CAN I NOT DO TO YOU AS THIS POTTER HAS DONE?
INTERRELIGIOUS LEARNING AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF RELIGIOUS IDENTITY
Julie A. Collins
Georgetown Preparatory School
I remember vividly when the gift was given when I first realized that studying with Jewish colleagues at the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium did not merely deepen my faith as a Christian but, in fact, was essential to it.
We had gathered on a Sunday evening in small groups to share stories and symbols of our sacred seasons, the High Holy Days or the Advent-Christmas season, respectively. I had chosen to begin my sharing about the Nativity by reading the Annunciation story from the Gospel of Luke (1:26-38). In my minds eye I pictured Mary sitting there, shy and overwhelmed, awash in the radiance of the Angel Gabriel. All of a sudden, as I was narrating the tale of this young Jewish girl and her monumental "yes" to God, my throat closed, my eyes filled with tears and the letters blurred. I could barely continue. Stunned, I looked up into the faces of the two Jewish women in our group. It was as though Mary were in the room.
Of course, Ive always known that Mary of Nazareth, mother of Jesus, was a Jew. Only at that moment, however, did the fact of her Jewishness make an impact on me. Even now, as I write this article, I feel again the intensity of that insight. To speak of Mary in the presence of devout Jews not only made her more alive to me, but also made the entire event of the Nativity more numinous.
I had a similar moment of grace when, at the invitation of Shulamith Elster, I went to a Shabbat service. Again, I kept filling up with tears, and, as the scrolls were returned to the Ark amidst the peoples singing, I felt a chill. I knew I had touched Jesus in some vital way by sharing faith with Jewish friends. My encounter with living Judaism not the historical Judaism I knew from my earlier education has made me a better Christian because it has expanded my understanding of who Jesus is, and of who I am as his follower.
The Colloquium was for me a profound experience of family. This feeling of deep kinship as sisters and brothers, is, I believe, the key to the richness of interreligious learning. After all, do we not continually speak of the "human family"? Do we not call ourselves "children of God"? I am sure that the secret of how we may remain "particular" in our religious identity, and also radically open to the wisdom of other traditions, is captured somehow in that metaphor. The image of family, including the dimension of sibling rivalry, also explains the fratricidal mania that has destroyed so many lives and made religion a scandal in the eyes of unbelievers.
Like the children of a family, we are always afraid there will not be enough love, enough "God" to go around. We stamp our feet or rattle our sabers, insisting insist we have an exclusive claim to Divine Providence. It is no small thing to develop theological humility, to recognize, in the words of a 1988 document from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Emet ve-Emunah " that although we have but one God, God has more than one nation" (Kogan 1995, 91).
How difficult it is for us to acknowledge in our heart of hearts that God, the Mother and Father of us all, has many children. With each of them, and each branch of the larger family, God has a specific and precious relationship. Christians who fear acknowledging Judaism as a true way to God or refuse to see Judaism as more than the "root" of Christianity impoverish themselves. Rather than leading to an amorphous mass of relativism, interreligious learning enables us to see two distinctive and special characteristics of each tradition.
As a committed Christian in dialogue with faithful Jews, I do not need to question my conviction that Jesus is the Son of God, the Word made flesh. I know this of Jesus, just as I know who my own flesh and blood brother and sister are. We know, really know, when we love. But in love we are always struck, as the years pass and the surprises continue, by what we do not know about the beloved. For God to be truly God we must allow love to be utterly transcendent. We must believe in the revelation we have received without insisting that our knowledge of the beloved be static. Every major religious tradition holds that our personal knowledge of God may grow over time not because God changes but because we come to know more and more deeply who God is. This is, of course, one definition of holiness: an ever-increasing intimacy with God, which the Jewish and Christian traditions see mirrored in the relationship of marriage. Yet how often do husbands and wives who have been married for years chuckle and say, "Every now and again he/she really surprises me." Surely, we must allow God the same privilege!
And, surely, if we are to know God intimately we must talk to God's friends. We must hear the faith stories of our brothers and sisters and listen for the truth they bring to us. When I share the faith of my Jewish brothers and sisters, I know the Jesus who still dwells with them. For if we maintain that the resurrected Christ is still fully human and fully divine, Jesus is still a devout Jew. Jesus never, before or after his resurrection, disavowed his Jewish faith. So, truly, if I want to know the living Christ, I must draw closer to his Jewish brothers and sisters.
