Defending the West through the Hebrew Bible

13 Feb 2018

British author and journalist Melanie Phillips decries cultural rejection of the Hebrew Bible, arguing that western civilization today will only be rescued if it reaffirms its religious roots in Christianity and in the Hebrew Bible.

STI Experts

In cooperation with the Saxum Foundation, the Social Trends Institute supported the second edition of the Holy Land Dialogues. Held in Jerusalem on February 5and 7, these two lectures sought to present different ways of understanding the cultural aspects of modern social challenges.

What follows is an excerpted version of the first of the lectures, by British writer and journalist Melanie Phillips:

It has become the orthodoxy in the west that freedom, human rights and reason all derive from secularism and that the greatest threat to all these good things is religion.

I want to suggest that the opposite is true. I want to suggest that, in the service of this orthodoxy, the west is in fact undermining and destroying the very values which it holds most dear as the defining characteristics of a civilized society.

I will argue that a war is being waged against western culture from within which is in essence a war against Christianity and its moral origins in the Hebrew Bible; that by attacking these Biblical foundations in the name of reason and human rights, the culture warriors of secularism are sawing off the branch on which they sit; and that the only way to defend western civilisation is to reaffirm and restore its Biblical foundations. My argument is a development of ideas I first explored in my 2012 book The World Turned Upside Down: the Global Battle over God, Truth and Power.

Age of reason, hatred of religion

We are living in era that extols reason, science and human rights. These are said to be essential for progress, a civilized society and the betterment of humanity. Religion is said to be their antithesis, the source instead of superstitious mumbo-jumbo, oppression and backward-thinking.

Some of this hostility is being driven by the perceived threat from Islamic terrorism and the Islamization of western culture. However, this animus against religion has far deeper roots and can be traced back to what is considered the birthplace of western reason, the 18th century Enlightenment.

Actually, it goes back specifically to the French Enlightenment. In England and Scotland, the Enlightenment developed reason and political liberty within the framework of Biblical belief. In France, by contrast, anti-clericalism morphed into fundamental hostility to Christianity and to religion itself.

But this Enlightenment did not remove religion so much as pervert it. It took millenarian fantasies, the idea that the perfection of the world was at hand, and it secularized them. Instead of God producing heaven on earth, it would be mankind which would bring that about. Reason would create the perfect society and “progress” was the process by which utopia would be attained.

Far from utopia, however, this thinking resulted in something more akin to hell on earth. For the worship of man through reason led straight to totalitarianism. It was reason that would redeem religious superstition and bring about the kingdom of Man on earth. And just like medieval apocalyptic Christian belief, this secular doctrine would also be unchallengeable and heretics would be punished.

This kind of fanaticism infused the three great tyrannical movements that were spun out of Enlightenment thinking: the French Revolution, Communism and Fascism.

Both communism and fascism attempted to transform the world to create a perfected society. Both ideologies were deprived of their power with the defeat of Nazi Germany and the discrediting of Stalinism and subsequent fall of the Soviet Union. But the secular belief that man could perfect the world in his own image, and in ways that would brook no dissent, merely mutated in the latter half of the 20th century into what JE Talmon termed “cultural totalitarianism”.

Cultural totalitarianism 

In the sixties, the baby-boomer generation bought heavily into the idea propounded by Herbert Marcuse and other Marxist radicals that the way to transform the west lay not through the seizure of political or economic control but through the transformation of the culture. This has been achieved over the past half century through what’s been called a “long march through the institutions”, the infiltration into all the institutions of the culture – the universities, media, professions, politics, civil service, churches – of ideas that would then become the orthodoxy.

From multiculturalism to environmentalism, from post-nationalism to “human rights” doctrine, western progressives have fixated upon universalizing ideas that reject values anchored in the particulars of religion or culture. All that matters is a theoretical future in which war, want and prejudice will be abolished: the return of fallen humanity to a lost Eden. And like all utopian projects, which are by definition impossible and unattainable, these dogmas are enforced through coercion: bullying, intimidation, character assassination, professional and social exclusion.

The core doctrine is equality. Not the Biblical doctrine that every human being is owed equal respect because they are formed in the image of God. Equality has been redefined as identicality, the insistence that there can be no hierarchy of values of lifestyles or cultures. There can no longer be different outcomes depending on different circumstances or how people behave. To differentiate at all is to be bigoted and on a fast track back to fascism and war.

