Half a century ago, on March 9, 1940, with the world collapsing into a war that was to exceed the worst nightmare, the great German novelist Thomas Mann delivered a brief radio address entitled “The Dangers Facing Democracy.” “The streamlined, artificial anti-Semitism of our technical age,” warned Mann, “is no end in itself; it is nothing but a wrench to unscrew bit by bit the whole machinery of our civilization.”
Anti-Semitism is like a hand-grenade tossed over the wall to work havoc and confusion in the camp of democracy. This is its real end and main purpose.
Mann’s goal was to shock out of their apathy those who were ashamed of racial hatred but leery of coming to the aid of the Jews. Broadcasting from New York, he warned that the peoples of Europe discovered too late that “the onslaught against the Jews was but the starting signal for a general drive against the foundations of Christianity.”
That humanitarian creed for which we are forever indebted to the people of the Holy Writ originated in the old Mediterranean world. What we are witnessing today is nothing else than the ever-recurrent revolt of unconquered pagan instincts, protesting against the restrictions of the Ten Commandments. The Jews of Middle Europe had the misfortune, as living exponents of old Mediterranean culture, to earn the wrath of the younger Nordics first.
The Jews were thus only the first and most vulnerable target of the Nazis. The onslaught against them would inevitably become an attack on democracy, on Christianity, on the Mediterranean world in which the Western tradition was spawned, and ultimately on the moral life itself, the idea that instinct must yield to externally imposed restrictions. To Thomas Mann, Nazism signified the revolt of the pagan gods of northern Europe against the God of Israel, the Mediterranean Deity in Whose name a new moral order had been imposed upon the Nordics. That the revolt should have first targeted the people of Israel made perfect sense: this was the people whose very existence witnessed to that God and thus negated the deities of blood and soil with whom the Nazis struggled to replace Him. In the deepest sense, the war engulfing Europe even as Mann spoke was about more than politics: it was about theology. The conclusion of his radio address on that dark day expressed the hope that out of the suffering of the Jews might yet come something of universal value:
Let us hope that this new Twilight will not bring about the pagan god’s resurrection, but will be followed by Dawn. Let us pray that the martyrdom of the Savior’s people may turn into salvation for a whole suffering world.
Eight years earlier, the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich had sounded the same note in an essay on “The Early Hegel and the Fate of Germany.” Despite the focus on the youthful work of a philosopher dead for a century, the essay delivered an unmistakable message about Germany as it was about to sink into the degradation of the Third Reich: the Lord of time has vanquished the gods of space, the peoplehood of the modern Germans is inextricable from their Christianity, and their Christianity is necessarily and inevitably associated with Judaism.
Our history does not allow itself to be taken back, the polytheism of coexistence in space will not return. Through Judaism and Christianity, we have become a people bound up with time. The Jewish principle has become our peculiar destiny, and a secessio judaica would be a disconnection from our very selves.
The great contribution of Judaism, warned Tillich, was to break down the attachment to space, negating the polytheism of the nations through the principle that Hegel called “opposition”: “bondedness to place, immediacy, and paganism are not the truth of human experience.” For his own opposition to the neo-paganism of the Third Reich, Paul Tillich paid dearly. A year after “The Early Hegel and the Fate of Germany” was published, Tillich began his long exile in the United States.
Were the Nazi position so clearly paganistic as Mann and Tillich represented it, the question of why so many churchmen went along with the movement–some even hailing and lionizing it–would be an enduring conundrum. Surely, the Church had a stake in the preservation of the legacy of the Mediterranean culture that gave it birth and would have resisted an effort to replace Jesus with Wodan or Thor. The truth is that even apart from the theology of the Deutsche Christen (Christians of Nazi persuasion) the claim that the Nazis sought to replace the Christian deity with the Nordic deities falls short of doing justice to the movement. It would be more accurate to say that they sought to reconstruct Christianity so as to make it appropriate for Nordic peoples, as they conceived them, that is, to reformulate Christianity so that it would no longer be biased toward the Jews and other Mediterraneans. The Nordic reformulation of Christianity is not only more subtle than the rank paganism of blood and soil that Mann and Tillich described, but also more insidious, and–I maintain–a more durable challenge to Western monotheism than has generally been recognized.
