A Review of "Trialogue: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Dialogue"

Trialogue:  Jews, Christians, and Muslims in DialogueSwidler, Leonard, Khalid Duran & Reuven Firestone. Trialogue: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Dialogue. Twenty-Third Publications, 2007. $24.95.

This collaborative effort of three authors belonging to three Abrahamic faiths is not a scholarly work. Designed for the general interested public, it is rather accessible and not overburdened with terminology or endnotes. Instead, the book is inviting, thought-provoking yet non-threatening. I would even say, benevolent.

The purpose of this tome is to present to the practitioners of the three religions the concept of dialogue, to convince them of its importance, to introduce to some extent the religions to each other—and, of course, to spark a discussion among them. To this end, questions “for reflection and discussion” are provided at the end of every chapter, which makes the book usable as a textbook in a classroom or as an excellent educational tool in book clubs and religious discussion groups.

Part I: The Importance of Dialogue by Leonard Swidler

After a brief introduction, known also as a separate essay, “The Cosmic Dance of Dialogue,” Swidler devotes the first three chapters to lightly exploring the process of dialogue in general, attempting to define it and to guide the readers to a safe and productive approach to it. According to Swidler’s now famous “Dialogue Decalogue” (the ten rules for conducting dialogue), dialogue is a two-way communication where participants come with the primary goal of learning from each other, ready to establish trust, in honesty and sincerity, without hard-and-fast assumptions, as equals. Each participant should be allowed to define himself but also willing to be critical of himself and his own tradition. In fairness, each must remember to compare ideals with ideals and practice with practice (for in all religions the latter tends to fall short of the former) and to be open to experiencing the partner’s worldview from within.1

Chapter 4 begins with a brief argument for engaging in dialogue among specifically Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Swidler lists several similarities between the three, such as monotheism, common roots in Abraham, shared belief in revelation through scriptures and prophets, importance of covenant and community. Along with historical imperatives, it is these commonalities that necessitate ongoing dialogue, for, with so much shared foundation, the very existence of divergence begs for answers. Why, for example, if there is only one God, are there at least three ways of following God? Swidler essentially posits that without learning about each other and challenging their own exclusivist claims, none of the three traditions can truly understand themselves.

Following this, a word of warning and a word of encouragement are delivered. We are to be careful and sensitive while dialoguing particularly with Islam, due to a likely culture gap between participants and to the widespread ignorance of Islam among Westerners. Still, it is clear that trialogue can be successful and enriching, judging by the example of the ISAT (International Scholars Annual Trialogue) that was launched in 1989. After a few meetings, several stumbling blocks, and many papers, the “trialoguers” managed to gain an understanding of even their seemingly most “absolute” doctrines (Chosen People/Promised Land, Jesus the Christ, and al-Qur’an) in non-absolutist terms so as to allow for the truths of the other traditions.

Part II: Preparing for Dialogue: Judaism by Reuven Firestone

Parts II, III, and IV are very practical. They contain the information that the authors feel the participants in dialogue should know or assimilate as food for thought in, as the titles state, preparation for dialogue.

In chapter 5, Firestone begins by drawing the readers’ attention to the contentious beginnings of pretty much any new tradition, the three monotheistic traditions in particular. Being reminded of the history of struggle against the establishment and of persecution our own religions faced (not infrequently at each other’s hands) helps us come to terms with the universality of religious conflict as a byproduct of social and spiritual evolution. Firestone also makes a point of putting all scriptural references and all clashes among the Abrahamic peoples in their historical contexts. The conclusion, I suppose, is that the time has come to quit our mutual blame game and move past the conflict into preparing for dialogue, which is precisely what he does.

Chapter 6 is pragmatically entitled, “What Christians and Muslims Need to Know,” and accomplishes exactly that task, providing the basics of Jewish concepts (such as chosen-ness), terminology (such as Hebrew/Israelite/Jewish distinction), and highlights of Jewish history (such as the meaning of exile and persecution). The tone of the chapter is steady and soothing, so that even the words most fearful to the uninitiated, like “the Chosen People,” don’t sound quite so fearful in the end.

Chapter 7 continues on the same course with an exploration of Judaism, its types and its history in modern times. Throughout both chapters, as Firestone introduces the issues that could cause (or have historically caused) problems, he gently urges the gentile reader, and sometimes the Jewish reader too, to be sensitive. For instance, he makes a kind and persuasive argument for patience with the tendency of American Jews to insist on viewing themselves as victims, even in the face of apparent prosperity. Two thousand years of minority existence and accompanying persecution have engraved the feeling of being abused deep into the Jewish mind. Old habits are not easily shed.

