New Stories for a New Relationship

Philip A. Cunningham

Notre Dame College, Manchester, New Hampshire


The directors and participants in the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium deserve praise for their vital educational experiment in coming to know a different, but related, religious tradition. Their experiences of interreligious learning in the presence of "the other" offer important cues for furthering this crucial work. They also show that once people begin to encounter the other tradition on its own terms there occurs an inevitable change in how the relationship between Judaism and Christianity is conceptualized.

I have been asked to comment upon this reconceptualization in terms of why it is necessary, what elements and processes are involved, and how I have been impacted personally by this kind of shift in understanding. As a Roman Catholic, my reflections will be offered from within the context of a Christian community which has irrevocably reformulated its doctrinal understanding of Judaism, but which still has much to do in recognizing and implementing all of the ramifications of its transformed outlook.

I. Why Christians Must Reconceptualize the Relationship

As the bishops of West Germany expressed it in 1980, and as Boys and Lee rearticulate in their own essay, "He [and she] who encounters Jesus Christ encounters Judaism" (Croner 1985, 124). For almost two millennia, the Church has felt that its relationship to Judaism was one of promise fulfilled. Judaism prepared for Christianity. Christianity realized what Judaism only foreshadowed. The Jewish covenant with God gave way to the new covenant of the Christian Church. Christianity was the younger brother who had supplanted the older. The unavoidable corollary to such perspectives is that Judaism is a fossilized religion that really has no reason to continue to exist.

Beginning in 1965 at the Second Vatican Council, the magisterium of the Roman Catholic church officially began to rethink Christianity’s relationship to Judaism . The new teachings assert that Jews remain in covenant with God, that theirs is an ongoing spiritual vitality from which Christians should learn, and that Jews and Christians are called by God to bring shalom to the world (Cunningham, 35-70). While a complete systematic theology of the relationship between Jews and Christians that incorporates these new perspectives has yet to be fully developed, it is clear that the older model has had to be reconceptualized. Why?

Undoubtedly the Shoah (Holocaust) has been a major catalyst for change in Christian attitudes. It has forced the Church to reflect on how its habit of thinking contemptuously of Jews and Judaism contributed to that genocide. Surely supersessionist ideas must crumble in face of the realization that after the Shoah, "[[n]o statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children" (Greenberg 1977, 23). The Shoah has also made Christians reexamine their long history of oppression of Jews, a history that is little known to Christians, even leaders in religious education, as one of the Colloquium participants observed in the Boys and Lee article.

Another reason for rethinking the Christian-Jewish relationship is the work of researchers who have made it clear that stereotypical Christian views of Judaism as a legalistic and burdensome religion that Jesus opposed are completely false. Popular Christian clichés such as "The Old Testament presents a God of justice and fear, but Jesus reveals a God of love and freedom" – notions that can even be detected in the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church (see, for example, par. #1972) – are not based on the best available evidence but on ancient polemic. Biblical and historical study has disclosed that many Christian stereotypes about Judaism are grounded not in reality but in the social conflicts of earlier centuries (see, e.g., Efroymson, et al. 1993).

The birth of the modern state of Israel is a further catalyst for change in Christian attitudes. Its existence undercuts the ancient Christian view that God had sentenced the Jews to homeless wandering.

There is another impetus for change that is most significant in the United States: the largest Jewish community in the world lives here. Christians, at least in certain regions, have many opportunities to get to know Jews and the Jewish tradition. For some, this has

led to an encounter with a related religious heritage that clearly enjoys a vibrant and dynamic spirituality. In other words, many American Christians understand experientially that Jews remain in a life-giving, covenantal relationship with God. This observation requires that the relationship between the two religions be rethought.

In recent years, Catholics, in particular, have also been transformed by the renewals of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Among the effects of this Council is a greater Catholic interest in the Bible. I suspect that more frequent contact with the Hebrew Scriptures, especially when interpreted critically, has fostered a certain

level of esteem for Judaism among some Catholics. In my experience, many Catholics, as well as Christians from the other churches, are eager to recover the Jewish roots of their faith tradition and to engage in religious dialogue with their Jewish neighbors.

All of these factors impact both the institutional Church and ordinary Christians. They demand that we rethink the relationship between Jews and Christians.


