Part II: The Theology of Erasmus versus Judaism

Erasmus was critical of Jews in terms of their behaviour, as we shall see in the next section, but mainly critical of them because of their beliefs, or, in this case, disbelief in Christianity. After all, Jesus exhorted his followers to have faith. Further, Erasmus had become convinced that Christianity had become overlaid with Jewish practices, with an emphasis on behaviour rather than faith and piety. In Latin, he used “Judaismus” and “Judaeus” to characterize a bad Christian. He became a leading anti-Judaizer critical of importing Jewish practices into Christianity, but was largely (largely, but not entirely) indifferent to Jews and Judaism per se except insofar as Jewish practices “infected” Christianity. For Erasmus, other than Christianity including the “Old Testament” as a key sacred text, his religion owed much more to Plato and to Epicureanism. (See Richard Popkin The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Descartes, the “Pyrrhonian Scepticism of Sextus Empiricus.”) The intellectual uncertainty of scepticism meant that a believer would have to avow Christ repeatedly.

Erasmus differed from Jews in his core theology. He located the origins of the Christian doctrine in a radical dualism of soul and body, of the spirit that informed behaviour versus habit. It is difficult to locate Paul’s thesis on the interdependence of the body and the soul, a unity of the material and the spiritual, in Erasmus. In contrast, normative Judaism, as distinct from the ultra-orthodox version which adopted an embodied version of Platonism, emphasized the indivisibility of body and soul, but without the Platonic trappings of the ultraorthodox. In the spirit of Jesus and the Gospels, where the passion narratives occupy a very significant place, Jesus taught that his death was a saving act. The path to glory lies in suffering and sacrifice. Thought, then, was a reflection on death rather than a celebration of life, for in order to be saved one had to divorce oneself from material and corporate concerns. Withdrawal from the world was not just for monks but for everyone, especially the women on whom Erasmus had such an influence.

Erasmus wrote The Praise of Folly as a critique of the failures of the powers that be in Christianity. In Jewish belief and practice, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted, there are many terms for praise: Lehodot, lehallel, leshabeach, lefa’er, leromem, lehader, levarech, le’aleh, etc. Jews, and blacks in their churches, sing halleluyah, “Praise be to God,” The Psalms is a book of poetic praise. Praise is directed outward, not as a conceit to criticize others. We praise God and we celebrate life. Jews do not escape anxiety, insecurity and stress, however, primarily by looking in, even though this was the direction Sigmund Freud took. Prayers of praise look out. And look up. Towards hope for life, not escape from its trials and tribulations.

“Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise Him in the heights. Praise Him, all His angels, praise Him, all His hosts. Praise Him, sun and moon, praise Him, all shining stars. Praise Him, highest heavens and the waters above the heavens.” (Psalm 148) And even better known: “praise Him with the harp and lyre; Praise Him with timbrel and dance, praise Him with strings and flute … Let all that breathes praise the Lord. Halleluyah!” (Psalm 150)

Don’t look down, look up. Don’t focus on looking in; look out. Look at the glory of creation. Look at the richness of one’s own life and promise. One of the ironies of the current fluffy romantic comedy, Long Shot, with Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron, is that OShea Jackson Jr., who plays Rogen’s best friend, is a Christian who insists that Seth, a Jew, look at the gifts that God has given him rather than behaving as an angry, shlubby, disaffected misfit. Pause. Breathe in slowly. Believe that you are both capable of love and can be loved. That is where freedom begins and not with the critical tearing apart of others.

The shofar sighs in shevarim and cries about a broken heart. The sounds of teruah are sobs about the memories our past follies. But tekiyah pronounces the arrival of a new day. “Sound the great shofar for our freedom.”

For Erasmus, as in Judaism, philosophy is not about logic or metaphysics, but a commitment to truth rather than illusion. In Erasmus’ eyes, Donald Trump is the precise opposite of a philosopher king. To be a philosopher is to be a Christian and not simply winning the support of supposed Christians. Those lessons will not be found in the arcane texts and doctrines of Aristotle, nor in scholastic debates that were both too contentious and too dogmatic.

Why Folly? She is inspired by the Greek sophists. But the speaker is Folly; thus, her claims can be ignored. But not her exposé, her satire of both the Christian clergy and the academicians he would encounter in Cambridge. True philosophy demands Pauline spirituality. Erasmus did not propound a set of dogmas. Contentious voices were invited to speak. After all, it is Folly who addresses the public and Folly is inherently unreliable. Hence, like Jews everywhere, at the core of belief stood human fallibility. Judaism also privileged contention. Erasmus began with the critique of others, not himself. Jews who have inherited that secular sceptical tradition in academe or journalism do the same. They are heirs of Erasmus rather than Judaism.

Judaism asserts that no one is infallible, even God. There are no saints. Humans are human, all too human. We begin with our mistakes, not the errors of others, not blaming politicians or the media or, in the case of Erasmus, other prelates. We first have to take responsibility for our own errors. Citing Rabbi Sacks again, we say,Avinu malkenu shema kolenu. Our Father, our King, hear our voice. Avinu malkenu chatanu lefanecha, Our Father, our King, we have sinned before you. We made mistakes. Help us put them right.”

Erasmus, however, was closer to Judaism on another topic – the role of language. God says and there is. God and humans are connected by language. God speaks and the leaders and prophets listen. But, for Erasmus, anyone could address God. Anyone could hear God. In both cases, speech mediates between humans and God. But speech is not perfect. Hence, the need for both translation and interpretation in both the Christianity of Erasmus and Judaism.

