DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Religion on the Level: #5
Richard Holloway

What is the Use of Hell? (Continued)
In my previous lecture in this series I quoted from what I consider to be the greatest of the novels about the holocaust, The Last of the Just by Andre Schwartz-Bart. I read you a passage in which Ernie Levy is in a box car on his way to Auschwitz, shepherding a group of Jewish children. He has consoled them with a lie that they are on their way to the peace and safety of the Kingdom of Israel. When they reach Auschwitz, Ernie leads his little flock into the gas chamber: 'Breathe deeply, my lambs, and quickly,' he says. Then we read these unbearable words:

When the layers of gas covered everything, there
was silence in the dark sky of the room for perhaps
a minute, broken only by shrill, racking coughs and
the gasps of those too far gone in their agonies to
offer a devotion. And first as a stream, then a cascade,
then an irrepressible, majestic torrent, the poem which,
through the smoke of fires and above the funeral pyres
of history, the Jews - who for two thousand years
never bore arms and never had either missionary
empires or coloured slaves - the old love poem which
the Jews traced in letters of blood on the earth's hard
crust unfurled in the gas chamber, surrounded it,
dominated its dark, abysmal sneer: "shema israel. adonai elohenu adonai eh'hoth �Hear O Israel, the Eternal our God, the Eternal One".

The voices died one by one along the unfinished poem;
the dying children had already dug their nails into Ernie's
thighs, and Goldas's embrace was already weaker,
her kisses were blurred, when suddenly she clung fiercely
to her beloved's neck and whispered hoarsely: "Then I'll
never see you again? Never again?"

Ernie managed to spit up the needle of fire jabbing at his
throat and, as the girl's body slumped against him, its eyes
wide in the opaque night, he shouted against her unconscious ear, "In a little while, I swear it!" �And then he knew that he could do nothing more for anyone in the world � With dying arms he embraced Golda's body in an already unconscious gesture of loving protection, and they were found in this position half-an-hour later by the team of Sonderkommando responsible for burning the Jews in the crematory ovens. And so it was for millions, who from Luftmensch became Luft. I shall not translate. So this story will not finish with some tomb to be visited in pious memory. For smoke that rises from crematoria obeys physical laws like any other: the particles come together and disperse according to the wind, which propels them. The only pilgrimage, dear reader, would be to look sadly at a story sky now and then.

The novel ends:

At times, it is true, one's heart could break in sorrow.
But often too, preferably in the evening, I cannot help
thinking that Ernie Levy, dead six million times, is still
alive, somewhere, I don't know where � Yesterday,
as I stood in the street trembling in despair, rooted to
the spot, a drop of pity fell from above my face; but
there was no breeze in the air, no cloud in the sky �
there was only a presence. [5]

I make no apology for that long quotation. It seems to me to encapsulate the horror we are capable of inflicting on one another. More significantly it seems to me to show that hell exists, not in some supernatural sphere, not in our imagination, but in Christian history. Hell in largely a Christian invention, and we built it on earth, in our time, as a crematory for the Jews.

Why have we hated them so much? We could trace the trajectory of that hatred from the Gospel of John, through the pogroms of the Middle Ages, to the Final Solution. Among other things, that trajectory demonstrates the demonic use to which the Bible can be put: 'His blood be on us and on our children', as it has been down the century, rivers of it. But there is something of the demonic here as well, something beyond explanation, something right off the trajectory of history. Why this hatred of the Jews?

I'll leave you with a thought from George Steiner who is also obsessed with the question. Several places in his writings, and most recently in his little volume of autobiography, Errata, he wonders if humanity does not hate the Jewish people because it bore the law to them and the pain of conscience. In Errata he suggests that in Moses, Jesus and Marx the Jew has striven to confront human consciousness with transcendent absoluteness.

The moral dictates which come through Moses are uncompromising and 'entail the mutation of common man. We are to discipline the soul and flesh into perfection. We are to outgrow our own shadow'. Steiner continues his paraphrase, 'Cease being what you are, what biology and circumstance have made you. Become, at a fearful price of  abnegation, what you could be'.

According to Steiner, 'This is the first of the three moments of transcendent imposition on man out of Judaism'.

The second comes from Jesus. 'He requires of men and women an altruism, a counter-instinctual, "unnatural" restraint towards all who do us injury and offence'. Steiner continues, 'The profoundly natural impulse to avenge injustice, oppression and derision do have their place in the house of Israel. A refusal to forget injury or humiliation can warm  the heart. Christ's ordinance of total love, of self-offering to the assailant  is, in any strict sense, an enormity. The victim is to love his butcher. A monstrous proposition. But one shedding fathomless light. How are we mortal men and women to fulfill it?'

What Steiner calls 'the third knock on the door' comes from Karl Marx, who secularises, makes 'of this world' the messianic logic of social justice, of Edenic plenty for all, of peace on an undivided earth'. He goes on to talk of Marx's rage against social inequality, against the sterile cruelty of wealth, against unnecessary famine and misere.

He concludes, 'Three times Judaism has brought Western civilisation face to face with the blackmail of the ideal. What graver affront?' [6] These morally towering figures are uncomfortable for most of us to live with because they challenge our compromises, our corruptions, our failure to struggle for the ideal, the absolute.

They fill us with guilt and shame; and guilt and shame easily turn to self-hatred; and, since self-hatred cannot live with itself, it goes in search of a scapegoat. We kill the conscience of history.

Richard Holloway
11 March 1999

Professor Richard Holloway: This publication may not be reproduced 
in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author

[1] Richard Holloway, Seven to Flee, Seven to Follow, Mowbrays, 1986
[2] James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Penguin
[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, OUP, 1996
[4] Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era, Nisbet, 1955
[5] Andre Schwartz-Bart, The Last of the Just, Penguin, 1960
[6] George Steiner, Errata, Phoenix, 1997

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