The Chosen People, The Savior of the World and The Final Prophet:
Addressing Absolute Claims by the Abrahamic Religions
in the Context of The Faith Club
By Suzanne Oliver
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirement for
the degree of Master of Arts at Union Theological Seminary
1. Introducing the Faith Club: Three Conflicts in Interfaith Dialogue
2. Christian Supersessionism in the Faith Club
3. Pluralist Theologians on Christian Supersessionism
4. Christology and Islamic Supersessionism in the Faith Club
5. Pluralist Theologians on Christology and Islamic Supersessionism
6. Israel and the Chosen People in the Faith Club
7. Pluralist Theologians on Israel and the Chosen People
8. The Path to Pluralism
9. Warner and Jewish Pluralism
10. Oliver and Christian Pluralism
11. Idliby and Islamic Pluralism
Is postmodern theology a specious academic endeavor or is it a necessary response by the academy to contemporary religious experience? Theologians are divided on the question, and attempts at modernizing are often met with charges of relativism or other theological error. One example is the debate over Roger Haight’s book Jesus: Symbol of God, in which the Catholic theologian argued for a reinterpretation of Jesus as a symbol of transcendent realities that can be experienced outside Christianity. In today’s postmodern world, Haight argued, Christians can no longer claim religious superiority and therefore must reinterpret their symbols so that they reveal meaning outside of the Christian theological structure. In an article about Haight’s book and the Vatican’s critical response to it, Thomas P. Rausch, a theologian at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, questioned whether theology’s attempt to adapt to a postmodern sensibility had relevance outside of the “rarified atmosphere of the contemporary university.” Suggesting that Haight might have unnecessarily gone too far theologically in accommodating a postmodern culture that might not exist, Rausch wrote, “Indeed, although postmodernism is the ruling ideology of the academy, whether there are really any postmodern people is another question.”
Rausch underestimates the challenge to the religious laity presented by the interfaith encounters that are an inevitable outcome of contemporary life. Judging from the public interest in the 2006 book The Faith Club, which tells the story of a two-year-long interfaith dialogue of three New York women, lay Americans experience the world as postmodern people and struggle to reconcile the absolute positions of their religions and those of their neighbors. Many are looking for assistance in relating pluralist conceptions of their own religions to those of others. Religions that do not offer pluralist theologies that reflect this lived experience are bound to either alienate their followers or to harden them against their neighbors. Those religions that do recognize the possibility of God’s continuing revelation in their multi-faith reality -- specifically revelation outside of their own traditions – are faced with the challenge and excitement of reimagining the theologies they hold dear in light of the beliefs of others. In this regard, the academic, theological, pluralist project is critical to contemporary religious experience; this is evident in The Faith Club dialogue in which the Jewish, Christian and Muslim co-authors independently struggle toward pluralist insight but are left feeling somehow inauthentic in their religious traditions. This paper will demonstrate that theologians in the Abrahamic traditions represented by the three women are addressing the real challenges experienced in interfaith dialogue and working within the traditions to provide relevant solutions to the conflicts therein. The essay will be in three parts. The first will 1) introduce the general context of the Faith Club dialogue, 2) identify and explain three of the major conflicts between the religions as they appear in The Faith Club, and 3) introduce the work of theologians from the respective traditions whose pluralist insights offer the possibility of a resolution to those conflicts. The second part will identify the conflicts related to pluralism that each co-author experiences within her own tradition and again offer relevant work of pluralist theologians. Part three will consist of concluding observations regarding the relevance of the work of the theologians for lay interfaith dialogue.
Introducing The Faith Club:
Three Conflicts in Interfaith Dialogue
The 2006 book The Faith Club tells the story of the two-year-long interfaith dialogue of three New York women beginning in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. These three mothers – one Jewish, one Christian and one Muslim – are liberal practitioners of their religions. Priscilla Warner is a Reform Jew. Suzanne Oliver was raised Roman Catholic, but attends an Episcopal Church. Ranya Idliby is a Sunni Muslim attracted to Sufism. None of these women has any specialized religious training, yet they come together to produce a children’s book intended to highlight the positive aspects of their religions’ shared scriptural stories, prophetic figures and ideals. In the words of Oliver, “The intent of the book – to educate children about our common heritage – seemed a necessary and noble goal in the months after September 11th.” Yet, this dialogue among gracious neighbors personally inclined to appreciate the beliefs and practices of one another encountered unexpected challenges that nearly destroyed the women’s relationship and their project. Had they been producing a cookbook, a guidebook, a history book, or a collection of fiction, it is unlikely that they would have experienced such visceral animosity and anxiety stemming from their differences. However, in the area of religion, supersession, absolute claims, past persecutions and contemporary political conflict presented seemingly irreconcilable differences, and religious identity became a hindrance to the formation of bonds of friendship between the women. Ultimately, the women of The Faith Club come to affirm the faiths of one another. Their transformations are a result of their mutual influence upon one another and their belief that love of neighbor and ultimate uncertainty in matters of faith supersede any dogmatic religious claim. Their story has appealed to an American public grappling with the fact of religious diversity, and book sales have reached 140,000 copies.
The first conflicts in the Faith Club dialogue arise in the context of the retelling of scripture stories from each tradition. The women share the stories with one another with the intention of combining them into a children’s book that would include a miraculous tale from the life of the most important figure in each tradition. Priscilla chooses to write about Moses’ encounter with God in the desert. Suzanne selects the miracle of Pentecost, seeing in its empowerment of the apostles to tell the good news of Jesus a parallel to God’s call to Moses. Idliby writes the story of the Isra and Miraj, Muhammad’s night flight journey to Jerusalem and ascension into the heavens where Jesus and the Jewish prophets welcome him into the Abrahamic family. Though their intention is to produce a book of inclusion, each woman’s story contains the seeds of a contentious claim that sets the people of the Abrahamic religions against one another. When these stories are shared in an interfaith environment, their latent divisiveness comes to the foreground.
Christian Supersessionism in The Faith Club
As Oliver prepares to share her story of Pentecost at the Faith Club meeting, she is mindful of the possibility of offending Warner with any suggestion that Jews are guilty of Jesus’ crucifixion, yet her unconsciously Christian interpretation of the term “House of Israel” leads her into the conflict she didn’t want to have. Explains Oliver, “When I wrote my first account of the crucifixion, I was wary of Priscilla taking offense. I used the term ‘Jewish people’ instead of Jews because I noticed she did the same; perhaps she felt ‘Jews’ was derogatory. I stressed Jesus’ Jewishness. If I laid any blame for the death of Jesus (which I didn’t feel I did), it was upon the Pharisees and the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.” Yet, Warner, listening on the couch in Idliby’s living room, is physically discomfited by Oliver’s story. “I squirmed a bit more. Then I felt a rush of adrenaline…a few words jumped out at me: ‘wicked hands’ and ‘Israel.’ She interrupts Oliver and asks her to reread the lines “about the Jews being the wicked men who killed Christ.” Oliver returns to her story in which she borrowed language from the King James Bible, Acts 2:22-25, which reads, “Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs…ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: whom God hath raised up.” In these words Warner hears echoes of the blood libel used as justification of Jewish persecution for centuries. Oliver, on the other hand, hears only a universal invitation to repentance and baptism. Conditioned by church tradition to think of Christians as the new House of Israel, she does not recognize a charge exclusive to Jews in her language. She reflects, “Priscilla and I processed the phrase ‘house of Israel’ entirely differently. I thought of the Jews who heard those words or read them later and stepped forward to be baptized. She thought of the ones who remained Jews and suffered from the blame of Jesus’ death for centuries.”
