Postmodern Conservative

Greek Transcendence and the Christian Family

Any conception of transcendence, of some higher state of existence, I have proposed, must be grafted upon some actual experience.  What are the experiential sources of the Platonic (or, more generally, the Platonic-Aristotelian) conception of divinity as self-sufficient and changeless immateriality?  We must note at the outset that the original context for this conception is plainly political: the attributes of divinity are set forth plainly with a view to their political function, an indispensable function, to be sure, in the fashioning of a civilized existence.  Those who are to rule over the passions of others must first rule their own passions in view of a higher Good far above material desires. 

We begin to see already, then, that the Greek idea of transcendence, without which the tradition of Christian theology would be unthinkable, was rooted in certain experiences and concerns of the Greek polis.  The deeply political roots of Greek philosophical transcendence are nowhere more acutely discerned than in Thomas Pangle’s Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham. [1]   Just as Pangle thought Biblical piety is rooted in the patriarchal family, so he also argued philosophy springs from the city’s “radical subordination of many or most individual goods that are ordinarily associated with happiness,” a purification of “preoccupation with corporeal, familial, and mundane needs.”  The call beyond family introduces the prospect of “passionate” male friendship, which itself “is ultimately transcended, in and by an ascent toward the divine spiritual self-sufficiency that is the dimly beheld highest aspiration of the life of the city.” (62-3) The very idea of divine self-sufficiency appears then to be an extension of the city’s virtue and of virtuous friendship, and thus an inherently politically conditioned interpretation of transcendence or of human possibility.  This is to say that the goods of family, those “corporeal, familial, and mundane needs” are sacrificed, first in the name of the city and its idea of manly nobility, and then, in the next higher level of refinement, in view of the goods of male (and possibly homosexual) friendship, and then, in a final stage of ascent, in the name of the philosopher’s “divine” self-sufficiency.  The city’s aspiration towards self-sufficiency is said to be realized only in the purely intellectual satisfactions of the philosopher, whose mind at its best participates in the self-sufficiency of a purely intellectual and impassive God (Aristotle’s “self-thinking thought”).  As Pangle’s teacher, Allan Bloom, has written, “The subjection of the family to the ends of both the city and the intellect is a primary task of classical political philosophy.” [2]

However, the Bible parts company with Plato’s Republic, going in a completely opposite direction to resolve the tension between the family and city, as scholars such as Allan Bloom observed.  Moral norms are rooted in the requirements of the family, and love of family is finally subsumed in love of God.  The Bible teaches an “intense but severely limited eroticism” … limited by the requirements of familial order, but the Greeks teach us to question the family for sake of eros, “which in turn metamorphoses into the passion for free self-discovery.” (Bloom apparently takes the Greek idea of divine intellectual self-sufficiency to be a figure of “free self-discovery.”) 

While the Greeks demote the family and use the city as a stepping-stone to an intellectual divinity, the Bible ignores the city and takes the family as a stepping-stone to divinity, interpreting God (at least in the Old Testament) as a devoted but also commanding father.

For commentators such as Pangle, Biblical transcendence is finally incoherent, it seems, because obedience to the commands of the Biblical God does not finally make sense.  Pangle examines this problem through a very searching reading of the story of the akeda, that is, Abraham’s binding of Isaac.  Either Abraham knew that God would somehow avert or reverse Abraham’s sacrifice (as Paul suggests in Hebrews 11), and so it was not really a sacrifice, or Abraham was ready to sacrifice all his hopes to a God whose command therefore becomes wholly unintelligible.  It seems Biblical obedience must either be purely calculating and thus not at all ennobling, or else it is simply mad and humanly meaningless.

It seems difficult to fault the logic of Pangle’s analysis, but Leon Kass’s reading of the akeda reveals another possibility, though one not easily reduced to logic or calculation:

God does not finally require that men choose between the love of your own and godliness. Though it took a horrible episode to demonstrate this fact, harmonization is possible between a reverence for God (who loves righteousness) and the love of one’s family or nation, rightly understood. God, the awesome and transcendent power, wants not the transcendence of life but rather its sanctification–in all the mundane activities and relations of everyday life. Thus, God displays Himself to be exactly the sort of god whom one could not only fear-and-revere, but even come to love–”with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” [3]

Pangle’s logic or, more precisely, his rational teleology cannot account for the intrinsically relational character of Biblical transcendence.  In a word, he cannot account for love as a good that enriches the lover only when he releases his rational hold on it, his claim of secure possession.  Biblical sacrifice does not leave behind “the mundane activities and relations of everyday life,” but redeems and sanctifies them.

The dynamism of mainstream Christian theology may be said to derive from the infinite task of holding together these Greek and Biblical understandings of transcendence.  Nowhere are the magnificent travails of this project more visible than in the writings of the greatest of Christian Platonists, Augustine of Hippo.  There is no more poignant moment in The City of God than that when Augustine must confront the Christian limits of his Platonism as concerns the questions of time, the body, and interpersonal love.

[1] John Hopkins University Press, 2007. 

[2] Love and Friendship (Simon & Schuster 1994), p. 441. 

[3] The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis  (Simon and Schuster 2003), p. 347. 


(excerpted from “A Familiar Eternity”)


The Latest