What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Tertullian's classic question is recalled in the first pages of John O'Malley's book and is said to provide the "basic structure" for his consideration of the title's "four cultures." The reader who comes to the book mindful of the fundamental divide implied in an ultimate orientation to either Jerusalem or Athens, Revelation or philosophy, will be surprised to find that Thomas Aquinas is placed in one of the three "Athenian" cultures as are the two reforming Church Councils of Trent and Vatican II. "Jerusalem's" culture encompasses the fulminating Luther as well as American abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and "TV evangelists and ranting commentators on AM radio." Clearly there is something different afoot here from the more prevalent, and perhaps more profound, way of understanding how Athens and Jerusalem stand to one another.
O'Malley, a distinguished historian of the Jesuit order (to which he belongs), acknowledges that his illustrations of the four cultures draw heavily and disproportionately on the history of Christianity. One welcome result is that they provide a rich statement of how integral Christianity has been to Western culture, a useful reminder in this age when some are seeking public amnesia of Christianity's role. From his abundant store of knowledge and reflection, O'Malley reminds or teaches readers of some very interesting aspects of our Western past. Significant to this reader was the recollection that "Jerusalem knew Athens long before the time of the New Testament and had spiritual and intellectual commerce with her," and that five of the earliest major Christian writers in the Latin West, from Tertullian to Augustine, were teachers of rhetoric before their conversion to Christianity. Notable also is the reminder that Christianity had been prepared for its widely known engagement and use of Aristotle in the 13th century by the efforts in the 5th and 6th centuries of Boethius and of the non-Christian Ammonius at Alexandria. The power of Aristotle came to be such, observes O'Malley, that the systematic rational culture which Aristotle represented shaped Thomas's great Summa. It was a work of theology, but speculative theology rather than practical or pastoral in any way, and it in effect turned around the way one might expect a believer to approach Aristotle: the Summa asks, now that we have Aristotle, why do we need the Bible?
That triumph of Aristotle and his culture in Christian history becomes a major target for Luther's protest as well as those of Petrarch and Erasmus. O'Malley attends much to Luther and Erasmus, the latter appearing in a significant way in every chapter of the book. He focuses on how these two 16th-century malcontents differed in their styles of reform even while sharing much of substance. He gives readers information and perspective on the efforts and calls for Church reform that preceded Luther's break. Along the way in this survey of Christianity in Western experience, readers learn of times when preaching was not done in the context of the mass and of simple times when factors such as widespread illiteracy and growing wealth helped to explain the Christian embrace of material expressions of their faith in the form of statuary and performance, when Ambrose, later Augustine's inspirational teacher, is elevated to the office of bishop by popular acclamation, though he was without church experience and still unbaptized.
What, however, of the central claim of this book? What are these four cultures? How does Tertullian's question about Athens and Jerusalem provide a basic structure? In fairness, it is important to attend first to the author's professed goal in this work and the many disclaimers entailed in it. Twice O'Malley indicates his awareness of the dangers of writing a "big picture" book and suggests that his own reluctance to do so had to be overcome by the persuasion of others. A "big picture" book it must be, for it explores, in considerably less than three hundred pages, the weaving of four dominant cultural threads in Western experience. Explicitly adopting the form of an extended essay, O'Malley associates his intent and style with the tradition of epideictic rhetoric as exemplified in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Rather than see the book "as making a claim," he seeks to lay before his readers, chiefly for appreciation, the story of four discernible but not rigidly separable Gulf Streams (his dominant metaphor) in the vast ocean that is Western experience. He simply wants them noticed and leaves the reader to do what he will with them.
Everywhere his tendency is to make his definitions loose, his distinctions far from sharp and firm. Every boundary drawn is somewhat porous and permeable, and thus the inevitable critical reaction of readers to generalizations and to how individuals are placed among the cultures is somewhat disarmed. This is an impressionistic rendering on a very large canvas. O'Malley writes in a lucid and inviting style, inviting not only to sharing what he sees but also to conversation about and criticism of the picture he sketches.
Cultures, for him, are configurations; the elements of such configurations are "forms, symbols, institutions, patterns of feeling, patterns of behavior and the like." He chooses "cultures" over "traditions" which term he considers "too flaccid." Style or mode of discourse or rhetoric is said to be the dominant element in a culture. Without engaging him in any way or recalling his specific name, O'Malley seems to be embracingindeed uses the very words ofMarshall McLuhan's mantra of an earlier generation: "The medium is the message."
