Thursday, 10 May 2012

In Dialogue With the Church

The last time I was invited to speak to a Christian gethering I was still serving the St Albans communty. It's worth saying because in one of those odd 'busses come three at a time' turns of fate I've been invited to address Chirstian groups twice in the coming week. This Sunday I'm following in the Archbishop of Canterbury's footsteps in giving an endowed sermon at Gray's Inn Chapel. Next Thursday I'm speaking alongside the Roman Catholic Bishop of London at an event hosted by the Sisters of Zion.

So what should we be saying to and about Christianity and Christians?

To my so-called right is the Orthodox position that we should simply not address theology with Christians, we acknowledge, just, that their belief in physical incarnation of the Divine, falls outside of the category of idolatory and we hope that they don't kill us, but that we shouldn't aspire to any greater coming together. Rav Joseph Solevitchik, the great leader of American orthodoxy wrote that Jews and Christians should not try to 'find common denominators' because to do so risks frittering away the unique destiny of both faiths 'engaged' as Soloveitchik put it, 'in a singular normative gesture.' His rejection of the possibility of seeking agreement has dominated Orthodoxy, and turned Orthodox Jews away from accepting invitations to engage theologically with Christians for fifty years.

To my so-called left is the position of a contemporary leader of Reform Jewry, Rabbi Tony Bayfield, who wrote of the importance of transcending the stilted and lonely interactions between Jew and Christian which results in Christians praising for Jews for our family life and chicken soup but holding back on articulating the conviction 'it's a pity you are missing out on the greatest truth of all.' While Jews grudginly praise Christians for their 'cathedrals and self-sacrificng love' while holding back on sharing a belief that Christianity is all based on a mistake. Bayfield believes that both Christians and Jews have to moderate our respective truth claims and give up on hubristic faith claims that claim our beliefs are right while others are wrong. Bayfield claims that we will only be able to enter into genuine and respectful dialogue if we can moderate our truth claims.

I consider both positions half-right, though I’m closer to Soloveitchik. Like Soloveitchik I have no problem with Christians thinking I have it all wrong. As long as they don't mind my thinking that they are mistaken. But I don't accept Soloveitchik's claim that interaction and engagement risks jeopodiasing our own unique path. My experience of serious Christian-Jewish dialogue has been one that has sharpened my own sense of my own faith, it's forced my to find language to justify my beliefs and practice when faced by an 'other' who understands God and the quest for holiness and decency in ways close to, but ultimately other than, my own.

Like Bayfield I accept that much Chrisitian/Jewish dialogue is bland, politeness transcending honesty, but I don't accept respectful dialogue demands transcending my own faith claims. Nor, frankly, do I worry about a surfeit of politesse in Jewish Christian encounters - it's only been a blink of an eye since the stakes at risk when Jew and Christian encountered one another were far more deadly than being gently bored. A few centuries of gentle boredom between Jews and Christians is no bad thing. Moreover, and more importanly, I don't accept that my belief in Christian errancy is, in some way, lacking in respect - or vice versa. Respect is not predicated on the need to accept the view of the other, certainly that's not a Jewish position. Makhloket - dispute for the sake of heaven - is at the centre of the Rabbinic endeavour. We understand ourselves in dispute. When Reish Lakish, one half of the greatest Rabbinic double act of its time passes away, he leaves Rabbi Yohanan bereft. The Rabbis bring another Rabbi to the table who agrees with everything Rabbi Yohanan says, but this only increases the survivor's sense of despair at the death of his partner. Clarity, refinement, honesty and integrity are forged in the pit of rigourous, principled, engagement.

So, I will be aiming to be respectful while retaining my own sense of our own faith - including a sense of Christian error. Indeed I'll even be aiming to be polite for these are invitations I am genuinely deeply honoured to receive and a dialogue to which I am deeply committed.

Shabbat shalom

1 comment:

Joseph said...

As a Unitarian Christian who loves Judaism and who would, in all likelihood, agree with many of your views regarding Christian error, I can only say I welcome dialogue between Jews and Christians. My faith is enriched by Judaism and I view your people as possessors of a revelation that has influenced the world for the better in so many ways.

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