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© The Revd Barry Drake M.A. May 2000
The Role of Jewish-Christian Dialogue in an
Some six years ago, my friend and colleague the Revd David Hilborn argued vehemently about inter-faith relations at a district meeting of our denomination. The discussion was over a proposal to invite observers from other faiths to attend our annual
General Assembly. David opposed this, and sought support from the district meeting. (Please see David’s response to this comment) The discussion became quite heated, and it seemed to me that from David’s point of view, all members of faiths other than Christianity would suffer eternal damnation unless they converted. I posed the question “What would David wish to do with the Jews?” David seemed uncomfortable with this question, and evaded a direct answer. Since then, I have been increasingly aware of the importance of Jewish Christian dialogue. It can take place from a Christian stance from which dialogue with faiths other than Judaism would be impossible.
It has been said in the light of the Shoah that the alternative to dialogue is desolation. It is no use either, trying to claim that faith is no longer an issue in today’s “secular society”. Global statistics clearly show that the reverse is true. In this situation, Judaism finds itself in something of a unique position. Statistically small in comparison to several other world-faiths, Judaism has had, and continues to have a major influence on the two numerically largest faiths, Islam and Christianity. Both Islam and Christianity have roots closely related to Judaism. Both Islam and Christianity would lay claim to Abraham, if not Isaac and Jacob too, among their patriarchs, and both Islam and Christianity hold the Hebrew Scriptures in high regard. This being the case, Judaism ought to find a pivotal role in interfaith dialogue out of all proportion to the number of Jews in the world! And, since Christianity is numerically the largest of the world faiths, with adherents approaching 33% of the world’s population, dialogue between Jews and Christians must have a very significant and important place not only in inter-faith matters, but ultimately in the entire question of future world peace! And I don’t believe for a moment that this is overstating the case.
In making the above broad statement, we are talking about the entire world, and not one single multicultural society. However, America and the UK are increasingly
becoming multicultural and multi-faith in themselves, and can thus be said to represent a microcosm of the rest of civilisation. It is in such societies that bridges may be built, and the seeds of God’s eventual Kingdom of justice and peace sown.
For many Jews, a desire to seek out and understand the rootsof anti-Semitism in the light of the Shoah has been a considerable motivationtowards dialogue. For Christians,
interest in the religious background of Jesus, and a desire to know more about the Jewish understanding of the Bible has always been there. In the early days of Christianity, we know that discussion was taking place between Jews and Christians – indeed, whether or not Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, written around 150 CE is
based on actual dialogue that was taking place, it suggests that Justin was concerned that the distinct identity of Christianity was in some danger of being lost because of regular intercourse between Christians and Jews. It was fear for the unique identity of
Christianity that led to the hostile attitude of the church Fathers towards the Jews.
In recent years, Christianity has been forced to recognise its own part in the anti Semitism that led to the Shoah. From all parts of the Church this acknowledgement has led to regret and penitence. There are Christians and Jews who feel that the Pope, on his recent visit to Israel and to Yad VaShem did not go far enough in apologising on behalf of the church for its past: be that as it may, to many of us, the fact that the Pope was willing to admit to any past mistakes at all on the part of the church is something close to miraculous.
The realisation that the seeds that gave rise to the Shoah are all around us today, and the concern that such a cataclysmic event must never again be allowed to occur provides an intense pressure to dialogue as a matter of extreme urgency. At the same time, there are reasons for suggesting that there is currently a window of opportunity for Jewish Christian dialogue, for that matter for all interfaith dialogue, that is unique in its character and its timing.
Dialogue or Desolation
The recent declaration by the British Government that Yom Ha Shoah will in future be a national holiday is a recognition that we must not forget the past, and that we must beware of any tendency to travel a similar path in the future.
