December 14, 2010

Eye and Ear: Philosophy and Revelation

Category: Bible - OT - Genesis,Ethics,Theology :: Permalink

In his The Beginning of Wisdom, Leon Kass argues that the Bible is not just “not a work of philosophy”; rather, it is actually

antiphilosophical, and deliberately so.  Religion and piety are one thing, philosophy and inquiry another.  The latter seek wisdom looking to nature and relying on unaided human reason; the former offer wisdom based on divine revelation and relying on prophecy (3).

Kass sees a relationship between this distinction and the distinction between the sense of sight and the sense of hearing.  Philosophy, according to Plato and Aristotle, starts with wonder and wonder is provoked by sight:

It is especially those natural wonders manifest to sight — for example, the changing phases of the moon or the wandering motions of the sun and planets through the zodiac — that prompt the search for wisdom: “for of all the senses, sight most of all makes us know something and reveals many distinctions” [Aristotle, Metaphysics, 982a22-29] (3).

But the Bible, unlike philosophy, begins with hearing, not sight:

For the Bible, in contrast, the beginning of wisdom comes not from wonder but from awe and reverence, and the goal is not understanding for its own sake but rather a righteous and holy life.  True, the Psalmist sings that “the heavens declare the glory of God and the sky proclaims His handiwork.”  But “the beginning of wisdom is the fear [awe; reverence] of the Lord, and good understanding comes to all who practice it.”  The path to wisdom and happiness lies not through wondrous sights seen by the eye but through awesome command heard by the ear….  Not the attractive, beautiful, ceaselessly circling, and seemingly imperishable heavenly bodies, but the awe-inspiring, sublime, ceaselessly demanding, and imperishable divine covenant and commandments provide the core of biblical wisdom.  The wisdom of Jerusalem is not the wisdom of Athens (3-4).

There is, of course, much more that could be said about philosophy and revelation as two competing paths to wisdom.

One might wonder if Aristotle’s view of philosophy is really determinative for all philosophy.  Aristotle says here that philosophy starts with seeing (though he himself, famously, stated that women have fewer teeth than men [HA 2.3.501b19-21], which suggests that his theory didn’t proceed from seeing at all).  But leave Aristotle aside.  What about other philosophers?  What about Descartes?  Surely not all philosophizing starts with sight and with wonder.

One might also ask if these two paths must compete, if one must necessarily choose.  After all, the “wisdom” that Aristotle is speaking of has to do with figuring out what we would call “astronomy,” not with the sort of wisdom we think of in connection with day-to-day living here on earth.

Scripture is not antiphilosophical in this sense: it does not oppose learning about the natural world by examining it — that is, by looking at it with our eyes.  God sees what He has made and evaluates it in Genesis 1, and from then on, sight in the Bible has to do with judgment.  God expects Adam and all his descendants to see the world (which is why He gave us eyes) and to make judgments about it, to learn how it works, and to learn wisdom from it.  Adam, for instance, might have learned what fruits are especially delicious by observing how the birds or animals flocked to those particular trees.

It seems to me, too, that Kass is partially right when he argues, along these lines, that we cannot learn how we ought to behave by watching the animals.  Few animals are monogamous, but God designed man and woman to marry (Gen. 2).  But on the other hand, the Proverbs, which surely are all about learning wisdom, instruct the sluggard to go to the ant to learn how to work (Prov. 6:6).  Here the sluggard is to observe — to see — and thereby to learn wisdom about how he is to live.

Nevertheless, this passage in Kass did intrigue me because it seems to me that there is a difference between seeing and hearing, between sight (where the seer is in control) and hearing (where the hearer cedes authority and control to the one making the sound, the speaker).  When it comes to wisdom, we are not to do “what is right in our own eyes” (i.e., make our own independent judgments about things, let alone judgments based simply on sight) but rather we are to live “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

Hearing is primary because we are not autonomous; only when we submit to the Word are we enabled to see and judge correctly.  Hearing-wisdom comes first; seeing-wisdom follows.

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Posted by John Barach @ 4:08 pm | Discuss (1)