Johnson on Trial?
The publication of Phillip E. Johnson’s meandering and emotional diatribe against “Darwinism” in First Things (“Creator or Blind Watchmaker?” January) was deeply disappointing. To begin with, the failure of the magazine to identify Mr. Johnson as a law professor, not a trained biologist, was a disservice to readers who might presume, incorrectly, that he has a scientific education. While one need not hold an academic degree in a subject to discuss it, a certain skepticism would seem to be in order when an individual who has devoted his life to one field decides, in middle age, to completely overthrow the findings of a radically different discipline.
Much more serious is the decision of the editors to implicitly endorse Johnson’s cranky views. If a journal publishes a polemic by a Flat-Earther, conclusions about the beliefs of the editors may legitimately be drawn, their protests that they merely wish to stimulate debate notwithstanding.
Perhaps in forthcoming issues First Things will explore other fascinating fringe topics: Has the wood of Noah’s Ark actually been found in Turkey? Was the Shroud of Turin miraculously formed? If so, this former reader will miss out. I prefer my lunatic fundamentalism straight, from the Reverends Robertson and Swaggart.
The National Interest
Phillip Johnson’s article offers an interesting sample of current thought in the spectrum from Creationism to Darwinism. We might wonder where this doxology, the last sentence in a relevant work, Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, might fit in the spectrum: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”
Although a first reading might suggest First Cause coloration, a careful reading reveals neither contradiction nor affirmation of the idea of continuing creation.
Paul B. Beatty, Jr.
Phillip Johnson’s attack on evolution vastly underrates the power of modern science to understand the complicated mechanisms of evolution in favor of a threadbare “creationism” akin to Ptolemaic astronomy. It strains credulity to imagine that the sheer haphazardness and astonishing wastefulness of molecular, geological, biological, and cultural evolution could be linked to any cosmic purpose.
Instead of pooh-poohing science, theology should concentrate on helping human beings live better with themselves, their neighbors, their environment.
Aspen Hill, MD
Phillip E. Johnson replies:
People sometimes react like Michael Lind when their religion is challenged and they do not know how to defend it with reason. Paul Beatty’s quote shows how wise Darwin was to sprinkle his works with vaguely theistic rhetoric to disarm potential critics. Darwin moved from deism to agnosticism during his adult life. He was always concerned, however, to present his theory in a rhetoric likely to gain the widest acceptance, and he did not want to shock his devout wife. His own philosophy was close to that articulated in the second sentence of Elizabeth Randall’s letter.
Beat the Devil
As someone identified with the Devil”in the past by Christians because of my faith (Judaism), in the present both by Shiite Muslims because of my nationality (American) and by the Nation of Islam because of my race (Caucasian)”I am triply disturbed by Walter Sundberg’s “Primer on the Devil” (January).
The identification of real human beings with a principle of metaphysical evil has justified immeasurable cruelty; each one of us takes on the face of his adversary, goes the French proverb. I would respectfully caution Dr. Sundberg that theologies are judged by their fruits.
Rabbi Shamai Kanter
Editor, Conservative Judaism
New York, NY
Walter Sundberg replies:
Rabbi Kanter points to one of the terrible forces of religious existence: the fanatical spirit that feels compelled to demonize the one who holds a different creed. In Western history the Jews have endured this dark side of religion more often and to more devastating effect than any other group. The Wars of Religion and the great European witch craze”both of which figured prominently in my narrative”also exemplify it. Across the centuries, educated and well-meaning people have claimed that if religious creeds were rationalized and pared down to their moral claims, the human family would fare much better. Baruch Spinoza was an early, eloquent spokesman for this position. The sad fact is, however, that rationalistic religion, such as deism, appeals only to the intellectual few and cannot inspire devoted followers. It thus bears no “fruit” and is soon replaced by godless creeds that practice demonization with scientific efficiency. Hitler and Stalin confessed neither God nor Devil and did things of which Spinoza never dreamed. The Devil will have his way whether or not we acknowledge him. Only the power of God can save us from ourselves”and the Devil.
Since it is in large part a response to my essay “When Jews are Christians” (FT, November 1991), I read Isaac C. Rottenberg’s article, “Messianic Jews: A Troubling Presence” (December 1992) with particular interest. One good response deserves another.
Rottenberg’s article shows quite well the asymmetric character of the complex relationship between Judaism and Christianity. For although Judaism could persist without Christianity (however significant it is that Christians worship the God of Israel and acknowledge the Hebrew Bible), Christianity could not persist without Judaism. Accordingly, Jews who espouse Christianity, in whatever form, are more of an impediment to the Jewish-Christian relationship for Jews than they are for Christians. For Jews, they can be nothing less than apostates”who should, nevertheless, not be abandoned by the Jewish community.
