Logos: The Divine Algorithm
The conflict between science and religion is sometimes cast as a geographic metaphor—as a tension between Athens, ancient wellspring of secular philosophy, and Jerusalem, symbol of revealed religious truth. Many early religious thinkers ignored this tension or tried to minimize it. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” asked the Christian theologian Tertullian around 200 CE. The less the better, he felt. Having received the revealed truth via Christ, “We want no curious disputation.”
Well, that was then. Today science is so plainly powerful that theologians can’t casually dismiss secular knowledge. For most educated and thoughtful people, Athens and Jerusalem must be reconciled or Jerusalem will fall off the map.
Two millennia ago, Philo of Alexandria felt this imperative intimately. Alexandria was situated between Athens and Jerusalem—physically, not just metaphorically—and Philo was tied to both cultures. His Jewish heritage and his Greek milieu together inspired him to seek a synthesis of biblical theology and Greek philosophy. He set out to show that revealed religion could not only withstand the challenge of reason but be nourished by reason, and vice versa.
In a way, this is yet another example of non-zero-sum logic encouraging intellectual synthesis. Just as the interdependence of Mesopotamian cities in the third millennium BCE had led them to weave a pan-Sumerian pantheon, the interdependence of Jews and Greeks led Philo to fuse Jewish and Greek thought. And this wasn’t just a matter of calculation, of Philo’s realizing that Jews and Greeks would get along better if they saw their worldviews as compatible. Philo partook of Greek culture—theater, horse races, boxing matches—and no doubt had close friends who were Greek intellectuals. The closer friends are, the stronger their need to share a common worldview. This is just human nature: our instincts for playing non-zero-sum games, for maintaining social allies, encourage intellectual convergence, just as our instincts for playing zero-sum games encourage intellectual cleavage when we define people as enemies.
And, non-zero-sumness aside, there was the problem of cognitive dissonance. Philo believed that all of Judaism and large parts of Greek philosophy were true, and so long as they seemed at odds, he couldn’t rest easy.
But his mission went beyond rendering them compatible. If the original revelation of ultimate truth had indeed come from Yahweh, then the deepest insights of Greek philosophy must have been prefigured in scripture. Arguing this case would demand all Philo’s intellectual dexterity and would yield a creative, often allegorical, interpretation of the Bible. “He read Plato in terms of Moses, and Moses in terms of Plato, to the point that he was convinced that each had said essentially the same things,” wrote the historian of religion Erwin Goodenough, whose several early-twentieth-century books on Philo helped establish his standing as one of antiquity’s most important thinkers. “Indeed, he used to say that Plato had cribbed his ideas from Moses, but his biblical interpretations often read as though he thought Moses had been trained by Plato.”
However strained some of Philo’s intellectual gymnastics, they produced something of enduring value. If people of any Abrahamic faith—Judaism, Christianity, or Islam—are looking for the most ancient Abrahamic theologian whose language lends itself to a modern sensibility, Philo may be their man. For that matter, if they are looking not for the oldest science-friendly theological language, but just for the best science-friendly theological language, Philo may still be their man. At the core of his sometimes ungainly body of theology is the basis of a viable modern theology.
The bridge between Athens and Jerusalem is only one of the intercultural construction projects Philo advanced. While Jesus was preaching in Galilee, Philo, over in Alexandria, was laying out a worldview with key ingredients, and specific terminology, that would show up in Christianity as it solidified over the next two centuries. Meanwhile, other parts of his writing are reminiscent of Buddhism, and for that matter of mystical traditions that would develop in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Here, too, Philo is anticipating the modern—anticipating a spiritual practice that needn’t (though it can) involve a governing deity. But these feats are outgrowths of the mission that was dearest to Philo’s heart, and with which we should begin: the reconciliation of Jewish religion and Greek philosophy.…