Jean-Pierre FORTIN.  Grace in Auschwitz, a Holocaust Christology.  Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2016.  pp.250. $79.00hb.  ISBN 978-1-5064-0587-2.  Reviewed by Francis BERNA, La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA 19141.


Some books deserve an extended time for the reader’s reflection and critical thought.  Some books deserve a second reading, probably a year or two after the first journey through the text.  Grace in Auschwitz stands as a text deserving both considerations.  This review comes with a one-time careful reading, and an adequate time of reflection.

Jean-Pierre Fortin acknowledges the book’s origin with an onsite seminar sponsored by the Auschwitz Foundation in 2006.  The seminar consisted of scholars and six survivors of the concentration and extermination camp.  The seminar provided a life-changing experience for Fortin.  It challenged his dominant mode of philosophical analysis and led him to doctoral studies in systematic theology.  He sought to better understand the depths of human freedom, the reality of sin, and the ways of divine grace. 
The author notes his goal of constructing a personal reflection that incorporates his philosophical and theological understandings of the human being in the world.  Even a cursory reading makes clear he has attained this goal.  It is the second goal of attempting a conversation between Christian theology and the Jewish experience of the Shoah that needs a second reading and further critical thought.

With precision of thought Fortin follows his proposed schema. First he provides powerful descriptions of various holocaust victims and survivors.  With this he demonstrates, what is also his own experience, that in light of such inhumanity, human beings can no longer think about the meaning of life in the same way.  He posits the Holocaust as the true gateway to a fully post-Modern consciousness.  Traditional understandings of good and evil, grace and sin, God and the world no longer hold sway.

Moving then to Part Two of the text the author writes “A Conversation in Kenotic Mode.”  As with Part One this section divides into two chapters.  In the first chapter Fortin explores the kenotic (self-emptying) theology of Hans Urs von Balthasaar and Serge? Bulgakov.  To this he adds insights from Simone Weil and Dorothee Soelle.  This chapter, particularly with its consideration of the Trinity proves the most challenging.  It is, however, quite well done.

When Fortin introduces the second chapter the reader will most likely suspect that he proposes an impossible agenda.  He writes that he intends to provide a theology of grace that incorporates major thinkers of classical and contemporary Christian theology.  He does a masterful job accomplishing what he set out to do.  He writes with clarity coving the perspectives of Augustine, Aquinas, Trent, Luther, Calvin, Barth, and Rahner. 

The challenge, and the questions come, as he connects the notion of “kenotic grace” to the experience of Holocaust victims – those who survived and those who did not.  Application of his understanding of grace to Christian victims Bonhoeffer and Delp presents no problem.  Connecting the fullness of self-emptying grace in Christ to Jewish victims and survivors stands as a real question as Fortin himself recognizes.

To this reader’s mind and experience the Christian must maintain a profound silence in facing the reality of the Holocaust.  A silent prayer of “why” and “May God be merciful” were the only words that came to mind on a visit to Yad Vashem.  Being a scholar of Karl Rahner, I fully appreciate and find most helpful his categories of anonymous faith and anonymous Christianity – with only the first category seemingly appropriate in Jewish-Christian dialogue.  Explicit Jewish faith needs to be appreciated in terms of Jewish theology.

Since Fortin raises this very question himself, I value his text as part of a conversation.  While I am not sure he resolves the issue, in a time when genuine conversation can seem almost impossible, his proposal deserves further consideration and careful analysis.

Grace in Auschwitz does make clear that Jean-Pierre Fortin has a solid understanding of contemporary and classical Christian theology.  He shows great promise as a theologian not afraid to face one of the most difficult questions facing the believer in a post-Modern world.