A man dressed up as Santa Claus gestures as he rides a camel before an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man in Jerusalem’s Old City on December 19, 2019. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images.
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You may not have noticed, but something very interesting, and perhaps momentous, has been happening little by little, in the unlikeliest of places. That interesting new thing is a growing rapprochement between significant numbers of believing Christians and believing Jews, people who have serious and unwavering commitments to their respective faiths and are not interested in coming together merely for the sake of achieving a lowest common denominator.
Considering the heavy weight of the past, the immense inventory of sound reasons for distrust, especially on the Jewish side, and the many opportunities for misunderstanding and for the reopening of old wounds, the odds would seem to be heavily stacked against any such development. And indeed this rapprochement remains something fragile and tentative, inhibited by suspicion, and susceptible of becoming inflamed at a moment’s notice by an unthinking slight or a political disagreement. Nor, as yet, does it embrace all Jews and all Christians; very far from it.
Even so, what has been happening is utterly remarkable, even historic, and without precedent in the long annals of the two faiths and their contentious, asymmetrical relationship. Making the development even more remarkable is the fact that it is being driven largely by the powerful desire of some energetic Christians—particularly evangelical Protestants, the very Christians whose penchant for aggressive proselytism has always been particularly irksome to Jews—to achieve something far deeper in their relationship with Jews and Judaism than merely a more respectful and agreeable modus vivendi.
Enthusiasm alone, however, is not enough to make this effort succeed. The threshing floors of history are littered with the dried husks of failed ecumenical efforts. But two factors suggest that this particular rapprochement could in fact grow and deepen.
First, there is the growing pressure of external circumstances and a shared sense of genuine peril in the face of an ascendant secular nihilism, increasingly militant and seemingly intent upon sweeping away the moral, cultural, and institutional norms that have defined our shared civilization for millennia. In the face of such a threat, it has seemed imperative (again, to some but not to all) to find ways of banding together to make common cause and protect shared fundamentals, even if that means learning to bracket a great many profound theological differences along with the tortured history that has accompanied them. If only in the foxholes of our culture wars, the much-derided idea of the Judeo-Christian tradition is making a comeback.
The second factor could be a more positive and enduring one. That is the cause of the modern state of Israel: a cause that counts certain devout Christians, especially evangelical Protestant ones, among its most fervent American supporters and that links the faith of practicing Christians and Jews through a shared commitment to the divine provenance of the Jewish homeland.
Such evangelical Zionism, though welcomed by many Jews, has always had its disquieting aspects, grounded as it is in interpretations of biblical prophecy that are almost entirely alien to Jewish sensibilities. Evangelicals of this particular stripe not only understand the establishment of Israel as a good and necessary thing in itself, providing the Jewish people with a geographical home, and not only, like most Americans, value Israel as a stalwart ally and a lone bulwark of Western liberal-democratic values in a very harsh part of the world. They also, especially when operating specifically under the theological influence of premillennial dispensationalism—that is, the belief that Jesus’ return to the earth will usher in the Millennium, the thousand-year age of peace prophesied in the book of Revelation, after which will come the Last Judgment—understand the restoration of Israel as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy and a token of the end times. Some even regard that restoration as an essential precondition for the triumphant return of Christ and the subsequent consummation of the world. And that discloses the problem. Although, in this understanding, the ultimate fate of the Jews is not always clear, in many versions it involves mass conversion to belief in Jesus as the messiah.
So while there are indeed powerful confluences of interest motivating the evangelical-Jewish alliance, it can be reliant upon religious assumptions so divergent as to seem to have nothing to do with the one or the other side, and ultimately even to be antagonistic. Even though a great many evangelicals do not necessarily adhere to these assumptions—as Robert Nicholson has argued and documented in Mosaic and elsewhere—the net effect is to offer an uncertain basis for shared aims, let alone deeper forms of communion.
There is also a Roman Catholic version of Christian Zionism that steers clear of these eschatological pitfalls but for its part is “reticent” (to use the word of the Catholic scholar Gavin D’Acosta) about extrapolating very much of substance from the biblical texts, and also diffident about being too closely identified with the more strongly pro-Israel Zionism of the evangelicals.
