Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America

By John McWhorter

Sometimes I imagine the following scene: I am seated at a sidewalk café in D.C., having dinner with a friend. Suddenly a troop of Wokesters show up. They command me to repeat their slogan-of-the-hour. Although I don’t disagree with their mantra, I feel that anything I say under coercion can’t be said sincerely – even if I would say it unhesitatingly in other circumstances.

What would I do at that sidewalk café? It’s my view that saying something insincerely in such a context corrupts both the speaker and the coercer. (Be it noted, sincerity has its limits. Of course I wouldn’t say, “I hate your new hairdo.” If you want the unvarnished truth about cosmetic matters, don’t come to me.)  

So why does this imagined scene on a Washington sidewalk seem to me high stakes? Isn’t repeating the mantra-of-the-hour a trivial matter, even if you’re doing it under implied threat? Not something worth spoiling a café dinner over? Well, I don’t always choose the times, the places or the situations of my life. Yet, intuitively, I know:

this one’s not trivial.

It was with that imaginary scene in mind that I sent for McWhorter’s book. Who is McWhorter? The jacket flap tells that he’s a Columbia University professor of “linguistics, American Studies and music history,” has published multiply in prestigious newspapers and magazines, and is the author of “over twenty books.” I’ve seen him before, in discussions on C-Span. Incidentally, he’s black.

He sets the scene for his book by naming three people, a food writer for the NY Times, a Dean of Nursing at a Massachusetts university, and a data processor, each of whom was fired for making some obviously inoffensive remark that was arbitrarily and publicly deemed to be offensive.

I know people who would never themselves participate in a Twitter mob but nevertheless reflexively suppose that victims like these three must have done something to deserve their downfall. Such people have one thing in common: they’ve never had their social faces ripped off.

To show the “heads I win/tails you lose” character of the accusers’ methods, McWhorter lays out ten Wokist antinomies side by side. Here’s one pair from his lineup: “You must strive eternally to understand the experiences of black people.” However, “you can never understand what it is to be black, and if you think you do you’re a racist.” 

Parenthetical remark from me: one reason I deeply enjoyed teaching philosophy was my conviction that, by extending the reasoning powers of students and showing their applicability in real situations, past and present, I was enlarging the power and the freedom of my students. So when I see someone working to subvert the intellectual self-trust of students, rebranding it as “acting white,” and encouraging unreason in its place, I feel outraged on behalf of the young people being seduced or pressured in such a way as to lose free access to their own natural powers.

According to McWhorter, Critical Race Theory makes those very moves. He cites Richard Delgado, a legal scholar and CRT advocate, who advises foregrounding “centuries-long mistreatment” over objective truth, and Regina Austin, also a legal scholar, who’s come out for “lawbreaker culture” that can, she claims, “add a bit of toughness, resilience, bluntness and defiance to contemporary black political discourse …”

Really? There came a point in my own development as a young adult when I decided not to send other people on trips I wasn’t taking.

McWhorter exhibits white people’s Wokery as the strategy of admitting one’s inherited racial privilege along with the guilt of that. By thus embracing one’s moral abjectness, one is in a paradoxically good position to pull moral rank on anybody not self-identified by those code words. On the whole, as I gather, the Woke protect each other, so it is always a good idea to confess your power, privilege and the racism underlying it — to confess it prophylactically, as it were.

In this crude display of pretend identification with the powerless and pretend dissociation from the powerful, I discern an embedded confusion about the nature of power. But not to worry. Plato can help us clear it up in the twinkling of an eye! In the dialogue whose English title is The Republic, Socrates is discussing the nature of political justice when a fellow Athenian named Thrasymachus bursts in, shouting that he knows all about justice. “Justice,” he says, has no ideal meaning. It’s the cover word for what’s really operative: the interest of whoever has more power. It falls to Socrates to point out that the powerful man can be mistaken about where his interest lies. Once Thrasymachus admits that, it isn’t hard to point out a genuine difference between functional power (say, the power to compose a song) and brute power (say, the power to outshout the singer). This ancient distinction, between brute and functional power, the Wokesters seem to have forgotten.

McWhorter offers three policy suggestions, each designed to enhance functional power: 

(1) phonics, to replace the less effective “whole word” approach to teaching children to read. If the child can read, all kinds of worlds, methods and avenues open up; 

(2) legalization of all drugs. If illegal drug dealing – a ruinously easy way to make a dollar – is closed down, young people will be motivated to acquire lawful ways to support themselves; 

(3) vocational schools to teach practical, marketable skills from which a decent living can be made and a successful life built.

I have only one objection to the brave and thoughtful analysis provided by McWhorter. He insists on imputing to Wokery the character of a “religion.” He even puts that word in his subtitle. “I do not mean that these people’s ideology is ‘like’ a religion. … I mean that it actually is a religion.” By repeatedly making that identification, he cuts his book off from a large class of potential readers, including those who may have reasons for faith as sound as his (never-stated) reasons for skepticism. He takes for granted that reasonable people are and must be religious skeptics. That’s not so. 

