In 1588 Jean Bodin, the great 16th century humanist and political philosopher, wrote a book of Dialogues (the complete version was not published until 1857). He described a group of friends – a Catholic, a Lutheran, a Zwinglian, a Jew, a Muslim, an Epicurean and a Theist – who met in Venice and discoursed on the merits of their own beliefs. All very modern but in those days very daring. It was not long afterwards that Galileo had problems with views that did not quite fit the establishment model. Galileo’s difficulties are also rather modern, though in polite society today we tend to treat unconventional thinking less savagely. Nonetheless the contemporary dialogue movement has chalked up a modest record of success, not in persuading sincere believers to move out of their own faith system to another but at least in becoming acquainted with each other. Where this is seen most evidently is in relation to Judaism and Christianity. With some glaring exceptions, we acknowledge each other’s existence, we are on speaking terms, and we even admit that there is wisdom in the other’s tradition.
The series of articles of which this is one is designed to be a contribution to this process. But I wonder whether we are yet ready for anything very definitive. Much more groundwork needs to be done. As far as non-Christians are concerned, before they can express a view of Christianity, they need someone to clarify which Christianity they are meant to be talking about. There are so many manifestations of the Christian tradition that whatever one says will rightly be criticised – “Obviously you are talking about the Catholics, but we Protestants are different”, “You seem to think that every Christian is a Protestant, but that doesn’t apply to us Catholics” and so on. Maybe at this stage the discussion has to limit itself to non-adjectival Christianity, for which the crucial (the word is used deliberately) element is the status of Jesus. But someone has to clarify this for us outsiders.
Jews have another problem with the subject. There are some who find it possible to engage in genteel dialogue with Christians, but most are totally uninterested or even antagonistic. So much and so often have Jews been hurt during the course of the Christian centuries that the common Jewish view is, “All we want to say about Christianity is, ‘Leave us alone. Leave us to be ourselves’.”
That being said, if I can allow myself an engagement in what I call genteel dialogue, let me say that I can probably understand what draws Christians to Christianity. The notion of the word made flesh, of the personisation of spiritual and ethical principle, enables Christians to begin to grasp what would otherwise only be concepts, and to feel a sense of emotional identity (I thought of saying “passion”, but I would be using the word in the simplistic, popular, non-Christian sense). I can see this – but I cannot accept it because it compromises the axiomatic incorporeality, otherness and infinity of God. It also, in Buber’s words, “freezes” God and limits Him. If Jews accepted the “word made flesh” concept they would no longer be Jews, but with very rare exceptions Jews are at peace with Judaism and do not want anything else.
There is of course common ground between us. Understandably, since the early Christians were Jews and Christianity had Jewish beginnings. Here too there is a problem, because there is a frequently heard generalisation about there being a Judeo-Christian tradition (the alternative term is Judeo-Christian ethic). What this is meant to denote is that Judaism and Christianity share the idea of God, the Bible, the Ten Commandments, the spiritual attitude to life, messianism, the dignity of man, atonement, salvation, the social conscience and other ethical ideals. The truth, however, is that the headings are the same but the text is radically different. What Churchill said about the English and the Americans applies here too, that they are two peoples divided by a common language. Jews and Christians both talk about God, but they think of Him quite differently – in particular when Christians regard Jesus as more than an ordinary child of God. Both faiths talk of the Bible, but Christians include the New Testament and in any case both have widely divergent ways of interpreting key passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. Both honour the Ten Commandments, but they enumerate them differently. Both stand for a spiritual attitude to life, but they accord different weight to the individual soul and the perfecting of society. Both have a messianic belief, but it takes its own form in each tradition. Both speak of the dignity of man, but they do not agree on man’s nature. Atonement, salvation and other leading terms do not mean the same in both faiths. The importance of ethics is acknowledged by both, but once you move from motherhood generalities you find the devil in the detail.
So what are we to do? To quote Buber again, to recognise that to the Jew, the Christian is the incredibly daring man, and to the Christian, the Jew is the incredibly obdurate man. In other words, the Jew might say that Christians read too much into what they see and the Christian might say that Jews read too little. We can and must all recognise each other’s right to be themselves and respect their honest, sincere conscience and commitment, but we are not the same and cannot be. As Jonathan Sacks puts it, there is a dignity in difference.