It’s been said of the late Allan Bloom that his life’s journey passed through Athens, not Jerusalem.[1] Facing imminent death, the great philosopher Boethius, although he could have very well chosen the path through Jerusalem, searched for consolation in the path through Athens. In contrast, the path of Christ passed through Jerusalem, along with many of the prophets of old. Of course, I am not referring to any journey through these ancient cities in any literal sense. I am, rather, referring to the difference between the life of philosophy and the life of faith.

For many, and probably for most reading this right now, this problem is of little interest, as many have already chosen their paths. Most people I know have, at least to some degree, elected the path of Jerusalem, if only to pass by the outskirts. There are many, however, that will, to the best of their abilities, follow the path of Christ, only to be brought to an impassible halt at Gethsemane, and later at Calvary. Many who pass through Jerusalem will, despite their best efforts, imperfectly follow the path of Him who walked perfectly.

As for myself, I don’t exactly know which path I’m on. Perhaps I could say that I am on the path through Jerusalem, but my eye seems to be directed constantly toward Athens for reasons which I do not yet understand. This is not to say that I am without direction, but I do not know that I should be longing to pass through Athens.

Philosophy, at its fundamental core, is the search for truth, and yet truth is something that philosophy seldom yields. Philosophical inquiry usually leaves me with more questions than it does answers. Philosophy itself seems to be nothing more than a well that yields not the slightest drop of water; yet I, along with many philosophers of old, find myself coming back to the empty well.

The promise of Jerusalem, on the other hand, is that I should “with joy…draw water out of the wells of salvation.”[2] And this promise has been fulfilled time and time again in my own life, yet I still find myself constantly looking toward that Old Dry Well at Athens with longing. I know my path is to pass through Jerusalem, yet long to pass through Athens as well.

It is a difficult thing  to have a love of philosophy whilst belonging to a religion founded upon the premise that God directly reveals things to his people. If that is the case–and I do, in fact, know that to be the case–then why should I expect to find any sort of meaningful truth at the Old Dry Well? I will always be the first to admit that philosophy does not give me any intellectual or spiritual advantage over my fellow church members. If I belong to a religion founded upon revelation from God, then why should I need to seek for truth elsewhere?

Perhaps worse than that is what happens when I combine philosophy with my religion–something that I have been explicitly warned against. When I do mix philosophy with Mormon theology, all I end up with is wild speculation that may or may not be true. If what I speculate is, in fact true, I yet have no way to verify if it is true. If what I find is not true, however, then I find myself in danger of believing and/or teaching false doctrine. Every time I find myself in abstract Mormon metaphysics, I am reminded of a wise warning from the Book of Mormon:

“The Jews…despised the words of plainness…and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it.”[3]

I do not despise the words of plainness, but such words do not wholly satiate my futile thirsting at the side of the Old Dry Well, either. Though I will always draw with joy from the wells of salvation at Jerusalem, I still find myself thirsting by the Old Dry Well of Athens.

In essence, my grievance is that I have a love of philosophy whilst living a religion that has no need of such. What’s worse is that my affinity for the Old Dry Well continually reveals to me that the path through Jerusalem truly is the one I ought to take. My study of philosophy has done much to strengthen my faith in my religion, and yet I never find anything in philosophy that my own religion does not already offer me. I do not come to know any doctrines of my religion any better than anyone else, nor do I come to understand how to live the Good Life better than any of my fellow peers.

Is there a way to synthesis? Is there a path that can pass through both cities? Is my thirsting at the side of the Old Dry Well utterly vain? Is it something that I must overcome? I don’t know that I will ever find the answers to these questions. What I do know is that I will not abandon the path of Jerusalem for that of Athens, but I do not know that I can bring myself to completely abandon the path of Athens, which passes by that Old Dry Well. I hate the very thought of it. Perhaps my path toward the Divine will ultimately have to be upon the road less traveled.

 

 

[1] Andrew Ferguson, Afterword to The Closing of the American Mind, p. 382

[2] Bible, Isaiah 12:3

[3] Book of Mormon, Jacob 4:14

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