Rottenberg really disputes only my secondary point: “Messianic” Jews also pose a problem for inner Christian self-understanding. He thinks that an accommodation to these Jewish Christians is similar to Christians accommodating the Gospel to the cultures of third world converts . . . . However, do these cultures claim to be the matrix of Christianity, a matrix that itself claims that any further supplementation is in truth a dilution of its authentic message? If not, then the problem of Jewish Christians still practicing their own version of Judaism is more of a Christian problem than he wants to admit.
Finally, I would suggest that Pastor Rottenberg is naive to think that “Messianic” Jews . . . can help re-Hebraize, and therefore de-Hellenize, contemporary Christianity. First, they are usually rather ignorant of Judaism and practice a somewhat romanticized version of it. Christians like Isaac Rottenberg can learn much more from Jews less ambivalent about Judaism. Second, many Christians, especially Eastern Orthodox Christians, are convinced that the Hellenization of Christianity has been to its benefit.
Woodrow Wilson International
Center for Scholars
Isaac Rottenberg challenges David Novak’s rejection of “Messianic Jews” as participants in the Jewish-Christian dialogue. Rottenberg’s article mentions but then fails to follow up on the logic of the fact that terms such as “Messianic Jews” and “Jews for Jesus” refer not to individuals of Jewish background who have converted to Christianity (such as Cardinal Lustiger of Paris), but to groups or movements established by Christian churches in this country in the past century with the specific purpose of converting the Jewish community to Christianity. With this in mind, it becomes quite possible to agree with both Rottenberg and Novak. No, there is no place for representatives of groups whose main function is conversion of Jews within the organized Jewish-Christian dialogue. But, yes, there may be room for some individuals, such as Rottenberg himself, acting as concerned individual Christians, whatever the personal background that brought them to the dialogue.
In support of his view, Rottenberg adduces Tommaso Federici’s paper from the 1977 International Catholic-Jewish Liaison meeting in Venice. He cites the appropriate principle prohibiting “any sort of witness and preaching which in any way constitutes a physical, moral, psychological, or cultural constraint on the Jews, both individuals and communities, such as might in any way destroy or even simply reduce their personal judgment, free will, and full autonomy of decision.” But Rottenberg fails to cite Federici’s own application of this agreed principle: “Consequently, attempts to set up organizations of any sort, particularly educational or welfare organizations, for the ‘conversion’ of Jews must be rejected.”
To my mind, organized efforts such as the Messianic Jews and Jews for Jesus clearly fall into Federici’s excluded category. This is especially true in Western societies, which are predominantly “Christian” demographically. Anyone with an understanding of the history of Christian attempts to convert Jews over the centuries can appreciate, I believe, that virtually any movement or group organized by Christians to convert Jews will cause such concern and, indeed, fear in the Jewish community that it will inevitably reduce the necessary atmosphere for the exercise of free will by the Jewish minority. If nothing else, David Novak’s article illustrates this fact of Jewish life vividly and effectively. Hence, if my reading of Federici is at all correct, nothing that might encourage such movements aimed at conversion of Jews should be allowed to operate in the name of the Catholic Church.
This, of course, does not answer all of the theological issues Rottenberg raises, on some of which I may agree and others disagree. But my point is that one need not answer all related or potential theological questions in this area to conclude that (a) the Messianic Jews and Jews for Jesus movements are indeed organizations set up by Christian churches for the specific purpose of establishing a mission to the Jews; and (b) such organizations are not properly suited to be represented at official dialogues between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community, whether or not all of them practice”as some of them indeed have practiced”quite dubious methods.
The involvement of individuals of Jewish background who have converted to Christianity but who are not members of such organized conversionary groups would have to be judged on a case-by-case basis. Factors to consider might include the level of involvement or of representation, individual temperament and judgment, the particular needs of a given situation locally, nationally, or internationally, etc. And I would always counsel close consultation with our partners in dialogue. Put in this persective, I submit, the substantive theological issues that Rottenberg wishes to raise can be much more profitably faced by Jews and Christians together in dialogue, rather than attempted by either side alone.
Eugene J. Fisher
Secretariat for Ecumenical and
National Conference of
. . . As a Jew, I have problems with the term Messianic Jew, because I am not a Jews For Jesus/Hebrew Christian Jew, but a Jew who is still waiting for the First Coming of the Messiah.
There have always been Messianic Jews, as any brief review of Jewish history and literature will reveal . . . . Even today, there are Messianic Jews and Messianic movements among Jews. The Hasidic Jews of Lubavitch want their ninety-one-year-old leader to declare himself to be the Messiah; and in Jerusalem, there is a group of Jews who wish to force an early return of the Messiah by attempting to place a foundation stone on the Temple Mount, on the site of the mosque now in place over the original Temple.
Are these not “Messianic Jews”?
I strongly agree with the view that Jews should be exempted from any Christian outreach. In fact, I would suggest that evangelicals of the Christian variety take a look at the efforts of “evangelicals” of the Jewish variety”Chabad Lubavitch”and concentrate more effort on backsliding Christians, for Lubavitch evangelizes only among Jews, wanting to “bring Jews to Judaism,” as it were . . . .
