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A Book Review… A Critique Of Christians’ Misleading Language

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Brague, Remi, On the God of the Christians (and on one or two others), trans. from the French Du Dieu des chretiens by Paul Seaton. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2013. Pp. xvii + 160. Contact the publisher at or 574-291-3500.

The aim of this book, Remi Brague declares at the outset, is to describe the image made of God by Christianity. In Himself God is the same for all, but the images and concepts that have been made of God differ among men and among the associations that bring men together, whether they be philosophical or religious. “I want to show,” writes Brague, “that a certain image of God, the one that Christians address, possesses traits that distinguish it from certain other images.”
Remi Brague writes as a philosopher but as one steeped in the history of Western thought from antiquity to the present. He is professor of philosophy at the University of Paris: I Pantheon-Sorbonne and at the University of Munich. This book builds upon his previously published and much-admired work, The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism and Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
This volume is an extended critique of the often misleading language by which Christians express their beliefs. To speak of three Abrahamic religions, for example, is not only false but dangerous.
“To so speak,” writes Brague, “is to mask a serious error concerning the nature of the three religions.” By the phrase, “the three religions of Abraham,” people believe that they have established common ground by appealing to a common ancestor. It is true that all three, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have books in which the name Abraham appears, but, says Brague, “The history of Abraham is not interpreted in the same way in Judaism and Christianity, let alone in Islam. The Quran makes use of the figure of Abraham to recount a history that neither Judaism nor Christianity know anything about. For Islam there is only one religion of Abraham, which is Islam itself.”
Well-meaning Christians who speak of the “religion of Abraham” include Judaism and Islam, and to associate them with Christianity in a vague sort of way. But the Abraham that the three religions have in common is nothing more than a vague abstraction. “The smallest of common denominators coincide with none of the concrete figures revered by them in which they recognize themselves.” To accept such an Abraham, Christians would have to renounce a dimension of their faith.
“So too with the expression, ‘three religions of the book’,” Brague writes. There are three very different books, Old Testament, New Testament, and Quran. The concept of “revealed religion” is similarly deceptive. “What is revealed in Judaism is the history of the people of Israel. For Christianity, the revealed object is not the New Testament but the person of Christ himself; the book only recounts the history and reports the teaching of this person. In Islam, the revealed object is truly the book; the person of Mohammed, at least in primitive Islam, had little importance.”
To speak of “monotheism” is equally misleading, says Brague. The designation comes from without, not from within, the religions themselves. The term “monotheism” can be traced to the pen of Henry More, one of the Christian Platonists who used it in 1660.
Monotheism is not essentially religious. This can be seen in the deism of certain Enlightenment thinkers, but the best examples may be sought among the Greek philosophers who never heard of Judaism, not to mention Christianity, viz., Xenophones of Colophon (sixth-fifth century BC), who spoke of “a sole god, the greatest among gods and men, who resembles mortals neither in appearance or in thought.” Aristotle himself called the unchanging first mover of his natural philosophy by the name of “god.”
In an aside, Brague notes that Christianity recognizes the monotheism of Judaism “although Judaism finds it harder to return the favor.” Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher, reproached Christians for making God “the third of three.”
Addressing the question of how do we know God, Brague finds it necessary to reference the thought of Aristotle, C.S. Peirce, Pascal, Schleiermacher, and Locke, who each in his own day has reflected on the subject. Granted that God is one, how is unity to be conceived? Brague begins his discussion with a distinction between belief and faith. Belief, he holds, is imperfect knowledge of what can be known. We can believe in something but we can also believe in someone. Belief in something is susceptible of degrees; to believe in someone is not: “In the case of God, faith bears simultaneously upon a content and the one who reveals it. In Christianity the content of Revelation is nothing other than the one who reveals himself.”
In a chapter entitled “The One God,” Brague addresses the uniqueness and unity of God revealed as Triune. “The mystery of the Trinity exists only in God and has no real analogy within the types of unity found within the created world.” Thus one must not conceive God on the model of the created world. “For the Christian the Trinity is the manner in which God is one; to say that ‘God is one’ is a way of saying that God is love.”
And Brague adds, “The way in which God is one is not without implications for the way in which we have to conduct ourselves.” Brague finds it necessary in talking about the Trinity to distinguish between uniqueness and unity. “To be unique and to be one do not mean the same thing. To say that God is unique means there is but one God, and there is not a plurality of gods [as in pagan antiquity]. In contrast to say that God is one means to say that god is simple.”
Brague continues this with an extended discussion of the Incarnate Word as found in John of the Cross.
There follows the question of the definitiveness or closure of Revelation. Brague answers in the spirit of John of the Cross: “God has spoken in such a definitive and total way that if God, per impossibiles, spoke again, this would be to repeat himself, to harp. . . . Everything may be given, but everything is not manifested.” Then, too, if everything has been said, in the words of Hegel, if “God no longer has any secrets,” a thousand things need to be done.
Reading Remi Brague is to find insight after insight, one gem following another. He more or less ends this volume with a short discourse on the meaning of life. “A bit too often people speak of the meaning of life. Sometimes the phrase is used for apologetic purposes and therefore means ‘Faith gives meaning to life.’ It would be impossible to live if life did not have meaning. Hence we need faith.” There may be some truth to that, but, says Brague, “Christianity does not propose to give meaning to life, as if life did not have meaning and there was need to seek for some outside of it. Christianity rather proposes to unveil this meaning.”
In a final passage “on the withdrawal of the sacred,” Brague sadly observes, “The modern world can be characterized as the time of the silence of the gods or God. The long process of several centuries during which the world ‘modernized’ no longer leaves room for divine words.” It doesn’t take a philosopher to notice that withdrawal, but it may take a rejuvenated philosophy to reopen a place for the Divine Word within the academy. Clearly, Remi Brague in this and in other works has shown the value of philosophy to theology and, indeed, theology’s rightful place within centers of learning.

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(Dr. Dougherty is dean emeritus of The School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.)

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