Franz Rosenzweig's near-conversion to Christianity in the summer of 1913 and his subsequent decision three months later to recommit himself to Judaism is one of the foundational narratives of modern Jewish thought. In this new account of events, Benjamin Pollock suggests that what lay at the heart of Rosenzweig's religious crisis was not a struggle between faith and reason, but skepticism about the world and hope for personal salvation. A close examination of this important time in Rosenzweig’s life, the book also sheds light on the full trajectory of his philosophical development.
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About the Author
Benjamin Pollock is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Michigan State University.
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Franz Rosenzweig's Conversions
World Denial and World Redemption
By Benjamin Pollock
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2014 Benjamin Pollock
All rights reserved.
Revelation and World Skepticism
Rosenzweig's Early Marcionism
NOT JUST THE GOD OF REVELATION
"On the heights of the Capitol the redeemer of the world shall be worshipped, Christ or Antichrist, but no frail mortal."
So runs the prophecy given to Caesar Augustus by the Sybil, legend has it, atop the hill of the Capitol in Rome on the night of Jesus' birth. Selma Lagerlöf recounts this prophecy in the opening scene of her Antikrists mirakler (1897), and tells how, at the very spot of the sibylline prophecy, the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli was founded. The monks who maintain Aracoeli, Lagerlöf relates, guard against the dark side of this prophecy: their vocation, as they see it, is to protect the world from the coming of the Antichrist. These warriors of the spirit have in their possession, moreover, a wondrous prize that helps support them in their heavenly work: a two-foot-high statuette of the Christ child, painted all in gold, bedecked in jewels and sporting a magnificent crown. This Christ child icon—Santo Bambino, as he is called—works miracles for all who seek it out, and gives the monks of Aracoeli the strength they need to endure in their weighty task.
One day, Lagerlöf's story goes, a wealthy Englishwoman visits the Church at Aracoeli and falls in love with the icon. Determined to possess it, she devises a plan. She has a replica of the Christ child made that looks just like the real Bambino, but is crafted of inferior materials and is draped with false jewels. In its crown, moreover, the Englishwoman scratches the inscription "My kingdom is only of this world," in order that she herself be able to distinguish this false icon from the true Christ, who had proclaimed before Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). On a return visit to Aracoeli, the Englishwoman switches the true Christ child with its false imitation, and the monks unknowingly wind up worshipping this "Antichrist," thereby fulfilling the very sibylline prophecy against which they were on guard to protect.
But then a miracle occurs. The true Christ child finds its own way back to the Church at Aracoeli, and the monks, now inspecting the forgery carefully, realize their error. They return the true Christ child to its proper place, and with the cry, anathema antikristos, hurl the false image out of the church and down the mountain.
Unbeknownst to the monks, however, the iconic symbol of the "kingdom of this world" does not meet its end in the fall from Aracoeli. Picked up in a carriage, the icon begins to travel the world. On an early stop, the icon arrives in Paris in the midst of the revolts of 1848. Here the Christ child is examined by an intellectual who has joined the front lines—presumably none other than Marx himself—and the words scratched into its crown, "My kingdom is only of this world," inspire the young man to formulate the tenets of socialism for which he becomes famous. "Your kingdom is only of this world," he proclaims. "Therefore you must care for this life and live like brothers. And you shall divide your property so that no one is rich and no one poor. You shall all work, and the earth shall be owned by all, and you shall all be equal."
As the plot of Antikrists mirakler unfolds, upon the backdrop of growing tension between the Church and the socialists in Italy, the false replica of the Christ child finds its way to a small town in the shadow of Mt. Etna in Sicily, called Diamante. Here, the townsfolk fail to notice the inscription scratched into the icon's crown, and as a result they proclaim it to be a genuine miracle-working Christ child. The bulk of the remainder of the novel tells of the miracles that the townspeople actually experience when they bring their most heartfelt prayers to this Antichrist.
Lagerlöf's novel raises weighty theological questions about the ambiguous spiritual condition of the world in which we live and about the meaning of salvation in that world. Does the realization of the kingdom of heaven depend on the elimination of the threat that "worldly" forces—socialism among them—pose to heaven? Is there indeed a force of evil that reigns in the world against which the good must struggle? Does the salvation of one's personal soul depend, then, on denial of the world? If so, does attending even to the most noble of worldly causes, like the cessation of poverty, in fact preclude the possibility of being saved from the world?