My experience with Christians who wish to engage in dialogue with me is one of awareness that they have their phasers locked on my soul, and I must not lower my shield. I believe that a salvific war exists between us, and these Hebrew Christian/Jews For Jesus soldiers are the “shock troops” used in a frontal assault.
Robert B. Godwin
Three cheers for First Things ! You had the courage to call attention to the truncated nature of Jewish-Christian dialogue in our day. Isaac Rottenberg’s defense of the validity of Messianic Jews is a needed supplement to David Novak’s “When Jews Are Christians.”
Speaking as a missiologist, I cannot but heartily endorse Rottenberg’s awareness of the significance of Messianic Jews, for none can speak so pointedly on missiological themes. They challenge the anthropological monstrosity that cultural rootage and religious faith dare not be separated, as if when a Jewish person believes in Jesus, all Jewish identity is thereby forfeited.
Let’s face it: Messianic Jews stand between their people and the Gentile churches, and are a problem to both. Actually all Jewish believers in Jesus as Messiah and Lord are thrust into a prophetic role, not by choice but from necessity. They experience the hostility of fellow Jews, because they stand against the persistent Jewish no to Jesus Christ. And they remind the churches of their persistent betrayal of Jesus Christ through their unwarranted anti-Semitism and unprovoked violence against the Jewish people. They are ostracized from Jewry because of their courage in exposing the tragedy of the rabbis who persist in defending the alleged rightness of Israel’s once-for-all decision against her Messiah”a decision that has been hallowed by tradition and kept from revision over the centuries. And when Messianic Jews stand before the Gentile churches, they cannot but remind complacent Christians of their persistent failure to carry out the explicit mandate of God to evangelize the Jewish people.
Furthermore, although Jewish believers in Jesus Christ seek in every way to strengthen their identification with Jewry, as individuals before God they know themselves as accountable to Him, prior to any accountability to their own people. In this sense they speak against the Jewish heresy of salvation by covenant and race. At the same time as Christians they rebuke the nominality that Gentile churches all too readily tolerate, even promote. They remind both synagogue and church that there can be no collective decision for God, only a personal one. They have themselves made the costly personal decision of repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, without which there is no personal relationship with God. They have become the objects of Jewish contempt for this decision, and they continue to suffer for their loyalty to him. Both Jews and Gentiles need their prophetic witness.
Arthur F. Glasser
Fuller Theological Seminary
Isaac Rottenberg replies:
In the brief space available to me, I shall focus on the three correspondents who have raised questions about my article.
David Novak raises a valid point when, in response to my remarks about contextualization, he calls attention to the unique relationship between Judaism and Christianity as compared with people from other cultures and religions who have been reached with the Christian message. The distinction, in my judgment, does not eliminate the need for contextualization, but does raise a number of other very fundamental questions.
David Novak and I approach these issues from quite different perspectives. I do not see “Jewish Christianity” as a supplementation of the Church’s authentic message. Quite the contrary. Gentile Christianity has developed as a questionable supplementation of the authentic New Testament vision of a Church in which Jews and Gentiles would live in unity as a sign of the eschaton : the coming Kingdom of God. During the second century, certain Fathers of the Church, the same people who laid the foundation for the pernicious anti-Judaism that eventually pervaded Christian theology, branded as heretics all Jewish Christians who sought to maintain a Jewish identity, even those who were quite orthodox in theology. Ever since, any form of “Jewish Christianity” has been resisted by a happily and arrogantly de-Judaized Church.
This leads me to Eugene Fisher’s comments. The idea that the Messianic Jewish movement is the creation of churches for the purpose of serving as a missionary agency strikes me as a fiction, part of a mythology that has little basis in history. The documentary evidence suggests to me that (a) denominationally sponsored missions to Jews have been few and usually weakly supported; (b) “Jewish Evangelism,” both in Europe and the United States, has been conducted mostly by para-ecclesiastical societies holding an anti-supersessionist theology, often founded by Christians of Jewish descent and in the face of the churches’ indifference, if not hostility; (c) Messianic Jewish organizational life finds its motivation at least as much in a felt need for mutual support in a largely hostile environment as it does in a missionary impulse; and (d) while some local evangelical congregations may give financial support to a group like Jews for Jesus, I am convinced that this is more the exception than the rule and that no funds from denominational budgets are involved.
Dr. Fisher’s proposed procedure for admitting someone with a Jewish background to the dialogue sounds quite similar to the selection process followed by some elite country clubs. My interest is not in having a few more safely domesticated individuals with a Jewish background admitted to the “Club,” as much as I appreciate my own contacts with “official” dialogue circles. Nor do I want to compromise carefully cultivated relationships of trust by creating a situation destructive to dialogue. Rather, I wonder whether some (perhaps less organizationally structured) ways could be found to explore issues that have plagued the church since its earliest days. I see this as an extension of a dialogue process that is becoming a bit repetitive.