So the question remains of how deep this commonality of Christians and Jews goes, or can go. Can it be based in something more enduring and coherent than mere cultural co-belligerency or functionally compatible narratives—compatible, that is, most of the way? Something that does not require either group to mute its differences or soften its commitments to the distinctives of its faith by resorting to the kind of “interfaith dialogue” that is made possible only by the feather-lightness of those same commitments? Something more robust than the kind of casual syncretism of the liberal churches and academic religious-studies departments that too readily sacrifices the integrity of all parties?
Even if one can bracket for a time the unhappy and often shameful history of Jewish-Christian relations over the centuries, how does one get past the fundamental theological incompatibilities: the fact that for believing Jews, the worship of Jesus Christ as God incarnate is an affront and a blasphemy of the highest order even as, for a great many serious Christians, the stubborn refusal to do so is to be counted an equivalent fault?
And here we seem to come to an impassable wall. If progress means moving in a direction that requires one side or the other to sacrifice its fundamental commitments, there is no further progress to be made. Still, that is not a reason to give up.
Perhaps a different avenue of approach, a slanting pattern or flanking maneuver, is in order. In what follows, I propose a brief tour of the theological issues as they have presented themselves historically, a look at a few important recent books on the subject, and some concluding remarks.
I. The Two Stories
We can begin by pointing out why it is that the topic of Christian Zionism keeps coming up. It does so because the Christian story, despite diverging decisively from the Jewish one, can never be intelligible apart from it.
For Christians, the two stories must be permanently entwined in the same way that the Christian Bible—the New Testament—requires Christians to recognize the authoritative claims of the Hebrew Bible, the so-called Old Testament. The very meaning of Easter, the cynosure of the Christian story, cannot be rightly apprehended without grasping and accepting the Jewish sensibilities and forms upon which it relies.
But what, then, are Christians to do with the inherently unique and exclusive quality of the Jews’ covenantal relationship with God—and of the land and people in which that relationship was embodied? If the Jews have an enduring place at the inmost core of the Christian religion and its rites, does it not seem to follow that this Abrahamic covenant, too, should have an enduring place?
Beginning in the 2nd century and lasting until relatively recently, the answer to that question was No, and the theological basis for saying so was the doctrine of supersessionism. In this view, the promises that God had made to the Jews were withdrawn because the Jews had failed to keep their side of the bargain. They had broken His commandments in multiple acts of disobedience and sinfulness, and most egregiously of all by stubbornly rejecting the messianic claims of Jesus and his followers. The binding force of those former promises, and of the covenant that carried them, was thereby erased, and it was replaced by a new covenant, a second covenant that, superseding the Abrahamic one, was built around the person of Christ and his body, which was the Church, the New Israel.
With this transformation, the maintenance of Jewish particularity and exclusivity was no longer warranted; instead, those things became spiritualized and universalized, and crucial markers of Jewish identity and practice—diet and circumcision, for example—lost their importance and dropped out of the picture. Other concrete particulars of Jewish belief and practice were translated into an algebra of generalized symbolism, in which the conventional hierarchies were overturned and disrupted. The first became last, and the last became first. In the Christian conception, the master of the universe had appeared to humanity incognito, as a lowly individual, a persecuted man of sorrows, and the Jews’ messianic hopes became realized in the unexpected form of a king and kingdom that were not of this world. The natural order was reversed, and thereby transcended.
This pattern of generalizing Jewish particularity into Christian universality extended to the central element of Christian liturgy: the Eucharist or Holy Communion. The sacrificial lamb of the Passover became the suffering Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who gathered unto himself the sins not only of a particular community but of all humanity, and in his death offered a universally available path of redemption from those sins: the embodiment of a Passover for all the world. “Christ, our Passover lamb (pascha), has been sacrificed for us”—these words, drawn from 1Corinthians 5:7, accompany the priest’s breaking of the bread in various forms of the Mass. They associate the eucharistic feast with the deliverance effected in the first Passover and the blood of Jesus with the lamb’s protective blood, sprinkled on the doorposts so that the divine wrath would pass over and away.