As Oliver and Warner attempt to explain their perspectives to one another, the conflict escalates. Warner accuses Oliver of irresponsibly repeating the charge that Jews are Christ Killers, while Oliver professes her ignorance of the term. An incredulous Warner proceeds, “That’s what people have called us Jews for centuries. Christ killers.” Oliver tries to explain her conception of a communal guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion by sharing her experience of the reading of the Passion of Jesus at Palm Sunday church services. “Those of us in the pews are always the crowd. So when Pilate asks us what we would like him to do with Jesus, we cry aloud, ‘Crucify Him! Crucify Him!’ I’m wearing the sandals of the people on the street that day, and I can feel how easily one might go along with the bloodthirsty crowd.” Warner is even more disturbed as she imagines this scene, and the resulting exchange is recorded as follows in The Faith Club.
PRISCILLA: Even the name of the Easter service you described to me – the Passion Play – sounds like the Jews are bloodthirsty. Like they’re calling out for Jesus to be nailed to the cross.
SUZANNE: Priscilla, the Passion Play is not about you at all! It’s not about the Jews!
PRISCILLA: But when you call out ‘Crucify him!’ you’re playing the part of the bad guys, and p.s., the bad guys were Jews!”
Warner questions the integrity of a Christian practice that does not recognize the consequences of retelling stories that reinforce negative stereotypes of Jews. Because of the tragic history between Jews and Christians, she is wary of Christianity. As she reflects on her conversation with Oliver in The Faith Club, she confesses to her colleagues that she once removed a crucifix that hung above her bed in an Italian pension and hid it from view in the drawer of a bedside table. As she explains, “I’d seen hundreds of images of Jesus on the cross, but, frankly, they made me uncomfortable.” Various life experiences had reinforced this discomfort; she remembers, for example, her father telling her, “For two days out of the year, Christmas and Easter, Jews should just leave the goyim [non-Jews] alone. It’s better that way.” Her father seemed to imply that there was something inherently dangerous for Jews in Christian religious practice. In the Faith Club conflict Warner is challenged to accept the possibility of a Christianity that does not threaten Judaism.
After the tense encounter with Warner, Oliver begins to read about the use of the Christ Killer charge in justifying the long history of the persecution of Europe’s Jews. Though “alarmed” by this association, she does not reflect deeply upon the role of the church in the persecution, rather she appears to attribute the oppression to nationalist movements. Further, she does not consider whether current church practices reinforce dangerous Jewish stereotypes. Trusting that anti-Semitism has been largely overcome, Oliver challenges Warner to demonstrate that she has experienced anti-Semitism in her own life. It is not until Oliver participates in Yom Kippur services with Warner more than a year later that she begins to appreciate the iconic place of the persecuted Jewish ancestors in Jewish identity and begins to feel genuine sympathy for a contemporary pain based on atrocities of the past. Oliver reads from Warner’s Jewish prayer book of “’hungry, harried, persecuted souls, who never had a choice…who had come to take another look at the stark terror of their savage death. Whose eyes all ask the ancient question: Why?’” Still, Oliver is challenged to understand the role of Christianity in the history of Jewish persecution. Surveying her own experience, she concedes a few negative cultural stereotypes of Jews, but does not further explore the relationship between anti-Judaism and Christianity. This lack of understanding is a barrier to her affirmation of Warner’s Jewish identity.
Pluralist Theologians on Christian Supersessionism
Warner’s fear of Christianity as a theological project that is necessarily hostile to Jews is addressed by theologian Michael S. Kogan, a veteran of Jewish-Christian dialogue, in his book Opening the Covenant: A Jewish Theology of Christianity. Kogan advises Jews that their self-understanding is “incomplete” if it does not “take into account the opening of its covenant to the world, represented by the figure of Jesus as he was presented to the gentiles by Paul and other early church missionary theologians.” Kogan offers a liberating prescription for Warner’s spiritually encumbering belief that Jesus is “some kind of no-no for Jews” by enabling her to encounter the New Testament as Jewish history and to affirm the Christian project as a Jewish mission to extend God’s covenant to Gentiles. “If Christians view Jesus as more than human, we need not view him as less than Jewish,” explains Kogan.
In order for Jews to embrace Jesus as a Jewish man with a divine mission to open the Jewish covenant to the Gentile world, they must transcend the traditional view of Jesus as a failed messiah; rather than measure Jesus’ success against the Jewish standard of Messiah -- one who brings universal peace to the world -- Jews should view Jesus’ mission in the context of the divinely bestowed mission of the Jewish people. Explains Kogan, “We are called to put our shoulders to the wheel of history and push forward until this human world becomes the Kingdom of God—or, at least, until it is made worthy to receive the Messiah who will bring the age of peace and justice to flower for all.” With that context in mind, Jews such as Warner should be able to embrace the historical and religious significance of Jesus to Judaism as a Jewish man who preached an ethical message that through Paul and his other interpreters spread the worship of Israel’s God to much of the world, thereby further enabling the coming of God’s kingdom. “Has Jesus brought redemption to Israel? No, but he has brought the means of redemption to the gentiles—and that in the name of Israel’s God—thus helping Israel to fulfill its calling to be a blessing to all peoples.”
In addition to a reconfiguring of the person of Jesus in the Jewish tradition, Kogan advises that by embracing the New Testament as Jewish history, Jews can begin to understand the anti-Judaism within it as polemical remnants of an intra-Jewish struggle between the Nazarene movement and its Sadducee and Pharisee opposition. The New Testament writings bear the traces of one side of this hostile argument between Jesus’ followers, the Nazarenes, and the much more powerful Jewish establishment, which viewed the Nazarene sect as heretical. Writes Kogan, “While Jews are painfully aware of the anti-Jewish polemics of sections of the New Testament and much of Christian tradition, they are not aware of the hostility of Jewish authorities to the nascent Nazarene movement of the first century.” Understanding that historical conflict would give Jews a better understanding of the paradigm-shifting period in which competing Judaisms struggled for acceptance in the last decades of Temple Judaism under the Roman Empire.
The world of the New Testament is one of rabbis and synagogues, of Torah interpreters, and of Jewish yearning for the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes. If one of those Torah interpreters became the central figure of a new faith founded by Jews who developed a variant reading of Jewish tradition, should not we Jews find the accounts of all this as fascinating as do gentiles? This is our history. It is surely not inappropriate for Jews to teach this very Jewish story.
If this Jewish story were addressed in Jewish education, it is likely that Warner would have been better prepared to receive Oliver’s telling of her perspective on the meaning of the Passion of Jesus. Warner might have received the criticism of the House of Israel within the Gospels as one delivered by Jews to Jews, and one that symbolically applies to all humanity after the coming of Jesus.
The ability of modern Jews to “open the covenant” to Christians depends in turn upon the willingness of Christians to embrace the endurance of the Jewish covenant and to reject the traditional Christian conception that Christianity has replaced Judaism as God’s favored covenant partner. Catholic theologian Mary C. Boys sees this Christian reinterpretation of covenant as crucial for improved Jewish-Christian relations. Her article “The Enduring Covenant” and her book Has God Only One Blessing? Judaism as a Source of Christian Self-Understanding address the insidious legacy of Christian supersessionism and advocates changes in Christian thought and practice that would more easily enable Christians to embrace Jews as equals before God. If Oliver had read the work of Boys or had heard about the teaching of contempt at her Episcopal parish (as Warner did at her synagogue), she would have been able to understand Warner’s reaction to the language she had presented in her Pentecost story. Further, she would have understood that her stereotype of Judaism as legalistic and inferior to Christianity was built upon polemic recorded in the New Testament and was not a full and honest presentation of Judaism.
