Beginning the Trialogue
This essay was originally presented as the Jack Chester Memorial Lecture on the Tenth Anniversary Celebration of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies at the University of Miami on March 5, 2009.
Religions in modern times try to communicate with one another. Americans in particular appreciate the promise of interfaith exchange for the sake of mutual understanding. Here where large numbers of Jews and Christians form a community of conversation, we appreciate that fact. That is why the Judaeo-Christian dialogue must turn itself into a Judaeo-Christian-Muslim trialogue, so that American Christians, Muslims and Jews may work together to overcome bigotry and ignorance. That is for the common good.
Nearly a century has passed since the interfaith dialogue between Christianity and Judaism got underway. Before that time for centuries the conflicting truth claims of Judaism and Christianity had provoked ill will. They carried the burden of theological competition. Now, for close to a hundred years Judaic and Christian representatives have labored to learn how to achieve good will and tolerance for difference. Such great progress has been made that the outcome hardly needs spelling out. The Vatican Council led the way for Catholic Christianity, and Conservative and Reform Judaism for integrationist Judaism, to achieve a relationship of toleration with the other side. Most Christian denominations have joined in the enterprise, and all society benefits.
We hardly need to do more than read the headlines to ask, what has become of Islam in the interfaith enterprise? The same countries that have succeeded in bringing about a rapprochement between Christianity and Judaism — the USA and Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Spain and post-Communist Russia with their huge Muslim populations — have not yet undertaken a counterpart enterprise with Islam. That is not to say Islam has lacked for attention. But the unique contemporary relationship between the monotheist traditions of Scripture, Christianity and Judaism, has little counterpart when it comes to Islam. That is not to say nothing has been done. But work is just beginning, and gthere is no counterpart to the ambitious and on-going enterprise that has transformed relationships between Judaism and Christianity, to the manifest benefit of both. What has not yet emerged specifically is a program for theological understanding among the three monotheist religions. Yet Islam relates to Judaism and Christianity in ways comparable to the relationship of Judaism and Christianity to each other. The dialogue between Judaism and Christianity should become a trialogue among Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The conversation that I advocate is a trialogue in its essence and it involves Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in particular. It would exclude other than monotheist religions. Why do I propose that a unique relationship joins Judaism, Christianity and Islam and that the unique relationship forms the foundation of an interfaith dialogue aimed at mutual understanding? I have three reasons.
First, the three monotheisms share elements of a common theology. They think of God within a common pattern and confront the same issues of theology and philosophy. They therefore may expect to communicate with one another. Why do I claim they share an agendum? All three affirm that God is one and unique. So they worship the same God. All three concur that God rewards virtue and punishes sin and governs the fate of all humanity. All three believe that God has sent prophets to humanity and all three are religions centered on revealed books, the torah, the Bible and the Quran. So they share elements of a common structure and as a matter of fact a common morality.
Second, all three share a common heritage of narrative contained in Scripture. They are not strangers to one another. They maintain a common program of story-0telling and differ on a shared agendum. Islam recapitulates the narrative of Christianity and Judaism, and Christianity that of Judaism.
That leads directly to the third and most important link among the monotheisms: Christianity sees itself in continuity with Judaism, and Islam undertakes to continue Christianity and Judaism. Moses is prophet in not only Judaism but also Christianity and Islam. Abraham and Sarah are father and mother in Christianity and Judaism. From the advent of Islam Judaic theologians have recognized a kindred spirit in Islam. Maimonides is one important example of the Judaic affirmation of Islamic monotheism. The outcome of the Judaeo-Christian dialogue in the twentieth century has produced a counterpart result, the affirmation by Judaism of the monotheist character of Christianity and its place in the heritage of Scripture.
For these three reasons, but particularly for the third, — the link that joins the three together — I regard the relationship among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as unique among the religions of the world. Islam does not accord the recognition to other religions that it affords to Judaism and Christianity through their Scriptures. As I said, Judaism in the person of Maimonides for medieval times and of Franz Rosenzweig for modern times sees Islam as a kindred religion.
