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SIDIC Periodical XXXI - 1998/2
Good and Evil After Auschwitz (Pages 05 - 07)

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God – The foundational ethical question after the holocaust
John T. Pawlikowski


Pawlikowski asserted that the Holocaust represents the most fundamental twentieth century challenge to an era capable of producing unprecedented destruction or unparalleled hope. He affirmed the observations of Victor Ferkiss, Hans Jonas and Buckminster Fuller that humankind appears to have the capacity to engage in actions previously considered the exclusive domain of God. Its scientific and technological achievements have placed it on a threshold between utopia and oblivion. Hence, the basic challenge of the Holocaust lies in our changed perception of the relationship between God and humanity and its implication for moral behavior.

From among the various Jewish attempts to respond to the fundamental implications of the Holocaust in terms of human and divine responsibility for the governance of the world, Pawlikowski highlighted and responded to Irving Greenberg’s perspective on the post-Holocaust covenantal relationship: “If after the Temple’s destruction, Israel moved from junior partner to true partner in the covenant, then after the Holocaust, the Jewish people are called upon to become the senior partner in action.”(1) 1 For Greenberg it would be immoral, in fact it would likely prove fatal for humanity, to abandon the quest for power after the Holocaust.

Arguing that Greenberg has rendered God overly impotent by viewing God as the “junior partner”, Pawlikowski opted for the more co-equal relationship of co-creatorship. Reaffirming in a refined sense the role of divine agency and adding a cautionary note on the need for human humility, he replaced the paradigm of an all-powerful God with the more nuanced notion of a compelling God - whose message convinces rather than determines - and begins to develop a Christology focused on divine vulnerability.

If we are to successfully curb the excessive use of human power within a paradigm of co-creatorship we must reintroduce into human consciousness, especially in our now highly secularized societies parented by the Enlightenment and its revolutionary heritage, a deep sense of a compelling God. This compelling God whom we must come to experience through symbolic encounter that is both personal and cultural will result in a healing, a strengthening, an affirming that will bury any need to assert our humanity, to try to “overpower” the Creator God in Nazi-like fashion through the destructive, even deadly use of human power.

The notion of a compelling God must be sustained both in our personal consciousness and in our societal awareness. I concur with Donald Dietrich when he writes: “As Christian theologians have faced the post-Holocaust world of environmental degradation, political brutalization, and social oppression, ... a concept of evil embedded in an individual’s relation to God does not seem sufficient because it cannot explain macroevil...The human condition and its foundational values are intimately connected to the control fostered by the institutional environment...From a social psychological perspective, the evidence seems to indicate that there is a critical interaction between the person and society that needs to be understood before the development and formulation of a moral grid can be accomplished.”2(2)

The importance of restoring a sense of the compelling God in public culture poses a special challenge to those of us who generally subscribe to the vision of church-state separation enshrined in Western democracies and which, for Catholicism, was raised to a level of theological principle by Vatican Council II in its Declaration on Religious Liberty.(3)3 Nonetheless, we also need to take seriously Vatican II’s Declaration on the Church in the Modern World which strongly emphasized the centrality of culture in contemporary morality. Unless a sense of a compelling God is integrated into Western communal consciousness, not in a fundamentalist way but as a true moral barometer, personal consciousness of a compelling God by itself will prove ineffective in guarding against the abuse of human co-creatorship. It could easily lead to “naked state sovereignty.”4(4)

For the Christian, speaking about God after the Holocaust inevitably involves speaking about Christ after the Holocaust. Understanding the ministry of Jesus as emerging from the heightened sense of divine-human intimacy that surfaced in the Pharisaic revolution in Second Temple Judaism (5)5, Christological claims made by the Church in reflecting on that ministry can be seen as attempts to articulate a new sense of humanity’s profound imbeddedness in the divine. The ultimate significance of Christology so understood lies in its revelation of the grandeur of the human as a necessary corrective to the demeaning paternalism that has often characterized the divine-human relationship in the past. In this sense all authentic Christology in the final analysis is theological anthropology.

In my view the fear and paternalism associated in the past with the statement of the divine-human relationship were at least partially to blame for the attempt by the Nazis to produce a total reversal of human meaning and values, as Uriel Tal has put it. Incarnational Christology can help us understand that the human person shares in the very life and existence of God. The person remains creature; the gulf between humanity in people and humanity in the Godhead has not been totally overcome. The human struggle vis-a-vis the Creator God - the source of the misuse of human power in the past - has come to an end in principle, though its full realization still lies ahead. In this sense we can truly affirm that Christ continues to bring humankind salvation in its root meaning - wholeness.

With a proper understanding of the meaning of the Christ event people can finally overcome the primal sin of pride, the desire to supplant the Creator in power and status that lay at the heart of Nazism. Critical to this awareness is the sense of God’s self-imposed limitation manifested, as Jurgen Moltmann has underlined, on Calvary. This sense of divine limitation or self-constriction is also found in Jewish mystical literature. The notion of “divine vulnerability”, a powerful Christological symbol in terms of morality, reminds us that one need not exercise power, control and dominance to be “godly.”

If the notion of “divine vulnerability” is to serve in this way it must be disassociated from direct linkages in Jewish sufferings above all, as well as the sufferings of other Nazi victims. Jesus’ suffering must be seen as

voluntary and redeeming. Such claims can not be made in good conscience for the sufferings endured by Jews and other Nazi victims.

I wish to argue that the Holocaust represents at one and the same time the ultimate expression of human freedom and evil - the two are intimately linked. The ultimate assertion of human freedom from God that the Holocaust represents may in fact prove to be the beginning of the final resolution of the conflict between freedom and evil. When humanity finally recognizes the destruction it can produce in totally rejecting dependence on its Creator, as it did in the Holocaust, when it perceives that such rejection is a perversion and not an affirmation of human freedom, a new stage in human consciousness may be dawning. We may finally be coming to grips with evil at its roots. The power of evil will wane only when humankind develops along with a profound sense of the dignity it enjoys because of its direct links to God, a corresponding sense of humility occasioned by a searching encounter with the devastation it is capable of producing when left to its own wits.

Rev. John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, PhD is Professor of Social Ethics at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.

1 - Irving Greenberg, “The Voluntary Covenant” in Perspectives #3 (New York: National Jewish Resource Center, 1982): 17-18.
2 - Donald J. Dietrich, God and Humanity in Auschwitz: Jewish-Christian Relations and Sanctioned Murder (New Brunswick, NJ and London: Transaction Publishers, 1995): 295.
3 - Cf. John T. Pawlikowski, “Catholicism and the Public Church: Recent U.S. Developments” in D. M. Yeager (ed.), The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1989): 147-165; and “Walking With and Beyond John Courtney Murray” in New Theology Review Vol 9, Aug. 1996: 20-40.
4 - Cf. Clyde L. Manschreck, “Church-State Relations - A Question of Sovereignty” in C. L. Manschreck and B. Brown Zikmund (eds.) The American Religious Experiment: Piety and Practicality (Chicago: Exploration Press, 1976): 121.
5 - Cf. John T. Pawlikowski, Jesus and the Theology of Israel (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989) and “Ein Bund oder zwei Bünde?” in Theologische Quartalschrift, (Gegründet 1819) 176. (Jahrgang, 4. Heft) 1996, 325-340.


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