So the married family was kicked off its perch. Sexual restraint was abolished. The formerly transgressive became normative. Education could no longer transmit a culture down through the generations but had to teach that the western nation was innately racist and exploitative.

Subjective trumped objective. There was no longer any absolute truth. Everyone could arbitrate his own truth. That way bigotry and prejudice would be excised from the human heart, the oppressed of the developing world would be freed from their western oppressors and instead of the western nation there’d be the brotherhood of man.

All this was done in name of freedom, reason and enlightenment and in opposition to religion, the supposed source of oppression, irrationality and obscurantism.

At the heart of it was an onslaught against the moral codes of Christianity. Those moral codes are actually the Mosaic laws of the Hebrew Bible.

Christianity underpins the west. But Christianity rests in turn on the precepts of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus, after all, was a Jew.

It is Judaism, the mother-ship of Christianity, which laid down the moral law that placed constraints upon personal behavior in the interests of others – a revolutionary creed which forms the very foundation of western morality. Although Christianity embedded those laws into western society, it is those Mosaic codes themselves which are the real target of the onslaught upon sexual continence, duty and truth.

In order to protect others, the moral laws of the Hebrew Bible put chains on the human appetite. They put constraints on individual behavior in order to benefit the community. And the first commandment of the secular cultural revolution is to remove all constraints on the individual whose own wants and desires and feelings are now deemed to trump all external rules.

Ideologies inescapably destroy reason because they reshape reality which has to be made to fit the governing idea. Factual evidence or logic are therefore an impediment to ideology, and without those there can be no exercise of reason.  

Jewish reason

It is little understood that the onslaught upon the values of the Hebrew Bible is actually an attack on the sources of western reason itself. Far from religion being the enemy of reason and science, the Hebrew Bible is actually its foundation stone.

The popular belief is that that the roots of science lie in ancient Greece. In fact, Greek thinking was inimical to a rational view of the universe. The Greeks, whose universe was an endless cycle of progress and decay and which transformed heavenly bodies into actual gods, explained the natural world by abstract general principles; Socrates thought empirical observation a waste of time, and Plato advised his students to “leave the starry heavens alone".

For the development of science, monotheism was essential. As the Oxford professor of mathematics John Lennox puts it: “At the heart of all science lies the conviction that the universe is orderly”. This absolutely fundamental insight came not from the Greeks but thousands of years previously in the Hebrew Bible, with its proposition that the universe was governed by a single God rather than the whims of many gods.

Science grew from the novel idea that the universe was rational; and that belief was given to us by Genesis, which set out the revolutionary proposition that the Universe had a rational Creator. Without such a purposeful intelligence behind it, the universe could not have been rational; and so there would have been no place for reason in the world because there would have been no truths or natural laws for reason to uncover.

Atheism, by contrast, holds that the world comes from a random and therefore irrational source so that reason is an accidental by-product. As the writer and Intelligent Design theorist Phillip Johnson has amusingly put it, to theists the concept of a supernatural mind in whose image we are created is the essential metaphysical basis for their confidence that the cosmos is rational. To a scientific naturalist, by contrast, the cosmos can be understood by a rational mind only if it was not created by a rational mind.

It is atheism, therefore, that is innately hostile to reason. And it was religion, not secular thought, which propounded the view that nature was founded on deep rationality. The early Christian thinkers Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas believed that, since God created the universe through divine wisdom, the universe must be supremely rational. Science was motivated from the start by the belief that there were comprehensible laws in nature -- which could only have come from a rational Creator.

This is why many scientists from the earliest times onwards have been Christians and Jews. It is why Francis Bacon said God had provided us with two books – the book of Nature and the Bible -- and that to be properly educated one must study both. It is why Isaac Newton believed the Biblical account of creation had to be read and understood; why Descartes justified his search for natural “laws” on the grounds that they must exist because God was perfect and so “acts in a manner as constant and immutable as possible” except for the rare exception of miracles; why the German astronomer Johannes Kepler believed that the goal of science was to discover within the natural world ‘the rational order which has been imposed on it by God’; and why Galileo Galilei said that ‘the laws of nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics’.

