On the Promises of God to Mankind

“People of faith tend to have children; those who are persuaded of the randomness of existence tend not to.”
— David Goldman, It’s Not the End of the World; It’s Just the End of You, 2011.1

“Jewish thought itself is aware that Israel is in its own way a corpus mysticum … The bond of Israel is a sacred and supra-historical bond, but a bond of promise, not of possession, of nostalgia, not of sanctity. For a Christian, who remembers that the promises of God are without repentance, Israel continues its sacred mission, but in the night of the world which it preferred to God’s night.”
— Jacques Maritain, “The Mystery of Israel.” 1941.2

“The Jews, by their persistence through the millennia, stand surety for God’s promise to the rest of mankind … The Jewish people in their national life are unique, living repositories of the hopes of all peoples.”
— David Goldman 3

In a large class of undergraduate students, I recalled the quip of Walker Percy which I thought was both amusing and pertinent to a discussion of the Old Testament and political philosophy: “Why are there no Hittites in New York?”4 Percy wondered. I expected some laughter, but, as far as I could tell, no one understood the point. Since obviously we find many Jews in New York but no Hittites, what can explain that survival over the millennia of Jews but not of the Hittites?

In a sense, David Goldman’s book, It’s Not the End of the World; It’s Just the End of You, sets out to answer this question that has much more intellectual substance than we might at first suspect from the book’s somewhat flippant but accurate title. Goldman will indeed say that it is not the Jews of New York, who have very low birth rates, who will survive, but those in Israel, who are the “happiest nation on earth,” with the highest birth rate among industrialized peoples. The relation of birth and economics, happiness and enterprise, dying and living nations is at the heart of this book.

Such a bold thesis, of course, will seem to many readers to be outlandish and astonishing, which is precisely what Goldman intends in this survey of everything modern. This book discusses finance, ecology, music, art, Christianity, Leo Strauss, the worst American presidents, the decline of Europe,  the death of cultures and languages, the death-wish itself, Islam, China, economics, empires, Tolkien, and just about everything else under the Sun.

If there is a dull page in the book, I did not notice it. Goldman is the first man in recent times to point out that Belloc’s famous, and generally derided, 1924 phrase that: “Europe is the faith” was quite right.5 The present popes realize this fact, though most European leaders do not. The reason that they do not is also a cause of their ever-increasing population decline that Goldman charts.

David Goldman has made a name for himself as a broad, philosophic critic of modern culture through his writings in, among other places, the Asia Times and First Things. This book is a collection and unifying of many of these essays and analyses. If there is any single figure that stands behind this book, it is the German Jewish thinker, Franz Rosenzweig, whose 1921 book, The Star of Redemption, is cited over and over in this work. (Goldman’s book somehow lacks an index). Rosenzweig evidently almost became a Christian, but rethought his Jewish foundations, rewriting the understanding of the modern world in the light of the primacy of Jewish revelation.

Several years ago, the Belgian Jesuit, Cardinal Albert Vanhoye, published an essay on the Christian understanding of the place of Israel in Christian revelation.6 Following the Pauline lead in Romans 11, Vanhoye argued that God did not take back His promises to Israel. The fact is that the vast majority of Jews did not, and do not, understand the Hebrew Bible as leading to, and as completed in, the divine origin and earthly life of Christ. This line of thought required a new interpretation of history. The original promises made to Abraham and Moses continue. They eventually result in an account of Israel as itself having a divine founding unlike other nations. None the less, Israel’s very existence symbolizes and illuminates what nations ought to be. The universalism of the Hebrew tradition, if it might be called that, was thus focused on the examples of believing Jews finally gathered in their homeland after centuries in the diaspora in which their identity was kept alive in the synagogue’s worship.

“My commitment to Judaism came relatively late in life,” Goldman tells us, “in my mid-thirties, but was all the more passionate for its tardiness. The things I had been raised to love were disappearing from the world or changing beyond recognition” (8). The overarching consequence is that Goldman has to explain what Christianity is on the premise that it is not the completion of the original plan of Yahweh in creation and redemption. In this light, it is also necessary to explain what the other nations are. Looking at the significance of declining populations, Goldman thinks that Italy and Germany, together with most European states with Christian origins, are simply dying with fatal, self-inflicted moral wounds. Most of these countries will disappear in the foreseeable future.

