Introductory Essay

By Leighton, Christopher M. | Cross Currents, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Introductory Essay


Leighton, Christopher M., Cross Currents


Interfaith dialogues usually begin with the quest for common ground, and this is where they all too often get stuck. It is exhilarating to discover that people share deep ethical commitments and that they can tap the same wellsprings of human experience. People can share stories and create a shared language that enables them to speak across the ethnic and religious divides and to celebrate their commonalities. Yet the affirmation of common ground all too often fails to get the traction that will move the conversation into uncharted territory. The dialogue yields an exchange of predictable platitudes about the many ways to scale the mountain and the fatuous conviction that they all converge at the top. The conclusion is reached that religious differences are accidental. Our disparate spiritual traditions are mistakenly judged as interchangeable at their core.

Over the past thirty years I have stepped onto the interfaith dance floor and observed countless others march resolutely onto the stage. Most people involved with inter-religious relations have done their share of bumbling and stumbling, and yet many of us have witnessed moments of uncommon grace when radically different partners have brought out the best in one another. In my experience the most searching and transformative engagements have occurred when participants have come together, listened intently to their sacred stories, and explored an array of interpretations that they have not hitherto considered. The surprise is that we often gain a glimpse of the beauty and wisdom of our respective traditions only after we have stepped on some toes, bumped into irreconcilable differences, slipped on unexamined assumptions, and found passionate disagreements can give off warm light as well as a scalding heat.

So the decision of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies to collaborate with the Institute for Reformed Theology at Union-PSCE in Richmond, Virginia in a program titled "The Scandal of Particularity" provided an unusual opportunity to embark on a daring theological venture. With the active support and participation of First Presbyterian Church and The Temple: Hebrew Benevolent Congregation of Atlanta, twenty-five Jews and Christians, including scholars, clergy, educators, and lay leaders, embarked on a course of study that would occupy them for the next two years. Each of six two-day meetings revolved around a topic that is foundational to Jewish and Christian self-definitions and yet has historically generated serious misunderstandings between Jews and Christians. We approached each of these sessions by reading sacred texts and classical interpretations from both traditions. Our goals were to identify and develop the intellectual and spiritual resources to probe the depths of our theological differences and to challenge those habits of mind and heart that all too often lock our communities into an adversarial relationship. We invited two visiting scholars to join each colloquy, and we drew upon their special expertise to our frame our conversations. They placed each topic within a broader historical and theological context, highlighted the struggles that have beset our respective communities, and then helped us chart new directions for ongoing exploration. The following summary surveys the questions that the participants examined and hopefully demonstrates the promise of future inquires into our religious particularities.

Session 1: Jewish and Christian Understandings of Revelation

Visiting Scholars: Eugene Borowitz (Hebrew Union College) and Douglas Ottati (Davidson College)

November 2006 (in Atlanta)

Jews and Christians are each grounded in revelatory encounters with the divine. In this session we began to explore the relationship between the revelatory experience of Exodus/Sinai within the Jewish tradition and the divine disclosure made known to Christians in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. …

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