Day 11: A Better Resistance: The anti-pagan writings of Dutch theologian K.H. Miskotte

Welcome to Day 11 of the German Political Theology Blog Conference, brought to you by Theology Corner! For an introduction to the conference and a list of the schedule, click here.


In popular consciousness, Nazism is often seen as a German phenomenon. Nazis speak German in the movies. The Nazi icon, the swastika, evokes German militarism. The word itself is a German abbreviation.



But this association does not tell the whole story—either then or now. Many societies in the period after the Great War struggled with their own, homegrown forms of national socialism. In 1935, for example, the Dutch National Socialist party received eight percent of the vote in the national election. Support came primarily from the middle class, including a good share of votes and financing from Dutch colonists in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). Dutch Nazis organized armed paramilitaries between 1932 and 1935 and after 1940, and their representatives in the Dutch parliament flouted procedure and committed verbal and physical violence against other elected officials. In 1939, the Dutch Reformed Church in Amsterdam hosted a public debate between two of its ministers: a bona fide Nazi pastor named L. (Lodewijk) C.W. Ekering and another pastor—a 45-year-old antifascist theologian named Kornelis Heiko Miskotte (1894–1976).[1]

Miskotte urged that the Amsterdam presbytery should make up its mind and commit wholeheartedly to resisting Nazism. It did not. When the German Army invaded and occupied the Netherlands in 1940, Miskotte engaged in an active ministry of writing and teaching and organizing.[2] Miskotte’s own family sheltered Jewish refugees in their vicarage. Several of his illegal works of resistance literature circulated in cell groups in Amsterdam, and Miskotte facilitated adult education classes among the Protestant churches. Miskotte wrote the booklet Biblical ABC for use as an anti-Nazi, Bible-reading primer for use in these groups. It should also be noted that Miskotte’s resistance did not only target fascism; in the late 1930s Miskotte also raised a rare voice against Dutch colonization of the East Indies. The question our blog entry seeks briefly to answer is this: what theological commitments drove Miskotte’s resistance praxis?

A Better Resistance

Miskotte took the ideology of national socialism seriously as a worldview and did not dismiss it as only a cynical byproduct of the “will-to-power.” This is why he felt a “better resistance” was necessary—a resistance based on the self-testimony of the TaNaKh (the Hebrew Bible, or Christian Old Testament). Resistance at the level of truth, that is, required intensive engagement with the testimony of Scripture and a retrieval of Scripture’s own foundational or core words (Dutch: grondwoorden). The core words of Scripture lie closed, however, to the natural or “pagan” reader, and must be enlivened by the decisive revelation of the God of Israel. Their new meaning can be most clearly seen in the word “God,” which must not be considered in its “natural” meaning of the omnipotent and omnipresent “All” but rather as a predicate of YHWH, the God made known to Israel.

For contemporary readers, it can be difficult to discern what this “better resistance” actually entails. Miskotte’s theological resistance vocabulary seems distant from current discourse about intersectionality, corporeal politics, grassroots community organizing, etc. Because of Old Testament visions of social justice and messanism, Miskotte was a socialist—but his postwar work and advocacy did not take up, for instance, the growing Dutch struggle for gender equity; his input on this and other social causes is sorely missed. The blog that follows begins to bridge the distance: to articulate the main features of Miskotte’s theology with an eye towards their implications for resistance—in Miskotte’s context and our own. 

Theology of the Word. Miskotte’s theology belongs to the dialectical school—the so-called “theology of the word.” Miskotte had read Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans in 1923 while serving in his first pastoral call. After initial misgivings, the main themes of Barth’s theology won Miskotte over; indeed, Miskotte began a correspondence and friendship with Barth that would last until the latter’s death in 1968. For Miskotte, too, then, as for Barth and other dialectical theologians, God could in no way be considered a corollary. The knowledge of God does not follow from any given of human experience or any feature of general knowledge. Rather, humans know and worship God solely by a miracle: God’s own saving self-disclosure.

