“And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
This past spring, I had a conversation with a fellow on the train as the Cardinal Line coursed through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. He was a lapsed Episcopalian, which I considered rather redundant. We had a pleasant talk about religion wherein he mentioned doctrines that troubled him and I defended them in ways that made them less objectionable to him. I then wanted to share something about the Christian religion that I found problematic, but as I began to speak, I discovered an appropriate rejoinder. It was an odd experience. Am I an apologist in spite of myself?
I had wanted to complain about the repeated injunctions in the scriptures to believe. My skeptical side has always disliked these passages, finding them inexplicable and even embarrassing. I do not want to believe; I want to understand. Moreover, I want solid reasons to accompany that understanding. Exhortations to belief struck me as a fraud’s gimmick to sucker in folks. I never judged the evangelists as snake oil peddlers, but certain passages in the bible made me uncomfortable. Paul and Silas preach, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” John writes, “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Mark writes, “Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” There are scores upon scores of such examples, and they are targets for skeptics who care not for blind belief. I am sympathetic to them.
As I was relaying these objections to my fellow Amtrak passenger, a simple explanation came. My interlocutor never knew that my objections were not rhetorical. This unforeseen answer reminded me an earlier objection that I had about the anthropomorphism in the scriptures’ depiction of a wrathful, vindictive God. When that thought bothered me, I happened to come across some patristic texts that addressed the problem, though I do not remember which. The basic idea was that the scriptures are written for men—for their edification and for their salvation. Hence, the inspired texts speak to men at their level. Portrayals of a wrathful, jealous God do not depict God as he is but rather address us pastorally. Most of us have had loving fathers who corrected us. Fathers employ anger, disappointment, approval, sadness, and joy in pedagogy, and we grow up with an intimate recognition of these emotional tools. Holy writ taps into our human psychology to instruct us in the ways of the Lord. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but it is not the end of it.
Similarly, it occurred to me that the recurring invitations in the bible to believe may also be pastoral. Rather than seedy priestcraft, the call to believe is like a physician’s request that a patient trust him. Unless the patient believes that the physician is able to help him, he will not likely follow the doctor’s advice. Trust necessarily precedes the assistance that the physician may offer. Likewise, Christ the Healer offers us medicine, but we must first accept that it is medicine rather than poison. We must have faith in the physician. This is so obvious to me now, and it is likely a commonplace thought among Christians, but I never realized it before. One must believe before one knows in almost any discipline, since one must trust his teacher before he attains knowledge. How much more necessary is trust when we are dealing not with mere knowledge but with salvation?
Hillel Ofek published an interesting article in The New Atlantis, “Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science.” The article is informative, though not without fault. For instance, it contains a ridiculous quotation by an Islamic Studies plant, Jamil Ragep: “Nothing in Europe could hold a candle to what was going on in the Islamic world until about 1600.” Even if we grant the Dar al Islam Averroes and Maimonides, since they inhabited that civilization, we should not underestimate the splendor of Western intellectual achievement in the scholastic age and afterward. Albert, Thomas, John Duns Scotus, Dante Alighieri, William of Ockham, Desiderius Erasmus, and Niccolò Machiavelli are just some of the illustrious minds in the West before A.D. 1600, and who were their Arabic counterparts to whom they could not hold a candle? Moreover, the article betrays the typical Western ignorance of intellectual activities in the Eastern Roman Empire. Nonetheless, the essay poses an interesting question—one that Averroes answered nine centuries before when he warned about the corrupting influences of Mohammedan theologians.
I wish those on the old calendar a blessed feast of the Transfiguration, as well as a happy birthday to my sister.
The gospels do not specify upon which mountain the Transfiguration occurred, though Christian tradition holds that it was Mount Tabor. Christians have made pilgrimages to the mount since antiquity, though the Mohammedans demolished all Christian edifices in the thirteenth century. Centuries later, the Ottomans allowed first the Franciscans and then the Orthodox to rebuild monasteries and temples on Mount Tabor. The site BibleWalks has pictures and information, and there is another page for the Orthodox Monastery of Saint Elijah.
Interestingly and coincidentally, my sister’s namesake has a historical connection to Mount Tabor, as recounted in the fourth chapter of the Book of Judges.
