Tuesday, January 02, 2007

more from The Pillar of Fire

A couple of months ago, I reflected on some of the early material in Karl Stern's The Pillar of Fire. I didn't cover much ground after that, as I spent most of the Nativity Fast reading Orthodox literature. Thanks to President Ford's death last week, I ended up with an extra-long weekend and had time to rush through the remainder of the book. It's very good--I would like to have had the leisure to digest everything in it, but I was able to get the gist and devote significant attention to the more religiously-focused parts. I found interesting his assessment of Jewish racism:
Now I was shaken out of my inner sureness by the following fundamental and indisputable facts. Firstly, there were two parties who unanimously and in perfect agreement maintained the racial wall around the God of Sinai--these were the Nazis and the Jews. Let there be no mistake. Jewish religion up to this day is based on the axiom that Revelation is a national affair and that the Messiah to the Nations has not been here yet. Do not be misled by the fact that Jews in their personal ethics are anything but exclusive and racist. Do not be misled by certain noble Talmudic principles such as "The just of all nations have a share in the world to come." This latter idea has no bearing on the question discussed here; it deals with what to Jewish antiquity was the "invisible church." Do not be misled by fine cosmopolitan sentiments and actions of reformed Judaism which are often prompted by noble hearts but at the same time by much vague thinking and by a lukewarm dilution of the most profound and world-shaking elements of the Judaic treasure. No, there is no getting away from it. Revelation was still contained within the precious vessel of the Nation; I only had to look at our liturgy to see that this was so. Jewish religion was racial exclusiveness. Mind you, it was racial exclusiveness in its noblest, most elevated form--in its metaphysical form, so to speak. It was a racism exactly opposed to that of the Nazis, but it was racism just the same. It was racism with the highest, divine justification--as long as its one basic premise was correct, namely that the Anointed One was still to be expected (172-73).
I've seen this sort of analysis before (interestingly, from another Jewish-Christian convert), but it was interesting to see it repeated here.

Also interesting was his perception of continuity between Judaism and Christianity:
It was really the spirit of Judaism I rediscovered in this strange [Christian] setting, enriched by remote peoples, and cleansed of its purely ethnic elements. . . .

Christianity confirmed and believed everything which Jewry believed but added one fundamental assertion which Jewry rejected. Heresies are based on denials. In this sense Christianity was no heresy from Judaism; it rejected nothing essential but made a new positive claim (177). . . .

Today I know that there was actually nothing I had to give up. On a spiritual plane Christianity is Jewry. It is Jewry led to its fulfillment. There is no essential truth of the Old Testament which the Christian denies. . . .

I saw then that the fate of my people was intimately associated with the fate of Christ in the world, that there were people around me who held in their hearts the God of Israel, although they were not Jews; and in the intensity and profundity of their lives I saw the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah fulfilled. This was the beginning of a new outlook on life. Something old had burst, though I did not want this fact to be true. Something new had sprung up. I did not know where I was being led. But I felt that insight meant obligation. I knew that there would come a time when I would have to make the big jump into the unknown (188-90).
One of the struggles I have had to deal with in my own story is how I seem to have bounced around from one viewpoint to another--first Evangelical, then agnostic, then Orthodox Jewish, then Messianic Jewish, now Orthodox. More than one Evangelical friend has suggested that this too might be a passing phase. But as I see it, there is an underlying continuity in the path I have taken. Stern's observations about Judaism and Catholicism resonate with my own reflections.

Stern also relates his struggle over the disparity between Catholicism as he saw it portrayed in books and in the lives of isolated acquaintances and the less appealing form that he saw around him:
The Catholic Church is a church of the multitude. Consequently the outsider, approaching her, faces a thick layer of mediocrity. We have associations of thought built chiefly on magazine articles, radio items and newspaper headlines. Whoever has experienced supernatural charity during the persecution on the Continent may stumble across a bigoted or anti-semitic priest--and with one such experience the vision of the Church seems forever gone. . . .

Thus, it took us some time before we saw the immense hidden treasure of anonymous sanctity in the Church; the spiritual power that flows to and from thousands of unknown souls every day. The stream of sacrifices made, for supernatural motives, by a multitude of working-class people, by religious in their communities, by priests and lay-people alike. In one superficial respect there is again a strange resemblance between the Jewish people and the Church: the misdeeds of one member are more broadcast than the sanctity of a hundred others (247-48).
I think very much the same thing could be said about Orthodoxy, and it is a particular issue coming from Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism tends to be about constant reform, constant reinvention, constant purification or separation from what does not fit. It can be difficult to adjust to the look and feel of a catholic tradition, where the Church is truly for everyone.

Finally, Stern relates the way in which the Church contains all that is good in other religions, philosophies, etc., without requiring that one add anything repulsive:
I have said that in entering the Church one does not have to give up any single positive value one has ever believed in. You think of yourself as a traitor to your past. You think you have to leave Goethe behind, or Tolstoy, or Gandhi, or Judaism, or what-not. But there is nothing which is good in all these things which you do not find again in the Church. Now it is ordered and synthetized. It is molten in Christ. Moreover, you do not have to accept anything which is repulsive to you in the Church, on a political or social plane. Nobody wants you to accept a totalitarian politician, or a priest who is obsessed by racial prejudice. All you have to accept is Christ and His Sacraments (261).
I appreciate this remark, as I find it to be true not only of entering the Church from another religion like Judaism but also of entering Orthodoxy from Protestantism. I wish Julie could see, as I do, that all that is best about our Evangelical past is only augmented in Orthodoxy.

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