World War II as a Theological Turning Point
Real understanding is not a matter of agreement or acquiescence, but a quest for a patient and appreciative relationship that can persist despite disagreement.
+ Amore & Hussain, 2015, p. 27.
My partner, who was attending as a course exercise, invited me to a performance at The Registry Theatre in Kitchener. Blue Bird (Blue Bird Theatre Collective, 2016), a play of two male actors, was a piece that explored a multitude of issues within, without, and between two central male characters. They had shared childhood together and publicly acknowledged each other as brothers until a significant event, constructed by time and human traumas, became too salient.
Their very appearances, one cast as Black and the other as White (Blue Bird Theatre Collective, 2016), hinted to me that ethnicity and cultural worldviews were at stake, and I resigned myself to another narrative of a racial relations rhetoric that exhausts my patience. Yet the play went deeper, exploring a spirit of brotherhood weakened and strengthened by the dual notions of diversity in unity and unity in diversity. The fraternal bond was, for me, the real heart of the story, tied by the children’s encounter with a blue bird.
The tale spinning enchanted my senses; certainly it was difficult at some scenes to deal with triggering of traumatic emotional memories. A particular dialogue activated my conditioned survival instincts enough to clutch at my partner, unable to breathe or utter anything beyond brief moans of grief, terror, and pain – I was well on my way to employing dissociative behaviour to cope if he had not been as attuned as he is.
After a decision of dying to a desired sense of self in order to survive (Blue Bird Theatre Collective, 2016), the White male character made a motion that I interpreted as picking up a rock – another evident symbol throughout the entire story – and smashed his reflection in a mirror with a cry of despair. Although there was no actual mirror, my perception filled in the environment and features of the scenery. I perceived, not saw, the shattering of glass in a most horrible, violent fashion, the shards then falling to the ground where the character would now be forcefully aware for every literal and figurative step he would take. In the moment I was witnessing myself in that awful, pivotal turning point. It would be an experience that surfaced as I birthed a topic for this essay.
In history, there is an awful, pivotal turning point that names this haunting memory. Kristallnacht, “an event that occurred in pre-WWII Nazi Germany” (A. C. Labre, personal communication, December 3, 2016), can be translated as “the Night of Broken Glass” (Murray, 2015, p. 137). As a campaign mandated under the directive of Adolf Hitler to counter a rebellious act, “on the night of 9 November a series of riots took place … Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed by storm troopers and ordinary German citizens” (p. 137). The entirety of the Holocaust is described as “the most shattering” (p. 136) in the written historical record of Jews. The imagery of the shattered glass remains a potent and poignant cross-cultural symbol as evidenced by this usage decades after the event took place. In Kitchener, formerly known as the Town of Berlin, the citywide celebration of Oktoberfest honours Kristallnacht as well (M. Philip, personal communication, December 8, 2016).
World War II (WWII) had, and continues to have, a powerful impact on theology. Its effects resound through history, politics, reflection, and contributed to the labour pains of birthing the postmodern age.
History as Narrative
These effects of WWII that I named are not limited to the shared global suffering after the fresh wounds of warfare; the shockwaves extend in many directions of time. It would be difficult to pin down a specific moment in a standardized history where the cries for justice began to outline a pathway to Kristallnacht. Since history is a construction, and standardization under the tensions of universality and particularity can be questioned by postmodernist relativism, my thoughts are briefly sketched under the pretext of this limited essay and no current self-identification as Christian or Jewish.
The earliest written reference in that I had awareness of was the proposal that the Gospel of John is a record of anti-Semitic thought in Christianity (Gager, 1983). Scholars have taken differing views of this argument, including defending the narrative by attributing anti-Semitism to be rooted in Paganism – Greco-Roman cultural worldviews in particular have been subject to vilification. In opposition, there are efforts that contend for the proposal as a basis for subsequent violence towards Jewish peoples. Of particular interest for myself is Gager’s (1983) observation that “the distinction between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism is … [a] distinction [that] became a standard apologetic device” (p. 18). I will return to this, as it is of etymological interest.
