“All profitable conversation,” writes Professor Marvin Wilson, “involves listening to each other, seeking to understand each other, and learning from each other.” To this apt description of the interreligious enterprise I would add: and discerning avenues to benefit our communities and the world around us. This exploration of the as-yet-unrealized potential for serious, mutually respectful, evangelical-Jewish encounters is one such timely and welcome avenue.
Wilson’s call to know the religious other—“to grow in understanding and appreciation of the other through respectful conversation and shared experiences that lead to mutual enrichment and trust”—evokes three categories of response: (1) appreciation for the call itself, (2) consideration of the call’s implications, and (3) inquiry as whether the call implies mutual obligations. In the following few paragraphs I offer reflections on what answering Wilson’s call might mean.
Wilson’s reflections come during complex times for evangelical-Jewish relations. As he notes, many organized Jewish communities have balanced wariness about proselytistic motives with cautious welcome for evangelical advocacy on behalf of the State of Israel. However, some Jews remain concerned about the eschatological agenda underlying that support. Others note the tendency of certain conservative evangelicals to resist Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation of any kind as well as the tendency of others to embrace the Palestinian cause at Israel’s expense. In these matters, to cite Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun.
However, evangelicals and Jews share deep moral and practical concerns about other global challenges. John W. Morehead’s list in the pages of this journal includes “world hunger, poverty, HIV/AIDS, race relations, human trafficking and the sex trade, as well as religious freedom.”1 Evangelical support for the nomination of Rabbi David Saperstein as US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, across the Christian political spectrum, was critical in securing his late 2014 confirmation; he is the first non-Christian to hold the post. As Ryan Bolger and I have observed, evangelicals and Jews alike tend to be somewhat anxious about the fusion of church and state (a worry traditional to both groups); especially among progressives, they share traditions of prophetic dissent against the institutional “identification of religion with the sociopolitical establishment rather than cultural-economic outsiders.”2 Answering Wilson’s call, then, would only deepen the potential for evangelical-Jewish collaboration to address these critical issues.
The possibilities go even further, however. In the interreligious conversations that Bolger and I observed among Emergent Christians and Jewish Emergents, and which I have witnessed subsequently in other settings, there was much to be learned from one another in the area of congregational change in the light of culture. Both groups are contending with similar questions. For example, how to maintain spiritual community and religious commitment in the face of a secularizing world? How to respond to the disconnect between tradition and contemporary culture? What is the epistemological and practical value of distinguishing between sacred and secular at all? Answering Wilson’s call offers the opportunity to expand not only theological and political discourse but also ecclesiological inquiry as well.
As an outside, albeit interested, observer, it strikes me that taking Wilson’s proposals seriously leads to a number of further questions, some of which must be made more explicit than they were in Wilson’s essay.
Wilson is fair to observe that certain “separatistic, traditional Jews” resist meaningful theological engagements with Christians. However, if his call is to succeed, there must be explicit acknowledgment of the separatistic tendencies among many traditional evangelicals as well. Recent controversies such as those in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod over participation in multifaith worship services following the September 11 attacks and again after Newtown offer pause to potential conversation partners. In my own experience co-curating the 2006 gathering of Emergent Christian and Jewish leaders (a collaboration of Emergent Village and Synagogue 3000), the only objections to the gathering came from Christian critics objecting to any form of interreligious encounter other than propositional evangelism.
Furthermore, Wilson’s essay is silent with respect to historical Jewish reasons for resisting encounters with Christians. Even if most of the more widely known Christian crimes against Jews were conducted under the institutional auspices of the Roman Catholic Church, many Jews neither know nor care to know the differences among Christian denominations and philosophies. Moreover, evangelical Christians have their own share of historical responsibility: setting aside, for a moment, the anti-Jewish hostility of pre-Constantinian Christians, there is a strain of racial and ethnic anti-Semitism beginning with Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers, with which evangelicals must contend if they wish for the most meaningful possible engagement with Jewish conversation partners.
Even when there is a will to engage with contemporary rabbinic Judaism (rather than Israelite religion or First and Second Temple Judaism), there may be other barriers in the way. The first, most practically, is funding. Would Jewish communities ever be open to hearing from Christian scholars about Christianity? Yes, certainly (though not all Jewish communities; there is no one single “Jewish community” any more than there is one single “Christian community”). Will such presentations be funded by Christian contributions? That remains an open question.
