“The Politics of Ideas”

"The Head of Christ" 1648 Rembrandt, based on a Jewish model.

“The Head of Christ” 1648 Rembrandt, based on a Jewish model.

“The Politics of Ideas”

They say you are what you eat, but it’s been my experience that you are what you believe. People live and die for the ideas they believe to be true. What is more, people dress, work and play, experience nature, appreciate art, suffer life reversals or count themselves successful — all under the sheltering umbrella of what they believe.

When I met my future in-laws — evangelical Christians — Jerry thought I would never know how to behave, what to say, when to shut up, what to joke about, when not to make a joke, given my background as a (he thinks) cosmopolitan Jewish person from New York’s upper east side. I did not share his concern. I’d been listening to country gospel all my life. I understood the theology. So I had no trouble figuring out the rest.

During my time as a philosophy professor at Brooklyn College, the student body came from all over creation. There were Muslim kids from “Arabia” (as they called it), a beautiful girl from the Sudan, a Palestinian girl I loved, Africans from various countries north and south on that continent, a girl from Texas, an Albanian girl who chaired our philosophy club, disillusioned emigres (young and middle-aged) from the former Soviet Union, local Jewish kids with ace Talmudic training, black American army veterans and grownup African-American women, with street smarts and Christian backgrounds, who were in the para-medical fields. And that’s a shortened list.

I loved it. The same philosophic issue, tilted slightly so as to direct it to the background belief system of the student I was calling on, summoned reactions entirely fresh, yet enriched by the-world-as-that-student-understood-it. It was like hearing the same tune played, but in different keys and tempos.

When they liberated us women and turned us loose in the wide world to find our way, they forgot to tell us what was out there. They thought, perhaps, that a few slogans — about our rights and the wrongs we had suffered — would suffice. However, as some of my philosophical colleagues would say,

That’s false.

If so much is false, what’s true? What do women need to know about the great world? What’s out there?

Beliefs! If we want to understand people, we need to know about their beliefs. Basically, two things are going on, with the ideas that people believe:

the life of ideas

and the politics of ideas.

They are different but, in the real world, they get intertwined.

The life of ideas is what you might call “the pure side.” In Plato’s dialogues, it’s represented by Socrates. A Socratic dialogue starts when someone claims to believe something. Socrates then shows him a further implication of his belief and, in the light of that, asks if he still believes it. Sometimes the person will hold fast to his starting view, despite ramifications he had not anticipated. Rather than give up his claim, he’ll just walk away. By contrast, a more resilient dialogue partner will modify his view so as to take in the new evidence. Together they both can go on with their search for truth.

These persistent ones share the well-known Socratic ideal that says:

it is better to lose the argument and gain the truth

than to win the argument but lose the truth.

That is the life of ideas.

The other side of ideas is their use, in social and institutional practice, to regulate people’s conduct. Since people steer their courses by what they think — this “impure” side of ideas can’t be entirely avoided. We need common ideas if we are to live together. Opinion shapers play the key role in making this commonality happen.

As women, in our struggles to be free to live our own lives with integrity, we have to learn to recognize both strands – the ideal and the “impure but inevitable” — and to sort them out as best we can.

I’ve just finished reading an absolutely fascinating book that’s also an object lesson in this interplay between the life of ideas and the politics of ideas. It’s Who Made Early Christianity: The Jewish Lives of the Apostle Paul by John G. Gager, Emeritus Professor of Religion at Princeton University.

In case you don’t know about Paul, he’s a Jew who was totally decisive in the founding years of Christianity. For anyone who is (or was) a Jew or a Christian, there is a lot at stake in coming to the right understanding of Paul. The traditional view credits (or blames) him for defining Judaism and Christianity in such a way as to give rise to two thousand years of enmity.

The reasoning ascribed to Paul is that human beings inherited Adam’s sin of disobedience in the Garden of Eden. We are all born sinners. Sinners can be reconciled with God only because He took human form as Jesus of Nazareth whose crucifixion paid the debt incurred by Adam. Since Jews as a people failed to recognize this divine help, salvation was lost to Jews. Gentiles who follow Jesus (and Jews who renounce their Judaism to follow Jesus) are henceforth “the true Israel.” Jews who failed to follow Jesus became a fossilized remnant — living husks — only important as evidence that the Biblical record did concern real people.

It’s impossible for Jews to read this allegedly Pauline view without anger, resentment and a feeling that it’s hopelessly wrong-headed. For one thing, Jews do not believe in original sin. Nor can they believe that good men and women of other religions are damned. If you read any scholarly work by a Jew about Judaism, you are unlikely to find even an indexed reference to “original sin.” For Jews, human beings are created with an inclination toward good and another toward evil and the freedom to choose. Lastly, if “the covenant has passed from Israel,” Jews never got the memo.