The two monotheist religions that succeed Judaism explicitly understand themselves in a linear and successive relationship rather than in a parallel and complementary relationship to their predecessors and competitors today. But it is not because the three monotheisms concur that I advocate a trialogue among them. On the contrary they do not agree but share a common program of topics on which they most articulately disagree. They do not concur. But while they disagree on fundamentals, they concur on details. One case suffices. I had a conversation with a Muslim woman, wife of a colleague on her summer trip to Turkey. She went on a Western airline and I asked her how she managed the problem of meals. She said quite routinely, “Oh, I always order the kosher meals.” I point to that humble case to claim that there is the basis for mutual comprehension among the monotheisms.
Trialogue however is not natural to monotheism. Its internal logic does not generate toleration. There is only one God, and there is only one truth. Islam affirms the prophecy of Moses and the uniqueness of Jesus but sees Muhammad as the seal of prophecy. The logic of unique possession of the truth shaped the view of the other that is held by each of the three monotheisms respectively. Judaism in its classical sources does not recognize Christianity as a religion at all. And it has yet to formulate a Judaic theology of Christianity that makes sense according to the logic of Judaism out of Christianity. Christianity has had to contend with the notion of Supersessionism, that Christianity superceded Judaism. It has had to formulate a Christian theology of Judaism that made sense of Judaism according to the logic of Christianity. When Islam enters the trialogue, Islam will find the formulation of a Muslim theology of Judaism and Christianity a formidable assignment. To date Christianity offers itself as a model of such a confrontation.
Let me sum up the main point: The trialogue is necessary because the internal logic of monotheism as understood in the classic documents of Christianity and Islam and Judaism negates the religious viability of whatever monotheism came before. We cannot call upon the monotheisms to abandon their claim to unique truth. But trialogue can nurture mutual understanding, and only out of mutual understanding can we hope to see mutual respect.
What I propose therefore is that we move from dialogue — earnest discussions between two parties — to trialogue — among three. The third voice is Islam, which has reemerge as a principal force in world affairs, with its message of submission to the one God on the part of all humanity and its universal perspective. In such a context no party confers legitimacy on the other two, none stands in judgment on the others. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam can shape a long-term agenda of comparison and contrast in the service of mutual understanding that is not marked by disingenuousness and is not anomalous. By recasting the interfaith conversation to include the three monotheisms we reshape the entire enterprise.
What are the issues of the trialogue of mutual clarification for the next century to work out? Let me specify the fundamental question of interfaith exchange: how does the other religion help me better to understand and to practice my particular religion? Can the outcome of the encounter with the other monotheisms improve my grasp of what is at stake in my own monotheism? Christianity and Islam portray possibilities of monotheism that are available to Judaism but not addressed by Judaism. They are ways not taken but that might be taken, ways made available by the share logic of monotheism. Christianity and Islam make available to Judaism perspective on Judaism by proposing options that are cogent with monotheism in principle but not with the Judaic version of monotheism in particular. And the same is to be aid for the contribution of Judaism to the self-understanding of the Christian and the Muslim, and so throughout. In behalf of Judaism I illustrated that claim in my A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, which Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger Pope Benedict XVI generously praised on just these grounds.
The three represent choices available in a common agendum: how things might work out. To explain: What trialogue promises to each participant is perspective on each participant. I refer to the perspective that I gain when I consider the alternatives to my own religion’s position that are set forth by its near-competition, the choices that the logic of monotheism has defined for other monotheist religions.
That exercise of comparison and contrast is how I define the promise of trialogue: it teaches what I need to learn from another religion. I speak for myself as a Jew but Christians and Muslims can formulate counterpart positions. Trialogue affords perspective so as to teach me about my own religion. Why trialogue among Christianity, Judaism and Islam in particular? The reason is simple logic: the other religion can teach only when its lessons are relevant. I can contrast only that which to begin with is comparable. I do not need Christianity or Islam to tell me what God wants from me. But since in the Hebrew Scriptures Christianity reveres the same Scriptures as Judaism, I can learn from Christianity other ways of reading Scripture. Christianity and Islam reveal choices available to Judaism — roads not taken but logically available for consideration. And since in the Quran Islam recapitulates narratives and teachings of the Torah, I can learn from Islam choices that confront us all. That is not to allege that the three traditions share a common structure, only that they intersect at some important points of fundamental concern. And they can enlighten one another by spelling out choices to be made among common concerns — the possibilities of monotheism.