In raising such questions, moreover, Antikrists mirakler shows that the threat which the world poses to the spiritual life of the soul is not simply a matter of the world's opposition to the spirit. The greater danger lies in the manner in which the world can deceive human beings about the difference between the worldly and the spiritual. The worldly, embodied character of the spiritual—the fact that even the true Santo Bambino must take on concrete, worldly form—means that the true Christ is always at risk of being impersonated by the Antichrist and, hence, that precisely the most sincere and pious of believers in the true savior are always at risk of being deceived. This deception, Lagerlöf implies, is part and parcel of life in the world.
At the end of the novel—to which we will have opportunity to return—Lagerlöf articulates a vision of the reconciliation of the "kingdom not of this world" and the "kingdom of this world alone." But this very attempt at reconciliation is spurred on by the twofold worry that is evoked in the events of the book as a whole: 1) That spirit and world are irreconcilable, and that one might be forced thus to choose between the salvation of one's soul through faith and the betterment of the world through love; 2) even more troubling, that the human being in the world can never be certain that she is not being deceived in the very moment of this choice. She can never be certain that the path she chooses is that of Christ and not of Antichrist.
Both Rosenzweig and Rosenstock later point to Antikrists mirakler as the spark that began the late-night conversation in Leipzig on July 7, 1913. Thus our survey of the themes raised in Lagerlöf's book provides us with important clues regarding the issues at the heart of that conversation. In Rosenstock's recollections years after the Nachtgespräch, he concedes that "he has not seen the novel since that night"; he nevertheless recalls that the reading of this book about "the miracle-working effigy of the Madonna [sic] in a Sicilian church" prompted a debate among the three over the merits of reason and faith, between the standpoints of "faith based on revelation [Offenbarungsglaube] and trust in philosophy [Philosophiegläubigkeit]." While Antikrists mirakler does touch on questions of faith and credulity, its central concern is the moral and spiritual status of the world. In this chapter, I will argue that when Rosenzweig and his friends began to discuss Lagerlöf's book, it did not prompt a debate over the relative merits of reason and faith. Rosenzweig did not play the "agnostic in matters of religious faith," while Rosenstock, who could "accept religion as his personal answer," stood for the "simplicity of faith." The question which Lagerlöf's Antikrists mirakler raised for Rosenzweig, Rosenstock, and Ehrenberg during the Leipziger Nachtgesprach, I will argue, was the question of the relation between the personal fulfillment and salvation of the soul, on the one hand, and the conditions of the world, on the other. I will introduce what I take to be overwhelming evidence to suggest that Rosenzweig came to this conversation not at all in the guise of the academic philosopher but, to the contrary, committed to the possibility of a personal revelatory relation to the divine that promised redemption from the world.
In later reflections, Rosenzweig identifies the world-denying theological standpoint with which he entered the Leipziger Nachtgespräch as the standpoint of Marcion and the Gnostics. Gnosticism was the name under which scholars of Rosenzweig's day categorized a cluster of theological positions that shared the view that the individual's spiritual self is trapped in a world of deception, and that his salvation lies solely in a kingdom that "is not of this world." Scholars of Rosenzweig's day understood the myriad forms of ancient Gnosticism to share a commitment to metaphysical dualism, according to which the world was understood to be not the creation of a benevolent God, but rather the work of an inferior, but quasi-independent, divinity, a Demiurge often depicted as evil and deceptive. According to this view, however, beyond our world of illusion and trouble, there is a truly good and merciful God, who awakens those few endowed with "spirit" in the world to the nature of their predicament, and provides them with the knowledge (gnosis) necessary to enable their spiritual selves to escape the world's confines.
