Robert E. Willis, "Christian Theology after Auschwitz," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 12 (Fall 1975) 493-519

Abstract by Jerry Darring


Willis opens with a discussion of the moral relevance of Christian morality. The horrors of Auschwitz must be confronted, the theology of Judaism and the Jewish people must be reexamined, and in particular, "Theological anti-Semitism, which roots itself, I am convinced, in certain passages in the New Testament, must be countered by a theological sensitivity sufficiently nuanced to be able to deny the continuing validity of those passages in the life of the church" (495). The possibility of a restructured Christian theology after Auschwitz is complicated by the restoration of Israel.

Jewish thinkers have been trying to come to grips with the implications of the Holocaust. Richard Rubenstein rejects traditional covenant theology and recognizes the essential absurdity of the world. Emil Fackenheim sees no salvific import in Auschwitz but only a challenge to survive. Elie Wiesel sees no answer to the question posed by Auschwitz, least of all the rebirth of Israel. Ignaz Maybaum sees the Holocaust as the final "day of awe" laid on God's people by God in preparation for the advent of a messianic age.

"Auschwitz and the restoration of Israel are not ends in themselves. They are, or ought to be, points of departure enabling an honest recognition of the immoral aspects in the past development of the Christian theological tradition, and permitting a reformulation of that tradition in light of the continuing viability, integrity, and (let it be said clearly) independence of Judaism and the Jewish people" (499).

As for Christian thinkers, concern for working out the implications of the Holocaust remains the preserve of a minority. Thomas Altizer affirmed the need for Christians after Auschwitz to repudiate and negate "every idea or symbol of salvation confining liberation to an interior, subjective, or esoteric realm" (502), and yet he has shown Marcionite tendencies. The articles by Clemens Thoma in Karl Rahner's Sacramentum Mundi accord a second-class status to Judaism and the Jewish people. A study by Claire Huchet Bishop into CAtholic teaching materials concluded that "here, thirty years after the Holocaust, the reader is again confronted with the traditional assertions which, for nearly two millenia, have conditioned Christians to anti-Semitism" (505). There has been one effort to construct a Christian theology of Auschwitz, in Ulrich Simon's book, A Theology of Auschwitz. Simon's approach is unsatisfactory because it assumes "that the Holocaust can be accommodated within the framework of traditional Christian categories which themselves require no rethinking" (509).

The first task in developing Christian theology after Auschwitz is "the articulation of a radically different approach to the possibility of dialogue between Judaism and Christianity, at a theological level" (509). This dialog must be based on a theology that acknowledges the independence and completeness of Judaism.

The second task is to deal with those passages in the New Testament which express hostility towards 'the Jews': "Somehow, a distinction must be drawn between the New Testament and its kerygma that will permit their exclusion, on sound theological grounds, from the ongoing life of the church" (512).

The third task "is to develop an understanding of Jesus that at no point extrudes him from the context of the Jewish environment which produced him" (513). Moreover, "the full weight of Auschwitz must be taken up and examined against the background of the relationship that has developed, historically, between the church's confession of the messiahship of Jesus and the contributions of its Christology to the outrages visited upon the Jewish people" (514).

The fourth task lies in the area of theodicy. "What is needed is not only a justification of God in relation to 'evil in gereral'... but in relation to the suffering of Jews at Dachau and Treblinka, of Native Americans at Wounded Knee, of Blacks at Jackson State, or of Vietnamese at My Lai. That is the challenge, beginning with Auschwitz, which Christian theology faces. The movement must be from the specific to the inclusive" (515).

The fifth task is to develop a proper theological understanding of the state of Israel.