On Thursday, December 17, 2015 the Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod died at age eighty-seven. In 2010, R. R. Reno explained his theological influence —Ed.
In the mid-1980s, amidst the battleship grey study carrels on the lower level of the Yale Divinity School library, my graduate student friends at Yale began mentioning a strange, new, and exotic name: Michael Wyschogrod. The Body of Faith, Wyschogrod’s remarkable work of Jewish theology, published in 1983, somehow found its way into the hands of David Yeago, Kendall Soulen, Eugene Rogers, and a few others, and they pressed the book on me.
A man of supple metaphysical imagination and expansive systematic mind, he became something of a cult figure among the cognoscenti . The theology of Karl Barth hovered over our discussions as a presiding presence, and in The Body of Faith Wyschogrod engages Barth’s theology in subtle and profound ways. In fact, I’d wager that he is the Jewish thinker of the modern era with the most sympathetic grasp not only of Barth, but of Christian theology generally.
We were all the more attracted to Wyschogrod because he spoke up for the authority of revelation when the modern Protestant tradition in which most of us had been raised had gravitated to the liberal theological project. Put simply, theological liberalism tries to distill essential, timeless teachings from the historical forms of traditional teaching, thus liberating a supposedly greater and more profound religious truth from the limitations of its historical, communally authoritative formulations and allowing for a more plastic, mobile, and critical relation to church teaching.
We knew the liberal theological project had to be resisted. The church’s universal mission can tempt her to deracinate her own teachings. This temptation becomes all the more powerful in the modern era when an emerging secular culture begins to compete with the church for the intellectual loyalty of educated people. Feeling torn between two masters, modern Christians seek a third and higher set of principles, a view of Christian faith that allow us to manage the difficult relations between the doctrinal truths that church teaches and modern life.
As Barth recognized, when liberal theology shifts our loyalty to formulations, ideals, and propositions that promise universality, the particular person Jesus of Nazareth evaporates, leaving behind a thin residue of “service to others,” talk of kenosis, or religious platitudes. Jesus doesn’t say, “I teach the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” He doesn’t proclaim that he represents or symbolizes the saving power of God, man’s search for the divine, or the way to be a man for others. He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
The Body of Faith read like a Barthian “No!” to liberal theology, which had its own career in nineteenth and twentieth-century Judaism. It showed us that Jewish faith is rooted not in universalizing abstractions but in the concrete reality of the seed of Abraham and the particularity of God’s commandments, what he refers to as the “carnal election” of Israel. Wyschogrod points out that the Christian notion of the Incarnation implicit in the I am that Jesus pronounces plays a role similar to the Jewish doctrine of the election of Israel. Both say that God puts all his eggs in one basket, with Jews pointing to the Jewish people and Christians pointing to the Jewish body of Jesus on the cross. Both involve a “carnal election,” or, as he puts it elsewhere, a “carnal faith”—that line of biological descent, that man hanging on the cross.
Carnal election, carnal faith—the formulations arrested us. Most of us had decided to study at Yale because the program in theology participated in the Barthian “No!” to liberal Protestant theology. Yet, for all the influence Barth exerted, in retrospect I can see that we were vaguely dissatisfied with Barthian theology. His theology certainly reflected an intense and rich affirmation of that man hanging on the cross, but there was something troublingly thin about Barth’s undoubtedly impressive achievement. He once said of Schleiermacher that the great founder of modern liberal theology tried to talk about God by talking about man in a loud voice. Perhaps we were unconsciously suspicious that Barth tried to talk about God by talking about theology in a loud voice. In a word, Barth’s voice seemed to lack “carnality.”
Our professors were trying identify carnal anchors of sorts to enrich the Barthian legacy. Hans Frei, a major figure at Yale in those days, followed Barth in arguing that the dominant forms of liberal Protestant theology tended to turn Jesus Christ into an abstraction: a sentiment, symbol, or representative of moral truths. Against this disembodiment of Christ, he pointed out that the narrative logic of the gospel stories depicts Jesus as a unique, particular person. The literary flesh in the gospel stories, if you will, stands at the center of whatever Christians believe to be the truth.
Meanwhile, another major figure, George Lindbeck, had only just published his study of doctrine and the structure of religious truth-claims, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, a short and very ambitious book we were all trying to get our heads around. He exploded the main assumption of modern theology, shared by both liberal and modern conservative theologies: that the job of the theologian was to identify, isolate, and analyze the revealed truths or transcendent experiences latent in the Bible, liturgy, and doctrinal traditions of Christianity.
Against this view, he argued (or at least I’ve taken him to have argued) that the particular language of Christianity (Scripture, liturgy, and ancient creeds) is the most “truth-intensive” mode of speech and experience. Theology does not extract from the texts revealed truths or experiences of faith that it then analyzes by other means (philosophy, history, psychology, and so forth). It opens up the conduits of our minds so that all that we believe and hold as true can be saturated with the flesh or carnal body of Christian language and practice.
Under the influence of Frei and Lindbeck, we sensed that we had to think from the inside out, taking the particularity of Christian revelation—the carnal thatness of inherited proclamation—as the incalculably fertile starting point for our intellectual projects. But that’s easier said than done—so much easier to say, in fact, that we kept saying it again and again in ever more refined conceptual terms, using Frei’s work to think about hermeneutics (narrative!) and turning to intensive study of various philosophical figures (Wittgenstein!) to fill in Lindbeck’s theories of doctrine and religious truth. We slid in the direction of theories and concepts, all very useful in their way but lacking the thick thatness of God’s revelation.
Therein, perhaps, lay Wyschogrod’s more subtle influence over young Yale theologians of my generation. As did Robert Jenson, the Christian theologian most similar to him in style and substance, Wyschogrod performed postliberal theology rather than theorizing it. The Holy One, Blessed be He, is not a God of Particularity, not a God committed to History, not a God with narrative identity. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Therefore, according to Wyschogrod, “Jewish theology arises out of the existence of the Jewish people.” Such a theology cannot be theory-driven, because the specific gravity of the Jewish people is more primitive and primary, and the career of that people in the flesh remained open and finished. This does not prevent Wyschogrod from undertaking an ambitious analysis of basic concepts in theology and philosophy. But it means that all his reflections are constellated around the thatness of God’s choice of the children of Abraham as his beloved people.
Christians believe that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. It is our Easter faith, a conviction invested in the carnal realities of life, perhaps to a degree even greater than the Jewish doctrine of the election of Israel. After all, what could be more frightfully fleshly than the hungry worms awaiting us in the damp soil of our death-darkened graves? Where and how does this carnal reality make itself seen and felt in Christian piety and practice?
Wyschogrod didn’t answer this question for us, but he brought it into focus. The Jewish doctrine of carnal election draws a line through the body of humanity. There are Jews—and there are Gentiles. Christians have tended to recoil from this distinction as emblematic of what they imagine to be Jewish narrowness and legalism. As our little group read and discussed Wyschogrod, we felt this distinction, a distinction in the flesh, as a sobering challenge. Shouldn’t our life in Christ be as deeply stamped and carnally visible? It’s a question, perhaps the question, that the reality of Judaism should provoke Christians to ask themselves.
R.R. Reno is professor of theology at Creighton University and a Senior Editor at Large at First Things.