From Oliver’s encounter with Warner in The Faith Club, it is evident that it is not enough for a Christian to denounce anti-Semitism. In order to be in an equal relationship with a Jew, a Christian must also understand and overcome the legacy of supersessionism. According to Boys, supersessionism has three inherent claims. “1) The New Testament fulfills the Old Testament; 2) the church replaces the Jews as God’s people; and 3) Judaism is obsolete, its covenant abrogated.” Boys cautions Christians to consider the implications of supersessionism on the Christian conception of God and on the Jewish people. Oliver, like many Christians, feels Christianity to be superior to Judaism, and the new covenant of love to have replaced the old covenant of laws. Boys asks, “What kind of a God would betray divine promises? Or, if a people’s infidelity causes God to cancel covenants, then do not the many acts of Christian infidelity offer God abundant opportunity to cancel our covenant?”
Boys illustrates the development of supersessionism and what Jewish historian Jules Isaac called “the teaching of contempt” in the early centuries of the church, showing the roots of the “Christ Killer” charge that Warner accused Oliver of stirring up and suggesting a link between the scriptural portrayal of Jews in the New Testament and the violence against Jews by Christians. “For much of our history we have disparaged Judaism, thinking somehow that the validity of our faith depended upon its supplanting the Jewish tradition from which we came,” explains Boys. Early examples include the charge of Origen (185-254 CE) that the Jews had committed an “impious crime” in killing Christ and as a result God had demolished their Temple and transferred his blessing to the Christians; Melito’s second-century Homily on Passover, in which he claimed that God had been murdered by an Israelite hand; and Augustine’s claim that the Church holds the Jewish people to be cursed and that they “continue in impiety and unbelief.” Such anti-Jewish attitudes have prevailed throughout church history and have negatively influenced Jewish-Christian relations. Eva Fleischner, in her essay “The Shoah and Jewish-Christian Relations” writes, “Without doubt, the teaching of contempt fertilized the soil in which Hitler’s genocidal anti-Semitism flourished.”
Boys outlines contemporary church decrees and commentary beginning in the 20th century repudiating Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus and affirming the endurance of the Jewish covenant with God. Yet, Christian attitudes of superiority over Judaism continue and are nursed by scripture itself. Oliver’s stance toward Judaism appears to have been formed primarily through church liturgy, thus illustrating the negative effects of the stereotyping of Jews in the New Testament. She thinks of Jesus as a “perfect example of love, charity and humility” in contrast to the hypocritical Jewish leaders of his time and the flawed prophets of the Old Testament. Boys recognizes the danger of the supersessionistic claims that continue to be heard by the Christian laity in scripture and liturgy in spite of significant statements of reconciliation with the Jewish people issued by church leaders. “Supersessionism…permeates our liturgical life,” writes Boys, who advocates re-education and liturgical reform, especially of the Holy Week liturgies. Echoes Fleischner, “The selection and interpretation of scripture readings, especially during Holy Week and the Easter season, are in urgent need of reform…Most Christians have no idea of the recommendations various churches have made in the past forty or so years that offer crucial context for understanding the death of Jesus in its fuller historical and theological setting.” Indeed, Oliver had been attending Holy Week services for her entire life and had never heard the context that Fleischner references. Judging from Oliver’s experience in the Faith Club, it is not enough that Christian clergy refrain from preaching anti-Judaism; the roots and legacy of anti-Judaism must be openly addressed in forums that include the laity of Christian communities.
Christology and Islamic Supersessionism in The Faith Club
When the women of the Faith Club initially sit down to discuss scripture, Oliver is delighted to discover a shared reverence for Biblical figures and stories, such as those of Adam, Noah, Jonah, and even Jesus, but as the dialogue continues, Islamic claims of supersessionism lead Oliver to reject Islam, and Idliby struggles to affirm the Christian conception of Jesus as savior. At first Oliver accepts the appearance of Jesus in the Islamic story of Isra and Miraj as a benign compliment to his universal significance as an ethical teacher; the story’s depiction of Jesus as a rider of the magical horse Baraq and as welcoming Muhammad into the heavens as a prophet seems harmless. But when the Islamic story begins to contradict her own, she becomes uneasy. She doesn’t like the idea of Muslims demoting Jesus to prophet status, denying his resurrection and elevating Muhammad above him as the “Final Prophet.” She asks Idliby about the role of Muhammad in Islam. “Tell me more about Muhammad. What was his mission?” she asks. Idliby replies: “He came to fix what had gone wrong in Judaism and Christianity.” Oliver feels both defensive of Christianity and dubious of Islam. When Idliby tells her that Muhammad spoke to his oppressors in words reminiscent of Jesus in the Gospels (“Guide these people in the right path for they do not know what they do.”) and that a Christian monk confirmed his prophecy, she dismisses Muhammad as a warrior and Islam as a fraudulent imitation of Christianity. God, she believes, already reconciled humanity through Jesus, and there was no need for a “reformer” of Christianity. Furthermore, the Islamic claim that Muslims are instructed to believe in the Gospels and the Torah is a phony claim that is impossible to fulfill based upon the irreconcilable differences in the Christian and Muslim understandings of Jesus.
The differences between Christian and Muslim beliefs regarding Jesus are also a challenge for Idliby in her effort to affirm the truth of Christianity. “My issue with Christianity is the concept of the Trinity,” she says. “I saw a bumper sticker recently that said, ‘Jesus loves you. Jesus will save you.’ I feel that God will save me. That Jesus died for my sins, I can do without.” How can she reconcile the trinity and the strict monotheism of Islam? She feels the barrier imposed by the different Christologies when she accompanies Oliver to an Easter service at her church. “Then came Holy Communion. It was at that point that my Muslim identity actively began to assert itself. My Muslim understanding of Jesus as human made me feel apart from those who were lining up to take bread. The ritual of receiving bread, in my mind, is the strongest embodiment and symbolic enactment of the concept of the Holy Trinity and the Christian understanding of Jesus as divine, as God on earth.” A year later in the Faith Club dialogue, the writing of Gandhi guides Idliby to an appreciation of the human Jesus. “Gandhi was convinced that Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount was meant for all humanity. Jesus, Gandhi believed, belonged to the world, to all races and people who strove to bring their own lives into harmony with Jesus’ divine virtues.” Yet Idliby and Oliver continue to struggle for agreement regarding Jesus. When Idliby suggests that she can appreciate Jesus as an ethical leader who died for his convictions, Oliver insists that he is more than that.
Pluralist Theologians on Christology and Islamic Supersessionism
When the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik constructed the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in 691 CE, some 60 years after Muslims had conquered Jerusalem, he had inscribed on its walls Quranic criticisms of both Judaism and Christianity, including the following: “Praise be to God, who begets no son, and has no partner in [his] dominion.” Indeed, the Islamic critique of the Christian trinity is as old as the religion itself and is recorded in the Quran, in the traditions and in its buildings, so it is not surprising that Idliby has difficulty affirming the Christian understanding of Jesus’ divinity. Abd al-Malik’s construction on the Temple Mount was a physical representation of Islamic supersession over Judaism and Christianity. Explains historian Eric H. Cline, author of Jerusalem Besieged, “The buildings were perhaps also meant to make the statement that the religion of Islam represented God’s final revelation, superseding his earlier revelations to the Hebrews and Christians and correcting the errors to which the earlier religions had become prey.” According to Islam, Christianity’s grave error was to mistake Jesus for God and to make an idol of him. Islam’s compulsive affirmation of God’s oneness might be a reaction to the perceived polytheism of the Christian trinitarian formulation. At a minimum, it conceives that formulation to contradict God’s oneness.
People of the Book, do not transgress the bounds of your religion. Speak nothing but the truth about God. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was no more than God’s apostle and His Word which He cast to Mary: a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His apostles and do not say: ‘Three.’ Forbear, and it shall be better for you. God is but one God. God forbid that He should have a son! His is all that the heavens and the earth contain. God is the all-sufficient protector. (Q 4:171)
With such instruction recorded in scripture, Islam’s invalidation of Christianity seems incontrovertible, and Idliby and Oliver appear destined for disagreement. Not so, says Muslim theologian Mahmoud Ayoub. In his essay collection A Muslim View of Christianity, Ayoub explains how Muslims like Idliby can find a route within Islam to better understand and even affirm the Christian view of Jesus. “Jesus Christ, Son of Mary, the Spirit of God and His Word, has provided both a bridge between Christian and Muslim faith and piety and a great theological barrier between the Christian church and the Muslim umma,” Ayoub writes. “I am convinced that this theological barrier is not an impenetrable wall dividing our two communities.”