David Novak detects a certain naivete in my approach. I admit that it all sounds a touch visionary. However, I remember during my childhood years occasional visits at our home by the ecumenical pioneer Willem Visser ‘t Hooft. So many people thought that he was a hopeless dreamer, but so much has happened since in ecumenical/interfaith endeavours that was considered impossible.
Finally, three quick answers to Mr. Godwin. (1) Yes, “Messianic Jews” is a confusing term, and precisely for the reasons you point out some Europeans seem to prefer “Messiah-confessing Jew.” (2) Yes, the Chabad Lubavitch do admirable educational work, more effective for the future of Judaism”I suspect”than the cries about “spiritual liquidation” by some Jewish leaders every time a Christian group issues a statement on mission. (3) No, not every “dialoguer” is out to snatch your soul; some would be saddened by the very idea of your “conversion.”
The Christ of History
. . . Avery Dulles (“Historians and the Reality of Christ,” December 1992) undoubtedly really believes that he can take in stride doubts about the “virginal conception of Jesus or the perpetual virginity of Mary.” Perhaps these will not shake a profound, developed faith, but they will destroy a weak new one. Ours is an historical faith. We believe in Jesus Christ, who was born of the Virgin Mary and suffered under Pontius Pilate, a real person, in real time. Without its historical roots our faith would be like branches cut from a fruit tree in the early spring. They may burst into beautiful bloom, but they will not set their seeds, or bear fruit. From this blooming death there are no converts, no vocations, no saints, no martyrs. The tree of a living Christian faith must be rooted in the soil of history.
These scholarly doubts spring not from true scholarship, but from the ideological biases of the scholars. Tragically, these are not merely intellectual games. They have been taught to children and have destroyed the faith of a generation.
It is good history to believe the Gospels. And as the Second Vatican Council proclaimed, it is our faith: “Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels . . . whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught . . . .”
I appreciated Avery Dulles’ thoughtful and helpful discussion, and yet I found myself less than fully satisfied by his conclusions.
He seems to imply, for instance, that we should decide whether or not to accept a given Gospel narrative as historical according to a majority vote of those who are reputed to be “leading scholars” in the field. Evangelicals, with whom I would number myself, have developed what I believe to be a healthy skepticism toward such democratic methodologies. This, I am convinced, is justified in light of the subjectivism, antisupernaturalism, and rationalistic reductionism that sometimes accompany pronouncements in this field.
It is interesting that Father Dulles would hesitate to accept the positive perspective of someone like Joachim Jeremias regarding the trustworthiness of the various narratives on the grounds that such views “could be upset by further research.” That seems to me a timid approach. One thinks of St. Paul’s insistence on the real, bodily resurrection of Jesus. He leaves himself no fallback position when he says, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God . . . .” (1 Cor. 15:14,15)
My contention is that if God has revealed himself in history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and if we believe that the record of that revelation in Scripture is God-given (2 Timothy 3:16), we had better, at some point, be willing to contend for the basic historical trustworthiness of what has been given. I personally am convinced that no unbiased evidence has been presented that would make such a perspective untenable . . . .
(The Rev.) Russell C. Wentling
First United Methodist Church
Schuylkill Haven, PA
Avery Dulles replies:
Neither of my correspondents takes adequate cognizance of the different senses of the term “history” that I distinguished in my article. An assertion can be “historical” either because it corresponds to the facts or because it is verifiable by the methods used by historians.
In reply to Dale O’Leary, it must be said that Vatican II, in proclaiming the “historicity” of the Gospels, presumably meant that their teachings give a true version of the events by which God accomplished our salvation. The Council did not teach that every doctrine of faith can be established by means of critical historical study of the Gospels. Historians differ about the degree of probability with which their method can vindicate doctrines such as the virginal conception of Jesus and the perpetual virginity of Mary. Their doubts can stem either from their personal biases or from the limitations of the method they employ.
Faith can be challenged by the doubts of historians, just as it can be confirmed by their positive findings. But faith does not finally depend on scientific history. To suppose that we can believe only what can be proved by historians would be a fatal error.
In reply to Russell Wentling I must protest that I do not hold, and did not suggest, that the acceptance of the teachings of the Gospels should depend on a majority vote of “leading scholars.” The Christian believer, whether Protestant or Catholic, receives the Gospel as the inspired word of God, whereas the research historian treats it as an early source for reconstructing past events in accordance with the norms of a specified method. The arguments of historians, even though they may give a “high probability” to certain articles of faith, and may add many interesting details, are not the basis of the Christian’s conviction. Professor Jeremias’ arguments for the filial consciousness of Jesus are impressive, but, as I said, “few Christians would want their faith to depend on scholarly hypotheses such as these.” Faith is a grace-given surrender to the word of God, not an adherence to the conjectures of historians.
On Maritain and the Jews
According to Michael Novak’s article “Maritain and the Jews” (January), what the world needs is more faithful Jews and more faithful Christians, and presumably these are two distinct groups. There is no need for the Jews to embrace Christianity, especially since the testimony of history shows how innocent and good have been the Jews and how cruel and despicable have been the Christians.