And there we have the paradox, the "both-and" which exists at the core of all the great religious traditions. Robert Johnson reminds us that the root of the word "religion" is re-ligio, to bind together again, to bridge (Johnson 1991, 84). He claims that religious truth always involves staying within the tension of two realities that seem to contradict each other. Our faith, then, is always founded on paradox: life comes from death and wisdom is spoken by the foolish. If we collapse the paradox of religion, if we flatten it and insist that it fit neatly within our categories, then our mysterious God, who exists most profoundly in liminal spaces, will elude us.
So it is possible for me to stay rooted within my own Catholic tradition and still be transformed by the faith of Jews, as long as I am convinced, like Abraham and Sarah, that God will be faithful. If I hold onto the God I know, I too, can move into an unknown land (Kogan 1995, 94). I will panic only when I think I am in the desert alone and must navigate the swirling sands of religious experience with my own inadequate compass. Here again, the particularity of my own tradition, the revelation which has become enlivened in the fiber of my heart, is essential. In a human relationship we must have a fairly significant grasp of who we are before we can comfortably share the emotional life of another. The same holds true in interreligious learning. If I know who I am before God, and if I know what I believe, then I can listen comfortably to my brothers and sisters of other faiths because I have a religious experience of my own and I am rooted (but not imprisoned!) within that experience.
Clearly, then, interreligious learning takes place most beneficially among people who are reasonably secure in their own relationship with God and who are also comfortable with the mystery of that relationship. People with little tolerance for mystery and ambiguity will become uncomfortable with another person's experience of revelation because it transcends their own, narrow religious categories. Ultimately, interreligious learning requires humility we must be truly "down to earth" (humus), truly human rooted in the clay from which God fashioned us all (Genesis 2:7). We must taste our creaturehood and know, like Jeremiah, that we are indeed clay in the hands of the Potter (Jeremiah 19:6). We are created to be constantly reshaped. We must realize that now, even in our love of God, we "see through a glass darkly but then we shall know even as we are known" (1 Corinthians 13:12).
And there is often pain in this. There is struggle, because like Moses we know that as close as we may come to God on this earth, we will only glimpse God's back (Exodus 33:23). We will not see God's face this side of heaven. The mystery of our religious diversity is always a source of angst because we know that love is one and yet appears to have several faces. How is it that the family which God created so often knows love differently? Where is the truth? Where does God abide? Each of us has a different answer and we wonder how this can be so.
Karl Rahner addresses this conundrum in an essay in which he deals with the personal pain of Catholic parents whose children have rejected religion entirely or who have converted to other traditions of faith. He grapples with the thorny question that Jesus knew so well, ". . . who, then, can be saved?" (Luke 18:26). Rahner consoles those worried about the salvation of their loved ones by assuring them that though we must take our particular faith commitments seriously, the Gods mercy is mysterious, flooding into eternity:
We have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling and leave to God his secret. . . .The hope of salvation which we unshakably possess for all loved persons is after all not merely the arousing of the collective self-preservation, of an animal tribal instinct, . . . May we not hope then that God, who has himself planted hope in our heart by his Holy Spirit, will not allow it to remain in vain? Is something not possible to God even though it is as impossible to man [and woman] as a camel passing through the eye of a needle (Lk. 18:25-27)? (Rahner 1967, 371-372.)
So it is that the Giver of the hope may be trusted, and the love of God that flooded our Colloquium experience must also fill us, Jews and Christians, with great joy. Ultimately, the God whom we know, whom we call upon to be present to us in our living and in our dying, is Mystery. The boundlessness of his mercy will forever elude our earthly comprehension.
So as I remember with delight my experience of learning and praying with my Jewish friends, I can only echo Paul's words: "I give thanks to my God at every remembrance of you, praying always with joy in my every prayer for you . . . [for] I am confident of this, the One who began this good work will continue to complete it " (Philippians 1:3-4, 6). Amen!
Julie A. Collins, who has taught high school for twenty years, chairs the Religious Studies Department of the oldest Catholic school in the United States, Georgetown Preparatory School in Bethesda, Maryland.
List of Works Consulted
Johnson, Robert. 1991. Owning your own shadow: Understanding the dark side of the psyche. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
Kogan, Michael. 1995. Toward a Jewish theology of Christianity. Journal of Ecumenical Studies 32. 88-106, 152.
Rahner, Karl. 1967. The Christian among unbelieving relations. Theological investigations. 3: 355-372.