Commentary Magazine


Christianity and the Children of Israel, by A. Roy Eckardt

Christian Theology and the Jews
Christianity and the Children of Israel.
by A. Roy Eckardt.
New York, King’s Crown Press, 1948. 223 pp. $3.00.

 

Mr. Eckardt, who is an exponent of “neo-Reformation” Protestant Orthodoxy as preached by Paul Tillich and Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, has chosen a difficult and delicate subject: With the decline of religious liberalism—whose central dogma was the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God—and the perceptible emergence of a new Christian orthodoxy, is there danger of a consequent spur to anti-Semitism? Will the emphasis upon Jesus as the Christ, rather than as one religious genius among many, inspire distrust and intolerance against those who reject this belief? And if so, on what grounds can—or must—a Christian oppose anti-Semitism?

Fortunately, the situation is not nearly so dangerous as these questions might indicate. Religious liberalism may have lost ground in recent years, and its prospects blanch slightly with each religious need it leaves unfulfilled and each religious question it insists upon ignoring—but it is still very powerful in American life. More important, one provision of its legacy which the new orthodoxy eagerly accepts is biblical criticism, even to the extent of discarding parts of the New Testament that have been demonstrated to be inauthentic. (This disposes of a vast amount of double-talk concerning the Crucifixion and who was to “blame.”) Another provision is the desirability of toleration and goodwill in the secular world, and an awareness of the destructive potency of religious hatred. Because Mr. Eckardt is a responsible and well-wishing citizen of a democratic society, he wants Christian theology to eliminate every last niche in which the anti-Semite might take refuge.

With this in mind, he sees it as his task to supply a “theology for the Jewish question,” to make it as consistent and meaningful as possible, and to distinguish it from the theologies of Orthodox Protestantism, Catholicism, and so on. This last is accomplished by distinguishing two kinds of Christian churches, the relativistic and the absolutistic, according to the emphasis they place upon their own special institutions or beliefs as prerequisites of salvation. Thus the Catholics, who equate church and truth, and the Orthodox Protestants, who equate Bible and truth, are absolutistic. On the other hand, religious liberalism and “neo-Reformation” Protestantism are relativistic because, while they insist that what they believe is true, they shy away from any claim to a monopoly of the truth; both possess, in some form or other, the concept of the “hidden Christ” who may be served by those not acknowledging the historical Christ.

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The theology that Mr. Eckardt arrives at makes no claim to omniscience, but rather states that “the Jews embody for us a transcendent mystery . . . . As in divine revelation, in which God is at the same time manifest and hidden—always remaining a mystery—so we are able to know something about the Jewish plight, but not what it is . . . . ” The Jews are a chosen people (not the chosen people) with a divine message, a messianic vocation; they play a special role in the divine economy, testifying through all times for the eternal lord against the distortions of paganism—whether these take the form of an idolatry of the state, the church, the holy books, a nation, or a class. In performing this mission, the Jews incur the hostility of the would-be pagans, which breaks forth as anti-Semitism, taking a different form according to circumstance. In the medieval epoch, the Roman Catholic idolization of the temporal church gave rise to religious anti-Semitism; when the Nazis wished to do the same for the state, they regarded the Jews as their natural enemies.

This analysis is provocative (as well as extremely generous to Jewish sensibilities) and Mr. Eckardt buttresses it with painstaking research and close reasoning. There is no doubt in my mind that if the world thought as he did there would be no anti-Semitism. But I am also sure that there would be no anti-Semitism if all men thought as did John Dewey, Gandhi, or St. Francis of Assisi. The pragmatic test of a philosophy is what it turns out to be when it has filtered through the minds and emotions of the mass of men, and in this respect the possibilities of “neo-Reformation” Orthodoxy seem to have some ominous contours. Theology, whatever its special sociological or historical insights, is ultimately occupied with the relation of man to man and man to God. May not the attempt to incorporate within it, as a primary concept, the idea of “people” or “nation” (whatever it is that the Jews are), be the very first idolatrous act? Can there be any exception in theology to the universal identity of man that does not work to the disadvantage of man, theology,—and Jews? And this is as much the case where the premise of universal identity is granted, only to be whittled away by later, and apparently harmless or even well-intentioned, amendment.

The question remains: is there such a thing as a Jewish mission and a Jewish condition different from the human mission and the human condition? Or is Judaism only a unique experience of this condition, analogous and parallel to other unique experiences? To date, both Jewish and Christian thinkers seem content to whip both flanks of a paradox: they vilify the anti-Semite in the same breath that they point to his activities as necessary proof of the Jews’ status as deputized representatives of God. This paradox is a standing challenge to responsible theology, and though it would be brash to insist on a quick and final resolution, it may not be presumptuous to ask that it be faced up to.

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