We need to thank Michael Novak for clearing up this misunderstanding of 2,000 years where the church, following St. Paul and the Gospels, thought that “there is neither Greek nor Jew . . . but that Christ is all in all.” (Col. 3:11) If St. Paul and the other apostles had understood that the gospel was only meant for the Greeks, a lot of controversy and argument with the Jews would have been avoided. Of course it seems that our Lord was also confused because He thought that the gospel should be preached to the Jews first; whereas, we now know that it was not intended for them at all.
St. Paul’s misunderstanding, it seems, was beyond repair because he thought that one was not a Jew on the outside (Rom. 2:28) and that the Christians were the heirs to the Promise, the true children of Abraham, the theological Jews: “Realize then that it is those who have faith [in Jesus] who are children of Abraham.” (Gal. 3:7) . . .
However when the misunderstanding, as explained by Mr. Novak, is cleared up, one can see the consistency in the thought that we (Greeks) are responsible for the death of Jesus since He died for our sins; but the Jews are not responsible since Jesus did not die for them. They have no need for Jesus in any case since they have all those “ten prerogatives of Judaism” described in Mr. Novak’s article.
Of course there is the historical detail that it was the Jews who engineered the crucifixion. This may be why St. Paul writes in 1 Thess. 2:14: “For you suffer the same things from your compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets . . . .” Likewise, in the morning of Pentecost St. Peter spoke to the Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 2:23) of “this Person you killed, by nailing Him to the cross through the hands of lawless men.” To which the Jews asked, “Brothers, what should we do?” and St. Peter responded, “Repent and be baptized, each of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”
It was prudent for Saint Peter in Jerusalem, fifty days after the crucifixion, to speak thus, but it would be imprudent for us 2,000 years after the fact, in the United States, to bring up this topic . . . .
Jesus said that if we loved our father or our mother more than Him we were not worthy to be His disciples. One may deduce from this that we cannot love our friends more than Him either, even if they be Jews.
A brief comment on Michael Novak’s excellent piece, “Maritain and the Jews”:
Assuming that Judeo-Christianity is not just a sequential matter in which one supplants the other, but a meaningful ongoing dialogue and friendship, essentially an alliance of faiths, I feel already the embryonic concrete presence in a number of spirits (notably those grouped around First Things but in some earlier individuals as well) of the synthesis Maritain projects to a far-distant future.
That is the way things naturally grow. In those happy few harbingers we have an important indication of a movement already begun through ecumenical impulses within Christianity (and Judaism) along a singularly promising path toward the lodestar of eventual universalism . . . .
Robert Greer Cohn
Prof. Emeritus of French
Michael Novak quotes Maritain as saying that “the people of Israel is the sole people in the world to whom a land, the land of Canaan, was given by the true God.” Maritain then says that “the return of a portion of the Jewish people and its regroupment in the Holy Land . . . is the reaccomplishment . . . of the divine promise.”
To base the claim of the Israeli people to Palestine on God’s promise to Abraham is an invalid argument for at least three reasons.
God said to Abraham: “To your descendants I give this land [Palestine].” He did not say he was giving the land to only some of Abraham’s descendants. The Arabs are as much the descendants of Abraham as are the Jews. They, too, are Semites.
Very few present-day Jews are descendants of Abraham. The many blond, blue-eyed Jews with German names do not owe their origin to the Middle East. As to the others, Arthur Koestler, himself a Jew, in his book The Thirteenth Tribe makes a strong argument that most European and American Jews are descendants of the Khazars, natives of a region in Turkey, who converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages. If the thesis is correct, then most modern Jews are not even Semites.
Among the ten prerogatives that Maritain, following St. Paul, attributes to Judaism, there is not an exclusive right to the land of Palestine. St. Paul says (Rom. 4) that “the promise made to Abraham and his descendants that they would inherit the world . . . holds true for all of Abraham’s descendants, not only for those who have the law but for all who have his faith. He is the father of us all.”
None of this, of course, justifies the abomination of anti-Semitism. But it does indicate that if Israel claims an exclusive right to the land of Palestine, that claim must be based on something other than God’s promise to Abraham.
(The Rev.) Charles J. Robbins, C.PAGES,S.
Saint Joseph’s College
In discussing anti-Semitism and the need to develop peaceful and brotherly relations with the Jews, Michael Novak commits the American fault of “giving no offense” that he refers to in his article.
. . . For a Jew reading his article, the obvious conclusion is that Christianity needs a vital and living Judaism in the concrete world of history in order to help it to understand its own inheritance, and therefore he would conclude that it is not necessary for him to go beyond Judaism. This view may be true with respect to the body of Judaism, which in its blindness rejects Christ, but it is not true as to the individual Jew who is subject to Christ’s commands more so than any other race.
