The blow to Christian egos may not be such a bad thing. Christians, particularly those in the West who are heirs to many centuries of political and cultural dominance, must learn to contend with shrinking influence and growing marginalization, even vilification, where they once enjoyed a high, even dominant, status. But the general cultural decline it betokens is a far more serious matter. So contends Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and some of the most powerful parts of his lecture, particularly in the final third or so of his text, testify to the depth of his conviction.
Sacks offers Jeremiah’s words as a starting place for Christians as well as Jews to respond to that decline. He interprets Jeremiah as introducing to human history, through the Jews, the idea of a creative minority devoted to the common good, congenitally averse to the wielding of domineering political power. In Jeremiah’s day, he argues, the Jews had been punished with exile for forgetting this idea, for becoming “obsessed” with politics and worshiping power. Sacks argues that the mission of Jews throughout history is to stand for the principle that religion should never be used to empower dominant majorities or to undermine the principles of diversity and particularity.
Whatever the merits of this view, it represents quite a leap from what Jeremiah actually said. The prophet told his contemporaries to seek the peace and prosperity of the city, not out of some abstract devotion to the common good or the principles of diversity and non-domination but in an appeal to self-interest: “If [the city] prospers, you too will prosper.” It is wise practical advice that Jeremiah is giving. Don’t withdraw into cubbyholes, or go to war with the authorities, because you will lose something you want. Instead, keep on as best you can, and be confident in God’s promises. Relief and restoration will come in his good time.
In short, one works for the good of the city because it is, if one may put it this way, good for the Jews. Jeremiah gives no indication of any larger, more inclusive motive for his instructions. Nor does he point to an obsession with politics as a cause of God’s displeasure. Instead, the sins of idolatry and false prophecy are always uppermost in his mind, and in the same letter (Jer. 29:23) he cries that “they have done outrageous things in Israel; they have committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives and in my name have spoken lies.” He is far more concerned with issues of personal sin and faithlessness than with the kinds of political issues that Sacks invokes.
This is not a merely pedantic point. The underlying problem is that Sacks, in subsuming the Jewish covenantal relationship with God under a larger sociological category called “creative minorities,” runs the risk of defining the Jewish “mission” (and the Christian one as well) in propositional, secular terms. Would it not be better to say that, first and foremost, what God has required of the Jews is that they be his people? And that it is not only a matter of their learning to sing their songs in Babylon, but that their songs should be songs of the Lord?
Hence, I am perplexed by Sacks’ introduction of figures like Freud and Marx, militantly secular men who repudiated such songs and attempted to discredit them in the eyes of others. How can they be considered exemplars of the same creative minority that defined itself by virtue of its covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? In what respect can it be said that such men “live[d] their faith”? Is there not a danger here in failing to distinguish between Jewish belief and Jewish social identity?
Sacks gives us a third reason to be cautious in using the term “creative minority,” by reminding us that Toynbee himself was contemptuous of the Jews and unwilling to find room for them under his term’s rubric. So why use the term at all? Might there not be a better way of getting at what concerns him most: the role that Jewish and Christian minorities might yet play in addressing the sad and declining state of the West? Spengler and Toynbee are not the only two alternatives.
Different from either is the story of exile and return, of sin and redemption, a patterning at the heart of the Hebraic understanding of things, of Jeremiah’s message, and of the story of Joseph (who is for Christians a figure or type of Christ). For believing Jews and believing Christians, this is the pattern of reality itself, the way that their God operates in the world.
The biblical God is not an impersonal Prime Mover but is instead thoroughly personal and radically creative, making the world from nothing, leaving his fingerprints visible everywhere and his image on the face of humankind, though in important ways remaining known to us only by what he has chosen to reveal to us. He delights in dramatic reversals, in which the lowly or the despised or the youngest-born triumphs over those the world seems to have anointed; God shows faithfulness to those who are faithful to him, enabling them to triumph, as Daniel did, over the most overwhelming adversities.
Jeremiah was the avenue by which God conveyed his promise to one very particular people: that after enduring seven decades of exile, and living in repentant faith, they would be restored to their land. (Any effects on the peace and prosperity of Babylon were beside the point.) Belief in such a promise-keeping God implies something different about the nature of historical possibility than do the dynamic and more or less naturalistic accounts of history that Toynbee and Spengler put forward.
So I see a great deal of merit in Sacks’ expressed desire that Christians and Jews emphasize the “Hebraic” side of their faith more than they do. If anything, I would want that Hebraism to be even more robust and to stand for far more than the principle of particularity and anti-universalism. That stronger understanding will give us, in turn, a different way of thinking about what it means for Jews and Christians to be creative minorities.
Which brings us to Sacks’ thoughts about how we might continue to heal the woundedness in the relation between Christians and Jews. Here the principle of particularity is a double-edged knife. The rabbi argues for a pluralism in which all religious groups—particularly those that are now what he calls creative minorities—respect one another and refrain from attempts at conversion or evangelization. But what if the demands of such pluralism mean that a religion cannot be fully itself? What does one do with the Great Commission enjoined upon all Christians, to “go and make disciples of all nations”?
In all its variants, Christianity is evangelistic and conversionist at its very core; that is part of its particularity, of its inmost character. To ask Christians to renounce the evangelistic aspect of their faith is tantamount to asking that they give up their faith entirely.
That, of course, is not how many of the would-be evangelized see the matter, and Jews in particular tend to have very little patience with that position. In that sense, some measure of Jewish fear and distrust of Christian evangelistic passions will always exist and always be justified, so long as Jews are Jews and Christians are Christians. Nor is such tension completely unlike the tension between, say, Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics. Such tension is going to be inevitable in any worthwhile ecumenical effort, and its inevitability needs to be respected. It is the very tension that makes the bow of ecumenism taut.
But history has its reasons that reason cannot understand, and immovable things can move. As Sacks argues, because Christians and Jews now share a kind of minority status in the West, each group has been gradually pushed toward a new openness to the other and toward a growing sense of how much they hold in common. Skeptics may contend that this is merely the common sense of the foxhole, a relationship of convenience or circumstance.
But I suspect there is far more to it than that, and a great deal more common ground yet to be discovered and claimed. And if Pope John XXIII’s powerfully suggestive words—“We are all sons of the same heavenly Father. Among us there must ever be the brightness of love and its practice”—may be taken as an example, some of this common ground may already be inscribed in the biblical texts themselves, waiting for us to find it.
Wilfred M. McClay, a member of First Things’ advisory council, holds the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma.