A conversation paper presented to the LSF on Sunday, August 26 2007
Thank you for the opportunity to share with you on this topic.It was the theme of the International Council of Christians and Jews Conference held at the University of New South Wales in Sydney from July 8-11 this year. As the Co-Chairpersons of the South Australian CCJ, Ron Hoenig and I were privileged to attend. It was the first meeting of this World body to be held in the Southern Hemisphere since its formation in London in 1945. The ICCJ serves as an umbrella organisation of 38 national Jewish-Christian dialogue organisations world-wide. Over the past five decades it has successfully engaged in the historic renewal of Jewish-Christians relations.
To start this afternoon with some questions that provoke and stretch our thinking has been valuable. They have prompted us to delve deeper and listen to each other more keenly. Thank you for your responses to them.
- How do you talk to someone about things on which you know you are going to disagree?
- In multi-faith dialogue what is the place for people who have no faith, yet have an interest in the healing of a broken world?
- Is creative inter-faith understanding and joint action relevant when the rest of the world thinks religion is irrelevant and meaningless?
The questions lead us to two other important questions — if people of faith and others of goodwill are to contribute to healing a broken world, how do they deal with their differences and what practical steps can they take to help the healing to happen?
At the Conference, issues behind and around these questions were addressed by various speakers. Rabbi Raymond Apple presented the key-note address entitled, “Healing the rifts between Religions in a Multicultural Society”. He focused on the reality of the differences between Judaism and Christianity. It is his emphasis about honestly recognising ‘difference’,and working together with respect and goodwill that I want to suggest is foundational to effective dialogue. This kind of openness toward others with different beliefs and practices will always serve the goal of … ‘healing a broken world’.
Rabbi Apple reminded the Conference that while Judaism and Christianity have a common origin in the Hebrew Scriptures, they read the texts quite differently. They believe in God, but they view God and God’s nature through different lenses, and their ideas about man’s nature, salvation and destiny are far apart. However, for all the differences he had detailed, he showed us that none of them should limit or prevent positive outcomes being experienced. He underlined the point that, “Our task is not to deprecate, demonise, deligitimise or diminish the other, not to damn the other or the unbeliever as a heretic or rogue but to reconise their right to be themselves”.
His central proposition was two-fold. To pursue intellectual truth alone will always be too fixed and unmoving. However, pursuing moral truth will always offer a positive path for it always deals with life situations and is focussed on a task not a particular stance. The shared principles of peace, justice and compassion would always enable Christians and Jews to work together on the human concerns of our time.
To succeed in this kind of dialogue,he suggested the need for an ethic of difference. He had experienced this in his own earlier encounters with fellow Jews in their own faith’s internal debates. There are five things that mark it — Identity, Honesty, Study, Courtesy and Credibility. He also believed they were the markers that had helped him to experience positive Jewish-Christian relationships and dialogue. He called it a plan for applied pragmatism.
- Identity:— we are part of each other, and we honour a shared heritage which has a range of interpretations.
- Honesty:— we repect each other’s point of view, and accept that we all have a conscience and commitment to our heritage.
- Study:— we will sit to study our heritage and discover its nuances and how it handled differences in the past.
- Courtesy:— we will keep the conversation on a civilised, courteous level, and never indulge in mutual denigration.
- Credibility:— we agree where we can but disagree if the credibility of our heritage requires it, in which case we will agree on how to acknowledge and articulate the range of views we expouse.
In the end he suggests wee will experience healing wherever mutual love and repect are applied. In the long run he said,God will reveal the answers. As the prophet Isaiah assures us, “He will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in His paths.” Isa. 2:3
Thinking about my own journey in Christian ecumenical activities and wider inter-faith dialogue these principles have been evident. Mentors and people who have become my friends were gifted in the way they modelled this approach.
I recall some years of involvement in the Youth Council of the Australian Council of Churches in the mid 1950’s, in particular a week long Conference where we lived in small community groups of ten persons — each of us representing one of the ten participating Christian Churches from Roman Catholic through to The Society of Friends (the Quakers). It was a time of deep fellowship — sharing from our own faith traditions; listening to and celebrating each other’s individual stories; studying and praying together; and learning to respect the different emphases that our traditions held and understanding at least something of their historical and theological significance.
