In the final section of Jewish Identity (previously reviewed on this blog here and here), Fr. Elias Friedman delves into his most challenging and controversial theme: the theology of history, or the proper interpretation of Christian prophecy.
Relying on the work of Catholic priests and thinkers of Jewish origin – the Ratisbonne brothers and the Lemann brothers – as well as other Catholic writers, he explicates the cyclical view of sacred history so apparent throughout the Old Testament. The elements of this cycle are exile, repentance, and return, all taking place on the national scale. Combined with what he and others see as clear signs of the modern apostasy of the Christian Gentiles, he argues both that the Church is subject to the same cycle, and that the creation of Israel must be seen as part of the return of the Jewish people to their God.
Our author’s defense of the theological reading of history is as important as his exercise of such reading. He writes:
Theological prophetism extends intelligibility to concrete situations… Without theological prophetism, the Christian exposes himself to the sardonic criticism of Hegel, who complained that Christian theology was unable to come to grips with actualities… The intellectual triumphalism of Marxism lies in its pretension to penetrate contemporary situations by the aid of an intellectual system…
In other words, when the Church shies away from offering an interpretation of history in light of the Gospel, it leaves a vacuum which desperately needs filling, and which therefore is filled by harmful atheist philosophy.
Surely one of the reasons the Church has shied away from historical theology is due to an understandable insecurity regarding the future of history. The Church is sure to lose credibility if it must update its teaching at regular intervals to accommodate changes in history; it is far safer for it to teach only regarding those truths whose nature is unchangeable.
It is not easy to defeat this argument, and I am not sure that Fr. Friedman is fully successful in doing so. There seem, however, to be two points in support of his stance in addition to his own important claim that if the Church does not interpret history, its enemies will do so instead. The first is that the narrative of Old Testament is a ongoing theological interpretation of unfolding events in the history of Israel; it is not clear why, if the spirituality and theology of the Old Testament are dynamic, they should be static in the Church.
The second, and more relevant for our purposes, is that the Church already has engaged in historical interpretation in the past. Friedman writes:
…the redemptive cycle as it is encountered in the Bible… was later employed by the Fathers of the Church to develop a negative theology of post-Christic Jewry, polemically biased and semantically naive. Its fossilized residue remained in tranquil possession of the Christian mind until challenged by Vatican Council II.
(It is worth noting that Fr. Friedman’s defense of the theology of history goes hand in hand with his endorsement of that Council.)
Such “negative theology” was perhaps natural for its time. But in light of the fate of the Jewish people, in particular in the Holocaust, and the mass apostasy of the Gentiles since then, it is no longer adequate – indeed it is harmful, insofar as it nourishes anti-Semitism within the Church. The study of Zionism, Fr. Friedman believes, is crucial to developing a modern theology of history.
It is difficult to evaluate most claims to prophetic interpretation; at best one can dismiss those that are patently ridiculous. Indeed, Fr. Friedman himself states that one cannot subscribe to a prophetic view of history without faith:
The sources of faith, such as Scripture, Tradition, the ordinary teaching authority of the Church, cannot furnish more than motives of credibility to propositions bearing on actualities, on the “today” and “now”… A kerygma calls for a personal option, an option of faith, it being granted that in the last resort the option must submit to ecclesiastical control.
At the same time, faith is naturally at the core of the entire Christian enterprise:
Such was precisely the dilemma confronting the contemporaries of Jesus… Even his miracles were insufficient to generate conviction, for they, too, could be interpreted in different ways. Only by an act of faith could the Jew break through to the universal affirmation: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
Where does this leave the cautious churchman, reluctant to engage in historical interpretation that does not lend itself either to examination through pure reason or confirmation through tradition? Fr. Friedman does not fully resolve his dilemma, but gives him powerful encouragement and material for consideration.