Leo Strauss and Christianity

When a respected scholar and teacher like Father Sokolowski treats the “foundations” of his professional concerns, which happen to be man’s most important concerns, all the attention we can give is worthily spent. This short book ranges from commentary on classical arguments for the existence of God to reflections on the Scriptures and on the Christian sacraments. This range, apparent on the surface to the casual surveyor of the book, masks the unity and pro­fundity of the inquiry. Also included are signifi­cant reflections on the relationship between natural and theological virtue and a short appen­dix that extends the argument of the book to an examination of the relationship between religion and politics as treated “in the writings of Leo Strauss and the political philosophers who work under his influence” (p. 157).

Although these two aspects of the book will be of particular concern in this review, it is necessary and appropriate to state the central thesis of the book and how Sokolowski unfolds it. He writes to “disclose” what he calls “the Christian distinc­tion.” This distinction manifests the Christian understanding of God which allows the preservation of both “the integrity of reason” and “the distinctiveness of faith” (p. xi).

The Christian idea of God is especially evident in the understanding of Creation, for it is an understanding that entails a new and radical distinction between God and the world. That distinction comes into clearer light when con­trasted with ancient non-Christian views of God or gods in relationship to the whole of being. Aristotle locates the divine “in the highest and first substances that govern the world,” but his prime mover or self-thinking thought is a part of the world, coexistent at the most with the necessities that govern the world (p. 15). Con­ceding that “Plato’s notion of what is divine and ultimate is more elusive” than Aristotle’s, Soko­lowski nonetheless argues that “even the One or the Good is taken as ‘part’ of what is: it is the One by being a one over, for and in many, never by being One only alone by itself” (p. 18).The step to understanding beings as possibly never having been at all and correlatively understanding “God as capable of existing, in undiminished goodness and greatness, even if the world had not been” is the step to the Christian distinction (p. 19). So the Christian sense of God is “distinguished not only from natural necessities” but even “from the oneness and goodness that permit such necessities to be what they are and appear as they do” (p. 51). The world, then, in terms of the distinction is seen as “a gift brought about by a generosity that has no parallel in what we experience in the world.” Its existence “prompts our gratitude, whereas the being of the world prompts our wonder” (p. 19).2

Granted his hesitation and call for continued theological reflection, it is evident, as Sokolowski insists, that the sense of God within the Christian distinction entails a clearer formulation, allowed by faith, of the otherness of God. So too does Sokolowski bring to the fore, as he must, a claim that Christ contributes decisively to the manifestation of the Christian distinction. It is in the life of Jesus that the distinction was “most originally” lived and expressed “after having been anticipated and hence to some extent possessed, in the Old Testament history which Jesus com­pleted” (p. 23). The Christian sense of God as Creator is “completely disclosed in the life of Jesus and in the church’s understanding of who and what Christ was” (p. xii). In contrast to the theologies of ancient poets where gods are parts of the world and necessarily stand distinct from other parts, Christ being both human and divine contributes to our understanding of a God who “is not part of the world and is not a ‘kind’ of being at all.” And accordingly, in the light of such a God, “the incarnation is not meaningless or impossible or destructive” (p. 36).

What is here done with the incarnation, the central Christian mystery, exemplifies the deeper or further intent of this book. Sokolowski emphatically draws attention to the Christian distinction in order to make sense of Christian experience; in his words, “to permit the other Christian mysteries to be thought as mysteries and not as incoherences” (p. 37). The sweep of the book from its consideration of redemption, grace, sacraments, Scripture reading, and the church, to that of the natural and supernatural virtues and politics shows the author moving through Christian experience and clarifying how it can be understood as true and meaningful in the light of the God of Christian faith. The basis for the endeavor, however, is what the author properly calls “the primary task of Christian theology, . . . to clarify how the God we believe in is to be understood” (p. 1). Thus Christian and non-Christian can appreciate Sokolowski’s inquiries.

