|God’s promises and man’s preferences
Few qualifiers are misused more often than “magisterial”. The term refers not just to intellectual authority, but intellectual authority embedded in thousands of years of devout tradition – specifically, the Magisterium, or teaching authority of the Catholic Church, the anchor institution of Western civilization.
Father James V Schall, the Georgetown University political philosopher, is “magisterial” in the full sense of the word, an authoritative thinker from a tradition that has stood for millennia.
Prominent among Schall’s many virtues is courage. Last August, for example, he suggested that Islam may collapse as suddenly
as communism once Muslims begin to question the authenticity of the Koran. “The fragility of Islam, as I see it, lies in a sudden realization of the ambiguity of the text of the Koran,” he wrote at the Catholic Thing blog.
“Is it what it claims to be? Islam is weak militarily. It is strong in social cohesion, often using severe moral and physical sanctions. But the grounding and unity of its basic document are highly suspect. Once this becomes clear, Islam may be as fragile as communism.”  Few political theorists could, or would dare to, go so boldly to the heart of the matter.
It was humbling for this writer to read to read Schall’s review of my essay collection, It’s Not the End of the World – It’s Just the End of You. Titled “On the Promises of God to Mankind”, it appeared on New Year’s Day in the Homilectic and Pastoral Review . I use the word “humbling” with the same precise connotation that I use the word “magisterial” for the reviewer. Schall has read my work more keenly, perhaps, than anyone else, and perceived so clearly what I am after, that I now feel a bit like an undergraduate whose impatient professor gently suggests that he proceed with less distraction to the point. After reading his critique, I understand somewhat better what I was trying to say. There is only one error in his review, a small but significant one, which I will address momentarily.
I wish to call attention to two thematic issues among many in Schall’s wide-ranging review: One is the effort of a Jewish writer to understand God’s presence in the world and his promise for universal salvation as embodied in the living Jewish people, rather than the Incarnate God of Christianity.
The second has to do with the limits of reason in human affairs. The second is bound up with the first, for the Election of Israel is an act of inexplicable grace beyond the ken of human reason. “The unique issue that the book brings to our attention is precisely: What is Israel?,” Schall writes:
As [the Catholic philosopher Jacques] Maritain said, Israel is a “mystery” precisely because it is still present, and clearly has a role within salvation history itself, from which role it gets its purpose. The question for Israel remains whether its own mission is coherent, without a relation to the salvation history that ends in Christ, and continues through the Church, to “eternity, the eternal life that so concerns Goldman about the uniqueness of the Jewish nation”.
Schall quotes this passage from It’s Not the End of the World:
In the West, nations came by the hope of immortality through Christianity, which offered the eternal promise of Israel to the Gentiles, but only on the condition that they cease to be Gentiles, through adoption into Israel of the Spirit. Israel is the exception that proves the rule, the single universal nation whose purpose is the eventual recognition of the one God by all humankind. The history of the world is the story of man’s search for eternity. That is what Rosenzweig means when he said that the history of humanity is the history of eternal life, vouchsafed first to the Jews, that stands at the center of Western history. Christian Europe came into being by absorbing invader, and indigenous alike, into a super-ethnic Christian empire, whose universality was expressed by a single religious leader, whose authority transformed kingdoms, a single church, and a single language for liturgy and learning. Europe arose from a universal Christian empire and it fell when the nationalities mutinied against their mother, the Church, and fought until their mutual ruin.
And he writes in response:
I cite these passages in the Goldman book because they suggest the reason why he has to reject Christianity’s view of revelation, revising the Jewish view. This latter position makes Israel the light of the nations, not Christ. For the Christian, the light of Israel is only completed in Christ. Essentially, for Goldman, Christianity has failed in its universal worldly mission. As a result, the path is now open to China, India, Islam, and, yes, Israel to refashion the world in another image. Because of its divine founding, Israel has the strongest claim. As far as I read him, Goldman’s focus is inner-worldly, even when he talks of eternity. I do not mean that he doubts the existence of Yahweh, but he does doubt a plan that is primarily a message of salvation from this world, and not one that saves this world as a world.
The question of the inner-worldly purpose of human life in this world is one that is ever fascinating, especially when it often has its roots in a subtle effort to use this “mission” as an alternative to, or rejection of, the transcendent purpose that was embodied in Christ, and His relation to each individual human person. As Benedict said in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, what scripture said of Christ is in fact true. He is the Son of Man. He did exist in this world; he was resurrected on the “third day.”
This presence in the world of time makes everything different. One thing seems certain; the primary purpose of revelation cannot be inner-worldly, to build an earthly city. We simply cannot allow the billions of those who have thus far existed in the imperfect cities of men to become tools to some future, finite, temporal city as the explanation of why men exist in this world.
With due reverence to Schall, it is not that I believe that “Christianity has failed at its universal worldly mission”, or that I am concerned with matters of this world as opposed to salvation in the World to Come; rather, I observe (or rather credit Franz Rosenzweig’s observation) that the Desire of Nations will never leave this world. Christians always will want what the Jews have: to be Chosen, that is, eternal, and to have a sign of eternity in their own flesh. That is the dark, existential longing which no arguments can assuage.
I do not doubt that Christianity might succeed, and (except where conversion of Jews is concerned) I hope Christianity will succeed. My point is more subtle: for Christianity to succeed, it must “Judaize” to one extent or another. That is why America is the only remaining Christian nation in the industrial world: it succeeded in styling itself a new (almost) Chosen People in a new Promised Land. And that is why the Jews remain indispensable to Christians. One learns to Judaize from the Jews.
