Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"A mutual resistance to relativism"

The new issue of First Things includes an article by Meir Soloveichik. He considers the portrayal of Jesus by Jacob Neusner in A Rabbi Talks With Jesus, to which Pope Benedict responded in a section of Jesus of Nazareth. Neusner indicated great respect for Jesus, while nevertheless rejecting his claim to speak with the authority of God. The pope welcomed Neusner's acknowledgment that Jesus claimed to speak with such authority. Soloveichik denies that it is possible to both respect someone who makes such a claim and simultaneously deny the claim:
.... For the moment that one person in an argument claims to be God, dialogue and debate become impossible. When someone asserts divinity, his interlocutor has only two options: Believe, obey, and worship, or back away slowly. As such, Neusner’s friendly dialogue with Jesus amounts to what Matthew Scully, in a 1993 review of the book in National Review, called a “polite hedge.” Faced with a man who insists he is the equivalent of the Lord, one cannot disagree “with respect and reverence,” one cannot challenge the man’s claim while remaining “moved” by his greatness. “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher,” C.S. Lewis famously wrote. “He would either be a lunatic—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse.... But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” ....

But, for Jews, Neusner approaches Jesus in the wrong way, for Jesus is not someone with whom we can have this sort of “dialogue.” If we deny his divinity, then we can respond with nothing short of shock and dismay when we read the words of a man who puts himself in the place of God. Thus, in his admirable attempt to distinguish between Judaism and Christianity, Neusner elides the most important difference of all. ....
"What, then, should be the foundation of Jewish-Christian engagement?" Soloveichik asks, and suggests that what Christians and Jews do have in common is a conviction about truth:
Does truth as traditionally understood still exist? Traditional Jews, like Catholics, know the answer to the question. In the end, this is what unites Jews and Christians. Because they believe in truth, traditional Jews cannot and will not find a friend in Jesus—but because they do believe in truth, they can find a friend in followers of Jesus such as Benedict. A friendship founded on our mutual resistance to relativism is one that can unite us despite our theological differences. That will have to do until our debate over Jesus is resolved by God himself.
This impresses me as an example of "honest ecumenism." The article will be behind a subscription wall for a couple of months, which is an excellent reason to subscribe to First Things, a magazine that consistently publishes articles of substance by people who take belief in God seriously.

FIRST THINGS: A Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life

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