A Jewish joke from the 1930’s tells of the old Jew who is confronted by storm troopers: “Tell us, Jew – who started the Great War?” The Jew, being no fool, says, “The Jews,” but adds, “as well as the musicians.”

“Why the musicians?,” ask the storm troopers. The Jew asks, “Why the Jews?”

In the case of Pope Benedict XVI, the question “Why the musicians?” has the same answer as “Why the Jews?” Jewish scripture and classical music are the new pope’s lifelong preoccupations. In order to raise the Catholic Church up out of the ruins of European secularism, Benedict looks backward to the biblical background of Christianity as well as to the high culture of the Christian West. In this respect, he may be one of the most innovative popes in history, for he must break with ancient church tradition to do this. Benedict is one of the most cultivated men alive, with a mind that no surviving school could have trained. The trouble is that little is left in Europe, either of high culture or of the Jews. Perhaps he sees his mission under the sign of St. Benedict, as a preserver in a dark age.

The former cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, devoted his life to refuting Hobbes’ jeer that the pope is “no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof” [1]. Until a new barbarian invasion in the form of Hitler’s hordes held Pius XII captive in the Vatican, the Roman Catholic Church refused to concede its right to temporal authority. As young churchmen, Karol Wojtyla and Ratzinger assisted in Rome’s renunciation of worldly power at the Second Vatican Council, exorcising at last the ghost of Caesar.

Other ghosts continue to haunt the house of St Peter, though, and their presence peers out of Benedict’s writings. The heathen pantheon bedeviled the dreams of the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who reported a visitation thus:

They might be the gods of an ancient race
Of barbarians, wouldn’t you know it?
They prefer to make their romping place
In the skull of a dying German poet [2].

Pagan gods haunted Catholic Europe for most of its two millennia, enduring under the Christian veneer as assimilated saints, or in the folk-religion of the people. Germany never quite converted to Christianity, Heine observed [3]. After the ruin and depopulation of Rome, the Church created Europe by converting wave after wave of barbarian invaders. But the syncretic absorption of the pagan religions brought forth the cancer that ultimately devoured Europe in the two world wars of the last century (see Why Europe Chooses Extinction, April 8, 2003).

The last wilde Jagd (wild hunt) of the Second World War extinguished the ghosts of the heathen gods, but two kinds of ghosts still haunt Benedict XVI. The first is Europe’s dead Jews, and the second is Europe’s dead musicians, most prominent among them Mozart. The Catholic Church exiled both of them. The Jews it expelled or drove to the frontier, which is why there were 3 million Jews speaking a Germanic dialect in Poland at the outset of World War II. For similar reasons, it proscribed the musicians, including Mozart, whose religious music it put on the index of prohibited works. No Mozart work had been heard at the Vatican until 1985, when cardinal Ratzinger invited Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic to perform the Coronation Mass.

The juxtaposition of musicians and Jews may seem fortuitous, but it is not. Despite heroic and well-intended labors stretching over half a century, the Catholic Church cannot come to terms with the Jewish side of Christianity, not, at least, in the way that American evangelicals do. As a theologian and exegete of the Bible, Benedict XVI believes that the Christian promise to the gentiles merely extends God’s promise to the Jews, and he has expounded this view in numerous speeches and articles [4]. But that promise has small credibility if no living Jews are present to receive it. Few Jews remain in Europe outside of the half million in France, a community whose future status may be incompatible with the accommodation of 10 million Arab immigrants [5]. If the Vatican addressed large communities of observant Jews in Poland, for example, its message would resonate with the heavens. The nearest large population of Jews, however, is to be found in Israel, and therein lies a problem.

For a Catholic theologian, dependence on biblical exegesis rather than church tradition amounts to a revolutionary innovation. Benedict XVI broke with hoary church tradition when he argued (for example) that in the Epistles of Paul “the covenant with the Patriarchs is regarded as eternally in force” [6]. Scripture is not quite enough, however. American evangelicals of the past generation look not only to the promises of scripture, but also to the fact of Jewish continuity over more than three millennia. As the Reverend Pat Robertson observes, this makes credible God’s promise to Abraham in the Hebrew scriptures. If God kept his promise to Abraham’s seed, the argument continues, so well he may to Christians who enter into God’s covenant through the crucifixion. If the Jewish people were to disappear, the Christian promise of salvation would die with it.