II. Dynamics of This Reconceptualization

The reflections of the participants in the Colloquium clearly demonstrate the multiple social, psychological, and theological realities that are involved when a group sets out to redefine its relationship to some other group. This complexity makes reconceptualizing relationships difficult.

Social scientists suggest that humans seem to need to differentiate people into "us" and "them" categories. This occurs almost automatically, sometimes on the basis of completely random attributes (Staub 1989, 58). Perhaps people do this because belonging to a group is an aspect of the building of one's self-identity (Brewer 1979, 322).

People naturally discriminate in favor of members of their own group, even if there is no real advantage in doing so (Tajfel et al. 1971, 172). This is accompanied by "a tendency to acquire ethnic attitudes to conform to whatever self-image or dominant frames of value the individual has" (Allport 1954, 317-318). For example, if a person has the impression from parents, family, or friends that there is a special dignity in being a Christian, then that person will tend to feel that another religion must possess a lesser dignity.

This social-psychological perspective sheds light on the reason reconceptualizing the relationship of Judaism and Christianity is a complex task. Christianity has a history of defining itself over and against Judaism. From the early centuries when Christians were defining doctrines about Jesus Christ, the Trinity, and the Church, Judaism functioned as a negative foil. As one scholar expresses it, "the overwhelming impression . . . is that Christian beliefs are so deeply rooted in attitudes toward Judaism that it is impossible to disentangle what Christians say about Christ and the Church from what they say about Judaism" (Wilken 1971, 229). We Christians have a long habit of defining who we are by accentuating what makes us distinctive from the tradition from which we originated, Judaism.

Thus, when Christians begin to alter their attitudes toward Judaism, we often have a feeling of vertigo. The ground that we stand upon, which defines our religious and communal identity and history, suddenly undergoes a tectonic shift. One Colloquium member eloquently expressed this as a "recrafting of a whole sense of self."

The modern Church's realization that God continues to be in covenant with the same people we defined ourselves against affects every aspect of Christian identity and belief. Several Colloquium participants noted this in their comments about Christology, education, Scripture, history and liturgy. The enormity of the task leads to a certain inertia, an alarm at altering ancient attitudes, and a paralysis caused by a fear of reiterating anti-Jewish ideas. These blocks frustrate those Christians who feel urgently that the reform which has begun must hasten.

III. Personal Reflections

This all strikes me as a further sign that the Church is the living, growing Body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-31), not the stagnant Corpse of Christ. Perhaps we are moving out of an adolescence in which we had to find ourselves by denigrating and attacking our parents into an adulthood in which, aware of our own responsibilities, we can relate to our parents in a more mature manner. Of course, this is a disturbing image when one realizes how protracted our adolescence has been.

Recently, I heard one of the Colloquium's guest scholars, Anthony Saldarini, use a metaphor which conveys well a sense of the transformative process studied by the Colloquium. A performer on the high trapeze must let go of one trapeze in order to swing onto the other one that is approaching. There is a certain amount of time when the person is suspended in a somewhat terrifying free-fall. Once they have grasped the new trapeze they can continue on to a new place.

This is the task facing religious educators who wish to advance the ongoing process of transformation that the Church is experiencing regarding Judaism. We need to help people traverse the terrifying gap between an earlier way of conceiving of Christian identity and a more wholesome way. Much sensitivity is required because people live through such transformations in their own unique ways. One reason the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium is so important is that it sought to embody and analyze educational principles that might facilitate this type of transformation.

For myself, I share the frustration and impatience experienced by those Colloquium participants who have caught onto that other trapeze and are swinging away from the one to which they once clung. When one is deeply convinced of the necessity of the Church reformulating its relationship to Judaism and Jews, it is painful to listen to the recital of theologies, lessons, sermons, liturgical hymns and prayers that have not yet made the leap.

One reason for difficulty, if I can risk pushing the trapeze image one more step, is that it is still unclear where that new trapeze is going to take us. What is being reformed is an ancient, comprehensive, theological superstructure which was founded on disdain for Jews and Judaism. There has not yet been enough time to conceptualize a similarly comprehensive structure which is affirming of Jews and Judaism. I suspect that we Christians need to live and pray our reoriented faith for a while so that suitable rites, rituals, images and theologies can develop. Dialogue and learning with Jews will be an invaluable part of this process, as the Colloquium experience has demonstrated.