In details each monotheist tradition stands on its own, and God lives in the details. But in monotheism it is one and the same God. That changes everything. The three monotheisms among all theistic religions bear a unique relationship to one another. They concur not only in general, but in particular ways. Specifically, they tell stories of the same type, and some of the stories that they tell turn out to go over much the same ground.
Judaism, with its focus upon the Hebrew Scriptures of ancient Israel, tells the story of the one God, who created man in his image, and of what happened then within the framework of Israel, the holy people. Christianity takes up that story but gives it a different reading by instantiating the relations between God and his people in the life of a single human being. For its part, in sequence, Islam recapitulates some basic components of the same story, affirming the revelations of Judaism and then Christianity, but drawing the story onward to yet another climax. We cannot point to any three other religions that form so intimate a narrative relationship as do the successive revelations of monotheism. No other set of triplets tells a single, continuous story for themselves as do Islam in relationship to Christianity and Judaism, and Christianity in relationship to Islam and Judaism and Judaism in relation ship to Islam and Christianity. What demands close reading is this: within the logic of monotheism, how do Islam, Christianity, and Judaism represent diverse choices among a common set of possibilities?
To state matters simply, what program do I envisage for the early stages of trialogue — the initial century, roughly commencing with James Parkes, the counterpart to the twentieth century for the Judaeo-Christian dialogue? I see five fundamental, indicative topics on which the three monotheisms concur and conflict — the starting point of trialogue. The basic categories are congruent, their articulation is not. Trialogue will show the range and potential of a common conviction.
Trialogue builds on consensus. What is the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim consensus? That is the affirmation that God is one and unique. The one God makes demands upon man’s social order and the conduct of every day life. God distinguishes those who do his will from the rest of humanity. God will stand in judgment upon all mankind at the end of days. The three religions address this common program. But — I cannot overstress — differing in detail, each affords perspective upon the character of the others. Each sheds light on the choices the others have made from what defines a single menu: the category-formations that they share.
This brings me to the five topics for the first stage of Judaeo-Christian-Muslim trialogue.
First comes monotheism. The trialogue investigates the logic of monotheism. Does the interior logic of monotheism require God to be represented as incorporeal and wholly abstract, or can the one, unique God be represented by appeal to analogies supplied by man? Judaism, Christianity and Islam debated that question in the great age of philosophy and theology. In line with Genesis 1:26, which speaks of God’s making man “in our image, after our likeness,” and the Commandment (Ex. 20:4), “You shall not make yourself a graven image or any likeness of anything” in nature, what conclusions are to be drawn? At one end of the continuum, Islam insists that God cannot be represented in any way, shape, or form, not even by man as created in his image, after his likeness. At the other end, Christianity finds that God is both embodied and eternally accessible in the fully divine Son, Jesus Christ. In the middle Judaism represents God in some ways as consubstantial with man, in other ways as wholly other.
Second, what of The People of God? God makes himself known to particular persons, who, in the nature of things, form communities among themselves. God addresses a “you” that is not only singular, a Moses or a Jesus or a Muhammad, but plural — all who will believe, act and obey. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism concur that the faithful form a distinct group, defined by those who accept God’s rule and regulation. But, among all humanity, how does that group tell its story, and with what consequence for the definition of the type of group that is constituted? Judaism tells the story of the faithful as an extended family, all of them children of the same ancestors, Abraham and Sarah. It invokes the metaphor of a family, with the result that the faithful adopt for themselves the narrative of a supernatural genealogy, one that finds within the family all who identify themselves as part of it by making its story their genealogy too. Islam dispenses entirely with the analogy of a family, defining God’s people, instead, through the image of a community of the faithful worshippers of God, seeing Muslims as supporters of one another and caretakers of the least fortunate or weakest members of the community. Where Judaism speaks of a family among the families of humankind or of “Israel” as a nation unlike all others, sui generis, Islam takes the diametrically opposed view. Its “people of God” encompass all humankind within the community of true worshippers of God. Here Christianity takes a middle position. Like Judaism, it views the faithful as a people, but like Islam, it obliterates all prior genealogical distinctions, whether of ethnicity, gender, or politics. So Christians form “a people of the peoples,” “a people that is no people,” using the familiar metaphor of Israel. At the same time, they underscore, like Islam, a conception of themselves as comprised by mankind without lines of differentiation.