Something of the flavor of Goldman’s thinking is found in the passage that follows: “One of the last truly universal European minds belongs to the octogenarian Pope Benedict XVI. In 1996, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had said in an interview, published as Das Salz der Erde (The Salt of the Earth): “Perhaps, we have to abandon the idea of the popular Church. Possibly, we stand before a new epoch of Church history with quite different conditions, in which Christianity will stand … in small, apparently insignificant groups, which none the less oppose evil intensively, and bring the Good into the world”(8). This passage is a clue to how Goldman understands Christianity, and what is to replace the imperial tradition that it inherited from Rome. It is the nation established by divine selection.

“When Rosenzweig argues that Islam is to be understood as a throwback to paganism, that is precisely what he means. He saw, rather than three Abrahamic religions, only two religions arising from the self-revelation of divine love, with Islam as a crypto-pagan pretender: a parody of Christianity and Judaism” (264). It was Belloc’s view that Islam was a Christian “heresy,” though I think it more of an Old Testament heresy. It, too, specifically denies the Trinity in the Godhead, as well as the Incarnation of one of the Persons in the Trinity. Islam, in any case, is not a “revealed” religion in which Allah turns around and denies what he established in an earlier revelation.

“What is it that unites Catholic Thomists and evangelical fideists (as well as observant Jews) but divides all of them from Islam? It is the biblical belief that God loves his creatures. A loving God, in the biblical view, places man in a world  that he can comprehend, which is to say that,  out of love for humankind, God establishes order in the universe” (277). Goldman adds that the Muslim philosopher, Al-Ghazali, “abhors divine love.” Man’s relation to Allah is not one of love, but of obedience and submission.

This context brings up the famous question of the relation of the Koran to voluntarism, to the fact that Allah is not limited to any rational principle of contradiction. He can, therefore, show his “power” by denying what he previously ordered.  This voluntarism further is related to the question of the status of science in Islam. In a voluntarist conception of God and nature, nothing stable exists to be investigated, in effect, as Allah’s will can make it the opposite of what it is. Science did not, and could not, be developed without the theological thesis of stable, secondary causes that themselves depend on nature containing an original order, or intelligence, to be investigated.7

The reason why this consideration is important in Goldman’s mind, I think, has to do with the proper understanding of Aristotle, especially of his idea of the “First Mover.” Goldman states that:  “al-Ghazali simply reproduces Aristotle’s definition of God as the unmoved mover. In this case, it is Christians who must fall back on scripture, and it is al-Ghazali who defends the rational view of Greek philosophy. … The Jewish idea, that the maker of heaven and earth cares about his creatures and suffers along with them, seemed idiotic to the Greeks, and still seems idiotic to the vast majority of philosophers today” (278). Much of St. Paul’s admonition to the philosophers is found in that passage, and, I suppose, a hint that for Greeks, the resurrection of Jesus will seem “foolishness” and to the Jew a “scandal (stumbling-block)” (1 Cor 1:23).

The Aquinas Review (V. 17, 2010) contains a number of closely argued studies on the question of whether Aristotle’s famous “unmoved mover” is really that unconcerned about his creatures as Aristotle makes him out to be. Josef Pieper has long noted that when Aquinas deals with what are called Aristotle’s “errors,” such as his view of the eternity of the world, the fact is that, on philosophic grounds, Aristotle is not wrong.8 In principle, the world might be “eternal,” even though that eternity does not mean that the world is God. God could have created a finite world from eternity. We know from revelation that He did not, but it was possible. The “unmoved mover” still moved by knowledge and love, something that implies a correspondence between what is moved and what moves it.

I cite these passages in the Goldman book because they suggest the reason why he has to reject Christianity’s view of revelation, revising the Jewish view. This latter position makes Israel the light of the nations, not Christ. For the Christian, the light of Israel is only completed in Christ. Essentially, for Goldman, Christianity has failed in its universal worldly mission. As a result, the path is now open to China, India, Islam, and, yes, Israel to refashion the world in another image. Because of its divine founding, Israel has the strongest claim. As far as I read him, Goldman’s focus is inner-worldly, even when he talks of eternity. I do not mean that he doubts the existence of Yahweh, but he does doubt a plan that is primarily a message of salvation from this world, and not one that saves this world as a world.