Anyway, you can see that this is a very charged topic, with a lot of sad history behind it. What does Gager argue?

Briefly, he claims that what Paul says against the Law was meant only for the Gentiles he was trying to reach as a missionary for Jesus. He didn’t mean it for the Jews. The issue for Paul was whether Gentile Jesus-followers needed to keep kosher and be circumcised. Paul thought not, though he quarreled about it with Peter and James.

Their dispute took place in a context that’s been filled in by recent archeology. Following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C., evidence of Jewish communal life can be upspaded all over the ancient world. On steles (stone pillars), we find the names of high-level, Gentile synagogue donors and members carved, together with Jewish names. That’s why, when Paul went to find Gentiles, he found them in synagogues where “up to half the congregants, especially on the great holidays, would have consisted of non-Jews, pagans and Christians.” Synagogues seem typically to have been cheerful, outreaching places, some of them elaborately decorated in classical styles.

Of course, as Paul complains, Jewish authorities did not appreciate Paul’s peeling off their Gentile affiliates. It cost them prestige and funding. That’s the politics of ideas.

But the big picture shows the lines between Jews who were Jesus-followers, Jews who weren’t, Gentile proto-coverts to Judaism, Gentiles who followed Jesus and so on, much blurrier than historians have subsequently drawn them. Into the seventh century A.D., in what was by then an officially Christian world, we see a fluctuating, wide, grey area.

That there was such vagueness, about who exactly was a Jew and who a Christian, could not have been happy news for the Christian opinion-shapers. Because they were trying to build new, distinctively Christian institutions, some of the key figures in the early history of Christendom did all they could to sharpen the lines. Of all the religions then contending for adherents, Judaism had appeal as the most ancient. Christian authorities had done what they could to outlaw conversion to Judaism, intermarriage with Jews, and observance of Jewish rituals by would-be Christians. They now took the “supersessionist” step of appropriating Jewish antiquity. Christianity became “the true Israel” — and Jews the former Israel.

Whew! Neatest trick of the week!

I read all this with some excitement. The early dividing lines between the two religions were more elastic than has long been thought. Could that mean that the time has come for a rethinking from both sides? Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

In this history, what part is the politics of ideas and where – if anywhere – is the life of ideas?

We see the politics of ideas in the fight for institutional power. It seems an important, perhaps decisive, element in the rift between Christianity and Judaism. That rift is now under official repair, given Christian efforts, from Vatican II to mainline Protestant denominations to evangelicals, to repudiate “supersessionism” and to affirm that the Jews retain their ancient covenant with God. Gager himself thinks: ”Through the Jew Jesus, when properly understood, the gentile enters into the covenant and becomes a member of the household as long as he or she does not claim that his or her entrance replaces the original children.”

We see that the politics of ideas can – with a lot of work – sometimes take a happy turn.

What about the life of ideas? The search for truth? If the political rift can be bracketed, there are questions of truth that remain.

Who or what was Jesus?

Can we imagine a time when that question could be approached as if it were a fresh question, being asked for the first time, without the weight of all that sad, bad history behind it?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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4 Responses to “The Politics of Ideas”

  1. gailpedrick@comcast.net says:

    Abigail, GREAT article! .Will pass on to our group if OK with you. I was thinking…last time I rode was along the ocean in Mexico in early 60’s Get well real soon, and don’t hurry recovery…. Will miss you, is Jerry gong with Robert Regan, forgot to ask. Gail


  2. Brian Hennessy says:

    You are so right, Abigail. We have come full circle. And as one of those evangelicals I agree with what Gager said: “Through the Jew Jesus, when properly understood, the gentile enters into the covenant and becomes a member of the household as long as he or she does not claim that his or her entrance replaces the original children.”

    And you are absolutely right that we are back To “who or what was Jesus?” It is not a topic just for Jews to discern, either. More and more and more Christians are realizing that the Fourth-century Church teaching that he was God is false. Yes, we still believe he was the Messiah supernaturally birthed by a young Jewish girl who died and God raised from Sheol, but the New Testament nowhere says he was anything but a man. After all, God can’t die. He just claimed to be “the son of God,” which is a long way from saying he claimed to be God the Son.

    So we are on this journey together. And I believe all who truly want to know, Jew or gentile, will end up in the same place. Enjoying the inheritance promised to Abraham in God’s kingdom of Israel here on earth.


    • Abigail says:

      Wow! You think this long, tragic history will have a happy ending? Well, it could. And, before now, it would have been difficult even to imagine that. Thanks Brian.


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