A Socratic Interfaith Dialogue: a book review.

It had been a while since I picked up a book by Peter Kreeft. I do have an electronic version of his Handbook of Christian Apologetics (IVP, 1994), which I still refer to from time to time and a dozen years ago I read his How to Win A Culture War (IVP, 2002), but I don’t remember it well enough to tell you if anyone followed his advice (or if we won). Beyond that, I’ve read a couple of his 80’s era apologetic Socratic-style dialogues (Between Heaven and Hell, and Socrates Meets Jesus) and listened to a Barnes & Noble audio book on the history of moral thought and ethics (What Would Socrates Do? 2004). Kreeft is professor of philosophy at Boston College, and a Catholic, Christian apologist.

4510In Between One Faith and Another (IVP, 2017), Kreeft invites us to consider the similarities and differences between the world’s great religious traditions. He presents a fictitious dialogue between two students in a college comparative religious course and their professor.  There is the atheist/agnostic student, Thomas Keptic, and Bea Leaver, an open-hearted religious believer, and Professor Fesser, their objective and even-handed professor.

Beyond their religious affiliation (or the lack thereof), the three interlocutors also represent three approaches to interfaith dialogue. Thomas Keptic, the skeptic, is the exclusivist. He is suspicious of all religions and has some hard-nosed evidentialist assumptions. However, he also loves logic and clings to ‘the law of non-contradiction.’ Any difference between faith means, for Thomas, that both (or either) faiths cannot be true. Bea Leaver on the other hand, is an inclusivist. She will admit with Thomas, that there are differences between the world’s faiths, though she disagrees that these differences are necessarily contradictory. She believes the different religions are all paths up the same mountain and tends to emphasize what different faiths have in common. Professor Fesser is a pluralist, describing each faith tradition in an evenhanded, objective way. He acknowledge’s differences and similarities in the religious traditions, but neither attempts to synthesize or exclude the various faiths.

Their discussion ranges from definitions about religion to explorations of each of the various religious traditions in turn: primitive religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The final chapter, on comparative religion, discusses how to handle religious contradictions and draws together some of the various threads of the conversation they’ve been having.  Because the discussion is premised on the inclusivist/exclusivist/pluralist approaches and pits believer versus skeptic (in respectful dialogue), each chapter explores what we can say and know about the nature of religious truth. The contours of each religious tradition are mentioned and discussed, but Kreeft is more interested in the larger truth question behind religious approaches. If you are looking for an overview of various faiths, this book would need to be supplemented with other resources which presents the World Religions in a more substantive way.

These conversations do not quite read as riveting fiction. This is an academic dialogue about two students and a professor, written by a philosophy professor for the purpose of posing particular questions about religious faith. To that end, it succeeds rather well and has enough good humor to be an enjoyable read. And Kreeft doesn’t have his narrative culminate in some contrived conversion of the pluralist or the atheist, as though this were God Is Not Dead 3. The positions held by Thomas, Bea and Professor Fesser are designed to help readers explore the questions that arise when we put various religious traditions in conversation.  While there is movement in each character, as they think through their positions, none of the characters capitulates to another’s view.

Kreeft is a Christian philosopher and an exclusivist. However, as a believer in Christ (who never spoke of comparative religion) and in the Socratic method, he advocates honest use of reason, intellectual humility and ‘maximally charitable interpretations’ (6). As such, he sees the exclusivism of Thomas, Bea’s open-hearted love of wisdom and Professor Fesser’s objectivity in himself (5).

Personally, Kreeft’s book helped me both appreciate other religious perspectives and articulate some of the differences between them and my own Christian faith. I give this book four stars and recommend it those interested in interfaith dialogue, comparative religion and the nature of religious truth. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review

Singing Songs in a Strange Land

Last night, for Holocaust Memorial Day, I attended a remembrance service at Havurah Shir Hadash, a Reconstructionist Synagogue in nearby Ashland.  I had noted the service was happening when I posted a recent review for Rabbi David Zaslow’s Exodus (he leads the congregation). The service was jointly held with Temple Emek Shalom, the other Jewish congregation in town.  I knew that Rabbi Zaslow wouldn’t be there. He marked the day in a different way, spending the day at Auschwitz on a trip with thousands of youth.