Last month, I gently criticized the Orthodox Church in America in “An Illness in Orthodox America.” I fear that the problems might be more grave. Take, for instance, the issue of Wonder dedicated to the relationship between Christianity and secular politics. Wonder is a publication of the O.C.A. Department of Youth, not merely someone’s private blog. Even a bishop has an article in the publication, and it betrays, under the banner of tolerance, the pusillanimous stance of a retreating Christianity unwilling to uphold the moral tradition of the Church and of the civilized West. One’s responsibility for his own spiritual state does not negate his social responsibilities. One’s lack of ultimate spiritual perfection must not paralyze him from tending to more worldly duties.That some Christians seem unable to grasp this reveals a rot in Christendom. Nietzsche saw it, and he condemned the entire religion. The other articles echo the convoluted excuses of prolife Democrats who vote for abortion rights politicians, as if there were an equivalency between tax policy and legalized abortion. The Christian tradition has no set political philosophy regarding socialism, whereas Christian civilization is unanimous in its condemnation of child murder. Christians of good will may disagree about energy policy and the welfare state, but Christians cannot in good conscience support attacks on the fundamental natural laws of the human community. Only one party has declared war against divine law and human nature. Yet, some on the “religious Left” want to carry water for the theomachists.
Perhaps even more troubling are signs that some folks in the O.C.A. are in open rebellion against the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, including priests and possibly bishops. Read “Same-Sex Marriage and the Revolt Against Metropolitan Jonah” and “A Pastoral Counselor’s take on Leonova’s FB Group.” In addition to other unpleasantries that have surfaced in the last year, many O.C.A. members are concerned about a Facebook group in the Diocese of Boston that appears to seek the normalization of homosexuality in pastoral practice. That would not be disturbing if the members of the group did not include the bishop and several priests. I have been skeptical over insinuations of the “Lavender Mafia” in response to the political crisis in which Metropolitan Jonah finds himself. Perhaps, I have been naive about the extent of a Protestant style revolt.
What ever happend to Christian sinners’ acceptance of their shortcomings and the high probability of their damnation? Is it a sign of our age’s intolerable narcissism that everyone wishes to rewrite the law, history, and even holy writ to justify his own personal foibles. It is so petty and pedestrian; I find it difficult to believe that homosexuals have sunk to such a level of bourgeois self adulation. Can you imagine Wilde or Proust being so dishonest with themselves?
When I first encountered the simple medieval procedure for testing the truth of revealed religion, I was thrilled. It only works negatively, though; so, it has its limits. The basic argument is that there is divinely revealed truth that is inaccessible to human reason on its own and there is divinely revealed truth that is accessible to human reason on its own. A revelatory tradition that teaches doctrines that conflict with what human reason is able to know is not trustworthy, and a revelatory tradition that teaches doctrines that accord with what human reason is able to know has not disqualified itself. This process does not assure the truthfulness of a revelatory tradition, but it does winnow out falsehood.
Yet, there are many problems with this procedure, including the frailty of human reason as manifested in most men. It is pleasant to think that human beings can easily overcome controversy through rational dialogue, but such dialectical ascent evades the bulk of mankind. Even the wisest find answers to the truly important questions difficult or indiscernible. Hence, the schoolmen argue for authority and divine revelation as assistance to the weak human mind. However, one must choose his authorities wisely; for we know that the world is full of liars and sowers of confusion. Therein, one sees the circular problem. How does the ignorant man wisely choose an authority to follow in order to spare him from his ignorance? In the end, each individual must make that choice, though the beneficial consequence of that choice is really required to make it.
The issue is quite practical. If we wish to serve God, how do we know whom to serve when, in our ignorance, we do not know who is telling the truth about ultimate matters? In the book of Genesis, we read the striking story of Abraham’s planned sacrifice of Isaac. The account serves to demonstrate Abraham’s faith and devotion, but a skeptical reader might think that Abraham was a naive dupe who happened, fortunately, to follow the true Lord (that hypothetical reader must not be too skeptical). For God’s command should have been repugnant to Abraham. Were he to have followed the aforementioned scholastic advice, he would have asked God to leave him. The pious man replies that Abraham trusted God more than he trusted his own sense of right and wrong, but that is precisely the problem. How does one discern messages from God from those of other sources without relying on one’s own wisdom?
Perhaps, Abraham developed enough trust in the Lord, gained from the many years during which he served God before he was asked to sacrifice his son, that he would obey despite the ostensibly heinous request. One might ask what the value of trust is if it is to be continuously questioned. Nonetheless, would not Abraham have good reason to suspect that the Adversary was attempting to lead him to evil under the guise of God? However, maybe one cannot mistake evil for God once one knows God.
