Discussions Break Down Religious Walls

Academic-focused program wraps up successful first year

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

A series of interfaith dialogues between Christian, Jewish and Moslem scholars organized by a Boston College theologian concluded recently after what participants say has been a successful first year.

The Jewish-Christian-Moslem series, sponsored by the Theology Department and organized by Asst. Prof. Rabbi Ruth Langer (Theology), held its fourth conference on April 8, with guest speaker Michael Wyschogrod of the University of Houston, a Jewish philosopher active in interfaith efforts, who also gave a public lecture the next day.

The series was launched last fall to increase mutual understanding between scholars of the three faiths, Rabbi Langer said. It also furthers a tradition of three-way interfaith discussions at Boston College that dates back to 1987, when part-time faculty member Raymond Helmick, SJ (Theology), began hosting a Christian-Jewish-Moslem "Trialogue" series on campus.

The meetings hosted by Rabbi Langer focused mainly on the prophet Abraham, from whom both Israelite and Islamic peoples claim descent. Abraham's prominence in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths provided a starting point for the discussions, Rabbi Langer said.

Asst. Prof. Rabbi Ruth Langer (Theology)-Meetings focused mainly on stories of the prophet Abraham. "To understand the others' readings of these stories is a step toward understanding the others."

"Each of these religions has understandings of Abraham as a patriarchal figure," explained Rabbi Langer, yet "each tradition has a reading of Abraham that is somehow excluding of the other traditions.

"To understand the others' readings of these stories," she said, "is a step toward understanding the others."

As many as 35 people attended each meeting, gathering for dinner and discussion. Participants included faculty, graduate students and undergraduates from Boston College, Brandeis University, the College of the Holy Cross, Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological Seminary.

Each conference featured a speaker who addressed the topic of Abraham from a Jewish, Christian or Moslem perspective. The roster of invitees included Joseph Professor of Catholic Theology Jaroslav Pelikan, Harvard Divinity School Professor Jon Levenson and Imam Talal Eid of the Islamic Center of New England.

"It's extremely interesting to get together with people of three different faiths and see how they view the same thing," said Yasmeen Kazimi '99, a Moslem participant in the series. "We all agree Abraham is the father of all three religions, but differ in the details. We come from the same place; all of us come from Abraham."

Reid Locklin, a Catholic doctoral student in theology, said he particularly enjoyed the wide-ranging and "very good-natured" group discussions. At one recent session, for example, the topic of Abraham gave way to a discussion of crucifixes and their perception by Moslems, whose faith forswears images of the deity.

"The series' primary value has been less the presentations," Locklin said, "and more the discussions the presentations engender."

Another Catholic student, Douglas Lucas, who is pursuing a master's degree in theology, said the interfaith series has taken "the study of religion out of the abstract and into the real world.

"It is a quite different experience to learn about another system of belief by sitting down and talking with people, as compared to reading a book about those beliefs," Lucas said. "This series has helped me to distinguish the differences of religion from the similarities of personal belief."

Another series is planned next year, with the focus tentatively centering on the theme of "salvation" in the three religious traditions, Rabbi Langer said.

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