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SIDIC Periodical XXXIII - 2000/1
Transformation. Through. Dialogue. (Pages 2-7)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The Transformative Power of Interreligious Dialogue
Boys, Mary C.


Religious diversity has been a tragic source of misunderstanding, division and conflict throughout history; it continues to estrange people in many parts of the world. Yet this millennium begins with a hopeful legacy from the past fifty years. Religious hostilities have begun to dissolve in some quarters. Encounter with persons of differing cultural and religious traditions through travel and study has made the “other” less alien. The mobility of modern society means fewer of us live and work in ethnic or religious enclaves; the “other” may now be our next-door neighbor or our professional colleague. Religious leaders and scholars have opened new horizons. Interreligious dialogue, unthinkable in a more disputatious age, stimulates conversations our ancestors in faith could scarcely imagine.

Yet “interreligious dialogue” may sound elitist – the sort of activity reserved for the upper echelon of religious communities. To the contrary. Interreligious dialogue has enormous potential to revitalize the practice of one’s own life of faith as well as to provide new understandings of the other. It also contributes to the development of pluralistic societies that will enable humankind to live in greater peace.

This essay is one person’s testimony to the profound effect dialogue with Jews has had on her practice and understanding of the Christian life.

A Parochial Beginning

I belong to the generation of U.S. Catholics initially raised on the Baltimore Catechism, then schooled in the thinking of Vatican II (1962-65) in adolescence. While postconciliar theologies have profoundly reshaped my understanding of Catholicism, many of the questions and answers of that catechism seem permanently lodged in some distant fold of my brain. Yet I have no recall of the following, which I recently (re)discovered in preparing a class on the history of Catholic religious education:

Q. Why did the Jewish religion, which up to the death of Christ had been the true religion, cease at that time to be the true religion?
A. The Jewish religion, which, up to the death of Christ had been the true religion, ceased at that time to be the true religion because it was only a promise of the redemption and figure of the Christian religion, and when the redemption was accomplished and the Christian religion established by the death of Christ, the promise and figure were no longer necessary.1

Perhaps my lack of recall may be attributed to the long, unwieldy sentence that made memorization difficult. Or it may be that the catechism’s abstract formulation was no competition for the positive association I already had with Judaism – we had a close family friend who not only was Jewish but who also owned a candy store. It is also likely that our teachers had little curiosity about Christianity’s relationship with Judaism. There were few Jews in the Pacific Northwest, where I grew up, so learning that Christianity had made Judaism obsolete was not nearly as important as being able to refute the Protestants who surrounded us. Neither ecumenism nor interreligious dialogue was as yet in our vocabulary.

If that section of the catechism had little effect, it nonetheless provides a snapshot of the supersessionist theology that suffused church life prior to Vatican II (1962-65). Whether we prayed on Good Friday for the “perfidious Jews,” learned in school that the Old Testament was a mere promise to the New Testament’s fulfillment, or conflated the legalistic Pharisees with all Jews, our formation in faith entailed a disparagement of Judaism, even if it avoided (as did mine) maligning Jews as “Christ-killers.” Of course, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus were too exotic to figure in our religious landscape. At any rate, the “true religion was not universal before the coming of Christ. It was confined to one people—the descendants of Abraham. All other nations worshiped false gods.”2

Because we were steeped in ritual, symbol and story, many of us imbibed a rich sense of Catholic identity, for which I am enormously grateful.3 Yet our identity was formed over against the religiously other, all of whom conveniently fit under the rubric “non Catholic.” Only Catholics “had” the “true” faith.

Or so it seemed. In fact, the realities of family and neighborhood often undermined the theological absolutes presented to us with such assurance. For instance, I could never believe in a heaven that wouldn’t include my father, a “non Catholic.” Interacting with neighbors, family and friends of moral integrity who belonged to other Christian denominations – or none at all – contributed to further cognitive dissonance. The burgeoning ecumenical movement provided impetus during my high school years to explore religious differences and to engage with those whose perspectives differed from my own. It was an exciting time to be a Catholic. The sense of the church opening its windows to let in fresh air animated my interest in religion, and provided a major motivation for my lifelong professional work in religious education.