5116a2dd8cff4_71360bThe theme for the service was the ‘righteous Gentiles’—those who hid Jews and aided their escape from the Shoah. I don’t know what age to introduce the horrors of holocaust to children, but  my girls recently read a book of notable biographies of ‘girls who changed the world,’ and one of the women profiled was Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian survivor of the Holocaust, who’s family was active in helping Jews escape.  Both girls were interested, so the plan was to take my daughters, ages seven and nine with me. Unfortunately, my older daughter was running a fever, so it was just me and my seven-year-old. She was by far the youngest person there.

It was a solemn service, recounting dark days, though not without hope. Some teenage girls lit candles remembering the names of victims that were assigned to them as part of their mitzvah project, children whose life was cut short by the Shoah. A few brief sentences recounted their names and ages. These were children as young as four, and a couple of them were seven-year-olds. I wondered how my own seven-year-old was processing this, but we still haven’t talked together about that part of the service.

After this, a sole holocaust survivor lit a candle remembering the fallen. and we were all invited to do the same. My little girl burnt her finger on the match while trying to get the candle lit. She later recalled that burning her finger was the part of the service she didn’t like.

Throughout the evening we sang Hebrew songs, and listened to chants, and prayed along with the Mourners’ Kaddish, but most of the evening was about hearing the stories of gentiles, some of whom sacrificed their lives to rescue Jews.  Several people read or shared accounts. A strange and unplanned confluence was that the first gentile profiled, Irena Sendler—a woman who had saved 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto—was responsible for rescuing the sole survivor who was with us last night. Some of the stories shared were of famous people. Other stories came from personal recollections and family stories of righteous Gentiles, names that are not well known beyond small circles.

The systematic extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis, as well as the death of five million sympathizers, Slavs, LGBT folk, and the disabled, is a vivid reminder of our human capacity for evil. Against those who would deny the Holocaust, or minimize its significance, remembering is important.  I am a Christian, not Jewish. Attending a synagogue on a day like yesterday feels a bit like singing the Lord’s song in a strange land, but the chorus and the cadence call us to compassion and solidarity.

It is over seventy years later and there is still so much hate in the world.  If it happened again would we be among the righteous? I want to say yes, but I am humbled when I consider that many European Christians participated in the Shoah and few who resisted cited faith as a determining factor in giving aid.

An Exodus to Freedom: a book review

As I write this, we are at the beginning of Passover, a celebration of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and the beginning of their long sojourn to the Promised Land. Israel’s Exodus wasn’t just its liberation of Egypt, but it encompassed the forty-year wilderness journey with forty-two different campsites and G-d’s covenant with Israel at Sinai.  Both Christians and Jews read the Torah, and the Exodus story,  as Scripture, looking for what deeper meaning it has for life. Christians describe Jesus as our Passover lamb and appropriate Jewish traditions of liberation and salvation. Unfortunately, we haven’t often paused to listen to how Jewish interpreters understand our shared scriptural tradition.

reimagining-exodus  Rabbi David Zaslow is no stranger to the interfaith discussion. His award-winning book, Jesus First Century Rabbi, explored the Christian gospel from a Jewish perspective (I review that book here). As the synagogue leader of Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, Oregon (not too far away from my home in Medford), workshop leader and media pundit, he has deepened the dialogue between Jews and Christians.

His newest book, Reimaging the Exodus: A Story of Freedom builds a bridge between Judaism and Christianity while respecting the unique features of both religious traditions.  Zaslow happily notes the common themes of Passover and the cross, Exodus and Easter. Yet, he also notes ways in which Christians have bowdlerized the Jewish tradition with a replacement theology that demeans the sacred history of the Hebrew Bible.