With this change, the people of Israel become less important as a specific, distinct, and definite people. Instead, they become reinterpreted as a precursor, a prefiguration of the universal Church, that “mystical body of [Christ], which is the blessed company of all faithful people,” as the vision is expressed in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1928) and widely shared across Christian denominations.
It was a beautiful vision, built upon the elevation of the tangible particular, as if it were a priestly celebrant’s raised chalice, into a vivid paradigm encompassing the whole of reality. But, needless to say, this lifting-up of the particular into the archetypal required the diminishment of the Jewish story, as the Jews ceased to be the people of God in any particular and enduring way. The story of Israel itself, as a particular land and a particular people, became lost in the folds of this other, larger tale, relegated to serving as the physical prologue to a spiritual New Israel.
II. The Inevitability of Supersessionism
The doctrine of supersessionism did not take hold immediately, and in fact barely existed in the first century after Jesus. But that started to change with the teachings of Marcion of Sinope and Justin Martyr in the 2nd century. Gradually establishing itself more and more firmly, the doctrine corresponded with Christianity’s developing definition of itself as a religious identity entirely distinct from Judaism.
This parting of the ways, the separation of the ecclesia from the synagogue, was much slower and more gradual than is generally appreciated, and did not finally become institutionalized until Constantine the Great’s establishment of Christianity in the 4th century. But over the later centuries, in varying degrees of rigidity, many of the Church’s greatest leaders, including John Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, would insist upon it.
By the time of the Enlightenment, in fact, the very idea of a special revelation by God to a particular people was itself held suspect, seen as incompatible with the idea of a uniformly ordered world governed by intelligible universal laws. To be made universal and accountable to reason, in this view, Christianity would have to be purged of its “primitive” Jewish elements. The uber-liberal Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) advocated removing the Hebrew Scriptures from Sunday worship altogether, because (he argued) the Jewish spirit and the Christian spirit were fundamentally at odds. The Christian effort to prove Jesus’ messianic status on the basis of Old Testament prophecy had been a mistake; the New Testament’s appeal to the Old was strictly an intra-Jewish affair of the 1st century, no longer relevant to the modern age.
By the 1930s, the pro-Nazi Deutsche Christen movement within the German church was seeking to eliminate entirely the Hebrew Bible and all other Jewish traces from German Christianity. Its actions, combined with its support of Nazi policies, finally precipitated a schism, giving rise to the Confessing Church with which we associate such respected and ameliorative names as Martin Niemöller, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Then came the Holocaust, and in its wake a vast rethinking among Christians, including a recoil against the doctrine of supersessionism and any role it might have played in the failure of so much of the Christian world to respond righteously to the horrors of Nazism. The doctrine was abandoned by many mainstream Christian theologians, and there was an accompanying mood of repentance. The Roman Catholic Church promulgated Lumen Gentium (“A Light unto the Nations,” 1964) and Nostra Aetate (“Our Age,” 1965), which signaled not only that the Jewish covenant was still valid and that Jews were still called to fidelity to that covenant, but that the Jewish people also belonged, in some mysterious way, to the community of the Church.
The meaning of these intriguing assertions has yet to be fully worked out. Nor could any such acts of Christian contrition, introspection, and self-criticism, however commendable and constructive, resolve neatly the question of how a commitment to reconciliation and mutual respect was to be grounded in continuing adherence to the two faiths’ distinctive bedrock theologies.
The Jewish theologian David Novak has argued that some form of supersessionism is inevitable in Christianity if the latter is not to deny itself altogether and fatally undermine its own claims to truth. Novak, in fact, argues that the same is true of Judaism, and that the underlying zero-sum competition inherent in the two faiths’ relationship, although it can be mitigated and disciplined, can never be eliminated. But the question still facing a post-supersessionist Christianity is this: how to make that remaining vestige sufficiently “soft” (Novak’s term) to be true to itself while also recognizing the uninterrupted distinctiveness of the Jews and the perseverance of their unique covenant with God.
