Theological Presuppositions and Their Impact on Jewish-Christian Relations

Wednesday, September 5th, 2007

When I see a topic like “theological presuppositions,” I interpret that as an invitation to think “outside of the box” a bit. However, in considering some “presuppositions,” I don’t want that term to convey any negative connotations. In these remarks, I am understanding “presuppositions” to be any pre-existing theological ideas that Christians and Jews bring with them – consciously or unconsciously – into their encounter with each other. I will just mention some of them without going into exhaustive detail about all their implications; perhaps we can discuss some of them further during the question and answer time.

With these caveats, here are some theological presuppositions that one sees operating regularly among both Christian and Jews:

1. Christians come to interreligious dialogue with Jews with the presupposition that the God whom Jesus called Abba is the one God of Israel. Since the rejection of Marcion’s contrary view, all but the most fringe Christians assume that “Jews and Christians worship the same God,” as the 2000 Jewish statement from the USA, Dabru Emet put it. However, more Christians (wrongly) are not so sure that the same assumption is true of Islam. Moreover, there are many Jews who are not comfortable with the simple equation of Judaism and Christianity worshipping the same God, as some prominent critics of Dabru Emet made clear.

2. I think most Christians and Jews uncritically hold that something went wrong with the “parting of the ways,” the origins of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism: the parting was not God’s will.

Christians: Jews did not accept the Good News about Jesus were either blinded (Paul: God’s will); obstinate (not God’s will, maybe demonic), or more benignly, innocently mistaken because of a misplaced myopic focus on the Torah.

Jews: Paul, if not Jesus, fundamentally distorted Judaism

Eventually, the other tradition will recognize its errors, even if only eschatologically.

“Let us assume further that I respect believing Christians, as I do, for qualities that emerge precisely out of their Christian faith. But I believe that the worship of Jesus as God is a serious religious error displeasing to God even if the worshipper is a non-Jew, and that at the end of days Christians will come to recognize this.”1

Motu proprio: prayer for the conversion of Jews.

Alternative: What if the origins of our two traditions unfolded according to God’s will? Is it not possible that God would desire two covenanting communities in the world, perhaps to serve as enables and correctors of one another? This alternative makes greater sense if God’s self-disclosure, divine revelation, is understood as essentially relational in nature, so that God is perfectly free to reveal different (though not contradictory) things to selectively to different people. If so, then eschatologically one side or the other will not be proven wrong in some zero-sum calculus; rather both sides will understood why both were correct – a development hinted at by a certain phrase in the most recent PBC study.

3. Both traditions tend to retroject later developments and concepts back to the time of the parting or their origins.

Thus, issues that later divided the communities are imagined to have been divisive at the time of Jesus or synagogues as they later developed when rabbinic Judaism became ascendant are imagined to have existed as far back as the early Second Temple period.

Examples: The divinity of Jesus is thought by many Christians to be a subject that was debated between “Christians” and “Jews” even before the catalyzing and revelatory experience of the resurrection. Or Judaism at the time of Jesus (or worse, throughout all time) is imagined according to later polemical caricatures as legalistic and oppressive. Or Christianity from its roots was antithetical to normative Judaism.

4. In a related fashion, both traditions would like to think of themselves as ideal types: as sort of perfect forms of Judaism and Christianity, unalloyed by change or historical conditioning. As such, they can be thought of as isolated and uninfluenced by each other. One can see the influence of this tendency is such books as Jacob Neusner’s A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, in which a post-Talmudic rabbi anachronistically discusses halakhic matters with the Matthean Jesus. However, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us, “No Religion Is an Island,” and, in fact, our two traditions have been shaping each other – for good or for ill – throughout the past two millennia.

As a result:

5. Aspects of both traditions’ teachings are categorically presumed to be in fundamental opposition to one another. There are irreducible differences between us, but a presumption that these cannot be explored impedes mutual understanding and enrichment.

Examples: incarnation; trinity;

6. A word about a Christian theological presupposition vis-à-vis Islam:

Christians expect no further public revelation since the incarnation of God’s Word in Jesus Christ. Nostra Aetate, 3 praises Islam, but does not mention Mohammed.

The nature of the Q’ran as the perfect expression of God’s will that supersedes the textually corrupted scriptures of Judaism and Christianity constitutes a difficulty for openness to enrichment in Christian-Muslim dialogue.

Impact

  • Avoidance of the irreducible theological issues that divide us. When engaged, a tendency to avoid the conditionality, the limitations, of each tradition’s approach to the issue; e.g., how much is each tradition’s understanding impacted by its reactions over the centuries to the other’s approach? How much of the tradition is boundary-marking?
  • Reification of present (and received) attitudes, judgments about the other.
  • A tendency to push relations with the Jewish or Christian to the periphery of the faith community’s life.
  • An inhibition on hearing the other on the other’s own terms and within their frames of reference.
  • Impediment to mutual enrichment, a goal I would like to add to Jeremy Jacobs’ goals of “understanding and partnership” that he mentioned yesterday.
  • The Holy One transcends all of our religious particularities.
  1. David Berger, “On Dominus Iesus and the Jews,” paper delivered at the 17th meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, New York, May 1, 2001.

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