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Listen for the WhisperListen for the Whisper

Listen for the Whisper

In a reflection on a groundbreaking Vatican document on relations between Jews and Catholics, Father John Walsh finds renewed understanding that, despite millennia of often barbarous hostility, the children of the Old and New Covenants share one path toward one God

John Walsh
13 minute read

On December 10, 2015, the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews released The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable: a Reflection on Theological Questions Pertaining to Catholic-Jewish Relations on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of “Nostra Aetate” (No. 4).

At Vatican II, Nostra Aetate (Our Time) proposed a historical reversal of all that had been said and done previously by the Catholic Church with regard to the Jews:

“Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of Biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues….

“Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

The emphasis on Biblical and theological studies recalls the great efforts of Catholic exegetes to study the Word of God using the historical-critical method and of creating a new methodology whereby theology no longer used Scripture as “proof texts” but would base all theological thought on a more in-depth understanding of the Word of God. The human condition was the starting point to develop the relationship of the Church and other religions:

“Men expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of men: What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?”
—Nostra Aetate (No. 4)

One modern author, Jeremy Rifkin, follows suit and writes in The Empathic Civilization – The Race To Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis:

“A radical new view of human nature has been slowly emerging and gaining momentum, with revolutionary implications for the way we understand and organize our economic, social and environmental relations in the centuries to come. We have discovered Homo Empathicus. Oral cultures are steeped in mythological consciousness and script cultures give rise to theological consciousness. The empathic civilization is emerging. We are fast extending our empathic embrace to the whole of humanity and the vast project of life that envelops the planet. But our rush to universal empathic connectivity is running up against a rapidly accelerating entropic juggernaut in the form of climate change and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Can we reach biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avert planetary collapse?”

Yuval Noah Harari, in the 2014 book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, may startle us:

“The real meaning of the word human is ‘an animal belonging to the genus Homo,’ and there used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens. If our successors indeed function on a different level of consciousness (or perhaps possess something beyond consciousness that we cannot even conceive), it seems doubtful that Christianity or Islam will be of interest to them, that their social organization could be communist or capitalist, or that their genders could be male or female.
“… the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?’ but ‘What do we want to want?’ Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought….
“Today [Homo sapiens stand] on the verge of becoming a god, poised to acquire not only eternal youth but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction…
“We are more powerful than ever before but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods (men becoming gods) who don’t know what they want?”

What lies in the future? On an edition of Radio Canada’s Second Regard last June, the topic was post-humanism. The fundamental issue is that techno-sciences promise to take in hand our biological future with one caveat: What will we look like as humans in the future? Futurists no longer believe that there is transformative value in culture to change the world; they believe it is technology that will make for a better world. There is fear that that could lead to a loss of our humanity. Life will be lengthy, almost never-ending, predicated on what religions promise in another life. Now, that promise will be fulfilled in this world. How, then, does man come to be? Man comes to be through dialogue and develops consciousness through conversation with others, in a mutual exchange.

The importance of a dialogue between Jews and Christians is outlined at the end of The Gifts and the Calling, which sets the tone for the entire document. The first goal of dialogue is to reach a profound knowledge of each other, whereby the partners become the recipients of gifts. Jewish and Christian scholars can work together appreciative of 2,000-year-old exegesis of Jewish texts, of great benefit to Christians and Jews, who can profit from Christian exegetical research. Though Jews and Christians participated in writing the document, there is a need to move beyond these small groups to affect their respective communities: seminaries should add Jewish-Christian dialogue to their curriculum.

A second goal consists in joint engagement throughout the world for justice, peace, conservation of creation and reconciliation. Today, religions should contribute toward world peace. Civil authority should guarantee religious freedom for such dialogue and peace. Peace in the Holy Land should play a major role in dialogue between Jews and Christians.

A third goal of Jewish-Catholic dialogue is to combat all manifestations of racial discrimination against Jews and all forms of anti-Semitism. The traditions are called to maintain together an unceasing vigilance and sensitivity in the social sphere as well. Pope Francis has repeatedly stressed that a Christian can never be an anti-Semite, especially because of the Jewish roots of Christianity. Justice and peace should not simply be abstractions within dialogue but should also be evidenced in tangible ways. Jews and Christians are to make a joint contribution through concrete humanitarian aid for justice and peace in the world; they bear witness to the loving care of God.