There’s one other reason for my objection. The concept of “religion” fails to identify his book’s target precisely. The behavior of people who exact confessions as the price of admission to their group, mete out endless and pitiless punishment to the excluded nonmembers, and discount all and every reasonable objection to their doctrines and methods, is not typical of any religion I’ve encountered in my own life. There is, however, one form of group organization that does meet all these criteria: the cult.

Wokery is a cult.

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Our Twenty-Fourth Anniversary

Abbie and Jerry
Wedding Day, January 20th, 1999

As of last Friday, Jerry and I have been married for twenty-four years.  By the time we met, neither of us expected to meet our true love – Mr. and Ms. Right – much less meet the way we did.

I’d even made use of (what stood in my mind for) a traditional marriage broker, putting a petitionary note in a crevice of the Western Wall, the outer retaining wall that was all the Romans left standing of the Second Temple when they destroyed it in Jerusalem in 70 CE.

“Did you pray at The Wall?” my Israeli cousins asked me in their ironically commonsensical tones.

“Of course!” I replied staunchly. “Do you think I’m going to pay the price of a round-trip El Al ticket and not pray at The Wall?”  

My note had been quite simple and straightforward. It said, 

I’d like to meet and marry the right man for me.

A few years later, to my surprise, the man who at the time seemed to me right accepted a job offer from the Sydney University’s Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy. While our union lasted, we had what was probably the longest commuting and epistolary marriage in the profession. During the intervals when I could get to Sydney, we’d join his amusing and cultivated colleagues for lunch at the Staff Club. At the time, I was researching A Good Look at Evil, and they helped steer me to relevant philosophical work from their side of the field. So, as an unexpected side-benefit of an otherwise inharmonious marriage, my book gained a wider scope and readership than it would otherwise have enjoyed. 

Does the God who makes marriages also make divorces? Who can say? In any event, I hadn’t yet given up on the Western Wall. The next time I visited my Israeli cousins, the note that I put in a crevice petitioned for nothing more permanent than the right Romantic Other.

Did that note work any better? Eventually, circumstances led me circuitously to Paris and a reunion with my first Romantic Other. And it was pretty awful. By then, being out of ideas, I decided not to bother God again.

The following fall, the administration of Brooklyn College notified the faculty that it was about to revise our award-winning liberal arts curriculum, replacing it with course offerings that would revolve around … the Borough of Brooklyn! You know, the Philosophy of Brooklyn, Scientific Methods of Brooklyn, Social Sciences of Brooklyn, you get the idea. There was only one other faculty member, a distinguished woman in the History Department, who was prepared to fight it. Margaret King telephoned me and we agreed to meet for lunch at the Graduate Center.  

“Incidentally,” I asked her, after we’d mapped some initial strategic steps, “do you pray?”

“Daily,” she replied promptly.

“Me too. Good. Because that’s about all we have going for us.”

Neither of us seriously imagined winning. My own feeling was that, when my time came, I couldn’t die in peace knowing I’d done nothing to stop this preposterous nonsense.  

Such a battle would of course mean giving up whatever was left of my personal life. I wouldn’t have time to meet my teaching obligations, fight this fight, and also see friends, stop in at a museum or café – even take a walk!

By February, we had got to the point where a faculty vote could be taken on “Brooklyn Connections.” With secret ballots. These were essential since the administration had many ways of making its anger felt if it knew you’d voted against its wishes. The faculty vote went about fifty/fifty. Certainly not a college-wide endorsement. The college president told Margaret and me that he planned to forge ahead with Brooklyn Connections.

We started calling around to see who or what could help save the college’s liberal arts curriculum. One of the organizations dedicated to championing excellence in higher education was located in Washington D.C. It had been founded by a philosopher named Jerry L. Martin. As things turned out, Dr. Martin was about the only one we called who was sympathetic and actually willing to try to help us! By the time – against all odds – that we actually won the fight, Jerry and I had been on the phone almost daily for the remainder of spring term.   

Our conversations, focused on a shared but impersonal objective, gave leeway for a highly personal interest to unfold without my noticing it in time to protect myself. From what might I have sought protection? From a feeling – a REALITY – bigger than my own definite sense of who I had been up to that point. 

How exactly does God make marriages? Did the Creator put this bad idea into the mind of the college president just to set the stage for our true love?

I really don’t know.

You’ll have to ask the theologians.

I just live here.

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Voegelinian Vagaries

“Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” 1907-1918. Henry Ossawa Tanner

In last week’s column, I mentioned that Eric Voegelin is a political philosopher whom I approach – in advance and in principle – with a high degree of respect. Unlike most contemporary thinkers about life at the political level, he is not afraid to find Providential footprints even there. This despite his enormous erudition, relentless productivity and finely honed mind.

Voegelin credits Biblical Israel with a breakthrough insight: that “history” is a plane on which human players like you and me can meet the Providential Player. So it was with a lot of hopeful interest that I started reading Vol. I, Israel and Revelation, the first of the five volumes of his Order and History

Before I go on, I might explain my own sense of how to live on the plane of history. The approach I favor has two aspects. First, respect for chronology, for a life that keeps track of the “before” and “after.” If you have to give testimony under oath, as I’ve done, you’ll be asked, who said or did what first, and what was the response after that.

We live and learn, it is said — but not always and not necessarily. I keep a journal, which records events and acts, along with the question of what I made of them. And I try to keep track of the views I’ve held earlier as well as the later changes, sometimes dramatic and sudden, often subtle and almost imperceptible. This is living in time.