These sorts of questions lead me to think that we have been blessed with more spiritual faculties than simply discursive or analytic reason. As I have written before, I think that we might have something like a faculty of faith. If the peasant can commune with God as well as the philosopher, perhaps our principal organ for dealing with the divine is not our mind. Abraham’s fidelity and righteousness might have resulted from his superior employment of this faculty.
Yesterday, I commended the Israelis for performing Wagner in “Jews at Bayreuth.” Today, however, I have nothing but scorn for the Jerusalem Post‘s anti-Christian screed, “A Christian scholar on ‘why antisemitism, why the Holocaust?’” David Turner reviews William Nicholls’ Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate as a pretext for attacking Christianity, proving once again that hate—a profound, blistering, ignorant hate—has a home in the hearts of many religions. Unfortunately, Turner cannot really be blamed for not knowing that the “Anglican” Nicholls, who serves as his glimpse into Christianity, hates the gospel as much as Turner. How perverse is it that Nicholl’s eponym was an Anglican divine who wrote—approvingly—of the Book of Common Prayer?
Turner’s-by-Nicholl’s major point is that Christianity is anti-Semitic because of an insecurity complex. That Jews persist strikes terror in Christian hearts because their unbelief calls Jesus’ claims into question. The most frustrating aspects to interreligious dialogue are that people generally know very little about other people’s religions and that people generally do not even try to understand religions on their own terms. Such is obvious in this case for the Jew Turner and the heathen Nicholls, though one would think that a biblically literate Jew would know better. Was Abraham “insecure” when he noticed immoral paganism in his travels? Was Moses “insecure” when the pharaoh’s heart hardened? Were he and the judges “insecure” when the people continually rebelled? Were the Jews after the division of the kingdom “insecure” because many, perhaps most, of their brethren forsook the temple cult in Jerusalem? Were the prophets “insecure” because of idolatrous kings? I always thought that they preached God’s messages to errant and fallen people; I never considered that their prophesies resulted from “insecurity” about some of their listeners’ failing to heed God’s words.
The entire history of the Abrahamic tradition is about obedience and disobedience to God’s commands. From the garden on, we are shown again and again that some people follow God and others reject God. It is one of the most basic themes in the scriptures. Why, then, would Christians be especially “insecure” that some Jews rejected Christ? Indeed, this rejection of God’s dispensation has been the standard course in human history. Consider Noah’s project, or Job’s friends, or the Hebrews scores upon scores of times. There would have been no prophets if God’s revelations had not continuously been rejected. The new covenant of the gospel, like the previous covenants, was an occasion of disobedience for many men. It is surprising to me, even given ecumenical obstacles, that a rabbinical Jew would fail to notice this.
Curiously, Turner notes, “But Nicholls’ reserves his harshest criticism for Martin Luther, a father of his own reformed church.” From the outside, we might say that Luther was a father of the Anglican religion, but many Anglicans would reject this. It is not an important point, though it further shows Turner’s ignorance of Christian history. And that is a mighty ignorance, tracing, as it does, the holocaust to the gospel:
What is to be done? Even assuming that Christianity would want to repent its two thousand years of Jew-hatred resulting most recently in what is not likely to be the West’s final effort at a Final Solution to its Jewish Problem: Is reform even possible? According to Professor Nicholls the likelihood is negligible. On page 168 he writes, “Christian anti-Judaism is not a later distortion of an originally pure religion. It is embedded in the foundation documents of the faith.”
I deal with the history a bit in “Those Jews” and elsewhere, but no such reasoning can be done with a man whose bigotry refuses to see a religion as anything but a tribal enemy.
Turner also exhibits the revolting rabbinical tic of thinking that only the Jews are clean and that everyone else is an unclean savage:
What, for example, would the Matthew gospel be without its dramatic rendition of the trial of Jesus: of Pilate “washing his hands” (a typically Jewish, not Pagan, custom!); of the Jews self-condemned forever as deicides.
Does he not realize that the idea of the sacred is universally connected with the idea of purity and that other people have been civilized and have believed in spiritual and bodily hygiene for ages? Christians and rabbinical Jews alike inherited this bizarre ignorance of pagans that, thousands of years later, they blithely maintain. Educated Christians seem to move past this idiocy, but rabbinical Jews with learning stubbornly seem to hold onto it. Their attachment to their chosen status is so strong, they appear to get “insecure” by the thought that other nations might wash themselves, cultivate virtue, and excel in intellectual pursuits. But then, what can be done? Hebrew chauvinism is not a later distortion of an originally pure religion. It is embedded in the foundation documents of the faith.