In the cultural program of Alfred Rosenberg, the chief theorist of the National Socialist Movement, for example, a prime objective was to recover Jesus from the Jewish falsification of him to which the Church had early on capitulated. “There is no proof,” wrote Rosenberg, “for the often-made claim that Jesus was a Jew. Indeed, there is much to show the contrary. Jesus possibly was an Aryan, or partially so, showing the Nordic type strongly.” For Rosenberg and other Nazis, the “Nordic type” was not only a physical characteristic but a matter of fundamental spiritual posture. According to them, the true Nordic practices an ethic that is the polar opposite of the ideal of humility, subservience, and nonviolence that has so long been enforced by reference to the authority of Jesus. That this was indeed an imposition upon the historical Jesus Rosenberg sought to establish by citing the earliest gospel, Mark:
But to resist evil and to turn the left cheek when the right one is struck are womanish exaggerations which are not to be found in Mark. These are falsified additions by other persons. Jesus’ entire existence was a fiery rebellion. Only inwardly bastardized men have laid value on a doctrine of cowardice . . . .
Engineering this imposition was the Roman Church, acting from an ambition to dominate.
It was in the interest of the Roman Church, with its lust for power, to represent subservient humility as the essence of Christ in order to create as many servants as possible for this motivated ideal. To correct this representation is a further ineradicable requirement of the German movement for renewal.
Behind the self-interested distortion of Christianity imposed by Rome lay, in turn, a non-Aryan religion that could never succeed in its goal of vanquishing the Nordic spirit: “This Syrian-African superstition, despite fire and sword, could never be forced upon Europeans.” Indeed, the pagan deities reappeared in Europe precisely in the guise of saints of the Church Militant: “These [Nordic] gods lived and breathed as St. Oswald, St. George, St. Martin and as armed horsemen.” In his own time, Rosenberg believed, the Aryan peoples had it at long last within their power to liberate themselves from the Jewish God and the ethic of cowardice imposed in His name: “Finally, today, there is occurring a fundamental awakening from this power hypothesis: we are not confronting life from the point of an enforced principle that is still of Jewish-Roman-African ancestry.” The liberation of the oppressed Aryans from the spiritual oppression that they had internalized required the de-Judaization of Christianity, and this, as always in the history of the Church, entailed the expunction of the Old Testament.
Accordingly, the so-called Old Testament must be abolished once and for all as a book of religion. By this, the unsuccessful attempt of the last one-and-a-half thousand years to make us spiritually into Jews will be eliminated. This is an attempt for which we, among other things, had to thank our terrible materialistic Jewish rulers.
Alone, however, this would not suffice, for the Jewishness that had ruined Christianity and, through it, the entire Western world was not confined to the first of the two testaments of the Church’s scripture. It also infected the second:
Thus, Matthew and Paul have provided us with the misfortune of the entire Western cultural world . . . . Our Pauline churches are therefore, in essentials, not Christian. They are the product of the Jewish-Syrian leanings of the apostles.
Rosenberg preferred the Fourth Gospel because of what he perceived as John’s “anti-Jewish spirit hostile to the Old Testament.” But beside the expunction of most of the Bible, he also saw an urgent need for new scripture. This was to be composed by someone who understood the spiritual imperatives of the time, as most of the established Church did not.
The necessary fifth Gospel cannot naturally be added by a synod. It will be the creation of a man who experiences the longing for purification very deeply. He probably will have studied the theology of the New Testament.
The tentativeness of the last sentence captures nicely Alfred Rosenberg’s ambivalence about Christianity. On the one hand, he recognized that too much of German culture was invested in the Church to allow for a simple revival of the Norse religion as he imagined it. “Beyond question,” he wrote, “an epoch of German History–the age of myths–would have come to an end even without the attack of armed Roman-Syrian Christianity,” and “no matter how the [Etruscan-Jewish-Roman] system had spread, it has become ennobled through the devotion of millions of Germans.” To renounce that heritage would be to repudiate the major symbols of the last millennium and more of German culture.