History — the more encompassing category — comes into my life when I too hold views that are held commonly in the culture I live in. The culture encounters challenges, it changes in response, or does not, and I change with it, or do not.

So history is bigger than personal life, but personal life is a piece of history. Each of us is a player in the human story.

Where does divine Providence come into the story? Well, in many ways and many times, but I’ll just replay one incident from my own life.

Some years ago, I was giving a talk at the Center for Process Studies at Claremont University in California. It drew from my book, A Good Look at Evil, specifically the chapter called “Spoiling One’s Story: The Case of Hannah Arendt.” At the Q & A, a dapper gentleman, older than the grad students, seated in the front row, raised his hand. When called on, he began to voice a view, (not pertaining to my paper) that the Jews brought the Holocaust upon themselves in a series of ways that he proceeded to list!

Meanwhile Jerry, also seated in the front row but over to the side, was wondering (as he told me later) what on earth Abigail would say.

As it happens, I had a certain pertinent background. In the course of researching A Good Look at Evil, I’d read a whole lot of Nazi materials: trial testimony, memoirs, minutes of meetings with the Fuhrer. So, without necessarily wanting to be, I’ve become something of an expert on Nazi rhetoric. I knew what I was hearing. No more than Jerry had I the slightest idea “what Abigail would say.” So I looked upward to see or hear Guidance.  It was unexpected, not very academic, but unmistakable:

Don’t interact.

Just denounce.

That’s all.

So I responded, “I denounce you from the floor to the ceiling! I will not enter a discussion on any of these points. These are not ‘facts.’ They are Nazi canards!” He tried to quibble but I refused to pretend that this was an issue to be debated. And we went back to ordinary Q & A.

Is this an exemplary case of divine Providence coming into the plotline of somebody’s life? What worked in my case might not work in a similar case if circumstances were even slightly different. The only thing exemplary about it is that I prayed for guidance and followed the guidance I got. Normally, if there’s time, I don’t just pray for direct guidance. I get human advice too.

To recap: my sense of how to live in history involves keeping track of the before and after of one’s experience and being wholesomely (but not exclusively) open to prayer guidance.

Given these terms, how do I see Voegelin’s account of Biblical life in history? I’ve not finished Vol. I and my view of what he’s doing keeps changing from chapter to chapter, at times from page to page. At certain junctures, I think he completely – disastrously! — misunderstands what he’s reading. At other points, he seems to regather the main inspired threads and put it all rightly together.

For an example of his misreading, take his overview of Deuteronomy. Because it puts the Exodus story into the mouth of Moses, rather than telling it from the vantage point of an omniscient narrator (presumably God), Voegelin says, the “word of God had become the Book of the Torah, written by a Moses who had become a Pharaonic mummy” (p. 365). From this purported downward step, Voegelin traces further decline moments: the canonization of scripture (which he deems “an obstacle to its free unfolding” and — get this — “a sacred incubus”) that will “prevent further reforms,” later produce the “formidable ‘conflicts between science and religion,'” and, still later, “various Gnostic creed movements, as for instance in the [Auguste] Comptean creation of a Torah for the religion de l’humanite, or the formation of a Marxist Torah in the communist movement” (p. 367). Hey, give me a break!

These accusations, bearing a not-so-faint anti-semitic tinge, is what Voegelin manages to get out of Deuteronomy? What he fails to get is one lesson clear to me from my journal keeping. The past keeps changing as it is reintegrated into the present. It’s not the previous events that change. But their focus, meaning or aim gets reconceived. This is what it means to live in history! Despite Voegelin, it’s not a perversion or embalming; it’s the work of keeping the past relevant and alive. It’s how you live and learn!

That said, this is far from the whole story of Voegelin’s wrestlings with the Biblical text. He can pass suddenly from agenda-driven Source Criticism (where anything can symbolize syncretism, Canaanite or other) to inspired respect for the narrative unfolding on the page. Here’s his description of Moses when given his commission at the burning bush: “The command could be rejected only by a man who could never hear it; the man who can hear cannot reject, because he has ontologically entered the will of God, as the will of God has entered him” (p. 407). Quite so: inspiration in action.

What’s going on here? I really don’t know. What I suspect is an unresolved collision between — on the one hand, a culturally inherited, supersessionist assumption that the covenantal torch has been passed to Christian successors, self-anointed as the Only True Israel — and on the other hand, an acknowledgment that the gift of living with God in real time and actual situations is, and continues to be, the gift of the Jews.

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Can Sibling Rivalry Be Ontological?

Bas-relief: Orvieto Cathedral
ca. 1310-31

In the top-floor, high-ceiling, six-room New York apartment where my parents once lived, next to the dining room table and in front of the window, there stood a tall potted plant. It grew and grew, though I don’t recall our giving it any special attention. Unless by “attention” you’d mean emptying the remnants of water glasses and coffee cups into the plant when we cleared the table.

Taking a mystical view, my mother would sometimes say — looking ceilingward –“When the plant touches the ceiling, something wonderful will happen!”

Like many highly intuitive people, my mother could also be crashingly wrong. By the time the plant touched the ceiling, 1245 Madison was on the block and scheduled for demolition.