Against a Christian claim of the divinity of Jesus, Islam carries two lines of argument, explains Ayoub. The first is against the possibility of a transcendent God engendering a son. “[Islamic theologians] contrast God’s transcendence, omnipotence, origination of all things, and sovereignty over all His creation with human non-self-sufficiency, and hence the need for offspring.” This argument is founded in Quranic verses such as the following, which forbids ascribing offspring to God:
They say that God took unto Himself an offspring; glorified be He! Rather to Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and the earth; all are subservient to Him. The originator of the heavens and the earth, when he decrees a thing He says to it ‘be,’ and it is. (Q. 2:116-17)
The Quranic commentator al-Qurtubi explains this verse as an argument against the possibility of the transcendent engendering a son either with or without a consort.
God is the creator of all that exists in His creation, and if all is His creation, then none of His creatures can be His offspring: waladihhah (engendering), implies sameness of species and temporality; while quidam (eternality), implies unicity (wihdaniyyah) and permanence. God, glorified be He, is eternal (azali), the One and ‘Unique (ahad), eternal refuge (samad), who does not beget nor was he begotten. Nor is there anyone equal unto Him.” (Q. 112)
The Islamic ideal of God’s unicity (ahad) is the basis for the second Quranic critique of Jesus’ divinity, which holds that it is impossible for a trinity to exist within God’s unicity. Ayoub argues that the Islamic critiques of the Christian Jesus present a too simplified picture of the ideas that the Christian trinity conveys to its believers, and that Muslims can come closer to affirming the Christian view of Jesus’ divinity without adopting it for themselves by a) acknowledging the range of symbolic meaning within the Christian tradition in the terms expressing Jesus’ divinity and b) lifting up the Quranic designation of Jesus as a divine sign, born without sin, and as a symbol of forgiveness, love, and healing.
“God speaks to us in our historical and existential human condition,” observes Ayoub, “and to attempt to hear His voice in isolation from human history is to miss the essential message of His Word.” Ayoub believes that Muslims neglect crucial elements of the Christian conception of Jesus when they simply react to the terminology of Jesus as the “Son of God.” In neglecting to understand the trinity on its own terms, Islam makes Christianity a caricature of itself and needlessly creates a barrier between the two religions. “Islam insists on ‘man being man’ and God being God in the absolute sense,” explains Ayoub. “Christianity, springing up in a different spiritual and cultural milieu, begins not with the ascent of man to the divine but rather the descent of the divine to man.” In each instance Jesus is located at the nexus of humanity and God. It is there that Muslims and Christians can find a shared context for Jesus.
Both Islam and Christianity allow for the divine to enter the physical world; in Christianity it occurs within the person of Jesus, and in Islam it occurs in the revelation of the Quran. Both are perceived as the “word of God” in their traditions, so the concept of the divine taking some sort of physical form is not foreign to Islam. While Idliby may insist on the humanity of Jesus in Islam, she can affirm the idea of the divine being revealed in the physical world in Islam and in Christianity. Ayoub suggests that Muslims can even attribute a savior role to Jesus, albeit a conception of savior that is applicable to the Islamic context. In the Islamic tradition, he explains, there is not a conception of sin and redemption as in Christianity so there is no requirement for a penitential offering to unite God and humanity. According to Islam, humanity will be united with God at the end of time depending upon each person’s actions on earth. In this sense, Jesus is saving according to an Islamic conception of guiding humanity by modeling right actions. Additional support for a Muslim conception of Jesus as savior is evident in the Quran’s attribution of healing miracles to Jesus. “The Qur’an credits Jesus alone among the prophets with raising the dead, giving sight to those born blind (as the Arabic word akmah indicates), and healing the lepers and the sick (Q. 3:49; 5:113).” Jesus’ healing is saving by Islamic standards, observes Ayoub. It is not un-Islamic, he argues, for Muslims to see in Jesus a “life-giving and sanctifying divine force.”
The Sufi tradition models what Ayoub suggests may be the basis for a bridge from the Muslim Jesus to the Christian Jesus. “The Sufis, while not rejecting the traditional interpretation completely, have attempted to see Christ as the universal perfect man through whom all religions will be unified and humanity brought nearer to God.” The Quran’s identifying Jesus as a sign (ayah) and the Islamic expectation of Jesus’ return at the final judgment support this Sufi view. “Hence, for the Sufis, Jesus becomes the example of piety, renunciation of worldly pleasures, and poverty, the one after whom they sought to pattern their lives and conduct.” It is not imperative, however, for all Muslims to adopt the Sufi view in order to better understand the Christian Jesus and its relation to Islam. As Ayoub demonstrates, Muslims can build a bridge from the Muslim Jesus to the Christian Jesus by recognizing and sharing the high place that Christ occupies in Muslim faith and piety, seeing a parallel communion of the divine and the physical in Jesus and in the Quran, and honoring the persistent Islamic belief that Christianity is essentially a true faith. This recognition of the truth of Christianity is evident in verses affirming Jews and Christians as fellow “people of the book,” in Quranic verse 22:40 affirming that God is worshipped in churches, synagogues and mosques, and in Muhammad’s allowing Christians to pray in his mosque. The Quran commands Muslims to say to Jews and Christians, “we accept faith in that which was sent down to us and that which was sent down to you. Our God and your God is One and to Him we are Submitters.” (29:46)
Unfortunately, Christianity can’t point to a similar endorsement of Islam because its scripture precedes that of Islam and, perhaps more significantly, because of the church’s traditional view that there is no salvation outside of the church. This doctrine has meant that throughout the centuries Christianity has viewed Islam as the religion of an impious imposter, a warrior and false prophet. In his 1095 speech at Clermont announcing his call to what became known as the First Crusade, Urban II stirred France’s Catholics against Muslims with charges of profane atrocities in Jerusalem, calling them a “vile race,” “pagans”, “an instrument of demons,” “infidels,” and “an accursed race utterly alienated from God” according to the accounts of the speech by Fulcher of Chartres. During the Enlightenment, the views of some Europeans on Islam softened, but the rise of Christian evangelism in the 19th and 20th centuries reinvigorated the old stereotypes as Christians inspired by the Great Commission set out to convert and civilize the Islamic world. Though influenced by the church’s historical stance toward Islam, Oliver’s discomfort with the Muslim Jesus is of a 21st century sort. She does not want to change Idliby’s view of Jesus so that Idliby can be saved, rather she wants to affirm Idliby’s Islamic Jesus without contradicting her own Christian Jesus.
As Idliby might find help in Ayoub’s lifting up of the Quranic Jesus, Oliver might benefit from the Christological approach presented by Roger Haight in his essay “Pluralist Christology as Orthodox” in the book The Myth of Religious Superiority: A Multifaith Exploration. In his article, Haight outlines an argument for a Christian belief that “affirms Jesus as the Christ in a way that does not construe Christianity as the one and only true faith and way of salvation uniquely superior to all others.” The Jesus that is at the center of this argument can live side-by-side with an affirmation of the Islamic Jesus for Muslims. Haight proposes a framework of five essential principles of orthodox Christology and illustrates that the promise of a pluralist Christology rests within the confines of each principle. Such a Christological framework would relieve Oliver’s fear that in order to affirm the human Jesus as understood by Idliby, she must reject the divine Jesus of Christianity.