As CS Lewis wrote: “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver”.  John Lennox writes that faith always played a foundational role in science for precisely this reason. “Dawkins is simply wrong”, he says. “Faith is simply inseparable from the scientific endeavor. Gödel’s Second Theorem gives further evidence for this: you cannot even do mathematics without faith in its consistency – and it has to be faith because the consistency of mathematics cannot be proved”.

The philosopher Professor John Haldane points out the similarities between the religious and scientific approaches: “Thus science is faith-like in resting upon ‘creedal’ presuppositions, and inasmuch as these relate to the order and intelligibility of the universe they also resemble the content of a theistic conception of the universe as an ordered creation. Furthermore, it seems that the theist carries the scientific impulse further by pressing on with the question of how perceived order is possible, seeking the most fundamental descriptions-cum-explanations of the existence and nature of the universe”.

The further point of great significance, however, is that it was not religion in general but the Hebrew Bible in particular that gave rise to science. That is because of the revolutionary nature of its propositions about creation. The Hungarian Benedictine priest Stanley Jaki has shown that in seven great cultures -- the Chinese, Hindu, Mayan, Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Arabic -- the development of science was truncated. All made discoveries which carried human understanding forward -- India produced decimal notation, ancient Greece astronomy and geometry, for example – but none was able to keep its scientific discoveries going.

Jaki attributes this to two critical features that these cultures had in common: a belief in pantheism and in the cyclical concept of time. Science could only proceed on the basis that the universe was rational and coherent and thus nature behaved in accordance with unchanging laws. It was therefore impossible under pantheism, which ascribed natural events to the whims and caprices of the spirit world. The other vital factor was the Bible’s linear concept of time. This meant history was progressive; every event was significant; experience could be built upon. Progress was thus made possible by learning more about the laws of the universe and how it worked. As for the Eastern religions, these don’t posit a creation at all. The universe is eternal and thus without purpose; it is a supreme mystery and therefore not to be understood, and so the path to wisdom is not through reason but through meditation and insights. These religions are therefore inimical to knowledge and to reason. 

Islam is a different matter again. Although it is the third great monotheistic and Abrahamic faith, its concept of reason departs radically from that of the Hebrew Bible and Christianity. It presents Allah not as the creator of a universe that runs according to its own natural laws, but as an active God who intrudes on the world as he deems appropriate. Natural laws are thus deemed blasphemous as they deny Allah’s freedom to act.

So Islam does not teach that the universe runs along lines laid down by God at creation but assumes that the world is sustained by his will on a continuing basis. And insofar as they subscribed to ancient Greek thought, Muslims historically accepted the Greek belief in a complete universe rather than investigating it. As a result of progressing no further than Aristotle, medieval Islamic scholars advanced only in certain areas such as astronomy and medicine which did not require any general theoretical basis.

Christianity embraced reason and logic as the primary guide to religious truth because it taught that reason was a supreme gift from God and the means progressively to increase understanding of God and Scripture. Augustine held that reason was indispensable to faith: it both preceded reason “to purify the heart and make it fit to receive and endure the great light of reason”; and that because reason itself persuaded us of this, it followed that reason must also precede faith.

Embodied in the great medieval universities founded by the church, faith in the power of reason accordingly infused western culture, stimulating the rise of science. Early thinkers believed in finding out what was not already known about God’s will. The Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century set out logical “proofs” of Christian doctrine; he argued that humans had to reason their way to knowledge step by step as they lacked the ability to see into the essence of things.   

Both Christianity and Judaism, however, have struggled to reconcile reason with revelation. Without doubt, there have been deep conflicts between modernity and Jewish religious thinking just as there have been with Christianity. The principal difficulty has been reconciling Judaism to the key characteristic of modernity, the culture of individualism: personal choice over truth, autonomy over authority and self over society.

Nevertheless, Christianity is rather more vulnerable to the attack against religion than its Judaic parent. And that was arguably because of the intrinsic differences between their respective claims to rationality.

Judaism, the true fount of western rationalism through its assertion of an orderly universe, can lay reasonable claim to being the most rational of all religions. Unlike Christianity, Judaism is all about this world, not the next, and is firmly grounded in man’s deeds, in historical memory and in the here and now.