Somewhat analogously, in the centuries leading up to and following the first century C.E., expectations ran high that something wonderful would happen – such as the overthrow of Roman rule and the simultaneous revival of Jewish political independence under the aegis of Somebody Anointed by heaven. Wolves and lambs would bed down side by side (Isaiah 11:6-9), and people from every nation would “take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (Zechariah 8:23).

Eventually, such expectations climaxed in a last Jewish rebellion, under the vigorous leadership of Bar Kokhba. You can read about it. When it was crushed in approximately 135 of the common era, Jewish political sovereignty had to wait till 1948 for another comeback.

Reflecting on the overthrow of Jewish political hopes, the early Christian writers were pleased to find proof that the covenantal connection with God had been entirely transferred from Jewish to Christian hands. Jews, it was held, had (1) failed to recognize Jesus as God’s Anointed, their promised Messiah.  As a result, (2) God didn’t like Jews any more. This doctrine is known as “supersessionism.”

Claim #1 is interesting, but calls for more parsing and reflective consideration than would be feasible here. About claim #2, there’s the awkward fact that Jews never got the memo. By and large, though they may recast all that in secular humanist terms, even nonbelieving Jews still think God loves them!

In the 20th century, after the fact of the Holocaust had sunk in, various Christian denominations took steps to repudiate supersessionism. If memory serves, my friend and colleague, the late Michael Wyschogrod, was one of the theologian/philosophers negotiating with responsible officials of the Presbyterian Church to get the charge of “deicide” (God-killer) lifted from the collective Jewish people. In consequence, now at last, we’re on a par with the Greeks, ancient and modern, who were never collectively condemned for the unfair execution of Socrates in 399 BCE. So you can bet I’m relieved.

That said, it was just a tad disappointing when, in 2018, the Presbyterian Church USA adopted a BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) resolution targeting only the Jewish state for potentially lethal economic sanctions. At the time, I supported our then rabbi Mitchell Delcau’s decision to ask the local Presbyterian minister for permission to meet with his congregation and talk with them about the BDS resolution.

It’s a lovely old church, situated near where we live, and quite naturally I and a few others joined our rabbi there. The pews were filled. After a few opening remarks, R. Delcau opened the meeting for questions. They came at him — the loaded questions — like arrows fired one after another. Not one that I recall included any sense of Jewish history under Christendom, international law, Israeli law, context — military, religious, demographic or other — or compassion. The rabbi stood there alone, answering each person, patient, truthful and long-suffering, and no one seemed to notice who in that room was the bearer, and sufferer-through, of divine love.

Right now, I’ve been reading Israel and Revelation, the first volume, of Eric Voegelin’s five volume Order and History. He’s an unusual political philosopher, combining awe-inspiring erudition with a courageous willingness to look for evidences of Providential Presence in the long human story. In whatever I’ve previously read of Voegelin, there’s been plentiful evidence of his inspired meticulousness.

So imagine my shock to read in Volume One — as E.V. proceeds with his typically careful, granular respect for the actual text — sudden slides into insultingly intemperate, dogmatically-derived generalizations about the Jews! I won’t take up space with quotes here, but I can, if anyone wants to have ‘em. If you’ve read all through Volume One, I know you’ve seen ‘em too.

Look, this is not the first time in my life I’ve seen anti-Jewish bias in a book. I’m not shocked, shocked for that reason. But I am taken aback to find it in a thinker of this caliber, courage and – for the most part – truthfulness. 

Obviously, neither resolutions by ecclesiastical bodies, nor interfaith gatherings for hand-shaking and hand-rubbing are getting down to the ontological level – the level of being – where this thing still dwells, unimpeded and untouched. How can it be cured —

this ontological

sibling rivalry

at the depths of the being

of God and ourselves?

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New Year’s Day 2023

“The Music Lesson”
Johannes Vermeer, 1662-65

One way I thought to greet this new year was to reread my journal entries over 2022. That would show where and what my struggles had been, what I learned, what the highs and lows were and what the delivered message to me has been.

Like people all round the neighborhood of planet earth, we socialized less and stayed home more than we would have done had 2022 not been one more year-of-the-plague.

However, since Jerry and I are intellectuals, our most telling adventures tend to occur in the mind. So another year spent mostly confined to our home offices didn’t change our lives very much outwardly.  

However, did I mention that my formerly titled Confessions of A Young Philosopher, underwent a name change in the year 2022? Here’s how that happened. Hoping to find the repressed source of my neuropathy, I had undertaken a deep dig – like an archeological dig – into the dark depths of my psyche. If only I could find that source — no matter how horrible it might appear to a lay person — perhaps some skilled psychotherapist could cure me! No more periodic trips to California for treatments! What buried hatreds, resentments, repressions and displacements would I find underlying my neuropathy? I felt really hopeful.

So I checked all around the shadowed corners, searchlight in hand (so to speak) and found … nothing! For a fact, I am pretty experienced with “life reviews,” never having seen any reason to wait till I am clinically dead (as revived cardiac patients and other revenants report) to have one. Consequently, if I found nothing-but-nothing in the way of a repressed psychological cause for my neuropathy, it’s pretty likely that the blankety blank disability was physical after all! Over breakfast, I told Jerry of my disappointment.  