Third comes the Holy Way of life: God has set forth what he wants from his people, which is, the love and devotion of his creatures. This comes to realization in a program of actions to be carried out and to be avoided. These concern acts of prayer, study, contemplation and reflection on divine revelation. In the case of Judaism, that is study of Torah. In the case of Christianity it is the realization and enactment of the image of Christ within the individual believer and the community. In the case of Islam it involves particular prescribed ritual acts of piety and worship. That is the testimony of faith, ritual prayer, almsgiving, fasting, pilgrimage as well as recitation of God’s word, calling upon him in personal prayer, and obedience to His will.
All three also require deeds of philanthropy in charity and acts of loving kindness, above and beyond the requirements of the law. Judaism and Islam share certain food laws, e.g., not to eat carrion but to eat only meat from animals that have been properly slaughtered. Christianity in its formative age forbade the faithful to eat meat that had been offered to idolatry. Islam requires a pilgrimage to Mecca, and the observance of the festivals of Judaism encompassed a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem when it still stood. Christianity portrayed all the faithful as pilgrims to the new, heavenly Jerusalem that God was preparing for his people. In these and comparable ways, the three religions aim at defining acts that realize God’s will and that sanctify God’s people.
Fourth, what of the relation of Believers and infidels or Unbelievers: How is God’s people to relate to everybody else? What are the consequences of the conviction that the one and only God has made himself known to humanity at large through one community or person or family? Specifically, what is the task of the believer vis à vis the unbeliever? At one side of the continuum, Judaism sees the outsider as idolater and asks the faithful to avoid participating in, or in any way affirming, the activities of the idolaters in their idolatry. Amiable relationships on ordinary occasions give way to strict isolation from idolatry and all things used in that connection. On the other side of the continuum, Islam, for reasons equally systemic, takes the most active role, undertaking to obliterate idolatry by wiping out its worshippers. Judaism in its classical statement defined its task as passive avoidance, joined with a willingness to accept the sincere convert. Islam called for active the extermination of idolatry, joined with an insistence that, to live, the idolater must renounce his error and acknowledge the one true God and his own. Yet early Islam took a very different position vis-à-vis Jews and Christians and a few other “people of Scripture”. These were to be largely tolerated so long as they did not threaten Muslims or the practice of Islam.
Christianity found its position in the middle. On one hand, like Judaism and Islam, Christianity forbade the faithful to utilize anything that could serve idolatry and to refrain, even at the cost of death (“martyrdom”), from all gestures of complicity with idolatry. On the other hand, like Judaism and unlike Islam, Christianity in its formative age contemplated not a holy war of extermination but an on-going campaign of evangelism, to win over idolaters. True, in due course, Christianity would slide over to the Islamic side of this continuum, but that happened many centuries beyond the classical age. In its formative centuries, Christianity’s logic dictated a policy toward unbelievers that placed the religion in the middle, between Judaic passivity and Islamic activity.
Fifth is The End of Days: Here is where the interior logic (as well as the articulation) of the three monotheisms both converges and diverges. As told in common, the story finds the resolution of the dialectic of how the one omnipotent and just God can account for a world of manifest injustice. All three religions concur that God will bring the end of days, when all mankind will be raised from the dead and judged, and those found worthy will enter Paradise. At issue is, what do the faithful have to do to advance the end-time? Predictably, Judaism, at its end of the continuum, asks the faithful in one accord to carry out God’s will as stated from the beginning, sanctifying the Sabbath of creation one time in accord with the Torah. So Judaism looks inward, within Israel, for the salvation of humanity through Israel’s own act of sanctification. Then who is saved at the end, if not all those who acknowledge the one true God? And that will encompass, the prophets say, all of humanity.
