Athens or Jerusalem or Athens and Jerusalem? — Existentialism and Liberal Religion

A podcast of this piece can be heard at the following link

In three recent editions of this podcast I have spoken in various ways about why I think it is important to reassess and reconnect with the two key, model, ways of being-in-the-world which have decisively influenced, not only European and North American religious and secular culture in general, but also the particular, liberal religious, free-thinking, Unitarian tradition to which I belong. Those two models are the first-century Jewish rabbi, Jesus/Yeshua, and the Ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates. 

Although, in the end, I find I’m not in agreement with Søren Kierkegaard’s (1813–1855) own philosophical conclusions about faith and belief, I remain completely supportive of his general, Socratic project of revising the definition of what it means to be a person who takes the example of Jesus with the utmost seriousness (cf. Edward F. Mooney: “On Søren Kierkegaard: Dialogue, Polemics, Lost Intimacy, and Time”, Ashgate 2007, p. 8).

I think this task is important because, thanks to the many, many conversations I have had in Cambridge during my twenty years of ministry, it seems to me that in our own deracinated, highly secular, neoliberal and now COVID-19-blighted age, there are very large numbers of people of genuinely liberal, secular and naturalistic persuasion who remain hopeful that there must exist a reasonable way deeply to reconnect with their own culture’s sustaining ancient religious and philosophical traditions but without, at the same time, either being forced to accept traditional religion’s many irrational superstitions, dogmas and prejudices on the one hand, or the self-centred nihilism offered by certain forms of atheism on the other.

Today, I’d like to continue to do this Socratic revision of what it means to follow the human Jesus via a brief examination of a central insight found in the work of an important Unitarian minister and philosophically inclined theologian, John F. Hayward (1918-2012).

Before proceeding I want to be clear that, in emphasising Jesus and Socrates, I am not saying there are no other religious and philosophical figures/traditions to whom, and to which, one should be paying serious attention. That would be plainly ludicrous, and wrong. However, along with Hayward, I am saying that, together, Jerusalem and Athens — represented by Jesus and Socrates — are the philosophical and religious fountainheads of European and North American culture. 

Without drinking deeply of their sustaining, intermingled waters it is impossible for us either properly to understand, critically discriminate and savour appropriately the flavour  our own complex culture or, on the other hand, properly to begin to understand, critically discriminate and savour appropriately the flavour of any other complex culture’s fountainheads. 

With this important caveat made let me return to John F. Hayward. 

During the 1930s, whilst he was studying philosophy at the University of Chicago/Meadville Lombard, Hayward was taught by the important liberal Christian and Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams (1901–1994) who emphasised “that all parts of culture interfaced with and must come under the lens of religion, including and especially political life.” This was a lesson Adams had learnt first-hand in Germany during the early 1930s. 

It was Adams’ teaching which helped encourage and foster in Hayward what was to become an abiding and deep interest in the religious traditions of both Judaism and Christianity, and also Greece. In connection with this he increasingly came to feel that mythology provided humankind with the underlying structures which enabled the continuity of history required for the establishment of any successful civilisation and culture. This conjunction of Jewish/Christian and Greek mythology remained central to Hayward and, throughout his long and fruitful life, he continued to stress that for early-modern and modern European and North American culture it had never been a case of either Athens or Jerusalem, Socrates or Jesus, but always Athens and Jerusalem, Socrates and Jesus.

Now in order to make proper sense of the importance of this insight for us today, it’s necessary to give you just a little bit of Hayward’s biography. 

Hayward received his Bachelor of Divinity in 1943 by which time the US had entered into the Second World War. Consequently, instead of entering parish ministry as he had originally planned, he enlisted as a Navy chaplain and saw combat during the invasion of Iwo Jima.

At the end of the war, in 1945, Hayward left the Navy and returned to the University of Chicago Divinity School to research a Ph.D. in theology, eventually writing his dissertation on myth and art using Tillich and Whitehead as primary sources for a piece called “The Theology and Philosophy of Mythical Symbolism.”

Although on graduating in 1949 he accepted a call to become the minister of the First Unitarian Church of Columbus, Ohio, very shortly afterwards, in 1951, he took what was for him the difficult decision to return to the University of Chicago Divinity School as assistant professor of religion and art.

It’s important to understand that by the 1950s, especially after the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, belief in a supernatural God was becoming increasingly untenable for many people — especially those of liberal persuasion — and the kind of existentialist thinking expressed by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in the nineteenth-century, and by Heidegger, Camus, Sartre and Jaspers amongst others in the twentieth-century, was beginning to become ever more influential. 

Hayward’s philosophical and religious studies, as well as his own direct experience of war, helped him fully to appreciate the important and creative challenge existentialism was making to earlier, standard forms of optimistic, liberal religion which had consistently stressed three main beliefs (Hayward: Existentialism and Liberal Religion, Beacon Press, Boston, 1962, p. 7), namely: 

1) That religion/philosophy was a human achievement rather than a divine gift. 

2) That humankind was thought to be naturally equipped to achieve everything that was necessary for its well-being including, of course, religion as one such achievement.

3) That the function of freedom was to release the natural goodness of humankind which would, in turn, lead all free people to live in spontaneous harmony and cooperation.

As I hope will be obvious, in the post-war context down on to our own troubled age, the inevitability or truth of these liberal orthodoxies could simply no longer be taken for granted.