As I write, there has just been an advance by Jordanianstowards Northern Israel. There are many conflicting claims, and the political situation is both fragile andunclear. One thing that is clear isthat old hatreds are continually being rehearsed, and issues of faith are beingused to bolster claims to territorial rights. In the former Yugoslavia, vast tracts of land have been laid waste. The tensions and hatreds that exist in that part of Europe go back to the time of the crusades. Once again, faith issues are inextricably linked with the political situation. Murder, rape anddestruction begin with the devaluing of the human beings who are regarded as the ‘enemy’ because of their differing faith. Attempts at genocide have given rise to a new phrase – the euphemism ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ has become a commonplace today. We don’t even have to restrict consideration to geographical locations in which different world-faiths play a part – in Northern Ireland different traditions within the Christian faith have been used to justify violence for many years. Indeed, the nature and progress of Christian ecumenical dialogue over the last few decades may have much to teach Christians about wider faith issues. As I observe political situations of this nature daily on my television screen, I begin to take Kung’s statement that”there can be no peace between the nations of the world until there is peace between the religions of the world” as being both accurate and prophetic. The second world war, and the ensuing hostility between the countries of the former Soviet Bloc and the Western allies has taught the world that global war must be avoided at all costs, and there can be no doubt that interfaith dialogue has an important part to play in the mutual understanding that is needed to maintain some kind of world peace, however fragile this may be. The need for this dialogue thus becomes increasingly urgent. The Church of England Newspaper dated Friday, January 14th 2000 carried an article urging dialogue between Christianity and Islam in order to avoid war. The article talks of Kosovo and the Sudan, and the need to reach mutual understanding “so that each faith is respected for their own beliefs and traditions”
– A Problem, or an opportunity?
Perhaps the greatest barrier to any interfaith process is exclusivism – the belief that there is only one valid faith. This has until recent years been the normative Christian position. To the Jew, election – being the chosen people of God – is a central concept, but non-Jews are part of the Noahide covenant, and there is recognition that there are righteous people among the gentiles. Most world faiths accept the validity of belief systems other than their own. Exclusivism is then for the most part a Christian idiosyncrasy. And for the Christian who wants to hold rigidly to exclusivist principles, Judaism remains a problem. The teaching that no one can come to God except through Jesus, based on John 14:6 does not sit easily alongside Paul’s statements in Romans 11 that God has not rejected His people, and that all Israel will be saved. In the past, the problem has been sidestepped using the idea of supersession – Christianity has superseded the Jews; Christians are now the chosen people in their place. This once
popular teaching has been marginalised in our day and age. The statements made by the Vatican in the last few decades have offered a lead and a way forward for the whole of Christianity. In the place of Exclusivism, Rome now advocates Inclusivism – the teaching that people of other faiths may be saved without converting to Christianity, however it is Jesus who does the saving. Newbigin defines those who hold this view as
having “an inclusivist position which acknowledges Christ as the only saviour but affirm that his saving work extends beyond the bounds of the visible church”. This easing of the former Christian position, coupled with the strong incentive towards dialogue means that today, Jewish Christian dialogue is better developed than any other interfaith dialogue. Much has been learned in the process that can be applied to dialogue with other world faiths.
The Church of England newspaper article cited above claims that dialogue between the faiths is possible even when the Christian party holds an exclusivist position. Evidence
that dialogue from this position can work can be seen in the development of a number of writers. I offer three examples.
George Knight writing in his 1962 book, “Law and Grace” said: “The Church therefore has an abiding and imperative commission to proclaim Christ to that portion of the Covenant People of God who have not yet understood that it is Christ who interprets to them their existence as Israel and who fulfils in himself the meaning of their existence
and calling ……” which at first sight seems to rule dialogue out, but he goes on to say: ” …… Yet, since the Church has still so much to learn from these its brethren who dwell
with it within the bonds of the one Covenant about the meaning of the redemption of the social order and communal life of man, both Church and Synagogue must humbly listen to what the other has to say to its ‘Siamese Twin’. Not only has each much to teach the other, each has much to learn from the other”.
In a later work “I AM – This is my name”. Knight continues to regard proclaiming Jesus to the Jews as important, but he has mellowed in his attitude a great deal, suggesting that he had in fact been in dialogue, and was probably moving towards an inclusivist position.
