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SIDIC Periodical XXXIII - 2000/1
Transformation. Through. Dialogue. (Pages 16-19)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Dialogue Transforming Theology
Henrix, Hans Hermann


The concept of testimony holds a high place in theological discourse.Vocation, mandate, mission belong to its vocabulary. The testimony which has theological weight includes both word and deed and in extreme cases even the giving of one’s life. It has to do with the mystery of faith. The testimony that has this quality fills a gap which is permanently present when arguing about or demonstrating matters of belief in face of the mystery. It points towards something that transcends it. That of which the testimony bears witness calls forth the testimony. The witness is taken into service and that sometimes against his or her will.

Faced with this very filled concept, I want to give a small testimony. It is situated long before the theological summit of testimony and has empirical character. It reports a personal experience and represents something ‘coincidental’. Experience by its very nature speaks of contingency. The experience in Jewish-Christian dialogue which I will sketch briefly, changed my theology and broadened its vision. The change and broadening did not happen in one moment but needed to travel a longer road. But I can indicate a particular moment which is an important milestone in the process which changed or transformed my theology. It is an example of dialogue that occurred in the year 1986, the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Franz Rosenzweig. For this occasion I had prepared a symposium on messianic thinking at which Emmanuel Levinas met in dialogue with Bishop Klaus Hemmerle and other theologians.

Emmanuel Levinas told us that in reading Franz Rosenzweig, a certain change had come about in his personal relationship to Christianity. Although he did not agree with Franz Rosenzweig about everything, he had seen in his writing the philosophical possibility of thinking the truth in both forms, that of Judaism and that of Christianity. This was extraordinary, above all because Rosenzweig claimed an equality between both the forms. Levinas spoke of the “parallel in the kenosis, in the universality of the all-human and of the ‘for all humans’”. The Christian form bears the name misericordia. The form of Judaism is faith as doing ‘with the whole body’.1

Equality, parallels, speaks of closeness. But Levinas spoke just as strongly about distance, the vis-B-vis, the strangeness and criticism of Christianity. The first story about Christianity which he read when he was eight or nine years old was a story about the Inquisition. Later he read a story about the Crusades. And only after that he read the Gospel, which did not hurt him. For there he encountered something which was already familiar to him:
What is written there as a teaching, as an idea of the human person, always seemed near to me. Thus, I came upon Mt 25 where people are surprised when they are told that they had abandoned and persecuted God; it comes down to the fact that in sending away the poor person, they were really sending away God himself. When I later learned about the concept of the Eucharist, I always said: The real Eucharist happens at the moment when I encounter the Other; there – more than in the bread and the wine – is where the personality of the Divine really is. But I also read this in the Old Testament, in Is 58 which means the same thing. The people are mentally astute. They strive to see the face of God, to feel God’s nearness. But God only comes when they help the poor, when they nourish the hungry.2

Although he says that the concept of kenosis is so close to Jews, the contrast remains. That is: “For us, the reading of the Gospel has always been burdened by history.”3 Such bad things as the Inquisition and the Crusades were always tied to the sign of Christ, and the fact that the perpetrators were Christian did not prevent them from putting Auschwitz into practice.

Truth wants to be borne out by history. This was the Jewish cantus firmus about which Levinas spoke in such an impressive way. For us Christians he poses the question whether faith for us is just as inseparably tied to ethical action as it is for the Jews. Do we Christians understand our existence as being ‘cheaper’ and more ‘harmless’? What is the measure of the word of Jesus: “Not everyone who says to me: Lord! Lord! will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in Heaven” (Mt. 7,21)? Jewish skepticism remains a provocation for us. According to it, we Christians do not take the ethical dimension seriously enough, but rather weaken our Christian existence by spiritualizing. In dialogue, we certainly encounter a Jewish hermeneutic of distrust which is painful but nevertheless necessary. That is what I learned from Levinas – not only during the dialogue on the topic of Judaism and Christianity according to Franz Rosenzweig, but also during other encounters or in reading his philosophy.

The person who develops his or her Christian theology in confrontation with this hermeneutic of distrust, enters into new life commitments. That person can’t get rid of the pressure of this question simply by formulating theological theories, but rather only by practical living. But already where that person’s theology is concerned, an accounting is required. It is already valid for theological thinking: Is there such a thing as an ethical dimension already in theological, or to be precise, in dogmatic thinking? When a Christian theologian exposes him- or herself to the Jewish cantus firmus that the theologically reflected truth must be borne out both in word and in deed, in thinking and in doing, then that theologian has caught the bug. And so I can no longer get away from the philosophical voice of Emmanuel Levinas. I don’t just follow him – for example in his denial of the mystical or in his criticism of the incarnational or in his rejection of the eschatological. But I no longer really want to be responsible for talking about God without listening to this voice.4 Thus, in reflecting on dogmatic concepts in our tradition, I now see myself forced to seek an ethical dimension as well. In doing so, the dogmatic does not simply become something ethical. It maintains its ‘otherness’ vis-B-vis the ethical. But it is submitted a form of test to determine whether it threatens to slide off into something ideological. I want to show this more clearly by speaking briefly about a question which has been dealt with intensively among German-speaking theologians for the past fifteen years.