The question of the inner-worldly purpose of human life in this world is one that is ever fascinating, especially when it often has its roots in a subtle effort to use this “mission” as an alternative to, or rejection of, the transcendent purpose that was embodied in Christ, and His relation to each individual human person.9 As Benedict said in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, what scripture said of Christ is in fact true. He is the Son of Man. He did exist in this world; he was resurrected on the “third day.” This presence in the world of time makes everything different. One thing seems certain; the primary purpose of revelation cannot be inner-worldly, to build an earthly city. We simply cannot allow the billions of those who have thus far existed in the imperfect cities of men to become tools to some future, finite, temporal city as the explanation of why men exist in this world.

Goldman writes with much eloquence and solemnity: “Only one nation conceives of itself as eternal, and that is Israel, whose belief that God’s love for its ancestory establishes its immortality beyond death of the universe itself” (Psalm 102).

In the West, nations came by the hope of immortality through Christianity, which offered the eternal promise of Israel to the Gentiles, but only on the condition that they cease to be Gentiles, through adoption into Israel of the Spirit. Israel is the exception that proves the rule, the single universal nation whose purpose is the eventual recognition of the one God by all humankind. The history of the world is the story of man’s search for eternity. That is what Rosenzweig means when he said that the history of humanity is the history of eternal life, vouchsafed first to the Jews, that stands at the center of Western history. Christian Europe came into being by absorbing invader, and indigenous alike, into a super-ethnic Christian empire, whose universality was expressed by a single religious leader, whose authority transformed kingdoms, a single church, and a single language for liturgy and learning. Europe arose from a universal Christian empire and it fell when the nationalities mutinied against their mother, the Church, and fought until their mutual ruin (353).

These are remarkable lines. God’s love of all men “beyond the death of the universe itself” is already present in the Godhead before the universe is created.  What is at issue here is this: Why was the chosen nation chosen, for it was not for anything due to it, as it says in Deuteronomy (7:7). What is missing is the need for a redeemer.

Though some intimations can be found in the Old Testament, the immortality of the soul is not a specifically a Christian invention. Indeed, immortality of the soul by itself is not terribly attractive. Its thesis is a product of primarily Greek philosophy. This teaching is philosophical. It is not from revelation. Christians, granting the force of its philosophical proofs, use this conclusion in order to deal with certain aspects of the resurrection of the body. Primarily, it concerns how the same body that died, can be the very one that rises again, the one that is responsible for its acts The Aristotelian teaching of the unity of body and soul in all things, including cognition, is much closer to the notion of the incarnation and resurrection than those Platonic passages that seem to radically separate body and soul. The complete whole that makes the person, body and soul, argues in this direction, also. The whole foundation of divine and human love and friendship is based on it.

The idea of an “eternal” nation is another issue that needs reflection. Strictly speaking, nations, even Israel, are not persons. This point is where the resurrection of the body separates from politics as the primary locus of human destiny. Nations are, more or less, well-organized relationships of persons. Only the person achieves eternal life, not just immortality. Through such persons, the direct relation to God, and each other, is possible. Christianity as such came into being before any “absorption” of the tribes and indigenous people that were later converted. Christianity is universal because of its own teaching about eternal life. This teaching of resurrection through Christ is something the Jews, for their own reasons, do not accept.

One can well say that Europe, as such, came into being through Christianity. It was not, however, intended necessarily to absorb the nations, but to allow them to be more themselves, in so far as they contained a philosophic or natural truth. As Benedict remarked in the Regensburg Lecture, revelation is directed primarily to the philosophers.10 That means that at one level, it was directed to an active understanding of reason, where revelation is seen to be itself a response to legitimate philosophical questions, already posed to the human mind, without revelation.. It is true that Christianity is directed to all men, to all nations, to the great majority who are non-philosophers. But it does not bypass the issue of “What is philosophy?” Faith and reason are not contradictory. The distinction of God and Caesar, fundamental to Christianity, does not identify the Israel of the Spirit, as Goldman called it, with any political body. All polities, including Israel, are but arenas in which the real drama of existence takes place within the souls of men, as they relate to God and to one another, while  they freely  live and choose in this world what it is that they stand for—a self-defined world or a discovered, gift world.

