Reflections on Canadian General Synod 2019: Yes... But (ll) Jews and Christians

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In our first installment, we reflected on our Canadian siblings’ acceptance of ‘A Common Word,’ an Islamic call to dialogue which is admirable in its irenicism and worrisome in its theological detail.  This, second installment brings this same attitude of worried admiration to the Synod’s action on Jewish-Christian dialogue.

One of the best treatments of the latter question recently is an article in ‘First Things’ by my friend David Novak of the University of Toronto called ‘Supersessionism Hard and Soft.’  He brings the requisite knowledge and subtlety to the question. He builds his argument in the following way. First he affirms that each religion believes it has the fullest account of truth, and so its adherents hope that others will come to this conclusion as well. This must always be non-coercive and respectful. But Judaism and Christianity are a special case, growing from the same root of the Old Testament.  So, secondly, professing one’s own truth does not necessarily mean denying that God has a providential role for the other. So, as Novak points out, medieval Jews could claim that Christianity was a scaled down Torah for Gentiles; one might compare this on the Christian side with Aquinas, who thought that a Jew could be a Christian without knowing it by ‘implicit faith.’  Thirdly, Novak makes the interesting point that rabbinic Judaism and Christianity are two religions beginning in the first Century out of ancient Judaism.  (I found myself wondering where he would put the Petrine mission of the New Testament). Fourthly, Novak understands that Jews and Christians have things to talk about in this complex, inter-related and yet distinct relationship. This is especially true since they readily share an opposition to militant secularism.  Fifthly, Novak emphasizes that both Jews and Christians think about their relationship against an eschatological horizon. For us, Romans11 is the classic passage on the subject; it affirms that we must the promises hold, that Gentiles should be humble, that Jesus will reign supreme on the last day, and that somehow ‘Israel will be saved.’ How all those fit together we will see when the circle is unbroken. 

Novak recognizes that if  you think Messiah Jesus is the Lord of heaven and earth, you are bound to be a supersessionist of some sort, since you think He is the last word. But there can be a ‘soft’ variety of this which is open to dialogue, a continuing providential role for God’s people Israel, and surprises on the great day.

I review this approach because the General Synod last week voted to remove the collect ‘For the Conversion of the Jews’ and substituted this:

O GOD, who didst choose Israel to be thine inheritance: Have mercy upon us and forgive us for violence and wickedness against our brother Jacob; the arrogance of our hearts and minds hath deceived us, and shame hath covered our face. Take away all pride and prejudice in us, and grant that we, together with the people whom thou didst first make thine own, may attain to the fulness of redemption which thou hast promised; to the honour and glory of thy most holy Name.
—Proposed prayer “For Reconciliation with the Jews”

As I read this prayer, I can agree with every sentence.  It was written in the spirit of friendship and dialogue which I commend, as does a Jewish theologian like Novak.   But his nuanced view of the relationship of Christians and Jews supports certain questions we can ask of the prayer. Does its hoping that we might ‘together…attain the fullness of redemption’ intend to exclude the hope that another might come to see Jesus as the Messiah? Novak’s ‘soft supersessionism’ says it needn’t.  And is the use of ‘thy most holy Name’ deliberately suppressing the name of Jesus, at which every knee shall bow (Philippians 2:10 as an interpretation of Isaiah 45:23)? No other goal, however worthy, ought to do this. The worry is that unclarity on this point, concerning the unique relation of Christians and Jews, might come to support such a conclusion in relations with other religious traditions.


Different Traditions

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   Imagine a conversation with a friend of another religious tradition.  You have different commitments, to be sure. You are both honest enough to share how your own faith is the most important thing in your life. But as you talk you also come to see similarities between your life and prayer and theirs. You visit one another’s homes for dinner, and you both can see how, in addition to your bond itself, your friendship is a good example to others. My point is simply this: difference of belief, witness, similarities, hospitality, and public solidarity: these are all distinct, important, and capable of co-existing.  That, I think, is the place to start in the relations between different traditions.

      This week the Anglican Church of Canada will consider the famous proclamation and invitation from Muslims to Christians called ‘A Common Word Between Us and You.’ Google it since it well deserves a read. It is a dense piece of Islamic apologetic and I was surprised that they would feel able to do it justice in such a hurried setting ill-suited (in my experience) for theological argumentation. My take is this: ACW is a olive branch. It means to promote peace and common cause between Muslims and Christians of good will. And as such it is a good thing.  But it makes its case from a distinctively Muslim point of view: where else would it come from? Religions offer doctrines about other religions based on their own commitments.  So when ACW seeks to find common ground, it builds on the Great Commandment: ‘hear of Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one…’, quoted as it is by Jesus. But of course the nature of that oneness is exactly what divides Chrstians and Muslims, not out of prejudice, but out of deep theological conviction. We believe that the oneness of God is consistent with belief in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Muslims can’t. Hardly a secondary point!

    So the desire for peace is altogether commendable. And there are points of commonality, for example in the second commandment ‘like unto it,’ love of neighbor. But we have irreconcilable differences of doctrine which go to the core of things which happen to converge around the issue at hand here. Still we can each find reasons from our own theological wells to see the other charitably, even as hospitality is part of a witness the world needs.

    Will the ACC be able to capture all this? I have no idea, but the potential for good, and the potential for confusion, are both real.

Peace, GRS 

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