As a theologian, Marcel Poorthuis has studied Judaism, Christianity and philosophy. In 1992, he pubished his dissertation on the Messianic Talmudcommentaries by the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: The face of the Messiah. (Het gelaat van de Messias, Zoetermeer 1992). His philosophy is highly original while indebted to Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology. Phenomenology is based upon the assumption that our knowledge of reality is accessible to us via our consciousness. The world outside and independent of our consciousness of the world cannot be described. Hence both natural sciences and humanities are based upon human experience. The claim by natural sciences to ‘objectivity’ over against the subjective approach of humanities cannot rigorously be maintained, as both are based upon experience. This quite complicated phrase expresses an ideal: fragmentation in separate realms and rivaling perspectives should be bridged by a rigorous philosophy. This new philosophy should bridge the gap between natural sciences and humanities.
Levinas is one of Husserl’s disciples, but develops his own philosophy as well. Levinas is convinced the Western thought constantly forgets the primary significance of the other. The face of the other human being is not just one more phenomenon that I can understand against the background of language, culture and the body. The human face undermines my thought and should be considered as a ‘hole’ in the horizon, signifying a significance that transcends limits of culture and of language. The face speaks a language preceding all language. Western thought suffers from forget fullness of the other , which comes down to a form of violence. Western thought can be summarized with the word of one of its founding fathers, Herakleitos: “war is the father of all”. Religion does not escape criticism either: by promising God’s forgiveness without doing justice to the offended other, man is robbed from the most precious possession: his responsibility.
Together with philosopher Joachim Duyndam he published an accessible introduction to the thought of Levinas in the series Kopstukken (Lemniscaat). Both writers are members of the board of the Levinas company in the Netherlands (see for website and bibliography http://www.levinas.nl).
Together with Duyndam and with his colleague from the Faculty of Catholic Theology Theo de Wit he edited a collection of articles Humanism and religion. Humanism is both a product of religion and its contestation. In its optima form humanism presents itself as a critical correction of religion, preventing the latter from deteriorating into a anti-critical obscurantism. Quite often, however, humanism behaves like a parasite of religion, by annexing free religiosity and spiritual insights while rejecting institutional religion. This leads to a romantic overestimation of the individual and his search for meaning, without enough safeguards against a commercial exploitation of religion.
Next to philosophy, Poorthuis is involved in rabbinic literature and its connection with patristics The old conviction of Judaism as the basis of Christianity is sympathetic in its intention to correct outmoded Christian triumphalism. Gradually it becomes clear, however, that Christian convictions have deeply stamped Rabbinic motifs and reactions. By studying the history of interpretations of psalm 2 (together with his colleague Gerard Rouwhorst) and psalm 72 and 24, Poorthuis could demonstrate that Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism can only be understood in interaction, and not in isolation. This insight constitutes no less than an earthquake, both for orthodox Judaism and for orthodox Christianity.
The tandem by Theo Salemink and Marcel Poorthuis is active for more than 13 years. The First result consisted of a biography about one of the most ecstatic and bizarre persons from the 20th century, the Jewish woman Sophie van Leer. Our find of some 16 boxes full of poems, diaries, parts of novels, enabled to describe the life of this expressionist poetess, who, after converting via Wagner and Saint Francis to Catholicism, influenced the Catholic church profoundly in its stance toward Judaism (Marcel Poorthuis en Theo Salemink, Op zoek naar de blauwe ruiter, Valkhof Nijmegen 2000, 500 pp).
Five years later, Salemink and Poorthuis documented the history of 130 years of Catholic image formation of Judaism in the Netherlands. (Een donkere spiegel, Valkhof 2005, 970 pp.). The book makes a sharp distinction between the different milieus: social, cultural and religious. For the First time it becomes clear that catholic image formation is not a homogeneous matter. The most controversial position (but defended earlier by Hannah Ahrendt) is their position that racial anti-Semitism from the end of the 19th century is a product of (pseudo)scientific theories about races, ethnology and nationalism, rather than Christian anti-Jewish convictions, although no less grim by times. The relation of these 19th century theories with medieval anti-Semitism remains a matter of debate, however.
A third magnum opus is the study published in April 2009 and awarded with the golden medal by the Teylers Theological Company: Theo Salemink & Marcel Poorthuis, Lotus in de Lage Landen, (uitgeverij Parthenon 2009). This study documents the image formation of Buddhism in the Netherlands form its inception in 1840 to the present.
An important element of the research program Relation Judaism Christianity constitutes the series Jewish and Christian Perspectives, edited by Marcel Poorthuis (Faculty of Catholic Theology of the University of Tilburg), prof. Dr. Joshua Schwartz (Bar Ilan University, Israel), prof. Dr. David Golinkin (Schechter Institute Israel) and prof. Dr. Dineke Houtman (University of Kampen, the Netherlands). This joint research project between Jewish and Christian scholars unites four institutions: Land of Israel Studies of the Bar Ilan University (orthodox), Schechter Institute Israel (conservative), Faculty of CatholicTheology of the University of Tilburg and the Theological University of Kampen.
The series Jewish and Christian Perspectives, published by Brill, Leyden, with its executive editor the energetic Freek van der Steen, comprises some 20 volumes, monographies, and collected volumes
See for more information: http://www.jcperspectives.com