CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD (Repost, November 2020)

Presented at the Seventh World Conference on Metaphysics at the Pontifical University of Salamanca, Spain, Oct 24-27, 2018

ABSTRACT: By a political theodicy is meant an attempt to harness our theological resources to ameliorate the evil we do and suffer as members of one of the three Peoples of the Book, evil we do and suffer in His name. In this paper I seek and propose a political theodicy Scripturally amenable to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.

I don’t remember the topic of the paper I wrote for the first of these Metaphysics conferences in Rome in 2000. But I am forever grateful to my then-wife, who browbeat me the night before into dedicating my allotment of ten minutes to what, in the paper, had been a mere footnote. After the six of us on the dais had had our ten minutes each, David Murray, the moderator for the session, asked permission of the other five – who all nodded enthusiastically – if the entire question period could be dedicated to what I had said.

I was the only Jew in a room of 200 devout Christians. By the respect I was afforded for that hour and a half, I have never been so humbled. What I said was this: 

Christians believe that Christ was the fulfillment of the Covenant struck with Abraham and of the Law handed down to Moses. That claim would be forfeited if the God to Whom Jesus cried “Abba!” from the Cross was not the same God Who made Covenant with Abraham. So if, as many post-1945 Jews believe, this God broke Covenant with Abraham at Auschwitz, what makes the Christian think He won’t likewise break the New Covenant struck from the Cross with her? So, I argued, any theodicy unacceptable to Jews after Auschwitz cannot be acceptable to Christians. Whether we like it or not, we Jews and you Christians have to do our theodicy together. 

As we left the building that afternoon, my then-wife turned to me and said, “Well, you know what you have to do now, don’t you?!” Until then I had been a political philosopher. But for the past 18 years I’ve been working on making good on that arrogant promissory note. 

Note to self. Be careful what you undertake, lest it take you under! And indeed, this thing has buried me! In any event, here, for what little it’s worth, is what I’ve been able to come up with.

Of the three standard theodicies – the Best of All Possible Worlds defense we associate with Leibniz, the Free Will defense advanced by Descartes and Alvin Plantinga, and the Soul-Making defense essayed by John Hick – none of them works. If this is the best God can do, He’s not much of a world-maker. And even if it’s the best by His lights, it’s not the best by those of the mother holding her dead child in her arms. Any notion of free will that would let God off the hook is incoherent. And unless the Hereafter is just more of the same kind of world we already have, it’s unclear what God might be forging our souls for.

But all three of these defenses attempt to reconcile the evil in the world with what we call a high theology, according to which God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. This conception of God was the child of post-apologetic Christian theology. It was never native to the pre-Diaspora Judaism it was meant to ‘apologize’ for. So what happens if we revisit our roots and lower our theology? What happens if it turns out we’re children of a lesser God? At least two possibilities emerge. 

It’s two in the afternoon, her birthday party is set for four, and notwithstanding her mother’s warning, the little girl has insisted on going out to play in the lovely white taffeta dress that’s been bought just for this occasion. Sure enough she falls in the mud. No point saying I told you so. So what does a loving mother do? In the brand new dress she too has bought just for this occasion, she plunks herself down in the mud next to her daughter. Is there a more loving way to wipe away tears and replace them with laughter? 

This Solidarity Defense, as it’s been called, is one feminist interpretation of the Christ event. God cannot make taffeta impervious to mud, but He can demonstrate His solidarity by sitting down in the mud with us.

The second theodicy made available by a lower theology is Jack Miles’ more charitable version of Carl Jung’s Answer to Job. In God, a Biography, Miles makes heavy weather of the fact that God’s bluster at the end of the Book of Job is the last word He utters in the Hebrew Bible. Job’s silence silences God. He doesn’t speak again until He presents His son Jesus to be baptized by John at the river Jordan. God blustered with Job because He was embarrassed. And what He’s been doing in the interim is thinking long and hard about what He might say to Job to replace that bluster. Thus by the Cross God hopes to reconcile not humanity to Himself, but Himself to humanity.

But Miles takes great pains to point out that Job is not of the House of Israel. The Christ event can be God’s apology to Job, but it can’t be His apology to Elie Wiesel or Primo Levy. Why not? Because of His promise to make Abraham’s children as numerous as the stars. It’s in response to that broken promise that the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem is a deadly silent “Fuck you!” to God. Why? Because even supposing that for whatever reason God didn’t save those children – including that, not unlike the mother who couldn’t make taffeta impervious to mud, He couldn’t save them – He would have known this, and so He had no business entering into Covenant with Abraham in the first place. So at the very least God entered that Covenant fraudulently. 

