Birth from Death

There is this great anecdote that Gershom Scholem tells at the end of his monumental Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. It speaks of the Baal Shem Tov, the eighteenth-century founder of Hasidism, who, when he had “a difficult task before him . . ., would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer — and what he had set out to perform was done.” The tale follows the slow, generational loss of the elements that ensure successful results (first the fire is lost, then the meditations and prayer, then the place in the woods). By the end of the tale, the last rabbi mentioned is reported to have said: “we cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done. And, the story-teller adds, the story which he told had the same effect as the actions of the others.” As he comments on this tale of a tale, Scholem recognizes that it might “symbolize the decay of a great movement,” or “reflect the transformation of all its values.” But “the story is not ended, it has not yet become history, and the secret life it holds can break out tomorrow.”

The connection may not be apparent yet, but let me begin with the fact that, like the better historians, Sam Moyn is an impressive storyteller. Consider the summary he provides of his own argument in The Last Utopia:

Because they were born at a moment when they survived as a moral utopia when political utopias died, human rights were compelled to define the good life and offer a plan for bringing it about precisely when they were ill-equipped by the fact of their suprapolitical birth to do so. (214)

Everything is here, which takes us on a grand movement of “whens,” from death to birth (and vice-versa) to life and survival (and survival at birth), from politics to morality (and back), by way of the challenge of disadvantage (will they make it?), the compulsion to rise to the occasion (the triumph of the human spirit, or at least of human rights). It’s a dramatic story of novelty in continuity, unexpected heroes and surprising turns, striking absences (or disappearances) and numerous shocking events (the word ‘shocking’ recurs). There’s a lot more of births, if you keep reading. And of course lots of death (one chapter in the book is even called “Death from Birth”). All of which makes for quite a story, and an anthropomorphic feast to boot. Human rights, Moyn thus writes, “are best understood as survivors.” Or a (familiar) theomorphic one. They are “the god that did not fail while other political ideologies did.”

Another story — if it is another story — Moyn tells well is the story of Christianity. It is our present concern, I take it, but its ramifications reach presumably further. For what is Christianity? Or, more appropriately, when it comes to historical (and narratological) matters, when was Christianity? Whether considering the birth and rise of human rights, or the increased popularity of “dignity” and its bearer (“the person”), the long opposition to Godless atheism, I mean, to communism, and the importance and transformations of Christian politics through the twentieth century, Moyn has established himself as a leading figure in a great wave of interest in Christianity and its recurrences (this, by the way, just when it seemed that the field of intellectual history was being resuscitated as the futures past of the German-Jewish dialogue). The philosophers have had their Paul moment, the literary critics are still bedazzled by the secular, the anthropologists might slowly turn to the anthropology of Christianity, and the historians keep witnessing religious returns. No wonder Bruno Latour is “rejoicing.”

Indeed, after Moyn, and with the caveat that (he tells us) we can now be quite certain we are no longer Christian (look at church attendance, they keep repeating), there might be room to ask whether we have ever been, well, non-Christian. But Moyn is a historian’s historian, which means he is interested in change over time, and he insists therefore on novelty (in continuity, he adds). He writes of human rights as “a novel and fateful departure in the history of political discourse.” That is why acknowledging human rights as Christian will not involve revisiting the history of Christianity — or even defining Christianity anew (say, without fire, or prayer). We will not have to understand Christianity (the Good News, that is), we will rather have to understand novelty. “We are going to have to look not so much at Jesus (or even at the Reformation), but novel mid-twentieth century interpretations of what his teaching demands, to understand how the huge set of possibilities the Christian legacy bequeathed was winnowed down.” The point, as Moyn explains, is not to argue for some creation out of nothing (that would be odd, and old). It is rather to underscore a complicated birth (in with the new). Yet, if I understand correctly, when it comes to human rights, the struggle out of which this peculiar instance of Christianity rises was between different versions of Christian politics (“Christianity had stood for the star of peace, but also the dogs of war”). Though guess what? The Christians won.