On the other hand, at the basis of the same heritage lies a book still revered and obeyed by Jews and another book influenced by the Jewish spirit and ethic in ways that are hardly incidental. For Rosenberg, then, a reversion to paganism could never work. Instead, he called for a reformulation of Christianity that would liberate the Nordics from Mediterranean domination and enable them once more to exercise their innate and yet unvanquished capacity for martial heroism. This would be a kind of second Protestant Reformation–with one ominous difference, however: what would be recovered from centuries of Roman hegemony would not be the gospel of all the apostles, but the original Nordic spirit of Jesus, long suppressed by force, but never uprooted from the peoples of the north. This new Reformation was to be the spiritual wing of the German awakening that later plunged the world into war and worse.
Viewed from a certain angle, these theories of Alfred Rosenberg and other Nazis may seem as antiquated as they are repugnant. Nearly half a century since the Third Reich collapsed, Germany is a stable Western democracy, and those who admire Hitler and the positions he espoused have been relegated to the status of a fringe group without access to the democratic processes they despise. Moreover, right-wing racist philosophies of history stand in no higher repute anywhere else, and the few intellectuals willing to express anything even faintly reminiscent of them immediately find themselves the target of broad-based opposition.
As for Rosenberg’s view of the Old and New Testaments, here the situation is only slightly more complex. It does seem to be the case that the continuity of Jesus with the Judaism of his time and after are still not so well recognized as they ought to be, with many Christians, simple or learned, much preferring to identify Judaism with the Old Testament and to see it as the problem (“the law,” “the God of wrath”) for which Jesus and the New Testament conveniently provide the answer (“grace,” “the God of love”). Most New Testament scholars are still more at home in the Greek literature of the first two Christian centuries than in the Hebrew, and this does, on occasion, produce a dubious picture of the earliest period of Christianity as more Hellenic than Hebraic. Seldom the result of explicit prejudice, however, this is usually owing to the character of education in the West, in which the Greek and Roman classics are more central than the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Talmud, and Hebrew and Aramaic are thought exotic even among humanistic scholars. But while not without some analogues in the biblical scholarship of his time, Rosenberg’s reconstruction of the historical Jesus today commands the allegiance of no credible New Testament scholar. In this case as elsewhere, right-wing racialist historiography is seen not only as amateurish and tendentious, but also as pernicious. Perhaps having been belatedly heeded, the warnings of Thomas Mann and Paul Tillich can be dispensed with in our time.
If one approaches the neo-paganism of the Nazis with an eye to its fundamental assumptions and inner logic, however, the picture is one with a vast and troubling resonance in contemporary American culture. The assumption at the foundation of Rosenberg’s edifice of Aryan supremacy was that culture is determined mostly by biology, so that one ethnic group’s acceptance of another’s cultural legacy is unnatural and takes place only because of violence, “the fire and sword,” for example, through which the “Syrian-African superstition” that is Christianity was “forced upon Europeans.” If the cultural system is already implicit in the biological self (i.e., the body), then any large-scale cultural shift, such as the Christianization of northern Europe, must be altogether owing to domination and in no sense the result of the greater persuasiveness of the new order, in this case the putatively greater persuasiveness of the Christian than the Nordic view of life. Still less, needless to say, could the change be owing to the gracious providence of God. This being the case, Rosenberg’s idealization of martial heroism rests on more than just the romanticization of the Nordic past. It rests also on a thoroughgoing skepticism about even the possibility of reasoned discourse across cultural boundaries. The ostensibly reasonable positions argued in the discourse are only a cover for self-interest, and the self that advances its interest is defined by its biology; it reduces to its body. With reason thus exposed for. what it is, coercion is the weapon of choice in the encounter of cultures.