Zaslow’s book divides into five parts (so did his last book. Self-conscious patterning after the Torah?). Each section is distinct in style and purpose. In part one, Zaslow describes the significance of the Exodus for the Jewish tradition—G-d’s liberation of Israel and their forty-year, two-hundred-mile journey, learning to walk in freedom. Part two offers a Midrashic interpretation of twenty passages from the Torah (mostly drawn from Exodus, but also Numbers and Deuteronomy). Zaslow’s commentary on the passages is scholarly and rich, but suggestive and evocative. Part three explores the common themes and key differences between a Jewish understanding of Exodus and the Christian Easter. Part four discusses in more detail the ways Christians (and Jews) have historically appropriated and misappropriated the tradition to justify various agendas (i.e. Puritans settling the New World, American Colonialism, the American Revolution against British Tyranny, Civil War Southern’s against the North,  Mormons, Civil Rights advocates, etc). Part five has personal stories (and a poem) of where Zaslow has seen Exodus reimagined in interfaith contexts (including an interfaith Good Friday service with a Portland synagogue, and stories from a model seder Zaslow leads in a Catholic parish).

Zaslow has an irenic nature and looks for ways that Christians and Jews can connect with each other and find common spiritual ground. He is respectful of what is distinctive in Christian theology and practice, but he is not afraid to offer a sharp critique of Christian supersessionism and replacement theology. Too many Christians have treated the Old Testament and Jewish Tradition as a mere prequel and failed to listen to the insights of Judaism. In Zaslow’s early book (Jesus First Century Rabbi) he engaged the Christian gospel traditions. This book invites Christians to a similar engagement with Judaism. Beyond just mining the text for Christological insights, the Exodus has a lot to teach us about what it means to be human and to be spiritual. Rabbi Zaslow’s evocative Midrash reveals as much.

I give this book five stars and recommend it for Christians, Jews and those who are spiritual but don’t sit easily in either world.  Zaslow invites us to a journey toward freedom, ” Just as the Exodus began with a catastrophe of enslavement but led to a great redemption, so we pray to God that the catastrophes of our own era are merely preludes to an even greater redemption and the liberation of all humanity as well as the planet” (33). ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I recieved a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

Jihad Jesus: a book review

In a post 9-11 world, jihad is a scary concept for many of us in the West. We look at ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas and violence done in Allah’s name and we are. . .nervous. Each of these organizations represent militant, extreme versions of Islam, but isn’t jihad a central tenant of Islam? Certainly we can point to some pretty terrible moments of Muslim history; however we have some terrible moments of our own: the crusades, inquisition, the holocaust (the Nazis weren’t Christian, but Christians are still implicated) and more. Muslims are as perturbed by Christian violence as we are by theirs. In The Jihad of Jesus: The Sacred Nonviolent Struggle for Justice, Dave Andrews examines the mutual history of Holy War in Christianity and Islam, naming evil where he finds it and illuminating the Christian and Muslim jihad for peace

9781498217743Andrews is a Christian, Anarchist, Australian committed to following Jesus consistently in the way of peace and is active in Christian community development among Aboriginals and refugees in Brisbane. He wrote The Jihad of Jesus in conversation with Muslims. While so much jihad talk moves towards fear-mongering (“they are out to get us”) or damage control (“jihad doesn’t mean ‘holy war’ it means  something like ‘sacred struggle'”), Andrews’s dialog with Islam is characterized by both humility and truth.  He isn’t afraid to call certain acts evil, but he has the grace to turn the same critical eye on his own tradition, identifying where Christians have also gotten it wrong.