In the first formative century of Christianity, Marcion of Sinope (85–160 CE) offered an interpretation of the coming of Jesus Christ that shared much with these so-called Gnostic views. Marcion understood the inferior divinity who created the world to be none other than the God of the Hebrew Bible—a God who governs the world with a combination of stern justice and malevolence. Jesus Christ, according to Marcion, was not at all to be understood as the son of this God of creation. To the contrary, Christ made manifest a God and a means of salvation that were wholly foreign to this world and opposed to its creator. This God is a God of love, mercy, and goodness, a God completely unknown before being revealed in Christ, whose inherent goodness led Him to rescue those who suffered in the world under the rule of the creator God. Christ was, according to Marcion, the manifestation of this good God himself, come to earth to show the way to a new, blessed kingdom not of this world.
According to the foremost authority on Marcion of Rosenzweig's day, Adolf von Harnack, Marcion's vision of Christianity demanded that Christians sacrifice "the belief that the God of creation is also the God of redemption." In contrast to other Gnostic movements of the day, however, part of what was unique about Marcion's understanding of the redemption Christ brought was that it suggested that redemption from the world was to be achieved not through a special kind of gnosis—a form of spiritual knowledge—and thus limited to the few who could possess such knowledge, but rather through faith. According to Marcion, Harnack explains, "he who sets his hope in the Crucified can now be sure that he has escaped from the power of the world-creator, and will be translated into the kingdom of the good God."
Interest in the figure of Marcion was on the rise in Rosenzweig's time, in no small part thanks to the work of Harnack. But Marcion's theology appears to have resonated within nineteenth- and early twentieth-century German theology, in general, because of the way it foreshadowed—and at once spelled out the radical consequences of—central notions within Protestant thought. Luther's repudiation of Church institutions and his concomitant affirmation of the authority of Scripture, his Paulinian opposition of gospel to law and his theological insistence on the tension between the hidden and revealed God; Schleiermacher's grounding of Christianity in personal faith experience; Karl Barth's early insistence on the impossibility of speaking of the transcendent God in terms borrowed from the worldly—despite the variations among such diverse Protestant positions and theologumena, Marcion appeared to presage them all.
It is most significant, therefore, that in a number of instances in later years when Rosenzweig recalls the standpoint he brought to the 1913 Leipzig night-conversation, he identifies that standpoint with Marcion. In the 1916 notes he wrote to himself while serving on the Balkan front, collected together as his "Paralipomena," Rosenzweig writes, "What it means that God created the world and [is] not just the God of revelation—this I know precisely out of the Leipzig night-conversation of 7.7.13. At that time, I was on the best road to Marcionitism." Likewise, after Rosenstock suggests, in early 1921, that Harnack's monograph on Marcion might have contributed to Rosenzweig's newly published The Star of Redemption, Rosenzweig rebuffs Rosenstock's suggestion and writes, "so little could I have written it [i.e., the Star] before 1913 when I myself was still a Marcionist." Rosenzweig appears merely to be using different terms to describe the same position he held in 1913, moreover, when he aligns that position with those nineteenth- and twentieth-century Protestant theologians whom Marcion was believed to have foreshadowed. Thus, in a note from November 19, 1916, Rosenzweig describes "7.7.13" as "my de-Schleiermachization." And in a 1923 letter to Buber, Rosenzweig identifies his 1913 position with that of Barth, whose account of the distant God later led Rosenzweig, along with many of his contemporaries, to trace Barth's genealogy back to Marcion: "I myself am a one-time Barthian of many years. It has only been ten years now [i.e., since 1913] since Rosenstock operated my Barthianism away."
In stark contrast to all those accounts that attribute to Rosenzweig an academic intellectualism as he entered the Leipziger Nachtgespräch, we thus find that Rosenzweig himself suggests he entered this all-night conversation with a commitment to the soul's faith-relation to the divine and with a skepticism regarding the status of the world. Indeed, his respective commitment and skepticism were so extreme that they most closely resembled the standpoint of Marcion. The evidence suggests, further, that Rosenzweig's transformative discovery over the course of the Leipziger Nachtgespräch was not the discovery of "faith grounded in revelation." Before the night-conversation of 1913, Rosenzweig's 1916 description of his early Marcionism implies, Rosenzweig already found God accessible through revelation! The problem was that he found God accessible only through revelation. And this left the status of the world—its metaphysical grounding, its value, its relation to the "God of revelation"—in doubt. Was the God of revelation and salvation also the God of creation? Or was revelation the means through which the human being could be freed or redeemed from the world, a world not created by the God of revelation? Rosenzweig's 1916 note suggests that Rosenzweig learned the unity of the God who creates the world and who reveals Himself to the individual believer at the Leipziger Nachtgespräch. Beforehand, this unity remained in doubt. If revelation offers the individual a relation to the God that transcends the world, and thereby grants the individual some modicum of salvation from the imperfections of the world, so Rosenzweig appears to have thought, revelation could not but entail the denial of God's presence in or grounding of that world.