At the other end of the continuum, Islam holds that no human effort can advance or retard the Last Day. God alone will recall His creation to Himself in His own good time. All human beings can do is prepare themselves for the Day of Resurrection by living daily lives of piety and probity. At the Resurrection all who have died before will be called forth with all who are living to face the accounting of their earthly lives and inherit accordingly either Paradise or the Fire as their eternal abode. And Christianity takes a middle position, insisting that the world as we know it, down to the very bodies we inhabit, is to be changed definitively. But in that transformation, a metamorphosis from flesh to spirit and death to life, the identities that we have crafted during the course of our lives are to endure. All people, with or without an explicit knowledge of the Son of God, have known his image in their human experience: so from the point of view of the eschaton they have fashioned or have refused to fashion an existence which is commensurate with eternity.
These topics show us similarity and difference. The interior logic of monotheism raises for the three religions a common set of questions. But then each religion tells the story in its way, and the respective narratives — in character, components, and coherence — shape the distinctive responses spelled out here. That is how the three religions of one God converge and diverge: they converge in their basic structures, which are more symmetrical than asymmetrical, and they diverge in the way their systems work out the implications of monotheism as monotheism is embodied in the continuing narratives, those of Judaism, then Christianity, finally Islam.
The task of trialogue is clear. It is to find a single perspective to encompass the three religions that affirm the unity of God. That is the task that today confronts the entire civilized world. In these remarks I cannot claim to have accomplished the work, I only aver that I have clarified some of the principal issues in common on which all three religious traditions set forth their respective judgments — and therefore differ about a common set of issues. On that basis, some day there can be a trialogue of reasoned debate. And some day trialogue may bring peace within the now-fractured community of monotheists.
To conclude I have to answer the question of urgency: why is this call for trialogue critical for today? How can trialogue help to mitigate the theological logic of monotheism? Trialogue is necessary because what is in dispute is not simply an idea of God but the conception of Christianity that God has become man and the conception of Judaism that man is in God’s image, after God’s likeness, and the conception of Islam that the truth of monotheism is acted out and lived in history and community. How can trialogue help to mitigate the exclusive logic that prevails?
The answer is, Judaism, Christianity and Islam contain within themselves resources of toleration that are awaiting discovery. Speaking as a Jew subjected to hatred in some Islamic settings by reason of the political conflict in the Middle East, I am moved to seek the sources of toleration in Islam. For the long history of Islam contains chapters of high toleration for Judaism and Christianity – toleration afforded on Muslim grounds to particular non-Muslims — as well as chapters of contempt and persecution of them. The persecution of Christianity in Muslim countries today competes with the worst chapters of history written in the age of the Crusades and the age of European Christian imperialism and the Muslim response to them. As to Judaism, we recall that Maimonides had to flee his birthplace in Muslim Spain to escape persecution and went to another Muslim country, Egypt, where he found refuge. The same Quran and Hadith that guided those that drove him out of Spain and Morocco taught the lessons that produced toleration in Egypt.
On a still broader scale, the same Quran and Hadith that guide Wahabbi Islam in Saudi Arabia prevail in past Ottoman and contemporary Turkey and Morocco and Indonesia and the central Asian Islamic republics even now. The way to highlight and explore the Islamic tradition of religious toleration that competes with the Islamic tradition of religious intolerance is clear. That is why in the middle of Israel’s struggle against a political entity using Islam as the basis of the murder of Jews trialogue matters. That shows what can be accomplished.
What makes me think the coming trialogue will succeed? It is the case of Catholic Christianity, which has overcome many centuries of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. The change in Christianity’s reading of Judaism came about through the efforts of Protestant and Catholic theologians and their Reform and Conservative counterparts. Judaic theologians found in the resources of Judaism the foundations of the conciliation and reconciliation with Christianity. And Christians have found in the resources of Christianity the foundations of toleration for Judaism and the Jews, while they formerly read those very same sources as the basis for anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam persist elements of hatred of outsiders, and all three religious traditions contain sources of intolerance. But we now know how dialogue enhances the resources for good will, and trialogue will make the difference in the coming century.
The Judaeo-Christian dialogue tells me that there is hope for the future reconciliation of Judaism Christianity and Islam. That is what the one unique God promises to all who love him and do his will.
Jacob Neusner is Distinguished Service Professor of the History and Theology of Judaism and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College.