Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Donald Trump's speech in Warsaw seems to have impressed a lot of people.  I thought it a good, though not exceptional speech. Still it was exception by the standards of these times in that a public leader of the West explicitly evoked  God. The Independent, in the U.K, realised its significance much to its contempt. It even impressed the National Review so much that it did a complete reversal with regards to its hostility towards him . Bill Kristol and Ben Shapiro--of formerly #NeverTrump fame--enthusiastically tweeted their support of Trump's defence of Judeo-Christian values.

Now I've had a look at the transcript of his speech and while there are definite references to God there are no references to Judeo-Christianity,  and the subtle twist in emphasis it seems to have been deliberate interpretation of his speech by the staff at the National Review. This is itself not a sign of any particular malice, since the term Judeo-Christianity is used by lots of different conservative writers but in my opinion the term is a piece of conceptual obfuscation which hampers clear thinking with regard to the cultural foundations of the West.

C.S. Lewis, in his book, The Abolition of Man, spoke about the common morality that united all civilisations that manged to achieve some level of complex enduring existence. He called this the "Tao of life" and quoted examples from a variety of temporally distributed civilisations which were remarkable for their commonality.  For example, nearly all societies have prohibitions against murder, adultery and theft. Nearly, all societies advocate care for the elderly, hospitality and kindness. His point was that despite all of the different human societies there was a common nature among them all. But the flip side of this view is that human nature, being what it is, appears to need some form of constraint for the sake of the common good if human beings are to rise above a simple stick and mud existence.  A think a lot of the current ecumenical impulse is underpinned by this recognition, it recognises the commonality in us all.

The three Abrahamic religions also share this commonality. Christianity and Islam are definitely offshoots of Judaism and can be said to have inherited some of these ideals, so in essence it would be quite right to talk about a common Judeo-Christian-Islamic ethic, and yet we never speak of the term in that way.  Islam has always been hostile to the West despite its common "tradition", and as for its love of Judaism well, that is very well documented. Despite being People of the Book, the common tradition with the Christians does not obscure the fact that there are significant differences which makes the faiths incompatible. At least with case of Islam, it appears that a common ancestry is not enough.

It's not that much different with the Jews. The New testament has quite explicit references of the persecution of the early Christians by the Jews. The point here is not to stir up any animus by this comment but to recognise that Jews of the time quite quickly recognised that the teaching of Jesus were a huge departure from the teaching of the Jewish religion, and that these ideas were incompatible. For the ancient Jews, the ethic of the Christians was not the ethic of the Jews. And for thinking Jews it still isn't.  The Christian differs from the Jew in his weltanshauung. From the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy;
Yet Strauss was not indifferent to the content of revelation and certainly not to the difference between Jewish and Christian notions of revelation. In fact, Strauss strongly criticizes what he regards as a particularly Christian view of revelation not in order to banish revelation from intellectual conversation once and for all but to suggest that modernity’s intellectual ills stem in large part from the legacy of Christian theology. Strikingly, it was on the basis of the Islamic, as opposed to the Christian, reception of classical political philosophy that Strauss turned to reconsider the meanings of philosophy, revelation, and politics. Strauss’s very attempt to move beyond modern philosophy is predicated on a distinction between the Jewish and Islamic conception of revelation on the one hand, and the Christian conception, on the other hand[ED]:

For the Christian, the sacred doctrine is revealed theology; for the Jew and the Muslim, the sacred doctrine is, at least primarily the legal interpretation of the Divine Law (talmud or fiqh). The sacred doctrine in the latter sense has, to say the least, much less in common with philosophy than the sacred doctrine in the former sense. It is ultimately for this reason that the status of philosophy was, as a matter of principle, much more precarious in Judaism and in Islam than in Christianity: in Christianity philosophy became an integral part of the officially recognized and even required training of the student of the sacred doctrine….The precarious position of philosophy in the Islamic-Jewish world guaranteed its private character and therewith its inner-freedom from supervision. The status of philosophy in the Islamic-Jewish world resembled in this respect its status in classical Greece. (PAW, pp. 18–19, 21)
Strauss problematizes the Christian view of revelation as doctrinal knowledge that must be believed. From his early to his mature writings, Strauss contends that the making of revelation into knowledge in scholastic theology ultimately led to modern philosophy’s far too over-reaching claims. As Strauss puts it rather succinctly, “On the querelle des anciens et des modernes: I do not deny, but assert, that modern philosophy has much that is essential in common with Christian medieval philosophy; but that means that the attack of the moderns is directed decisively against ancient philosophy” (CCM, p. 106). Or, as he puts it elsewhere, “modern philosophy emerged by way of transformation of, if in opposition to, Latin or Christian scholasticism” (JPCM, p. 252).
Strauss’s distinction between Judaism and Islam, on the one hand, and Christianity, on the other, is decisive for understanding his conception of the relation between Jerusalem and Athens as well as for appreciating his conception of the theologico-political problem, as a diagnosis of modernity’s philosophical, theological, and political ills. 
It is probably more correct to speak of a Judeo-Islamic ethic than an Judeo-Christian one.

Let that sink in for a moment.

And remember, this was written by the most influential man in NeoConservatism.