These reasons are certainly enough reason to reinforce Jewish-Christian dialogue where it exists and to stimulate dialogue where it needs to begin. The gifts and calling await all of us; after all, they are gifts and a calling that are irrevocable.

Karen Armstrong reminds us in The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions: “Regardless of their theological beliefs – which did not much concern the sages – they all concluded that if people made a disciplined effort to re-educate themselves, they would experience an enhancement of their humanity.”

Most important, she writes that “it is not a question of discovering your belief in God first and then living a compassionate life. The practice of disciplined sympathy would itself yield intimations of transcendence.”

An otherworldly theological approach, up-down, is no longer acceptable to contemporary humanity, and so a this-worldly approach, down-up, allows for the connectivity of human experience and the intimations of transcendence.

The Gifts and the Calling offers a new direction and a new conversation on several theological topics as it stresses the unique status of the relationship of Catholics and Jews within the wider gambit of interreligious dialogue, and further discusses theological questions such as the relevance of Revelation, the relationship between the Old and the New Covenant, the relationship between the universality of salvation in Jesus Christ and the affirmation that the Covenant of God with Israel has never been revoked, and the Church’s mandate to evangelize in relation to Judaism.

A thorough theological response to each question posed will be the work of the future, but it remains certain now that Jews and Christians can help each other grow through conversation and collaboration.

However, the history of Jews and Christians is not to be sugar-coated. It has been disastrous and painful. Jews have suffered persecution and death at the hands of Christians because Christians interpreted the Scriptures to mean that all Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus and, even more blasphemously, the death of God – that is, deicide. Christians have been deprived of the riches of the history of Israel, the foundation on which Christianity was built.

James Carroll, in his opus Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews – A History, unfolds the history of Judaism and the Church in all its stark reality, and he writes so appropriately: “If the past is irreversible, then we are all doomed… There is no recovery from the past without a commitment for the future… Forgiveness for the sin of anti-Semitism presumes a promise to dismantle all that makes it possible.”

If Jews and Christians were to plumb the depths of Henri Nouwen’s definition of compassion and express it in dialogue, all of humanity would be the beneficiary. I have never found a better definition.

“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”

I have always felt that the best kept secret of Vatican II is that God redeems us, meaning that he reclaims humanity and is present in history, in human life, in the world, and involved in the humanization of man. I was often asked during the 15 years I spent on radio as a talk-show host what my program was all about. I would always answer, “The humanization of the world.” I believe that negated any idea that I was a proselytizer preaching conversion to the Catholic Church. God is present in the ordinary everyday situations of human life, and God is the mystery of humanizing the world.

The importance of the Word of God is that revelation takes place in history. God is a historical God. The Church, like Israel, bears the treasure of its election in fragile vessels. The relationship of Israel with its Lord is the story of its faithfulness and its unfaithfulness. God manifested his mercy and the graciousness of his gifts, as well as his faithfulness to his promises, which no human infidelity can nullify. Through this remnant, God realized his plan of salvation. The object of God’s election and love remained the chosen people and through them the whole of humanity is gathered together and led to him. (In recent times, the Catholic Church is referred to as a “remnant.” The dark side of this image is that the remnant becomes the sole possessor of the truth and willingly imposes it on everyone.)

Jesus is said to fulfill the promises made to Israel, but this does not mean that Israel, not having achieved such a fulfillment, can no longer be considered to be the people of God. Although the Church is the new people of God, according to Nostra Aetate, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.

God revealed himself in his Word so that it may be understood by humanity in actual historical situations. This Word invites all people to respond. Whoever observes the Torah has life in its fullness. Pope Francis stated in an address at the International Council of Christians and Jews in June 2015: “The Christian confessions find their unity in Christ; Judaism finds its unity in the Torah. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh in the world; for Jews the Word of God is present above all in the Torah. Both faith traditions find their foundation in the One God, the God of the

Covenant, who reveals himself through his Word. In seeking a right attitude toward God, Christians turn to Christ as the fount of new life; and Jews, to the teaching of the Torah.”

Judaism and the Christian faith are two ways that God’s people can make the Sacred Scriptures of Israel their own. There are not two paths to salvation according to the expression Jews hold to the Torah or Christians hold to Christ. God’s Word is one single and undivided reality that takes concrete form in each respective historical context. Torah and Christ are the Word of God, and it is of great importance for us to realize that God’s revelation to us as human beings is a testimony of his boundless love.