The cultures articulated in this book are the prophetic culture rooted in the style of the Hebrew prophets, the academic and professional culture rooted in the rational questing style of Socrates and taking more systematic form in Plato and Aristotle, humanistic culture initially exemplified in Homer, Isocrates and the Sophists, and artistic culture, the non-verbal culture of art finding early manifestations in Greek architecture, sculpture, music, and ritual performance. These cultures are not exclusive to the West, but they are thought to be more sharply distinguished in Western development. Nor do these four exhaust the cultures present in the West. O'Malley names the business culture and the electronic media culture as other formative realities. All these cultures interpenetrate as streams in a larger ocean might, and the threat that the one of them will simply draw others into its current, or that some will ally against the very life of one of the others is ever present, as when the three verbal cultures work to check or eliminate the artistic culture. The first and most evident application of the dichotomy between Jerusalem and Athens arises simply from noting that one of the cultures originates in Jerusalem and the other three are "Athenian."
Among the characteristics of the prophetic culture is the penchant for proclamations, threats and promises, dichotomies as either/or such as Athens or Jerusalem, and contempt for the world. Here O'Malley places not only Tertullian but also Christian martyrs and hermits, reformer Pope Gregory VII, Luther, the Anabaptists, the abolitionists, and Martin Luther King. The academic culture of the modern university with its drive for testing and sifting for the truth is seen as representing the triumph of the philosophic culture of ancient Greece. It is where he places Boethius and Thomas Aquinas. It is the culture of objectivity and modern science, and more then once O'Malley notices how it has taken over theology.
The third culture, the humanistic culture, is alternately called the culture of poetry, rhetoric and the common good. It aims at the good while the academic culture seeks the true. This culture of the good is that of the statesman, the gentleman, and the refined woman. Here is where the likes of Virgil, Ambrose, and Erasmus are placed, but as with all his locating of individuals in one stream or another, O'Malley insists that it is a predominant characteristic that affects his placement and that individuals may be participating in more than one culture. Cicero who is set here in the third culture is sensibly described as a man in whom the philosophical culture joins with this humanistic culture. O'Malley's further description of his philosophy as one in which dialectics is a servant of rhetoric and in which one finds no inherent interest in natural philosophy too readily accepts common views about this self-identified Socratic who looked to Plato's principles in politics for direction, who thought philosophy the greatest gift of the gods to humankind, and who struggled responsibly with the tensions between attractions of speculative philosophy and the compelling urgencies addressed by practical philosophy. Finally, there is the fourth culture, that of the arts, and O'Malley illuminates this culture quite exclusively in terms of Christian history, treating his readers in the course to some fine analyses and reflections on the waves of iconoclasm that emerged in that history.
At the end, it appears that O'Malley's intent has been to offer the witness of history as a rebuttal to Tertullian's once-given answer that Athens has nothing to do with Jerusalem. The four culturesor at least three of themare testimony that the transcendent claims of religion express themselves in forms that appear basic to human nature, basic styles of being. Perhaps a little qualification is in order, that initial confrontational style of "either/or," the style said to originate in the Hebraic tradition and to emphasize "the utter otherness of God," has it alone among the cultures been essentially enabled by the claim of Revelation? Does it capture better than the other cultures a fundamental choice that rests beneath the surface of integrations and apparent syntheses of Athens and Jerusalem?
This query is but one possible way toward some large questions the book raises. Should style's importance be so elevated that it is said to be the "ultimate expression of meaning," that "the medium is the message"? Or is there more obfuscation in such analysis than clarification, specifically an occluding of the grounds of convictions and beliefs that express themselves in one or another mode? How helpful is tracing the continuities in history of these loosely defined cultures or styles? Does such tracing tend to mask deep and significant discontinuities? O'Malley acknowledges such discontinuities, noticing, for example, that Aristotle would hardly recognize as his heir the modern multiversity and that universities which gives him such scant attention don't know him as a revered ancestor. Though O'Malley happily imposes no grand scheme or progressivist or other frame on Western history, the flow of his four Gulf Streams tends to lull us to a kind of helpless acceptance of the alleged forms they have taken today. There is a dulling of the critical edge that seems necessary not only for personal integration of the various styles toward life's purpose and task but also for reforming institutions like the modern university. What is difficult in the end is to know whether O'Malley's own rhetoric of display, his self-consciously gentle and inviting rhetoric, is intended to lull us or meant to draw us to these very questions and concerns.