Several key concepts form a fence around this teaching. Like (the early) Barth, Miskotte emphasizes God’s self-revelation as an act of present-tense address. “The Word happens,” as Miskotte writes. Scripture thus constitutes a sort of perimeter around the Word of God—a dense zone of instruction charged with the possibility that God’s address might strike. This concept protects the knowledge of God from becoming something that lies ready to hand. Or again and similarly, Miskotte speaks of God as an event. God is not present everywhere and all the time, inherent in the nature of the cosmos, but came, specifically and concretely. In his wartime work Biblical ABCs, Miskotte reminds us that “God does not appear to us as the most general reality, that which can be found everywhere, but rather as the most unique: that which can be sought and found somewhere specific.”

Theology of the Name. The second facet of Miskotte’s theology that galvanized his practice of resistance is his insistence on the Name of God. In addition to his encounter with Barth’s writings, Miskotte wrote much of his 1928 dissertation at Groningen University on the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig’s difficult masterwork, Star of Redemption, proposes that the event of God’s self-revelation is the Tetragrammaton (YHWH). Miskotte wholly absorbed—and repurposed—this conviction. According to Miskotte, the Name of God is “the A of the biblical ABCs,” and the “cornerstone of scriptural vocabulary.”

The Name of God is the particularity—the unique opacity—at the heart of Miskotte’s theology. The Name reveals God, since God has appointed that identification “for all generations” (Exod 3:15). It also and at the same time conceals God, since, in Miskotte’s formulation, the Name is a “nameless name,” virtually empty of semantic content. Indeed for Miskotte the name YHWH presents “a radical crisis for all religion,” and as a self-designation it “includes the abolition of religion.” Miskotte means by this that the concreteness of the Name confounds all human projects to know God by inference from the given features of the human condition. No one could predict or infer the name YHWH.

The other thing Miskotte learned from Rosenzweig is the term paganism. Neither man used the term to refer straightforwardly to traditional or indigenous religions in Europe or elsewhere. Rather, Rosenzweig and Miskotte evoke with this term a far larger phenomenon: the “natural” or default religious sensibility of human communities throughout history. Although paganism as a word carries a negative valence in Christian usage, Miskotte did not denigrate natural human religions, and in fact called on his readers to honor their beauty and achievement. Human religions bind societies to their particular lands under the leadership of their particular gods; all this is good, and Miskotte expresses respect for the real power of the gods that paganism venerates. The single failure of paganism is this: to know YHWH. In the words of Biblical ABCs: “The name distinguishes God from other beings, gods and demons. The Bible does not reckon with a general concept of God, only to add later specific names, images, and qualities. The text speaks first and foremost about God as a god among other gods.”  The Name of God is, therefore, for Miskotte, “the anti-pagan monument par excellence.[3]

Miskotte saw Nazism as a species of paganism: a revival of traditional Germanic religion, but—and this is important—not synonymous with it. German Nazism seized upon many features of indigenous German religion, especially in that it reasserted the bond between the German people, the German lands, and the old German gods. Instead of a foreign god like YHWH, lord of a displaced people, Nazis promoted deities that belonged primordially to Teutonic populations and territories. Unlike YHWH, whose loyalty to the Jews remains in some sense conditional, the gods of paganism defend their people from forces of chaos as a matter of course. The pernicious innovation of Nazism relative to traditional Germanic religion was its attempt to recoup indigeneity by force. If in the modern period, European colonization had disrupted the mutual relationship of peoples to their gods and lands across the globe,[4] German Nazis sought to re-suture the old set of relationships between people, land, and gods through violence. “Blood and soil” ideology, voiced again at Charlottesville in August 2017, is a willful lie seeking to establish a lost connection between people and place and divinity. But just as in the days of Hebrew enslavement in Egypt, so, too, in the 20th and 21st centuries, the Name of God means freedom: “I will be who I will be,” says YHWH in explanation of the Name (Exod 3:14). YHWH’s presence and grace result from divine decision alone and not from any necessary, natural, or given relationship between deity and people.  Miskotte recognizes the nostalgic allure of national socialism but nevertheless declares that the Name of the Lord is a strong(er) tower.  