“I guess I’m a very superficial person,” I sighed. “There’s nothing hidden in the depths. What you see is what you get!”

“No,” Jerry replied. “That’s not true. You’re not superficial. You’re deep. Only there’s nothing hidden. You’ve got unhidden depths.”

“Hey! That sounds like a title!” And that’s what it became, with the former title now moved over to occupy the place of subtitle, like so: 

Unhidden Depths:

Confessions of a Young Philosopher.

A writer’s life is composed of words. But the words are thick. They designate realities of experience.

What else went on in the course of the past year? Quite a lot, but right now one other change stands out for me. I hesitate to mention it, since a lot of people might be offended. I am, by birth and upbringing, a New Yorker and I can tell you that no New Yorker talks this way.

What I’m discerning, turning the journal pages of 2022 and skimming the entries – sometimes despondent or frustrated, occasionally pleased by some human encounter, or suspense-filled by a summons I feel guided to follow – is a noticeable … how to say this without apology … rapprochement with God. My connection with God feels more intimate, natural, and accessible.

If in years past I’d heard anyone talk this way, I don’t know what I’d feel.   My default inclination is to take people at their word. So I’d either be (1) intensely curious to know how that person had found such a key and how I could get my hands on it as well, or else (2) envious, or (3) ready to dismiss it as a psychological deformity. I guess my reaction would depend on my assessment of the person reporting the claim.  

So how do I assess myself in the present case? What I notice, when I pay attention, is a feeling more blessed, more safe and more put-together than I’ve ever felt before. Beneath the storm clouds, above the choppy waves, as I row along there appears – as if expressing a truth back of all of it – 

this unquenchable joy.

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Acting in Real Time

Abbie and her grandfather, Rav Tsair

Of all the forms of worship I know about, Biblical religion is the one most wedded to chronology. It carries the message that the action called for cannot be postponed. It must be done now. There is a concomitant duty to remember and commemorate, perhaps because memory is the net in which the now-of-action is retained.

My grandfather who — in my child’s mind – bore a striking physical resemblance to God, once intervened in my consciousness in a fashion illustrative of this point. I had been sitting on the rug at his feet and talking with my sister about the oddities of memory. How is it that we remember some incidents clearly, while others are unaccountably forgotten?

Grandpa leaned down, extending a right-hand forefinger toward me to say,

You will remember this moment

all your life! All your life,

you will remember it!

He was right, obviously, since I did.

The first time I telephoned the organization devoted to academic excellence that Jerry ran in Washington, to describe the college administration’s threats to Brooklyn College’s award-winning core curriculum, and to ask if they could help, Jerry said that, first of all, he’d need documentary evidence of this change in previous college policy.

The following day, the documents were en route to Jerry. I’d learned from experience that the thing needed must be supplied as soon as feasible, because after that something else will be needed just as urgently.

In 1776, Delaware Delegate Caesar A. Rodney got an urgent request to ride to Philadelphia in time for the meeting of the Second Continental Congress the next day. They were scheduled to vote on the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. That night, a thunderstorm was raging. As I understand it, Rodney was feeling distinctly unwell. A decision to stay home would have been justifiable. Instead, he rode through the night to cast the tie-breaking vote for our nation’s independence. Such is the moral face of timeliness.

On December 21st, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the Joint Meeting of Congress to express his country’s gratitude for American assistance already received, and to ask for additional help to meet Ukraine’s ongoing defensive needs.

We live in an ironical age. So we’re psychologically well-barricaded against apparent heroes. Despite all that, as I watched him close up (which the camera permits us to do), it seemed to me that here was another man with an accurate sense of history’s times and chances. As he stood through the standing ovations, his eyes did not widen to take in the applause as anything personal.  

Zelensky stayed on message, and his message was a wide one. If we permit the tyrants of our global neighborhoods to batter adjacent, nonsubmissive peoples and their civic structures for the purpose of forcing surrender, we will be less able to stop tyranny’s next usurpations. 

The fate of nations sometimes hangs in the balance in just that way. It’s not a case of over-dramatization. Rather, it’s an instance of the Iron Law of the Bully. Resist him now. Tomorrow, you’ll be less able to do it. You’ll have fewer resources and more people and nations who no longer trust you.

When an individual representing a nation has the wherewithal rightly to grasp his crisis in its historical context, that phenomenon can be observed in the rightness of the words chosen. Zelensky did not have the eloquence in English of a Lincoln or a Churchill, but the words he chose were visibly integral with the one speaking them.

Something happens to words in that setting. It can perhaps be intimated by reference to the Talmudic sense of language when used at a requisite level of depth, where the speaker is sufficiently integrated with what he is saying. “The actual world is, according to Talmud, a reality composed of words.” Which is to say, words have the possibility of becoming “elements in a conversation with the Creator spoken with intention.”

In such cases, the speaker is not manipulating the audience by feeling out its weaknesses and resentments. Instead, the speaker is alone and listening – trying to hear 

what has to be said.