The first two principles of Haight’s argument tether but do not restrict Christology to its original historical context and affirm the diversity of accounts of the events of Jesus’ life and of the New Testament interpretations of Jesus as the Christ. This framework denies the possibility of an absolutist Christology because it is already aware that historical events have had an impact on the Christian understanding of Jesus, which is already presented in multiple forms. It underscores the validity of this New Testament multiplicity against the tendency of some theologians to favor the “higher” Christologies of the New Testament, such as that of the Gospel of John. These first two principles might encourage Oliver to explore the “lower” Christology of Mark or to at least feel that a foray outside the higher Christology of John is within the confines of orthodoxy. The next two principles presented by Haight consider the essential meaning of the Christian conceptions of Jesus as divine, raising the meaning of the historical symbol of Jesus over the symbol itself. For the New Testament writers and for Christians, “the person of Jesus embodies a divine quality or character” that “makes true God, and nothing less than God, present and effective in history for human salvation.” That, writes Haight, is the “point of the metaphor of incarnation and the doctrine of Nicea.” Finally, Haight’s fifth principle reminds Christians that the purpose of Chalcedon in confirming the “creaturely status of Jesus” was to “retrieve the figure of Jesus from an exaggerated emphasis on his divinity.” With these five principles as a Christological foundation, Oliver can affirm the Muslim Jesus, particularly as presented by Ayoub, because she can 1) accept that there can be a variety of views of Jesus’ saving role, 2) see the Christian Jesus as a symbol of God’s saving presence in history, rather than as the only determining factor of salvation for humanity 3) recognize the shared divine and human natures of Jesus as doctrine formed in the context of a historical debate on the figure of Jesus and even consider the Islamic conception of Jesus as participating in that side of the debate that sought to emphasize Jesus’ humanity.
Israel and the Chosen People In The Faith Club
The chapter of The Faith Club titled “The Promised Land” contains a fiery and unresolved debate on the religious meaning of the Jewish claim to Israel and the ethics of the treatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state. As the daughter of Muslim Palestinian parents who were displaced in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, Idliby forcefully criticizes the ethics of a religious state making a historical claim to land based upon scripture. Warner responds that thousands of years of persecution culminating in the Holocaust justify the creation of Israel but not its mistreatment of Palestinians. Both women accuse the other side of using religion to justify violence, but neither believes its own side is above criticism. Warner advises Jews to “take a good, long look in the mirror”, while Idliby condemns suicide-bombing as un-Islamic. Caught up in communicating their own perspective on the political impasse that is Israel, neither Idliby nor Warner looks to their religious traditions for peaceful solutions.
“It is quite a burden when your national identity becomes an existential challenge synonymous with anti-Semitism,” confides Idliby. For decades, she explains, Israeli nationalists have attempted to erase the Palestinian people and de-legitimize their national aspirations with slogans such as Golda Meir’s “A land without people for a people without a land,” home destruction, imprisonment, isolation and unequal treatment under the law. When Palestinians have attempted to speak out or fight back, Idliby says, they are characterized as anti-Semites and terrorists rather than liberators and freedom fighters. Idliby does not demand full restitution of property lost in her family’s flight from Palestine in 1948, but rather recognition of the righteousness of the Palestinian cause. The extent of her family’s loss and the imbalance of power in Israel make it difficult for Idliby to advocate that the Palestinians accept peace on Israel’s terms.
As Idliby presses Warner to justify the Jewish claim to Israel on religious grounds, Warner appears a weak counterpart to Idliby, denying the meaning of phrases that have played an important role in Jewish self-understanding for millenia. When Idliby scornfully mentions the phrase “the chosen people,” Warner responds, “I don’t even know where ‘the chosen people’ comes from.” When Idliby mentions the “Promised Land…God gave to the Jews”, Warner responds, “But I don’t call Israel ‘The Promised Land!’” Warner feels empathy for Idliby’s suffering, yet she also feels loyalty to her persecuted Jewish ancestors, a loyalty that is physically realized in the state of Israel. Reflecting on her conversations with Idliby concerning Israel, Warner writes, “I feel torn between my ‘tribe’ and its history, its tragic heritage of the Holocaust, its repeated suffering in the face of anti-Semitism and the suffering of millions of Palestinians.” She yearns for peace in Israel but is suspicious of Palestinian intentions. “…The notion that Arabs have been trying to push Jews into the ocean is something I had grown up hearing at the Hebrew Day School, from my father’s comments about the 1967 War, and lately, when Jews spoke among themselves expressing concern about the survival of Israel.” Reflecting the tension between her emotional connection to Israel and her understanding of Jewish ethics, Warner ends the chapter with a passage from the Jewish prayer book Gates of Repentance.
When will redemption come?
When we master the violence that fills our world.
When we look upon others as we would have them look upon us.
When we grant to every person the rights we claim for ourselves.
Pluralist Theologians on Israel and the Chosen People
Can theologians offer any common ground on Israel to Idliby and Warner or is the confrontation too complicated and emotionally charged for religion to be of any use? As Idliby and Warner understand, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is multi-layered and complicated by religious claims, historical grievances, and the pressures of realpolitik. Indeed, because of its very complexity, resolution will require efforts from many parties, including those representing Jewish and Muslim views. Echoing the often-repeated warning of Hans Kung, there will be no peace in the world, until there is peace among the religions. The Muslim approach will not be the only Palestinian religious approach to peace; the Palestinians themselves are both Christian and Muslim. However, the Muslim approach is the appropriate one for Idliby in the Faith Club dialogue. In the book chapter titled “Ranya’s Madrassah”, Idliby denounces violence committed in the name of Islam, pointing out the values of beauty, generosity, social justice and universalism that are emphasized in the Quran. In the chapter on Israel, “The Promised Land”, she is interested in establishing the righteousness of the Palestinian claim from a political perspective. She implicates the world’s Jews (calling the Israel conflict “the Jewish-Palestinian conflict”), but does not articulate a religious role for Muslims in bringing peace to Israel. Recognition of the Islamic obligation to peace-building might help Idliby move beyond her personal loss in Palestine toward a proactive reconciliation with the Jewish people. In this regard, she might be led by the example of Abdul Ghaffar Khan who developed and practiced an Islamic principle of non-violence as he led social justice and freedom movements in Pakistan in the 20th century. It is to Khan that Islamic theologian Mohammed Abu-Nimer appeals as an example in his article “An Islamic Model of Conflict Resolution: Principles and Challenges,” which outlines the principles, precedents and traditions in Islam that can serve as a basis for Islamic conflict resolution and peace-building.
To begin his article, Nimer describes the close link in the Quran between justice and peace, both primary values of Islam. The concept is idiomatic, but true to Islamic thought: there is no peace without justice, and there is no justice without peace. With that Quranic concept in mind, Abu-Nimer suggests that we can better understand why so many disgruntled Muslims from the colonized world look to their religion for direction in improving their situation. As he explains, “The historical relationship between most Muslim societies and Europe and the United States is characterized by collective memories of colonial and imperial policies aimed at suppressing the rights and identities of locals. Suspicion of any foreign plan or agenda quickly and easily brings back these memories of victimhood and exploitations, as well as the need to protect cultural and religious identities.” The world’s Muslims view the conflict in Israel in this context and are encouraged by at least twenty-five Quranic verses encouraging Muslims to take more responsibility for the social injustices in their communities. Muslim theologian Tariq Ramadan, author of Western Muslims and The Future of Islam writes: “Defending all the forgotten people of the continent of Africa, the Palestinian resistance, the rights of the Chechens and the Tibetans and all the oppressed peoples of the world is the most explicit expression of our fidelity to our principles and our ethics.” According to this understanding, Muslim support for the Palestinians is a religious imperative.
