Four Lessons Learned From Jewish-Christian Dialogue
In his brilliant primer on the Christian faith, C.S. Lewis set out to distill the essence of Christianity down to its mereness. His celebrated apologetic, Mere Christianity, was an outsider's guide to the inside of the faith.
But what about Christianity’s nearness? What does the Christian faith look like from the borders, near the periphery of the faith? That’s what Anthony Le Donne sets out to answer in his new book Near Christianity. It examine "ancient, storied, tragic, and often misunderstood borders—the complicated and shifting borders shared by Jews and Christians." (17)
Le Donne maps a number of seemingly peripheral topics—the so-called “war on Christmas,” Christian complicity in violence, anti-Judaism and philo-judaism—revealing how they are more central to Christianity than we may think. They also reveal in personal, high-definition color how one person’s journey along Jewish-Christian borders saved his faith in God.
Before diving into the specific border issues in the coming weeks, we've outlined at least four lessons Le Donne has learned in his Jewish-Christian dialogues.
Inadequate Views of the “Other”
Although Le Donne’s book isn’t per se a critique of Lewis, he does use him as a dialogue partner along the way. Early he notes an “inadequate and limited view of [Lewis's] Judaism.” Le Donne takes issue with his description of Jews as manqué—that they have failed to become what one might have been; they are an unfulfilled people.
Le Donne argues, “Lewis was predisposed by theology and personal affection to see Jews and Judaism as incomplete until brought within the circle of Christian faith.” (21) He goes on to explain why this is a mistaken, inadequate view of the other:
In many cases we have defined Judaism as something very similar to Christianity but lacking in the key element of Christ. In doing so, we set ourselves as the ideal and begin our measurements of “them” with observations of what they lack. (21)
No Simple Answers
Perhaps the best lesson Le Donne has learned about Jewish-Christian dialogue “is that the Christian walking into the conversation looking for simple answers will be frustrated.” That’s because, as he explains, “In Jewish talmudic study, the logical possibilities are often valued over decisive conclusions.” (25)
Here he quotes philosopher Ted Cohen, who points to an important difference between Jewish study and Christian doctrine:
there is no systematic finality…A person in this tradition does not only learn and memorize the conclusions reached, although he must do some of that. Rather, he joins this study: He argues, debates, contests, criticizes, and learns; he does not stop. (25)
Given this dynamic, Le Donne “offers no final doctrinal statement at the end of each chapter,” and has “resisted hard and fast concluding statements wherever possible.” (25)
Jews Are Not Judaism
“When exploring the ‘ism’ of this historic faith,” Le Donne writes, “we can observe a number of interesting differences between Judaism and Christianity.” (26) Yet he isn’t so much interested in this border as the one between Jews and Christians.
He has learned that not all Jews represent Judaism in the same way. For example, although it is true the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) is foundational and recited in synagogues all over the world, this is only true of Judaism, not all Jews. Many don’t attend synagogue, are openly agnostic, or practice Buddhism.
“So while Deuteronomy 6:4 provides an important window into Judaism, it does not tell us about all Jews… We might be close to the mark in describing Judaism as a faith, but we err if we think that all Jews represent a faith community.” (29)
Christians Are Not Christianity
In his conversation with Jews, Le Donne has realized Christian’s aren’t Christianity, either. “In talking with a perceived ‘other,’ one cannot help but see oneself in a new light… We do not embody our highest ideals, nor do we express them ideally.” (29)
Christianity would tell us that “we are products of a divine grace, that we are adopted children of God, and that this identity ‘in Christ’ compels us to live in the world as testimonies of grace.” (29) And yet, “it is equally true that we fail to embody grace more often than not.” (30) Le Donne says that, while we are children of grace, we are also crusaders, colonists, Confederates, and bullies.
Consequently, “individual Christians cannot represent the larger narrative of Christianity… Christianity is both more and less than the sum of its parts.” (31)
“This book reflects on a few ways my conversations with Jewish friends and my study of Judaism have made me something more than a mere Christian.”
Join Le Donne on a journey at the periphery of our faith, in dialogue with our neighbors, to discover a deeper and more complex Christian faith and life.
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