III. The Concreteness of Israel
Before 1948, such considerations were largely abstract, not secured to any particular issues or commitments. But with the founding of the modern state of Israel in that year, they suddenly became intensely concrete, as the creation of a Jewish state offered itself as a miraculous fulfillment of biblical prophecy—an end to two millennia of an almost exclusively diasporic existence and a dramatic reaffirmation, coming in the immediate wake of the darkest hour of modern Jewish history, of the imperishability of God’s eternal commitment to the Jews as His covenantal people.
For many Christians, the resurrection of Israel, this huge intervention of biblical meaning into the flow of secular history, meant that the objectives of Christian Zionism suddenly were no longer pipedreams of an impossibly remote future. This had a particular resonance for Americans. President Harry S. Truman was a Protestant with strong Zionist sympathies who chose to play an important role in the creation of the modern state of Israel. When David Ben-Gurion declared the independence of Israel on May 14, 1948, Truman announced U.S. recognition of the new state eleven minutes later. His account of his reasoning in the matter was simple and direct, as was his wont:
Hitler had been murdering Jews right and left. I saw it, and I dream about it even to this day. The Jews needed some place where they could go. It is my attitude that the American government couldn’t stand idly by while the victims [of] Hitler’s madness are not allowed to build new lives.
Truman was a Bible-reading Baptist, and on at least one occasion likened his own role to that of the biblical Cyrus, the Persian king who overthrew the Babylonian empire and made possible the return to Jerusalem of the Jewish population held captive in Babylon for 70 years.
Among theologians, even relatively liberal thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr insisted that the creation of modern Israel had genuine biblical significance and should be understood as part of the ongoing narrative of God’s continuing covenant with a particular people. “Niebuhr,” writes the historian Samuel Goldman, “was a Christian Zionist, not just a Christian who supported Zionism.”
The distinction being made here is of signal importance. “Christian Zionism” understood in the fullest sense does not merely mean support for the creation of a Jewish state on grounds of justice or self-determination or democracy or human rights or prudence or strategic benefit to the United States or the West. It means supporting the Jewish state for reasons that are grounded in Christianity, draw on Christian beliefs and texts, and take up the obligations that those beliefs and texts entail.
Goldman’s book God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America is one of the important recent works that I alluded to at the beginning of this essay. In God’s Country, he lays out the big picture of the Christian Zionist movement, including a prehistory stretching back at least to the Protestant Reformation and in a sense, all the way back to the 1st century.
Far from being the exclusive property of Bible-thumping fringe characters, Goldman shows, Christian Zionism has been a persistent option within the Jewish-Christian nexus, “a product of millennia of reflection on the relationships between the Old and New Testaments, Jews and Christians, religion and politics.” That being the case, if it makes sense to say that Judaism and Christianity will always be distinct and always in a certain amount of tension, it makes equal sense to say that they will always be entwined, that the Christian desire to see the successful restoration of the nation of Israel can never disappear.
In addition, Goldman makes the case that there is a particularly deep-rooted and persistent American affinity for the idea of a restored Israel. That affinity was exemplified by the 17th-century New England Puritans’ understanding of their migration to America as a second Exodus, seeking to establish a Zion in the wilderness and thus to resemble Israel in God’s sight and favor. To resemble Israel—but not to replace it, and not to “make New England or North America a substitute for the Promised Land of the Bible.” Analogies and metonyms connecting ancient Israel with modern America did not imply any commitment to some version of supersessionism or replacement theology, or any lessening of commitment to Jewish restoration and a Jewish state. Far from rejecting the impulses toward Israel’s restoration, the pursuit of analogies could heighten them.
In this connection Goldman cites the words of Elias Boudinot, a Revolutionary-era New Jersey politician and devout Presbyterian who eventually became director of the mint in the George Washington administration:
Who knows but God has raised up these United States in these latter days, for the very purpose of accomplishing His will in bringing His beloved people to their own land.