The late Lesslie Newbigin, who was highly regarded for his ecumenical work as a Bishop of the Church in South India first went to India as a missionary, and originally held a strictly exclusivist view. This changed over the years, and his book “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society” (1989) is a defence of theinclusivist teaching. He writes: “anyone who has had intimate friendship with a devout Hindu or Muslim would find it impossible to believe that the experience of God of which his friend speaks is simply illusion or fraud”.
Dialogue with other faiths changes and broadens our views. Only a few years ago, The
Evangelical Alliance, which represents the more conservative extreme of Christianity would have given a definite ‘No’ to dialogue. In the April/May 2000 edition of ‘Idea’, the EA magazine, there is an article entitled “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf”. This article strongly advocates dialogue. It gives an opportunity, the writer says, “to explain what we really do believe, rather than what they have been taught we believe”. It stands to reason that the converse is true as well.
I have already mentioned Jewish Christian dialogue as being very much a part of the early days of Christianity. Has anything changed that would make dialogue today any more fruitful than it was then?
In the first place, there is a difference noted already; worldwide perception of the Jews as a people has been changed forever by theShoah. The establishment of the state
of Israel is another important factor here. Jews are once again a nation as well as a people. Secondly, as mentioned above, the church in its early days was struggling for identity. Today it has stood the test of time, and no longer need feel threatened in dialogue with Jews. And with time, Christianity has matured, and learned from some, at least, of its many mistakes.
Stephen Neill (1961) quotes André Neher as saying: “Israel’s role is not to bring other peoples to itself but to God, whereas for Christianity, men can come to God only through Christianity”. I feel that this is a powerful insight on Christianity’s failure to live up to its founder. Our Christian scriptures tell us that unless we remain grafted into the “True Vine” we are as good as lost (John 15:1). The Vine here can only be Jesus
representing Israel. In Scripture, the Vine is always Israel. When we are grafted into Israel, then our purpose as Church can only be the same as that of Israel – to bring other peoples to God. That has always been the priestly function of Israel. It is also the true priestly function of the Church. How then, can we live that function while we remain at enmity with Israel?
There is a deep feeling among many Christians that the challenge of dialogue might be too much for their own faith. This has to be a sign of their underlying doubts. It is my personal experience that the greater the challenge has been, the greater the deepening of my own faith has ultimately been. A faith that is not allowed to question is no faith at all. It is quite possible to explore and re-consider without jeopardising our faith – when we are true to our faith in dialogue, our own faith will become more real and alive to us.
A Window of Opportunity
The word ‘post-modern’ is one that is being bandied about a great deal, although so far I am unaware of one single helpful definition of post-modern, I suspect we are all to some degree aware of its effect. In the churches, for example, there is a widespread tendency to move from intellectual understanding to a more spiritual and emotional experience of God. I believe that this is a symptom of something that is far more sweeping. And I believe that because Post-Modernism has at its root emotion and spirituality, attempts to intellectualise the process will be unsuccessful. Vincent Donovan (1991) sees within the process a spiritual and emotional crisis that is affecting all the world faiths. His prophetic view of the immediate future is of a flourishing of faith such as the world saw round about the time of the Major Prophets and the beginning of Zoroastrianism. He suggests that we are at the beginning of an opening window of spiritual awareness, and predicts radical change for all of our faiths if they are to survive at all. Would it be too much to suggest that a group of world faiths in dialogue could be part of this process? It was, after all, the challenge of dialogue that drove Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikhs, out into the Jungle. On his return from what must have been a profound spiritual experience, Nanak announced, “There is no Hindu, no Mussulman, only God”. I suggest that through the pain of dialogue, this might be our experience too – although naturally, we will each want to continue to worship Him in our own time-honoured way!
Thus far, we have looked at some reasons for the urgent need for dialogue between world faiths, and pointed to the central position of Jewish Christian dialogue within that process. The next question that needs to be asked is where we would expect such
dialogue to lead.