“Christ killers” is a term I encounter frequently in Jewish-Christian ideological warfare. Cohen (2007) summarizes his description of the tension between Judaism and Christianity as beginning with an ignorance-intention conflict of medieval interpretations in the canonical New Testament. Augustine of Hippo is noted as “the most influential voice in the Christian theology of medieval Europe” (p. 75) with particular emphasis on Augustine’s insistence that Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death despite the action carried out by a Roman authority. Anselm’s grip on ignorance as the better justification and Alfonsi’s reflections of his conversion process are later praised as exemplary works attributed to countering the Augustinian influence.
With Aquinas’ breakthrough with the concept of voluntary ignorance (Cohen, 2007), the lines between ignorance and intention blurred, and voluntary ignorance was conceptualized as a worse grievance than the two oppositional explanations for the ascribed guilt of Jews. In literature, a reading of Shakespeare (n.d.) oftentimes lends itself to a portrayal of anti-Semitism in Elizabethan times (K. Tejai, personal communication, 2002). Cohen (2007) supports the premise of interpretative consequences with a reference to Gregory of Tours’ recording of a popularized story of a Jewish boy partaking of the Eucharist and facing punishment, saved by a Christianized figure of a Jewish adolescent – Mary. Innocent III was illustrated as an example of the practice of scapegoating Jews to explain perceived Christian suffering. Such sentiments would repeat throughout the ages, aptly in Nazi monologue that sentenced Jews for Germany’s collective struggles (Murray, 2015).
Politics – a Paradigm Hidden in Plain Sight
Earlier in this essay, I mentioned a distinction between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism being upheld as a defensive measure (Gager, 1983). I believe it is a topic to be explored, however once again I can only outline it here according to my preferred viewpoint. Semitism has an etymological root in the linguistic term Semitic (Murray, 2015), a taxonomic term used to categorize a prominent subgroup of Afro-Asiatic languages. Notable languages under this label include Akkadian, Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Phoenician. Another denotation is based on race, a descriptor for the peoples associated with these forms of communication. In the narrative of history, Semitic became synonymous for Jewish.
In this vein, Aryanism is also based on a cultural change in what was originally a linguistic term (Grobman, 1990; Murray, 2015). Aryan originates from a Sanskrit word, and the term eventually became a myth developed by scholars of the 19th century and perpetuated by Hitler in the Nazi ideology based on racism to justify their oppression towards Jews. Despite heavy criticism from contemporary scholarship, the theory of an invading Indo-European people replacing indigenous Indian peoples still appeals to romantic not only within the supposition of European White supremacy values (K. Tejai, personal communication, July 2016), but also cries of appropriation and assertions that India has more convincing claims to defined truths (Bharatjohnson, 2011; Tejai, 2016b). Such talks use the observation of similarities between Sanskrit and European languages as a primary weapon (Bharatjohnson, 2011). In the case of Hitler’s framework as a continuation of racist ideology and eugenics (Grobman, 1990), Aryan and Semitic transformed into terms whose connotations would be based in conflict dualism. Aryan represented purity and Semitic was impurity (Murray, 2015). Hitler’s autobiographical account fuelled his propaganda and spurred on the rush towards Kristallnacht.
Theology, built by time and contextual issues (Graham, Walton, & Ward, 2005), was used throughout the construction of history to challenge and perpetuate encapsulated thoughts for better or for worse, and that too is a matter of perception. It is unclear if hindsight can break this cycle (Tejai, 2016d). Despite the record of the abuse of theology, there are noteworthy persons and acts scattered throughout, and it is important to remember that Christians were instrumental in resisting such plans even during the Holocaust. As mentioned earlier with Cohen (2007), the defense of Jews occurred alongside the efforts to justify abuse and oppression.
In the immediate sphere of reference for WWII, theologians, activists, and advocates resisted Nazism (Graham, Walton, & Ward, 2005). One can look at and examine individuals such as Bonhoeffer, Barth, and Benjamin (M. Philip, personal communication, December 8, 2016), and may we not forget the courage of laity who sheltered Jews despite threats to their livelihood. Their rights to survive and live that had been promoted by the same government body that became their oppressors in turn. Such bravery is hardly limited to German Christians; there are narratives of non-Christians and non-Germans who risked safety as well.
