Last week we addressed the issues which arise when translating from a language rooted in one brain hemisphere to one rooted in the opposite. Jonathan Sacks suggests that these issues arise from the influence of the thinking that goes into the translation. Today we will continue to follow Sacks as he identifies some of the differences between the Greek and Jewish concepts found in the confluence of thought which resulted in the new religion of Christianity.
Contrasting the Concepts
As Sacks points out, a simple observation on this unprecedented new religion is that “Christianity got its religion from the Hebrews and its rationale from the Greeks”.
The Christian New Testament consists of the Jewish teachings of Jesus as translated into the Greek language, under the Hellenic influences of Paul. As the new church grew, and continued to be explained and interpreted by early Christian ‘Fathers’, such as Irenaeus and ‘Doctors’, such as Augustine and Aquinas, the influence of Greek thinking continued to increase.
As Christian theology began to develop, much of the thinking of the great Greek sages, particularly Aristotle and Plato following their rediscovery by way of the Arabs, came into play as the original sacred books were interpreted according to the Greek masters.
Sacks sees many strands of Greek left-brained thinking in the development of Christian theology which contrast with the way the right-brained way that the Jews read the Hebrew bible:
Universality: Jews combine the universality of God with the particularity of the ways that we relate to God. Christians, however, stress that Christ came for all but have historically denied any other route to salvation. Sacks sees in this the legacy of Plato who devalued particulars in favor of the universal form of things.
Dualism: Much more so than Judaism, Christianity divides: body/soul, physical/spiritual, heaven/earth, this life/next life, evil/good, with the emphasis on the second of each. Sacks sees the entire set of contrasts as massively Greek, with much debt to Plato. He sees these either/or dichotomies as a departure from the typically Jewish perspective of either/and.
The tragic view of the human condition: Jews do not believe that we are destined to sin. Sacks sees this belief as leading to the concept of ‘inherited sin’, which is unique to Christianity. Unlike Christianity, the concept of ‘existential deliverance from the grip of sin’ does not exist in Judaism.
Separation of ‘faith and works’: Jews believe that faithfulness is a matter of how you behave, not what you believe. Jews, according to Sacks, see faith and works as part of a single continuum and have equal weight. Sacks sees the Greek influence of fate, and the futility of fighting against it, leading to the Christian primacy of acceptance over resistance, the characteristic stance of the Hebrew prophets.
God’s nature: the Greek translation of God’s identification to Moses is, “I am who am”.
- The Christian understanding is that God is “Being itself, timeless, immutable, incorporeal, and understood as the subsisting act of all existing”.
- Augustine interprets the statement ontologically. He sees God as “that which does not and cannot change”.
- Aquinas sees God as “true being, that is eternal, immutable, simple, self-sufficient and the cause and principal of every creature”.
Sacks see these interpretations as the “God of Aristotle, not Abraham and the prophets”. The Jewish translation of God’s identification to Moses is, “I will be where or how I will be”, adding a ‘future tense’ omitted in the Greek translation.
God’s Relationship with Man: Far from being timeless and immutable, Sacks sees the Jewish understanding of God in the Hebrew bible as active, engaged, in constant dialogue with his people.
Sacks sees Aquinas’ God of ‘pure being’ as being so remote- the legacy of Plato and Aristotle- that the distance is bridged in Christianity by a figure that has no part in Judaism, the ‘Son of God’, a person who is both human and divine.
Sacks understands Judaism as seeing all human persons as both human and divine, and sees its contrast to Christianity as an issue of ‘immanence’.
Sacks also sees the influence of Greek thinking in the writings of the ‘Doctors’ of the Church, such as Augustine and Aquinas, many years later, such as:
- The philosophical proofs for the existence of God, derived ultimately from Plato and Aristotle
- The concepts of ‘Natural Law’, derived from the Greek Stoics.
- The idea that ‘purposes are inherent in creation’, that nature is ‘teleological’, derived from Aristotle
So, according to Sacks, in Christianity we see an unprecedented merging of the right-brained teachings of Jesus with the left-handed rationality of the Greeks. However, as Sacks observes, this merging was not accomplished without contradictions between the essentially Jewish tone of the gospels (the base of religion) and the Greek influences (the base of reason) on the theology which continued to evolve from it.
Sacks nonetheless sees Christianity as a “wondrous creation, a monumental step toward relating to reality with the ‘whole brain’ “:
“Christianity combined left-hand brain rationality with right-brain spirituality in a single, glorious overarching structure.”
While identifying areas of what he sees as right-left brain imbalance in Christianity, Sacks does not address the potential of this ‘wondrous creation’. With its resonance in both right and left modes of human thinking, Christianity carries within itself the potential for continuing to respond to the human need for actualizing its potential. We will explore this in the third section of the blog as we look at the potential of reinterpreting the legacy beliefs of Christianity in the light of Teilhard’s insights into evolution.
The Next Post
Having looked at religion from the perspectives of history, modes of Western thinking, neurology and Christianity, the next three posts will begin a look at the evolution of religion from the last perspective, that of evolution itself.