Religion and Theology
Anatomy of Faith.
by Milton Steinberg. Edited, with an introduction by Arthur A. Cohen.
Harcourt, Brace. 304 pp. $4.75.
If History is what remains memorable over a span of generations, then history finds itself consistently distorted as the generations pass, owing to the original sin of the invention of writing. The men who are made memorable by their writings are not always the men whom their contemporaries and disciples found most memorable. Many a leader of his time, far outshining, in the estimation of those in the best position to know, the pen-wielders who dominate the historic record, is forgotten as soon as time passes the bounds of living memory. It is not uncommon, therefore, for those who have felt the charm and force of an eminent personality to seek to communicate its power to posterity by publishing a collection of writings.
This collection of the theological writings of the late Milton Steinberg—who at the time of his early death in 1950 had perhaps the deepest personal influence of any rabbi in America—aims at establishing a specific role for Steinberg in the intellectual history of contemporary American Jewry. The editor, Arthur A. Cohen, has contributed a long introduction in which he defines this role in the following terms:
In every generation there are those who do more than move with the tide of culture, who succeed in transcending its conditions and thereby altering them. Such individuals may anticipate the culture, breaking with it, in order to chart new directions for its unfolding. They may also summarize in themselves so much that was best in their environment that they may anticipate and instruct the future without consciously shaping it. . . . Theirs is not yet to know the truth, but to know the incompletion of what is; not to know the future, but to know the limitations of holding with the past; to be possessors, as Bergson observed, not of the creating intuition, but of the denying intuition—an awareness of what cannot be, but an uncertainty of what is.
This, then, is a commemorative volume, but also a volume with a thesis. Mr. Cohen bases his case for the high historical importance of his old friend and teacher on the fact that, having overcome naturalism and attained religion in his youth, the mature Steinberg remained sufficiently alive to contemporary theological influences to experience and express the shortcomings of the liberal, theistic pragmatism which was fundamentally his own metaphysical belief. In support of his argument, Mr. Cohen reprints, along with earlier writings, two essays or lecture cycles by Steinberg which are devoted to an examination of contemporary theological and semi-theological theories. They deal (repetitiously) with such themes as Existentialism, both theistic and atheistic (Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre); Pragmatism, its critical doctrine and religious varieties (James, Dewey, Mordecai M. Kaplan); “Neo-Reformationism,” both Continental (Barth, Brunner) and American (Tillich, the Niebuhrs); and with a number of individual thinkers—Bergson, Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and Charles Sanders Peirce—who impressed Steinberg as contributing valuable insights to religious discussion.
To have been aware of the challenge of these thinkers and to have settled one’s own account with that challenge certainly bespeaks a mind that was able to summarize in itself the best in its theological environment. But what is the nature of Steinberg’s discussion of contemporary theology and philosophy? Was he really a practitioner of the “denying intuition”? Was it indeed his role, as he himself saw it, to terminate an era and clear the way for the constructive genius of a new epoch?
I do not think that his published works bear out this view of him at all. Not only cannot the material presented in Anatomy of Faith sustain the claim that Steinberg was a theological pathbreaker; to make such a claim obscures another and, in my opinion, far superior quality which these writings unquestionably do possess. They are superb examples of religious teaching, clear and penetrating in expression, humane in their sympathy for spiritual travails, and serene in their integrity of attained belief. If Milton Steinberg was a significantly original thinker, then the record of his true thought exists not in the sketchy surveys and simple critiques collected in Anatomy of Faith but in the memories of men like Arthur Cohen, Will Herberg, and Albert Salomon who found in him an emotional as well as intellectual support in crises of belief.
In his twenties Steinberg had arrived—as he himself put it—“at a satisfactory intellectual attitude toward Judaism both actively and passively—actively in that one reads, one wrestles with the problems, passively, in that one’s attitude and position gradually clarify themselves, almost of themselves, like a precipitate dissolving in the presence of some unknown, unseen reagent.” One recognizes the state of attained faith, said Steinberg:
- When one knows what one’s own position is very definitely—and one has definite arguments that are convincing (to oneself at least) for holding that position.
- When one ceases to be afraid of people who disagree and to dread the reading of hostile books.
- When the restlessness departs—and peace sets in.
- When everything one reads seems either false or else confirmatory of one’s attitude.
Everything printed in Anatomy of Faith confirms the accuracy of this intellectual self-portrait. In one for whom theological issues are still critical, the passion of demonstration is concentrated on specific, technical points, and there is the feeling that until these are correctly dealt with, salvation—if not belief—must hang in the balance. Perhaps when he was studying under Morris R. Cohen at CCNY, Steinberg had this kind of theological concern. In the mature writings published here, however, no trace of it can be found. His discussions of philosophy are extremely general and the grounds on which he approves or disapproves of theological doctrines are very slight. All Steinberg is impelled to do when he confronts any disturbing idea in Kierkegaard, Barth, or Niebuhr is to show that it derives from the specific Christian background of these thinkers; having done that much, he feels free to dispose of the idea. In talking about younger Jewish writers like Jacob Taubes and Emil Fackenheim who seek Jewish analogues to doctrines that Steinberg feels able to dismiss simply because they have Christian roots, he merely makes the cursory comment that they should label their products as breaches with Judaism rather than interpretations of it.
If this is a true estimate, why should Mr. Cohen and Will Herberg (who has praised Anatomy of Faith in the highest terms) feel constrained to make claims for Steinberg as a theologian? The answer seems to be that for Mr. Cohen the critical need of American Jewry today is a renewed concern with theology, and therefore he is forced to frame his case for Steinberg’s importance in theological terms. But the notion that this or any other age need look to theology for its regeneration is entirely unfounded. I have noted in praise of Steinberg that he was a religious man rather than a theologian; yet he, too, like so many “religionists” insists that without “true” beliefs there can be neither morale nor morality in human society. But we have had proofs of a kind that no one would wish to see repeated that any blind belief, no matter how perverted, is enough to instil morale. And as for morality—that is, love of the good, not the mechanical observance of taboos—it derives not from sophistication but from innocence. Theology, whether old or new, has nothing to do with it. Religion may of course produce it, but so does any form of wisdom that follows a rule of purity.