Winter Books
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Issue Date:  October 7, 2005

Edited by Bradford E. Hinze and Irfan A. Omar
Orbis Books, 158 pages, $20
'Trialogue' grapples with barriers to interfaith harmony


Despite appearances to the contrary, efforts at interfaith understanding are alive and well. Even trialogues continue to be conducted, despite the momentous challenges they face. The present volume, which began as a six-week lecture series at Marquette University, Milwaukee, in the spring of 2004, illustrates the opportunities and obstacles of such conversations.

The book, like the series, brings together Rabbi Reuven Firestone, professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles; Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; and Mahmoud M. Ayoub, professor of Islamic studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. Tackling such subjects as the origins and development of monotheism and the Abrahamic roots of each faith, the participants find them to be of more than scholarly interest. As Dr. Ayoub puts it, the question of who are the children of Abraham has been a defining issue of historical, theological and political relations among the three faiths.

Dr. Ayoub and Rabbi Firestone stress the need to avoid dogmatic assertions and to be open to new insights into divine revelation and the sacred writings of each faith. The rabbi laments that “the religious quest in Judaism is confined to our own scripture and religious writings” and declares that he “cannot accept the dogma of immutability of any scripture.” The Muslim scholar calls for “a theology of a plurality of covenants between God and all religious communities and individuals that accept faith and God and hope in God’s mercy” and says the Quran calls on each group “to accept the authenticity of each other’s scriptures and faith.”

In this, the Jewish and Islamic contributors find themselves in sharp contrast to Archbishop Fitzgerald, who sets forth the church’s stance on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the Christian interpretations of the Hebrew scriptures while noting recent statements by Catholic officials on the validity of other faiths.

Such statements are confusing to non-Christians and sometimes even to Christians. Archbishop Fitzgerald quotes Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, as having said in November 2002 that Jews need not become Christians in order to be saved if they follow their consciences and believe in God’s promises as they understand them in their religious tradition. Similarly, Archbishop Fitzgerald quotes Pope John Paul II as having said in 1981 that Christians and Muslims try to reach God “in our own ways, through faith, prayer and worship, through the keeping of his law and through submission to his designs.”

However, while Rabbi Firestone praises what he calls the archbishop’s “deep humility,” he criticizes the Vatican official for using “a language of dichotomies and of theological certainty” that the rabbi finds problematic. Similarly, Dr. Ayoub asserts that Pope John Paul “has not always been consistent, telling Muslims that we are brothers, worshiping the One God, but at the same time urging Christians to preach to Muslims with the view to possible baptism.”

The three participants note the continuing barriers that separate the adherents of their faiths: The Christian scriptures reinterpret the Hebrew scriptures, and the Muslim scriptures reinterpret both of these. Each holds Abraham in a high place as the father of the faithful, but they disagree on what Abraham did and who are his rightful spiritual heirs. And the trialogue participants dance around the question of whether a specific revelation of God is necessarily superior to all others, but they avoid the issue of salvation, although for many Christians, acceptance of Christ as Lord determines one’s eternal destiny and is thus a spur to missionary efforts toward adherents of other faiths.

Despite their differences, all three participants affirm their commitment to further discussions and cooperative efforts on such issues as poverty and injustice. However, they seem to represent a relatively small number of the faithful of each tradition. Another problem is that just as racists rarely take part in interracial discussions, so proponents of religious hatred don’t join in discussions like this one.

Perhaps people of goodwill in each community should make more strenuous efforts to cultivate as much attention to the views of such people as Rabbi Firestone, Archbishop Fitzgerald and Dr. Ayoub as their angry, inflammatory coreligionists receive from the mainstream media.

Darrell Turner writes the religion section for the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year.

National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005

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