A MATTER OF TIME
The Jew, Christian, and Muslim in Conversation

by Paul Golomb

About two-thirds through the famous correspondence between Eugen Rosenstock and Franz Rosenzweig—an exchange that represents a model in Christian-Jewish dialogue—the Jewish Rosenzweig figuratively threw up his hands in frustration. He wrote to his Christian friend and distant cousin, "I find that everything that I want to write is something I can't express to you. For now I would have to show you Judaism from within."1 The correspondence did not end here. Rosenzweig braved on, attempting to communicate something about himself and his faith that he did not trust could be fully communicated.

Rosenzweig, writing on the eve of World War I, was anticipating an impor­tant philosophic project of the twentieth century. A principal trend in the nine­teenth century had been to describe how one knew something to be true. The issue would no longer be 'knowing,' but rather 'meaning:' how can one communicate to another what one believed to be the case? Perhaps it is a testimony to the persistence of the philosophic norms of the 1800s, that interfaith dialogue usually engages two (or more) faith communities attempting to tell each other what they believe, without giving too much thought to whether what they are saying is actually being understood!

For my own part, I have been involved in formal and informal interfaith dia­logue groups for nearly thirty years. Not all of the efforts were successful, and as I think back, even the ones that appear to have gone very well, might have result­ed more in a sense of mutual satisfaction than in mutual understanding. This essay has been motivated by my thinking about these dialogues and others with which I am familiar. How can they be considered successful, useful, or proba­tive? How might they be unsatisfying and disappointing? Let me cite two examples drawn from Jewish experience.

In the early 1960's, motivated by the efforts of Vatican II, Jewish-Christian dialogue began to increase. Formal and informal forums were established, and the conversations were considerate and content-filled. On the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War, with bellicose pronouncements emanating from Arab capitals, and Israel 's survival hardly assured, most Christian organizations remained silent. In addition, after Israel 's sudden victory, a number of churches were quite will­ing to treat Arabs and Palestinians as victims of Jewish aggression. Why had the dialogues not produced even a modicum of sympathy or respectful contempla­tion of the Jewish State's concerns?

In a similar vein, many Jewish-Muslim or Arab-Jewish dialogues came into existence following the onset of the Oslo peace process between Israel and Palestine . Most of them did not survive the disintegration of the process with the failed Camp David summit in the summer of 2000, and the subsequent renewal of violence that September. Then, new dialogues tended to be estab­lished after the traumatic event of 9/11 a year later. Clearly, these encounters are serving some need, but it appears to be fragile and/or superficial. Something is blocking formal and direct interfaith contact from being able to overcome the sectarian tensions that arise in the world. I want to explore this problem.

The Success of an Idea

Rosenzweig did not believe that all faiths were incommunicable. Actually, he reserved that distinction for the Jews. In the same letter to his cousin, he went on to say, "And for the very reason that you can [show me Christianity], I cannot. Christianity has its soul in its externals..."2 He hardly meant this as a critique of Christianity. Indeed, he had only the highest regard for Christian faith, consid­ering it a spiritual compliment to Judaism (although he was quite critical of other religions, perhaps of Islam most of all).3 The Jews, he argued, had a fun­damental responsibility to preserve a direct and unmediated relationship with God as Creator, Revealer and Redeemer. In order to do this, they had to remain true to a community, and thus were unhooked from the forces of normal histo­ry. Christianity, on the other hand, is the vehicle by which the possibility of God's redemptive spirit is brought out into an unbelieving world. Christians must therefore eschew community—anyone can join regardless of culture or his­tory—yet through their belief, they literally define the logos of history, the march toward the fulfillment of God's purpose.4

Upon   reflection,  Rosenzweig's  observation is reasonably  obvious. Christianity is, after all, a missionary religion. The fundamental contours of its philosophy and practice must be accessible to non-believers so that they will be induced to participate in its vocation. A central element of Christian belief is the responsibility to witness, which I take in its most serious form to be an invita­tion to bring core Christian tenets into one's life. Obviously, Christianity has had some modicum of success. There are no regions on earth without Christian adherents.

Islam, of course, has also enjoyed enormous success. In the nearly fourteen hundred years since Mohammed began to promulgate his prophetic revelations, Islam has also established a worldwide reach. Yet, it has accomplished this growth even though there is no obligation to testify the truth of the Qu'ran to non-believers. Islam's message nevertheless is sufficiently accessible and attrac­tive in order to have brought in adherents from among all the communities in which it has existed.

Undoubtedly, many have been coerced, sometimes violently, into conver­sion to Islam or Christianity over the years. Whether this case is the exception or rule is immaterial. Coercion is expressly forbidden by both faith communi­ties. The central question here is not history but theology. What is it that Christianity and Islam wear on their sleeves that allows the non-believer to see and understand what each faith is offering?