The Hebrew dabar means word and event at the same time – and thus one may reach the conclusion that the word of the Torah may be open for the Christ event. Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel):

“While it is true that certain Christian beliefs are unacceptable to Judaism, and that the Church cannot refrain from proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Messiah, there exists as well a rich complementarity which allows us to read the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures together and to help one another to mine the riches of God’s word. We can also share many ethical convictions and a common concern for justice and the development of peoples.”

There are many Christians who see this as a hopeful and meaningful way in which religion is relevant and that God as an interventionist God who comes and goes in history does not exist. Theism no longer satisfies man’s longing for meaning. The reasons for dialogue in The Gifts and the Calling, and the theological questions posed, are an opening to affirm panentheism – the doctrine that God is greater than the universe yet includes and interpenetrates it – as the foundation of dialogue. God is in the world and the world is in God. God is with all things and the indwelling force of spirit draws all things into relationship with all other things. The immanence of God is what allows us to experience the intimations of God’s transcendence. Jews and Christians are offered the Word of God, as Torah and as Christ, as critique so that we do not lose ourselves in the cultural and religious idolatry that pervade our lives. To the extent that we are idolaters, we do not know transcendence.

In a small book written on the occasion of the anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), 16 engaged and committed people interpreted the Sacred Scriptures to understand what their commitment means for the rest of Quebec today. Gregory Baum, the editor, concluded:

“It is true that committed Catholics are very sensitive to the sinful structures that marginalize people and cause them to suffer. However, these committed Catholics believe at the same time that the Spirit of God is at work in the real world: it is God who allows these people to dream of a just and human society, God who leads them to be in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed, God who causes them to resist the dominant culture, and God who calls them to action. The faith of Christians in the Incarnation convinces these committed Catholics that a divine living courant in history is pushing forth humanity to look for freedom and liberation, and these committed Christians, by their militancy, participate in the transcendent plan of God.”
–Pacem In Terris – Paix Sur La Terre –
Relecture engagée dans le Québec d’aujourd’hui

The true worth of interreligious dialogue and the great strength of Jewish-Christian dialogue is to share their gifts and calling, which are irrevocable, so that all of humanity may come to realize that the Torah and Christ are the locus of the presence of God in the world as this presence is experienced in its respective worship communities. The covenant that God has offered Israel is irrevocable:

“God is not a man, that he should lie.”
–Num 23:19; cf. 2 Tim 2:13

The permanent elective fidelity of God expressed in earlier covenants is never repudiated (cf. Rom 9:4; 11:1–2). The New Covenant does not revoke earlier covenants, but it brings them to fulfillment. The Old Covenant in never independent of the New Covenant in Christ. Covenant means a relationship with God that takes effect in different ways for Jews and Christians. The personal nature of God as revealed in the Old Covenant is reinforced and establishes openness for all who respond faithfully from all the nations. The unity and the difference between Judaism and Christianity come to the fore in the first instance with the testimonies of divine revelation. Christianity is grounded in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Church rejected the concept of a purely Christian Bible without Old Testament elements and bore witness to its faith in the one and only God, who is the author of both Testaments, and thus held fast to the unity of both Testaments.

There are not two ways to God – one for Jews and one for Christians. We are called to share the gifts of our faith in God’s irrevocable calling, our hope for a better world, and a promise to work together with single-mindedness so that what we say and do in love will allow for the intimations of transcendence to be experienced and allow us to realize that we are participating in the transcendent plan of God.

I leave the last word to Diana Butler Bass, the author of Grounded: Finding God in the World – A Spiritual Revolution:

“Listen for the whisper of God everywhere. Work for justice. Know that your life is in communion with all life. The spiritual revolution, finding God in the world, is an invitation to new birth, most especially for religion. There is no better place to start than in your synagogue, mosque, temple or church. And that new birth is happening. You can hear it as the earth groans for salvation, as poets and philosophers tell its stories, as scientists search the soil and the cosmos for life, as the oppressed, poor and marginalized push for dignity and economic justice. It is time for the Church to wake up. There is nothing worse than sleeping through a revolution.”

The embrace of compassion and dialogue by Christians and Jews speaks of a God whose revelation for us as human beings is a testimony of his boundless love.

John Walsh

​A retired priest in Montreal, Father John Walsh is the author of God Is Calling: Don’t Leave Him On Hold and is a high-profile figure in the city’s interfaith and media circles.​

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