Representatives of a number of world faiths in our area meet several times a year as a body known as the Schools Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE). There are two sub-groups within SACRE for discussion purposes. Anglicans, and Other Faiths. My denomination is somewhat bizarrely placed along with Roman Catholics,
Methodists and other non-Anglican Christians, in the ‘Other Faiths’ group, together with Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and any other world faiths who wish to be represented. There is a great deal of unanimity in this diverse group simply because we all wish to see our children educated with good spiritual and moral roots. In this situation, it is concern over collapsing family values, general moral and spiritual malaise, and the need for a disciplined education with justice and world peace as common ground that motivates all of us. Here, our individual faith and religious differences take second place to the concerns which we all share together, and in which we are in general agreement. For me it is a wonderful example of what can happen when our faiths come together. Dialogue here is not for dialogue’s sake, but for the sake of our common interest in the future of our society. On that issue we are not divided. It is in issues such as this – and I would here include environment, human rights (and duties!) peace and justice – that the world faiths, under the leadership of our one God can speak with one voice. It is in these areas that together, we can speak volumes to the world.
In an earlier essay, I concluded that at the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity, somehow Christianity took prophecy out of Israel but left behind the Torah. This is a situation that can change through sensitive dialogue. Helen Fry (1996)
believes that what Christians have most to learn through dialogue with Jews is “the acknowledgement that profound experiences of God are to be found outside of Christianity”. This is saying something similar to the experience of Lesslie Newbigin out in India. I feel that this is only a beginning though. If my conclusion that the Christians left Torah behind in Israel is valid, then it is time we began to look to the Jews for something of what we have left behind. Let me give a personal example:
I had the privilege of dining with a family of South African Jews. The father of the family was telling me about his son. At one point, he said thoughtfully, “Ah well, Maimonides once asked the question, ‘What man is truly happy?’, and he answered his own question, ‘He who is satisfied with what he has”. At first, I remembered the words for the simple and highly relevant wisdom that they offer. Later, I found myself thinking that we have nothing akin to this simple but powerful store of wisdom in our Christian tradition. I can’t imagine anything in, say, Augustine, or Aquinas that might carry the same direct authority. In Christianity, the nearest that we have would be sayings from our mystics (the prophetic?), and I have to admit that most of those are less than accessible, and few if any are quotable in the way that the Jewish Sages are. I feel that there is pure gold for the Christian in an encounter with the Torah and by that I mean the full Jewish understanding of what Torah is.
A further question that will inevitably become part of dialogue is that of culture. Judaism is far more than a faith. It is a people, a nation, a faith, and a civilisation Judaism is a culture. Christianity, in its early days tended to enter into syncretistic alliances with different pre-existing cultures. This has proved both a strength and a weakness. Donovan showed the strength of the trans-cultural element of Christianity by allowing it to blend with the culture of the Masai people.
However, the culture that is central to Judaism is based as one might expect, on the Torah. Is itunreasonable to expect that Christianity too, ought to be more deeply rooted in that selfsame culture? This is not, ofcourse intended to open up the argument that was around at the time of the Council of Jerusalem. It does, however suggest that in the years following the Council of Jerusalem, we Christians left behind much from our Jewish roots that would have been of value all the way down through the centuries.
Answering the question “What have the Jews to gain from dialogue with Christians?” Fry points to prayer: “Many Jews would acknowledge that after the Shoah they have difficulty with private prayer”, and she feels that this area is one in which Jewish Christian dialogue may help. In fact, prayer and prophecy go hand in hand. Christianity is itself in the process of re-discovering the work of the Holy Spirit. This is an area in
which Christians and Jews might well learn to work together, after all, prophecy was with the Jews long before the Christians came on the scene.
I said above that interfaith dialogue might usefully look at parallels with Christian ecumenical dialogue. Churches Together in England suggested that we would do well to look at our work as churches item by item. We should continually be asking ourselves: “Is this something we could do better together?”
Statements made by the Council for Christians and Jews are far more powerful than statements made by either Jews or Christians. In ethics, morality, social order and
justice, and environmental issues, we are for the most part united. In these areas at least, we ought to be continually working together – and considering these issues alongside our counterparts in a wider faith arena. There is currently much interest on the part of Jews to dialogue with Muslims. This has been brought about by the political situation in Israel. It is this selfsame situation that can prove to be a barrier for the Muslim. The involvement of Christians in that dialogue would alter the balance a great deal. Mustafa Khalil writing to Muslims on the internet shows from the Q’ran a number of reasons why Muslims should enter into dialogue with Jews and Christians. Such dialogue would be far more effective if the three faiths did it simultaneously.