Judaism, on the other hand, has always been at best ambivalent regarding conversion. There is evidence that at some point in its history—perhaps up to the second or third centuries of the Christian era—Judaism had success in expand­ing through both natural increase and conversion.5 If there was a neutral to benignly positive attitude toward proselytization at this time, the official stance later turned toward discouraging conversion within the dominant Christian and Muslim worlds in which Jews found themselves.

Again, I want to raise the theological rather than historical issues. We need to think about Judaism, Christianity and Islam in terms of each other. The issue I wish to raise is not to what extent these messages are similar or distinct, but rather are they intercommunicable; that is, how common to each other are assumptions on which their message is predicated? Let us begin with a brief description of each religion's articulation of faith.

I. Three Faiths

Judaism: The History of Faith

Both Christianity and Islam recognize Judaism as being a foundation for their beliefs. And Judaism, for its part, recognizes that there is a human history that precedes it. This pre-Jewish world was pagan, polytheistic and idolatrous. Isn't this strange? After all, the Scriptures attest that God created heaven, earth, and all that is in them. God related directly with the first human beings, who, as a result, should have known that there was no other deity than the Creator, and that God cannot be fixed in any specific image. Yet, Abraham grew up at a time of gods and idols. How could this be?

While the question of the origin of idolatry is not directly raised by Jewish Scripture, I would suggest that the Hebrew Bible is given over to attempting to address just this issue: Why should the Creator of heaven and earth be forgot­ten? How does one retrieve this idea? Thus, the Hebrew Bible is the story of the acquisition of faith. The text accomplishes this in an odd fashion. After a brief primeval history that describes the lives and activities of humankind in gener­al, undifferentiated by cultures or beliefs—Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Noah, the inhabitants of Babel—the entire balance of the text is devoted to the family of Abraham, through his descendents Isaac and Jacob. The biblical scholar Harry Orlinsky noted: "[N]o people, no land, no person, no god, no event—no one and nothing came within the purview of the Biblical writers unless the people of Israel , in whole or in part, was involved."6

If the Hebrew Bible were presented only as a national history, this rather concentrated ethnocentrism would be not only understandable but also expect­ed. Scripture, however, purports to be something universal. The focus of the Bible therefore cries out for some explanation. I believe it is to be found in the reality of the pre-Jewish world, the pagan life. It was with thought and intention that God created the world, yet the intention is most elusive. The coherence of the universe is established by rules of nature. These rules, in turn, establish a cyclic predictability to existence. The sun rises and sets, and then rises again. Summer is followed by autumn, then winter, spring and summer again. Organic nature engages in birth, growth, death and decay, with new births always fol­lowing old deaths, and death the inevitable end of all plants and creatures. In the words of one character in the classic movie, Grand Hotel: "People come and people go, and nothing ever changes at the Grand Hotel." Hardly anything ever changes in the ways of the world, either.

One cannot claim that it is in any way obvious that the universe attests to the glory and power of God. Rather, the opposite might be true; that the mechanical nature of the universe suggests the absence of a deity who has an unfolding and redemptive purpose for creation. Moreover, nature is hostile, or at most indifferent, to human needs and aspirations. Floods and fires ravage food supplies. Disease brings untimely disability or death. How, in such an exis­tence, is one to believe in a God that cares for human life? The astonishing thing, we come to realize, is not how the knowledge of the One God Creator was lost, but rather how it was possibly accepted as being true.

One people at some point in history became seized with the notion that there is indeed one God, and that this deity both cares for human beings and has a sacred and redemptive purpose for them on earth. Actually, this is not quite the case. The Hebrew Bible is not a story of a people who freely proclaim their belief in God. On virtually every page there is recorded an instance of many or most of those people resisting and defying such faith. The Scripture's story is more complex and subtle. It is more the story of a people-believing God. Not a belief born out of pure grace, but rather, justified by the extraordinary spiritu­al insight and faithfulness exhibited by key leadership among this people.7

God was patient. The faith initially shown by Abraham is challenged and denied by descendents over and over again. Yet, there are always in every gener­ation, members of the community who insist that the insight Abraham had— over and against the apparent purposeless and endlessly cyclic operation of the world—was indeed true. Finally, after many years and generations of triumphs and defeats, the people came to accept the message. At this point, the Hebrew Bible comes to an end.

For Jews, Scripture ends! The Bible concludes well before there is redemp­tion, well before even the horizon of God's divine plan appears in view. However, from the Jewish point of view, the Bible's story is over, because it is not so much a prescription for salvation as it is a document of the journey from faithlessness to faith. The Bible ends, yet history goes on, as a people who now have indeed grasped the elusive reality of the one God Who set the world in motion with grace and purpose, begin the difficult task of bringing about its redemption.

Christianity: Invitation to the Future

Christianity begins with Judaism, specifically the Jewish condition of the first century. At that time, Jews were scattered both geographically and theological­ly. While the land of Israel remained the spiritual and political center of the people, communities had settled all around the Mediterranean, and east toward India . Jewish thought and practice varied widely among Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and numerous other small groups and sects. There was one idea for which there was no issue. There was One God, Creator of heaven and earth.