We thus have good reason to think that Rosenzweig brought an anti-worldly theological standpoint to the 1913 night-conversation, which took its starting point from the questions of the moral and spiritual status of the world raised by Lagerlöf's Antikrists mirakler. Such an account of Rosenzweig's standpoint receives confirmation, moreover, from an allusive but important comment Rosenzweig makes, in the famous October 31, 1913 letter he wrote to Rudolf Ehrenberg, explaining his decision to remain a Jew. In this letter, Rosenzweig claims that he now rejects the Christianity of Rosenstock and Ehrenberg no longer based on the position he advocated during the Leipziger Nachtgespräch, but rather for legitimate reasons. He backs up this claim in the following obscure terms: "I am no longer the heretic of the eighteenth sermon who takes from faith and not from love. I now take other names and teach other statements."
What does Rosenzweig mean by offering such a strange defense of his decision? Who exactly is the heretic of the eighteenth sermon "who takes from faith and not from love"? Rosenzweig's reference here is to a book written by none other than Rudolf Ehrenberg himself, Ebr.10, 25. Ein Schicksal in Predigten (1920). Ehrenberg was already at work on this book in 1913, and Rosenzweig's letters show that he read the chapters of Ehrenberg's book as the latter wrote them. The book offers a fictional account of a charismatic young pastor who takes up the ministry at the church of a small German town. Each chapter of the book presents one of this young pastor's sermons, recorded by one of the townspeople, as he struggles to transform the town's churchgoers into a genuine redemptive community, battling local indifference and the onset of war along the way. Each of the pastor's sermons bears a title that reflects the position of the date of the sermon within the Church calendar, and each sermon takes a particular biblical passage as its starting point. The "eighteenth sermon," dated "On the Sunday of Seragesima [the sixtieth day before Easter]," takes as its starting point Jesus' parable of the sower from Luke 8:4–8, in which seeds thrown along the walking path, on rocks, and among thorns come to naught, but those seeds that fall upon good soil yield a crop one-hundredfold greater than what was planted. The sermon then turns to discuss a threat that a particular kind of "heretic" has recently posed to the community, a threat which apparently has led the community to expel that heretic from its midst. This heretic, according to Ehrenberg's pastor, was not one who simply had not yet been reached by the divine "call," and as a consequence "took other names or taught other statements," for the community merely considers such a person as "still before the awakening," as yet to be brought into the Kingdom of God. What makes the heretic of Ehrenberg's eighteenth sermon so threatening to the community, to the contrary, is that he shares in the faith of the community, but holds so zealously to his own personal salvation that he "cannot sacrifice the salvation of his soul" for the sake of the "hope of the world."
Excerpted from Franz Rosenzweig's Conversions by Benjamin Pollock. Copyright © 2014 Benjamin Pollock. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Preface and Acknowledgements
Introduction: Explaining Rosenzweig’s Near-Conversion and Return
1. Revelation and World-Skepticism: Rosenzweig’s Early Marcionism
2. Christian "World Activity" and the Historical Reconciliation of Soul and World: Rosenzweig’s (Near-) Conversion
3. "Ich bleibe also Jude": Judaism, Redemption, and the World
4. World Denial and World Redemption in The Star of Redemption
Conclusion: Life and Thought Revisited
What People are Saying About This
There is one thing that everyonenot just scholars, but informed members of the Jewish communityknows about Rosenzweig, and that one thing is false. Nobody who is interested in twentieth-century Jewish thought, whether from a Jewish, Christian, atheistic, or neutral perspective, will be able to afford to ignore this book.