Rémi Brague famously described Europe as having an “eccentric identity.” He meant that Europe’s culture is one whose resources come from elsewhere, so that rather than looking inward for inspiration, Europe looks outward. At the secular basis of European culture, the Romans knew themselves to be entirely indebted to the Greeks for their art, their philosophy, and their literature. At the spiritual heart of Europe, the Christians knew themselves to be permanently dependent upon the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets.
Many religions are built on religions that preceded them and which the late-comers claim to supersede. Drawing on a subversive reconfiguration of their texts, Islam claims to supersede Judaism and Christianity. With its new revelation through Joseph Smith, Mormonism claims to supersede Christianity. Supersessionism among religions is usually “Darwinian” in nature: The larger beast drives out the weaker, less evolved beast and takes over its habitat, effectively driving it to extinction and replacing it.
Today it is a matter of debate among Christian theologians whether Christians must be “supersessionist” with respect to Judaism. Whatever “supersessionism” would amount to in Christianity, it could not be the process of a bigger critter’s assimilating the terrain and function of a less adaptable species. Brague distinguishes between relations of “assimilation” and “inclusion”: When one culture assimilates another, it thoroughly digests it, so that the digested culture ceases to exist as itself. Cultural assimilation occurs when cultural forms are translated into one’s own “higher” culture without residue, and the originals discarded. Brague’s assimilation is what we today call “cultural appropriation.” By contrast, cultural “inclusion” occurs when the original is retained as itself. “Inclusive cultures” do not, Brague says, so much translate artifacts into their own languages as comment on those artifacts while leaving them intact. Europe has tended to comment upon and gloss its “author cultures,” rather than eat them whole. And so, Christianity’s “inclusion” of Judaism has required that Judaism remain Jewish. Christianity’s “secondarity” or derivativeness is not merely temporal, a matter of coming afterward: “The Old Covenant is not a past from which the New one distanced itself progressively; it is rather a permanent foundation.” “Founding-upon,” or inclusion, is a non-competitive action, which requires the founding and inspiring culture to remain itself.
But why is Christianity oriented toward Judaism? Is it because Christianity and Judaism are both inherently “commentarial”? Even before the development of rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., Judaism seems to have knitted together with midrash. Modern historical criticism has, of course, found the Hebrew scriptures to consist of layer upon layer of midrash, interpretation laying inextricably upon and within the stories, the psalms commenting on the history books, the law intercalated with prophecy, and the prophets glossing the Deuteronomists. Above and beyond the scriptural texts, and interpreting it, there is the oral law, perhaps the most primitive strand. No wonder legends abound among the philologists and historical critics of Ur-Epic poems lying behind the Pentateuch and hypothetical documents fortuitously filling the gaps in the development of the Tanach. Everything in Hebrew scripture points to something behind and beyond it, upon which it is a humbly observant commentary. It is as if, no matter how sacred it knows itself to be, the scripture likewise knows itself to be secondary to and derivative of something greater.
If, as Brague says, “the relationship of secondarity toward a preceding religion is found between Christianity and Judaism and between these two alone,” what links Christianity and Judaism is that neither of them is actually a “religion of the Book”—neither of them has sacred scripture at its very heart and core. Both Judaism and Christianity are “commentarial,” midrashic traditions because both regard scripture as a secondary witness to something infinitely greater, namely, the presence of God with his people. The revelation of God to Moses at Mount Sinai transcends the Mosaic record, as do the historical events to which the New Testament authors testify. What really matters to Judaism is that God parted the Red Sea and liberated the people from Egypt; what matters in Christianity is the Resurrection. Scripture itself, for both Judaism and Christianity, is merely a tattered record of a dazzling display of divine glory. Scripture and its inspiration matter. But the events to which scripture points are the true foundation of Judaism and of Christianity. Scripture belongs to us, but our foundation is outside and beyond.
The great Jewish scholar Franz Rosenzweig put it this way:
In Islam, revelation is not a living event between God and man, an occurrence into which God himself enters even unto his own complete self-negation, his divine self-sacrifice. Rather it is a freely offered gift which God places into the hands of man. As if to signalize this, revelation in Islam is . . . a book. The first word of the revelation to Mohammed says: Read! He is shown the page of a book; it is a book that the archangel brings down to him from heaven in the night of the revelation. For Judaism, the oral law counts as older and holier than the written law, and Jesus left no written word to his followers. Islam, however, is a religion of the book from its first moment on; the book is sent down from heaven. Can there be a more thorough renunciation of the concept that God himself “descends,” himself gives himself, surrenders himself to man? He sits enthroned in his heaven of heavens and presents to man—a book.
Hans Urs von Balthasar makes a Catholic midrash on Rosenzweig’s point in observing that “Christianity is not (like the Koran, for example), a ‘teaching’ that has fallen from heaven but an interaction” between God and humanity, “a kind of negotiation between two parties.”
These claims sound paradoxical because of the intensely text-oriented cultures that Christianity and especially Judaism have promoted. But perhaps only a faith that displaces the book, replacing it with events that are properly “hors du texte,” can generate a bookish culture. The more the sacred text is sacralized, the less books are respected in the attendant culture. Commentary thrives in Judaism because the sacred text itself is merely a marginal note on the creative and salvific action of God.
Neither Judaism nor Christianity fully relates to a book seen as the origin and foundation of faith. Biblical faith, whether Jewish or Christian, is not in a text but in God’s action. The referent of Jewish and of Christian faith is the God who is believed to be with us and for us. All else is commentary. Brague observes, “European culture is in this way marked by the melancholic feeling of an alienation or inferiority in relation to a source, which provokes a feeling of nostalgia.” Just as Roman tourists long ago in ancient Greece and American tourists in Rome today have the experience of alienation and homesickness, so all heirs to the original Jewish revelation, both Jews and Christians, experience nostalgia for that “beyond” of the text where it all got started.
Such “eccentric faith” is rare among the so-called “religions of the world”—“so called” because the category of “religion” groups together diverse tribes engaged in disparate activities for quite distinct ends. “Aha!” says the sociologist as he lights upon a point of commonality, “sacred texts! in Buddhism! In Judaism! In Islam! In Sufism!” It is an ill-kept secret, though it may not have penetrated to all the sociologists of religion, that all writers regard their words as sacred and their books as bordering on “sacred texts.” Writers ascribe a near-magical (“near” is generous) potency to their precise words, such that most will prescribe “reading my article” or “studying my book” as a sure-fire remedy for intellectual and even moral error. The struggles of composition, and of finding the perfect expression, convince most authors that reading their very words in the exact form and order in which they were published is salutary in itself. Whatever their soteriologies, most of the so-called “religions” follow suit, and assign salvific powers to their “sacred texts.” A little piece of the human soul is indeed projected and extruded into these wondrous books. Only Judaism and, following it, Christianity, study their sacred texts vigorously but regard them as aslant to the revelation itself. Only in Judaism and Christianity is faith eccentric to the Book, glancing off it at a tangent.
Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is writing a fortnightly blog on religion.