So what instead, asked Hayward, should liberal religion in Europe and North America now be trying to say so as still to be able to offer people both some meaningful, substantive, practical religious content, and also a sense of genuine continuity with its earlier history, something which, as I have already intimated, no civilisation and culture can do without?  

Well, Hayward thought it was possible to reappropriate and reinterpret Jewish and Greek myths and ideas — albeit with what he called “some definite alterations in the teaching itself” — so as to be accessible, in a living way to modern, secular religious liberals and existentialists. 

His fullest expression of this reappropriation and reinterpretation can be found in his important 1962 book “Existentialism and Religious Liberalism” which has remained central to my own thinking for well over two decades now. Alas, the book is now long out of print but, should you be interested in reading it, in the notes to this podcast you’ll find a link to a pdf copy. What follows now is no more than the barest, introductory outline of Hayward’s basic idea in the hope that it may encourage you to go on to read him yourself. 

With regard to the Greek tradition, Hayward argues (cf. p. 70) that, when reinterpreted, it continues to offer us the insight that through the careful, cultivation of wisdom we always-already have genuine access to a resource which can help us to achieve a certain level of knowledge about, and acceptance of, our place within the unfolding, natural world. The argument is that when we actively cultivate and act out of such wisdom, we find we are gifted with a certain kind of appropriate and modestly serene and harmonious life. Naturally, this doesn’t offer us a life completely devoid of stress and disharmony, but it does offer us a way of living which is meaningful and worthwhile. Socrates and his conversational, dialectical method of enquiry is our primary model here.

With regard to the Jewish tradition, Hayward argues (cf. p. 70) that, when reinterpreted, it offers us the insight that an appropriate and modestly serene and harmonious life occurs only to the degree by which we are able and willing to give ourselves up to the ethical demand to show loving care and support to our fellow human beings. Jesus is, of course, our primary model here and, as I have said many times before, Jesus’ particular genius was to suggest, again and again, that whatever one might mean by ‘God’, ‘God’ was only to be known in situations where this loving care and support of our fellow human beings was being actively shown. Again, this is not to live a life completely devoid of stress and disharmony but it is to live in a way which shows how we can work through these things in a meaningful and worthwhile fashion.

Hayward gently insists, as do I, that there “is no absolute cleavage” between these two ways of proceeding. True, Athens is not Jerusalem, and Jerusalem is not Athens, Jesus is not Socrates and Socrates is not Jesus, but between them, there has for us always already been occurring a constant and mutually informing and sustaining flow and exchange of ideas, methods and ideals. 

The difference between them, such as it exists, is really only one of emphasis, with Socrates and Greek tradition tending to stress and foreground the possibility of humanity’s individual salvation through wisdom, and with Jesus and the Jewish tradition tending to stress and foreground the obligation of humanity’s social salvation through acts of justice and love. 

At this point it is useful to introduce the naturalistic, even atheistic, definition of God proposed by the important philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) that Hayward continually implies is at work in his writing, even though he never directly cites it. We need to bring this definition into play because for old-school liberal religion all the foregoing utterly depended on belief in the existence of an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God who would assuredly and eventually bring about both our individual and social salvation. What, then, if anything, can stand in the place of the theistic God as underpinning our, by now secular and often atheistical hopes for salvation? — salvation in this world, of course.   

Dewey’s working answer is found in his influential short book of 1934 called “A Common Faith.” It runs as follows: 

“We are in the presence neither of ideals completely embodied in existence nor yet of ideals that are merely rootless ideals, fantasies or utopias. For there are forces in nature and society that generate and support the ideals. They are further unified by the action that gives them coherence and solidarity. It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name ‘God’. I would not insist that the name must be given” (John Dewey: A Common Faith, 2nd ed., Yale University Press, 2013, p. 47).

Dewey’s words help us see that, even without belief in the existence of the supernatural theistic God of Judaism, or the rather more naturalistic gods of the Greeks, by following the examples and methods of Jesus and Socrates we really do still come into the presence of ideals that are not merely rootless ideals, fantasies or utopias, but ideals which can be made to work hand in hand with the real, existent forces that we find at play in nature and society. This contact between ideals and natural and societal forces offers us real (if always limited) possibilities to generate and support those same ideals which can, in turn, be further unified by all those actions in which, like Jesus and Socrates, we display wisdom, justice and love. If we are able to persist together in this dutiful endeavour over the course of time then our ideals truly have a genuine chance of gaining further coherence and solidarity.

Although, today, most of us no longer believe as did our liberal forebears that the New Jerusalem or New Athens is, thanks to God, going to be the inevitable outcome of our endeavours, we can with a completely clean heart still believe fully in the reality of the active, naturalistic relationships that existed between the ideal and actual, and which Dewey thought could be called ‘God’. We can believe this even though like Dewey, I — and perhaps you — will no longer insist that the name ‘God’ must be given to that active relationship.

So to conclude. 

I have long felt that Hayward’s groundbreaking work offers any modern, liberal, sceptical, but still religiously inclined seeker just such a reasonable way to reconnect with their European and North American culture’s religious and philosophical traditions. Despite a loss of belief in the reality of an interventionist, supernatural, theistic God, Hayward shows that it remains perfectly possible and reasonable for secular liberals to continue to have the greatest confidence in promoting the wise, loving and just ways of living taught to us by Jesus and Socrates.