Judaism, Christianity, Islam: “Distinct and Undivided”?

I’ve just got back from an inter-religious discussion event organsied by the Nottingham University Jewish Society (J-Soc) called “Distinct and Undivided”. Three clerics (a Progressive Rabbi, an Imam and a Vicar) from London were holding a public conversation about relations between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, during which the audience could also ask questions. There was also a (kosher) buffet served afterwards, so I managed to get some falafel and salad as well, which is always a bonus.

The conversation itself did raise some interesting points, but I felt that the “ground rules” given at the beginning really impoverished the discussion and prevented these points being fully developed. The Christian speaker started by drawing a distinction between a “debate” and a “dialogue” and said that the event would be the latter – which he then went on to define in a very Hegelian way: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. This didn’t bode well, I felt!

The approach taken by the Jewish Rabbi and the Christian Vicar in particular was fairly pluralist – the question of conversion came up and they both tried to say that it wasn’t their aim to convert people to their own religion, but that people should just celebrate who they are. The vicar did concede that the New Testament seemed to command mission but that it needn’t be taken literally or prescriptively: The “Great Commission” is only a few verses, after all, and it apparently reads “make disciples of all men” – so if we are to take it literally we should not evangelise to women. Of course, this is a parody of what “taking the Bible literally” actually means, and the text actually says “make disciples of all nations”! Another question from a J-Soc member pulled the speakers up on their apparent readiness to disregard their own scriptures in order to maximise the common ground between the different religions, which was an absolutely valid point: The Rabbi then admitted he did not consider the Torah to be the word of God; and the vicar made appeal to “you can interpret it how you like” line. By this stage I was developing more respect for the Imam, who at least held that the Qur’an was entirely true and divinely inspired, although he too seemed ready to reinterpret “problem texts” when questioned on the penalty for apostasy. The approach the three speakers were using for interfaith dialogue was really exemplified by their answer to a question on whether unity within a religion (intramural debate) or relations between different religions (extramural debate) was more important: the answer was that all religious debates are intramural; after all, Christians, Muslims and Jews all worship the same God.

In fact, after the event, chatting with some of the other people from the audience, I got the distinct feeling that none of the adherents of any religion felt that this was a good approach. The first thing a guy from J-Soc said to me was that the Rabbi didn’t represent his views, or the views of 90% of British Jews – and I wanted to add that I did not agree with the vicar’s insistence that Christ was not the only way to God. Christian, Jewish and Muslim students seemed to be unanimous that at least two of these three religions must be wrong – since they are fundamentally irreconcilable. To model the kind of approach to interreligious dialogue given by the Rabbi and the Vicar really does mean you have to compromise on core doctrinal points of your own religion. But why not take the Imam’s approach of holding your own religion to be true and seeking to be consistent with that, and then talking to those of other religions from that perspective?

For a Christian, such an approach must not compromise on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, and his divine-human identity. He must not be conceded to be a mere prophet, or teacher, or just one of many ways to God. The New Testament’s bold insistence on the universal validity and need of the gospel must be given full force – and we must not abandon the hope that our non-Christian partners in interreligious discussion will be converted. Of course, and I shouldn’t need to say this, nobody can be compelled by argument or pressure to trust Christ – but it should be something we prayerfully hope for.

From this perspective it is possible to have authentic friendship and relationship with an adherent of another religion – the differences between our religions are honestly highlighted and given full recognition, as well providing us with a chance to talk about common points of contact. In some ways this is harder than the kind of pluralism that pretends diverse faiths can all be equally valid – because it involves tolerating the right of someone  to believe what we believe to be wrong.  Tolerance of people’s right to false belief is great, and a Christian thing to do, but it doesn’t mean we cannot criticise that false belief. None of the religious students I spoke to objected to this kind of approach – it seems we don’t want syncretism, or postmodern acceptance-of-everything-as-true, but real, honest debate.

And with that in mind, come along to Lunchbar this Friday (1st May) where the speaker will be addressing the question “Do all religions lead to God?”. 1.00-1.50pm, Portland Building Atrium. Free lunch included etc etc.

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3 Responses to “Judaism, Christianity, Islam: “Distinct and Undivided”?”

  1. chris oldfield Says:

    You would enjoy vanhoozer’s book, The Trinity in a Pluralistic Age

  2. slingword Says:

    I have a serious question that may be related to this thread:

    http://slingword.wordpress.com/2009/04/30/an-open-question-to-the-religious/

    And I would love to hear replies….

  3. Lunchbar: Don’t all religions lead to God? « Phil Whitehead Says:

    […] Phil Whitehead … needs a cool tagline … « Judaism, Christianity, Islam: “Distinct and Undivided”? […]

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