Response to a Letter – January 2016

Thanks for the Newman quotations!
I am persistently interested in Newman’s deeply considered decision to “return” to Roman Catholicism from Anglicanism, and in the nineteenth-century context, it made considerable sense for him. I believe him to be one of the leading respondents to what has been called the “sundering of the whole” in the great rise of Enlightenment ideology, rationalism ending in Idealism and abstractions, and the redefinition of God so that God could in no way match the times and the needs, let alone the demands of nurturing fellowship (re Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s rich corrections and encouragement). Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed such a God was dead, and fie on the churches and the culture that had helped to create such a god—and numerous other modern gods!

These years I continue to read from Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (d. 1973) and Franz Rosenzweig (d. 1929), among others, who in the German Jewish and Christian contexts (ca. 1910-1933 and forward for ERH; both were born Jews—ERH was baptized a Christian at 17; FR was “converted” to Judaism in his twenties) defied the divinized modern powers and idols. They took language (speech), Scriptures and traditions seriously and provided a way to seat faith firmly in the God who loves and who calls everyone into that very same life of love God possesses. I am impressed that they anticipated in fresh (eccentric, yes, but that’s what was needed) ways what happens from time to time as the Spirit moves, including in the deliberations and activities of Vatican II and the teaching of the last few popes on the Gospel, the family, and on global evangelization.

Yes, that’s something coming from a Baptist, but then, anyone who knows the Evangelical Catholics and isn’t afraid of the spiritual discernment that allows recognizing them as true brothers and sisters—coworkers in the faith, albeit another “communion”—will know that. I think this is an example of what Rosenstock-Huessy spent his life probing and describing, and what he wrote about as “incarnatory” or incarnational Christianity. We can say, O yeah, that’s basic, but he really meant that we are to incarnate the presence and Spirit of God just like Jesus Messiah, in an unbreakable, co-creative, gospel-oriented, constructive, revelatory, and redemptive partnership. The Eastern Fathers and more recent Eastern Orthodox teachers have a lot to do with the inspiration and force of his arguments, and I want to know more about their direct influence. Besides that, would you believe, the Scriptures help in this endeavor!

Anyway, the quotations from Newman provoked me to comment because the “incarnatory” quality that Rosenstock-Huessy taught and lived thrives in the life and words of Newman. Wherever one sees the flourishing of Christ-centered and biblically informed communities, there one finds the selfsame Spirit.

Wingborne. Wing-Beat. More Insight.

In his essay on “Goethe (there’s that Grrr-tuh again), the First Father of the Third Age of the Church,” Matthew del Nevo speaks about the “whole Kingdom of God” as “a raising up, a transfiguration and glorification of humanity and the world.” This is accomplished through being lost in love, and in hope: “Hope lifts us.  This is exactly what the Gospel is supposed to do, and what the Church is supposed to do for the poor:  lift them up, raise mankind.”

Del Nevo introduces lines from Goethe’s Urworte. Orphisch.  about hope:  “This poem captures the spiritual nature of hope.  We are caught in the traps of necessity, chance, destiny, and eros, but there is a way out.  We are free if we have hope.  Hope lifts us.”  And so, Goethe:

Let these impediments, these walls of iron [of Ananke]

Stand in their wonted rocklike endurance:

But the repulsive gate shall be unlocked!

One being [hope] moves, light and untrammelled,

through curtains of clouds, rain and fog,

Lifting us up, giving us wings:

You know her well, she swarms through all zones,

And one beat of her wings leaves behind us eons.

It is this Goethe that so inspired Franz Rosenzweig, though FR’s German reading surely must have surpassed this particular English translation. I am re-thinking Goethe’s Christian-ness, persuaded to grapple with this by del Nevo’s stunning arguments that focus on the assertion of a link between Goethean thinking and Pentecostalism, and, quoting Gianni Vattimo, “secularity as the authentic destiny of Christianity.”  There are references to the writings of Berdyaev and to the religionless Christianity of Bonhoeffer.  Del Novo makes the challenging assertion,

Pentecostalism, for all its theological roots in the holiness movement, and for all its theological vagaries and reactions, is the Christianity of a secular world.  And for those in a part of the world that is not secularized (and in a world that is fully mapped, where would that really be?), Pentecostalism will pull new believers out of their old beliefs, in the name of Jesus, and dispel all the old gods, witches, and demons.  Christ will break the chains.  The person set free, though, will be a more secular person, rather than, as one might expect, a more somehow religious person.

