As this is the first symposium under my editorship in this section on pastoral theology, a few words of context might be needed. There is a sense in which the “book review” as a form of academic discourse is what Syndicate Theology is trying to perform and, also, revise. There are popular reviews of intellectual letters that already do this in various ways, but this publication’s particular aim, as I understand it, is to host and sustain a style in the review of academic works of theology that is attentive to the discursive form that builds a “space.” This question of spatial form is, in many respects, a pastoral question, contained and presented in the construction of everything from the digital site to the printed copies of the work itself. In this way, the aesthetics of the review—i.e., the ways an academic space can be curated and constructed—is what “pastoral” adds to “theology.” In other words, in these my first words on this exciting new venture, I would like to emphasize the pedagogical aspects of Syndicate, couched within the spacial aesthetics of form, as the sine qua non of this section on pastoral theology. Pastoral theology must be attentive to the room, the chairs, the hospitality, and the folks.
I mention pedagogy because, introductory purposes aside, I cannot imagine a text more suited to a theo-pedagogical task than Paul Hinlicky’s. The book is a lesson of the best sort, a lesson more about time than space. It is conceived as what appears to be a provocative thought experiment, worthy in itself, but, as we will see, the book is much more than that. Grounded in carefully substantiated and historically attuned descriptions, Hinlicky renders out the imperative implied in the subtitle: Christian theology must learn (which of course includes learning how to learn and unlearn) from Auschwitz. The rationale for this imperative is clear in the introduction where Hinlicky asserts, “in writing this book I assume that Christian theology can and must still learn from experience” (11). In other words, the premise is that the rise of Nazism is part of the human experience, and, therefore, it follows to conclude that Christian theology can and must learn from it.
The next theme brings us to the main implication of the title: the “before” of Before Auschwitz. Hinlicky not only demands that Christian theology learn from the Shoah. He also teaches on what—indeed, on when—one ought to learn about it, methodologically speaking. Hinlicky uses the language of time, “before,” to critique what he calls the “retrospective fallacy,” which he addresses most directly in the third chapter. This fallacy is similar in content and spirit to psychologism, the fallacy critiqued by Frege, James, and Husserl: while the retrospective fallacy is in one sense a historical mistake, it also makes a philosophical category mistake in assuming a false structure of consciousness and intentionality. This critique of critical approaches in theology and elsewhere has wide-ranging applications; especially to something as universally objectionable as Nazism. Hinlicky calls Christian Theology beyond the “post” critical assessment of itself “after” Hitler by going behind Nazism in depth, “before.” Hinlicky calls for a more honest yet more risky learning, with a methodological precision that casts out ideology and leaves us to consider the ontology of history, memory, and counter-memory “as if” we could do it from beginning to end.
The reviewers in this symposium gather a wealth of knowledge of, and exegesis on, Hinlicky’s claims and insights; all the reviewers offer a harmonious expository account of the book. Knut Alfsvåg points to the political theology in Hinlicky’s account, noting especially his attention to Jewish-Christian relations. Lubomir Batka also considers the latter, and muses towards Hinlicky’s next book, rooted in the idea of a “Beloved Community,” speculating on how Before Auschwitz might affect the future. Nikolai Kohler refers to the book as a personal text, built upon autobiographical concerns, paying attention to the ways Hinlicky’s book was used in his classroom, to great effect. Myles Werntz confronts the difficult questions of Christian culpability and the looming absence of the answer of repentance in this book.
As a reader of the book, I found myself in dialogue with a uniquely Lutheran, Reformist conversation that forced me to withhold many of my decidedly Roman Catholic judgments and even use Google more times than I’d like to admit. I cheered during the chapter that devastated all ideas that Nietzsche was himself guilty of Nazism, an argument with profound symmetries to the larger one about Nazism proper. The most compelling aspect of the book for me was that it performs a convincing case for the public and political significance of a chastened but bold Christocentric theology. By forcing Christian theology to consider itself before, through, and eventually after Auschwitz, Hinlicky does not make sense of the unthinkable through the lens of theology. Instead, he challenges the very idea of the Shoah as being entirely unthinkable and out of grasp, through carefully contextualized historical and theological investigations, with very real and sober implications—most of all, that the only way to prevent this in the future will be to face it as it is, by imagining what it was.
This is a very different response than the one Zizek offers in God in Pain where claims,
Therein lies the theological significance of the Shoah: although it is usually conceived as the ultimate challenge to theology (if there is a God and if he is good, how could he have allowed such a horror to take place?), it is at the same time only theology that can provide the frame enabling us to somehow approach the scope of the catastrophe—the fiasco of God is still the fiasco of God.1
Hinlicky’s God is not a fiasco nor does this God reduce human experience to a knot of chaos; but the tension of the great tragic event of the twentieth century does take for granted the historical assumptions of the Reformation itself. Hinlicky’s book is a magnificent treatment of the former, but remains unclear to me in how it might address the latter. Nonetheless, as Kohler notes and as the appendix shows, the matter at hand is not only theology but also a question of the real threats of Bolshevik, Facist, and Hitlerist philosophies reemerging in Europe and the role theology might play in opposing them from an internal position of a non post facto critique.
This is a lesson we must all pay attention to and learn from. I look forward to the conversation.
Slovoj Žižek, God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse (New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 2012), 158.↩