Christianity is born in a world where, for a particular population, the battle of faith was over. It was also a world, as evidenced by the success of Jews to prom­ulgate their message across the Roman Empire , in which the widespread accept­ance of multiple gods who could be imagined in corporal forms was beginning to fade. The Jewish example, however, was problematic. The Eternal God of heav­en and earth was also, to the Jews, the God of Israel. To be more to the point, it was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel ; the God of the ancestors of a people, a God whose understanding to this people was inexorably tied to their own his­tory. The Jews, after all, were the community who had actually struggled to develop their faith, and God had been with them on every step of this spiritual journey. What, however, could the God of Israel mean to those who were not part of this people?

Rosenzweig was certainly right in suggesting that Christianity wears its soul on the outside. It is the movement of the promulgation of the idea of God (the God of Israel Who indeed is the God of all humanity) to the Diaspora. I would not argue, however, that Christianity is the bringing of faith to the faithless. Those who Christianity invites to be brought into its redemptive fold are pre­pared to believe, but they simply do not know how to believe. Thus, the all-too-human gods are replaced first by the human-who-becomes-divine Jesus. The example of Jesus moreover is not presented through his life, but rather through his death. The elusiveness of the Jewish God can now be explained as a literal absence!

God's absence is not a void. The apparently human Jesus dies on a cross, is laid in a tomb, then is seen once more walking the earth, disappears once again, this time with a promise to return. God's reality is therefore presented to those ready to believe as pure possibility.8 The past as attested in Scriptures becomes prologue. More important, the God-forsaken reality of the present is fully explained: God is not here now, but God will be here in an unspecified moment, quite possibly the very next moment. Thus, Christianity invites the individual to wait faithfully and bear witness to one's own salvation.

Islam: The Eternal Creation

Islam cannot be understood outside of the personality of Muhammad. He not only received the entire revelation, but also took personal responsibility to estab­lish and develop the community to whom he taught it. Muhammad, in turn, cannot be properly understood outside of the particular world in which he lived. The inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula at the beginning of the seventh cen­tury were either subsistence farmers or merchants. Conditions in a desert cli­mate are difficult as a rule, and survival could only be assured by interdepend­ence within the tribe. The unity of a tribe depended upon adherence to deeply engrained traditions, usually resulting in stifling conservatism.

Muhammad, as a merchant, was aware of the ideas and practices that exist­ed beyond the borders of his tribe. He was particularly impressed by the sublime theology expressed by Jews and Christians. With the critical distance afforded by his travels, he came to have both an appreciation and an abiding sense of frustration with respect to the hardset traditions of his tribe. The revelations he received in the caves outside Mecca allowed him to reframe his tribe's history and culture. The most praiseworthy elements of the tribal traditions—hospitali­ty, charitableness, social justice—were gifts of God that reach back through their ancestors, Abraham and Ishmael, all the way back to Adam. The truth of this divine source had been obscured over time. They were now explicitly clear to Muhammad, and through him, the tribe could know once more what they had forgotten.

In Islam, therefore, faith is retrieved. The Qu'ran is presented as pure reve­lation. The speaker is always God (whether in first person—singular and plural— or third), and the listener is always 'y°u.' Muhammad was the first recipient of the Qu'ran, but the text addresses whoever is reading or listening. Absolutely nothing is interposed between God and the individual. I do not mean by this statement simply that God is presented unmediated such as the Israelite expe­rience at the base of Sinai. Rather, central to Muslim thought, I believe, is that no idea, no act, no material or spiritual thing can stand between God and the believer.9 Past and future are obliterated in the immediate presence of the divine. Creation, revelation, and redemption, which are understood in Jewish and Christian thought as part of God's unfolding plan, become in Islam col­lapsed together into a single concept. God's revelation is at once God's continu­ing creation and ongoing offer of redemption.

PAUL   GOLOMB

The Paths to Redemption . . . And Damnation

In these descriptions of the theological approaches of the three religions, we can note the presence of two fundamental points of similarity. First, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all express faith in the same God. This point has not always been apparent. The medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, for instance, readily acknowledged the identity of the God of Israel with 'Allah, but did not consider Christians to be monotheistic.10 The professed belief in three divine entities of Father, Son and Holy Spirit certainly appears at odds with the absolute unity that is central to Jewish and Muslim faith. There are Christians, on the other hand, who have openly wondered whether the entity that addressed Muhammad in the Qu'ran is God or Satan.11 Both Christians and Muslims concede that the God of Israel is indeed the true God, but that the faithlessness and sins of the Jews prompted the removal of divine protection for that people. From a neutral observation point, the central division among the three religions is not in who they all identify as deity, but rather in how God has made the divine presence manifest before humankind.

