Rocky Mountain Lowdown
Jerry and I have about finished the first leg of a complicated journey, the part that took shape in the cities of Denver and Boulder in the Rocky Mountain state of Colorado. Jerry had some talks to give on the interesting questions opened up by his book, God: An Autobiography as told to a philosopher. I too had a paper to offer at a conference on the presence and absence of God.
Jerry’s first paper, “If There’s One God, Why Are There so Many Religions?” was given at an institute that Jerry had founded long ago, at the time when he headed the philosophy department at Boulder. The audience of intelligent students and members of the public listened intently and asked questions that seemed consequential and genuine.
The conference in Denver included a panel where Jerry read a well-received paper but the panel’s main concern went to the second presenter, whose paper concerned what can be said about God and humankind after the Holocaust (called in Hebrew the Shoah): the deliberate murder by the Nazi regime of as many Jews as could be found by that regime on planet earth. Six million is the number generally given. The presenter’s thesis credited to Richard Rubenstein, a survivor, was that after the Shoah, nothing in the human story is the same.
The changes alleged were three-fold: #1 God is dead, #2 the Jewish covenant with God is dead and #3 Christian “supercessionism” is dead. Also, #4 on the side of the victims, the only ones who really know what the Holocaust was like are also dead. Those who survived the death camps must have managed to dodge that full knowledge.
Let’s look at these allegations one by one.
- Claim #1. The “death of God” claim seems to mean that a fully powerful and good God would have stopped the Holocaust. Ergo, there’s no such God.
That doesn’t seem to me decisive against God’s existence. If God (as one Jewish view has it) has “withdrawn” enough to permit human freedom, then the crimes of human beings go on their own account, not on God’s.
- Claim #2. The claim that Jewish “chosenness” is at an end is supposed to follow from the Shoah.
I don’t see that it follows at all. If the annihilation of the Jews is zealously sought by this most evil of regimes, how better could their malignity be expressed than by targeting the people with whom God has made an eternal covenant?
- Claim # 3 is that “supercessionism” died in the Holocaust.
Supercessionism is the Christian doctrine that the covenant has passed from Israel to the Church which is now the true Israel. Giving up that doctrine does seem like one right lesson to draw, in that the abuses to which supercessionism gave rise did prepare the psychic ground for the Shoah. If this lesson were in fact drawn, both Christians and Jews could begin a far healthier co-existence.
- Claim #4 is that only the dead who perished in it could fathom the Holocaust. The survivors dodged the worst and therefore can’t bear witness to what happened.
That’s not true. At the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann (he was the Nazi officer in charge of implementing the Holocaust) one of the witnesses who testified had crawled out from under a pile of naked bodies. The machine guns that raked the trenches had missed him. So he had the entire experience of being executed. The only part he missed was the afterlife – and we all get access to that. (Nor, I might add, was his account of the Shoah different from that of survivors who hadn’t been “executed.”) The witnesses were clear, cogent and unforgettable, to me at least, when I read the Jerusalem trial transcript.
No, claim #4 is wrong. The Jews saw with remarkable clarity what it all had meant where they were concerned. If Jews were to survive in future, they would need a Jewish army and a return to their ancient land where they could regain the will to stand and fight when they had to. Certainly they could no longer depend on the neighbor who might suddenly turn stranger on them.
The nation of Israel was, however, never mentioned by this presenter. Instead, the only ground-breaking, utterly new step proposed for Christians seemed to be “Liberation Theology,” whose followers tend to be anti-Israel. Far from being renounced, supercessionism has been given a new lease on life by Israel’s adversaries. Where previously Christianity had deemed itself the “True Israel” thereby exposing original covenanters to every conceivable abuse, now the “Palestinians” have been deemed the “True Jews.” The Jewish nation is thereby left without intellectual defenders against regimes who don’t hide their intent to perpetrate a second Shoah.
In sum, it’s not true that everything has changed since the Shoah. Sadly, very little has changed.
The next day’s final panel had me and Jerry sandwiched between a speaker advocating a new human right: the right to form a religion around a mind-altering substance imported from the Amazon and another speaker who castigated the new Christian films for promoting false prophets. All but one of the questions went to these two presenters.
Jerry’s paper at least was listened to intently though no one volunteered a question.
My paper claimed that we live stories that are not fictional but have to be lived with intelligent awareness. I cited a case from my own life experience where two events that I view as providential helped my story come out right. One of the episodes I described included a vision I had as I was walking toward the building where a sort of professional trial was to be held. Suddenly, I saw a line of figures behind me who connected me almost umbilically to Jewish Origins: Ur of the Chaldees. I described the appearance of these figures (whom a friend had identified for me as “Jewish angels”) and the message they gave, which turned out both surprising and prophetic.
What struck me as I read this portion of the paper were the stony faces of the audience. No one smiled, looked expectant or even mildly receptive. I have no doubt that any tribal woman describing a vision of shamans in procession would have kindled wonderment and fascinated nodding.
I was from the wrong tribe.