Turner claims that the gospel of John has Jesus refer to the Jews as Satanic:
The John gospel repeatedly describes the Jews as satanic: “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do, (John 8:44).” From there it is a short step to characterizing the Jews as antichrists. John associates the Jews with Satan many more times than all three other canonical gospels combined.
Turner forgets, I suppose, that almost every agent in the gospels is Jewish, from the Theotokos to Caiaphas. Pick any prophet’s chastisements in the Hebrew scriptures, and one would interpret them as Jew hatred using the same hermeneutics.
The golden calf prize for asininity, one kil’ayim of a metaphor, goes to this statement:
And assuming a wave of remorse, a universal need to express penance, what then would remain of Christianity if indeed it did agree to do so? According to Nicholls, “Once all the anti-Jewish elements have been removed from Christianity, what is left turns out to be Judaism (p. 431).”
Turner cannot be blamed for Nicholl’s apostate remark, but he is a fool for using someone like him as his source for Christianity. I assume that his mistake was not done in bad faith. A sane man cannot be expected to understand the insanity that Nicholl’s represents. Turner then goes on to speak of Rome’s changes toward rabbinical Jews, about which I am ignorant. I would not be surprised if Rome had muddled its theological waters, but Christians must be clear that Jesus Christ is not the Lord of the goyim only but of all mankind, first to the Jew, and then to the Greek. Yet, it is this very univeralism that horrifies the rabbinical community, and they readily associate evangelism with the genocide of the holocaust. Even Christian Jews often have this mentality. Maybe, it’s that special status “insecurity.” We wouldn’t want the dogs to get any of God’s crumbs, would we?
Paul Gottfried has a provocative article on Vdare, “A Jewish Conservative Wonders: Is Free Speech Really a Jewish Tradition?” Gottfried examines the leftwing contributions by rabbinical Jews in the United States and traces that history to the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews at the end of the nineteenth century. He contrasts the immigrants from the Pale of Settlement with the earlier Western and Central European Jewish immigrants who never betrayed a hatred of the Christian middle class society in which they had found a home. Some of my own ancestors were among the earlier waves of Jews, as was the bulk of Cincinnati’s Jewish immigrants. Gottfried’s article reminds me of a question that continues to baffle me.
I know little about Jewish history, but I have run into an apparent contradiction that I would like unraveled. From what I have read, the migrations of the 1830’s through the 1860’s resulted, in part, from revolutionary upheavals—aftershocks from the Napoleonic era that resulted in barricades and constitutions. The Europeans who left tended to be middle class liberals who sought a freer life in America. The Reform Jewish movement of Germany—ever a marker of progressive thought—established itself first in Cincinnati as liberal, emancipated German Jews established themselves in the United States. This rabbinical community leant toward secularism and assimilation.
I have also read that Eastern European Jews were far more traditional and religious than their western counterparts, especially in the shtetls. Certainly, when these folks moved to America, they brought Orthodox Judaism with them. They tended to settle in large, industrial eastern cities. The Orthodox rabbinical presence in Cincinnati is minimal, a sign of how “progressive” the earlier German Jews were, in contrast to the vibrant Orthodox communities of New York that developed from the later migrations. Indeed, I have even read that certain Eastern European Jewish groups attempted to correspond with the National Socialists before the Second World War to discuss possible alliances against what the religious Jews saw as the anti-social, destructive anarchism and Marxism of the secular Jewish community. If such is true, these traditional, observant Jewish communities mistakenly thought that the Nazis opposed only the Communism of Jews rather than Jewish blood. They subsequently perished in the holocaust.
How are we to unravel the apparent contradiction? On the one hand, the Jewish Left seems to have populated the earlier German migration, while the Jewish Right seems to have populated the later Eastern European migration. On the other hand, Gottfried’s article and the political activity of the last century point to the reverse. Cincinnati, the homeland of American Reform Judaism, is a town of Jewish Republicans while New York City, a bastion of Hasidism, has been a pinko magnet for generations. What explains this? Were the early liberal Jews, as well as their fellow liberal German Christian immigrants, what Lawrence Auster calls “right-liberals,” who thus were similar in their political and social philosophy as “conservative” Anglo-Saxon Americans? Was the Marxist and anarchist extreme of Eastern European Jews a minority that nevertheless organized well enough to transform their co-ethnics into a reliable leftist block in the new country? Did the Jews who left Eastern Europe “self select,” as traditional and more pious Jews remained? If you know how to make sense of Jewish American politics, please help.