Chapter 8, “What Jews Need to Know about Judaism in Dialogue,” addresses, it seems, the Jews that are reluctant to dialogue and is devoted entirely to the explanation of how and why Judaism is at heart a dialogic religion, naturally predisposed to discussion of incongruent views. Firestone reminds the reader of the old rabbinic method of machaloqet—arriving at an interpretation of scripture by taking and defending opposing positions. He makes the point that Judaism has not been known to dialogue with Christianity or Islam through the ages not because of lack of desire or ability but due to historical circumstances, namely state prohibitions and associated dangers, and proposes that the two best ways to conduct dialogue are to engage in social action together and to study each other’s scriptures in small groups.

Part II ends with a tiny but brilliant chapter on the “Jewish ‘Red Buttons’.” Talk about things others need to know before beginning dialogue! Firestone identifies the following issues as especially tender spots on the generally thin skin of the Jewry: the Holocaust, the State of Israel, conspiracy theories a la “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” history of persecution, and “Jewish jokes.” He begs indulgence of those who might be annoyed by hearing for the hundredth time the lamentations of the most successful ethnic group in the US on anti-Semitism2 and on the incomparable suffering of the nation of Israel during the Holocaust. He explains briefly but poignantly the depth of the pain of the Holocaust, the length of the time of persecution, the fine balance between light-hearted self-deprecation and an outsider’s racist humor, the defensiveness connected with Israel, and the frustration with the unprovable by definition conspiracy theories. Assuring the reader that no subject is taboo once the trust has been built, he nevertheless advises non-Jews to tread carefully upon the “red buttons” of the Jews.

Part III: Preparing for Dialogue: Christianity by Leonard Swidler

In chapter 10, much longer than an average chapter of the book and entitled harmoniously with chapter 6, “What Jews and Muslims Need to Know,” Swidler gives a surprisingly comprehensive account of the history of Christianity for such a cursory overview. After a word as to diversity of the faces of Christianity, he takes the reader from its roots in Judaism, through the discussion of the centrality of Jesus the Christ (stressing his Jewishness and his humanity),3 through the early history and the two big splits (Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox and the Protestant Reformation), outlining major concepts of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant movements—very respectfully, I might add, particularly for someone who, while arguing for the need for intra-Christian dialogue, called the proliferation of churches “absurdity and scandal.” (p. 41)

In conclusion, Swidler outlines the crucial changes within Christianity of the last four decades, which he calls the “fivefold Copernican Turn.” Triggered by the Vatican II Council of the Catholic Church, this fivefold turn includes the turns toward historical sense (through dynamic view of reality), toward freedom (through allowing rank and file members to think for themselves), toward this world (through reformulating “salvation” to embrace justice in this world rather than only heaven in the afterlife), toward self-reform (through renewing the possibility of honest appraisal and change), and toward dialogue (through opening communication with other religions and forms of Christianity). The chapter does not detail exactly how the Copernican Turn in Catholicism provoked equally monumental changes in other denominations, only stating that the Turn was made by “much of Christianity through Catholicism.” (p. 115) I find that at least a reference to this connection would have been useful, if for no other reason, so that the author not be suspected of “Catholicentrism.”

Chapter 11 first runs through the phenomena that are common to all three traditions (ritual, mysticism, revelation), then shifts gears to note an antagonism in mutual finger-pointing between the Islamic world and the “Christian West” and the overuse of the terms “colonialism” and “jihad.” The point seems to be in exposing both the “connective” and the “corrosive” potential of the doctrines, practices, and history shared among the children of Abraham. For example, while liturgy is common to all Christian denominations and its shared elements may be powerful connectors, the disagreements between the High and the Low Churches on the particulars and the significance of liturgy may corrode a fragile dialogue.

The final chapter in part II asks a similar question about Modernity that chapter 11 asked about ritual, mysticism and revelation: is it a bond or a barrier, connector or corroder of dialogue? Swidler explores the questions of religious liberty, religion-state relations, human rights, and the status of women, and generally appears to find that none of the three faiths have a great record in themselves with regard to these issues. Having originated either in isolation from or in hostility toward others, the Abrahamic traditions largely ignored such questions (simply not raised in their historical contexts) or offered such answers that our Modern societies, products of the European Enlightenment, find unacceptable and oppressive. In all three traditions, the more orthodox movements cling to some vestiges of the past, and only through dialogue can we hope to “build a world without oppression.” (p. 133)

Part IV: Preparing for Dialogue: Islam by Khalid Duran

Duran begins by, once again, affirming dialogue as a good idea, but this time the statement is supported by the authorities of the Prophet Muhammad (p) and al-Qur’an. The Prophet (p) did not seek to establish another religion but “saw his task in reestablishing the original Abrahamic religion” (p. 137) and his mission in bringing together all three peoples of the book on a “common platform.” Duran thus understands the word “Islam” in its broadest sense, as “submission to God,” where it is able to embrace both Jews and Christians. He spends chapter 14 in uplifting recounting of the good already and currently done by cooperative interreligious groups, of the progress already and to be made, of the mixing of Christians and Muslims crossing Spain on their way to Morocco, and of the mixing of symbols, red cross and red crescent on a white flag.

