Judaism and Christianity According to Balthasar

My chief purpose in reading Martin Buber and Christianity: A Dialogue Between Israel and the Church (Macmillan, 1960) was to acquaint myself with the thought and style of its author, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988). From what I have gathered, Balthasar was a reformer who addressed contemporary needs and sensibilities without, however, pushing this accommodation as far as the compromising views of peers like the modernist Karl Rahner.

Balthasar’s work on Judaism is long out of print and that is perhaps not surprising given the cultural orthodoxies at work in recent decades. It is unfortunate that since the Second World War (and the understandable sensitivity toward the “Jewish question”) most discussion has been dumbed down by polemics which seem to admit only of extremes. Balthasar takes what I think is a sensible middle ground that is respectful of Judaism, yet which must necessarily diverge on certain points. Indeed, behind the courtesy and goodwill of the author’s message there is a logical (one could fairly and accurately say “dogmatic”) intransigence. It leads him to ask if the anticipation of the messiah is really possible “to a believing, post-Christian Jew who bona fide rejects the fulfillment of Christ?”

There is no denying that the place of Jews in history defies a purely naturalistic anthropology. They are something more than an ethnicity and paradoxically they are a religion which, more than any other, is clearly identified with a People. This gives rise to the idea of the Land (of Israel) that Buber discusses at length. For the Jews, it is a sacramental principle and one which Catholics can appreciate, since they likewise believe in a God who can be immanent in the physical world.

In the theocentric outlook of both Buber and Balthasar it is impossible to justify Zionism – putting aside its positive (or negative) aspects on a natural level – if it is no more than a form of nationalism. The Jewish thinker likewise criticized the tendency that a secularized Judaism has to adopt utopian political systems. This leads Balthasar to add that on the whole “the Israel of today has lost its sense of transcendence.” Of course, modern utopianism did not begin with Western Jews. There is a long millenarian tradition amongst heretical and secularized Christians which launched the modern radical ideal with the French Revolution; nevertheless, the unique philosophical and social position of Jews did find them gravitating to Marxism in disproportionate numbers.

On a deeper level Balthasar makes the tantalizing suggestion that the original schism in the Church of the first century, between the Jews and the Christians, paved the way for subsequent ruptures, between East and West and between Rome and Luther. The implication is that the centuries-old division between the ancient faith and the new is not irreconcilable and that an eventual fulfillment of Judaism in Christianity is still to be hoped for, for the sake of both peoples.

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