The second point of similarity is the existence of God is thoroughly hidden, both in the design of the universe and in the hearts of individuals. It is true that the universe betrays order and regularity, but this observable fact does not lead in any way to deducing a single Creator. One can make a logical argument in favor of a multiplicity of divine beings, or no god(s) at all, over and against the suggestion that all we behold around us is the design and intention of a single all-powerful Being.12

The three religions all suggest that God is quite parsimonious in revealing the truth of the divine presence. Only Muhammad, among all Muslims, had the privilege of experiencing directly and unmistakably the will of God. Jesus, as the concretized presence of God, came into contact with a small group of people while he appeared alive and an even smaller group during his brief resurrection on earth. In Jewish thought, God became manifest to an entire people at the foot of Mt. Sinai , but only for a short while. Before and since that revelation, the deity related to only a few select people, and then after giving direct inspiration to one last prophet, Malakhai, withdrew.

All three faiths therefore leave the reality of God to faith. A mutually rein­forcing system has been established. Sacred literature attests to incidents of direct divine involvement in human affairs that have happened in the past. Believing individuals then have a personal and private sense of God's presence. The confidence that the experience is truly a theophany is reinforced by the accounts provided by the sacred literature. God is present because our text says that God once was present, and therefore we can interpret the experience we are having as indicative that God is indeed present!

The argument is circular. By it, the truth of the experience (or the text) can­not be verified. It cannot be falsified either. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are not responding to logic or reason—although they are hardly irrational—but rather to human hope and desire. The religions therefore attempt to articulate two nearly opposing concepts: they confirm God's existence and also explain God's absence.

A system is established: through God's existence, the possibility of personal salvation and human redemption is affirmed. The unconfirmability of God's presence, on the other hand, places a constant and unavoidable demand on human responsibility; that is, the requirement that human beings freely respond to God's will. If God was always recognized as being present (both pri­vately and publicly), the overwhelming nature of the divine will would fairly force one's obedience.13

God's will and human responsibility are the dual lessons and indisputable truths of the three faiths. But each religion finds its own path to these truths. Judaism relies on the certitude of its own Jewish past. Christianity promotes the promise of a salvific future. Islam seeks to preserve each fleeting moment of direct relation. In their respective devotions to past, future and present, devotees of each faith can be literally out of synch with others. Christians can wonder why Jews hold so dearly to their history when God's promise has been announced through Jesus. Muslims may be confused by the Christian's empha­sis on a redemptive return of God, when they feel that God is already present. Jews can be put off by Christian and Muslim self-confidence as they themselves uphold the fragility of faith.

Each faith has found its own path toward redemption, a path that was cre­ated, in no little part, by the realities of its origins. Each path, however, is pre­carious. The overwhelming reality of God's power and will, and the overwhelm­ing responsibility of human freedom strain against each other. One side or the other tends to be overcome.

When confronted with the choice, secularists give themselves over to human freedom and give up on God's power. The idea of the divine is con­demned as a literary myth, philosophical incoherence and a psychological crutch. Humankind is left alone, its will uncoerced, free to choose . . . what? What constrains and directs human freedom? Too often, in the absence of God, it is nothing. All is possible, and moral restraint disappears.

Western religious faith can therefore counter secular modernity with a strongly felt sense of moral direction. Judaism, Christianity and Islam however, each have their own pitfalls when the power of God's perceived will overwhelms one's own moral freedom.

For Jews, the pitfall tends to be experienced through withdrawal into the covenanted community. It is a sort of permanent standing at the base of Sinai, a time in which the entire rest of the world can be characterized as idolaters. The result is the constant feeling of us vs. them, which creates a turning of one's back against the world. Franz Rosenzweig, in the letters mentioned at the beginning of this essay, argued that Jews within Judaism operated outside the normal unfolding of time. When Jews become overwhelmed by the power of God, they are not only outside of history, but separated from humanity.14

For Christians, who must go through history in order to reach the promise of God's return at Final Judgment, the pitfall is in conceiving of that promise as if it were already here. God's judgment encompasses all humankind. The world is not divided into us and them, but rather into those who accept and those who defy. And in accepting, one loses all sense of responsibility. Anything can be for­given.15

Jews bring the past into the present—we all live inevitably and inextricably in the present—and Christians bring the future. Muslims, however, are most tied to the immediate now. Each moment flicks by in a blink. In the space between blinks, one finds human freedom. When Muslims try to hold fast to God's pres­ence, the present expands to encompass past and future. Time, so to speak, dis­appears in the mind and spirit of the believer. Then the Muslim, rather than being redeemed from both the forces of history and change, is instead impris­oned.16

Western religion is indeed most connected with, most concerned about, God and the divine will. Yet, I believe that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all tend to run the risk of turning this concern away from being a path to redemp­tion, and rather into a path toward damnation, when the focus on God moves the faithful away from its co-centrality with human freedom and responsibility. Further, and in my estimation more seriously, the paths are different from each other in ways that are difficult for each faith community to discern. In their frustration, usually brought about either by oppression or impatience with the slowness of the unfolding of the divine will, the differences only aggravate a sense that it is the other faiths that are retarding the path to redemption. The communities call increasingly upon divine intervention, only to exacerbate their own path to damnation. Prayers for peace become exhortations for war upon one's enemies. Encomiums for care and compassion become refrains for adherence to strict rules and entreaties for divine judgment.