Theology of the One Salvation. The third aspect of Miskotte’s theology that inspired his resistance praxis was a high estimation of the Old Testament—and especially its this-worldliness. Miskotte himself notes that he shared this esteem with another famous anti-Nazi pastor: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Like Bonhoeffer in his prison letters, Miskotte read the New Testament in light of the Old, and not vice versa. Indeed, Miskotte saw the two testaments as united in their witness to the Name of God, given in the Old Testament. All the other names and attributes of God in Scripture represent “a summary of particular aspects, tendencies and meanings of the one Name […] they form a procession, an escort around the actual revelation.”[5]

The same observation applies, in Miskotte’s thinking, to the New Testament and the name of Jesus Christ. “Jesus Christ is the fulfillment, confirmation and perpetuation of the one name of God, YHWH.”[6] The two testaments of the Christian Bible do not show a common theme, or depend on the same sanctified vocabulary, or narrate a single trajectory of religious development. Instead, the deeper commonality of the two testaments—Miskotte alleges—is in their witness to the assumptio carnis: the event of God’s taking on human flesh.

This is a familiar enough description of the movement at the center of the New Testament. But Miskotte contends that it is also an apt summary of the Old: there, too, God assumes human form(s) to become knowable. True, in Miskotte’s words, the form that God takes in the Old Testament is of a god.[7] But this, too, is a self-humbling, as Miskotte indicates provocatively in Biblical ABCs:  

monotheism is not special because it does not need particular revelation. But what is more advanced than monotheism appears in the cloak of what is lesser: a god. Next to Baal and other gods, against Baal but still next to Baal, YHWH appears, appears YHWH as a god who entered into history with his deliverance and guidance.[8]

In a passage from When the Gods are Silent, Miskotte provides further comment on the saving condescension of God in the Old Testament:

anybody who simply cannot ‘put up’ with the incarnation will also not know what to do with YHWH, who speaks and hears, who wounds and heals, who comes down and visits us, who walks in the garden and confuses the language of the tower builders, who accompanies his people in pillars of fire and cloud, who sits enthroned on the cherubim and precisely as such is  the God of heaven and earth. [Both testaments are] signs that the Lord God has truly taken on human nature.[9]

For Miskotte, the testaments are not just similar in their testimony to the self-humbling God. They attest the very same event: the one salvation of God. Because, however, Miskotte prioritizes the Old Testament, his theology emphasizes the this-worldliness of God’s self-manifestation. Over against the New Testament, God’s revelation in the Old Testament engages the human condition in its erotic and political dimensions; from within the realities of suffering and divine hiddenness; and in the context of other, rival divine powers. All these qualities directly inflect Miskotte’s own this-worldly approach to ministry—which, under Nazi occupation, perforce must reckon with powerful rivals to God’s reign, and must address politics, suffering, and divine hiddenness.

Authorsnote: This blog post provides a first taste of the resistance theology of Dutch theologian K.H. Miskotte. Unfortunately, Miskotte’s writings have received minimal translation from Dutch into English and so remain inaccessible to many international readers. For this reason, and because we believe in the urgent contemporaneity of Miskotte’s testimony, we have initiated a translation project to render Miskotte’s important book Biblical ABCs into English. As our project progresses, we will keep you updated via this blog.
 

Notes

[1] The full text of the 1939 news coverage of the debate is digitized and can be found here: http://nha.courant.nu/issue/HD/1939-03-08/edition/0/page/10?query=

[2] High-resolution scans of Miskotte’s wartime pamphlets can be consulted online in the Dutch national archive, www.hetgeheugenvannederland (search for “Miskotte”).

[3] K.H. Miskotte, Bijbels ABC (Utrecht: Kok, 2016 [1941]), 52. All page numbers refer to the 2016 reprint; all translations are by the authors of this blog.

[4] On which, see Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press,

[5] Miskotte, Bijbels ABC, 51.

[6] Idem, 53.

[7] Idem, 42.

[8] Idem, 44.

[9] K.H. Miskotte, When the Gods are Silent, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 128.


Eleonora Hof holds a PhD in postcolonial theology from the Protestant Theological University in Amsterdam. Collin Cornell is visiting assistant professor of Old Testament for the School of Theology at Sewanee: the University of the South, Tennessee, and in March, 2018 he will he will defend his PhD in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.


WANT TO BE NOTIFIED WHEN EACH NEW POST IN THIS BLOG CONFERENCE GOES LIVE? FILL OUT THIS FORM:

Name *
Name