Later, eighteen years in Defence Force Reserve Chaplaincy from 69-87 demonstrated the way in which mutual respect, trust and goodwill enabled Anglican, Roman Catholic and Protestant Chaplains to serve the broad spectrum of background, faith and culture amongst the serving Defence Forces personel. And I have clear memory of a Lutheran Senior Chaplain — Ern Sabel who served in Training Command enabling many a ‘rookie’ chaplain to base their team work as Chaplains on joint planning action using principles similar to Rabbi Apple’s. I also remember well the importance of working to provide for the spiritual and pastoral needs of Jewish members of the Defence Forces.
My membership of the South Australian CCJ over more than twelve years now has been an enriching experience. It has been a time of very open and collaborative sharing and listening. I have learnt much from my Jewish friends that has enhanced and strengthened my own spiritual journey.
Returning to the Conference — other speakers echoed the importance oft he openness and pragmatism necessary to make dialogue work.
- Rabbi Brian Fox (Manchester) referred to the importance of knowing each other, each other’s stories and what each other reads if we are to have positive relations together.
- Bishop Michael Putney (Townsville) underlined the importance of faithfulness to one’s own tradition along with ‘an openness to God’ in the stories and experience of people from other religious traditions. “I don’t think I can understand God as a Christian unless I understand God through the experience of Jews.
- In a workshop that considered what needs to be done to make wider interfaith relations meaningful, Professor James Haire (UCA) speaking out of his experience in Indonesia, offered four important ingredients. Openness and transparency in all relations; education programs to remove xenophobia; joint ethical actions; the cultivation of integrity with tolerance.
- An important and current project. Three New Zealand delegates reported to the ICCJ on the progress of a Working Party developing a statement on Religious Diversity in New Zealand. Professor Philip Morris (the Jewish Representative) of the Victoria University of Wellington had prepared the draft of the 8 point statement. He spoke of the need in their country to experience acceptance and respect for religious diversity in both national and local community settings. Archbishop John Dew (Christian) and Rehanna Ali (Islamic Women’s Council) also members of the working group, described some of the responses received from consultations held around the country. It is a very encouraging story.
You can discover its progress for yourself by “googling” on the Net for New Zealand Statement on Religious Diversity or going to the Human Rights Commission site — www.hrc.co.nz. It has its origins in 2004 and has begun a significant journey in a very short space of time with the help of the New Zealand Government and the Human Rights Commission. I set out the eight point statement here for your interest. “… its purpose is to provide a framework for the recognition of New Zealand’s diverse faith communities and their harmonious interaction with each other, with government and with other groups in society.”
- The State and Religion
The State seeks to treat all faith communities and those who profess no religion equally before the law.New Zealand has no official or established religion.
- The Right to Religion
New Zealand upholds the right to freedom of religion and belief and the right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of religious or other belief.
- The Right to Safety
Faith communities and their members have a right to safety and security.
- The Right to Freedom of Expression
The right to freedom of expression and freedom of the media are vital for democracy but should be exercised with responsibility.
- Recognition and Accommodation
Reasonable steps should be taken in education and work environments and in the delivery of public services to recognise and accommodate diverse religious beliefs and practices.
Schools should teach an understanding of different religious and spiritual traditions in a manner that reflects the diversity of their national and local community.
- Religious Dfferences
Debate and disagreement about religious beliefs will occur but must be exercised within the rule of law and without resort to violence.
- Cooperation and Understanding
Government and faith communities have a responsility to build and maintain positive relationships with each other, and to promote mutual respect and understanding.
In making a final comment in commending this topic to you. When religious faiths work together they put themselves in a position to lead the wider community toward harmony and good relations. If we look back at the starter questions considered as we began, each of them would have been encountered in some form by many participating in the community consultations undertaken so far in this very interesting project. For some people, the questions are direct enough to close down any prospect of good conversation. However, it appears that hasn’t been the case in this New Zealand experience. For me the venture illustrates the kind of openness and commitment that will bring ‘… healing to a broken world’.
Thank you …
Rev. David Houston is the Christian Co-Chair of The Council of Christians and Jews (SA)