Detached from their particular Nazi applications, these assumptions will be immediately familiar to anyone who labors in the intellectual vineyards today. They are most frequently heard in the challenges flung at the “canon” of the classical liberal arts curriculum. Here I am not speaking of those who argue that the great works of blacks, women, and others have been unjustly denied the attention they deserve because of prejudicial attitudes to these groups still dominant within traditional American social structures. For their argument still presupposes standards by which to judge whether a work is great, and its exponents merely seek admission into the larger discourse for works they believe meet these standards–a petition that rests on a view of culture that is eminently traditional in American liberal arts education. Indeed, exceedingly few are the professors who would deny that the “canon” of the humanities has traditionally lacked the fixity and authority that this rather inappropriate theological term implies. I am speaking, instead, of those who regard race, gender, and sexual instinct as the principal criteria for determining the worth of authors or artists to be studied, so that opposition to any given candidate is immediately ascribed to the race, gender, or sexual instinct of the opponent himself. Here again the possibility of reasoning across the boundaries is implicitly–and often explicitly–denied and intellectual discourse rapidly degenerates into politics, as the various groups are redefined as factions and the campus comes to resemble the national convention of a political party more than the groves of Academe.
There are a number of ways in which equilibrium can be restored when this happens. One of them is to allocate slots in the curriculum and appointment structure according to the proportions of the duly accredited victimized minority groups in American society. (As we know, many minorities, even some with histories of extraordinary victimization, are denied consideration in the allocation process–e.g., evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, southerners, Mormons.) Beneath this solution for restoring quiet lies the assumption that the university (or the seminary) is a community primarily political in character and that its proper form of politics is a kind of vulgar democratism. Acceptance of this assumption places the affirmation of any given cultural tradition at a disadvantage, since no culture has historically subscribed to an interpretation of itself and its artifacts as political through and through. The subversion and deconstruction of tradition are thus features of the current politicizing of scholarship that are more than adventitious.
And in the last analysis, the restoration of equilibrium through proportional representation still implies the reduction of culture to biology, for any ethnic group will then command only as much attention as the fertility rate of its recent generations allows: higher numbers, more representation; lower numbers, less representation. The irony is that this solution to the academic problem posed by cultural diversity is often advocated by people for whom childbearing and rearing are not objects of elevated esteem. In the event, vulgar democratism is usually advocated alongside a moral argument with which it cannot be easily harmonized–i.e., the experience of the accredited group has something of value to which all communities should pay heed. The tensions in this mixed argument are rarely exposed and almost never faced.
On occasion one hears a solution to the problem of cultural diversity that is more directly and crudely biological. There is, for example, the theory of the chairman of a black studies department in New York who has been reported to hold that the Ice Age deformed the genes of white people, whereas those of blacks were enriched by exposure to the warming rays of the sun. This is, it must be noted, an extreme case, which is why it has received considerable attention in the news media. The implications of this black professor’s linkage of culture to genetics are as antidemocratic as those of Rosenberg’s Aryan supremacy; couched in terms of multiculturalism, however, such anti-democratic thinking can find a sympathetic hearing in academic life today. One reason for this is that biological essentialism does seem to play a large role in the thinking of many advocates of multiculturalism. Given the way that race, class, and sexual instinct have come to dominate the discussion, it is hard to see how matters could be otherwise. The addition of social class to the mix should, at least in theory, dampen the biological essentialism a bit. But most discussions in which race, gender, class, and sexual instinct are high on the agenda suffer from an amalgam of biological and social determinism that makes an affirmation of transcendence well-nigh impossible. Indeed, transcendence has become a prime target of the two great guns of academic nihilism in our time, deconstruction and the hermeneutics of suspicion. Thus fades the “opposition” to “bondedness to place, immediacy, and paganism” that Hegel and Tillich associated with the faith of Abraham and the opportunity for transcendence. More ominously, as we shall soon see, “the co-existence of polytheism in space” that Tillich said “will not return” in fact threatens to return.
