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Reclaiming particularity: reflections on "Reclaiming the Center: a Jewish-Christian conversation".

Reclaiming the Center: A Jewish-Christian Conversation is a multiphase project of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore, MD. The second phase of the project, entitled "The Scandal of Particularity," was a series of colloquia that the ICJS pursued in partnership with Union Theological Seminary/Presbyterian School for Christian Education in Richmond, VA.

Comprised of six two-and-one-half day sessions that took place over the course of two and one-half years, "The Scandal of Particularity" brought together nineteen participants, with equal numbers of Jews and Christians, academics and educators, clergy and lay leaders. Additionally, three ICJS scholars, two scholars from Union/PSCE, and two visiting scholars for each session joined the group of nineteen who met for six sessions over the life of the project.

The goal of the project was to create a community of learners whose focus was the exploration of six theological categories that (1) are foundational to the religious self-identity of each tradition, (2) are shared by both traditions, (3) are understood differently by each tradition, and (4) are oftentimes the source of deep misunderstanding. The topics were The Particularity of Revelation; The Authority of the Text; The People Israel, The People of God (chosenness); The Particularity of Place (land and the embodiment of the divine); Worship and the Particularity of the Other; and Particularity and the Public Square (the role of religion in democracy).

What follows is a series of reflections and observations that I found to have lasting value and long-term consequences for the future of the Jewish-Christian conversation.

The emphasis on diversity

There were benefits to the multilayered diversity of the group's composition that emerged over time.

a. Having women, men, Jews, Christians, academics, clergy, educators, seminarians, and lay leaders around the table made for a diverse conversation even within faith-alike groups. Participants were able to experience real difference within traditions, as well as between traditions. That proved to be extremely instructive precisely because it unseated one of the most frequent--and dangerous--misunderstandings of the other tradition: that "they" are a monolithic community of believers who all worship the same way and believe the same things, while "we" are a community that is broadly diverse!

b. A second benefit of the group's multilayered diversity proved to be the biggest discovery for a number of participants, namely, that in any given discussion, they oftentimes held more in common with some of their Jewish or Christian counterparts than they did with some in their own tradition. For some more than others, that was both a discovery and a surprise.

The emphasis on particularity

In the early days of the dialogue, an unspoken rule seemed to govern the discourse.

a. Topics on the table for discussion would be limited to those that had the potential to reveal what the two traditions held in common. The goal, it seemed, was to steer clear of any and all conversation that might disclose any deep divisions or disagreements. In brief, the early days might best be characterized as an exercise in "making nice," under standable given the tragic history that Jews and Christians shared.

b. "The Scandal of Particularity" set for itself a quite different goal: to inhabit that dialogic space that most clearly reveals what makes each tradition distinct. It is indeed a sign of the maturity of the dialogue that the exploration of difference turned out to be the single greatest catalyst for learning about and coming to understand the other. Perhaps the greatest breakthrough of this project, at least in terms of pedagogy, was that the emphasis on discovering what makes each tradition unique yielded far greater and more lasting learning than did the emphasis on learning what both communities hold in common.

The "practice of particularity"

The emphasis on learning and discussion that intentionally focused not on what Jews and Christians share, but rather on what makes them distinct and particular, especially in the ways in which each community interprets and makes meaning out of life's events and experiences, resulted in two separate but related by-products that, I believe, have lasting value for the future of the dialogue. The first is what I call the discipline of "practicing particularity"; the second, the awareness that each participant is simultaneously teacher and learner.

a. The "practice of particularity" is a learned behavior that rests upon the notion that the goal of interfaith dialogue is twofold: (1) to articulate as clearly as possible what most essentially and clearly identifies us religiously and (2) to learn from the other what most essentially and clearly identifies them religiously. The art of doing both successfully requires that participants be quite intentional as regards the manner in which they frame their conversation. The "practice of particularity" entails speaking in declarative sentences when speaking of one's own tradition, and speaking in interrogative sentences when speaking of the other's tradition. What became clear in the course of the project's life is that this twofold way of speaking keeps in check two tendencies that are detrimental to genuine dialogue and learning: (1) the tendency to speak only in generalities so as not to offend the other, the result of which is that little, if any, light is shed on what makes us who we most truly are, and (2) the tendency to speak for the other rather than to allow the other to speak for him/herself.

b. The second by-product of "practicing particularity" was the realization that all participants were simultaneously learners and teachers. They are teachers of the other and of their own tradition when they speak declaratively about the distinctive ways of thinking, appropriating reality, and making meaning that are unique to their community; and they are learners when they engage the other tradition interrogatively, when they "make room" for the other to speak declaratively for and about him/herself. An illustration of this "practice" is exemplified in the formulation of the two most common questions asked and answered: (1) What do I most want known about my own tradition? (2) What do I most want to know about the other's tradition? In short, the simultaneity of learner/teacher helped create a level playing field where all members of the conversation inhabit both roles.

Some ingredients for success

Additional ingredients that contributed to the success of the project ought to be noted for future meetings. In no particular order, but of equal value, are the following:

a. Project participants were all deeply committed to and observant members of their own tradition.

b. Participants were remarkably open to the most profound--and frightening--aspects of true dialogue, namely,

i. that their ideas about the other and the religion of the other might be overturned in the process of studying with, listening to, and learning from them;

ii. that some aspects of their own tradition, especially what it teaches about the other, might come into conflict with what they come to learn about and from the other.

c. Over time, participants became increasingly aware that together they were engaged in what they deemed to be important work, a realization that created a profound sense of ownership for the project and responsibility to one another for the success of the project.

d. Three components of the meeting structure also contributed to the success of the project.

i. Spreading the meetings out over thirty months gave participants time and opportunity to think about what they had learned, digest the learning, formulate questions that they brought to the next session, and incorporate what they wanted into their own thinking.

ii. Having each session meet over two and one-half days was, I think, crucial for the success of the project because studying together, sharing meals, and enjoying free time together helped create a real community of learners who became friends, a special kind of magic that cannot happen in a two-hour block of time meeting over a number of weeks.

iii. Multiple opportunities for small group text study with the same people created a sense of intimacy and safety. These sessions proved to be enormously important to the creation of community.

Finally, my participation in "The Scandal of Particularity" was again a reminder of what is possible when religiously committed people of good will and open minds sit around the table and study together, and in the process, come to experience the magic that can occur only when theological humility meets a willingness to listen and learn, when the knowledge that all human knowing is partial meets a genuine desire to learn, and when confidence that the God of the universe seeks out each of us and all of us, each in our own way, to contribute to repairing the brokenness of the world.
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Author:Catalano, Rosann M.
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Conference news
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2009
Previous Article:Introductory essay.
Next Article:Reflections on the Scandal of Particularity.

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