To put it another way, Bernard Lee speaks about the "deep stories" that inform and give meaning to life (Lee 1993). They are the meta-stories or skeleton that structure all the smaller stories which give a tradition its flesh and blood reality. For centuries, the Church's deep story has told about God and Christ in ways that maligned Judaism. It provided a structure for a myriad of little stories that reinforced Christian identity at the expense of Judaism (e.g., Jesus angered the Jews, the Jews killed Jesus, God punished the Jews, etc.).

In our times we need to tell the Christian story in ways that not only affirm Judaism, but see the ongoing Sinai covenant with God as essential to the unfolding tale. A deep story such as this cannot be written one day - it must grow out of the lives of the people who call the story their own. We Christians need to experience our Christianity in a Jewish way and in solidarity with the living Jewish tradition if we are really going to tell our story anew.

Perhaps one way to begin to conceptualize the story is to think of Jesus Christ as embodying Israel's covenantal encounter with God in his own life. The tale of Israel's covenantal relationship with God thus becomes the resonating pattern that is profoundly expressed in the Christian experience of God in Christ. This might be inadequately sketched out as follows:

Israel is called to live in fidelity to God, thereby making God visibly active in the world and testifying to the Age of peace and justice that God intends to build. God remains faithful to Israel during conquest and exile and genocide, continuing to create new life in and through the people who bear God's Name. Their witness and mission to the world continues.

This covenantal pattern re-echoes in the history of God's people again and again right down to the present era. For Christians it resonates most powerfully in the individual Jew, Jesus Christ. Jesus epitomizes covenantal fidelity to God, and makes God present to the world. God remains faithful to Jesus despite the cross, and through him continues to create new life for the Church. The Church unites people from among the nations and bears God's Name in Christ. The Church continues its Lord's mission of witness and action in the world today, and with Jews must prepare the world for God's Reign of justice and peace.

This tentative "story line" for how the "deep story" of Christianity might eventually evolve is obviously embryonic. Perhaps it provides some cues for how we Christians can begin to think about ourselves in relationships to our Jewish sisters and brothers. In whatever way our story unfolds, I am convinced that our covenant with the God of Israel, the Abba of Jesus, demands that we Christians reconceptualize our relationship to the Israel of God, the Jewish kinfolk of Jesus.

Philip A. Cunningham is professor of theology and director of the Ministry Institute at Notre Dame College in Manchester, New Hampshire.


List of Works Consulted

Allport, Gordon W. 1954. The nature of prejudice. Reading, Ma.: Addison-Wesley.

Brewer, M.B. 1979. "In-group bias in the minimal intergroup situation: A cognitive-motivational analysis." Psychological bulletin. 86:307-324.

Catechism of the Catholic Church. 1994. Collegeville: Liturgical Press.

Croner, Helga. 1985. More stepping stones to Jewish-Christian relations. New York/Mahwah: Paulist.

Cunningham, Philip A. 1995. Education for shalom: Religion textbooks and the enhancement of the Catholic and Jewish relationship. Collegeville: Liturgical Press.

Efroymson, David P., Eugene J. Fisher, and Leon Klenicki, eds. 1993. Within context: Essays on Jews and Judaism in the New Testament. Collegeville: Liturgical Press.

Greenberg, Irving. 1977. "Cloud of smoke, pillar of fire" in E. Fleischner, ed. Auschwitz: Beginning of a new era? New York: KTAV: 7-55.

Lee, Bernard J. 1993. Jesus and the metaphors of God: The Christs of the New Testament. New York/Mahwah: Paulist.

Staub, E. 1989. The roots of evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University.

Tajfel II., M.G. Billig, R.P. Bundy, and C. Flament. 1971. "Societal categorization and intergroup behavior." European journal of social psychology.1:149-177.

Wilken, Robert L. 1971. Judaism and the early Christian mind: A study of Cyril of Alexandria's exegesis and theology. New Haven: Yale University.



(rev. mcb; revisions approved by author; final edit 1/17/96; 2472 words )