In 200AD, Christian apologist Tertullian wrote this famous line: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” He was arguing an early part of doctrine: is faith compatible with reason?
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? …
From all these, when the apostle (St Paul) 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, while 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. Wisdom 1:1 Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel!
Prescription against Heretics – Tertullian – Chapter 7
Tertullian was clearly well versed and well read in all the greats of Greek philosophy. Despite loving Greek classics, I got a chuckle from Tertullian’s jabs here. I think every philosophy student has occasionally felt a bit of this towards some of the same arguments you read in classical Greek writings.
Still, Tertullian was right – but only partly so. He concludes that philosophy is far too easily led astray as St John the apostle found after his arguments with the Greeks. He tried arguing with them based on their reason, only to find them unreceptive to making the leap of faith required to believe in the resurrected Jesus – despite the fact they agreed with the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching: loving neighbor as you love yourself, helping the widow, orphan, and poor, not being a slave to the cravings of the flesh, the qualities of a virtuous life, etc. But with centuries of wrangling, we have found faith and reason are not incompatible – quite the opposite. St Thomas married philosophy and religion, religious scientists such as Fr Gregory Mendel, Georges Lemaitre, countless others were cornerstones of scientific development, and most recently the papal document Fides et Ratio all declare “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth“
Tertullian was right – partly. Philosophy and pure acts of reason can lead us astray – but just as much as any human pursuit that is always limited with imperfect knowledge and imperfect motivations. Besides the fact we simply do not know everything (witness how science developed over the last 1000 years), he points out that simple opinion and philosophical reasoning can too easily lead to ‘vain deceit, after the tradition of men’. In other words, if we do our philosophy badly or in a spirit of justifying ourselves, it can very easily turn into simply reasoning for doing whatever we want instead of really connecting ourselves to a higher truth than ourselves.
Now for the 3rd city. Luke Burgis added a third vector to this equation: Silicon Valley. Reason is Athens, Faith is Jerusalem, and Silicon valley is a new vector: value and utility:
But today there is a third city affecting the other two. Silicon Valley, this third city, is not governed primarily by reason (it is practically the mark of a great entrepreneur to not be “reasonable”), nor by the things of the soul (the dominant belief seems to be a form of materialism). It is a place, rather, governed by the creation of value. And a large component of value is utility—whether something is useful, or is at least perceived as good or beneficial.
The Three-City Problem of Modern Life – Luke Burgis
I like the abstract thinking, but I don’t think it elevates Silicon Valley to a third city. If anything, Silicon Valley is a suburb of the city of reason. It’s definitely not the pure reason of classical Greek philosophy, but a suburb of reason where something’s value is measured by utility (utility that is often judged on financial gain or marketable capability) instead of virtue. In the end, this is another form of philosophy reading the world. It’s a utilitarian philosophy with roots in economic philosophy. Tertullian would likely just call it another sect of worldly philosophy and subject to the same failings if done wrong. Economic philosophy has been written about in many forms over the last century.
Tertullian’s two cities were not in actual conflict if one recognizes the failings of Athens/philosophical reasoning aren’t inherent, but rather accidental due to the limitations of the people pursuing it. Just like we still rely on science which is constantly developed as we learn new things, it’s not that we throw it out, but instead use it while understanding carefully it’s limitations.
Instead of the need for a multiplicity of cities, just like real cities we can see them having various neighborhoods and suburbs. Each suburb may have a unique collection or focus of those qualities – but still have the same underlying basis. Economic philosophy and the philosophy of what gives something value is just one of those.
Gaudium et Spes tells us that to have a better view, we must start with a balanced understanding rooted in the inherent value of the human person – the revealed reality of that person in relationship with each other, the created world, and with God.
Without this, even the most well-meaning humanitarian, philosophical, and economic efforts can go horribly wrong. We have a perfect example of exactly this happening. It was the late 1800’s/early 1900’s goal of Modernist philosophy to finally control and remove the ills of the world. To unshackle itself from the fallout of the industrial revolution while at the same time harnessing it to direct human efforts towards an ultimate, global, planned good.
It was embarked with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, Modernism’s unbridled pursuit – which had no foundations in the value of the human person let alone relationship with God – lead the brightest, most progressive minds and artists of their day to embrace horrors like eugenics to develop the most perfect societies (which lead to Nazi’s and the gas chambers), economic policies like Communism and Socialism (which resulted in 10’s of millions of deaths during political and ethnic cleansings in Russia, China, and Cambodia’s killing fields), as well as 2 World Wars. All of these things seemed like perfectly rational ways of fighting suffering and unequal distribution of wealth.
It seems counter-intuitive that such well-meaning attempts as creating a more perfect world would lead to the bloodiest, most brutal century in human history. But it did – all because we act with imperfect knowledge and lack of value of each human person as a beloved child of God. Our policies create unintended side-effects – and the 20th century showed clearly those side effects very often are an order of magnitude worse than the problem they tried to solve.
This reality was eloquently captured in one of Flannery O’Connor’s most famous quotes: “tenderness leads to the gas chambers”. Instead, one needs their whole rational and spiritual self to be based on something else – and for the person of faith – it must start and end in faith in God. Half of which comes from His teaching, the other half comes from prayer and daily personal connection to direct our steps. We pursue science, philosophy, and economic theory to understand the world, but we must admit it’s limits.
The irony is that the greatest and longest lasting change the world ever experienced came from an itinerant preacher in the middle east who was killed as a common criminal after only preaching for 3 years. Something that has never been done since – and shows the power of that truth.