Conversing across Religious Boundaries

Little did I realize then how profoundly ecumenical and interreligious dialogue would affect my life, both personally and professionally. After seventeen years teaching in a Catholic university, I am in my sixth year of teaching in a historically Protestant seminary that has become an ecumenical graduate school of Christian theology. Because my appointment also involves serving as an adjunct professor at Jewish Theological Seminary, I work with colleagues and students in its William Davidson School of Jewish Education. This year also has brought intense involvement at the Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion, where I serve as the outside consultant for rethinking its rabbinic curriculum across its four campuses (New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Jerusalem). Thus, in my day-to-day life I engage constantly with those who, to varying degrees, have different religious sensibilities, practices and beliefs. The encounter is, of course, two-sided, as many of those with whom I interact have had relatively little encounter with Catholics – especially with nuns.

Few of these encounters constitute dialogue in the formal sense. Much of what we do together is mundane – planning courses and conferences, writing papers together, attending a seemingly endless round of meetings, and forming coalitions around common concerns. We seldom bring to an explicit level what we are absorbing from working across boundaries of difference. Yet reflection yields wonder, both about the faith of the other and about one’s own.

The ecumenical and interreligious contacts beyond the classroom, particularly my involvement in Jewish-Christian relations at various levels, complement and enrich the learning gained in school settings. The collaborative work with Jewish scholars, especially educators, affects me deeply. My participation in two projects involving serious and sustained interaction between Catholic and Jewish educators has deepened my conviction that educational process, especially study in the presence of the other, adds depth to dialogue.4

“Interreligious learning,” as we have termed it, respects the depth of knowledge that Christian-Jewish encounter demands; it is dialogue that rests on the foundation of study, structure and support. It advances dialogue insofar as it involves four elements: (1) the ability to enter another religious tradition without losing one’s boundaries, (2) the experience of investing in the health and welfare of another’s religious tradition, (3) movement beyond tolerance to a genuine pluralism, and (4) keener awareness of both commonalities and differences among religious traditions. By designing projects to facilitate encounter with the religious tradition as embodied in the other, we have provided a venue for participants to understand Judaism or Catholicism as lived by informed, committed Jewish and Catholic educators. Interaction is the critical component, whether in formal study sessions or informal exchanges at meals or coffee breaks.

The transformative power of interreligious learning is compelling. For example, Julie Collins, a Catholic participant in both our projects and an experienced religion teacher in a Jesuit secondary school, writes:

As I have shared faith with my Jewish friends, Jesus has come to life for me in a way that I can only describe as eucharistic. Just as Jesus becomes present to me at Mass, when the Word is broken and bread shared, so too, after each of our gatherings, I have felt Jesus’ presence with special vividness. I am still struggling to put words around this experience and I cannot claim to know all that this gift means. But I feel certain it revolves around the truth that Jesus always points to God, always points to his Abba. There is in my Jewish friends, in their cherishing of Torah, in their living a faith-filled life, a pointing to God that makes the Mystery vibrate for me in a way that is not repeated in any exclusively Christian encounter I have ever known.5

Collins’s testimony points to a paradoxical effect of intense interreligious exchange: the more the religiously other takes one into his or her tradition of faith, the more one’s own faith takes on new dimensions.6 Even a reality as distinctive to Christianity as Eucharist takes on another dimension when considered in light of the communion we experience in studying together. We begin the sessions of our “Educating for Religious Particularism and Pluralism” project with study of the Psalms, and it is evident that the intense conversation between persons who have come to respect and trust each other gives new layers of meaning to the Psalms. “Interreligious friendships,” writes James Fredericks, a scholar of Buddhism and a Roman Catholic priest, “promote understanding between believers in helping them locate the text not merely within its historical context but also within its living, existential context.”7 A Jewish participant in our current project, Livia Selmanowitz Straus, speaks about her experience as opening the “wellsprings to honest sharing, learning and venting.” Her involvement “removed the walls of separation and caution which would deny that what my Catholic friends know, feel, and believe can enrich me, as my faith, ritual and story can enrich them. . . their deepest beliefs, fears, insecurities and hopes mirror my own.”8