An intermediate step might be expanding Christian academic engagement with Jewish studies. A positive case in point is Pepperdine University’s Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute for Jewish Studies. It was established “based on the understanding that as a Christian University, Pepperdine’s students are especially open to discussions of faith and identity, but are often unacquainted with Christianity’s historical and ongoing relationship with Judaism. The Glazer Institute is designed to increase a majority-Christian academic community’s exposure to, discussion of, and awareness of Judaism, Jewish Studies, and Jewish culture.”3 The institute, however, has been funded from a Jewish source, rather than a Christian one, leaving Wilson’s call for Christian funding as yet unanswered. Furthermore, while Pepperdine itself seems to have found a working solution, the typical evangelical institutional requirement that faculty members be actively committed Christians may undermine efforts elsewhere to integrate Jewish perspectives. Finally, it remains to be seen whether serious Jewish studies can be incorporated into required curricula (if not for all students then at least for relevant degrees and major courses of study), rather than only into elective courses.
Answering Wilson’s call, then, necessarily entails further commitment by evangelicals themselves to understanding and overcoming the internal historical, theological, and practical barriers that have hindered evangelical-Jewish dialogue to date.
“Evangelicals,” Wilson writes, “must acknowledge that a partial agreement on the discussion of what is truth and the will of God is better than total rejection of an entire system. There must be the ability to live with dialectical tensions, paradoxes, and incongruities.” Without compromising on nonnegotiable faith commitments, he rightly contends, evangelicals can seek to know Jews as Jews, not as hoped-to-be Christians.
But what, then, of Jewish interlocutors? Does answering Wilson’s call also imply obligations among Jews? Wilson’s own Jewish encounters evoked responses ranging from hostility to deep friendship (in one case in the same person). There is no question but that evangelicals have a reasonable expectation of respect from their dialogue partners, not least from Jewish ones: our deep regard for text and historical context surely must persist in our engagement with other traditions as well.
At the height of the controversy over Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, an episode that raised significant Jewish concern about the attitude of evangelicals toward Jews, I wrote a top-ten list for Jews wishing to engage in dialogue on the issue;4 below are slightly revised excerpts applicable to Wilson’s concerns:
- DO what Jews do best: study the sources. Read the Gospels for yourself, as well as Paul’s letters, especially his letter to the Romans.
- DON’T accuse the Gospels of causing the Crusades, pogroms, or the Holocaust. The powerlessness of early Christianity—and the persecution the earliest Christians suffered at the hands of the majority—made for a very different sort of religion before the Roman emperor Constantine joined church and state.
- DO talk with your Christian friends about your concerns. For most Christians, Jesus’ message was about faith, hope, and love—not fear or hatred.
- DON’T forget that there are many different—even opposing—groups that call themselves Christian. Episcopalians, Mormons, and Southern Baptists have even less in common than Reform Jews and members of Chabad Lubavitch.
- DO remind your Christian friends that the persecution suffered by early Christians is a much more recent memory for Jews.
- DON’T be afraid to stand up for yourself and the Jewish people, but do not be surprised if Christians wish to do the same for their faith.
In short, the Jewish answer to Wilson’s call is one rooted in knowledge rather than assumptions and in respect for both self and other.
Elsewhere I have argued that religion is empirically visible to the observer solely through the language and behavior of agents acting within social networks in service of whatever situationally is defined as religious.5 In short, religion cannot happen unless people (more than one!) agree it is happening.
This applies as well to the interreligious encounter. Marvin Wilson’s call to know and be known deserves recognition and response. As a Jew who understands himself to have been taken out of Egypt to stand freely and accept the covenant at Sinai, a covenant neither erased nor superseded, I am commanded to love my neighbor and the stranger alike. As Wilson notes—echoing voices from the Talmud—we cannot love neighbors or strangers if we do not know them. Thus it is up to those of us who recognize the image of God in one another, despite our differences, to answer this call and in so doing to strengthen the covenants that bind us.
1“My Wish List for Evangelicals in an Age of Terrorism and Religious Conflict,” Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue, Fall 2014.
2J. Shawn Landres and Ryan K. Bolger, “Evangelical-Jewish Dialogue: The Emerging Conversation,” Sh’ma 37, no. 638, May 2007, p. 11; see also Landres and Bolger, “Emerging Patterns of Interreligious Conversation: A Christian-Jewish Experiment,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 612 (2007): 225–39, DOI: 10.1177/0002716207301563.
3From the institute’s self-description on the Pepperdine website: http://www.pepperdine.edu/glazer-institute/about/default.htm.
4J. Shawn Landres, “Passion Response Dos and Don’ts,” The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, February 13, 2004, http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/passion_response_dos_and_donts_20040213; see also J. Shawn Landres and Michael Berenbaum, eds., After The Passion Is Gone: American Religious Consequences (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2004).
5J. Shawn Landres, “Misrecognition, Transgression, and the Burden of Unfalsifiability: Toward Interstitial Religion” (working title), in Entering Religious Minds: Essays on the Study of Epistemic Worldviews, ed. Mark Juergensmeyer and Mona Kanwal Sheikh (2015, in progress); see also my “Interstitial Religion: Approaches to the Study of Religion on the Middle Ground,” PhD diss., University of California, Santa Barbara, 2013.