Despite the significant substance and overall compelling argument of the book, the claims for its method seem overdrawn. The book exemplifies and defends “the theology of disclosure,” which is set off against “the theology of things.” The latter “assumes” the Christian distinction and deals only with the subjects that constitute its terms. It is to complement a theology of things. The features of the “new” theology of disclosure are that it “comes to terms with modern philosophical treatments of appearances or phenomena and with the historical emphasis found in modern thinking” (p. xiii). Nonetheless, this reader finds the claims for the distinctive contribution of the theology of disclosure either elusive or so evident that it is unpersuasive to imply that this perspec­tive is lacking in the old masters of “the theology of Christian things” like Thomas Aquinas.

Let us note one example of Sokolowski’s approach. In turning “disclosure” upon the issue of human subordination, Sokolowski sets the Christian view that human beings were created equal by God over against the Aristotelian view that the distinction between the naturally superior and the naturally inferior is the “last thing” or fundamental fact in human affairs. For Christian thinkers, as for later political philosophers like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, “the subordination found among men, at least in its servile form, stands in need of explanation. It is not a natural and fundamental phenomenon” (p. 96). One reason this example fails to persuade this reader of the fruits of “disclosure” is the serious question about the terms in which it is set up. On the one side, Aristotle’s own challenge to conventional subordination, notably the servile form, is over­looked. In fact, though Aristotle properly attends to the distinction between the naturally superior and the naturally inferior, it is hardly the center or fundamental fact for his practical philosophy. Rather, it is the evidence of equality among humans and the necessity of equality in human affairs that emerges for Aristotle as a corrective to the inclination to apply master-slave or father-child models to political affairs and as the basis for his qualified support for democracy.

On the other and Christian side of the contrast is Sokolowski’s overly simple association of the broad idea of human equality with Christianity in the light of its distinctive understanding of Creation. Correct as it is to derive equality in some respect from man’s creation in God’s image—though we should note that the literal words “created equal” or anything comparable are not to be found in Genesis—there still remains the question: In what sense or in what aspects are humans equal? And as Sokolowski specifically concedes, much of the Christian tradition (with the exception of Augustine) and Thomas Aquinas, do not run with the idea of equality to the point of denying a natural basis for familial and civic subordination and alleging that all subordination is caused by sin.

In arguing thus with the author about a properly Christian treatment of equality in the light of an alleged Aristotelian understanding, we may in fact be bearing out his best hope and most defensible explanation for “the theology of disclosure.” Disclosure “tries,” writes Sokolowski, “to show how Christian things are differentiated from things experienced in nature” (p. 97). To find ourselves asking what if anything a belief in a Christian Creator does to “the way things are in themselves” (p. 98) is to inquire into the Christian difference. It is very clear overall that encouraging such inquiry, rather than asserting a dogmatic and complete Christian theology, is the author’s primary intention. Taken as an example of disclosure, the book as a whole manifests a reflective paying attention to Christian living, to what Christians think and say—above all, on the question of who their God is. The priority of a lived Christianity does not, however, leave Sokolowski prey to a theology of public opinion (though a defense against this is not explicitly worked out). The protections are there, for Sokolowski does note that it is Jesus who “originally . . . lived and expressed” the Christian life, and that all of us are ever in need of someone—the church—to indicate God to us. Then, too, Sokolowki explores Christianity with the likes of Anselm, Augustine and Aquinas, not the man in the street, nor even much of the man of the contemporary university and divinity school.

Sokolowski thus brings laudable direction and vitality to theological inquiry. The Socratic spirit is evident in this man of faith asking what difference does it make to profess the Christian God? And yet it is not clear that this approach requires or notably benefits from the book’s deep bow to phenomenology and the recent historical emphasis.

Sokolowski seems clearest and most persuasive when he is putting limits on the modern emphasis on history. He cautions against historicism: Although the Christian “distinction must be made somewhere and at some time . . . what is dis­tinguished and manifested need not be reduced to what happens in that place at that time” (p. 99). This observation recalls one by Leo Strauss that is among his most revealing on and most accom­modating to history. In the essay, “Political Philosophy and History,” Strauss conceded the apparent “historically conditioned” character of the political teaching of political philosophers but protested against the gratuitous assumption that “the relation between doctrines and their ‘times’ is wholly unambiguous. The obvious possibility is overlooked that the situation to which one particular doctrine is related, is particularly favorable to try discovery of the truth, whereas all other situations may be more or less unfavor­able” (What Is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies, p. 64).