Of course, the moment one speaks of Christians (as distinct, I suppose, from Christianity), there emerges a series of problems with regard to what it is we are talking about. Religion? Politics? Institutions? Individuals? Since this conversation is about human rights and the dignity of the human person, and since Marcel Mauss did, did he not, tell us that “Ce sont les chrétiens qui ont fait de la personne morale une entité métaphysique après en avoir senti la force religieuse. Notre notion à nous de personne humaine est encore fondamentalement la notion chrétienne,” I’ll abide and begin with individual examples.

Take a number of individuals whose relationship to Judaism has been, in one way or another, disrupted or interrupted. Call them Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Freud, even Benjamin. You know, the usual suspects. Tell me whether they are Christians, I mean, sorry, whether they are Jews. Better yet, remind me of Isaac Deutscher on “the non-Jewish Jew” (think, if you will, of the “strategic objective of turning Hindus into non-Hindu Hindus, or Muslims into non-Muslim Muslims,” described by Gauri Viswanathan). Now, repeat the exercise with any (Christian? aye, there’s the rub!) figure mentioned by Sam Moyn in the course of his historical demonstration (“From the pinnacle of the churches to the rank and file, only a few Christians denounced [fascism] in these years, and normally then to protect Christian interests; more acquiesced to fascism, or fervently served it, including in Nazi Germany . . . And yet it is also Christians who did much and perhaps most to welcome and define the idea of human rights in the 1940s”). Begin by picking out those individuals who are explicitly identified as “Christian.” Then ask about those who are not. Ask if “fascism” is Christian or whether it is merely “served” by (some) Christians. Then ask about human rights. “It turns out to be quite difficult to find non-Christians who enthused about human rights, and more especially their basis in human dignity, in the age.” What about Christian and non-Christian fascists? In Italy? Spain? Germany? And what about “the common but deeply contentious cause of Christian and para-Christian intellectuals from the far right to the communitarian ‘left’” of which Moyn writes? Besides, it all depends on whom you might want to call Christian, or even para-Christian. And until when. Are there then “non-Christian Christians”? Is it conceivable that some be so construed?

The answer is, of course, no. There are Christians, and there are others. But there are no “non-Christian Christians” (and very few “secular Christians” too, as opposed to secular Jews and secular Muslims, whose “religious ethnicity” or “ethnic religiosity” seems so very inescapable, when compared to other Münchhausen types) Why so? We might need to rise beyond the level of individuals in order to establish the criterion according to which the Christian identification operates, the criterion according to which associations and institutions can or cannot be recognized as “Christian” (institutions don’t go to church, their Christianity must be measured otherwise). As far as I can tell, though, there are Christian associations that claim Christianity for themselves (and often deny it to others, that is, to other Christians of various kinds). And then there are Christian associations that are made of Christians, but who do not claim (“militantly” you may say) Christianity. Then there are those who are (or say they are) “not Christians” (along such interesting lines, Matthew Engelke is proposing “an anthropology of not Christianity”). So, which is the merchant here? And which the Christian?

But let me invoke another analogy for group identification as name calling. It is one in which one (allegedly) foreign-born and (allegedly) Muslim U.S. president and his (alleged) supporters might be repeatedly described as non-American, anti-American (or even, God forbid, non-Christian) by some powers that be. The gesture might then be gently extended to all kinds of associations and institutions who may or may not use the term “American” in their self-designation (I’m stretching the imagination, I know, but imagine, say, “the global university”). In this otherwise fascinating family quarrel, that which is at stake may be America, or it may be corporate profit, or it may be social Darwinism (find the difference, or look for Waldo). But is it really non-American? At what point, I therefore ask, does American politics stop being (like) Christian politics? What transformations must it undergo to erase the traces of its living history?