As Professor Eric Nelson of Harvard observes in his remarkable book The Hebrew Republic, America’s founders drew on Medieval rabbinic sources as well as the Bible in their new Mission in the Wilderness.
As Michael Wyschogrod observes, Christians believe that God is incarnate in Jesus Christ, whereas Jews believe that God’s Shekhinah abides in the living flesh of the Jewish people. From what we Jews observe, believe in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is not enough for Christians; they also want to be sanctified in their own flesh. That is not the doctrine, of course, but that is the usual outcome; each of the European nations in turn arrogated to itself the idea of Election. And the Church (as well as the Protestant churches) too often appeased this desire.
To assert such a dark, existential Desire of Nations necessarily assigns a lesser role to reason in human affairs. It is not that reason is unimportant, but rather that it is our reason, whose exercise is unimaginable in world in which we do not exist in some recognizable way.
I do not think Christianity ever will fail; on the contrary, I believe that it will succeed and fail to different degrees and under different circumstances. It has failed in Europe, tragically, but flourishes in the Global South. There is no reason America should not succeed as a Christian nation, and I pray it will prevail until the Messiah comes. Schall acknowledges this sort of exemplary role for Israel. As he points out,
Several years ago, the Belgian Jesuit, Cardinal Albert Vanhoye, published an essay on the Christian understanding of the place of Israel in Christian revelation. Following the Pauline lead in Romans 11, Vanhoye argued that God did not take back His promises to Israel. The fact is that the vast majority of Jews did not, and do not, understand the Hebrew Bible as leading to, and as completed in, the divine origin and earthly life of Christ. This line of thought required a new interpretation of history. The original promises made to Abraham and Moses continue. They eventually result in an account of Israel as itself having a divine founding unlike other nations. None the less, Israel’s very existence symbolizes and illuminates what nations ought to be. The universalism of the Hebrew tradition, if it might be called that, was thus focused on the examples of believing Jews finally gathered in their homeland after centuries in the diaspora in which their identity was kept alive in the synagogue’s worship.
“The question for Israel,” Schall concludes, “remains whether its own mission is coherent, without a relation to the salvation history that ends in Christ.” That is a challenge to Jews from a Christian, and a fair one: if Jews forget that what makes them unique is also what makes Israel’s mission universal, they will have failed in their purpose and fade away like other nations. As Schall says, “Israel’s very existence symbolizes and illuminates what nations ought to be.” The nations must live in this world, even if Christians look to the next world, and Israel’s mission is to evince an exemplary national existence. But we can accomplish this only by transporting eternity into everyday life.
As noted, there is one error: He wrongly concludes that I think that “the wrong side won” the Civil War, citing my statement, “The US South chafes in anger and shame at its own defeat, and the North recoils in horror from its own victory.” On the contrary, I emphasize the horrific consequences of Abraham Lincoln’s policy the more to measure the spiritual grandeur of his character. Americans lacked the grandeur of their great leader, an almost-prophet for an almost-chosen people. After killing 30% of military-age southerners (at the cost of a tenth of its own military-age men), the Union decided that the judgments of the Lord, as was said 3,000 years ago, were not altogether just and righteous.
But Americans had marched to war singing of the Grapes of Wrath in allusion to Isaiah 63:3, where God declares, “I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.”
I do not propose that Americans now should emulate the Master of Legions and seek out enemies to trample, but rather that they should tremble in awe at their God-intoxicated forefathers whose Biblical faith inspired them to such great and terrible things.
As Schall observes, I have a bone to pick with the late American political philosopher Leo Strauss. “Goldman’s problem with Strauss,” Schall writes, “is rather like his problem with Aquinas and Christians, in general: namely, their granting a place to reason within the revelational purpose itself.”
I might quibble and point out that I have no such problem with Karl Barth, but that is beside the point. The conservative intellectual consensus in America rests on two blocks, namely the neo-Thomism of Catholic natural law theory, and the Classical rationalism propounded by Strauss among others. The proximity of the two camps is such that my friend Professor Hadley Arkes, a prominent Strauss student, converted to Catholicism in 2010.
Much as I admire many individuals in the Thomist and Classical Rationalist schools, respectively, I see the world quite differently. Sacrifices on the scale that Lincoln demanded during the Civil War, for example, overwhelm human reason, and the efforts of Strauss’ students to portray Lincoln as a sort of 19th-century Socrates strike me as hopelessly obtuse. Thinking rationally, one might easily read my characterization of the horrors brought about by Lincoln’s policy as condemnation rather than praise, as did Schall. In that respect, the one wrong note in his review is revealing.
“A Catholic thinker,” Schall continues, “would find this sentence most curious: ‘Biblical faith has no need of theodicy’.” For Jews, the fact that we live today (and by implication, all Jews who ever lived continue to live in us) is a grace so palpable that we require no further proof of God’s goodness and mercy. But Schall well understands this. He writes,
In a large class of undergraduate students, I recalled the quip of Walker Percy which I thought was both amusing and pertinent to a discussion of the Old Testament and political philosophy: “Why are there no Hittites in New York?” Percy wondered. I expected some laughter, but, as far as I could tell, no one understood the point. Since obviously we find many Jews in New York but no Hittites, what can explain that survival over the millennia of Jews but not of the Hittites?
For a Christian to draw conclusions about God’s mercy from the survival of the Jews – now, that is theodicy.