November 19, 2007


Christian, Muslim, Jew: Franz Rosenzweig and the Abrahamic Religions (Spengler, October 2007, First Things)

Franz Rosenzweig is widely regarded as one of the greatest Jewish theologians of the past century. Best known for The Star of Redemption, published eight years before his death in 1929 at the age of forty-three, he began a new kind of dialogue between Judaism and Christianity when he argued that the two faiths complement each other: Christianity to propagate revelation to the world, and Judaism to “convert the inner pagan” inside each Christian.

Less often mentioned, however, is Rosenzweig’s analysis of Islam, a religion he regarded as a throwback to paganism. Indeed, Rosenzweig predicted a prolonged conflict of civilizations between Islam and the West. “The coming millennium will go down in world history as a struggle between Orient and Occident, between the church and Islam, between the Germanic peoples and the Arabs,” he forecast in 1920—in part because Islam is “a parody of revealed religion,” while Allah is an apotheosized despot, “the colorfully contending gods of the pagan pantheon rolled up into one.”

Rather than three Abrahamic religions, Rosenzweig saw only two religions arising from the self-­revelation of divine love, with Islam as a crypto-pagan pretender. He was no Islamophobe, observing that Islam during certain eras evinced greater tolerance and humaneness than Christian Europe. But he was emphatic that truly foundational differences distinguish Judeo-Christian religion from Islam.

Contemporary academic thinkers almost universally eschew Rosenzweig’s view of Islam. But it makes no sense to affirm Rosenzweig’s depiction of the unique bond between Jews and Christians—their response to God’s self-revelation through love—while ignoring what makes this bond so different from other human responses to the transcendent. In Rosenzweig’s theology, the soul’s awareness of God begins with his love, and from this arise both faith and authentic human individuality. The existential condition of being loved is what uniquely characterizes Christian and Jew, as opposed to the pagan, for whom God must remain hidden. [...]

Although most of Rosenzweig’s comments about Islam are found in book two of The Star of Redemption, it is book three, his portrayal of the encounter of the peoples with mortality, that establishes the context—for it is there that he explains the “pagan world of fate and chance,” which applies to paganism’s manifestation in Islam. Although Palmer and Schwartz have collected every passage that mentions the word Islam in Rosenzweig’s work, they exclude his striking portrayal of pagan society. In short, they excise the context in which to understand his assertion that Islam is a mode of paganism.

Early in The Star of Redemption, Rosenzweig argues that pagan society cannot foster authentic human individuality but dissolves the individual into an extension of race or state. “For the isolated individual, his society is the society,” he writes.

In the thoroughly organized State, the State and the individual do not stand in the relation of a whole to a part. Instead, the state is the All, from which the power flows through the limbs of the individual. Everyone has his determined place, and, to the extent that he fulfills it, belongs to the All of the State. . . . The individual of antiquity does not lose himself in society in order to find himself, but rather in order to construct it; he himself disappears. The well-known difference between the ancient and all modern concepts of democracy rightly arise from this. It is clear from this why antiquity never developed the concept of representative democracy. Only a body can have organs; a building has only parts.

Written before the consolidation of communist power in Russia or the creation of the European fascist state, this passage was prescient, for it characterizes the modern neopagan state as well as the heathen societies of antiquity. It is also the starting point for Rosenzweig’s characterization of Islam as pagan and Allah as an apotheosized despot. He begins, in other words, with a general characterization of pagan society as a “thoroughly organized” society in the absence of God’s self-revelation through love, and then he considers Islam as a specific case of a paganism that parodies the outward form of revealed religion.

“In an authentic confession of faith,” he argues, “there always is this testimony, namely that one’s personal experience of love must be more than the experience of just one individual; that He whom the soul experiences in its love cannot be simply an illusion or a self-deception of the beloved soul, but that He actually lives.” And so God “achieves through the witness of the believing soul a tangible and visible reality beyond Hiddenness, beyond his Hiddenness, which he possessed in a different way in heathendom.”

By the same logic, Islam’s confession of faith cannot be a confession of faith at all: “Islam’s confession, ‘God is God,’ is no confession of faith, but a confession of non-faith [ein Unglaubensbekenntnis]. It confesses in this tautology not a revealed God, but a hidden one. Nicholas of Cusa says rightly that a heathen, indeed an atheist, could profess the same.”

