Sunday, July 12, 2009

Abraham's Many Sons and Daughters

Before kindergarten, I used to go to Kiddy Bible College. It was a religious day care where we would happily belt out religious songs. Everyone was fond of extolling, “Abraham had many sons, and many sons had father Abraham.” Indeed, how many, many sons and daughters.

Years later, when teaching World History to high schools students, I would often remind them that the three ‘great’ Western religions traced their roots to Abraham. Abraham fathered many sons and many religions, too.

Recently, I visited Columbia, South America with an interfaith group of college students and staff members. The trip moved me deeply, and forced me to reconsider the importance of interfaith dialogue, while at the same time, recommitted my fidelity to the Catholic Church. My theological studies created a religious myopia. For the past few years, I have been content with pondering the internal theological divisiveness, especially of the Protestant variety. I unconsciously eschewed much of the interfaith discussions that were going on. One, though, cannot do everything, and it may be that one needs to get one’s house in order before entering another’s.

Colombia, then, became a place to reacquaint myself with the issue of interfaith dialogue. I began to think in earnest about it when, one night during reflection, someone mentioned that each western religion had one person who acted as iconic figurehead for the religion itself: Judaism has Abraham, Christianity has Jesus, and Islam has Mohammad. This struck me as sentimentally beautifully, but ultimately incongruous. All three religions claim Abraham, and indeed, all claim Moses and Jesus, too. Further, and more importantly for Christians, Jesus was not some mere religious leader whose work pointed to the revelation of God. Jesus wasn’t the figurehead of Christianity, but the second person of the God-head. He was the incarnation of God on earth living alongside humanity. I have no doubt that this statement was to produce a sentiment of affinity, to evoke a feeling of religious solidarity. Yet, it is clear such good intention within interfaith dialogues can so easily rent violence to the particularity of each religions’ theology.

During the trip, I was deeply moved by one of the girls, Sunnah, a practicing Muslim. During a visit to a cathedral, we discussed the misconception of Mary being worshiped rather than venerated. It occurred to me while Jesus and Mohammed are so often paired together – as they were in the nightly reflection – it is, more properly, Mohammed and Mary that share so very much in common. Both are chosen to be the vehicles for God’s special revelation. Neither is considered divine, but both are understood to have an unparalleled importance and holiness. To equate Jesus and Mohammed may always seem a popular and helpful suggestion within interfaith circles, but theologically it can never properly situate and valuate the role of Christ in Christianity as properly the second person of the God-head. No, to do justice to the claimed divinity of Christ, one would have to equate Jesus with Allah, and of course, this too would rent violence to the particular Islamic claim that rejects the divinity of Christ, and the tri-partide nature of God.

D. Stephen Long recounted that because he lived in Skokie he would often have dinner with his neighbors who were invariably Jewish, and that during the evening conversations he would often suggest that when the Messiah came they would ask Him, rather avuncularly, “Is this your first or second visit?”

Islam, too, espouses Jesus will usher in the eschaton. So, to include Muslims, a second question should be posed, “And, are you a prophet or God?

A beautiful friend of mine was once crying with me beside her. She was distraught by how carelessly someone had talked about abortion. She said something so chillingly beautiful and true in that moment: “The most painful part of life is when you realize that your understanding of justice is someone else’s idea of injustice.”

And where does justice matter more than in faith? This is, I believe, where interfaith dialogue is so important, and also, so dangerous. Liberal theologians, like John Hicks for example, suggest such a synchronistic and collectivist religious pluralism that it emasculates the richness and undercuts the particularity of the very religions they are trying to honor.

To paraphrase Dr. Long, “I cannot agree to disagree with you. I simply disagree.”

This statement, while political and social unpalatable, is true candor. The statement does not placate, but rather vindicates the real difference spanning two perspectives. It honors the particularity. It honors the pain that resides in irreconcilable difference.

As mentioned in previous post, the late Pope John Paul II wrote, “Theology is not about a problem to be solved by a mystery to be elucidated. We can speak of this mystery with a humble confidence because of the life, death, and resurrection of the incarnate Word.” Interfaith discussion must always begin with this humble confidence. The humility honors the mystery of all religion and offers openness for new revelation, while it also unequivocally rejects the conservative ‘certainty’ that spews from so many religious zealots. The confidence indicates authenticity, the disposition that one must be true to oneself, while also rejecting the impossible ‘equality’ that liberals demand that in fact rents violence upon the particularity of the varying religions.

These two temperaments – humility and confidence – askew both baseless equality and myopic certainty in order to occupy a middle ground of fidelity.

Interfaith dialogues will end with disagreement; profound, angering, and saddening disagreement. Someone’s justice will inevitably tangle with someone else’s injustice. People will cry.

And yet, the alternatives – equality and certainty – offer either a meaningless pluralism through castrating religious truth claims or an unabashed absolutism that mandates a determinate understanding of the Truth, which, historically, quickly escalates into physical violence. Fidelity, in interfaith dialogue, doesn’t promise perfection, and that’s in fact why it’s so promising.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nothing about this blog, but calling your website "The Catholic Atheist" is quite an oxymoron