This book contains many remarkable reflections on any number of issues. Goldman is convinced, with good reason, that Europe, and many other nations, are dying. He relates this death to the lack of a will to beget and raise a new generation. The consequence of this birth-deficiency is the need to import labor to care for an aging population, something that mixes and replaces the populations to which immigration directs itself. Goldman even finds the beginning of this rejection of birth in some of the Muslim states, notably Iran. On the other hand, “A woman expects a man to love her uniquely, and in isolation, from the rest of her sex, and she wants a man who actually, and in fact, loves her because there is something about her uniquely created soul that fulfills him” (103). It would be difficult to state the issue better.

Of the Jewish political philosopher, Leo Strauss, Goldman writes: “Strauss hung his political philosophy hat on Thomas Hobbes, who threw out the traditional concept of God-given rights of man” (234). Now I would doubt that Strauss hung his hat on such a dubious rack.11 But no doubt anyone, including Catholics, who hangs his hat on Hobbes’ notion of “right,” will end up denying any objective structure of reality, including human reality. The very idea of “rights,” in my view, is itself the problem. It almost always means, in modern thought, what Hobbes said it did. Strauss rightly rejected this idea.

Goldman’s problem with Strauss, I think, is rather like his problem with Aquinas and Christians, in general: namely, their granting a place to reason within the revelational purpose itself. Thus, a Catholic thinker would find this sentence most curious: “Biblical faith has no need of theodicy” (174). In his “Regensburg Lecture,” Pope Benedict is careful to point out the importance to philosophy of key passages in the Old Testament. And Strauss himself often used the passage in Deuteronomy 4, of explaining to the nations what Israel stood for, as a reason why the Jewish mind can address itself to philosophy.

In this context, the following passage of Goldman on original sin is instructive. Original sin brings up the question of a divine plan, that originates in the beginning, and is a response to the first sin. This response leads to a need for a redeemer, who responds to mankind by leaving their freedom intact. “By replacing the Magisterium of the Church with the Bible reading of the individual, Protestantism puts at-risk the slender flame of faith,” Goldman observes. “Influenced by the Jewish criticism of original sin, Luther well-knew that it could not be reconciled with free will. Christianity cannot do without original sin, which motivates Christ’s sacrifice to begin with” (42). This passage is quite revealing about the relation between the Jewish rejection of Christ, and original sin, as well as the understanding of free will. Original sin is, in fact, directly related to original sin, and its consequences. The reason for Christ’s incarnate redemptive mission is because free will had to be retained, and responded to, after the Socratic principle that it is better to suffer evil than to do it.

Goldman is likewise concerned with the death of cultures. “The main reason societies fail is that they choose not to live” (87). There is much of the original (Oswald) Spengler in Goldman (alias Spengler). “Suicide is a rare occurrence at the level of the individual, but a typical one at the level of nations” (87). Interestingly, Goldman does not have much to say about the related moral questions on this issue that would occur to Catholics, namely contraception, abortion, and other forms of sex without children. Goldman quite clearly sees the issue, but prefers to leave it at the national level of nations dying, rather than individuals choosing. He does spell out very graphically, however, the relation of death to the birth issue.

In the end, Goldman is out to save America from itself. “America became the New Israel, the only approximation of a Christian nation, because it called individuals out of the culture of the Old World, and from them formed a new people” (188). He adds: “America is the most Christian, and indeed, the last Christian nation in the industrial world as a practical matter.” This does not mean that Goldman does not think that America can reject its own heritage. He thinks that President Obama is the worst American president. “Napoleon was a lunatic who thought he was Napoleon, and the joke applies to the forty-fourth U. S. president with a vengeance. Obama is beyond reality; he has become the lunatic who thinks he is Barrack Obama” (224).