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Secrets of the Kingdom

Head of a Jewish Woman. Leon Chwistek ca. 1920
National Museum in Warsaw. Photo by: Wilczyński Krzysztof

Years ago, I was in the audience to hear a lecture by Columbia Professor of Ancient History Morton A. Smith who was discussing a verse he claimed to have discovered, anciently deleted from the gospel of Mark. In this new-found verse, Jesus is alone with a youth to whom he is teaching “the secrets of the kingdom.”  

Quite naturally at the Q & A, someone asked, “What are the secrets of the kingdom?”

Smith replied, in his coolly collected manner, “There are no secrets of the kingdom. The average facts of life are fairly well known.” In other words, any such claim has to be bogus.

The unforced stylishness of Smith’s response stayed with me through all the intervening years. Personally however, I’ve never believed what he said at the Q & A.

Two very different books, read by me recently, have to do with the not-obvious “kingdom” that can sometimes be found within Jewish experience. I’ll try to convey a bit of what they teach.

The first, by Valerie Foster, is titled The Risk of Sorrow: Conversations with Holocaust Survivor Helen Handler. I’ve read lots of books on the Holocaust: courtroom testimonies, memoirs and philosophical reflections. But never anything that had the effect on me of Helen Handler’s recollections, here recorded and assembled by Valerie Foster.

Here’s why: picture yourself as someone who is fully normal. In this picture, you are not bent in one direction or another by — to name just a few of the ways to be bent — denial, overcompensation, projection, a hidden sense of inferiority, a concealed conviction of superiority, social anxiety, fear of heights or fear of abandonment. In this thought experiment, you are balanced. Not overdone or underdone. Merely a clear lens allowing experience to show through.

Now picture the human and natural landscape of your life invaded and overrun by actors motivated by malice unremitting and effective, targeting your whole life-scape. But imagine that you retain the optic that was yours before that invasion. What can you tell us when, by the workings of chance or providence, you survive?

The ideal witness is the one who sees that none of it should have happened. Not one moment of it. She is that witness.

So there’s one secret of the kingdom for you. If you can take it in. I’ve never read anything like it for vividness.

What about the second book? It’s a collection of essays by Orthodox Jews explaining to the rest of us why it’s reasonable to be a Jew who observes as many of the 613 commandments as Modern Orthodoxy deems still feasible. It’s titled Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faithed. Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein & Gil Student.

Lest you think these essays were composed by a bunch of over-stuffed shirts, let me disabuse you with this one example, taken from an essay by Moshe Koppel. He writes, after drawing an analogy from the Superman comics: “The point is perfectly clear, but let’s give it some academic gravitas by making it obscure.”

I think that’s pretty funny and not pretentious. Ostensibly the book concerns itself with a claim by political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) that Jewish Orthodoxy stands on no weaker ground than that of its greatest opponent, Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677, in his Theological-Political Treatise of 1670), since these rival claims both rest on unproven assumptions. The Orthodox contributors aim to defend their commitments on more robust grounds than Strauss’ minimal one and this becomes the pretext for their essays in defense of the Orthodox worldview.

The fascination of the book for me lies in the glimpse it provides into a worldview not usually self-disclosed for comparative evaluation to outsiders. Some of the writers show a good knowledge of tough disciplines like philosophy and contemporary physics. They are deep insiders who can go outside and then come back inside — a feat of intellectual dexterity that’s rare, at least in my experience.

Is it a glimpse behind the curtain, a fleeting glance at the secrets of the kingdom? What is most arresting for me is the evidence on display here that a life devoted to

the personal worship of a personal God –

within the frame set by an argumentative conversation

stretching over the millennia

about collectively remembered

historical encounters with the divine –

can remain deep, fresh, unpretentious and interesting!

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

Albert Camus and the Minister

By Howard Mumma

It’s an arresting fact that both Albert Camus (1913-1960) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) — French existentialists who may have done most to spread the banner news that God is dead — ended by trying to reckon with the possibility of a God in the balance of their own lives. Sartre’s last book was Hope Now.  It was a conversation with his younger associate Benny Levy, and drew attack from Sartre’s entourage as not really his, but rather evidence that — under the influence of the younger man — Sartre was no longer in his right mind. I won’t weigh in on the question of influence, though the book seemed to me reasonably intelligent when I read it.

Camus’ brush with theism has been less noticed, since to my knowledge the first published report of it came in this book by a man who had come to know him while intermittently serving as visiting minister in the American Church in Paris. Out of respect for the philosopher’s privacy, the minister’s recollections were first set down for publication some forty years after Camus had died.

Camus came into the American Church originally to hear a series of public concerts by a well-known organist. But then he returned to hear more of the minister’s sermons. One of the themes that concerned Camus had to do with whether man defines himself and gives purposes to himself in an otherwise meaningless world (as he and Sartre had held) or whether God endows his creation — ourselves as human beings — with the defining traits and life purposes that will be ours.

They had a number of private conversations. Camus asked the minister how he had acquired his faith and was interested to hear, in response, that faith is not just a set of tenets or beliefs but “a measure of our whole being and a process that involves a whole lifetime.”

Camus gave this description of his own dilemma: “We can make sense of our environment through rational application of science and empirical knowledge, but when it comes to man’s most basic questions of meaning and purpose, the universe is silent.”

