Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Pope Benedict and the European Intelligentsia

The German magazine Der Spiegel has an interesting special issue devoted to the "Power of Faith" - an acknowledgment that religion remains a major force in the world, if not in Western Europe. Particularly interesting is the article "Sexy for the Intellectuals", which examines the strange attraction between Pope Benedict XVI and Europe's secular intellectuals. According to the article, "The secular intelligentsia's curiosity is piqued; it is flirting with the una sancta, the 'One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.'" Benedict has struck a chord because he does not use piety to shield religion from scrutiny, but instead understands that faith and reason must walk together:
Pope John Paul was into images; Benedict is a man of words. He sympathizes with the nonbelievers. He does not say, as his predecessor did: Kneel down and say the rosary. He says: Enlightenment must be enlightened. He is an intellectual who does not replace reason with mysticism, but instead deploys it in the service of God...

Ratzinger has mulled all his life over these unequal siblings, faith and reason, which explains the leniency and interest with which German cultural critics have received this pope. He is one of us. He refuses to be defined in terms of the laical trinity, i.e. the triple threat of condoms, women priests and abortion...

Man encounters the self at the level of thought. That is why believers can communicate with non-believers. That is why the Frankfurt philosopher Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger harmonized so perfectly when they discussed the "Dialectics of Secularization" at the Catholic Academy in Munich. If the Word is a gift from God, then the theorist who champions communicative action can but nod agreement.
As the article points out, Benedict's academic style has allowed him to make some of the Church's controversial teachings intellectually respectable:
Benedict XVI knows how to maintain a level of abstraction so far removed from earthly toils that it has all the appearances of compassion. Deus caritas est, Benedict's first encyclical in January 2006, was a meditation on love - and not the widely anticipated reactionary harangue against homosexual unions, unmarried cohabitation, inchastity and other works of the Devil.

Mum was the word on all of these issues. The encyclical was a eulogy, extolling love, eroticism in marriage, and social work. He simply switched the level of abstraction and made himself more unassailable. This pope doesn't talk about condoms; he talks about exploiting people (even if it's only for a one-night stand). This pope gets to the bottom of things. This pope is a radical - another trait that makes him sexy to the intellectuals.
The intellectuals also like style, his undramatic demeanor during public appearances. "He prays with a fixed stare and barely moves his lips, like an altar boy whose thoughts are somewhere else entirely." He's a nerd, and intellectuals love their fellow nerds:
The library is the Holiest of Holies. The professor pope pens page after page: letters, sermons, speeches, epistles, books. Several hundred theological works already make him the most published pontiff in church history. He seizes every opportunity to put systematic theology into practice and into print. Benedict XVI is even capable of working a reference to fundamental theology into a letter of accreditation to the Andorran ambassador.
Importantly, the article ends on a hopeful note for those us who long to see a Christian revival in the heart of Christendom:

In October 2006, a star-studded colloquium at the University of Münster discussed "The Return of the Religions" - and identified an "ego weariness" in Germany, a post-modernist upward valuation of the concept of truth: "Man cannot survive on doubt, irony and deconstruction alone." What is left for us to believe in, if everything is open to discussion? And who is going to take us seriously? This is the fundamental question addressed in Germany by numerous bestsellers and talk-show debates on "values," "the new Kulturkampf," "the parenting challenge" and so on.

In the post-modern age, everything was somehow OK; values were relative, and we believed that was a good thing. By September 2001 at the latest, this belief was called into question. There was no more room for irony.

How can truth exist in a pluralist society? Joseph Ratzinger has pondered this question all his life. And it has never been more relevant than today.

A today that is perhaps not the hour for prayer, not the age for ritual, but rather a time for introspection, for self-examination, for thought. And in that context, the man in the Papal Palace is right for his role. Benedict XVI is not a comfortable pontiff, because he can communicate eye-to-eye with the secular world. He already sees eye-to-eye with the spiritual one.

(Final Note: While I found the article very well written, one sentence struck me as odd: "Something has happened: The country of Luther, Marx and Nietzsche has lost faith in godlessness." Why is Luther included here alongside Marx and Nietzsche? Is he "godless" simply because he disagreed with the Catholic Church of his day? Perhaps this sentence reflects the habit - common in Germany - of viewing Luther not as a religious figure but as a liberator and revolutionary. Regardless, Luther should not be blamed for the current state of godlessness in Germany).

6 comments:

Rabbi Jonah said...

Yes, I recognize the Pope's style. We've had many Lutheran seminary professors in the same template. I once read an article discussing this "German" proficiency of the intellect...and how it's a veneer covering the more ancient paganisms of German religion. I, personally, am not impressed that European secular intellectuals find common ground with Benedict. They are all indifferent to the Jew. And the standard of the Jew: the deed. Again, what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? What does Rome or Wittenburg or Paris have to do with Jerusalem? In the end: reason is not really reasonable when employed for no other reason than to play theological "hardball" with theological equivalents of Chris Matthews and Pat Buchanan. Now, if reason were to employed at how best to apply the most remedy possible to victims of the Catholic sex abuse scandal, the Jew in me says, let's talk.

Thomas Adams said...

Rabbi Jonah - I wouldn't say that Benedict is indifferent to Jews. Like his predecessor, he has devoted a fair amount of energy to interfaith discussions, and as a theologian he is acutely aware of the intimate relationship between our two faiths. I also don’t think it’s correct to suggest that Benedict’s emphasis on reason is just a cynical ploy to win-over intellectuals and talk-show hosts. Clearly, this man has spent a lot of time thinking about the logos.

As for what Paris or Wittenburg or Rome have to do with Jerusalem, surely you’re joking, right? You're obviously aware that Jews are not only ones who have a close connection with that place, so I'm not sure what your comment is all about.