Chapter fifteen is another longer piece—and deservedly so, for it “tackles” the very reason such books have to be written: the “roadblocks to dialogue.” Duran’s contention (similar to Firestone’s view of Judaism) is that Islam is theologically conducive to dialogue, and whatever inner resistance Muslims experience is the product of history and politics. Among the roadblocks, therefore, Duran mentions the long history of conflict with Jews and Christians (old habits don’t die easily, not only in Jews) and the history of colonialism (the ‘underdog complex,’ so to speak), as well as the Muslim world’s own “prince complex” left over from the time of imperial domination over much of the known world.

Not caught up in the negative, though, Duran devotes quite a few pages to the numerous historical instances of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Jews, their mutual aid in the times of such crises as the expulsion from Spain and the Nazi Holocaust, their collective resistance to pogroms ordered by the powers, the bilateral conversions into what many saw as a fully compatible faith. He also points constructively to several theological issues that could be successfully resolved to rectify complaints on the Muslim and the Christian sides. Christians, for example, could recognize Muhammad (p) as a prophet (and some already have); conversely, Muslims could stop doubting Christianity’s monotheism—after all, the three aspects of God are not all that principally different from the 99 attributes of God (p. 163-4)—and abandon their widespread supersessionist attitude toward the other Abrahamic faiths.

Chapter 16 follows with more bits of history explaining the roots of existing negative stereotypes Muslims tend to hold toward “the Jewish-Christian West” and attempting to debunk those stereotypes. In the section on “Western licentiousness,” for instance, Duran argues first that sinfulness is not inevitable nor universal in the West and second that it is certainly not limited to the West but is an eternal struggle of humans with their nature in all parts of the world. In the section on “dehumanizing technology,” he reminds his Muslim readers that such Jewish and Christian Westerners as Rosenstock-Huessy worked on “giving technology a human face” and improving the lives of factory workers long before this became an issue in the Muslim world. (pp. 173-4) Chapter 17 tops this discussion with a nod to Christian churches not only for their own charitable works but for their changing, more and more positive attitude toward their Muslim neighbors.

The last two chapters—of part IV and of the book—are devoted largely to Islam’s inner divisions and disagreements, with chapter 18 spent entirely on “understanding al-Qur’an.” Duran points ut the uniform spiritual and theological significance of al-Qur’an to Islam but notes that there is no agreement among Muslim scholars on its interpretation—no more agreement, let us note, than there is among Christians on the Bible or among Jews on the Torah or the Talmud. The questions causing turmoil are not surprising: Is al-Qur’an created or uncreated? Was it revealed in the particular seventh-century Arabic of the Quraish or communicated to the Prophet (p) as ideas for him to formulate in words? Have any later surahs abrogated any earlier surahs, and is historical context of each revelation important?

Chapter 19 continues in the same vein but shifts to the variety of schools, positions, and teachings in contemporary Islam, some finding themselves in vehement opposition to each other: Sunni and Shi’i Muslims, Sufis and “Wahhabis,” etc. Duran ends here, in America, with a hopeful look at gender mixing in some US mosques, growing acquaintance with Islamic sources, and increasing support of African-American Muslims for interreligious dialogue.

Save the appendices, this ends the book, perhaps a bit abruptly. I would have loved some concluding remarks that wrap up the discussion, take one back to the beginning and propel into action. Still, I had no major problems with this work, only an occasional tickle when reading, for example, an assertion that the Islamic world has “not yet” experienced Enlightenment, or an outright dismissal of the Hindu custom of “suttee” as an issue for dialogue rather than opposition. In occasionally treating their answers as self-evident while others might find the same issues arguable, the authors, perhaps, fall into their own unconscious presuppositions. But then, we all do that.

Some of these ‘tickles’ were funny personally to me. For instance, toward the end, Duran recounts an accusation that Muslims were “the precursors of Marxists” and is so outraged by it (even to the use of an exclamation point) that the automatically presumed offensiveness of this statement to him is clear. I personally think that there are worse things to be. But that’s me. This is trialogue, not interideological dialogue, so I’m letting this one go.

Overall, the volume leaves a pleasant impression, a feeling of truly good intentions, and a thought that it could very well help its target audience—those who are already open-minded enough to read such a book but not informed enough about the other participants and the process of dialogue—to think deeper, to tread carefully, and to get further in their efforts.

1 The material presented in Part I is an abbreviated version of Leonard Swidler’s groundbreaking and still relevant book, After the Absolute: The Dialogical Future of Religious Reflection (Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, MN: 1990).

2 There is only one statement with whose precision I will disagree. Firestone says that in the US, “anti-Semitism is strictly taboo.” As comparatively safe as America is right now, anti-Semitism is not strictly taboo, certainly not to everyone, nor is it unheard of. I wonder if Pr. Firestone has been traveling in select circles.

3 Some of these theses, in more detail, can also be found in the section on Cristology in After the Absolute.


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