When dialogue is done in an environment in which care is taken to foster interaction, participants feel safe to confront difficult issues. In my experience, interreligious friendships make it possible not simply to raise hard questions, but to sustain their pursuit. The relationships enable persons to be vulnerable to truth in all its ambiguity; the embrace of friendship makes mutual pursuit of truth a concrete possibility. They do not dissolve differences.9 As another of our Catholic participants, Fayette Veverka, writes: “When I come to see my own tradition through the eyes of another, I am challenged to rethink, even reconstruct, my own self-understanding as I come to appreciate my own tradition, both its beauty and its tragic failings, from a different point of view.”10

Reconstructing Christian Self-Understanding

It is precisely this reconstruction of Christian self-understanding that I believe is at once the great challenge and vital gift of relationships with knowledgeable Jews. At the heart of such relationships is the discovery of living Jewish tradition, a disclosure in tension with the way many of us learned about Christianity. This discovery necessitates reexamining conventional understandings, and may, as in the case of the distinguished Episcopal theologian Paul van Buren (d. 1998), stimulate a fundamental reorientation: “I set about reconstructing how Christian theology might look if it incorporated an acknowledgment of the Jewish people as continuing, living Israel.”11 My own encounter with living Jewish tradition inspires a passion to develop ways of educating in faith that foster religious commitments that are clear and rooted – grounding persons in the tradition’s way of life – yet simultaneously ambiguous and adaptive, recognizing the inadequacy of any one expression of faith in face of the infinite God. It compels me to develop more adequate ways of interpreting Scripture, celebrating liturgy and drawing upon our symbol systems.12

Reconstructing one’s theology may seem like a cerebral task – and, without question, it is intellectually demanding. Insofar as it also entails revising one’s religious self-understanding, it is also a deeply emotional process in which one is forced to wrestle with ignorance, misunderstanding, bias and finitude. It entails developing not only a new perspective on the other, but also on oneself. Deborah Kerdeman, a Jewish participant, says that relationship with the religious other is not simply an enrichment of one’s self-understanding, but that “self-understanding seems to depend in some fundamental way on this relationship.” Because the assumptions and expectations that constitute self-understanding are so deep, the challenge from an other who differs in some significant way is a major factor in making one’s thinking explicit. Moreover, she continues, the territory is particularly charged in the case of Catholics and Jews since the other is not only different but historically “forbidden.” So examining one’s “constitutive understandings – and perhaps altering or relinquishing them as a consequence – is not simply a matter of rethinking certain propositions. . . . It is a matter of reorienting how we see ourselves in the world.”13

Viewing One’s Tradition through the Eyes of the Other

Reorienting oneself has dizzying effects, but it also provides the stimulus to see familiar landscapes in a new way – even at times to experience a sense of amazement at the depth and power of one’s own tradition when viewed through the eyes of the other. Roger Kamenetz, a member of a Jewish delegation who traveled to India in 1990 to meet with the Dalai Lama, writes about ways in which that encounter reawakened his Jewish identity. Among other effects, the Dalai Lama gave him “a pool of nectar to look into, sweeter than a mirror, so that we Jews could see ourselves, not necessarily as we are, but as we might be.”14 The respect I have heard some Jews voice for the power of Mass has deepened my appreciation for Eucharist – as has Julie Collins’s testimony cited above. A Jewish doctoral student, Linda Thal, who is writing her dissertation on spiritual direction among Jews, has helped me understand some of the distinctive Christian facets I had taken for granted in this practice, such as the emphasis on a personal experience of God, listening to God, and being led by the Spirit. The Jewish reticence about God-talk and “spirituality,” and heightened emphasis on God’s address to persons through text study means that Jews and Christians will approach spiritual direction in significantly different ways. In conversing over differences, one learns more about one’s own tradition.