In the light of similar sentiments flowing from the pens of such early American clerical luminaries as Jonathan Edwards, Increase Mather, and Timothy Dwight, all cited by Goldman, it is hard to dismiss the impulse behind them as nothing more than the eccentricity of prophecy-saturated dispensationalist preachers.
Another recent book, Daniel G. Hummel’s Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations, makes a similar point while concentrating on the growing predominance of evangelicals in the post-1948 Christian Zionist movement and their relations with the Israeli government. Like Goldman, and like Robert Nicholson, Hummel insists that placing too much weight on evangelicals’ supposed weddedness to the end-times theology of dispensationalism is a simplistic and inaccurate caricature of a much richer and more multifarious phenomenon.
Where Goldman’s book is primarily a crisply argued history of ideas, Hummel’s is a more detailed, if occasionally tangled, account of how many different actors, both individuals and institutions, were able to weave together networks of comity and influence that had the effect of bringing evangelicals and the Israeli government, two very disparate animals, ever closer together. On a more worrisome note, it also treats the eventual splintering of evangelicals as the movement has become increasingly global in its sources and as elements of the evangelical left have turned actively against Christian Zionism to champion the Palestinian cause instead and to question the very identification of the nation-state of modern Israel with the land of the covenantal promise.
Although his book is far from uncritical, Hummel argues that from 1948 onward evangelicals broadly and consistently sought reconciliation with the Jewish people through a variety of channels involving theology, politics, and even Holy Land tourism (treated in a chapter wittily entitled “Sightseeing is Believing”). These efforts, Hummel argues, were nearly always undertaken in good faith and succeeded to a remarkable degree, partly because of the sincere humility with which the evangelicals undertook them; missionary zeal was not a notable part of the package. Indeed, he writes that Christian Zionism was most effective when it operated in a spirit of pragmatism rather than lofty idealism, and when the underlying spirit was one he calls “reconciliation”: a practical process that sought to build relationships and redirect historical antipathies toward cooperative ends rather than hashing out theological issues or apologetics. Hummel cites its “overriding motif” as the words expressed by God to Abram in Genesis 12:3: “And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”
Some of that spirit is captured in a revelatory story about the great evangelist Billy Graham, who on a visit to Israel in 1960 found himself besieged by reporters wanting to know his intentions as a Christian evangelist traveling in a Jewish state. “I have not come to proselytize,” Graham assured them. Later, after having toured the country, he told the media: “I want to thank you for proselytizing me, a Gentile who has committed his life to a Jew who was born in this country and reared up here in Nazareth.”
IV. The Path Past Supersessionism
As generous as Graham’s words were at the time, they may fall a little short to our ears today. Might that be because we are now at a moment when something more is possible? Even the explicit rejection of supersessionism, while essential, cannot, in and of itself, provide a path forward in the Jewish-Christian relationship. True, it forces us to develop a sense of the etiquette and boundaries of fruitful and respectful interaction, the proper words to use with one another; and that is not an unimportant advance. But can the improvement in manners, the “reconciliation” that Hummel describes, endure and grow without being grounded in something more theologically robust?
In Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land (2017) and an earlier, collected volume, The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land (2016), the Anglican theologian Gerald McDermott has argued that the path forward means remembering and placing into the Christian foreground one of the central promises of the “First Covenant”: namely, the promise of a land. Not a metaphorical land, or a symbolic land, or a virtual land, but a real land, a particular home for a particular people—something as necessary to that people’s full sense of itself as is the body to the soul. True, the Jews existed as a unique people with a distinctive destiny through 2,000 years of exile and diaspora, but never in all those eons was the promise of a land withdrawn from them. They would be made whole again when that part of the still-living and still-valid covenant was fulfilled.
The embrace of modern Israel, not only as an idea but as a place, is an essential element in a Christianity that has freed itself of supersessionism. That is the core assertion of the New Christian Zionism that McDermott and a group of other theologians are now proposing. Of course, that does not imply that one is required to endorse every policy and every act of this or any Israeli government. But it does mean recognizing that the fundamental legitimacy of Israel is supported by a long history, and ultimately by any Christian believer’s fair-minded reading of the Bible. To regard Zionism merely as the Jewish version of 19th-century nationalist ideology is to miss entirely its continuity with the ancient covenant by means of which God made the Jews His people and consecrated them to His purposes. To keep faith with that is to acknowledge and affirm God’s uninterrupted special care for Israel as His people.
