Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
God Interrupted

God Interrupted: Heresy and the European Imagination between the World Wars

Benjamin Lazier
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 270
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    God Interrupted
    Book Description:

    Could the best thing about religion be the heresies it spawns? Leading intellectuals in interwar Europe thought so. They believed that they lived in a world made derelict by God's absence and the interruption of his call. In response, they helped resurrect gnosticism and pantheism, the two most potent challenges to the monotheistic tradition. InGod Interrupted, Benjamin Lazier tracks the ensuing debates about the divine across confessions and disciplines. He also traces the surprising afterlives of these debates in postwar arguments about the environment, neoconservative politics, and heretical forms of Jewish identity. In lively, elegant prose, the book reorients the intellectual history of the era.

    God Interruptedalso provides novel accounts of three German-Jewish thinkers whose ideas, seminal to fields typically regarded as wildly unrelated, had common origins in debates about heresy between the wars. Hans Jonas developed a philosophy of biology that inspired European Greens and bioethicists the world over. Leo Strauss became one of the most important and controversial political theorists of the twentieth century. Gershom Scholem, the eminent scholar of religion, radically recast what it means to be a Jew. Together they help us see how talk about God was adapted for talk about nature, politics, technology, and art. They alert us to the abiding salience of the divine to Europeans between the wars and beyond--even among those for whom God was long missing or dead.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3765-6
    Subjects: Religion, Philosophy, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    “Nothing will happen to you if you don’t eat pork,” opined Shimon Peres, at the time the prime minister of Israel, in 1985. Peres meant to justify his concessions to the ultra-orthodox, whose support he required to advance negotiations with Israel’s adversaries. Israelis could do without swine, he reasoned, “but things will be very bad if we don’t renew the peace process.”¹ Peres was right about peace, but he was wrong about pig. He was wrong, that is, to think that Israel’s geopolitics had nothing to do with how Israelis defined themselves as Jews. To concede to the ultraorthodox on...

  5. [PART ONE: Introduction]
    (pp. 19-26)

    In 1984, about a decade before his own murder, the Romanian scholar of religion Ioan Culianu complained of a more widespread, if decidedly less grisly form of assault.¹ The gnostics had “taken hold of the whole world,” he declared, “and we were not aware of it. It is a mixed feeling of anxiety and admiration, since I cannot refrain myself from thinking that these alien body-snatchers have done a remarkable job indeed.” Culianu referred here to the proliferation of meanings associated with the term, which had outstripped polysemy and had attained the right to a more dubious designation: hypersemy, a...

  6. CHAPTER ONE The Gnostic Return
    (pp. 27-36)

    By most accounts, gnosticism—as a related set of phenomena if not yet as a name—had its first lasting invention in the work of the early church heresimachs, or heresy hunters. Until 1945, in fact, nearly all access to gnostic texts had come refracted through their preservation in church polemic. In that year a group of Egyptian peasants avenging a blood feud accidentally unearthed at Nag Hammadi an entire library of gnostic writings.¹ Until then, however, tracts such as theExposure and Refutation of Knowledge (Gnosis) Falsely So-Called, authored in the year 180 by Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, provided...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Romans in Weimar
    (pp. 37-48)

    In the world of the academy, one line of reasoning goes, it is better to be despised than ignored, since at the very least someone has taken notice. Sometime in 1930, such platitudes must have crossed the mind of the twenty-seven-year-old Hans Jonas. For it was then that a reviewer for theTheologische Literaturzeitung, Hugo Koch, irritably dismissed a recently published book, Jonas’s first, in its initial review.¹ The text in question, a concise study of the Pauline problem of freedom in the work of Augustine, stoked the ire of the well-regarded historian not on account of what Jonas said...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Overcoming Gnosticism
    (pp. 49-59)

