Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Fatal Discord helps me sleep better

Following up a recommendation, I ordered and am now reading Michael Massing's Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind (Harper, 2018). I am only about 25% through it, so this is not a book review. But a couple of matters are worth reporting on.

First, this is a wonderfully told story of the early 16th century. Michael Massing (so far) is telling the twin biographical stories of Erasmus and Luther, via alternating chapters. A nifty way of keeping this reader's attention. But along the way, Massing is not afraid to head down some profitable sidetracks as he explains this or that development in philosophy or theology or gives us a biography in miniature of a relevant character in the plots of church history.

A few nights ago I was reading about Reuchlin, a man I had not heard of, who single-handedly turned German biblical scholarship towards the importance generally of the Old Testament and in particular the importance of learning Hebrew, all in the face of immense vitriol towards the Jews.

It is that vitriol that I especially want to report today. I knew well - having studied Luther when at Knox Theological Hall - that Luther was a factory spewing filth when it came to his excoriation of the Jews. What I was less aware of was how much he was a man of his times, unfortunately, when we read statements by other church leaders and theologians. Further, Jews were being expelled from various cities in (what we now call) Germany, and in some cases even slaughtered. There were confiscations of Jewish books. My reaction reading about these kinds of things in this first quarter of the book is that the Holocaust of the 20th century had a deep, longstanding reservoir of hatred and bigotry to draw on. Was it a case of "when" and not "if" that reservoir would spill over into the terrible events experienced in 1933-45?

Finally, Massing writes so well that it is a pleasure to read him - a few pages each night not only advances my knowledge but also assists me to sleep better!


Father Ron Smith said...

Again, Peter, this is an indication of institutional prejudice - where even Christians are wont to support the status quo of extant theology (or sociology) that has actually progressed from exclusivism (e.g. Jewish understandings of themselves as the (only) Chosen Race) to a more Christ-centred view of total humanity as Children of the One True God. Good Pope John XXIII got the message via Vatican II but, sadly, reactionary theologians want to go back to the 'good old days', where theology was static - with no expectation of new revelation.

Anonymous said...

Peter, I have not tested its soporific qualities, but it sounds as though you may be interested in Peter Ochs's Another Reformation. That is a study of several theologians, including Robert W Jenson, who have not only abandoned the *replacement* view of Judaism, but have thought through the consequences of doing so, not least for understanding the Bible.

The gap between contemporary Western theology and contemporary church-life often seems to be the myriad consequences of just three things-- the Barthian renewal of trinitarian theology, the rediscovery of patristic and eastern tradition, and the post-Holocaust replacement of *replacement*. One can also fall asleep playing Rock Paper Scissors to sort out which influence was most upstream of the other two.