Sokolowski also warns of the danger of being diverted to historical curiosities. “Historical materials,” he writes, “acquire their significance because of their involvement in the distinction and the terms distinguished.” Just earlier, Soko­lowski observed that knowing “all about the cir­cumstances, languages, and personalities involved in achieving a distinction may shed some light on the distinction itself and on the things that are manifest in it.” His use of “may” shows how hesitant is his invitation to the historical emphasis. Quite rightly he observes that the distinction “can be made available and kept alive even if some of the historical information concerning the circumstances of [its] origins is incomplete or unavailable. The faith did not begin only when critical history arrived on the scene” (p. 99). Where then does that leave his claim that dis­closure acknowledges “the necessity of history in Christian faith”? In what way are we carried further than we were, for example, by Augustine’s City of God?

It is useful to recall that the explicit discussion of disclosure occurs in the clarification of the relationship between natural and theological virtue. This discussion in turn supports the thesis that the realm of nature and accordingly reason’s integrity are affirmed rather than undercut by the nature of the Christian God. Soko­lowski gives unqualified support to Aristotle’s ethical teaching not only “as a true account of human ethical behavior,” an account that “avoids some serious obfuscations” of modern thought (p. xii), but also as the natural foundation for a Christian perspective on ethics. The “Christian illumination of what is to be done consists first of all in confirming what is good by nature, and in appreciating that what is good according to nature is not simply good in itself but also good because created and therefore willed by God” (p. 83).

Aristotle’s ethical teaching, Sokolowski believes, gets us out from under Kant and puts us in touch with natural moral phenomena. Rare as the Aristotelian virtuous man is, this man as moral agent provides “ballast and direction” for ethical reflection. Through the revival of Aristotle’s ethical teaching, Sokolowski sees the prospect of a restoration of attention to habit, character, and social environment in moral education, and a check on the Kantian internalizing of moral phenomena, which developed and holds its sway partly through the influence of Christianity. Sokolowski. endeavors to concretize moral think­ing in a given situation, thus restoring the role of the ancient virtue of prudence, rather than seeing moral thinking simply as “the consideration of maxims and the placing of a case under a general rule” (p. 66).

The author’s appreciation for Aristotle’s ethics turns on its key distinction between full virtuousness and the single excellence of self-control (enkrateia). The character marked by self-control has not the harmony between inclinations and reason that belongs to the simply virtuous man. With effort, the man of self-control “generally masters his inclinations and usually does what is good” (p. 57). This distinction of Aristotle helps one to see the Kantian constriction of modern moral philosophy, namely a tendency to concen­trate “moral theory on self-control instead of virtue,” forcing “the separation of moral reason from inclination.” This constriction assumes that “everyone is structured the same way, with passion opposed to reason,” and that “there is no need to identify, publicly and in open behavior, different kinds of character. The moral issue becomes the internal experience of conflict and the resolution of such conflict” (p. 63).

The same Aristotelian distinction enables one to appreciate how the context of moral agency changes in the light of Christian faith and how this new context might contribute to a narrowing of moral theory. Sokolowski explores the nature of the supernatural or theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity as well as the “infused” dimension of moral virtues possessed in the context of grace. Virtues, here, are gifts of God. “We do not have the resources to enter into this life. . . . It would be an incoherence to think a creature could do so on its own. . . . The full story of what happens in Christian action is not the visible generosity or patience or courage” (p. 73). There is a hidden dimension linking such action to a final setting not limited to the world. Because the supernatural context is given rather than achieved (like “the condition” for faith in Kierkegaard’s “autopsy” of it), “virtue and vice seem therefore to recede as permanent moral states,” and moral behavior is most appropriately described “in terms of strength and weakness in self-control.” God’s law, or the example of Christ seems to be over and against our inclinations, to demand “a permanent struggle for self-mastery,” for among human beings “only Christ is theologically the fully virtuous man . . .” (p. 75).

