Universalism in the interfaith air

In the 1960’s, Tom Lehrer made fun of National Brotherhood Week, the national week from the 1940’s to the 1960’s that affirmed the unity of mankind.

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics
And the Catholics hate the Protestants
And the Hindus hate the Moslems
And everybody hates the Jews

But during National Brotherhood Week
National Brotherhood Week
It’s National Everyone-Smile-At-
One-Another-hood Week

This week I received the universalism pitch three times. First from the Chief Rabbinate office, then from Chancellor Arnold Eisen, and finally at the Council of Centers of Jewish-Christian Relations conference. Despite all the mockery, National Brotherhood Week allowed Jews and Catholics to enter white Protestant America. Now, there is a perceived need to stop the demonization of the other. In all three cases the appeal was not to theology or specific commonalities, rather the universalism in which we are all brothers of a common Father in Heaven.

The first text I received was by Oded Wiener is the Director General and coordinates interfaith dialogue for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. (He also writes Metzger’s successful speeches.) We need to emphasize that all humans are in the image of God and that we need interpersonal dialogue to end violence. Hmm.. seems to be responding to many major rabbis in Israel who have been racist and denying human dignity to non-Jews.

A world without violence: religions and cultures in dialogue
by Oded Wiener 14 October 2010

Beyond the quest for a better world, one without violence, there is a common element that unites us all – the belief in one G-d. It is important to understand that man, who was created in the image of G-d, is not a wild, independent creation, who cannot be subjected to restrictions or criticism. This is certainly not the case. Man is continuously accountable – first and foremost to the Creator, who watches his actions and both demands and expects that he will act appropriately in all areas of life.

What is the significance of man being created in “G-d’s image”? The meaning is that in every man one can see a semblance of the Creator… And for the sake of peace among men, that one should not say to his fellow, “My father is greater than yours”.. . Again, the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, manifests itself in the fact that man stamps out many coins with one seal, and they are all alike, but the King, the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, stamped each man with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his fellow.”… These words are of great importance and reflect man’s commitment to behave in a way which respects the image and spirit of G-d within him, and the image and spirit of G-d in his fellow man– regardless of his religion or views, nationality or his people of origin.

The use of violence and force by a person of faith is in clear contradiction to the ways of G-d and undermines the ideological basis in the name of which that person is exercising violence.

Dialogue is the torch that must be carried in pride, without fear. It is no secret that on each side there is an opposition that challenges dialogue between religious and spiritual leaders and which, in extreme cases, is coupled with threats or efforts to condemn and marginalize those who engage in it… For this exact reason religious leaders ought to ask themselves – in light of the ignorance regarding the traditions and religion of other nations, which is often the catalyst for violence – how can they encourage dialogue, educate, teach, influence, and bring people closer together?

Full Version Here.

The second received speech was by Chancellor Eisen. He seems to have given several variants of it in the last few weeks. He gave it in the mid-west as “A Jewish Theology of Pluralism.” In that version he opened with the sharp statement the energy for dialogue and interaction between faiths is usually promoted by a crisis, a necessity, or an urgency. The purpose of such a theology is not to achieve sameness. And an effective theology of religious pluralism must not start with Moses or Abraham. It must start with Adam, the ancestry of all humans. Eisen’s NY version sought commonality with Islam through the common shared Abraham covenant of circumcision.

Arnold Eisen Chancellor, The Jewish Theological Seminary, October 24, 2010
The moderates of all faiths have to talk often and well, lest the extremists carry the day. The stakes of not doing so are simply too high to countenance.
But there is another, no less important, imperative to dialogue. It stems from the texts and practices that believers like me hold sacred and a notion of covenant with God and community that sees these bonds as precious vehicles to the service of something larger and higher than ourselves.
Jewish Sages have always made much of the fact that the Torah begins with Adam and Eve, not with Abraham or Moses. After the Flood, humanity begins again with Noah and his children, only one of whom is the ancestor of Israel. Why? So that no one can claim purer blood than anyone else; so that all of us know that we all, without exception, are created in God’s image and act on that knowledge. God makes a covenant with all “children of Noah” 10 generations before the covenant with Abraham.
The Torah is clearly interested in both of the sons of Abraham and wants its readers to be concerned with them as well… Abraham then inscribes the mark of the covenant on himself and his firstborn son, Ishmael, who is thirteen at the time. Isaac is not yet born. The result of the story, and its variant in the Quran, is that Jews share the sign of the covenant from the very outset with another people, another faith.
Full Version Here.

The third time was at the CCJR conference, in which theologian Prof Terrence Tilley, Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., Professor of Catholic Theology, dealt with the contradiction between the recognition by the Catholic Church of Judaism as a revelation and their own sense of the specialness of the Church. He answer to the tension is not to solve it theologically but to dissolve it logically and practically.

Tilley cited the pluralism of Sacks in which the universalism of Adam plays itself out in particularity. Tilley said focus on the universalism since according to Sacks, after Babel we have no ability to evaluate others anymore. Even the [Adamite] Noahide laws can only be know in, and through, the particularity of other faiths. We have no God’s eye perspective to judge others in their particularity. Hence, if it is possible according to epistemological pluralists like Sacks that we have to work on the universal level and cannot enter truth claims, then the contradiction is not a contradiction.

Hilary Putnam has a similar reading of Sacks in an obscure volume. But Putnam frames it according his thinking that we have [universal] value without [particular] fact. Hilary Putnam, “Monotheism and Humanism.” Humanity before God, ed. William Schweiker, Michael A. Johnson, and Kevin Jung (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 19-30.

In these three cases, they all turned to Adam as a commonality. They seem less theological and more practical. When you have two groups that are in conflict, the practical first step is to seek a universal in order to create a safe space and establish at least some commonality. If human brotherhood seemed silly in the 1960’s – but it served us well. Can these simple statements serve us equally as well? Has there been so much demonizing with patronizing tolerance that we need a core sense of humanity?

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