Sunday, January 29, 2023

Jacob Taubes: Liberalism and the Messiah

Jacob Taubes (1923-1987) was a German Jewish philsopher, theologian, trouble-maker, womanizer, befriender of imprisoned Nazis, betrayer of his friends' confidences, expert on sin in both the theological and personal senses, and general wrecker of mayhem both in thought and deed. He is someone I had encountered at the margins of other people's lives (he was a mentor to Susan Sontag and a frequent interlocutor of Gersham Scholem and Leo Strauss) but never knew much about until today. A big new biography has been published, inspriring several interesting reviews. One thing about Taubes is that while he was brilliant in conversation or lecture he was too lazy to publish much scholarship. Instead he became influential mainly by attacking things published by his peers.

Taubes thought the Nazis were right about one thing: that Liberalism is too weak, empty, and self-contradictory to supply either a philosophy of life or a workable system of government. A Jew whose politics were on the far left, he often agreed with critiques of liberalism made by antisemites on the far right. He sometimes called himself a Maoist and praised the nihilistic protetsts of 1968, although he suggested they stop short of burning libraries. He wanted a politics that was forceful, that really changed the world, and that was grounded on absolute philosophical principles, not just people in suits arguing about spending bills.

What I wanted to write about today was Taubes' insistence that Jewish liberals are not really Jews. To be Jewish, said Taubes, means to look forward to the coming of the Messiah. Interestingly he took his ideas about what the coming of the Messiah would mean from the apostle Paul, who described Jesus banishing the evil powers that had been governing this world. The clearest statement of Taubes' thought on this matter comes, according to the new biography, from a series of lectures he gave in 1987:

These lectures were, in many ways, given under questionable auspices. Taubes had been invited to speak on the apocalypse, his area of expertise, for a conference on the theme “Time is Pressing.” He began by informing his audience that time was indeed “pressing, for me, because of an incurable disease.” Given that this would be his last chance to speak to an audience, he would, therefore, talk not so much about the apocalypse as about the Messiah, as understood by a thinker whom, Taubes insisted, exemplified Jewish messianism: Paul of Tarsus. Taubes acknowledged both the presumption of “carrying water to the river” by telling a Christian audience about Paul, the most important Christian figure after Jesus, and the unusualness of claiming Paul as a Jew. He raised the stakes still further by adding that he had been, as it were, commissioned to give these lectures by Carl Schmitt, the infamous Nazi jurist, legal theorist, and Catholic political theologian. . . .

This was not to be a scholarly exercise, but an existential confrontation with the question of Messiah—and of his enemies. The latter, Taubes argued, are those who seek to “hold back” the end of the present world, who believe that it can get along for itself without a “living God” who appears unpredictably into history and into our lives. He calls these people, with contempt, “liberals.” Paul, he argued, was “more Jewish than all the liberal or reformed rabbis” who prayed only half-heartedly for Messiah.

Indeed, Taubes’ lectures represent one of the most powerful critiques of liberalism, understood not only as a political philosophy, but as a spiritual disposition, or rather a spiritual desiccation, by which liberals neutralize the radical promises of faith. His final lectures, published as The Political Theology of Paul, are a challenge both to those of us who, from whatever vantage, claim to desire Messiah, and those—often the same people—who seek to preserve political liberalism in an increasingly illiberal world.  

I certainly don't want to get involved in an argument over who is really a Jew, a subject on which I have no standing speak. But I want to say that I agree with Taubes about what strikes me as the fundamental point: political liberalism is not compatible with most kinds of strong theistic beliefs. They do seem to be compatible in practice, since many people who hold (for example) Messianic beliefs about the coming end of the world do participate successfully in democratic politics. But at a philosophical level I don't think they can be reconciled.

