Last Wednesday I attended an interfaith dialogue event of exceptional quality. A rabbi, a pastor, and an imam each spoke on Abraham and his role in their distinctive faiths. The presentations were well grounded in the respective traditions, winsome, and affirming of religious diversity. And left me profoundly dissatisfied.
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger explained how Abraham was the biological father of the Jews and the spiritual father of all other “nations” that embraced the ethical vision he exemplifies. Pastor Doug Skinner explained how all humans could be the spiritual children of Abraham if they had the faith in God, a faith that comes to Christians through Jesus Christ, and Imam Yahya Abdullah told us how, for Islam, Adam is the biological father of all humanity while Abraham establishes the first true worship of the one God and is spiritual father of all monotheists.
Each of these understandings of humanity sought to make a generous place for people of other religions in its worldview. Yet each understands other religions in ways those other religions do not necessarily understand themselves. Christians may agree with Jews that Abraham is their spiritual father. But as Pastor Skinner explained, it is because they share his faith, not his ethical standards. Jews might accept that Abraham is the shared father of monotheism, but it is Zion, not Mecca, that is the home of true worship, and to which true worshipper return.
At a human level it is common for our understanding of others to be different from their self-understanding. And where there is little at stake these asymmetrical relationships may not matter much. But in building shared societies, in the politics of religious pluralism, it creates problems.
Rabbi Schlesinger’s presentation gently but firmly maintained that as the biological descendants of Abraham the Jews had a right to land he was promised by God. For Christians and Muslims who understand the Jews as spiritual heirs to either a legal covenant or monotheism itself this claim has little meaning, particularly after thousands of years of genetic mixing with other human populations. And at least in the West the idea that ethnic groups have a right to a “homeland” disappeared in the long Enlightenment reconstruction of what it means to be human. In the dialogue session we didn’t talk about Israel and the Palestinians. If we had the genteel mutual acceptance would have disappeared pretty quickly.
Mutual acceptance would disappear almost anyplace in the Muslim world if Christians had asserted that Muslims should be able to freely convert to Christianity. After all, like Islam Christianity is a monotheistic religion originating in Abraham. But Muslims don’t just believe that Abraham is the father of monotheism, they believe that the truest and best monotheism is that of Islam – and that conversion to any other religion, including Judaism and Christianity, denigrates both their religion and their God. Apostasy remains illegal in the Muslim world, and punishments are frequently harsh. No Christian can accept this.
Father Abraham, as it turns out, is also the father of nearly endless conflict and war over just who is heir to the promised land, who really upholds his ethical vision, and who most truly knows and worships the one true God. He may be a good place to start exploring our understandings of one another, and our sibling rivalry. But if we’re going to live together we need to look forward, not backward. To achieve this it isn’t enough to clarify our understandings of other religions – however generous. We need to engage in a dialogue toward a shared understanding of who we are in ourselves and for one another.
Such a dialogue must look for shared visions of our common future, and must test these against our understandings of who we will be in the future, and who we want to be for each other. It is time for the sponsors of interreligious dialogue to move past talking about the founders of our religions, and to begin inviting Jews, Christians, and Muslims into a dialogue about the future.