I find the traditional reserve Jews have towards speaking about God instructive, a caution for us Christians to “know before Whom you stand.”15 Christian theologians, who often speak about God in the language of confident assertions, seem at times tone deaf to divine incomprehensibility. In particular, arcane trinitarian terminology, “gives the impression that theology has God sighted through high-powered telescope . . . . [God as] a mind-bending mathematical puzzle, a mystery in the sense of a problem that can be solved or at least clarified with enough intellectual keenness and hubris.”16 Interreligious encounter enlarges one’s apprehension of the God as Mystery – a “spacious God,” in Kosuke Koyama’s phrase, a God beyond all our imagining.17

God’s spaciousness often reveals one’s parochialism, so interreligious encounter exposes the finitude of one’s own religious tradition. God alone is infinite and absolute. Yet, as theologian Roger Haight observes, human beings have a competitive drive that sees God’s love for others as somehow weakening one’s own relationship to God – a sort of “zero-sum” game. “But the logic of God’s infinite love does not succumb to such division.”18 Diana Eck, a Methodist scholar of the religions of India, recounts an experience that bursts the bubble of Christian complacency about God. A friend in Banaras introduced her to a cousin whom he calls “Uncle,” a Hindu in his 80s who had rarely met a Westerner and a Christian. Uncle asked Eck to tell him about her ishtadevata, her “chosen god,” Jesus Christ. Eck, struggling to enflesh Christian theological terms in Hindi, explained Jesus’ incarnation as avatara, which literally means a “divine descent” of God into the world of name and form. Uncle responded to her: “Is it true that Christians believe Jesus was the only avatara? But how is it possible to believe that God showed himself only once, to one people, in one part of the world, and so long ago?”19

Discovering that one does not have a corner on God – or God in her or his corner – can be an unsettling experience. It prods thoughtful people to wrestle with religious pluralism, a topic of immense complexity and importance. Theologians have proffered various definitions, models and arguments, and no one line of thought prevails, although a wealth of insight results. In my own case, I know that experience is ahead of theological articulation, so I keep pursuing the questions in the hope of constructing a more adequate conceptual basis. Perhaps this is a way of keeping faith for a once-little girl who knew that her agnostic father was not excluded from God’s salvific love, no matter what the catechism or our teachers said – and who would then spend her life studying and teaching about educating Christians.

I cannot imagine practicing Christianity without loving Judaism as I have learned it from friends as well as from study. Christian life without engagement with Jews seems impoverished and parochial. When, as I recently read in a student’s paper, the religious other is relegated to the category of the “unsaved,” or I hear Christians claim that the way of Jesus Christ is the only true way to God, I feel deep sorrow. I feel a similar regret when I find a contemporary catechism asserting: “By celebrating the Last Supper with His apostles in the course of the Passover meal, Jesus gave the Jewish Passover its definitive meaning. . . “; and “The Sabbath, which represents the completion of the first creation, has been replaced by Sunday. . . .” I grieve not only at the supersessionist theology that has been so disparaging of Judaism but the distance from an encounter with living Judaism that such claims reveal.20 I suspect the authors have never been privileged to participate in a Seder or share in a Shabbat meal or experience interreligious learning. As a consequence, they perpetuate a form of catechesis that shapes religious identity in an oppositional manner – as if the profound meaning of the Eucharist and the significance of Sunday were lessened by Jewish thought and practice of Passover and Shabbat. This catechesis seems all too reminiscent of that older catechism’s declaration that Judaism had ceased being the “true religion” with the death of Christ.