Sokolowski argues persuasively that the Christian distinction, properly understood, embraces a reasoned understanding of natural virtue and vice as orientation points for ethics. Moral phenomena need not suffer reduction to internal struggle. Christian virtue is thus shown consistent with human virtue. Christians are not “to disparage natural virtue, call it pride, and claim that even the weak and the despised, if they live in grace, are ‘better’ than the virtuous.” So too is it wrong to look at Christian virtue as a diminution of human excellence, nobility yield­ing to obsequiousness. Sokolowski emphatically rejects the suggestion that Christian belief diminishes “the public honor that is due to virtue, and it obviously does not imply that public responsibility should be given to the ignorant or the incompetent instead of to those who are suited for it” (p. 84). He would disabuse Christians who regularly indulge the conceit that their commitment in faith allows the abandonment or “transcendence” of natural political wisdom.

What then are the issues in Sokolowski’s encounter with Leo Strauss? The author himself begins to draw out the implications of his thesis for politics by observing and lamenting the separation of religion and politics. Sokolowski wrote, of course, before the discussion of this topic occasioned by the 1984 Presidential campaign and, needless to say, he probes more profoundly. Noting “the contemporary silence on religion and politics” (p. 157), he asks for a serious considera­tion of their relationship. Many will recognize the vulgar form of “the silence” he laments in an attitude that has pervaded the academic world, the media, and “polite” society. Thus the shock in all those circles in the last few years with the recognition that large numbers of believers expect a relationship between religion and politics—at the very least they feel a necessity for a careful examination of the matter.

Sokolowski rightly notes that the writings of Leo Strauss and the political philosophers who work under his influence mark an exception to the contemporary silence. They follow in the grand tradition of ancient thought; medieval Christian, Jewish, and Moslem thought; and even Machievelli and Hobbes in “expressly” treating the relation­ship between religion and politics. Sokolowski asks, in effect, if the “Straussian” school properly treats Christianity once it is understood in the light of the Christian distinction.

What Sokolowski finds in Strauss and “the Straussians” are essentially two defects as seen against the background of the Christian distinc­tion. First he points out a tendency to collapse beliefs about the divine and supernatural into the conventional and, in the light of the centrality to classical political philosophy of the nature/convention distinction, to dismiss, in effect, any special claim of Revelation upon the human horizons set by the standard of nature and the high calling of philosophy. The crudest expression of this tendency is found in support for religion as a useful, though sometimes dangerous, custom that overall contributes to political stability and the moral qualities that might, in appropriate cases, mature into philosophic excellence. The second concern of Sokolowski flows more directly from his specific claims for the Christian distinc­tion. It consists in an objection to Strauss’s emphatic claim of the discontinuity and tension between the natural and the supernatural, between the life of philosophy and the life of faith, between Athens and Jerusalem.

In commenting on these “defects,” I wish to sketch a framework for a fuller discussion, which can at best be only opened here. Let us directly engage the thought of Leo Strauss himself on these delicate matters of primary importance. What can be said about Strauss regarding the interesting and possibly competing claims of faith and reason seems best stated in the form of two caveats to the inquirer. First, one should not underestimate the respect Strauss has for the life of faith. Secondly, one should not underestimate that tension Strauss finds between the life of faith or piety and the life of philosophy or reason.

To see the claims of Revelation and thus of piety as simply a part of the conventional ways of the city above which philosophy must and does rise is not to appreciate the distinctive character and strength of those claims for Strauss. This collapse of Revelation into convention joined with a teaching on esoteric writing makes understandable the view to which Sokolowski alludes and of which “Straussians” are suspected; namely, that great minds like that of Thomas Aquinas embrace an apparent life of faith to protect and advance the life of reason.

