “true Light that lightens every man that comes into the world”. No matter what categories or language he may happen to speak. Otherwise, there is no Pentecost.
1James Jordan, Biblical Horizons, The Case Against Western Civilization, December 2007.
2Interview with Douglas Wilson, Canon Wired, 2010.