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Interreligious Relations Must Become Imperative, Not a Sidebar

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I have been involved in Christian-Jewish relations for some 50 years.

In the last decade, I have also entered the world of Christian-Jewish-Muslim relations and even to the wider interreligious dialogue as a board member of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

It is out of this half century of involvement in interreligious dialogue that I offer some overarching reflections.

I do so as a Christian, more specifically as a Catholic Christian. But some, if not all, of my reflections I see as applicable to other religious traditions.

My first exposure to interreligious relations had to do with the national examination of how religious teaching materials in Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism portrayed some nine religious and racial out-groups.

This study – funded by the Ford Foundation and coordinated by the American Jewish Committee – revealed significant distortions of other religious communities in the Christian texts and virtual silence about the religious other in the Jewish materials.

The Christian texts included frequent negative stereotypes of Jews and Muslims in particular.

The results of this study emerged at the time Pope John XXIII had convened the Second Vatican Council.

Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, director of interreligious relations at the American Jewish Committee and a designated Jewish expert at the council, brought the results of the Catholic part of the study to Rome during the council.

Pope Paul VI had already decided to support a declaration on Catholic-Jewish relations from the council as well as a declaration on religious freedom.

The proposed Catholic-Jewish statement was eventually expanded to include most of the major world religions though the Catholic-Jewish relationship retained a certain primacy in the declaration.

This textbook study helped convince many bishops at the council, the American hierarchy in particular, to support the two conciliar declarations

These two declarations helped to create a new mindset within Catholicism that was far more positive of the religious perspectives found in other religious communities.

And since these declarations had an impact outside Catholic Christianity, they can be said to have assisted Christianity as a whole in reassessing its outlook on other faith traditions.

The first three chapters of the 1965 Declaration on Non-Christian Religions known by its Latin title, Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”), offered general principles for interreligious encounters and offered a brief description of what Catholicism might learn from other faith traditions.

Particularly important was the statement in the opening chapter that the church does not reject what is good and true in other religious traditions. This represented a major turnabout in classical Catholic teaching.

Chapter four of Nostra Aetate focused on the Catholic Church’s relationship with Jews and Judaism.

It clearly stated Jews could not be held collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, a charge that framed much of previous Catholic thought regarding the Jewish community and its traditions.

Jews were now to be seen as a people with an ongoing covenantal relationship with God rather than an accursed community that had been replaced in a covenantal relationship with God by the Christian Church with Jews confined to a miserable and marginal status in human society.

And the declaration went on to highlight the positive appropriation of parts of the Jewish teachings of his time.

The noted theologian Gregory Baum, who served as an expert at the council, called this reversal on the image of Jews and Judaism the most remarkable change in ordinary Catholic thinking to come forth from Vatican II.

Nostra Aetate clearly highlighted the church’s indebtedness to the Jewish tradition, which formed the bedrock of Jesus’ teachings.

Jesus knew no “Old Testament.” Scripture for him were the Hebrew Scriptures. And he modeled many of his perspectives on progressive impulses in the Jewish community of his day, especially the Pharisaic.

This was further acknowledged in the 1985 Vatican statement commemorating the 20th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, where Jesus is said to be closer to the Pharisees than to any other Jewish movement of the time.

The Declaration on Religious Liberty (“Dignitatis Humanae”), pronounced by Pope Paul VI in December 1965, established a new foundation for respecting other religious traditions.

Correct belief as defined by the Catholic Church was no longer the ultimate barometer for recognizing the dignity of others.

Rather, human dignity and the right to freedom of religious expression were now seen as an integral part of being human. They are integral to humanity’s birthright.

In this perspective, human rights assume an integral role in any religious self-definition including Catholicism. This is a total reversal of the perspective articulated by Pope Pius IX in his famous Syllabus of Errors.

This religious liberty declaration joined Nostra Aetate in fundamentally reorienting Catholic thought to a much more positive outlook on other religious traditions.

Both declarations experienced considerable pushback at the council. Both almost went down the tubes at various points.

But both survived to gain approval with substantial majorities. There are still people in the Catholic Church who oppose their respective messages.

The biblical scholarship generated in part by Nostra Aetate and similar Protestant documents has transformed our understanding of the separation of the church and the synagogue.

This process has now been shown to be lengthy and complex covering several centuries, particularly in the Christian East.

Unfortunately, Christian systematic theology has generally not caught up with this profound change to date.

In a real sense, Jesus did not found a church. Some biblical scholars have even argued that such was never his attention.

The church was not a totally new institution in its beginnings but evolved from developments within the Judaism of the first century.

This is also largely the case with Christian worship, which definitely had Jewish roots.

Christian hymns in particular fail to demonstrate this new understanding of Judaism developed by this recent biblical scholarship, particularly in hymns associated with the Advent season.

There are also areas where Christian churches need to move beyond current documents and practice.

As the axis of Christianity moves toward Africa and Asia, we will need to learn to relate to varied forms of religious consciousness, affected by non-Christian religious traditions, which have had a minor role at best in European/North American forms of Christian expression – forms often disdained by colonial Christianity and replaced by missionaries with Western approaches.

The Christian-Jewish relationship, which Karl Barth once called the fundamental dialogue, must remain central for all interreligious dialogue because it directly impacts Christianity’s very self-identity.

The church has not developed its identity over against any other religious tradition in the way it has with respect to Judaism.

Christianity cannot be authentically presented in dialogue settings apart from its Jewish roots.

So Christian-Jewish dialogue remains at the core of all interreligious dialogue. The understanding of Jesus’ person and ministry cannot be correctly presented unless placed within its Jewish setting.

But proponents of Christian-Jewish dialogue must make greater efforts to integrate it into the wider interreligious dialogue being developed by groups such as the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Religions for Peace and the United Religions Initiative.

The Christian churches will also need to rethink seriously their sense of superiority and of missionary activity that assumes such superiority.

Notions of religious superiority plant seeds of oppression and even genocide in terms of those who do not share their religious vision.

Those entering the dialogical encounter with other religions must be prepared to learn from that encounter.

Christians, as well as all others, must recognize they have something new to learn about God and the meaning and role of religion from traditions other than their own.

Interreligious encounter must become an imperative for Christian understanding today, not merely a sidebar.

And in terms of action on behalf of justice and sustainability in the world today, interreligious collaboration must become the norm rather than the exception.

Finally, Christianity will need to adopt a spirit of hospitality grounded in diverse notions of a Holy Spirit as a source of bondedness.

Such hospitality will be grounded in a recognition of the basic dignity of all believers, in an appreciation that our increasingly global world has linked us inextricably, and an understanding that authentic religious meaning, while rooted in our particularistic traditions, needs to grow and develop in the context of the religious other.

This article is part of a series focused on interfaith engagement. The previous articles in the series are:

Why Interfaith Cooperation Matters During Coronavirus Crisis | Rob Sellers

How Interfaith Partnerships Can Enrich Your Own Life | Rabbi Jack Moline

Amid Global Pandemic, Religious Pluralism Flourishes | Amanda Tyler

A Kind Nun’s Compassion Led to Imam’s Interfaith Journey | Imam Imad Enchassi

Being a Good Interfaith Neighbor During the Age of COVID-19 | Trisha Miller Manarin

Interfaith Efforts Can Help Break Down ‘Religious Distancing’ | IMES Staff

John T. Pawlikowski

John T. Pawlikowski is Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He has served as President of the International Council of Christians & Jews and its Abrahamic Forum as well on the board of the Parliament of the World's Religions.