Advocacy of multiculturalism is inevitably associated with opposition to “Eurocentrism,” that is, a concentration on the European heritage to the disadvantage of other cultures, especially those with roots in Africa and the pre-Columbian Americas. As a critique of provincialism, an argument against Eurocentrism could be built on themes that are themselves prominent in both the Hebraic and the Hellenic roots of European civilization and thus part and parcel of that heritage. Usually, however, the attack on Eurocentrism takes a very different form, one of opposition to the traditional curriculum and the culture to which it gives expression on the grounds that this curriculum is irrelevant or inapplicable to some particular community. Thus the oft-heard rejection of DEWM–“dead European white males,” whose work and ideas are assumed to be of no benefit to the non-European, the non-white, the female, and–logic dictates–the living as well. Now national origin joins race and gender as predetermining the cultural identity of an individual or group (and not simply influencing it, as almost everyone would concede). In this way, the “bondedness to place” that Hegel and Tillich thought the faith of Abraham had dislodged reestablishes itself with a vengeance. That a person without European ancestors might become culturally European is either denied altogether or lamented as an election of inauthenticity. This being the case, it is unclear why persons of European descent ought, in turn, to occupy themselves with something as distant as the cultures of Africa or the Andes. The critique of provincialism thus yields to the powerful forces of the new determinisms, and narrowness acquires a theoretical foundation of high prestige.
One of the oddities of the critique of Eurocentrism is the ubiquitous assumption that Europe somehow constitutes a cultural unit, an assumption to which not a few conservative champions of the older curriculum have been known to subscribe as well. The less-sophisticated opponents of Eurocentrism often equate Europe and even the Caucasian race with imperialism, as if Africa had been carved up in the nineteenth century among the Lithuanians, the Jews, the Basques, and the Irish. When race, a biological category, overtakes culture, a historical category, it is again hard to see how the matter could be otherwise. The irony here is that in the very name of multiculturalism, the cultural heritage of numerous students is once more neglected. A telling instance of this is those schools in which the study of Jewish civilization does not count for the ethnic studies program or the “diversity” requirement. You would think that whites have generally been preoccupied with Talmudic Law, medieval Torah commentaries, and the Yiddish short story.
That Europe is a cultural unity is one illusion from which Alfred Rosenberg did not suffer. For him, as we have seen, the great divide lay between people of Nordic extraction and those of “Jewish-Roman-African ancestry,” with the former representing purity, honor, and heroism, and the latter incarnating the corresponding negatives. In our present cultural situation, a reexamination of Rosenberg’s theories drives home a keen awareness of how particular and localized is the origin of what often is glibly called “European culture” by both defenders and despisers. The foundation of that culture does not lie in the Germanic north or the Slavic east of Europe. Instead, it lies in what Thomas Mann in that radio address of 1940 termed the “old Mediterranean world,” of which the “Jews of Middle Europe had the misfortune [of being] living exponents.” It is from their Mediterranean homelands that the modes of thought and practice of Jerusalem and Athens have spread in every direction, and it is this diffusion that, for all their differences, the Nazis and the opponents of Eurocentrism both attack. To describe the offending culture as European or white is thus to neglect key features of the very diffusion that is now so regretted. From Jerusalem, it is roughly the same distance to London as to Nairobi: the God of Abraham is no more native to the Angles and the Saxons than to the Kikkuyu and the Kamba. Whether any of these groups ought to have put away their traditional gods to accept Him is a matter of legitimate debate, as is the perennial question of whether either Jerusalem or Athens ought to have attained cultural hegemony over the other. Without resort, however, to a biological essentialism reminiscent of Nazism and, to put it mildly, of very dubious worth, appeal to ethnicity alone cannot resolve these knotty issues.
Thus, for all the differences between Humanism and Hebraism, on this point defenders of traditional liberal education and believers in the God of Abraham can come to agreement: culture, whether personal or communal, is not reducible to genetics or ethnicity because man is always capable of transcending his origins, that is, of ending his journey in a different and better place than he began it. Indeed, to end our journey in a better place than that of our origin is, in different ways, the objective of both Abrahamic religious life and traditional liberal arts education. In the religious framework, Abraham’s experience is paradigmatic: even if they were begun amidst the pollution of Ur, our lives can end in the purity of Hebron.