At one point, Mumma gave him a Bible and, starting with Genesis, Camus read it with deep interest. Among the questions perturbing Camus was how to take the Bible. Is it factual? Some of it seems fantastical. The minister didn’t claim Biblical inerrancy but advised him to look for what is true about it, what it tells us about our lives and what it means to be human.

Camus had been deeply shaken by what he had learned, in the course of World War II and standing at the gates of Auschwitz, about the depths of human evil. Asked to comment, Mumma said that if God is to create us as free beings, with choices that are real and consequential, the Creator had also to give us the freedom to choose wrongly as well as rightly. That kind of leeway belongs to the kinds of creatures we are. This way of seeing it seemed to Camus to make sense.

Never dismissing the seriousness of Camus’ doubts but affirming the sense of hope that Christians entertain, the minister seemed to be opening a window in the psyche of the man who continued to question him.  

Toward the end of their conversations, Camus expressed a wish to be baptized.  For the first time, the minister resisted. Camus had received infant baptism and the minister’s denomination did not require any repetition in adulthood. But if, exceptionally, such a rite was to be performed, the minister required that it take place publicly before the whole congregation. At this Camus balked, quite naturally concerned to shield so personal a decision from the intrusions that had been the price of his fame or notoriety.  

When they parted for the last time (the minister being once again posted to America), their understanding was that more time and perhaps mutual reflection were in order while Camus considered what his next step should be.

But this extraordinary friendship between the American minister and the French author would not get the time to find its own exploratory future. The news came of the death of Camus in a car crash. Was it a suicide? An assassination? An accident? We can never be sure, I suppose. All that we have are his writings and this long-deferred report of his inward longing.

It will have to do. 

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Religions, Cultures and Powers

Abbie and Jerry at the Denver TWW Meetings
Photo by: John Thatamanil, Professor of Theology and World Religions, Union Theological Seminary

As Jerry and I recover from our everything-that-could-go-wrong-did-go-wrong air travel experience, I’ve been taking this week to assimilate the intensely interesting experiences at the Theology Without Walls meetings in Denver.

My reflections nestled around three questions: What did the TWW meetings (which explored a subfield within the American Academy of Religion) have to do with religion? What did they have to do with culture? Lastly (and here would be the most fashionable question), what did any of it have to do with power?

First, about religion: people who deal with religion professionally (people trained to concern themselves with the divine and what human beings should do about it) are to be found in religion departments of colleges and universities or in divinity schools. They are students, graduates or teachers. Some of them are also clergy. In public universities in the U.S, such people are legally obligated to bracket the question of which religion is true or even truer. They describe. They don’t defend or oppose. In private institutions with a home tradition, religionists might study other perspectives for comparative purposes or to get insights that could conceivably enrich but not contest their home tradition.

By contrast, TWW is about the divine and our relation to it, but not necessarily or exclusively about religions. So it’s not constrained to be neutral or partisan with regard to any particular religion. As a project, it would find itself “at home” wherever the most compelling findings and comprehensive arguments on the topic of ultimacy take it. As a seeker in that project, a person would try to make sense of the evidence and follow out the line of thought that has made sense, even if it carried one beyond one’s preconceived, original thought-boundaries.

If we can admit that the divine – or ultimate – can also be glimpsed or encountered outside the settled boundaries of “religion,” then one’s religious place of origin would be no bar to taking in extra-religious evidence. Accordingly, the fields from which data can relevantly be drawn get vastly expanded. From the natural sciences, such as physics, biology and neuroscience to the “softer” disciplines like psychology, anthropology and history, biography and memoir, literature and the arts – cultures past and present, near and far – the investigative door is now flung wide open. What, if anything, do these lines of inquiry have to show us about ultimate reality? Is pertinent information to be found here? How do we evaluate it? Religions clearly have much to contribute to the open-ended inquiry. In TWW, they are not authorized to prevent it.

Second question: In what ways does culture come into TWW? People will offer different approaches on that one, but to me G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) has a good approach. For that philosopher of history, a culture can be defined, and is shaped, by whatever it takes to be ultimate truth — its absolute. So the background assumptions, the repertoire of gestures, the permissions and prohibitions, the erotic pathways, the grooves dug by admiration and contempt – all these get authorized by whatever the culture takes to be true and unsurpassable. That would function as keystone for the culture’s arch, its ultimate belief on which the subsidiary beliefs depend. History’s story tells of challenges to cultures’ senses of what for each of them is absolute, how they meet their competitors, and whether they surmount challenges (sometimes by incorporating them) or else go under, in those inescapable testing confrontations.

Our present world-wide phenomenon of disparate cultures gaining awareness of each other seems to me quite new — without any precedent in the human story up till now. TWW certainly did not initiate that encircling global awareness. What it can offer is a peaceable way of dealing with these unsettling boundary encounters – its way disciplined by a shared concern for the truth about whatever looks to be divine and/or ultimate. What could be more intellectually and humanly exciting? It’s the great adventure.

Now for our third question: Where does power come into it?  

That’s currently the heavy, heavy one, but I’m gonna give it short shrift, okay? Long ago, in his dialogue on political justice (The Republic), Plato drew a distinction between two kinds of power that still seems to me spot on. It’s the difference between brute power (as when you grab a cudgel and bash my head in if I haven’t bashed yours in first) – and functional power (as when you or I skillfully apply a healing compress to fix the bruises on our heads).