Andrews begins with a section entitled “The Jihad of Dajjall.”(Dajjall  means ‘deceiver’ and is kind of like a Muslim Antichrist). Chapter one explores Christian’s use of ‘holy war’ and violence against others through out history and in our current context. Chapter two does the same for Islam. The third chapter critically engages these ‘so-called holy wars’ showing how in both Christianity and Islam have a history of doing evil things in the name of God. He closes this section critiquing ‘closed set’ religion and arguing for ‘open-set’ religion. Andrews contends that most of the conflicts between Christians and Muslims has happened on the boundaries:

It is through defending these boundaries of belief and behavior that religious people define their religious identity. Hence Christians and Muslims have tended to fight to not only to define but also defend these boundaries of belief and behavior to the death, because not only their religious identity, but also their eternal destiny, depends on it. . . .Is [defending the boundaries] violent? Not necessarily. But normally. For three reasons. One: Christians and Muslims tend to defend their boundaries to the death. Two: the best form of defense has always been attack. And, three: there are plenty of competing groups fighting for the right to define and defend their boundaries of belief and behavior for themselves. (72)

A ‘open set’ approach, by contrast, focuses on the center: Isa (Jesus) and the  Bismallah (the Arabic equivalent to the Shema) Rather than defining and defending religion:

The essence of open set religion is all about becoming more open to God and encouraging everyone to become more open to God. Conversion for Christians and Muslims within a closed set perspective may mean confessing the creed or the kalimah. Conversion for Christians and Muslims seen from an open set perspective means constantly turning and moving towards the compassionate spirit of God, exemplified in Isa and the Bismillah, whether we use that language or not, judging our lives, for ourselves, in the light of God’s love, and beginning to trust His love, to sustain us, on the journey of the greater jihad of personal growth and the lesser jihad of social change that He is calling us to be involved with. (75)

So openness doesn’t apply a ‘looseness’ in the concept of God, but an intense focus and openness to the God that sits at the center of our own tradition. Here Andrews is making a nod towards E. Stanley Jones approach to interfaith evangelism, ““Get the center right, and the circumference takes care of itself.”(76).

In part two, “The Jihad of Jesus” reframes jihad as non-violent struggle, shows how Jesus’ life and teaching is our model, and recollects non-violent struggles from the history of Christianity and Islam. Chapter four  begins with a look of how terrorist organizations train otherwise good people to commit heinous acts before looking at how to retool the nature of jihad.  Chapter five focuses on Jesus’ as our supreme example. Chapter six has other exemplars (both Christian and Muslim) and what we can learn from their non-violent jihads.

This book recovers the term Jihad and reloads it with peace, justice and spiritual vitality. Andrews exemplifies not only how Christians may behave better to our Muslim neighbors, but suggests ways that we can also be sharpened and learn from them. As a Christian reader, I appreciated how a life centered on Christ, responding in openness to Jesus, pushes  me towards the struggle for non-violence. I think this is absolutely correct. It is Christendom with its empire building that makes war and violence a viable option.

I like where Andrews takes the open/closed set distinction, but I suppose I may still be somewhat closed-set.  Jesus (and the early church) make some pretty exclusive claims about salvation being through Him alone (John 14:6, Acts 4:12). There is common ground  but there will be tension at the boundaries, though the focus should remain at the center of our faith traditions.  I certainly don’t want to ‘build a wall’ at the border to ‘keep Muslims out.’ Dialogue is mutually edifying.

So don’t let the provocative title scare you.  This a book that will encourage Christians to be more like Christ in our work for Justice. Muslim readers shouldn’t be afraid either. Andrews isn’t secretly trying to convert you, and he doesn’t malign Islam (which is rare for Christian authors!). I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from the publisher via, SpeakEasy in exchange or my honest review.

Jesus for Jews?: a book review

Rabbi David Zaslow is the synagogue leader of Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, Oregon. As a Jew, he does not call Jesus God, much less the messiah; however, he argues that as Jew, he can accept Jesus as a brother and son of first-century Judaism. In Jesus First-Century Rabbi  Zaslow takes a sympathetic-critical look at the Younger Testament (also known as ‘New’) and points out that a great deal of what Jesus said is in continuity with the tradition that he was born into, Judaism.