Aub-Nimer’s approach to Islamic peace-building might have helped Idliby supplement her advocacy for Palestinian justice with a call for Islamic peace-making, and that gracious gesture would have better represented the two-pronged Islamic approach to justice and peace, without harming Idliby’s developing relationship with Warner. At the time of the Faith Club conversations, which followed close on the heels of the World Trade Center attacks, it was not easy to convince many Americans that Islam was a religion of peace. The bombers had defined Jihad as Holy War, and Western Orientalist stereotyping supported that view. In addition to citing many Quranic verses upholding the importance of kindness and generosity and outlining the significant example of Muhammad’s efforts toward establishing justice and peace , especially in his Meccan period, Abu-Nimer recounts the following famous Muslim hadith:
Whenever violence enters into something it disgraces it; and whenever “gentle-civility” enters into something it graces it. Truly, God bestows on account of gentle conduct what he does not bestow on account of violent conduct.”
Another tradition recounted by Abu-Nimer regards Muhammad’s comment on a well-known Muslim command to help your brother [Muslim] whether he is an aggressor or a victim of aggression. “When Muslims asked the Prophet how they could assist their brother when he was the aggressor, he replied, ‘By doing your best to stop him from aggression.’” Islamic tradition recognizes that the process of ending aggression often requires forgiveness, as Abu-Nimer recounts. “Repel evil [not with evil] but something that is better (ahmsan) – that is, with forgiveness and amnesty.” Finally, Abu-Nimer mentions several Islamic traditions that might be incorporated into peace-building efforts including the concept of shura, which is collective consultation in communal decision-making, and sulha, a traditional ritual for restoring honor and dignity to victims. It would be interesting to see Idliby’s reflections on the application of Islamic peace-building resources as outlined by Abu-Nimer with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At a minimum, they would introduce non-Muslims including Warner to the peaceful tradition within Islam, thereby fulfilling one of Idliby’s objectives in the Faith Club dialogue.
In the course of the conversation regarding Israel, Idliby cautions Warner, “You have to transcend [the Holocaust] sometimes, not make it the cornerstone of who you are.” And Warner replies, “But it is the cornerstone! Every Jew is told ‘Never forget.’ That is what we learn constantly in Hebrew school.” The challenge of faithfully remembering and the fear of reliving the Holocaust play a large role in the Jewish relationship to Israel, and Warner conveys this in the course of the dialogue. Like Idliby, however, she reduces the conflict to the political plane, denying the validity of a religious role in articulating the Jewish attachment to Israel or in bringing peace to Israel. In both of these areas, she would find help from Michael S. Kogan and from Gilbert S. Rosenthal, author of What Can A Modern Jew Believe? Both theologians portray Israel as a religious rebirth following the Jewish Holocaust, comparable in symbolic value for Jews as the resurrection of Jesus is for Christians. “Israel is the collective individual begotten by God to redeem the world; Jesus is the single individual divinely begotten for the same purpose. One goes from Auschwitz to Zion-reborn in three years, the other from the cross to new life in three days,” writes Kogan. Rosenberg echoes Kogan’s view: “The rebirth of the ancient homeland along with the revival of the Hebrew language as a living tongue are unprecedented events in human history and really, in my view, nothing short of miraculous.” Miracles, according to religious understanding, have a purpose. Rosenberg and Kogan both recognize that a religious justification for Israel carries with it a religious obligation. A people of ethics and witness cannot merely take Israel as the prize for their chosen status or as compensation for their suffering. An ethical obligation accompanies the calling of the Jewish people into covenant with God, and the land is symbolic of that covenant, without religious meaning apart from the covenant. As the resurrection brings redemption to more than one man, the rebirth of Israel must bring redemption to more than one nation. Writes Rosenberg, “The State of Israel must be a laboratory of such values and a light and an exemplar to the nations.” This poses great challenges for a persecuted, diaspora people who have been without a nation for longer than they controlled one. After being without sovereignty since Roman days, Jews now have an opportunity to live free from prejudice and persecution and to fashion their own destiny, which Rosenberg recognizes as a “necessary element of messianic salvation.” The question of how to include others in that salvation is unresolved. The perception among many Christians and Arabs is that Israel does not fulfill its ethical obligations to its own neighbors and non-Jewish citizens, and, as a result, criticism, antagonism and violence have increased. “Herzl’s thesis that we can cure anti-Semitism by creating a Jewish state and removing Jews from the lands of the haters has proved wrong. First, most Jews have not willingly opted to go to Israel—certainly not from lands of freedom. Second, anti-Semitism has now been diverted in large part from world Jewry and has been focused on Israel.” Here, Rosenberg behaves like the Jews lamented by Idliby who characterize criticism of the Jewish state as anti-Semitic. Warner, however, never accuses Idliby of anti-Semitism because she recognizes Idliby’s viewpoint as coming from her own family’s experience. Indeed, Warner recognizes that the political cauldron of Israel is comprised of hurts on all sides. With the help of Kogan and Rosenberg, she might better understand the Jewish religious perspective enabling her to build a bridge toward the Palestinian side, which she encounters through her dialogue with Idliby.
Part II: The Path to Pluralism
The authors of The Faith Club do not need theologians to convince them of the possibility of religious pluralism. They each find their way there by reason and as a result of their enriching, shared dialogue. On the last page of the book, Oliver walks down a New Hampshire country road and reflects, “I thanked God for the experience of seeing life and death through the eyes of two people who were so different from myself. It was a gift…” Similarly, Warner begins her last writing in The Faith Club with a disclaimer, “I’m not a historian…a politician, a political scientist, a theologian or a peace negotiator. My story is just the story of how I met Ranya and Suzanne and how they changed my life and the way I look at things.” The reader gets the impression that the authors see their affirmation of one another’s perspectives -- in other words their new-found pluralism -- as a treasured reward for the effort they made to understand one another. At the same time, each feels somehow unorthodox in her own religious tradition and wonders if the tradition is capacious enough to support her evolving views. Theologians working on pluralist theologies of religion in each tradition have addressed the conflicted situation in which The Faith Club authors find themselves; their work would help the authors resolve their anxiety that they must make a choice between their religion and their relationships.
Warner and Jewish Pluralism
Warner worries that her position on Israel and her sporadic temple attendance will not be accepted in her Jewish community. “I don’t feel like I’m on the Israeli side of the fence,” she confides. Meanwhile, she has become intrigued by Jewish mysticism and captivated by the work of Jewish philosopher and mystic Martin Buber, whose writing confirms the primacy of relation and the presence of God in every authentic encounter. Her new appreciation for Buber has been influenced by her dialogue experience and is reflected in her selection of a quote from Buber for the book’s dedication page: “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” At the same time, she worries that “some Jews would question my authenticity.” This is on account of her sympathy for the Palestinian cause and her nontraditional understanding of God. Warner says that she now believes that God is “the goodness that exists inside each and every human being, every animal, every flower…and is a force that binds us together, showing up in the moments when people make unexpected, magical connections with one another.” This is far removed from the anthropomorphic, judgmental, Jewish God Warner characterized at the beginning of the Faith Club dialogue. Her conversations have inspired her to continue her spiritual pursuit. She goes to the bookstore and purchases a stack of books on religion, but readers are left wondering whether Warner will find a place in the Jewish tradition for her mystical-leaning pluralism.
One wishes that Warner discovered the work of reform rabbi and theologian Dan Cohn-Sherbok in her trip to Barnes and Noble. If she had, she might not have finished the Faith Club dialogues feeling so insecure in her Jewish identity. Cohn-Sherbok, in his article “Judaism and Other Faiths,” argues that the apophatic tradition found in Jewish scripture, rabbinic literature and Jewish mysticism acts as a critique of all positive absolute and exclusive claims in the Jewish tradition and therefore provides a sound Jewish foundation for pluralist theology. Historically Jews have upheld somewhat contradictory beliefs regarding other religious traditions, explains Cohn-Sherbok. On one hand, they have maintained belief in God’s authentic revelation outside of Judaism based upon the Noahide covenant. In the rabbinic tradition, all non-Jews who followed the Noahide laws upholding principles of justice and morality were considered acceptable to God. At the same time, Jews have been constrained from accepting that Israel’s God may have revealed more to Gentiles than the Noahide laws. Thus the 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonodes could call Christianity and Islam altered and idolatrous forms of Judaism. The traditional Jewish belief has been that other nations may worship other gods, but all humans would recognize the God of Israel as the universal God at the end of time. The Jewish apophatic tradition provides a pluralist alternative to this Jewish inclusivism through a “paradigm shift from a Judeo-centric to a divine-centric conception of religious history,” says Cohn-Sherbok.