II. One True Faith?

My primary interest in this paper has been in describing the three religious civ­ilizations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, both in terms of the firmly unify­ing features of their faith claims, and of the irreconcilable differences of their fundamental worldview. The similarities among the three faiths might be com­forting, but it is the differences that are critical.

I want to examine this feature further, specifically in the context of the problem of intercommunicability. When each religion articulates and defends what it believes to be the will of the One True God, it must logically also believe it is promulgating the One True Faith. Other religions, the believers will con­cede, certainly contain elements of the truth and have admirable characteristics and qualities, but there is one God, one divine will and one Truth. All other reli­gions ultimately must be false.

There are a few strategies that arise from this assertion. One is religious chauvinism, that fundamental acceptance of not only the superiority of one's own faith, but also the damnable nature of all others. The result of such an atti­tude has historically led to violence, bloodshed and repression. A second strate­gy is found in opposition, and usually in disgust, to chauvinism. Here, a person engages in a thoroughgoing critique of organized religion, declaring that because there is no objective standard by which to evaluate the truth claims of the religions, all of their claims must be deemed suspect. In other words, how can there be so many 'One True' religions?17 A third approach, perhaps the most common in civil society, is to engage in a form of moderation. We insist on being religious, avowing our faith in God and attending a synagogue, church or mosque. Yet, at the same time, for the sake of getting along in the world, we tend to suppress or lighten our sense of commitment to our faith. It is all right to be church-going, but one should not be too religious!

The specific issue I am raising is that of religious pluralism. As a faithful Jew, I believe in the God Who created the world and revealed the divine will through Torah. How can Christianity and Islam be anything but a distortion of God's truth? This is, at its roots, a logical question, and therefore deserves a logical answer. Thus, let me turn to the work of an analytic philosopher, William Alston.

A Logical Analysis of Faith

Alston is a respected philosopher who has written extensively in epistemology. He has also been a devoted Christian, and therefore turned his interest toward religious truth claims. After all, religious people assert knowledge of God's exis­tence. This effort is especially noteworthy. When I first took a course in Philosophy of Religion, in the late 1960s, the curriculum was devoted almost exclusively to a critique of efforts to prove God,18 and to an evaluation of the epistemological content of God-talk: do claims regarding God (powerful, good, compassionate, etc.) have any justifiable content. It was very difficult to con­clude these classes with any confidence that one's religious principles could withstand philosophic scrutiny.19

A particularly significant part of this argument was to be found in a symposium conducted by the British philosopher, Antony Flew.20 Flew repeated a famous parable put forward by his colleague John Wisdom, in which two explorers attempt to determine whether an intriguing plot of land in a forest is being attended by a gardener. One of them insists that there is a gardener, although none of their efforts at either direct or indirect (technological) detection work. He simply asserts that the gardener is invisible, insensible, has no scent and comes in secret to the garden. The other explorer then asks, "What is the dif­ference between your description of this gardener and no gardener at all?"

This is the form of the analytic argument against the assertion of meaningful theological statements.21 Most philosophers conceded the truth of the argument. At best, they did as R.M. Hare did in his response, asserting that theological statements must be understood in a fashion different from evaluating truth-values. This contention became known as the leftwing argument; namely, the position of the analysts is right, so what is left.

William Alston, on the other hand, took the analytical critique on directly. His support of the meaningfulness of religious statements is comprehensively provided in Perceiving God.22  I will outline Alston's argument in a schematic fashion. We begin with a working definition of what we mean by knowing something. Every epistemic event begins with a belief. The belief rises to the level of knowledge when we feel we can justify it. How is it justified? One way is by another justified belief (i.e., something we already purport to know). But how was that belief justified? Eventually we must arrive at a belief that requires no other justified belief in order to be justified itself, a belief whose knowledge is somehow self-evident.

We therefore move out of consideration of beliefs and justifications into just what would allow for self-evidence. Alston argues that it is certain doxastic (belief-forming) practices. Practices are activities of the mind that appear to be so reliable as to negate the need for justification. Can doxastic practices be verified? Apparently not. There is no standard or method that exists outside the practice itself that can be employed. Short of an absolute standard of verification, however, we treat a practice as reliable if it is consistent and accepted by a human community.23

Certainly the most widely accepted doxastic practice is that of sense perception. An alternative would be mystical perception, which is Alston's way of defining religious epistemology, the perception of God. Many philosophers, however, would argue that sense perception is the only practice that is sufficiently reliable, consistent and universal to allow for knowledge statements. Alston questions this contention, and proceeds to show how sense perception, although certainly a standard for epistemic statements, is not as consistent and universal as normally assumed.