Furthermore, it is understandable but not in the end correct to read Strauss himself as accept­ing the collapse of Revelation into the conven­tional. Strauss does after all observe that Revela­tion’s claims are usually encountered through the traditional or the ancestral, and it is the ancestral that is at the heart of the ways of the city. Strauss also draws attention to the related phenomenon of variety in divine codes and contradiction between them, a problem that parallels the situation among human conventions and that raises questions about “the idea of a divine law in the simple and primary sense of the term . . .” (“The Mutual Influence of Theology and Philoso­phy,” The Independent Journal of Philosophy, 1979, p. 111). And then too, Strauss has written in a way as to suggest, though not to say, that religion is solely a matter of the city. “Philosophy is as such trans-political, trans-religious, and trans-moral but the city is and ought to be moral and religious” (“A Giving of Accounts: Jacob Klein and Leo Strauss,” The College, April 1970, p. 4).

Strauss knew, however, that Revelation can and does question the city’s ways in a manner similar to that of philosophy. More importantly, he reiterated that the encounter between the Bible and Athens is the most fundamental tension in the West, in which each pole offers a wisdom that is trans-“cultural,” therefore trans-political in the sense of “the cultures” of specific cities (“Jerusalem and Athens,” Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, 1984, pp. 149, 171-73). Nor does Strauss collapse Biblical wisdom into that of the poets, leaving the fundamental encounter to occur between poetry and philosophy. Rather, both poetry and philosophy appear to represent Athenian alternatives set over against that of Jerusalem (Ibid., p. 149, and “On the Interpreta­tion of Genesis,” L’Homme, 1981, pp. 19-20).

Sokolowski properly apprehends Strauss’s sense of the “incompatibility” between Jerusalem and Athens. This tension is such that, we note, it cannot even be resolved in words or in principle as can that between nature and convention in the model or perfect city. Strauss took the “radical opposition between the Bible and philosophy” to be “the secret of the vitality of the West” (“The Mutual Influence …,” p. 113). Sokolowski observes that the “unsettled and unsettling relationship between theology and philosophy . . . has been one of the major courses of motion in Western civilization” (p. 46). Strauss found the basis for the deep opposition between the Bible and philosophy in an essential fact of the former’s cosmology, namely the createdness of the world. Sokolowski points out that the Christian dis­tinction between God and the world brings Christian theology into an inevitable engagement with philosophy. Strauss’s most telling and direct statements on the opposition take the form of denying that “a happy synthesis” is possible. “Syntheses always sacrifice the decisive claim of one of the two elements” (“On the Interpreta­tion . . .” p. 19). “No one,” wrote Strauss, “can be both a philosopher and a theologian . . . or a synthesis of both. But every one of us can be and ought to be either the one or the other, the philosopher open to the challenge of theology or the theologian open to the challenge of philosophy” (“The Mutual Influence…,” p. 111). Accord­ingly Strauss thought there could not be Jewish philosophy or Christian philosophy. Although Sokolowski’s endeavor is one of harmonization if not synthesis, it is important to note his own awareness of the reality of the opposition Strauss stresses. Sokolowski writes of the Christian distinction as being “at the intersection of reason and faith” and then quickly adds that “because of it the Christian faith remains faith, but a reasoned faith” (p. 39). In his criticism of transcendental Thomism, Sokolowski protests a neglect of “the density of the simply natural, the fact that it has its own kind of wholeness on its own kind of terms . . .” (p. 90).

Sokolowski, nonetheless, finds that Strauss’s view of the opposition between faith and reason leaves too great a gap, too much of a tension between them. The “special Christian under­standing of God” allows a “harmony between faith and reason” that is otherwise not achievable (p. 163). Strauss is seen to emphasize will too strongly in understanding the Biblical God. “But in Christian theology God is . . . primarily neither will nor wisdom but esse subsistens, on which both will and wisdom are based” (p. 160). Thus we return to Sokolowski’s important and welcome defense of the integrity of reason and nature.

