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How philosophy and theology can be in dialogue together

Athens and Jerusalem: God, Humans, and Nature by David Novak (University of Toronto Press, 2019)

For someone with David Novak’s reputation, having been writing about Jewish theology and law since the early 1970’s, his subsequent publications need not lay the groundwork for new ideas. He can simply further develop what he’s already established, namely, a method of talking about Jewish theology in a way that engages with philosophy, is meaningful to theologians of other faiths, and is pertinent to the public square.

His latest book, Athens and Jerusalem: God, Humans, and Nature belongs in the first category. Since it is a comparative study, however, it means that Novak gets to demonstrate his thorough grasp of Greek and German philosophy in addition to his mastery of Jewish theology. The book is based on the Gifford Lectures, which he delivered in 2017. The purpose of the text is to show how philosophy and theology can be in dialogue with one another without subsuming or excluding each other.

The book is geared towards academics, inasmuch as the majority of the text is dedicated to dense metaphysical questions.

The book includes six chapters: the first builds on philosopher Leo Strauss’ analysis of the interaction between philosophy and theology; the second concerns the relationship between God and nature and associated concepts, such as God’s immutability and miracles; the third chapter is a discussion of the relationship between humans and nature; the fourth chapter deals with the ideas of Philo of Alexandria vis-a -vis those of Plato, with a particular focuses on the relationship between theory and praxis; the fifth is a sustained study of Aristotle’s causes, and Maimonides’ incorporation of several of them; and the final chapter relates to the influence of Kant on Hermann Cohen, the Jewish philosopher who has adapted much of his moral framework.

In the final three chapters, Novak organizes the views of each thinker into a discourse on four relationships – humans and God, humans and other humans, God and nature, and humans and nature. Given that the Jewish thinkers treated in subsequent chapters do not build on those discussed in previous ones, certainly not in the case of Maimonides and Philo, it is best to see the book as collection of distinct essays, each offering its own rewards.

The first chapter includes an interesting insight into the common ground shared by philosophy and theology, such as the fact that they both begin with givens and both are subject to “rational explication.” The second chapter has a contemporary feel, as can be seen when Novak touches on “orthodox” environmentalists, who he describes as embracing a “strange God.” Considering the relative dearth of philosophical engagement with his work, the book’s chapter on Philo, and the helpful way that Novak situates him in the context of the Jewish community in Ptolemaic Egypt, is an important contribution.

The following chapter makes a few subtle distinctions between Maimonides and Aristotle’s philosophies. The question the reader is left with, however, is that, since Novak also states that Maimonides’ thought is based on a metaphysical model that is no longer valid, how much of these ideas can or should still have a bearing on Jewish thought.

No such problem exists with respect to Immanuel Kant, who Novak treats in the final chapter. Novak convincingly shows that, unlike Maimonides, Kant is still relevant, not only because of the emphasis he puts on universality but also on his focus on law, which sounds to Jews like a mitzvah. Here Novak draws a slightly problematic parallel: Novak states that, just as for Kant, our knowledge, or limitation thereof, plays itself out in ethics, since we cannot know others in themselves and must respect them, so too the Jewish view of nature describes it as something we have no dominance over. Nevertheless, there is little evidence that it is our knowledge of nature, rather than our susceptibility to it, that is at issue in the pertinent Jewish sources.

Novak then moves on to show how Hermann Cohen builds on Kant’s ideas. In a discussion that touches on the famous “Euthyphro dilemma” (are we to follow what is just because God commands us, or because it is just?) Novak explains that Cohen’s view, which is that “goodness” itself is what commands human beings, results in the problematic position that God is subordinate to goodness. While this is a well argued point, the transition into Cohen is a little hasty and is somewhat incongruent with the other chapters, inasmuch as they feature a Jewish thinker who responds to philosophy, rather than incorporate it wholesale.

Novak touches on Cohen’s view of the messianic age. This position is explained in the context of Cohen’s response to communistic materialism but also to Zionism. This point raises a fascinating discussion on Novak’s own view of redemption, which he describes as distinct from, and not conditional upon, the Zionist project. Seemingly as a foil to Kant, Novak then discusses Franz Rosenzweig, for whom, a direct relationship with God is possible.

Novak concludes the chapter by showing that the relationship between humans and that between humans and nature are not reducible to each other, even if they are all ultimately for the purpose of the relationship with God.

Despite these occasional opinions, the preponderance of the text is comprised of a sustained engagement with the primary sources, and that makes it stand out from Novak’s oeuvre. Nevertheless, the analysis is worthwhile for anyone who wants to know what those often quoted philosophers actually say.

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