A Quiet Passion to Redeem Christianity: An Interview with Dr. Mary C. Boys

By Gordon, Sheila C. | Cross Currents, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

A Quiet Passion to Redeem Christianity: An Interview with Dr. Mary C. Boys


Gordon, Sheila C., Cross Currents


Dr. Boys is the Skinner and McAlpin Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary She is the author of many books, most recently the acclaimed Has God Only One Blessing: Judaism as a Source of Christian Self-Understanding. This book reflects her twin focus on the intersection of biblical study and pedagogy and on the educational implications of Jewish-Christian dialogue. This focus underlies her passion for justice: to make amends for centuries of Christianity's anti-Judaism and, in stripping away encrustations of supersessionist language, liturgy and ritual, to renew Christianity, with its original impulse. A Roman Catholic, Dr. Boys has been a member of the Sisters of the Holy Names for over three decades.

I first encountered Mary Boys as part of my effort to identify teachers and a broad conceptual context for my organization, the Interfaith Community -- which serves those in Jewish-Christian marriages, the intimate daily microcosm, and perhaps the ultimate testing ground of interreligious dialogue. She has since taught our adults and become a thoughtful adviser to our work.

I interviewed Mary for this article on a mild late winter day at her apartment on Morningside Heights. Always solicitous, Mary had come outside to greet me to be sure I had no difficulty getting into the building. As she walked toward me on Claremont Avenue, she greeted neighbors and joshed with little boys on skateboards. Her simple but attractive dress, her careful coif accented with cheery earrings, gave no hint of the deeply committed woman she is.

Mary Boys has fun and a zest for life. A sought-after speaker for her wit as well as her intellect, her passions and values simmer below a jocular surface. She offered me tea and a comfortable chair, chuckled her hearty laugh, joked that I could blackmail her if she said anything too outrageous...or interesting. And we began....

Sheila Gordon: In your writing and your teaching and so much of what you do, you are working to redefine Christianity and reclaim it from its anti-Judaism. What are the implications of this?

Mary Boys: We have made a lot of progress, but we can't say "it's all over, it's finished, we know how to redefine Christianity." So much of Christianity has been premised on a distorted notion of Judaism that, as we untangle those distortions, we are really forced to come to new understandings that are much more complex. As Daniel Harrington, the great New Testament scholar, says in regard to Jesus, "the more we know, the less we know.... Or at least we are less confident about simple and neat pictures." This is true of some of the views we have about Jesus of Nazareth, the historical figure, as well as later theological aspects.

Not only do we need to understand Christianity with a more accurate understanding of Judaism -- purging the distortions anti-Jewish teachings bequeathed us -- but we need to understand it in the context of the new world we live in -- a world of globalization, of postmodernism. Even if there is such a thing as absolute truth, it is so transcendent that we who are mortals can never possess it. Because we live next door to people we never would have lived next door to in another era, and because we are much more involved with each other, religious pluralism is a part of our everyday reality today. And that raises some very healthy questions, which can also be scary at times. I think that interreligious encounter can strengthen religious identity if serious engagement with the other -- including study -- is part of it.

SG: Why do you do this work?

MB: I hope it will strengthen Christianity. I hope it will make it more viable and responsive. But the main reason I do it is because it is the right thing to do. It may not be as dramatic or compelling as building a house for the poor, but righting the wrongs that in many ways have corrupted our vision over the centuries is important; it is the Christian thing to do -- and I do it for the sake of, to achieve justice. …

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