THE SCANDAL OF HOPE

Randi Rashkover

It was Immanuel Kant who in his Critique of Pure Reason posed the question, “what may I hope?”1 A great optimist, Kant circumscribed hope by reason’s limits. Such limits however have proved utopian and tragic at once for long after Kant we have awakened from the dream of reason and become painfully aware of the excess of evil. Gone then with Kant’s dream is the history of progress and the progress of history that Kant’s romantic successors professed. Can we still speak of the future?

In Judaism, notions of futurity both sobering and promising, emerge first in the writings of the classical prophets. Isaiah says, “behold the Lord lays the earth waste, devastates it, distorts its surface and scatters its inhabitants. . . the new wine mourns . . . desolation is left in the city and the gate is battered to ruins. For thus it will be in the midst of the earth among the peoples . . .” (Isaiah 24:1-13 ) It is tempting to read Isaiah through the lens of Deuteronomy, “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you listen to the commandments of the Lord your God, which I am commanding you today: and the curse, if you do not listen to the commandments of the Lord your God but turn aside from the way which I am commanding you today. . . .”  (Deuteronomy 11: 26-27) Commonly, prophetic expectations of the future are interpreted as expressions of a covenantal theology of reward and punishment. Obedience to the law results in a future of covenantal intimacy and disobedience results in a future of punishment. But how could this be? The history of the Jews is nothing if not an assault on this rendering of Sinaitic history as covenantal calculation. Events and texts attest to this affront. “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him: But I will argue my ways before Him.” (Job 13:15) “If you Israel do not have merit, I shall perform [the salvation] for My own sake; for as long as you are in trouble, I am with you, as it says: ‘I am with him [Israel] in trouble.” (Exodus Rabbah 30:24 ) No running commentary on the fall-out from disobedience, the rabbinic tradition and the history of the Jewish people replaces the calculus of punishment with the scandal of hope.

Postmodern Jewish thought from Rosenzweig to Levinas and beyond has continued this trajectory of hope through retrievals of the textual tradition. Not infrequently, this return to the future has been called utopian. Mourning becomes the law,2 Gillian Rose argued and to do otherwise—to permit one’s mourning to extend into a hope for the future is to forsake the reality of the political and the legal in the name of an ethics beyond reason, beyond the city and its work of mediation. To this charge Judaism may reply with a close reading of Exodus 19:4-5. “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples” (Exodus 19: 4-5) Two verses alone revolutionize the character and meaning of human history. In the past God has redeemed his people. Grace precedes and encircles law. Jews embrace the law not out of fear and not out of calculation for reward but as an expression of returned love, as a testimony to a prior act of divine grace. As covenantal however, this grace is promise—it is an act in the past that promises its duration in the eternal future of this people. God has borne them on eagles wings and will carry them always for “it is not because of your righteousness . . .” (Deuteronomy 9:6) “it is because He loved your fathers, therefore He chose their descendants after them. And he Personally brought you from Egypt by His great power.” (Deuteronomy 5:37) The redemption of the past heralds, promises and testifies to the redemption of the future. The Jewish people and the Jewish texts bear the imprint of this grace as it is scripted into their stories and the tradition’s perseverance through time. The scandal of hope is born of the delicate balance between grace and law—a delicate balance that mediates past love, present responsibility and future hope.

But of course this nexus between grace and law that permits a transfiguration of history and hope is not unique to Judaism. If Sinai’s unique juxtaposition of grace and law rebirths Judaism out of its mourning, it is the same nexus between grace and law that secures Christianity against utopianism and permits it to inscribe its future hope into its present reality through sacramental life. More than a testimony to a world that comes, sacramental life responsibly discerns the present by embodying the incarnate promise of Christ into the community of those who work to mend the world. What fills the time between what Mark calls “the time fulfilled” as distinct from the “Kingdom of God at hand” (Mark 1:15) is the work of the Holy Spirit—a work that undoes the divide between the sacred and the profane, the present and the future —the city of man and the city of God. If as Graham Ward says, “pneumatology is the structure of eschatological hope,” it is pneumatology as “the eternal significance of God who from out of His processio extends a continual missio toward the world . . .”3

Post-modernity signals post-utopianism and calls for new theologies of history and a new discourse of the future. To what extent do the enactments of Christian and Jewish life constitute a radical re-orientation toward the future? What is the meaning of messianism and its relation to the history of the nations and their culture? How does the eschatological spirit of Judaism and Christianity perform in relation to the secular world? How should it? The essays in this issue participate in this important and developing conversation.

Notes

1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (St.Martin’s Press, NY), 1965,  p. 635.  
2. Gillian Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge), 1997.  
3. Graham Ward, “Questioning God” in Questioning God, ed. John Caputo, Mark Dooley and Micahel Scanlon (Indiana University Press, Bloomington), 2001, p.283.

 

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Source: Cross Currents, Winter 2004, Vol. 53,  No 4.