Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 27, 2000
Faiths unite for dialogue
Jews, Muslims, Christians explain themselves in historic get-together
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
What do I want others to know and teach about my faith?
Jews, Christians and Muslims pondered that question in an historic three-day conference in Edmonton that drew hundreds of members of the three faiths.
Organized by the Edmonton Interfaith Centre for Education and Action, the March 19-21 dialogue is the first of its kind held in Edmonton and one of four taking place in the world.
The first conference was held in Jerusalem in February, another will be held in the United States in April and the fourth will be held at the Vatican 2001.
The conference began with a prayer service at Edmonton City Hall that drew about 500 people. The sessions at Beth Shalom Synagogue drew more than 300 people each day.
Participants at the dialogue were for the most part academics, seminarians, college students and lay leaders.
"It's real education that's taking place here," noted Rosaleen Zdunich of the Edmonton Interfaith Centre.
Religious leaders and historians from all three religions spoke about their faith from an historical perspective and called for understanding and cooperation among their followers.
Speakers at the conference included:
. Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Fairfield, Conn.
. Dr. Derek Penslar, a Toronto expert and professor of modern Jewish history.
. Leonard Swidler, an author and professor of Catholic thought and interreligious dialogue at Temple University in Philadelphia, Penn.
. Dr. Jamal Badawi, a professor of Islamic religious tradition at St. Mary's University in Halifax.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam all come from the same Hebraic roots and claim Abraham as their original ancestor, Swindler noted in his presentation.
All three traditions are religions of ethical monotheism in that they all believe there is one, loving, just, creator God who is the source, sustainer and goal of all reality and that he/she expects all human beings, as images of God, to live in love and justice.
The three traditions are all historical religions in that they believe that God acts through human history, that God communicates through historical events, through particular human persons, preeminently Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, Swidler explained.
The three faiths are all religions of revelation in that they are persuaded that God has revealed something of God's own self and will in special ways through prophets and scriptures.
Also common among the three faiths are the importance of covenant, law and faith of the community.
"The history of the Jews is the history of a great civilization, whose textual tradition led directly to the establishment of the world's most popular religion, Christianity, and inspired the founding of the world's second largest, Islam," said Penslar, who holds the Samuel Zacks chair in Jewish history at the University of Toronto.
"Although Judaism is frequently referred to as the mother religion of Christianity, the two would best be described as siblings, sharing a common ancestor in the spiritual ferment that engulfed Palestine around the beginning of the common era."
Penslar warned against defining the history of modern Jewry solely in terms of the Holocaust. That, he said, would present "a sorry spectacle indeed, a series of humiliations and atrocities leading inexorably to a vast valley of dry bones."
Jewish history should be defined in terms of spiritual and cultural creativity, political ferment and ethnic solidarity. Seen in that light, it becomes not just the tragic tale of a pariah people but the story of a people in the world, a world as beautiful as it is horrific, Penslar said.
When it comes to history, there is only one history for all students, Jew and Gentile alike, according to Penslar.
"Obviously, children need to be given simplified views of history, but I believe that simplification should not justify distortion," he said.
"For example, if a Christian child asks me who is responsible for the death of Jesus, it serves no one's interest to repeat the old clich‚ that it was the Romans' fault. Rather, the child can be told that although the Romans tried and executed Jesus, Jews and Romans alike feared Jesus because he seemed to challenge their authority."
Similarly, if a Jewish child asks why there is so much fighting between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, "one can answer the question without denying either the Jewish or Arab claim to the land," Penslar said.
"One can explain that Arabs lived in Palestine for many hundreds of years, that the city of Jerusalem is holy to them, and that when Israel was created many of them were forced to leave their homes."
What do I want others to know about my faith? "That Jewish people are saved by the Torah," said University of Alberta professor Andrew Gow. "Everybody else will be saved by being good people."
Traditional Christianity maintains there is no salvation outside the Church, that people can only achieve salvation through Jesus, explained Gow. "We don't say there is no salvation outside the Torah. That's why Jews don't proselytize. There is no benefit in doing so."
The first thing to be aware of about Christianity is that there have been, and are many understandings and lived versions of it, said Swidler, the Catholic professor.
There are three major versions of Christianity: Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism.
Jesus was a Jew, both religiously and ethnically, and his first followers were all Jews who found in him a special way to salvation, Swidler said.
Especially since the 16th century, the Catholic Church has been largely trapped in a kind of solipsism, talking only to itself, and shaking its finger to the rest of the world, he noted.
He said the Second Vatican Council changed that, teaching He said the Second Vatican Council changed that, teaching Catholics that "to be authentically Christian, Christians must cease to be enslaved by their tribal forms of Christianity; they must stop their fratricidal hate; they need to recall their Jewish roots and the fact that the Jewish people today are still God's chosen people, for God's promises are never revoked.
"They need to turn from their imperialistic convert-making among Muslims, Hindus, and other religious peoples and turn toward bearing witness to Jesus Christ by their lives and words, toward helping Muslims be better Muslims and Hindus better Hindus."
Looking at the commonalties of the three faiths will provide Jews, Christians and Muslims with a set of reasons why it was eventually perceived as imperative for Jews, Christians and Muslims to engage in serious, ongoing dialogue, Swidler said.
"If Jews, Christians and Muslims believe there is only one, loving, just God in whose image they are created and whose will they claim to follow, they need to face the question of why there are three different ways of doing that."
Dialogue among the three faiths will have to take into account that many Muslims are still traumatized by Western colonialism and frequently identify Christianity with the West, noted Swidler.
"Most often the current Western image of a Muslim is a gross distortion of Islam. Indeed, it is frequently that of some kind of inhuman monster."
In an interview, Badawi, the Halifax professor of Islamic tradition, agreed with Swidler's assertion, saying there is a "great deal of misunderstanding of the Muslim faith" because Muslims are often portrayed as fanatics and terrorists by some Western media that choose to focus on the fringe.
Terms such as "jihad" and "holy war" are often used in the name of Islam but are nowhere to be found in the Koran, he said. Similarly, the repression of women is not condoned by the Koran, which sees them as equal.
And contrary to perception, Muslims believe in religious plurality and in other people's rights to practise their faith, Badawi said.
Elizabeth Schwol, leader of an Anglican study group, attended the conference to learn more about the three faiths. She was impressed. "I've enjoyed the intellectual level of the discussion," she said. "I'm getting a tremendous education."
Sister Marion Garneau, a Sister of Charity of the Immaculate Conception who works in Edmonton's Inner City Pastoral Ministry, an ecumenical outreach, was also part of the audience.
"I've learned that there is an openness to understand more about each," she said. "It shows me there is a readiness for people of different faiths to grow together."
Mark Hawgood, a young Oblate brother, attended because he has a great interest in reaching out to others and to understand people who are different. He was impressed by what he termed "the plurality of salvation."
For Catholics, salvation comes through Jesus. "What about for Jews and Muslims?" Hawgood asked, adding he was impressed by the Jewish assertion that "salvation is tied to our behaviour."
Allison Vaneerden, a 19-year-old Kings University College student who attended the conference as part of a theology project, said she learned a lot about the three faiths.
"It deepened my perspective," she said. "What surprised me the most was the (Jewish) assertion that we are saved by our behaviour. That's an extremely pluralistic perspective."