On the other hand, God remained beyond our understanding, exceeding both our powers of representation and the capacities of our rational faculties. This, too, is Judaic. But it not clear that Jewish thinkers would agree with Erasmus that we need not try to explicate the role of God. Nor, on the other hand, would Jews agree with him that speech necessarily reveals the soul. There is too much lying and deceit in the Torah. Further, in the interchanges between humans, it is not as if there is a free flow of comprehension from one soul to another through speech. If Erasmus is an intellectual sceptic, Jews are interpersonal ones. Speech is not only used to deceive, but truth-telling is not put on a pedestal as Erasmus; Jesus taught that he was the Truth (John 14:17). Nor is speech a gateway to eternity by committing oneself to letting Christ possess your soul. In the communication between humans and God, the intermediaries are prophets and they are fallible.

In fact, in Judaism, although there are proverbs and psalms, deeds rather than words reflect character. But must there not be a reference point where our words are compared to reality? Certainly, but then the correspondence theory of truth is about the relationship of our words to what takes place in the external world and not between one’s words and inner intentions. As Erasmus said in a rebuke of the bishops that would very much apply to Donald Trump today, “Once lying becomes acceptable, then we can have no more trust, and without trust we lose all human society.” After all, we are currently living through a similar crisis of language and truth as Erasmus depicted in his time. As he said of his fellow Christians, they have become so accustomed to lying that they no longer even know that they are lying.

How did Erasmus marry pagan writers to Christianity? For Erasmus, Christ was the mystical source of inner consolation, the Saviour of man from unrest, and the eternal centre of history. Erasmus never endorsed the contention that Christ was an Epicurean nor Epicureanism as a comprehensive system of thought. Nor did he endorse the central tenet of Epicureanism on the mortality of the human soul.  Rather, he extolled the Epicurean ideal of peace of mind.

How was that to be achieved? In contrast to Judaism, by retreat from worldly cares. By cultivation of a clear and pure moral conscience rather than just confessing one’s misdeeds to God and men. In this sense, Christ, Erasmus insisted, was an Epicurean. For the object of Christ’s teaching was how to attain a state of complete tranquility and freedom from the torments of a guilty conscience. That constituted the Epicurean ideal of ataraxia. A person had to combine compassion with a clear conscience in order to achieve tranquility.

Judaism, in contrast, extolls the external life – family, education, career and relationships. Moments of serenity are tools, not goals. Prayer is an expression of gratitude. We sing. We dance. We do so with exuberance and joy. We celebrate life. We pray, not to strive for tranquility but to revitalise ourselves.

That is the way we get in touch with our spiritual self, with our spirited self. Modeh ani lefanecha. Life is a gift. “I thank you, living and everlasting King, for giving me back my soul in mercy. Great is Your faithfulness.” I thank (not I think), therefore I am. I shall be who I shall be. Hinaini. I am here. That is the miracle.

Erasmus, by contrast, instead of celebrating who he was, tried to imitate Christ. Like Jesus, he was an educator. Christ came to bring redemption. That redemption was key to His teaching. Redemption in Christianity targeted the individual. In Judaism, ge’ulah, redemption, refers to God redeeming the people of Israel as a collectivity from their exile and from their slavish behaviour. But there is a condition. The people must atone for their sins. They need not change their character. They had to change their behaviour.

Who is Christ who provides the model for redemption? His pre-eminence, rests on the practicability and relevance of his work of atonement. Christ came to redeem others. That is the source of his social concern. If an individual is to imitate Christ, then his mission too must be to save the world one individual at a time. Jews atone and make redemption possible. There is no necessary connection between atonement and redemption. Christians are forgiven because Christ atones for them. Further, the focus is ultimately on redeeming the other rather than critiquing oneself. Thus, although Erasmus is very open to others criticizing him – in contrast to the dogmatists – he too is focused on saving others, and, by saving others, saving the Church.

As part of that redemption, Christians are exhorted not simply to welcome the stranger but to accomplish the impossible and the unreal, to not only forgive but to love one’s enemy. That is why Erasmus, who only had contempt for Jews, could contemplate forgiving Jews for their failure to accept Christ into their hearts. As it is for Jesus, so it must be for Erasmus. Only, here again he not only avoids accepting the fundamental responsibility for himself, but requires the intervention of Christ to accomplish the task of reforming others.

Just as the mission of Jesus revolved around his own person, so did the mission of Erasmus. In the Christianity of Erasmus, in the doctrine of imitatio dei, the injunction is to identify with God. However, in Judaism, the Torah’s command to be holy and walk in God’s way (Leviticus 19:2; Deuteronomy 10:12; 11:22; 26:17) does not mean that man should aspire to be God. Imitation does not entail replication. In Christianity, man may be required to undergo an apotheosis and totally absorb Jesus into their being. In Judaism, man imitates God by keeping Shabbat and by welcoming strangers (not loving enemies). Generally, God remains Other and Jews are required to glorify Him, not assimilate Him. They must be merciful as God is merciful. Jews must follow God, must walk after Him. There is no concept that to follow God, God must take over your very being.  

Erasmus was a religious and moral reformer, an advocate of peace, a satirical critic of the follies of man, a liberal and tolerant personality, and an admirer of classical letters. However, he was neither an advocate of social justice Christology as the way one imitated Christ by identifying with the hungry and the oppressed, nor a follower of the success gospel of the huge mega evangelical churches of the American south which advertised wealth as a form of divine anointment. Instead, he followed Jesus as an epistemological Christian who expected intellectual involvement from his followers as when he attempted to humiliate Pharisees by demonstrating their ignorance of scripture and the meaning of its commands. The scribes and Pharisees criticized his disciples’ for plucking ears of corn on the sabbath. Jesus reminded them that David, a hero of Erasmus, did the same. (Mark 2:23-27) For Erasmus, mindblindness and soul blindness were equated. Political bondage results which, in turn, indicates bondage of the soul (John 8:31-36).

To be continued


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