Eschatology and Social Ethics: The Limits of Typology

Barry Harvey
Baylor University

Both Ford’s and Wolfson’s papers raise, albeit in somewhat different ways, a similar set of concerns. First there is the matter of two distinct communities and traditions which have no choice but to draw from a common well of source material. George Bernard Shaw once said that the English and the Americans are the only two peoples separated by a common language. Could we not say that Jews and Christians are the only two peoples separated by a common set of canonical texts (texts that are the critical catalysts for their respective traditions)? We thus find ourselves entangled in a most peculiar triadic logic that consists of shared signs, contested signifieds and disassociated selves, a legacy from our forebears from which no amount of good will alone can extricate us. The vague semiotic relations that have both united and separated Jews and Christians over the centuries exemplify what Gillian Rose calls the “broken middle,” and ironically they will continue for the time being to make true dialogue between us more rather than less difficult. This fact does not excuse us from engaging in dialogue; indeed, it makes the need for it imperative.

The difficulty is rendered with brilliant clarity by Wolfson’s paper. How are we, as disparate members of the Society for Scriptural Reasoning, to judge the validity of Kemper’s christocentric readings of the Jewish rabbinic and mystical texts without perpetuating (even unwittingly) the prejudices and polemics of the past? The problem is particularly acute because Kemper did not work in the rarefied realm of metaphysical concepts and categories (as Ibn-Sina, Maimonides and Aquinas did), but in the poetic world of metaphor and figure that forms the imaginative warp and woof not only of the mystical traditions but of the Bible itself. Kemper’s kabbalistic methods of interpretation not only provide a test case for such questions, but his own life can be read as an allegory for the problems and possibilities of the Society. In this regard note the way Wolfson refers to Kemper’s “appropriation” of Judaism and its kabbalistic and rabbinic sources, as well as to his “split consciousness.” I suspect that Kemper would not have been too happy with either of those characterizations, preferring instead to talk of his “reclamation” of Jewish sources and of the (dialectical?) realization of his self-understanding. Which description, in our context, is preferable?

Another way to put the issues raised by these papers is to ask how should we deal with the difficult negotiations between the universal or general and the particular or singular. This is of course the burden of Ford’s paper, but it also crops up implicitly in Wolfson’s paper. Ford passes along a typological proposal by George Lindbeck that treats “the church and Israel as types of ‘the people of God in fellowship with God at the end of time,’” presumably by defining the eschatological community as the archetype (what are we to make of the implicit Platonic framework of this proposal?). While in many ways an intriguing proposal, and certainly preferable to the triumphalist eschatology and supercessionism of Christendom past, it is not without its problems. First, there is the question of whether this is an appropriate use of figural imagery, particularly when both “church” and “Israel” are at present ambiguous terms sociologically. Even within the book of Ephesians the two are neither contrastive nor coterminous, thus making either a supercessionist or a typological interpretation problematic. Moreover, it would seem that treating them as eschatological types does not avoid categorizing them as species within a common genus, which invariably has the effect of foreclosing on the specific moral and ontological claims of both communities.

Another difficulty with this model is that it is hard to see how it helps us with the pragmatic question of how the two “types” are to relate to each other in the here and now, before the eschaton . It gives us two relatively neat ends but seems to leave us with a muddle in the middle. Of course, the easy answer would be for each to practice tolerance with respect to the other, but that is an inadequate solution. For all the moral capital our post-something multi-culture vests in this term in the name of civility (but which civitas?), in the final analysis the language of toleration perpetuates the triumphalist assumptions of the past, albeit in new garb. The unspoken supposition is that social elites could deal with their “guests” in any number of ways, but they choose to tolerate the latter. Such toleration always takes place within a carefully demarcated space determined by those in power. While certainly preferable to intolerance, the social grammar of toleration is a poor substitute for a modus vivendi that refuses to settle for merely putting up with one another.

How then shall we proceed? Over the centuries Jewish, Muslim and Christian theologians have correlated divine revelation to human existence in the created world, not in terms of the relation of act to potential (which tends to limit what can occur in the future to one outcome, in keeping with an ahistorical metaphysics of substance), but in terms of act to possibility. The advantages of the latter (for which the triadic logic of Ochs-Peirce is ideally suited) are many. First, it makes room for God’s free, faithful yet incalculable activity in the world without at the same time making God simply another inhabitant of the world. Second, it allows for an almost infinite number of imaginable outcomes at any point in the process. Indeed, this process both expands and transforms our grasp of what is possible, not only over the long haul (where Eugene Rogers’ anagogical reading of Scripture commends itself), but in the short term as well.

With respect to these short-term possibilities, dialogue among Jews, Muslims and Christians, rooted in a shared-yet-contested ethos, will likely consist of equal parts negotiation and improvisation. It must take into account, among other things, radical shifts in the social world. Christianity is not the dominant ethos in the world (though for many old habits die hard). That status has been usurped by the global market, around which political institutions of every ideological stripe are increasingly calibrated. Christians can no longer deceive themselves about a completed salvation history in which creation to resurrection “constitutes a totality of promise and fulfillment that is available to viewing and therefore to thought” (M. Wyschogrod). This recognition opens up possibilities for collaborative inquiry that were not even imaginable just a few years ago. Moreover, these opportunities are not restricted to the intellectual sphere, but extend to the spectrum of practices and institutions that inform the three traditions, e.g., the pragmatic relationship between worship configured around the communal reading of Scripture and social ethics.