It is not concerned with proving the existence of God. As Eliezer Berkovits has observed, the foundation of Judaism is not that God is, but that that he cares about mankind and the world. That concern is made known through the encounter between man and God. The Hebrew Bible is not a textbook of philosophy or metaphysics, but a record of man’s encounter with God. Jews are not taught “this is what we believe”; they are taught “this is what happened to us”. They are not taught dogma but remembered collective experience. Faith and experience are thus indissolubly linked.

At Sinai, the children of Israel are described as seeing and hearing the revelation of God’s commandments. The Biblical account does not purport to show or describe God, but describes a participatory event that happened. So the big question is whether this encounter did actually happen. Those who don’t believe God exists say it could not have done; but Judaism always proceeds on the basis of what the evidence suggests is most likely to have occurred.

Berkovits observes that according to the logic of Immanuel Kant himself the non-existence of God cannot be proved any more than can his existence. And the encounter with God was witnessed by the prophets of Israel, men of unimpeachable integrity and courage; more important, the entire Jewish nation experienced this encounter through the Exodus, the revelation at Sinai and the journey through the wilderness. The experience of that sustained encounter was so seismic that it defined the existence of the Jewish people and caused it never to surrender to other cultures despite unparalleled attempts ever since to eradicate it. The evidence would seem therefore to support the idea that what was said to have happened was more likely than not to have actually happened.

Although as Rodney Stark observes commitment to the progressive reasoning of God’s will requires Christians to accept that the Bible is not only or always to be understood literally, Christianity nevertheless does depend for its core beliefs upon the literal truth of supernatural events for which there is only fragile supporting evidence, if that. Much more thus devolves onto pure faith, defined as belief unsupported by evidence and unmediated by the conceits of metaphor or symbol. And that is much harder to sustain under the onslaught from materialism.

In Judaism, many Biblical miracles are explained as either natural events or metaphorical allusions.  In the 12th century, the great Jewish sage Moses Maimonides wrote his seminal Guide of the Perplexed precisely to explain that there was no contradiction between rationalism and the Hebrew Bible. He argued, for example, that the Torah was full of similes which were not to be taken at face value as the literal truth.

This is not an attempt to demonstrate the truths of Judaism. It is rather an attempt to show that Judaism is above all a religion of reason which makes it less difficult to reconcile with the modern age. Indeed, Talmudic exegesis is all about reasoning to a highly advanced level to understand better the words of the Hebrew Bible and the relationship of God to man. Moreover, the Bible’s enigmatic and poetic text makes little sense if read literally; Genesis is filled with contradictions which demand sophisticated analysis and make a literalist interpretation absurd and indeed anti-religious. 

In the 12th century, Maimonides was the classic exponent of the idea that metaphysical truths could only be grasped through the exercise of reason. He held that religion was the highest rung of metaphysical knowledge.  Human perfection consisted in “the attainment of rational virtues… the conception of ideas which lead to correct opinions of metaphysical matters”. So as Eliezer Berkovits has noted, for Maimonides only someone who had mastered all the disciplines of human knowledge such as logic, mathematics and natural science could attain the knowledge of God. Concentrating the intellect in this way was the highest form of spirituality. Even living according to the law was secondary to the intellectual service of God through contemplation.  That is why, even though doing good works and promoting the ‘repair of the world’ are stressed in Judaism as moral imperatives, the very highest calling in Judaism is learning.

Nor has there ever been a problem reconciling Judaism with science. As a non-believer, zoologist Professor Andrew Parker, the lead researcher at London’s Natural History Museum, was astounded by what he found when he studied in detail the first page of Genesis. For he realized that whoever had written it had set out with uncanny accuracy the precise order of events in the development of the universe, facts which those unknown authors thousands of years ago could not possibly have known.

Parker writes accordingly in his book The Genesis Enigma: ‘... the Bible has, in its opening page, correctly predicted the history of life on earth, with its series of macro-evolutionary steps, or fits and starts, from the origin of our solar system to the evolution of birds and mammals. We can be certain that the author of this Biblical account would have had no idea of these scientifically established events, covering billions of years – indeed, the final links in this chain have been forged only very recently. The possible explanations for this parallel between the Bible and modern science are clear-cut: either the writer of the creation account of Genesis 1 was directed by divine intervention, or he made a lucky guess’. Not surprisingly, Parker concludes the ‘lucky guess’ scenario is incredible; and therefore: ‘The true account of how we came to exist may have been handed to humans by God’.