By the way, I’m more than a little curious about your personal story. According your blog, you’re a former Lutheran pastor who has converted to Judaism. That makes you pretty unique! I would certainly be interested to hear more about your conversion. And I would also like to wish you and your family a happy Passover.

Rabbi Jonah said...

Hi Thomas,

The Athens and Jerusalem quote is from Tertullion. It denotes the difference between Greek wisdom and Jewish hard tack down-to-earthness...or what some of us used to try to get away with a few decades ago in Lutheranism and other isms: "christology from below".

With Benedict...I think for Jews, the jury will be out for sometime. I would watch what he does.

Another thought I have on the Athens/Jerusalem question is that Martin Buber offers quite a nice compromise with his I-Thou and I-it. He put it in 20th century existential poetry, but it's really just basic Jewish spirituality that you see verbatim in Jesus...the one who uses bread as a symbol of the kingdom, but at the same time teaches: not by bread alone. In a nutshell, I became more interested in the religion of Jesus than a religion about Jesus.

Happy Easter to you and yours.

Thomas Adams said...

Hey Rabbi Jonah – I’m aware of the Tertullion quote and it’s meaning. But you expanded the quote and put Rome and Wittenberg in the place of Athens, thereby implying (at least to me) that Catholicism and Lutheranism lack any connection to Judaism and its “hard tack down-to-earthiness”. But apparently that’s not what you meant. As for Benedict, I agree that the jury will be out for sometime and it’s understandable that Jews would be suspicious of any pope. But I also think it’s important for European Jews to understand that, in a secular Europe with an ever-increasing Muslim population, the Pope just might be a useful ally.

I’m also a fan of Martin Buber and his “I-Thou” theology. Was it primarily Buber that prompted you to covert to Judaism?

Best wishes

Rabbi Jonah said...

oh, okay.

Catholicism & Judaism...ummm, we have an "understanding"...in that we understand where each is coming from...even as Jews end up on the losing end 99% of the time. I was mightily pulling for Aaron Lustiger to succeed John Paul II. That would have made for a world of change...for the good.

Lutheranism and Judaism. No. Luther's pornographic anti-semitism is an original sin completely undealt with by Lutherans. The little document the ELCA put a few years ago repudiating Luther's anti-semitism effected absolutely nothing. The people in the pew have been taught nothing of the existence of these writings and how indeed they have historically informed Lutheran teaching and behavior. Even during seminary, I had never seen a copy of "The Jews and Their Lies."...I had heard a few references to it, but not seen the text. Then, there is a worse tract: "Von Schem Hamphoras". That tract is so bad, no Lutheran will translate it into English. I understand that it is in the German version of Luther's Works. The only English translation is by a Jewish academic, Gerhard Falk, who put it in the back of his book...a book on Jews in Christian polemics. I've not been able to even find a copy of the book, but I've seen it referred to on the net with excerpts.

Lutherans like to point to Bonhoeffer, Bart, and Niemoller. I was taught in seminary that these were the Lutheran/Reformed saints that redeemed us from Holocaust guilt. What they didn't tell us was that none of them saved any straight out Jews. Bart was the only one that spoke out against persecution of straight out Jews. But at the same time, Bart, Bonhoeffer, and Niemoller held that the Holocaust was God's judgement on Jews for rejecting Christ. Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church did not take up the cause of straight out Jews. Their church struggle concerned the "Aryan Paragraph" which precluded converted Jews from being ordained and installed as Lutheran pastors. The Confessing Church's central concern was this was an attack on the sovereignty of the Church. Thus Bonhoeffer's martrydom, as admirable as it was for what it was, was for his vision of the Church and the Gospel...which did not include removing the judgement on Jewry for rejection of Christ. This is why Yad Vashem will not put Bonhoeffer on the Righteous of the Gentiles list.

So. As a Jew, what I have to say to Lutheranim is: The Holocaust should have been a large enough event for you to radically change your theology and your entire constitution. Instead, after the war, it was business as usual. I am amazed that when I was in seminary, I was assigned Kittle for Greek work and other stuff. I didn't know it then...and of course they weren't going to tell me, that Kittle was as Nazi as Nazi could get.

I did my intership in Seguin Texas, home of Texas Lutheran College. While there, I got to know Norm Beck. Norm wrote an amazing book: "Mature Christianity: The Recognition and Repudiation of the Anti-Jewish Polemic in the New Testatment". I am absolutely ahast that Lutheranism hasn't given Norm the time of day. That man should have been teaching at an ELCA seminary, but they would not hire him. But his work represents the best example, on an intellectual level, of a morally needful restructuring of the Lutheran/Christian soul. I tried share Rabbi Norm's teaching, "but they would not."

As for me and the question I always get about "why did you convert". It is a Christian's question borne of Christian assumptions...one of those being that everything turns on decisions about specific theological points. More interestingly, God and one's own essense is more simple and unwieldy than theology. So why? No. Why not?

My father was of a crypto-Jewish family...a family that had converted to Christianity generations ago to escape persecution. But. Crypto-Jewish families very much tend to keep certain at-home traditions and teachings. My father had a Yiddish vocabulary and very certain Jewish ethical values that he taught my brother and I. It was important for him to tell me that his family had a Jewish history, even though he did not ever mention it outside the home.

There is a Hasidic saying that every convert to Judaism was mystically present at Sinai when the Torah was given. I understand what that means in my life. My conversion was about going home.

timothy koch said...

Judging from the above and my experience elsewhere, we must be entering the great age of "going home".

I'm a mere evangelical but I note that the current Vatican and Catholicism in general has gotten very popular to criticize. Let me at least say they are, more than most organizations I can think of, what they seem. Not all of us can claim to be so above board. I doubt I could get away with it.

Alas, what an age of subterfuge it was.