In Rowan Williams’ Being Christian (reviewed here and here), the former Archbishop of Canterbury writes that “Jesus has to come down fully to our level, to where things are shapeless and meaningless, in a state of vulnerability and unprotectedness, if real humanity is to come to birth.” This is not merely a “chaos outside ourselves,” but the “inhumanity and muddle inside us.”

At the Last Supper, Jesus connects the “darkest places of human experience with God the Giver; as if he is saying that even in these places God continues to give, and therefore we must continue to give thanks.” In the “furthest place away from God,” Jesus shows us that everyone, everywhere has “about them an unexpected sacramental depth.”

As a corollary, might it thus be that, in the state of “vulnerability and unprotectedness,” in those moments that seem very dark indeed, theological insight is likely to occur?

In an article in the current Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations, Jeremy Worthen provides a sort of evidence for this in the thought of two exemplary twentieth-century Christians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Thomas Merton. Worthen focuses on their thought about the Psalms.

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Bonhoeffer meant for “the climax of his theological life” to be an exposition of Psalm 119. He had studied St. Augustine’s Ennarationes in Psalmos and Luther’s commentaries; he had prayed the daily office with the Anglican Community of the Resurrection. And, during the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer did not distance himself from the Hebrew Bible and never crudely opposed law and grace. But, as Worthen writes, it is hard to see “any recognition of the theological significance of Jewish existence in the present.”

Except perhaps once: after Kristallnacht. Then, Bonhoeffer wrote to the brothers at Finkenwalde, “In the last few days, I have thought much about Ps. 74, Zech. 2:8, Rom. 9:4-5, and 11:11-15.” In his Bible, Bonhoeffer annotated Ps. 74:8 with the date of Kristallnacht: “they burned all the meeting-places of God in the land.” Here, in this chaos, Bonhoeffer might have found solidarity in prayer that included, not merely ancient Israel, but Bonhoeffer’s Jewish contemporaries.

The Psalms were also important to the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. As with Bonhoeffer, one can see some questionable elements in his thoughts on Judaism. Merton could write phrases such as “I am a complete Jew as far as that goes” (to Erich Fromm) or speak of “my latent ambitions to be a true Jew under my Catholic skin” (to Abraham Joshua Heschel), which perhaps shows a tendency to essentialize the Jewish experience and neatly assimilate it into his own Roman Catholicism.

But there are a couple places in which Merton acknowledges the importance of an unresolvable solidarity with contemporary Jews, especially during a moment which—while certainly not Kristallnacht—was quite difficult.

In 1964, Merton and Heschel were corresponding about the possible weakening of the Vatican II document that would become Nostra Aetate due to changes that Merton claimed, in a subsequent journal entry, were “incredibly bad.” Merton worried that the statement “has become a stuffy and pointless piece of formalism, with the incredibly stupid addition that the Church is looking forward with hope to the union of Jews to herself.” It should be noted that the final document did not include the phrase “eventual union of the Jewish people with the Church”—for more on Heschel  and Vatican II, see here.

Here Merton finds solidarity with his contemporary Jewish friend: “The Psalms have said all that need to be said about this sort of thing, and you and I both pray them. In them we are one, in their truth, in their silence. Haec fecisti et tacui, says the Lord, of such events.” (The Latin, from the Vulgate, is “These things you have done and I was silent.”)

Perhaps, then, in twentieth-century theological history, we find evidence for the birthing of a “real humanity” and an “unexpected sacramental depth” in unspeakably difficult moments, whether the destruction of buildings and lives or the possible loss of a conciliar document. There, in the midst of chaos, we might find unexpected solidarity and hope, along with the real theological insight that comes only from them.

The image above is “suffering is permanent—obscure and dark” (2010) by Flickr user Azlan Dupree. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

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