Puncturing the asserted invincibility of the doxastic practice of sense perception, does not mean however that a doxastic practice of mystical perception can actually lead to knowledge claims about God. It does tend to level the playing field. Alston needs to show that mystical perception can have roughly the same reliability as sense perception. Taking the claims of religious people regarding their perceptions of God (or in the case of non-theistic religions such as Buddhism, their perceptions of a metaphysical reality that can lead to salvation) on their face value, he shows they fit the general categories of consistency and universality that have been the hallmark of sense perception.

Alston is a careful analyst. The description I have given to his discussion of the meaningfulness of religious statements does not begin to cover the thoroughness in which he establishes mystical perceptive doxastic practice as a basis for knowledge claims. I have, I think, said enough to move on to the central ques­ion of the plurality of these religious claims.

The Problem of Pluralism

Let us return to the basic question. Religions make certain statements that they purport to be the truth about God and the divine will.24 When one asserts belief in the truth of the statements of one religion, is one also suggesting that the beliefs of another religion—at least those that are clearly at odds with one's own—are false? On one basic logical level, the answer is: How could it be other­wise?25 Yet, in following Alston carefully, the answer may be more complex.

Religious statements begin with perceiving God and something about the divine will.26 In order to do this, one must employ a particular doxastic practice of mystical perception. What exactly is mystical perception? There are two parts to answering this question. First, there is the general feature of mystical perception: some powerful and unmistakable sense of the divine. Martin Buber's description of the I's encounter with the eternal Thou is as useful articulation of this feature as any.

The second part is that each type of mystical perception practice (MPP) is preceded by a particular adjective: Christian MPP, Muslim MPP, Jewish MPP, etc. The something that is perceived by mystical perception is given form by being embedded in specific religious context. Cannot a perception of the divine be pure experience independent of any religious tradition? The answer is technically yes, but pragmatically no.

By way of explanation, consider spying a book lying on a table. You know it is a book as a belief justified by sense perceptual practice. What you perceive, however, is something rectangular, somewhat hard to the touch, covered and filled with writing, etc. To know that this is a book as opposed to a complex geometric solid, involves something else inherent in epistemic practice; that is, a context. You bring a certain background—shall we use the term 'tradition'—in order to distinguish the object before you from the brute elements of one's sense perception.27 This same resort to a background gives meaning to one's perception of God. The question to ask is not whether Bernadette actually had a vision of the Virgin Mary, but rather just what would Rabbi Nahman of Bratislav or Baba Krihi of Shiraz have seen if they happened to be in that same grotto near Lourdes at that same time?

A mystical perception of the divine is presented to one in a fashion that is inextricable from a certain tradition. The Christian 'feels' the hand of Jesus guiding certain actions and decisions, and the Jew and Muslim can only be mystified by these claims. The Christian, in like manner, cannot accept a Jew or Muslim claim of 'feeling' God's presence that does not contain the agency of Jesus.

Where does this analysis leave us? If we are going to take the claims of religious traditions, especially our own, seriously, we are confronted with a form of double-order thinking.28 On one level—I would suggest that it is a private or in-house level, when we are interacting with members of our own faith community—we must assert that the claims of our religion are indeed the exclusive truth. Either what we believe is true, or we are engaging in egregious self-deception. If what we believe, being true is at odds with what others claim to believe, the others are, by rules of logic, simply asserting untrue beliefs.

If we only go this far in the analysis of our own and other people's faith claims, then we must rely on the constraints of civil society to maintain peace. These constraints mandate tolerance for the opinions of others. We can even say to ourselves that contrary religious beliefs and practices are perfectly legitimate for those who hold them, for they are similar to the naïve dreams of children, or the harmless ravings of a benign lunatic. Or, for the sake of civil order, we might likely question the truth of our own faith. We turn "being religious" into a synonym for being intolerant, arrogant and/or biased.

Thus, we are obliged to move to the second level, in which we become aware that the undeniable truth of the faith claims we perceive are constructed and affirmed within a particular system. The doxastic system is, however, impervious to evaluation outside of itself. The truths we hold to be self-evident we formed in a fashion that renders the claims of those outside our faith commu­nity as strange or even meaningless. This attitude is being taken just as our colleague is thinking the same thing about the claims we make. In the words of the philosopher, Martin Heidegger, "we cannot jump over our own shadow."

Intercommunicability in the context of religious dialogue takes place not on the second level that I have been describing through Alston's method of analysis, but rather on a third. The second level allows each of us as serious members of a faith community, to set aside the truth we learn within our own tradition, and listen respectfully to the claims of our dialogue partner. This level, however, is only the entrance ticket. We speak and listen less restrained by the demands of our own religious system. In order to have a potentially fulfill­ing dialogue, we must allow not only for the contextualization of truth claims, but also strive to understand the temporal differences among Jews, Christians and Muslims in which those claims are asserted.