Here I see connections between Rosenzweig, Bonhoeffer, and so much that has been happening in “post-modern” Christianity, and what del Novo refers to as “the philosophy of redemptive speech thinking,” Rosenzweig’s “the new thinking.”  Here is the point:  wherever and whenever Christ-followers are doing the work he calls them to do, they are living and working within a set of relationships that resists all philosophical, theological, metaphysical and political critique–the work is as fundamental as the varieties of human needs yet it applies just as much to education and cultural development.  It comes from the Spirit of God and produces good things for people.  It is, in fact, a principle of incarnation and of restoration to the Creator’s intention.  So, Bonhoeffer (Nachfolge, 221):

Er ist den Menschen gleich geworden, damit sie ihm gleich seien.

He became like humanity, that they should be like him.

Bonhoeffer follows with the biblical teaching on the Cross and Trinitarian communion-in-life.  There one finds himself or herself while forgetting self; carrying the new image one looks not to his or her own life, but “only upon him whom he or she follows,” who then as one who follows after Christ also imitates God (as a beloved child; Ephesians 5:1; Nachfolge, 224).  The very assertion means so much for us all.

Citations except for Bonhoeffer from:  Matthew del Nevo, “Goethe, the First Father of the Third Age of the Church,” in Wayne Cristaudo and Frances Huessy, eds., The Cross and the Star: The Post-Nietzschean Christian and Jewish Thought of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and Franz Rosenzweig (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), 243-275.

 

Goethe

Forty-five years ago I sat to learn and read German under Mark Walton, the son of a Hungarian Jewess and Austrian Catholic.  An Anschluss refugee to the United States, Herr Walton got teaching certification at USC, translated for the Army and the German prisoners-of-war in the Northwest, and afterward gave generations of Californians a solid grounding in German, French and Latin.  He even dated Ida Lupino’s sister once or twice.  Through all that he remained an exotic, European immigrant-come-citizen, with Austrian accent beneficial for modeling Hochdeutsch – “high German” and mannerisms deeply traditional to his homeland.  He remains among many dozens perhaps the best teacher I ever had; how many of the others gave me so thoroughly another language, another culture?

In the third and fourth years we read Goethe, Schiller, Fichte and others; I still possess a slim novel by Adalbert Stifter, a gift of my teacher. This much I carried away from Goethe then as we read  Faust and learned one could not possess the world except to one’s own peril.  I did not know then that our reading method meant “thinking translation” that emphasized connotative, intuitive comprehension as much as accuracy to the meanings of words and idioms.  That training has paid dividends over the years in master’s and doctoral studies, and I enjoy employing it all I can in looking at Rosenzweig, Rosenstock-Huessy, and now again Goethe [try a light, guttural “Grrr-tuh’].

Here, I encounter Wilhelm Meister and his lifelong education while I read Matthew del Nevo about pentecostalism in relation to Rosenzweig’s Johannine Third Age, marvel at the new syntheses that appear among those who grapple with “the new thinking” (which is Bible-old, I tell you), and see how it connects with such varied truth conduits as Newman, Bonhoeffer and Soloveitchik.  I am compelled to reexamine, perhaps genuinely to understand, Goethe for the first time in ways not possible forty-five years ago.  I think Herr Walton knew that; I regret not to have looked more deeply than I did over the years, though I am grateful for the seeds planted at that time.

 

Rosenzweig on Meinecke on History

So pithy, this student statement of Franz Rosenzweig about his history professor, Friedrich Meinecke, at Freiburg in 1908:  “He treats history as though it were a Platonic dialogue, not murder and manslaughter.”