The German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig put it this way:

The Old Testament … is more than a mere book. Had the Jews of the Old Testament disappeared from the earth like Christ, they would now denote the idea of the People, and Zion the idea of the Center of the World, just as Christ denotes the idea of Man. But the stalwart, undeniable vitality of the Jewish people, attested in the very hatred of the Jews, resists such “idealizing.” Whether Christ is more than idea – no Christian can know it. But that Israel is more than idea, that he knows, that he sees. For we live. We are eternal, not as an idea may be eternal: if we are eternal, it is in full reality. For the Christian we are thus the really indubitable. The pastor who was asked for the proof of Christianity by Frederick the Great argued conclusively when he answered: “Your majesty, the Jews!” The Christians can have no doubts about us. Our existence stands surety for their truth [7].

Even more convincing for American evangelicals is Michael Wyschogrod’s contention that God’s love for all peoples begins with his particular love for the Jews. As the Methodist theologian R Kendall Soulen writes, “By allowing room for God’s freedom to fall in love with Abraham, the gentiles gain a heavenly Father who is also concretely concerned with them, and not just with humanity in the abstract” [8].

A crucial difference of opinion between Benedict XVI and the American evangelicals lies in the question of when Jews shall recognize Jesus as their Messiah. Although Benedict believes that Christians should not “force their faith” upon Jews and should live with them in mutual respect, he would prefer that they do so immediately. Although the evangelicals proselytize Jews to the endless annoyance of Jewish religious authorities, they believe that Jews will recognize Jesus only at the end of time. Liberal Jews object that the evangelicals wish for a new Battle of Armageddon in the Middle East, which is a silly complaint; on the contrary, the evangelicals mean that they would prefer that Jews remain Jews until Jesus extends an invitation in person.

American Protestantism, to be sure, was tinged with a Judaizing heresy from the outset (What makes the US a Christian nation, November 28, 2004). Founded by Protestant separatists who wished to bring a new chosen people to a new promised land, America may be the only country in the world in which Christians openly might adopt Rosenzweig’s perspective.

For Benedict XVI to identify the scriptural promise to Abraham with Abraham’s descendents, for example, the present state of Israel, would present formidable problems. Today’s Europeans, in their desire to appease the burgeoning Muslim population within their borders, consider Israel a greater danger to world peace than the states that Washington deems terrorist. Slightly over half of Germans, according to a recent poll, believe that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is no better than the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews, a response suggesting the projection of Germany’s own war guilt. The great majority of the Italian Curia favors the Palestinian rather than the Israeli side, and the Vatican still objects to the Israeli claim of Jerusalem as it capital, demanding instead that Jerusalem become an international city.

In a Europe that hates the Jews that no longer are there, Benedict XVI will find exegesis of the Hebrew Bible less challenging than dealing with a people that actually speaks biblical Hebrew. His effort to re-evangelize Europe with Abraham’s scriptural promise will crash against Europe’s hatred for Abraham’s actual descendants.

That brings us to the matter of the musicians. Jews look for the Kingdom of God in the sanctified life of a human family, whose highest expression is the Sabbath, “a foretaste of the world to come.” The wild shoots of the nations grafted onto the olive tree of Israel hope for the Kingdom of God beyond the grave. To establish a new people in a new land, the founding dream of American Protestantism, bespeaks a Judaizing heresy rather than strict adherence to Christian doctrine. If the grave separates the life of this earth and the blessed realm beyond, beauty must provide a “foretaste of the world to come.” This theme permeates the thinking of St Augustine, and stood at the center of the “theology of aesthetics” of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Catholic theologian who formed the thinking of pope John Paul II as well as his successor, Benedict XVI [9]. Its watchword is, “The beautiful and the good are essentially one,” as John Paul II told a conference on June 28, 1996.

Equating the good and the beautiful defines the thought of classical Greece: the divine on earth shows itself to mortal eyes through the eternal harmonies. Among 20th century thinkers, Albert Einstein is the most credible advocate of this view, for he searched for beauty in nature and in mathematics as the touchstone of truth. But Einstein was a Spinozan pantheist, not a believing Jew, who looked for a God within nature. How can beauty lead to the good in a Christian context? The answer is that one has to look for “inner beauty” rather than mere “outer beauty” and that is a very long story.

