Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, and Tertullian
I've rarely hidden my contempt for Ben Shapiro. Over the past few years the combination of my own disdain for postmodernism coupled with my desire to get out of the university echo chamber drew me to seek out conservative commentators. I began following Ben closely because his conciseness appealed to me, if his logic didn't. But my hope of finding a public figure who could interlace my media intake with a balanced dosed of reasoned conservatism quickly waned.
I watched as a video of Shapiro debating a barely 18 year old student at a university on trans rights went viral. While it is easy to hammer out your position on a matter with someone who is not your intellectual equal (at least not yet), watching a Harvard educated lawyer pridefully “shut down” the student’s worldview made me lose respect for him as an intellectual. It was not just that one instance of course. Despite his denial of being a provocateur, my Facebook is filled daily with Shapiro’s click bait article titles bragging about how he “crushed” some public figure (often a celebrity with liberal views) with “one tweet.” To be honest, his whole demeanor reeks of someone who was relentlessly bullied in school before he found he could outwit those who were not as smart as him and make them look stupid in front of other people who aren't that smart. Shapiro himself has admitted to such early abuse. Such an experience I hoped would have taught him to pick on people his own size. That's why I was sort of pleased when I saw he was going to be on Waking Up with Sam Harris.
I've only recently become more of a fan of Sam Harris. I find his commitment to objective truth and critiques of modern liberalism to be cogent and refreshing. His speaking style ruminates with me a bit more than the other of the “4 horsemen” of the New Atheism. I also appreciate both his openness to certain forms of spirituality as well as his focus on the problem of suffering. I don’t listen to him religiously, but I pick his podcast up when it looks interesting. In any case, I was happy to watch Shapiro engage with a public intellectual that was unlikely to be “crushed with one tweet.” While I certainly believe Shapiro is more of a performance artist than Harris does, I did expect a semi reasoned exchange.
Harris believes in a type of objective morality that is not rooted in any type of theism. This is a position I find fascinating given my own ideological shift over the years. Harris seems to tie his rubric for morality closely to issues of human suffering and well being. This is unsurprising given his vehement arguments against theism based largely on the problem of evil. For Harris, reason provides the ability to decipher objective truth - including normative moral claims. These truths are accessible to anyone and everyone who is able to reason.
Shapiro on the other hand believes that it is impossible to derive moral meaning or ethical precepts from a materialist worldview. He believes the way history has unfolded is not contingent, but was necessary to create the social order we now enjoy. He is an orthodox Jew, who believes that God met Moses on Mt Sinai and revealed special dictates that give Judaism an exclusive hold on truth. This theistic revelation he believes is necessary for the foundations of moral society.
I was very interested to hear Shapiro’s reasoning. I completely understand the apologetic standpoint of someone who is an adherent of a specific religious tradition, myself being one for most of my life. But what I found odd was Shapiro’s narrative of western civilization.
He appeals to the ancient analogy of Athens and Jerusalem as a stand in for what he sees as the two intellectual pillars of western culture: Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian faith. Shapiro appears to be very much in love with western culture, which he sees as arising primarily from the Judeo-Christian tradition.
But I have a problem with Shapiro's bait and switch. He begins his argument by claiming the Judeo-Christian pillar cannot be jettisoned because Athens cannot uphold moral civilization without the supplement of special revelation. He thinks there can be no morals unrooted in eternity. He chides Harris for appealing to objective truths without a theistic bedrock, telling him that he can only think the way he does because he is a product of Judeo-Christian society. In typical smug fashion, Shapiro informs Harris he is trying to build a house with the intellectual bricks his own tradition supplies. In essence he believes that right reason as well as moral goodness are the inherent products of Judeo-Christian society.
Harris, as always, is quick to point out the flaw. The God of the Pentateuch was a tribal deity who commanded not only the genocide of a entire people, but also the stoning of all young women found not to be virgins on their wedding night (Deuteronomy 22:20). For Harris, this makes the God of Moses a moral monster unworthy of reverence or belief.
Shapiro’s rebuttal is what confounds me a bit here. When Harris inquires if it would it not be better for these passages to be omitted -to acknowledge that they are not divinely inspired - Shapiro appeals to the Talmudic tradition. He claims that the nature of revelation is dialectic - it is a conversation between God and man. For Shapiro, it is only a simplistic understanding of revelation that could lead to fundamentalism. The rabbis have struggled with God and the outcome is that stoning young women is no longer necessary, at least in practice (Let’s set aside the fact that it certainly was at one point).