Rosenzweig, citizen of the militant Kaisersreich, the German Empire, knew about war as a contemporary fact.  The quotation shows his frame of mind about war–it was no abstraction to him.  Before long he had the opportunity to serve the state during the Balkan Wars and the Great War, though not in direct combat.  His opinion of war did not improve, and war sharpened his focus on the ultimate things.

If we do not pray with Israel . . .

Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) continues to challenge and engage me.  So, too, his mentor, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888-1973), the steel to Rosenzweig’s flint.  They escort me roughly out of the easy seats onto the stone seats of a contentious forum; there they bid me listen until I squirm, my butt on the hard limestone, my brain on their hard arguments.

Yet this I want to do, it’s worth the effort and discomfort.  Rosenzweig was the skeptical Jew converted to his own people’s religion; Rosenstock the acculturated Jew who was baptized a Christian in his teens, and who eviscerated Rosenzweig’s sloppy thinking about reality, forcing him to dare to face God.

Right now I am working through Judaism Despite Christianity and find in Rosenstock’s letter to Cynthia Harris in 1943 many stunning comments making a unified argument that prayer is an absolute necessity–and his definition of prayer encompasses the entire life of a people.  Nineteenth-century biblical scholars did not represent Jewish history accurately or fairly.  The missed the “No” of the Jews to idols–Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and God’s three “No’s”:  the Fall, the Great Flood, and the Exodus.  “‘Revelation’ is a knowledge of God’s will, after his ‘No’ to our will has become known.” (181)  But the “No” was necessary if Israel was to recognize “herself as God’s servant, merely a man in the face of God’s majesty.”  (181)  This is not just strong stuff, it is the basic stuff.  It undergirds everything else Rosenstock wrote in the letter to Cynthia Harris in 1943.

One example will be enough:

The Germans all knew in 1918 that the World War had been lost deservedly.  Faith accepted the defeat.  But it takes faith in God to accept defeat fully.  If there be no divine will, then our will must reign supreme.  Naturally the whisperers came–those all-knowing ones who cannot be named but who are always being quoted–those who said, “It was a stab in the back,” “It was this or that,” “It was unnecessary,” etc.  The reaction was inevitable:  “We shall undo the defeat.”  Whispering is unauthorized speech.  The devil is any person who does not wish to be quoted; and so he never attains the rank of a person.  For a person accepts God’s judgement over what he has said or done.  Thus can he come to know the truth.  The devil never receives his verdict because he whispers only and never speaks truly and confidently.

. . . The people who had believed only in science, and who could not distinguish between spell-binding magic and prayer, now fell for the stump speakers.

Rosenstock summarizes the German history of persecution and repression against Lutherans (after 1825) and Catholics (certainly after 1871) and identifies Hitler as “the third attempt to free the German nation from any check on its nationalistic conscience.  This time, the triangle Luther-Rome-Israel is attacked foremost at the Jewish corner.  Also, the attack is far more violent than the two former.”  The furor Teutonicus runs a system of hatred, and there are other arguments to illustrate, but I will finish this statement with a few more of Rosenstock’s sentences:

Hitler hates everything started by the Jews, including democracy and the Freemasons.  Why?  They all know of the insertion of God’s “No” into history as a vital element.  But a spellbinder must be sure that his spell will work under all circumstances.  This prevents him from admitting God’s “No” to the fabric of history.

Hitler’s will and his god’s will are nauseatingly one.  The great art of speech has made Hitler crazy.  Since he has the privilege of speaking, of inflaming the masses, he spellbinds.  And so he hovers as a ghost from the abyss of paganism, a ghost of the days before God touched Israel’s lips with his fiery coal:  “My will, O mortal, not thine, be done.”

