Lots of people have been reflecting on the Six Day War this month: the combat, the diplomacy, the subsequent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. I have consumed much of this writing as someone who works on Middle East issues, but have concluded that of all the fascinating aspects of the war, none is more fascinating, indeed baffling, than the fact that it happened at all. Even the most careless observer of history must pause at the sight of Jewish soldiers retaking their ancient capital, eighteen centuries after Titus destroyed it.
Man, through his agency, shapes history. But certain historical forces act as a kind of gravitational restraint on the high-minded purposes of man. Thinkers like Samuel Huntington and Robert Kaplan have done much to remind us of the pull of culture and geography on world affairs. For the Christian statesman, there is another force that must be kept in mind: the hand of providence, which guides our human choices toward a sovereign end.
The greatest evidence of that divine hand, as noted by many Christians over the centuries, is the enduring historical significance of the people and land of Israel. It reminds us that the 1967 war wasn’t significant because it happened in six days; it was significant because, yet again, the Jewish people and their city are moving at the center of history.
“A really good statesman or man of action,” wrote Jacques Maritain, “even in the religious field, should be equipped with some genuine philosophy of history.” Maritain spent a good part of his life working to develop the framework for a Christian-inspired social and political order, and he believed that its emergence depended first of all on a Christian appreciation of the Grand Story.
At the center of Maritain’s philosophy of history are a series of cosmic mysteries: the mystery of the world, the mystery of the Church, and, equally important for him, the mystery of Israel. For Maritain, the mystery of Israel—the Jewish people’s chosenness, fall, and future restoration—is not incidental to the story of redemption. It is “the most profound secret of divine providence,” the “most important datum of revealed wisdom,” and a unique insight into the relationship between the efforts of man and the eternal purposes of God.
For Maritain, Israel is an immanent agent of transcendent divinity: both a witness of God’s hand in history and “a living and indestructible depository of the promise of God.” Maritain describes Israel’s function as “a living yeast mixed into the main body” of the world, “to irritate it, to exasperate it, to move it,” even when Israel remains unaware. For Maritain, the place of Israel in history is no less important than that of the church. “There is a suprahuman relation,” he confesses, “between Israel and the world as there is between the church and the world.” Israel’s role is in fact so indispensable to the overall human story that Maritain sees any attempt to find a complete solution to the Jewish question to be impossible—as likely as halting the movement of history. There will always be a Jewish question, in one sense or another.
This does not mean that Maritain abandons any hope of Jewish agency in history. He affirms that, though the problem of Israel will never be solved before the eschaton, there are “nevertheless certain solutions, partial or provisional … whose disentanglement is the duty of political wisdom and which it is the task of various historical periods to attempt.” He is particularly aware of the project of modern Israel, and views the Zionist movement as having “historic importance of the first order,” a thing to which “no mind aware of the unfolding of prophecy throughout history can be indifferent.”
This spiritual view of Israel has not been confined to Catholics. A close reading of scripture has also led many Protestants over the centuries to see in the Jewish people a historical significance that is qualitatively different from that of other nations. Take this passage, written in 1709, from William Whiston, disciple of Isaac Newton and heir of Newton’s chair as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge:
I observe that the restoration of the Jews to their own land … is not a thing of doubt or uncertainty in the prophetic writings, but the thing that above all others they everywhere foretell and describe in the plainest and most emphatical words imaginable.
Many other Protestants, even in the earliest eras of the Protestant movement and across its several branches, made similar observations.
And lest Catholics and Protestants get all the glory, take this passage from a 1952 Foreign Affairs essay written by Orthodox Lebanese philosopher and statesman Charles Malik, about challenges of the modern Middle East:
The word “Israel” is mentioned seventy-four times in the New Testament. Is this fact … entirely unrelated to what exists in Palestine today? Christian theology has pondered most responsibly the mystery of “Israel” in relation to Christ. Are we to believe that its conclusions can have no bearing on present-day facts? Jerusalem is made a political center. But can the world ever forget the salvation wrought in Jerusalem? Zealots and politicians, whether Western, Jewish or Arab, would of course mock at these questions; but according to the truth, which is quite independent of all zeal and all politics, the challenge of love we are trying here to glimpse holds every determination in its hands, including above all that of Israel.
Ecumenical consensus is rare. That the people of Israel should be the agent for it, however, should not be surprising. Whether their feelings are positive or negative, Christians tend to unify around the presence of the Jewish people in the world.
Fifty years ago, a Jewish army retook the ancient city of Jerusalem in a short but bitter war. Many complications have arisen in the aftermath of that war, each one deserving attention. Recognizing providence is only the beginning of the Christian’s responsibility; after that come important inquiries about human rights, reconciliation, and justice.
Recognizing providence means recognizing something mysterious in history, something bigger and more meaningful than the daily sum of events. There is a plan. There is a God who is acting in history. He hasn’t abandoned us, even though he has every right to do so.
Some Christians will leap straight from a recognition of providence to some rigorous eschatological paradigm. But though we should ask ourselves where all this is going, such paradigms often have an effect opposite to the one intended. Our drive to solve everything causes us to miss the fearsome fact of providence itself: a supreme creator being, made of we know not what, working out there in space-time, standing in judgment over a creature that he loves enough to come in here to redeem us.
Providence should inspire the most visceral kind of humility for any Christian working to discern truth and make tough decisions in a fallen world. We are not fatalists. But we must be reminded that our agency, though real, is not the end of the story.
May the sight of Jerusalem bring us this humility. May we marvel at its permanence in a world of the passing, this city whose name is inscribed on the pages of ancient texts that proclaim, beyond all comprehension, its eternal significance in the affairs of men. Neither the Jews who took Jerusalem in 1967, nor the Christians who watched, fully comprehended Jerusalem’s role, let alone that of the Jewish people, in the ultimate plan of history. Those secrets, along with all secrets, remain hidden in the mind of God.
We must simply acknowledge that truth, and stand in awe before it.
Robert Nicholson is the executive director of The Philos Project.