In case it is not clear, I am trying to acknowledge, even affirm, the importance of Moyn’s argument that, along with the notion of dignity and the person, human rights are Christian (or so they were for a significant while). It is, to be sure, an argument about novelty and change, about the “reversal” undergone by the Church, whose opposition to the notion of rights is plain to see. It is the Church that “in a moment of discovering two extreme political ideologies that, in its view, left no room for Christianity,” looked for an alternative. And with Maritain’s help, the Church could reinvent itself as a different kind of tradition, one more aligned with American Protestants, true to an anti-communist agenda, and committed to human rights (“part of an ecumenical reinvention of Christianity of both Catholic and Protestant varieties”). Which is of course very different from a Church that, otherwise aligned with the United States, supports an undignified fascism, and maintains an anti-communist agenda. It’s certainly different from “the rights of man” and their theological structure (as Marx had it) or from David Bell’s account of “the cult of the nation in France.” But as Moyn suggests, these could all go under the heading of a “transformation of the political meaning of Christianity,” a transformation of Christian politics, as well as a transformation of Christianity (“the older view that Christianity’s political and social doctrine could not be reformulated in terms of rights was dropped in exchange for the claim that only the Christian vision placing them in the framework of the common good afforded a persuasive theory of rights”). Similarly, when the European Court of Human Rights pursues a “religious freedom” which is Christian in its anti-communism and secular in its Islamophobia, when the protection of one religion (guess which?) is conceived as non-discriminatory (at a time, mind you, when the treatment of colonial subjects and immigrants — français musulmans — would certainly not qualify as religious discrimination, nor is it quite the case now that the children and grand-children of these non-citizen subjects and immigrants are being similarly treated, if for different reasons, or so we should believe), while a secular agenda affirms religious and secular freedom and simultaneously targets “religions” (if not quite all of them) for infringing on its democratic, open and tolerant spirit — there seems to be room to ask whether we might still be Christian.

But what is Christianity? And more historically, when is Christianity?

Scholem’s story about a story speaks to that which is preserved when the instruments of (historical) reckoning are no longer pertinent. The story in each of its moments might, Scholem admits, symbolize the decay of a great movement, or it might reflect the transformation of all its values. It has, at any rate, “not yet become history and the secret life it holds can break out tomorrow.” It is this non-historical excess, this not-so secret life, which makes me wonder about the cycle of life Moyn attends to. For, having isolated a peculiar chapter in the history of Christianity (while setting aside the burden of an older Christian legacy), Moyn does go on to reiterate a familiar Zarathustrian announcement, the announcement of the death, not of God this time, but of Christianity, “the religion of the end of religion,” as Marcel Gauchet has it. But why religion? And what kind of end? Beside, how many of these are there? In 1968, Louis Bouyer, an active participant in the Vatican II council, lamented (internally, as it were) “la décomposition du catholicisme” and people like John Loftus (the old new atheism?) are still at it (it’s all fodder for Fox News really, the war on Christmas and all that). Moyn writes of “Christianity’s last golden age on the Continent, which lasted for two decades before the shocking reversal for the fortunes of religion after the mid-1960s.” He writes of “the death of Christian Europe” and adds, in a footnote, that it is a “collapse, which ought to be shocking” (I told you there was a lot of ‘shocking’ stuff) and one that “remains essentially unexplained”. What, then, is the precise nature of this — somehow recurring — event? In its returns and ends, Christianity (and its historians) seems to suffer from PTSD, the compulsion to (shockingly) repeat. As Derrida puts it in another context, Christianity has been a repeated exercise of sorts, at least “a powerful ‘deconstruction of death’” (but “it is not enough to deconstruct death,” he added). What, moreover, qualifies as an explanation, as a historical explanation? Commenting on the state of Germany, Moyn assures us of exactly that, of the power of a good explanation. “The transformation of the political meaning of Christianity works far better than the continuation of fascism proper to explain the centrality of dignitarian rights not just in postwar politics, but also in postwar law.” I am sure he is right as far as history is concerned, not to mention “fascism proper.” But I still feel compelled to ask: what is Christianity? What kind of historical object is it? How to write its story and history? How many times its ends? More modestly, for now, how do we determine what is and is not Christian, among the transformations of the political meaning of Christianity? Is the “better explanation” not the one that misses its target? Moyn is here interested in dignity and personalism, he is interested in human rights. But, like fascism and with it, “Christian human rights” must surely find their explanation in a broader conception of Christianity, which includes the history of its transformations, political and otherwise. Not to mention its denials. Three times before the cock’s crow, or the historian’s, and counting. Christianity, then. From death to birth. Or maybe through endless resurrections.

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