Since McDermott’s books are written primarily for an audience of Christians who accept the authority of the Bible, a great many of his pages are devoted to careful exegesis of biblical passages that he believes Christians have, for many years, been either misreading or ignoring. A few examples will have to suffice, some of which are so straightforward as to make one marvel that their import has been missed.
Thus, on the question of whether the New Testament says that God abandoned those Jews who refused to follow Jesus, McDermott points to Romans 11:28-29, where Paul says that Jews who have not accepted Jesus are still “beloved” of God “for the sake of their forefathers.” Their “calling of God” (11:29), which was to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6) and a “blessing” to “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:2-3), was “irrevocable.” Similarly, the people Israel’s calling by God to be the apple of His eye (Zechariah 2:8), in a way that no other people was, would never be revoked. It was still there, still operative, even if the majority of Jews had failed to recognize Jesus’ messianic presence.
How have such passages been missed or slighted? The simplest answer would be to point out that in modern times, until 1948, it was easy to think of the biblical Israel as possessing no greater present-day significance, as a land and a nation, than did the ancient Babylonians or Assyrians. The creation of modern Israel changed all that, but McDermott believes that generations of students have simply been trained not to see such passages for what they plainly say.
The superseding of Israel by the Church has been so dominant a pattern of thinking for so long that contrary images fail to impress themselves. So here, courtesy of McDermott, is a reminder: while the Church itself is never called the New Israel in the New Testament, the name “Israel” appears 80 times there, and always to refer to the Jewish people or the Jewish polity in the land—or to the land itself. That fact should take on added meaning today.
Could it be that an important and consequential part of the history of the Christian Church was erected on a misreading? This is a remarkable claim, and one especially remarkable for a theological conservative like McDermott to be making. Yet perhaps not so remarkable if one keeps in mind two things. First, there was the enormous change that was wrought in 1948. But, second, one need only take into consideration the extent to which the New Christian Zionism expresses a persistent feature of Christianity itself: namely, the periodic desire to recover the freshness and vitality of the apostolic era, the century or so immediately after Jesus.
This revivalistic impulse has been the chief force behind almost every important movement of renewal in the history of Christianity, very much including the Protestant Reformation, the biggest of them all. McDermott’s efforts remind us that the apostolic era, in addition to being a time before the Church’s growing earthly power would complicate, and sometimes compromise, its earthly witness, was also a time before the distinction between Judaism and Christianity had turned into an impassable wall.
V. The Scandal of Particularity
The Christian Zionist emphasis upon the Jewish claim to a particular plot of land once again recalls how often and how facilely the tension between Judaism and Christianity has been characterized as a tension between particularism and universalism. Here, too, we would do well to reconsider. As Norman Podhoretz has shrewdly pointed out, the idea that Christianity represented a “higher stage in the evolution of religious understanding,” moving from “particularism to universalism,” is at best only partially true. Both religions have a great deal more in common than not. Both find themselves in fundamental tension with modernity’s universalistic premises, and with the opposing view that was evident in the thinking of Schleiermacher and the Deists of the 18th century, a view that is almost second nature to us today.
That latter view goes like this: a God who created and sustained the whole world would never restrict His revelation to certain peoples at certain times and certain places. He would reveal everything equally everywhere at once, or would make all of it self-evident from the very start. Nor would He have chosen just one people in an obscure and relatively backward region to carry His message to the world. He would have His prophets spread equally around the world, and would not privilege one particular expression of religious sentiment over another. Such a God would not engage in wanton and inexplicable discrimination.