TWW offers the possibility of

one such healing compress.

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The Blessing

Isaac Blessing Jacob ca. 1665
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

We’ve just returned from the Denver meetings of the American Academy of Religion – more specifically the subfield that Jerry founded: Theology Without Walls.

It was founded in recognition of the current, unprecedented openness of communication in our world. It crosses borders and is almost instantly global. It’s a situation that has also influenced the big and little religions of the world. In consequence, theologians (people who are trained to think about the divine) need to take it into their thinking.

Even nineteenth-century Christian missionaries noticed, as they dealt with peoples from far-off lands, that they didn’t have a monopoly on right relations between God and human beings. It was a natural finding. Cultures derive their authorization from their claims about Whatever-They-Take-To-Be-Absolute. But at the same time, cultures originate in particular locales. Their localism is individuated in many ways, including languages. Yet — in monotheism at least — the God-Presence cannot be confined to a single locale. 

The TWW meetings were intensely interesting. One participant, who occupies prestigious posts, academic and ecclesiastical, reported that the students he meets are “very excited” about TWW. People no longer feel quite as boundaried or confined to their starting gates as they used to. Even those who end up where they began, may have prefaced their religious homecoming with far voyages of exploration. 

I’m pretty Jewish now (at least Jewish-in-the-head, as I often say), but I’ve been other things: a pacifist, an atheist, a Marxist (itself a doctrine about ultimate reality), a gnostic, a follower of a guru of the school of Advaita Vedanta – all before I realized that I’m essentially and profoundly Jewish. These far voyages probably helped me to realize it.  

When Jerry and I first flew over India, I looked down at the winding River Ganges far below and exclaimed to myself silently, 

“Oh look! There’s Mother Ganga!”

When the El Al flight circled over Israel, I looked down and the precise words wafting into consciousness were these:

There it is again!

How nice!

They’ve put cities down this time!

*

Each week, all over the world, Jews read the same portion (parashah) of the Pentateuch (Torah). Since the pandemic, my Reform Temple has conducted its Torah Study via zoom. This Sabbath, the parashah concerned the twin brothers, Jacob and Esau. The verses told how Jacob managed, with his mother’s connivance, to steal the Blessing that his dying father Isaac had intended to give to Esau. Esau counted as technically the elder of the twins because his birth preceded Jacob’s, who grasped his brother’s heel as they exited, one right after another, from the same womb.

Esau was a hairy hunter – in modern parlance, a jock. Jacob, more thoughtful, less impulsive, more gifted for future God-encounters, was clearly the brother better suited for the covenantal assignment.  

What assignment was that? It would require the bearer to carry forward an inherited agreement to co-participate with God in working out the human story. The people who would descend from the three founders, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, would form the pilot project for that God-story. Their descendants would put in the labor of living it through, of recording it without mincing words, and finally preserving the record for the world to learn from and be blessed.  

None of it was easy. It was all hard. That Bible was no Hallmark card.

There is some relationship, which I won’t attempt to trace here, between the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and the early nineteenth-century German origins of Reform Judaism. Anyway, here my co-religionists’ reaction to Jacob’s deception was entirely in the Kantian tradition, where only acts whose rationale is universally applicable can be approved. Reading that Jacob stole his father’s blessing, my fellow congregants were appalled. They all drew back, as if to disinherit such an ancestor! That is, all drew back with one exception – me. Here’s the gist of what I said:

“I can’t agree with what’s been said so far. Judaism, and the religion of Israel before it, is the only religion I know of whose sacred scripture records the stories of human beings who are in direct relation with the universal God – while they live in real-life-on-earth settings: psychological, cultural, geographical and historical. The Biblical characters are not demi-gods. They are people like ourselves.  

“At the moment in time we are reading about, the task of the Founders was to carry forward the covenant within the constraints of their actual historical circumstances. Clearly, Jacob was more suitable for that task than his brother. So he did what needed to be done in that circumstance.  

“The rabbis point out — what ‘s already evident in the text – that Jacob will suffer for his deception. On his wedding night, his greatest joy will be lived with the wrong sister. In old age, he will discover that his greatest sorrow — his lifelong mourning for his favorite child — was also based on a deception. Joseph is alive and de facto ruler in Egypt. So it’s evident from the text that a wrong act cannot be done with impunity, even when that same wrong act is obligatory under the circumstances.

“And don’t think [here I went on beyond the parashah] that our Christian friends have risen above the same sibling problem. What Christian founders claimed was that the Blessing had been lifted off the original covenanters and transferred, lock, stock and barrel, to themselves! Their thankless doctrine authorized them to regard their spiritual first-born brother as a pariah, deserving of every humiliation and cruelty. Only after those many centuries of reviling had foreseeably led to the Holocaust, did they relent for a few years, which allowed time and space for the surviving Jews to build a nation equipped for self-defense on the very Promised Sands where they originally lived and wrote the Bible. But that space and time is over. The nation of Israel is back to being treated as the Jew among the nations.”

*

Theology gives problems to history. Sibling rivalry, which the Book of Genesis identifies as the underlying problem of history, remains theologically unsolved.

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