Unconcern

by The New Republic | November 11, 2002

Attention is drawn, as he would say, to the dissent that William F. Buckley, Jr. has made against the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, specifically against its Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. At last his church has gone too far. It has renounced the mission to the Jews, and propounded that the attempt to convert the Jews is "no longer theologically acceptable", since the Jews, too, "abide in covenant with God". Buckley will have none of this decency. He hunted down the heterodoxy in a column last month, in which he endorsed the opinion of the coordinator of Jewish Ministries for the Southern Baptist Convention, who affectingly remarked about the abandonment of the Jews to Judaism that "there can be no more extreme form of anti-Semitism". With the same philo-Semitic compassion Buckley avers that "to say to a Jew that Christians are unconcerned about him is ... less an injunction to acknowledge the covenant of Israel than an act of condescension and indifference". It is as our friend that he asks us to let go of what we are. A missionary lunch at the Grill Room, perhaps?Buckley is the most distinguished anti-anti-Semite in American Catholicism, and so his enthusiasm for the ancient grounds of anti-Semitism--for that was precisely the consequence for the Jews of the supersessionist theology of Paul-- is startling. Even his language about anti-Semitism is suddenly warped. He writes of Pope John Paul II's critical attitude toward "that much of church history that tolerated and encouraged what we would now call anti-Semitism, considered, back then, evangelical ardor." In much the same way, I guess, as lynching was considered, back then, racial ardor. And what we would now call anti-Semitism was called much worse, back then--it was called, say, contra perfidiam Judaeorum. (I choose randomly from the vast Latin lexicon for this hatred.) An affirmation of the Christian mission to the Jews is a delegitimation of Jewish belief, and a delegitimation of Jewish belief is downright un-American, for it flies in the face of the pluralist revolution in religious life that is one of the glories of America. I understand that there is no faith that does not insist upon its exclusive possession of the truth. Judaism, too, awaits the universal acknowledgment of the God of Judaism. But Judaism, which is not exactly "unconcerned" about the destiny of humankind, is content to wait. Impatience is the father of intolerance. I also understand that there are genuine conversions out of my faith and into your faith: spiritual motion can be brutal. For this reason I have never recoiled at the Catholic Church's canonization of Edith Stein. When she became Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, she was no longer ours, even if her murder makes us grieve. So let us take religion seriously, but not stupidly. Buckley grounds his reluctance to let the Jews be Jews in Romans 10, commenting that "St. Paul ... used language that either means nothing at all, in which case nor does any biblical language, or else something beyond the reach of bishops to ignore, let alone undo." This is the sophistry of the settled perspective. For the meaning of biblical language is neither literal nor timeless, as all the great thinkers in all the great traditions recognized. Also, this Jew cheerfully recalls the account in Acts 13 of Paul's exasperating first mission to the Jews: "Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles". There is a column in that. A few months ago Richard John Neuhaus alleged in First Things that I "make no secret of [my] contempt for Christianity". I know what he means. But my "contempt" for Christianity is only intellectual, and I may just as plausibly be accused of "contempt" for Judaism. Let me explain, even if I will certainly be misunderstood. I believe that religion is first and foremost a series of propositions about the universe that are true or false, and that the most pressing task for the mind in the realm of religion is to establish as best it can the truth or the falsity of those propositions. Theology is nothing without philosophy; or more precisely, it is a flight from difficult thinking, a romance of paradoxes, a wallowing in the coherence of a system of beliefs instead of a worrying about the veracity of a system of beliefs. First things, indeed. Now, I have established to my own satisfaction that the materialist analysis of existence is a colossal error, and so I call myself religious in the sense that I find myself on the side of immaterial meanings. (Rationalism has more in common with religion than it often cares to admit.) I can defend this notion of religion, but I am perfectly aware, and sometimes painfully aware, that it is a parched notion of religion, and that it falls far short of the notion of religion that the religions impart. I say painfully, because my loyalty to my own tradition, I mean my intellectual loyalty, is owed to my conviction that it is the most vast and most sophisticated exploration of immaterial meanings that I know; but many of the immaterial meanings that I find in my own tradition strike me as false, as fantasy, and so I cannot accept them. But I have never encountered an idea more unacceptable to my frail, sweating mind than the idea of the Incarnation, of the paternity of God, of the word made flesh. I have always been grateful that this philosophical absurdity is not my problem, that I may dismiss it without a tremor of treason. So if I am stiff-necked it is because I am stiff-brained. And I plead guilty to Neuhaus's charge in one further respect. There is one other stumblingstone. It is the Vatican. There is no place in my heart for it. This is not merely a reflex of collective memory, though I see no reason to forget the cruel and insulting history. As a Jew I do not have only my religion, I also have my honor. My honor makes me unconcerned, except politically, about the Vatican's view of the Jews. Let them keep their hallowed archives closed: if they are opened, I do not expect to learn that all those Jews are still alive and that Pius XII saved them. But there is also the larger question of the authority with which I wish to live. For I do not wish to live without authority, and I do not delude myself that I am myself all the authority that I need for my life; but there is no way, no way at all, ever, that the pope, this pope, any pope, can have spiritual authority for me. He is the leader of the Catholic Church and no more. He does not move me (except as a hero in the struggle against communism, but there were many heroes in that struggle). I rather resent the media's promotion of John Paul II into a teacher of all the world. He is not my teacher. Is this "contempt"? I think that it is a respect for real differences. One can be gracious about the reality of other beliefs even when one cannot be gracious about the content of other beliefs. The name of this graciousness is democracy. Anyway, who would not prefer this "contempt" to that "concern"?

By Leon Wieseltier

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/unconcern