By de-centering the particularity of the Jewish people, Judaism can lift up a vibrant apophatic tradition that Cohn-Sherbok traces all the way to Exodus 33:20 when the Lord tells Moses, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” This theme reappears throughout Jewish scripture, says Cohn-Sherbok, and is upheld in multiple passages from rabbinic literature that suggest that humans should refrain from attempting to describe God. The Jewish mystical and philosophical traditions have also warned of the impossibility of making positive statements about God’s attributes. In the tradition of kabbalah, this idea is expressed as the Ayn Sof – the infinite beyond human comprehension. Cohn-Sherbok describes the treatise Duties of the Heart by the eleventh-century Jewish philosopher Bahya Ibn Pakudah, which argues that the concept of God’s unity involves the negation from God of all human and finite limitations. If Jews can embrace this apophatic tradition in their own religious history, the result will be that “Jewry can acknowledge the inevitable subjectivity of all religious beliefs, including those contained in the Jewish heritage,” says Cohn-Sherbok. This will not eliminate Jewish identity or practice, but will require that they be maintained with humility. He concludes, “Judaism, like all other major world religions, is built around its own distinctive way of thinking and experiencing the Divine, yet in the end Jewish pluralists must remain agnostic about the correctness of their own religious convictions.” In such a context, Jews would recognize the concept of the Chosen People as “nothing more than an expression of the Jewish people’s sense of superiority and impulse to spread its religious message,” while Christian and Islamic supersessionistic claims become less important in light of an awareness that no religion can be regarded as possessing ultimate truth. This apophatic tradition holds exclusive religious claims to be unverifiable but not necessarily unworthy, and so provides a helpful orientation for interfaith dialogue and life in the religiously diverse communities of the 21st century.
Oliver and Christian Pluralism
Oliver wants Jesus without exclusivity and pluralism without absolute relativity, but she doesn’t know if Christianity offers it. After grappling with the meaning of Jesus throughout the Faith Club dialogues, she has found her Christology in shambles. She disagrees with the exclusivist message of Evangelical Christianity as she reads it on a Kansas billboard -- ‘Accept Jesus Christ and Be Saved or Regret It Forever,’ yet she doesn’t see how Jesus and pluralism can coexist when Christianity views Jesus as a savior and her Faith Club colleagues see him as a human being. If Christianity can’t accommodate pluralism, which she perceives to have true value, then Christianity itself can’t be true. After beginning the dialogue certain that Christianity was superior to Judaism and Islam, she writes of Idliby and Warner, “I saw how they each gained moral and spiritual tools from their traditions, and I was no longer certain my way was the best way.” Hoping to find a pluralist Jesus in the theology of the pre-Nicene church, she makes a trip to the religion section of Barnes and Noble and finds Elaine Pagels’ book on the Gospel of Thomas, Beyond Belief, whose theology further challenges the Catholic catechism on which she was raised. More confused than before, Oliver makes an appointment with her parish priest and tells him about her situation, “I’m having trouble maintaining my Christian faith as I’ve moved to a better understanding of Judaism and Islam.” Her priest validates doubt as an essential element of faith and affirms her conviction that revelation occurs outside the bounds of Christianity. Then how can Christianity insist on any orthodox belief in Jesus, she wants to know? Oliver is unsettled by an uncomfortable, postmodern relativity that keeps her from sleeping at night. “…why was I so scared? Because I suddenly didn’t know where to find truth. If all religions were equal, how did I know what to believe when they disagreed?”
Describing her faith as “in crisis,” Oliver turns to scripture and there she finds a pluralist affirmation that she gives priority when interpreting the exclusivist passages of the Gospels. She appears confident in this new approach when she brings Idliby and Warner with her for a dialogue with the teen-agers at her church. One boy in attendance asks the women, “In order for each of you to believe in your religion, don’t you have to believe the other two are wrong?” Oliver replies with an appeal to the experience of goodness present in non-Christians and a quotation from Peter in Acts. “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 3:34) She finds the same message appealingly presented in the Enlightenment era play Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in which Jews, Christians and Muslims are portrayed as equals who must prove their worth to God through good actions. Although this affirmation of the primacy of morality before God is comforting, Oliver is still uncertain of how she can interpret Jesus as savior in a pluralist context. His mission as conceived by Christianity appears to her to be more “polarizing” than “unifying”, and she questions whether the church’s doctrine of Jesus is relevant in an age that seeks knowledge through diversity.
Many Christian theologians have produced work on pluralism that would no doubt be helpful to Oliver, but Roger Haight’s work in his article “Trinity and Religious Pluralism” appears to particularly address Oliver’s struggle. In the article’s introduction, Haight writes, “I want to understand the doctrine of the trinity in such a way that it supports our experience or conviction of the autonomous validity of other religions. And, I want to understand the religions, abstractly, in such a way that, as phenomena, they do not undermine the church’s doctrine of the trinity.” To that end, Haight endeavors to articulate the meaning of the trinity in a way that would support the existence of “a common field or matrix of perception and knowledge” and thereby facilitate interfaith understanding in a dialogical context such as that of the Faith Club. Haight argues that the doctrine of the trinity should be as culturally relevant today as it was in its formation. The trinity, he writes, names the particular Christian experiences of God in history and is not to be “preserved on paper in a glass case” but should continue to tell the Christian story as Christians experience it in history. Today that experience is in a postmodern context “sensitive to the contextual particularity of experience and knowledge.” In such a reality, Christians cannot force their particular theological symbols on others, but must find within the symbols themselves “a dimension of reality, including human existence as such, that can generally be understood precisely without conversion and thus reflect the doctrine’s universal relevance and truth.” In that way, the Trinitarian doctrine is revealed as universal truth that many religions express in different ways.
Haight argues for a “narrative understanding” of the Trinitarian doctrine, building his argument within a framework based upon the work on the trinity by theologians Friedrich Schlieiermacher and Karl Rahner. According to Haight, both theologians 1) understood the doctrine of the trinity within the context of history; 2) recognized that the doctrine corresponds with what Christians experience in their religious lives; and 3) read the doctrine as an overarching protection against minimizing the real salvific unity of God with humanity in Jesus Christ and in the Spirit in the church. Recognizing the purpose and narrative nature of the Trinitarian doctrine, Haight looks for the universally relevant meaning behind the narrative and identifies three such revelations corresponding with each person of the trinity. First, God as the first person of the trinity illustrates that “the universe is embraced by a power suffused with intelligence.” Second, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ reveals that God is present to the world and can be revealed within the finite symbols of the world. Third, God’s presence in the Spirit reveals that God’s operations in the world cannot be limited to past events. Judaism, Islam and other world religions can also support these revelations, and interfaith dialogue can find common ground investigating different ways that these ideas are presented in the religions. Supported by this Trinitarian understanding as a common matrix of religious knowledge, pluralism does not lead to the relativism that so frightened Oliver. A deeper dimension is revealed that provides norms for making judgments of truth across the religions.
Idliby and Islamic Pluralism
Of the three Faith Club co-authors, Idliby embraces pluralism the most easily and finds that it supports rather than threatens her Muslim faith. “I became more of a believer because of what our three faiths have in common,” she writes. That ease comes in part from the many Quranic verses affirming that diversity is part of God’s intended design.