Interfaith discussions are tricky. When you describe a tradition that is not your own, you run the risk of caricaturing an entire religion, or reducing distinctives to the lowest common denominator.  This is especially tricky when the religion you are describing ( in this case, Christianity) developed from the soil of your own religious tradition (Judaism). However Zaslow does a masterful job of exploring Jesus from his own faith-perspective. At times he sees a great deal of continuity between Christian and Jewish understanding of God and morality. At other points, he draws a sharper distinction, but does so with grace and appreciation. This is not an apologetic work designed to get Christians like me to covert to Judaism. It is a book which invites us to reflect on our common heritage and overcome some of the historical enmity that has existed between Jews and Christians. Zaslow also extols the insights and gifts of both religions.

There are five parts of this book. In part one, Zaslow discusses the similarities between Jesus’ moral teaching and that of his fellow Rabbis. Whereas Christians have classically characterized first-century Judaism as legalistic, Zaslow shows that many of Jesus’ teachings correlate to the Jewish oral tradition (which is recorded in the Mishna). Part two explores the thought world of first Century Judaism that would have shaped Jesus.  There were various aspects of Judaism which informed both Jesus and the alternate way in which Judaism later developed. These include the ‘Oral Torah'(the Jewish tradition interpreting the written Torah), the various sects of Ancient Judaism, the sacrificial system, the Jewish understanding of atonement and the importance of the ‘binding of Issac’ as paradigmatic for our understanding of God’s salvation. Part three describes differences and commonalities between Jesus and Hebraic thinking. Part four continues this, delving deeper into theological matters: What  did Jesus really mean by his ‘I am’ statements?  What is the the meaning of grace, redemption and suffering? Is Judaism legalistic and Christianity antinomian? What is Paul’s problem anyway? Zaslow rounds off part five by rehearsing some of the ugly history of Christian antisemitism (and its rootedness in Christian supersessionism) and his hope for more amiable relations in the future.

I happily recommend this book because I think it promotes mutual understanding between Jews and Christians.  However I recommend it while acknowledging deep disagreements with Zaslow. For example, he argues that Christian atonement tradition rests on a misreading of the meaning of sacrifice in Judaism.  There are also occasional places where I think he labors too hard to erase Jesus’ distinctiveness. For example his explanation of Jesus statement in John 8:58, ““Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” is to say that Jesus could have been pointing back to YHWH’s ancient existence does not do justice to the narrative (140). In John’s gospel, Jesus’ hearers picked up stones to stone him (John 8:59), which points to his words being more offensive than Zaslow makes them out to be. Likewise he interprets John 14:6 as Jesus’ commending YHWH to his disciples (‘I AM’ the way, the truth, and the life) without ever acknowledging the latter part of the verse, “No one comes to the Father, but through me” (139). These and other examples minimize what is unique about Jesus’ claims and open up different possibilities, but they do so by selectively reading the gospel texts.

Yet Zaslow makes many good observations. The continuity between Jesus’ moral teaching and some rabbis in the oral tradition is well founded. As is his observation of how statements in the gospels about ‘the Jews’ have been used to justify centuries of religious hate and antisemitism. I think it is fair to note, that the Pharisees were theologically closest to Jesus of anyone in the gospels, and that the gospels paint them in the worst possible light. The historical picture is much more nuanced and I appreciate Zaslow’s descriptions of the world of Judaism that Jesus would have been born into.

Zaslow blames Paul for introducing a theology of supersessionism (God’s promises to Israel now apply to Christians only) and widening the divide between Jews and Christians in the early common era.  He questions if Paul was really a Pharisee  because his teachings seem so unlike the Pharisees of old, and as apostle to the Gentiles, Paul’s rhetoric sometimes erased the importance of a distinct Jewish identity (though not always). Certainly that is how Paul has been interpreted by early and later Christians. I don’t think that is what Paul had in mind, but the seeds of a widening divide are there.

I happily give this book four stars, while acknowledging my points of contention. My Christian heritage gives me a different picture of Jesus. Zaslow would say that my picture of Jesus is theological whereas his picture of Jesus the Jew is historical.  I hope that my picture of Jesus is both historical (the events of the gospels actually happened!) and theological (Jesus is God come in the flesh).  But for an interesting and challenging take on the historic Jesus, Zaslow is a good read! I give this book four stars: ★★★★

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.