Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Promise

By Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, translated by Balinski, Malone, and Duchesne. 177 pages. Eerdmans $18.00.

“But it is plain to see that under the cover of faithfulness to the Covenant and belonging to the Covenant, the figure of Christ has often served as a pretext to forget the Father, the unique God. One of the tragedies of Christian civilization is that it has become atheistic while claiming to remain Christian. It has made Christ into an idolatrous figure, a son without a father – and thus without the Spirit; its only spirit, ultimately, is the spirit of man.”

Cardinal Lustiger, who converted to Catholicism from Judaism in 1940, wrote the above words while archbishop of Paris (1981-2007). In The Promise he speaks out against antisemitism and discusses the roots of this racism, blaming Christians who have remained “pagan.” By this he means that many Christians fail to allow Jesus to convert their hearts. They allow their beliefs and needs to change Jesus.

Christ becomes a god or one of their many gods, because they have not appreciated the grace that led to Jesus. They have failed to understand that Jesus is a Son of Israel, and could only accomplish his salvific work by being Jewish. The movement of some current liberal Christians, especially those enamored by liberation theology, to make the Vedic Scriptures of India or other basic religious writings into another Old Testament for the Greek New Testament only underscores the failure of many Christians to understand and accept the truth about Jesus.

The Promise is therefore less a book about Christian-Jewish relations and more a book of Christology. Just who is Jesus of Nazareth? Firstly, Lustiger emphasizes that he is Jesus of Israel. A believer must enter through the Old to get to the New Testament. The New makes sense only through the Old.

Lustiger sounds like a Church Father with his simplicity and power. He doesn't attempt to add anything new. His depth and integrity make process theology, liberation theology, and other contextual theology look rather thin and confused. Lustiger's thought ranks with that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI's for clarity, witness to the truth in the face of contemporary apostasy, and theological depth.

He unearths things that we either forget or take for granted.

Like Benedict XVI and John Paul II, Lustiger is acutely aware of the spiritual and intellectual crisis of Western civilization, since like the other two he experienced it personally as a young man:

“Ten years of higher education in philosophy and theology allowed me to become thoroughly acquainted with the major works of Christian Tradition and of Western modernity, and to find there, along with challenges that sometimes cannot be met adequately, the living sources of faith, where reason can be nurtured and comforted. That sufficed to commit my freedom unequivocally in answer to God's call.”

Lustiger warns of the “pervasive sociology of power, which in many cases mortally wounded the Catholics' love of the Church and trust in her.” The Promise describes the Church after Vatican II as “badly undermined” in France because of the intellectuals, where “most Christians had to bear the burden of intellectual challenges for which they had not been prepared.”

He links these difficulties to Catholic-Jewish dialogue and to the gradual opening up in the 1970s to discussion of the Holocaust by its Jewish survivors, many of whom had been silent until then (Lustiger lost his mother to the extermination camps).

The Promise is a “book of remembering Israel's gift of Christ to the world.” Lustiger repeatedly ties together the themes of redemption through Israel, antisemitism, the emptiness of our age, and the false Christianity of those who call themselves Christians but never really converted from paganism.

He writes, for instance, that “The specific characteristic of pagans is to be those who do not know that darkness can be transformed into light, who do not know that they are sinners, that they can be forgiven and that death can be vanquished, by God along, the source of life. Our time is the time when darkness and death still reign, and when, nonetheless, we are charged with bringing forth the light.”

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