Christ was a Jew and came to bring salvation first to the Jews, and His commands in the New Testament are directed to the Jews. To His disciples (Matt. 10:5) He commanded, do not go to the Gentiles, nor to the Samaritans, but go to the lost sheep of Israel . . . .
His continual admonitions were that without Him, the Kingdom of God was unattainable: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” (John 14:6) . . .
So we can rightly condemn anti-Semitism, but taking a cue from the Jews, we must in a brotherly fashion be as forthright in presenting Christ as the Jews are in presenting their beliefs, for individual souls are at stake and it is for those souls that Christ died on the cross.
Vincent J. McMahon
Colorado Springs, CO
We are deeply indebted to Michael Novak’s essay on anti-Semitism via the writings of Jacques Maritain for putting into such a wonderful perspective the mission for which Jews have been chosen by God, and the deeper dangers of anti-Semitism to the Christian soul.
Unfortunately, both Novak and Maritain gloss over the most prevalent cause of anti-Semitism . . . .
Maritain presumes a collective identity of Judaism and the mission of “earthly leavening . . . to irritate the world, to prod it, to move it . . . [to make it] dissatisfied and restless so long as it has not God,” whereas in reality Jews are a varied people, many of whose irritation to non-Jews bears no relation to Maritain’s description.
Moreover, it is safe to assume that the perception of Jews by anti- Semites has never reached the lofty philosophical view that “Judaism speaks to the world of a transcendent order, of the absolute, of mystery, of judgment.”
The real explanation for most dislike of Jews is the collective identity and the demand placed upon non-Jews to love or hate the collective . . . . Most of us dislike some Jews based upon their actions and love others. And we might express our feelings accordingly . . . .
Karl E. Brandt
Michael Novak Replies:
To Mr. Caso I would reply that it is good Christian practice, before making judgment, to put oneself in the shoes of the other, and to look out on the world and oneself as that other does. The result of this practice is often humbling; for it is rare that others take as much care in excusing and overlooking our faults as we are prone to do on our own behalf. Through this practice one also becomes freshly aware of the ways in which one’s life blocks, rather than lets through, the light of Christ’s grace. At the heart of Christianity lies the sinner, grateful for God’s mercy. This is the mystery of Christianity”but in the attitudes of mind, will, and heart that it asks of us not altogether distant. It is different from the mystery of Israel.
Thanks to Robert Greer Cohn for his emphasis on fecund vitalities in the present. Perhaps he would also agree that the word “synthesis” is ambiguous. Syncretism is not the same thing as symphony, and I much prefer the latter. While in friendship Christians and Jews may come to cherish what is deepest in the religion of the other, the Jew would not seem to be Jewish nor the Christian to be Christian if either lost clarity about their points of opposition. For this reason, I try not to use the expression “Judeo-Christian,” which suggests a false amalgam, and much prefer to speak of “Jewish-Christian traditions.” By contrast with radically hostile atheistic currents, in which the survival of both is threatened, there is special reason today to stress shared authorities, loves, and aspirations.
To Charles J. Robbins: Present-day Israel’s claim to statehood is based on more proximate, normal, secular grounds than God’s promise to Abraham. Nonetheless, as with much else about Israel, one is led (as Maritain was led) to note the mystery, the depths, beyond the ordinary. Similarly, in speaking of “the people of Israel to whom a land . . . was given by the true God,” Maritain was thinking in terms of covenant, promise, and faith, not blood and genes alone. So also St. Paul, when he said that God’s promise to Abraham holds true “for all who have Abraham’s faith.”
Vincent McMahon describes well some of the further demands that Christianity would make upon Jews who wish to become, or to think about becoming, Christians. But I think he seriously underestimates two powerful impressions likely to block that path to Jewish Americans today: (1) the memory that many Jews were once coerced into becoming Christians; and (2) the experience of growing up today as a small group in an overwhelmingly Christian culture. These two experiences give rise to an acute awareness that the Christian faith does indeed entail a universal missionary impulse”and also a determination to resist it. Maritain’s point is not that Christians have sometimes behaved badly; it is, rather, that Jews have many reasons to be quite aware of this aspect of Christian teaching while what they are less likely to know is that Christians have many reasons for cherishing Judaism. And cherishing it not only for what Jews and Christians have in common, but also to learn from the ways in which Jews interpret Judaism, often different from the ways in which Christians interpret it. Meanwhile, we can pray for God’s grace to move both of our communities forward in the way He wills, and work to hasten mutual obedience to His will.
Karl E. Brandt misreads Maritain’s sentence that “Judaism speaks to the world of a transcendent order, of the absolute, of mystery, of judgment” by thinking that the subject of that sentence is “Jews” rather than “Judaism.” Still, he is surely right to stress that individuals (of any human group) are infinitely varied. Nonetheless, as Maritain pointed out, it is quite striking how often some Gentiles leap from one instance of the conduct of one Jew to a sentence beginning, “Jews . . . ” It is right to be on guard against such collectivizing impulses, but wrong to impute them to Maritain. As for the “real explanation” of anti-Semitism, I am afraid that it exceeds measure, understanding, and reason itself. It has the emptiness of a surd, the roaring force of malice. If humans are capable of an encounter with the Evil One, near here lies his lair.