Yad Vashem denies God the moral high ground. It levels the moral playing field. It tells us that He’s in moral training no less than we are. The utterly gratuitous drowning of all but a handful of His creatures? The slaughter of the equally innocent first-born of Egypt? Much as our moral record is nothing to brag about, God’s doesn’t seem to be a whole lot better. 

But how could it be otherwise? Not unlike love and hatred and envy and compassion, morality is an emergent property of our being with others, others who are, in important ways, like ourselves. None of these things – love, anger, envy, pity – would have had any meaning prior to God having created these others. But neither would they have had any prior to His having encountered these others, and encountered them as others. The mere fact of my having sired my son entitles me to nothing. That God sired us entitles Him to nothing more.

Before I had a child – I too was a single parent, by the way – the last place I’d have wanted to go on vacation was Disneyland. Afterwards I wanted to go there because he wanted to. Having a child changes you. And having us changed God. 

In raising my son did I get what I wanted? The question makes no sense to me. Maybe it makes sense to God, but I doubt it. If what I wanted was someone to glorify me, I was in for a rude awakening. I think God has been adjusting to that awakening since that day in the Garden. I think that whatever He might have originally wanted, like me He ended up wanting what He got. 

None of this makes God worthy of worship, but it does make Him worthy of relationship. A God Who cares not what I think of Him is not a God about Whom I care to think. I think God knows this. That’s why we talk. And a God Who doesn’t need me for His projects is not a God I need for mine. That explains what we talk about

And that’s where the theodical rubber hits the road.

Change of topic, seemingly but not really.

The summer before that first Metaphysics conference I was at a conference at a university in Tel Aviv. The only Palestinian I saw there was an elderly char women, bussed in every morning from the West Bank, and bussed back out again every evening – two hours each way, I was told – once she’d finished cleaning our toilets. Apparently Hagar is still maidservant to Abraham and Sarah when needed, and cast into the wilderness with her bastard son, Abraham’s first-born, when she’s not. I can’t say that before then I’d been proud to be Jewish. I outgrew those kinds of sentiments when I was twelve. But I didn’t think it possible to be ashamed either. I was wrong.

The dead are dead. The detritus of the Shoah are the living. A brutalized people becomes brutal. A people who were sent forth to be an example unto the nations became what they were sent forth to exemplify against. The fence around Gaza – and the shelling of those imprisoned within it – looks an awful lot like the wall around the Warsaw Ghetto. Of course just because two things look the same doesn’t mean they are. The devil is always in the details. On the other hand, “Ah, but that’s different!” is precisely the devil’s stock refrain. So yes, my people learned our lesson well from Auschwitz. But the lesson wasn’t “Never again!” It was “Never again us!”  

But the lesson we’ve all learned is about the transitivity of predation. It was supersessionism, among other things, that gave rise to anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitism that gave rise to Auschwitz. After that the rest was pretty much inevitable. From Auschwitz to Sabra/Shatila to 9/11 to al-Maliki, and thence, from al-Maliki’s persecution of Iraq’s Sunnis to the rise of ISIS. 

Marxist historical determinism would say that no such dialectic can be denied its course. Of course not. But we are ourselves among the determinants of its course. We can think about what course we’d like it to take and, if we’re of one mind about it, we can act in concert and accordingly.

I have nothing to say here about conflicts elsewhere in the world. My concern is Palestine, and the toxic tendrils I’ve just cited that keep slithering out of it. Are there grounds for hope? Of course not. Ah, but “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” 

My hope is that because Jews, Christians and Moslems share a common Scriptural resource, we have something we can triangulate on, provided we interpret God’s role in that common Scripture not as presiding over the three of us, but, as I’ve just been urging, as simply the fourth man at the table, and therefore our jural equal.

I say ‘man’, but perhaps not. When the kids are fighting in the back seat, the typical man wants to know who started it. The typical woman just tries to get them to stop, usually by diverting their attention. But I think I’ll stick with ‘man’, because our attention is riveted on Jerusalem, and it’s unlikely to be diverted. And besides, having mindlessly given the same toy city to three different toddlers, He’s the one who did start it. So here, as I see it, is the problem:

Post-Auschwitz, the State of Israel is a refuge from Christian anti-Semitism, which is, theologically at least, the product of supersessionism. So long as supersessionism remains definitive of Christianity, Jews can never feel safe in Diaspora. Hence the Law of the Return. 

So long as the Law of the Return is definitive of the State of Israel, the Settlements, Sabra/Shatila, Ramallah, the killings at the Gaza fence … these will be repeated, periodically but perpetually. 

And so long as Israel remains a hard target for the resistance to the Occupation, Christendom has not seen its last 9/11. 

But – and this is crucial to my proposal – given what was announced from the Cross, Rome owes no apology for its supersessionism. Given Auschwitz, Jerusalem owes no apology for Sabra/Shatila. And given Sabra/Shatila, Mecca owes no apology for 9/11. In short, all three of us are well within our moral rights. 