By contrast, the biblical, Judeo-Christian understanding of God tells us repeatedly that God can act in ways that appear inconsistent to us, and can treat individuals and peoples differently for reasons we cannot easily decipher. Both religions exemplify what is called “the scandal of particularity,” the supposedly outrageous claim that our apprehension of universals has entered into the world through the doorway of particulars. For the Hebrew Bible, God brought His law into the world through the ministry of a particular chosen people. For the Christian Bible, God redeemed the world through the ministry of a particular man, at a particular place and time. In each case, that claim would seem to be incompatible with an understanding of God as the seat of perfect justice and perfect knowledge.
McDermott will have none of it. Instead he proposes that we fully embrace the scandal of particularity, which has always been the distinctive way that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob operates in the world. In fact, he concludes, “The New Christian Zionism proposes that the scandal of Zionism is the 21st -century version of the scandal of particularity,” the means by which God comes to the world universally through a particular people and a particular land. As He has done before, and is still doing.
It is not an outrageous claim. The scandal of particularity is inherent in any narrative understanding of God’s operation in the world, that is, an understanding that sees God’s actions as unfolding in time, historically, in stories, in families, in peoples, in particular sequences—first this happens, then that, then that, with actions happening here rather than there, now rather than later—instead of expressing itself with universality and simultaneity, like a law of gravitation imposed all at once with imperial finality in every nook and corner of an infinite and homogeneous Newtonian space.
Only such an unfolding and particular understanding can account for our own experience of love, which is arid and empty when it proceeds from an abstraction but is warm and deep and life-giving when prompted by and directed to a particular individual. The embodied particular is the only way that the highest things can begin to be approached.
The particular is the doorway to the greatest riches, and it cannot be bypassed. If a man does not have the capacity to love what is his own, what is proximate and embodied and singular and intimate to him, any alternative loves in which he invests himself will be delusions, and often dangerous ones, like the ideological abstractions that turned the 20th century into a charnel house for so many. Edmund Burke said of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that he was “a lover of his kind but a hater of his kindred.” It is an analysis of wide applicability.
The abstraction of universal love that perfectly obeys the rules of distributive justice is an arrogation to man of what belongs only to God. The pilot in the helicopter can look down at the mountain, and see that there are many paths to the top. But the man on the ground—the man who will eventually reach the mountaintop and stand upon it, if he has the fortitude—does not have that luxury. He can follow only one of those paths. Particularity is the key to his quest. Generalization gets him nowhere.
As is often the case, C.S. Lewis put the matter quite elegantly in his book Miracles, and the passage is worth quoting at length:
To be quite frank, we do not at all like the idea of a “chosen people.” Democrats by birth and education, we should prefer to think that all nations and individuals start level in the search for God, or even that all religions are equally true. It must be admitted at once that Christianity makes no concessions to this point of view. It does not tell of a human search for God at all, but of something done by God for, to, and about Man. And the way in which it is done is selective, undemocratic, to the highest degree. After the knowledge of God had been universally lost or obscured, one man from the whole earth (Abraham) is picked out. He is separated (miserably enough, we may suppose) from his natural surroundings, sent into a strange country, and made the ancestor of a nation who are to carry the knowledge of the true God. Within this nation there is further selection: some die in the desert, some remain behind in Babylon. There is further selection still. The process grows narrower and narrower, sharpens at last into one small bright point like the head of a spear. It is a Jewish girl at her prayers. All humanity (so far as concerns its redemption) has narrowed to that.
In this telling, which alludes to Genesis 12, the very redemption of humanity depends on a steady narrowing, not a broadening, of the narrative process, a winnowing and sharpening and focusing and honing by which God is preparing His next offering to us. Indeed, this is the very narrative structure of Genesis itself. Lewis’s passage leaves us with Mary, on the brink of the moment in the shared story where Judaism and Christianity were destined to part ways. But it also suggests how much overwhelming commonality undergirds the young girl’s act of prayer, and remains to bind us together.
What we see is what we see, no more than that, and that is what we are given. We are given only so much at a time. “The Truth must dazzle gradually,” said Emily Dickinson, “or every man be blind.” The full truth of the Jewish-Christian relationship is more than we yet can know. But we know enough to be intensely grateful for what we have, to hold fast to it, and to wait for our great, selective, and undemocratic God to show us more.