    One night with darkness long since fallen, in the few years between the death of Hans Jonas in 1993 and his own in 1996, Hans Blumenberg sat at his desk to remember his friend and colleague. He ratcheted a sheet of paper into his typewriter and aligned its edges. “Philosophy is no discipline of triumphant moments,” he tapped out, “in which discoveries or inventions, or even new formulas” might suddenly be revealed to a world of conversant fellow men. “Rarely does applause thunder up for something unexpected.” In all but the most unusual of cases, “only the long overdue is...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR After Auschwitz, Earth
    (pp. 60-64)

    From the beginning, the hidden god had prompted Jonas to fascination, and even more so, to ire. In the gnostic religion, in crisis theology, and in modern natural science, God’s absence underwrote attitudes that had rid the world of value. A more profoundly un-Jewish notion of God Jonas could not imagine. “Our teaching,” he said once, “the Torah, rests on the premise and insists that we can understand God, not completely, to be sure, but something of him—his will, intentions, and even nature—because he has told us.” Refracted, perhaps, but not entirely “veiled in dark mystery,” revelation had...

  10. [PART TWO: Introduction]
    (pp. 65-72)

    In 1932, we now know, Europe stepped fatefully in the direction of apocalypse. But not even apocalypse could put down a good party. Despite the rise of fascism, the crises of democratic politics, the failures of German constitutionalism—despite all this, Europe did have something to celebrate in 1932, an anniversary of sorts. In 1932, enthusiasts from across the continent assembled in The Hague to honor a man whose thought flashed for many as a beacon in a sea of impending darkness. In 1932, Europe had occasion to celebrate the philosopher whose “abominable doctrines and hideous errors” had earned the...

  11. CHAPTER FIVE Pantheism Revisited
    (pp. 73-92)

    Strictly speaking, pantheism identifies God with the world. The divine does not merely reside in the architectonics of orange pulp. It does not only dwell in the bubbles of your beer, or in the flies on your face. It does not simply inhabit or infuse them. It is them. The identity of world and God helps account for the heretical character of pantheist doctrine, at least for any religion that posits a breach betweendeusandmundus, God and world. Pantheism becomes an irresistible term of opprobrium for the defenders of monotheistic orthodoxy. That virtually none of the heresies called...

  12. CHAPTER SIX The Pantheism Controversy
    (pp. 93-110)

    Toward the end of January 1970, Strauss and his close friend Jacob Klein appeared together at St. John’s College to “give accounts” accounts of the genesis of their thought, and of their philosophical differences. Strauss spoke first of the influence exerted upon him by Hermann Cohen, or Cohen’s spirit, at Marburg. “Cohen attracted me because he was a passionate philosopher and a Jew passionately devoted to Judaism.” But Cohen had since died, and his school, that of Marburg neo-Kantianism, had fallen into disrepair. “Cohen belonged definitely to the pre–World War I world.” Most characteristic of the post–World War...

  13. CHAPTER SEVEN From God to Nature
    (pp. 111-126)

    The pantheism controversy of the late eighteenth century resolved itself in several ways. One was in renewed appreciation for the category of the organism, and with it, the notion of teleology applied to the natural world. This was the achievement of Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder’s creative misreading of Spinoza’s Ethics was one of the first to give the lie to Jacobi’s dictum that Spinozism represented the dead end of unchecked, reasoned human inquiry. Herder did not throw in his lot with the apparent mechanism of Spinoza’s scheme. Nor did he share in its atheism and fatalism, estimations at any rate...

  14. CHAPTER EIGHT Natural Right and Judaism
    (pp. 127-132)

    Natural Right and Historyspeaks little of heresy and not at all of Judaism. The book opens with accounts of the twin threat to natural right doctrine, embodied on the one hand by a historicism that denies the validity of enduring standards of right, and on the other by Max Weber’s distinction between fact and value, which helped banish questions of right—even its lexicon—from the modern study of politics. It then turns to the primeval origins of natural right, which Strauss declared coeval with the discovery of nature and philosophy. From there it proceeds to discussions of its...