The specific character of biblical prayer explains the uniqueness of the Bible.  We can’t forget the Bible because the divine “No” was created, in our speech, during those thousand years of Jewish prayer.  And all the other departments of our linguistic faculty rest on this clear distinction between prayer, on the one side, and science, poetry, fiction, and law, on the other.  If we do not pray with Israel, we cannot retain our Greek mathematics or our Roman law.  This will sound arbitrary or exaggerated at first reading.  But it is simple truth. (183)

Rosenstock goes on to illustrate examples that bind ancient and modern paganisms together while they show biblical prayer (faith, religion, core of revelation) to be absolutely distinct from them.  It is the distinction and emphasis that energized the philosophical, faithful thinking and dialogue that Rosenstock and Rosenzweig conducted over many years — theirs was an astonishing interchange between Christian and Jew; it started a century ago and lasted until Rosenzweig died.  Rosenstock lived to write voluminously on themes that grew out of scholarship as — I would like to say this —  a form of prayer.

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, letter to Cynthia Harris (in 1943 a freshman at Radcliffe College): “Hitler and Israel, or On Prayer,” first published in The Journal of Religion (University of Chicago Press, April 1945).  Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, ed., Judaism Despite Christianity:  The 1916 Wartime Correspondence between Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and Franz Rosenzweig (with a new  foreword by Paul Mendes-Flohr, a new preface by Harold Stahmer, and a new chronology by Michael Gormann-Thelen (Chicago and London:  University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Preoccupation with the One Nearest

Dr. Watkins preached on Deuteronomy 6:4-9 this morning–the Shema (Hear O Israel!) and on Jesus’ midrash-in-the-flesh-and-word about it in Mark 12:28-31.  Don’t let anyone try to convince you that the Scriptures don’t hang together, for they do so beyond normal vision and comprehension.  This was a reminder–actually a dawning recognition for me–that whatever the overall Christian analysis and response to the challenges of modernity, the Jewish philosophers of the early twentieth century have more to say to us than most of us have imagined.  They offer at least as trenchant and provocative a challenge to all of us to look at the terrifying realities of our modernity-postmodernity.  They ask us to be honest in our thinking and living.  (No, Wallace didn’t bring that up; but the theme of his sermon made me think about these things.)

Paul Mendes-Flohr gives some insights in an article where he quoted Jacques Derrida in a eulogy for Emmanuel Levinas:

The Torah is transcendent and from heaven by its demands that clash, in final analysis, with the pure ontology of the world. The Torah demands, in opposition to the natural perseverance of each being in his or her own being (a fundamental ontological law), – and Derrida emphasizes [Mendes-Flohr]  – concern for the stranger, the widow and the orphan, and preoccupation with the other person.

(These guys are/were philosophers, so forgive the lofted language, but Derrida is simply talking about the “way of being” in the world and the “natural” self-interest of all people.)  Anyhow, I thought immediately of I John 4, particularly verses 7-8.  Beloved, let us love one another, . . . . I have thought of the type of love in I John as a “dynamic other-interestedness” that describes the Spirit-motivated and empowered interest of the believer in the welfare of others.  Derrida’s “preoccupation” rings true in the same way, and against self-preoccupation.  And isn’t that the illness we all share?

Mendes-Flohr actually was discussing a little book that Martin Buber got by the Nazi censors in 1935.  The book was titled “The Neighbor” or “The One Nearest” (Can’t get the umlaut “a” in, so no German title here), but not just in the sense of being close by, but in the sense of persons living in the same space, what you might call an “existential” space.  Buber presented the teaching as it came from Jewish sources.  His book was subtitled “Four Essays on the Conduct of Man to Man (Person to Person–Mensch, “human being”).”  By 1935 Hitler had seized power, and the repression of German Jews suggested greater oppression and persecution to come. So Buber’s appeal was an appeal for humanity in a context where the government seemed to threaten it.

Mendes-Flohr restated Buber’s assertion that “the neighbor is one whom destiny places next to oneself, face to face, as Levinas would later put it; at a particular hour, one is confronted by another human being in need – and the need may not only be defined by material want and political oppression; and to whom one is beholden by biblical decree to love, to love as oneself.”  Mendes-Flohr sums it up, saying that by extension the neighbor represents all of humanity, that the Nazis desperately worked to destroy Enlightenment concepts of humanitarianism, and that Buber, among others, wanted to affirm a “post-modern humanism”.  Its foundations were biblical, Jewish.  That is of interest for Christians, too.