The Abrahamic paradigm presents a formidable obstacle to those Christians eager to align the Church with Third World liberation movements. For, to the extent that such movements seek to undo the legacy of European imperialism, they must also, if they are to be consistent, seek their own de-Christianization and the restoration of the indigenous religions that the Church eradicated, suppressed, or diluted through syncretism. That Christianity can be enlisted in the movement to rectify social, economic, and political injustice in and against the Third World is beyond dispute, for this is still to appeal to norms esteemed in the “old Mediterranean culture” that Jesus of Nazareth exemplified. Things become more complicated, however, when that culture and its European successors are defined, even at their best, as inevitably part of the problem. This places in danger the essential Pauline principle that through faith in the Christ a gentile is grafted onto the tree of Israel and attains the status of a descendant of Abraham (Romans 4 and 11). It implies that what Paul called the “native wild olive” has no need of the “cultivated olive” onto which it has been grafted graciously, mysteriously, and conditionally (Romans 11:19-24). And this un-Christian implication is one that Alfred Rosenberg–who, it will be recalled, hated Paul for his Jewish leanings–would have seconded with enthusiasm. Rejection of the God of Abraham makes strange bedfellows.
Anyone under the impression that the hyper-romantic program of recovering the gods of soil and nature died with the Third Reich has not spent much time in liberal religion departments and divinity schools lately. In many of these, radical feminists of a particular kind have mounted an extraordinarily successful assault on traditional Christianity and Judaism in the name of the goddesses these traditions have suppressed or eradicated. Sometimes the agenda involves reclaiming the pagan deity whom, it is argued, the normative traditions have masked.
In Changing of the Gods: Feminism and the End of Traditional Religion, Naomi R. Goldenberg writes that “behind [the Virgin Mary’s] sanitized figure lurk all the great pagan goddesses of the ancient world . . . . Mary has become castrated by popes, cardinals, priests, and theologians, by all who fear the sexual and emotional power of natural womanhood.” Goldenberg’s Mary is analogous to Rosenberg’s St. Oswald, St. George, and St. Martin, the putative Christian masks of the Nordic gods, except that for Goldenberg the original Mary “of natural womanhood” did not survive her Christianization. Instead of a renewed Christianity or Judaism, Goldenberg thus turns to such phenomena as witchcraft, where, she tells us, “a woman’s will is sacred.” “Once she has learned to visualize her wishes, a witch uses her will to bring them to reality.” The Nietzschean implications suggested here are immediately disavowed: “The only rule that restricts the play of the will is an injunction not to use it for destructive purposes.”
But this qualification is in tension with an element in witchcraft that Goldenberg tells us conventional minds find repellent. Witchcraft provides:
No rigid law of discipline. The absence of a need to keep base human instincts in control is unthinkable to most Jews and Christians . . . . Both conscious and unconscious elements of the person are considered self-regulating and self-governing . . . . No higher moral law is called upon to keep any lower nature in check.
One wonders why the rule that prevents the witch’s will from being used “for destructive purposes” is not a “higher moral law” necessary to keep our “lower nature in check.” One can go further: why are those “destructive purposes” wrong in an ethic that celebrates naturalness and instinct? Surely, natural history presents abundant evidence for destruction, including the destruction of whole species, and the instinct to kill is hardly unique to males or even human beings. The lower nature, liberated from higher moral law that keeps it in check, is at least as likely to give us Rosenberg’s Nazis and the Holocaust as it is to produce Goldenberg’s benign witches and female empowerment.
In Laughter of Aphrodite: Reflections on a Journey to the Goddess, Carol P. Christ speaks of two intuitions that nourish what she calls her theology (from the Greek thea, “goddess”):
The first is that the earth is holy and our true home. The second is that women’s experience, like all human experience, is a source of insight about the divine.