Sinner or Sinned-Against?
I was much surprised and disappointed by Jacob Neusner’s sour review of Solomon Schimmel, The Seven Deadly Sins (January). The review complains that Schimmel (a clinical psychologist) never does struggle with the thought of Kant or Hobbes, that he doesn’t continue the debate on sin conducted by Maimonides and Milton, and that, in general, he trods clumsily in other people’s gardens. The result, says Mr. Neusner, is “little more than a collection of banalities and commonplaces.”
Not at all. The burden of Schimmel’s book is that because sin is, among other disadvantages, futile and self-abusive, it counts as a species of folly (a concept familiar to Bible-believers and secularists alike). Schimmel’s project is by apt quotations, examples, and clinical observations to illustrate and amplify this truth in a culture in which it is by no means commonplace. Maybe Neusner, unlike Samuel Johnson, does not think we need to be reminded more often than instructed, or perhaps he already knows all the quotations, or maybe he really does think that such Schimmelian observations as that the slothful are sometimes fervid, and that “it is rare to hear an adult ascribe his unhappiness to a frustrated desire to do good””maybe the reviewer really does think all this is mere table wine, but a lot of us western Michigan Calvinists have been finding such, and other, things in the book pretty rich and revealing.
In any case, to mark Schimmel down for his failure to argue with Aquinas or to engage Kant is vain: Neusner might just as aptly have complained that Schimmel appends no heart-healthy dinner menus for recovering gluttons, or other deadly sinners. Neither of these things was”nor should have been expected to be”on the agenda.
Schimmel’s book, despite certain flaws (he surely doesn’t get Calvinists quite right and Neusner is partly accurate on the deficiencies of the last chapter), is nonetheless so generally clear, thoughtful, sane, and altogether interesting that it would be a pity if readers were scared off by one peculiar review. Schimmel is wise and fair: so is his book. The review, sad to say, was neither.
Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.
Calvin Theological Seminary
Grand Rapids, MI
In his review of my book The Seven Deadly Sins , Jacob Neusner has committed the grave intellectual and moral sin of reviewing a book that he obviously did not read. At most he skimmed a few pages and, as we shall see, one of the two indices. Neusner says, for example, that “in the pages of this book, God makes no appearence at all.” How did he arrive at such an absurd and patently false conclusion? Neusner looked at the Name index under “God” and saw no entry other than “see Lord.” Thus his assertion. However, had he read the book, or even bothered to look at the Subject index under “God,” he would have seen more than eighty (80) page references to “God.”
Neusner says that “Schimmel treats the writings of Reform rabbis with their homiletical free association.” The two works by Reform rabbis cited in the book (Roland Gittleson and Eugene Borowitz) are neither homiletical nor free-associative. Borowitz’s Choosing a Sex Ethic is a sophisticated analysis of four different “sex ethics,” or moral rationales for heterosexual relationships: “healthy orgasm,” “mutual consent,” “love,” and “marriage.” I suggest that Borowitz’s “analysis of the ethical and psychological issues that one should consider in arriving at a mature and honest personal sexual ethic is a model that psychologists might adopt when working with clients who have to decide on their sexual lifestyles . . . . Decisions about one’s sexual behavior should not be made in the heat of passion, or on psychological grounds alone, but must include ethical analysis.”
One further indication that Neusner has yet to read the book that he reviewed: “Why people commit the seven deadly sins doesn’t really interest Schimmel,” he says. The truth, though, is that a substantial section of the chapters devoted to each of the seven deadly sins deals precisely with motives for sinning. In the chapter on Greed, for example, I ask, “Why do people pursue wealth?” and go on to provide nine motives . . . . I conclude “that there are many motives for pursuing money and wealth. Usually several of these combine to influence the behavior of any single individual. The moralists consider inordinate efforts to accumulate possessions as avaricious when our motives are selfish or hedonistic, our means unjust, and we put our trust in riches.” Similar analyses are made for each of the sins. So much for my alleged lack of interest in why people commit the seven deadly sins.
Neusner criticizes me for not mentioning Kant or Hobbes or Bernard Gert and other contemporary moral theologians and philosophers . . . . Had Neusner read the first chapter of the book he would have known that I am writing neither as a theologian nor a philosopher but primarily as a psychologist and student of Jewish and Christian devotional literature. The objective of the book is to bring classical, medieval, and premodern reflections and very practical teachings on emotion, passion, vice, and virtue to the attention of modern, secular individuals and to mental health professionals . . . . To bring to the attention of my audience a penetrating psychological insight of Ecclesiastes, Seneca, Bahya Ibn Pakuda, Francis de Sales, Jeremy Taylor, or Cotton Mather must I really name-drop Kant or Hobbes or Gert? One would hardly know from what Neusner wrote that the book is about psychology and psychotherapy and makes no pretensions to moral philosophy. Unlike Neusner himself, I confide my writing to areas in which I have some competence.
