Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has composed a message to the Christian community replete with intellectual light and heartfelt warmth, and it is a great honor to be asked to respond to him. I would like to focus on three topics: creative minorities, universalism, and Christianity in a post-Constantinian age.
First, then, creative minorities. Sacks identifies three forms of creativity in Judaism that have greatly influenced humanity over time. Let’s call these the creativity of internal renewal, cultural mediation, and the construction of the modern mind. It would not be difficult to transpose each of these themes into a Christian key.
Internal renewal. The examples given were Torah education and Talmud. Without a clear identity, you have nothing to give others. To some observers, Christian philosophy and theology in the past fifty years seem a bit dispersed, and driven by trends. Theology must be, above all, scriptural. Does any formation in Christian interpretation of Scripture and intellectual life have an equivalent to the study of the Talmud? Where do we find sound references in an age of uncertainty? (A Dominican Thomist might ask this question in as innocent a voice as possible.) Not in writing dissertations about Giorgio Agamben. Christians must have the courage to acquire solid speculative theological formation. This formation is inherently related to a concrete way of life, a commitment to regular prayer, moral discipline, and a culture of learning.
Cultural mediation. On this point, Maimonides serves as Sacks’ archetype for the creativity of medieval Judaism: a bridge builder. Can the Church today see herself as a meeting point between mutually uncomprehending factions? What comes to mind in this regard is especially the difficulty of mutual understanding between Islam and Western liberal culture, the dialogue between science and religion, the discipline of philosophy and its relationship (or non-relationship) to the wisdom of the great religious traditions. We need Christian mediating figures who prevent the secular West from forgetting its religious roots and the integrity of religious ways of thinking but who also hold religious people accountable to modern forms of rationality.
Construction of the modern mind, contributing to the common good. Sacks gave an interesting and controversial list of Jews who have taken the modern world’s questions seriously on the world’s own terms, making a living contribution that informs secular debates: Spinoza, Marx, Einstein, Freud, Wittgenstein. I won’t try to produce an analogous list drawn from people who dwelt on the periphery of Christianity. Let us simply note that religious minorities are often tempted to draw into themselves and to take refuge in apocalyptic thinking.
But this stance overestimates the power that any secular culture has to sustain itself in the long term. Christians should be interested to create models of rationality that are available to our peers and that can readily inspire the civic sphere. It is important to propose ideal visions of the relations of government and the world religions, of the university as a culture of speculative learning, and of universal human ethics.
On universalism, a brief word. Sacks advocates for creative minorities that do not seek to become “dominant minorities” by means of a universal state or a universal church. He seems to align the tendency toward intellectual universalism with the Hellenistic influence in Western culture, as distinct from the Hebraic voice, which focuses on the particularity of relationships, on love and forgiveness. However, Judaism does contain in itself a profound, inalienable dynamic in view of universality. Sacks notes that Jeremiah is unique in the history of religion because he dissociates religious fidelity to God from geographically, politically, and culturally defined spaces. This is based on the monotheism of Israel and on the Torah’s understanding of the omnipresence of God the creator.
There follows from this a truly universalist perspective. When Thomas Aquinas asks whether the Ten Commandments are suitably enumerated, he mirrors Maimonides in perceiving in the light from Sinai an indication of universal human ethics, something that natural reason, healed by revelation, can recognize in its own way. Judaizing interpretations of Hellenism are present in the intertestamental literature of Ben Sirach and the Book of Wisdom, to say nothing of the Septuagint translation. Engagement with Hellenism did not necessarily create corruptions.
It also created mediations of the kind we have mentioned above, and indeed, we can even speak of conversions: bringing the light of the Greeks under the tutelage of the biblical narrative. The Fathers of the Church were quite concerned to see the heritage of philosophical universalism placed at the service of biblical monotheism, and arguably, in this way, they showed the profound unity of biblical revelation and of universal reason.
These are of course neuralgic issues for Christians today. What use is it to speak today in the public square of the natural law or of the natural character of belief in God? What kind of universalism should we realistically be seeking? Or should we seek to convey the universalism of the truth primarily through gestures of relationship, love, and mercy, as we arguably see in the gestures of Pope Francis? Or is it a matter of doing both at once?
Last, what about Constantine and the notion of established religion? Since the time of the First Vatican Council, Catholics have abandoned the attempt to return to the medieval, politically established forms of Christianity. But being politically disinvested is distinct from being non-missionary. The Church can forgo the pursuit of various forms of universal influence through the state while retaining a universalist missionary identity. On this point, let me simply pose two questions.
First, does the identity of the Church depend upon whether she seeks to instantiate her life in the established forms of civic government? After all, like the Jewish people, the Church has traversed a very great diversity of ages and conditions with a certain amount of creativity. Perhaps she can operate both in a sacral age of government like that of the high Middle Ages and in a secular age like our own, with respective loss and gain in each epoch. This is not to deny that the Church should seek a balanced theological regard toward the Jewish people, one that transcends the fluctuations of history. She must continue to do so.
Second, surely the Jewish people are not a missionary people in the same way that Christians believe they are called to be. But do they really escape giving testimony of an analogous kind? We see that they too have their cross to bear, down through the ages, in witness to the unique and privileged covenant that is their own. Sacks in his book Exodus: The Book of Redemption has claimed that the Exodus narrative is in a sense the metanarrative of the West, providing the keys to a morality that privileges the dignity of peoples who are unknown, the forgotten, the most vulnerable. Friedrich Nietzsche, of course, thought the same thing, and thought that this metanarrative needed to be eradicated. The light of the Torah stands as an offense against the human pretension of those who would seek to place themselves above the law of God, in refusal of the common dignity of human persons.
In an age in which the dignity of human life is so little valued, from conception until natural death, and in which the dignity of marriage as identified by the Torah, and by human reason, is so readily misunderstood, Jews and Christians together are called upon to bear witness to the light of the truth that still proceeds forth from Mount Sinai to all the nations. That, in its own way, is very much a missionary endeavor. And in that endeavor we stand together.
Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is director of the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.