Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Religious co-existence

If several commentators that I follow hadn't opined about it, I would surely have missed this development. Apparently a Vatican commission announced last week that the Roman Catholic Church should end institutional missions to convert the Jews.

Who knew the Catholic Church was still attempting any such thing? I didn't, though I suppose if I'd thought about it, I'd have realized that a church which doesn't offer the communal meal (the Eucharist) to non-members and to its own divorced people might cling to such a project. Still, the idea seems a little shocking.

I was glad to see the always informative James Carroll expound about this in the New Yorker. He insists this obscure theological tweak is momentous. According to his reading of history, it was through the Spanish Inquisition's effort to (literally) smoke out secret Jews who were only "pretend" Christians that the notion of blood-impurity slipped into European consciousness.

In 1449, the city council of Toledo, Spain, passed an ordinance decreeing “that no converso of Jewish descent may have or hold any office or benefice in the said city of Toledo.” The papacy promptly condemned the so-called limpieza de sangre, or “blood purity,” requirement, but soon enough such restrictions spread, taking firm hold on the Catholic imagination. At the turn of the seventeenth century, the Jesuits, to take an egregious example, declared that “no one will hereafter be admitted to this Society who is descended of Hebrew or Saracen stock … to the fifth degree of family lineage.” Although the exclusion of “Saracens”—that is, Muslims—later dropped away, Jesuit authorities allowed the restriction against converted Jews, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, to stand until 1946.

This embrace of the blood-purity standard marked the epoch-shaping move from religious anti-Judaism to racial anti-Semitism. Indeed, the assumption of Jewish biological inferiority amounted to the invention of racism, and it gripped the European mind just as adventurer-explorers were setting sail for Africa, Asia, and the New World. A religion-based white supremacy defined European encounters with people of color everywhere. The totemic date for this fateful turn in the story of the West is 1492—the year of Columbus, but also the year of the expulsion of Jews from Spain.

Remembering his own Catholic education, Carroll insists this declaration creates a larger opening than may seem obvious.

Last week’s renunciation may seem like a routine religious matter, of little interest outside the circle of Jewish-Catholic dialogue, but a basic principle of pluralism—other people have the right to be other people—is being affirmed. The absolute claims to religious superiority that have long been part of Catholic identity are being mitigated, if not dismantled.

The theological magnanimity implied by the Vatican pronouncement raises serious problems for the Catholic faith, which continues to put Christ at the center of all salvation. But that faith is clearly undergoing a change, as dogma gives way to experience. Because the theological contradictions reside in, as the pronouncement puts it, “an unfathomable divine mystery,” the Church can live with them, for now.

J.J. Goldberg, a columnist and former editor of the Jewish Forward, also thinks the Vatican declaration is a BFD.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the new document on the conversion of Jews that the Vatican released December 10. ... For Jews, it means that the 2,000-year scourge of persecution and forced conversion is finally over. ... Jews have long memories.

It’s an even bigger deal for missionary groups like Jews for Jesus. Converting Jews is what they do. If this thing spreads, it could put them out of business. Protestants don’t always admit it, but Vatican thinking has a trickle-down influence beyond Catholics. What happens in Rome doesn’t stay in Rome.

[In 1965, the Second Vatican Council] annulled supersessionism. The Jews’ covenant was still in force. The Christians’ New Covenant hadn’t replaced it. The two existed side by side. This is called dual-covenant theology. ... Mainline and liberal Protestant churches, including Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans, have largely adopted dual-covenant theology, mostly within the past decade.

... the Vatican itself has difficulty explaining how it can reconcile its belief in the continuing Jewish covenant, ... with the equally clear principle appearing elsewhere in the New Testament that salvation comes only through Jesus. The new document puts it this way: “That Jews are participants in God’s salvation is unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery.”

The key phrase here seems to be "unfathomable divine mystery." Okay, that probably works for most contemporary persons who find something of value in our various religious traditions. We also know we don't know it all -- or we should know it.

With that in mind, it didn't surprise me to read Mustafa Akyol's oped in the New York Times about the theological history of how some Muslims have tried to discern who is a "true" believer and who an infidel or apostate. It seems that religious tradition has also struggled with how to deal with those whose approach to God was somehow different. Akyol wants to raise awareness of one ancient solution:

Unless you have some knowledge of medieval Islamic theology you probably have no idea what irja means. The word translates literally as “postponing.” It was a theological principle put forward by some Muslim scholars during the very first century of Islam. At the time, the Muslim world was going through a major civil war, as proto-Sunnis and proto-Shiites fought for power, and a third group called Khawarij (dissenters) were excommunicating and slaughtering both sides. In the face of this bloody chaos, the proponents of irja said that the burning question of who is a true Muslim should be “postponed” until the afterlife. Even a Muslim who abandoned all religious practice and committed many sins, they reasoned, could not be denounced as an “apostate.” Faith was a matter of the heart, something only God — not other human beings — could evaluate.

Perhaps another "unfathomable divine mystery"? Perhaps in our interconnected and interdependent world, ancient faiths can recognize there is more we can't know than there is that we do know. This is how we live together, as we must.

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