Strauss correctly recognises that Christianity and Judaism have totally different understandings of the relationship of revelation to Truth and Reason which are ultimately incompatible. And lest anyone think that this is some form of Christian bigotry, Jewish scholars reject the notion as well.
It is, indeed, this sense of intrinsic meaninglessness which is quite possibly a significant aspect of what has come to be regarded as the Judeo-Christian tradition. Despite the intensity and seriousness with which Jews and Christians engaged in murderous polemics from the first century until the late 19th century (and even today the thesis has been argued by the French historian, Jules Isaac, that Nazi anti-Semitism was a secular radicalization of the anti-Jewish impulses of historic Christianity), the debate was always qualified by the commonly held conviction that the manner in which a man composed his relationship to God was central and primary to his existence; that this relationship was constitutive, and therefore ontological, in character; and finally that it was a relationship which could only be regarded with absolute, albeit often dreary, seriousness...... Jews regarded Christians as at best second-best, and at worst as execrable idolaters; Christians regarded Jews as at best worthy of conversion and at worst as deicides and antichrists..
Cohen is absolutely right. Our relationship with God--or lack of it--and our understanding of the Truth are constitutive of our characters. The distinctive Jewish character is a product of the distinctive Jewish understanding of God, as it is of the Christians. So the talk of a Judeo-Christianity does the double disservice of rejecting both the distinctive Jewish and Christian characters. They are quite simple two different things. I suppose the point I'm trying to get across is the the idea of Judeo-Christian is conceptually muddled and mutually exclusive, and the idea of claiming it as a basis of European civilisation is false.

The fact of the matter is that until recently, European civilisation was a Christian civilisation and it was this feature which imparted upon it Europe's unique character. Furthermore, the Christian concepts of revelation, truth and philosophy--rejected by the Jewish and Islamic understanding-- through a long period of troubled gestation, laid the foundations of the European power and culture. Judaism was quite simply peripheral to all of this.

That's not to say the Jewish people did not contribute to European civilisation, but they did so as European Jews, marinated, unthinkingly, in European culture. As a thought experiment, ask yourself, how great has Jewish achievement been outside of European culture? Has Judaism raised a culture, independent of Europe able to compete with it? Or even with the long tradition of Jews living in Islamic cultures, have they ever achieved the prominence there that they have in Europe? In a strange way, despite all the prosecutions, European culture provided a milieu, unlike no other, where Jews could achieve quite staggering prominence. Their super-acheivement being conditional upon inhabiting a European "space", inhabiting European institutions and benefiting from the uniquely European understanding of the Truth.

So how did we get saddled with such a conceptually muddled term. Well it appears that the idea primarily originated from Liberal Christians, who were appalled at the treatment that Jews we being subjected to in Nazi Europe, and wanted to show some solidarity with them. They wanted to create a broad Church, by emphasising the commonality between the two groups.  But the idea took a life upon its own after the war, with the full horror of the German concentration camps was bought to the attention of the world. There was also a sense of among many in the West of a need to redeem themselves for the indifference they showed to the Jews prior to the War.  Indeed, so popular was the idea that the Jewish religious became concerned that Judaism would be "diluted" among  Christianity, and a push back to the idea began. However there was one complicating factor, Israel.
Many Jews tended to agree with Cohen that the "Judeo-Christian tradition" was a "myth," but they argued against him that it was a useful myth, or what Plato would have called "a noble lie." The poet Edward Kaplan responded pensively: "even the myth, so-called, of the Judeo-Christian tradition is...a powerful and expedient religious posture, valid for most people here and now, and bearing witness to a...relationship with very real meaningfulnesses." The response of Rabbi Jacob Chinitz was more pragmatic: "But what lies in store for...the Zionist venture?... The State of Israel makes sense to a world brought up on the Bible, but not to a secular, humanist world... There is, therefore, a political stake, to put it bluntly, in the retention of the concept of the Judeo-Christian tradition, even though, admittedly, it does not stand theological analysis."" In effect Chinitz was saying: As a rabbi I reject the notion of a "Judeo-Christian tradition," but as a Zionist I affirm it. As a Jewish theologian, Chinitz had no use for the notion of a "Judeo-Christian tradition," since it obscured the distinctiveness of the Jewish religion. However, as a supporter of Israel, he recognized its "political" usefulness: the reestablishment of Jewish independence in the Land of Israel was, in a real sense, a return to the Bible - and this return could be best appreciated by those who know the Bible and believe in it. Christians who perceive the modern State of Israel as part of their own biblical tradition could be expected to have sympathy for the Zionist cause.
My point here is not to question the support of Israel or to engage in some kind of anti-Semitic polemic, rather the point which I'm trying to emphasise here is that there is no rigorous conceptual basis for the notion of a specific Judeo-Christian tradition.

Why is this important?

It is this blogs contention that the decline of the West was as a consequence of the rejection of the specifically Christian understanding of the nature of things. Any attempt at restoration will fail unless this foundation is re-established. (This is much harder to achieve than people think). Any attempt to establish a West on any other foundation be that Positivism, Paganism or "Judeo Christianity" will produce a society that will not resemble the previous European world. What died around 1918 was European Christian civilisation, and what has attempted to replaced it, are variations of the Modernist European one. Part of the difficulty in restoring the West has come about from a lack of understand just what exactly the West is. The concept of Judeo-Christianity is simply another attempt to muddle our understanding of it.