Dealing with Dialogues

Dealing with Dialogues

Center sees its mission to unite Christians and Jews as more important than ever now

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

There was ample reason to establish the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College even before this fall, says center executive director Philip Cunningham. But the events of Sept. 11 and afterwards have crystallized its mission in ways no one could have expected, he acknowledges.

Center for Christian-Jewish Learning Executive Director Philip Cunningham: "The need for, and the importance of, inter-religious dialogue among all the world's faiths has been made painfully clear these past couple of months." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
"The need for, and the importance of, inter-religious dialogue among all the world's faiths has been made painfully clear these past couple of months," said Cunningham in a recent interview.

"While our mission may not necessarily apply to the full spectrum of issues and concerns we've seen raised this fall, the experience of intensive Christian-Jewish dialogue will provide important lessons for engaging in other inter-religious conversations."

The center, which began its second year this fall, is dedicated to fostering the growth of new, mutually enriching relationships between Christians and Jews, said Cunningham.Established through a gift of more than $5 million by John M. Corcoran '48, the center sponsors lectures, conferences, courses, research and other activities that explore or encourage Jewish-Christian discussion.

In addition, the center serves as a clearinghouse for various publications and documents on issues or events with potential repercussions for the Christian-Jewish relationship. Its World Wide Web site provides, or offers links to, much of this information.
"The time was right for a center such as this, which brings the resources of a Catholic university into a dialogue many Jews and Christians have long desired," said Cunningham. "We're finding a growing enthusiasm for our work not only in BC and the greater Boston community, but also among scholars and organizations around the country with a similar focus as ours."

Cunningham estimates approximately 20 college or university-based institutions in the United States are built around Jewish-Christian themes. But the BC center is on track to be the largest in terms of programming and resources, he said: Two permanent chairs, one each for a Christian and Jewish scholar, are being established and are expected to be filled shortly.
"Ultimately, having a solid endowment helps enormously in our being able to bring both depth and breadth to our work."

An example of the center's educational work is its collaboration with Prof. John Michalczyk (Fine Arts) in the production of a pilot video for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Synagogues, which Cunningham said he hopes "may be the first in a series of such videos that will used to stimulate dialogue on the local level between Jewish and Christian congregations."

This fall has seen a characteristic sampling of center activities, including "Questions About Covenant," a conversation between Rev. John Pawlikowski of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and Rabbi David Fox Sandmel of Beth Tfiloh Community High School in Baltimore. Last week, the center presented a talk by Rev. Hanspeter Heinz, a priest of the diocese of Cologne, Germany, titled "My Thirty Years Experience of Christian-Jewish Dialogue in Germany."

On Dec. 3 and 4, the center will co-sponsor, along with the Rabbinic Committee for Interreligious Dialogue and the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the US Catholic Bishops Conference, "An Invitational Dialogue on Covenant" at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. The keynote speakers will be Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, and Rabbi Norman Solomon, a fellow at the Oxford University Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

In addition, Cunningham recently published A Story of Shalom: The Calling of Jews and Christians by a Covenanting God. The book, which Cunningham calls "an experiment," retells the Christian story - including the origins, purposes and goals of the Church - in a way that envisions a positive relationship between the Christian and Jewish peoples. Rejecting the view that Judaism existed only to prepare for the coming of Christianity, Cunningham affirms Judaism's covenant with God and the validity of Jewish self-understanding.

Cunningham says A Story of Shalom was written for both a scholarly and non-scholarly audience, and can be used by Jews and Christians, individually or in groups, as a means for reflection and conversation.

One area of growth Cunningham cites is the center's offering of courses with an inter-religious learning format for undergraduates and graduate students, especially those pursuing degrees in theology or related disciplines.

"When Jews and Christians study their traditions together, a tremendous amount of learning takes place, about oneself, as well as one's religion and culture," he said. "As we continue to add resources and cultivate more of a presence on campus, we hope to provide more of these opportunities."

Prior to his arrival in August of 2000 at BC, Cunningham - who holds a 1992 doctoral degree in religion and education from the University - taught theology for nine years at Notre Dame College in Manchester, NH, where he also served as director of its master of arts degree program in theology.  

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