July 4, 2008


Abraham's promise and American power: a review of Abraham's Promise by Michael Wyschogrod, edited by R Kendall Soulen (Spengler, 2/08/05, Asia Times)

American Christianity is personal rather than political, in contrast to the Protestant Separatism that founded the United States. The evangelicals who now comprise nearly half of the US electorate entered the political arena with reluctance. Except for the institutions it built, nothing remains of the New England Puritanism that brought to a New Promised Land a New Chosen People. Only the words etched into the marble of Abraham Lincoln's memorial remain of the biblical politics that guided the Union side of America's Civil War. For that reason, I have maintained, it is misguided to think of Americanism as a religion.

Not until I read Michael Wyschogrod's new book Abraham's Promise did it occur to me the long-departed spirit of American Puritanism might once again become flesh. US evangelicals might awaken one morning as a New Israel not merely in metaphor, but self-aware as a New Chosen People in a New Promised Land. The most paranoid imagining about the Christian Right pales beside this prospect. We are talking about the real thing, not a Straussian imitation: a politicized Protestantism in the mold of the 17th-century Separatists. A "Judaizing heresy" made the United States of America possible to begin with, I have argued on other occasions, and Professor Wyschogrod argues a strong case for the evangelicals to Judaize yet again. I do not know whether Wyschogrod anticipates the strategic consequences of his theology, and rather doubt that this is the case, but it is no less radical for absence of intent.

On the surface, his innovation is a way for Christians to think of themselves as a special case of Judaism. That is only the conning tower of his submarine, however. The intellectual resources of US evangelicals have not grown in step with their membership, and the movement is ripe for a re-examination. Wyschogrod provides them with a biblical (as opposed to a philosophical) framework to "understand itself ... [by] coming to terms with the Judaism within it". To a movement founded on the premise of Scripture alone, this may constitute an offer the evangelicals cannot refuse.

Wyschogrod has drawn some jeers from co-religionists (including the neo-conservatives at Commentary magazine), but sympathetic interest from Protestant theologians. To one of them, R Kendall Soulen, a professor at Wesleyan University in Washington, DC, we owe the present volume and a helpful introduction.

An uninvited thought crosses my mind that this might be one of the most important books of the 21st century. Not since the 17th century could anyone make such a statement in earnest about a work of theology. But in the presence of a single superpower, the chief strategic issue of the 21st century is whether the West has the will to continue living. Islam will have assimilated childless Western Europe by the end of the century. If America follows Europe into nihilism, the 21st century will go out in fair imitation of the 5th. That is why the evangelical mind will be the great issue of the next decade or two.

Spengler is often wrong but seldom silly. So when he tosses off that "except for the institutions it built, nothing remains" it's quite startling to see a thought so shallow. After all, those institutions include the Declaration, Constitution and the Republic itself all of which were deeply influenced by Puritan theology and can have no other secure basis but Christianity.

-ESSAY: Orthodox Judaism and Jewish-Christian Dialogue (Dr. Michael Wyschogrod)
-REVIEW: of The Lonely Man of Faith by Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Commonweal, Jan 15, 1993, Michael Wyschogrod)
-REVIEW: Reflections on Eva Hoffman's Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and The World of Polish Jews. (Michael Wyschogrod, Sarmatian Review)
-REVIEW: of Abraham's Promise by Michael Wyschogrod, ed. by R. Kendall Soulen (David Hazony, Commentary)
-REVIEW: of Abraham’s Promise by Michael Wyschogrod (Benjamin Balint, Azure)
-ESSAY: In the end shall Christians become Jews and Jews, Christians?: On Franz Rosenzweig's apocalyptic eschatology (Gregory Kaplan, Winter 2004, Cross Currents)
-ESSAY: God's first love: Michael Wyschogrod on Israel's election (Kendall Soulen, July 27, 2004, Christian Century)

I FIRST READ Michael Wyschogrod when I was in graduate school. The experience was electrifying. As I sat in the library finishing his essay "Israel, the Church, and Election," I remember being overcome by an almost physical sense of discovery, as though I had bumped into a hitherto invisible rock. What I had just read was undoubtedly the most unapologetic statement of Jewish faith I had ever encountered. Yet instantly I knew that Wyschogrod had helped me to see something in Paul that his Christian commentators had not. It was the theological relevance of the distinction between gentile and Jew.

Of course, the distinction was not wholly unfamiliar to me; far from it. I was accustomed to writers who treated the distinction as a useful bit of historical, sociological or religious description. Above all, I was familiar with the traditional Christian view that held that since Christ's coming the distinction between Jew and gentile had lost whatever theological significance it may once have had. This, after all, was Paul's own view, at least according to his commentators.

But Wyschogrod treated the difference differently. For Wyschogrod, the distinction was the indelible mark of an irrevocable divine choice: God's choice to enter history as the God of Israel. The distinction therefore mattered not only in the past, but also in the present and future. What is more, Wyschogrod treated the distinction as something that mattered not just to Jews, but also to Christians. He addressed Christians not merely as Christians but quite specifically as gentile Christians. With a shock of discovery, I realized that in this respect Wyschogrod was closer to Paul than were his Christian interpreters.

[originally posted: 2005-02-07

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 4, 2008 12:03 AM
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