Revelation and Theopolitics: Barth, Rosenzweig and the politics of praise

02 November 2006


T & T Clark £25 (0-567-04132-8); Church Times Bookshop £22.50

The experience of God: This informs theology and underlies public religious witness, says Marcus Braybrooke

HOW should Jews and Christians relate to the political environment? Franz Rosenzweig and Karl Barth, Randi Rashkover argues, offer an approach that avoids fanaticism and assimilation. They reject both Constantinian imperialism, which is the temptation to control and rule, and secular invisibility, whereby religions fail to critique the dominant ideology.
Rosenzweig held that Judaism cannot ally itself with the goals of a secular nation state. Karl Barth drafted the Barmen Declaration, which voiced the Confessing Church's opposition to Nazism, and declared that the Church could not change its message to fit in "with prevailing ideological and political convictions".
Their approach, which Randi Rashkover calls the theology of testimony or the politics of praise, flows from their understanding of revelation. For both theologians, revelation is the irruptive encounter between a meta-rational, loving God and the individual chosen to receive this love. In this encounter, people recognise their sinfulness and no longer trust their own cognitive or moral abilities.
Their criticism of much theology is that it tries to fit God into existing human categories. Revelation is not words about God, but a life-changing encounter. Those who are thus chosen by God receive the command to love their neighbour. This means treating the neighbour as a person who, like the self, is also loved by God. Witness to the God who loves, therefore, provides the basis for challenging political authorities in the name of justice and human welfare.
At a time when politicians and economists are more open to the contribution to society of religious leaders, this book challenges such leaders to ask themselves what is the distinctive contribution that religious witness adds to public debate.
The importance of this book is matched by the concentration required to read it. I found it difficult because the author repeatedly uses her own terms, such as theology of testimony, of which the meaning is not self-evident. The book also includes detailed exposition of the thinking of Franz Rosenzweig and Karl Barth, and of Hermann Cohen - a philosopher who influenced them both - who in his later life applied Kantian ethics to his interpretation of Judaism.
In doing this, Rashkover, who is assistant Professor of Religious Studies at York College of Pennsylvania, critiques other scholars' interpretations - but the discussion is difficult to follow if you are unfamiliar with their writings. Rashkover's theological starting-point is very different from my own more mystical approach. Yet I recognise that her life-changing encounter with God has similarities with the mystical sense of oneness with the Divine. Both start with experience. Increasingly, contem-porary mystics also challenge political authorities that deny human rights and the sacredness of all life.
This book, which contributes to mutual understanding between Jews and Christians, may also encourage dialogue between Christians of different theological approaches.

The Revd Dr Marcus Braybrooke is President of the World Congress of Faiths, and a co-founder of the Three Faiths Forum.

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