Schweitzer, Cahill, and Wojtyla

Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus (whose German title, Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, is much less dashing and merchandisable — older English edition available online here) includes the memorable line, “[H]ate as well as love can write a Life of Jesus, and the greatest of them are written with hate. . .” [my emphasis]. Why? Because

[i]t was not so much hate of the Person of Jesus as of the supernatural nimbus with which it was so easy to surround Him, and with which He had in fact been surrounded. They were eager to picture Him as truly and purely human, to strip from Him the robes of splendour with which He had been apparelled, and clothe Him once more with the coarse garments in which He had walked in Galilee.
And their hate sharpened their historical insight.

I remembered Schweitzer’s premise this morning when Micah pointed me to the op-ed in this morning’s New York Times by Thomas Cahill. I don’t know whether Cahill hates the late John Paul II, but his focused dissatisfaction certainly sheds a less flattering light on a figure regarding whom the opinion-makers have given a genial thumbs-up.

Cahill’s dyslogy over the sleeping Pope doesn’t only venture to strip away the flattering robes of splendor from a many-faceted theologian, activist, and politician; it also reveals one of the problems with Schweitzer’s axiom. Schweitzer notes that hatred of Jesus’ sanctity costs its sponsors their livelihood, their social standing, the satisfaction of seeing their work commended and advanced by sympathetic colleagues; Jesus research born of hatred was incorruptible, since it brought no rewards but only obloquy. Cahill’s denunciation, though, costs him little or nothing — and one may fairly wonder about the extent to which the holy martyrs of historical-Jesus research found their notoriety quite so odious as they enthusiastically advertised.

Yes, John Paul II showed a proclivity for promoting sympathizers; I don’t know enough to assess the extent to which he represents an extreme in this regard, but I’m confident that he didn’t promote only cardinals whom he could count as yes-men, and I guess that other popes may have tended to promote sympathizers as well (though they didn’t have as long a tenure with which to define the whole College of Cardinals). I doubt that the John Paul whom millions of people are flocking to venerate in death is ultimately responsible for the attendance levels in Roman Catholic parish churchs, and I see some congregations that appear to be flourishing. Perhaps distaste for one’s subject brings not only critical historical insight, but also a different, opposite sort of blindness. Cahill’s attempts to write historical work (I’m thinking of Desire of the Everlasting Hills, a shoddy work of wishful historical thinking, and of the romanticized picture of early church decision-making in the later paragraphs of his op-ed — notice Cahill’s unaccountable knowledge of St. Peter’s “frequent and humble confession that he was wrong”).

Maybe antipathy and sympathy emerge in almost everything that human creatures endeavor, and maybe we ought not be shocked, shocked, to learn that there is partisanship in papal appointments or historical retrospect.

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  1. I was also struck in Cahill’s piece by an odd mixture of progressivism and primtivism. On the one hand, he says that the problem with John Paul II is that he failed to pull the Church into the twenty-first century. On the other hand, his problem is that he was not first-century enough. I’ve seen a similar mixing of forward-looking and backward-looking tropes in other criticisms of John Paul’s pontificate. But isn’t all of this talk about whether he made the church “up to date” or remained mired in the past somewhat of a category mistake? If we are to judge the Pope by his own standards, then we would have to ask how faithful he has been to God and the traditions that he has received. But faithfulness is neither “forward-looking” or “backward-looking,” but “Godward-looking.”

    I imagine that the Pope probably could be criticized on those latter grounds (as could we all!), but to hold him to standards of “progress,” as defined by a checklist of stances on the topics currently roiling liberal democracies like the United States, is to use language foreign to the church to judge the church.

    There’s a similar problem with the way Cahill says that the Church should be, like its first-century forbears, utterly different from “the world,” while at the same time he criticizes the Pope’s church for not looking enough like “the world” as he sees it. Obviously, the church should recognizably distinct from the world, but its distinctiveness must rest on its faithfulness to God, not on its responsiveness to public opinion.

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