Neusner writes that “You can’t have the advantages of religion if you’re not religious. Religion is not useful. It’s true. Or it’s not true. But it’s never meant to be merely useful.” Well here, at least, we can have a substantive debate . . . . I agree that you can’t have all of the advantages of religion if you’re not religious, but you can have some of them-namely those aspects of religious teachings and understandings of human nature that seem to you to be true . . . . I also agree that religion is never meant to be merely useful. But among the various things it is meant to be, it is also meant to be useful. And so I seek to appropriate from it that which is useful even to those who are not religious but who are striving to lead ethical and spiritually meaningful lives.
Neusner is annoyed by the fact that I quote many authors, as if I am quoting them because of their “authority.” I quote extensively because I want to give neglected thinkers who wrote with brillance and passion an opportunity to be heard by moderns. The only “authority” they have for me is the logic of what they have to say. Unlike so many of my colleagues in the field of psychology, who are ignorant of or hostile to the writings of religious thinkers and Greco-Roman moralists, I find much in what they have to say-and in how they say it-meaningful and practical, whether or not I believe in their particular God or gods.
Neusner mocks my appeal to psychotherapists that they make greater use of art and imagination in devising treatment plans for their patients (a suggestion tangential to the central thesis of the book, which is that psychotherapy is not and should not be value-neutral, although many mental health professionals think that it can be so). Is he unaware of the powerful effects that drama, music, and literature have on shaping human behavior? Why shouldn’t that power be harnessed to therapeutic purposes? Neusner is obviously unaware of bibliotherapy, music therapy, and art therapy, therapeutic approaches that are insufficiently utililized by most psychotherapists.
Neusner finds my book boring. I too find the prose of Name indices boring. As far as the book itself, however, unsolicited readers’ comments (e.g., “Thank you for writing the best book I’ve read in many years”; “Your writing is rich, interesting, and convincing . . . original and of unique value”), reviews by others who have actually read it (including a starred review in Publishers Weekly ”reserved for books of unusual merit and interest) and sales figures suggest that it is actually quite exciting. Perhaps when Neusner has some free time he can read The Seven Deadly Sins and enjoy it too.
Professor of Jewish Education
Jacob Neusner replies:
“At most he skimmed a few pages . . . ” Now, now! Outraged (if utterly baseless) accusations about the reviewer’s not having read the book are to chagrined authors what patriotism is to scoundrels. I regret to deprive Dr. Schimmel of the last refuge for his self-esteem, but I really did read his book, as evidenced by the simple fact that half of the review is devoted to a detailed and meticulously accurate survey of its contents, along with sizable quotations of his clumsy prose. Then I formed an adverse opinion of his book. Now I know the reason. His response does not show the philosophical perspicacity to grasp the central point of my criticism.
I said that the book is not interested in why people sin”though promising “reflections on human nature.” His reply imagines that I meant to allege that he didn’t add up the nine reasons for this sin and the four reasons for that sin. But of course he did exactly that”which is monumentally beside the point. What I had in mind was to hold the book to its professed goal, which was”in Schimmel’s own words”to conduct “reflections on human nature.” That purpose I took to mean, in my words, “human nature on the one side, ethics and moral responsibility on the other.” These enduring mysteries of human nature Schimmel reduces to “motives for sinning.” But the nine “motives for sinning” are not the same thing as the profound reflections on human nature such as Gert (among many) in our own time, Kant and Hobbes in times past”and, in Scripture, Jeremiah and Paul, not to mention the Author of Genesis One through Eleven!”undertook.
Schimmel’s book surveys everything but the main thing, because all it really does is cite and quote and paraphrase, but never interpret and explain and speculate. In this intemperate and unfortunate screed of his, Schimmel himself sets forth the best vindication of my criticism of his book when he notes his “nine motives” for the pursuit of wealth as ample proof that he has discussed human nature as do Kant, Hobbes, and Gert, Moses, Jeremiah, and Paul. But his book is an anthology, a scrapbook, for all it does is collect and arrange this and that. Now come the loud huzzahs of self-praise and self-promotion to celebrate the book’s “accomplishment” (“a starred review in Publishers Weekly “ indeed!).
I said Schimmel’s book was a collection of banalities and commonplaces, a pedestrian exercise in intellectually primitive collecting and arranging, and now Schimmel’s reply sets out to prove I understated matters. I offer in defense of my review’s judgment this splenetic response of his, which once more reminds us never to lose our temper in print.
I would like to correct an error in my review of J. A. DiNoia’s The Diversity of Religions (February). In discussing the doctrine that “there is no salvation outside the church,” I noted that the stricture applied “primarily not to non-Christians” but to Christians who had turned from the Church. The qualifying non- was inadvertently omitted.
New York, NY