“Being struck by the ray of beauty that wounds man is true perception,” Ratzinger entitled a 2002 address. He said (I translate):

Being overpowered by the beauty of Christ is a more real and deeper perception than mere rational deduction. We should not deprecate the importance of theological reflection, of precise and careful theological thinking – that remains absolutely necessary. But to have contempt for, or to reject therefore the shock of the heart’s encounter with beauty as the true way to perception impoverishes and makes empty faith as well as theology. We must find our way back to this way of perception – that is an urgent demand of this hour [10].

For Ratzinger, music is the exemplar of such beauty. He added:

I cannot forget the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the early death of Karl Richter. I sat next to the evangelical Bishop Hanselmann. As the final tones of one of the great cantatas of the Cantor of St. Thomas died away triumphally, we looked at each other spontaneously and, just as spontaneously, said to each other: anyone who has heard that knows that faith is true.

Amen to that. But the beauty of Apollo to which Plato appealed “is not enough,” Ratzinger continued. “Thus we come to the paradox that it can be said of Christ that ‘you are the most beautiful of all men’, even when his face was disfigured … Just in that disfigured face, the true and final beauty emerges; the beauty of love that goes to the last and shows itself stronger than lies and violence.”

That is a somewhat circular argument; it is beautiful because it is true and true because it is beautiful. Benedict has said that Mozart’s music is divine, whether Mozart intended it so or not. One might say that about the Coronation Mass or the Requiem, but what of the opera Don Giovanni , a portrait of a seducer and murderer? Beethoven thought Mozart’s opera immoral; Kierkegaard thought it “fatuous” to call the work immoral because surrendering to the seductive power of the music takes place in an aesthetic context in which moral claims and moral actions do not arise [11]. Neither view helps Benedict’s case.

Late in his life, von Balthasar envisioned Mozart among the saints in heaven during sessions with his spiritual muse Adrienne von Speyr. “Can you see Mozart?” von Balthasar would ask Adrienne, the co-founder of his Community of St. John. “Yes, I see him,” Adrienne would smile.

Yes, I see him praying. I see him praying something, maybe an Our Father. Simple words, which he learned in his childhood, and which he prays in awareness that he is speaking with God. And then he stands before God like a child, bringing his father everything: pebbles from the street and special twigs and little blades of grass, and once a ladybird as well, and with him all these are melodies, melodies which he brings the dear Lord, melodies which he suddenly knows in prayer [12].

That doesn’t sound like the Mozart who wrote Don Giovanni , not to mention some particularly ribald canons [13].

Truth and beauty are not twins, in my view, but first cousins of passing acquaintance. The truth that God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind is not beautiful; on the contrary, it is terrible.

To be continued.

[1] In the chapter of Leviathan titled, “The Comparison of the Catholic Church and the Kingdom of Fairies.”
[2] Es mögen wohl Gespenster sin,
Altheidnisch göttlichen Gelichters;
Sie wählen gern zum Tummelplatz
Den Schädel eines toten Dichters.

From Heinrich Heine’s Lazarus, translation by the author.
[3] See Heinrich Heine, Beitraege zur deutschen Ideologie (Ullstein: Frankfurt 1971), p 22.
[4] The most important of these are collected in a small volume titled Many Religions, One Covenant: Israel, the Church, and the World (Ignatius Press: San Francisco 1998). It is out of print, but most of the former cardinal Ratzinger’s thoughts are available on the Internet.
[5] See Shmuel Trigano, Is There A Future for French Jewry?, in Azure No 20.
[6] Ratzinger, op cit. 56.
[7] Franz Rosenzweig, “The Star of Redemption,” trans. William Hallo (University of Notre Dame Press: London 1985), p 415.
[8] Michael Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise, R Kendall Soulen, ed (William B Eerdmans; Grand Rapids, 2004), p 9.
[9] See Oliver Davies, “The theological aesthetics,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar (Cambridge 2004).
[10] http://www.gemeinschaftundbefreiung.at/aktuelles/ratzinger

[11] See George Pattison, “Art in an Age of Reflection,” in The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard (Cambridge 1998), p 84.
[12] Quoted in Mark Freer, “Von Balthasar, Mozart, and the Quest of Beauty.”
[13] For example,
Bona nox! (Good night)
Bist a rechta Ochs (You’re a real ox)
Bona notte
Liebe Lotte
Bonne nuit,
Pfui, pfui

Good night, good night
Heut müssma noch weit (We still have far to go today)
Scheiß ins Bett, daß’ kracht; (Shit in your bed until it cracks)
Schalf fei’ g’sund und (Sleep soundly and)
Reck’ den Arsch zum Mund. (Stretch your ass to your mouth).


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.