On Churches, Wagon Drivers, And Contradictions

On Churches, Wagon Drivers, And Contradictions

I think it is part of human nature that, when confronted by big, old contradictions, we try to find a way around them. We hedge, feint right and left, poke for weaknesses. If indeed the contradiction lies across our only path, we then choose to idle, convincing ourselves that where we stand is where we truly want to be. Finally, when inner or outer force compels us forward, we turn for the last line of defense to our imaginations, which let us pretend contradiction does not exist, which is an elegant, clean solution to a messy problem that deposits us on a firm moral high ground (also imaginary) where we may live out our lives pleasantly repeating, “All is one, all is one.” Or, if our imagination is not so strong as to make all equal while remaining on the high ground, we may at least imagine that we have the strength to one day make it so, and devote all our lives to leveling mountains and valleys…

But facing a contradiction, despite the pain and the mess, is how we, collectively, figure stuff out. Not by avoiding it or attempting to uproot it but by engaging it in its structure do we sharpen our minds. The alternatives are either to dull them through endless, desperate hammering or to discard them in favor of our dreams, as castles in the sky need not these mundane tools for their construction.

Here’s an interesting contradictory structure:

(i) A teacher and Chassid I profoundly respect argued at length that the Vatican City is far, far worse than Las Vegas, as far as concealments of G-d go.
(ii) The same teacher on a different occasion shared with us a well-known fact about the great Baal Shem Tov — that the sage wouldn’t ride with a non-Jewish wagon driver who did not cross himself when his wagon passed a church.

At first glance, it seems like we’re saying Christianity is both bad and good, or both desirable and undesirable. There are many ways we could manipulate these statements to resolve the contradiction. We could simply call into question the veracity of either claim or say they actually represent two different worldviews that are allowed to freely contradict. We could question whether the BeSh”T story could actually be trusted or whether he would agree with my teacher or my teacher with him; there is enough room here to easily escape this dilemma. But suppose for a moment we were convinced that (i) and (ii) are true and that they must coexist in the same worldview.

Our next method of escape is to simply avoid the question through inaction. It might help to point out that the question is academic or pedantic, and that answering it reflects moral weakness. The question of Christianity’s place in the world, as a devoted religious Jew, is largely irrelevant to day-to-day life. There are (as always) so many other more important things to deal with. People are starving somewhere, grandma needs a new pair of horseshoes, etc. So let the question stand; we don’t need to pass through it. Just don’t get in the wagon!

Except…

I don’t have a choice. I do need to move forward. Because the ride in the wagon has grown rougher of late, and its drivers are leery, and threats loom on every side. We Jews seem to draw closer to the end of our post-war pass; our defenses are collapsing. If there is some wisdom that could tell us whom to trust, we must find it, and fast, because the wagon may be entering the woods, and the sun is setting.

And so: the next solution, an ever-more-familiar one. Wherein I deny not the source or relevance of the contradiction, but its premises — that is, the shared premise of every contradiction, that things have differences that make them incompatible. This is the best solution so far because we get to say that we have respected the problem (“The Baal Shem Tov really did say it!”) and that we have not just let it stand but rather proceeded forward and dealt with it.

Like this: Our problem arises from the BeSh”T’s judgment of a man based on his religious beliefs, or our teacher’s devotion to the view that Christianity (Catholicism specifically) has a nature or purpose that render it evil in our eyes. Neither of these need compel us, if we are brave enough to stand by our own judgment rather than theirs and say that a man should be judged by his individual tolerance alone and/or that Christianity and Judaism, like all religions, have the same goals and get at the same Truth. The mistake of my teacher and the holy BeSh”T lies not in any obvious disagreement of theirs but in their shared misunderstanding of the situation. And indeed, once we have discovered their mistake it’s easy to return to their statements and extricate them from error. My teacher was merely operating within a religious framework that, though sectarian, was a necessary precursor to our modern universal enlightenment. The BeSh”T certainly judged men only by their tolerance for others, but the best external means of ascertaining that tolerance was, in his benighted times, through signs of religious devotion. Presto! Other than the small matter of rendering them wrong and (appearing to be) relatively ignorant, we have rescued them from their contradiction through the power of imagination, which can conceive of a world where there are no contradictions. And, once it is imagined, we must make it so…

But, assuming I insisted on taking the BeSh”T and my teacher at face value, stubbornly focusing on the structures of (i) and (ii) as they present themselves, the definitions of all their terms intact. What if I insisted on engaging and fighting this contradiction that I may depart its straits with some wisdom for the non-imaginary riotous road?

Here is the problem, as I see it:

(i) is basically an argument that the church is a very old and powerful institution of idol worship and historic Jew hatred, which means it stands athwart the Jewish mission of revealing the one true G-d in this world. Of the few things that could definitely be declared unJewish, idol worship tops the list. On the other hand, (ii) seems to say that this very heresy is in some sense better than the alternative; that the Baal Shem Tov preferred a driver who preferred the Sistine Chapel to the Vegas strip.

We may be tempted to distinguish between (i) and (ii) by the difference between the collective and the individual — that is, the church is bad, but an individual Christian is good, or at least preferable to a non-religious person. But how precisely are we to measure this distinction? At what point does the net-positive of a group of individuals worshipping their non-True G-d become a cumulative negative? Conversely, how do the teachings of the institution, which allow for violence and falsehood, somehow become the opposite in the mind of a wagon driver?

Perhaps we can resolve it like this:

Judaism views the societal relationship with G-d at two fundamentally different levels. There is the connection with G-d that is viewed as an integral contributor to societal cohesion, that faith in G-d that is one of the Noahide Laws, Judaism’s recipe for a successful civilization. Then there is the relationship with G-d that has nothing to do with worldly purposes and everything to do with the divine, the purpose of creation, the G-dly mission that the knowledge of Him should fill the world and he be known even in the lowest place.

Christianity, as a not-quite-monotheistic faith, is at odds with this second goal. While base human nature is neutral on the G-d question, my teacher thought that the church actively spreads misinformation and has historically been at cross-purposes with the Jews.

However, just because we don’t think Christianity is True, we do not begrudge it to its adherents. On the contrary, as the holy BeSh”T would tell you, in the matter of civilization and order in the world, Christianity has been a force for great good.

So: if we are looking, as Jews, for those who would truly aid us in our G-dly mission, Christianity is institutionally disqualified and we would have better luck searching in Vegas, where we might at least find someone with the wrong actions but the right ideas and goals. If, however, we seek not allies but merely for civilized men who are guaranteed not to ruthlessly murder us in their wagon, the Vatican is a better bet than Reno or Amsterdam, for its men are bound by rules, and even though they are in their details the wrong rules, they at least bind a man to manhood, and prevent his descent into foulest savagery.

But this is, obviously, only one of many possible explanations. Perhaps a lack of Christian devotion was somehow much more sinister in the Baal Shem Tov’s time than today. Perhaps religious Jews have bad judgment. Perhaps what divides us all is illusory. Perhaps the whole question doesn’t matter. Perhaps my memory is faulty. Perhaps the words mean other things. Perhaps crosses are not Christian. Perhaps the question will be made moot by driverless cars. Perhaps…

1 Comment

  • Jeremy m

    June 17, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    Sounds like you read that imagination principle. Or didn’t have to…