On Footnoting the Holocaust :: Poor Taste

I was reading two books yesterday (not at the same time, though that would be a nice skill to develop). In a striking bit of serendipity, the one book denounced the other. I suppose that this is the reader’s version of the “small-world” encounter in which a total stranger turns out to know all your best friends.

At any rate, it was the tone of the denunciation that caught my attention as being particularly tacky. Robert Jenson, in a footnote, warns about Marcionism as a particularly dangerous form of idolatry, and then adduces the Nazi regime as a particularly virulent example of this idolatry. So far so good. He then appends one more sentence suggesting that the “apostasy” of those who speak of God/ess (which is, of course, primarily Rosemary Radford Ruether—whose Sexism and God-Talk I’d just finished) is no less serious, and presupposes no less thorough a rejection of Israel’s scriptures than that of the Third Reich.

Unfortunately, even if someone wants to make the argument that Ruether has traveled beyond the bounds of orthodoxy in speaking of God/ess, it’s unhelpful to ascribe a rejection of the Hebrew scriptures to someone whose writings are quite full of appreciative references  to those scriptures. Further, when making mention of the holocaust in a footnote, it ought to be universally agreeable that one ought to avoid mentioning contemporary colleagues as guilty of the same theological errors. Even polemic theology ought to strive for a charitable measure of accuracy; this is slander, not dialogue.

The unjustified vitriol was particularly disappointing to me because on any given page, I’m much more likely to find myself in agreement with Jenson than Ruether (gender issues excepted). I’ve also seen Jenson handle similar slander with dignity and good-humor, so I had hopes that he was less likely to dish it out.

7 Replies to “On Footnoting the Holocaust :: Poor Taste”

  1. Yea…

    It looks like his pen got away from him on that one.

    I wonder how much of it has to do with the fact that footnotes, while sometimes less scholarly in tone, also happen to be where most polemics are carried out nowadays.

    A bad combination, no?

    1. Indeed. I do think that placing polemics within the footnotes is, in general, a good thing—and it’s a practice that I’ve adopted in my own writing, but there shouldn’t be any relaxation in the rigor of the writing (or in this case, editing) simply because one is writing outside the main flow of the argument. If anything, I feel like footnotes ought to be more precise, since that is where people look for clarification of what is going on in the body of the text.

  2. Yeah, that’s pretty lame. It seems like the two trump cards in academic polemics are capitalism and Nazism. While there’s probably legitimate critiques of Ruether, I find this one to be entirely unfair.

  3. Yeah… I think that someone (Jenson included) certainly could make the argument that Ruether’s picture of God is significantly discontinuous with the God of Israel and the Hebrew Scriptures, but 1) Ruether is explicitly laboring toward certain kinds of discontinuity so the argument might just be banal, 2) one ought to explain just how Ruether’s premises deny or contradict Hebrew Scripture, and 3) there’s still no good reason to connect Ruether to the Nazis.

  4. Eesh. He’s at it again. This time in the main text, and this time with an explicit connection.

    Because animal right’s activists mitigate the absolute difference between human beings and animals (or insist that the difference is not license to treat animals however we’d like), Jenson argues that they are working along the same lines as the Nazis. Raising standards for the treatment of animals is, he would argue, equivalent to lowering standards for the treatment of human beings.

    Now, I don’t find the notion of extending “rights” to animals to be a helpful line of thinking—though I’m sympathetic with the cause—but Jenson can’t possibly justify this connection!

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