We have seen above that contact with people of another faith as friends and neighbours leads to our respect for them, and for their faith. This in itself is the beginning of dialogue and needs to be encouraged. Dr. Edward Kessler offers the view that a process of education needs to be at the forefront of dialogue
Anderson, J. N. D. 1970-1972 “Christianity and Comparative Religion” London, Tyndale Press
Chapman, Colin 1992 “The Christian Message in a Multi-Faith Society” Oxford, Latimer House
Clarke & Winter 1991 “One God One Lord” Cambridge, Tyndale House
Cracknell, Kenneth 1986 “Towards a new relationship” London, Epworth Press
Cracknell, Kenneth (Tr.) 1984 “Christians and Muslims talking together” London, BCC
D’Costa, Gavin 1990 “Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered” New York, Orbis Books
Dinshaw, Nadir 1992 “A Wide Open Heart” London, Christian Action
Donovan, Vincent J. 1978, 1982 “Christianity Rediscovered” – London, SCM
Donovan, Vincent J. 1991 “The Church in the Midst of Creation” – London, SCM
Falaturi, Petuchowsky & Strolz 1987 “Three ways to One God” Tunbridge Wells, Burns & Oates
Fry, Helen P. “Christian-Jewish Dialogue” – Exeter University – 1996
Griffiths, Bede 1982 “The Marriage of East and West” London, Fount Paperbacks
Hertzberg, Arthur 1991 ” Judaism” New York, Simon and Schuster/Touchstone
Hick, John 1999 “The Fifth Dimension” – Oxford, OneWorld
Hilborn, David 1997 “Picking up the pieces” – London, Hodder and Stoughton
Kaplan, Mordecai 1934 “Judaism as a Civilisation” New York, MacMillan
Knight, George 1983 “I AM – This is my name” Eerdmans
Knight, George 1962 “Law and Grace” London, SCM
Leeming, Bernard 1960 “The Churches and the Church” London, Darton Longman & Todd
Neill, Stephen 1961″Christian faith and other faiths” London, OUP
Newbigin, Lesslie 1989 “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society” London, SPCK
Race, Alan 1983 “Christians and Religious Pluralism” London, SCM
Sayers, Dorothy L. 1940 – “Creed or Chaos” – Hodder and Stoughton
Sidhu, Sivia and Singh 1969, 1970 & 1971 “Guru Nanak” Gravesend, The Sikh Missionary Society
URC 1980 “With People of Other Faiths in Britain” London, The United Reformed Church
From the internet:
Nostra Aetate – downloaded from the Vatican web site
Kessler, Edward – Jewish Christian Relations – the next generation – downloaded from the CJCR web site
http://ccel.org/fathers2/ Early Church Fathers – edition by Philip Schlaff
http://www.multifaithnet.org/ The home page of MultiFaithNet – supported by the University of Derby
http://www.breacais.demon.co.uk/BSR/bsr04/41_hick_interfaith.htm Interfaith and the Future by John Hick
http://www.ccj.org.uk/risks.htm Risks in Religious Dialogue by Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Magonet – Considering the sensitivities and sacrifices necessary for real understanding and progress between faith communities.
http://www.multifaithnet.org/mfnopenaccess/resource/articles/merton.html ‘Thomas Merton And Inter-Faith Dialogue’
Exploring A Way Forward.’ – Colin Albin. A paper for the Thomas Merton Society Conference, 1998
http://www.submission.org/christians/friends.html Befriending the CHRISTIANS and JEWS according to the Quran – from Islam site “submission”
http://www.brite.tcu.edu/brite/magazine/feature/infaith.htm Theological Education and the Challenges of Interfaith Dialogue Kenneth Cracknell – Research Professor in Theology and Mission – Brite college
http://web.bham.ac.uk/J.Boehle/resource.html Inter-religious Resources Web Sites of Interest
http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html statistical view of world faiths
http://www.minister.fsnet.co.uk/M909SA1.html Jesus the Pharisee – Barry Drake March 2000