Like Julie Collins, for whom Jewish friends give depth and breadth to the Mystery “in a way not repeated in any exclusively Christian encounter,” the vitality of Judaism graces my life. It is my study partner, as it were, in the arduous process of discerning God’s voice in the cacophony of our times.


* Mary C. Boys, SNJM is the Skinner and McAlpin Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Her publications include Has God Only One Blessing? Judaism as a Source of Christian Self-Understanding (Paulist Press, 2000) which will be reviewed in the No. 2, 2000 issue of SIDIC.
1 A Catechism of Christian Doctrine Prepared and Enjoined by Order of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, No. 3 (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1921), p. 79 (Q & A 391). This so-called Baltimore Catechism was first published in 1885, and revised in 1941 (Q. 391 remains unchanged in the 1941 revision.)
2 A Catechism of Christian Doctrine, p. 97 (A. 487).
3 See Garry Wills, Bare Ruined Choirs (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971).
4 Both projects have been co-directed with Sara S. Lee of Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles. The first, the “Catholic Jewish Colloquium,” is described and analyzed in a journal issue that we edited on the theme of “Religious Traditions in Conversation.” Religious Education 91/4 (1996). Our current project, “Educating for Religious Particularism and Pluralism,” deals with some of the ramifications of the first project, as we address this question: How might we as religious educators educate in ways that stimulate a deep and learned commitment to our own tradition of faith while simultaneously impelling persons to participate in building a religiously pluralistic society?
5 Collins composed this for the May 2-4, 1999 meeting of the Task Force on “Educating for Religious Particularism and Pluralism,” the sequel to the first project that Sara Lee and I directed. This excerpt is from a statement participants prepared in response to what they personally found to be the most compelling aspect of religious pluralism.
6 By “taking” another into one’s religious tradition, I mean not only that a person serves as an interpreter of the tradition’s practices and beliefs, but also enables the other to get a feel for its popular religiosity—including its humor.
7 James L. Fredericks, “Interreligious Friendship: A New Theological Virtue,” in Journal of Ecumenical Studies 35/2 (1998): 168.
8 Livia Selmanowitz Straus, “My Particularism, Your Particularism, and Our Pluralism,” Paper presented to the Association of Professors and Researchers in Religious Education,” Toronto, October 15, 1999.
9 Fredericks, “Interreligious Friendship,” p. 169.
10 Excerpted from Fayette Veverka’s statement prepared for the May 2-4, 1999 meeting (see n. 5).
11 Paul M. van Buren, According to the Scriptures: The Origins of the Gospel and of the Church’s Old Testament (Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 6.
12 See my Jewish-Christian Dialogue: One Woman’s Experience (New York: Paulist, 1997) and Has God Only One Blessing: Judaism as a Source of Christian Self-Understanding (New York: Paulist, 2000).
13 Excerpted from Deborah Kerdeman’s paper prepared for the May 2-4, 1999 meeting (see n. 5).
14 Roger Kamenetz, The Jew in the Lotus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), p. 279.
15 This is the title of a famous essay by Abraham Joshua Heschel. See Fritz A. Rothschild, ed., Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism (New York: The Free Press, 1959), pp. 211-213.
16 Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992), p. 192.
17 Kosuke Koyama, “How Many Languages Does God Speak?”in Cross Currents 46/2 (1996): 172.
18 Roger Haight, Jesus Symbol of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), p. 413.
19 Diana L. Eck, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras (Boston: Beacon, 1993), pp. 82-83. Eck notes that the term avatara is only “approximately accurate.” For an analysis of the limits of avatara as appropriate to Jesus, see James L. Fredericks, Faith among Faiths: Christian Theology and Non-Christian Religions (New York/Mahwah: Paulist, 1999), pp. 145-146, and Eck, p. 84.
20 See Catechism of the Catholic Church (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1994), #s 1340 and 2190, respectively.


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