None of that would have surprised the Jewish thinkers of medieval times. Maimonides wrote that conflicts between science and the Bible arose from either a lack of scientific knowledge or a defective understanding of the Bible. Nor did they have a problem with reconciling evolution with God; another great 12th century Jewish philosopher Nachmanides wrote that “since the world came into existence, God’s blessing did not create something new from nothing; instead the world functions according to its natural pattern”.

There is indeed a striking correspondence between these medieval Jewish sages and the conclusions being reached by the physicists, mathematicians and other scientists of today. Maimonides scorned the idea of an anthropomorphic God. He also demolished the argument that belief in God was irrational by stating that since God stood outside the natural world, his existence by definition could not be proved by means belonging to the natural world. The reality of our senses, he argued, was dependent upon the world beyond our senses -- but also that the world beyond was not to be grasped by means of our thought processes. It was possible to demonstrate with certainty that the world had a first cause, but impossible to comprehend the nature of this first cause. This was not so much reconciling faith and reason as showing that philosophy and reason were part of faith itself.

According to the Catholic theologian and Cardinal Henri de Lubac, the God of the Hebrew Bible liberated humanity from being the plaything of the gods or passive victims of fate, as they were in classical or eastern antiquity, to become masters of their destiny and bend history in a humane direction. But what Biblical man perceived as liberation, proponents of atheistic humanism perceived as bondage. For secularists, human “greatness” required the rejection of God as a program to remake the world. De Lubac concluded:

“It is not true, as it is sometimes said, that man cannot organize the world without God. What is true is that, without God, he can only organize it against man.”

The result has been the tyrannical ideologies of the modern age, which has forgotten that the rationality upon which it prides itself and the science that flows from that rationality owe their existence to religion. The result of this amnesia is the repudiation not just of reason but of humanity itself. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “The radical detachment of the Enlightenment philosophy from its roots ultimately leads it to dispense with man”.

Abolishing the Biblical God has abolished the rationality and freedom bestowed in his name.  

What to do

Western civilization today will only be rescued if it reaffirms its religious roots. That means reaffirming not just Christianity but its roots in turn in the Hebrew Bible.

Many church leaders flinch from delivering a robust religious message because they think it is simply impossible to counter the evidence of materialism with the unprovable mysteries of religious faith. I think that is the wrong way to approach this. As I have suggested, our secular age has not renounced spirituality. It has renounced Christianity; and that has sent what is an unending spiritual quest down unhealthy and absurd cul-de-sacs.

The way to approach people is to answer that yearning for meaning. This means not pinning everything on belief in supernatural events, nor the need to adhere to moral rules, nor the formalities of sacramental behavior All of that comes later, after the explanation of why what the Bible contains is so important to people’s lives, happiness and welfare.

People need to be made aware that the values they met deeply cherish – rationality, conscience, the dignity of every human being, making the world a better place – come from the Bible and that without it those values will disappear. They need to be made aware that it is the foundation stone of science, and that the Bible’s governing idea – that the origin of everything lies in a mystery that by definition exists beyond the reach of science – is the least unlikely explanation. They need to be shown how attaching themselves to these values can enrich their own lives.

And to use this approach, which is most likely to penetrate and undermine the secularists’ own defenses, the Christian churches have to explicitly reconnect to and reaffirm their roots in the Hebrew Bible. They have to reaffirm their links to Judaism, their parent religion, which many churches have preferred to push aside.

You only have to look at the differences between Britain and Europe on the one hand and America on the other to see this is in practice. In Britain and Europe, where the churches have lost their connection with Judaism and the Hebrew Bible – and are also hostile to Jewish peoplehood in the State of Israel – the pews are empty, Christianity is dying and their civilization with it.  In America, the great central heartland is filled with scripturally faithful evangelical churches which are bursting with energy and form a bulwark in the titanic fight going on there against secular ideologies. Those churches have an uphill struggle; but at least they are taking the fight to the enemy. Because without that connection with Judaism, Christianity is nothing. And without Christianity, the west will become something very different indeed.

They key to the defense of the west lies in the religion that underpins it. And the key to enlisting the army that will defend it lies in the roots of that religion. All that’s needed is the will to see it.