A well known Jewish story has a Hasidic master responding to the question, "Where can we find God," with "Wherever we let God in." I would suggest that for the sake of Muslim, Christian, Jewish dialogue, we are required to modify the answer. It is not wherever but rather whenever.

We live in societies where interfaith encounters take place all the time. We are unaware or ignore most of them. Even, however, when we choose to be cog­nizant of the different faith community of the person or persons with whom we are in contact, we tend to cover our conversation in politeness and indirectness. Religious belief is, after all, a private conviction. We sense that it is as improper to engage in a serious discussion about faith unless invited to do so. Even when invited into a discussion on faith, we tend to constrain ourselves from engaging in a dialogue in which we can actually hear what the other side is saying.

If my comments and observations in this paper are at all correct, real dia­logue is both difficult and daunting. It requires higher orders of thinking, where we go beyond evaluating whether the faith claims of our dialogue part­ner comport or differ with our own. We must also try to imagine just how those faith claims can be meaningful to our partner, even as they make less sense to us. Good dialogue requires, far more than finding the similarities in our thoughts and worldviews, uncovering the profound differences that divide us and determining how to reconcile those differences in the context of God's will.

Yet, at its heart, Judaism, Christianity and Islam attest profoundly to the very same truths: God is real and present, and at the same time, absolutely hid­den. Jews, Christians and Muslims are obligated to respond to God's will. Further, they can never ever evade that responsibility in terms of their obliga­tions to themselves, to all humankind, and to the world that is God's creation. The paths are so very different, their destination is One.