To me, liberalism is a philosophy of doubt. Liberals are tolerant because we don't think anyone knows the ultimate truths of the universe. I am intensely suspicious of anyone who does claim to know them and have no wish to be ruled by such people. I started an argument here once by saying that I do not wish to be ruled by anyone who accepts Sharia law; if you think laws were made by God, not people, I don't want you anywhere near my government. I feel the same way about occasional calls from conservative Christians to base our legislation on Natural Law.

I also distrust all longing for the apocalypse under whatever name. I believe that if our lives in this world have any meaning, it comes from what we do in this world. What we do in this world is full of struggle and suffering; therefore, struggle and suffering are part of whatever meaning our lives here have. I hate the idea that we're just toiling along here but then God shows up and — presto-bing-schmachalachem! — everything is great, no more struggle, no more suffering. No thanks. I don't want to be saved in that way. So I was struck when I read that this was exactly the point on which Taubes attacked liberal religious believers. If you don't actually want the future transformation promised by your faith, in what sense do you really share it? 

I am fully aware that one reason I have no interest in apocalypse is that I have had a very nice life. I do understand why those who have suffered more would be attracted to such promises, and I have no interest in taking anything away from them. But I would say that the goal of liberalism is to make everyone's life so nice that nobody needs to be sustained by fantasies of the End Times. In other words, the goal of liberalism is to make religion unneccesary. Not to ban it, but to create a world in which nobody suffers so much that they only find life bearable by believing that God will set things right in the end.

That, to me, is a goal worth pursuing, worth struggling toward, worth suffering for. I find the notion that God might come along and cut the process short to be sort of insulting. Fortunately I don't believe it is going to happen, so I don't have to worry about it. But if I did think the end was coming, I would very much want to "hold it back" until we had time to find out how far we can get on our own.


David said...

I find that my basic thoughts on these issues are pretty crude. To me, theism is a valid position if God, or gods, or another world, or whatever theos the theism is being theistic about, actually exists. One can be a stirring apocalyptic prophet or a foggy-brained ritualizer, or whatever, but that's all secondary to the basic issue of truth or falsehood. If there's a theos to be theistic about, then any purely secular life is probably, at best, missing the point. If there's no theos, then apocalypticism or whatever else is just a lot of people caring way too much about something that people made up. It is true that prophets of apocalypse can say some very impressive and memorable things, use impressive and memorable gestures, and live heroic lives--all especially in comparison to modern liberal-bureaucratic government. But if it's not true, it's just a phenomenon to observe, maybe with wistfulness, maybe with derision, maybe with a kind of aesthetic admiration (which I suspect is Taubes' real stance), according to one's nature.

I should point out that, to me, religion and religious behavior are absolutely fascinating and even beautiful as objects of study. I respect the theistic impulse, and I think I share some of the longing behind it. But I think, at bottom, it's not true, and I live a thoroughly secular life. (When it is pointed out that religious people are often happier than unreligious people, I'm not satisfied, at least for myself. I need to know it's true, and I mean true in a rather crude, non-figurative, non-elliptical way.)

I know nothing about Jacob Taubes. In fact I had never heard of him until your post. He seems like a fascinating figure. But I also wonder if he was really a passionate theist, or, as I've said, more an aesthete who just got a thrill out of people living heroically (like Saint Paul, or brownshirts marching at a Nuremberg rally . . .).

G. Verloren said...

Now I suddenly find myself wanting to rewatch Star Trek V: The Final Frontier...

Jerry Z. Muller said...

The quote about Taubes's lectures on the political theology of Paul is not from my book, PROFESSOR OF APOCALYPSE, but from an article by someone who had not yet read it. You'll find a rather different characterization of those lectures in my book, starting with the fact that Taubes never mentions the Messiah. But if you're interested in debates about liberalism and anti-liberalism, you'll find lots of that in the book. Jerry Z. Muller

David said...

Professor Muller, thank you for posting here. You do us honor. Incidentally, after looking at some of the online descriptions and discussions of your book--not having yet read it!--I think I probably, in my ignorance, misjudged Taubes. David