But hang on. From whence cometh those rights? Wasn’t it God, speaking through St. Paul, Who said there is no longer Jew nor Gentile? What if Jews and Gentiles together decided that God can make what new covenant He likes with whomever He likes, but the Cross cannot abrogate the existing Covenant struck with Abraham? 

And wasn’t it God Who gave exclusive possession of Palestine first to Ishmael and then to Isaac? What if Ishmael and Isaac together decided to ignore the order of events – so no land covenant has yet been signed – and would sign no such covenant with God that violated a prior covenant they’d made with each other to honor the joint patrimony given to them not by God, but by their father Abraham? 

In the face of these withdrawals of uptake to His jural authority, what could God say but thank the three of us for saving ourselves, and Him, from the consequences of His own earlier folly?

All right, says each of us to the other two, but you first and then I’ll follow suit. But none of us can trust either of the other two to follow suit. And so, it would seem, we’re stuck in a classic three-way Prisoners’ Dilemma. One of the three of us has to make the first move notwithstanding that one or both of the other two might not make the second or third. So somebody has to (what I call) upshame.

What it is to shame someone is to let it be known she’s fallen below the moral minimum. I invited you to my home and you stole my silver candlesticks. But what it is to upshame you is for me to rise above the moral minimum myself – what ethicists call supererogation – and then invite you to join me, if but only if you feel so inclined. This is why it was important for me to point out that neither Rome nor Jerusalem nor Mecca have fallen short of what man or God expects of them. No cause for condemnation means no cause for defensiveness. It’s amazing – don’t you find? – how cooperative people can be when their back isn’t up against the moral wall.

I didn’t have to, but I forgave you the candlesticks and offered you the snuffer to match. At this point three things can happen. 1) That can be the end of it. 2) Seeing what an easy mark I am, you can steal my silverware too. Or 3) you can pay it forward, either to me or to someone else, but taking it upon yourself to escalate the supererogation as you go. 

It needn’t start big. But even if it starts small, it can rapidly become quite risky. Think about the nigh-impossibility of nuclear disarmament. Or, for that matter, any collective action problem. If I take a bullet to show our resolve, what assurance do I have that my comrades won’t just turn tail and run?  

And yet, what does the Hebrew Bible say about all of this? God brought the creatures of the earth and the sea and the air into being, so He can bloody well take them out again. In the wake of which God upshamed Himself. “Never again will I flood the earth for man’s sake.”  

Isaac was a miracle baby, born of a woman well past her menopause; so he belonged to God, and Abraham knew it. What he did, and all he did, is he looked up over his shoulder as if to say, “This is what human sacrifice looks like. Are You sure this is what You want?” And God realized it was not.

“Where were you,” bellowed God, “when I created the heavens and the earth? How dare you call Me to account?!” To which Job responded, “Then I guess I have nothing more to say to You.” And God realized He had earned that silence.

But it works in the other direction too. According to Rene Gerard, what God is showing us on Calvary is that notwithstanding we decided, quite rightly, that scapegoating is the sine qua non of preserving the moral order, “This is what scapegoating the innocent looks like. Are you sure that moral order is worth preserving?”

In fact all three Scriptures are replete with this upshaming motif. If we’d but attend to it. Of God upshaming men, men upshaming each other, and men upshaming God. And it’s that Scriptural support, I submit, that makes it possible to being upshamed without being shamed. What’s required is a little faith in one’s Faith, and a whole lot of courage.

So, to return to the question I left hanging, if this is to happen, who has to make the first move? On the one hand this is an empirical question, to which I’ve attended as best I can. On the other it’s a theological question, and as such I thought it best to at least consult God. I feel somewhat consoled that the two answers dovetailed with one another.

What identifies a Jew to the world – as evidenced by this being universally recognized – is that we’re funny and you Gentiles are not. But what tells a Jew he’s a Jew is that he takes himself to be an inheritor of a Covenant, a Covenant struck between a man, fictional or not, named Abraham, and a God, fictional or not, named Yahweh. For His part He shall cause our children to be as numerous as the stars. Try as He might have – I don’t know – He hasn’t exactly kept His part of the bargain. But that doesn’t mean we can’t upshame Him by keeping our part of it. 

Our part of it, recall, is to go forth and be an example unto the nations. For me that speaks loudly enough as to who has to make the first move at that fence surrounding Gaza.

Categories: Papers My Wife Said I Should Have Published Long Ago, Philosophy of Religion

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1 reply

  1. The late comedian Robin Williams would have agreed with you.

    He was explaining to a German audience why their country is so humourless: “Did you ever think [that] you killed all the funny people?”


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