Buber, Mendes-Flohr and many others could tell us that the point has everything to do with the character of our private and public lives.  It is a point that appears in all the “axial” civilizations (those whose great religious and philosophical foundations were set by about 2,500 years ago, and none more so than in the Hebraic/Jewish tradition, and so also in the Christian tradition.  In Mark 12, Jesus prompted the expert in the law to repeat the Shema; the expert affirmed that it was the ultimate commandment.  When the expert did this, he was calling the entire Law back over himself and everyone who was listening.  And so the expert showed everyone that what they thought was contention with Jesus was actually beyond contention.  It was the “one thing,” the central concern of Yahweh and Moses at Sinai, and the core of the Deuteronomic revival.  I believe that goes for the “rest of us” who read and discuss this matter a long time after the encounter in Mark 12.  What do you think?

In my city many people in civic, educational and governmental organizations are serving for the public good, including service to the poor, the orphan, the widow.  Many are church members.  Big-hearted people in many organizations–the Boys and Girls Club, the Lions, Optimists, Kiwanis, Rotarians, and others; and special programs such as Habitat for Humanity, Backpacks for Kids, My Friend’s House, the Twelve-Step Foundation.  They give money, hours, and hard work to help out.  There can be a certain weariness to it all.  But these people don’t quit.  There exists the sense there’s never enough, but servants continue to serve.  These people vary in their “preoccupation” with the welfare of their neighbors, but they are worthy, consistent models.

The model could use some more implementation in our churches–all around–and more broadly in the community.  Isn’t that true across the country?  I am hearing about programs and proposed programs to help kids and families most at risk.  Not with government programs alone — they’re not enough, but with intentional, planned and sustained community “preoccupation” with doing what government can do only in part, besides, that is not the primary purpose of government anyway.

This is one of the things we can do to build our own “human capital,” to build real character and strength into lives where hopelessness and weakness seem to have a stranglehold.  This is what can be done to develop leaders out of the most unlikely candidates in our communities–kids from families that don’t work out well, hungry kids, kids who have no healthy models except by accident, kids who need help beyond what the public schools alone can provide.  Some people discount these kids and their families, failing to see that these people are assets to whole, healthy communities.

I live in one of four Texas cities judged by a recent MIT national study to be “forgotten cities.”  (Galveston, Waco, Marshall, Sherman).  Here’s the link to their report:

http://web.mit.edu/dusp/dusp_extension_unsec/people/faculty/lhoyt/Hoyt_Leroux_FC.pdf They couldn’t study or list them all; surely there are many more.  Industrial and economic development have passed them by for decades.  This kind of study has its uses beyond the original intentions.  It helps us to know the general conditions more clearly and to identify not just specific personal and organizational needs, but how all these fit together in a community.

Paul Mendes-Flohr related the story told by the Hasidic master Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov:

How to love [others] is something I learned from a peasant. He was sitting in an inn along with other peasants, drinking. For a long time he was as silent as all the rest, but when he was moved by wine, he asked one of the men seated beside him: ‘Tell me do you love me or don’t you love me?’ The other replied: ‘I love you very much.’ But the first peasant replied: ‘You say that you love me, but you do not know what I need. If you really loved me, you would know.’ The other had not a word to say to this, and the peasant who put the question to him fell silent again. [And Rabbi Moshe Leib adds]: But I understood. To know the needs of [our fellow human beings] and to bear the burden of their sorrow – that is the true love [of others].

I really do not know my neighbors well enough, either literally next door or in other parts of town, preoccupied as I am with other matters, even rightly those of my family.  Somehow I must broaden my preoccupations!

Citations:  Mendes-Flohr was quoting from Martin Buber, The Tales of the Hasidim, 1948.  His article:  Paul Mendes-Flohr, “A Post-Modern Humanism from the Sources of Judaism,” in Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia 62:2/4 (Apr. – Dec. 2006): 59-67.  Accessed at stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40419468 .