Notes

1. Letter 15 from Rosenzweig to Rosenstock, found in Rosenstock-Heussy, ed. Judaism Despite Christianity (University of Alabama Press, 1970).
2. In his masterwork, The Star of Redemption, Rosenzweig felt little compunction against describing all religions—including Islam, the Eastern faiths and even classic paganism—as fully comprehensi­ble to all. Judaism was uniquely an interior faith.
3.  See, e.g., The Star of Redemption (University of Notre Dame Press, 1985) pp. 116-118.
4. Rosenzweig's argument, namely that Judaism is unhooked from time, while Christianity is essentially unhooked from space (community), is controversial. The Jewish element of the argu­ment, however, can be justified within a traditional/rabbinic understanding of time and history. This concept, very closely connected to notions of exile and messianic redemption in traditional Jewish thought, is nonetheless challenged by the realities of modern democratic and pluralistic cultures, and particularly by the advent of the State of Israel. (Rosenzweig died at the age of 42, in 1929.) My own analysis here is influenced by the history that has occurred since his death.
5.  See Salon Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1952), Vol. I, pp. 165-211 (Chap. VI, "Expansion of Judaism").
6. Harry M. Orlinsky, Essays in Biblical Culture (HUC Press, 1974) p. 188. Or, as Martin Buber put it:
"The history of the world comes to us as the history of Israel ." On the Bible, Nahum Glatzer, ed. (Schocken, 1968) p. 26.
7. "A history in which the idea of a universal God must only be fulfilled requires a beginning. It requires an elite. It is not through pride that Israel feels it has been chosen. It has not obtained this through grace . . . It is because the universality of the Divine exists only in the form in which it is fulfilled in the relations between men, and because it must be fulfillment and expansion, that the category of a privileged civilization exists in the economy of Creation." Emmanuel Levinas, "Simone Weil Against the Bible" in Difficult Freedom (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) p. 137.
8. "[I]n order to conduct oneself in a moral manner, one must act as though God did not exist or no longer concerned himself with our salvation. This shows who is moral and who is therefore Christian . . . : no longer turn towards God at the moment of acting in good faith; act as though God had abandoned us . . . Is this not another way of saying the Christianity can only answer to its moral calling and morality, to its Christian calling if it endures in this world, in phenomenal his­tory, the death of God, well beyond the figures of the Passion?" Jacques Derrida, "Faith and Knowledge" in Religion, Jacques Derrida & Gianni Vattimo, eds. (Stanford University Press, 1996) pp. 11-12.
9. "In Islam, law is an expression of God's will for humanity; it is the raison d'etre of the commu­nity established by the Prophet Muhammed. Islam means 'submission,' specifically to the will of God . . . That identification would be impossible, theoretically, without awareness of what God's will is. . . 'Law is the command of God; and the acknowledged function of Muslim jurisprudence, from the beginning, was simply the discovery of the terms of that command.'" Tamara Sonn, Interpreting Islam (Oxford University Press, 1996) p. 25. Prof. Sonn quotes in part N. J. Coulson's A History of Islamic Law.
10. See Isadore Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Yale University Press, 1980) p. 452. Twersky points out that Maimonides, anticipating Rosenzweig, nonetheless considered both Christianity and Islam as instruments, albeit flawed, for announcing the presence of God to the pagans.
11. This sentiment has been publicly mooted by several conservative Christian leaders in the U.S. , particularly after the World Trade Center attack of September 2001.
12. See, for instance, John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion (Yale University Press, 1989). Hick makes an extraordinary philosophical case for polytheism.
13. In Jewish thought, this circumstance is expressed in a well known Talmudic passage (Shabbat 88a) where the biblical description of the Israelites gathered at Sinai (Exodus 19) is interpreted as God dangling the mountain over their heads, and then asking: do you want to except these com­mandments or not? God's presence obliterates responsibility.
14. "Humanity in the form of fraternity invariably appears historically among persecuted peoples and enslaved groups; and in eighteenth century Europe it must have been quite natural to detect it among Jews . . . This kind of humanity is the great privilege of pariah peoples . . . The privilege is dearly bought; it is often accompanied by so radical a loss of the world . . . that in extreme cases, in which pariahdom has persisted for centuries, we can speak of real worldlessness. And worldless-ness, alas, is always a form of barbarism." Hannah Arendt quoted in John Murray Cuddihy, The Ordeal of Civility (Basic Books, 1974) p. xi.
15. "The first result of Anslem's theology of salvation was . . . to solder the faith to the cross, and to make the death of Jesus more important than anything he had said . . . The death obsession of the
flagellants was deemed holy, and the blood lust of the crusaders was sanctified. God, too, had blood lust . . . But the second result of atonement soteriology was even more damaging . . . Jesus Christ was defined as the one solution to a cosmic problem. Understood as reordering creation, as redeeming an otherwise doomed world, he was seen as the only way to God." James Carroll, Constantine 's Sword (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) pp. 582-3.
16. "The Prophet was a perfect man, sinless; his life and works as well as his practice and teachings are guidelines for all life on earth. He established a perfect state in Medina from 622 to 632 C.E., during which time the revelation of God guided every aspect of community life. Thus the Qu'ran, as well as the traditions of the Prophet, is accepted as the basic corpus of truth made manifest and binding on all Muslims in perpetuity . . . Prophetic time is ideal time, and as such Muslims must constantly strive to approximate, if not replicate, its just order." Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, "Current Arab Paradigms for an Islamic Future," in Religion and The Authority of the Past, Tobin Siebers, ed. (University of Michigan Press, 1993) p. 133.
17. I have been focusing on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The issue I present now can be expanded to include the non-Western religions, as well as Native American beliefs, Bahai, Theosophy, and perhaps any belief system that asserts some metaphysical reality that makes possi­ble individual salvation and/or the world's redemption.
18. The course therefore included a section given over to the medieval ontological, cosmological and teleological proofs of God's existence, followed by essentially a discussion of the weaknesses inherent in each of these proofs.
19. Many years later, a Philosophy Professor friend commented to me that people go into philoso­phy precisely because they have a problem with religion!
20. The papers, by Flew, R.M. Hare, Basil Mitchell, and I.M. Crombie, can be found as "Theology and Falsification," in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. by Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre (The MacMillan Co., 1955).
21. Perhaps the best known statement in analytic philosophy on the matter is that of Ludwig Wittgenstein, at the end of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."
22. Cornell University Press, 1991. See also Alston's Divine Nature and Human Language (Cornell University Press, 1989), and Thomas D. Senor, ed., The Rationality of Belief and the Plurality of Faith (Cornell University Press, 1995), a series of papers that critique and discuss Alston's thought.
23. One might aver that this argument does not seem to be too rigorous. Alston, in his writings, did not have to point out the problems in verification that analytic philosophers like Antony Flew had in establishing a systematic foundation for truth-claims. There are always limits to what we can assert as true. Alston attempted to be as rigorous as possible within those limits.
24. Or the equivalent in non-theistic religions.
25. See in particular Alvin Plantinga, "Pluralism: A Defense of Religious Exclusivism," and Peter Van Inwagen, "Non Est Hick," in Thomas D. Senor, op. cit. Plantinga and Van Inwagen (who are both professors at Notre Dame University) caution that their defense of avowing the exclusive truthfulness of one's own faith should not lead to chauvinism. As Plantinga argues, religious exclusivism might be both morally and logically defensible, but it does not necessarily mean that the upholder of a particular faith is actually right! One is simply justified in upholding one's belief.
26. For the sake of avoiding excessively convoluted language, I am going to stick from this point on to language that is theistic.
27.  See Joseph Runzo, "Perceiving God, World-Views, and Faith: Meeting the Problem of Religious Pluralism" in Thomas D. Senor, op. cit., p. 247.
28. The idea of multiple orders is drawn from formal logic. Consider Bertrand Russell's famous paradox: Mr. Smith, as the barber for many years, had shaved all the men in town who did not shave themselves. Who shaved Mr. Smith? On the order (level) of the question itself, we try to come up with some elaborate or clever answer. Or, we move to a second order of thinking, and conclude that Mr. Smith cannot exist.

Copyright of CrossCurrents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.
Source: CrossCurrents, Winter 2004, Vol. 54,  No 4.