Explains Idliby, “The universality of God and his accessibility to all is emphasized in the Muslim understanding that all religions have sprung from the same divine source and that God’s message was sent to all people and cultures of all nations (35:25).” This idea is expressed in the following verse:
O Humankind WE (God) have created you male and female, and made you in communities and tribes, so that you may know one another. Surely the noblest amongst you in the sight of God is the most God fearing of you. God is All-knowing and All-Aware. (Quran, 49:13)
The Quran further affirms Judaism and Christianity as true religions and holds ethical behavior rather than religious identity to be the deciding factor in determining God’s judgment. “Surely those who have faith, those who are Jews and those who are Christians, and the Sabeans, whoever has faith in God, and the last day, and does good works, will have his reward with his Lord. No fear shall come upon them, nor will they grieve.” (Quran 2:62, 5:69) Empowered by her renewed faith in Islam, Idliby begins to claim her faith publicly, speaking out against both the negative stereotypes of Islam in the West and the “radical groups who abuse the Quran and interpret it in a way that fits their own political agenda and violent designs.”
For Idliby, who chooses not to follow all the religious rules that Orthodox Muslims do, the challenge of religious pluralism takes the form of the pursuit of the affirmation by fellow Muslims of the possibility of a variety of ways to practice Islam. Having attained a new confidence in her Muslim identity, Idliby is thrust back into discomfort and insecurity when a Muslim cabdriver, hearing that she is also a Muslim, asks her, “Then where is your headscarf?” Although Idliby is welcomed that day at a spiritual retreat of young, Muslim leaders, she is reminded of the way Islam, which liberated women in Muhammad’s community, is used to discriminate against them today. This oppression of women is part of the wider salafist movement, which aims to cleanse Islam by taking it back to its first decades. Funded by oil-rich, repressive Middle-Eastern regimes, salafism has disproportionately influenced Islam around the world to the detriment of liberal movements. Idliby is heartened, however, by the large number of Muslims speaking out against the misuse of Islam, such as the 600,000 who have signed the online petition “Not in the Name of Islam” at the time of her Faith Club writing.
The need for pluralism within Islam is the subject of an essay “Islam and Pluralism” by Islamic reformer Ali Ashgar Engineer, who, like Idliby, laments the lack of individual rights within contemporary Islamic societies and argues that the insistence on an oppressive conformity is against the Quranic ideal of diversity. Engineer characterizes the reasoning of those Muslim leaders who favor a monolithic society thus: “Islam, they would say, means unity. As there is one God, there is one society. As the oneness of God excludes polytheism, so the unity of society excludes pluralism. Thus, the ‘human right’ to follow whatever religious or political path one wishes cannot, they claim, be affirmed by Islam.”
Engineer argues against this narrow interpretation of Islam. “The Qur’an was pluralistic long before the so-called pluralist model for religious diversity was developed,” he writes. In the Quran, diversity and unity have a “dynamic relationship” in which people come to the truth through engaging with each other in their difference. Consider verse 3:64, “Say, O people of the Book, come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but God; that we associate no partners with him; that we erect not for ourselves Lords and patrons other than God.” These common terms must be arrived through dialogue rather than force, according to Quranic verse 2:256: “There is no compulsion in religion.”
Engineer writes that this principle applies to Muslims and non-Muslims alike and is grounded in many Quranic verses such as the following:
Unto every one of you We have appointed a (different) law and way of life. And if Allah had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but (He willed it otherwise) in order to test you by means of what He has given you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto Allah you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ. (Quran 5:48)
This Quranic ideal of pluralism was modeled by Muhammad in Medina, writes Engineer. There Muhammad formed a community that included his own followers, Jews and other tribes, who lived in what Engineer calls “an incipient democracy” established by the constitution of Medina. Writes Engineer, “Allah does not want to impose one law on all; Allah creates communities rather than community.” Mahmoud Ayoub agrees, “The Qur’an came not to establish an Islamic empire but a community of faiths that would include Muslims, Jews, Christians, Sabaeans, and any other faith community” that lived by the four Quranic principles of true religion, that is 1) according to a divine scripture or sacred law, 2) in acknowledgement of God’s oneness, 3) having faith in God and the last day, and 4) fostering of righteous living. If non-Muslim communities are allowed to make decisions about their ideas of righteous living, then Muslims should be free to do the same. Concludes Engineer, “For the Qur’an, freedom of conscience cannot be taken away from any human person, whatever his or her beliefs.”
The dialogue and reflections of interfaith encounter recorded in The Faith Club reveal that supersessionism, absolute claims, past persecutions and contemporary political conflict arise and trouble the dialogue of people of the Abrahamic faiths who would like to understand one another better and affirm the truth available outside their traditions. Addressing the theology and history behind those religious divides is complicated and difficult to undertake in isolation from a religious community grounded in pluralism. Whereas Judaism and Islam have long-established norms validating revelation outside of their traditions, Christianity is encumbered by the traditional doctrine that there is no salvation outside of the church. Beginning in the 20th century, however, there have been significant statements made by church leaders recognizing the possibility of God’s revelation outside the church, particularly the Vatican II statement “Nostra Aetate”. Subsequent statements by various religious leaders have attempted to mend the troubled relationships between the Abrahamic faiths. Examples include “Dabru Emet” delivered in 2000 by a group of Jewish religious thinkers in response to the dramatic, sympathetic shift in Christian attitudes toward Jews and Judaism; a Christian response to “Dabru Emet” in 2002 titled “A Sacred Obligation: Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People;” and “A Common Word,” an invitation to Christian-Muslim dialogue based upon shared ethics issued by 138 Muslim leaders in 2007, which also received a response from Christian leaders.
It is interesting to think of the formation of the religions of the Abrahamic tradition in the narrative fashion proposed by Roger Haight in his article on the trinity. Each religion came into existence in dialogue with its surrounding culture, but the canonization of scripture, formulation of doctrines and establishment of traditions served to limit the dialogue by cutting off voices from outside the tradition. Contemporary pursuits such as the Faith Club’s interfaith dialogue, the work of pluralist theologians and invitations to dialogue issued by religious leaders such as those cited above reopen our traditions to critical and insightful voices from outside. It is the belief of this author, who is also a co-author of The Faith Club, that such endeavors are necessary for releasing the peace-making potential within the religions. Dialogues exploring pluralism must not be limited to groups of lay people and separate groups of religious leaders; the experience of the co-authors of The Faith Club indicates that dialogue on pluralism should happen between religious leaders and lay people as well. Indeed, it is an obligation of contemporary religious leaders to prepare their congregants for the inevitability of interfaith encounter by teaching pluralist theologies of religion. The postmodern world exists outside the academy, and individuals must be prepared to engage with it. Therefore pluralist theologies should both acknowledge conflicting claims and provide paths for affirming other faiths without leaving believers feeling compromised in their own religious traditions.
Claims of religious superiority, which are entrenched in scripture, liturgy and doctrine, damage relationships among individuals, communities and nations. Their danger was addressed by the thirty-five pluralist scholars who attended the 2003 meeting in Birmingham, England that resulted in the book The Myth of Religious Superiority edited by Paul F. Knitter. In his introduction to a collection of papers delivered at the conference, Knitter writes, “We agreed that there is a causal link between claims of religious superiority and calls to religious violence.” More reassuringly, the conference theologians also agreed, “All the religions possess the resources within their own traditions to adopt the pluralist model.” The interfaith dialogue participants in The Faith Club find resources inside and outside of their traditions as they form their own pluralist theologies. If lay people such as the book’s co-authors had easier access to the work of theologians such as those at the Birmingham Conference, they might feel better prepared to confidently engage in interfaith dialogue wherever it occurs – in the supermarket, in the office, or at the PTA. In doing so, they will build interfaith relationships and hopefully bring peace to their postmodern world.