The Magazine

A Just God?

Pangle, political philosophy, and the Bible.

Mar 15, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 26 • By THOMAS F. POWERS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham

by Thomas L. Pangle

Johns Hopkins University Press, 285 pp., $39.95

AT THE END of "Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham," Thomas Pangle issues a challenge to modern readers, warning against the danger of "wallowing in longing for God instead of grappling with God." But when he suggests not only Jacob but also Socrates as models for this enterprise, the reader is perhaps rightly provoked to ask what political philosophy can contribute to understanding the Bible that faith does not already know.

One answer has to do with our historical situation. We live under the reign of secular enlightenment, and the seriousness of modern religious faith in the West seems to dissipate with every passing generation. Faith is typically treated as a matter of lifestyle or dismissed as fundamentalism. Toleration has become relativism, and religion is in danger of becoming a fixture in what Pangle calls our "cultural amusement park." Modern humanity seems less and less capable of taking the most important things seriously.

Pangle has written previous books on Montesquieu, Locke, the American founding, postmodernism, and the moral aspects of international relations. In all of these, Pangle pursues a course informed, above all, by the critical perspective of ancient philosophy opened up anew by his teacher Leo Strauss. Pangle is less interested in the historical and literary claims of higher criticism than in learning the truths the Bible has to teach. In addition to being a study of the first twenty-two chapters of Genesis, Pangle's book provides an enticing introduction to the richly provocative debate about fundamental questions of faith raised among the Bible's greatest students--Augustine and Aquinas, Ibn Ezra and Maimonides, al-Ghazali and Averroes, Luther and Calvin--and an array of writers from ancient and modern philosophical traditions as well.

But Pangle's career as a political philosopher might seem to raise the question of his trustworthiness as a guide to the Bible. In a discussion of Kierkegaard's radical challenge to rationalism--in Kierkegaard's interpretation of Abraham as willing to sacrifice Isaac because "he believed by virtue of the absurd"--Pangle himself asks whether the appeal to sophisticated and doubting reason isn't at the opposite pole from the simplicity and purity of faith. Is not faith a mystery?

Of course, the tension between theology and philosophy has been exacerbated of late: A change in the self-understanding of philosophy in modern times has led to an exaggerated rupture between science and faith that has been detrimental for both.

Pangle's alternative response to the challenge of faith is thus not, to begin with, an attempt simply to explain away the experience of faith. He focuses where reason and revelation meet: on matters of justice and morality. The Bible does not leave human beings in the dark about these matters. As Pangle puts it, "Now, it is in regard to the right and the good--that is, in regard to justice or righteousness--that political philosophy and scriptural piety have the fullest basis for a conversation that may well be mutually illuminating. For righteousness, or justice in the fullest sense, is the theme of political philosophy, the cynosure of its meditations, even as righteousness (or justice in the full sense) is among the highest and most essential themes of Scripture."

TO BE SURE, reflection on the Bible cannot be neutral or uncommitted, and Pangle seems to present his own meditation as the perspective of a "Socratic philosophy" that is "obliged to look upon its own religious experiences" in a philosophical way. But the spirit of Pangle's approach is far from the rationalism of, say, Hobbes or Spinoza, who sought mainly to transform and ultimately subvert the teaching of the Bible, making it more hospitable to their political project. At the same time, Pangle does not attempt to provide a Socratic or ancient rationalist interpretation of the Bible, an approach taken recently in Leon Kass's "The Beginning of Wisdom."

Instead, Pangle brings into conflict the most powerful competing philosophical and theological interpretations of the Bible's moral vision, providing a truly philosophic introduction to centuries of debate. What is the ground of justice in God's eyes? What is the meaning of a perfect and omnipotent God's care for man? What is human sin, and why are human beings sinful? What is the meaning of the Fall? How do freedom, obedience, knowledge, and faith combine in piety? Pangle insists that justice is the core of what the biblical God wishes for man. Indeed, in his discussion of Abraham's call to sacrifice Isaac, Pangle seems almost to suggest that God is the justice on which Abraham relied.