But does this argument not validate Harris’ position? Is that not the universal rationalism of mankind struggling back against the irrationality of the God of their forefathers? Or if that God is real, what does it say about his character? Is it not a picture of man saying no to God’s yes and winning the struggle - a group of Jewish Rabbis in Hellenistic diaspora trying to tame the bronze age god, slowly reforming him in their own image?
I agree with Shapiro that Athens and Jerusalem represent the two major pillars of contemporary society. The problem is that Shapiro initially says there are two divergent traditions, but then he wants to take the things that Athens sparked - rationalism, science, philosophy - and make them them products of Jerusalem. But they are not. Historically the Christianization of the Hellenistic world radically changed both traditions. It produced an uneasy hybrid that tends to compromise both - Militarizing Jerusalem and slowing the progress of Athens.
Some early Christian writers understood there was a tension from the beginning. Tertullian, sometimes called the Father of Western theology, wrote passionately in the 3rd century B.C.E. regarding the place of reason in the temple:
"The same subject-matter is discussed over and over again by the heretics and the philosophers; the same arguments are involved. Whence comes evil? Why is it permitted? What is the origin of man? and in what way does he come? Besides the question which Valentinus has very lately proposed--Whence comes God? Which he settles with the answer: From enthymesis and ectroma. Unhappy Aristotle! who invented for these men dialectics, the art of building up and pulling down; an art so evasive in its propositions, so far-fetched in its conjectures, so harsh, in its arguments, so productive of contentions--embarrassing ev
en to itself, retracting everything, and really treating of nothing! Whence spring those "fables and endless genealogies," and "unprofitable questions," and "words which spread like a cancer?"
From all these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, "See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost." He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects.
What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?
What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from "the porch of Solomon," who had himself taught that "the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart."
I admire this instantiation of Christianity.
As an orthodox Jew, I would not expect Shapiro to engage deeply with the nuance of Christian history - Until he he makes the arguments he does concerning the Judeo-Christian tradition - Originally a beautifully irrational tradition that promoted radical self sacrifice and crazy ideas like bodily resurrection.
But this is how Shapiro is wrong - Harris asks the questions he asks
because he is squarely in the Athenian tradition - asking “Whence comes evil?” - “What is the origin of man?”
He has taken no bricks from Shapiro’s pillar. It is the other way around. And it has been for centuries.
The Judeo-Christian tradition as we experience it was built on the foundations of Athens. It was constructed with pagan mental architecture. Most notably, the doctrine of the Trinity in its orthodox formulation was constructed with Greco-Roman linguistic and philosophic categories. The history of theology is the teasing out of Jerusalem’s irrationality with Athenian tools. Like the rabbis of the Talmud - the taming of the bronze age god by the mind of man.
Tertullian's vision of relying on Solomon's instruction alone had long failed by the time Thomas Aquinas took up Aristotle to answer the questions heretics used to ask. Much less by when the humanists began to reclaim the old fountains of knowledge.
There is a beauty to certain aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition that I never wish to downplay. Its conceptions of self sacrifice embodied in the Suffering Servant, the Messiah, and the early church martyrs are haunting. But the Judeo-Christian tradition after the first centuries of Christianity is more aptly described by Harris’ narrative than Shapiro’s.
There were flashes of the old way from time to time, Mennonites and Anabaptists being some of the more interesting to me. But after the Constantinian Shift, it was difficult
to discern the members of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Augustinian differentiation of the two kingdoms was necessitated by the secularization (small s) of the Judeo-Christian tradition. And here Athens did Jerusalem no favors. Empire overcame the transcendent as the heavenly city was co-opted by the immanent. Men killed other men over religion more often than sparing them. The upside down kingdom, where the last were first and the meek inherited the earth, became right side up.
To be the author of moral meaning, the Judeo-Christian tradition - Shapiro’s necessary origin of rational/moral civilization - has murdered more than it has saved over the centuries.
If we are going to keep both pillars, maybe we can embrace the good that Jerusalem has produced and be honest about its shortcomings.
The guilelessness that is the crown of the early Judeo-Christian
tradition is nowhere to be found in the politically obsessed smugness of Shapiro’s partisan clickbait.
We must ask again - “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” or maybe more apt, Harris should defend the pagan origins of his own intellectual tradition - ethics included - and ask Shapiro -
"What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?"