Surely a world endowed upon us as the free gift of a God who stands apart is known as such only through the gifted horizon of faith. In the terms of Strauss, the synthesis or harmonization of Sokolowski is decisively on the side of faith. More, however, must be said, lest with Creation accepted, harmonization thereafter comes too easily and to an extent not really possible. As long as the will of God and the mystery of God loom large in our created origins, as they must, we cannot definitively measure the God who gave us this world. To do so would be to confine God’s will to the initial endowment. The inclina­tion to do so would appear to work to preclude the incarnation. Sokolowski is aware of the difficulty: “We seem to be left with a dilemma between arbitrariness that appears to undercut necessity and necessity that appears to dominate the creator” (p. 44). Warning against misreading the distinction between God and the world “as one of the distinctions we naturally and spon­taneously make between things within this world,” Sokolowski turns to Aquinas’s doctrine of divine ideas as a speculative way of overcoming the difficulty (p. 46). At this point readers get a fuller view of a God who is esse subsistens. Sokolowski writes, “‘What things are’ retains its necessity because the essences of things are the ways esse can be determined, but esse subsists only in God, so the basis for the determination of things is not distinct from him: it is his own existence” (p. 45). The resolution proposed seems to invite two challenges: First, have we lost the initial sharpness of the distinction between God and the world; second and more important, have we not, despite protestations to the contrary, confined God to what we naturally understand? It would be wrong to conclude this commentary on Sokolowski’s encounter with Strauss without using the occasion to endeavor to clarify some frequently misunderstood aspects of Strauss’s teaching on the deep opposition between the life of faith and the life of reason. Where Strauss has written of the opposition or “incompatibility,” note should be taken of the precise point of incompatibility, that being at the ultimate horizon where Revelation either answers or directs in a significant way the quest for understanding. Overall the incompatibility does not arise with respect to morals and politics. Quite the opposite is the case, for Strauss regularly drew attention to how the Biblical tradition and the classical philosophical tradition shared an understanding of morality that made much of modern thought a common opponent.

There is, it must be added, some evidence that Strauss believed that Christian medieval philosophy played an important part in the change in the character of philosophy between ancient and modern times. This whole issue requires much more extensive and patient examination of Strauss’s writings, and it appears that Strauss thought the matter required more inquiry on his part. It is likely that Strauss thought that “Christian philosophy” pushed too hard for completeness, a removal of the mystery that both Biblical religion and the best of ancient philosophy acknowledged at the ultimate horizon. The secular offspring or imitators of this effort led to the distortions, judged by the standard of ancient philosophy, in philosophy and science, which have dominated the post-medieval world.

There is evidence that Strauss was convinced that the totalistic passion of modern philosophy was responsible for a general misreading of the ancient philosophers. Even Aristotle, the “hard” case, does not have “a completed philosophic system” according to Strauss, for “the primary and necessary form of philosophy” is not to be identified with “a set of propositions, a teaching, or even a system” but with “a way of life” (“The Mutual Influence . . .” p. 113). That way of life is not incompatible with what it strives to eliminate; namely, the apparent truth of ultimate mystery. Strauss chose the life of philosophy with an awareness that its best models, the ancient philosophers, gave witness to the elusiveness of the final object of that way of life. And so rigorous and self-critical was Strauss’s devotion to this way of life that he observed that “the choice of philosophy is based on faith . . . the quest for evident knowledge rests itself on an unevident premise” (“The Mutual Influence . . .” p. 118; see also Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, 1965, p. 30). Such considerations make clearer the ground of Strauss’s deep respect for the life of faith and piety.


1Sokolowski properly concedes Plato’s elusiveness and hesitates somewhat in sharply contrasting the Christian with both the Platonic and the Heideggerian statements of the ultimate. Plato in The Republic did write that not only the intelligibility of things “but also existence and being are in them as a result of [the good], although the good isn’t being but is still beyond being, exceeding it in dignity and power” (509b, Bloom translation).

2Cf. Kenneth Schmitz’s 1982 Aquinas Lecture at Marquette University. Published in the same year as Sokolowski’s book but more limited in scope, The Gift: Creation contains a development and amplification of two important parts of the argument of The God of Faith and Reason.