Thursday, December 06, 2012

Patheos Book Club: Do Jews, Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

There is a new volume out that is leading to some interesting discussions on an old topic. The book is Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims Worship the Same God? (Abingdon Press), with contributions with contributions by Jacob Neusner, Baruch A. Levine, Bruce D. Chilton, and Vincent J. Cornell. Martin Marty wrote an epilogue for the volume. The book's description:
Most Jews, Muslims, and Christians are devoted and faithful. Still, on any given day, it’s difficult to avoid the vigorous and heated disputes between them, whether over the “Ground Zero” mosque, lobbying state legislatures against Sharia law, sharing worship space, dissecting the fallout of the Arab Spring, protecting civil rights, or challenging the authority of sacred texts. With so much rancor, can there be any common ground? Do they even worship the same God? And can religion, which often is so divisive, be any help at all? Four internationally known scholars set out to tackle these deceptively simple questions in an accessible way. Some scholars argue that while beliefs about God may differ, the object of worship is ultimately the same. However, these authors take a more pragmatic view. While they may disagree, they nevertheless assert that whatever they answers to these questions, the three faiths must find the will (politically, socially, and personally) to tolerate differences. Perhaps what can help us move forward as pluralistic people is ia focus on the goal – peace with justice for all.
This book is presently part of a review and discussion at Patheos, with contributions thus far from Robert Hunt, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, and Bruce Epperly. One aspect of the volume has generated some interesting discussion, a paragraph by Jacob Neusner in the volume, where he writes:
“Interfaith dialogue is made possible by monotheism, which defines the common ground on the foundations of which debate can take place. Polytheism defines dialogue out of existence, making provision, rather, for an exchange of opinions in a spirit of tolerance.”
Hunt seems to agree with Neusner, whereas Herschfield disagrees. In my experience in interreligious dialogue with adherents of many different religious traditions, including Pagans, monotheism is not a necessary foundation. What is needed is the willingness of the participants to dialogue and to be in agreement as to the type and format of dialogue through which the conversation will develop. Hunt responds in the comments to Herschfield that
For conversation to be fruitful we do need to know what we are talking about. Let’s take “faith” as in “interfaith.” The hidden assumption in interfaith dialogue is the modern, Schleiermachian, assumption of a universal human faith in something. That faith is understood to be refracted through various religious (and sects, and personal beliefs) which, with varying degrees of adequacy (or complete equality if you wish) point toward that “Something” that is (however obscured) the universal object of faith. What Neusner’s comment points us toward is the possibility that no such universal “faith” exists. Put another way he is asserting that dialogue depends on having a common object of investigation and discussion. And he is suggesting that at least with regard to faith polytheists don’t believe that there exists a common faith to be the object of investigation and discussion and therefore can’t enter into real inter-faith dialogue. Of course polytheists will need to speak for themselves about whether that is true.
Again I disagree with Hunt, and if he understands Neusner correctly, then I disagree with him as well. Human beings have profound disagreement about what "faith in something" entails, and broad based assumptions or agreements about the nature of the transcendent as "an object of investigation and discussion" are not necessary before dialogue can begin. Indeed, these are some of the pressing disagreements that must be worked through by the dialogue process, not as a prior commitment before dialogue takes place. I hope this review and discussion at Patheos invites lots of input and commentary. I'd especially like to see my fellow FRD members, and my Pagan colleagues, provide comments on Hirschfeld's and Hunt's review essays.

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