This is the title of yesterday's Maurice Brunner Memorial Lecture 2008, given by guest speaker, Professor Philip Alexander, Co-Director of the Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Manchester, who I have known for 33 years.
And the event, chaired, by Manchester CCJ Chair, Revd Steve Williams, was brilliant. First we held some moments of silence for the victims of the Chabad House massacre in Mumbai. Then Steve went on to say that dialogue is between people, not systems. As God had said, 'I know you by name'. References were made to the relatively recent deaths of two key people in the Manchester Jewish community, the Revd Leslie Oslberg, who had acted as one of CCJ's Presidents, and Bella Ansell, former President of the Greater Manchester Representative Council. Steve mentioned that Bella had devoted her life to the community, being in charge of refreshments at CCJ meetings. She had been known, he said, as 'a spiritual mother, and we want to pay tribute to her memory'.
'Dialogue is about naming and honouring', said Steve, and not about 'Fear thy neighbour'. It is in this spirit that dialogue should take place. Steve also mentioned the Interfaith Dialogue Open Day which will take place on June 11th 2009 at Manchester University as part of their Programme of Courses for the Public, and which they have asked me to lead.
Philips' talk on the Parting of the Ways betwen Judaism and Christianity went into the history of how the small Jewish sect which followed Jesus of Nazareth grew until Constantine espoused the new religion and used it as a unifying factor in fortifying his Roman Empire, to the detriment of the Jewish minority.
Philip discussed four reasons why early Christinaity's mission to the Israel failed. T
hese were Christian Messianism; the idea of the divinity of Jesus; Christianity's laxity towards the fulfilment of the Torah; and the radical social message of the Gospel writers, which appealed to marginal elements. In the end, the early Jewish Christians 'withered on the vine', to be replaced by those who followed the rabbis on the one hand, and Gentile Christianity on the other.
There are today three factors which might affect open dialogue between Christians and Jews.
The first is the fact of the Holocaust, or Shoah, which throw up profound questions of theodicy: Where was God at Auschwitz? What was the Christian role in anti-semitism? Could individuals have done more? To what extend did the Church connive and collaborate with the Nazi authorities? To what extent did they remain silent when they could have spoken out?
The second factor is the existence of the State of Israel, which creates a problem for Christianity, as it belies the continued subservience of Judaism and the Jewish people, as well as the 2000-year old marked imbalance of power between the two religions. Once again, as at the time of the 2nd Temple, Judaism is a vital and political power once again. This presents an important theological problem for Christianity.
The third factor is the role of Philip himself and others like him, in other words, the academic, whose primary allegiance is to scholarship within the republic of letters - an unwritten constitution, whose core values are open-mindedness, rigorous search after truth, deepening of new knowledge, and argument through rational, civil debate.
Academics like Philip can't negotiate between various believers. Of course, there are many who are members of faith communities, as well as academics. Some, like Philip, are members of the Church of England, but are academically interested in Judaism. Others, who are Jewish, are primarily interested in the New Testament and Christianity. However, as historians, academics can't speak on behalf of a faith, even though they have knowledge of a faith's substance.
This academic interest is growing and flourishing, and should be factored into any attempts at interfaith dialogue in the modern age. The Bible is now a cultural asset of the western world, and not merely of interest for religious believers alone. It is therefore imperative for secular universities to study the Bible.
Until recently it was hoped that religious believers would accept secular, academic interest in their religion and participate in debate and dialogue with them. However, documents such as the Windsor Report of the Church of England
have made this very difficult. Philip mentioned in particular statements such as the following:
biblical scholarship cannot pretend to detached objectivity
Philip is concerned at the idea, discussed in this report, that scholarship might threaten what the Church holds dear. Such sentiments presuppose that the Church totally own the Bible, and demonstrate indifferent to the fact that, as well as academia, another group, the Jews to be precise, also lay claim to at least half of the Christian Bible. Is this a grab for power by the authors of the report, he wonders.
For the authors of such a report, Biblical Scholarship equates solely with Christian Biblical Scholarship. Erasing the role of academia, which is not obligated to the Church, is not a good idea. The Church needs to have a mature relationship with academia. Both Judaism and Christianity attest to the truth of their statements. Therefore they need a third voice which says that neither has got it quite right.
On the other hand, academica must not be arrogant and cocky about the two faiths, and should acknowledge the claims of both. This is a positive and exciting challenge to us all.
Food for thought there, definitely!