It is significant that the Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas (1903-1993) instigated a discussion around our understanding of God’s power as omnipotence. In his contribution Gottesbegriff nach Auschwitz (Concept of God after Auschwitz), written in 1984,5 he calls for leaving aside the attribute of God’s power. If we want to uphold God’s goodness and comprehensibility, he maintains that we must see the consequence of God’s powerlessness. This is a powerlessness which does not gradually evolve in the course of history, but is already present in God’s willing creation. But doesn’t the farewell from the attribute of power, from God’s omnipotence, leave behind a vacuum where the promises in favor of those who suffered in the past and the dead of the Shoah are concerned? Must we – I want to ask – really say farewell to speaking about omnipotence? Must we really go without our longing for the mighty God? Don’t those who were borne out in Auschwitz as being just (the saints of the Shoah) tell us that that which is worth longing for (the omnipotence of God) must, according to Emmanuel Levinas, “remain separate – near, but distinct – holy”? God’s omnipotence awakens our longing for it, calls forth a movement towards it, and seems to deflect this movement towards the Other, our neighbor, precisely at that moment when divine omnipotence becomes the most necessary. That movement is deflected into a responsibility which, among the saints of the Shoah, went to the point of taking the place of the Other. This would mean that the omnipotence of God remains separate even to the point of being absent. This would be an ‘intrigue’ of the almighty God by which my neighbor is confided to me. This divine ‘intrigue’ would be a self-limiting of God’s which calls the human person into unlimited responsibility for the Other.6

Our discourse about God’s omnipotence, and our longing which is implied in that, must go through the testing fire of the ethical demand. It finds some of its prospective meaning in this ethical demand. The prospective meaning is the calling forth of my responsibility for the Other; it calls me forth to be active in favor of my neighbor or of whomever it may be. This responsibility always lies before me. There is no such thing as an ethical dispensation. At the same time, our theological discourse about omnipotence includes an ‘over and beyond’. This ‘more’ or ‘other’ than the ethical is for the sake of those to whom the responsibility which I bear cannot reach: the victims and the dead of history. Our discourse about God’s omnipotence, God’s power, has a retrospective meaning over and beyond its prospective ethical meaning: It means calling upon God’s saving power for the dead. It calls upon God to be effective and powerful in their favor. Christian theology does not desist from the idea of a powerful God. In doing so, it professes its longing for God’s omnipotence. However, it is a longing which cannot escape the testing fire of the ethical demand. It is challenged, not to comfort itself but to testify to a hope for the Others.

When Christian faith, Christian existence and theology become open to Jewish tradition and existence, to Jewish experience and resistance, a pressure can be felt which questions whether an ethical dimension is present in theological thinking. The person who works on this question will have a double experience of closeness and strangeness or of trust and contradiction. That person is not promised anything comfortable. But there is a promise: that of ecumenical breadth which does not betray what is one’s own and which does not cause Christian identity to stand deprived of relationship.


* Dr. Hans Hermann Henrix is director of the episcopal academy of the Diocese of Aix-la-Chapelle (Achen). He is a member of the Jewish-Christian working group of the Central Committee of German Catholics and adviser to the German Bishops’ Conference on Jewish-Christian Relations. He is author of several books and numerous articles (This essay has been translated from German by Katherine Wolff, nds).
1 Gotthard Fuchs/Hans Hermann Henrix, eds., Zeitgewinn. Messianisches Denken nach Franz Rosenzweig, Frankfurt 1987, pp. 163-183.
2 ibid., p. 164.
3 ibid., p. 165.
4 Cf. for example Hans Hermann Henrix, ed., Verantwortung fuer den Anderen und die Frage nach Gott. Zum Werk von Emmanuel Levinas, Aachen 1984; ibid., Augenblick ethischer Wahrheit. Zur Bedeutung der Metapher im Denken von Emmanuel Levinas, in Josef Wohlmuth, ed., Emmanuel Levinas – eine Herausforderung fuer die christliche Theologie, Paderborn 1998, pp. 25-42; Hans Hermann Henrix, Menschwerdung Gottes konkret: Judewerdung, in Hanna Lehming, ed., et al, Wendung nach Jerusalem. Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardts Theologie im Gespraech, Guetersloh 1999, pp. 256-269.
5 Hans Jonas, Der Gottesbegriff nach Auschwitz. Eine juedische Stimme (suhrkamp taschenbuch 1516), Frankfurt 1987.
6 Emmanuel Levinas’ idea of the “intrigue” of God is here applied to omnipotence. Cf. Emmanuel Levinas, Gott und die Philosophie, in Bernhard Casper, ed., Gott nennen. Phaenomenologische Zugaenge, Freiburg/Muenchen 1981, pp. 81-123, 104ff. For an extensive discussion of Hans Jonas cf. the author’s article Machtentsagung Gottes? Ein Gespraech mit Hans Jonas im Kontext der Theodizeefrage, in Johann Baptist Metz, ed., “Landschaft aus Schreien”. Zur Dramatik der Theodizeefrage, Mainz 1995, pp. 118-143.


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