Goldman’s take on the American Civil War is, basically, that the wrong side won, not that he has any sympathy for racism, as such. He states that:“The U. S. South chafes in anger and shame at its own defeat, and the North recoils in horror from its own victory” (197). His description of Sherman’s policies is brutal. “Sherman, who lived in the South and had many close Southern friends, understood that the ambition of the South could only be quelled by a sea of blood. He is the decisive personality of the Civil War, and, yet, there has never yet been a single cinematic treatment of the man” (203). As I said in the beginning, this book is provocative at every level, including this comment: “The tragedy of the wars of religion was the death of Catholic universalism, and the tragedy of a mediocre people that could find nothing to replace it with—until the American Revolution” (49).

Goldman follows the thesis of Philip Jenkins about the rise of a “third world Christianity” (248). He thinks that European Christianity is pretty much dead, a view that was pioneered by Nietzsche. The book, in any case, is well worth reading. Its view on modern art (mostly incoherent), and music are blunt, as are his views on ecology. One seldom reads a book with so many interrelated issues brought together. But, I think, the unique issue that the book brings to our attention is precisely: What is Israel?. As Maritain said, Israel is a “mystery” precisely because it is still present, and clearly has a role within salvation history itself, from which role it gets its purpose. The question for Israel remains whether its own mission is coherent, without a relation to the salvation history that ends in Christ, and continues through the Church, to “eternity,” the eternal life that so concerns Goldman about the uniqueness of the Jewish nation.

  1. David Goldman, It’s Not the End of the World; It’s Just the End of You (New York: RVP Publishers, 2011), 34-35.
  2. Jacques Maritain, “The Mystery of Israel,” The Social and Political Philosophy of Jacques Maritain, edited by Joseph Evans and Leo Ward (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), 203. The phrase “the promises of God are without repentance” are from Romans, 11:29. See James V. Schall, “The ‘Mystery’ of the Mystery of Israel,” in Jacques Maritain and the Jews, edited by Robert Royal (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press/American Maritain Society, 1994), 51-71.
  3. Goldman, ibid., 372.
  4. Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos (New York: Macmillan, 2000).
  5. See James V. Schall, “Belloc’s Infamous Phrase,” The Catholic Thing, online , October 18, 2011.
  6. See James V. Schall, “Old Testament and New Testament, Ignatius Insight, online, June 26, 2009. See Dominique Dechert, “Y a-t-il une theologie de l”etat d’ Israel?” online, France Catholique, 19 August 2011.
  7. See James V. Schall, “On Politics and Physics: Stanley Jaki on Science in Islam,” Fellowship of Catholic Scholars’ Quarterly, 32 (Summer 2009), 14-17.
  8. Joseph Pieper, Guide to Thomas Aquinas (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 38-63.
  9. See James V. Schall, The Modern Age (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2011).
  10. See James V. Schall, The Regensburg Lecture (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2007).
  11. See James V. Schall, “A Latitude for Statesmanship: Strauss on St. Thomas,” Review of Politics, 53 (Winter 1991), 126-43.
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avatar About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, S.J., is professor emeritus of political science at Georgetown University, now retired and in residence at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center, Los Gatos, California. He is the author of many monographs, and, perhaps, the leading essayist writing in English today. He has been one of HPR’s most prolific authors.

Comments

  1. avatar Russell Smith says:

    Fr. Schall –

    Your praise of David Goldman encourages me. “Spengler” has recalibrated my outlook many times, starting long before his secret identity was revealed. He is someone whose views I would seek before I make up my own mind. I have fallen for cranks now and then, and Goldman’s viewpoint is so singular that I feared I might be doing it again.

    A quibble: in paragraph 29, you say “Original sin is, in fact, directly related to original sin, and its consequences. ” Did you mean to say “Free will is, in fact, directly related to original sin, and its consequences.” ?

  2. avatar Fr. Nicolas Steeves, SJ says:

    Thank you for your article, Father, but please correct Albert card. Vanhoye’s nationality: he is not Belgian, but French, and belongs to the French Province of the Society, albeit as a member of a house in the DIR. (He was born near the Belgian border, but that doesn’t make him Belgian, despite a misconception that has been going around ever since he was made a Cardinal). And he is a delightful man and a learned scholar.
    In Christo,
    Fr. Nicolas Steeves, SJ (French Province)

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  1. [...] collection It’s Not the End of the World–It’s Just the End of You” in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review.  It is a remarkable essay; in today’s Asia Times Online, I reflect on Fr. Schall’s [...]

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