Is it really possible, in these diminished times, that students at Georgetown University could still spend a whole semester reading Augustine’s City of God, with Father Schall to guide them through, page by page? Surely this must be a sign of the moments of grace still to be savored in the ravages of the modern academy. Father Schall recounted the experience in his recent column. And for me it brought back those rare moments from the early 1980s, when I was visiting at Georgetown. Some of the sweetest of those moments came in long walks with Jim Schall, in the autumn, over those sidewalks in Georgetown paved with irregular bricks.
In the course of one of those walks he would help me mull over the teaching of my own former professor, Leo Strauss, at the University of Chicago. It was the enduring problem of “reason” versus “revelation.” As Harry Jaffa would point out, Mr. Strauss stood against the currents of modern relativism by asserting again the claims of reason and revelation, running back to Athens and Jerusalem. For Strauss, reason and revelation had truths to disclose, though neither one, in his reading, could decisively refute the other. Schall and I would find our place with John Paul II on the side of “faith and reason,” moving with two wings. We were in the camp of “natural law”; Strauss was respectful of the project, but he identified it with Catholics, which was always a bit of a mystery to me.
For Strauss depended on the notion of objective moral truths, the anchor for any system of natural law. But Mr. Strauss insisted that there was no such notion of “nature” in the Hebrew Bible. The accent instead was on “the ways of things,” whether of animals or stones or tribes. And yet, one of Strauss’s most accomplished students, David Novak, would offer the most piercing challenge to that view: God made a covenant with Abraham, and only one kind of animal had it within his natural repertoire to make a contract. Only one kind of creature could grasp what it means to make a promise and bear an obligation – even when the commitment ran counter to his own interests or inclinations.
Mr. Strauss also remarked once that the Bible began “reasonably,” for it began at the Beginning. It struck me once that the Bible could have begun, after all, in the fashion of Hollywood: We open with a scene at the Red Sea. Moses and the children of Israel have just made it across, with Pharaoh and his forces, on chariots, in hot pursuit. Moses is about to ask God to do something, when he stops to raise the question, How did we get here? Well, we have to do a flashback: In the Beginning, you see.…
The Bible did begin reasonably, and it contained all of the earmarks of what we could call a “religion of reason.” When Father Schall wrote again about Augustine, what came flashing back was one of my favorite moments in The City of God, when Augustine was skewering the Roman polytheists. Taking up the simple matter of a wedding, he exposed their incoherence with his caustic wit:
The god Juganitus is brought in when a man and a woman are united in the ‘yoke’ (iugum) of marriage. … The god Domiducus is employed to ‘lead her home’ (domum ducere). … The goddess Manturna is called in … to see that she will ‘remain’ (manere) with her husband.” The goddess Virginensis is need to loosen the virgin girdle, Father Subigus to subdue her (subigere); Mother Prema, to press her down,, the goddess Pertunda to pierce her–before we even get to Venus and Priapus.
And so Augustine asks, with mock wonder, “Why fill the bridal chamber with a mob of divinities, when even the bridal escort retires.”
Father Schall would do a book on Benedict’s Regensburg speech, where the Holy Father challenged the Islamic world with the same claims of reason. In Princeton a few years ago, David Novak and I joined the discussion of that speech, and of course our thoughts would drift again to Mr. Strauss and the tension between reason and revelation. But then came that moment of recalling Abraham negotiating with God over Sodom and Gomorrah: Would God really visit destruction on the innocent along with the guilty? “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
When Abraham did that, was he appealing to reason or revelation? I take it that God needed no encouragement to reflect again on what He had it in mind to reveal. It was the question rather of what was implied in the moral logic of rendering justice. The theologian Emil Fackenheim insisted that God had to be free, after all, to change the rules, even the moral rules. But as Rabbi Novak summed it up, we were obliged, after all, to be reasonable.