Revelation, according to Rosenzweig, occurs through the soul’s awareness of God’s love, and human individuality arises from the soul’s response to being loved. In pagan society, where God remains unrevealed, the individual exists only as an organ of the collective of state or race. The pagan’s sense of immortality therefore depends solely on the perpetuation of his race, and his most sacred act is to sacrifice himself in war to postpone the inevitable day when his race will go down in defeat.

Rosenzweig’s spiritual characterization of pagan society is the starting point for his sociology of religion: an understanding of the response of whole peoples to mortality and transcendence. Uniquely among the peoples of the world, the Jews believe that a covenant with the Creator of Heaven and Earth makes them an eternal people. Not so the Gentiles, Rosenzweig writes:

Just as every individual must reckon with his eventual death, the peoples of the world foresee their eventual extinction, be it however distant in time. Indeed, the love of the peoples for their own nationhood is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death. Love is only surpassing sweet when it is directed toward a mortal object, and the secret of this ultimate sweetness only is defined by the bitterness of death.

Rosenzweig's analysis comes perilously close, if not all the way, to rendering Judaism a mere paganism too, and Christianity the only religion(*). After all, the point of a covenant, like any contract, is to bind parties who don't trust each other in the absence of that formal obligation. For the Christian, on the other hand, God's love was demonstrated by His willingness to die too, just to try and understand His Creation better. Which is why we preach Christ crucified--any old god can live, only God died.

(*) Though here we ought note that Shi'ism is rather similar to Christianity and Judaism in important ways.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 19, 2007 1:30 PM

Wow, I always thought paganism meant the worship of idols. Now I find it means anything that is not Christianity. Kind of makes the word meaningless doesn't it?

Posted by: Brandon at November 19, 2007 3:01 PM

Yes, Rosenzweig obviously goes too far in his attempt to differentiate Judaism from Islam. The Abrahamic faiths are distinguished from paganism, ancient and modern, by their monotheism alone.

Posted by: oj at November 19, 2007 4:53 PM

Some recoil from Rosenzweig's insight because they sense the call of the Crusade.

When we accept this judgement, that in the spiritual jailhouse we are facing a pagan monstrosity as depraved in its way as pre-reformation Shintoism, then nothing is left but to call on Sant'Iago, to bring up the memory of good king Jan III, and to ride.

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 19, 2007 6:48 PM

Having just re-read the Iliad and the Odyssey I "get" what Spengler is saying Rosenzweig means.

Homer's world is so cold and hard that it really does seem qualitatively different than the one we experience.

As tough as the God of the Old Testament is the world he created is nowhere near as pitiless as the plains of Troy.

Achilleus and the rest fight and die for no pupose other than glory for the self, family and race. And, they do so konwing that it is all futile and there is no love from teh heavens or hope after death.

That is what Islam and paganism have in common.

Of course, the criticism of Rosenzeig as a Hegelian may be true as Hegel was quite fond of Homer.

PS. What else is paganism if not that which is not Christian/Jewish?

Posted by: Benny at November 19, 2007 7:49 PM

Oj: There have been mono-theisms in the past (Egypt). Surely these were pagan?

Posted by: Benny at November 19, 2007 7:52 PM

Of course, he is dealing with only one strain of Islam.

There is no need to assume that Islam must be this way or any other.

I have evey hope that it will be reformed into a Protestant sect as has Catholicism.

Posted by: Benny at November 19, 2007 7:56 PM

How was Egypt monotheist?

Posted by: oj at November 19, 2007 8:31 PM

Very disappointed in your question regarding Egyptian montheism.
Ancient Egypt had at least a generation of monotheism during Pharaoh Akhenaten's reign
Even more important, Egypt was a monotheistic Christian nation prior to invasion by the Mongol like hordes of Islamic fanatics.
Spin like a laser gyroscope, but the bottom line is, Islam is unreformable. Little things like "no redemption", "no free-will" & "no-individuality" will always keep getting in the way.
Islam is tribalism/family taken to the nth degree, wherein the outsider is either killed or enslaved. Tom Tancredo would make a great Muslim.

Posted by: Mike at November 19, 2007 9:00 PM

Less than two decades of Sun god worship imposed by a god? That's not monotheism, it's a fad.

Egyptian Christians were obviously montheists. That's a truism.

Yes, just as Christianity reformed Judaism it will reform Sunni Islam.

Posted by: oj at November 19, 2007 10:10 PM