The Law of God

By Benjamin Balint
Policy Review, Oct-Nov 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea
By Rémi Brague
Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane
University of Chicago Press, 354 pages

Rémi Brague is a the distinguished Catholic historian of philosophy who teaches at the Sorbonne and the University of Munich.

Modernity commonly explains itself as an inexorable shift from the sacred to the profane as politics and morality emancipate themselves from theology and state extricates itself from church. And the secularization of the West is often understood in light of the history of law. Law is today thought to bear no relation with the divine.

In challenging that narrative, Brague aims to write an alternative spiritual biography of the West. To do so, he elaborates a grand narrative of his own.

The story begins in Jerusalem and Athens. In the Bible, the law's divinity derives from its revealed character; the law is divine because commanded by God. For the Greek philosophers, however, the law is divine because it is perfect, an expression of natural order. The law is permanent, unwritten, and requires no proclamation.

If the Greek thinkers emphasized the natural character of law, the Israelites called forth its revealed, historical character; it is said to be written by the finger of God. This law becomes the instrument of a covenant with God.

Judaism became Judaism only after it lost political power. Its law crystallized outside the apparatus of state. Rabbinic Judaism had to draw out of the Bible a complete legal system. In exile, Jewish law became the object of intense study, the center of identity, even the means of apprehending the divine.

But the Jewish view of divine law was fully articulated only in the Middle Ages, when Maimonides argued that the law is divine both because it originates in God and because it brings adherents closer to Him. Soon after, the mystics who conceived the kabbalah took the Torah as the very structure and name of divinity.

In sum, the authors of the Bible, the prophets of the biblical commonwealth, the sages of the Talmud, and the medieval rationalists and kabbalists alike envisaged a law, revealed by God, that commands us, defines our community, perfects us, and brings us in contact with the divine.

The new testament, unlike the Hebrew Bible, contains almost no legal texts. Brague takes this as a sign of a second revolution: "With the New Testament the relationship with the divine no longer appeared as a relationship to a law." The commandments are not rejected but made interior.

In defining itself against rabbinic Judaism, Christianity had to position itself. Some Christians broke with the old law; others cast themselves as adherents of a new law. In the main, the nascent Christian community founded itself not on law at all, but on faith.

With great skill, Brague follows this thread from Paul to the Church Fathers to the Scholastic theologians. Augustine, for instance, identifies the voice of conscience with the voice of God and distinguishes the written, external law from the internal law written in the hearts of men. Thomas Aquinas, who takes law as a form of providence afforded to free, rational creatures, places divine law squarely within the realm of ethics — not as external norm but as internal principle.

Brague understands the New Testament as a reading of the Torah in light of the radically new event of Jesus' death and resurrection. For Islam, by contrast, the only event is the revelation of a new text. In the Quran, like Judaism but unlike Christianity, "the content of revelation is not a person, but God's will, as delivered in commandments." Revelation in Islam centers on law, and prophecy culminates in law.

The faith the prophet founded insists on the inextricability of the political and the religious. Even as Christian Europe saw the divergence of the political and the religious as progress, Islam regarded it as a form of decadence. It follows that the idea of divine law lies at the heart not only of the West's conception of itself, but also of its ever more dangerous encounter with Islam.

As he approaches present-day Europe, Brague accelerates his story to a close. Moderns invented the laws of nature and identified them with the laws of God. The normative and descriptive collide, and law comes to belong more to nature than to the sphere of the human.

This development brought about a far-reaching response. "Faced with a law that contained nothing of the human there arose, in reaction, a law that was nothing but human." To create a human law, modernity severs conscience from divinity; it understands law as something made, not discovered. Law becomes a convention, a contract predicated on self-interest.

The Enlightenment restores the vocabulary of the sacred — as with the "inviolable and sacred" rights announced by the French Revolution. "Sacralization serves here to cover up a secularization," Brague concludes.

Brague's story, fascinating in itself, amounts to a brilliant and erudite account of how conceptual decisions, embedded in what he calls a tradition's "inaugural acts," come into full flower centuries later; these are shown to be deliberate acts, not historical necessities.

In explaining what all of this has to do with how we understand ourselves today, however, Brague descends from his Olympian perch and reveals a polemical purpose: a defense of the primacy of Christianity — or, more precisely, of Catholicism.

One moral of the story, as he sees it, is that we are more Christian than we had supposed: "Events that had their epicenter in the Christian world produced upheavals in Muslim societies and Jewish communities, and thinkers who were Christian in origin furnished the conceptual framework within which Judaism and Islam had to reformulate their thinking about the law."

But the West owes an even more direct debt: "Christianity is not an element among others in European culture, but its very form, the form that enables it to remain open to whatever can come from the outside and enrich the hoard of its experiences with the human and the divine."

In his latest book, Brague contends that in three respects, modern societies are made possible only by the Christian experience of a divinity without law.

— Christianity gave us natural law. Starting with Augustine, Christians developed the idea of a unity of divine and natural law, in which one can discern not God's will, but His nature.

— Christianity conferred on us the very idea of a sovereign state. In fact, Brague argues, the church was a state in the modern sense of the term before there were states.

— Christianity furnished a powerful justification for democracy. According to Brague, the model for modern democracy and its electoral procedures was the medieval church.

Brague wishes to highlight Christianity’s contribution to modernity. He denies that the history of the West is one of inexorable secularization. On the other hand, he is worried by the loss of our theological moorings and suggests that perhaps the most pervasive myth we in the West hold may be the belief in the viability and permanence of our secular politics.

But there is a deeper ambiguity here. A secularist can explain modernity as a secularization. A Protestant like Dietrich Bonhoeffer can account for it as a kind of completion of the Reformation. From the Catholic point of view, however, the Reformation is in principle an apostasy. Some such ambivalence might explain Brague's neglect of Protestantism and the American regime.

The Law of God

By Christopher S. Morrissey
Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.09.46

Edited by Andy Ross

Rémi Brague argues that there always has been a separation of church and state, because no theocratic marriage of the two has ever taken place. Brague tracks the history of the theory and practice of "divine law" from its dark prehistory to its articulations in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The book's ostensible purpose is achieved by a mode of presentation that is calm and understated. Brague has written a book that is arguably the most philosophically rigorous challenge yet made to Leo Strauss's philosophical understanding of history.

In an earlier work, Brague argued that Strauss holds a "Muslim" understanding of reason and revelation "which opposes the Christian one": first, revelation is a mere brute fact unamenable to reason and, second, what is revealed in religion is not a person but a Sacred Book. For Strauss, it is Mecca that "unspokenly synthesizes" Jerusalem and Athens. Strauss systematically neglected Rome along with "every Christian element in Western history" as a "shallow phenomenon", thus far agreeing with Nietzsche.

While an earlier book by Brague offered the alternative of looking at Athens and Jerusalem from the "Roman" rather than from the "Meccan" point of view, the present work challenges Strauss's way of conceiving of the theologico-political problem. Here Brague argues that Strauss's outlook is provincial. Brague shows how the problem needs to be enlarged to the wider study of divine law.

When Brague muses that "the theo-political problem is serious in appearance only", he subtly puts Strauss's critique of modernity into proper perspective. Strauss's perspective is not to be replaced by any facile narrative of secularization as the great achievement of the modern age. For as Brague notes, secularization was won long before by the Christian church. Even unbelieving atheists presuppose "the primacy of faith in the definition of the religious", a presupposition historically impossible without the uniquely "Christian experience of a divine without law".

This Christian experience allows Brague to contest Strauss's narrow conception of revealed religion.

AR  (2007) A signpost pointing beyond Strauss is what we need to move beyond the Neocon agenda.