The second intuition is hardly new or repugnant to Jewish and Christian traditionalists. It underlies the prophet Hosea’s understanding of Israel’s relationship to God as a marriage, for example, and the traditional Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Song of Songs as an allegory of God’s love for Israel and Christ’s for his Church, respectively. But these images drawn from traditional notions of courtship and marriage are not what Carol Christ has in mind when she speaks of “women’s experience.” Indeed, in words reminiscent of the theology that Hosea lambasted, she speaks warmly of her liberation from “male Gods who are defined in opposition to the powers of earth, nature, myself” and reports that “I began to feel that my loyalties were with those castigated by my tradition as idolators.”
The substantive values of writers like Goldenberg and Christ are obviously very different from those of the Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg–indeed, often diametrically opposed to them. Whereas he saw the Christian ethic as one of nonviolence and self-giving love and therefore Jewish and effeminate, Carol Christ identifies the biblical God as a “God of War [who] stands for too much that I stand against.” It must also be noted that whereas Rosenberg was a vehement anti-Semite, Christ rejects the Western theological traditions in part because of the Holocaust and contributes a chapter “On Not Blaming Jews for the Death of the Goddess.” But in her case, as in Goldenberg’s, it must still be asked whether all who liberate themselves from the God “defined in opposition to the power of earth, nature, and myself” will feel drawn to her ethic and her thealogy. Will not some be reasonably drawn to the blood and soil mysticism of Alfred Rosenberg and correctly recognize in the Jews the living exponents of the order they reject? And will not some replace the God of Abraham with goddesses inimical to Carol Christ’s thealogy—with Athena, the Greek goddess of war, for example, or with her Canaanite counterpart, the bloodthirsty Anat?
If goddess worship of the sort presented in Goldenberg’s and Christ’s books seems exotic, consider this: according to a reliable press report, the “goddess movement” is being advanced in part by a course entitled “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” (see Jeremiah 44). Produced under Unitarian auspices, the course has now been used not only by at least 800 of the 1,000 congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, but also by Congregationalist, Methodist, and Episcopal groups and even by an order of nuns. The inclusion by mainline ecclesiastical bodies of forms of religion that their own scriptures and traditions have pronounced abominable and idolatrous is one of the most remarkable transformations of our times. It is not altogether without precedent.
The midrash relates that a philosopher once posed a question about circumcision to Rabbi Hoshayah, one of the great authorities in the Land of Israel early in the third century. “If circumcision is precious,” asked the philosopher, “why was it not given to Adam?” Rabbi Hoshayah answered:
Everything created during the six days of creation requires that something be done to it. Mustard, for example, requires sweetening, lupin requires sweetening, wheat requires grinding—even man requires perfecting.
The assumption underlying the rabbi’s response is that Abraham, to whom the commandment of circumcision is first given (Genesis 17), is to be a perfecting of Adam, and life in covenant with God, therefore, an improvement upon life in the state of nature. The philosopher’s implicit critique of Abraham is formidable. For the commandment of circumcision comes bound up with the promise of progeny and the Land, two of the most natural of things, and yet circumcision is an invasion of nature and not, as one might expect in this context, an affirmation of it.
The point of Rabbi Hoshayah’s reply is that the covenantal life of the Jewish people is neither a denial of nature, on the one hand, nor an unqualified expression of it, on the other. Neither “opposition” (to use Paul Tillich’s term) nor “the powers of earth, nature, myself” (to use Carol Christ’s) captures the spirituality of covenant in the Abrahamic mode. Rather, to borrow a phrase from the late Arthur A. Cohen, each member of the people Israel is called to be both a natural and a supernatural Jew. The natural and supernatural Jew seeks neither to love nature nor to conquer it, but only to bring nature–including the natural vitalities of nationalism and sexuality–to the service of its Creator and thus to elevate, ennoble, and sanctify it. To keep nature and that which is beyond nature in their proper relationship is not a task for Jews alone, but for all who call Abraham their father. As in the dark days when Thomas Mann and Paul Tillich issued their warnings, so now, this is a task of mounting urgency.
Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School and the author, most recently, of Sinai and Zion: An Entry Into the Jewish Bible and Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence, both issued by Harper.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?