  15. [PART THREE: Introduction]
    (pp. 133-138)

    In the beginning, God did not create the heavens and God did not create the earth. The earth was not unformed. It was not void, and darkness did not rest upon the face of the deep. God’s spirit did not hover above the waters. God did not let there be light, God did not see that it was good, God did not divide it from the darkness. There was not evening. There was not morning. There was not one day. “In the beginning,” rather, “there was a cigar.” Adjacent to the cigar was a candelabra. Its candles burned every Sabbath...

  16. CHAPTER NINE Redemption through Sin
    (pp. 139-145)

    By the 1950s, Hans Jonas managed finally to secure what had eluded him since 1933 and what remains to this day the grail of academic life—a permanent job. After two decades of wandering, learning, and soldiering most of all, Jonas arrived at the New School for Social Research in New York. There ensued a period of intense creativity. It led him from the phenomenon of life to the imperative of responsibility, from a philosophical biology to an environmental ethics and to work in post- Holocaust thought. But Jonas had not left his gnostic friends behind. They followed him from...

  17. CHAPTER TEN Jewish Gnosticism
    (pp. 146-160)

    In 1958, Hans Jonas wondered out loud what might have become of Western civilization had the gnostic message prevailed. The formulation is symptomatic. Jonas hoped to defeat the gnostic threat but could do so only by first resurrecting it. He did well to contest the gnostic denigration of worldliness with a philosophy of the organism and an environmental ethics. He did less well to contain the proliferation of the name, and in fact contributed to the expansion of its currency. Before Jonas, gnosticism could be specified as an adaptation of Greek, Jewish, Christian, or Persian thought. After him, and against...

  18. CHAPTER ELEVEN Raising Pantheism
    (pp. 161-171)

    The question of Spinoza’s pantheism has been shot through from the very beginning by the question of its kabbalistic origins. Or at least since 1699—in that year appeared a three-hundred-page book by Johann Georg Wachter (1663-1757):Der Spinozismus im Jüdenthumb / oder / die von dem heutigen Jüdenthumb / und dessen Geheimen Kabbala vergötterte Welt / an Mose Germano sonsten Johann Peter Speeth von Augsburg / gebürtig befunden und widerleget(Spinozism in Judaism, or the World as Divinized by Contemporary Judaism and its Secret Kabbala). Wachter based his book on a lengthier collection of writings, a three-thousand-page behemoth called...

  19. CHAPTER TWELVE From Nihilism to Nothingness
    (pp. 172-190)

    In 1957, Gershom Scholem entered the second half of a life that aspired, in the tradition of Jewish lives, to 120 years. The occasion, and also the appearance of his essay “Schöpfung aus Nichts und Selbstverschränkung Gottes” (Creation from Nothing and God’s Self-Contraction), prompted a note of congratulations from his friend Leo Strauss. “Of all your publications which I know,” Strauss wrote from Chicago, “this one impressed me most.”¹

    It is curious that Strauss would say so. Scholem’s compact account of creation out of nothing in the history of monotheistic religions—and in Jewish mysticism above all—reads as does...

  20. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Scholem’s Golem
    (pp. 191-200)

    Once upon a time in a city called Rehovot there lived a powerful Jewish magus. He was known as Dr. Chaim Pekeris to his colleagues and students at the Weizmann Institute of Science. But some knew Pekeris as more than a mild-mannered professor of applied mathematics. They knew him also as a master of the dark force at the heart of all creation. Steeped in the lore of Jewish creative genius, these few referred to Professor Pekeris as “Rabbi” instead, since they recognized in him a scion of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal, of sixteenth-century Prague. Scholar and...

  21. Epilogue
    (pp. 201-204)

    This book began with a question with which I would like now to bring it to a close: “Should the emancipation and secularization of the modern age, which began with a turning-away, not necessarily from God, but from a god who was the Father of men in heaven, end with an even more fateful repudiation of an Earth who was the Mother of all living creatures under the sky?”¹

    Hannah Arendt posed this question in her bookThe Human Condition(1958). Her answers were idiosyncratic, couched in a language and conceptual architecture very much her own. But the book’s signal...

  22. Notes
    (pp. 205-244)
  23. Index
    (pp. 245-254)