Despite a longstanding theological debate presumably stemming from the recording of the New Testament (Cohen, 2007; Gager, 1983), the shattering described for Jews (Murray, 2015) triggered worldwide responses to religion and epistemology. After the turning point of WWII, world history would soon witness the birth of postmodernism.
Meta-epistemology as an Epistemological Paradigm
With relativism returning in the form of quantum physics, it is important to note a specific cultural observation. The modern era based in positivism upheld a hierarchy of the sciences: Formal, natural, and social (K. Tejai, personal communication, September 8, 2016). Logic was granted the highest respectability, and social sciences such as economics, sociology, history, politics, etc., were at the lowest rank. My statement of intent for graduate studies discussed my personal views of a trend within psychology to emulate physics as the ultimate empirical – therefore most desirable for positivists in this line of thought – standard. It has been cause for fierce debates between myself as an arts-based psychology student and another individual as a science-based psychology student (Tejai, 2016a). Our conflicting perspectives could be characterized as the cyclical pattern of revolution, and our friendship ended tragically for us both.
The traumas endured on a global scale sparked peace dialogues, and special attention must be addressed to the United Nations. As the successor to the League of Nations, the United Nations came under myriad attacks from many lenses including theological. I can recall my mother reading and viewing all she could obtain on how globalization and the United Nations heralded the reign of the Antichrist and the New World Order, adding more pressure on to her proselytizing efforts. On an arguably more positive note, contributions such as liberation (Gutiérrez, 2005), translations of established theological norms to be relevant for populations with shared experience (Baldridge, 1989; Cone, 1998), applications of feminist theory to theology (Arora & Elawar, 2015), bring a wealth of other perceptions to the table.
Yet the promising ideal of incorporating diversity has its opponents as well. The cultural wars continue to rage regarding colonialism and neo-colonialism, religious freedom including freedom from religion (Dueck, 2011), cultural appropriation, inculturation versus acculturation, internal criticism (Keller, 2012), and outrage and discrimination for and against syncretism.
The heat regarding syncretism was articulated by the cases of Chung and Beckford (Graham, Walton, & Ward, 2005). Both of these theologians came under fire from multiple sides for their method and practices to do their forms of theological reflection in a common understanding for specific populations. Similarities could be drawn between this dyad and the work of Gutiérrez (2005) in their theological approaches and their contextualization of accepted theology to address the needs of the peoples they worked with. While Gutiérrez’s work is considerably more favourable as evidenced by the supportive work of the Roman Catholic Church broadcasted in the media, Chung lamented the negative reaction to her presentation with these disheartening words (as cited in Graham, Walton, & Ward, 2005):
They talk as if Christian identity is an unchangeable property which they own. Any radical break … has been considered suspicious by Western church leaders. Traditional Western theologians seem to say to us that they have the copyright on Christianity (p. 222).
Alongside Chung, Beckford posited “the test for authenticity for … theology will be its ability to empower and affirm … identity” (Graham, Walton, & Ward, 2005, p. 222).
Postmodernism carries a specifically broad challenge to established theology across the ages in the form of defining the precision of local versus global and universal versus particular (Graham, Walton, & Ward, 2005). Proposals have been introduced in the forms of eco-theology (Bock, 2013) and as mentioned previously, criticism from within (Barton, 2009; Keller, 2012) that calls for reappraisal of belief norms. From the various reading selections for this class’ engagement in theological reflection, it appears that my peers and I are being given a maelstrom of diverse theologies to grapple with our understanding of our relationship with this Other called God. With the course approaching a close, the challenge of postmodernism as detailed above (Graham, Walton, & Ward, 2005) seems to beckon. However, in the spirit of design, all may choose as they will, or choose not to choose.
Revolution as Cyclical
Ethics and law are conceptually separate (Corey, Corey, Corey, & Callanan, 2015), though tied by the string of justice. In a humorous manner, my partner and I related this observation to the perception that I was stealing his mother’s newspaper. Ethically, I did wrong since the newspaper was to be delivered to his mother. She was the intended recipient established by myself. Legally, I had done no wrong since the newspaper was still in my care and possession, and had not yet passed into her ownership. She also did not know she was to receive the newspaper that night. While this is not the best example, for him and I it sketched the sometimes-subtle distinction between ethics and law. As with any sketch, it is merely the beginning of a draft and hardly worth the same objective value as a completed work of art.
In a more practical example, there is a call for culturally sensitive counsellors (Corey, Corey, Corey, & Callanan, 2015). Especially in the spotlight of cultural wars, it is sensible for therapists to retain a sense of human dignity if done responsibly by all parties involved in the therapeutic alliance. I stress that all parties must respect human dignity for the therapeutic alliance to hold on to its efficacy. From my own informal work, the dissolution of Quadrifolium reinforces this poignant conviction.
Quadrifolium (Q4) was the agreed upon moniker for a group of four individuals, myself included, intended to establish friendly bonds as we awaited the founding of a more formalized trading card game (TCG) community in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. Our interactions embraced more than TCGs over time, we began to explore intercultural and intracultural interaction. It would prove a formidable test of my diplomatic faculties, ability to be critical of all members along with myself, and how I would deal with multiple traumas and triggers repeatedly over months. To summarize, one member chose to aggressively attack another – my partner – in the name of cultural insensitivity, oppression by individualism, and him embodying many physical aspects that were countered by her physicality. The two had been close until to her expressed astonishment, I broke from a multifaceted abusive relationship and discovered my greatest sense of safety and security across my lifetime in him.
I refuse to speculate and extrapolate in an academic paper what the motivations for her sudden change in demeanour were, yet the consequences immediately came at me like the warning of a tsunami while one is relaxing on a beach. Instead of my insistence that she confront the root of the conflict between herself and my partner, she threatened my ability to trust fellow human beings – something I am heavily invested into at the wake of repeated chronic traumatic experiences.
The breaking of Q4 echoes the themes of this essay for me. Most salient would be my expression of cultural warfare, yet this is strongly correlated with the theological turning point of WWII. It is a live performance like Blue Bird (Blue Bird Theatre Collective, 2016) in the sense that the play was organized by scripting improvisation. Freedom of expression was structured to present to a future audience. Interaction without restriction became regulated and given frameworks to lend the narrative a plot that could be digested and explored on individual and collective levels. Such a process was outlined with a sketch mindset in throughout this essay.
Now we must ask, where could we go from here?
A Call from Reflexivity
WWII is a recognized turning point from the standpoint of documented world history. It is both a culmination and birth of thinking that shaped the globe throughout time in narrative. It also represents a pivotal moment in contextualized theology with impacts upon postmodernity, reflection, politics, and history. A number of theologians, in the aftermath of wartime, are moving from contemplation into the enacting of a new field that promises its adherents to break new ground in the conversations between church, society, and academia.
With a shift from poiesis to praxis (Graham, Walton, & Ward, 2005), and searching for a balance and integration of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, the emerging field of interreligious studies is being showcased as a step along a path to healing the world from the aftereffects of global traumas post-WWII (K. Tejai, personal communication, December 5, 2016). As a field that employs an open inter-based approach rather than trans-based, my preliminary exposure to such thinking in labour pains has me feel a breath of relief. The scholarly battle between the absolutism of the modern era and the relativism of the postmodern era may be a viable integrated compromise if the perceived tenets of the model can be permitted to serve as a framework for applications.
It is my hope that this field continues to explore within the setting of reflexivity, as envisioned by a mirror example I am often compelled to give: “Reflection: Acknowledging my image in the mirror. Refraction: How another acknowledges my image. Reflexivity: I am part of the mirror -> I am in the mirror … Meta-reflexivity: I am the mirror” (Tejai, 2016c). May this mirror survive and live amongst the shattered glass.
—December 10th, 2016.
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